Print – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 DC Comics’ Halfhearted Appeal to an Alternate Readership Fri, 18 Sep 2015 16:41:55 +0000 gotham by midnight panel

A panel from Gotham By Midnight.

Post by Bradley Schauer, University of Arizona

In recent years DC Comics has come under criticism for its monolithic publishing line – grim, violent books aimed at twenty- to fortysomething white men, drawn in a house style that hasn’t left the 1990s. While not every DC book fit this profile, it was clear that the publisher had little response to the more inclusive, nontraditional comics of independent competitor Image Comics (or even of archival Marvel, which has recently found success with books like Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye). In March, DC’s dollar share of the market was only 26 percent, mainly due to the extraordinary success of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, but also DC’s struggle to sell any comics that aren’t related to Batman. That month, only three of the top twenty bestselling books were published by DC.

In May, DC announced its new “DC YOU” initiative, described by the publisher as a “bold, new direction” with “a story for every kind of fan.” DC YOU seemed to be a direct response to the company’s critics: 17 new titles premiered in June, featuring a wide variety of storylines and art styles. New writers and artists from diverse backgrounds were enlisted, such as David F. Walker, Annie Wu, and Gene Luen Yang. These creators would be allowed to tell their stories without excessive editorial interference or continuity constraints; they were also reportedly guaranteed at least twelve issues before threat of cancellation.

With DC YOU underway, DC’s line is currently stronger than it has been in years. Standout titles include Prez, a sharp, funny satire of contemporary politics, supernatural police procedural Gotham by Midnight, smart and subtle space opera The Omega Men, and writer Genevieve Valentine’s re-envisioning of Catwoman as an intricate crime saga. However, initial DC YOU sales were lower than expected, and at the end of August it was rumored that DC would be largely returning to its “meat and potatoes” house style. DC denied these reports and asserted its commitment to diversity, but this week it confirmed the cancellation of six titles, including all the books just mentioned (except Catwoman, which remains, sans Valentine). Several more soft-selling new books are likely on the chopping block.

DC’s quick cancellation trigger and willingness to abruptly shift creative direction from month to month points not only to the publisher’s uncertainty about today’s comics market, but to larger problems in its business model. Specifically, DC’s emphasis on single-issue sales obstructs its plans to draw a wider, more diverse readership. DC may want to capture some of the audience for Image Comics, but it is not currently structured to effectively target those readers, or to successfully publish comics that diverge sharply from its traditional formula.

To be fair, sales for the canceled books were indeed low and dropping precipitously: Omega Men #3 received only 13,000 orders from retailers, for instance. At the same time, the canceled books were in the same sales vicinity as Image hits like Lazarus, Velvet, and The Manhattan Projects. Writer Kieron Gillen, who has worked for Marvel and Image, states that an indie book selling 10-12,000 copies “is a cause for celebration and joy.” But at DC and Marvel where sales targets are much higher, in part due to greater overhead costs, the same book would be canceled.

Panels from Omega Men.

Panels from The Omega Men.

While DC is known to cancel books before their first trade paperbacks are released, Image waits and fosters the sale of trades, which their readers tend to prefer. For instance, Sex Criminals #11 was the 119th bestselling single issue of July, but in February its second trade volume was the second bestselling graphic novel of the month. This preference for trades suggests that Image’s readership is different from the “Wednesday warriors” of Marvel and DC fans who buy a stack of floppies each week from their local shop.

Unlike the Big Two, Image is able to patiently wait for trade sales and word-of-mouth to build because in their publishing model, the creators bear most of the financial risk. While DC and Marvel pay a page rate, Image creators aren’t paid until Image has subtracted printing and distribution costs, and taken its cut. This can mean huge profits for the creators of Image bestsellers like Saga or The Walking Dead, but creators of lighter-selling books often must wait until trade publication (and sometimes not even then) to earn anything. By paying creators upfront, DC and Marvel are much less likely to nurture low-selling books.

Of course, it’s not feasible for DC and Marvel to scrap their current business model entirely. For one thing, many creators prefer the steady paychecks of the Big Two as opposed to the risk of the indie world. And parent corporations Time Warner and Disney would never allow creators to own the media rights to their work, as Image does. That said, if DC is serious about attempting to broaden its audience, it needs to allow its more offbeat, distinctive books time to build a readership, especially when readers who might enjoy those books prefer trade paperbacks and may be reluctant to purchase DC comics in the first place. Something like Omega Men would have probably sold better as an Image title, as it will read better as a trade, and Image’s core readership is better primed for its formal experimentation. But given a full twelve issues and time to build word-of-mouth from trade sales, the book might have found some measure of success at DC. Even if it didn’t, its very existence would have helped rebrand DC as a welcome home for innovative, nontraditional comics.

Perhaps small losses on a few unique books could be considered acceptable in the long run, if it makes the publisher more attractive to wider, different demographics. Instead DC seems shortsighted and fickle, too concerned with month-to-month fluctuations in sales and market shares. Quickly canceling low-selling books that were designed to run twelve issues leads to a vicious cycle in which readers are reluctant to sample new books, for fear of wasting their time and money. Co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee appear to be on a short leash; this may have to change if DC is going to effectively compete in a new marketplace where it is losing ground.


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The Power of Women’s Voices in The Great Gatsby Thu, 09 May 2013 13:00:41 +0000 the-great-gatsby-movie“[T]here was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If his classic novel, The Great Gatsby, is any indication, F. Scott Fitzgerald loved the sound of a woman’s voice. The book, upon which Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming film adaptation is based, is like a textual serenade to a thrilling and unique feminine voice that rings out like “a wild tonic in the rain.” Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby will hit theaters this Friday, with Tobey Maguire voicing Fitzgerald’s masculine narrator and Leonardo DiCaprio portraying the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s intriguing feminine voice – which belongs to Daisy Buchanan – will be embodied by Carey Mulligan. Gatsby’s promotional materials indicate that Mulligan’s performance will offer the nuanced physical performance demanded by the role – but if Gatsby’s trailers are any indication, Daisy’s voice will have some impressive help from the film’s soundtrack. Her voice carried little influence or power in Fitzgerald’s day – in an age in which “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool” – but Gatsby’s soundtrack artfully blends Fitzgerald’s 1920s female voices with a cast of contemporary female musical powerhouses, who insistently reclaim Daisy’s silenced perspective.

