I’ve been writing a bit about super-heroes and masculinity, so I thought I’d unearth this piece I wrote about the subject, which ran in a somwhat altered form in the Chicago Reader several years back. The essay is a review of an art exhibit by Mark Newport; you can find some examples of his art here and here.

Man and Super-Sweater

Super-heroes, comics, and boys go together like sugar, spice, and girls — that is, they don’t, particularly, but people keep repeating it anyway. Today comics have largely cast off their younger audience; the average reader these days isn’t a boy, but an adult male in his 30s. Super-heroes, meanwhile, are all over both television and film. It’s true that the majority of high-profile American comics still feature super-heroes, but even that may be changing with the recent manga explosion. Yet in popular perception, “comic-book”. still means “super-hero,” “super-hero” still means “comic-book,” and both conjure up images of little Jimmy going to the corner drugstore to pick up the latest issue of “The Mighty Thor” or “Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew.”

One unfortunate example of this ongoing pop-culture blind spot is provided by Mark Newport’s current exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. On display are nine knitted super-hero costumes, and seven found comic-book covers, to which Newport has added his own embroidery. Newport explained his raison d’etre in an interview with the Sun-Times: “Knitting, beading and embroidery are traditionally thought of as somehow being female. Superheroes are [predominantly] male. In combining the two, I’m playing with gender expectations.”

This is straightforward enough — and therein lies the problem. Many super-hero comics do, of course, involve manly men doing manly things with rippling muscles, preposterously proportioned females, and high-tech weaponry — take anything by Frank Miller, for example. But the genre has been around for seventy years now, and it has produced many other kinds of stories as well. For instance, many of the classic DC super-hero tales from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s are fantasies of *dis*empowerment and *im*perfect physiques. A well-known issue of the Flash features our speedster (the victim of a sinister ray) rapidly putting on pounds until he’s simply too fat to run. One of the greatest Mike Sekowsky Justice League covers shows Green Arrow turned into a hideous dwarf and Green Lantern stretched out like Gumby. Better known than these, perhaps, are the great early Spider-Man stories. Borrowing from his experience on romance titles, Stan Lee made Peter Parker an icon of hopeless yearning, frustrated in love, despised at school, misunderstood, alienated, and miserable in both his identities. Steve Ditko’s art was moody, his figures hunched and skinny. All in all, Spider-Man was about as emblematic of virile maleness as Jimmy Corrigan.

Newport doesn’t completely ignore the varied history of masculinity in comic-books. Several of the covers he embroiders were clearly chosen because they presented slightly off-kilter takes on gender: for instance, a 1983 Captain America cover shows an unconscious Cap being rescued by “Bernie America” — his girlfriend in a super-suit. But Newport doesn’t really engage this image in any meaningful way: he simply embroiders over the featured super-heroes’ costume and adds a few touches of color to the design. According to the gallery blurb, the “’preciousness’” of the needle-work is meant to “undermine…the grandeur of super-hero lore” while at the same time emphasizing the themes of protection and love. Whatever the intention, though, his approach is unvaried and simplistic. He might have attempted a dialogue with the pictures, altering them or interpolating new images of his own. Even redoing the entire cover as a pillowcase would have made more of a statement. Instead, unfortunately, Newport takes the art he’s working on and the context in which it was created far too much for granted.

As a result, the covers that Newport is working on overwhelm his artwork. Catwoman #27, for example, shows Batman touching his lips to Catwoman’s forehead. Newport has embroidered Batman’s suit, which is clearly meant to contrast against the sexy Catwoman outfit. The effect is completely spoiled by the utter shittiness of the cover art, however. Mainstream comic drawing has fallen off disastrously since the industry imploded in the ‘80s, and this is a prime example. Catwoman’s anatomy and position make her appear oddly bloated; the texture of her costume is nothing like leather, and her expression is simply bizarre; all in all, she looks like a mildly confused and over-inflated blow-up doll. Similarly, the cover of the fourth issue of Rawhide Kid (a little-read, much-panned Marvel series starring a stereotypically gay cowboy) features the smirking title character straddling a rearing, embroidered horse. What one notices first upon looking at it, though, is not the embroidery or the smirk, but rather that the illustrator appears to have accidentally left out the hero’s skeletal structure.

