CR Sunday Interview: Jeet Heer
TSR co-editor Charles Hatfield here. One of the great pleasures of working on The Superhero Reader was getting to share a project with Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Both are longtime comics critics, fellow contributors to The Comics Journal, deep scholars and thinkers, academic professionals and teachers with whom I have a lot in common job-wise—yet each is quite different from me in terms of discipline, temperament, and writerly habits. I have learned, and continue to learn, from them. Their previous collaborations, Arguing Comics (2004) and A Comics Studies Reader (2008), set a high standard for comics textbooks, so I knew that what we did together would be strong. But, honestly, I would have happily joined up with them even without the evidence of those first two books, for the excellence of their individual writing.
Jeet, as essayist, journalist, and historian, has been a writerly powerhouse, a vital, energizing presence not only in comics studies but also in cultural history and criticism more broadly. He has edited, co-edited, or contributed essays to a huge range of projects about comics, including a great many of the books that have returned to us our classic comic strip heritage. He has also written incisively, and unpredictably, about politics and culture (witness for example his blogging record at Sans Everything). I mention all this now because Tom Spurgeon, over at The Comics Reporter, has just published a splendid interview with Jeet, which you can find here:
CR Sunday Interview: Jeet Heer
This interview also discusses Jeet's terrific new book, In Love with Art: Françoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman, which describes the life, career, and aesthetics of the great editor-publisher-artist and co-founder of RAW. Essential reading for anyone interested in comics, the magazine world, editing, contemporary children's books... for anyone who cares about the publishing arts, period! Check it out.
What follows is the opinion of Superhero Reader co-editor Charles Hatfield:
Michael Kantor et al.'s documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle has just aired on PBS. It's three hours of colorful, good-looking television and bad history.
One expects potted history, of course, from any three-hour show that bids to cover seventy-plus years of a genre. Never-Ending Battle doesn't have the scope of Kantor's six-hour series on American comedy, Make 'Em Laugh (2008), or his six-hour history of the American musical, Broadway (2008). It doesn't have the advantage of being about arts of performance, as those earlier projects do. Nor does it have Broadway's focus on a single medium (the stage). What it has is a daunting self-appointed mission: to cover the superhero genre's spread from comic books to multiple media as briskly as possible.
I confess to enjoying what Kantor has called the show's "layers of imagery," its rich visual presentation, which interleaves comic book images, clips from movies, TV, and games, archival footage, and new interviews with comic book creators and other talking heads. Comic book documentaries have sometimes struggled to bring comics imagery to the screen in interesting, not too distracting, ways, and I think Kantor & Co. did a good job with that. Superheroes is fluid, image-smart television that seamlessly moves the viewer along while offering up a visual feast.
Sadly, Never-Ending Battle is bad history for any number of reasons. In many ways it echoes the usual fan narratives about the genre's history, narratives in which nothing else seems to exist but this one genre. It is not very curious or patient about the rest of comic book history, despite the filmmakers' obvious desire to argue for the comics' sociological relevance as a reflector of cultural concerns and values. Naive reflection theory (as in, this is what superheroes tell us about the Depression, or about the Cold War, or about the aftermath of 9/11) sits awkwardly alongside the show's neglect of comic book history across the board. Some issues are entirely neglected, others shamefully soft-pedaled. To be specific, I noted the following distortions and omissions:
(1) The first episode, Truth, Justice, and the American Way, promises to cover the years 1938 to 1958. It does so reasonably well until the postwar period, and of course it's a pleasure, albeit bittersweet, to see on screen such now-departed legends of the comic book business as Jerry Robinson, Joe Simon, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Kubert. But the episode's logic stumbles, collapses frankly, after 1945. While noting, in sketchy fashion, the superhero genre's decline after the War, and the emergence of other genres, the narrative moves altogether too quickly, and misleading, to the anti-comic book crusade of the early mid-50s, of course trotting out along the way Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the US Senate subcommittee investigations of comic books in 1954. This too-quick synopsis does not admit just how shrunken the superhero genre was in the early 50s compared to its meteoric, early-40s success, and gives the impression (later reinforced by a recap in the show's third episode) that superhero comics were the special if not exclusive target of the moral crusaders. The fact that the superhero was all but dead as a market genre prior to the imposition of the Comics Code is never acknowledged; the narration would have us believe that the crusade and the Code nearly killed the genre, when in fact history shows that the genre came back precisely in the post-Code environment, indeed that the genre thrived under the Code for a considerable long time. Never-Ending Battle, in other words, falls into the usual superhero fan trap of making the superhero the barometer of the entire comic book industry's health, and of failing to grapple with other comic book genres that certainly influenced the superhero. (For example, nowhere is the influence of romance comics on later superhero comics discussed. Romance accounted for much more of the comic book market than superheroes did in the years immediately before the mid-50s panic, and had a marked influence on Marvel-style superhero plots in the 60s and after.)
