An Inky, Well-Paneled Place: Comics and the Cold War
For all their passion, Wolk and Hajdu suffer from critical vertigo, a sense that the conversation they want to enter still hasn't been invented. Comics may be older than the movies, but they haven't yet found their Cahiers du cinéma, or even their Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael (though Wolk, who seems to have read both, clearly thinks of himself as Kael-Man). Umberto Eco's "The Myth of Superman" (1972) turns up in lots of cultural studies courses, but Eco's ponderous critique of the continuous present of comic book narratives is, for my money, considerably less interesting than, say, the paradoxical treatment of time travel given in Superboy No. 85, where the Boy of Steel, flying faster than the speed of light, heads back in time to April 14, 1864, to prevent Lincoln's assassination--only to be thwarted by the adult villain Lex Luthor, who assumes Superboy has followed him into the past and immobilizes him with a hunk of red Kryptonite. (Unlike the potentially deadly green Kryponite, the effects of red Kryptonite are unpredictable.) Eco's point about the conflict between Superman's "fixed" character and the need to find "new narrative stimuli" seems banal next to the pathos of the boy superhero's inability to alter history.
Like formal poetry, comic books spatialize the sense of time. Running over successive panels or pages, the comics narrative makes the fourth dimension visible--and subject to revision. Eco hints at this when he observes that in Superman "the narrator picks up the strand of the event again and again, as if he had forgotten to say something and wanted to add details to what has already been said." But in assuming that this narrative tic is a measure of comics readers' inattentiveness, Eco displays a condescension fatal to understanding. Indeed, it might be said that the foregrounding of this process, known to comics fans as retrospective continuity, or "retcon," is the distinguishing feature of modern superhero comics. Used creatively, retcons reconcile comics tradition and the writer's individual talent. But retcon also lets a lazy writer tie up loose ends--or justify reviving a character, or a whole franchise. Comics are, after all, a business, and if you can sell a few hundred thousand more copies of The Flash by bringing its hero back from the recycling pile, why not?
Commercial considerations may also have been responsible for the proliferation of the comics multiverse. Despite the pretense that DC heroes come from Smallville, Metropolis and Gotham City, Superman and Batman started out in a world recognizable as our own. Over the decades, however, the cumulative effect of numerous plot twists and retcons was to situate the action in a series of alternate universes whose complex relations eventually broke down, producing DC's "Crisis on Infinite Earths." Marvel handled matters somewhat differently, with all action originally taking place in a single fictional "Marvel Universe" but, beginning in the late 1960s, slowly shifting the scenery toward an actual present-day New York.
What's new is the extent to which the comics cosmos has become our own. In the past it was just Superman and Lois Lane (or Batman and Robin) shacked up in the DC multiverse--or Reed Richards and Sue Storm in the Marvel universe. Now comics are all around us. From Persepolis on the big screen to NBC's hit show Heroes (which takes not only its characters but its story arcs from comic books) to this summer's "Superheroes" show at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute to the respectful review recently accorded a four-volume collection of Jack Kirby's late work by The New York Times Book Review to the boffo box-office record set by The Dark Knight, comics have moved beyond marginality to become perhaps the dominant cultural form. Maus reaches millions of readers who would never pick up Raul Hilberg--and some, their historical curiosity and moral imaginations engaged by Spiegelman's theater of cruelty, who now will.
As Wolk says, comics are "full of enticing blank spaces, in both space and time, for readers to decorate in our minds.... The job of the cartoonist, in any case, is to make the reader do most of the imaginative work of moving from panel to panel through the narrative, but to make that work as engaging as possible." Perhaps it is this necessity of doing the work that is the source of the medium's new ubiquity--and for the enduring hold of comics on readers' imaginations. Perhaps it really all comes down to the space between the panels.
Though easy to overlook, the space between the panels is the reader's point of entry, the place where the imagination does its work. Of course, novels and paintings also engage the imagination. And moviegoers are not an entirely passive audience. But comics bring you much closer to the action. And after Maus, no subject is taboo--or too big, not even, as Joe Sacco's brilliant reportage has shown, the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Wolk claims the whole medium is on the cusp of another Golden Age, an efflorescence of narrative daring and graphic creativity to rival the pre-Comics Code era. When it comes to superheroes I'm dubious; today's caped crusaders seem too freighted with their history, too aware of their limitations, to rival the heroic figures I remember. But readers who prefer the "real world" now have plenty of choices, from Marguerite Abouet's straight-out-of-Africa picaresque Aya to Guy Delisle's Shenzen to Marjane Satrapi's latest installment of life in exile. And though I don't particularly like the term "graphic novel," there are some amazing storytellers out there finding new ways to draw us in--and keep us close.
In that sense, at least, Dr. Wertham was right. Comics have become a very powerful medium. And as Spider-Man reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility.