In a Different Place, a Different Time: Revision and Reconstruction in Comics Without Superheroes?

This is going to be more of a sloppy Blog post because it’s more out of sheer enthusiasm than it is actual research. For a while now I’ve been somewhat obsessing over an idea that I got from Julian Darius at Sequart: which is the distinction between Revisionism and Reconstructionism in comics. Whereas Revisionism takes superhero characters and adds a dark and gritty sort of realism to them and their stories, Reconstructionism brings them back to their more idealistic roots but arguably keeps much of Revisionism’s character development and mature themes. Sometimes it can be all the difference between dystopian and utopian ideals with regards to fictional characters in tights.

However, that is a very limited way of looking at it. After finishing an article that I’ve recently sent into Sequart and thinking about another one that I’ve been rereading and reworking, I wondered how these concepts of Revisionism and Reconstructionism would apply to something that is neither North American nor primarily focused on the superhero genre. I’ve actually been thinking about how, if at all, both ideas could apply to Japanese manga.

So here is where I begin to get messy and not get dates right or accurate or, really, try to be nice at all. I believe that in order to really look at considerations of Revisionism and Reconstructionism in North American comics and Japanese manga, you have to look at some quick and dirty historical contexts. North American comics, aside from perhaps Mayan and other Central American friezes came from European comics that date more or less from the nineteenth century: Egyptian and Sumerian sequential glyphs notwithstanding.

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The earliest comics were satirical cartoons and depictions of folklore. Then they were Sunday morning slapstick cartoons. In North America, however, around the thirties the figure of the Victorian strong-man was adopted as an aesthetic for masked and super-powered heroes: beings depicted as fighting a whole lot of crime.

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At the same time there were a lot of other genres of comics out there in North America: Romances, Westerns, War stories, and–of course–Horror. These different genres danced around our superhero friends: who were still in their terrible twos of “might is right.” I’m not even sure why they came about to begin with. Most likely–and in my opinion–they were made to symbolize hope for the future in a relatively new nation against the darkness of the past World War, the upcoming Great Depression, and the resulting Second World War that everyone could sense coming on some level. A disturbing sense of moral ambiguity and uncertainty, which you can argue really started to crop up in literature and culture after WWI, needed something clear cut and decisive to counter it: even if it was interpreted as being tied into adolescent power-fantasies which is a hilarious concept when you think about the fact that superhero comics were actually just in their infancy then.

But in the 1950s, and slightly before, the fear of Communism and nuclear war created a society of paranoia. All of the darker, gory, amorally violent aspects of comics were self-censored by the creation of the Comics Code Authority in order for comics businesses to continue during the censorship “witch-hunts” going on during this time. The irony of course is that the dark elements of horror and sexuality did not go away as a result but, rather, they literally went Underground: into the developing Underground Comix movements.

But the Comics Code-endorsed superhero genre was one of the few that actually remained and the audience became very specialized as a result and in contrast to the wider age and gender range that it had earlier. Many have said that superhero comics became “watered down and puerile” for a time until about wherever you can distinguish the Silver Age of comics coming into play: where Marvel and eventually DC as well started to make flawed superhero characters that nevertheless tried to do the right thing.

In about the 1980s, writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman took the superhero genre and started add some gritty, bloodier and more “graphic” elements back into it. I compare it a lot to how the Victorian Age and onward attempted to sanitize folktales into fairy-stories only for the old tales to come back and essentially eat their bastardized children: both those derived from them and those that were entirely new. Perhaps during this period of both heightened counter-insurgencies happening between the United States and the USSR and then the latter’s decline influenced this Revisionism: which tended to criticize and look at the real-world politics and attitudes of the era. Certainly the 80s was a time when authority was at its height and, at the same time, was also being heavily questioned along with the implicit idea that “all authority is good” and should be obeyed by even superheroes that defend the status quo.

In about 1995, the time Julian Darius defines as the beginnings of Reconstructionism through the publication date of DC’s Underworld Unleashed, America was the sole superpower of the world in the midst of an idea of globalization. At the same time, it was embroiled in a lot of various different wars and clean-up from its Cold War missions into other countries. The way I figure it, and I am pretty sure there are other elements you can identify here as well, the art and culture of this time was influenced by a need and a sense of morality or certainty: of heroic figures needing to be depicted as having such. At the same time, they could not really go back to being ignorant or having bad storytelling. So, in the end, people such as Grant Morrison tackled these issues in their works: neither shying away from brutality nor letting cynicism completely win out in the superhero genre. It seems such a paltry explanation for this idea, but that is the best I can think of at the moment.

