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"The Fantastic Four (1961-88) was The Great American Novel"
September 30, 2013 6:58 AM   Subscribe

"The Fantastic Four is the Great American Novel. It is therefore the modern Shakespeare.
The Fantastic Four is an allegory of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, during its triumphant phase: from its first man in space (1961) to the end of the cold war (1988-9). A nation is understood through its art, and the superhero comic is America's unique contribution to art."

Chris Tolworthy (MeFi's own) is slightly obsessed in a good way with the Fantastic Four. He has transformed that obsession into a website explaining why from 1961 to 1988 (FF 1-321) the Fantastic Four could be considered the Great American Novel:
A national epic is a work of mythology, a collective work spanning many years without breaks, featuring larger than life characters representing national hopes and dreams. What modern work comes close to the Fantastic Four in these regards? 27 years, six thousand pages, god-like heroes representing the great themes of the American nation.
And what made the Fantastic Four into a great epic were "incredible exploits and down-to earth realism" set in real time. It was this that made Marvel more popular than DC.

But with success came the inevitable sellout, as the company abandoned change for the illusion of change and instead of using real time started applying "Marvel time", a sliding timescale with a constantly altering past and a fixed present. This in turn led to the complete end of change in the Marvel Universe, with the Fantastic Four entering stasis in 1991 and the end of any meaningful continuity within the Marvel Universe.

Despite this, Fantastic Four #1-321 still form one consistent story in five distinct acts: "danger, rising action, the ball, crisis and triumph":
Act 1: danger:
The story begins with the crucible that forces the heroes together: the space flight. The grand quest is then laid out: Reed wants to save the world, and Sue wants them to be a family. The four major themes are introduced (reluctant heroes, personal confidence, the American Dream, and equality), along with the principle opponents (Doom, Namor, Skrulls) and motifs (would-be monarchs, hidden races, dangerous frontiers, health, mind control, doppelgangers and home).

Act 2: rising action:
Here the themes and motifs are expanded and threats multiply. At the start of this act, threats appeared only at intervals. By the end of the act, each drama merges with the next.

Act 3: the ball:
All the characters get together (the wedding), and everything looks bright. This act crystallizes the major themes in the person of Franklin and hence the need to put family first.

Act 4: crisis:
Everything goes wrong. Reed can no longer cope. There is a false triumph and false dawn half way through (FF200) then things get even worse.

Act 5: triumph:
The crises are finally solved through family values: Reed accepts what Sue was telling him all along and all their problems are neatly resolved, leaving to the start of the next epic.
At the end of the fifth act a new story should've begun, but instead continuity ends. In the real world, the powers that be at Marvel opted for stasis rather than continued change; in-universe, Franklin Richards, super powered son of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman revolts, creating the Franklinverse. The child wants to see his parents safe and therefore keeps the whole universe in a state of paralysis.
posted by MartinWisse (66 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Inspired to look for this by Ipsifendus' post on the Complete Marvel Reading Order a few months back, where this project was mentioned.)
posted by MartinWisse at 7:00 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Going back and reading through Silver Age FF, the two things that jump out at me are 1) wow, does Reed Richards' 1960s personality not age well, and 2) DAMN, do I love Ben Grimm.
posted by COBRA! at 7:21 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I will never understand the fascination with superheroes. To me, they're brutish, boring and simplistic.
posted by simen at 7:23 AM on September 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think comics and novels are just different, and the comparison isn't really flattering to either. It implies on the one hand that novels are inherently a superior form and on the other that actual American novelists are all a bit shit because they can't write one that matches up to a good comic. In fact great comics don't turn into novels any more than great beer becomes wine.

(The good news about that is that you can and should have a Great American Comic as well as a Great American Novel.)

I suppose that's missing the real point; to be fair, the claim being made is not that comics are novels, but that comics have taken the place of the defining American narrative which otherwise would have been supplied by a novel. But if that's the argument, there's a big fellow called Hollywood outside who wants a word.
posted by Segundus at 7:30 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


The child wants to see his parents safe and therefore keeps the whole universe in a state of paralysis.

Like Marvel itself.

I have a suspicion that there's some interesting work on this topic to be done in the intersection of a) baby boomers' anxieties about aging and death; b) the stasis that monopolies attempt to impose on their markets; c) the challenges of open-ended narrative; and d) the effects of continual copyright term extension on narrative and culture.

I also think it would be fun to do a Marvel character whose curse is that he is "drifting through time" i.e., he ages at a normal rate while the others are forever the same age.
posted by gauche at 7:33 AM on September 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Like Marvel itself.

Well, the problem with superheroes is they can never change permanently, right? I mean, not really. Believe me, I'd love to see permanent changes to fundamental characters, but I'm willing to follow continuity and you can't get new readers as easily if they don't see the same Spider-Man they grew up with. Marvel's actually doing a hell of a job within those constraints, from what I can see as a fan. Way better than DC, anyway.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:48 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


"the superhero comic is America's unique contribution to art."

The blues, jazz, abstract expressionism, and the Fantastic Four. America: fuck yeah.

I'd love to see permanent changes to fundamental characters

Have you seen what they're doing in The Superior Spider-Man? (Not that I imagine it's a permanent change, but it's a neat idea, anyway.)
posted by Sing Or Swim at 7:52 AM on September 30, 2013


Superheros can be seen as archetypes, in Jungian terms. Kirby, in particular, played with those modes a lot: the Eternals in Marvel, the New Gods in DC. The FF are exemplars, of the four elements, as well as people.

So that's a fundamental tension when someone tries to tell a story with them: can an archetype ever change? How do you tell a story if the characters can't evolve?
posted by bonehead at 7:58 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Fantastic Four is the Great American Novel. It is therefore the modern Shakespeare.

Shakespeare didn't write novels.
posted by rocket88 at 7:59 AM on September 30, 2013 [19 favorites]


The child wants to see his parents safe and therefore keeps the whole universe in a state of paralysis.

And most fans. The author of this site seems to want everything to stay the same (aka continuity), but there's a weight to continuity that can push new readers out. It might be comforting for the F4 to be the same people as they were in the 1960's, but that doesn't interest most kids today, and you need to sell comics to them too.

Besides, could you imagine the kind of mental and metaphysical gymnastics that would be required to keep something like the Superman continuity going? That would be pure insanity.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:02 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


you can't get new readers as easily if they don't see the same Spider-Man they grew up with.

I mean, kind of. I think for a long time TV was like that, too: resetting to the status quo at the end of every episode. Except that with TV a show would end eventually if only because the actors would age out and die. Now TV's less like that: even a relatively light show like Parks & Rec relies on long story arcs and character development, to say nothing of dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Sure, some people DO want to tune in to the same thing every week, and DO want Spider-Man to never change. But a thesis of one of the linked articles is that there's also a market for change.

So that's a fundamental tension when someone tries to tell a story with them: can an archetype ever change? How do you tell a story if the characters can't evolve?

I feel like Gaiman's Sandman is about exactly this question (though it's a DC title and thus not really part of this discussion).
posted by gauche at 8:02 AM on September 30, 2013


I think another problem that I don't see the links discussing (thought I've only skimmed about a third of them so far) is the Reed Richards Is Useless problem (warning: TvTropes). I think that the basic idea is that any superpower in existence would instantly and radically change our society in fundamental ways, in no small part because most of them can be translated into free electricity. The stasis is a way to keep telling relatable stories by arresting the inevitable social upheaval.
posted by gauche at 8:09 AM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


the superhero comic is America's unique contribution to art

Or one of America's contributions to art. I've only glanced at the links and while some of his grander assertions ("As a civilization reaches its zenith it creates its epic." "Whatever you say against comics can be said against Shakespeare.") need to be written in all caps followed by 'NUFF SAID!, his central point isn't only sound, it was anticipated to a large degree by Leslie Fiedler at the time. Tolworthy's observation that the FF is representative of a kind of dream of American liberal anti-communism seems particularly interesting.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:10 AM on September 30, 2013


but that doesn't interest most kids today, and you need to sell comics to them too.
Is anyone but Archie actually interested in selling comics to kids?

For real though, I jumped in at a young age with John Bryne's run on the Fantastic Four and kept up just fine. The Giffen/Levitz Legion of Super-Heroes was a little harder to keep up with but that was half the fun! A little more consistency in continuity and a little less graphic violence for violence's sake and comics would be just fine for kids again.
posted by davros42 at 8:12 AM on September 30, 2013


I feel like Gaiman's Sandman is about exactly this question

Certainly, but as you say, that's kind of tangential. Moore's Supreme run is probably more relevant to the FF.
posted by bonehead at 8:13 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Certainly, but as you say, that's kind of tangential.

Right, I more meant to address the "can one tell stories in which archetypes change" bit than the Marvel Continuity Problem bit.
posted by gauche at 8:30 AM on September 30, 2013


Or one of America's contributions to art.

Yes, I thought that was quite impressively myopic. Someone should write a blues song or rap track about that type of cultural insularity. Everyone deserves their 15 minutes of fame, after all...
posted by jaduncan at 8:37 AM on September 30, 2013


[kevlar]My mileage varies. I've never understood the obsession with super-heroes and the interest in Marvel/DC Comics, and I wish they hadn't taken over Hollywood and in the process, dumbed down filmmaking.[/kevlar]
posted by brianstorms at 8:41 AM on September 30, 2013


Comic book movies dumbed down Hollywood?
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 8:45 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


the superhero comic is America's unique contribution to art

Not a music fan, huh?

