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Reviewed by:
  • How to Read Superhero Comics and Why
  • Kathy Merlock Jackson (bio)
How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. By Geoff Klock. New York: Continuum, 2002

In recent years, comics have begun to receive the more widespread scholarly attention that they deserve. Geoff Klock contributes to the trend with a colorful paperback with a masked, blue caped figure on the cover and an intriguing title, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. Klock, who has a master's degree in English literature from New York University and was a former Ph.D. student there, notes that as he read poetry and poetics in school and superhero comics for fun, he began to see the connections between the two. Thus, he applies literary analysis to the study of comics.

Klock classifies comics according to their traditional periods: the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s (defined by the DC Comics Group with Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman); the silver age of the 1960s (with Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, and the Avengers); and the third wave, characterized by Warren Ellis as traversing Dare-devil and Marvelman). In his introduction, he lays out the goal of his book: "to present a different paradigm for recognizing the 'third movement' of superhero comics and to avoid at all costs the temptation to refer to this movement as 'postmodern, 'deconstructionist,' or something equally tedious" (2-3).

Klock devotes his attention to a literary analysis of this recent phase of comics-beginning with Frank Miller's Batman, the Dark Knight Returns and encompassing Marvels, Astro City, Kingdom Come, Alan Moore's America's Best Comics, and Grant Morrison's Justice League of America—and suggests that a new era of comics—spear-headed by Planetary, The Authority, and Wildcats—has been established.

Relying heavily on the theories of Harold Bloom, especially his anxiety of influence poetics, and Slavoj Žižek, Klock takes comics out of their cultural context and looks squarely at the stories themselves and the patterns and meanings that emerge, demonstrating how superhero comics can be read as literature.

Klock's study is highly selective, as he notes that "many works in the superhero genre will be absent from the discussion, including many superhero comics recently labeled revisionary or revisionist" (16). However, those works that do fit Klock's definition of the revisionary superhero narrative, such as Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Moore's Watchmen (1986), warrant close, insightful readings that enable the reader to better understand the psychoanalytic profile of the superhero as well as the hero's relationship to a chaotic world.

Klock's strength lies in his commitment to looking at comics in a novel way, through the lens of literary analysis. He melds his encyclopedic knowledge of the superhero genre with the language of literary theory so as to join seemingly disparate worlds and to better inform the reader how comic book narratives have built upon and referenced one another throughout the history of their development. Heavily footnoted and filled with literary allusions, the book is designed for the more serious student of literature.

How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, although marred by many copyediting errors, contains an extensive works-cited listing and useful annotated bibliography of further readings in the superhero and comic book genres. Due to the book's specificity, it would appeal most [End Page 181] to those who are already versed in recent superhero narratives and literary theory.

Kathy Merlock Jackson

Kathy Merlock Jackson is professor and coordinator of communications at Virginia Wesleyan College, where she teaches courses in media studies and children's culture. A former president of the American Culture Association, she currently edits The Journal of American Culture.



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pp. 181-182
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