Crosscurrents March 2001

Maus Culture

Maus Culture

From DC and Marvel to the latest wave of serious graphic novels, the comic book has come of age

Wright charts the flourishing comic-book industry along such lines, injecting myriad examples of the ways in which comic books, long seen as the bubble worlds of adolescent fantasy, in actuality were aligned consistently with the current issues of the day. Thus Peter Parker, better known as Spider Man, agonizes about which side to take in a campus-revolt story line from 1969, and in 1947 Captain Marvel battles the pointy-headed Mr. Atom and is able to lock him away in a lead prison, from where Mr. Atom vows to escape, as children everywhere cower under their school desks.

Ultimately, the history of comic books is the history of calculated attempts to wrest adolescents from their allowance. Wright does a good job examining the one-upmanship of competing comic-book companies and the attempts those companies made to ride the ever-shifting tastes of the adolescent consumer. I enjoyed, as much as anything in the book, some of the names of characters that didn't catch an audience: Wonderman, whose particular kryptonite was a lethal lawsuit filed by DC for copyright infringement; or Deadman, not only dead, but an ex-circus performer; or the short-lived Asbestos Lady. And just as DC cornered the early comics market with adolescent fantasies of transformation and hidden strengths, Marvel upped the ante in the 1960s by introducing superheroes who also battled anxiety and isolation, and the kids reached farther into their pockets.

While Wright limits the scope of his study to titles aimed at the adolescent mainstream, there is much that is telling in his book about the recent trend toward adult-oriented comics. The leap that Marvel comics took in the sixties by exploiting the notion that superhero skills, while very useful at thwarting crime, tend to alienate the superhero from the rest of society, was a leap toward a more mature narrative. The New X-Men, which debuted in 1975, introduced a complex regiment of asocial crime-fighters. Such characterizations moved the industry toward more ambivalent heroes and toward a writer-as-auteur sensibility, and created a burgeoning fan-base, with comics conventions and specialty stores, that replaced what had been the general readership—the kid in the drugstore with a dime to burn.

Along came stars such as Frank Miller, who in 1986 re-imagined the character of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, creating a series of comic books so popular they were grouped and issued as a pricey graphic novel to be sold in bookstores. Miller's revamped Batman forged a bridge that not only took the character from the camp of Adam West's TV portrayal in the late sixties to Michael Keaton's troubled knight in Tim Burton's violent, gothic blockbusters of the late eighties and early nineties, but also proved that fans would shell out much larger prices for comic books. The year 1986 also saw the debut of Alan Moore's The Watchmen, a limited series (also packaged as a graphic novel) that upped the ante for mature comics. Wright calls The Watchmen an "obituary for the concept of heroes in general and superheroes in particular." One of the heroes depicted in Moore's alternate universe must wear his Nite Owl costume to overcome impotence, a nice summation of what seems to be at the root of the superhero psychosis. A mirror had been turned on the conventions of the comic-book narrative. Just as the films Pulp Fiction and, to a lesser degree, the Scream trilogy unpacked their own genres to allow an aging audience continued and approved access to pulp entertainment, comic books became increasingly self-reflexive to sanction an audience that was older, yet unwilling to let go of its adolescent fixation.

I'd have been curious to see how Wright would have categorized the Underground Comics movement and its recent forays into the mainstream, such as the Pantheon titles. Are adult graphic novels, with their increasingly expressionistic and jarring panels, their nihilistic story lines, and their alienated protagonists, simply the logical extension of a superhero mystique already characterized by detachment and impotence? Are they merely hip reads for an already juvenilized culture, not wanting to give up its childhood? Or is comic-book art opening up and building upon new narrative forms in the way Spiegelman did with Maus?

Spiegelman challenged the notions of what stories a comic book can tell, employing surrealistic, comic-book fantasy elements in his nonfiction account of his parents' Holocaust experience—Jews, for example, are drawn as mice, or else people wearing mouse masks; Nazis are cats; the French are frogs. These renderings add a distance and an allegorical frame that elevates his narratives to fine art. Try to think of another medium that could have mixed those elements better, or even with any semblance of success. Movies? A novel? The artifice would overwhelm a film and be all but lost in prose.

Safe Area Gorazde

Joe Sacco employs no such tricks in Safe Area Gorazde. Sacco was a visiting journalist in the almost exclusively Muslim enclave of Gorazde over a period of four-and-a-half months in late 1995 and early 1996. He interviewed many of that besieged city's citizens, then recounted their stories and chronicled their continuing existence under Serb terror. His meticulous ink drawings remind me of Spiegelman's with their confident lines and evocative use of light and dark, but the faces Sacco draws are another matter. Detailed and expressive, they stare out of the panels and off the page, reminding me of Robert Crumb's faces—not the rubbery parodies and devil women, but the lived-in and realistic faces Crumb draws of jazz musicians and street people.

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Peter Swanson is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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