The Fantastic four got a lot more interesting for me when I saw Mark Waid's 2002 retelling of their origin. (previously) It points out that Reed Richards has what's normally a villain origin story: mad scientist carelessly maims himself and the innocent. Here's Waid's version of their origin story as told by Reed Richards himself to his infant child:

Once upon a time, there was a genius who...

...a very bright man who...

Once upon a time there was a very arrogant man who did something very stupid. Without proper preparation or shielding, he took his friends through a wave of radiation that made them all something other than human. His guilt was unbearable... and deserved. These were the people he loved, and he'd destroyed their lives. Thanks to him, they were fated to be freaks... lab specimens or worse...

...unless he changed that fate somehow. Unless he made the world see them for what they were: three of the best and bravest people anyone could hope to meet. So he refused to let them operate in secret. He gave them a home in a city of eight million. And he gave them costumes. And a flying car. And encouraged them to parade around with some pretty outlandish names.

"Mr. Fantastic." Does that sound like something anyone would really want to call themselves? No. But that's the kind of thing that made headlines. And t-shirts. And action figures. He knew that would keep people from fearing them. You see, glamour and fame weren't options. They were necessities. Because maybe by turning his friends into celebrities...

...he could be forgiven for taking their normal lives away.

Someday?


Ongoing serial drama is interesting, but the transition to self-mythological play with its own archetypes is not entirely something to be mourned.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:47 AM on September 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm not much of a comic book fan anymore, but for some reason the Marvel universe is way more interesting than DC (except for Green Arrow/Green Lantern, and I guess Batman).
posted by KokuRyu at 8:47 AM on September 30, 2013


FORGIVE ME FOR THIS PLATE-O-BEANS.

While I'm not the greatest FF scholar out there, I can't help but wonder about his cherry-picking of example panels. For example, in his "Newfangled Ben Grimm isn't the fearless wonder his earlier version was," argument, I can think of panels from the early days where ol' Ben was frightened by things, or wondered if he could handle things, and I can think of panels from the modern era where he has the courage of his Kirby beginnings. When you're dealing with several hundred comics over half a century, you can find pretty much everything at one point or another. Single panels don't prove much.

Also, his "Newfangled Doom" section contains a flaw that normally not worth mentioning, but given his tight readings and focus, is damn weird. Per the site:

Franklinverse Doom specifically says that the Doom who ran from Kristoff was not him. He says the old Doom was one or more robots. However, that cannot be:

--The Doom who lost to Kristoff was consistent with the human failings and weaknesses of the original Doom. The new Doom is not.
--Eight issues later (FF358) we are plainly shown that Doombots are not that sophisticated.
--If the Doom that ran from Kristoff was a robot, then this was also the Doom who met the Beyonder, and therefore the Doom that was defeated by the Surfer and used his mind-control trick in Byrne's run. It's basically a can of worms.


The very issue where Doom explains the "oh, every time I was lame and/or lost a fight, that was really a robot" leaves the reader with an explanation and a gigantic out. The explanation: the Doombot that really thought it was Doom was a special, possibly malfunctioning one. The out: Doom came back "sometimes," but won't say when. In the letters pages of the comics in them thar days, the editors even admitted this was a cheat, and to the question of "when was it the real Doom and when was it a robot," the answer is "whatever you want it to be." Dude, it's right there on the page.

Also, his read of "New Doom is one-dimensional evil" is an extremely recent development. "Doom as misguided/tormented anti-hero/honorable villain" was a popular interpretation through the nineties and into the early aughts. Mark Waid took him in another direction, pointing out that (a) it's more in keeping with his original characterization, and (b) all that "Doom is a man of honor" rhetoric came from Doom himself. Showing that his talk was just talk, and that deep down he was a thoroughly rotten bastard who was lying to himself, was good writin', not a betrayal or simplification of character.

I'd go on, but this is long enough as it is.

It's embarrassing how much I love dickering about funnybooks and the silly persons therein.

The site in the FPP is awesome. Ridiculous, pompous, a little frightening, and awesome.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 8:58 AM on September 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


HA! The author of the site addressed the Doom/Doombot conundrum! (It's about halfway down the page, talking about FF 350).

I LOVE CRAP LIKE THIS SO MUCH! SILLINESS ABOUNDS! Oh man. Connecting dots like this and drawing sweeping conclusions from hundreds of disparate funnybooks is the Nerd Sport of Kings.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 9:18 AM on September 30, 2013


Fantastic.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:38 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jerkwater, if you lose the Doombot idea then the time Doom got beaten up by Squirrel Girl is in continuity.

