For Pre-order: Teaching Comics Through Multiple Lenses: Critical Perspectives

Teaching Comics Through Multiple Lenses: Critical Perspectives

Editor: Crag Allen Hill


About the Book

Building off the argument that comics succeed as literature—rich, complex narratives filled with compelling characters interrogating the thought-provoking issues of our time—this book argues that comics are an expressive medium whose moves (structural and aesthetic) may be shared by literature, the visual arts, and film, but beyond this are a unique art form possessing qualities these other mediums do not. Drawing from a range of current comics scholarship demonstrating this point, this book explores the unique intelligence/s of comics and how they expand the ways readers engage with the world in ways different than prose, or film, or other visual arts. Written by teachers and scholars of comics for instructors, this book bridges research and pedagogy, providing instructors with models of critical readings around a variety of comics.

Table of Contents



1. Introduction: The Growing Relevance of Comics

Crag Hill

Section 1: Materiality and the Reading of Comics

2. Designing Meaning: A Multimodal Perspective on Comics Reading

Sean P. Connors

3. Multimodal Forms: Examining Text, Image, and Visual Literacy in Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief

Amy Bright

Section 2: Comics and Bodies

4. Illustrating Youth: A Critical Examination of the Artful Depictions of

Adolescent Characters in Comics

Mark A. Lewis

5. Just Like Us? LGBTQ Characters in Mainstream Comics

A. Scott Henderson

Section 3: Comics and the Mind

6. Telling the Untellable: Comics and Language of Mental Illness

Sarah Thaller

7. Christian Forgiveness in Gene Luen Yang’s Animal Crackers and Eternal Smile: A Thematic Analysis

Jake Stratman

Section 4: Comics and Contemporary Society

8. Poverty Lines: Visual Depictions of Poverty and Social Class Realities in Comics

Fred Johnson, Whitworth University, and Janine J. Darragh, University of Idaho

9. Can Superhero Comics Defeat Racism?: Black Superheroes “Torn between Sci-Fi Fantasy and Cultural Reality”

P.L. Thomas

10. Teaching Native American Comics with Post-Colonial Theory

Lisa Schade Eckert

Section 5: Endpoints

11. Crag Hill

List of Contributors

Additional resources were compiled by Shaina Thomas.

O Captain America! Our Captain America!

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

“Daddy,” Sylvia Plath

Camille Paglia has confronted her own prescience about the direct line from Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected governor or California to Donald Trump now being a serious candidate for president: “This is how fascism is born.”

And while these political realities—possibly catastrophic to a people clinging to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—will likely not receive very much attention by the mainstream public, please don’t **** with an iconic comic book superhero:

The goal, of course, is to shock readers into buying the next issue, and presumably that’s what comics scribe Nick Spencer and his colleagues at Marvel Comics hoped to do when they executed a final-page revelation in last Wednesday’s Captain America: Steve Rogers No. 1: We learned that Cap is actually … evil? The Star-Spangled Avenger uttered the words, “Hail Hydra,” the fascistic slogan of longtime villain collective Hydra. Say it ain’t so!

Comic books (and more recently graphic novels and the film adaptation of superhero comic books) have always been both a reflection of and fuel for pop culture in the U.S.

And the primary subgenre of comic books, superhero narratives, has done far more to perpetuate the very worst of our society than to confront or seek to rise above xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and warmongering.

Marvel Comics claimed the comic book throne in the 1960s—over long-time powerhouse DC—but has since experienced a renaissance through film adaptations.

Iron Man and Captain America, for example, have recaptured the public’s imagination—but only a few have offered that their appeal is strongly grounded in our militarism, our patriotism that is strongly tainted with nationalism and even jingoism.

These film adaptations have carried on a tradition of the comic book industry—one that is primarily market driven: the reboot.

Now, however, pop culture has two competing set of fans, clashing nerdoms—those who worship at the alter of the comic book universe(s) and those who worship at the alter of the film universe(s).

Captain America being outed as a life-long fascist, then, in the pages of the comic book reboot of Steve Rogers as Captain America along side Sam Wilson as the replacement Captain America (see below) has drawn the ire of fans.

However, that anger lacks a grasp of both the history of Captain America and that Captain America has always been our fascist.

The general public in the U.S. suffers under a lazy understanding of terminology—such as “communism,” “socialism,” and “fascism”—and under the weight of an idealized (and misleading) faith in capitalism, one that confuses the “free market” with freedom, liberty.

