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Review of Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero

By Liam Nolan

Regalado, Aldo J. Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2015.

Despite the popularity of casting superheroes as exemplars of Judeo-Christian values, consumerism, and American exceptionalism, critics often ignore the historical context with which superheroes interact. Aldo J. Regalado’s Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero explores how superheroes interact with their creators’ cultural contexts and biographies. Regalado analyzes the biographies and fictional characters of authors ranging from James Fenimore Cooper to Frank Miller, exploring different periods of historical modernity on the subjects of identity and power. For Regalado, “…superhero fiction carries the potential to both challenge and reaffirm the notions of ethnicity, class, gender, and nationalism employed in imagining American fictional heroes” (80). Regalado discusses heroes and superheroes of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century in his first four chapters, while Chapter Five addresses the Comics Code Authority (CCA), its repressive effect on comics, and fan culture’s rebellion against that repression, and Chapter Six looks at Marvel’s Bronze and Modern Age comics and Frank Miller’s postmodern comics. Each of these chapters explores how heroes confront their modernity’s culturally prevalent ideas. Despite weaknesses in later chapters, Regalado masterfully crafts the majority of the book and provides balanced and necessary historical context for early heroes and modernity in a holistic way not often seen in comics’ scholarship.

In the introduction to Bending Steel, Regalado sets out four periods of modernity for examination by explication of their heroes: republican modernity, industrial modernity, atomic modernity, and postmodernity (4). Republican modernity and industrial modernity coincide to periods of industrial and social development in the nineteenth century, with republican modernity taking place before the Civil War and industrial modernity taking place after (4). Atomic modernity, which exemplifies consensus culture, was the predominant form of Cold War modernity until giving way to postmodernity’s undermining of traditional systems and consensus culture in 1980 (4). There are no tidy distinctions between these periods, and Regalado uses these terms sparingly. However, it is these various periods of modernity—with their different social issues—that the author demarcates in relation to how heroes and creators negotiate them.

Regalado’s central claim is that superheroes themselves are an extension of the heroic fiction of republican and industrial modernity. The author distinguishes regular heroes from superheroes using Peter Coogan’s definition of a superhero, which defines a superhero as selfless, physically or mentally powerful, iconic, and often possessing a backstory manifest in his or her iconicity (12). Regalado avoids using definitions to limit what may or may not constitute a superhero, though he does draws distinctions between superheroism and other types of heroism (11). Coogan’s definition of the superhero is entirely fitting for distinguishing superheroes from regular heroes in his analyses of how both categories engage with modernity.

Regalado dedicates his first two chapters, “Secret Origins” and “Jungle Lords, Haunting Horrors, and the Big City,” to contextualizing superheroes, focusing on James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft. Regalado crafts detailed biographies of each writer to support his understanding of how biography intersects with a hero’s relationship to cultural context. In particular, Regalado discusses how these writers operate as outsiders within their own cultural contexts, often for reasons related to masculinity. Regalado examines Cooper’s Bumpoo, Burrough’s Tarzan, and a smattering of characters from Poe’s and Lovecraft’s works, claiming that these creators feminize non-white bodies and critique white heroes who lack conventional masculinity and display dandyish characteristics. Although for Cooper and Burroughs a return to nature helps heroes regain masculinity, the racial dynamics of the Gothic in Poe’s and Lovecraft’s works show a paralysis resulting from lost masculinity and fear of the “other.” Creators perceive a threat to masculinity during republican modernity, so these primarily white heroes represent an attempt to return to a masculine behavior deeply rooted in their own ethnicity and against the ethnicity of others. These masculine and ethnic dimensions are integral to Regalado’s understanding of how early heroes interact with modernity and the models from which comic book creators draw. Throughout the book, Regalado makes references to these early chapters to show how heroes and their contexts both change and remain the same.

