The Tears of Doctor Doom
First appeared in Overland #191, 2008, and presented at the Comics Arts Conference at San Diego Comic-Con the following year.
It’s May 2007 in New York City. There are rare comic books on display in the New York Public Library. Central Park Zoo holds special Spider-Man location tours. Urban poets compose superhero-themed raps at the Apollo Theatre. The mayor appears on breakfast television to officially declare ‘Spider-Man Week’. The celebration centres on the premiere of Sam Raimi’s blockbuster Spider-Man 3 in Peter Parker’s home town of Queens, filling the borough with celebrities like the movie’s star, Tobey Maguire, alongside public displays of superhero iconography and posters reading ‘A Hero Comes Home’.
It’s a major shift from the subcultural niche that comic fans once inhabited. In their song ‘Can U Dig It?’, Pop Will Eat Itself — a 1990s group with a Baudrillardian name — used lines like “We dig Marvel and DC” and “Alan Moore knows the score” as subcultural slang, gaining credibility with those familiar with comics culture (1). How could the band have guessed that comics auteur Alan Moore would become sufficiently famous to guest star on The Simpsons?
Today, superheroes have reached an inescapable peak of pop culture, to a degree not seen since the 1940s (2). Films based on Marvel and DC Comics characters are some of the most popular in contemporary cinema. TV shows bring weekly superheroics into the home. Advertising uses capes and masks in its sales pitches. Novels imbue comic book conventions with literary credibility. Superheroes are figures of transformation — capable of turning to fire or ice or steel — and, as they leave the page, they are again transformed. Finding themselves bang-smack in mainstream culture, adapting from a niche audience to blockbuster crowds, superheroes inhabit narratives that mutate the conventions of comic book storytelling — and face new anxieties as they are infected by the realism these forms demand.
1. “DC Comics, Marvel Comics’ antithesis, presented a laughable, flattened reality — Superman and Batman were jokes, ruined by television. — Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude
While the ubiquity of superheroes is new, there are earlier examples of them successfully leaving their comic books to inhabit new media. Superman starred in a radio show during the 1940s, while Batman had his campy television series in the 1960s. Super-Friends cartoons screened on Saturday mornings in the 1970s and X-Men cartoons in the 1990s, and Hollywood’s interest in superhero blockbusters stretches from Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978 through to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006. A testament to the lingering power of these non-comic iterations is the fact that editors seem incapable of writing a story about comic books without referencing the infamous catchphrases (‘Zap! Pow!’) from the 1960s Batman series, now four decades old.
One reason that superheroes offer such tempting transmedia possibilities is their focus on visual iconography. The costume, mask and — especially — the logo make them supremely easy to commodify. Almost every superhero wears their personalised symbol splashed across their chests: indeed, for Ian Gordon, the way in which a hero like Superman unifies individualism and consumerism into a single, succinct, symbolic figure is what makes him uniquely American (3). Batman’s visual universe pushes this to obsessive extremes, with his logo becoming his Batarang, his Batplane, the Bat-Signal which hangs in the night sky above Gotham and so on. Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy, obviously understands the power of branding: just think back to the summer of 1989 when the success of Tim Burton’s Batman saw the bat-logo stamped “on any item capable of bearing the trade-marked image”. (4)
DC’s Superman first appeared in 1938, Batman a year later, and Marvel’s Spider-Man was part of a new breed in 1962. Their stories are in no danger of coming to an end, since they are ongoing serialised narratives, requiring the absence of any fixed, future end-point. Their origin stories are always in circulation, never receding, but returning and rebooting for new adventures. Different audiences thus know these characters from different media, having absorbed the basic details — Clark Kent, Lois Lane, kryptonite, Bizarro, ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ and so on — without any real idea where they were first encountered (5). With new issues released every month, comic books have been described as a “perfect consumer product” (6). Yet comics themselves are becoming less and less important in terms of superhero collectibles. A kid who identifies as a Spider-Man fan will most likely own the toys, the posters, the video games and the rest, and yet will never have read a single issue of Marvel’s Spider-Man titles. The kid might even remark: “What’s a comic?” (7).
