The fastest man alive Stasis and speed in contemporary superhero comics

If action stars are superheroic, it only takes some quick box-office math to see that superheroes are now action stars. The last ten years have been filled with adaptations of some of Marvel and DC Comics’ biggest characters, and their success shows the power of these superheroes as transmedia properties. While action cinema is a slippery category, it always foregrounds “a visceral, even sensual, evocation of movement and violence” (Tasker, 2004: 5); superheroes fit that definition as neatly as they do their spandex costumes. The superhero body is a site of freedom – from gravity, from inertia, from all human limitations over mobility (Bukatman, 2003a: 188). To achieve this, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) regularly transforms Peter Parker, played by actor and human being Tobey Maguire, into a fully digital Spider-Man. Free from the limitations of flesh, Spider-Man can now fight on the sides of skyscrapers and perform impossible midair stunts. Raimi stated that the technology to represent Spider-Man in motion didn’t exist until this film: “[Spider-Man] is a beautiful dancer who soars above the skyline, and it’ll be the work of an acrobat, the work of a gymnast, the work of all the finest performers in the art of physical what-have-you.” (Restuccio, 2002). The fluid shift from Maguire’s body to his computer-animated alter ego can be almost invisible – although, as superhero blockbusters are now the primary showcase for special effects, studios pull back the curtain by openly promoting how these inhuman bodies are animated (Lichtenfeld, 2007: 296).

On the page, superheroes obviously lack this convergence with animation. The techniques employed by comic book artists who draw them, however, create their own ‘special effects’ for superhero bodies. These superhuman, often hypermuscled physiques are bursting with energy, armoured against harm, ever fluid and transforming (Bukatman, 2003b: 68). These qualities – combined with distinctive costumes, logos, and colour schemes – make superhero bodies visually spectacular, and artists render them in loving detail. Rob Liefeld, from the style-obsessed Image Comics school of the 90s, is the patron saint of bodily obsession. He inks each muscle almost to the exclusion of all else, even if it means obscuring the ongoing storytelling of the sequence of panels. His comic books are left lurching from one dramatic full-page shot to the next (Wolk, 2007: 34). Liefeld certainly pushes the envelope, but he is only exaggerating qualities typical of all superhero stories, where splash pages hold back story for the sake of display. These faux pin-ups can function similarly to lavish spectacles in Hollywood epics – slowing down the action to a crawl to be shown in fetishistic detail (Jancovich, 2004: 84).

Any critical analysis of action cinema must deal with the long-standing supposed divide between spectacle and narrative (Higgins, 2008: 75). Seen through Tom Gunning’s (1993) influential work on the theory of attractions, action cinema oscillates between traditional narrative progress and self-aware spectacles that interrupt the plot with blatant display. His description of the temporality of attractions is of particular interest to sequential art: that of an “intense form of the present tense” (pp. 4,5). It could also describe the process of reading a comic book, as each panel acts as a specific ‘now’, a discrete image, waiting to be stitched together with the next. David Carrier (2000) compares the process of closure to watching a movie with a jerky, out-of-sync film projector (p. 51). The reader has control over how long to ‘freeze’ a moment by staring at any given panel, be it a double-page splash or barely an inch across; however, as Paul Atkinson (2009) succinctly puts it, “the drive of the visual succession usually overcomes contemplation”, and readers are consistently carried forward by the visual momentum of the artwork (p. 54). It’s this pace of action on the page that can cause Carrier’s hypothetical projector to ‘stutter’. Even the monthly schedule of superhero comics means that one issue supplants the last, and, once read, is immediately waiting to be supplanted again by the next. Scott Bukatman (2003a) writes, “To be a superhero, you’ve got to be able to move” (p. 189). The same might be said of superheroes’ loyal fans, immersed in a medium that requires them to become “willing and conscious collaborator[s]” in producing motion (McCloud, 1994: 65)

In Flash #114 (1960), “The Big Freeze”, Captain Cold activates a device that sends “an impulse of absolute cold” throughout the city, freezing everyone and everything into stasis except for himself and Iris West. Dogs are snap-frozen in mid-chase, men in mid-stride. Apart from the expositional dialogue and some new, icy-blue colouring in the sky, however, how can you tell this from any other panel in the issue? It’s why cold-based villains like Captain Cold and Mister Freeze tend to leave some helpful icicles on their victims – otherwise it could be another typical comic book pose. Elastic temporality is a trademark of superhero stories, and of Flash comics specifically. When Barry Allen first gains his powers, it doesn’t just manifest as hypervelocity – it’s also that objects slow down, hanging motionless in the air. It’s the same for Wally West: “Time’s not frozen. It just looks that way to me – because I’m moving at near-light speed without the slightest effort!” (Flash #91, 1994). Wally even takes revenge on a super-fast enemy named Inertia by freezing him, barely mobile, and leaving him in the Flash Museum to be gawked at by tourists: “He’s trapped for eternity in a frozen body… forced to stare, with eyes that take a hundred years to blink…” (All-Flash #1, 2007).

