- Representation and Diversity in Comics Studies
In spring 2011, Bart Beaty broke new ground by editing the first In Focus section of Cinema Journal devoted to comics studies.1 Beaty curated a thematically important issue, concluding with a roundtable on the state of comics studies—a section befitting a rapidly evolving and expanding field. However, there was a noticeable absence of matters of representation and diversity in the section’s vision of “comics studies” and an equal dismissal of studies of representation in that roundtable. To some extent, this absence is understandable, especially as the primary function of the section was to rationalize and celebrate the study of comics as a distinct media form. Though issues of representation were certainly of concern within comics scholarship and culture at that time, Scott Bukatman identified “representation of” studies as one of the problems “endemic to a young field.”2 In their understandable effort to privilege the “how” of comics, the panelists, however, not only marginalized “scholarly work that tends [End Page 120] to dwell on the ‘what’ of comics”; they also failed to engage “critical intersections between the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of comics, and likewise the ‘who’ (audience) and the ‘why’ (economics/industry demographics).”3
This current section is another foray into the world of comics scholarship, but it is a very different entity. It is freer, perhaps, than its predecessor or successors—in that we are not tasked with validating or grounding the field, or revisiting a canonical text.4 Using the superhero as a critical axis, the essays collected here aim to capture both the transmediated nature of contemporary superheroes and the issues surrounding their bodily (trans)formations and identity. The discussions that follow reveal not only the merits—critical and ontological—of working at such intersections but (much like the malleable superhero body) also the elasticity of contemporary comics studies, with its embrace of inter- and multidisciplinarity, collaboration, and border crossings (such as fan-scholar). Indicating some of the ways in which superheroes can, if given the space, speak beyond themselves and their originating medium, this section discusses aspects of representation through several media forms wherein the superhero has particular cultural force, including movies, games, and transformative fan art, in addition to comics.5
As a field of inquiry comics studies is perhaps best considered as a series of interlocking debates rather than as progressing toward a cohering formalist theory. We believe that a valorization of the formal is deleterious, resulting in the construction of (literally “man-made”) boundaries and oppositions (e.g., form/content) and not only the privileging of one field of research over another but also an idea of mutual exclusivity: the notion that fields cannot speak to or inform each other. Greg Smith observed during the 2011 roundtable that, though the participants might have “moved on from those early ideas” concerning representation, it was clear that other scholars had not.6 Four years on, this section demonstrates why we and many others working within comics studies and its allied spheres—scholars, fans, and commentators—have not yet moved on. There is good reason—we simply cannot afford to. What is for some, in terms of representation and diversity, a “predictable parade of scholarly concerns,” is for others a similarly predictable parade of elisions, evasions, and errors.7 Ever mindful of the value of formal analysis, this In Focus seeks to promote the merit of engaging with matters of representation and diversity and to establish, at the very least, their equal status with other topics in comics scholarship. [End Page 121]
Ellen Kirkpatrick’s essay, “TransFormers: ‘Identity’ Compromised” works in just such a way. Drawing on contemporary identity theories, the essay demonstrates, through close readings, how the transforming superhero is readable as speaking not only to various trans realities but also to the variety of broader, ongoing gender-identity debate(s). Carlen Lavigne also tackles gender identity, but from a representational perspective. In “‘I’m Batman’ (and You Can Be Too): Gender and Constrictive Play in the Arkham Game Series,” Lavigne interrogates gender representation within a game environment to reveal how it not only fails to step beyond...