By David Reynolds

If you’re looking for an introductory history of the superhero, then you’ll be satisfied with the PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle. Hosted by Liev Schreiber, who played Sabertooth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the film provides an adequate overview of the history of superheroes, but it may not quite quench the thirst of more advanced comics buffs.

Much like my own dissertation on the subject, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths, this PBS documentary focuses on superheroes as they appear across media, unlike other histories which focus only on comics in general or the superhero’s role in comics. Hearing legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and Alan Moore share their stories about the industry provides invaluable input about the infancy and growth of the genre. However, while this documentary collects interviews with many legends of the industry, it falls short in scholarly expertise. Trina Robbins‘ input as a comics historian is quite valuable in this respect, but there ought to be further reference to academic expertise throughout the series.

Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is divided into three episodes, which roughly correspond to the Golden, Silver, and Modern Ages of Comics. Accordingly, the first episode covers the birth of the superhero in 1938 with the emergence of Superman in Action Comics #1. The origins of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and other superheroes are covered here, as well, acknowledging the inspiration taken from pulp characters, like the Spider or the Shadow. The film also discusses superheroes as American gods, emphasizing their role as modern hero myths, and it even touches on how superhero narratives were used as wartime propaganda. These are perspectives I have considered in my own dissertation. Such accounts in Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle tend to reflect the scholarship, although the treatment of these subjects in the film is brief.

In discussing the sizable slew of superheroes that emerged following the success of Superman and Batman, the film highlights Fawcett ComicsCaptain Marvel. Here is where I have a particular gripe with the documentary’s portrayal of events. The film makes no mention of the despicable copyright lawsuits that resulted in DC Comics (known as National Comics at the time) winning the rights to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel. Basically, DC claimed that Captain Marvel was infringing on Superman’s copyright, claiming the characters were too alike. They are about as alike as any other pair of superheroes, but the courts eventually favoured with DC and Fawcett had run out of money to pursue the fight. This is one of many dark stains on the genre, in my opinion, because it represents the tremendous level of greed inherent to the industry. Don’t forget how the big publishers all too often denied copyright and royalties to creators, most infamously the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Well, the comic book copyright wars are overlooked entirely in this documentary. Don’t take this as too damning a critique, however; most are quite satisfied to enjoy the view of the tip of an iceberg.

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The second and third episodes provide accounts of the Silver and Modern Ages. The Silver Age is largely portrayed as defined by Stan Lee’s revolution of telling stories about superheroes with relatable problems, noting the introduction of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Superman, Batman, and other archetypal superheroes had hitherto seemed impervious to the everyday troubles of regular folk, so Stan Lee’s departure from that norm is truly remarkable even if it seems like a no-brainer to fans today. The Modern Age is defined by further narrative complexity, citing Frank Miller‘s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen as definitive texts that reflect relevant social tensions. These works challenged the very foundations of superhero narratives, forcing readers to question the motives of all these masked vigilantes. This sort of complexity continues after the destruction of the two towers on September 11, 2001, when superhero narratives again challenge our assumptions about the value of security and civil liberties, such as with Marvel’s Civil War crossover series. The documentary literally juxtaposes the implementation of George W. Bush‘s Patriot Act with the issues addressed in Civil War. That the film engages in this conversation is reassuring, because to dismiss it would be a crucial oversight. However, the film does not go so far as to point out the troubling normalization of mass surveillance in Christopher Nolan‘s film Dark Knight.

Ultimately, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle is well worth watching for any fan of superheroes. If you’re new to reading comics, you might find some classic titles to check out for yourself. If you’re a long-time fan, then you’ll find a great deal to be nostalgic about across all three episodes. There are some unusual moments unique to this documentary, as well; nowhere else have I heard Adam West (of campy ’60s Batman fame) read lines from Miller’s dark and brooding Dark Knight Returns. So, if you haven’t seen this one yet, you might find it on Netflix.

And, if you’re interested in reading a more advanced take on how superhero narratives function in popular culture, then you should check out my book, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths. Please, read and enjoy!

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You’re still here? Great! If you dig this review, then “Like” my Facebook page! You might also check out what else I am up to over at Problematic Press. Many thanks! Cheers!

By David Reynolds

Oscar Wilde was a writer. It can be put no other way for he did not merely dabble in the art of writing short stories, novels, poems, and plays, he mastered the art. The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably Wilde’s theatric masterpiece. While maintaining the play’s comedic elements, Wilde succeeds in weaving deeper themes into the plot as well. Amongst the play’s most significant themes is Wilde’s inquiry into the nature of responsibility, hypocrisy, and the double life. Sam Raimi‘s film Spider-Man 2 also considers similar questions, and he acknowledges this connection to the play by portraying Mary Jane Watson as Cecily on stage in the film. This essay expands on the connection between Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

Peter Parker get ready to see Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

A brief synopsis of the film may be helpful for the unfamiliar. The tale of Spider-Man originated from the mind of comic book legend Stan Lee. Peter Parker’s background is explained at the beginning of every Spider-Man comic (loosely) as follows:

Bitten by an irradiated spider, which granted him incredible abilities, Peter Parker learned the all-important lesson, that with great power there must also come great responsibility. And so he became the amazing Spider-Man.

This part of Spider-Man’s canon is essentially unaltered in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and the origin story is handled in the first film of his trilogy (naturally). Spider-Man 2 is still significant, however, as it shows the hero struggle, persevere, and grow. Aside from the superhero activity throughout the film, Parker is down on is luck: he loses his job as a pizza delivery boy; his freelance photography for The Daily Bugle is no longer sufficient to cover his bills; J. Jonah Jameson has twisted Parker’s photos of Spider-Man in order to portray the hero as a masked menace; Parker’s best friend, Harry Osborn, distrusts and resents him for protecting Spider-Man’s identity; he regularly misses classes at Empire State University and he risks failing; and, Parker sees his love interest, Mary Jane Watson, accept the marriage proposal of John Jameson, son of J. Jonah Jameson and the first astronaut to play football on the moon. Nevertheless, Parker resolves that he must still fulfill his responsibilities as a superhero despite the declining quality of his personal life. Further, insofar as being a superhero goes, Parker has always guarded his true identity as a secret in order to protect those he loves. Considering such conflicts Parker must contend with in the film, it is clear that when his love interest plays Cecily in a production of Wilde’s play it is meant to emphasize the comedic absurdity of Parker’s own double life.

Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane as Cecily

The first of Wilde’s scenes to appear in Spider-Man 2 is Act Three’s question of whether Cecily and Gwendolen can forgive the false pretenses of Algernon and Jack. As a parallel to Spider-Man’s tale, this scene represents Mary Jane’s own question of forgiving Peter about withholding the truth that he is Spider-Man. In Wilde’s play, however, the matter is sillier and more fickle. Both Cecily and Gwendolen are so caught up in the Christian names of their lovers that it is more a question of forgiving them for not being Ernests than forgiving them their double lives. Wilde’s women display a spoiled sense of entitlement but act like giddy pre-teens. For instance, Gwendolen claims that they should not be the first to speak to the men, but then she immediately speaks to Jack (Wilde 3.15-18). Gwendolen also claims that “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing” (Wilde 3.28-29), and that “there are principles at stake that one cannot surrender” Wilde 3.43-44). Cecily goes along with Gwendolen’s ideology quite implicitly, and the girls’ sense of moral responsibility is genuinely fickle and silly. Neither are the men as dutiful as they ought to be. Jack disapproves of Algernon’s moral character, saying “I suspect him of being untruthful” (Wilde 3.216-217). Jack’s claim here is exemplary of the men’s hypocrisy throughout the play – both having led double lives, lying to the women they love, and degrading the other’s moral character whenever it suits their needs. By including such a scene from Wilde’s play in the film, Raimi accentuates the double lives of both Peter and Mary Jane – one wears the mask of a superhero while the other wears the costume of an actress, both of which are duplicitous.

Peter and Mary Jane

The second scene from The Importance of Being Earnest to appear in Spider-Man 2 is taken from earlier in the play when Cecily and Algernon discuss the double life and hypocrisy. This likely appears later in the film such that the question of forgiveness can arise in the movie narrative before ever knowing if those duped will discover the truth. The manner of discussion in this scene, however, is quite playful and absurd. Cecily expresses that if Algernon, as the evil cousin Ernest, was not wicked and rather good, then she would disapprove of his hypocrisy (Wilde 2.119-122). Cecily would sooner frown upon hypocrisy than smile upon good character. Now, while Mary Jane Watson is somewhat materialistic in the Spider-Man comics and films, it seems she would nonetheless recognize that sincerely good character is more worthy of praise than begrudging someone their hypocrisy of merely appearing wicked. In the film, this juxtaposition helps establish a sense of suspense for the audience, hinting that she may not forgive the hero for keeping secrets.

