Comic Appeal

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In our image-centric society, graphic narratives are more popular than ever, but for all of their technical advancements the core of the medium remains unchanged, human-drawn stories about primary-colored heroes. The tradition even predates comics. Illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages featured brightly colored stories of saints in the margins for those who couldn’t read. In Ancient Greece, structures like the Parthenon featured stories of Greek heroes facing Amazons, centaurs, and giants in brightly painted metopes (sequential panels that ran along the top of the structure). Even in the prehistoric cave art of Lascaux and Altamira we find colorful depictions of humans overcoming physical obstacles of nature.

Beyond the story and the idea of a hero, the visual appeal is partly in the artificial nature of a drawn image. When we read about a person in words, we picture a real person. A false representation such as a drawing evokes the uncanny, a sense of familiarity beyond the familiar. The effect is increased over a series of linked panels that suggest movement without actually showing it. Readers are immersed in a new universe. They have an understanding of its occurrences but lack the moment to moment actualization of its time and place. The result is a subconscious sense of allure and probability just outside the reach of the logical mind.

The rest of the visual appeal comes from textual materiality, which is a scholarly phrase for the physical nature of the medium. Cave paintings were created on the uneven surface of rocks and painted in the brightest pigments available to show up in dancing, shadow-producing torchlight. The experience would have been different than looking at images on Google. Similar observations can be made for Greek sculpture and illuminated manuscripts. And comic books have their own distinct appeal through their unique materiality.

Bright primary colors were used when comics began for both ease of printing and to catch a reader’s eye. Consider the psychological effect of the colors seen on the first superhero, Superman. The blue suit causes a reader’s body to produce calming chemicals, inducing trust in the hero. The red cape, however, added to simulate movement, stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. And the effect of color doesn’t stop there. Virtually all color printing is done with yellow, cyan (blue), magenta (red) and black. All other colors are made up of dots of those four, the white of the paper, and a process in the brain that makes us see a merged color as the result. Visual scientists hypothesize that in printing such as comics this process in the brain also causes the illusion of movement. So in addition to the psychological effects of the uncanny artificial and mood inducing colors, readers experience the subconscious sense of movement on the page.

For the most part, these effects carry over to the latest innovation of digital comics. Whatever the pages may lose in the digital picture display, they gain in the reader’s ability to zoom in on panels and swipe back and forth. Our technology continues to focus on images because we are image driven beings. The appeal of visual storytelling has remained the same from cavemen scrawling on rocks to modern graphic novels. Whether you read a comic book today or enjoy or a virtual reality tomorrow, take notice of your physical and emotional responses to increase your appreciation of storytelling through a timeless medium.

Oedipus Kent

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The Oedipal complex is an important aspect of the Superman mythos. Clark does not want to marry Martha or Lara—he doesn’t want to kill Jonathan or Jor-El. But by broadening the traditional Freudian analysis, we can discover the contrasting worlds and ideologies the character does encounter. We can better understand and draw meaning from what drives Earth’s adoptive last son of Krytpon. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie presents this aspect beautifully, though not many, at least on a conscious level, realize it.

Long before he becomes Superman, Clark is raised in Smallville, a rural Kansas town, and lives as an only child on his adoptive parents’ farm. He learns middle American values. Donner shows the Kents providing him with confidence and a bright sense of destiny, and visually, the light is always warm in Smallville, the sky always clear, and the landscape as vast and sunny as Clark’s future (count how many times you see people staring into the horizon, usually into a sunrise or sunset). This safe, nurturing childhood is Superman’s metaphorical mother. Its values, comforts, and ideals become the standard he strives for as he wrestles with the metaphorical father.

That father is the world he came from, the reality of his history and the powers, differences, and responsibilities it gives him. Donner shows this world call to Clark through a Kryptonian crystal (call it a phallic symbol, if you will, but only in that it represents the patriarchal aspect of the metaphor). Clark follows the crystal’s call to the arctic where it penetrates the ice to create the Fortress of Solitude, in the manner of the Kryptonian architecture from the film’s opening (more subtly phallic crystals). This redesign of Krypton and the fortress was Donner’s unique addition to the mythos, and it works so well because of the stark visual contrast to Clark’s Smallville upbringing.

The Fortress is cold, closed in, and monochromatic. But it is white and still bright rather than dark and gloomy because it is a place of knowledge and yet another path to Clark’s destiny. Donner has him stay there with the recorded consciousness of Jor-El for years, learning about his heritage, powers, and responsibilities. When he leaves, he does not return to Smallville. He settles in Metropolis, a city also with grand architecture yet a color scheme closer to Kansas.

Clark honors what he learned from Jor-El in the fortress. Yet throughout the course of the film, he progresses into his own decisions. The first is to reveal himself to the world. Jor-El accepts the choice, but Clark is still forbidden to interfere with Earth’s history. Of course he does, though, in the climax of the film when he turns back time to save Lois as well as the other earth quake victims. He couldn’t stand by with the power to save and do nothing. His feelings for Lois are human from his human upbringing, not those of a superior being. In that moment, he chooses to make his own destiny. It’s not a full rebellion. He honors Jor-El, his Kryptonian heritage, and what he’s learned from both. It’s rather a subtle assertion of priorities. Above all else Clark as Superman will serve as a human for humans, fighting for the safe, comforting acceptance that comes through “truth, justice and the American way.”

Superman doesn’t want to kill his father or marry his mother. Instead, and more profoundly, he overcomes restrictions of his metaphorical father to remain true to the ideals of his metaphorical mother. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie shows this aspect of the character better than any other film. It connects the character to an audience who has their own conflict between ideals and world realities and inspires us to fulfill our own bright destinies.

Second Coming

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One shortsighted critique of Superman Returns claims the film tries too hard for iconic imagery, neglecting the action of a hero fighting super villains. But this view misses the thematic significance of that iconic imagery and its deeper significance to Superman in general. Rather than bludgeon his characters with punches and his audience with empty Christ-figure symbolism, Singer utilizes Atlas imagery that encompasses Superman’s place as a Christ-figure.

Instead of playing super fists, Routh’s Superman is engaged in the more important task of saving people. He is shown over and over again lifting and carrying people both literally and symbolically. Kitty even sings “He’s got the whole world in his hands” as Lex first reads of Superman’s return. But it doesn’t stop there. The film asserts that along with saving people, inspiring them to save each other is Superman’s mission on Earth. His first act of heroism after he returns is to fly up and save an airplane full of people. He spends the film instilling hope, being the savior people are “crying out for,” and in the end, as he drifts in the water, dying from the Kryptonite shiv in his back, Jor-El’s voice-over tells him “Your leadership can stir others…” Cue Richard and Lois “flying” over in their own plane to, this time, save the savior.

What does it say about our concept of heroic behavior that so many need explicit conflict to be appeased? True heroism is in giving of our selves, lifting others up and being the example that inspires heroism in others.

Super Friends

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I love this Steve Rude piece that serves as a cover for the Gibbons/Rude World’s Finest. Superman, confident in the warm and safe sunlight, stands atop an eagle (justice) and sends forth doves (peace). Batman stands at night in front of the artificial rays of the Bat signal. It shines in the same manner as the sun that surrounds it on top and bottom. Batman as a hero is a subtle balance which many writers and artists fail to keep, plunging him into the darkness of an almost antihero.

With the composition of this painting, Rude shows Batman to be carrying on the same work as Superman, only at night and in nighttime forms. For Batman, the eagle of justice is a gargoyle, Gothic protector against “a superstitious lot.” His doves are bats, winged creatures able to move in the dark. Batman and Superman aren’t so different. Rude shows them to be unified by light. Superman radiates its warmth by example, and Batman shines it into the neglected corners of a dark city.

Some of us are more inclined toward Superman. We like the “sun” and feel led to share its warmth. But others, and even all of us at some time or another, have Batman moments in which we need to confront a darkness that simply won’t respond to warmth. In those moments, it’s important not to succumb to the darkness we’re battling in the absence of the sun. Remember that you’re still shining the light, even if sometimes it’s the bat signal.