The most lyrical description of the Flash, courtesy of writer Alan Moore, evokes these same notions of temporality and mobility: “There is a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues” (Swamp Thing #24, 1984). Yet the Flash is also a statue on these pages. That’s why we are always provided with visual cues to suggest his motion. Stopwatches and speedometers abound, along with titles like “Around the World in 80 Minutes!” (Showcase #13, 1958). When the Flash knocks a pot out of a bystander’s hand during a superspeed battle through a marketplace on page four, he conquers the villain and returns to catch the pot before it hits the ground on page eight, handing it back to its owner, saying “Gotta run” (JLA #3, 1997). Even the way that Wally West’s narration begins each issue by stating “I’m the fastest man alive” highlights the anxiety that perhaps we won’t be able to tell by the images alone. As comic books can’t portray actual movement, they rely on these “indices of time” to imply it (Atkinson, 2009: 46). In the mid-80s, Alan Moore’s deconstructionist classic Watchmen called superheroes by the collective noun of “masks”, showing its obsession with identities, secret and public (Bukatman, 2003b: 54); more recently, Marvel Comics’ hero-versus-hero crossover Civil War (2006-7) describes superheroes with the shorthand “capes” instead. Capes foreground movement, rather than disguise, and are important visual accessories to help imply a flying hero is in motion. It’s all very well for Brad Bird’s animated superhero film The Incredibles (2004) to mock the ridiculousness of capes – “Stratogale! April 23rd, ’57! Cape caught in a jet turbine!” – as it belongs to a medium that has the luxury of visible motion.

Any two non-identical comic book panels, side by side, will make us notice what’s changed between them, and then fill in the motion required to make sense of those changes (Wolk, 2007: 133). This process of closure creates the “magic and mystery” that McCloud finds in sequential art. Most interesting is his preferred metaphor of mobility for this closure – readers flinging themselves from the first panel to be caught by the next moment, and the next. “Is it possible that closure can be so managed in some cases,” McCloud says, “that the reader might learn to fly?” (1994: 90). Panels might be frozen images, but there’s endless movement between them. Superheroes also move beyond the edges of their panels, stretching their clean, clear boundaries with fists, capes, and energy blasts warping any attempt at a simple, geometric grid. Heroes might be supposed agents of order, but their adventures are visually much more like chaos (Bukatman, 2003a: 186). Superhero comics aren’t just daunting for new readers because of their decades-long-running stories and constant meta-revisions of the history of their shared universes (Pedler, 2008: 36). It’s also because the kinetic energy of superhero adventures tends to complicate visual landscape used to transmit them – and if the way panels are arranged on the page is confusing, then the temporality of a single panel is no less so. 

Much of the critical work on comic book art foregrounds this power of the gutter to create motion above all else. This emphasis can overstate the shared language of sequential art and the filmic frame, reducing the fluid and immerse process of reading comic to Carrier’s somewhat-jerky projector. It also ignores the motion contained within even the seemingly still superhero body. The comic book artist chooses a moment – such as a hero about to spring into battle – that “describes an action”, instead of one that is an undifferenciated snapshot of the supposed ‘present’ (Atkinson, 2009: 53, 55). Despite the way that superhero stories are less verbal than other media, language also plays an important role in the way a still image creates its own sense of passing time, by adding a temporal dimension – the time it takes these words to be read or spoken (Wolk, 2007: 25). Dialogue is used to guide the reader around the page, too. For example, to show super-speed, Flash comics spread his dialogue thin – “often” “with” “one” “word” “per” “balloon” – to show how quickly he’s covering distance throughout the panel. The reverse-logic plays out in commonly impossible, midair, mid-battle speeches. Visually, it would appear that a panel is meant to contain a single moment – so should we presume a paragraph-long speech by Wolverine implies that he’s just hanging still in the air while he speaks? Even the ‘now’ of a panel has a beginning, middle, and end. 

