Graphic Novels and American Literature

Literature and Graphic Novels

Dr. Z
American Lit class is going to have to select a graphic novel and track the literary ancestry of one of the characters.  Graphic novels are beginning to make appearances in college anthologies, texts.  But they are all of the literally safe ones–Persepolis, Maus.

The bias is there.  I have yet to see any including superheroes anthologized.  (Note that The Rolling Stones carefully culls the superheroes.)

With all of that said, any suggestions for my class?  (One group has already claimed Deadpool.)

Robert W

  • Superman is obvious for the many, many Judeo/Christian metaphors and not to mention comparison with various sun gods.
  • V for Vendetta would be a great one. It’s my favorite of Alan Moore’s works. The film was a relatively faithful, yet defanged, adaptation. It’s meant as an anarchy versus fascist story as opposed to liberal vs. neocon but you get the essence.
  • All Star Superman would be an interesting one. I could see taking that one into Phillip K. Dick territory for signs of heritage.
  • Immortal Iron Fist and Hawkeye have roots in noir fiction. Criminal & Incognito are pure crime fiction books by Ed Brubaker. Iron Fist is also loosely inspired by the idea of a classic pulp character and is borne from a Shangri-La by another name K’un-L’un.
  • Power Man and Iron Fist as compared to Robert Parker’s Spenser and Hawk.
  • The more recent Brubaker Captain America has its roots in spy fiction. The classic Steranko SHIELD series and Nick Fury and just Steranko’s history himself could be interesting. Sleeper by Ed Brubaker too.
  • Planetary, in that it’s a tour down pulp and comics history, goes all the way back to the Victorian era pulps without diving deeply like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This is quite possibly my favorite comic series ever! The Seqart folks published a book of scholastic papers on Planetary. Good stuff!
  • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would be interesting but its literary roots are either on the surface pretty opaque or well documented by Jess Nevins.
    • In fact, a comparison of shared universe fiction today with the pulps and how many of them seemed to share universes even where the characters never directly interacted.
    • There is a killer three volume Nemo spinoff from LoEG by Moore & O’Neill.
  • Hellboy is full of references to various fairy tales and pulps. Hellboy is also deeply rooted in HP Lovecraftian lore. There could be whole courses on just the source material in Hellboy. St. George and the Dragon. Lovecraft.

The trick with characters like Spider-Man, Superman, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil is to select specific phases of their history and look at who those creators were inspired by.

  • Daredevil is very much a noir character once Frank Miller got hold of him and has been ever since. Who was he before?
  • Iron Man is dying for a analysis with The Great Gatsby. Hell! Just talking about Iron Man’s nemesis, The Mandarin, and talking about how he’s rooted in post-WWII yellow peril prejudice and how he can be made to work today would be a treat. Tony Stark really became interesting in the 80s when his drinking became a problem and he lost his company for the first time. What about his ego problems before that?
    • Did you know Pepper Potts was originally inspired by a character played by the actress that played Alice from Brady Bunch? I wonder if there’s an Upton Sinclair comparison in Iron Man somewhere.
  • A comparison of Steve Ditko’s Randian inspired The Question and Denny O’Neill’s zen inspired The Question. O’Neill even published a reading list in each issue. There are so many directions one could go here. You also have Rorshach of Watchmen, who is a thinly veiled Ditko Question / Mr. A (another Ditko character).
  • Walt Simonson’s Thor run from the 80s and more recent Thor eras too. Simonson had actually read the Eddas and was in love with them. He’s also publishing a creator owned series Ragnarok now which is a what if Ragnarok happened a little differently.
  • Miracleman/Marvelman was inspired by SHAZAM/Captain Marvel which was inspired by Aladdin and other magical wizard/genie granting powers stories.
  • Comparing a lot of Marvel’s 60’s & 70’s works with other psychedelic works at the same time and how much of the Marvel work wasn’t influenced by LSD. Who would have thought LSD wasn’t involved in the creation of Dr. Strange?
  • It would be easy enough to take Wonder Woman, Thor, or other mythology based comics characters and compare and contrast their stories with their mythological equivalents. (I did a paper in high school comparing the various DC pantheon with their corresponding Greek mythological character.)

Comics are originally an American storytelling medium. Yes, film originated in the US, but so much of our film heritage comes back from Germany pre WWII, Europe, and Japan, that it’s hard to say it’s a purely American medium. Comics are only recently (late 1970s and later) being influenced by foreign material (Japanese and UK and much of the UK material was initially inspired by the US material).

