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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Book Review: Authorizing Superhero Comics: On the Evolution of a Popular Serial Genre by Daniel Stein

 Daniel Stein. Authorizing Superhero Comics:  On the Evolution of a Popular Serial Genre. Columbus:  The Ohio State University Press, 2021. 306 pp. ISBN:  978-0-8142-1476-3. US $35 or $99.95.

 reviewed by Eric Berlatsky

Daniel Stein’s new book, Authorizing Superhero Comics operates in a context known, in literary circles, as the “history of the book” approach. Stein’s overarching claim is that superhero comics are not “authored” in a conventional sense simply by creative human beings, but rather such creators (writers, artists, editors, etc.) collaborate with a variety of other elements, organic and non-, in order to fashion the genre and (perhaps more often) to be fashioned by it. Such elements include readers/fans, the material circumstances of production, the physical objects themselves (comic books, graphic novels, digital comics), fanzines, parodies, “musealizing” texts, other media, adaptations, and more.

That is, while some critics take part in “auteur” theorizing about superhero comics and/or “great man” (typically gendered as such) theories of superhero comics, revolving around the idea that specific creators make crucial breakthroughs in the genre and shift the field in important ways, Stein argues that such an account insufficiently allows for the importance of non-human actors and historical context. The “great men” of such criticism are typically men like Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, William Moulton Marston, Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neal Adams, Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, and the like. Many of these figures make appearances in Stein’s book, but in order to illustrate the ways in which they are as much the creation of the genre as they are its creators. Stein, then, theorizes superhero comics through the lens of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory which, according to Stein “distinguishes between a notion of a society as a tangible entity that is always already there and can be taken as context for, and a force behind, human activities, and a more fleeting unstable sense of a collective as something that emerges from the interlocking actions of human and nonhuman actors and has no existence beyond those actions” (6-7). Stein proposes to apply this notion to superhero comics in order to “complicate overly person-centered histories and stories of heroic individuals and can help us account for the many twists and turns that mark the genre’s evolution” (7). Stein, then, is less interested in talking about authors, their choices and achievements, than he is a variety of “authorizing functions” that exist in the orbit of superhero comics (both the comics themselves and the discourse, or metaverse, that surround them) that participate in “authorizing, allowing, affording, encouraging, permitting, suggesting, influencing, blocking, [and] rendering possible…” (20) the genre’s continuing existence and development. The book is divided into four lengthy chapters that explore different elements of these “interlocking human and nonhuman actors” to illustrate what role they play in “authorizing” superhero comics, often through case studies of the two largest comics’ companies most popular characters, Batman (DC) and Spider-Man (Marvel).

The first chapter reviews and interrogates superhero comics’ paratextual apparatus, including author bios, letters pages, and fanzines, focusing largely, though not exclusively, on Batman. In this chapter, Stein looks closely at DC’s changing attitude toward the writers and artists of early superhero comics. Early on in the publication of both Superman comics and Batman comics, the comics themselves and surrounding publicity would highlight the creativity and talents of creators like Siegel, Shuster, and Kane. Profiles of creators were often included in comics, with the creators shown at their drawing desks and often interacting with their creations, muddling the creator/created divide. As the genre developed, however, despite the continuing reference to Batman’s creator, Kane, in each Batman story, letters column and fanzine debates about the authorship of each story, led to DC’s admission that Kane was no longer solely at the helm, and fan commentary and suggestions began to help steer the direction of Batman’s adventures from “linear to multilinear” development and towards crediting the other contributors rather than leaving such credits to the guesswork in letters columns and fanzines. Stein’s chapter traces, in particular, the influence and impact of the Batmania fanzine, fans and letter writers like Biljo White and Irene Vartanoff, and how the fanzine form itself contributed to the “extension of the superhero discourse, the broadening of the spectrum of authorization practices, the emerging of new author figurations, and the genre’s embrace of longer storylines, sprawling character constellations, complex narrative universes, and interacting trajectories…” (67). That is, rather than conceive of shifts in Batman’s narrative trajectory, and the types of Batman stories told, as the result of creator choice alone, Stein skillfully illustrates how interaction with fans and readers in letters columns and fanzines, substantially influenced the characters and stories themselves.