The horrors of fascism include its embracing totalitarianism and militarism in order to sustain corporatism. It is fascism, in fact, that is perfectly reflected in Captain America.

In a chapter I recently completed and is now in publication, I examine race in superhero comic books, and focus on the ascension of Sam Wilson, black and formerly The Falcon, to being Captain America. In that discussion, I researched and unpacked the history of Captain America.

Here is an excerpt of that unpacking from the section subhead “Comic Book Superheroes: From Gods to White Knights”:

While gaining a much larger cultural status because of the rise of Marvel films, Captain America may best represent how superhero comics represent race and racism—as the ultimate White Knight. “Captain America, an obviously Aryan ideal,” McWilliams (2009) poses, “has always had a curious relationship with racial ideals” (p. 66) [emphasis added]. In fact, Golden Age (from the 1940s), Silver Age (later mid-twentieth century), and contemporary Captain America each represents well the comic book industry (and Marvel Comics specifically) as well as how popular culture reflects/perpetuates and confronts race and racial stereotypes.

As superhero archetype, Captain America embodies the masked duality (Brown, 1999), the white ideal, the masculine norm, and the periodic rebooting of superhero origins as part marketing strategy and part recalibration that helps mend the tear between the official canon of the comic book universe with the changing real world. The rebooted origin stories of Captain America/Steve Rogers are powerful lessons in race and the comic book industry (Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009).

The 1940s Captain America arrived in the wake of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman from the minds and pencil of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Uber-patriotic, these foundational stories, including the original origin of Steve Rogers’ transformation into Captain America, are xenophobic and perversely fueled by eugenics (Hack, 2009). Somehow the medically altered superhuman maneuvers in the U.S. were morally superior to Hitler’s parallel ethnic cleansing [emphasis added]. The 1970s Marvel recasting of Captain America by Kirby and Stan Lee reflected the changing social mood about war (Vietnam)[i], and laid the foundation for coming face-to-face with race and civil rights with the addition of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (to be explored in detail below). Although this new Captain America in the Silver Age incorporated the best and worst of Blaxploitation conventions found in films of the era (McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011), this new origin sought to erase traces of eugenics from the Captain America mythos (Hack).

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011). While the Truth/Bradley side-narrative is important in an investigation of race in comic books, Captain America provides an even more important entry point into race and superhero comic books through the 1970s teaming with Sam Wilson/The Falcon, and then the more recent and new origin story in which Wilson becomes the new (and black) Captain America (see below). However, the entire Captain America mythos, as Hack (2009) concludes, “begs the question as to whether comics such as CA [Captain America] knowingly presented a different America from the one that actually existed [and exists], or if the creators of these books believed a version of reality in which eugenics was a boon to civic virtue and in which no American would knowingly profit from Nazism. …Good and evil were [and are] presented in reductionist terms, and offered little of what contemporary conservatives decry as moral relativism; yet these distinctions were no less blurry in pre-war America as they are today: war, as always, is business” (p. 88).

It is in that broader context, I believe, that the Falcon and Wilson’s donning the cowl of Captain America are central pieces of the complex puzzle revealing how comic books address race.

So Captain America has always been a fascist. But we actually didn’t need Marvel’s newest reveal to know that.

Captain America has always been our fascist, and that is all that matters.

See Also

Hydra the Beautiful: The American Roots of Captain America’s Quasi-Nazi Revelation, Noah Berlatsky

Having the good guys turn out to be bad guys is fun as a plot device. But, as Truth shows, the actual implications aren’t fun at all. When Captain America beats up Hitler, it’s a blow against white supremacy. But given the twisted origin and development of the protagonist, it can also be seen as a blow for white supremacy, Jim Crow, segregation, racism and the eugenic fantasies that helped inspire Hitler to begin with. Hate’s a big part of what made Captain America into Captain America, with his blonde hair and perfect muscles. “Hail Hydra” is as American as apple pie, or superheroes.

LGBT Visibility: This Fucking Week, Matt Santori-Griffith

Oyola, O. (2015, November 3). The Captain white America needs [Web log]. The Middle Spaces. Retrieved from


Brown, J.A. (1999, Spring). Comic book masculinity and the new black superhero. African American Review, 33(1), 25-42.

