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Lloyd Rose (essay date August 1986)

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SOURCE: Rose, Lloyd. “Comic Books for Grown-ups.” Atlantic 258, no. 2 (August 1986): 77-80.

[In the following essay, Rose discusses the development of the modern graphic novel, citing the works of Frank Miller, Dave Sim, and Howard Chaykin as satirical representations of society and culture.]

Howard Chaykin has seen the future, and it's full of garter belts. In his comic-book series American Flagg!, which is set in the mid-twenty-first century, Chaykin's women have the requisite amount of pop-cultural post-feminist toughness: they fly jets and perform emergency operations on lunch counters and tote the occasional automatic weapon. But what one can only refer to as their gams—the kind of legs found nowhere on earth except Las Vegas and in comic books—are upholstered and decorated with an assortment of hose and garter straps that would make Frederick (of the Hollywood Fredericks) look twice. This silky-seeming legwear must be made out of some futuristic miracle material, for Chaykin's ladies come through the worst kinds of gunfire and disaster with their stockings serenely unladdered.

It may seem a long way from the countercultural underground “comix” of the sixties and early seventies, with their explicit criticism of American society, to the violence and hedonism of Chaykin's work—a retreat from “relevance” to mere entertainment. But the comic books of the eighties are probably more diverse and more geared to an adult audience than those of any previous era. The growth of comic-book “specialty stores” in the past eight years or so has made it possible for companies like First, Pacific, and Fantagraphics to compete with the majors (DC and Marvel) in distribution, and these small publishers have provided a place for individual artists to work without being shaped to a company mold. Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman's beautifully produced Raw magazine features work by American, European, and Japanese artists of post-punk, jagged ugliness: grim, surreal political critiques, and depictions of various states of numbness and paranoia. Raw also contains Spiegelman's extraordinary picture novel Maus, in which he tells the story of his parents' experiences in Nazi-occupied Europe using animals, mostly mice, as characters. Harvey Pekar's American Splendor (drawn by various artists, among them that grand old man of the comix Robert Crumb) is a shaggy, sweet-rueful account of down-and-out life in Cleveland. In Love and Rockets, the Hernandez brothers play every modernist game they can think of, from text-and-pictures deconstruction to Heisenbergian perceptual jokes on the reader.

Even what most people think of as the American comic book—the colorful, energetic adventures of ultra-powered beings like Superman and Spiderman, who fight their way across the roofs of skyscrapers to the accompaniment of boldly lettered Zaps and Pows—even these superhero comics have been reclaimed for adults and made sophisticated. Generally—and accurately—denounced for its stupidity, male-adolescent outlook, sameness, and sheer junkiness, the superhero genre has nonetheless produced a trio of uneven but fascinating talents: Frank Miller (Daredevil,Ronin, and Dark Knight), Dave Sim (Cerebus), and Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!,The Shadow). And the satirical worlds these artists have created—often amusing, sometimes horrifying—say as much about the eighties as comix ever did about the sixties.

All three men owe something to Will Eisner, whose The Spirit in the early forties pioneered what might be called the cinematic comic style and was written for a pulp-loving adult audience. But Eisner's inspiration came from hard-boiled detective stories. Miller, Sim, and Chaykin are working out of their affection for and skepticism toward those overmuscled overachievers whom Sim refers to generically as “Mucusman.” Sim has always been an independent, publishing with his own company, Aardvark-Vanaheim....

(This entire section contains 2703 words.)

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But Miller and Chaykin have worked in “the industry” (that is, for DC or Marvel).

Miller first made a name for himself with Marvel's Daredevil, which he wrote and drew from 1979 to 1981. Violent, kinetic, and set in a moodily lit New York City, Daredevil was the first film noir comic book, and it remains the most successful marriage of beauty and blood in mainstream comics.

There is a lot of sadism, almost exclusively directed toward women, in comic books. But Miller's violence isn't sadistic—it seems part of the fierce, erupting movement of his graphic style, sensual yet abstract. His draftsmanship is weak, but that hardly matters. Looking at his fight scenes, you can practically feel the amoral, physical joy of his characters, as if you were watching dancers. He reminds you of how sexy superhero comics are—not because all the women have gravity-defying D-cup breasts and all the men thighs like Baryshnikov but because the characters, in their skintight outfits, are always extended in motion: leaping across roofs, falling through space, springing at their enemies. The flesh is celebrated, expressionistically and passionately.

After he left Daredevil, Miller contracted with DC Comics to write and draw his own comic, Ronin, a six-book series. Ronin isn't fully successful, but it has its own peculiar power, and there's nothing else quite like it. The eponymous hero is a samurai reincarnated into the body of an armless, legless mental deficient who is used for testing new prosthetic devices. This bizarrely sadomasochistic setup evolves into a bloodily heroic action tale set in a dreadful urban society of the future. Miller's mixture of plot elements from all areas of pulp (demons, outré technology) never quite gels. But visually Ronin is striking and disturbing—it bubbles with disease. Everything seems blistered, and the color (by the talented Lynn Varley, who also did the first issues of American Flagg!) is mostly a bilious green, or the blues and yellows of a bruise. Miller's work here has been compared to that of the French comics artist Moebius, but it's much less clear-lined and cartoon-like. The world of Ronin is full of organic machinery, and it all seems to be rotting. Miller experiments with depicting movement abstractly, and the earlier clean power of his bodies charging through space has been lost. Here even motion decays, and the bodies are now scarred and mutilated. Ronin is about vulnerability and the corruption of the flesh, how it can be damaged and made to hurt.

It was hard to see, after Ronin, how Miller could go much further. But his reworking of that old comics chestnut Batman in Dark Knight, his four-book series for DC, is, in the most literal sense, nightmarish: the story is like a fever dream that a disturbed and imaginative city-dweller might have after binging on comics. As in Ronin, all the usual components—monstrous villains, justified vigilantism, the tormented hero—are in place; and as in Ronin, they have almost nothing to do with what the comic is about. What it's about is our ordinary urban fears brought to a pitch of ferocious hysteria. Reading Dark Knight is like seeing your squirmiest, grossest street fears brought into the light and given, if not exactly reality, at least shape.

Dark Knight is inked by Klaus Janson, who worked with Miller on Daredevil, and it's not as decayed-looking as Ronin (which Miller inked himself). Janson has a hard-edged, rather geometric linear style, and under his pen Miller's figures seem more traditionally comic-book. This makes the ugliness of their adventures even harder to take, and Lynn Varley is still around to soak the pages with her nighttime colors.

Miller has attempted to extend the superhero comic and make it carry images and ideas it may not be capable of carrying; he always seems to be straining the edges of the form. But Sim and Chaykin have embraced it. Cerebus,American Flagg!, and The Shadow aren't so much attempts to transform pulp as they are lively springboard somersaults into the air above it. Where Miller gets down and dirty, Chaykin and Sim get high.

Cerebus began as a straightforward funny-animal parody (Cerebus is an aardvark) of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian. But Sim's uninspired aardvark-as-barbarian joke has developed into a sophisticated and acidly amusing political satire. The country Cerebus inhabits is full of competitive city-states, each with its own economy (unlike most pop satirists, Sim has some idea of how political reality actually works) and quarreling political parties and religious movements. Cerebus is the only anthropomorphic animal in an otherwise human world (a fact none of the other characters remarks on) and for this reason alone is an outsider and the perfect ironic observer. He's a greedy, vile-tempered, selfish little critter, but Sim likes him. A while back he made him Pope. One of Cerebus's first acts as Pope was to send a baby he was asked to bless whizzing off over the heads of the crowd like a well-thrown football. Sim's effervescent cruelty has a tonic shock to it, and though one may hesitate to say so, his extremes of misanthropy can be very, very funny.

As a stylist, Sim is in many ways an illustrator in the old-fashioned sense. He poses his characters to be looked at: your eye wants to linger over them rather than move on. And he does things like experiment with large areas of black and white, and surround his pages with decorative borders. Yet his work isn't static. Part of the surprise of his style is the way he achieves a sense of movement, not through shifts in his composition (that is, flinging his characters across the page—though he can do wonderful parodies of superhero building-leaping) but by manipulating perspective. Miller's work is influenced by and imitative of film storytelling, but Sim really does have a cinematographer's eye. He swoops in for close-ups, gazes down from a ceiling corner, focuses on a detail of movement and depicts each of its stages. Sometimes he draws a character standing beside himself in consecutive states of motion—it's like looking at a strip of Muybridge photographs. The drawings carry a sense of impending movement within them—they're poised on the edge of transition from one image to another. At times Sim seems like an animation director who happens to be drawing comic books. (He has done a portfolio of what might almost be a director's primary drawings for three short films, called, appropriately enough, The Animated Cerebus.) Two years ago Sim took on a collaborator, Gerhard, to provide him with detailed and atmospheric backgrounds (never his strong point) against which to place his aardvark's adventures, and the drawings now have a new depth and texture.

Yet in some ways Sim is more like a writer illustrating his own stories than a comics artist who thinks mostly in visual terms. Cerebus really has to be read in order to be enjoyed. Sim has sometimes devoted whole pages to text, and the writing doesn't need pictures—it stands on its satirical own. As a dialogue writer, Sim has a certain nostalgie de la vaudeville, and I can give him no higher praise than to say that when he presumes to write lines for a character based on Groucho Marx, he's up to the task.

This character, Lord Julius, is an example of the way pop-cultural figures wander into Cerebus and take on a life of their own. (The latest examples are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.) At some point after a viewing of Duck Soup, Sim must have asked himself the question, What would a country run by Groucho Marx really be like? and then created a madhouse bureaucracy that would make Kafka quail. Lord Julius fits quite comfortably into this world, as, indeed, do Sim's parodies of superheroes and fantasy heroes and his talking aardvark. The world of Cerebus is so detailed and—with its politicians, warring interests, hypocrisy, opportunism, and folly—so familiar that we accept its odd citizens as mere eccentrics. There's a streak of Lewis Carroll in Sim—the politicians and flunkies have all the fantastic reality of the court of the Queen of Hearts. None of the characters has yet said “We're all mad here,” but they all are. For Sim this madness is ordinary, matter-of-fact: Was the world ever any other way?

The brutal, porny, stylish worlds of American Flagg! and The Shadow are mad too, but Chaykin, unlike Sim, doesn't take the madness for granted. He revels in it. In contrast to the lurid goings-on, the pictures have a crisp, pop elegance; Chaykin seems to have taken his inspiration from between-the-wars American illustrators like James Montgomery Flagg and J. C. Leydendecker. This nostalgic style gives the books their visual charm, but they're far from quaint. The style is matched to a hectic, razzle-dazzle sense of movement—the images rush and tumble past you, the sound effects screech across the page.

In The Shadow, Chaykin is reworking the old hero of radio fame, and although he makes the story zing nastily along, he's not as unfettered as he was in American Flagg! He no longer writes or draws Flagg! (though back issues are available, and the first few stories have been issued in a large-format paperback under the title Hard Times), but in its day he made it the Miami Vice of comic books. It's set in a somewhat confusing future dystopia in which, as far as I can figure out, the United States government has relocated to Mars, the East Coast has been destroyed by a gigantic nuclear meltdown, and Brazil wants to buy Illinois. A lot of Chaykin's future is built on exaggerations of present social conditions. (He has said in an interview that the future “is a lot like the present only later and more so.”) The gap between rich and poor is enormous. The cities are jungles inhabited by street gangs, and the centers of civilization more or less as we know it are huge shopping malls. Racial hatred is commonplace (though so is racial tolerance) and fuels politics to a vicious degree. (The neo-Nazi party is called, in a piece of typical Chaykinian wit, the Gotterdammercrats.)

This is a shallow parody of America, exactly what people mean when they use comic-book as a disparaging adjective. But Chaykin isn't stupid, and he's on to something. The shallowness is part of the point. It plays to our worst fears about our plastic, violent culture, with its philistine tastes and hunger for novelty. Chaykin has taken the silliest extremes of our cultural despair—“No one will be able to read in the future!”—and brought them to life.

It's kind of a fun life, too. Chaykin has said that American Flagg! is a leftist response to the expropriation of the idea of patriotism by the right. And it's true that Reuben Flagg, his hero, is a sort of superpatriot, the lone decent man in a society gone foul, a descendant of the western lawman. But though Chaykin may care about American decency, what he loves is American junk. His consumer-mall society is a circus of cheap elements from action movies, porn films, comic books, sci-fi, TV, all going off as gloriously as fireworks.

Chaykin has charged right through the superhero genre and come out on the other side. Miller has burrowed down into pulp hell. Sim appears to have taken a left turn at Albuquerque and ended up in his own no-aardvark's-land. But the impetus behind their books is the same. Instead of outgrowing the comics they read in their teens and early twenties, Chaykin, Miller, and Sim have found what they loved in them all along and turned that into a personal artistic reality.

What they have created may not exactly be art, but in America the self-conscious and self-defined avant-garde has always had as an unruly twin the low-culture entertainment that turns out to be a junk parable. From Raymond Chandler's neon-dream Los Angeles through the homegrown surrealism of Buster Keaton's movies to the sci-fi political allegory of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the lowbrow art form that usurps the effects (and sometimes the power) of high art is a commonplace. Grace and poetry have their place here, but so do vulgarity, sloppiness, and sentimentality, the accidental and the overdone. We're in a subaesthetic area, with no redeeming intellectual or social qualities, only instinct and rude energy. In this despised and largely unexplored terrain Miller, Sim, and Chaykin have staked their claims. Their success is an apotheosis of the uncritical fannish attitude, the triumph and redemption of shameless love of trash.

Harvey Pekar (essay date December 1986)

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SOURCE: Pekar, Harvey. “Maus and Other Topics.” Comics Journal, no. 113 (December 1986): 54-7.

[In the following essay, Pekar provides a generally favorable assessment of Art Spiegelman's Maus, characterizing the work as significant, but contending that Spiegelman's depiction of humans as animals detracts from the urgency of his message by perpetuating ethnic stereotypes.]

When I told Gary Groth that I was writing a 500-word review of Art Spiegelman's Maus for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he asked me if I'd be willing to write a more comprehensive criticism by expanding upon the Plain Dealer review. I agreed to add to it if the Journal would print my original review more or less intact, edited lightly to take into account the specialized readership of the Journal. This is my original review:

Maus deals mainly with how a Polish Jew, Vladek Spiegelman, managed to survive the Holocaust. Substantial and effective, although not without flaws, it was written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman, Vladek's son. Spiegelman portrays himself as conducting a series of interviews with his father, with whom his relations are bitter.

Spiegelman, editor of the avantgarde comics magazine RAW, began serializing his Maus stories in 1980; here they are collected. Each chapter begins and ends in the present with Art conversing with his father and Mala, his father's second wife. Anja, Vladek's first wife and Art's mother, committed suicide in 1968. Most of each chapter, however, is devoted to Vladek's flashback reminiscences of his life from the mid-1930s through 1944.

Vladek speaks first of his youth, when he married into Anja's wealthy family and became a prosperous manufacturer himself. In 1939 he was drafted into the Polish army, captured by the Germans, released after six months and returned to Poland. There we see him desperately and ingeniously trying to keep himself and Anja alive as the Nazis tighten their grip, killing more and more Jews. He moves from place to place, running and hiding until he's finally caught and, in the last chapter is sent to Auschwitz. (Spiegelman is working on a second volume.)

Maus is sincere and informative; important if only because it demonstrates that comics need not be kid stuff. However, subject matter alone does not guarantee greatness in a work of art; Maus has faults as well as virtues.