Bizarre cross-genre mashups like that are one of the most interesting features of American comics. I remember walking out of the original Iron Man movie while some kid was shouting overjoyed that the next Marvel movie was going to be about Thor. My wife asked me who Thor was in the Marvel universe and I had to explain that the actual Norse god Thor was a character in these stories, that the whole Norse pantheon was in canon, and that Iron Man sometimes visits Asgard. She was hornswoggled. Norse gods fighting mad scientists and aliens and kung fu masters and magicians and horror monsters and time-travelled Sherlock Holmes and possibly Godzilla - that's comics. The special effects in an ink on paper medium are so cheap that anything could happen.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:44 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Whatever you say against comics can be said against Shakespeare."

The writing and dialogue are, for the most part, terrible.
posted by straight at 10:18 AM on September 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


I will never understand the fascination with superheroes. To me, they're brutish, boring and simplistic.

This is how I generally felt about the characters in the novels that I was given in my middle school & high school literature classes (though the brutality was generally emotional rather than physical).

Twenty years on, I'm a high school teacher, most of my teaching experience has been in literature classes... and I still feel the same way.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:28 AM on September 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I feel like Gaiman's Sandman is about exactly this question (though it's a DC title and thus not really part of this discussion).

Sandman also had a beginning, middle, and end, and Morpheus' growth and changing outlook was part of that story arc. Spiderman will go on forever. If Peter Parker changes his personality, it's not in service of some greater story, because there is no greater story.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:31 AM on September 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Aside from the fact that FF had many authors during the time period that this "novel" was written--with very different styles, levels of talent, approaches to the characters, etc.--there simply isn't the level of continuity that Tolworthy ascribes to the material. As Harvey Jerkwater notes above, he's cherrypicking panels, and even though you could call it an "epic" in the sense of a number of different stories from different authors which share common characters, some sense of chronological continuity (although subject to periodic and sometimes contrary revision; did Arthur Pendragon get Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, or from the stone?), and so on, that doesn't make it a novel. The only real two eras that the FF has ever had is Kirby and After Kirby.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:47 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


middleclasstool: "Believe me, I'd love to see permanent changes to fundamental characters, but I'm willing to follow continuity and you can't get new readers as easily if they don't see the same Spider-Man they grew up with."

You chose your examplar really ironically (3b, pedants): Spider-Man went through the massive changes of his sentient, black, "symbiote" super-costume, which essentially overtook him Jekyll&Hyde style (or, like an addiction). After finally going cold-turkey/freeing himself from that, he accidentally killed his love by forgetting how fragile non-supers are; he now lives his life staggering with that memory. He started out an insecure geek; became one of the most powerful beings on Earth, and settled down to just being an A-List superhero, if not Hulk-level unstoppable.

Ben Grimm? Pretty much the same guy in FF #1, only better fleshed out. Black Bolt? Completely 2-D character; damn near 1-D. But Peter has changed immensely over the years.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:48 AM on September 30, 2013


jaduncan: "Or one of America's contributions to art.

Yes, I thought that was quite impressively myopic. Someone should write a blues song or rap track about that type of cultural insularity. Everyone deserves their 15 minutes of fame, after all...
"

And maybe a nice abstract expressionist painting for cover art.

Or pop art? I can't decide.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:55 AM on September 30, 2013


Aside from the fact that FF had many authors during the time period that this "novel" was written--with very different styles, levels of talent, approaches to the characters, etc.--there simply isn't the level of continuity that Tolworthy ascribes to the material. As Harvey Jerkwater notes above, he's cherrypicking panels, and even though you could call it an "epic" in the sense of a number of different stories from different authors which share common characters, some sense of chronological continuity (although subject to periodic and sometimes contrary revision; did Arthur Pendragon get Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, or from the stone?), and so on, that doesn't make it a novel. The only real two eras that the FF has ever had is Kirby and After Kirby.

So, what you're saying is that it's really more like the Bible.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:02 AM on September 30, 2013


Peter has changed immensely over the years.

...until recently, when Satan pushed the reset button. Having made a literal pact with the devil, Spider-man's characterization has been dialed back three or four decades.

Comics everybody!
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:08 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


But Peter has changed immensely over the years.

You can say the same thing about virtually every comics superhero -- even "same as day 1" Ben Grimm has gone through periods of different powers and varying personal motivations (saving the world, saving Yancy Street, moping about, etc.). Superman's powers, motivations and relationships have been rebooted, retconned, reimagined and just plain redefined so many times that it's practically a running joke as to whether he can leap tall buildings, pick them up or just kick the whole planet underneath them.