In this respect, The Importance of Being Earnest and Spider-Man 2 display some significant similarities. Jack and Algernon both live double lives, Bunburying about town as Ernests. Peter Parker also lives a double life, saving the city as the wall-crawling, web-slinging Spider-Man. The difference between the two, though, is that Wilde’s characters choose to lead double lives as a means to escape their societal duties (Wilde 1.200-208), while Peter Parker takes on his alter-ego as a means of upholding his responsibilities. Also, when both Cecily and Gwendolen discover that their respective Ernests have lied to them they are shocked and appalled (Wilde 2.761-771), but once Mary Jane discovers that Spider-Man is really Peter Parker she is surprised, yes, but overcome with joy as well. Both tales deal with dual identities, but it is how the tales deal with responsibility that really changes what effect is produced once the truth is discovered.

Wilde has produced a truly silly comedy in The Importance of Being Earnest. Raimi has rendered a truly great film rendition of Stan Lee‘s Spider-Man. Both tales interrogate the complexities of living double lives, yet they differ greatly. Regardless, both works are thoroughly entertaining and come highly recommended.

Spider-Man and Mary Jane

WORKS CITED

Spider-Man 2. Dir. Sam Raimi. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina. Columbia Pictures, 2004. Film.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays. Ed. Peter Raby. Oxford University Press: NewYork, 1995. 247-307. Print.

You’re still here? Great! If you dig this essay, then “Like” my Facebook page! You might also check out what else I am up to over at Problematic Press. Many thanks! Cheers!

Listen up, eager readers!

If you are an Amazon Prime member, then check this out: from now until October 26, 2013 Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths will be available to borrow from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. That means you can borrow the book and read it all you like!

Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture's Modern Myths

On top of that, for 5 days only, between September 3 and 7, 2013, the Kindle edition of Superheroes will be made FREE to download. It’s like my Back-to-School gift to you! That’s right, during this limited-time offer absolutely anyone can download a FREE copy of my dissertation on how superhero narratives function in society. You don’t even need a Kindle e-reader to take advantage of this opportunity because the Kindle App is freely available for PC, Mac, and mobile devices.

So, be sure to get your digital copy of Superheroes for the Kindle, and then head on over to Problematic Press to see what other projects I’ve been working on. There you’ll find more FREE reading material and, of course, the Problematic Press Shop (CAN and US) is the place to find my projects in print and digital formats.

Please, read and enjoy!

Cheers!
DR

So, with the breaking news that the U.S. has been extensively logging an unimaginable gamut of personal information from Internet users around the globe with their PRISM program, I’m sure I’m not the only person to immediately think back on Dark Knight‘s cell phone surveillance system.

In Christopher Nolan’s film, Batman resorts to such an extreme form of surveillance to combat the Joker, a relentless psychopath. The device is designed to monitor the citizens of Gotham by constructing composite images based on snatched cell phone signals. Lucious Fox finds this tool inherently abhorrent, and Batman partially acknowledges this by allowing Fox to destroy the device once it has served its singular purpose. Unlike in the real world, Batman’s cell phone surveillance is kept a secret from the population; only Batman, Fox, and the privileged audience are aware of its existence and use. Of course, all of this is very Orwellian, reeking of Big Brother all over, but engaging that would be another essay, so I’ll stick to Dark Knight for now.

Audiences should see this trope in Dark Knight as an allegory for authorities dealing with terrorism. The film reflects the dichotomy of security and civil liberty, a theme that has become more common in post-9/11 North American popular culture.

In light of the news that governments have been actively conducting widespread surveillance of Internet and cell phone communications, it is most crucial that we understand why people are enraged by this invasion of privacy. So, let’s consider how fiction may contrast with reality.

When you think of President Obama do you instantly think “He’s just like Batman?” Perhaps, but I think that may be a bit of a stretch.

How about Prime Minister Harper? Does he inspire associations with Batman? Doubtful.

I make this silly contrast for a reason. Just follow me for a moment along this train of thought. As fans of Batman, audiences tend to think of him as the ultimate zenith of human intelligence and performance. That’s fine. Fans also tend to have a tremendous amount of blind faith in Batman’s judgement. So, when we watch Dark Knight and see that Batman must resort to this type of widespread surveillance to catch the Joker, we feel this is an acceptable measure because HE’S BATMAN. There is no other reassurance made. He’s Batman. Trust him. That’s it. And, many of us will likely accept that reasoning and simply enjoy the story.

However, events in the real world are strikingly different. Consider the following points:

Firstly, PRISM has been around for years now, trawling the Internet for personal information on everyone who is online. That may be an exaggeration, but I feel entitled to it. When Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, and others are allegedly cooperating in full with the PRSIM program, then I feel safe saying everyone online is being monitored. In contrast to Dark Knight, the real application of such surveillance is conducted on a much larger scale. Instead of monitoring a few million fictional citizens in Gotham, PRSIM monitors the communications and activities of billions of real, regular people around the world.

Secondly, Batman wanted to stop the Joker. That is a specific task with a definite endpoint. The so-called War On Terror is not like that at all. The War On Terror is ill-defined, vague, and without any foreseeable endpoint. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric: war is terror. With a perpetual state of war, there is no indication that governments would ever cease to avail of such a rich source of intel. So, unlike the faith we hold that Batman will use his device only to apprehend the Joker, it strikes me as entirely unlikely that any military or enforcement agency would relinquish their power in the same way.

Thirdly, neither Obama nor Harper are like Batman. As an idealized fictional superhero with a canon ranging from dark and gritty to bright and farcical, Batman sets an impossible standard to meet. That is a given. He is like a mythical hero, idolized by many. Leaders of state do not often achieve such unconditional approval ratings. Political scandals prevent the population from having a similar sense of faith in our leaders. Just look at the IRS’s alleged bias in targeting Republicans for financial scrutiny. Just look at the slew of scandals in Canada that mar Harper’s reign, especially the election fraud (a.k.a. the robocalls) and the Wright-Duffy expense scandal. The Harper Government already equates environmental activism with extremism, regarding it as a threat to national interests (read as “oil interests”). With such a wealth of personal data at their fingertips, we are supposed to believe that they won’t use it to gain political advantages? It seems fair to me to suspect such powerful figures would misuse the collected data. Since past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour, one can reasonably assume that our governments aren’t as trustworthy as Batman.

Following this rationale, concern about how governments will use this information is not merely some paranoid conspiracy theory; on the contrary, it seems a rather prudent line of thought. If world leaders were all as noble as Batman and terrorists were all as psychotic as the Joker, then this would be a simpler issue. But, it is not like that. The reality is far more complex. Leaders are often not saints, and “terrorists” are often seen as freedom fighters (you have seen Star Wars, right?). The real world is not as black and white as Gotham (nor Star Wars).

Now, discussing this very real issue in terms of how it relates to a Batman movie may be seen as diminishing the real importance of the issue. That is not what I intend to accomplish here. Instead, I hope to inspire audiences to consider real world events as they relate to the stories that are told. Not every tale is purely for entertainment; many storytellers communicate valuable lessons through metaphor, symbolism, and allegory.

For further material on why online spying conducted by governments should be a concern to everyday law-abiding folks please read Ian Brown’s piece in The Guardian or view this segment on DemocracyNow.org.

So, I was scouring the Internet for different works on the philosophy of language (why? because, that’s what I’m like) and I came across a text that I had a small hand in developing. I was surprised, and it felt a little surreal to see the finished product on my computer screen.

In the summer of 2007, while I was a graduate student pursuing my Master of Philosophy in Humanities at Memorial University, I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Arthur Sullivan on an early manuscript of Reference and Structure in the Philosophy of Language: A Defense of the Russellian Orthodoxy.

Arthur Sullivan's Reference and Structure in the Philosophy of Language

I first had Sullivan as an instructor during my undergrad for propositional logic as well as a special seminar on the philosophy of language. It was a thoroughly stimulating experience, greatly influencing my later research as a grad student. I remember writing one paper for Sullivan on language, reference, Superman, and possible worlds. I lost that paper somewhere. I really wish I hadn’t.

Anyways, I recall it was an absolute pleasure proofreading the manuscript for Sullivan. The text dealt with ideas more complex than what I had encountered during my undergrad, of course, but it was a welcome challenge for me as I had recently finished my Bachelor of Arts degree with a Double Major in Philosophy and English Language and Literature. Reading that last bit, I suppose I was well-suited for the task of proofreading and offering feedback on Sullivan’s manuscript.