In an effort that delayed the film’s release substantially, Luhrmann recruited Jay-Z to compile an impressive array of top artists. The most impressive among them are women, performers who intimately express the timeless emotional appeal of Fitzgerald’s Daisy. Beyoncé’s collaboration with André 3000, an eerie rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” is an unsettling confession of compulsive loyalty to an unfaithful partner. The vulnerable honesty of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” begs for reassurance that love can outlast youth. And Florence + the Machine’s intensely powerful “Over the Love” nods to Daisy’s gendered social restrictions, channeling the frustration of a woman “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

On the surface, these songs may not strike a feminist chord. In many ways, they speak to the powerlessness of Fitzgerald’s jazz age women. But while Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch, and Beyoncé, like Daisy, have incredibly memorable voices, their performances are also overflowing with generations of hard-won power. Welch’s voice has been called “hauntingly powerful” and “too loud for the room,” pointing to the brick wall of sound she pushes from her adept Lungs. She describes her music as “something overwhelming and all-encompassing that fills you up,” putting her right at home alongside female mogul Queen Beyoncé’s authoritative style. And while Lana Del Rey’s tender contribution to the musical compilation is more subdued, her industry prowess earned her featured billing. Setting her apart from other contributors, Warner Brothers’ “Soundtrack Sampler” features a still image of Del Rey’s name in the bold, graphic lettering of the film’s title screen.

Regardless of whether these musicians should be considered feminist or not, these songstresses’ massive voices bubble up under the story’s surface, threatening to overturn the masculine narrator’s perspective in favor of Daisy’s lilting voice. Some of the film’s trailers even seem to take on Daisy’s point of view, layering Carey Mulligan’s beautifully nuanced facial reactions to the violence she both witnesses and perpetrates over contemporary female performers’ driving vocals. Daisy’s voice may not have had much power in the jazz age, but with singers like Beyoncé, Welch, and Del Rey to offer their vocal prowess to the character, Daisy’s perspective takes on a whole new meaning for feminism. United with these musicians’ vocal power, Daisy becomes an illustration of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Fitzgerald describes Daisy’s as “the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” I like to imagine the woman whose lilting speech compelled him to craft such a lovely phrase, but like so many women – both historical and contemporary – her voice has been silenced. In performances that truly speak to the power of a musical message, Florence Welch, Beyoncé, and Lana Del Rey have taken up her cause. Together, they remind us of the hope in a powerfully insistent voice. They remind us that some voices are forever silent. And, most importantly, they remind us that our voices – and media soundtracks – can be important feminist tools as we “beat on, boats against the current.”


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The Comics Arms Race and the Failure of Diversity Mon, 18 Mar 2013 13:00:23 +0000 Justice_League_of_America_Vol_3_1_WINearly two years after I detailed DC Comics’ “New 52” relaunch for Antenna, I thought I’d take another look at the state of American comics publishing. Despite competition from Image and IDW, American comics remain largely a two-publisher game, with DC and Marvel accounting for approximately 70% of all comics sales. Overall, monthly comic sales in February 2013 were up nearly 15% from a year ago, and up 35% from two years ago. This spike is due primarily to the relaunches of the two major publishers–the “New 52” and “Marvel Now.” The shuffling of creative teams, renumbering of books, and in DC’s case, the “rebooting” of the narrative universe, have generated considerable reader interest. At the same time, both publishers employ a number of strategies to mitigate the inevitable attrition that occurs with monthly comics.

Retailer incentives like variant covers are nothing new, but are being emphasized strongly in today’s market. Variant covers are provided to retailers based on the number of issues ordered. For instance, a retailer ordering 50 copies of Fantastic Four #1 received one issue with an alternate cover by Dave Johnson; while 100 copies gets you a Joe Quesada cover, etc. To receive these rare variants, a retailer often must order more books than he or she can reasonably sell. The retailer still comes out ahead by selling each variant at an inflated price that exceeds the cost of the books that don’t sell. Publishers also encourage excessive ordering by offering extra volume-based discounts for less popular books. DC gave retailers an extra 15% discount if their orders of Katana (a relatively obscure character) were 75% of their orders for Justice League of America (a bestseller).

The effect of these incentives is the artificial inflation of comic sales beyond the number of people who are actually interested in reading the books. On a much larger scale, this kind of speculation led to the near-collapse of the industry in the mid-nineties. Today, it’s possible that some readers may be turned off by the shamelessness of the variant gimmick, and recently, retailer Brian Hibbs attacked variant covers as an unethical manipulation of the market by the Big Two. Yet the practice remains lucrative; February saw the numbers of Justice League of America #1 boosted by as much as 300% by the offering of one variant cover for each state of the U.S.A. (see picture)

In terms of content, DC has pursued more of a “long tail” approach than Marvel. As I discussed in my previous post, one of the features of the New 52 was its variety–in terms of genre, and also the gender and ethnicity of its superheroes. This diversity helps to attract readers beyond the traditional white male superhero fan, and could also serve as R&D for film and television adaptations. (Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film foregrounds the potential value of obscure characters.)

Marvel, in comparison, tends to stick to its most popular properties, yoking most books to a franchise such as the Avengers or X-Men. While lesser-known characters are often given their own title at DC, they are typically subsumed into an Avengers team book at Marvel, where they are afforded the support of the Avengers brand. Last month, 22 of the top 100 bestselling books had “Avengers” or “X” in the title. Also, Marvel “double-ships” its core titles, publishing books like Avengers and Spider-Man between 18-24 times a year rather than monthly. In May, Marvel solicited 48 ongoing titles to DC’s 52, but fourteen of Marvel’s titles ship twice that month, bringing its total number of ongoing issues in May to 62. Marvel also prices most of its books at $3.99 each, while nearly all of DC’s books are a dollar less.