So there's kind of a "baseline FF" and "baseline Spiderman" that isn't deviated from for long. Sometimes the Fantastic Four are Reed and Sue and Johnny and Ben; sometimes they're two or three of those and fill-ins; hell, the FF was Joe and Peter and Logan and Danny for a few issues. But it always comes back to Reed and Sue and Johnny and Ben, just like Spiderman always comes back to Peter Parker, single early-20s photographer geek.
posted by Etrigan at 11:48 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fantastic Four fans should check out Rick Moody's novel The Ice Storm. It has some really excellent essays on the many ways to interpret FF comics. Those little disquisitions are some of my favorite comics criticism, even if they are buried in a novel.

The movie by Ang Lee based on the book is stellar, and one of my favorite movies, but it mostly drops the bits about the Fantastic Four and treats them perfunctorily as a metaphor for a family.
posted by painquale at 12:11 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


You chose your examplar really ironically (3b, pedants): Spider-Man went through the massive changes of his sentient, black, "symbiote" super-costume, which essentially overtook him Jekyll&Hyde style (or, like an addiction). After finally going cold-turkey/freeing himself from that, he accidentally killed his love by forgetting how fragile non-supers are; he now lives his life staggering with that memory. He started out an insecure geek; became one of the most powerful beings on Earth, and settled down to just being an A-List superhero, if not Hulk-level unstoppable.

Yes and no. Really the only permanent change you listed is Gwen Stacy. The symbiote, the new spider powers, the Tony Stark costume, the unmasking, even his years-long marriage and Aunt May's death? Gone. Undone. Including his memories of most of it.

Every hero goes through temporary dramatic changes. Superman was blue electric guy, had a mullet. Green Lantern was Parallax, then The Spectre, recently a Black Lantern. It never lasts. The reset button is always pressed, sometimes (as in Spider-Man's case) in really regrettable ways.
posted by middleclasstool at 1:17 PM on September 30, 2013


Yes and no. Really the only permanent change you listed is Gwen Stacy.....Every hero goes through temporary dramatic changes.

Oddly enough, though, this has become true only in the last 10 or 15 years; the fetish for rebooting and rescinding changes t some "classic" status quo is a recent movement, paradoxically enough. Prior to that, some of the changes you call temporary had lasted quite a long time in both real terms and publishing terms.

Previous reboots had been done to modernize characters, not to restore them to some kind of pristine "my first comic" situation enshrined by the editors or writers. Even the Superman reboot of the 1980s was not about resetting the character's situation; in fact, it actually complicated and changed it rather a lot. Superman and Spider-Man had marriages that lasted decades; Hal Jordan went mad and died and was replaced for a very long chunk of his publication histry, much more than a short bit. The classic-model Superboy has been gone since 1986.

I'll note that reboot/remake-mania isn't just a superhero comics trend today, either.
posted by kewb at 2:00 PM on September 30, 2013


I read a lot of comics in the 60's and more sporadically in the 70's and 80's. But the FF was the only series I really cared about. Even so, I probably only ever read less than 100 issues. So I don't really have a grip on the whole storyline, especially in the later years. Once comics crossed the $1.50 barrier I pretty much quit buying.

Once in a while I'd be in a book store and see a new issue of FF and leaf through it. I'd be WTF?! Reed is trapped in the future/past/another dimension, and he's insane? Doom is helping Sue try to rescue him? What's all this about Franklin? Back then I didn't have an Internet to search, so there was no easy way to get caught up on the plot lines so it would all make sense.

In other words, I need to read the hell out of this site.
posted by DarkForest at 3:03 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I cannot think of The FF without being reminded of the dialogue in Reservoir Dogs.
posted by ovvl at 3:19 PM on September 30, 2013


DarkForest, that sounds like the Jonathan Hickman run of Fantastic Four /FF, which was AMAZEBALLS. Hickman took the core premise of The Fantastic Four (Mad Science and Its Affect on The Family) and took it to its crazy-banana-nuts conclusion. I loved it. Best thing Marvel put out in years, if not decades.
posted by KingEdRa at 3:31 PM on September 30, 2013


GHOST
I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night.
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

HAMLET
Murder?!

GHOST
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.

HAMLET
'Tis the hour of Clobbering!
posted by Smedleyman at 4:35 PM on September 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


A bit of a stretch. These comics are mostly so poorly written, it does them a disservice comparing them to literature. Superhero comics are cool, they have influenced our culture (and not always in a positive way), but they're definitely a low-brow art form. Folk art. Folk music. They're an interesting expression of the zeitgeist.
posted by touchstone033 at 5:00 PM on September 30, 2013


A bit of a stretch. These comics are mostly so poorly written, it does them a disservice comparing them to literature. Superhero comics are cool, they have influenced our culture (and not always in a positive way), but they're definitely a low-brow art form.