A blockbuster movie trilogy like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (2001, 2004, 2007) can develop its own web of confusing plotlines, but its complications are nothing compared to the universes of Marvel or DC. After decades of cumulative storylines, characters like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man have developed frighteningly dense histories, born from each issue’s need for both repetition and variation. How can this possibly be adapted for cinema? Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), for example, decides that a pre-disfigured Joker was the man who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents, attempting instantly to give Batman and the Joker the same kind of heightened conflict that they have after a half-century of cumulative animosity on the comic page (8). But for long-time comics fans there’s something alarming in how these other texts condense decades of history into easily digestible concepts and running times. The need to simplify continuity for a new mainstream audience requires the sacrifice of the shared, complicated and — for the uninitiated — daunting comic book universe, where every story sits in amidst the “conflicted, chaotic tradition” of the sea of collected history (9).
Some of the most critically acclaimed superhero stories, like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, are created, on the other hand, by consciously reconfiguring the conventions of comic book history. The simultaneity of signs from decades of superhero storylines creates a semiotic arena that exemplifies what Jim Collins refers to as “meta-popular culture” (10). In his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Geoff Klock posits that texts such as The Dark Knight Returns, which have challenged perceptions of superhero comics as childish, began a revisionist tradition for the superhero and marked a “transition of the superhero from fantasy to literature” (11).
While these kinds of self-reflexive story have become more pronounced in the post-Watchmen era, constant revision and textual awareness is embedded into all ongoing comic continuity. Henry Jenkins points out that valorising particular texts as ‘revisionist’ is problematic, as “there is not a moment in the history of the genre when the superhero is not under active revision” (12). And it’s the density of this ongoing revised history that makes superhero knowledge specific to its niche audience. In a recent interview, DC writer Kurt Busiek felt it was important to declare that you wouldn’t need what was described as a “bachelor’s degree in DC-ology” to follow his newest series (13).
The constant struggle for novelty amidst the sheer page-count of history can result in genuinely strange projects, like the 2004 Superman graphic novel, It’s A Bird… — the autobiographical story of its writer, Steven T. Seagle, struggling to find any new creative room to write within the existing array of Superman stories.
2. Dylan was really horrified to learn that he’d let so much time slip past, so much essential cultural history. Forget what you thought you knew. The Silver Surfer, for example, was a situation you couldn’t really understand if you came in too late. — Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude
Superhero stories don’t just draw on their own conventions in search of novelty, they also absorb those of other popular genres. Horror, crime, mystery, science fiction and teen drama are all mined for variation and novelty (14). TV series Smallville (2001– ) finds new ground in showcasing Clark Kent’s teenage years, long before he donned his cape and moved to Metropolis. Clark struggles with his unstable, kryptonite-affected powers as often as he does with the inevitable fallout of teenage romance.
Reshaping the Superman mythology into teen drama is fitting, since adolescence is inextricably linked to the superhero. Scott Bukatman characterises the superhero body as obviously adolescent: fluid, transforming, rupturing (15). Teen heroes like Clark offer a different resonance to the adult audience, as “who among us has not been tempted by the desire to stay adolescent, to keep the journey incomplete?” (16).
As Ian Gordon explains, nostalgia looms large insuperhero stories — especially for characters existing for the entire lifespan of many of their fans (17). This means that a show such as Smallville plays with the “nostalgic desire” of older fans who are drawing on potentially decades of experience with the Superman mythology, spanning all kinds of media (18). The seemingly simpler retellings of these characters found in television and film boil down plotlines and casts to manageable levels, allowing easy access for the casual viewer. They also tend to ignore the deconstructive tendencies that now filter through their comic counterparts (19). Yet the pleasures of a text like Smallville — beyond the wide-eyed teen drama and occasional special effects sequence — also result in its adoption of aspects of the self-referential storytelling mode of its comic book inspiration (20). Previous experience with the Superman mythology allows the viewer to skilfully negotiate different texts and references. Comic fans will recognise playful shifts in ongoing continuity or new versions of old characters, while mainstream audiences will recognise actors from their previous Superman-related roles when, for instance, Christopher Reeve appears as a wheelchair-bound scientist.
