News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

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.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Exhibit Review: Moomin Animations – Thrills and Cuddles

Moomin Animations – Thrills and Cuddles, Minna Honkasalo. Washington D.C.: National Children’s Museum on September 3, 2021-January 9, 2022.

 reviewed by Mike Rhode

In 1945, Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson created her Mumintrolls for a children's book. The Moomins look like hippos crossed with the Pillsbury doughboy, but have proved popular enough to make her the Scandinavian equivalent of Walt Disney. She eventually wrote or drew 9 books about them. In 1947 she started a comic strip with the characters, which started appearing in English in 1954. Her brother Lars Jannson joined her on the strip from 1959-1961 and then he took the strip over until 1975 when it ended. Reprints have been published by Canada's Drawn & Quarterly. There have been multiple animated versions of her characters, and that is what this exhibit focused on.

The NCM has had some rough years, closing off and on while searching for new locations. In 2020, it finally wound up just off Pennsylvania Ave, NW in a plaza behind the Reagan building. They had to shut again almost immediately due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but reopened in September 2021 with the Moomin exhibit among others, and are aiming for an attendance of a half million people per year. Note that you have to visit with a child; unaccompanied visitors need to make an appointment, and throughout my tour of the exhibit, I was accompanied by a staff member. The museum is actually largely underground; one enters at ground level and then moves downward through an unfinished concrete warren. The guide is probably necessary for more than the main reason.

The Embassy of Finland has brought over a version of Honkasalo's original exhibit from the Moomin Museum that is completely composed of reproductions. It has several sections - a wall on Jansson's life, stills from various animations, 4 screens showing cartoons, and several activity areas for children. An average American viewer might have no knowledge about the Moomins, in spite of the fact that there have been so many adaptations. This exhibit focuses on animated versions and includes episodes from 1959 (West Germany), 1969 (Japan), 1977 (Poland), 1990 (Japan). Obviously, none of these would be particularly easy for an Anglophone to find, but the 1969 one in particular was surpressed by Jansson, as noted in the exhibit catalog - "She felt that Momin was too far removed from her stories' world and atmosphere. Elements foreign to Moominvalley had been inserted into the tales, including cars, money and weapons. For example, a few episodes show Snork driving around in a car, Moomintroll makes money by busking, and weapons feature in several episodes." "She did not want them to reach international distribution, so they have never been broadcast outside Japan. Today, they are hard to find even in Japan, on account of complicated copyright issues connected with the [1900s series]." The exhibit catalog is unfortunately not available, except for a few copies lying in the exhibit, but I recommend it highly if you can find it.

Jansson has been the focus of recent attention including a documentary, two biographies, and an edition of her letters. The wall on her life is written for children, but includes the basics necessary to have an idea about her as a person and as a creator. To the exhibit's credit, the segment on her life does not shy away from her love of another woman, even though it was socially unacceptable at the time. "A soul mate. Amid the hustle and buslte, Tove meets Tuulikki, the woman who will become her life partner for the rest of her life..." reads part of the panel.

The wall of stills would probably have been of more interest in the original exhibit, as it apparently included some actual artwork by her. Here, understandably, it's all reproductions and screen captures. A fan of the characters might be interested in seeing how they evolved in different animations. There are also some areas for children to draw, hang things on a tree, or take a picture with cardboard standups. There is also a small selection of gifts in the giftshop. Also of interest from a cartoon perspective are a STEAM-centric exhibits about creating animations featuring SpongeBob and his cast, and another on Paw Patrol.

All the images, except for "Exhibition space 4" and "Tove Jansson," are courtesy of the Embassy of Finland in Washington, D.C. The two are courtesy of the NCM. The exhibit catalog cover is taken from the copy the staff gave to me. A version of this review also appeared on the ComicsDC blog. My photographs can be seen here.


Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Book Review - Is Superman Circumcised? by Roy Schwartz

Roy Schwartz. Is Superman Circumcised? McFarland, 2021. 374 pp. $45. ISBN 978-1-4766-6290-9

Reviewed by Leonard (“Labe”) Rifas

Despite its catchy title, Is Superman Circumcised?, Roy Schwartz’s “complete Jewish history of the World’s greatest hero,” says almost nothing about the possibility that Superman’s genitalia had been ceremonially trimmed. The title serves simply as a different way of asking whether Superman is Jewish, a question which has been raised and investigated, jokingly and seriously, briefly and at book-length, since at least 1979. (15)

Even with a question so tightly circumscribed, it would be impossible to keep up with all the pertinent literature. McFarland Press, the publisher of Schwartz’s book, currently lists another 158 books of comics scholarship in its catalog, including ten little-known titles that seem directly relevant to Superman’s possible roots in Biblical mythology, but which Schwartz does not mention. Out of that unending flood of publications, I chose to read Is Superman Circumcised? for three reasons. First, as someone who teaches and studies comics history, the topics of Superman and the superhero genre that he inaugurated seem both obligatory and inescapable. Also, as a circumcised American Jew (whose Jewish grandparents had immigrated from Russia and Poland to Chicago about a hundred years ago), I find discussions of Jewishness in relation to comic books interesting. Finally, and most importantly, when my sister alerted me to this book, I looked to see whether it mentioned anti-comic book activist Fredric Wertham (whose work I have championed), and this book elaborates on a dunderheaded theory that I was eager to look at more closely. I read the entire book because the subject of Superman’s ethnic identity raises so many important questions.

Schwartz introduces himself as an Israeli-born, lifelong Superman fan who grew up on Superman movies, television shows and comic books. Then he moved to New York to attend college and became an immigrant. After writing a senior paper on “Superman as a Christ Figure,” he was electrified to discover that Superman, rather than a Christ figure, was Jewish, and that revelation led eventually to his graduate thesis and this book. (2)

Although Schwartz’s “central thesis – that Superman is a Jewish character” seems old hat, he makes three claims to originality: that he examines evidence of Jewish content in Superman up to the present rather than stopping in 1960 (or sooner) as earlier writers had done; that he explores the Jewish parallels more deeply; and that he focuses exclusively on Superman. (3, 5) The books that he acknowledges as the foundation on which he built Is Superman Circumcised? are well-known studies by Danny Fingeroth, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, and Arie Kaplan. 

Although too much has been written about Superman to read it all, one book stands out as conspicuously missing from Schwartz’s sources: Martin Lund’s Re-Constructing the Man of Steel (2016, based on Lund’s dissertation of 2013). Lund’s scholarly, foundation-shaking research directly and cogently challenges Fingeroth, Weinstein and Kaplan’s arguments about the “so-called Jewish-Comics connection” behind Superman’s original creation. Unfortunately, Schwartz’s book repeats examples that illustrate the entire list of methodological pitfalls that Lund had catalogued.


Is Superman Circumcised? has a chapter “Superman vs. The Mad Scientist” which casts Fredric Wertham as the “mad scientist.” Understandably, Schwartz seems particularly outraged when Wertham “missed the point entirely” about Superman, and interpreted his comics as promoting fascism. Schwartz quotes Wertham’s snide expression of gratitude that at least Superman is not a member of Nazi Germany’s SS (Schutzstaffel). (191, 194) He proposes that Wertham must have been a calumniator with a defective personality who harbored an elitist scorn for comic book publishers because they were descended from East European Jews rather than German Jews like himself. (194-6)

The SS in Nazi Germany had published their own article about Superman in April 1940. It responded to the two-page story “How Superman Would End the War” which Superman’s creators had done for Look magazine. (115-118) Schwartz helpfully includes both that two-page story (as one of the book’s 85 black and white illustrations), and the SS column about it. The unnamed SS author asserts that the comic book Superman originated when the “circumcised… Israelite” Jerry Siegel heard about “the resurgence of manly virtues” in Italy and Germany, and “decided to import” these ideals “and spread them among young Americans.” (115) Then, like a nitpicky comics fan, the reviewer criticizes Siegel and Shuster for showing out-of-date military uniforms, an unconvincingly posed figure, for making the German pilot sound like “a Yid,” and for ignoring the “laws of physics, logic, and life in general.”