Spiegelman diminishes his book's intensity and immediacy by representing humans as rather simply and inexpressively drawn animals—Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs. However, the animal metaphor is ineffective because this single element of fantasy is contradicted by Spiegelman's detailed realism. For instance, he uses the real names of people and places; i.e., a mouse named Vladek Spiegelman lives in the Polish town of Sosnowiec, wears human clothing, and walks on two feet.

The animal metaphor also perpetuates ethnic stereotypes. Spiegelman generally portrays Jews as prey (mice) for the Germans (cats). However, he shows some Poles taking risks for Jews, yet insultingly pictures all of them as pigs.

Art's narrative sometimes rambles and bogs down, partly because he is preoccupied with making Vladek look bad. Using a sub-plot involving contemporary sequences is a good idea, but in them Art denounces his father as a petty cheapskate and tyrant far more often and predictably than is necessary. This distracts attention from the Holocaust story, clamorously interfering with the elevated tone of Vladek's reminiscences.

One might think Spiegelman dwells on his father's faults to illustrate the terrible mark the Holocaust left on people. However, he quotes Mala, who also “went through the camps” as saying that no Holocaust survivor she knew was a heartless miser like Vladek. A complex person with contradictory characteristics, Vladek isn't portrayed clearly in Maus, but perhaps the next volume will allow us to understand him better.

Spiegelman's prose is sometimes stiff, but this problem is largely overcome by the rich material he presents. He does not attempt to sensationalize information already so evocative, but lets his father speak of his Holocaust experiences simply and with dignity, creating a work historically significant and often moving.

(Reprinted by permission from Harvey Pekar and The Cleveland Plain Dealer)

I hold to the opinion that Maus is overall a good and a significant work, primarily, because of Vladek Spiegelman's moving and informative narrative. That seems obvious. It seems equally obvious to me that Art Spiegelman has done some things in Maus that are less than admirable, and I have heard some criticism of the book expressed privately but for some reason people seem reluctant to go on record in print about its defects. Perhaps the serious tone of Maus and its subject matter cows them. Howard Chaykin, who has a reputation for being outspoken, seemed on the verge of saying something “pejorative” about Spiegelman during a recent Comics Journal interview but asked that the tape recorder be turned off at the crucial moment. A gentile comic book fan suggested to me that some people might be reluctant to criticize Maus for fear of being called anti-Semitic—that's understandable these days when right-wing Jews accuse left-wing Jews of being “self-hating Jews,” their definition of a self-hating Jews apparently being any Jew more liberal than Ariel Sharon.

Anyway, let me expand on some of my objections to Maus, beginning with the “animal metaphor”—Spiegelman's depiction of human beings as mice, cats and pigs. I've mentioned that I thought this device detracted from the immediacy of Maus and that it tended to perpetuate ethnic stereotypes; i.e., I don't know what Spiegelman thinks of Poles, but when he shows them doing something admirable and still portrays them as pigs, he's sending a mixed message. I realize that pigs are more praiseworthy than is generally recognized; nevertheless most people think it is more of an insult to be called a pig than a mouse or even a cat. I believe Spiegelman's idea of using cats, mice, and pigs in Maus is an example of someone trying to be clever just for the sake of being clever. A great deal of attention has been given to the “animal metaphor,” as if comic books have come of age with the use of metaphors. But if readers stop and think a moment they'll realize that metaphors and animal characters have been employed in comics for a long time, e.g., in the work of Carl Barks. Realistically drawn (as opposed to caricatured or idealized) human beings are seen in comics far less often than “animal metaphors.” Robert Crumb thinks, as I do, that overall Maus is a good work, but he told me that the animal characters in it looked artificial, as if they were human beings with animal heads pasted on them. Interestingly, Keiji Nakazawa in Barefoot Gen, an outstanding work dealing with the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima which preceded and anticipated Maus, uses cutesy big-eyed cartoon characters which tend to trivialize his text. This is unfortunate in that it indicates how little confidence many comic book illustrators have in their own medium. Comic books are as good on artistic medium as any that exists and it's a shame when comics creators don't realize it.

In this connection and others let me quote Spiegelman from a July 19 Louisville Times Scene magazine article about comics. He says that he used animal characters in Maus because “I couldn't imagine human beings doing that to each other.” He goes on to mention that comics cannot convey action as well as movies can, that they need “to make readers aware that they're looking at symbols.”

I differ with Spiegelman. Comics, novels, films, and still pictures (photographs, drawings, prints of various kinds) can all convey action very well in different ways; comics with written words and still pictures, film with spoken words and moving pictures alone. Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage and Leo Tolstoi in War and Peace describe war more intensely, more graphically than any filmmaker I know of and they don't need pictures to do it. There have been a great many outstanding paintings and photographs done about war in which the painters and photographers did not have words at their disposal. Talented comic book writers and artists, with words and pictures at their command, can certainly convey action well. As a matter of fact that's one thing comic books are noted for—conveying action. That's why super-hero comics sell so well. Look at the work of Spain Rodriguez. He does a particularly good job of drawing action scenes in comics. Comics don't need symbolic animals characters to deal with war and violence.

But paradoxically there isn't a lot of action or explicit violence shown in Maus; most of it takes place off stage. Therefore animal characters are not needed to mute “Man's inhumanity to man.”

Questions occur to me in this regard, such as why, if Spiegelman is so offended by brutality, he prints such violent, even sadistic, stories in RAW as “I am a Cliche,” “Tenochtitlan,” “Theodore Death Head,” and “It Was the War of the Trenches.” I don't criticize him for doing this; I merely point out that it seems inconsistent with his statement abhorring inhumanity in the Louisville Times. (These stories, incidentally, contain human characters, not cats and mice.)

The major defect in Maus, one that is far more disturbing than the use of “animal metaphors,” is Spiegelman's biased, one-sided portrayals of his father, himself, and their relationship. Some reviewers of Maus have come away with the impression that Art is the hero of the book and Vladek the villain. Let me, for example, quote from Laurie Stone's Village Voice review. “Spiegelman's finest, subtlest achievement is making Art's survival of life in his family as important as Vladek and Anja's survival of the war … It doesn't dawn on Vladek that his tyrannies are a mouse-play of Nazi terrorism; nor does he question why Anja lived through Auschwitz but not her marriage to him … The irony that the Holocaust alone gave Vladek a chance to be brave and generous—to rise above his small-mindedness—isn't lost on Art … Spiegelman understands that Hitler isn't to blame for Vladek's and Anja's personalities. Long before the war Vladek was wary of other people and Anja nervous, overly compliant and clinging—she had her first nervous breakdown after the birth of Richieu. Vladek and Anja don't recover from their lives, but their son does. He lets his parents live inside him in order to let them go. And detachment has served this brave artist exceptionally well.”

I disagree with Stone's interpretation, especially assuming it is based solely on evidence presented in Maus. For one thing, there is very little meaningful material about Anja, always a subsidiary character in the book. To blame her suicide on Vladek, or Art, for that matter, as one of the family friends does is to jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence. Perhaps Art can give us more facts in Maus's second volume to clear things up, but until then there's no point in jumping to conclusions, especially as Anja's mental breakdown in the 1930s occurred at a time when she was seemingly getting along with Vladek.

I also would question whether Art is as noble and Vladek as base as Art apparently would have us believe. I see Art in Maus as a guy going after a big scoop who cares less about his father than his father does about him. Why is Art finally visiting Vladek after two years, though both live in the same city? Is it because Vladek has had two heart attacks, lost vision in one eye, and Art wants to comfort him? No, it's because Art wants a story from him. That is clearly demonstrated in the book. Art shows Vladek asking him to leave information about his bachelor lovelife out of Maus, saying that it has nothing to do with the Holocaust; Art protests but Vladek holds firm so Art promises he won't use it. But, surprise, it shows up in the book anyway.

Did Stone notice this occurrence involving her “brave” artist? The reason I mention it is not to question Art's ethics, which are of no concern to me, but to point out that it and other things make me doubt whether Art's portrayal of his father is accurate.

It's easy for American Jewish writers to parody their European-born parents, especially if they're old and sick like Vladek. I've done it and it is often justifiable because some of them have less than admirable characteristics. However, in a parody, readers recognize that distortion and exaggeration are involved in order to draw attention to these characteristics. Few people are so holy that they can't be parodied or kidded. Maus, however, is presented as a “serious,” realistic work that attempts to portray characters in a multi-dimensional manner. Why then is Vladek routinely shown to be a crazy, petty, tyrannical miser at both the beginning and end of two-thirds of Maus's chapters (the third, fourth, fifth and sixth)? At the beginning of the second chapter Vladek isn't counting his money but he is counting his pills—there's another metaphor for you. What's the reason for this overkill? Is Spiegelman afraid we'll miss the point about his feeble old father, that we might overlook two or three incidents of Vladek's cheapness so that ten must be cited? The malice in Spiegelman's portrayal of his father is so obvious to me, despite the fact that Spiegelman tries to veil it, that I question his ability to portray Vladek accurately. Is cheapness Vladek's only quality?

I am a Jew with a background similar to Spiegelman's. Many of my relatives died in the Holocaust. My parents, uncles, aunts, and some of my cousins were born in Poland. Furthermore they came from small towns and probably would seem unsophisticated and puritanical to most Americans even by comparison with Spiegelman's parents. Spiegelman's father owned a factory; my father was literally a teamster, driving a horse and wagon for a living, picking up grain from farmers and taking it to mills to be ground into flour. My folks were tight with me about money; it seemed that I had fewer toys than everyone else, that my clothes were older, if not hand-me-downs. I resented my parents; they were trying to raise me as their parents had raised them. They didn't realize treating urban American children as if they were living in a Polish shtetl could result in serious problems. They didn't understand and I didn't realize that they didn't until a lot of damage was done.

But if Eastern European Jews like my parents didn't provide their kids with a lot of toys that seemed worthless to them, they were good about other things. If possible they made sure their kids had good health care and ate well and they sacrificed so that their children could go to college. They tried to be good parents but often didn't know all that being a good parent in America involved.

I have the feeling based on the information in Maus, which is all we readers have to go on, that Art deliberately tried to make Vladek look bad, yet there are scenes in the book where Vladek does show concern for his son, despite Art's intentions. For example, once befuddled Vladek throws out an old coat that Art's been wearing, considering it shabby, and offers him another one which he believes is better. Art has a fit, accusing the old man of treating him like a kid. I imagine most people sympathize with Art during this scene, especially the way it's presented, but is what the old man did really so terrible? Yes, he misjudged his kid, something parents commonly do, but Vladek was trying to help him by giving him what he thought was a better coat. What's the big deal? Don't gentile parents throw out their children's stuff too—even their valuable baseball card and comic book collections? Some mildly unpleasant things have to be taken in stride because they're so common. It's silly for a 35-year-old man to blow up at his sick old father over an old coat.

At another point Vladek shows Art some valuable items he's stashed for him in case of an emergency. Obviously he's concerned about Art's security. During another sequence Vladek tries to honor Art by offering him a wooden clothes hanger rather than a wire one. He is made to look like a real greenhorn in the process. I think Spiegelman wants us to laugh at Vladek for his neurotic and crude ways, but I don't think holding him up to ridicule is particularly funny.

Another scene in Maus that bothers me is one in which Art discovers that his father, in a fit of depression, has destroyed Anja's diaries, written during the Holocaust, which Art wanted to use to get material for Maus. Art screams at Vladek for this, calling him “murderer.” Vladek reproaches him and Art apologizes but at the end of the chapter walks away muttering “murderer” to himself. Does Vladek deserve to be called a murderer because he destroyed Art's source material? I don't think so, based on the material presented in Maus. Understand that all along my point is not that Spiegelman has been unethical toward his father, but that he gives me plenty of reason to doubt the accuracy of his portrayal of him.

Another thing that bugs me about Maus is Spiegelman's sanctimoniousness. He tries to show himself as fair, wanting to tell people the story of the Holocaust so they will “never again” commit such atrocities. He wants us to believe there's no pettiness in him. Thus he disingenuously says to Mala, “It's something that worries me about the book I'm doing about him … in some ways he's just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew,” to which Mala replies, “Hah, you can say that again.” To which Art responds, “I mean, I'm just trying to portray my father accurately.” Sure. Are we to believe that Spiegelman didn't know what his father was like before he started writing Maus and now is dismayed to find that he'll have to portray him as a miserly old Jew? If Spiegelman more openly admitted his dislike of Vladek it might've been OK, but his claims of objectivity seem hypocritical.

In my initial review, I used the word “sincere” to describe Maus. What I was referring to was the sincerity of Vladek's narrative in the major part of the book, the part that makes it a good book. But the portrait Spiegelman gives us of himself and his father in the present is useless.

Let me close this piece by digressing. I've been reading more and more about comics in prestigious mainstream publications such as Atlantic and Newsweek. Some of the things I've seen have been dismaying. A Newsweek reviewer writes, “the immediate predecessors were underground comic artists of the 1960s, like the gifted R. Crumb. But the 1980s are the golden age of metafunnies: The artists have more sophistication and better technique. …”

In the August 1986 Atlantic Lloyd Rose writes, “It may be a long way from the countercultural underground ‘comix’ of the sixties and early seventies, with their explicit criticism of American society [does Rose think S. Clay Wilson was a social critic?], to the violence and hedonism of Howard Chaykin's work—a retreat from ‘relevance’ to mere entertainment. But the comic books of the eighties are probably more diverse and more geared to an adult audience than those of any previous era.”

These two statements are ridiculous. The writes hold up as shining examples of comics greats of the '80s Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller. However, Chaykin and Miller turn out simple-minded genre trash.

People like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Frank (Foolbert Sturgeon) Stack, Justin Green, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez, and for that matter Spiegelman, who was active in the underground scene during the mid-'70s, are a thousand times more sophisticated than Chaykin and Miller.

Wanna talk about technique? Stack has been teaching art at a university level for many years. I doubt if Miller or Chaykin approach him as an all-around technician, though his comic book work is deceptively simple, too subtle for the Newsweek and Atlantic writers to appreciate. Or consider Crumb: Chaykin has said of him, “he's a consummate draftsman, he's an extraordinary artist. He can take anything and do wonders with it.” There were plenty of other technically accomplished artists around in the '60s and early '70s like Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, and Victor Moscoso. Apparently the Newsweek and Atlantic critics equate good technique with glitzyness and slickness.

A comics revolution occurred in the 1960s with underground comic books, but these got little recognition in the straight press. Now Atlantic,Newsweek and the big, new slick Rolling Stone are lauding 1980s costume hero schlock as indicative of a current golden age of comics, which is patently absurd. Marvel, DC, and First Comics have not ushered in anything significantly new in this decade—they continue to go after a lowest-common-denominator audience.

Gene Phillips (review date February 1987)

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SOURCE: Phillips, Gene. “The Dark Knight Reborn.” Comics Journal, no. 114 (February 1987): 70-4.

[In the following review, Phillips argues that, despite its flaws, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is an entertaining work that clearly incorporates modern mythic orientations into its storyline.]

Frank Miller has referred to his project as his “Great American Super-hero story.” This four-part opus, whether or not it proves to be entertaining and meaningful to everyone, must at the very least be judged a milestone in the development of techniques for giving any sort of comics project the aesthetic and structural qualities of a novel, forcing the graphics to do triple-duty to make up for the medium's inherent restrictions on wordage. Because of its novel-like complexity, Dark Knight deserves to be assessed as a novel, which means, among other things, that two critical questions are foremost among those that should be addressed: Is Dark Knight Returns entertaining, and is it meaningful?

For this reviewer, the answer to the first question is a resounding affirmative. Entertainment of the most basic sort must be judged not by the quality of its philosophical insights, but by the ingenuity which the creator devotes to certain literary formulas and to the elements peculiar to each. In this area, Frank Miller's Dark Knight excels in a number of ways.

Ironically, the art may put off a number of comics fans who don't understand the difference between bad, inadequate drawing and drawing that deliberately exaggerates or de-emphasizes parts of the human body. Nevertheless, this is a remarkably compressed work; no panel space is wasted—every scene serves to build an integral part of the story, yet gives an unfeigned sense of naturalness to the unnatural proceedings.

My harshest criticism of Miller here is that I have never found his depiction of a muscular male form—even allowing for exaggeration—to be quite on the money. The Mutant Leader and sometimes Batman look at times like they have muscles in the wrong places. Other figures, however, are completely convincing, especially that of Robin, whose every pose suggests a youthful exuberance coupled with occasional uncertainty. Miller similarly shows unstinted facility with the varied range of human expressions, ranging from the calculatedly bland looks of TV news-people (who serve to advance the greatest portion of Dark Knight's expository scenes); to the distress in James Gordon's eyes as he thinks about the innumerable, dispiriting crimes he has been obliged to witness and their effect on the way people live; to the perverse, almost sexual glee in Abner's face as he tries to strangle Robin; to the uncharacteristic, ferally defensive expression on Superman's face as he cradles in his arms the supposedly dead Batman and snarls, “Don't touch him!” at the off-panel onlookers.

Some of the artistic touches are subtly symbolic: when Batman first returns, he wears his famous “New Look” costume, with a yellow circle about his Bat chest-emblem; as events in his life grow progressively darker, he “reverts” to the older, circle-less Bat-emblem, signifying perhaps a return to the primitive, socially unacceptable phase of the character as first depicted by Kane, Finger, and Robinson. On page 28 of Book II, Miller manages to imply that a dialogue took place between Reagan and Superman without showing either character; one merely sees the panel-eye increasingly moving toward a rippling American flag (symbolic of Reagan), with the red-and-white stripes gradually overlap (or seem to) with the red-and-yellow lines of Superman's S-emblem. Superman himself is frequently seen as a black, shadowy figure with red highlights, giving him a far more macabre, unreal appearance than ever before, while in Book IV the loss of his power reduces him almost to a skeleton, though he gradually “fills out” again as he absorbs solar energies from nearby plant-life. And the climactic battle between Batman and the Joker makes similar use of subtle symbolism. As they wage their combat across the fairgrounds, through a mirror-maze, and into a Tunnel of Love, Miller heightens the bizarre looks of the Joker by clothing him, not in his maroon garments, but in a white suit that emphasizes his ghastly pallor and green hair.

There are an assortment of other delightful moments (as well as some other glitches—does the Mutant Leader really manage to file his teeth so that they become longer than human teeth can be?), but space does not permit. Only one more point should be made: here, as never before, Miller is distinctively Miller, having synthesized all of his eclectic influences into a style uniquely his own. One can see in the art traces of Eisner, Moebius, Kane, Krigstein, Kirby, Sienkiewicz (a strong influence here, as witness the exaggerated musculature of Superman and Batman), and ever Garry Trudeau—but this is Miller, and no one else.

The dialogue is arrestingly crisp, rich in allusion, and uniquely suited to each character. Alfred's remarks, for instance, aside from adding to the humor, aid in portraying the character of a crotchety old man surviving on pure nastiness. James Gordon's inner monologues continually give one the picture of a man wise to the foibles of the world (and his own, as well), with too much compassion for his type of job, yet compassion with an edge of commitment that makes it impossible for him to do anything else. Carrie Kelley's California-influenced dialogue is a constant joy, laced as it is with implicit heavy sarcasms. Her lip-rap with two Mutants, p. 39, Book II, is a minor tour-de-force of invented “hip” dialogue.

For the Batman, Miller chooses a spare, grimly taut manner of speaking, which extends even to his moments of humor: in his interior monologues, his “voice” becomes incantatory, sometimes consciously invoking the spirit of a certain monstrous-seeming bat he encountered, prior to his parents' slaying—quite as it if were his god or his totem.

With so many adventure comics on the market, it becomes more and more difficult to do action scenarios which in and of themselves have any originality to them—but here, too, Miller excels. A few of the Batman-pounces-on-punks sequences become too drawn out for the worth of the material, but Book III is a particular standout, not only for Batman's battles with the Joker and police, but also for the moment when, in a Bat-wing-assisted flight from police, Robin's harness is broken by a bullet, and only a last-minute grasp on Batman's cape saves her from falling to her death. (The caption shows a marvelous gift for understatement on Miller's part: Batman thinks, “Cold waves lap Gotham harbor … like they have all the time in the world. …”)

Those characters whom Miller means to portray as full-fledged human beings (as opposed to caricatured figures) are largely satisfying, reminding one of Will Eisner's attempts to show slice-of-life episodes in the lives of ordinary human beings. (Miller's human beings, especially Margaret Corcoran and “Iron Man” Vasquez, are not fundamentally less developed than Eisner's, but they are in somewhat unnatural situations, unlike Eisner's.)

Regarding caricatured figures (generally all the politicians, and particularly the pop-psychologist Wolper and the TV newswoman Lola Chong), Richard McEnroe takes Miller to task in his Dark Knight review (Comics Journal #109) for having stifled the spirit of debate by making many of these figures ridiculous, rather than having their opposition to Batman based on rational attitudes. McEnroe overlooks one central character, new commissioner Ellen Yindell, whose initial opposition to Batman is quite rational (though not developed until #3, which McEnroe may not have read). Also, I believe he overlooks the humorous nature of the caricatures, which is not designed to simply put down types like the obnoxious psychiatrist and the nonagenarian president, but to exaggerate them in the time-honored tradition of the political cartoon. (Significantly, not only Batman-haters are lampooned: when Batman-supporter Lana Lang is asked how she condones a man who violates civil rights, she replies with a speech that does not answer the questions, as the interviewer immediately points out.)

One of the most exaggerated visual jokes is that when the nuclear missile is launched, Reagan gives his customarily cheery television address while attired in a radiation suit. Finally, on a different level of exaggeration, Miller gives Batman and his most significant opponents (the Joker and Superman) moments when they assert their otherworldly nature without compromising the need to give them a modicum of “real-life” characteristics (be it Batman's childhood love for the movie Zorro, the Joker's perverse affection for his old foe, or Superman's fixation on the planet Earth, which he addressed in the recovery sequence as “Mother.”)

Unless I've missed something, these comprise all the basic ingredients that make a far-better-than-average entertainment. (And this without even mentioning the superlative inks of Klaus Janson and the vivid, mood-setting colors of Lynn Varley!) But still, the questions arises—is it meaningful?

Central to any discussion of the issue pertinent to Dark Knight is an understanding of Batman himself as an entity who is in some respects beyond the ordinary level of mortal beings—an entity who represents what I would call “the supramundane.” This term is an intentionally-loose catch-all phrase that many be used to describe any element of a story that we commonly regard as “fantasy such as elves, aliens, time-warps, flying men, and men who can successfully fight crime in cape and longjohns. In such genres as fantasy, horror, science-fiction, and the super-hero adventure, it is taken for granted that something “supramundane” exists, and while many critics look upon this hypothesis as being contrary to the goals of “real” literature, I find that it is simply another form of fiction, differing from mimetic fiction in its goals but no less important in terms of literary potential. In Miller's point of view, then, he offers us the situation of “What would happen if the Batman actually existed?”—and proceeds from that hypothesis.

This is not to say that Miller neglects to deal with mundane reality. Obviously he must, in order to re-interpret a pulp-derived crime-fighter devised for an audience largely composed of children. Miller comments: “One thing that had to be done right away was that his methods had to become a lot harsher and he had to become a lot smarter.” In consequence, the Dark Knight could no longer be the childish fantasy of the hero who subdues countless enemies with roundhouse rights and a pure heart. In hand-to-hand encounters, the Dark Knight may deliberately choose to break an opponents leg, hip, or spine; he may use razor-edged Batarangs to bite into his enemies' flesh, or a tank-like Batmobile to decimate several Mutants with rubber-bullet machine-gun fire.

Yet, though Miller's Batman clearly does not subscribe to the doctrine of “minimum force,” he does kill in defense of one innocent, by blowing away a gunman in Book II (though the gunman is not seen dead), and it may be argued that many of his defensive actions might inadvertently have caused his death. (I, for one, was uncomfortable with a scene in Book IV, where Batman sabotages a roof to fall on the heads of a pursuing SWAT team.) Still, it should be noted that Batman's violent activities are always oriented toward the goal of protecting innocents. This is why, when asked whether Batman's crusade might be a delusion, Miller responds, “I don't see him as a psychotic; I see him as a hero.”

Miller goes to great effort to support his heroic interpretation in psychological terms. He sees Batman not as a man motivated by a ceaseless desire for revenge, as have some other creators, but “as a boy who had every bit of sense taken out of his life in one violent act, and has been forcing the world to make sense, to the extent that it can, ever since.” In other words, Bruce Wayne is not simply outraged by his own personal tragedy, but that such tragedies should befall anyone.

As a slight digression, I would say that the entire mythic situation of the death-of-the-hero's-parents has been oversimplified as a simple quest for revenge. If such were the case, Batman would hardly have any reason to continue fighting evil subsequent to finding his parents' killer, nor would any other serial hero. Rather, the death of the parents, however traumatic, forces the hero (often at a childhood phase, though not invariably) to grow up overnight, to take the responsibilities of adulthood in extreme fashion—not only in regard to avenging his parents, but also with respect to becoming himself a surrogate parent to the citizens of Gotham, protecting innocent children and punishing the guilty.

With regard to Robin especially, Batman becomes the essence of a surrogate parent. Though Carrie Kelley does not lose her parents as did Wayne and Dick Grayson, they are nebulous figures, “seen” only through their dialogue—and it is to the Batman, after he saves her, that she turns for a role model. Similarly, the Mutants, though depicted through most of the opus as zombie-like dregs, come to treat Batman as a lawgiving father-figure, while Book III particularly emphasizes Batman's role as a protector of the children who frequent the carnival.

The heroic aspect of Batman as a parental protector of innocents and spiritual “father” to his children is glibly over-simplified by Cindy Carr's review in the Village Voice Literary Supplement (excerpted in Journal #109). She parodies the book thusly: “Dammit. Someone has to stand up to the subhuman cretins who terrorize innocent law-abiding citizens.” Said review goes on to characterize the first two volumes as “neoconservative propaganda” and the Dark Knight as “Rambo in a cape.”

This is a significant criticism, not because it is true, but because it shows that Miller did not quite succeed in distinguishing his product from the trashy level of Rambo, though there are numerous subtleties to Dark Knight that Rambo and its ilk do not possess. It's hard to see how a critic could label the work “neoconservative,” insofar as Book I contains a panel juxtaposition in which a TV interviewer asks two men-on-the-street for their opinions on Batman and gets a favorable verdict from a conservative bigot who “hopes he goes after the homos next,” and an unfavorable verdict from a liberal hypocrite, who preaches reforming the socially disadvantaged but would “never live in the city. …”

The targets of Miller's satire include both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives. A prominent example of the latter is the aforementioned Reagan-in-the-radiation-suit incident. The liberals fear Batman because he threatens the “disadvantaged” with whom they identify, rightly or wrongly, while the conservatives hate him for not following their dictates. And even “innocent law-abiding citizens” take some shellacking, becoming maddened animals in the wake of the power failure and being brought into line only by Batman and several “subhuman cretins.”

Of course, the very concept of a vigilante summons up images of Nazi storm-troopers and the Ku Klux Klan, so knee-jerk negative reactions are to be expected. By seeming to identify Batman with such reactionary forces, by not clearly setting Batman apart, Miller has perhaps left himself open for such criticisms, thus obscuring the real essence of his thought—that is, to provoke debate of the issues, without allowing his personal authorial voice to intrude, by using Batman as a “wild card” who fits none of our standard categories. Because he has devoted his life to the “otherworldly purpose” of eradicating crime, he becomes “a mythological figure, something of a god on earth”—which is in perfect consonance with what I have termed the “supramundane,” an element or elements that defy conventional mundane reality. Miller elaborates: “In the early adventures of Superman and Batman, the super-hero was an unusual, often mystical element that focused and defined real world situations and issues in a way that was clearer and more direct than a simple recitation of the facts. … !! (“He's too big,” says Yindell of Batman, echoing similar words from Commissioner Gordon, stressing that Batman is “by his nature, above and beyond the rest of us.”) Thus Batman, due to the many preternatural, myth-like associations surrounding him, can hardly be reduced to “Rambo in a cape.”

Ultimately, Miller even subverts the traditional fantasy of the super-hero, though not the overall concept of heroism. One expects to see Batman battle the Joker, representative of unbridled chaos and death—but not to see the Dark Knight battle Superman, the latter symbolizing an oppressive, stupid order that may deserve to be overthrown. “Yes,” thinks Batman, mentally berating Superman, “you always says yes—to anyone with a badge … or a flag. …” To Batman, Superman has betrayed the potential they both had to change the world for the better, thus making it possible for a political clod like Ronald Reagan to play games with innocent lives. Indeed, when Batman almost defeats Superman, brutally kicking the Man of Steel in the face, he is in some respects lashing out against everyone who ever compromised with evil and stupidity, allowing the innocent to be harmed in order to protect the rights of the innocent-until-proved-guilty. For ordinary human beings, there is no alternative, and I do not think Miller means to suggest that vigilantes should run amuck, a la Bernard Goetz—he only means to use the supramundane figure of the Batman to place the situation in greater perspective.

On the negative side, however, it must be admitted that though a mythic dimension about the hero excuses him in part from being judged in ordinary terms, other features of the story are not exempt from the writer's law of common sense. Perhaps some of the events of the story can be excused as evolving under unusual circumstances—i.e., maybe one can believe that some Mutants, seeing the Batman beat the Leader, begin to worship the former instead, and maybe one can believe that Superman is able to arrange a showdown with Batman without any untimely interference from the army. But the myth-logic breaks down in one or two major areas: in Book III, it seems beyond any kind of logic that Batman—who is not, after all, a literal god—would plunge into the midst of well-armed police. (If all he wanted to do was enter the studio, why did he not do what he did in the same book later—don a disguise and gain entrance without fighting the police?) The answer is, of course, that Batman had to fight the police, thus becoming a rejected savior—but here the myth-logic has overwhelmed the real-life logic. And in Book IV, following the launching of the Soviet missile, one hears much about the missile's effects, but nothing else. With America helpless, why does Russia fail to annihilate its enemy? Or at least invade? Does Superman prevent them, or persuade them not to try? One never knows.