Chapter two applies the same logic to the “metaverse,” a concept that is somewhat defined and a little more fluid than the “fanzines + letters columns” of chapter one, but which refers to the entirety of a superhero comics’ character’s “storyworld” combined with the imagined world of the comics creators’ personalities, locations, and society, which, in turn, particularly in the “Marvel Age” of the 1960s, frequently intersected with those storyworlds. In this chapter, Stein investigates the mix of tongue-in-cheek self-mockery and blustery promotion that characterized the Marvel comics of this period (typically associated with Stan Lee, but also with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other supposed “bullpen” members). Stein particularly uses Spider-Man as a case study, recounting the way in which the character was promoted, how the creators were depicted in comics form, and how the comics themselves contained miniature advertisements and self-promotion on the covers and within the stories themselves. In addition, Stein looks closely at self-promoting books like Origins of Marvel Comics, the use of creator signatures, the Bullpen Bulletins column, the “Secrets of Spider-Man” feature in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, Marvel’s self-produced fan magazine FOOM, the introduction of the Merry Marvel Marching Society fan club, and related ephemera. Through all of these elements, Stein proposes that the superhero develops both as a “conservative figure suffering from the tyranny of the serial and as a fluxible [sic] figure of the radical imagination,” (153) due to the wide variety of inputs, influences, and “authors” that comprise their story. Likewise, Stein recounts how these elements contributed to the development of Marvel fandom as a type of secular religion populated by “true believers” that would, on occasion, allow them to ascend into the role of “official” creators, though, in a way, they unofficially occupied that position as part of Marvel’s Latourian “actor-network.” One result of this was, of course, the creation of a sense of the existence of a privileged “in-group” of fans as opposed to an insufficiently feverish “out-group” which facilitated the notion, if not the actuality, that said fans were part of Marvel itself, its corporate structure, and its storyworld.

Chapter three turns to a discussion of the ways in which superhero parodies contributed to the consolidation and development of the genre, both by acknowledging superhero comics’ standard tropes and allowing for the deflation and re-examination of those tropes. Stein first discusses MAD parodies of Batman (both comics and other media), Superman, and Wonder Woman and notes how though these parodies mock the “original” comics and their typical tropes, they also help to define those tropes as such and provide inspiration for self-reflexive, self-mocking parodies-from-within. Stein then discusses how parodies also played an important role in fanzines, like Roy Thomas’s Alter Ego (1961). Finally, as the genre came to more confidently define itself, Marvel and DC began to publish their own parodies in the late 1960s:  DC’s Inferior Five and Marvel’s Not Brand Ecch. Stein argues effectively that such self-parodies serve not only to deflate and mock the genre, but to authorize and more firmly define it. In regard to Not Brand Ecch, Stein writes that “…this self-parody rarely undermines the integrity of the characters but pursues a strategy of self-affirmation through pre-emptive self-deflation” (189). Indeed, Stein shows that future Marvel storylines are played out, or even tested, in the pages of these parodies. Perhaps most convincingly, Stein notes that the use of parody and self-parody presumes the exact kind of in-group that Marvel was trying to create through intricate continuity, Bullpen Bulletins and the Merry Marvel Marching Society, given that the humor in these parodies relies upon the kind of cult-like encyclopedic knowledge that DC and Marvel were cultivating more seriously elsewhere. In this context, Stein’s point that self-parodies serve less to critique a genre, or company, than to provide another avenue of promotion, authorization, and community-building, seems spot-on.

At the same time, Stein’s close reading of Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, et al.’s 1963 (1993) from Image Comics, as a more biting critique of Lee/Kirby-era Marvel is undercut by his own arguments about parody in general. Certainly, Moore’s parodic criticism of creator exploitation and naked hucksterism is meant to be taken a bit more seriously than Marvel’s Not Brand Ecch, but it is also true that 1963 depends upon knowledge of and affection for Silver Age Marvel, and, in fact, 1963 was ultimately meant to function as a critique of Image-style 1990s comics through a revival of Silver Age aesthetics. Thus, 1963’s parody functions as much as a reauthorization of the Marvel Age as it does as a critique of it. Stein’s claim that 1963 sets out to “shatter the nostalgic lens” (207) through which many 1990s fans viewed the Silver Age does not ring true, especially considering Moore’s subsequent work (Supreme, Tom Strong), which doubles down on Silver Age nostalgia, if with a bit more skepticism than some peers.