Ndalianis’ analysis of Smallville concludes that authenticity is no longer a valid issue: “once entering the Superman array you have no lesser or greater claim to authenticity, as each new form simply creates its own variation out of previous signs in the Superman universe” (21). While comic books are the source material for these new adaptations in new media, it’s the comics that often adjust their own continuity to better fit around introduced variations. Spider-Man shoots webs directly from his wrists in Raimi’s Spider-Man: Spidey was adjusted accordingly in Spectacular Spider-Man #20 (2004). Smallville shows Clark and Lex as childhood friends before becoming sworn enemies in Metropolis, and current comic continuity reshapes history to allow that to have ‘always’ been true in the retold origin series Birthright (2003). Wonder Woman #4 (2007) even reinstated the twirling-into-costume transformation made famous by Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV series. The weight of mainstream memory can overwhelm the claim of comics to textual primacy.
There are other important shifts when a hero moves from the safety of sequential art to the big screen. In the *Spider-Man films, alter ego Peter Parker is suddenly more human than ever before, collapsed into the physical flesh of star Tobey Maguire. Having a real-world celebrity under the mask inverts one of the fundamental rules of the superhero universe: it renders the supposedly secret identity more famous than the costumed alter ego. Filmic superheroes are thus constantly tempted to tear off their masks to reveal their illustrious faces, and the previous pencil-and-ink depictions can’t compete with human flesh. Celebrity alter egos arrive publicly marked, whereas the comic book Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker are secretly marked and known only to the reader (22).
Real actors, animating these characters, also require real costumes. The difficulty is that superhero outfits tend to look ridiculous when exposed to actual physics, fabrics and daylight. Mainstream audiences seem less willing to accept some of the everyday impossibilities of comic books. The tagline of Superman: The Movie assured us that, yes, “you’ll believe a man can fly” — but will we also believe a man would wear his underwear on the outside?
3. Hey, maybe even the geniuses at Marvel Comics knew you were in hell. Didn’t matter, didn’t help, because you weren’t allowed to know it yourself, not really. There wasn’t any connection between you and the poor, helpless kid in Omega the Unknown, not that you could permit yourself to see. — Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude
When realism begins to pick at the ludicrous seams of the superhero’s world, it opens a fissure between the ordinary and the spectacular. Many contemporary superhero texts use this to slam home the impossibility of the latter. The recent, moving campaign for the Australian Childhood Foundation shows a young boy preventing his would-be abuser from entering his bedroom by gently resting one super-strong finger against the door. Text appears: “Unfortunately, abused children don’t have superpowers.” (Cue Smallville‘s theme song: ‘Save Me’.) Joseph Torchia’s 1979 novel, The Kryptonite Kid, is entirely formed of a child’s letters to Superman. The tragedy is there from the very first page:
Dear Superman. It’s me again. Remember I wrote you a letter a long time ago and you never wrote back?… We never miss your television program on TV and that’s why we think you should write us a letter this time (23).
More recently, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) tells the story of Dylan Ebdus, growing up in Brooklyn. It’s peppered with superhero vocabulary: crack cocaine is “ghetto kryptonite”, the forbidden shapes of a girl’s body are “the Negative Zone” (24). Here, though, the unexpected isn’t that superpowers are impossible; it is that they do exist but in this realistic setting. The young protagonist obtains a magic ring that lets him fly. He tries to become ‘Aeroman’ but is never quite spectacular enough to step into the heroic identity. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne’s calculated ordinariness lets them disappear into a crowd when not in costume (25), but Dylan is marked by ordinariness alone, never successfully able to find the freedom to fly in Brooklyn. The novel becomes — as the blurb on the back cover attests — the story of “what would happen if two teenage boys obsessed with comic book heroes actually had superpowers: they would screw up their lives”.
It’s not just other media that inject realism into superhero stories. Realism has trickled into comic books, too. Superhero audiences are growing older, with disposable incomes to match, and modern comics now use what were once considered children’s characters to tell adult stories (26). Titles like Watchmen aren’t just more overtly self-reflexive, but also self-consciously ‘mature’, with stories that bring to the surface, for example, long-suspected links between superhero costumes and sexual fetishes. Classic superheroes have had to find new ways to justify long-standing conventions: it’s more and more difficult to believe that simple eyeglasses can fool all your loved ones into thinking you’re someone completely different (27).