Connors, S.P. (2013). “It’s a bird … It’s a plane … It’s … a comic book in the
classroom?”: Truth: Red, white, and black as test case for teaching superhero comics. In P.L. Thomas (Ed.), Science fiction and speculative fiction: Challenging genres (pp. 165-184). Boston, Ma: Sense Publishers.

Hack, B.E. (2009). Weakness is a crime: Captain America and the Eugenic ideal in early twentieth-century America. In R.G. Weiner (Ed.), Captain America and the struggle of the superhero: Critical essays (pp. 79-89). Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.

McWilliams, O.C. (2009). Not just another racist honkey: A history of racial representation in Captain America and related publications. In R.G. Weiner (Ed.), Captain America and the struggle of the superhero: Critical essays (pp. 66-78). Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.

Nama, A. (2011). Super black: American pop culture and black superheroes. Austin: University of Texas Press.

[i] Corresponding as well with Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adam’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, DC, 1970-1972, identified by most comic books scholars as a key moment in the cultural awareness of the medium.

Sunday 20 March 2016 Reader: in Just-/spring?

In many regions of this planet, humans are gifted the changing seasons, including the drift into hibernation and then the rebirth of spring.

One of my favorite poems has always been [in Just-] by e.e. cummings—in part because I read the “Just” as both “only” and the root of “justice,” wondering if in fact spring is just in the human sense of that justice or more so in the less ethics-grounded justice of natural dynamics.

As we slip into spring, then, I offer a smattering of varied readings, many of which should help in meditating on our human sense of justice.

Students, Not Standards: Calling for Solidarity in 2016

Many years ago, I was sitting in the last class session of the capstone secondary ELA methods course as part of my M.Ed. The guest speaker that day was my high school English teacher, the man responsible for my primary career path, Lynn Harrill.

Lynn was friends with the professor, who was then working at the state department of education, I believe.

Toward the end of the class, the professor asked what we wanted our students to know when they left our classes. That question was followed by lingering silence.

Ever the eager student, I said, “I want them to know themselves,” and I caught a glimpse of Lynn smiling widely.

Of course, that is what Lynn had taught me, although most people probably assumed it was reading and writing Lynn had so expertly given his students (which, by the way, was also true).

This moment—one of a very idealistic and naive young teacher, me—comes back to me often, and despite my many failures as a teacher, that grounding goal has always guided me. Not to be simplistic, but I teach students—that’s why I teach.

While reading Four Stories That Homework Tells Children About School, Learning, & Life, I was struck by “STORY #3: School Is More Important Than Other Pursuits/Interests/Activities.”

And now I have to investigate that memory again.

Yes, Lynn Harrill changed my life by being my sophomore and junior English teacher in high school. He was gracious, kind, and encouraging to a deeply insecure and anxious teen (me) who had decided he was a math and science person—because that is what school had told me.

Junior high English classes had been mostly draconian English teachers, grammar book exercises, and diagramming sentences. The “English” content of those classes was easy (I made As), but I loathed it all, even the texts we were assigned to read (much of which we did not read).

Now, before I launch into whining, let me be clear that my story is about how school failed me—but that because of my tremendous privilege (white, male and—according to traditional schooling and standardized tests—high verbal and mathematical intelligence), the consequences of those failures were miniscule. I attended college and continued to make As (easily), leading to an MEd and EdD.

I share this, then, not to bemoan poor pitiful me (or to brag), but to highlight that schools often fail students in ways we do not acknowledge and that the consequences for those students who need schooling most are monumental.

While I was begrudgingly playing school and succeeding, at home I was engaged in a rich array of hobbies and interests that school not only ignored, but also indirectly refuted (even Lynn told me as a 10th grader I needed to stop reading science fiction [SF] and start reading real literature such as Fitzgerald).

I was collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of Marvel comic books. I was voraciously listening to popular music and studying the lyrics. And I was doing the same with comedy albums, mostly George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

My reading life, as I noted above, was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, and whatever works were prompted by my mother’s SF film fascination. I fell in love with The Andromeda Strain because of the film, and much of my formative life was driven by the five Planet of the Apes films and TV’s Star Trek.

My response to the real literature endorsed by Lynn was tepid (but always the mama’s boy, I did as teachers told me to do), but my life was irrevocably changed when he also recommended writers I would never be assigned in the rural South of the 1970s—notably D.H. Lawrence.

Well, damn, I thought. This is literature?

My journey from student to teacher began in my sophomore year of high school as I began to untangle the false narratives school had taught me and came to embrace the authentic narratives of my real life, my real Self, outside of school.

More than a decade into my teaching career (in the position Lynn left at my high school) and in the same doctoral program Lynn had completed, I finally discovered critical pedagogy as the complete vision of student-centered teaching and learning I had been haphazardly practicing.

Regretfully, my entire career as an educator (18 years as a high school ELA teacher and then 14 more years, and counting, as an English educator and first-year writing professor) has occurred under the antithesis of student-centered critical education—the high-stakes accountability movement.

All of which, ironically, I have been prepared for by the very reading material school marginalized, science fiction and dystopian fiction.

Standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability fail students, fail teachers. They conspire to do exactly what homework accomplishes in story #3 above.

I cannot step away form this: I must teach those students placed in my care, and that duty requires me to find out who they are, what they know, and what they want so that we can work together so that they find who they are and who they want to be.

So, I wonder with the new year, and the allure of resolutions—who is with me in 2016? Can we make this about students and not standards, not tests?

See Also

Doubling Down (Again) by Reverting, Not Changing: The Exponential Failures of Education Legislation

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Beware the Technocrats: More on the Reading Wars

I Don’t Need Standards To Teach, I Need Students

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

Daredevil and Marvel Rising at Netflix

Real life origin stories have a way of being underwhelming when compared to the superhero universes of comic books—and real life origins remain relatively fixed although tellings and retellings always shade those realities differently.

My transition from childhood into adulthood is easy to pinpoint, and with the bite of a radioactive spider or an appropriate dousing in a transformative chemical, the summer between my 8th and 9th grades could have led to my wearing a different sort of lycra outfit, one donned to save the world (or at least the female of my affection).

Being diagnosed with scoliosis and having to wear a back brace from 9th through 12th grades, however, did not transform me into a superhero; it mostly hyper-exaggerated the already intense insecurities I felt as a scrawny young man wishing above all else to be a great athlete.

But the scoliosis diagnosis did lead to superheroes, specifically Marvel comics, as I began to collect and draw from the books I hoarded.

Fast forward four decades and the world has suddenly and shockingly joined me and countless nerds who didn’t need CGI and films to marvel at the alternate universes of masked superheroes. While the film explosion around comic book superheroes certainly was a significant turning point in the status of the graphic medium, I believe the rise of Marvel at Netflix is a far more compelling and promising adaptation.

Both the Daredevil and Jessica Jones series at Netflix have the time and space—serialization—to bring the most compelling aspects of comic books to viewers (something about TV series you find in HBO, Showtime, and other original programming that, I believe, is more powerful than Hollywood blockbuster film sequels).

So here is my nerd-confession about comic book superheroes: my favorite character has always been Daredevil (although I was profoundly shaped by the Spider-Man mythos as many who found themselves in the cult of Marvel experienced). As a result, for many years, my drawing of Daredevil hung in my parents’ living room:


Since I am still in advancing age struggling with the brave new world of series dumps and binge watching, I came to Daredevil (Netflix) a bit backwards after watching Jessica Jones.

Netflix’s Marvel Universe

Two 13-episode series may be an inadequate sample set, but I want first to note some patterns I have noticed watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones—sort of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

First, Netflix is offering a very muted superhero universe, not like the Stan Lee campiness but more as if Netflix is a bit embarrassed these shows are pulled from comic books. In Jessica Jones, that approach makes some sense, especially drawing as it does from Alias, but in Daredevil, the tiptoeing hurts a remarkable superhero narrative.

We wait, for example, all 13 episodes for Daredevil in his signature uniform and even the moniker “Daredevil” (and still no “Kingpin“). And the uniform? Falls short, I am afraid.

Next, just as the creative team behind a run on a comic book superhero significantly impacts the quality of the work, the Netflix series depend on the actors playing the roles as well as the writing and directing.

While the casting in Jessica Jones is stellar, I never felt drawn to the Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) or Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) actors, but I think the female roles are by far the best—Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple. Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) proves far more compelling than the main leads of Murdock and Nelson, also.

And while part of my preference for Daredevil overlaps with a similar preference for Batman, I am increasingly disturbed by the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale influence on all superhero adaptations to small and large screens: the relentless darkness and, worst of all, the Batman voice. Murdock/Daredevil and Fisk (Kingpin) have fallen prey to the Batman voice, and thus, the series has a flatness of tone that deteriorates the overall effect of the real gravity of the themes of justice driving the Daredevil mythos.

And here is the real weakness of the Netflix version of the Marvel universe—the Matt/Foggy characterizations and friendship. The way they are portrayed suffers from arrested development; I simply don’t care about them the way I did in the comic book of my youth.

Matt and Foggy appear to be mostly connected by their sophomoric objectification of women: Gosh, Foggy states far too often, how does a blind guy always know when women are hot? And that is neither satiric nor appealing, notably since Jessica Jones has made some efforts to rise about the historical failures of comic books in terms of gender portrayal.

Viewers and Daredevil deserve better.

Why Daredevil?

The very best part of the Netflx Daredevil is the series brings to a wider audience (and allows me to reconsider) the essential elements of what makes Daredevil an under-appreciated but powerful superhero narrative.

Matt Murdock’s origin story, his place (Hell’s Kitchen), Murdock’s profession as a lawyer, and the brilliant device of the blind superhero (justice is blind, right?)—these are what make Daredevil my favorite superhero. But in the end it is the possibility of Daredevil that compels me.

The Daredevil of my youth, and then later, included Black Widow and Elektra. Daredevil also experienced the complex touches of Frank Miller (both an important and a deeply problematic comic book creator) as well as writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev. Maleev’s artwork, for me, is a pinnacle of the Daredevil I want to see.


Artwork by Alex Maleev.

So I am willing to be patient because, as we have witnessed in the utter failure of bringing Daredevil to Hollywood, superheroes are allowed many reincarnations, even within an otherwise seamless existence.

Netflix need not reboot Daredevil, but would be wise to resurrect Daredevil from the best pages of the comic book itself.

As Season 1 ended, Matt and Karen hold hands, and the eerie image of Fisk in prison signal a perfect tension between light and dark, hope and certain doom.

Netflix must continue to mine that justice is blind but keep in mind the audience is neither deaf, dumb, nor blind.

For Further Reading

Daredevil: The Man without Fear (Critical Survey of Graphic Novels), P. L. Thomas

Elektra Lives Again (Critical Survey of Graphic Novel), P.L. Thomas

Review – ‘Daredevil’ Is One Of Marvels Greatest Achievements, Mark Hughes

12 Must-Read Daredevil Stories, Evan Narcisse


Comic Books and Graphic Novels: Challenging Genres, P.L. Thomas

Recommended: Adilifu Nama’s Super Black

In his Introduction of Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black SuperheroesAdilifu Nama, associate professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, shares his mid-1970s trip to the toy store, where he excitedly anticipated buying superhero figures.

“[I]t was the Falcon that captured my imagination most and cemented my attachment to virtually all things superhero,” he notes. “Why? He was a black man that could fly” (p. 1).


Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, Adilify Nama (University of Texas Press, 2011)

Around the same time, although about a decade older, I was also deeply entrenched in the Marvel Universe, which in hindsight was—along with science fiction novels—one of the doors opening to my stepping beyond my working-class roots in a white community steeped in racism and conservative ideology. I too was fascinated by the Falcon, who brought me back again and again to Captain America, a superhero I found less than compelling.


The origin of the Falcon in Captain America 117 (Marvel Comics, September 1969).

Nama asserts that Captain America losing his sidekick, Bucky, was part of “events [that] were just an interesting prelude to one of the most remarkable aspects of the Captain America comic book series: his pairing with the first African American superhero, the Falcon” (p. 69).


Captain America and the Flacon ran as a co-titled comic from 1971-1978.

Since around 1940, superhero comic books and superheroes have held a solid and important spot in U.S. pop culture, and as pop culture, comic books as a medium (genre) have demonstrated the same sort of flaws and brilliance found in other media, such as film (which Nama addresses in Chapter 5 as well as his Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film).

Pop culture often reflects, perpetuates, and confronts the very worst of the culture it serves—in terms of racism, sexism, classism, and the like. Comic books have been, and still are, no different.

Nama’s work is exceptional for his diligent commitment to outlining the role of black superheroes, primarily from Marvel and DC, while avoiding the failures often found in other critiques:

In short, the bulk of analysis concerning black superheroes has come to obvious conclusions, is embarrassingly reductive, and neglects to draw deeper connections across significant cultural dynamics, social trends, and historical events….Either black superheroes are critiqued as updated racial stereotypes from America’s comic-book past, or they are uncritically affixed to the blaxploitation film craze as negative representations of blackness. (p. 3)


Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, represents the often contradictory representation of black superheroes in the context of blaxploitation film conventions.

Instead, Nama “adopts a poststructural approach that is not beholden to…authorial intent and intensely surface perceptions,” but I must add that despite the scholarly focus, this is an accessible volume for a general readership interested in comic books, pop culture, and race (p. 5).

While offering a wonderful assortment of images, including a high-gloss four-page gallery about a third of the way through, Nama weaves an engaging discussion of the rise of socially conscious comic books (Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adam’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, DC, 1970-1972), “seminal black superheroes,” the tension of black and white superhero combinations, “white-to-black makeovers” of superheroes, and as noted about, black superheroes in TV and movies (pp. 6, 7).


The full-color, gloss insert includes vibrant images such as the original Black Lantern from January 1971-1972 (DC).

Throughout the volume, Nama offers an impressive outline of the black superhero in mainstream comic books while including a powerful examination of the relationship between comic books and the complicated history of race in the U.S.

My own evolving understanding of race in superhero comic books is increasingly informed by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi CoatesBaldwin’s confrontation of the specter or whiteness and Coates’s rejecting that “[t]he black freedom struggle is…about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans.”

In the words of a comic book fan and scholar, Nama, I think, honors both Baldwin and Coates, a perspective that resists judging race in comic books through a white lens or against a distorted bar of perfection:

Where but in superhero comics did black people visit alternative worlds, travel in rocket ships, invent and command futuristic technology, or experience time travel? (p. 66)

By coming neither to glorify nor demonize black superheroes in mainstream comic books and pop culture, Nama succeeds in reaching beyond the pages of those books and showing readers how race joins everyone in the same journey:

American blacks and whites are ultimately bound to one another fused by history and  circumstances, fate and fortune, dreams deferred and hopes realized, and when either party tries to destructively deny or sever the interconnected and interdependent nature of the relationship, both parties suffer. (p. 88)

However, comic books as manifestations of the culture they popularize are inevitably anchored by the white privilege of that real world. “Black superheroes should never be just a colorized version of the original,” Nama argues, adding:

because that would affirm notions that African Americans are at best a passive reflection and at worst a pathological reaction to white America. To the contrary, blacks have simultaneously retained a distinct form of black racial identity and worldview along with absorbing American folkways, mores, and taboos. Black superheroes, like the black folks they symbolize, must express that dynamic, whether they are completely original, an overt imitation of a white figure, or somewhere in between the two. (p. 125)

Ultimately, Nama’s scholarship is lifted by his childhood love for a black man who could fly—the Falcon merging in his boyhood mind with Dr. J—and readers are apt to enjoy this volume as much as the comic books it honors.

See Also

Black Goliath: “Some Black Super Dude,” 

Black Lightning Always Strikes Twice! – Double-Consciousness as a Super-Power

Black Communities of the 30th Century: Racial Assimilation and Ahistoricity in Superhero Comics

The Man Who Lived Twice! (If You Can Call That Living): Marvel’s Brother Voodoo

Humanity Not Included: DC’s Cyborg and the Mechanization of the Black Body, Robert Jones, Jr.

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

The Captain White America Needs

Wonder Woman and a (Surprising) Brief History of U.S. Feminism

By sheer coincidence, or at the bidding of the book gods [1], I discovered a connection between U.S. poet E.E. Cummings and Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston:

And then, on Thursday, June 24, 1915, an unseasonably cold day, Marston graduated from Harvard. In exercises held at Sanders Theatre, E.E. Cummings, a member of Marston’s class, delivered a speech about modernism called “The New Art.” (Lepore, p. 42)

After reading Susan Cheever’s compact and engaging E.E. Cummings: A Life, I turned to Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, completely unaware of the connection. Paired, however, these well written and researched books are also powerful histories that reveal the (possibly distorted) influence of Harvard in the U.S. as well as insight into the intersection of early twentieth century intelligentsia, art, and pop culture.

My initial interest in Lepore’s examination of Wonder Woman rested on my comic book background—although I was a Marvel collector in the day and quite not DC. However, Lepore’s volume is much more than about Wonder Woman or even a solid biography of Marston; this is a somewhat shocking story about U.S. feminism and sexual politics, commercialization, pop culture, and the enduring power of myth.

As a lifelong educator who essentially hid my comic book reading/collecting throughout junior and high school, I was initially sympathetic to Marston, who struggled at Harvard:

“I had to take a lot of courses that I hated,” [William Moulton Marston] explained. English A: Rhetoric and Composition was a required course for freshmen. “I wanted to write and English A, at Harvard, wouldn’t let you write,” he complained. “It made you spell and punctuate. If you wrote anything you felt like writing, enjoyed writing, your paper was marked flunk in red pencil.” (p. 6)

Especially in the wake of reading again about how Cummings developed while at Harvard, I recognized in Marston’s life (among his proclivities for living with and fathering children by multiple women) the development of creativity as an act against the norms of one’s time or community.

The short version of Lepore’s work is that Marston stumbled—often badly—through a career as a scholar/academic and inventor of the lie detector test until he created Wonder Woman in the foundational years of superhero comic books, the 1930s-1940s. However, what Lepore details well is that Marston’s creation grew significantly from the U.S. feminism movement in the early twentieth century and his relationships with Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, Margaret Sanger, and Olive Byrne.

While comic books and superheroes in the early decades of the medium from the 1930s and into the 1950s were often discounted and even savagely attacked as corrupting of children, Lepore builds a case not for Marston (who certainly comes off poorly as often a charlatan and essentially a self-centered hypocrite) but for the potential of pop culture as social activism.

Wonder Woman was created and written by Marston (with significant help, it appears, from the many women in his life) as a manifesto for women’s liberation, equality—sexual liberation, reproductive rights, work-place equality.

The farther Wonder Woman drifted from Marston, who wrote most of her comic book adventures from the early to late 1940s, the less that ideal held against the influence of the market, where traditional womanhood sold better than radical feminism (or least, that is what publishers believed).

Superheroes as pop icons have entered the U.S. consciousness through many media—comic books, television (Batman, The Hulk, and Wonder Woman, notably), and film. At any given moment in history, then, the “hot” superhero is often dictated by the medium of prominence. As a result, few people are likely aware that Wonder Woman was among the first big three in superhero comics, along with Superman and Batman.

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Wonder Woman then: Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942) and Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942). Art by Harry G. Peter.

And while all three have endured 70-plus years in pop culture—with all three having peaks, valleys, and fairly dramatic reboots—Wonder Woman has certainly not maintained either Marston’s original intent or the same weight as Superman and Batman.

That in itself is a message about how far women have yet to go in the journey to equality so well detailed by Lepore in her portrayals of Holloway, Sanger, Byrnes, and others.

Regretfully, after reading Secret History, I have a parallel concern I raised about a black Captain America: If Wonder Woman reinforces female stereotypes, objectifies women, what good a woman superhero?

Wonder Woman now: Art by David Finch

Hugh Ryan shares this concern by considering both the new team writing and drawing Wonder Woman, David and Meredith Finch, and how that essentially spits in the face of Wonder Woman as feminist ideal:

That comics are a bastion of sexism is a truism so banal it almost goes without saying. But it is particularly galling to watch the feminist superhero be treated in such a way. The Finches have made no small point of the fact that Meredith is one of only a handful of women to ever write Wonder Woman. “I love the idea that it’s a woman writing a woman,” David said in an interview with USA Today, “because we’re trying to appeal to more female readers now.”

Seeking to be celebrated for simply hiring a woman is tokenizing and offensive. From writer Gail Simone to artist Fiona Staples, there are incredible women already working in the industry. Let’s celebrate them. The Finch’s ideas of feminism, strength, and what appeals to women today seem retrograde, borderline misogynistic, and—to be frank—boring. Wonder Woman deserves better.

Cheever’s biography of Cummings and Lepore’s exploration of Wonder Woman reveal that truly flawed men (in these two cases) are often behind genuinely marvelous creation. And thus, the irony increases: Just as Cummings and Marston created as often flawed reactionaries, in spite of their environments, against the norms, we are now faced with rejecting a popular media failing not just Wonder Woman, but women once again.

See Also

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

[1] Since I am currently re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (author’s preferred text), I concede the possibility of the latter.