Linking these inspirations for superheroes to the superheroes themselves, Regalado repeats his methodology from the first two chapters by providing biographies for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in Chapter Three, “From Strange Visitors to Men of Tomorrow.” Siegel and Shuster both experienced the frustrations of being working class Jewish men in New York when anti-Semitism limited their economic opportunities. Thus, the frustrations that manifest in Superman respond to an industrial modernity his creators understood as attempting to exclude them. No less compelling than in previous chapters, Regalado uses Siegel and Shuster’s biographies to support readings of “inclusion fantasies” amongst the marginalized Jewish population (9). In this way, the author explores how superheroes are not just rehashes of the heroes of antiquity, arguing, “…Siegel and Shuster did not imagine Superman by simply internalizing and then regurgitating the themes and values that underpinned the fiction that inspired them” (79). Still, Regalado makes certain to assert that Siegel and Shuster do not entirely discard previous notions of heroism. Regarding Superman’s prototype, Slam Bradley, Regalado notes, “…like Tarzan, Siegel and Shuster’s white hero proves his manliness by defeating ethnically defined ‘others.'” (98). Operating from their subject positions in industrial modernity, Siegel and Shuster remove some ethnic preconditions for heroism while reinforcing others. This chapter is particularly strong because, building on the first two chapters, it is able to articulate both the relationship of nineteenth century heroism to twentieth century heroism and explore how notions of and responses to modernity changed during this time.

Regalado’s fourth chapter, “From Steel and Shadows to the Flag,” links Siegel and Shuster’s response to industrial modernity to other prominent heroes of the age: Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. Somewhat neglecting Bill Finger in the process, Regalado reads Batman’s creator Bob Kane’s biography heavily into the superhero. Like Siegel and Shuster, Kane experienced anti-Semitism because of his religious and ethnic identity, which deprived him of economic opportunities. Unlike Siegel and Shuster, though, Kane experienced racially-motivated gang violence as both a perpetrator and victim, which he escaped by becoming an artist. Regalado argues that Batman became an expression of Kane’s escape from anti-Semitism and systemic poverty. While still addressing problems of ethnicity and representation, Regalado primarily uses Batman to examine power structures relating to wealth because it is “…Batman who turns power structures topsy-turvy by dedicating his great personal wealth towards a selfless crusade for social justice” (125). In this way, Regalado does not abandon his previous explorations of ethnicity; rather, he laudably explores how ethnicity and economics intersect to influence Kane’s creation of Batman, which adds a complex and necessary dimension that refuses to separate the way that problems of ethnicity and class are inextricably linked.

Towards the end of “From Steel and Shadows to the Flag,” Regalado draws on many of the same understandings of Kane’s experiences with anti-Semitism to explore Jack Kirby and masculinity through an analysis of Captain America. Regalado casts Kirby as quite similar to Kane, as both men experienced economic disenfranchisement and street violence. Kirby, as a soldier, was especially concerned with the intersection of his experiences with anti-Semitism and Hitler’s rise in Europe. Captain America emerged as an exemplar of masculinity in his fight against “monstrous ethnic villains” of Asian, African, and Eastern European descent, as well as Nazis (135). While pushing against some ethnic and economic boundaries to heroism with his working class, Jewish identity, Captain America still came to reinforce pitting white masculinity against ethnic and foreign others.

At the end of the fourth chapter of Bending Steel, Regalado provides a perfunctory analysis of Wonder Woman, one of the few female characters to whom he pays more than passing attention. Regalado writes, “…comic books also created opportunities for expressing new types of national femininity” (136). The focus on “national femininity” seems particularly odd since Regalado never actually explores what this means, or even what the female experience of modernity entails. Though he talks about her disempowerment later in the book, Regalado’s reading of Wonder Woman only takes up a few pages, so the potential to explore modernity and the female hero in the 1940s quickly vanishes. The choice to explore Wonder Woman in such a limited capacity is disappointing because of her long and potentially fruitful history with male and female creators. The book’s very introduction touts Wonder Woman as one of the chapter’s focuses, but Regalado gives Wonder Woman astonishingly little consideration (8). Considering the focus on how masculinity relates to heroism, Regalado, quite unsatisfyingly, ignores the problems Wonder Woman might pose.