The show's leap from 1945 to 1954—precisely the period when comic book sales were at their peak—is frustrating. For a useful corrective, I recommend Jean-Paul Gabilliet's finely detailed and important Of Comics and Men (2009).
(2) The second episode, Great Power, Great Responsibility, purports to cover the so-called Silver Age of superhero comics, and perhaps a bit beyond, i.e. the 1960s and 70s. Oddly, it has nothing to say about the role of organized comic book fandom in urging on the Silver Age revival and setting the terms of discussion. What it wants to talk about instead is social trends, broadly observed, including feelings bred by the Cold War and the Space Race; the emergence of the Civil Rights movement and a youthful counterculture; the urgency of topics like race relations, feminism, and drug use; and the cynicism and despair of the Vietnam and Watergate generations. All of this will be familiar to anyone who has read, say, Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation (2001). The rush toward reflection theory here causes neglect of comic book art as such, though there is a surprisingly lengthy lovefest for Jim Steranko's graphically hip late-60s work.
Most shockingly, this second episode does not in any way explore the controversies surrounding the Marvel method of comics production and the disputed credits for seminal Marvel comics. Scriptwriter-editor Stan Lee is allowed to present, undiluted and unchallenged, what has become his official mythology of solo creation. Artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are noted but briefly, as the hands who, the narration implies, drew up Lee's stories. Though there is some tasty montage work with images by Ditko and Kirby, the vital contributions of these two Marvel co-founders are undersold to a dismaying degree. Besides a brief encomium by artist Walter Simonson, the episode give almost no mention of Kirby's barnstorming creativity, design sense, and crucial input into marquee characters and classic series. Simonson is onscreen long enough to tell us that Kirby was the watershed, the artist after whom everything for the genre changed, but what Kirby's innovations consisted of, design-wise, idea-wise, story-wise, is never explained (in contrast to the extended treatment given to particular pages by Steranko). No single work by Kirby or Ditko is discussed in detail, nor is Kirby's widening of the genre's scope ever explained. Lee gets much screen time to repeat what have become standard stories about Marvel's rise (stories now widely understood to be highly selective if not self-aggrandizing). No balancing perspective is offered.
(3) The third episode, A Hero Can Be Anyone (1978-present), is insufferable. As it seeks to widen the scope of the show beyond comic books themselves, it succumbs to extravagant, self-congratulatory guff about superheroes becoming a modern mythology and a universal symbol of hope even as they colonize other media (movies, TV, gaming, etc.). The filmmakers' attention is diverted from comic books to such an extent that, even though they talk about the rise of Image Comics and the speculation bubble in the 1990s, they never once explain in even the most basic way that a specialized comic book store market had arisen in the 70s and dominated the industry during the period under discussion. There is no explanation of this market (the direct market), no acknowledgment of organized comic book fandom, no discussion of changing business conditions and creator status within the market—in sum, no attention at all to the economy of the genre. Though certain individual works made possible by this market, notably Miller's Dark Knight and Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen, are talked about at length, the actual marketplace, in the guise of your local comic book shop, is never mentioned. This oversight is like neglecting to discuss the decline of the studio system when discussing the differences between Hollywood films of the 40s and of the late 60s—a fundamental, glaring oversight that mystifies the whole subject.
