I write crime fiction, specifically noir. That makes me rather a rara avis as a female author; the traditional male-centric slant of noir (both literary and film) is well-documented and apparent. But I am even more of a rare bird demographically when it comes to another subject: the American superhero comic book.
Comic books have always played a significant role in my life. Unusual, yes, but I credit my parents, who encouraged me to read anything and everything from a very young age, from Dr. Seuss and Highlights to the Robert Browning poems my dad used to read aloud to me before bed. The first comic book I can remember devouring, at about the age of five, was an issue of David Copperfield, from the much-treasured Classics Illustrated series.
Flash forward about four years. Like most kids, I was a fan of syndicated reruns of the Batman TV show (the camp was lost on us; I’m not sure if today’s children retain that same sense of naivete). I was introduced by the brother of a friend to Batman’s flagship title Detective Comics during the ’70s heyday of the “100 Page Super Spectacular”, comics which offered a new story or two and a bunch of reprints, usually from the ’40s and ’50s.
A comic book fan—which was synonymous with superhero fan—was born. I never cottoned to Richie Rich, Uncle Scrooge or Archie—though I did love the band’s “Sugar, Sugar”. 😉
Unsurprisingly, it was Batman who lured me in, Batman who acted as a totem, Batman who became my guide and mentor. I remember the seminal moment. I read a story—”Night of the Stalker”—in which Batman has no dialog, and in which he witnesses the gunning down of a couple that mirrors his own parents’ murders. The story made me understand why Bruce Wayne dedicated himself to justice, why he donned a cape and cowl, why The Batman (as he was known in the 1970s as a nostalgic nod to his ’30s origins) was a character as worthy of my devotion as Sherlock Holmes or Bilbo Baggins or David Copperfield.
I cried when I read that story; re-reading it 40 years later still makes me tear up, particularly because—having lost my parents in the last couple of years—I have a much more profound sense of what it means to be an orphan.
Like Batman, I was an only child, too.
Among the other loves I discovered in those 100 pages of pulp paper were the reprints. Comics from the ’40s were more visceral, direct, primitive and brutal. The Spectre killed people without hesitation. Superman—that square-jawed All-American—was more of a vigilante before he found radio and became too mass-media to pursue radical social justice. An early adventure shows him kidnapping a greedy mine owner and threatening to abandon him in his own, unsafe coal mine.
These were the superheroes that seemed worthy of the name to me; and those crudely drawn images of power revealed a fascinating past, a culture of giant roof top advertising props and skyscrapers, of milkmen and radio broadcasts, of strange, mystical towers in Salem, Massachusetts and of gangsters and electric chairs.
I didn’t look for female costumed heroines—though Black Canary was my favorite. Because I was raised to think that I could do anything, be anything, including the President of the United States, it never occurred to me that these were “adolescent male fantasy figures” … to me, they were just superheroes.
Flash forward about fifteen years. I collected comics, particularly Silver Age (’50s and ’60s) and Golden Age (’30s and ’40s); I started to delve into the history of the genre, and analyze comic books as time capsules of popular culture. We also decided to open a comic book store … my mother, my partner, and myself. And all-woman owned store in a male-dominated industry? Why not?
The Funny Papers lasted eight years. We were successful; we made many, many friends and enjoyed a loyal and demographically diverse clientele. I became an Overstreet Guide Adviser, wrote columns for industry trades, and served on DC’s National Board of Retailers. I was privileged to know many of the greats in the industry and met legends like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby and Denny O’Neil. We’d never envisioned operating the store for longer; there were other adventures on the horizon.
While earning a graduate degree in Classics, I kept returning to comic books as a medium of cultural analysis. Superheroes are the twentieth century American mythology, and how they are portrayed and perceived and how they transform over the decades reveals much about American history and our changing culture. For example: superheroes were largely discarded in the post WWII era, as they had become synonymous with the war effort. In their place, crime and horror comics—and the nostalgic Western, emblematic genre of a ‘simpler’ time—emerged. Superheroes reemerged with the race to the Space Age, and have been popular ever since.
These four-color clues to our cultural psychology continued to fascinate me. I wrote academic articles combining Classics and the study of the comic book, and was invited to present at the world’s first-ever academic conference on the superhero at the University of Melbourne.
Flash forward to the present. Comic books are still a part of my life. I lost a number of my treasured Detective and Batman collection in a burglary a few years ago and am slowly but steadily rebuilding it. I still get excited over the smell of pulp paper and the crudely drawn dynamism of a Golden Age panel. And as the superhero industry and the comic book industry have vastly diverged and separated—a topic for a later blog post—I think back to that issue of Detective and how much the Dark Knight influenced me and how much he inspired me.
Adolescent male fantasy? Undoubtedly. Window to twentieth century popular culture? Definitely. But much more than that, too. Comic books matter, and not just to boys or girls or the bottom line of movie studios.
Comic books matter … to the orphan in all of us.