The unification of words and pictures results in storytelling techniques that confound the traditional opposition between narrative and spectacle. In Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie (2002), we see Spider-Man kidnapped by his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin, and taken to a rooftop for an exposition-filled chat. They sit and stand, mostly still, to exchange promises and threats; a scene to forward the narrative before the movie happily swings back towards spectacle. This scene is particularly stilted and odd, and not just because it’s between two characters hiding their faces. It’s because there would be no need for it in a comic book. Instead, this conversation would take place during a fight scene, and the exposition would serve the dual purpose of also guiding the reader around action-packed panels. To defuse the narrative / spectacle split in cinema, critics have suggested a third term: ‘action’ (Jancovich, 2004: 85). It accounts for the fact that its spectacular moments actually do advance the plot, as visual conflicts have been narrativized (Higgins, 2008: 76). In comic books, all conflict is rendered as spectacular; ideological battles are rendered just as visually as physical ones. You can witness the childlike green Hulk wrestle with the cunning gray Hulk over control of Bruce Banner’s subconscious, for example, in Hulk #373 (1990). Combine that logic with comics’ seemingly unique way of allowing twin streams of movement and exposition to take place at once, and it’s a natural fit for action as a ‘third term’ to best explain their ongoing narrative momentum. 

In 1992, Superman was beaten to a much-hyped (but inevitably temporary) death by Doomsday, a new villain, all inhuman grunts and protruding bones. The comics in question used four panels per page in one issue, then three panels per page in the next, until culminating in Superman #75 (1992), which comprises entirely of splash pages – with Superman’s death revealed on a special, third fold-out page. Panel arrangement doesn’t only relate to temporality in superhero comics. It also allows moments of active engagement specific to the comic book form. We take pleasure in unfolding the unexpected third page to witness Superman’s defeat. We’re forced to tilt Fantastic Four #252 (1983) on its side to read pages arranged in a ‘widescreen’ aspect ratio for greater impact. We realise that Red Arrow and Vixen, buried amidst underground rubble, didn’t know they were actually upside down – and we turn the comic upside down to simultaneously experience their realisation (via upside down lettering) in JLA #11 (2007). Like Gunning’s (1993) cinematic attractions, these techniques invoke the logic of exhibitionism in their spectacular displays, directly and actively addressing the spectator (p. 5).

Contrast the above with the prestige project Marvels (1994). Retelling early events of Marvel Universe history through an everyman narrator and photographer, Phil Sheldon, the issues open and close with darkroom imagery, superheroes captured in developing film. The series is filled with these moments of mediation: superheroes in black and white newspaper pics, playing in movie newsreels, or caught by the reflection in a camera lens. Phil narrates:

To follow the Marvels through their combat, as the Sub-Mariner bolted from landmark to landmark sowing destruction, the Torch a streak of fire on his tail – it must have seemed like a glorious aerial ballet. Dangerous, beautiful, and thrilling. And maybe it was. But not for us. (Marvels #1)

Instead, Phil is trapped down on the street, far away, surrounded by the chaos and destruction left in the Marvels’ wake. When he finally gets close enough to see the heroes – and be part of the action – he is struck down by debris and loses an eye. Marvels is illustrated by Alex Ross, who has been called “the Norman Rockwell of comics” (Alex Ross Mythology, 2003). It differs from traditional comic art in that it is painted, and moreso, painted from real-life models. The ‘realism’ of his artwork, applied both to heroes’ facial features and their spandex costumes, gives the story new weight – creating the sense that the retelling in Marvels is the way these events must have “really happened” (Klock, 2002: 81). When the series retells the world-shattering battle of the Silver Surfer and Galactus from Fantastic Four #50 (1966), the alien beings – now given realistic textures and shadows – leak out into the borders of the page, while the human drama is kept separate, contained in small panels. McCloud (1994) suggests that a panel without words can, perversely, seem to last even longer than one packed with narration, as its lack of timing makes it seem timeless (p. 102). Here the aliens sit outside the shared time and space of Ross’ human bystanders, given new power to astonish. Since the publication of Marvels, Alex Ross has developed a huge following for his cover-shots of superheroes, posing for the camera, resolutely not in motion. The flying trapeze-act of interpretation and closure does not apply – there is no impetus to find the moment both before and after the image to create an ongoing narrative (Carrier, 2000: 50). Even Ross’ sequential art feels more like beautiful, disconnected moments. If the way in which a superhero’s body twangs with the energy of implied movement make a comic panel better labelled as “synchronic” rather than “static” (Atkinson, 2009: 55), Ross’ favourite poses are truly still. The heroes aren’t about to leap into motion; they’re just waiting for the paint to dry.

