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Review of The Superhero Reader

By Eric L. Berlatsky

Hatfield, Charles, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester, eds. The Superhero Reader. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2013.

I recently completed teaching a graduate course on Superheroes. The likelihood of such a course existing in the academy, or of my getting the opportunity to teach it, would have seemed incredibly remote when I completed my Ph. D. in 2003. Equally unlikely would have been the idea of an anthology of academically inflected essays on the subject, designed as accompaniment for such a course. As such, the mere fact that The Superhero Reader exists signals a new development and progress for Comics Studies and Superhero Studies, if the latter can be said to truly exist. At the helm of the project are three veteran and well-respected names in Comics Studies. Heer and Worcester have previously co-edited The Comics Studies Reader and Arguing Comics, anthologies devoted to the collection of the most important essays in Comics Studies and in the prehistoric time when such a field had yet to emerge, respectively. Hatfield has published a recent Eisner award-winning book on Jack Kirby, excerpted in this Reader, in addition to a well-respected earlier monograph on alternative comics. The time has come for The Superhero Reader, and these editors have the acumen and the credentials to curate and deliver what amounts to a “greatest hits” of superhero criticism.

While the Reader has many strengths, its contents also indicate the kinds of problems likely to face any such compilation. Most early critical treatments of superheroes occurred in book form, necessitating significant excerpting. The initial section, “Historical Considerations,” contains excerpts of Peter Coogan’s Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Hero (2006), Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow (2005), Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked (2000), Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Trina Robbins’s The Great Women Superheroes (1996), and Phillip Wylie’s novel Gladiator (1930). Among these books are important statements about the superhero, and about comics history more broadly conceived, and it is pedagogically useful, certainly, to have them all in one place. Coogan’s project, largely definitional, is served well by this excerpt identifying superhero precursors. Likewise, the choice from Wertham’s famous critique of comics’ causal relationship to juvenile delinquency is both the most obvious and the best essay to include. Wertham’s attack on Superman’s fascism, Wonder Woman’s sadomasochism and potential lesbianism, and his “revelation” of the queer Batman/Robin relationship is jarring (and sometimes offensive) to read in the present day, but it is necessary to understanding superhero comics and the history of the Comics Code, while also occasionally providing some still useful insight. The Batman Unmasked excerpt on the relationship of fan culture and letters to the content of Batman comics is a useful one, and one likely to benefit contemporary students and readers who consume their comics in graphic novel collections or in digital forms that do not reproduce the paratexts of the original comics. At the same time, elsewhere in his book, Brooker employs a similar analytical technique in reading the online response to Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin films in a queer context, a segment that might have served the Superhero Reader even better in playing off both Wertham and the Andy Medhurst essay on the 1960’s Batman TV show.

The selection from Men of Tomorrow does an excellent job introducing the brief excerpt from Gladiator, while also indicating the way in which not only that novel, but also pulp fiction like The Shadow and Doc Savage led to the debut of “superheroes” proper (with the underwear on the outside) in the late 1930’s. Jones’s discussion of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s ür-text, “The Reign of the Superman,” also naturally leads the reader to want to read that story, curiously absent here. The excerpt from Gladiator makes sense as an assertion of the idea of the übermensch, and as a Superman influence. At the same time, it is unclear why Gladiator deserves the excerpting, while equally important precursor texts like The Mark of Zorro or The Scarlet Pimpernel are left out.