And then we have Japan. Manga has arguably been around in Japan–and the other Far East Asian countries–but in particular Japan for a thousand years or more: from their different kingdoms, to their Empires, the Shogunate, the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor and onward. Early scroll work illustrated humourous, sexual, and mythological stories. The term manga itself or something similar to it was apparently coined in the 18th century: meaning something along the lines of “whimsical drawings.” However, it can be argued that comics creation in Japan has been a very long and ancient tradition.

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Of course, you have World War II and then the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the American Occupation of Japan to consider. Unlike North America, or indeed any part of the world, Japan didn’t have to fear the possibility of a nuclear attack: it had already experienced it. At the time, the State-sponsored wartime version of Shintoism–that Japan was an invincible island blessed by the ancestral gods ruled by an Emperor of that divine bloodline–was pretty much destroyed by fire-bombing, nuclear-bombing, war trials and the U.S. Occupation. It is also during this period that many American soldiers brought over Disney comics and animated films.

Tezuka Osamu, Hikari (June - December 1959).

Artists like Tezuka Osamu were very influenced by Disney aesthetics and adopted them to make strange artistic hybrids of “whimsical” cartoons. However, these cartoons became challenged by the genre of what is called gekiga: of “dramatic pictures” with realistic, gritty aesthetics that delved into the more graphic aspects of life and even politics. The foremost of the gekiga artists that comes to mind for me is the person who coined the term to begin with Tatsumi Yoshihiro: who started drawing such work–which he did not like to call manga–in 1957.

The aesthetics of gekiga would inform many more works after him such as Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira.

What’s interesting to note about all of this is the contrast with North America. Aside from already experiencing a taste of what nuclear war could bring, Japan never really had something that was the equivalent to a Comics Code Authority: at least from my understanding. It’s true that, for the most, they seemed to have a very conservative and even authoritarian governmental structure even after the War and censorship did and does exist. However, the development of gekiga–as a genre or an alternative movement of comics–seems to display either dissent against such conservative elements or a method of purging the demons of war and nuclear atrocity from the psyche of an entire culture.

It is really interesting to note that Scott McCloud, in his Understanding Comics,  argues that while “cartoons” function as essential images or ideas which are easy to follow in an unfamiliar or realistic world, realistic drawings seem to have a more alienating affect on the reader: making it harder to follow them. In addition, “cartoons” seem to provide a buffer or buttress against some very potential distressing elements of a story. Realistic drawings in comics would, arguably, not function as a safe point for the reader to view that depicted world and would force them to face its grittiness all on their own: unfettered and unsettling. So perhaps some decisions in gekiga literally make the reader face the collective demons of, arguably, Japanese culture after the Bombings and the American Occupation.

On another note, I also really find it fascinating that Japanese manga never really embraced the idea of a superhero until after World War II and, from what I understand, aside from a few changes in trends manga continued to cover a wide range of subject matter and retained a large variety of different readers.

I am so tempted to say that gekiga is Revisionism in comics that did not originally have superheroes: a concept which, if true, greatly fascinates me. And perhaps through Tezuka Osamu’s own very public manga-experiments with his COM Magazine, his continued Phoenix epic, and even his Buddha series he not only managed to adapt to the gekiga style from his original Disney and traditional Japanese art-derived aesthetics, but he adapted gekiga to his sensibilities as well. Perhaps one could argue that Tezuka was a Reconstructionist: bringing back manga to his more whimsical aesthetics but also developing a more mature and nuanced approach at character development and story line.

It is intriguing to think about the fact that he and others “discovered” Revisionism and Reconstructionism at times before even North America had due to different cultural experiences: North America seemingly delving into both in the 80s and mid-90s, and Japan looking into it from the late-50s to early 70s onward–and crossing over each other–respectively.

I’ve also been made aware that the realistic aesthetics of the gekiga element is not as mainstream in Japanese comics art now as it was before and now there is a trend in going back to the more “whimsical” and elemental cartoon aesthetics of the past: though not quite the partially-Disney inspired aesthetics of Tezuka himself. Perhaps Miyazaki Hayao himself is a better example of this in terms of his ecological and cautionary themes: though mostly his more modern animated films such as Mononoke Hime come to mind at that. I think another thing I find really interesting about Reconstructionism is that return to a mythos or even the rebuilding of a shattered or forgotten one that is made relevant to another time. Certainly, the fact that Tezuka and Miyazaki combine “the cartoon” with very realistic backgrounds could be indicative of what Reconstructionism may mean in Japanese manga and the media inspired from it: a return to a character aesthetic that the reader may feel safe in following–deceptively or otherwise if the artist chooses to subvert that image–while exploring a real or realistically detailed world.

I am only scratching the surface here and I am definitely not an expert in Japanese manga or culture or, well, anything. Applying one culture’s concepts to another’s is a problematic venture at best. Also bear in mind: you are not dealing with an otaku here, my friends: just a North American geek that likes to throw shit out there and is fascinated with interesting things. I just can’t get over the idea that maybe there was a place where superheroes did not form in comics naturally, or in the way that we understand them and yet Revisionism and Reconstructionism–a realistic depiction and an alternative return to an idealized element–happened in any case in a different place and at different times from North America.

It is definitely something worth thinking about.

Lost in Books

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I am at a loss. I wander down long stretches of bookcase winding into shadow, eternity, and dust. I’ve lost all concept of time. The spine of Alan Moore’s Minutemen with its vintage essential 1930s-style artwork next to his Watchmen does not help me: though it would be interesting to read …

I keep moving. The Twilight of the Superheroes–more Alan Moore–sits there in an alcove but promises no solace. I go deeper. There is a manga section on the other side of me. Tezuka Osamu’s Phoenix: Earth stares at me mockingly whole: completing an incomplete saga and a lifetime’s work. I shake my head and keep going. I keep going past the rest of Moore’s Big Numbers, all twelve issues of them, long since past the time to remember how many steps I have given away to be here in this place.

It gets worse. I find myself at a complete run of Marvelman and it’s hard–so hard–to turn away. It’s as though I’ve come to a dead-end, like the middle of a maze in my mind, like the conclusion of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Black Tunnel Wall right in front of me.

I begin to run.

David Eddings’ Zedar: The Apostate sits on a shelf in loneliness. Myst: The Book of Marrim makes my heart-ache. There are so many Tolkiens. So many Tezukas. So much Alan Moore. Moore. Moore. More. More. More …

It is in the history section of this labyrinth of the literary bibliophiliac where I stop at Maus III: My Mother Breathes Silence–Art Spiegleman’s graphic novel based off the fragments of his mother Anja’s surviving journals from asylums and concentration camps–that I finally understand.

This place doesn’t exist. This is the place where I want to be.

I’m clutching my head in the darkness as the full implications of all this begin to sink in. Then I see something: something else in the dark. I walk past The Continued Works of Keats and The Will to Power that Nietzsche wrote himself to find a gap in the comics section. It is a small gap and I can barely make out the label on the shelf. When I read enough of it, I smile.

I can’t help it. In the Neil Gaiman section, the story of Morpheus before Preludes and Nocturnes is no longer here. It is somewhere else now. I’m smiling: hoping that the Marvelman section and its remaining additional issues will also disappear from this place sooner rather than later. It is is a small hope.

A transvestite Joker seems to laugh at me from a cover of Morrison’s Arkham Asylum as I slump down exhausted in a place more demented than Batman’s Rogues Gallery and more sad than a watch without a watchmaker: a library without librarians.

It is here, huddled in this dark corner, that I wish for a world that makes sense: a place where Homer existed, Shakespeare wrote his plays, Sappho wrote more poetry, and I–finally–know just who it is I am.

Whoever Hates the Man of Tomorrow?

Alan Moore attempts to answer a question originally of his own making when he created Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? years ago. This question has been asked a variety of times since the end of the superhero’s Silver Age and has garnered a variety of creative answers.

But why Superman? Why is Superman still so important? I admit: I have friends who simply don’t see the point to the Man of Steel’s continued existence or, indeed, his creation to begin with. One main criticism that people have with regards to Superman is how unrelatable he is to the reader. I mean, come on now, none of us can generate heat rays out of our eyes, fly, possess X-Ray vision, make freeze-breath, or be invulnerable. Certainly, no one has Superman’s “boy scout” morality without any other very human flaws and failings to match it: if that.

I can understand why Batman is more relatable. He is a human being who has used material resources and pushed all of his human skills to their limits by sheer obsession and utter will. If anyone should be the Man of Tomorrow, gender connotations notwithstanding, you’d think it would be Batman. Certainly, many people have a great love of the vigilante: of the person that goes beyond the law, becoming extra-constitutional, going beyond the polis–the city-state–to become a god or a monster to see that proper justice or vengeance is done. And there are heroes being venerated today–perhaps throwbacks to the ancient literary heroes–who are far more brutal and even more morally ambiguous than Batman.