What I enjoyed most about reading Is Superman Circumcised? were the small discoveries that I made while studying its source materials closely and not Schwartz’s interpretations. The SS piece had quoted Superman as crying “Strength! Courage! Justice!”, but I noticed that none of these words appeared in that two-page story. The rallying cry of “strength, courage, justice” had been the motto of the “Supermen of America Club” which the early issues of Action Comics and Superman’s radio show promoted. Apparently, the SS writer had based his opinion of Superman on more than those two magazine pages.

Looking at some forgotten articles and book reviews that Fredric Wertham wrote in the years when he was also studying comic books would have revealed how deeply Wertham had been shaken by the recent Holocaust in his native land, and his fear that nothing seemed to rule out the possibility that the United States would also succumb to fascism. Seeing Wertham as centrally motivated by anti-fascism (rather than as “monomaniacally fixated” on comic books) would have brought into sharper focus how his so-called “crusade” against comic books fit with his other concerns. Comparing Superman’s methods to fascism, though, was Wertham’s least original contribution to the anti-comic book movement.

The argument that vigilante superhero comics were conditioning their young readers to prefer quick and effective fascist solutions over the slowness and imperfections of democratic law and order had been a central part of the anti-comic book movement from the moment it started with Sterling North’s May 8, 1940 column “A National Disgrace.” Schwartz quotes from North’s column, but, like other scholars, overlooks that North’s criticism of comic books grew from his response to Superman. North begins by describing comic books as “a poisonous growth of the last two years.” Two years earlier, Superman had first appeared, in Action Comics #1. North calls the comics that he criticizes “the action ‘comics’” and criticizes that genre’s “Superman heroics.” During those two years between 1938 and 1940, American newspapers had warned repeatedly against the current crop of “supermen” dictators (especially Adolf Hitler) and the Nazi ambition to build a race of “supermen.” Beginning with North’s widely republished column, American opposition to anti-democratic real-life “supermen” expanded to opposing lawless comic book supermen as well.

Schwartz interprets North’s reference to “cheap political propaganda” in that seminal column partly as a complaint against Superman’s “interventionist” support for fighting the Nazis. (165.) Last week I was surprised to discover that in March 1940, a Superman comic strip was banned from appearing in Canadian newspapers because it made war look ridiculous at a time when Canada (but not yet the United States) was at war against Nazi Germany. Superman’s first comic book stories had similarly expressed the mainstream, American resistance to getting sucked into another war. I have not found any evidence that Sterling North opposed interventionism. To the contrary, North thought that anyone foolish enough to try to appease Hitler had not read Hitler’s book Mein Kampf.

Roy Schwartz admits that the identification of Superman as a fascist has a superficial plausibility and agrees that superheroes arose out of despair with the apparent inadequacy of democracy and the rule of law. (169, 92, 175) Notwithstanding these concessions, he strenuously counter-argues that Superman was the opposite of a fascist and the enemy of the Nietzschean übermensch. For example, Superman “never kills, maims or employs [violence] beyond what is necessary to stop an aggressor – […]  he’s no more a fascist than any agent of law enforcement.” (171)


Anti-comic book activists, in addition to their concerns about Superman supplanting the legal system in the manner of the Ku Klux Klan’s “hooded justice,” also occasionally expressed a worry about Superman usurping the place of religion.  Schwartz celebrates the ways in which Superman “took the place of” Bible stories in American popular culture. (12-16, 23, 47, 218) He does not dwell on possible downsides of substituting a secularized commercial product (an intellectual property) for Judaism’s and Christianity’s traditional teachings. He does, though, briefly mention a few instances of Christian resistance to Superman becoming a religious figure. For example, when the Jewish writers, director and producers of the 1978 film Superman: The Movie played up Superman as a Christ allegory, the director received serious death threats for this “sacrilege.” (244-246) In 2013, when the Jewish director and Jewish writer of the Man of Steel made that film into a blatant retelling of the gospels featuring Superman in the role of Jesus, and the studio aggressively marketed the film to “the Christian faith-based demographic,” some Christians “found the equivalence of Superman and Jesus in a movie saturated with violence disconcerting.” This equivalence became especially “disconcerting” when Superman broke the neck of his adversary, Zod. (41-2) 