You know that Stephenie Meyer is in the same form as Cormac McCarthy, right? They both put words on pages and let people read them. Casting comics as incomparable to literature ignores great and exciting work that has been done and continues to be done across the medium.

Plus, honestly, what literature of the 20th Century will be remembered longer than Superman? Shakespeare was low-brow, too, remember. Brow heights change with time.
posted by Etrigan at 5:58 PM on September 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Plus, honestly, what literature of the 20th Century will be remembered longer than Superman?

But Superman isn't literature, he's a character that most people have heard of, many have seen a few movies of, fewer still have also watched TV cartoons of, and a shrinking minority have encountered in his original comic form. So the only good comparisons with literary characters of the 20th century, would involve characters that have started in novels, but wound up in movies as well as other bits of popular culture. And then, it really becomes impossible to say, because while there are a few candidates (Rambo and Hannibal Lecter are the first who come to my mind, setting aside the quality of their original literary appearances), how many have received the constant image tending and nudging to the front of the cultural consciousness that Superman has?

Whenever this subject comes up, I always want to ask--wait, here I am in the thread, I'll ask it here! Whenever this subject comes up, and people talk about the great work that has been done in comics, and other people ask for examples, it seems like the answers are usually not superhero comics. Is there any comics-reading consensus on superhero comics that do come up to the standard of literature--not just for a memorable and marketable character, but because the work itself enlightens, warms, survives, gives greater and deeper meaning to the reader? Or does the grind of coming up with new stories inevitably dull the work, sort of the way you'd never compare soap operas to great cinema?
posted by mittens at 6:22 PM on September 30, 2013


(I should say here that I'm really hoping the answer is yes. I haven't been able to keep up with comics since college, but I love going through wikis and learning about plot threads I hadn't heard of before, new character histories, etc....having it all in one place rather than stretched over years makes it all much easier to keep up with!)
posted by mittens at 6:30 PM on September 30, 2013


Plus, honestly, what literature of the 20th Century will be remembered longer than Superman?

IMHO: 1984, Brave New World, maybe The Satanic Verses, The Bonfire of the Vanities, maybe Big Sur, maybe If This Is a Man for historical reasons. One arguably can also fill in already accepted classics such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest here.

I am sorely tempted to make this an AskMe question, it's a fascinating mental game. Do films count as lit for this question?
posted by jaduncan at 7:02 PM on September 30, 2013


So, what you're saying is that it's really more like the Bible.

That'll work, too! Kirby was very much aware of the big religious and philosophical issues in his creations, both with literal gods (Thor) and cosmic quasi-gods (The New Gods, The Eternals).
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:29 PM on September 30, 2013


Is there any comics-reading consensus on superhero comics that do come up to the standard of literature--not just for a memorable and marketable character, but because the work itself enlightens, warms, survives, gives greater and deeper meaning to the reader?

Watchmen, of course. The Dark Knight Returns is a classic for a reason, as is The Killing Joke. All Star Superman is pretty amazing. I'm a big fan of Invincible, but it's not for everyone. In the realm of superhero webcomics, Strong Female Protagonist is showing some pretty good potential.
posted by Etrigan at 7:33 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


comics that do come up to the standard of literature

These comics are mostly so poorly written, it does them a disservice comparing them to literature.

From an academic standpoint, all literature is functionally capable of study. As human expression, it is certainly worthy thereof.

Aside from the fact that FF had many authors during the time period that this "novel" was written--with very different styles, levels of talent, approaches to the characters, etc.--there simply isn't the level of continuity that Tolworthy ascribes to the material.

Well, say, you know that there was probably no such individual person named Homer? Yet The Odyssey remains considered literature, and a cohesive whole.

I'm not suggesting we're putting these two works up against each other in terms of, say, poetic beauty, but poetic beauty is hardly the only way to analyze literature. (Can't believe I have to point this out in 2013.) In fact, it's a very interesting approach to take something that is ostensibly not a cohesive whole and not only treat it that way, but find that it yields to the analysis and appears to form one after all.

You don't need to be a full-on Marxist critic, either, to look at literature in a social or sociological sense, or even use that as a proxy for a further, more traditional treatment. The text will tell us much about its creators, about the times in which it was created, about the ways the society in which it was created are structured. In this case, the Cold War and mid-century Americanism, both as political and social culture.
posted by dhartung at 1:13 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I liked the Fantastic Four as a kid, but as an adult I never really *got* them. Even when they did the whole 1602 thing with them (a trope pretty much guaranteed to have me loving a previously ignored comic book), it just didn't work for me.