Chapter Five, “Domestication, Dysfunction, and the Rise of Superhero Fandom,” introduces a shift in the book’s focus from comics and culture prior to the CCA and comics and culture after. Regalado presents a balanced reading of Fredric Wertham’s influence on comics and the CCA, which stripped many mainstream comics of their counter-cultural dimension and effectively neuters the once subversive heroes. Although he makes no excuses for the code’s censorship, Regalado notes Wertham’s support for racial equality and the influence of Wertham’s social justice pursuits on his view of comics (153). Treating him fairly, Regalado ignores neither Wertham’s problematic methodology and arguments nor his attempts to uphold the status quo on women’s issues and potential LGBTQ+ relationships. By keeping from either valorizing or demonizing Wertham, Regalado crafts a fruitful exploration of Wertham as a complex person operating both progressively and regressively. Regalado’s choice to treat Wertham fairly avoids oversimplifying the complex political and social dimensions that went into the CCA, which is important for understanding the complexity individuals face when responding to modernity.

This exploration of Wertham and the CCA leads into a discussion about the recovery of comics after the CCA and the birth of a fandom resistant to modernity. Here, Regalado’s approach, which previously emphasized biography, briefly changes. Regalado explores fan culture and its origins, with brisk examinations of key figures. Fan culture originated during the period of atomic modernity, and these fans attempted to reject “official culture” while asserting their individuality (188). Regalado does not provide a solid date for the beginning of this subversive fan culture, but he does note that those involved were “fans of the late 1950s and early 1960s” (179). In a brilliant twist, the mainstream comics industry became a defender of cultural ideals—like white, male heroism, de-individualization, and veneration of the economic elites—it once subverted. The CCA’s censorship of comics came to affirm the principle Regalado is arguing: comics act in a counter-cultural way.

“From Renaissance to the Dark Age,” Bending Steel‘s sixth chapter, continues to explore fan culture. It is the “rebellious ethos” of this fan culture that Marvel Comics taps into in the 1960s, Regalado claims (188). The major change in Marvel’s approach, under Stan Lee, was how “…superheroes had become vessels for suburban kids to voice individual frustrations with the world in which they lived” (193). The heroes of this era, in turn, were “strikingly different from the self-effacing and community-conscious heroics of…the 1930s” (193). Through succinct explorations of the Fantastic Four, Hulk, X-Men, and several other heroes, Regalado articulates how heroes moved away from what he calls “atomic modernity’s culture of consensus” (193-94). Marvel tapped into fandom’s counter cultural ideals in order to rebel against atomic modernity and its culture of consensus.

Regalado’s presentation of Marvel is complex, and, like in his other readings, he is willing to challenge the works he is examining, though less thoroughly than in the book’s early parts. For instance, Regalado discusses how Iron Man, while undermining some of atomic modernity’s hegemonic elements, still normalizes America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and America’s anti-Communist stance (199). In contextualizing this turn from modernity, Regalado also addresses Marvel’s superheroes of color. Regalado notes, “in most cases… African American characters were objectified and employed to express white concerns” (200). Regalado never really explores any of these heroes of color in-depth, nor does he confront how this racially other hero challenges notions of heroism. Although Chapter Six is excellent in many respects, its failure to fully explore heroism’s racial dimensions is incredibly problematic, as racism is still a major part of American society and Marvel’s cultural context during this time.

The final creator Regalado explores in Bending Steel is Frank Miller and his Dark Knight. After a brief analysis of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and its critique of superheroes, Regalado details how Miller’s rendition of Batman in Dark Knight functions counter-culturally. After uncharacteristically providing little biographical information for the problematic Miller, Regalado discusses Batman as “a cry to stand up against modernity” (216). The modernity of this section, more than in previous sections, is more closely aligned with consumerism and the government overstepping its authority. Although some read Batman as a problematically conservative force in Dark Knight, Regalado argues that Batman appears as a counter-cultural force because “it is Reagan, rather than Batman, who emerges as the fascist of the story” (215). Regalado argues that, by reclaiming his masculinity, Batman serves a rebellious function against his culture’s modernity. Regalado identifies one of the text’s key tensions, as heroes, like Superman, side with the government and lose their independence and freedom by doing so. Though the government forces him to retire, Bruce Wayne’s choice to become Batman again represents an act of rebellion against the government. The government’s attempt to control and retire superheroes increases crime, and Dark Knight begins in a world rife with criminals abusing the innocent. Fighting against those who victimize others is a generically masculine act, so it is no surprise that Batman’s masculinity and heroism are linked. As with previous iterations of this superhero, this Batman comes to serve a rebellious function. Masculinity here is less related to economic concerns than in Kane’s work, as the object of heroic masculinity’s rebellion is, seemingly, changing from economy and ethnicity to freedom. Despite this identification of change, Regalado neither provides much biography for Miller nor explores the ethno-racial dimensions that were once important to his exploration. Hence, this chapter draws on elements of previous parts of the text while, disappointingly, dropping fruitful subjects.

Much of Regalado’s genius lies in his subtle scaffolding of arguments. Regalado supports his arguments with strong research, and his writing is clear and approachable. His focus on how the CCA forced comics to conform is great, but his articulation of comics’ fandom as opposing that force is brilliant, not to mention well-argued. Regalado also excels as a biographer, finding a way to make the histories of the examined authors simultaneously compelling and relevant. Using biographical contexts to explain how creators might subjectively experience modernity helps demonstrate how creation and creator meld. This melding can be, potentially, problematic. At times, Regalado ignores the complex editorial processes that can influence a comic. Still, his use of biography is compelling, and he makes it easy to understand how a creator’s context clearly influences his or her work. Regalado explores many complex figures, and he avoids turning creators and critics into heroes and villains. Regalado’s choice to complicate creators is laudable, and it makes the intersections of masculinity, ethnicity, and class in the early chapters more potent. By weaving socio-economic concerns with those of other social concerns, Regalado avoids oversimplifying the complex dynamics that influence the context of creators.

Despite these positives, Regalado’s work struggles towards the end. After spending much time meaningfully focusing on gender and ethnicity, the pursuit of these subjects disappears almost entirely from later chapters. While he discusses Wonder Woman, Regalado’s explication ends suddenly, and his idea of a “national femininity” falls drastically short of satisfying considering the attention he pays to masculinity (136). To his credit, Regalado mentions the problematic nature of Marvel’s black superheroes, but he does not explore this change in heroism’s ethno-racial dimension thoroughly. Ethno-racial politics are a complex part of both atomic modernity and postmodernity; in not exploring any of these heroes of color, Regalado opts for the safe path of only examining heroes who are white and overwhelmingly male. The challenges that a female hero or hero of color would pose to heroism and modernity remain unexplored or, in the case of Wonder Woman, underexplored.

Issues of ethnicity and race all but disappear from Regalado’s section on Miller. Regalado writes, “while Miller steers his narrative away from overt ethnic references by depicting most of the gang members as white and some of them as neo-Nazis, the ethnic associations remain, especially in the way that the characters speak” (213). This is the majority of the exploration in this section on the once prominent theme of ethnicity, and Regalado abandons this line of inquiry almost as quickly as he brings it up. The entire Miller section seems underexplored since Regalado fails to provide a substantive biography for Miller or complicate Miller in the same way he does every other author.

Despite shortcomings towards the end, Bending Steel‘s early chapters excel in providing a history of comics and those who crafted them. One of Regalado’s greatest strengths is his ability to understand comics holistically and articulate the intersections of culture, individuality, and the superhero. Most of the problems with Regalado’s work seem to stem from time and space constraints, but the failure to explore Miller in the same way as other creators is certainly a significant lacuna in Regalado’s otherwise laudable methodologically. Academics of all levels will find Bending Steel a fantastic book for understanding superheroes and modernity. Regalado’s approach and contributions truly matter, and the explorations of the Golden Age, the CCA, and comics’ fandom are vulnerable to no discernable kryptonite.

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