Critical Takes: The Myth of the Superhero, by Marco Arnaudo

by Derek Royal

The Myth of the Superhero, by Marco Arnaudo. Translated by Jamie Richards (Johns Hopkins University Press)

In The Best American Comics 2013, which was just recently published, editor Jeff Smith presents a variety of intriguing expressions from the previous year. Yet, what is conspicuously absent in this otherwise strong and diverse collection of American comics are any mainstream serialized titles. One might expect no superhero representation in The Best American Comics series — this hasn’t been a genre that any of the volumes’ editors, going back to (and especially) Harvey Pekar in 2006, seem to be fond of, and, perhaps more significantly, the permission requirements of both DC and Marvel are surely too prohibitive — but a more unfortunate oversight is the lack of ongoing serialized titles as part of the “best.” In fact, the only monthly comic book that finds any space in Smith’s volume is Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising. This is just one of many reasons why Marco Arnaudo’s critical study, The Myth of the Superhero, is so important for the field of comics, and for comics studies: his attention to overlooked critical facets. Not only does he bring a keen understanding of the superhero genre to textual studies, but even more important, he explores the role that seriality plays in our readings of iconic superheroes and the expansive narrative worlds they inhabit.

arnaudo final early jkt.inddArnaudo establishes his critical parameters early on in the text. Instead of approaching comics in terms of genre, styles, or thematics — which is how most comics scholars address their subjects — he distinguishes among different forms of seriality: the individual self-contained comic narrative (e.g., graphic novels or one-shots), self-contained serial narratives (such as strips or graphic novels that only focus on the same characters), and continuous serial narratives. The latter is defined as an ongoing series of comics books or daily strips where each installment  alludes to and is based upon what has come before, while at the same time laying the groundwork for what will come later, potentially ad infinitum. It is this, the continuous serial narrative, that is of interest to Arnaudo, and he spends the better part of The Myth of the Superhero discussing the assumptions and the cumulative effects of this type of reading. His focus isn’t on the containable narrative, something that can be expressed between front and back covers of a single volume, but the expansive and ever-unfolding storyworlds, typified by the DC and Marvel Universes, that continually add to, contradict, divert from, and amend themselves.

This being the case, Arnaudo specifically avoids the “gems,” as he calls them, of the superhero genre, such as WatchmenBatman: The Dark Knight ReturnsAstro CityMarvels, and even titles within the Vertigo line. His reasoning for these exclusions is not only based on issues of seriality, but also critical pertinence. The author has no interest in traversing well-trod scholarly ground, focusing on works that the literature has already covered quite thoroughly, but instead sets out to fill a critical gap: a dearth of serious comics studies scholarship on the superhero genre. He argues convincingly that this is what happened with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, that the fanfare surrounding this important work “didn’t increase general attention to the medium as a whole. On the contrary, it created the distorted impression that Maus is the only masterpiece in an otherwise negligible panorama” (6). Anyone who has ever created a syllabus for a comics class, or has had colleagues who tend to teach the same “masterpieces” over and over again without a broader knowledge of the medium, understands this phenomenon…and as such, should understand the significance of Arnaudo’s project. And while the author is primarily concerned with popular superheroes, he never goes as far as to suggest that mainstream titles are “better” than texts that have become, at this point, canonical comics, like Watchmen or Maus. But Arnaudo is clear in his intentions to “point out that successful serial titles contain specific elements of interest that cannot be found in shorter, self-contained comics publications, even if they’re considered more ‘highbrow'” (6).

As his title suggests, Arnaudo is interested in the larger contexts in which superheroes have been framed, or at least how various characters have come to represent certain ideas. He divides his text into three main chapters. In the first, “Myth and Religion,” he looks at the way superheroes have embodied mytho-religious concepts such as Olympian ideals, the shaman, New Testament scriptures, the golem, and even multicultural diversity. His second chapter, “Ethics and Society” — and one of the highlights of the book — centers around cultural issues, many specific to the United States, such as immigration, the uses of violence, vigilantism, suspicion of (and complicity with) the federal government, and particular political zeitgeists. “Epic and Neobaroque,” the final chapter of the book (and another highlight), analyzes first the epic nature superhero storyworlds — “It is my contention that the epic has a closer (if not an exclusive) affinity to superhero comics than it does to any other contemporary narrative genre; or rather, that no contemporary genre exhibits the specific qualities of epic as much as the superhero comic does” (118) — and then later posits their neobaroque qualities. The latter can be seen as an opposite impulse to the epic and refers to a contemporary reemergence of baroque characteristics in art: an elaborate ornateness, a deemphasis of totality and a privileging of fragmentation, a tendency toward allusion and citation, and a labyrinthine, even metafictional, resistance to any unitary system.

Throughout the book, Arnaudo pulls his examples from a wide variety of superhero figures and their storylines, including Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Batman, Thor, the Silver Surfer, Starman, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the JLA. And true to his intentions not to rely solely on the “usual suspects” within comics, he brings in discussions of characters usually not labeled as superheroes, e.g., Miss Fury and Uncle Sam. Indeed, the latter even allows Arnaudo to bring in Vertigo comics, reading Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’s two-issue Uncle Sam in conjunction with the DC Universe’s superheroic Uncle Sam (although first appearing in Quality Comics in the 1940s). Along with the comics, Arnaudo pulls from several cinematic franchises, such as the Superman and Spider-Man series. In all, the author attempts an inclusive cultural reading, yet one specifically focused on superheroes and their serialized manifestations.

There have been a variety of other critical works that have used comics, specifically superheroes, as means to explore certain sociological, psychological, or semiological concepts. (Indeed, most of the monographs focusing on superhero comics have been written not by literary scholars, but by sociologists, political scientists, historians, and communication theorists.) Arnaudo’s study is an example of textually based comics scholarship in the fullest sense. Both complex and highly readable — Jamie Richards’s translation from the Italian is outstanding — The Myth of the Superhero is a work that should stand as a touchstone within institutional comics studies, while at the same time being an accessible and highly relevant text for casual and fanboy/girl readers.


Be sure to read The Myth of the Superhero as well as other recent critical works on superheroes and culture:


The Comics Alternative is a podcast and blog focused on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,