Last week Monday, I attended the (Super)Hero with 1000 Faces event at the British Library. The event was associated with the Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibit, which focuses on themes of rebellion and anarchy in British comics.
The lineup was a mix of academics and creative professionals: Drs. Sarah Zaidan and Will Brooker in the first category, and Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison in the other. Zaidan and Brooker are also entering the industry with their new comic My So-Called Secret Identity, created with Suze Shore. Discussion was to be chaired by Sam Leith, journalist for the Guardian and comics fan.
The event was held in a largeish auditorium, which was completely packed by the time things started. Before the speakers took the stage, we were treated to a brief trailer for the Comics Unmasked exhibit, which featured snippets from its curators and organizers. Surely everyone in attendance had at least heard of the exhibit? Even if this wasn’t the case, it seemed odd to plug an exhibit at an event associated with that same exhibit.
Zaidan began proceedings with an overview of the portrayal of gender in comics from the 1930s until now. Although some of the content was familiar, her talk provided many interesting pieces of information; for instance, we learned about Miss Fury, one of several female superheroes in Golden Age comics and the only one to be drawn by a woman.
We were made aware of the blonde teen angel trend in the Silver Age, epitomized by DC characters such as Supergirl, Saturn Girl, and the first Batgirl. When placed side by side, they looked almost identical except for their costumes. The Silver Age also gave us what Zaidan called “the Sue Storm problem,” epitomized by the Invisible Woman herself and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl: women who were introduced as key members of super-teams but were still portrayed in sexist ways. Despite being one of the Fantastic Four and a grown woman, Sue Storm started out as the Invisible Girl and was always somebody’s wife or sister (to paraphrase an irritating Internet meme); she didn’t even become the Invisible Woman until she married Reed Richards. Batgirl’s popularity rose following her appearances on the 60s TV show. Although she started out as a graduate student and skilled fighter, which is more than Sue Storm got, the sample cover that Zaidan showed depicted Batgirl worrying about a run in her tights in the middle of a fight.
Zaidan then moved on to the Bronze Age and its backdrop of blaxploitation, post-women’s lib, attempts to tackle social issues such as drug abuse and racism and emerging post-Vietnam grimness. Hence the debut of Luke Cage, grizzled antiheroes such as the Punisher and Wolverine, and Storm, the first black female superhero and best member of the X-Men. Hence also the introduction of Big Barda, who on the one hand was drawn to be physically imposing and larger than her husband Mr. Miracle; on the other hand, her first cover encouraged readers to “SEE HOW SHE EXERCISES!” in a skimpy outfit and featured men commenting on how “she sure is a lot of girl to watch!” The standout feature of this section was The Cat, a female superhero drawn by Marie Severin and written by Linda Fite. Unlike most other superheroes, who were either born with their powers or obtained them in freak accidents, The Cat gained her powers by voluntarily undergoing experiments to “unlock her potential” after the death of her overprotective cop husband. It’s an origin story that celebrates a woman operating independently of male influence and discovering her own power, which is sadly still a rarity.
Time was beginning to run short at this point, so the next few decades went by in a bit of a flash. The 80s ushered in a trend of self-serving superheroes such as Booster Gold, the questionable empowerment of Jean Grey via the Dark Phoenix Saga, and Femforce: the first all-female super-team in comics. The name choice was unfortunate and, Zaidan said, the lineup didn’t provide any development for the individual characters, but it did set a precedent for raising the profiles of women in super-teams.
The 90s was quite a mixed bag, being the era of Liefeld, the Authority, and Milestone Media all at once. This meant the depictions of exaggerated hyper-masculinity and sexualized Escher girls—such as Liefeld’s Glory, “whose superpower is [apparently]having no internal organs”—many readers associate with that decade, but it also meant a significantly increased commitment to ethnic diversity. Not only did super-teams begin to feature more non-white characters, but an entire publishing company was created to tell stories focusing on minority characters and to address the problem of their under-representation in comics.
Zaidan concluded by stating that the 00s and current decade provide more diversity with regard to publication and audiences as well as representation. Despite missteps like the sexing-up of Harley Quinn in the New 52, comics are now reaching a wide variety of demographics through avenues such as self-publishing, online serialization (for webcomics), and Kickstarter. We also have more prominent LGBTQ characters than ever before—including Young Avengers’ Hulkling and Wiccan and Kate Kane, the first lesbian superhero to headline her own comic—and ethnic minority characters who engage with and challenge stereotypes, like Kamala Khan and the tattooed, bisexual, and certainly not petite Grace Choi. This, Zaidan argued, is the model that publishers need to embrace in order to succeed, as illustrated by the rising sales of Dark Horse and Image comics and falling sales of Marvel and DC comics.
Next up was Will Brooker, whose talk touched on several topics; these included the often-unmentioned origins of Batman and Superman, queer readings of Batman, and trends from the late 80s onwards that characterize contemporary comics.
Batman, Brooker pointed out, started out even grimmer than he is now. He killed criminals and was happy to watch them die. In one panel, Batman watches a criminal fall into an acid bath and pronounces it “a fitting end for his kind!” By contrast, although Superman is often associated with the neo-conservative establishment nowadays, he originally held much more socialist ideals. For instance, an early strip depicts him destroying cheap-rental apartments in protest against their tenants’ terrible living conditions.
Brooker then moved on to talk about queer interpretations of Batman, putting a positive spin on Fredric Wertham’s anxieties regarding the possible homosexuality of Batman and Robin and arguing that Batman could easily be read as gay. Even Batgirl and Batwoman, who were introduced as “double dates for the Dynamic Duo,” accentuate rather than erase this queerness. “The couples are always very troubled,” Brooker stated, “[and]heterosexuality…is a trap and a danger.” To support this argument, he displayed a panel wherein Batman wonders how to disentangle himself from his commitment to Batwoman.
Returning to the history of Batman, the 60s TV show provided a major boost to the comics’ popularity. The comics responded with simpler, brighter cover art and colors, more BIFF! POW! BAM! sound effects, and “pop art” checks along the top borders of covers. However, the 70s introduced a “hairy-chested playboy” version of Batman, who was meant to represent a move away from the TV show by focusing on detective work and having shirtless fights with shadowy villains such as Ra’s al Ghul. Batman in the 80s was Frank Miller’s grim Dark Knight and the tortured protagonist of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth—a phrase which Brooker said “sum[s]up a lot of the late 80s.”
Moving away from Batman, Brooker described the 90s as a time of new male character types, particularly in Vertigo. We had the thin, shaggy-haired proto-emo men such as Morpheus and Shade, and the Changing Man; the stubbly smokers with meaningful initials and access to supernatural powers (Jesse Custer and John Constantine); and the bald truth-seekers with cool glasses (King Mob and Spider Jerusalem).
Finally, according to Brooker, comics in the 00s have been “prismatic,” incorporating multiple continuities into single narratives. This is particularly noticeable in the superhero work of Grant Morrison (e.g., All-Star Superman and Batman Incorporated).
After Brooker’s talk ended, it was time to bring on Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis and begin the Q&A portion of the evening, which opened with a question from Sam Leith about how the ongoing continuity of comics shapes or hinders creativity. Morrison answered by comparing set comics structure to the repeated musical motif in 12-bar blues, which allows for all sorts of creation and innovation to a single accompaniment. Ellis described comics as “commedia dell’arte” with “stock characters in situations that you improvise around” to create new narratives which “reflect contemporary concerns.”
An audience member asked a question directed mostly at Zaidan about the poster used to promote the Comics Unmasked exhibit, drawn by Jamie Hewlett. She praised its subversiveness, but expressed some concern about how the character was dressed—“I wish she had more on.” Morrison disagreed somewhat with the criticism, suggesting that there was nothing negatively sexualized in the image. Here I have to both agree and refute; the problem, I feel, is not the image but its context. If women in comics had always been allowed to wear a variety of costumes that didn’t focus primarily on showing off their bodies for the male gaze, then visual portrayals of them could be concerned with reflecting their personalities. You would still have some women who did wear more revealing clothes, but in a way that highlighted some aspect of who they were as people. Unfortunately, as Zaidan’s talk noted, this has definitely not been the case. Female comics characters have been shoved into objectifying clothes for a troubling amount of time, so a woman in a crop top and short shorts can easily become another example of that. Perhaps the question that needs to be answered is whether she was drawn in those clothes because they somehow express her personality, or whether that’s just how Hewlett and many other artists believe women should be drawn.
This topic led into a discussion of the over-sexualization of female characters in comics. Ellis and Morrison agreed that comics artists were, and often still are, “cloistered boys drawing sexy girls and sexy guys,” using the medium of comics to act out fantasies about power and sex; Brooker added that Bill Finger, like many early creators, was medically disqualified from taking part in WWII.
There were other audience questions about superheroes as mythology and the realism of superheroes. Morrison said that he felt cosmic-level superheroes were “more realistic,” since “the battles we fight in our heads are cosmic battles,” and that superheroes translate “directly into symbols” rather than functioning on a realistic level. Ellis suggested that comics work better as a mode of “processing” social or personal problems than as a means of “wish-fulfillment,” which allows for the inclusion of darkness and negativity in superhero narratives as long as it goes somewhere.
One audience member brought up the question of why so many prominent creators are British. Ellis and Morrison noted that unlike the American comics model, which features single characters in ongoing narratives, the British comics model features a variety of characters and stories, usually in weekly anthologies. As a result, British comics creators of a certain generation grow up with a concept of comics that involves more turnover, and therefore more creation of new ideas. British TV, which tends to have much fewer episodes than American TV—a UK TV series usually has about six episodes, whereas an American series has twenty-something episodes per season—also contributes to this model of greater turnover and idea creation.
I could have listened to the panel all night, and from the comments I heard afterwards, many other audience members could have done the same. However, after what felt like much too short a time, Sam Leith announced that time was up.
Just outside the auditorium there was a small stall selling TPBs and books by Morrison, Ellis, and Brooker, and a long line of fans waiting to get books signed by Morrison and Ellis. I joined the line with a copy of Morrison’s Batman: R.I.P. and Ellis’s novel Gun Machine.
It took longer than I expected to get my books signed, mostly because I had forgotten that comics fans can take a considerable amount of time chatting to their favorite creators during signings. Not that I blame them, but still.
In a cruel twist of fate, Ellis had to head off just before I reached him, so my copy of Gun Machine remains unsigned. I managed to get Batman: R.I.P. signed by Morrison, though, and kept my chat short in deference to the people waiting behind me despite the temptation to ask him a million questions. Once the line thinned out, I actually went back to ask one of those questions: why did he think Talia should have been the mother of Batman’s child?
Talia, he said, is the “ultimate woman,” who has been pushed by her father into being with the “ultimate man” (i.e., Batman). It therefore makes sense that they’d get together, but also that Talia would come to a point where she “just fucking hates Batman.” And when the ultimate man and ultimate woman split up, the normal trauma of breakups and divorce plays out on a grand scale.
I also got to chat to Will Brooker, to whom I often send nonsense via Twitter, about queer interpretations of Batman as a character. He very kindly invited me to join him and his friends—and, it transpired, Grant Morrison and his wife—for drinks afterwards.
A note: I don’t wish to make a habit of describing women purely in terms of what they wear, and deplore this tendency in mainstream journalism. However, I have to mention the Dolce and Gabbana chainmail-inspired skirt that Morrison’s wife wore, because it was 100% amazing.
We headed to the bar in the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel near the British Library, which was almost intimidatingly fancy and priced at the usual painful London rates. They did serve a great Albariño, though, and we also got free jars of popcorn.
As the wine flowed, so did the conversation. I learned from Morrison that seagulls can live for 40 years, which I now realize may or may not be true. We talked about magic, secrets, comics, and the binder of pages from The Multiversity that Morrison produced from his bag. Unfortunately, I can’t divulge any details about the pages except that they looked fantastic.
The feeling of actually touching a piece of comics history before it becomes history, knowing that the page in your hand is in the process of coming to life, is difficult to describe. I can only say that there’s no other experience like it.
Not long after this, I had to head for the train station to catch the last train home, which apparently meant missing Morrison channeling the voices of the JLA and the cast of Batman Incorporated. (This is what happens when you don’t live in London.)
Still, between the talks, the thoughts on comics, and the once-in-a-lifetime social opportunity, it was an evening that I won’t forget.
NEXT: I twerk with Leigh Alexander and make friends through the power of dance.