The next section on “Theory and Genre” contains a mixed bag of excellent in-depth analysis, and brief or broad (or both) claims about the superhero genre as a whole. One brief excerpt from John Cawleti positions superheroes in the context of a broader category of “adventure stories” involving heroes, while another, by Robert Jewett and Shelton Lawrence, positions superheroes as an expression of religious/nationalist redemption. A third, by Roger Rollin, makes a case for superhero as a version of the “epic hero.” While Rollin’s essay is detailed enough to merit inclusion and engage the reader in critical thinking on the historical origins of the superhero, the first two are simply too brief, broad, or vague to be of use. However, the strongest essays in the collection follow. Richard Reynolds’s excerpt from Superheroes: A Modern Mythology is an excellent structuralist approach with detailed examples on the “shared characteristics” of most (or at least most foundational) superhero stories. Geoff Klock’s essay/excerpt on Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, from How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, is definitively the best part of that book, and an excellent account of how DKR works as both a “realistic” social commentary and as a postmodern meta-commentary on the superhero genre. Hatfield’s excerpt on Kirby gives readers/students a necessary account of the Marvel Method and the nature of Kirby’s pervasive influence on superhero comics. Karin Kukkonen’s narratological account of superhero comics’ multiverses is an insightful attempt to understand the ways in which the ubiquitous “alternate universes” endemic to Marvel, DC, and other comics companies work. The chapter excerpted from Scott Bukatman’s Matters of Gravity (2003) effectively roots superheroes historically and thematically in urban environments, and particularly in New York City (building on accounts of New York’s importance in Reynolds’s book).

The final section of the Reader is devoted to “Culture and Identity,” and particularly to essays about race, gender, and sexual orientation. Andy Medhurst’s 1991 queer reading of the 1960s Batman TV show (and Batman’s history) is one of my favorite critical essays on superheroes. Gloria Steinem’s 1972 essay on Wonder Woman also remains a good one, detailing the ways in which the character is important to feminists and young girls alike, while also identifying some of the ideological prejudices of the Wonder Woman comics throughout the character’s history, including in her initial incarnation under the creative stewardship of William Moulton Marston and Harry Peter. Trina Robbins’s excerpt from The Great Women Superheroes, included in the Reader‘s first section, covers some of the same territory, but she is less willing to acknowledge the ways in which BDSM and sexual kink play a significant role in the Marston/Peter comics. In fact, Lillian Robinson’s treatment of the Amazon princess, not included in the Reader, is a much subtler and more in-depth account and might profitably have substituted for the briefer, and less convincing, take on the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl that is included. More recent treatments of Wonder Woman give even greater insight into both the history and psychological theory behind the character, and though some of these are too recent to have appeared in Reader, one of the best, Ben Saunders’s chapter in Do The Gods Wear Capes?, could also have productively replaced Robbins’s excerpt.

Nevertheless, the strengths of the “Culture and Identity” section continue in Jennifer Stuller’s productive expansion of the superhero genre to include the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, and in Adilifu Nama’s excerpt on the history of African-American superheroes, especially John Stewart/Green Lantern and Black Lightning. The excerpt from Jeffrey Brown’s book on Milestone Comics’ 1990’s attempt to bring racial diversity to superhero comics includes an interesting and compelling reading of black masculinity in StaticIcon, and other Milestone titles, mixing close reading and fan interviews in a model of reader-oriented critique often missing from literary criticism. The final essay by Henry Jenkins on the relationship of mourning, nostalgia, and comic book collecting is both insightful and affecting, an excellent conclusion to the collection.

As with any greatest hits album, there are important essays and excerpts that are excluded here. I was disappointed that the Prologue from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra did not make the cut, and I wished something from Ben Saunders’s book (either on Wonder Woman or on Spider-Man) had been included. It is surprising that no essays on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s seminal Watchmen are to be found here, as it is probably the most discussed superhero graphic novel, and there are several excellent essays to be found. Most glaring by its omission is probably Umberto Eco’s classic essay “The Myth of the Superman,” found in Arguing Comics, but surely worth reprinting here. Even more disappointing is the absence of images in this book. This seems to be the standard approach to these readers, no doubt because of the difficulty in acquiring copyright permissions, but nearly all of the essays in the book refer to a visual medium (comics, TV, or film) and many included images in their original publication. As such, crucial examples present in the original text(s) are often missing here.

Despite these shortcomings, The Superhero Reader is an excellent introduction to commentary on superheroes, easily supplemented by the enterprising instructor. The introductory materials and editorial commentary by Hatfield, Heer, and Worcester usefully supplement and contextualize the readings. While not quite “one stop shopping,” it is a book that makes the teaching of superhero coursework more possible, while opening up the existing academic conversation about the genre to a wider audience.

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