- Superheroes and Identities ed. by Mel Gibson, David Huxley, and Joan Ormrod
Mel Gibson, David Huxley, and Joan Ormrod’s Superheroes and Identities promises to explore “what superhero narratives can reveal about our attitudes towards femininity, race, maternity, masculinity, and queer culture.”1 Although it doesn’t fully exhaust each of these aspects (that would be a rather lofty goal), it certainly does introduce the topics as areas ripe for further study.
Gibson, Huxley, and Ormrod introduce their anthology as a collection of articles that were, for the most part, previously submitted to the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics and, unfortunately, the book reads that way. Although the editorial organization of the articles is effective—the anthology is divided into six main categories (“Race,” “Narrative and the Development of Superhero Identities,” “Boys and Girls,” “Supermoms,” “Queer,” and “Audiences, Reception, Fandom”)—the included articles do not interact with one another or form a coherent whole. This is, perhaps, an inevitable pitfall of which the editors demonstrate their awareness when they share their hope that [End Page 192] the collection will serve to “draw together work from a range of disciplines to indicate both the extent and the potential coherence of this area of study.”2 The key word here is “potential.” The articles in this anthology do not yet make up a complete, systematic body of work and, given how new the interdisciplinary study of comics is, one would not expect them to do so. That said, the editors do identify common trends in the field that may evolve into a more coherent form.
The introduction mitigates some of the inherent problems of pulling together a collection of existing articles by providing some much-needed background information on the rich connection between superheroes and identities. Gibson, Huxley, and Ormrod pay particular attention to the cultural significance of the superhero, the fluidity of both cultural and superhero identities, and the interdisciplinary nature of studying the relationship between these factors.3 Although the introduction gives a breadth of background information that will prove indispensable to scholars new to the study of superheroes, a more direct road map to the divisions of the articles (and the rationale behind these divisions) would have been helpful.
Each of the sections in Superheroes and Identities could easily expand into an anthology of its own, so it would be ridiculous to expect the three essays included in the section “Race” to fully flesh out issues related to race and identity as they are connected to the superhero. That said, this section does successfully draw attention to some salient points, including the role of racist ideologies in the genesis of what has become the modern superhero and the effect of racial inclusion and exclusion in superhero narratives.
Chris Gavaler’s piece on the connection between the Ku Klux Klan and the origins of the superhero, for instance, brings up unexpected parallels. Gavaler suggests that “Thomas Dixon Jr.’s Ben Cameron, aka the Grand Dragon, represents the earliest twentieth-century incarnation of an American vigilante hero who assumes a costume and alias to hide his identity while waging his war for good.”4 Gavaler does not claim that Dixon invented the superhero; he simply posits that the character type—“as traced from The Clansman through The Birth of a Nation and the second Klan to pulp fiction and early comic books”—finds its genesis in the Grand Dragon character.5
Gavaler’s claim is contentious for a variety of reasons, including, of course, the problems inherent in locating the birth of the superhero, but it is certainly worth serious consideration. The potential weakness of this argument lies in the suggestion that Dixon’s Grand Dragon and Siegel and Shuster’s Superman (and other superheroes) share a causal link when, at this point, a correlational connection might be more easily proved. That said, future study on this topic may lead to more evidence of a direct influence.6 [End Page 193]
Regardless of whether the links between KKK vigilantism and the modern superhero are causal, correlational, or...