As a source of ethical teachings, Superman has a major shortcoming. As Schwartz says, “Superman can’t be made to face the complex issues of the real world without the fantasy falling apart. Realism is his true Kryptonite.”  (173) Is Superman Circumcised? describes a rare instance in which DC abandoned its editorial policy of deliberate disengagement from reality and let its superheroes comment on a real-world leader. In a 1989 comic book:

“Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini himself […] rewards the Joker by appointing him as the Iranian ambassador to the UN, under full diplomatic immunity (a twist that, given the regime, only slightly strains credulity). The Clown Prince of Crime gives a rambling speech at the General Assembly […] then predictably tries to kill everyone with his laughing gas. Superman, attending undercover, saves the day.”

Although this comic book, Batman: A Death in the Family, received major news coverage, as I remember it, no one in the mass media challenged its propaganda content. In actuality, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded Iran in 1980 and began using poison gas in 1983, eventually causing tens of thousands or more Iranian deaths. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Iran responding with its own chemical weapons, and chose instead to use diplomacy at the United Nations in an attempt to bring Iraq’s war crime to an end.  A person does not have to be a fan of Khomeini’s theocratic regime to worry about the effects of this kind of twisted comic book story on young readers’ understanding of complex world events.

Like most authors of nonfiction, Schwartz keeps himself out of the picture. He never reveals his own religious background or beliefs. He does make plain, though, that he had found in Superman stories, beginning with Superman: The Movie, the kind of hope that religions have offered, and found in stories about a character with a secret identity a way of working through issues regarding his public self and private self. He explains with evident feeling how Superman expressed concerns that had been especially acute for Jewish immigrants and their children.


The main changes beginning in 1960 have been that the popularity of Superman’s comic books sank; the comic book industry became less Jewish; superheroes starred in many blockbuster films; and the indicators that linked Superman stories to specifically Jewish (and Christian) experiences, traditions, and beliefs became more overt. In this turn toward including explicitly Jewish characters, superhero comic books participated in a larger cultural shift from assimilation to identity politics.

Schwartz sees the current resurgence of anti-Semitism and White nationalism as an argument for Superman’s continuing relevance and value, as the embodiment and promoter of the values of pluralism, tolerance, co-existence, and inclusion. The superhero is “by definition a celebration of difference.” (311-2) Schwartz imagines that notwithstanding the comic book industry being “now almost entirely owned by multinational corporations,” it nevertheless has “continued to be transgressive, at the vanguard of social justice advocacy.” As evidence, the industry now includes “more women, people of color and LGBTQ readers, creators and characters, demonstrating its continued role as a tool of inclusion.” (311-2)

Even restricting our gaze to matters of inclusion, though, the superhero genre has not held a vanguard position. Fortunately, many years ago the gentile-led underground comix movement reinvented the comics medium as a personal form of artistic and literary expression. This led to works like Maus (the “pinnacle of Jewish subject matter in comics”), which in turn helped to inspire today’s thriving global market in graphic novels and webcomics, through which cartoonists from many backgrounds have been exploring the issues at the heart of Schwartz’s book: how to grow up and take part as a member of a broader society while maintaining a particular immigrant, ethnic, religious, (or gender, sexual, disability-related, body-size, or other) identity. The old, homogenized, white American society that Superman was portrayed in for the first half century of his life does not represent a historical reality that could be recovered,

but an assimilationist’s fantasyland. Nevertheless, it does imagine a world that white ethnonationalists might yearn for.


For those who feel the need for an “icon” to guide us through these times of fear and despair, Superman does not seem like a particularly Jewish solution. Judaism has been anti-iconic, all the way back to when Abraham smashed the figurines in his father’s shop (Midrash Bereishit 38:13). Still, we do need some powerful story if we are to revive the American dream of a government of, by and for the people; to unite across our differences; or to get through the atomic age, the Holocene extinction and the climate crisis with the least lasting damage. In an image-saturated society, for better or worse, we want to know what that story would look like.

