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Superheroes and How they Became Literary: A Review of Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why

Written by: Danny Lewis, Special to CC2K

Image The title of Geoff Klock’s recent book, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, is, in my opinion, not quite accurate. At first glance, this could give someone the impression that Klock is making an argument for why everyone should read comic books that could be something like “because they’re a modern mythology!” Or, maybe “because they’re a form of literature too!” Or even, “everyone should read comic books because they’re awesome!” As it turns out, this isn’t quite the purpose of the book. Yes, Klock talks about superheroes and mythology. Yes, he writes about comics as literature, and yes, he probably does think comic books are pretty sweet, but what Klock is really interested in is a literary analysis of the rise of a new kind of superhero beginning with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and culminating in Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s first run on The Authority and Ellis and artist John Cassaday’s yet-to-be-finished Planetary. Just as comics have become more and more popular with a widespread audience in the past few years, Klock writes that the superhero comic has finally entered a new age following the silver age of the 1960s and ‘70s, and it is one that is open to not only a new kind of superhero, but a deeper critical examination as well.

You’d be hard pressed these days to find anyone who could say with a straight face that The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen didn’t do anything for superhero comics. The influence that these two comics had on the superhero genre is pretty hard to overstate, especially considering the tone they set for superhero comics for a long while after, in what some people might call “the dark age.” Klock, on the other hand, argues that this period wasn’t a new period in the same vein as the golden and silver ages, but was rather a transition period between the end of the silver age and a new age of superhero comics of which the crews of Planetary and The Authority were the first. Drawing on a wide variety of literary and psychoanalytic theorists ranging from Joseph Campbell to Harold Bloom to Slavoj Zizek, Klock dives into the development of what he calls the “revisionary superhero narrative.” Essentially, this means that Alan Moore and Frank Miller began an entirely new trend in superhero comics by accepting all aspects of the genre from the ridiculous, to the awesome, to the just plain weird, and incorporated it into a new work. Take, for example, DKR’s batmobile, or more aptly, the bat-tank. By taking a concept with decades of history and source material and twisting it just slightly, Miller gave Batman’s ride a dark edge that was both comical and terrifying at the same time. Likewise, Klock states that by introducing this concept into the comic book medium, Moore and Miller took the first steps towards the superhero comic as a form of literature by paying close, critical attention to the conventions and tropes that we all know and love. The modern age of superhero comics, whatever it will be called, started when comics started paying attention to comics.

ImageYet while Klock contends that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were no doubt instrumental to this new kind of superhero comic, he doesn’t stop there. Sometimes it seems like those two books were the epitome of the potential of superhero comics and that nothing can ever compare to them. However, Klock believes that it is writers like Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison who wholeheartedly accept the sublime ridiculousness of the genre who have created the first superheroes of this new era. Take Ellis’ first run on The Authority, for example. Sheer superhero fun. Not only did this one introduce widescreen, high-powered energy to the art, but it also made some valuable contributions to the way that superheroes can be seen. No messing around with secret identities or tipping their hats politely to every policeman and president they come across, the Authority are Ellis’ comment on what the Justice League of America would be without the kid gloves. Like Moore and Miller, Ellis has enthusiastically engaged with comics history and questioned the very root of the superhero’s place in society. If you had the power to change the world, wouldn’t you? In the same vein, Ellis’ as-of-yet unfinished masterpiece, Planetary, even more directly challenges the traditional scope of a superhero comic by aspiring to be (forgive me for any pretentiousness) a metacomic, or a comic about comics. Each issue of Planetary deals with a team of superhero archaeologists uncovering the secret history of the Wildstorm Universe, which just happens to have so many similarities to pulp heroes like Doc Savage, to its own tragic version of the Incredible Hulk, and an extremely dark twist to the Fantastic Four. Planetary is the apex of Klock’s examination of superhero comics, as it is the comic book as critic, examining all aspects of the superhero genre and its influences while adding its own twists and turns to the many sources.

ImageOne of the best things about How to Read Superhero Comics and Why in my opinion is how readable and accessible it is while managing to still be an intelligent and detailed piece of literary criticism. While he draws on the work of other scholars and philosophers like Bloom and Zizek, there’s no need for the reader to flinch and quiver in fear. Klock does a superb job of weaving their ideas into his subject matter without dumbing them down or stretching the analysis too far. While I did find it helpful that I had read most of the comics that Klock uses, these are books like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Authority and Planetary. These kind of strike me as essentials anyway. This is a great work of literary criticism that has been a long time coming, and it is clear that Klock loves his comics. The fact that he’s read WildC.A.T.S./Aliens is pretty impressive. This is a great book, and well worth a read. The next time you pick up a comic at your local store or flip through an old favorite, you’ll have a different perspective on the world of spandex-clad superheroes, and dare I say it? You’ll like them even more.