While the diversity of DC’s offerings might be admirable from a creative and cultural standpoint, from a sales perspective it has led to a considerably weaker publishing slate than Marvel’s. The more offbeat genres and characters that make up DC’s long tail have almost without exception sold poorly, and most have already been canceled (some after only seven or eight issues). Of DC’s ongoing titles, 23 sold fewer than 20,000 copies last month; Marvel had only eight titles that sold that poorly. Marvel also currently holds fourteen of the top 25 sales slots, to DC’s nine. Marvel’s double-shipping and $3.99 price point allow it to surpass DC in both unit and dollar shares, despite the sales boost provided by DC’s relaunch.

DC has traditionally trailed Marvel on the sales charts, but it has remained highly competitive based on the success of short-term promotions (renumbering, “zero month”) and high-profile limited series like Before Watchmen and the upcoming Before Sandman. Yet already their gimmicks have become more desperate–every issue in April will contain a gatefold cover that unfolds to reveal a surprise plot point, a promotion DC has labeled “WTF month”, to the derision of online fans. To better compete with Marvel, I suspect DC will continue to pare back its long tail, increase the number of $3.99 books it releases, focus on its core franchises, and perhaps also begin to double-ship certain popular books. This will surely lead to increased homogeneity on comics stands; however, this in turn might encourage readers to check out the more diverse offerings of independent publishers.


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“Everybody Gets Wet?”: Class, Race and Region after Superstorm Sandy Fri, 09 Nov 2012 14:00:34 +0000 A regular refrain in local New York news coverage of the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy was that “everybody gets wet,” a disingenuous piece of pseudo-democratic rhetoric comparable to the UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s repeated assertions that in austerity Britain “we’re all in this together.” Formulations of this kind typify state and corporate regimes which have increasingly freed themselves from facts and trade in the assertion of opposites. Under these new rhetorical protocols, for example, there are no cuts to customer service, only “innovations” implemented with built-in affective cues about how “exciting” they are.

What is most apparent a little more than a week after the storm is, in fact, “growing belief that the recovery from Hurricane Sandy has cleaved along predictable class lines.” Media presentations of white ethnic working-class “shore” populations in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island are distinct from, yet overlapping with, both those of the more privileged and more visible Manhattan, and also those of the poorer and more disenfranchised Lower 9th Ward and other communities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The reporting on these “outer borough” residents tends to emphasize a sense that officials place them at a lower priority than wealthier areas such as Manhattan. In direct comparisons with others in the Sandy-affected region and in (implicit) juxtaposition to Katrina’s most visible victims, the white working-class people portrayed in the Sandy coverage occupy a unique position in media discourses of race, class, and region.

In many ways, hard-hit areas of the Tri-State region were pre-positioned through reality and crime tv as sites of inferior or deficient modes of citizenship. The tabloidization of the Jersey Shore (largely through the eponymous series) syncs up with similar dynamics around the South Shore of Long Island which in recent years has attracted media attention for the gruesome serial murder of prostitutes whose bodies/body parts have been found throughout beach dunes in that area. Such locales are the homes of “off-white” citizens who are precisely and distinctly positioned in a region “whose multiethnic makeup still betrays a remarkably hierarchical, if invisible to many, pecking order.”

Reporting of the disaster’s impact in places like Breezy Point in the Rockaways is colored by a strong element of mourning for obsolescent, geographically fixed communities, in contrast to the more affluent, gentrified, and relatively transient residents of the areas of lower Manhattan that were also affected. [1] News articles elaborate the class identity of the area by naming the professions of residents as “retired teacher,” “retired guidance counselor,” “school secretary,” and “volunteer firefighter.” Breezy Point is defined as a “tightknit enclave that is home to many firefighters and police officers and is known for a self-sufficient sensibility,” which tags it as a white ethnic area of working-class Irish Americans, a marginal community with outdated traditions and deep family ties (not to mention precarious beachfront real estate). Yet this image of a tightknit neighborhood where people believe in personal responsibility also constructs an implied contrast with other (non- or less white) working-class areas whose inhabitants are known rather for their dependence on public assistance.

“Outer borough” Sandy survivors are also constructed as emotional, feminized, and unsophisticated. Photos of residents surveying the wreckage of their homes tend to portray women in sweatshirts. Headlines announce that the Rockaways are “forlorn” and resentful of the relatively quick return of power to much of Manhattan. The New York Times quotes an elderly woman caring for her disabled sister, “We need to know when we’re going to have gas, light, electric. Everywhere is getting something but us.”


Figure 1: Jennifer Maloney/The Wall Street Journal.

Figure 2: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters, in the New York Daily News

Figure 2: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters, in the New York Daily News

In contrast to the images of vulnerable and marginalized shore-dwellers, pre-storm media accounts heavily emphasized the spectacle of authoritarian white male politicians—in particular, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Chris Christie—in press conferences scolding the public and suggesting that it would be unconscionable for them to stay in their homes and put “first responders” at risk. In issuing his evacuation order, Mayor Bloomberg reprimanded those who might defy the mandatory evacuation: “they are being … very selfish. A lot of people say, ‘Oh well, I’m just going to tough it out. If down the road you can’t tough it out … those first responders put their lives in danger and aren’t available for true emergencies.” Governor Christie was characteristically blunt in his characterization of those who might choose to stay in evacuation zone locations: “It’s just not acceptable conduct.” In lengthy and continued admonishments he noted “This is not a time to be a show-off, this is not a time to be stupid. This is the time to save yourself and your family,” and berated hold-outs as “stupid and selfish” for endangering those who might be tasked with rescuing them should conditions worsen. [2] Christie’s bullying communication style inspired a satirical Saturday Night Live take on his press conference in the post-Sandy November 4 episode, which presented him as a Sopranos-style New Jersey tough guy.

