Stasis and speed in contemporary superhero comics
First published in Animation: an Interdisciplinary Journal | Volume 4 (3), 2009
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s (1994) groundbreaking examination of the techniques at play in sequential art, he casts himself as a stand-up comedian struggling to accurately define the comic book medium. When an outraged member of the audience shouts out “What about Batman?! Shouldn’t it have Batman in it?” he is quickly ejected, off-panel (p. 9). McCloud’s heckler is, of course, correct: any discussion of comic books should have Batman in it – or, at the very least, an examination of superheroes and their adventures. Comic books, unusually, have been so thoroughly dominated by superheroes that media theorist Henry Jenkins (2009) admits “nobody really believes us” when we say there’s more to the medium (p. 17). These stories are characterised by colourful costumes, secret identities, and spectacular battles between good and evil; most of all, they’re defined through action, as propelled by the narrative thrust of their superheroic protagonists. It’s no coincidence that Superman’s iconic description involves speeding bullets, powerful locomotives, and leaping tall buildings. His ability to fly is an integral part of the appeal of the character, tapping into the desire for unrestricted mobility that is part of “America’s dreamwork” (Engle, 1992: 337). As recent blockbuster cinema brings more and more superheroes to the big screen, they inevitably star in action films, which share their interest in kinetic display. McCloud, along with critics like Scott Bukatman, Douglas Wolk, Henry Jenkins, and David Carrier, convincingly makes the case that while comic books may share some of their visual vocabulary with cinema, they must be analysed as their own, specific form. Comics might borrow from the visual techniques of cinema, but they also diverge wildly from it (Bukatman, 2002: 133).
For example, it is usually held that the strength of the visual storytelling of comic books is it’s so simple to understand (Carrier, 2000: 85). However, watch Douglas Wolk’s (2007) struggle with the fog of semiotic confusion induced by the cover of Showcase #4 from 1956:
Is this comic a showcase for art, as in a museum? A series of frozen representations of reality or representations of something so unreal that a body moving at high speed leaves parallel lines of ink behind? A movie that isn’t really a movie, made out of individual images that the eye can see in or out of sequence or at the same time? Something that breaks destructively out of attempts to fix it in its place? (p. 5)
The star of this issue is DC Comics’ scarlet speedster, “the Fastest Man Alive”: the superhero known as the Flash. Whether Barry Allen or his successor, Wally West, the Flash is defined by his motion. As Barry’s girlfriend once pointed out: “The Flash doesn’t sit around – he does things!” (Flash #113, 1959). Yet superheroes are born into a medium that appears to consist of static images. Without the ability to show literal movement, superheroes like the Flash are instead animated by the powerful techniques employed by comic book artists to create time and motion across the page. A favourite conceptual trick is to show two panels, a millisecond apart, but between which the Flash is implied to have invisibly performed lengthy tasks; sometimes, even within a single panel, as when he says “Be right back” and “Okay, I took a quick look” almost at once (JLA #20, 2008). This kind of impossible action illustrates the complicated dialectic between movement and stasis present in superhero comics (Bukatman, 2002: 133). The Flash tries to put into words: “Catch lightning in your hands sometime. Spend a month between the ticks of a second and tell me what noise you hear when you crack the sound barrier.” (Flash #80, 1993).
Picture this: his schemes thwarted, the evil cult leader Kobra attempts final revenge on the Flash by firing a powerful laser at his beloved, Linda, in Flash #99 (1995). With a last burst of speed, Flash outraces the laser and saves her – but his velocity means he is being pulled into the mythical ‘speed force’, never to return. As he becomes pure energy, the panels showing us the faces of his friends and enemies start to break down, falling apart on the page, shattering like panes of glass. With a final, vertical KRA-KOW, the Flash disappears in a burst of white light.
The above synopsis, presented in straight lines of sensible type, simply can’t recreate the experience of following the Flash across those pages. There’s an alarming lack of exclamation points. Quotes that sit comfortably in word balloons can look prim or pathetic when excised from them. The most successful superhero novels are books that invent and twist their own heroes, like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2001). Novels that adapt already existing comic book storylines are redundant curiosities; novels that present original stories of Batman, Spider-Man, and the rest are not considered part of the ‘real’ continuity of their comic book adventures. Copyright concerns with the heroes of Marvel and DC Comics leave most academics wanting to discuss more than a few pages with no choice but to translate those complicated panels into straight prose. In comic books, however, words aren’t just words – they’re pictures, too, lettered to create a visual onomatopoeia, crushing, zapping, whooshing, spelling out their power. Plain text, trapped in balloons or boxes, is kept to a minimum. Douglas Wolk (2007) estimates that it only takes 150 or so words on a six-panel page before it starts to seem cluttered (p. 25). That’s half the amount contained in this paragraph you’re reading now. While academic writing about superheroes might never pack the KRA-KOWs of comic books, these paragraphs are best seen with imaginary thick, black rectangles around them – prose-panels, if you will. The white space between them is a Bizarro World version of the comic book ‘gutter;’ the non-space that “…plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics!” according to an excited McCloud (1994: 66).
The fact that comics legend Will Eisner described the word balloon as “a desperation device” (McCloud, 1994: 134) indicates how dialogue only seems to come into play when action somehow fails. In superhero adventures, action is everything. If superheroes can’t seem to be successfully translated into prose, their ‘action comics’ certainly share common ground with contemporary action cinema. Cinematic action heroes eschew verbal communication, choosing to let deeds do the talking; their heroic status marked by a “reticence with language” (Neale 1993:71). The 1980s were particularly filled with ‘hard body’ heroes, who would be captured in body-builder poses by the camera, letting them display their spectacular musculature – often at the cost of traditional narrative momentum (Tasker, 1993: 76). Action cinema exhibits elements of so many different genres that it is best characterised not by plot, but by sequences of fights, chases, explosions, athletic feats, and cutting-edge special effects (Neale, 1993: 71). Compared with regular humans, the feats of these heroes prove them almost superhuman again and again.