In the final chapter, Stein discusses the general practice of collecting superhero comics, not just reading them, and the more recent publication of “museum-in-a-box” books like Batman Collected (1996), and the 21st Century’s The Marvel Vault, The DC Vault, The Batman Vault, The Spider-Man Vault, and others. Stein notes how with the digitization of comics and the easy accessibility of back issues in digital form, a fetishization of physical objects as collector’s items with Benjaminian “auras,” has increasingly defined superhero comics fandom and the industry itself. Stein notes how the boxes/books mentioned above attempt to “musealize” mass-produced objects by simulating age and authenticity, working to give purchasers and collectors the haptic feeling of owning and holding the “extinct” (Golden or Silver Age comics, “original” artwork, business documents from comics companies’ histories) despite their knowledge that they are not actually doing so. Relying heavily on Aleida Assman’s (and others’) theorization of the archive, Stein emphasizes the ways in which these books create meaning, authority, and history, rather than recover it, promoting certain elements of characters’ and companies’ histories over others, obscuring (for instance) a lengthy history of misogyny and racial exclusion in favor of the rosy glow of nostalgia and cultural capital.  As Stein notes, a fetishization of old, mint condition, floppies, combined with a “musealization” of reprints and ephemera in expensive hardcover books and a recycling of old stories on the silver screen, lends gravitas and/or “authority” to a genre and medium once considered laughable. Likewise, archiving, as Stein asserts “shape[s] a system of enunciability by determining what can be authoritatively known and thus legitimately said” (270). That is, it functions as an assertion of how comics’ companies (and their parent companies) wish to be defined and understood, though (as Stein also acknowledges) because of the open-ended and serial nature of the medium, such an “enunciation” can never be complete.

Ultimately, Stein’s account of “actor-network” authorship and authority in superhero comics is compelling and convincing. If there is a critique to be made, it is that Stein’s account does not assert much that is not generally known and understood. Will Brooker’s 2001 book Batman Unmasked covers much of this territory, if at an earlier stage of development and in a narrower orbit, as does the slightly earlier Comic Book Culture by Matthew Pustz. Beyond that, fans, critics, and theorists of the medium know well the influence of letters columns, fanzines, and fans, and the somewhat porous relationship between creator and reader, production and consumption, within superhero comics. While Stein does an excellent job in consolidating and extending that understanding into the present day, as well as providing useful theorization of this process via Latour, Assman, and others, the book functions more as confirmation of conventional understandings of the medium than surprising revelation or insight. If anything, Stein’s premise that most critics/theorists understand superhero comics through the lens of the “great man” theory of comics is questionable. Certainly, there are books, articles, and collections devoted to specific creators, but there is also a general acknowledgment and understanding that superhero comics are collaborative, both in simple ways (most individual superhero comics involve more than a handful of creators) and in more complex ones (the collaboration between creators and fans, past and present, seriality and completion, humans and non-human actors, etc.). Likewise, to my mind, Stein insufficiently acknowledges the influence and power some few individual creators (some named above) actually do assert over an entire creative field. Obviously, these individual creators are also a product of their influences, both human and non-human, but Stein’s approach tends to devalue and de-emphasize the ways in which some individuals can bend the genre in new and exciting (or troubling) directions by creatively re-reading their influences and influencing others to do the same. No individual creator is an island, to be sure, but Stein’s deployment of actor-network theory tends to downplay the agency of individual creators, which, in some cases, have an outsized importance Stein tends not to acknowledge.

Despite these critiques, Stein’s book is a compelling read, perhaps most so for those relatively new to superhero comics and their criticism. For those less familiar with the material history, including letters columns, fanzines, parodies, etc., the book will no doubt shed new light on superhero stories. For those familiar with this history, Stein provides useful background, contextualization and theorization in a clear and readable context. It is a book well worth reading.

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