Saturday, July 6, 2013

Comics and Hermeneutics: Making Sense of Superheroes

I have a confession: I like superhero comics. Luckily geeks dominate pop culture nowadays, so that's not such an embarrassing admission any more. Still, to be honest I don't actually read a lot of comics. I'm much more interested in reading about them, and in watching the many fan-produced videos analyzing and dissecting them, especially MovieBob's. There's just something about comics I find fascinating in spite of, or maybe because of, the over-the-top artwork, the absurd characters and of course, the mind-bending complexity.

Any newcomer to comics must come to grips with that complexity immediately. If you're looking to get into the X-Men, maintains a handy list of all the active comics as best I can figure: All-New X-Men, First X-Men, Ultimate X-Men, Weapon-X: First Class, Wolverine, Wolverine & the X-Men, X-Factor, X-Men, X-Men Legacy, X-Men: Phoenix - Warsong, X-Treme X-Men, and possibly a few others. What about Batman? D.C. recently rebooted its entire lineup to make its universe more accessible, and Wikipedia lists...let's see... eleven ongoing Batman titles. The situation is the same for every mainstream hero, and that's not even mentioning the half-century of back stories to grapple with.

The ongoing process of comic creation, which involves multiple series produced concurrently, leads to frequent continuity issues. Some stories are written with careful preparation, while others develop on the fly. Some stories overlap with concurrent series, while others are entirely self-contained. Writers and artists come and go, leading to drastic tonal shifts, uneven character development, and occasional reversals of previous stories. How is a reader supposed to make sense of all this? Even the big questions are hard to reconcile: Batman has been fighting crime since World War II--shouldn't he have retired by now? How can so many heroes and villains inhabit a relatively small area of New York City? Does anybody who dies ever stay dead?

Left to right: Died, came back; died, came back; died, came back, died again.

Then there are mountains of inconsistencies, major and minor. One example: In the early 2000s New X-Men series Magneto, best known as the primary nemesis of the X-Men, is the leader of an island nation of Mutants called Genosha. A nefarious individual named Cassandra Nova schemes to wipe out Genosha and exterminate every mutant there. She is wildly successful, killing 16 million mutants including, we are told, Magneto. Not long after the X-Men meet a Chinese mutant named Xorn, a healer requiring a special helmet to contain the massive gravity of the star in his brain (don't ask). Xorn seems to be a useful team member, but eventually reveals that he's actually been Magneto the whole time, having survived the Genosha genocide and returned with a new scheme to enslave humanity. This betrayal contradicts what we've already seen from Xorn, but never mind: in the ensuing melee Magneto is killed again. For real. Until a few issues later, where we learn that Magneto had in fact survived the initial attack on Genosha but had not created the new identity of Xorn. Xorn, it seems, was a real mutant who for some reason had chosen to impersonate Magneto before it got him killed. The logistics and motives for that are a tangled web that Marvel never really explained to everyone's satisfaction. Also, Xorn later reappears in the form of a twin brother who is an actual good guy. This is just one problematic story; there are hundreds more.

Magneto, or possibly just some guy.
All of this is a long was of saying that comics are a mess. Yet, one of the things that interests me most is how fans deal with all the problems, which is where the fancy word in my title, "hermeneutics," comes into play--the word essentially means "ways of interpreting or studying texts," usually referring to Biblical criticism, but I'm going to apply it more broadly here. Comics, it turns out, have their own hermeneutical approaches, which I've grouped into four broad categories:

1. Harmonizing

There is a group of comic fans who insist that somehow it all must fit together. Somewhere in the tangled morass of comic book mythology there is an objective truth, even if it's been obscured by sloppy or inept writing.  They obsess over chronologies, trying to determine exactly how story lines from different series overlap, and searching for (and sometimes inventing) explanations for seemingly impossible or contradictory events. The most incongruous material is dismissed as "non-canon," or possibly happened in an alternate universe (a favorite device of some comics). In spite or, perhaps because of, the difficulty of their task, these fans are perhaps the most devoted to comics, although they can be hostile to outsiders and less committed fans. A lot of these fans make up the archetypal "comic book nerds" who will spend hours debating and discussing their favorite medium.

And why this was 100% justified.
2. Casual Engagement

I think most fans fall somewhere in this part of the spectrum. The casual fan may only know about superheros through the movies or through an occasional comic, though avid readers can take this approach as well, especially if they prefer to engage with one or two favorite series rather than the whole universe. They tend to focus on the larger story and major plot points without worrying about minutia: Bruce Wayne's parents were killed when he was young, Superman is originally from the planet Krypton, and Spider Man is an awkward teenager who does freelance newspaper work. All of these characters are good guys who basically act virtuously, and what matters is that they're entertaining. These fans are unaware of or don't care about sources disagreeing with the "established" mythology: whether, for example, Bruce Wayne was seven, nine, or ten when his parents died., or whether Batman is not a hero but a near-fascistic sociopath. Basically, they are in it for the ride and to the extent they know about problems don't really worry about them.

I'm sure this somehow makes sense.
3. Active Engagement

Other fans are more fully aware of the problematic nature of comics and deal with them in different ways. Many remain fans of the medium by shrugging their shoulders and acknowledging that there may not be a canonical truth about certain heroes or stories, that sometimes their favorite characters behave nonsensically or are placed in contradictory situations. Some fans choose to follow a particular interpretation of a character and ignore the rest. Others actively petition comic book companies to clear up problems, although unlike harmonizers they aren't necessarily looking for a way to make everything make sense, just for more clarity in the future. Still others become understandably frustrated and give up on the medium altogether, arguing (correctly) that the whole endeavor requires a lot of time and money to stick with and maybe it's not worth it.

Let's never do this again, ever, ever ever, please.
4. Embracing the Chaos

Finally, some fans seem to revel in the fractured reality of comics. The different pieces, while contradictory and confusing, somehow come together to form an enjoyable whole. This categorization probably overlaps with Actively Engaged fans who enjoy comics in spite of their problems , but some fans seem to like comics because of their problems. They enjoy the metatextual nonsense of comic continuity. Not only does it not matter that comics make no sense; that's what makes them great. This group includes fans who are possibly the only ones who can out-geek harmonizers, those who know all the ins and outs of comic history and characterization and can go on four hours about what does and doesn't make sense. However, adopting this position means abandoning any pretext that comic book stories must make sense in-universe, which has to diminish the dramatic effect of some story arcs.

I am Batman, and Batman is legion.
So, that's my take on the tricky field of comic book interpretation. If you have thoughts on the matter, either about comics specifically or about the broader application of these ideas, then please chime in in the comments!


  1. Obligatory nerd correction: your Magneto is actually Magneto's son - Quicksilver.

    1. I've gotta disagree with you, Jeff! Here's the whole page in context:

      Maybe this particular artist draws Magneto more Quicksilver-y, though.