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The Superhero Reader

Charles Hatfield

Publication Year: 2013

Despite their commercial appeal and cross-media reach, superheroes are only recently starting to attract sustained scholarly attention. This groundbreaking collection brings together essays and book excerpts by major writers on comics and popular culture.

While superhero comics are a distinct and sometimes disdained branch of comics creation, they are integral to the development of the North American comic book and the history of the medium. For the past half-century they have also been the one overwhelmingly dominant market genre. The sheer volume of superhero comics that have been published over the years is staggering. Major superhero universes constitute one of the most expansive storytelling canvases ever fashioned. Moreover, characters inhabiting these fictional universes are immensely influential, having achieved iconic recognition around the globe. Their images and adventures have shaped many other media, such as film, videogames, and even prose fiction.

The primary aim of this reader is twofold: first, to collect in a single volume a sampling of the most sophisticated commentary on superheroes, and second, to bring into sharper focus the ways in which superheroes connect with larger social, cultural, literary, aesthetic, and historical themes that are of interest to a great many readers both in the academy and beyond.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. 1-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. ix-x

Our thanks go to our contributors, as well to Bart Beaty, Walter Biggins, Paul Buhle, Jon B. Cooke, Craig Fischer, Ian Gordon, Karen Green, Tom Hart, Dean Haspiel, Gene Kannenberg, Jr., Jude Killroy, Guy Lawley, Andrei Molotiu, Heather Nunnelly...

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pp. xi-25

Comics is an art form; superheroes are a genre. This terse distinction lies at the heart of current scholarship on comics.1 While some readers still conflate comic books and superheroes, the recent emergence of interdisciplinary comics studies presupposes that comics, including their long-form incarnation, graphic novels, can be much more. Indeed, comics can advance myriad storytelling agendas...

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pp. 3-6

Almost all superheroes have an origin story: a bedrock account of the transformative events that set the protagonist apart from ordinary humanity. If not a prerequisite for the superhero genre, the origin story is certainly a prominent and popular trope that recurs so frequently as to offer clues to the nature of this narrative...

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Comics Predecessors

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pp. 7-15

Though dime novels, science fiction, adventure stories, and the pulps contain the main predecessors of the superhero genre, the superhero did not spring to life in literature but in comics. Comics—both books and strips— provide the final bit of the prehistory of the superhero. Essentially unknown...

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Men of Tomorrow

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pp. 16-22

Philip Wylie was the son of a Presbyterian minister who broke angrily with his father’s God, studied theater at Princeton, dropped out to become a successful advertising writer, lost his career to a dubious paternity suit, decided to write fiction, and sold his first novel, a bombastic indictment of repressed Presbyterians, to Alfred...

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pp. 23-29

Hugo had three hours to wait for a Chicago train. His wages purchased his ticket and left him in possession of twenty dollars. His clothing was nondescript; he had no baggage. He did not go outside the Grand Central Terminal, but sat patiently in the smoking-room, waiting for the time to pass. A guard came up to him and asked to see his ticket. Hugo did not remonstrate and produced it mechanically...

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The Great Comic Book Heroes

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pp. 30-33

Had I only been six years older I could have been in comic books from almost the beginning: carting my sample case in the spring of 1939 instead of 1945; a black cardboard folio with inside overlapping side sheets, secured tight with black bows on its three unbound corners, containing 14 x 22 pages of Bristol board on which...

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The Comics and the Super State

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pp. 34-45

In the 25,000,000 comic books that are produced in this country per month, each to be read by an average of four or five individuals, and in the 6,000,000,000 comic strips that appear every month in U.S. newspapers, there is at work a squirming mass of psychological forces. What all these forces are, no one knows. Nor...

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The Superman Conceit

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pp. 46-52

The atmosphere of crime comic books is unparalleled in the history of children’s literature of any time or any nation. It is a distillation of viciousness. The world of the comic book is the world of the strong, the ruthless, the bluffer, the shrewd deceiver, the torturer, and the thief. All the emphasis is on exploits where somebody takes advantage of somebody else, violently, sexually, or threateningly. It is no more...

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The Great Women Superheroes

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pp. 53-60

In 1938 two teenage boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, introduced their creation, Superman, in Action Comics #1, and superheroes entered the world’s consciousness. Their story of a superpowered foundling from another planet had been rejected by every comic strip syndicate and comic book editor to whom it had been submitted before being accepted...

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Fandom and Authorship

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pp. 61-72

The discourses of comic fandom and comic authorship were born as twins and have grown up together over the last few decades, siblings locked into a relationship of debate and mutual dependence. Both originated in the early 1960s [in fact the history of letters pages and fandom in comics predates the 1960s, but Brooker is focusing here...

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pp. 73-77

A genre is an empirical social reality: not only a critical category for organizing works, but also a tradition and pastime upheld by an audience attuned to such works. Indeed a genre is something on the order of a loose social compact, a set of concepts and practices that groups of people use to help them sort through and make...

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Literary Formulas

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pp. 78-79

The central fantasy of the adventure story is that of the hero—individual or group—overcoming obstacles and dangers and accomplishing some important and moral mission. Often, though not always, the hero’s trials are the result of the machinations of a villain, and, in addition, the hero frequently receives, as a kind of side benefit, the favors of one or more attractive young ladies. The interplay with...

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Crowds of Superheroes

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pp. 80-83

Following the phenomenal success of Superman comics in 1938, the axial decade closed with a proliferation of superheroes. The masks, uniforms, miraculous powers, and secret alter egos combine with sexual renunciation and segmentation to complete the formation of the monomythic hero. Batman, Sandman, Hawkman, and The Spirit all sprang to life in 1939; Flash, The Green Lantern, The Shield, Captain...