Every now and again, Reed Richards will make a guest appearance in somebody else's series, or there will an interesting looking reboot ("FF"), and I'll try to get back into them, but it never sticks.

Not sure why that is.
posted by zoo at 3:42 AM on October 1, 2013


what literature of the 20th Century will be remembered longer than Superman?

I don't know; you could argue that the key demographic for Superman has gradually got older and might just die off over the next few decades. He's a powerful archetype, but he seems to lack the perennial scope for reinvention that say, Sherlock Holmes has.

I suppose he might linger on in the same limbo as Mickey Mouse: known to all, beloved of none.
posted by Segundus at 5:23 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


poetic beauty is hardly the only way to analyze literature.

No, but it's an important part of picking what we call literature, and what we exclude from that category. And since comics fall between narrative and visual art, we could also ask, which panels or covers correspond in beauty (for whatever definition we might use) to the paintings we hold dear in our culture?
posted by mittens at 5:43 AM on October 1, 2013


I don't know; you could argue that the key demographic for Superman has gradually got older and might just die off over the next few decades. He's a powerful archetype, but he seems to lack the perennial scope for reinvention that say, Sherlock Holmes has.

The most recent Superman movie made $662 million worldwide, more than either of the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes movies. The most recent Superman TV show ran for 10 seasons. Will it be the same in another hundred years? Maybe not, but Big Blue isn't done yet, and the genre he helped bring into the popular consciousness isn't either.
posted by Etrigan at 5:44 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


But the argument would be that all that's because the typical fan is now middle-aged and consequently has more money and demands relatively sophisticated films and referential TV shows instead of cheap comics. YMMV, of course.

...the genre he helped bring into popular consciousness...

Yes: I suppose you could argue, contra to my earlier point that in fact Superman is reinvented constantly; they just don't call the reinventions Superman.
posted by Segundus at 6:54 AM on October 1, 2013


Plus, honestly, what literature of the 20th Century will be remembered longer than Superman?

IMHO: 1984, Brave New World, maybe The Satanic Verses, The Bonfire of the Vanities, maybe Big Sur, maybe If This Is a Man for historical reasons. One arguably can also fill in already accepted classics such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest here.
Most of your examples, expect the first two (and even these are only kept alive through pop culture reference) are very much of a particular place and time getting less relevant as we get further away from it.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:57 AM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmm. OK. Great Gatsby is about the human journey as much as the setting.
posted by jaduncan at 7:05 AM on October 1, 2013


very much of a particular place and time getting less relevant as we get further away from it

I keep coming back to the notion that Superman is remembered as a character, rather than as a story, whereas as much as we may keep referring to 1984 for the rest of our time on earth, we're referring to the ideas rather than the characters. It's tough to say what kind of memory "counts" when we are talking about this stuff.

I was at a thrift store the other day near some teenagers who picked up The Satanic Verses with some anticipatory scoffs and muttering. I listened in to their growing excitement, then sudden dismay and disappointment on learning that the book was not, I guess, a novel or manual dealing with the occult. And I wanted to say, "Don't you remember the furor over this book?" but of course they wouldn't, they weren't even born then, and nothing about the book has really survived in cultural memory.
posted by mittens at 7:15 AM on October 1, 2013


I'd love to revisit the classic Lee/Kirby era of FF but.... A while back I added a Marvel app to my iPad. I have a lot of comics loaded on the thing and I figured I'd get some classic Marvel to add to my stash. The prices Marvel has set on these things is ridiculous. I got the Kindle version of the latest GRRM doorstop for less than what those bastards wanted for a comp of an X-Men arc. And media providers wonder why pirates plague them? Because you place a ridiculous price on ones and zeros.
posted by Ber at 10:06 AM on October 1, 2013


" Is there any comics-reading consensus on superhero comics that do come up to the standard of literature--not just for a memorable and marketable character, but because the work itself enlightens, warms, survives, gives greater and deeper meaning to the reader?"

1. Kingdom Come
2. Final Crisis

(and for non superhero stuff Transmetropolitan)
posted by asra at 1:05 PM on October 1, 2013


Also. see if you can get your hands on Supergods if you'd like to explore a history of the genre...
posted by asra at 1:11 PM on October 1, 2013


Marvel/Miracleman
Saga has great potential.
People will tell you Sandman, but I kind of disagree (it's a bit too pat for me).
Promethea, perhaps.
DC: The New Fronteir is awsome as a book, but demands a good knowledge of the DC universe in the 40s and 50s to fully appreciate. The movie is... not up to the same standard. "There's the door, Spaceman" is probably the best line Wonderwoman has ever had.
posted by bonehead at 1:55 PM on October 1, 2013


I guess room 101 was Winston Smith's kryptonite.

