- Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn Cocca, and: Superman: The Persistence of an American Icon by Ian Gordon
"[C]omics studies," as Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo have argued, "is dominated by scholars in departments of language and literature."3 While that dominance shows few signs of waning anytime soon, two recent books demonstrate the value of thinking beyond the habits and tendencies of literary studies: Ian Gordon's Superman: The Persistence of An American Icon and Carolyn Cocca's Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. Working broadly within the field of media studies, these interventions situate comics within histories of production and reception, following popular characters off the page to their incarnations on movie screens and toy store shelves.
Gordon's book opens by acknowledging that his subject—"the place of Superman in American culture"—might lend itself all too easily to a reductive list of "essential hallmarks" followed through "each and every iteration of the character over the best part of a century" (3). Gordon instead finds an original, insightful take on his material, offering a thoughtful examination of what he sees as the major recurring themes in Superman's [End Page 264] narratives—especially "nostalgia, mythology, and ideology" (3)—with an emphasis on how the shifting meanings of these themes emerge from a recursive and ramifying process of negotiation between producers and consumers.
Gordon's first chapter revisits Umberto Eco's influential argument about the way that the timeless, oneiric climate of midcentury Superman comics necessarily confines this "omnipotent figure" to virtuous "acts of charity" instead of large-scale social change (15). Gordon historicizes Eco's contention, stressing the distance between the "somewhat-anarchic Superman" of the character's early appearances and the character about whom Eco writes (18), noting that the stories that Eco considered, which "often envisioned American life as a universal norm across time and space," reflected a post–World War II political culture in America that prized conformity and consensus (27). Gordon further examines how the rise in continuity-driven storytelling that more frequently sought to engage with contemporary political realities complicated this aspect of Superman's character. Chapter 2 develops this reading of Superman's implicit politics, arguing that "Superman's persistence is in part reliant on his identification with a broad notion of what is best about America" (41). Gordon carefully traces the evolution of the phrase "the American way" in popular discourse, noting that it has often been associated with a vague notion of "consensus" (46). As Gordon puts it, in his various incarnations across media, Superman has "embodied [a] tension within the American way between consensus as simply civility" and consensus "as a struggle for tolerance" (46). In the third chapter, Gordon turns his attention to the question of nostalgia, examining how later-era Superman narratives such as Kingdom Come (1996) or Superman Returns (2006) foster audience engagement by deploying a range of "playful tributes, pastiches, and in-jokes" to forge nostalgic connections to earlier versions of Superman and thus earlier versions of America (84). Such is the tenacity of nostalgia as a frame for understanding Superman, Gordon posits, that it even dominates the critical reception of resolutely anti-nostalgic films such as the 2013 Man of Steel (91).
The latter three chapters shift the focus increasingly to matters of production and reception. Chapter 4 sifts through a dense archive of legal documents and business correspondence in pursuit of a fuller understanding of Superman's authorship. Gordon displays his considerable skills as a media historian as he builds a case that much of what is distinctive about Superman developed from the tension between his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and his publisher, DC Comics. Gordon deftly traces this tension from early conflicts over Siegel and Shuster's role as "outside contractor[s]" (105), collaborating with art assistants and other writers to package Superman stories for DC, to the many legal challenges over the character's ownership, with a particular eye...