McCloud (1994) points out that if you’re going to paint a world full of motion, “then be prepared to paint motion!” (p. 109). Ross’ version of this is to synthesize a photographer’s eye. When he paints a hero in motion, it’s as Lois describes Superman in Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? (1986): “I was falling, and a violet comet was falling beside me. The reds and blues ran together, you see, so that’s how he looked when he flew… a violet comet.” In the real world, objects don’t share the clear black outline that they possess in traditional superhero artwork. Amongst all the conceptual pyrotechnics of superhero comics, it’s easy to forget a simple and all-important fact: they are usually drawn (Wolk, 2007: 118). In Flash #95 (1994), the first part of a storyline called ‘Terminal Velocity’, we find the Flash running through an impossible landscape of images and colours, somewhere in the timestream: “What is this effect?” he wonders. “Have I been processed by Industrial Light & Magic?” Yet despite this psychedelic backdrop, one element remains perfectly clear and focused, and that’s the Flash himself. Occasionally we’ll see him as a blur of speed, as do the bystanders of his stories, but the majority of the time we’re there, keeping pace with him, even if he’s travelling so quickly that everything else on the page has been reduced to abstract speed-lines. It’s common wisdom that superhero stories are largely power fantasies for powerless adolescents (Fingeroth, 2004: 19). As with cinematic action heroes, the near-omnipotent abilities of the heroes better allow narcissistic identification to take place for the audience (Neale, 1993: 11). Fantasies of mastery don’t just come through bullet-proof skin and rippling muscles, however. Superman’s mastery over Metropolis comes in part from his super-vision: watching from high above, X-raying all obstacles, seeing everything in perfect detail. As if granted by a radioactive spider bite, superhero comics bestow a similar sense of visual mastery. Even the heroes’ secret headquarters are often shown with schematic, helpfully-labelled diagrams, keeping nothing hidden from the reader (Bukatman, 2003a: 191).

A glance back at some of the more complicated covers of superhero crossover ‘events’ illustrates this visual logic. The first issue of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985) shows dozens of identical earths destroyed by crackling energy, surrounded by more than a dozen costumed beings hanging in space in various states of distress. Twenty years later, Marvel Comics hero-against-hero Civil War (2006) crossover featured wraparound covers of scenes featuring scores of superheroes mid-battle; the final issue showed them lying bleeding and unconscious instead. Every hero and villain is drawn in perfect focus. Unlike the animated forms of superhero movies or cartoon, these scenes are not cut up across time and space by frantic editing. They’re laid out for the reader, who ‘edits’ them only in the time it takes for the eye to flick across the page to a new point of attention (McCloud, 1994: 97). Temporality is further complicated by the fact that even when focusing on a particular panel, we remain aware of the panels composing the rest of the page; we take in now, past and future at once (Atkinson, 2009: 54). Certain superhero films are now attempting to approximate these visuals. Ang Lee’s underappreciated art-blockbuster, Hulk (2003), uses shifting splitscreens as panels, at one point pulling back from the frame to revealing a whole wall of ‘moments’ before zooming in on another – much as the eye might on a page (Lichtenfeld, 2007: 303). In Zack Snyder’s recent adaptation Watchmen (2009), the director’s stylistic trademark of “exhibiting velocity and action by jumping between painstaking slow-motion and abrupt fast-forward” (Thill, 2008) served to mimic the unpredictable progress of a comic reader’s time and attention across still images.

In general, however, it is often a mistake to compare comic book scenes to cinema at all. The heroes, like everything in comics, are a result of what Carrier calls the “aggressive caricature” of comic art; the automatic distortion that results from pencil and ink, instead of the supposed emotional neutrality of other forms (2000: 6). These barrel torsos, veined arms, and hypermuscled bodies – especially in the Rob Liefeldian era – are “autoreferential”, only comparable to other bodies of other heroes (Bukatman, 2003b: 59). The super-sight allowed by comic art lets us see every detail of the superhero body and world. Even those that are impossible, like Peter Parker’s face symbolically half-covered by his mask upon sign of trouble, or Bruce Wayne in street clothes somehow casting Batman’s shadow behind him. We see the dotted outline of the Invisible Woman’s force field and Wonder Woman’s invisible jet. Crisis on Infinite Earths begins in deep space, showing the reader the big bang of the ‘multiverse’; as in Gunning’s (1993) moments of attraction, no stand-in spectator is required inside the diegesis to justify it (p. 5). When the cosmic gods Eclipso and the Spectre recently warred astride the earth, their battle was invisible to everyday inhabitants: 

Their struggle, though gargantuan, goes unnoticed by humankind. There is only so much the human mind can accommodate, after all. (Countdown to Mystery #8, 2008.)

But not to us. We’re not just bystanders like Phil Sheldon. We see it all, and the exhibitionist logic of display – of events being presented ‘just for us’ – is often hammered home by comic-book narration that speaks right out of the page.