Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Captain Contingent Versus Doctor Necessity: The Rise of The Superhero Genre


A combination of vacation travel reading and gifts made it so I read Dan Hassler-Forest's Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age and Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story over the same few weeks. At first glance these books could not be more different. Hassler-Forest's book deals with the superhero film viewed from the perspective of the political and cultural transformations of the post 9/11 era. In sharp contrast this treatment, Howe's book is a kind of "inside baseball" look at the history of Marvel Comics. Hassler-Forest's book is an entry in Zero Books catalogue, which seems destined to  single-handedly rescue cultural analysis from the excesses of cultural studies and the dismal "philosophy and [blank]" series at Open Court. Sean Howe is an entertainment journalist of a more traditional variety, albeit one whose "Deep Focus" series on films also tries to traverse the no man's land between the popular and the scholarly.  Despite these differences of perspective and approach, the two very different books converge on a singular object of inquiry, that of a dominant cultural form, the superhero comic and film.

Hassler-Forest's focuses on the superhero film as a genre that has to be seen as much a part of its time as the "action film" was of the Reagan eighties. He is largely uninterested in the comic books that form the basis for the superhero film. This does lead to a few embarrassing slips of the outsider (eg. it is "spider-sense" not "spidey-sense") but overall his book benefits from avoiding the usual concerns with sources of the comic book film. This makes it possible to grasp certain generic characteristics of the superhero film, characteristics that are not viewed in terms of deviations or repetitions of the source material. So much writing on comic book films is concerned with either fidelity to the original or the unoriginality of the repetition. As Hassler-Forest argues, one of the defining characteristics of the superhero film is the focus on origins. While origins, radioactive spider bites and murdered parents, function as the backdrop of comic book characters, as something generally known or summed up in a few line of text splashed across the title page, they become central in the films, even being reworked in multiple reboots. The second defining characteristic of the superhero film is the narrative focus on some massive act of destruction of New York (or Gotham). This second aspect might not seem that remarkable, after all superheroes are always saving the world or at least major metropolitan areas. However, it is here that the historical dimension becomes crucial to his argument.

The dominance of the superhero film is for the most part a post 9/11 phenomena. It is this historical contingency which in part structures its particular logic, a logic which situates it between two traumas, the first that is the origin of the superhero and the second which the superhero prevents. The recognition of some kind of historical trauma coupled with the fantasy of its prevention is what the superhero film offers at the narrative level. This narrative structure of an alternate version of our own reality is made possible by the new technologies of digital imagery which allow for the seamless insertion of alternate realities, hulks, cyborgs, and mutants, into reality. "These parallel notions of alternate reality at the narrative level and the ontology of digital cinema at the representational level have fed back into each other in the postclassical blockbuster, with its strong emphasis on the popular fantasy genre. '"


The connection between the superhero film and 9/11 appeared awkwardly and accidentally at first. In 2001 Spider-Man was advertised by a trailer that prominently featured the World Trade Center. This trailer was cut, and all reminders of the World Trade Center were digitally excised. In later years the World Trade Center would be replaced by other digital creations, Stark Tower, Oscorp, and the invented landscape of Gotham. These towers and cityscapes would confront their own catastrophic threats, threats that would be twice displaced, digitally and narratively. The dialectic of impotence and power, of Bruce Banner and The Hulk, Clark Kent and Superman, becomes a means of working through trauma and aggression. 

The superhero film is not just a digitally mediated compulsion to repeat. Hassler-Forest argues that the superhero film gives us the three pilars of the current political order, surveillance, torture, and extralegal force, all sufficiently mediated by the digital fantasy to be beyond reproach. That Superman would see through walls, Batman would torture the Joker, or Iron Man would engage in a private war in Afghanistan is less threatening, and more acceptable than the state or its private proxies engaging in the same activities. Of course Hassler-Forest's point is that the fiction of the latter enables the reality of the former. 

Illustration by Jack Kirby, from Sean Howe's tumblr

Hassler-Forest does not restrict the superhero film to an allegory of the "war on terror," despite the fact that dates would seem to match up nicely (and neither seems to ending anytime soon). As I have noted he argues that the focus on origins is something of a shift from comic to screen, and as such it foregrounds the issues of paternity, and patriarchy, and the inheritance from fathers to sons. Hassler-Forest also argues for the neoliberal dimension of the superhero narrative. In some sense this is less of a departure from the comics, the idea of individual and private solutions to social ills, or their symptoms, is inscribed in the formative moment of the comics themselves. The films augment this at the level of narrative, focusing on the fate of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark's wealth, but also at the level of form. Special effects is nothing other than the power of money visualized. We stand in awe of Iron Man and the Iron Man special effects as form and content interweave. 

Hassler-Forest presents a reading in which the superhero film is its own time comprehended in thought, illustrating the age of the war on terror and neoliberalism in the same way that the action film of the eighties has become synonymous with the Reagan era. Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story offers a very different account of the same thing. Howe's book is not centrally concerned with the superhero film, telling the history of Marvel comics from its origins as Timely and Atlas Comics to the release of The Avengers. In some way this story is one of both necessity and contingency. Necessity because the idea of a superhero film, of bringing the marvel characters to the screen is almost as old as their creation. This necessity is, however, split into two, as it were: existing as a dream for Stan Lee (a dream that even leads to an odd pairing with Alain Resnais on an unproduced screenplay), but also as a potential source of profits for Marvel's various owners. On the other hand, and perhaps more well known, the story of Marvel comics is one of contingency, its origins were shaped as much by the cultural battles over comics as by the creative ideas of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and its current cultural dominance is no less contingent.

Howe's book ends up presenting a very different account of base and superstructure, but one that is no less interconnected as Hassler-Forests. Howe's picture of Marvel in the nineties, inflating sales through various limited covers, cross-overs, and plastic wrapped special issues, junk bonds of the pulp fiction set, is as much a picture of capitalist culture as the representations of Bruce Wayne's wealth. It is not too difficult to read between the lines of Howe's history to see the different phases of cultural capital in Marvel, from the early conflicts over market share to the ongoing debates over intellectual property and ownership of ideas. However, and this is the result of reading the two books together, Howe's book also reminds us that comics, like any art form, is always in conflict with capitalist exploitation. There are stories and artistic innovations underneath the tie-ins, toy deals, and cross platform marketing. In the case of Marvel these conflicts are legendary, any fan probably knows as much about the conflict between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as they do about the conflict between Captain America and MODOK. Moreover, Howe's book is a reminder that Marvel only became what it is, only occupied such much of the popular imagination, by its connection with other cultural forces than marketing, from the "trippy" existentialism of the Silver Surfer to the borrowed name of the Black Panther. Once could even argue that this counter-cultural dimension is washed out of the contemporary comic book film. 

While Hassler-Forest's book has the merit of showing the intersection of the superhero film and current ideologies, Howe's history reminds us that this intersection is only the current manifestation of a shifting field of forces. 

No comments: