I write the superhero column for The Comics Journal, a magazine that for a while now has specialized in artsy comics while despising most superhero product. Sometimes people ask me what I do and I try to make a joke involving Roland Hedley Burton Jr., the character Doonesbury uses as a stand-in for all moronic big-time Washington journalists. Though he’s a nitwit, RHB served in Time’s Saigon bureau back when South Vietnam was coming apart. And what did he cover? “Sports,” he says.
The Superhero Critic
by Tom Crippen
My joke never comes off: premise overload is a bitch. But another reason is that most people lose interest on hearing the word “superhero.” In fact they seem dejected. It’s kind of exciting when an acquaintance tells you he writes a column for a small-circulation arts magazine. Then comes the striptease: Well, the magazine is about comics — artistic comics — and, well, what I cover is the mainstream stuff, the, you know, super–
And their faces fall. You don’t even have to see their face. I was giving my order at a neighborhood coffeehouse where two girls were working, a pretty one and a not-so pretty one. In the way of these things, the not-so girl wanted to talk; meanwhile the pretty one was doing dishes at the sink. The not-so girl wanted to know what I did, and I told her: freelance copyediting but I also write, I’ve had a few things published (the pretty girl’s back straightened) and I’m working on a novel (her head and shoulders lifted), and I do this column for a little magazine (her hands paused in their work), it’s about, basically, well, I deal with super —
And her spine lost all its air. Her head dropped; she was back to washing the dishes. Jeez.
But I like writing about superheroes. Some of the books are good and all of them are at least intended as move-along, no-friction reads. Most of all, my reflex when reading fiction is to look at the work as a piece of behavior, not as a piece of literature. Somebody wrote this thing, somebody wants to read it, and why is that? It’s gauche to treat literature (sorry about that, Noah) as a set of clues; Philip Roth will swivel his weighty nose to the ceiling. Also, in its own right, it’s not such a great idea. You have to look past too much to arrive at your nutmeat of insight. If I ever read “The Waste Land,” I expect what it tells me about T. S. Eliot’s shitty disposition will be the least of its charms.
But with entertainment, well, why not? To refine my point, let me underline that the appeal here is more about audience reading than author reading. Much as I enjoy Peter David (the good stuff, I mean), there’s not much I want to know about him, and I expect he’d be cool with that if he knew I existed. But the persistence of superheroes is a puzzle, an oddity, a standing invitation to huff-and-puff semi-intellectual speculation, and as long as I get my 5 cents a word I shall provide such speculation. Well, no, not that long, but it’s been a couple of years now and I guess I’ll stick around a bit longer, at least until Zygote (the groundbreaking independent arts quarterly based in Schenectady, New York) wants someone to write about The View and the new graphics on the Weather Channel. That would make that damn girl straighten up.