The most damaging flaw in the Dark Knight's structure is the denouement. The Mutants—Batman's initial adversaries, who ironically become his “Merry Men,” a new cadre of underground crime-fighters—are never given distinct personalities. They are like undifferentiated units of pure chaos, without any direction save to random violence, until Batman molds them to fit his designs. I have no difficulty with the basic idea of the ending, as it is the logical extrapolation of what an out-of-commission Batman might plausibly do. But I cannot believe that so righteous a hero would choose as his aides such mindless ciphers as the Sons of the Batman, who kill and maim criminals (and some innocents), and the jailbreaking Mutants, who murder several policemen, one quite violently. I understand, once again, the mythic logic—Miller even says that “Batman commits evil to fight evil”—but in real life, one cannot but doubt that such “subhuman cretins” could ever become larger-than-life heroes. Ironically, Miller's treatment of all the costumed (or formerly costumed) heroes—Bruce Wayne, Carrie Kelly, Clark Kent, Oliver Queen—gives each of them an outlook on life as individualistic as their personalities will permit. For each of them, the decision to fight crime, however impossible in real life, is a conscious reaction to their perceptions of their environments—not a matter of being swept along by a leader's charisma. Ideally, Miller might have made the ending work had he given us more background on the Mutants Batman chose as his helpers—something to let us believe that he did not simply select the most pliable types—but Miller misses the opportunity. For that matter, the ending is difficult to judge because Miller leaves vague the actual plans Batman has. Presumably, he does not mean to overthrow the government—though Oliver Queen seems to have been involved in sabotage directed against the U.S. (Book IV, page 33), and Batman does make the comment about “a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers”—but he also says “I'll stay quiet” so that Superman will never again be forced to fight him. My only deduction is that this implies a kind of Robin Hood-like set-up, in which Batman and his followers continue fighting corruption surreptitiously—but Miller never makes this clear.

In conclusion, I would say that the Dark Knight opus is both entertaining and meaningful, though in some ways the meaning is not pursued as rigorously as one might wish. Its flaws, like its ambitions, are not always small ones, but so many of its ambitions are positively realized that one tends to dismiss the failings. Some critics have chosen to focus purely on such failings and have ignored the depth of the Dark Knight's mythic orientations—which is rather like writing about W. B. Yeats without reference to that poet's myth-penchant. One can do it, all right—but one misses a hell of a lot.

If comics are ever to mature and join the ranks of “real” literature, it will become necessary for such works to have a mature attitude about the mythic underpinnings of literature, as is seen in the works of “real” literary figures, i.e., Yeats, Melville, Borges, Robbins (Tom, not Harold), and Calvino. And while it is true that literature may never take to its bosom works that simply build upon such crude, primitive myths as the early Batman, infusing them with as much meaning as they can bear—the existence of works like Miller's Dark Knight, Gerber's Howard the Duck, and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing are important steps for comic books. With their transitional help, comic books might someday forge literary myths capable of sharing the spotlight with Prospero, Michael Robartes, and the Great White Whale.

Darren Harris-Fain (review date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Harris-Fain, Darren. Review of Watchmen, by Alan Moore. Extrapolation 30, no. 4 (winter 1989): 410-12.

[In the following review, Harris-Fain praises Moore's narrative technique in Watchmen, noting that the work is “a fascinating experiment in broadening a limited genre which deserves wider attention that it has received.”]

The year is 1985: Nixon is still president, America won the Vietnam War, cars run on electricity, and super heroes are real. It is the existence of these heroes that Alan Moore uses for the premise of this alternative history, which appeared between 1986 and 1987 as a twelve-issue series from DC Comics.

Moore, whose earlier credits include 2000 A.D. and DC's Swamp Thing, teamed with artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins to produce this starkly realistic book. Critics noticing recent trends in the comics industry cite Watchmen as one of the examples of increasing maturity in the field.

This “maturity” can be found at several levels in Watchmen, particularly where theme, style, and intellectual content are concerned. This reflects an industry which in the past decade has attempted to upgrade its image, along with changes in comics which have allowed greater freedom for creators; more important, Watchmen reveals Moore's talent. Other comic book writers have done much to raise expectations for the medium through their work but their comics have often failed to transcend the level of sophisticated adventure and realistic storytelling. In my opinion Watchmen possesses a depth which makes it unique.

This uniqueness, however, depends not so much upon characterization or the story as it does upon the way the story is told. In addition to dialogue, Moore uses captions to provide multiple points of view—a narrative technique also employed by Frank Miller and Matt Wagner, among others. Another fairly innovative technique is the insertion of “outside” texts, such as a retired hero's autobiography or magazine articles. These are appended to each chapter (originally, the first eleven issues of the comic) and supply further perspectives upon the characters and action. One of these texts is mixed with the story itself: a pirate comic, read by one of the supporting characters, which parallels both the words and images against which it is juxtaposed.

There are many verbal and pictorial bridges in Watchmen, relating two strands of plot or providing the transition to flashbacks revealing the historical context of this world and its heroes. Through these flashbacks the book manages to cover more than half a decade, even though the story occupies only two and a half weeks.

More interesting is the way Moore often returns to an event but through a different point of view by means of his multiple narrative technique. This shift in perspective is usually physical as well (a feat available to film but not to standard “literary” texts), and Gibbons deserves admiration for the way he makes these scenes work. In returning to events and changing the emphasis, along with the narrative technique involving multiple points of view, Moore shows the reader a many-faceted world where reality is more a matter of perspective than universal truth. In other words, Watchmen uses substantially innovative techniques both unique within comics and in comparison with other narrative types to raise epistemological questions in addition to telling a story.

Despite the sophistication of Watchmen, the book has enjoyed popular success as well as critical acclaim, although both have occurred within a limited scope. It's possible to find Watchmen in a trade paperback edition at Waldenbooks or B. Dalton, for instance, but most readers are already faithful comics devotees rather than proselytes. Comic books have gained new respect in recent years thanks to efforts such as Watchmen, yet the audience for the most part remains the same—i.e., comics readers in their teens and twenties.

Consequently, the various manifestations of Watchmen are likely bought by collectors instead of general readers or libraries, even though the trend of limited series (themselves a recent phenomenon) appearing as trade paperbacks and even as hardcover books allows libraries to build a collection of comics whenever they choose to begin, solving earlier problems of storage and cheap copies. (Another fortunate development in comics lately is the selective use of better-quality paper instead of the standard pulp; all editions of Watchmen, including the original comics, are on improved paper.)

Moreover, comics publishers seem to be catering to the collectors, although a hardcover edition is available to a wider audience through the Science Fiction Book Club. However, the standard edition of the book is the trade paperback, published in 1987 after the series was completed in July. It sells for $14.95.

There is also a deluxe hardcover edition of Watchmen, slipcased and bound in leather with a ribbon bookmark and over forty pages of notes and artwork by Moore and Gibbons pertaining to the development of the book. Published in 1988 by Graphitti Designs with DC Comics, this is a collector's item: I paid $60 for it, and by now it may be worth more. Again, this is a new development in comics: there are also deluxe hardcover editions of Matt Wagner's Mage (although the review, Extrapolation, Winter 1988, claims no hardcovers exist), and other special editions designed for collectors but available to libraries or general readers abound.

Nevertheless, Watchmen is not simply a comic book phenomenon, but a fascinating experiment in broadening a limited genre which deserves wider attention than it has received.

Joseph Witek (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Witek, Joseph. “History and Talking Animals: Art Spiegelman's Maus.” In Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, pp. 96-120. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Witek presents a detailed analysis of Art Spiegelman's Maus, describing it as a significant work of art and literature that powerfully illustrates the impact of sequential art.]

The clearest sign that something unusual was afoot in the 1980s in the sequential art medium came in 1987, when the National Book Critics Circle nominated a comic book by Art Spiegelman for its annual award in biography.1 Comic-book readers had long known of the work of Spiegelman, first as an artist, writer, and editor in the underground comix, and later as the coeditor of the avant-garde comics and graphics anthology Raw. But few people were prepared for the public acclaim for Spiegelman or for the media attention on the comic-book medium which accompanied the 1986 publication in book form of Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale.2Maus garnered hundreds of reviews, almost all of them favorable, some wildly so, and the book quickly drew worldwide attention as “the Holocaust comic.”

In Maus, a comic-book artist named Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who, with Art's mother, Anja, survived the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Taking his epigraph from Adolf Hitler, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human,” Spiegelman draws the characters in Maus as anthropomorphized animals; mice are Jews, cats are Nazis, pigs are Gentile Poles, and so on. Maus tells only half of Vladek Spiegelman's story; the book ends with the arrival of Vladek and his wife at Auschwitz in 1944.3 Though Spiegelman's project is as yet unfinished, the unprecedented critical reception for Maus has changed, perhaps forever, the cultural perception of what a comic book can be and what can be accomplished by creators who take seriously the sequential art medium.

If Jack Jackson's Texas histories raise controversial social and political issues, Maus leaps foursquare into “the most difficult ethical problem of the 20th century.”4 Serious literature in comic-book form is a relatively recent and slightly unsettling concept in American culture, but a comic book which takes on the Holocaust as a subject compounds the problem of artistic decorum a hundredfold. One powerful school of thought on the Holocaust denies the very possibility of any ethically responsible representation of the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. The concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel puts the case most forcefully: “There is no such thing as a literature of the Holocaust, nor can there be.”5 T. W. Adorno echoes Wiesel: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”6 In this view, to aestheticize in any way the profound evil of the Holocaust is to appropriate for one's own ends the unique experience of the victims of the gas chambers. In a society which views comic books as essentially trivial, Maus thus might appear as a grotesque degradation of the Holocaust, mocking the catastrophic sufferings of millions of human beings as the squirming of cartoon rodents.

But to acknowledge the insufficiency of art in the face of the abyss of human evil poses its own paradox. The imperative need for humanity to remember the Holocaust demands that the events in Europe before and during World War II somehow be turned into language. Are our ethical responsibilities to the victims of the Nazis and to posterity mutually exclusive? We must ask, “How does a ‘respectful silence,’ one that fully recognizes the mystery, the passion, the awesome uniqueness of the Holocaust, differ from the silence of neglect. Silence is silence—nothing more, nothing less—and it is silence that may, finally, be the unforgivable crime of those who could have spoken, but who did not, of those who could have joined the post-Holocaust debate, but were afraid.”7

The arguments of those who oppose literary representations of the Holocaust cannot be brushed aside easily. Perhaps it is the case that to assimilate the Holocaust into our usual structures of thought, to pretend to “understand” the unthinkable, is a move that accepts the attempted genocide of European Jewry as one event among many in history, one which raises the possibility that the horror might happen again. Yet the Holocaust will not simply go away; its legacy is always with us, in the death camp survivors and their families and in contemporary international politics. If silence about the Holocaust is too problematic an option to embrace, the question then becomes one of authority and authenticity. Who has the right to speak? And when does the gap between art and life become so wide that fiction becomes a blasphemous lie? These are heady questions indeed to pose to a comic book, and it is a mark of Art Spiegelman's skill and courage as an artist/writer that Maus confronts and at least partially answers them.

Spiegelman's authority to speak on the Holocaust stems from a personal psychological necessity. In Maus, a frame tale around Vladek's biography shows in a series of present-day vignettes the mouse-narrator Art's difficult relationship with his crotchety and often insensitive father.8 Though Maus was nominated for the Book Critics Circle Award in biography, it is perhaps more precisely an autobiography. In order to live his own life, Art must understand his relations with his parents. To do so, he must confront the Holocaust and the way in which it affected Vladek and Anja.

In the framing episodes, the mouse cartoonist Art visits Vladek to collect his father's memories for the book which will become Maus; he asks questions about the details of the story and tries to understand the implications of what Vladek tells him. The connection that Art and Vladek achieve in the telling and writing of the Holocaust story is continually undercut by their awkward and frustrating encounters in their everyday lives. The ostensible subject of the book, the Holocaust, is finally subordinated to the relationship between Art and Vladek as they collaborate on turning Vladek's memories into art. Maus is thus in large part about the process of its own writing.

This self-reflexivity and the psychological need to which it points are especially evident in the story “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History”, a comic book embedded in the larger narrative of Maus. “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” is a four-page depiction from Art's point of view of the nightmarish events surrounding Anja's suicide in 1968; Spiegelman published the story in an underground comic book, Short Order Comix no. 1 (1973). In Maus, the story appears when a friend of Vladek's second wife, Mala, also a death camp survivor, sends a copy of the comic to the Spiegelmans. The presence of this story in Maus is perhaps Spiegelman's boldest and most brilliant stroke; it breaks the narrative flow of the Holocaust story and explains the emotional stake Art has in understanding his parents' lives. The characters in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” are humans; the story even reproduces a photograph of Art and Anja on vacation in 1958. The disruption of the animal motif passes without comment in Maus; never are the characters aware that we see them as mice.

Throughout Maus, Spiegelman's drawings are spare and almost primitive, with a minimum of line and only sketchily rendered details in the panels. But “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” is drawn with white lines on black scratchboard in a sophisticated and highly textured style that recalls German Expressionist woodcuts. The discrepancy in the way the two narratives look emphasizes Art's role in shaping his father's story. The plain, understated visual style depicting Vladek's Holocaust narrative matches the old man's flat and unemotional tone, just as the claustrophobic compositions and grotesquely exaggerated perspectives in the comix story approximate Art's overwrought mental state at the time of his mother's death. “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” shows that Spiegelman's visual style is a narrative choice, as constitutive of meaning as the words of the story.

“Prisoner on the Hell Planet” is a surreal first-person narrative casting Art as a prisoner of the guilt and paranoia inherited from his loving but emotionally oppressive parents. Art wears the striped pajamas of a concentration camp inmate, and the story implicitly connects his psychological suffering with his parents' ordeal in the Nazi camps. At the start of the story, just after he reports the fact of his mother's suicide, Art sets the emotional scene: “I was living with my parents, as I agreed to do on my release from the state mental hospital 3 months before.”9 At the end, the last three panels pull away, leaving Art in a metaphorical prison cell of grief and guilt. He addresses his dead mother,

Congratulations! … You've committed the perfect crime. …

You put me here. … Shorted all my circuits … Cut my nerve endings … And crossed my wires!. …

… You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!

Spiegelman undercuts Art's hysterical self-dramatization by giving the last word to another inmate, who says, “Pipe down, Mac! Some of us are trying to sleep!”10 Only in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” do we discover Art's motivation for gathering his father's story. Art cannot afford a silence about the Holocaust—respectful or otherwise.

He must confront the Holocaust in order to come to terms with the qualities in his father which made his own life so oppressive and guilt-ridden: the miserliness, the domestic tyranny, the personal insensitivity. Maus offers no sentimental apotheosis between father and son; each episode shows that the two men grow closer as Vladek recounts the past, only to have the familiar tensions arise once more when the anecdotes are over. Spiegelman has said of the cathartic function of writing and drawing Maus:

In order to draw Maus, it's necessary for me to reenact every single gesture, as well as every single location present in these flashbacks. The mouse cartoonist has to do that with his mouse parents. And the result is, for the parts of my story—of my father's story—that are just on tape or on transcripts, I have an overall idea and eventually I can fish it out of my head. But the parts that are in the book are now in neat little boxes. I know what happened by having assimilated it that fully. And that's part of my reason for this project, in fact.11

By submitting his parents' experience to artistic form, Spiegelman attempts to control the legacy of the Nazi crimes in his own life. This therapeutic psychological process may well be seen as a distortion of history, and to put the Holocaust into “neat little boxes” may be a doomed effort to control the uncontrollable, as writers like Elie Wiesel suggest. Yet “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” shows the alternative. As his stay in the mental hospital indicates, Art has already been psychically damaged by the Holocaust; to fail to assimilate its consequences into his present life would be to ensure that the Nazis continue to torture Jews a generation after the fall of the Third Reich.

Like the problem of authority, the question of authenticity in fictional representations of the Holocaust appears overtly in Maus. Historical accuracy is important to Art. He consistently tries to persuade Vladek to supply the physical and emotional details which will set the scene and make clear the chronology of the complicated process by which the Nazis classified, segregated, and eventually moved to exterminate the Jews of Poland. But in historical narratives emotional truth is as important as period detail; a history must be both factually accurate and convincing as a truth-telling. While Art must draw out from his father the minutiae of the Final Solution, Vladek needs no urging to be honest about himself. Vladek is bluntly candid about the things he did to survive—the smuggling, bribery, black-marketeering, and string-pulling that helped him to keep himself and his wife alive while millions around them were dying.

In Maus Spiegelman never sentimentalizes Vladek's survival, nor does he gloss over the personal difficulties he has with his father. A more conventionally sympathetic view of Vladek would dilute the complexity of one of the most fully realized characters in American comic books. Spiegelman told an interviewer, “One of the things that was important to me in Maus was to make it all true,”12 and despite the stylization of human beings as mice and cats, Maus makes good on the central tasks facing historical narratives—it is both convincing as a recreation of a past time and gripping in the story it tells.

Art Spiegelman maintains that the stylization of Maus is the very thing that enables him to write an authentic Holocaust narrative at all. He told an interviewer:

If one draws this kind of stuff with people, it comes out wrong. And the way it comes out wrong is, first of all, I've never lived through anything like that—knock on whatever is around to knock on—and it would be counterfeit to try to pretend that the drawings are representations of something that's actually happening. I don't know what a German looked like who was in a specific small town doing a specific thing. My notions are born of a few score of photographs and a couple of movies. I'm bound to do something inauthentic.

Also I'm afraid that if I did it with people, it would be very corny. It would come out as some kind of odd plea for sympathy or “Remember the Six Million,” and that wasn't my point exactly, either. To use these ciphers, the cats and mice, is actually a way to allow you past the cipher at the people who are experiencing it. So it's really a much more direct way of dealing with the material.13

The subject matter of the Holocaust makes an enormous and immediate claim on the sympathies of an audience. In addition, the specific details of the extermination process are terrifying enough, yet perhaps more intolerable than the sight of mounds of rotting corpses is the realization that human beings are capable of creating them. As a result, in viewing representations of the Holocaust, audiences tend to slide with some relief into stock, often sentimental, responses rather than confront the threatening material anew. Spiegelman addressed the problem when he told an interviewer, “It's one of the banes of so-called Holocaust literature that when you're reading it you hear violins in the background, and a soft, mournful chorus sobbing.”14 By depicting the Jews and Nazis as animal figures Spiegelman can defamiliarize his too well known story and can sidestep the “already told” quality of the Holocaust. He escapes as well the over-determination of meaning that the use of human characters would entail. The minimal lines with which Spiegelman delineates his characters permit a wide range of expression and gesture without too closely approaching existing human facial types.

The thematic role of the primitive drawing style in Maus becomes especially evident when we compare the full-length epic to Spiegelman's first attempt to work the Holocaust material, a three-page story entitled “Maus,” first published in an underground comix title, Funny Animals [sic] no. 1, in 1972.15 “Maus” introduces some of the basic premises of the longer work—the animal metaphor, the frame device of the old Jew telling of his life to his son—as well as some of the same anecdotes, most notably the betrayal of Jews hiding in an attic.16 But “Maus” also has some false notes which show how completely Spiegelman reworked his artistic approach when he set out on the longer project. For instance the mouse-narrator is named “Mickey,” a one-shot joke whose Disney parody adds nothing to the Holocaust narrative. Later, the persecuted mice find shelter in a factory that manufactures kitty litter; again the humorous overtones of the detail work against the seriousness of the story itself.

Maus too is humorous at times, but the comedy is grimmer and more sharply focused on the historical situation, as when a scheming Jewish collaborator, a “kombinator,” sells bootleg cake in the ghetto, only to find that he has put laundry soap into the batter instead of flour.17 The animal metaphor is much more thoroughly applied in “Maus” than in Maus (the mice are small enough to hide under bags of kitty litter, for example). In the shorter version Spiegelman was able to tell the story without referring to Jews and Nazis at all (the oppressors of the mice are simply “die Katzen”), but such indirection was awkward and artificial in the full-length telling of the Holocaust story. Spiegelman's move away from stressing the animalness of his characters indicates how the genre of Maus likewise moves away from the animal fable toward a much more original application of the funny animal genre to history.

In “Maus” the faces of the characters, both mice and cats, are highly detailed and individual. Heavy shading and fully mobile mouths allow a wide range of near-human expressions, and the large, sad eyes of the mice make an especially strong pull on the reader's sympathy. The hooded, black-rimmed eyes and pointed fangs of the cats, in contrast, preclude any reader identification with them. The physical scale in “Maus” nearly approximates the natural relation of mice and cats; the Nazis tower over the much smaller Jews. The stylistic gestures of Spiegelman's first try at his father's story amount to overstatement, as the artist was the first to realize. When he set out on the full-length Maus project, Spiegelman considered a number of different drawing styles, including one using scratchboard. An example of this experiment was reprinted in an interview with Spiegelman; it is a cross between the expressionist woodcut style of “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” and the highly detailed cartoon style of the shorter “Maus.” Spiegelman rejected this sophisticated visual style in favor of a more direct and immediate one which simply polishes his initial penciled breakdown sketches.

Spiegelman spoke of his efforts to match an appropriate illustrative style to the Holocaust material and explained:

One solution I thought was interesting involved using this Eastern European children's book wood engraving style that I'd seen in some books of illustrations. But I found myself thoroughly dissatisfied with these woodcut illustrations after a day or so. My problems with the drawing are, I would hope, obvious. First of all, it banalizes the information by giving too much information and giving too much wrong information. It becomes like a political cartoon. … The cat, as seen by a mouse, is big, brutal, almost twice the size of the mouse creatures, who are all drawn as these pathetic furry little creatures. It tells you how to feel, it tells you how to think, in a way that I would rather not push.18

The subject of the Holocaust carries its own built-in value judgments and to a certain extent renders a work impervious to criticism; as Spiegelman's wife and co-editor of Raw, Françoise Mouly, said, “When he's doing a story on this subject matter, nobody's going to criticize and say, ‘Yeah, they should have killed all the Jews!’ The subject already has a certain sacred element to it, and the scratchboard drawing reinforces this.”19

Spiegelman finally opts for a style in Maus which renders the figures minimally, with just dots for eyes and short slashes for eyebrows and mouths. The effect is, as one writer has said, that the characters look “as if they were human beings with animal heads pasted on them.”20 The masklike quality of the drawings becomes part of the text itself when the mouse-Jews disguise themselves by wearing masks which bear the pig-faces that indicate Gentile Poles in Maus. Readers can see the strings holding the masks on, yet the characters themselves take no notice. Though the mouse faces are often blank, with few individual attributes, Spiegelman is able to make each Jewish character, at least, distinct and recognizable. (The faces of the Nazi cat-soldiers are usually hooded by their coal-scuttle helmets.) Differences in the characters are indicated not by facial features but by more general pictorial techniques—gestures, posture, and clothing. Spiegelman performs subtle wonders of characterization and expression using only two dots for eyes and two lines for eyebrows, and the unobtrusive quality of his drawing is one of its strengths. The rejected woodcut style contained so much information as to trap the reader's gaze within individual panels. But the more open and spare panels of Maus allow one's eye to flow smoothly from scene to scene, and we fail to sense that we are constantly being manipulated into reading at a predetermined pace.21

In the panel of the betrayal in the chandelier bunker the differences between the first “Maus” and the book version demonstrate how Spiegelman's later approach tries to eschew overt prejudgments about the characters and the episodes. In “Maus” the turncoat mouse has a hooked nose, his shaded eyes echo the malevolent expressions of the cats, and he points to the hidden mice with a beclawed finger. The faces of the mice are dominated by their large oval eyes with black pupils, and one of them sheds a tear as the Jew whom they helped turns them over to the exterminators.

In the final version, the informer's face is nearly averted so that we cannot see his expression, and his pointing finger is a much more neutral gesture. The mice are no longer squashed beneath the attic roof, as in the first version; they sit upright, dismayed but not terrified at their betrayal. The Gestapo cats, while still threatening in demeanor, are more equal in size to the mice, and their expressions are less stereotypically villainous than in the “Maus” panel. For all its simplicity of line, the Maus panel is a more sophisticated sequential art device. The Nazi's harsh command (“Juden Raus!”) physically links the two halves of the composition and leads the eye up from the Nazis in the lower room to the mice looking down from the attic; the split caption forces a reader to move back down to the bottom of the panel, emphasizing the sequence of events. Thus even though the Maus panel is much less detailed, the experience of reading it is more dynamic and controlled than in the rather static “Maus” version.


The central difference between “Maus” and Maus is that the first version is an allegory, thinly disguised at best, while the second is an animal comic book. The distinction makes all the difference. That is, though anthropomorphized animal cartoons and comics undoubtedly trace their formal origins to beast fables and folktales, the “funny animal” genre of comics has developed its own distinctive, peculiar conventions and metaphysics.22 Most readers of Maus have struggled to understand how a Holocaust comic book can be so compelling and why the unlikely genre of “talking animals” seems so paradoxically appropriate. Many reviewers have attributed the book's undeniable power to Spiegelman's representational strategy and have cited sources and antecedents for depictions of humans as animals which range from medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts to Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.23 But while Maus extends the possibilities of sequential art, it does not repudiate the heritage of its comic-book form, and to understand how the animal metaphor in Maus works requires a consideration of the traditions of “funny animal” comics.

Some of the greatest achievements in American popular culture have used animal characters. Walt Disney's world-famous characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck dominated animated cartoons for decades, but Otto Mesmer's Felix the Cat, and Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, among many others from the Warner Brothers studio, were likewise central to the development of American animation. In newspaper comic strips, George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse were only the most prominent of scores of animal comics; Walt Kelly's gently satiric Pogo began as a comic book before moving to the newspaper comics page.

Perhaps the best animal comic books of all are the works of Carl Barks, creator of that preeminent cartoon capitalist Uncle Scrooge and the writer and artist of hundreds of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories for more than twenty years. Barks's Donald Duck is a very different character from the short-fused blowhard of Disney's animated cartoons. His hot temper remains, but the comic-book Donald is a complex person whose humorous misadventures arise out of his intrepidity, his curiosity, and his emotional bonds to his nephews and to his rich uncle. The keyword here is “person.” Barks always conceived of Donald as a human being who happened to be shaped like a duck, and this curious indifference to the animal nature of the characters is a distinguishing mark of the “funny animal” tradition in popular narratives.

In traditional animal fables, human characteristics are abstracted and projected onto animals; George Orwell's Animal Farm is a sophisticated modern version of this allegorical tradition. Beast fables link into a system of well-established correspondences based on the natural attributes of species; foxes are cunning, wolves voracious, mules stubborn, cats curious, and so on. The specific qualities may vary according to the thematic function of the animal character or to fit cultural conventions about the particular animal, but the quality itself is central to the animal's narrative role. The “funny animal” genre takes these allegorical meanings as a starting point but then proceeds to ignore, qualify, or reverse them. For example, the “mouseness” of Mickey Mouse is only tangentially related to his essential character. It suggests that he is nonthreatening (Mickey could not be a wolf, for instance), but he is not timid or sneaky, nor does he live in a hole. Mickey's arch-enemy is Black Pete, a cat, but Pete often allies himself with dogs and even monkeys. In the animated cartoon Tom and Jerry, the basic premise is the archetypal antagonism of cats and mice, but the stories themselves usually revolve around the discovery by the cat and the mouse that they need each other.

In Krazy Kat, the giddy surrealism of the strip begins with the reversal of traditional animal qualities; the cat loves the mouse, the dog loves the cat, and the mouse aggressively attacks the cat. Where the beast fable uses animal characters to engage an elaborate language of conventional meanings, the “funny animal” genre often uses those meanings only to establish relations among the characters, and the “animalness” of the characters becomes vestigial or drops away entirely. (Thus Donald Duck has no wings and cannot fly without an airplane.) Mickey Mouse poses a conundrum of animal metaphor; his friend, Goofy, is a dog, but he also owns an appropriately canine pet, Pluto. In this case, the species are subordinate to their relation; Mickey is essentially a man, and Pluto is “man's best friend.”

Animal comic books have generally been aimed at young readers, and their predominant mode is humor. But Maus is not the first animal comic for adults. The underground comix gleefully plundered all the comic-book genres, and the animal comics came in for their share of appropriation and parody. The most notorious example is Air Pirates Funnies (1971), in which a number of comix artists depicted Disney animal characters such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse taking drugs and having sex.24 Many other comix artists exploited the animal comics for their own ends.25

The most thorough exploration of the conventions of animal comics comes in the work of Robert Crumb, whose Fritz the Cat became one of the only underground comix characters to cross over into the popular media when Ralph Bakshi produced an animated feature based on the character.26 Other Crumb animal characters include Those Cute Little Bearzy Wearzies, Dirty Dog, and Fuzzy the Bunny. The comix transmutation of the talking animals genre into the “not-so-funny animals”27 culminates in stories such as Crumb's “The Goose and the Gander Were Talking One Night.”28

In this story a suburban husband and wife discuss modern anxieties as they put their children to bed, share a cup of tea, take a walk, and watch the late show on television. The details of the setting are quintessentially bourgeois, with mismatched chairs around the kitchen table and homemade potholders hanging above the stove. But the characters themselves are geese; their feathery tails protrude from the backs of their jeans. They are aware that they are animals (the husband says, “I'm a pretty average guy … just your normal everyday goose. …”), but they think of themselves as human, too. The angst-ridden father says, “Why do I think we're doomed? Oh, I dunno. … It's everything, I guess. … Just the way the human race keeps going head-on with population and technology an' all that. …” The basic metaphor in “The Goose and the Gander Were Talking One Night” functions as does the mouse-metaphor in Spiegelman's work.

In Crumb's story, the father's feeling of helplessness in the face of the “collapse of this man-made system of things” makes him feel as if he were as silly and ineffectual as a goose. His gooseness becomes part of the furniture of the story, enabling us to see past the intentional banality of the setting and conversation to the real-life situation it depicts; we are aware that these are talking geese even as we ignore the fact. Here, as in many of his animal stories, Crumb super-imposes the conventions of animal comics onto a mundane and threatening modern world. In Maus, Spiegelman's extension of the animal metaphor from Crumb's kind of satiric social commentary into history, biography, and autobiography was made possible by the underground comix, which first showed that the “funny animals” could open up the way to a paradoxical narrative realism.29

There is something almost magical, or at least mysterious, about the effect of a narrative that uses animals instead of human characters.30 The animals seem to open a generic space into a precivilized innocence in which human behavior is stripped down to a few essential qualities, and irrelevancies drop away; as Spiegelman says, using animals becomes “a much more direct way of dealing with the material.”31 In Maus, the initial premise of cats and mice effectively presents the power relations between the Nazis and the Jews, and it suggests as well the predatory nature of the Nazi oppression. It makes the term “extermination” resonate powerfully, and deepens too the scenes of Jews in hiding, as in Spiegelman's chapters “Mouse Holes” and “Mouse Trap.”

The metaphor also raises some problems. Given that cats chase mice in the course of the natural order, if we thoroughly apply the animal metaphor to Maus, the Nazi Final Solution can be seen not as a moral collapse of cosmic proportions but as a logical and necessary acting out of natural roles. But the animal metaphor in Maus functions simply as a premise to be absorbed and then put out of mind; we respond to characters who are human beings, not animals. Says Spiegelman, “The metaphor is meant to be shucked like a snakeskin.”32Maus attempts always to allow its readers to make the moral judgments, and the animal metaphor does not extend so far as to grant moral absolution to one side or the other.

The tenuousness of the metaphor appears at the many times it is broken or calls attention to itself. For example, the Spiegelmans fail to remark on the human figures in “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” In one remarkable episode, as Vladek and his wife are hiding in a cellar, Anja screams that rats are crawling on her. Vladek replies, “Those aren't rats. They're very small. One ran over my hand before. They're just mice!” The story returns to the present as Vladek tells Art, “Of course, it was really rats. But I wanted to make Anja feel more easy.”33 The panel set in the past and the one in the present are linked by the figure of a large, realistically drawn rat with a malevolent expression. The incident stresses that the Jews and Nazis are mice and cats only in relation to each other; the metaphor is a way of seeing humans, not a literal characterization.