As adult anxieties become more pronounced, and generic reality collides with everyday reality, the struggle for authenticity becomes more violent. In a now infamous black-covered Amazing Spider-Man #36 (2001), Spidey dealt with the very real aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. While the narration tries to explain why heroes can stop every tragedy in their fictional universe except this one, we see villainous Doctor Doom shed a tear. The narration continues: “Because even the worst of us, however scarred, are still human. Still feel. Still mourn the random death of innocents.” Yes — evil monarch, mad scientist and mass murderer Doom cries at these deaths. This makes no sense within the fictional framework of the Marvel Universe, but the writer, J. Michael Straczynski, says that “if you actually believe that attention should not be paid to a real-life disaster because it’s been done in the comics, then you do need to move out of your parents’ basement” (28). Unlike all of Doctor Doom’s other crimes — carefully catalogued in the memory of the stereotypical ‘basement-dwelling’ comics fan — this attack really happened. The distinction is clearly marked by the incongruous and impossible tears of Doctor Doom.
4. For so long I’d thought Abraham’s legacy was mine: to retreat upstairs, unable or unwilling to sing or fly, only to compile and collect, to sculpt statues of my lost friends, life’s real actors, in my Fortress of Solitude. — Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude
When Scott Bukatman wrote his influential piece ‘X-Bodies (The Torment of the Mutant Superhero)’ in 1994, he tangentially spoke about how he’d be embarrassed to mention this topic at parties or to include superhero comics amongst his more credible, independent comic purchases (29). It’s hard to imagine academics gazing shyly at the floor while discussing the X-Men any longer. The booming interest in superhero movies, books and television has been mirrored by a landslide of academic attention. The appeal of superhero narratives for theorists is obvious, especially when the hero-versus-villain conflict becomes remixed and replaced with battles between differing texts and traditions (30). In Planetary /Batman: Night On Earth (2003), heroes find themselves fighting shifting parallel-world versions of Batman, including both Miller’s Dark Knight and Adam West’s cheesy TV hero. Characters from strange, occasionally obscure parallel worlds remain in memory, instantly accessed and recycled to serve a new narrative function (31). Countdown: Arena (2007) literalises Collins’ meta-semiotic arena, forcing different versions of the same character — for example, Victorian Batman versus Vampire Batman, or American Superman versus Soviet Superman — to fight for textual legitimacy. Cold-eyed academics aren’t at all sympathetic to the tears of Doctor Doom and are more interested in the superhero comics that feel like action-packed, theoretical fictocriticism.
Klock’s chapter ‘The Superhero as Critic’ suggests that comic books often blend action and theory into a single, blurred textuality (32). As Bukatman’s anecdotal admission shows, however, the academic motive for writing about superheroes goes beyond interest in their chaotic textual permutations. Jenkins writes that reading particular Justice League comics gives him the “sense of returning home — of re-encountering the comics I remembered from my boyhood”; Fingeroth says his book on superhero psychology “quickly became very personal” (33); Bukatman admits that ther eis “an autobiography entrenched in ‘X-Bodies'” (34).
What is it about superhero analysis that brings out the autobiographer in its theorists? As with Pop Will Eat Itself’s subcultural namedropping, superhero theorists must prove their cultural credentials. It’s not enough just to have watched the appropriate TV and films. New York’s Spider-Man Week was, after all, inspired by Spider-Man 3, a film dealing with Peter Parker’s newfound fame and acceptance, and how it corrupted him. Spider-Man Week is exactly the kind of event — to awkwardly mix Marvel and DC metaphors — to function as Spider-Man’s own kryptonite. For those who possess the correct, long-term niche knowledge of the comic book fan, there is something inherently disquieting about superheroes thrust into the mainstream.