And Superman? He is a “goody-goody.” He is so much a goody-goody he is too good to be true. Whereas Batman operates beyond the law or within its blind-eye, Superman obeys the law in as much as he can save innocents and capture criminals. Perhaps there is little difference, save that the law seems to like Superman a lot more or accept that he is beyond them: that he is using his powers to uphold the law and safety to a fault. Indeed, you could say that Superman has more a lovable personality: or is more personable and wins all popularity contests through his sheer good nature while Batman fights with fear as his weapon. Fear does not make you popular or loved: but it gets the job done.

But is that the only thing Superman has over Batman and others? That he is more lovable and makes a show of following rules? That he is superhuman and chooses not to obliterate the world? That he ignores or reshapes the reality of the world? Or worse: does he continue to patronize his friends, his allies, his enemies, and the human race by presuming to always save and stop them? Is his alter-ego of Clark Kent, according to Bill in Kill Bill Vol. II, simply a grotesque critique of what he thinks a human being really is?

The truth is, when you look at Superman, you see an incredibly powerful being that could rule and destroy the world. He could rip us apart like insects. Yes, Kryptonite can hurt and kill him but he has enough knowledge to protect himself against it. In fact, the knowledge and intelligence he possesses from the Fortress of Solitude that is his Kryptonian birthright and from his own experiments is enough to dominate and destroy all human kind. There are many people who–if they had his knowledge and power–would do exactly that and have very little qualms about doing so. Some people in the DC Universe already have.

It is already clear that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster based him off of Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the ubermensch: a being that has grown beyond the constraints of morality and limitation to choose their own path, yet they injected “good old morality” into this alien superman and made all of his achievements naturally-born and inherited from the dead.

So why is Superman special? Why do I think he is special? I might have written some of my answers already but–if I had to sum it up–I would have you consider the following.

Imagine finding out that you have the power to crush steel with a punch or even just the touch of a hand. If you wanted, nothing could ever touch you. You can move as fast as or beyond the speed of light. If you jump, you will jump extremely high and eventually be able to fly: but you need to somehow know how to control where to go or how to move given that you still have a humanoid form and it is not built with the instincts for flight.

Now take all of that–never mind the fact that you have to learn how to control your temper, your passions and hold your parents or your lovers carefully so that you don’t crush or hurt them–and then add an alien birthright whose most modest lore could detonate the world many times over and again: possibly taking you and everyone you love with it.

Your merest touch could kill a person and your slightest knowledge could destroy them. It makes for a lonely existence doesn’t it? And yet, somehow deep inside of you, you not only find the will to master all of these powers but you actually want to use what you have to help other people. At the same time, you just want to be like other people: even though deep down you know you never truly will ever be. You don’t want to be thanked, you just want to help and out of all those things you could do, you choose to do so.

In Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, a horrible calamity happens and Superman gives up on being Clark Kent. We see a person who lived among humans, who loved them, who had friends among them and wasn’t alone become an out of touch and distant Superman who only responds to the dead name of Kal-El from an equally dead and distant world. It is a Superman who still wants to do good and still feels bad over the loss of life, but he can no longer relate to anyone that he wants to save and people cannot relate to a person who looks upon them as so … lesser than he is.

He becomes the genius that cannot relate to anyone and garners misunderstanding and even contempt: because if a superhero, like a genius, cannot relate to those they save or even us readers then they have failed in a very fundamental way.

Unlike Bruce Wayne whose civilian identity is a mask for Batman, Superman is Clark Kent. He was born as Clark Kent and even though he isn’t human, being Clark Kent has taught him control and about life. As Grant Morrison demonstrates with a bright and essential freshness in his Superman All-Star, the power has not mastered Superman as it has so many others.

Superman has mastered the power and like the ubermensch he chooses his morality: which is to help people. At the same time, he is like Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroger: who can see the dance of humanity around him and even replicate it artistically but is never really a part of it. It is his strength and his sadness and yet he finds the joy in helping others find joy. Very few others in fiction or the real world could ever be like that.

I write a lot of dark and conflicted characters yet once–long ago–Superman was one of my earliest childhood heroes. And in some ways, he still is. I’m glad the idea of him exists. I’m glad he exists.