In the book, Sullivan interrogates the relationship between reference and structure, two foundational concepts in the philosophy of language. Make no mistake: this is a hefty task. Reference and Structure in the Philosophy of Language demonstrates that the notion of structure can be seen as the basis of various other important points in the theory of reference. Here, he expands upon the work of Bertrand Russell, Saul Kripke, David Kaplan, and Stephen Neale, to name a few, aiming to provide a simplified, comprehensive lens through which a variety of semantic phenomena can be better understood.

I am truly honoured to be thanked in the preface for the small role I played in the book’s development. In all honesty, it is I who should thank Arthur Sullivan for giving me the opportunity to work with him on his research.

It was a fantastic experience! Thanks, Arthur!

Cheers!
DR

In 1999, the League of Canadian Poets began celebrating April as National Poetry Month. By then, I was really only concerned with writing angry, cynical punk songs. Although I was writing a lot of poetry around ’93-98, my interests had shifted somewhat from poetry to lyrics. Perhaps if poetry held much of the public’s attention a little earlier in my life, then maybe that would’ve rubbed off on me and I may have stuck with it a little longer. Instead, when I stopped writing poetry, that’s just what it felt like – like I had stopped.

In any case, I’d like to take this opportunity, since it’s National Poetry Month and all, to share some of the poetry I had written when I was really into it, when it felt like something substantial. So, here are two poems, “Piss Off” and “Drone,” for you to celebrate this April for National Poetry Month. Celebrate!

PISS OFF

Please,
If you’re
So
Sorry,
Others would
Feel
Fine.

DRONE

You have your yellow jacket.
You have your Adidas pants.
You have your Top 40 radio.
You have the assurance
That as long as you
Stay within the safeguards of
Popular society, you’ll be “cool,”
But you don’t know what cool is,
Drone.

Each of these poems can be found in Fawning, Fear and Frustration: A Collection of Teenage Poetry from the 90s. Print and digital editions of this work can be found at Amazon.ca and Amazon.com.

As an extra special treat, just to reward you lucky readers who have read this far, here is a promo video for Fawning, Fear and Frustration where I read “Drone.” Love it.

Cheers!
Dave

Fawning, Fear and Frustration

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So, Fredric Wertham was a liar. In the 1950s, Wertham nearly destroyed the comic book industry, leading an overzealous attack on the whole medium based on his claims that crime comics caused juvenile delinquency. Understand that, in his usage, crime comics referred to any comic containing a criminal act, so all of the superhero comics were included in his criticism. At the time, he managed to rally enough angry parents through his fervor to lead the Crusade Against Comics, nearly crushing the comics industry with his testimony before the United States Senate’s Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Recently, Carol L. Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, revealed that Wertham grossly overstated his evidence.

I am not surprised by this, really. In my book, Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths, I acknowledge the bias in Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, his laughably overzealous attack on the comics medium. However laughable it may have been, the book’s publication is commonly regarded as the event signalling the end of the Golden Age of Comics.

Tilley’s findings, having scoured Wertham’s vast depository of notes at the Library of Congress, indicate the differences between his research and his testimony. In her article, “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics,” Tilley reveals many discrepancies, some of which paint Wertham as even more conservative and homophobic than one would have previously thought. Wertham completely misconstrued his evidence in his testimony to the Subcommittee. He did this in a number of ways, such as by combining accounts from multiple cases into a singular, more convincing case, as if the many were just one patient. At times, he would omit evidence that was inconvenient for or contrary to his argument. Furthermore, Wertham would pass off hearsay as if he witnessed the events himself. Clearly, Tilley’s paper discredits Wertham’s worth as an expert.

So, how do these revelations affect how I have covered Wertham in Superheroes? Ultimately, I think it has little bearing on my own arguments regarding Wertham’s work. I readily acknowledge that his argument was overzealous, and it’s not a big step to accept that he exaggerated his findings beyond what can be acceptable. I write in Superheroes that “The soundest portion of Wertham’s heated criticism is that art is a mode of communication. As we take in art as entertainment, we take in its messages constantly and the content of art’s messages may influence us.” I stand by that interpretation. My argument really only acknowledges the validity of the most basic foundation of Wertham’s position. Beyond that, his testimony has lost whatever credibility it may have clung to over the years.

Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture's Modern Myths