The current wave of box-office glory means wearing a Batman logo splashed across your chest is more likely fashion than fandom. Superheroes, however, always possess outsider status. It is part of their investment in perpetual adolescence, and the only thing that allows Steven T. Seagle an entry point into the Superman array to begin his It’s A Bird… graphic novel. His girlfriend finally convinces him to take on the project by explaining that Superman is “an outsider, just like you” (35). Without that status, the logic of the secret identity also short-circuits. The appeal of that secrecy is primal because it allows the possibility we might have an amazing or dangerous secret just underneath our everyday clothes: “Don’t underestimate me. I may not be who you think I am” (36).
Possession of the strange facts of fantastically trivial knowledge marks the comic fan as special, though some might publicly display their fan status with superhero collectables and T-shirts, while others keep their interest a secret (37). Their knowledge transforms potential ordinariness into the ‘calculated ordinariness’ of a heroic alter ego. By publishing their knowledge in an academic paper, theorists might be imagined as taking off their glasses, opening their shirts and revealing the true colours of fannish iconography hidden underneath.
So, with a wink out of the page at you — because I trust you not to reveal my secret identity — it seems only appropriate to admit that, yes, it was me, walking the streets of New York during Spider-Man Week. My reaction to the posters glibly reading “A Hero Comes Home” was split between critic and fan, secret and public, inside and out. I was touched to see so much love for poor, hard-luck Spider-Man spilling out into the mainstream. At the same time, I couldn’t help looking at all these so-called fans and thinking: A hero comes home? Spider-Man never left — where were you?
(1) Matthew Pustz, Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1999, p. 6. (2) Danny Fingeroth, Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society, Continuum, New York, 2004, pp. 169–70. (3) Ian Gordon, ‘Nostalgia, Myth, and Ideology: Visions of Superman at the End of the “American Century”‘, Matthew P. McAllister and Edward H. Sewell (eds) Comics & Ideology, Peter Lang, New York, 2001, p. 178. (4) Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, ‘I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise’, Pearson and Uricchio (eds) The Many Lives of the Batman, Routledge, London, 1991, p. 182. (5) Fingeroth, p. 45. (6) Pustz, p. 71. (7) Fingeroth, p. 27. (8) Luca Somigli, ‘The Superhero with a Thousand Faces: Visual Narratives on Film and Paper’, Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal (eds) Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 290. (9) Geoff Klock, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Continuum, New York, 2002, p. 5. (10) Jim Collins, ‘Batman: The Movie, Narrative: The Hyperconscious’, Pearson and Uricchio, p. 170. (11) Klock, p. 26. (12) Henry Jenkins, ‘”Just Men in Tights”: Rewriting Silver Age Comics in an Era of Multiplicity’, The Comic Book Superhero, Routledge, New York, (forthcoming). (13) Angela Ndalianis, ‘Enter the Aleph: Superhero Worlds and Hypertime Realities’, The Comic Book Superhero. (14) Jenkins. (15) Scott Bukatman, ‘X-Bodies (The Torment of the Mutant Superhero)’, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century, Duke University Press, Durham, 1994, p. 54. (16) Fingeroth, p. 152. (17) Gordon, p. 177. (18) Ndalianis. (19) Fingeroth, p. 155. (20) Ndalianis. (21) Ibid. (22) Bukatman, p. 54. (23) Joseph Torchia, The Kryptonite Kid, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1979, p. 7. (24) Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel, Faber & Faber, London, 2003, pp. 271, 179. (25) Gary Engle, ‘What Makes Superman So Darned American?’ in Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause (eds) Popular Culture: An Introductory Text, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1992, p. 341. (26) Klock, p. 21. (27) Fingeroth, p. 59. (28) Newsarama 2006, ‘J. Michael Straczynski on The Other, The New Costume and More’, www.newsarama.com/marvelnew/Spider-Man/amazing/Straczynski.htm>. (29) Bukatman, p. 52. (30) Klock, p. 154. (31) Collins, p. 132. (32) Klock, p. 168. (33) Fingeroth, p. 175. (34) Bukatman, p. 51. (35) Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen, Superman: It’s a Bird…, DC Comics, New York, 2004, p. 20. (36) Fingeroth, p. 60. (37) Pustz, p. 69.