In the first section of Maus, Part II: From Mauschwitz to the Catskills, Spiegelman addresses directly the nature of the metaphor. In a wonderfully self-reflexive and comic passage, Art's wife, Françoise, finds him sketching and asks what he's doing. Art replies, “Trying to figure out how to draw you. …”

“Want me to pose?”

“I mean in my book. What kind of animal should I make you?”

“Huh? A mouse, of course!”

“But you're French!”

“Well … How about a bunny rabbit?”

“Nah. Too sweet and gentle.”


“I mean the French in general. Let's not forget the centuries of anti-Semitism. …

“I mean, how about the Dreyfus Affair? The Nazi collaborators! The—”

Okay! But if you're a mouse, I ought to be a mouse too. I converted, didn't I?”34

Throughout this scene Françoise is, of course, already drawn as a mouse. The passage emphasizes that the metaphor is a conscious device applied by the artist; we see the characters as mice and cats, but they perceive themselves as humans. Spiegelman uses the animal metaphor to evoke general associations of predation, extermination, and bestiality, not to assign a set of allegorical meanings to his text.


Jack Jackson's histories support their claim to truth by means of their realistic, quasi-photographic rendering style, their convincing, if unconventional, dialogue, and the documentary evidence that surrounds the text in the appendixes and suffuses the narrative within the panels. Art Spiegelman takes a different tack; a Holocaust narrative with mice and cats as characters cannot pretend to be a documentary. Maus relies on the personal situation of Art and Vladek to make good its truth claim; Vladek's is the authenticity of an eyewitness, while Art has a psychological need to hear and render the truth. Art's role as an interlocutor is crucial to the narrative. Since Art evinces little historical knowledge to start with, Vladek must explain, to Art and to us, the specific details of how the process of the Holocaust worked, and these details are one of the book's great strengths. As one reviewer says:

Spiegelman makes the bureaucratic sadism of the Germans uncannily vivid—all the steps and reroutings and sortings and resortings that preceded mass murder. Maus is a work of hyperrealist detail. Nobody could have anticipated that a comic book about the Holocaust could have told so much about the way this particular endgame was played out: precisely how the black market worked within the ghettos; exactly what happened, in sequence, when the Germans occupied a town; why in 1943 a Jew would have thought Hungary a haven, and how he would have tried to get his family there.35

Gopnik is right about the vividness of Spiegelman's treatment of his material, but it should be no surprise that sequential art can explain the sequence of events so clearly. The linked but separate boxes in comics have always lent themselves to process analysis, and “how-things-work” comics are an important subgenre of educational comic books.36

What Maus does do in an unprecedented way for a comic book is to combine seemingly disparate genres and narrative approaches into a single seamless story. The funny animal overlay on history is a bold move, as we have seen, yet Maus does even more; it makes Vladek's Holocaust story and Art's psychological quest into a single narrative which blends public and private history. These two strains emerge early in Maus, in one of the book's most problematic passages. Vladek describes to Art how, as a young man in Czestochowa, Poland, he dated a local girl and eventually threw her over for Anja Zylberberg, who became Art's mother. Vladek tells Art that he doesn't want the story of his bachelor amours in Art's book, saying, “It has nothing to do with Hitler, with the Holocaust!” Art protests, “But Pop—it's great material. It makes everything more real—more human. I want to tell your story, the way it really happened.” Vladek says, “But this isn't proper, so respectful. … I can tell you other stories, but such private things, I don't want you to mention.” Art finally acquiesces, “Okay, okay—I promise.”37 But of course, the story is in the book anyway.

Art and Vladek never discuss this subject later, and nothing within the text indicates that Vladek ever relented. This apparent betrayal of Vladek's trust is troubling if we simply identify the cartoonist with the author of Maus, and we have grounds for doing so. The biographical blurb on the book's jacket features a self-portrait by Art Spiegelman: the mouse-cartoonist working at his drawing board. But the animal metaphor immediately distances the narrator from the real-life author; Art Spiegelman is not a mouse. The ambiguity appears in interviews when Spiegelman speaks of “the mouse cartoonist” and his “mouse parents.”38 Any writer, even (or especially) an autobiographer, creates a fictional persona when he or she begins to write. In autobiographical comics, where the writer imagines not simply a verbal “I” but a physical figure for his own character, the relation between writer and narrator becomes even more complex. The ineluctable fictionality of any narrative, even the most thoroughly “objective” history or autobiography, allows a shifting identification between author and character; Art Spiegelman is a cartoonist and his father is a Holocaust survivor, but neither is a mouse made of ink, even though Maus asks us to believe that they are, and the book succeeds when we acquiesce. “Realism” thus becomes a conspiracy between writer and reader, not an essential relation between certain texts and the world of experience.

Spiegelman points to this inescapable discrepancy between text and world in the latest installment of Maus. As Art and Françoise drive toward the Catskills in response to a desperate call from Vladek, Art worries that his work in progress is “presumptuous,” saying, “I mean, I can't even make any sense of my relationship with my father. … How am I supposed to make any sense out of Auschwitz? … of the Holocaust?”39 In a soliloquy lasting eleven panels on two pages, Art pours out his fears and insecurities, with only an occasional comment from his wife. In the last four panels Art directly addresses the problem of imagining and representing the Holocaust.

Sigh. I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams.

And trying to do it as a comic strip!—I guess I bit off more than I can chew. Maybe I ought to forget the whole thing.

There's so much I'll never be able to understand or visualize. I mean reality is too complex for comics. …

Françoise: Just keep it honest, honey.

See what I mean. … In real life you'd never have let me talk this long without interrupting.

Hmmph. Light me a cigarette.40

When Art implicitly betrays his promise to his father, the incident fits perfectly with the characterization of the narrator throughout Maus. If Vladek takes no pains to retouch his own actions in the Holocaust story, the writer of Maus is careful to show Art's failures as well; the cartoonist is more concerned with writing his book than with protecting his father's feelings. At the very end of the published Maus, Art learns that Vladek has destroyed Anja's journal of her wartime experiences which she was saving to give to her son. Art, who has been searching for these diaries to give a balanced perspective to his parents' story, explodes in anger and frustration: “God DAMN You! You—you murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing!!” The book ends with Art walking away after a partial reconciliation with his father, muttering, “… Murderer.”41

Though the tensions between Art and Vladek are unresolved at the book's stopping point, the motivations of both characters are clear and convincing. Vladek burned Anja's papers in a fit of grief after her suicide, and Maus has made clear how painful her death was to her husband. For Art, the writing of the Holocaust book has become his closest connection to his parents; his mother's writings represent for him much more than just documentary support for his project. In a book about mass death, Art's outburst, “Murderer!” resonates back through the story. In “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” Art accuses his mother of psychologically murdering him by killing herself; now he blames Vladek for killing Anja, perhaps figuratively by destroying her words, but perhaps more literally by driving her to suicide with his miserliness and emotional tyranny.

Moral judgments in Maus become extremely dicey indeed. To call Vladek a murderer after hearing of his ordeal at the hands of the Nazis seems shockingly inappropriate, yet Art's patent need to understand his mother's life at least explains his brutal words, if it does not excuse them. At other points in the story, Art's impatience and intolerance with his aging and ailing father are balanced by Vladek's pettiness and insensitivity. For example, when Vladek tries to dragoon Art into repairing the rain gutters on Vladek's house, Art refuses because his father is too cheap to hire a handyman. The result of Spiegelman's presentation of these mixed motivations and conflicting desires is that Maus presents no exemplary characters, and the book generates no moral center from within the text to dictate how we must judge either the past story of the Holocaust or the present-day relationship between the mouse-survivor and his mouse-cartoonist son.

Thus Maus differs from most other comic-book tellings of history, with their didactic, persuasive, or sensational impulses. For example, Jack Jackson's Texas histories both educate readers about forgotten heroes from the past and confront the origins of problems which have formed our present; Harvey Kurtzman's E.C. antiwar histories use thrilling war stories to argue against the glamorization of militarism. But Maus is not an educational comic in the traditional sense of teaching facts; it exploits the familiarity of one of the central events of Western civilization to tell a very personal story. Nor does Spiegelman's approach in Maus resemble standard comic-book formulas, such as horror and adventure. The horrific reality of the Nazi extermination camps is ill suited to the often puerile conventions of adventure comics, and even the horror genre usually falls flat when dealing with the overpowering Holocaust material.42

What saves Maus from trivializing or sentimentalizing its difficult and emotional subject is its often ruthless examination of the psychologies of Vladek and of Art and the graphic simplicity of Spiegelman's style. The underground comix included autobiographical and confessional comic-book stories, and as we shall see in the next chapter, Harvey Pekar recently has transformed autobiographical comic books in his American Splendor. But Maus is sui generis in American comics because of the bold way it focuses Vladek's biography and Art's autobiography through the lens of world history. Art tells Vladek, “I want to tell your story, the way it really happened,”43 then proceeds to depict Vladek's passage through the hell of the Holocaust in a comic book with Jews and Nazis as mice and cats. In so doing he embarks on a project which ultimately proves that sequential art is a medium whose potential for truth-telling is limited only by the imagination and the honesty of the men and women who use it.


  1. The eventual winner was Donald Howard for his Chaucer: His Life, His Work, His World (New York: Dutton, 1987).

  2. Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor's Tale (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986). The chapters of Maus were first published serially in Raw.

  3. Subsequent chapters of Maus will appear biannually in Raw.

  4. Richard Gehr, review of Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman, Artforum, February 1987, p. 10.

  5. Elie Wiesel, “For Some Measure of Humility,” Sh'ma 5/100 (31 October 1975), 314. Wiesel's statement appears in Alvin Rosenfeld, “The Problematics of Holocaust Literature,” in Confronting the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 4.

  6. T. W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), 34.

  7. Jack Fischel and Sanford Pinsker, preface to Literature, the Arts, and the Holocaust, Holocaust Studies Annual, vol. 3 (Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill Publishing, 1987), x.

  8. The distance between the author Art Spiegelman and the narrator of Maus will be discussed more fully below. I will refer to the writer as “Spiegelman,” the mouse-character as “Art.”

  9. Maus. 100.

  10. Ibid., 103.

  11. Art Spiegelman, interview, “Fresh Air,” National Public Radio, December 1986.

  12. Spiegelman, interview, “Fresh Air.”

  13. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, “Jewish Mice, Bubblegum Cards, Comics Art, and Raw Possibilities,” interview by Joey Cavalieri (New York, 1980-1981), Comics Journal 65 (August 1981): 105-106.

  14. Spiegelman, interview, “Fresh Air.”

  15. Reprinted in Comix Book no. 2, ed. Denis Kitchen (New York: Magazine Management, 1974): 51-53.

  16. The “chandelier bunker” episode appears at Maus, 113-117.

  17. Ibid., 119.

  18. Spiegelman and Mouly, “Jewish Mice,” 116.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Harvey Pekar, “Maus and Other Topics,” Comics Journal 113 (December 1986): 56.

  21. Spiegelman discusses the flow of the text at Spiegelman and Mouly, “Jewish Mice,” 116-117.

  22. The term “funny animal” is particularly inappropriate in discussions of Maus, but it is the most common name for comics featuring anthropomorphized animals; “talking animals” is another. “Genre” too is a problematic term. A Mickey Mouse strip can partake of the “funny animal” genre, the western adventure genre, and the picaresque genre all at once.

  23. See, for instance, Adam Gopnik's list of examples in his review “Comics and Catastrophe,” Atlantic Monthly, 22 June 1987, pp. 29-34.

  24. Air Pirates was successfully sued by Walt Disney Productions for copyright infringement in a precedent-setting First Amendment case which established limits on the use of copyrighted characters in parodies.

  25. Other animal characters in the comix include Gilbert Shelton's superhero parody, Wonder Wart-hog, Bob Armstrong's Mickey Rat, Bobby London's lecherous Dirty Duck, and the absurd picaresque insect Coochy Cooty by Robert Williams; the struggle between man and intransigent pet cat was played out in both Jay Lynch's Nard n' Pat and Shelton's Fat Freddy's Cat. More recently, Reed Waller and Kate Worley's Omaha the Cat Dancer continues the underground heritage of animal comix for adults.

  26. Crumb took no part in the making of the movie and disavowed it after its release in 1972.

  27. The phrase is Richard Gehr's, Artforum review, 10.

  28. Best Buy Comics (San Francisco: Apex Novelties, 1979).

  29. Spiegelman himself toyed with the conventions of animal comics in strips such as “Shaggy Dog Story,” reprinted in Spiegelman and Mouly, “Jewish Mice.”

  30. For example, the works of Carl Barks which feature human beings are flat and undistinguished compared with his complex and compelling duck stories.

  31. Spiegelman and Mouly, “Jewish Mice,” 106.

  32. Art Spiegelman, in Ron Mann, director, Comic Book Confidential (1988), motion picture.

  33. Maus, 147.

  34. Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor's Tale, “Chapter 7: Mauschwitz. Being the Beginning of Maus, Part II: From Mauschwitz to the Catskills,” insert in Raw no. 8 (1986): 154. (The pagination in Maus, Part II is consecutive with that of Maus, Part I.)

  35. Gopnik, “Comics and Catastrophe,” 30.

  36. For example, the seminal comic-book creator Will Eisner spent years working on sequential art maintenance manuals for the United States armed forces. More recently, the CIA supplied anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua with assassination manuals in comic-book form.

  37. Maus, 23.

  38. Spiegelman, interview, “Fresh Air.”

  39. Maus, Part II, 157.

  40. Ibid., 158.

  41. Maus, Part II, 159.

  42. See, for example, Lee Elias and Bill Dubay's “Rebirth,” Epic Illustrated 23 (April 1984): 75, which uses graphic depictions of the death camps to set up a rather hackneyed reincarnation theme. The outstanding comic-book use of the Holocaust is Bernie Krigstein's stunning tale of paranoia, guilt, and vengeance, “Master Race,” from E.C.'s Impact no. 1 (March—April 1955), in which a former death-camp commandant, now hiding in America, confronts one of the victims of his brutality on a New York subway.

  43. Maus, 23.

Joseph Witek (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Witek, Joseph. “‘You Can Do Anything with Words and Pictures’: Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.” In Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, pp. 121-56. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Witek traces the history of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor series, asserting that Pekar's work represents a unique contribution to the comic book format—due to its focus on everyday life—and reverses the traditionally escapist tendencies of American graphic narratives.]

American Splendor refuses to fit into any of the main categories of American comic books. This self-published black-and-white magazine-sized comic book is not a superhero or adventure comic, like nearly everything published by the two main comics publishers, Marvel and DC. It doesn't parody or rework traditional comic-book formulas, like most of the black-and-white comics put out by the growing number of “independent” publishers. And despite its roots in the underground comix, American Splendor is neither a holdover from the counterculture nor an avant-garde graphics anthology, like Art Spiegelman's Raw. It is, simply, “The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar.”1

In each American Splendor, published and distributed annually since 1976 by Pekar himself, Pekar writes stories about his own daily life, depicts anecdotes and conversations he has heard and overheard, dramatizes vignettes from his civil-service job in Cleveland, and presents his often glum ruminations about his career and his life in general. Pekar works full time as a file clerk in Cleveland's Veterans Hospital, and his comic books generally sell about enough copies to break even. Harvey Pekar does not draw his own comics, and in each issue of American Splendor he collaborates with several different artists. Pekar's friend and best-known collaborator, Robert Crumb, explains Pekar's creative procedure:

Usually he writes his story ideas soon after the event, while the nuances of it are still fresh in his mind. He always has a large backlog of these stories, which he can choose from to compose each new issue of American Splendor. He writes the stories in a crudely laid-out comic page format using stick figures, with the dialogue over their heads, and some descriptive directions for the artist to work from. The next phase involves calling up various artists and haranguing [sic] them to take on particular stories.2

The cover blurbs of some individual issues of American Splendor reveal both Pekar's self-mocking irony and the comic book's relentlessly quotidian focus: “More Depressing Stories from Harvey Pekar's Hum-Drum Life”; “Stories about Sickness and Old People”; “Big Divorce Issue”; “Life as a War of Attrition.” Pekar's stories reverse the traditional escapism of American comic-books; American Splendor explores the horrors and adventures of everyday life: facing a dull job on Monday, losing glasses, being called for jury duty, breaking up with a lover.

Pekar's settings are the street corners and workplaces of lower-class Cleveland, his music the cadences of ethnic and working-class speech. Pekar told an interviewer, “I want to write literature that pushes people into their lives rather than helping them escape from them. Most comic books are vehicles for escapism, which I think is unfortunate. I think that the so-called average person often exhibits a great deal of heroism in getting through an ordinary day, and yet the reading public takes this heroism for granted. They'd rather read about Superman than themselves.”3American Splendor, like no other comic book before it, examines and celebrates the agonies and triumphs of individual life. By the standards of mainstream comic books, Harvey Pekar's stories are, as Robert Crumb says, “so staggeringly mundane as to border on the exotic!”4 The works of Jack Jackson and Art Spiegelman, though daring and original in execution, are extensions of well-established comic-book genres, but Pekar's American Splendor takes sequential art into realistic and autobiographical places where comics have almost never been before.

Harvey Pekar specializes in comic-book stories which present his own life in all its ordinariness and which examine his often prickly personality with all its annoying, frustrating, and disagreeable traits. Pekar tries to balance each issue of American Splendor, mixing short humorous pieces with long autobiographical stories and philosophical reflections, and his own moods in the stories range from angry paranoia about his personal frustrations to (relatively) cheery optimism about his life as a writer. The stories in American Splendor often attempt to present experience as precisely as possible; Pekar says of his approach to realism in comic books: “I try to be as accurate as I possibly can because I want people to identify with my work. For me, I can't go wrong if I get stuff accurate, even if people stumble, fumble around when they're talking. I'm obsessed with getting details accurate. I might employ a linear narrative style in one story and a non-linear style in another, but I'm always trying to be true to the facts.”5

The diversity of Pekar's narrative approaches is a paradoxical outgrowth of his single-minded autobiographical focus. Pekar uses both first- and third-person narration; some stories are told entirely in captions, some are nearly silent pantomimes, with little or no dialogue. A “Harvey Pekar” figure is not present in every piece in American Splendor, yet even in those stories and vignettes that are about other people, the author is present by implication as an observer or listener; when Pekar does not appear, one critic notes, “we understand that we are listening to what Pekar himself overheard.”6 Many of the stories do feature a protagonist named “Harvey Pekar,” but Pekar also adopts a number of fictionalized autobiographical personae, including “Herschel,” “Our Man,” and “Jack the Bellboy.” The Pekar character is recognizable by his distinctive characteristics; he is dark-haired with sideburns (and in the later issues a receding hairline), casual if not downright slovenly in dress, usually stoical in expression, and he works at what the persona often calls a “flunky job.” Pekar's stories often end ambiguously, with the only conclusion an offhand moral tacked on by the narrator.

The vast distance between what one Pekar-persona calls his “neo-realistic style”7 and the usual concerns and procedures of American comic books appears in stories like “Awaking to the Terror of the New Day.”8 The title points to Pekar's perennial theme of the not-so-quiet desperation of everyday life. The story opens with the protagonist, called here “our man,” on the phone with his ex-wife as he complains about his loneliness. He asks if they can see each other again, “sorta on a experimental basis.” She tells him that she is seeing someone new, and his pleading turns to bitterness and anger:

“OUR Man”:
I shoulda known better than to call. You know I still care about you but you don't give a shit for me.
That's not true. I'm concerned about you. I want you to do well. It's just that …
“OUR Man”:
Yeah, sure, I've heard it before. Well, lemme tell you somethin', you lousy bitch, with friends like you, I don't need no enemies. …
“OUR Man”:
… You lousy …
That's why I don't want to see you. You haven't changed at all. Well, I don't have to listen to you anymore (click).

Disappointed at the rebuff and disgusted with himself for both his forlorn hope and what he knows to be his foul temper, “our man” wonders what to do next. He's tired of watching television, and the Cleveland winter makes it too cold for him to hang out on the street corner. With nothing else to do, he lies down for a short nap, only to awaken at six the next morning, having slept all night in his clothes. His drab room is cold and he feels jittery, so he masturbates to calm himself down. He tries to think of a fantasy woman, which reminds him of his troubles with “chicks”: “It ain't right for asshole chicks t'have good bodies. … Hmm, I'll think about Susan. She's good lookin' an' she was real nice t'me, too.” His face relaxes as he reaches orgasm, but he feels “sad an' hollow” when he is finished. He needs to get ready for work at his “shit gig,” so he gets up, sheds his slept-in clothes, and takes a bath. The warm bath is comforting, but he is reluctant to get back out into his cold apartment. As he considers his history of poor jobs, he thinks that a nervous breakdown might be a welcome relief from his routine existence, then realizes that, “If I freaked out I'd have t' start from further back than this.”

He finally steels himself and gets out of the tub, only to find that his socks are full of holes and his clothes are falling apart. He eats a breakfast of sugared children's cereal, puts on his coat, walks out into the wintry wind, and slogs his way through the snow to the subway station. All through his morning routine, “our man” keeps up a running internal monologue as he ponders how to find a new girlfriend and get a better job. (“Awaking to the Terror of the New Day” is set before the Pekar-protagonist starts working at his government job as a hospital file clerk.) The final panel shows “our man” planning his new life strategy: “I'll check out the gover'mint gig scene an' think over where I stand with th' chicks I know. Maybe I'm overlookin' someone. T'day's Thursday, tomorra's Friday. Saturday I c'n sleep late.”

The narrator ends the story with a caption: “Man looks wherever he can for hope.” This weakly optimistic closing moral would be simply trite were it not totally undercut by the following story in American Splendor no. 3, “Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day,” where the same protagonist, called “our hero” this time, suffers through a dull and frustrating weekend which reminds him that Saturdays are no panacea for his loneliness and depression.

While American Splendor is too varied for any single story to serve as a paradigm, “Awaking to the Terror of the New Day” does display many of Pekar's typical themes and narrative strategies. Pekar's work first drew attention because of his collaboration with the famous comix artist Robert Crumb, but more often in American Splendor his stories are drawn by the Cleveland team of Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm. A critic has described their work:

When Budgett and Dumm work together, which is most of the time, Budgett does the pencil drawings and Dumm inks them. The result is a good, “solid” and essentially traditional comic book style. Pekar refers to their work as having a “strong, funky feel”. …

Working as a team, Budget and Dumm have appeared in every issue of American Splendor except #4,9 but in that issue Dumm, working alone, had a seven pager and the back cover. Clearly these two are Harvey's chief collaborators and they, even more than Crumb, give American Splendor its special character.10

The relatively crude postures and broad brushstrokes of Budgett and Dumm's artwork are peculiarly appropriate to Pekar's brand of low-brow realism. The drawing style in “Awaking to the Terror of the New Day” defines itself by what is not. It avoids the glamorizing foreshortening and hyperbolic muscularity of the superhero comics; here the figures are accurately proportioned, and the perspectives generally are from eye level. Budgett and Dumm's drawings lack too the comic exaggerations of the conventional “bigfoot” humor style. (Robert Crumb's is a good example of a “cartoony” style, although his recent experiments with a brushstroke technique in American Splendor are more realistic.)

In “Awaking to the Terror of the New Day,” the awkward posture of “our man” as he gets into bed conveys his emotional unease, just as his corpselike positioning after his masturbation reinforces the hollowness he feels. While a more sophisticated use of shading and cross-hatching might make the textures in the story more conventionally “realistic,” the blunt lines and simple surfaces of Budgett and Dumm's rendering create a drab and dilapidated visual counterpart to “our man's” depression and alienation.

Though the themes and motifs of “Awaking to the Terror of the New Day” are characteristic of American Splendor, Pekar's emphases have shifted somewhat since 1978; rarely in recent years does “our man” find himself in such desperate economic and emotional straits. In addition, the protagonist stops calling women “chicks,” and as Pekar further develops his own approach to comic books as opposed to the underground comix, he tends to avoid writing explicitly sexual incidents like the masturbation scene. But remaining constant in Pekar's work are “our man's” hot temper, his problematic relations with women, his reclusiveness, his transcendental cheapness (he's upset at the poor condition of his clothes, not because he wants to look good or keep warm, but because, “I hate t' spend money on clothes”), and his habit of eating junk food. Pekar is more than willing to make himself look unpleasant in the interest of verisimilitude; as he says, “People are always talking about me being cheap, gloomy, inconsiderate, and having a bad temper. It would be crazy for me to whitewash myself. In that case nobody would want to look at my stuff; they couldn't relate to it.”11

Pekar also continues to use the strategy of presenting a seemingly arbitrary stretch of time in his stories; “Awaking to the Terror of the New Day” ends at the subway station, not because the action has risen to a state of tension which has then been resolved, but because “our man's” immediate train of thought has ended. Like many of Pekar's stories, this one emphasizes the physical details of everyday life; no matter how abstruse the philosophical speculation becomes in American Splendor, the world of decaying plaster and kiddie cereals is not far away. For example, “our man's” bath takes up twelve panels; the scene is stretched out over three pages in which the protagonist sits in his bathtub, gets out, shivers, and looks into his sock drawer. With its subtly shifting panel breakdowns and the precise verbal flow of “our man's” complaints and ruminations, the scene reads smoothly and plausibly.

The artwork makes subtle and effective verbal/visual connections: “our man” thinks about his “crib that's falling apart” as his blank gaze leads to a hole in the plaster wall; the perspective wittily shifts to include the toilet behind his head as he thinks, “… an' no relief in sight.” But to comic-book readers who are accustomed only to brightly colored breakneck fight scenes between cosmos-spanning power figures with the fate of the universe at stake, “our man's” morose toilette in lower-class Cleveland, Ohio, must seem very small beer indeed. Perhaps Harvey Pekar's most startling innovation in the comic-book form is not that he bases his stories on real life but that, in the search for an accurate and believable rendering of experience, he is willing to write stories that can be as drab, depressing, and tedious as life itself. Pekar's aesthetic of aggressively humdrum realism struggles against the tide of decades of comic-book fantasy and escapism.

Still, autobiographical and confessional stories have been written in comic books before American Splendor, almost solely in the underground comix.12 The stylistic expansion of the underground comix artists, especially of the former Clevelander Robert Crumb, helped to inspire Pekar to work in the comic-book form. Pekar says, “All these guys who were doing this stuff, the underground cartoonists, were involved in the hippie subculture. And I thought, why can't you do stuff about everyday life, the life that I'm leading. And I said, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ Comics should not be considered a limited medium.”13 Pekar's emphasis on realistically drawn figures and open-ended slice-of-life vignettes makes American Splendor's tone quite different from the hyperbolic self-dramatization of most personal stories in the undergrounds.

For instance, perhaps the best example of autobiography in the comix is Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, Justin Green's confessional memoir of the neuroses caused by a traumatizing Roman Catholic education.14 Green opens the book with “A Confession to My Readers,” showing the artist chained naked and upside down, drawing the comic with a pen held in his teeth and an ink bottle labeled “Dad's blood” by his side while a record player plays a warped version of “Ave Maria” in the background. Binky Brown hilariously tells how Green's autobiographical persona, the adolescent Binky Brown, struggles to reconcile his awakening sexuality with the strictures of the Catholic Church.

Unable to repress his taboo “impure thoughts,” Binky falls prey to bizarre obsessions and paranoid hallucinations in which his bodily members give off phallic rays that threaten to defile churches for miles around him. Guilt and sin have rarely been evoked in any medium with such wild self-laceration and absurd humor, and Binky Brown is one of the classics of the comic-book form. But though Green shares with Harvey Pekar an impulse toward psychological self-examination and brutally honest soul baring, Green's comically extravagant surrealism has more in common with the rest of the unfettered undergrounds than with Pekar's sometimes dour, often ironic rendering of immediate experience.

Precisely how Pekar's approach to American Splendor differs from the underground comix can be explained by considering the autobiographical stories of the ubiquitous Robert Crumb. Crumb and Pekar first met in Cleveland in 1962, before Crumb's comic-book work had been published, and Crumb was instrumental in getting Pekar's first comic-book stories published in the undergrounds in 1972.15 Many of Crumb's stories at least profess to be about his own life, and the bespectacled and mustached artist is a familiar figure to readers of Robert Crumb's own underground comics. Crumb often directly addresses the reader, as in his parodic defense of his controversial depictions of women, “And Now, A Word to You Feminist Women”;16 the artist-figure is the protagonist of a number of other stories, such as “The Adventures of R. Crumb Himself,”17 “My Troubles with Women,”18 “The Confessions of R. Crumb,” and “The R. Crumb $uck$e$$ Story.”19

Pekar too sometimes writes stories in which an autobiographical persona addresses the reader, but when Crumb cannot resist transforming his personal stories into self-parodies and shameless fantasies, Pekar's commitment to straightforward candor and direct rendering of experience keeps his stories serious in tone and realistic in style. An example of what Pekar does not do is his collaborator's ironic “The Confessions of R. Crumb.” The story opens with the artist at his drawing board, cheerily looking out at us as he explains his artistic and commercial success. His wastebasket is stuffed with lucrative offers from publishers and agents; an arrow points to it with the label, “Notice: R. Crumb does not sell out!”

As Crumb praises freedom of expression in America, an American flag appears behind him, and he lapses into jingoistic patriotic slogans as a pair of Mickey Mouse ears sprout from his head and he sings a verse from “This Land is Your Land.” Soon, a vaudeville emcee who looks like Groucho Marx kicks him through a set of doors marked “Hi! Welcome to Crumbland,” and the artist realizes that “the wonderful world of R. Crumb turns out to be nothing but an endless black void!!” The blackness becomes his mother's womb, and he emerges a bloody infant complete with glasses and a mustache. The story ends as a juvenile Crumb, wearing a schoolboy uniform and carrying a Roy Rogers briefcase, vows to get his revenge: “Someday when I'm a big man, they'll be sorry!!”20

In Harvey Pekar's “American Splendor Assaults the Media,” drawn by Robert Crumb, Pekar too addresses the reader to rant about his lack of commercial success and to wallow (like Crumb, always with a sharp sense of self-irony) in self-pity.21 But Crumb, naturally enough for such a gifted draftsman, habitually conceives of his life and problems in terms of images (the “Crumbland” theme park; the return to the womb; big-legged, large-buttocked women as sex objects); Pekar explains his difficulties in front of a plain dark background as he is surrounded by masses of words that confine and oppress him. The visual dimension of the story is still crucial; the images and the jagged page layout support and ratify Harvey's poverty and anger, and the panels focus attention on the figure of Harvey himself. A maniacal-looking Harvey is disgusted to find that the Village Voice has hired what he believes to be an inferior cartoonist, even though the editors claimed to be interested in his work; Harvey sits in a warehouse amid boxes of unsold issues of American Splendor, pounding his fist in frustration; Harvey glares out at the reader with beetled brow, wearing a ripped T-shirt.