Newport’s one-size-fits-all method actually seems to work best when the cover art is mediocre; embroidery adds a touch of expressionist mystery to the workmanlike cover of Batman #402, for instance. When the cover art is good, on the other hand, Newport’s additions become downright annoying. Thus, the cover of Batman #329 shows Batman kneeling dramatically in chains, his face twisted in pain. The musculature is well rendered, and the despairing, strained pose looks like something out of Greek statuary. Jim Aparo, the penciller and probably the inker as well, was one of the unsung stalwarts at DC in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and he has put a good deal more imagination into this cover than Newport, who has — you guessed it — added embroidery to Batman’s costume. At this point, Newport’s obliviousness starts to shade into condescension. He seems barely aware that he’s interacting with another artist. His work functions as a monologue, in which he points out the same couple of points again and again, rather than a dialogue with the work he’s cannibalizing. In short, he doesn’t seem to have thought about the craft of the covers he works on, which makes me wonder why I should bother thinking about his.

But while Newport’s embroidered pieces seem half-hearted and presumptuous, his knitted super-hero suits are much more successful. The costumes manage to strike a perfect balance: they’re detailed and accurate enough to almost be intended for real super-heroes, and yet they also seem like they could be intended for real children. Many of the suits end in footies, and most are fastened with large, comfy-looking buttons. Batman’s mask is practically a winter hat with decorative fluffy ears; the Rawhide Kid’s gloves are attached to his sleeves with string, so he won’t lose them. Mr. Fantastic’s costume is ten feet tall, to accommodate his ability to stretch; the arms are normal-sized, however, and against the enormous torso they look like they belong on a toddler’s sweater. While Newport has made some effort to accommodate Reed Richards’ abilities, however, Aquaman is not so lucky; his outfit is clearly not going to be of any use in the water. Iron Man’s woolen armor is even more impractical, though the control knobs on his chest are faithfully represented by two puffs of yarn.

There are a couple of false notes. The Patriot, a character Newport invented himself, is a bit too obvious — the costume is red, white, and blue, and the mask has a mouth hole but no eyes. Similarly, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the costume of the Escapist, a character invented by Michael Chabon for his novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Like his efforts to alter comic art, Newport’s forays into political commentary and literary hipness fall flat.

The truth is, as a cultural commentator, Newport is a fine designer of super-hero merchandise. The guard at the cultural center said that kids called the show a “Halloween exhibit,” and that’s exactly what it looks like. The familiar uniforms should clearly be on sale to children of all ages — and in the Sun-Times interview Newport notes that he is, in fact, frequently asked to create personalized costumes. Newport always has to decline these commissions, since it takes him two months to make each suit. But the ease with which his work is mistaken for mass-produced consumer schlock suggests that his art is less about undermining cultural expectations than it is about fulfilling them. In the realm of marketing, super-heroes are kind of like dinosaurs — icons of power, largely devoid of any other significance, which are especially popular with children. It’s worth noting, too, that when worn by a child, a hyper-masculine (or hyper-feminine) image is often viewed as cute. Newport’s super-suits are charming for the same reason that it’s charming to see a child dressed as the Incredible Hulk ask you for candy. They’re the greatest underoos ever made. That doesn’t mean they’re worthless — I enjoyed the exhibit and if you have any affection for super-heroes, knitting, or costumes, I’d encourage you to go and take your kids. Whether the show has anything insightful to say about our society’s conception of masculinity, though, is another question entirely.

This review prompted one letter:

In Noah Berlatsky’s review of the Mark Newport exhibition, in making reference to Mark Newport’s alterations on the cover art of Catwoman, vol.3, #27, he writes this comment: “But what I noticed before any of that was the utter shittiness of the illustrator’s draftsmanship. Mainstream comics drawing has fallen off disastrously since the industry imploded in the 80’s,..”
Well, sharp-eyed readers with some knowledge of the comic book industry will notice that the artist responsible for the cover of this issue of Catwoman is Paul Gulacy, who made his industry debut in the 70’s, and is known for his meticulous design and composition. Perhaps Mr. Berlatsky is like the man who has been in the audience of the magic show for too many performances, and now the tricks are beginning to bore him?
Michael Reese

This is embarrassing for me, of course, in that I didn’t recognize Paul Gulacy’s work…but also kind of embarrassing for Paul Gulacy, whose work on that one cover, at least, was not up to his earlier standards. Ah well….