You don't need tights and a cape to realise Superman has thoroughly embedded himself into the language. It's not too bizzaro to assume he'll be around for a while yet.
posted by zoo at 3:44 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


This "standard of literature" question has been rankling me for the last couple of days, and even though it's something that comes up every now and again - I never really feel that the pat response is correct.

The pat response (of course) is to point to Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come and to say - here, here's your great literature. I think this misses something.

People rarely pop into conversations about art or TV or music or any other art form and demand that the people who like that particular art find some piece of work to compare against the best that literature has to offer. It happens sometimes, but not to the same degree.

"I don't really get that monologue by John Stewart? Do you have any examples of monologues by John Stewart that is comparable to The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway?"

There's always going to be the people who vocally don't get why we like this stuff. The implication is always that the art-form is for children, or the broken, or the intellectually retarded.

Here's the thing. We need to stop caring. We need to stop striving for some literate ideal. We need to stop trying to prove to the snobs that we have something that is "worthy". Because fuck worthy. I want to see a drawing of First Born casually tossing the broken jawbone of Lennox to the feet of Wonder Woman. I want to see Batman get his back broken (again). If I want "worthy" and "deep", I'll read some David Mitchell. If I want awesome pictures with snappy dialogue and alright plotting I'll go to my comic books.

Comic books are great stories that come with their own art galleries.

We spend so much time trying to find "adult" books to recommend to those that are unlikely to pick up comics that we neglect to show them what we're actually reading.
Here's what I'm reading:
- The Mark Waid FF (as discussed in this thread)
- Saga
- Batman
- All New X-Men
- Hawkeye (People are loving this. I'm stalled on Issue 3)
- Indestructible Hulk (Went a bit rubbish, but suddenly got good again)
- Infinity (Confusing nonsense)
- Injustice - Gods amongst us (AWESOMECAKES)
- Iron Man
- Saga
- Superior Foes of Spiderman
- Superman Unchained
- Wonder Woman
- Y: The last man.

You want to know where to start? Get the Comixology App for your tablet and start anywhere. Just, please, stop drifting into threads tricking people into justifying the media they enjoy by comparing it to something that is not comparable.

I'm a 40+ year old man who likes comic books, and I am sick of explaining myself to those that would feel superior to me.
posted by zoo at 4:21 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's a pretty good list, zoo. I like that you have Saga on it twice, as well you should. You should add Daredevil, Manhattan Projects, and Morning Glories. And if you're stalled on Hawkeye, try picking up issue 11 and then the annual. They're both self-contained and they both deserve to wins lots of awards.
posted by painquale at 1:49 PM on October 2, 2013


You know that Stephenie Meyer is in the same form as Cormac McCarthy, right? They both put words on pages and let people read them. Casting comics as incomparable to literature ignores great and exciting work that has been done and continues to be done across the medium.

Erm, I never said comics aren't lit, just the FF we're talking about. The dialog of Marvel is pretty...bad.

I'm not suggesting we're putting these two works up against each other in terms of, say, poetic beauty, but poetic beauty is hardly the only way to analyze literature. (Can't believe I have to point this out in 2013.) In fact, it's a very interesting approach to take something that is ostensibly not a cohesive whole and not only treat it that way, but find that it yields to the analysis and appears to form one after all.

You don't need to be a full-on Marxist critic, either, to look at literature in a social or sociological sense, or even use that as a proxy for a further, more traditional treatment. The text will tell us much about its creators, about the times in which it was created, about the ways the society in which it was created are structured. In this case, the Cold War and mid-century Americanism, both as political and social culture.


In my own comment, I said "literature" and meant literature of a specific "high" quality. Yes, that's subjective, the notion of beauty, etc & co. Still, I believe the FF was not "high art." Nonetheless it's well worth analysis and study, etc & co.

And certainly I don't mean to take away the pleasure of reading the Fantastic Four. I love early Marvel strips. I just don't happen to think they rate artistically and poetically anywhere near good lit.
posted by touchstone033 at 7:13 PM on October 14, 2013


Erm, I never said comics aren't lit, just the FF we're talking about.

From your comment:
Superhero comics are cool, they have influenced our culture (and not always in a positive way), but they're definitely a low-brow art form.

That read to me as expanding your complaint beyond Fantastic Four to the entire form, which seemed unnecessarily broad a brush. Comics -- even superhero comics -- are not any more inherently un-literary than typed words on a page.
posted by Etrigan at 5:53 AM on October 15, 2013


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