23 December 2007

Scholars Who Grew Up with Superheroes

I'm conducting my ongoing weekly Robin exploration the way I tackle a lot of other questions, by reading books at all levels about it.

I've noticed that books discussing superhero comics with any sort of perspective, particularly from serious and scholarly presses, usually contain early remarks about the authors’ own childhood comics reading. On the one hand, this establishes their bona fides for other fans--though most fervent comics fans wouldn't care.

The almost confessional tone of these remarks seems instead to be aimed at readers who don't have such fond memories of heroes in tights. The authors acknowledge, “Yes, I enjoyed superhero comics for years as a kid--but doesn't that really show how compelling these stories can be?”

The cover of The Aesthetics of Comics, by Prof. David Carrier of the Philosophy Department at Carnegie Mellon University, shows a small boy reading a comic book. This turns out to be Carrier himself at the age of eight. (The combination of old black-and-white photo and university-press design made me assume this book was published much earlier than it actually was, in 2000.)

Visually striking in another way, the author photograph in the back of Comic Book Character shows David A. Zimmerman in a homemade Robin costume at about six years old. In a canned author interview on his publisher's website, Zimmerman describes how seeing a recent superhero movie inspired him to write the book:

I was reminded afresh of how influential the stories I had read in my childhood had been over my expectations of life and my understanding of right and wrong. At the same time, I was seeing some of the limitations, even the disappointments, that those expectations had brought me to.
Among the books he read and reread as a child, Zimmerman tells us, was The Super Dictionary, and he uses that as his source for chapter epigraphs. My brother had a copy, and here's a sample of this engrossing volume.

As you see, these serious authors end up writing apologia for some quite laughable literature. Even more confessional is Will Brooker's Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon, based on the author’s doctoral dissertation. Brooker has to admit his fondness for the Batman TV show of the 1960s, which even many Batman fans dismiss as campy and appalling.
Though I recognised the broad comedy of the series when re-viewing it in the 1980s, and later became aware not just of its links to Pop but of the gay associations it had acquired, I cannot share the distaste of many other comic readers for Adam West's portrayal, and this is not merely because I know the series saved the comic from cancellation, or because I disagree with the kind of 'reading' which attempts to prioritise one interpretation and dismiss others as 'corrupt,' or because I am dismayed by the homophobia which often accompanies the prejudice against the series. It is also because I used to dance in raptures to the theme music.
(I'm sure that first sentence would have been happier as three sentences.)

Later Brooker writes again of the television show, and how his early response was so different from his adult perspective:
I feel strangely put out, suddenly discovering that the joke was on me back in the 1970s; that something had been going way over my head since well before my time. I was one of the 'Daddy, stop laughing' viewers, enjoying Batman as, I think, a six-year-old when the show was repeated in Britain.

I didn't think it was funny when Batman announced that he'd resisted King Tut's hypnosis by reciting his times tables backwards; I thought it was pretty impressive. I didn't think it was funny when the Neal Hefti theme kicked in and the Dynamic Duo went into POW! THWOK! Action; I jumped up myself and started play-fighting with my little brother.

But then, I didn't think it was funny when my friend Nathan and I ran down our road with our pants over our corduroy trousers and cardboard ears sewn onto the hoods of our coats.
Now what would be really interesting is if I could find an academic or quasi-academic analysis of superhero comics written by a woman.

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