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The Epic Hero and Pop Culture

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pp. 84-98

Many a teacher of English views with trepidation the prospect of introducing members of the present student generation to the study of Beowulf, The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost. The poems themselves have always posed enough scholarly and critical problems to make teaching them a problem, but nowadays the...

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Masked Heroes

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pp. 99-115

Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman are among the most widely known fictional characters ever conceived. Created as comic-book heroes, they remain more widely known through television, the movies and (in the case of Batman and Superman) through a vigorous presence in American and European popular...

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The Revisionary Superhero Narrative

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pp. 116-135

superhero comics that attempts a synthesis of forty-five years of preceding Batman history in one place. Prose summaries giving a sense of how the Dark Knight has been portrayed over the decades have already been written.2 To avoid redundancy, let me cite one example of Batman’s contradictory portrayal as emblematic. The adventures...

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Jack Kirby and the Marvel Aesthetic

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pp. 136-154

It has often been said, though not so often convincingly, that superheroes constitute “a modern mythology,” and that the Marvel Universe in particular called forth or made more obvious this mythic quality. Such arguments are inexact. If Marvel constitutes a mythos, then it is one that does not carry all the meanings that attach, or once attached, to the word: it does not consist of traditional stories...

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Navigating Infinite Earths

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pp. 155-169

In a recent study of multiple worlds in physics, philosophy, and narrative, Marie-Laure Ryan argues that our “private encyclopedia” is deeply rooted in the classical notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think—rather than many such worlds. As Ryan puts it, “[f ]or most of us, the idea of parallel realities is not yet solidly established in our private encyclopedias and the text...

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A Song of the Urban Superhero

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pp. 170-198

In the stories they come straight at you, in bold, blurred streaks of color against the ground of the great metropolis. At first glance they are terribly crude—especially in their first decades of existence—but familiarity and developing history endow them with copious nuance. Cloaking themselves in vibrant tones, they come straight at you in a blur and streak across the panel, the page, the city, the mind...

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pp. 199-202

As Henry Jenkins notes in his essay on “Death-Defying Heroes,” which closes this volume, superheroes “have been more or less in continuous publication since the 1930s or early 1940s.” “Nowhere else in popular culture,” he says, “can you find that same degree of continuity.” Comics fandom takes this decades-long history quite seriously, as witnessed by the fact that comics conventions routinely...

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Wonder Woman

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pp. 203-210

Comic books were not quite respectable, which was a large part of the reason I read them: under the covers with a flashlight, in the car while my parents told me I was ruining my eyes, in a tree or some other inaccessible spot; any place that provided sweet privacy and independence. Along with cereal boxes and ketchup labels, they were the primers that taught me how to read. They were even cheap enough...

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Invisible Girl

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pp. 211-215

What may be called the new Marvel attitude begins with the creation in 1961 of The Fantastic Four, with mutations, internecine insults, ambivalence, and irony all over the text, but drawn in the traditional adventure or detective comics mode. The first major change in artistic style did not occur until well into the 1960s, after the success of Pop Art. I do not insist on this “post-Pop ergo propter Pop” argument...

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Love Will Bring You to Your Gift

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pp. 216-236

“Love”—a complicated concept if there ever was one. Buffy is told by her spirit guide that love will bring her to her gift. William Marston’s Wonder Woman is made of love, simply because she has the body of a woman. He even wrote that “Man’s use of force without love brings evil and unhappiness. But Wonder Woman has force...

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Batman, Deviance and Camp

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pp. 237-251

I’m not sure how qualified I am to write this essay. Batman hasn’t been particularly important in my life since I was seven years old. Back then he was crucial, paramount, unmissable as I sat twice weekly to watch the latest episode on TV. Pure pleasure, except for the annoying fact that my parents didn’t seem to appreciate the thrills...

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Color Them Black

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pp. 252-268

From Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, 9–35, by adilifu nama. © 2011. By permission of Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever. Then we could be heroes just for sCores of readers have used superhero ComiCs to viCariously defy gravity and bound over skyscrapers, swing through the Big apple with the greatest of ease, stalk the dark streets of Gotham, or travel at magnificent ...

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Comic Book Masculinity

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pp. 269-278

If comic book superheroes represent an acceptable, albeit obviously extreme, model of hypermasculinity, and if the black male body is already culturally ascribed as a site of hypermasculinity, then the combination of the two—a black male superhero—runs the risk of being read as an overabundance, a potentially threatening...

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The Punisher as Revisionist Superhero Western

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pp. 279-294

The man in black with vengeance in his heart has come roaring onto our movie screens in many guises, across eras and vastly different pop-culture landscapes. Whether he is a cowboy, a Jedi knight, or a comic book character, he answers some urge in us to see both darkness and light in our heroes. With two film adaptations, the Punisher, in his evolution, and with his genre roots buried deep in our...

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Death Defying-Heroes

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pp. 295-304

Media scholars draw an important distinction between mass culture and popular culture. Mass culture is mass-produced for a mass audience. Popular culture is what happens to those cultural artifacts at the site of consumption, as we draw upon them as resources in our everyday life. Many scholars have focused on how the same mass-produced artifacts generate different meanings for different...

List of Contributors

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pp. 305-308


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pp. 309-319

E-ISBN-13: 9781621039549
E-ISBN-10: 1621039544
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617038068

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2013