Thus concludes another episode of Matthew Kirshenblatt writing about superheroes. Up, up and away my friends.

Comics Review: Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum

The first time I’d ever heard of this game was in reference to the video game that exists out there. But I’m not talking about that. No, I am talking about this.

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I’m specifically talking about Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth the 15th Anniversary Edition. Considering that it has existed since 1989, the book has no doubt had many reviews at this point, but I feel that I have a few things to say about it: things that have been on my mind since I last read it.

What I find very unique about this comic is not what it is about, but who. You might think to yourself it is obviously about Batman, but while he is obviously a main protagonist in this work and it deals with him facing his own fears and psychological issues the story is not purely about him. The story is not about the villains that he has incarcerated there either: though they have lured him into the asylum to face said fears and the torments that they have waiting for him. It isn’t even about Amadeus Arkham: the tragic founder of the mental hospital that was supposed to save and repair criminally insane minds.

No, Arkham Asylum‘s main character is Arkham Asylum. Character as place is not a new idea. Certainly, I had to face something similar when I was writing part of my Master’s Thesis on Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire: where the protagonist of that work was actually Moore’s hometown of Northampton. But unlike Northampton that has many layers of different gritty and earthy human activity, Arkham Asylum is many nuances of madness.

Morrison doesn’t pull his punches here. He draws on Jungian psychology and archetypes, the Tarot and mysticism, and poetry and crazy itself as he depicts Batman’s essential descent into the underworld or the demented collective unconscious that Arkham has become. He also has an Alice and Wonderland reference or two. Morrison seemed to really like using those, just like Alan Moore in his Miracleman comics. Then there is the name Arkham itself to consider. From what I understand, it is derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s creation of the fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts: the seat of the strange and eldritch Miskatonic University. It has been used as a name for various fictional places, but it really has a nice and eerie parallel with Gotham’s most terrifying asylum.

The fact that it was once a house–a very Jungian archetype for the makeup of an individual’s consciousness–and the person who once lived in it failed to turn it into a place of healing and ended being locked away inside of it speaks some major volumes right there. The atmosphere of this comic is distorted and schizophrenic to the point of making even Batman seem disturbing and this is in no small part thanks to Dave McKean’s drawing style and painting.

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Do not misunderstand though. The piece has its weaknesses and, ironically enough, those weaknesses are can also be construed as its strengths. For instance, I really like the broken mirror-reality that Dave McKean has depicted with his twisted nightmarish images and the different kinds of dialogue font, but at the same time they are very distracting and it is hard to make out key details that may have actually made all the difference in understanding the plot. The reason I like the 15th Anniversary version of this book is because of the detailed comic book script at the end of it.

You know, in some ways I liked the script a lot more than I liked the comic that came from it. If Arkham Asylum is of any indication of how Morrison writes comics scripts, it represents something easy to follow and enjoyable to read. In the script the mythological and archetypal references and many more uncanny details are much more apparent. It is also an added bonus to be able to understand what it is going on and what the characters are saying. At the same time, I will be honest: I respect his interpretation for Batman in this story, but I don’t agree with it.

The fact has less to do with Morrison’s choices and more to do with the popular idea that Batman is as mentally-imbalanced as his enemies. Do I think he was influenced by a trauma into a cycle of behaviour? Obviously. Do I think he saves people’s lives just out of a compulsion? Not completely. Perhaps each time he does do it to save himself or to save the lost innocence of the child he once was. I also think he saves peoples’ lives and doesn’t use a gun because he has principles and he has a certain sense of honour influenced by his own experiences like anyone else.

But there definitely were a lot of things I liked about this book: about reading the story of Arkham Asylum and the progression of the horrifying ritual and gathering of insanity over the decades that made it into the nexus of insanity that we all know and love. I also like how it makes you look at what precisely madness is and just where that fine line may–or may not–be. It was a psychological horror story and I loved it.

I do wish that I could have gotten more out of it without having to read the script, and I could be very mean and say that there is something wrong when you like a script more than the comic it is supposed to help create: but I do love McKean’s work here and the script is a nice complement with some scenes that didn’t make it into the finished artistic product. I’d definitely give this work a five out of five.

And that is it for now. Tune in next time, my friends. Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel.

ETA: It would be interesting to see someone compare and contrast Alan Moore and Grant Morrison’s use of Alice imagery as well as how they use the ideas of “reason” and “madness or intuition” or the “Dragon” and “the hero” in Miracleman, From Hell, Arkham Asylum and Red King Rising respectively.