It’s no secret that Superheroes have become a pop cultural phenomenon. Thanks to modern special effects, Superhero movies have become a dominating presence in modern cinema. In fact, the increased recognition that Superheroes, and by extension, the comics that created them, have been receiving lately has led to increased scholarly interest in the medium. What exactly is it about comics that have enabled them to become a dominating presence in pop culture? And what effect, if any, does the popularity of Superheroes have on the comic book industry and its audience? Furthermore, what is the academic value of studying comics—are they unsubstantial entertainment or is there more to be learned from comic books than one might initially expect?
To get a better understanding of this trend, I decided to interview resident faculty member and professor, Dr. Eric Berlatsky who, in his examinations of post-modern historical narratives, eventually turned his lifelong interest in comics into an academic pursuit. This Fall he will be teaching a graduate course called “Superheroes” which will seek to explore more of the role of Superheroes in our culture and society, including what their existence says about the people who created them and the audiences who brought them to prominence.
“I have taught comics before,” Berlatsky says, “but in the ‘Superheroes’ class we’ll read pre-superhero texts like The Scarlet Pimpernel and the first Zorro novel, so we’ll get some background as to when these types of stories start appearing and why they started appearing and what kind of political or social message they are trying to get across. So we’ll talk about the relationships between race and gender… One of the things that’s useful about them is that comics were a very popular cultural art form, so kids would read them but also adults. So you’ll see a kind of index of what was popular at the time and we’ll look at ‘why are these things popular?’ Superman arrives in 1938 and becomes hugely popular, and so all these comic books start copying Superman. So why is the archetype popular? It tells you something not just about the text itself but also about the audience.”
I asked Dr. Berlatsky when exactly it was that he started to study comics and what made them worthy of deeper analysis. He said that he did not really take comics too seriously until later in his graduate studies: “When I was in graduate school, it never really occurred to me that one could make a career out of doing this at all. But I did have a chapter in my dissertation that later became a chapter in my book, on Art Spiegelman’s holocaust memoir, Maus. That book was in a different category as the one graphic novel—though it’s not a novel because its non-fiction—that you were allowed to take seriously; that people took seriously.” Even so, Dr.Berlatsky says that it wasn’t until a graduate student noticed his Superman watch and suggested that he should teach a graduate class on comics that he really began to consider taking his interest in the medium to a new level: taking comics more seriously as a source of potential academic discourse.
The timing couldn’t be more appropriate as comics appear to be receiving a lot more mainstream attention due to proliferation of superhero movies based on comic books. However, when asked whether or not the success of these superhero movies has benefited the comic book industry as a whole, Dr. Berlatsky explained that superhero movies and comic books are not one and the same. While comic books provide a medium for superheroes to develop and thrive, the comic industry is not exclusive to superheroes. Furthermore, just because someone is interested in seeing a superhero movie, does not mean they are likely to purchase a comic book. Berlatsky noted that there was a time from the 1940s to the mid-1950s where comics were a dominant form of entertainment for both children and adults. But today, comic readership has dwindled considerably compared to the so-called “Golden”, “Silver”, and “Bronze” ages of comics, respectively (1939-1985). He said that “people like to say that comics are more popular now, but I don’t know that that’s true. Superheroes, maybe, are more popular and ‘nerd culture’ is more popular now. Every new movie is a superhero movie and a science-fiction movie…but that’s not really ‘comics’ per se. Now people say ‘comic book movies’ but I don’t really know what that means. They’re movies based on, to some degree, comic book characters, but they’re not comic books. So I don’t know that comics are more popular, in fact I doubt it.” He continues, “[During the time of] pre-television and pre-1954—which was when comics started censoring themselves due to government hearings on whether or not comics led to juvenile delinquency—there were comics of all kinds: crime comics, romance comics—there was basically a comic book for everything. The code [Comics Code] and television really bit into the popularity of comics. But there was a time when basically everyone read comics. Now everyone goes to these ‘comic book movies’ but how many of those people really read comic books? I think it’s probably a much smaller percentage than it was 60 years ago”.
When asked whether or not superhero movies act as a gateway for younger audiences to get into comics Berlatsky replied, “I guess that’s what publishers hope. But if you look at the business of comic books, Marvel comics used to just be more or less a comic book publisher. They made their money on comic books. Now, Marvel is owned by Disney, and Disney doesn’t really care if they’re making money off of comic books. They care if they’re making money. I don’t think they really care if their comic books are particularly popular.” In essence, the success of superhero movies does not necessarily reflect the success of comics themselves, but rather are indicative of the popularity of a particular marketable franchise.