  • It’s possibly time to look at how other mediums, like film and books, are being influenced by comics. Zombie fiction is one example. Neil Gaiman’s works. He’s now almost better known for his novels than Sandman.
  • A tour of Jack Kirby’s late ’60s through ’80s works and how they reflect film and novels at the time. Also, Kirby’s Mr. Miracle was in part inspired by real life escape artists and magicians, especially comic book writer/artist Steranko, who had also worked as a magician at one point.
  • It would also be interesting to explore Kirby’s Fourth World comics of the ’70s as he had originally intended them. They were supposed to be the heirs to the Nordic gods after Ragnarok.
  • The various iterations of the Grendel comic by Matt Wagner. It’s a modern day story about a guy who calls himself Grendel. His enemy is a cop who is a werewolf (Beowulf). Roots in both crime fiction and mythology.
  • The Incredible Hulk is a modern day Jekyll and Hyde but what other comparisons can be found?
  • A lot of the ’70s and ’80s era cosmic books are really in response to cinematic works of the time.
  • It seems like someone could do something interesting with Ultron, Vision, the original Human Torch,  or one of the other sentient androids.
  • X-Men in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s especially interesting since a lot of whatever Claremont was reading or watching at the time crept in. The Hellfire Club was a transparent and clear borrow directly from the ’60s The Avengers which Claremont was watching in the ’70s.
  • FreakAngels by Warren Ellis as an extension of The Midwich Cuckoos.
  • Moon Knight as a afflicted with MPD (now DID). Plus he was connected to an ancient Egyptian god and fought werewolves. Plus his personality and powers were affected by the phases of the moon.
  • Superman is Moses, Jesus, and Apollo at different times. Also, he borrowed his secret identity and secret fortress from Doc Savage. Brad Meltzer wrote a semi-fictional novel about the origins of Superman. One of the creator’s fathers was killed when he was young and there is the belief he created Superman as a response of wishing his father was bulletproof. Superman was originally created as a villain but never published as such.  (Dr. Z  It makes sense for him, the outsider, the other, to be a villain.  We can never quite trust him.  It does help, though, that he matches Western notions of beauty and wealth–and shares our emphasis on individualism.) <cough>Megmind</cough>
  • Is there a relationship between Superman and Nietzche’s Ubermensch?
  • Could some of the familial drama of X-Men be compared to some of Faulkner’s works? (Dr. Z.  Only if there is a Montgomery Wards Snopes somewhere in there.)
  • Various Batman eras are ripe for comparison including the current new 52 Batman series. The whole Court of Owls has to be inspired from something.
  • Spider-Man as a tragic hero. There could also be some Faulkner comparisons there too.  (Dr. Z Perhaps as a Gavin Stevens .)
  • Exploring Robin as a literary character could be interesting. He’s not just a kid in brightly colored tights. He started life as the point of view character for kids. Who has he become since then?
  • Nightwing as heir to both Batman and Superman.
  • Batman as an heir of Zorro and Sherlock Holmes. (Dr. Z He is definitely more of o Sherlock Holmes than a Spade or Marlowe.  Batman in habits a gothic world, a romantic world.  His world is ordered with an underlying meaning.  If he looks the right way, he can see the truth.  A Transcendentalist.  It is not his job to create structures or meanings.  He is definitely not a film noir detective, a Modernist.)
  • Magneto both as holocaust survivor and as a Malcolm X stand in. Professor X as a MLK stand in. X-Men as stand ins for various oppressed groups. Civil rights in the 60s and 70s. LGBT persons in the modern decades.
  • Fantastic Four as adventurers compared with literary adventurers, as scientific heroes of previous and contemporary eras. Dr. Doom as a tragic character could be a more interesting paper than anything you could do with Fantastic Four.

And of course so many comics are commentary on the era in which they are published.

  • Look at Captain America of the ’70s and again in the late 2000s. In the ’70s, Cap quits for the first time as a commentary on Viet Nam and Nixon era politics.
  • Marvel’s Civil War was a direct response to post 9/11 politics.
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as a response to Reagan era politics and as a response to silly Batman stories of the ’60s.

Those are just the ones off the top of my head.

To be continued.

2 thoughts on “Graphic Novels and American Literature”

  1. Graphic Novel Suggestions:
    Old Man Wolverine
    The Killing Joke
    The Dark Knight Returns

    Heroes Suggestions:
    John Constantine

    The Suburban Professor~ A sociology and psychology professor who has committed to teaching his classes using aliens, zombies, comic book heroes, and technology. All of this helps with his long term immersive study of geek culture. He also recently stole a line from Tony Stark: “I’m not in charge…I just design everything and make everyone look cooler.” And, as he is fond of letting everyone know: “I like pie.”


  2. That link to the Rolling Stones article reminds me: The Invisibles is a great book. There are a ton of counter culture references and would be a terrific source of papers. In addition, Grant Morrison has claimed the Wachowskis freely lifted aspects of The Matrix from The Invisibles. An exploration of that accusation and how feasible that is would make a great paper.


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