- Banality in Comics Studies?
Comic books represent a royal road to the cultural unconscious. That is the operative assumption of Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl’s Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice and the American Way. The authors situate the book as a contribution to the interdisciplinary field of cultural criminology, which focuses less on legal and institutional practices and more on the cultural representation of crime and punishment. Here cultural criminology overlaps cultural studies as it has emerged over the last forty years. As the authors put it, “In analyzing contemporary comic books, we employ a cultural criminological framework, suggesting that the cultural meaning and symbolic importance of comic books represents a viable area of exploration for criminologists” (5). As in many cultural studies projects on the meaning and reception of popular forms, Phillips and Strobl employ methods both analytical and ethnographic, surveying story arcs in two hundred comic titles and conducting focus group interviews with self-selecting comic book fans, who, as the authors note, were overwhelmingly male: “In recruiting participants for focus groups, we managed to include only one woman” (225).
Much of the strength of Comic Book Crime stems from this mix of synoptic and ethnographic approaches. Unlike the forms of close analysis associated with cultural studies—which can give a cultural form a more radical resonance than it may actually have by focusing on outlier texts or by deconstructing dominant meanings—the synoptic and reception-based approaches employed by Phillips and Strobl effectively calibrate the overall ideological import and social resonance of a dominant form. Thus, the authors argue:
Our sample suggests that comic books, although diverse, most often reflect an ideological orientation that reinforces the dominant notions of retributive justice in American culture and celebrates nostalgic ideas about community through apocalyptic plots. Ironically, our sample also shows that retribution plays out as an incomplete project, leaving readers teased as to how violent a hero will be in pursuing justice during the battle between good and evil. This tease, though ideologically short of the promise of retribution underlying many of the storylines, nonetheless provides emotional satisfaction in the spectacularly violent and graphic ways in which restraint is ultimately accomplished.(17-18)
This is the book’s strongest point: that the ideological work done by comic books reinforces notions of retributive and incapacitation-based forms of justice, as opposed to rehabilitative, restorative, and deterrence-based forms. Without suggesting a simple equivalence between representation and reception or material practice, they demonstrate how comic books tend to mirror and potentially reinforce dominant assumptions in the United States about crime and punishment. While the authors present this ideology as the hegemonic criminological perspective advanced in super-hero comic books, they also trace the ways in which certain story arcs and characters deviate from this message, as well as the ways in which readers challenge, rework, or conform to it. Thus, they attend to the different versions of justice embodied by figures such as the Punisher, who, as his name suggests, follows through on the promise of retribution; Batman and Superman, who cause death and destruction despite their “no kill” policy; and Wonder Woman, whose basic tenets (although she often doesn’t fully adhere to them) seem closer to what Phillips and Strobl describe as “restorative or participatory justice,” which advocates community-based mediation and peaceful correction (202).
The book addresses a range of contemporary issues that affect or relate to comic books, from the representation of Arab-Americans and patriotism after 9/11—where the authors find comics and their readers split between a retrenchment of chauvinism and racism and a more searching reflection on the dangers of the same—to the representation of race, gender, and sexuality (a discussion of class is markedly absent) in superhero comics. In these areas, too, the book mixes an account of comics as generally reflecting a dominant ideology, what they call the “white male heteronormativity of the comic book landscape,” with individual story arcs and characters that challenge and push against this dominant ideology (168...