Satire notwithstanding, the stern face of the paternalistic official presents a striking contrast to the many images of crying women, positing the male politician as the enforcer of ethical civic participation and personal responsibility. Chiding the public for making the decision not to evacuate, Bloomberg and Christie perpetuate the fallacy of the rugged individualist as the appropriate subject of authoritarian political discourse. This kind of discursive presentation reinforces fantasies of neoliberal preparedness while displacing the unpreparedness of the state to fully cope with disasters. It also elides the reality that for many– the poor, the elderly, the ill, those without family or friends to call upon–preparedness is a purchased condition that may not be available.

The scolding tone of elected officials during Sandy echoes the widespread criticism of New Orleanians after Katrina, blaming them for living in a low-lying city, for not adequately taking care of the infrastructure or of their families and communities. Much hostile rhetoric circulated around questions of whether or not the city should be rebuilt, and if so how and on whose budget. The abandonment of the devastated American city posed as a practical, common-sense measure; yet as Mark Schleifstein reports in the Times-Picayune, 55 percent of Americans live in counties protected by levees. The punitive attitude of Bloomberg and Christie implies that those who “choose” not to evacuate don’t deserve to be rescued; similarly, the post-Katrina debate revealed that many believed New Orleanians were to blame for their own misfortunes because they had “chosen” to live in an unsafe area. In an article about the ethics of defying evacuation orders, Deidre Hodges is quoted in the context of her Katrina experiences: “It’s harsh to be really judgmental or critical of someone [without] understanding why they’re making the decision to stay….Some people are alone; some are elderly. There are just a lot of people who don’t have anywhere to go or the means to travel.”

The persistent Othering of US working-class populations in the wake of catastrophe and the staging of “family values” priorities and concerns mesh with the normalization of authoritarian reproach amidst efforts to mobilize support for impacted populations. These developments are significant for the ways in which they fortify current dynamics of social inequality. In addition they may well help to facilitate climate silence and perpetuate “magical thinking” about twenty-first-century America’s vulnerability to disaster.



[1] Another potential contrast is between these communities and the idealized, location-transcending virtual communities of Facebook and Twitter. David Carr has suggested that Superstorm Sandy elevated social media from the realm of the trivial to the realm of the serious.  See “How Sandy Slapped the Snark Out of Twitter,” New York Times Oct. 31, 2012.

[2]  Another noteworthy feature of storm preparedness rhetoric is the inability to conceptualize citizens apart from their membership in families.  This is all the more striking given the high rates of singleness in the New York area.  2009 data revealed  that fully 61.4% of Manhattan residents were single with comparable rates of  41.0% of Staten Islanders and 46.3% of Queens residents.  See Jennifer S. Lee,  “Single New Yorkers, Ahead of the Pack,” New York Times Sept. 25, 2009.


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Klosterman, philosophy and cultural studies: An audio interview Fri, 04 May 2012 14:00:57 +0000
Click here or stream above to listen to Matt Sienkiewicz’s interview with Chuck Klosterman and Seth Vannatta. Seth Vannatta is the editor of the new book, Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy: The Real and the Cereal.

Chuck Klosterman is a tricky character for a cultural studies professor such as myself.  On the one hand, it’s fantastic that there is someone out there getting paid really well to make smart observations about popular culture.  On the other, it’s disappointing that it’s not me.  On a third, slightly more serious hand, Chuck brings into sharp relief a difficulty embedded in the academic field of cultural studies.

As a discipline, cultural studies is committed to the breaking down of boundaries between high and low culture.  It is founded on the principle of blurring the binaries that can so easily allow taste preferences to serve as proxies for the politics of privilege.  And yet, at the same time, the structure of the profession of professing requires the maintenance of a variety of sharp borders that seem to stand in direct opposition to these commitments.  A journal is either peer-reviewed or it is not.  A conference, generally, is either properly academic or it is something else.

Klosterman’s work not only blurs things that us cultural studies professors celebrate by taking “low” culture seriously, but also in a way that inevitably makes us nervous.  We are employed to talk about popular culture because an institutional vetting process has branded our thoughts, opinions and research as serious.  Everyone has thoughts about The Hunger Games.  Students pay to hear mine because I’ve persuaded a variety of well-regarded universities and journals that my opinion is worth hearing.  Klosterman subverts that process, going instead to the court of public consumption for approval.  His work is taken relatively seriously because, well, lots of people seem to enjoy taking it relatively seriously.  For some in our field, this may feel like a threat.

Of course, it shouldn’t.  Culture can and should be interrogated from a variety of approaches and methodologies.  And we should be happy to have our categories pushed, prodded and occasionally penetrated by authors like Klosterman, who writes with an honest interest in understanding the workings of popular culture.   His approach to criticism threatens our binaries in just the right way, forcing us to question our goals and limitations as scholars and cultural critics. It offers an object, ideally one among many, against which to compare the work being produced by institutionalized cultural studies.  It’s a chance to reflect on what’s we like about the field and what might bear improving.  For example, we could, perhaps, write a bit more lucidly and, as much as it will hurt, be a bit more considerate with the use of jargon.  We could even try to use a few fewer commas.

The discussion between me, Klosterman and Seth Vannatta posted here addresses some of the issues discussed above and whole bunch of other stuff as well.  It is also, I warn, a bit of a commercial for Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy: The Real and the Cereal, available at all the obvious on and offline places you might think it would be.


In Memoriam: Joe Simon, Co-Creator of Captain America Fri, 16 Dec 2011 17:17:02 +0000 Comic book writer and artist Joe Simon passed away Wednesday after a more-than-respectable 98 years on earth. His death comes only a week after the passing of 89-year-old Jerry Robinson, creator of the Joker and artist on many foundational Batman tales. Like most media industries, the comic book is a 20th century phenomenon, and scholars of the past few decades have counted themselves lucky to interact with many of the founders of the medium, an accessibility modern scholars in other humanities fields would envy. With the passing of Simon and Robinson, however, precious few influential players from the Golden Age of American comic books remain, and scholars and journalists will soon become the sole caretakers of the medium’s history.