In my view these are not dry, recondite topics that only matter to specialists. The direct market is an important cultural scene, and its rise and impact could have been handled engagingly had Kantor & Co. decided to dig in. You don't have to be a grim economic determinist to want to hear about the shops where superhero comics have been sold over the past near-forty years! That Never-Ending Battle doesn't even attend to these basic issues is a sign of its distance from the real human history of the genre. The superhero genre deserves a better, fuller treatment than this.
@ CCI, photo by Michele Hatfield.
Thanks to the generosity of Rand Hoppe and the Jack Kirby Museum, I (Superhero Reader co-editor Charles Hatfield) was able to spend four days signing and selling books at the recent San Diego Comic-Con. While I concentrated on discussing Kirby and signing my monograph about his work, Hand of Fire (2011), I did get to chat about the Reader with several teachers and scholars, in effect premiering the book at a most fitting venue! Thank you to Rand, to all the other supporters of the Museum, and to the many friends and colleagues I got to see once again at Comic-Con!
BUT WAIT .... THERE'S MORE!
This coming Saturday will see the first bookstore signing—really the first proper signing ever—of The Superhero Reader, hosted by the wonderful shop Modern Myths, in Northampton, Massachusetts!
That's this Saturday, August 10th, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.!
I've signed at Modern Myths before—it was a delight—and look forward to doing it again! Come by for a free discussion of the superhero genre, the decisions that went into making The Superhero Reader, and the current state of both the superhero comic book and superhero scholarship! I'll talk officially for a bit—perhaps half an hour—and then sign and chat.
(Jack Kirby fans and scholars, I'll also be signing Hand of Fire, which is fitting, since Kirby was the superhero genre's premier artist. Come on down, by all means!)
The above photo gives a good idea of Modern Myths's smart and spacious interior. I've lifted it, with thanks, from Colin Panetta's "Northampton, MA Scene Report" for The Comics Journal (back in Jan. 2012).
Co-editor Charles Hatfield will be premiering The Superhero Reader at Comic-Con International in San Diego this week! In addition to signing copies of his previous book Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby at the Kirby Museum booth (#5520), Charles will also have on hand a few copies of The Superhero Reader, and will be glad to sign, sell, and talk about it! See Charles's blog about Kirby for details on his signing schedule at the Con.
Another CCI note: Among the many, many events on the Con program that will interest superhero scholars, one in particular stands out: Comic Arts Conference Session #9: What is a Superhero?, a panel based on a forthcoming book of the same title from Oxford UP co-edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan. Here is the panel's program copy:
Contributors to What Is a Superhero? (Oxford University Press, 2013) explore the definition of the superhero and the role of the supervillain in the genre from a range of disciplinary, scholarly, and professional perspectives. Co-editors Robin Rosenberg (Huffington Post) and Peter Coogan (Washington University in St. Louis) are joined by contributors John Jennings (University at Buffalo), Stanford Carpenter (Institute for Comics Studies), Dana Anderson (Maine Maritime Academy), Paul Levitz (Legion of Super-Heroes), and Fred Van Lente (Brain Boy).
Charles dearly hopes to attend this panel, and to join in the conversation. It happens at CCI this Saturday, July 20th, from 10:30am to noon, in Room 26AB. You can find it on CCI's online program here.
Finally, Con-goers, don't forget to check out the Kirby Museum booth! No artist is more important to the superhero genre than Jack Kirby—please drop by and learn about the Museum's mission and activities!
It's here! The Superhero Reader—academia's first historical anthology of scholarly work on superheroes, with texts dating from 1930 to 2011—is now available to order! This long-needed collection is ideal for classroom use in courses focusing on superheroes, comics, or cultural studies. It's also a trove of ideas and information for anyone interested in the superhero genre, whether on page or screen! Brought to you by the co-editors of A Comics Studies Reader and Arguing Comics and the author of Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, The Superhero Reader is an essential volume in any comics studies library.
To learn more about the book, check out its Table of Contents, read our About the Book page, or read its introduction via the Google preview (above). Click on the links above to learn more about the book or to order it!
Look for the book's dazzling cover by ace comics artist Dean Haspiel: