Reprints and Refrigerators in “The American Comic Book (Critical Insights)”

Column Editor: Jerry Spiller  (Art Institute of Charleston)

I often lament that printed academic and scholarly works lag behind online sources in timeliness.  To a degree, this is a simple necessity.

I was pleasantly surprised in this regard when reading through the Salem Press volume The American Comic Book, part of their Critical Insights series.1  Edited by Joseph Michael Sommers of Central Michigan University, this collection of essays provides a wonderful overview of many facets of the comics medium from a roster of credentialed theorists.  The chapters are consistently well researched and written, offering valuable insight into the world of comics and graphic novels both in print and in the digital era.  I’ll highlight a few that really stood out.

Art historian, writer and curator Kim Munson’s second contribution to the book (her first focuses on censorship)  “From the Mainstream to the Margins: Independent Comics Find a Voice” frames the rise of independent and alternative comics from the days of Harvey Kurtzman’s counterculture MAD and the underground comix of both Denis Kitchen and Robert Crumb to the present.  She notes the importance of these often intentionally outsider works as a response to the homogeneity institutionalized by the team-based, “work for hire” production line model of the Big Two.  Munson sees the founding of Fantagraphics in 1974 as being of importance.  The publisher has been reminding the comics industry of its own history and diversity with a threefold approach.  The first was purchasing the tabloid Nostalgia Journal and repurposing it for comics criticism as Comics Journal in 1976.  Second, and perhaps the publisher’s bread and butter, is the many reprints it has published from previous eras, notably newspaper strips like McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, Segar’s Popeye, Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Foster’s Prince Valiant, and Shulz’s Peanuts.  Third, Munson points out Fantagraphics early championing of new works that did not fit into the mainstream, such as Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library and the Brothers HernandezLove and Rockets.

After Fantagraphics, Munson notes the rise of Dark Horse, which has enjoyed success with creator-owned series like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy at its spin-offs, and of Image Comics, born from a creator exodus from Marvel and DC.  She also traces the importance of the the independent and highly personal nature of the works of Art Spiegelman on present day creators such as Alison Bechdel, whose autobiographical and nonlinear Fun Home is held up as an example of the distinct and intimate works that resonate strongly with an increasingly diverse and personally invested fandom.

Editor Sommers notes in his introduction that Munson’s second essay marks a “medial shift” in the collection.2  Philip Smith’s “From the Page to the Tablet: Digital Media and the Comic Book” is a great overview of changes to the form in recent years.  Forrest C. Helvie’s “Comic Fandom Through the Ages” sums up changes in readership and the relationship between readers, creators, and the tone and subject matter and tone.  The changes in both fandom and creators detailed by Munson and Helvie work well together to set up Katherine Whaley and Justin Wigard’s final chapter, “Waiting for Wonder Woman: The Problematic History of Comic Book Women and Their Cinematic Doubles.”  The pair note the categorization of women into three general types: ordinaries, superwomen, and supervillains.

At the time of the final essay’s writing, Marvel was preparing to announce that a female character would take up the mantle and powers of Thor in that title.  Whaley and Wigard note that Marvel’s own publicity in pointing out that this would be the company’s eighth title led by a female character is perhaps blindingly admitting a serious problem in comics representation.  The authors recount the 1938 origin of Marston’s Wonder Woman, an intentionally empowering feminist icon who carried tools associated with bondage and submission as she defended the wronged and advocated for the oppressed.  They note the immediate departure from Marston’s intended ideal after his death in 1947 and the transfer of control to the creative team that gained control of the character. “Wonder Woman’s feminist agency was both denied and actively combated as she became subject to [boyfriend Steve] Trevor’s patriarchal ideology.”3  Such a large fall for such a strong icon presaged problems across the industry for years:

“The decline of Wonder Woman signified a decline for women in comics, a period of time when even their strongest icon was depowered, and the world waited for Wonder Woman to regain her footing as a hero for all people to look up to.”4

Whaley and Wigard list Sue Storm’s chief power of “not being seen” as a prominent example of the depowering and subjugation of women, so common as to be normalized and overlooked.  They move from these problematic portrayals in print to incarnations of the same characters in Marvel and DC’s big screen franchises.  They are particularly critical of Mary Jane Watson’s character in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films as a constant damsel in distress.  Each film features MJ’s rescue in its final act.  They also recount the 1999 coining by writer Gail Simone of the term “women in refrigerators,”5 a reference to the gruesome killing of Alexandra DeWitt, girlfriend of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, in 1994.6  The villain Major Force murdered her and stuffed her body in Rayner’s refrigerator for him to find.  Also noting the DC’s Identity Crisis crossover event was initiated by the rape and death of Elongated Man’s girlfriend Sue Dibny, the authors lament that “[i]n this manner, women are not seen as victims or survivors, but as plot devices.”7

The essayists also note the lack of credit and “larger than life” appeal afforded to even positively portrayed female characters, as any heroism or actual plot contributions they make are are often simply forgotten or overshadowed by the acts of male figures.  The importance of Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a cited example of a dynamic figure, a mover of the plot and as much a hero as her teammates, who is still rarely portrayed in merchandising in as heroic a light as her counterparts.

The fact that fans don’t have a solo Black Widow movie on the horizon, paired with the recent announcement that the Captain Marvel film has been pushed back twice now to 2019 to accommodate another Spider-Man reboot  and an Ant Man sequel, show that we’re still waiting for Wonder Woman.8 9  By the way, the actual Wonder Woman’s 2017 solo film debut will be a prequel to Batman vs Superman.10

It is refreshing to see a print work that is so “in the know” as to reference thoughts of fans and creators such as Kelly Sue Deconnick and Gail Simone that one might be accustomed to seeing go by on their Twitter or Tumblr accounts.  Such a combination of timeliness and rigor is a wonderful thing to behold.  I really can’t recommend The American Comic Book enough to libraries looking for critical works in comics, film, or pop culture in general.  As part of Salem’s Critical Insights series, purchase comes with access to the Salem Literature database.11

Endnotes

  1. Sommers, Joseph Michael, ed. The American Comic Book (Critical Insights). Har/Psc ed. Ipswich, MA: Salem Pr, 2014.
  2. The American Comic Book, ix.
  3. The American Comic Book, 201-202.
  4. The American Comic Book, 202.
  5. Gail Simone, “Women in Refrigerators.” March 1999. Accessed Oct 25, 2015. http://lby3.com/wir/
  6. Green Lantern Vol 3 #54. 1994.
  7. The American Comic Book, 203.
  8. Trailer Heroes, “Marvel Pushes Back Four Movies In Light of Spider-Man Deal.” Accessed Oct 25, 2015 http://www.trailerheroes.com/2015/02/marvel-pushes-back-four-movies-in-light.html
  9. Daily Dot, “Marvel will delay ‘Captain Marvel’ to squeeze in an ‘Ant-Man’ sequel.” Accessed Oct 25, 2015. http://www.dailydot.com/geek/captain-marvel-movie-delayed-ant-man/?tu=gav
  10. Comics Alliance, “‘Wonder Woman’ Is Actually a ‘Batman vs. Superman’ Prequel, Will Include a Major Superhero Cameo.” Accessed Oct 24, 2015. http://comicsalliance.com/wonder-woman-batman-vs-superman-prequel/?trackback=tsmclip
  11. Salem Press, “Critical Insights.” Accessed Oct 24, 2015. http://www.salempress.com/critical_insights.html

 

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