Joe Simon may not have the name recognition of his collaborator of more than a decade, Jack Kirby, or his protégée, Stan Lee, but his impact on the comic book medium was profound. His best-known creation, Captain America, came about in late 1940, when he and Kirby published the first story about the star-spangled hero, his fist iconically smashing into the face of Adolf Hitler on the cover. Simon in interviews was always unapologetic about the comic’s political content. As quoted in Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation, Simon explained that “The opponents of the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.” He “felt very good about making a political statement…and taking a stand.” But a year before Pearl Harbor, with isolationists and Nazi sympathizers still very present among the American populace, not everyone was prepared for such an in-your-face anti-Nazi statement from two Jewish-American creators. Noted Simon, “When the first issue came out we got a lot of… threatening letters and hate mail. Some people really opposed what Cap stood for.” (1)

Though Simon and Kirby left Captain America after only ten issues, their work together would continue to have an impact. While Simon served as the first editor of Timely Comics, the company that later became Marvel, he and Kirby also did work for competitor National Comics (later DC), creating characters such as the Sandman and the Newsboy Legion. After serving in World War II, Simon and Kirby would move on to other comic book genres, including horror comics, western comics, and romance comics, a genre they essentially invented with the publication of Young Romance in 1947. Their partnership came to a close in 1955, as the comic book industry began to crumble in the face of slumping sales and the moral panic about the effect of comics on juvenile delinquency incited by Fredric Wertham and his Seduction of the Innocent. Kirby stayed in comics, going on to collaborate famously with writer Stan Lee and create most of the early Marvel Comics heroes, while Simon moved on to commercial art, returning to the medium only periodically.

Yet Simon’s legacy in the comic book industry still resonates. He was one of the first people in the industry to fight for the rights of creators to own their work, at a time when the late Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave up the rights to Superman for a paltry sum while its corporate owners made millions. It’s a battle that still rages on today, as comic book writers and artists on superhero projects continue to labor, un-unionized, under work-for-hire agreements that give the companies total control of any new characters they might dream up. Simon was also the one to give the first comic book writing opportunities to Stan Lee, by far the most recognizable face of the American comic book industry and one of the few surviving Golden Age greats. Joe Simon’s two biographies, The Comic Makers and the more recent Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, provide fascinating glimpses into the history of the industry and fantastic resources for scholars. He continued to participate in the comic book world well into his twilight years, attending conventions and granting interviews to scholars and journalists (particularly around the “Death of Captain America” storyline of 2007). He even lived to see last summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie set in the early 1940s of his own youth and modeled on his and Kirby’s original first issue, make millions at the box office.

In the spring of 2008, I attended the New York Comic-Con, still riding high from the completion of my 100-page undergrad senior thesis on “The Cultural Work of Captain America.” Wandering Artists Alley, where creators sit behind tables to chat with fans, sell their work, and sign comics, I spotted Joe Simon sitting quietly, his table somehow lacking a line of fans despite his stature in the industry. I remember shaking with nerves as I approached his table, holding out a recent Captain America comic for him to sign (his own work, sadly, being far too rare and expensive for me to own). As he wrote his name in big, blocky letters on my book, I thanked him for his contributions, and explained the work I’d done on my senior thesis. His handler had to repeat my words at a louder volume to compensate for the elderly man’s poor hearing, but Simon grinned broadly and shook my hand, thanking me for taking the time to analyze his work in that way. As a comic book fan and a budding comic book scholar, that moment remains seared in my memory, the high point of my fandom and my scholarship so far. I am immensely thankful that I had the opportunity to thank the person who inspired my academic work with his texts, and I regret that the next generation of comic book scholars will be deprived of that chance.

(1) Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. p. 36.


The Media and the Riots in England: Unordered Thesis on Days of Disorder Sat, 13 Aug 2011 08:00:48 +0000 The two words that political leaders, and none more than Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, have resorted to in the wake of the riots that have spread throughout England since unrest in Tottenham last Saturday night, are “simple” and criminality”. If criminality ‑ a word I find semantically similarly appealing as, say, “hateality ‑ describes the state of being criminal, then the latter of these two terms is a hollow tautology that states nothing more than the obvious fact that crimes were committed. However, nothing about these crimes is simple. In fact, to start gaining an understanding of the riots, we need to grasp the multicausality of events of the past week. Here are some preliminary theses on its causes:

  • The UK riots, in their sum rather than the individual instances in various London boroughs, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, were first and foremost a media event.  An event in which rolling news came into its own. Images of a burning furniture store in Croydon, a police car being attacked in Tottenham, hooded youths in Chalk Farm, another fire in Ealing – all repeated on loops to provide the dramatic background scenery to eye witness reports via mobile phones ‑ provided endless coverage, yet little depth of understanding. Yet, in doing so, the news coverage itself become constitutive of the riots ‑ though not in the way the simplistic but popular phrase “copycat” suggests. Rather, in the interplay between spectacle and performance that Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) described over a decade ago, mediated representation and audienceship become part of the repertoire of our everyday life performances. The televisual image and its public consumption and re-enactment become part of a cycle in which one premises the other. In its form, though not its content, the UK riots thus arouse out of an interaction between televisual representations and on street actions; and the remediation and coordination of such performances via social media and mobile messaging were thus akin to other media events such as the 2006 World Cup and Public Viewing.
  • The marker of the riots in the interplay of in situ and media event is thus that they are demarcated from the ordinary. The event, by definition, is a diversion from the quotidian rhythm of everyday duties and practices. For all brutality and arson, if one was to code the few voices of those participating in the riots heard in media reports, one cannot escape the theme of the carnivalesque – with two 17 year old girls from Croydon interviewed on Radio 4 at 9 a.m. happily parading a bottle of looted rose wine after a sleepless, drunken night, which they had described as a party with “free stuff”, perfectly capturing the temporary escape form the dominant social and material order that made this Carnival of Violence and Looting so attractive to many of its thousands of participants across the UK.
  • The notion of “free stuff” – similarly reflected in the account of the BBC reporter in Manchester who after having been asked if he was heading to the sites of further riots was followed by streetwise locals who were equipped with bin bags to carry looted goods quickly realised they and the media had a common target ‑ was another frequent and near omnipresent theme of the riots. The scale of such looting, and the quite possibly accurate hypothesis that many riots were driven by the attempt to create opportunities for looting, are individually acts of greed and uninhibited material desire but in their sum a reflection of the triumph of materialism over all other values – linking these consumerist riots seamlessly to the key causes of the other dominant news theme of recent years: the credit crunch and banking crisis.
  • Yet, none of these points can begin to explain the levels of violence sometimes directed against the police, banks or the media as representatives of the stauts quo but more often seemingly indiscriminate in nature. This breakdown of civility is one in which the most adequate assessment of the role of the media is to acknowledge their wider relationships in what Bronfenbrenner (1979) identified as the micro, meso, exo and macro systems of childhood and adolescence in which print and broadcast media play an important, but far from exclusive role in exosystems, just as social media have become part of the mesosystems. But simplistic media violence debates, as much as those focusing on a decline of parenting skills fail to account for the interdependence of school, family and wider social life, and fail to offer an adequate response to the interplay of these systems.
  • However, alongside all the above reasons, anger fuelled the riots and looting and the frequent violent conduct in particular. Those on the political right have been keen to emphasise that much of the rioters’ conduct was apolitical, an analysis that is hard to disagree with. Yet, the rise of this form of the postmodern, apolitical riot, lacking the political trajectory of previous forms of civil unrest such as the 1981 Brixton riots, is neither a cause for gloating nor celebration. What has largely been missed in the broadcast and print media coverage of the riots is that the disenfranchisement of those demonstrating their anger from wider political processes and a sense of public sphere and democratic space, does not mean that such anger lacks causes that are both ideological and political ranging form wider questions of social inequality, injustice and poverty to the narrowly political such as the austerity drive and dramatic reductions in public spending. Witnessing sections of society who lack the fundamental vocabulary of political protest is a stark reminder that merely building media literacy reaches too short. When anger can no longer find a constructive trajectory, it translates into the indiscriminate, random and futile postmodern violence that becomes an aim in and for itself – and to which there hence can be no remedy, no meaningful political answer: because it cannot even formulate the challenge it poses.
  • Since the zenith of violence on Monday night, the focus of news coverage has increasingly shifted towards police tactics. Resources evidently appear to have played a role. Those familiar with policing practices internationally, will also note some of the idiosyncrasies of British policing, such as not using water cannons for crowd control. Those with experience of living in London and other British metropolitan areas will have first-hand accounts of a policing culture that is often experienced as a “can’t do”-service by citizens. While all this may be true, such debates illustrate many traditional mass media outlets’ failure to engage with the causes of the riots and instead mistaking failures of policing in containing the symptoms of the riots for an engagement with their actual causes.


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Captain America and the Representation of Entertainment Sat, 23 Jul 2011 13:00:40 +0000 Captain America movie posterThis past week, Marvel premiered Captain America: The First Avenger, the studio’s fifth major comic book superhero film and the final building block for next summer’s much-anticipated ensemble movie, The Avengers. As a Captain America superfan, I can’t objectively evaluate The First Avenger’s effectiveness as a film or its capacity to entertain people who aren’t previously invested in the character. I found the film satisfying, if imperfect. But one chunk of the plot gave me pause: a sequence in which Steve Rogers, the man who would be Captain America, is assigned to perform in USO tours and propaganda films instead of being sent to the front lines.

Captain America, at the character’s comic book inception, was as much a propaganda tool as a narrative character. The cover of his very first issue, released in early 1941, featured the star-spangled hero socking Hitler across the jaw. It was a calculated political move, and not one without controversy, considering the isolationist streak that still ran through the American populace a year before Pearl Harbor. As the U.S. entered World War II, later issues of the comic implored child readers to buy war bonds and join Captain America fan clubs that required members to be vigilant and defend American values.

In the decades since the war, and particularly since his revival in the comics in 1964, Captain America has evolved significantly, becoming a nuanced character whose allegiance to the ideals of the American Dream trumps his allegiance to the fallible whims of the American government. But unlike fellow 1940s comic book heroes like Superman and Batman, his World War II origins have always remained the keystone of his back story, and it’s those origins that form the bulk of the current film.

The First Avenger, for the most part, does an excellent job of balancing the gritty reality of World War II and the over-the-top necessities of superhero action. By positioning the villainous Red Skull as the leader of Hydra, a Nazi splinter-cell, the film wisely creates a superpowered form of evil for its superhero to battle in a WWII setting without drastically changing the actual events of the war. But that balance is nowhere to be found in the USO sequence, which reeks of the influence of a cynical modern eye and a dismissal of historical realism, comic book necessity, and media effects.

In the sequence, the newly-transformed Steve Rogers, a formerly-scrawny kid from Brooklyn who has suddenly become the one and only super-soldier in the U.S. government’s arsenal, takes an offer to become a USO performer instead of remaining in a lab to become a guinea pig for possible replication of the super-soldier serum. Suddenly, in between filming movie serials and the production of the in-universe version of a Captain America comic book, he finds himself touring the country in an elaborate, Alan Menken-scored song-and-dance show, complete with special effects, patriotic chorus girls, and a man dressed as Hitler for Steve to punch in the face. Steve reads his lines awkwardly and uncomfortably, wearing a costume that is much closer to the comic book version than the one that will be used later in the film, and the entire affair is portrayed as laughable and cheesy, suitable only for the excitable children in the audience. When Steve and the chorus girls take the show overseas for the troops, the troops are completely unimpressed, hurling insults that question Steve’s masculinity and heterosexuality and begging for the chorus girls to return (for ogling purposes). This is the final straw for Steve, who soon afterward breaks ranks and goes off to become the soldier he was meant to be.