I did enjoy that Roy Schwartz commands a larger working vocabulary than mine, including in Yiddish, which like me, he uses one word at a time. He employs his writing skill to explain how the character of Superman incorporates some fundamental tensions, between “red” and “blue,” insider and outsider, vigilante and upholder of the law, role model and savior, which have provided raw material for eighty plus years of storytelling. As he admits, the results have often (but not always) been stiff, stodgy, tedious, dull, or corny, and yet talented writers and artists continue to rework the character of Superman as an important part of an unfinished mythology. 


A version of this review will appear in IJOCA 23:2.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

International Journal of Comic Art super back issue package sale returns for Black Friday

Beginning November 26, 2021, the International Journal of Comic Art will offer  65 percent off for back issues, if and when bought as a package. Of the 46 issues published through Vol.23, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2021, 40 are available for purchase. Out of stock are: Vol. 1, No. 1; 1:2; 4:2; 5:1, 6:2; 7:1. A reprint of 1:1 can be purchased from Tables of contents can be seen at

            Normally, 40 issues would sell at a total US $ 2,000 for U.S. institutions; US $900 for individuals in the U.S.; US $2,500 for outside of U.S. institutions; US $1,200 for foreign individuals.

            With a 65 percent discount, the price for 40 issues are:

U.S. Institutions:       US $ 700 + postage

U.S. Individuals:       US $ 315 + postage

Foreign Institutions:  US $ 875 + postage

Foreign Individuals:  US $ 420 + postage

            There are limited numbers available of some very early issues; they will be offered on a first-come basis.

Orders should be sent to:     John A. Lent


                                                669 Ferne Blvd.

                                                Drexel Hill, PA 19026 USA



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Sunday, November 21, 2021

IJOCA 23-1 Table of Contents

The new issue is arriving in people's mailboxes now.

Vol. 23, No. 1 Spring/Summer 2021

In Support of Their Fathers' and Mother's Legacies: 13 Offspring of China's Prominent Cartoonists Explain
John A. Lent with Xu Ying

Coping with Conflict: Boxing Heroes and German Comics in the Aftermath of the First World War
William Hamilton

"Any Children?": "The Family Circus" and the Problems of Parenthood
Michele Ann Abate

"Fragging" The Afghan War: Red Blood
Jose Alaniz

All You Need Is Kill, Not Love -Considering the Romantic Relationship in the Manga and Film Adaptations of Hiroshi Sakurazaka's Novel
Artur Skweres

Jason Little Discusses The Vagina, His NSFW Webcomic
Mike Rhode

The Border Separating Us: Autobiographical Comics of an Australian World War I Internment Camp
Aaron Humphrey and Simon Walsh

Tintin and the Jews (of Contemporary Literature)
Toby Juliff

Within and Between the Visual Metaphoricity of Comics: A Semiotic Approach to the Mahabharata in Amar Chitra Katha
Shivani Sharma

Dramatizing Ontology in 18 Days: Grant Morrison's Mahabharata
and the Battle to Save Eternity!
Jeff S. Wilson

The Role of Fox Feature Syndicate in the Implementation of the Comics Code Authority
Ignacio Fernandez Sarasola

An Interview with 2021 Oscar Nominee: Icelandic Artist, Gisli Darri Halldorsson
Alexandra Bowman
Edited by Michael Rhode

Remembrances of Things Past: Childhood in Graphic Memoirs
Kirsten Mollegaard

The Social Functions and Impacts of Popular Manga in Contemporary Japan: A Case of GOLDEN KAMUY
Kinko Ito

Slaying the Monster: Heroic Lesbian Narratives in World's Finest
Chadwick L. Roberts
Anita K. McDaniel

Poems, Comics and the Spaces Between: An Examination of the Interplay between Poem and Page
Angelo Letizia

The Oriental Superheroes: Political Questions in G. Willow Wilson's Cairo: A Graphic Novel and Ms. Marvel
Noran Amin

The Maternal-Feminine and Matrixial Borderspace in Megan Kelso's ''Watergate Sue"
Alisia Grace Chase