There are a number of problems with this sequence. Even on the surface, the discourse on masculinity is troubling, particularly in a film that has only two female characters with speaking lines – the love interest, Agent Peggy Carter, who is valorized because she can shoot a gun and knock out any man, and a secretary who tries to seduce Steve. Though the film purports to be about heroism in all forms, postulating that even the weakest person can become a strong hero, this heroism is cast definitively as a masculine heroism, a heroism of athletic feats, gunshots, muscles, and blood. Women exist primarily to be ogled or to be seductresses, and they don’t count as full human beings unless they work hard to replicate the masculine ideals. Steve Rogers’ USO appearances are feminized and consequently demonized, and it is only through strapping on military gear that he is allowed to come into his own as a superhero.

These gendered aspects of the sequence are unsurprising, if disappointing, in a film that is both an action film and a superhero film, two genres rife with examples of sexism. But what strikes me most about the USO sequence is the way it presents the idea that entertainment cannot bring about change. It isn’t just that militaristic, masculine heroism is presented as the only valuable form of heroism; it’s that media and entertainment artifacts are explicitly presented as silly, mock-worthy, and meaningless. While a throwaway line establishes that sales of war bonds increase after Steve’s shows, this is dismissed as a drop in the bucket, an insignificant victory. Meanwhile, the historical reality of the effectiveness of USO shows for boosting troop morale (even with male performers, like Bob Hope) is completely unacknowledged, revealing the cynical modern eye at work in representing a cultural artifact from the 1940s.

This lack of regard for cultural history is reinforced when the performing costume Steve wears is made to look deliberately ridiculous, and is later traded in for something less colorful and covered with unnecessary straps – a change made, according to director Joe Johnston, to help viewers to “take him seriously” and make the uniform more appropriate for a World War II story (more appropriate, apparently, than the costume actually designed in 1940). But beyond the disregard for actual history, the sequence serves to disregard the character himself, a character whose actual existence in the 1940s had an impact on popular culture and on World War II, and whose stories since have always reflected, anticipated, and at times intersected with cultural shifts.

As a media studies scholar, I’m wary of any claim that entertainment has no serious effect on the culture at large. But I’m especially wary when a piece of media itself attempts to make this claim. The First Avenger is a delicate film to produce in 2011, particularly when the global box office is so important and the name “Captain America” conjures up jingoistic, stereotypical images in the minds of the uninformed. By presenting the USO sequence the way they do, the filmmakers are actively working to distance themselves from any political impact or controversy their movie might create. After all, the story implies, a big entertainment spectacular all about Captain America is silly fluff, not to be taken seriously. By denying the impact of popular culture on real-world issues, Johnston & Co. create a fictional universe that explicitly attempts to distance itself from any potential controversy.

Only time and box office returns can tell if their plan will succeed.


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DC Comics Goes All In Sat, 18 Jun 2011 13:00:48 +0000 DC Comics’ plan to “relaunch” its comic line in September with fifty-two #1 issues is a bold move predicated in part on the assumption that there is a large untapped audience for monthly comics.  Each component of DC’s new publishing strategy attempts to broaden the company’s readership while simultaneously avoiding the alienation of its loyal readers.

First, DC will try to attract younger readers by expanding its digital distribution system.  Each new comic will be released at the same time as its print counterpart, and after a month the digital versions will drop to $1.99 (vs. $2.99 for the print comic).  However, it remains to be seen whether static, non-interactive, “old media” like superhero comics will suddenly become attractive to the youth of America simply by virtue of their digitization.  Additionally, most contemporary comic art still translates poorly to the iPad’s relatively small screen – splash pages, for instance, are practically illegible and need to be zoomed and scanned, which undercuts their impact.

DC is also trying to appeal beyond the conventional white male demo by introducing titles starring black characters like Batwing (“Batman of Africa”) and Mr. Terrific (“the world’s third-smartest man”).  And the publisher hopes to hopes to shed the air of juvenile sexism often associated with superhero comics by dressing its female heroes in less-revealing costumes.  (However, only three of the 160 creators associated with the relaunch are women.)

The “new DCU” might appear to be born of desperation; indeed, because sales of the top monthly comics have shrunk from approximately 150,000 copies each in 2008 to about 100,000 copies today, it may seem as though the comic industry is in freefall.  In fact, due to price increases and the industry’s long tail publishing strategies, overall sales have shrunk only modestly — sales in the direct market (i.e. specialty comic stores) were down 3% in 2010, and 2% in 2009.  The poor economy is a more likely culprit for these declines than a mass exodus by comics readers.

While DC surely looks to reverse these negative trends by attracting non-comics readers, a more immediate and realistic goal is likely the recovery of market share from Marvel.  Since 2007 DC has been dominated by its rival in terms of sales, with only about 30% of the market to Marvel’s 40%.  By positioning September’s titles as ideal “jumping-on points”, DC courts Marvel readers as well as comics neophytes.  In the words of Executive Editor Eddie Berganza, “Everything is meant to be enjoyed and read without footnotes or looking up back issues.”

However, by jettisoning the past DC eliminates one of its defining characteristics as a comic publisher.  More than Marvel, DC emphasizes the narrative continuity and history of its shared universe.  The very inaccessibility of the DC Universe that discourages potential new customers is a source of pleasure for die-hard DC fans, who accumulate subcultural capital through their mastery of obscure trivia or their ability to identify references to decades-old storylines.  These readers might consider September’s “jumping-on point” as a perfect excuse to jump off.  To address this danger, DC has taken pains to explain that the relaunch will be a “soft reboot” that will retain select stories from the past (the less popular the character, the greater the changes, it seems)  — but it remains to be seen whether this will pacify longtime readers.

Finally, although some retailers are concerned that DC is flooding the market in September, the relaunch of so many titles should help DC in a key weakness – the midlist of the sales charts, where Marvel utterly dominates.  Marvel has fostered a number of successful publishing franchises, including the Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Deadpool, and Captain America, all of which have multiple monthly titles in the top 100.  (Nineteen of the top 100 titles in May 2011 were X-Men related.)  DC’s Batman and Green Lantern franchises are strong, but none of its other characters sell particularly well.  By revamping two underachieving properties (Justice League and Superman) and making them part of a line-wide relaunch, DC might be able to generate interest in C-list characters like Blue Beetle or Firestorm, both building the publisher’s market share and creating new valuable multimedia properties.  If the poorly-reviewed Green Lantern film flops, DC will need those second and third-tier characters if it hopes to compete with the Marvel Studios juggernaut.


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Your Friendly Neighborhood Araña: The State of Latinidad in Marvel Comics Mon, 15 Nov 2010 14:50:13 +0000 In the sixth issue of Young Allies, a minor Marvel comic book, white teen superheroine Nomad expresses frustration with her inability to communicate with Benito Serrano, a.k.a. “Toro,” a fellow teenage superhero who is temporarily sharing her New York City apartment. Toro is a recent immigrant from Colombia, a former child soldier who wants nothing more than to help others, but the language barrier sets him apart from his primarily English-speaking teammates. Nomad is determined to help solve that problem, and by the end of the issue, a wordless panel depicts her proposed solution in the form of two language-learning books: “Inglés para principiantes” for Toro and “Spanish for Beginners” for herself.

This is a small moment, to be sure. Yet it’s indicative of a step forward on the part of Marvel Comics in its portrayal of issues facing Latinos in America. The standard superhero comic book “solution” to language differences has always been the deus ex machina, the telepath or electronic device that instantly teaches fluent English to the non-speaker. The character’s native language is thus eliminated entirely from the narrative, unless the plot calls for a trip to a foreign country. The scene in Young Allies differs significantly from this approach, not just in its portrayal of the actual difficulties of second language acquisition, but in its implicit presentation of English and Spanish as equally valuable languages, neither one privileged or eliminated.

Super Hero Squad's Reptil

Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, himself Cuban-American, has frequently downplayed the need to increase the number of non-white characters in comics. Despite his protestations, however, Marvel has quietly responded to the increased presence of Latinos in America with a corresponding, if tentative, increase in the number of Latino Marvel characters. At the forefront of this new wave of Latino superheroes is Humberto Lopez, or “Reptil,” a Chicano teenage boy who can turn into various dinosaurs. In his short tenure as a comic book character he has become the leader of a group of new superheroes in the comic Avengers Academy and serves the primary audience-identification role as the sole teenage character on the Marvel cartoon Super Hero Squad, a series targeted at the elementary school age group. Also prominent in current Marvel Comics are Gabriel Cohuelo, a Mexican teenager with speed powers and one of the five new mutant characters in Generation Hope, an X-Men spinoff, and Julio “Rictor” Richter of X-Factor, a Mexican immigrant who has appeared in Marvel comics since the 80s but who has received renewed attention of late for his newly-revealed bisexuality. Though Marvel has featured LGBT characters in the past, Rictor’s relationship with (white) boyfriend Shatterstar resulted last year in the first romantic, on-panel male/male kiss in Marvel history, and he is the only prominent queer male Latino superhero in comics.

For these characters, Latino culture has been pushed to the background to a greater or lesser degree. Reptil’s heritage is expressed almost exclusively through his name and appearance, Rictor’s Mexican background has rarely been addressed beyond an offhand utterance of “amigo” or “adios” since the 90s, and Gabriel (who has only appeared in two comic book issues at the time of this writing) is too new to evaluate. Young Allies, however, has over its six brief issues consistently negotiated Latino culture and the specific challenges of being Latino in America, not only through the character of Toro but through Anya Sofia Corazon, a Puerto-Rican teenage superheroine who formerly called herself Araña but is now known as Spider-Girl. Anya is bilingual (though English-dominant), and is the only character who can communicate effectively with Toro; though their conversations are translated for the benefit of the English-speaking reader, they’re shown to be speaking Spanish by indicative brackets, and their English speech is peppered with untranslated Spanish words both common (“gracias”) and culturally specific (“zángano”). They share a clear linguistic bond, but writer Sean McKeever is aware of the differences between various Latino cultures, as evidenced by Anya’s reply to a fire-based villain’s taunts that she must be missing “that Mexico heat”: “I’m Puerto Rican, dipstick!” The presence of two different Latino characters in an ensemble cast of five allows for a diversity of representation of Latino experiences uncommon in American media, as well as the rare chance for interaction between two non-white characters in an integrated narrative world, rather than between a non-white character and a white character.

Young Allies, l. to r.: Gravity, Spider-Girl, Nomad, Toro, Firestar

Young Allies has sadly been cancelled as of October’s issue six, the result of poor sales. However, this Wednesday Marvel debuts a new Spider-Girl series by Paul Tobin and Clayton Henry, with Anya Corazon as its star. This marks the second solo series for Anya, whose Araña lasted only 12 issues in 2005. Unlike Araña, however, all signs point to a marketing push on Marvel’s part designed to make Spider-Girl a hit, including the character’s continued appearances in a Nomad-centric backup story in the high-selling Captain America and an official twitter account written from Anya’s perspective that actively responds to reader questions and will be featured within the text of the comic. Promotional interviews and solicits for the book have promised appearances from Nomad, which opens the possibility of Toro’s presence, and has encouraged hope from fans that Latino characters from her previous series (including her journalist father) may also make significant appearances. However, other signs indicate a potential focus on standard whitewashed definitions of “marketability” over cultural specificity – the cover of the first issue is colored in such a way that Anya appears to be blond and white, and the book’s very title ties the character more closely to Marvel’s white male cash cow, Spider-Man, than to Anya’s personal background, as the name “Araña” had.

Cover to Spider-Girl #1

Whatever the future may hold for Spider-Girl or any of these other characters, Marvel’s recent attempts at increased Latino representation are certainly worth noting, following, and analyzing by scholars, both of comic books and of racial diversity in media. Their audiences may be small, but in the increasingly multi-platform media landscape, the presence of Latino characters in comics (as is already the case with the TV version of Reptil) may ultimately shape and influence cartoons, merchandise, and blockbuster film franchises with a much wider cultural reach.


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