Morpheus Aeternorum: Dreams, Androgyny, and Their Characteristics in Sandman (Preludes & Nocturnes), by Neil Gaiman
Felipe Rodolfo Hendriksen

When Le Chat Was Put Among the Pigeons
Musings by Wim Lockefeer

Obituary & Remembrance of Manga Historian Shimizu Isao
Ronald Stewart

On the Passing of Comics Scholar Tom Inge
Mike Rhode
Marc Singer
Jose Alaniz
Charles Hatfield
Joseph Witek
Vijay Shah
Joe Sutliff Sanders
Michael A. Torregrossa
Randy Duncan
Brian Cremins
John A. Lent

Research Prompts
John A. Lent

New Light on the Soon-to-Be Famous Marie Duval
A Review Essay
David Kunzie

Book Reviews
Hector Fernandez L'Hoeste
Stephanie Burt
John A. Lent
Jean Sebastien
Charles W. Henebry
John A. Lent
Maite U rcaregui
Michael Rhode
John A. Lent
John A. Lent
Chris York
Laura Sayre
John A. Lent

International Journal of Comic Art Manuscript Preparation Guide
John A. Lent and Jaehyeon Jeong

Friday, November 19, 2021

Book Review - The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. The Waiting. Montreal:  Drawn & Quarterly, 2021. 246 pp. 978-1-77046-457-5. US $24.95.

  reviewed by John A. Lent

South Korean graphic novelist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim has a knack for digging up personal stories related to historical tragedies of her country. She is truly what I call an “investigative cartoonist.” Gendry-Kim has used these reportorial skills over and over during the past decade. They are evident in her many awards-winning graphic novel, Grass (2019), the story of the “comfort women,” enslaved East Asian girls used to sexually service Japanese soldiers during World War II, as told to her by one surviving Korean comfort woman and backed up by nine other victims. Gendry-Kim found an elderly Korean man still living in Japan who experienced one of the atomic bombings while working in Japan in the 1940s, willing to explain how he and fellow Korean laborers were passed over and denied reparation funds by the Japanese government, in her A Day with Grandfather (2017).

Mixing fiction and fact, Gendry-Kim continues to bring attention to Korean national tragedies through the personal experiences of those who endured them. Among her 20 or so books, all completed since 2012, are Jiseul (2015), an account of the massacre of civilians by the South Korean army during the Korean War, and her latest title, The Waiting (2021).

The marginal status of women in a patriarchal society such as Korea is a common theme in Gendry-Kim’s books, as it is in The Waiting. In fact, very few men appear in this story inspired by her mother’s personal experiences at the end of the Korean War, and a few men who do show up are not desirable characters--the neighbor who steals a child’s dog and cooks it; a slothful male who abandons his sister-in-law and her child under terrible conditions.

During and after the Korean War, many families were separated, as were Gendry-Kim’s mother and her mother’s sister (Gendry-Kim’s aunt), who never made it out of North Korea. The Waiting weaves between Gendry-Kim’s present feelings of sorrow and guilt for having to leave her mother in Seoul and moving to Ganghwa Island; her mother’s anxiety about her sister’s fate in North Korea and her disappointment at continually not being chosen for the regularly-arranged separated family reunions, and the fictional character Gwila’s sorrowful tale of being separated from her husband and son during the war.

Gendry-Kim based her story on her own feelings, her mother’s testimonies, the tales of two elderly people she interviewed who had been able to meet their North Korean family members, and her further research. In a two-page textual afterword, “A Lifetime of Waiting,” the author begins with, “This is my mother’s story,” and ends it by dedicating the book to her mother. In between, she shares a bit about her own career and the fears and wishes of her two interviewees and asks questions others have asked for millennia--“How many people in this world have been wounded by war?” and “How many have had their loved ones torn from them because of war?” As the song says, “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.”

The Waiting is a full package of emotions:  hope and despair, love and hate, joy and sorrow, kindness and cruelty, guilt and relief, and the terribleness of war without a positive corollary. The book is true to Gendry-Kim’s standard--a great read, first-hand researched, and filled with penetrating thoughts relatable to the many who have experienced war firsthand, and sobering to those who have romanticized, sanitized, and glamorized notions of war.