Harvey's diatribe against the calumny of editors and the cheapness of promises ends, not with a sex fantasy, as does Crumb's story, but with an explanation of why he writes American Splendor:

I was gonna write this jive woman a nasty letter, but a guy at work talked me out of it …

Friend: Wadda you wanna do that for? They'll just laugh at you. … They'll think you're a crank. … They don't care about you. …

So I sublimated by writing this. … That's about what I can do when things bother me—write stories about them. …

Where comix artists such as Justin Green and Robert Crumb turn their personal difficulties and psychological struggles into surrealistic high farce, Harvey Pekar at first considers venting his rage. Then he turns his anger into language.

Like his friend Crumb, Harvey Pekar is bothered by many things, and he is something of a crank. His stories show him to be frugal to the point of miserliness (and in the past, to the point of petty larceny), easily irritated at everything from old Jewish ladies in supermarkets to the American legal system, sloppily dressed, manic, inconsiderate, and crabby. He is also an extraordinarily keen observer with an eye for the everyday surrealism of human behavior. Pekar collects jazz records and writes articles and reviews for some of the leading American jazz magazines, and he brings a musician's ear to the rhythms of daily speech and the nuances of ethnic dialects; many of the short pieces in American Splendor are simply celebrations of the way people talk.

Where Jack Jackson inserts contemporary diction into historical stories to counteract their distancing “pastness,” Pekar uses the precision of his ear to convince us that his stories happened exactly as he tells them. Pekar is also a voracious reader. Though his formal schooling lasted only a year beyond high school, Pekar has educated himself about literature, history, and economics by an intensive regime of self-imposed study. He has written for various publications on popular culture, African history, and socialism, and has published discussions of writers such as George Ade, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris.

Pekar's critical concentration on the masters of American realism indicates the wellsprings of his home-grown aesthetic. Though Pekar is familiar with the history and traditions of comics, his approach in American Splendor is closer to the realists of prose literature than to anything that has appeared in comic books before. Pekar sometimes pays direct homage to his literary influences. In “Grubstreet, U.S.A.,” Pekar draws a parallel between his own efforts to find an audience for American Splendor and the struggles of the novelist George Gissing in Victorian England: “God, these guys can't make any money unless they write commercial crap. They live hand-to-mouth, they're looked down on by middle class an' upper class people. …”22 Pekar realizes he could be describing himself but then undercuts his own self-dramatization when he thinks of the security he has from his civil-service day job: “I don't wanna exaggerate, though. I had the advantage over those funky Victorian writers in one big way, so y'don't have to feel as sorry for me as I do for myself. (However, I'd appreciate as much pity as you can give me.)”23 The one-page story “Katherine Mansfield” is Pekar's internal monologue about Mansfield, mortality, and his own place in literature. The story, drawn by Gary Dumm, shows Harvey sitting in a chair reading Mansfield's Bliss. He thinks:

Some of her stories are almost flawless. She had so much going for her—sensitivity, a fine appreciation of irony, excellent technique, a strong intellect, broad vein of lyricism. … dead at thirty-four.

What kinda woman was she? Would it've been a letdown t'meet her? She'd have t'be something else in person to measure up to her writing.

All these writers that say so much to me: her, George Eliot, Balzac, all dead. I got an advantage—I'm alive. It's my time now; I'm the one doing the living. … But not forever. I got about thirty years if I get my quota. Everything over that is gravy. I know it; I'm not cocky just because I'm still breathing.

Here were these people, thinking so profoundly, feeling passionately, seeing so much. Their books are my great companions, but reading them is like looking through a one way window.

The story ends with Harvey looking through a doorway, his back to the reader, thinking, “Will anyone at all read my stuff after I'm dead? Will they wonder what kind of guy I was?”24 The strip has almost no action; Harvey sits and reads, gets up, and thinks. The structure of Harvey's thoughts indicates Pekar's typical concerns. He moves from a literary analysis of Mansfield's writing to the facts of her life, and thence to his own life and work.

His self-absorption might seem at first to be simply banal or narcissistic, and some of his stories do flirt with sentimental self-indulgence. But Pekar's commitment to the standards of realism finally justify, to him and to most of his readers, his self-centered focus. When asked why he writes autobiographically, Pekar says, “Well, I may have a bigger ego than most people—that's for others to decide—but the main reason I write autobiographically is because I find it hard to understand why I myself do things, let alone why others do them. I want my writing to be as accurate and plausible as possible.”25

For Pekar, accuracy and plausibility in his comic books is entirely consistent with the tenets of literary realism. He deals with immediate experience, physical details, specific actions, and the ethical consequences of everyday life. In his stories he emphasizes character, both his own and that of the people he meets, and, like realists such as Stephen Crane and Sinclair Lewis, he writes stories populated almost entirely by the lower and middle classes. His writing style usually eschews the neat packaging of traditional plot; his stories often seem to be all middle and no ending. This is hardly startling stuff for prose fiction, but in the traditionally escapist and formulaic medium of sequential art, to imitate Balzac and George Eliot is an avant-garde move.

Though many of Pekar's short pieces look very much like gag comic strips, they usually end on a reflective or ambiguous note. Readers accustomed to the iron-bound Aristotelean structure of the standard three-panel newspaper strip often simply miss the point of Pekar's stories. Says Pekar, “I try to avoid pat endings; plot means nothing to me.”26 Pekar's approach to incident is essentially atmospheric, meant to evoke the chance encounters and dimly apprehended meanings of daily life. For example, the one-page “A Case Quarter”27 shows Harvey holding change in his palm as he approaches a postage stamp vending machine at the hospital where he works. A workman already at the machine asks, “Hey, Harvey, you gotta case quarter for two dimes anna nickel? This machine only takes two quarters an' I awreddy got one in but I need another one.” Harvey tells him, “Well, actually I was gonna use these f'r stamps myself.” Harvey checks his pockets, finds more change, and gives the man a quarter. The final panel is split diagonally into two parts, with each man heading in an opposite direction, both looking satisfied as they hold their stamps. The narrative caption reads, “Less than thirty seconds later … stamps for the world.”

This story is indeed an imitation of a completed action, and the three tiers constitute a beginning, middle, and end, but Aristotle might well question the magnitude of the incident, and “A Case Quarter” has no climactic punch line that would be recognized on the newspaper comics page. The emphasis here is on the speech of the characters, especially the distinctive phrase “case quarter,” as the title indicates. The slang adjective “case” denotes a thing which completes a series (as in “case ace,” the last ace in a deck of cards being dealt). As the parodic universalizing of the narrative voice suggests, the theme of this vignette is the way people help to complete each other's lives in small and almost unnoticed ways.

Pekar has published dozens of such one-page stories, and in them he is usually more concerned with accurately rendering daily speech than with making formal jokes. When the stories in American Splendor do have punch lines, it is usually when the people around Pekar fall habitually or unconsciously into comic modes of presenting themselves, as in “The Last Supper”, drawn by Robert Crumb.28 The master comedian Crumb often draws the traditionally humorous stories by Pekar as opposed to the more autobiographical or reflective parts of American Splendor. In “The Last Supper,” a slouching office worker named Rudy is late to work. Rudy explains that his father died in the middle of last night's supper and that his mother is mad at him. A woman asks why, and Rudy replies dead-pan, “UH … I asked if I could finish his pudding. …” Though the ironic title and the blackly humorous punch line make this a gag strip, the story combines vaudeville slapstick with a visual character study of an office oddball. The story emphasizes the workaday atmosphere that Crumb's cartoony drawing style so lovingly evokes: the lounging office worker, the cluttered file cabinets with comic strips taped on the side, the varied expressions of Rudy's listeners.

While many of Pekar's stories and vignettes are funny and interesting in their own right, the repetition of characters and scenes and the accretion of a variety of incidents make reading American Splendor a cumulative experience, unlike the self-contained gag strips in the newspapers. In a comic book that is thoroughly rooted in the life of a single person, the relativity of individual identity becomes a major thematic subtext.

In traditional prose autobiography, the author creates an “I” over which he or she at least ostensibly has total control, and this identity usually remains stable in the text. But since Pekar does not draw his own stories, the visual component of his character is continually being interpreted by his artist-collaborators, and these versions of Harvey overlay the fictional personae he adopts for himself. Pekar says: “I think that ultimately it's been an advantage to work with a whole variety of artists. I'm like a casting director. While I may not have the control I'd have if I was drawing the stuff myself, I've got guys that together can cover pretty much the whole gamut, where an individual couldn't. I can get guys that collectively can do things that no one person could do, with all the styles I have to draw from.”29 Despite the singleness of his autobiographical vision and the willed smallness of his arena of action, Harvey Pekar is many people, and in American Splendor the sequential art medium embodies in its material form the collaboration of other people in the construction of individual identity.

The variety of “Harvey Pekars” appears overtly in “A Marriage Album”.30 Pekar cites this narratively complex reminiscence as an attempt to translate the prose stream-of-consciousness technique into comic-book form.31 In “A Marriage Album,” the author-figure is called both “Herschel” (Harvey Pekar's Yiddish name) and “Harvey”; his wife is simply called “Joyce.” Herschel/Harvey sees his wife off to an appointment, works at writing for a while, then lapses into a reverie about his new marriage. Joyce, meanwhile, tells her part of the story to her friends, and the two halves of the narrative combine in counterpoint to one another.

Harvey and Joyce recall how they met through corresponding about American Splendor and, despite personal obstacles (such as Harvey's two previous marriages and his thorny idiosyncrasies), eventually got married. As Joyce flies to Cleveland to meet Harvey in person for the first time, she reflects on what she knows of his appearance. Her thought balloon is filled with eight different versions of Harvey's face, each drawn in the style of the one of the artists who works on American Splendor: an angry, sweating Harvey as seen by Robert Crumb, a profile of Harvey in Sue Cavey's elegantly stippled style, a reflective Harvey in Gerry Shamray's impressionist mode. When Joyce meets Harvey, his multiple identities resolve for her into a single real person, but for readers of the story this Harvey is simply another representation in Val Mayerik's fluid line. The stylistic diversity of Pekar's many artist-collaborators, the various fictionalizing personae Pekar adopts, and the wide range of his narrative approaches (slice-of-life vignette, reminiscence, ethnic anecdote, character study of friends and acquaintances, confessional story, philosophical rumination, and others) all serve to keep his comics from being monotonous in tone, despite their steadfast focus on the author himself.

As Pekar has refined what he does best, his own presence in the stories becomes more overt and self-consciously central. For example, Pekar has published one story twice, and the differences between the two versions indicate how his approach has subtly altered. The first version, “Overheard in the Cleveland Public Library: March 21, 1977” 32 is a typical example of Pekar's strips that focus on odd characters and emphasize the offhand weirdness of everyday speech. A raggedly dressed middle-aged man asks a kindly old librarian to evaluate his poetry, so she recommends that he take it to the Cleveland Area Arts Council. The man complains that no one likes his poetry and that he doesn't understand the poems in intellectual magazines such as Harper's and the Atlantic. Taken aback, the librarian replies, “Sir, there's nothing wrong with writing poetry that rhymes.” As the title and the documentary subtitle suggest, this strip strives for a transparently immediate rendering of real speech. The silent author/observer appears only in the right foreground of the first and last panel, and he stands just a little closer to the action than does the reading audience. Gary Dumm's simple, almost crude artwork suggests that no artifice stands between the event and its depiction in Pekar's story.

The second version, “Library Story: Take Two”,33 reverses the focus of the first strip from the would-be poet and the librarian to the figure of the writer himself. Michael T. Gilbert's visual technique is much more sophisticated than Dumm's, both in line and shading and in page and panel layouts. Where the first strip pretended to be a chunk of reality taken directly from the world and rendered without artifice, “Take Two” is placed firmly in the ongoing context of Pekar's life and art. The caption tells us that the scene is linked to the previous story, “The Kissinger Letter:” “Here's our man trying to look up what year he saw Henry Kissinger on a T.V. show called Town Meeting of the World. He stops for a minute to dig a conversation between an old librarian and a shabbily dressed guy who's bugging her about something he wrote.” The Pekar-figure, “our man,” takes up the foreground of the panel, and the librarian and the man are well in the background. The librarian's words extend all the way across the top of the panel, and the configuration of the balloon physically depicts the words going into the eavesdropper's ears.

The first version is a series of speeches and reactions between the two central characters, and the page layout makes the librarian's double take the physical center of the page. In “Take Two” the exchange between the two is confined to the first two tiers of the page, and the woman's silent reaction shot has been drastically reduced in size and in compositional importance. In its place is a similar shot of “our man” pondering the incident he has just witnessed. Pekar often uses these silent panels to time the rhythms of his stories; he says, “I like to use silent panels for punctuation almost as if I'm an oral storyteller.”34

In the second telling of the library story, the repetition of the phrase, “There's nothing wrong with writing poetry that rhymes,” ensures that the idiosyncrasy of speech is still stressed. But the focus shifts away from the speakers to the writer, who moralizes on the event, “That was nice. When the old lady saw he was serious about his writing, she gave him some encouragement,” then wonders about its suitability for one of his stories, “But it sounds like the punchline from a corny old joke.” The move of the writer to center stage in this story is not one of simple self-aggrandizement; instead, it indicates how Pekar becomes increasingly comfortable with his role as mediator between experience and its representation.

The centrality of Pekar's guiding consciousness becomes the humorous subject of “A Harvey Pekar Story.”35 In this story, Harvey's friend Jon Goldman stops him on the street and tells him, “I had a Harvey Pekar story happen to me.” Over coffee, Jon tells Harvey about his odd encounter with an old man at an office furniture clearance sale, and the story switches to Jon's point of view. Jon goes into the sale and finds the place deserted; the man running the sale comes out, and they discuss the sale of a filing cabinet. The old man forcefully urges Jon to take some women's underwear for free and tells him that he is liquidating his wife's garment business and that he himself is a surgeon. Jon asks his name, and when the old man replies, “Lapidus,” Jon asks him if he is the Morris Lapidus of whom Jon has heard. The old man glares in return, then begins to rant about Morris Lapidus.

Oh no, not me, not that one. I'm Irving Lapidus, not that one. He's a crook, a goniff. People used to confuse me with him.

He's a thief and they blamed me. You know, one time …

As he continues to rave, Jon excuses himself from the doctor's diatribe, saying he has to get to work. Lapidus tells him, “I'm sorry I took up so much of your time. It's when I think of that Morris. … Boy he burns me up.”

The narrative cuts back to Jon and Harvey sitting in the coffee shop, as Jon asks eagerly, “So wasn't that a Harvey Pekar story?” The story ends with Harvey's reply, “Damn near, Jon, damn near.” Jon Goldman is right. This mildly bizarre unearthing of the hidden misery in another person's life is American Splendor's meat and potatoes. The story begins with Jon's chance decision to go into the sale and ends inconclusively, evanescing rather than reaching a climax, like so many of Harvey's stories. But Harvey is right, too. What makes this anecdote “a Harvey Pekar story” is not its oddness but the fact that Jon feels compelled to tell it to Harvey Pekar—and he to us.

As Pekar continues to publish American Splendor, the production of the comic book takes up more and more of his life. The publication by Doubleday of the two volumes of collected stories from American Splendor brought Pekar national publicity, including several appearances on David Letterman's late-night television talk show. As a result, the stories in American Splendor become increasingly self-reflexive at the same time they remain autobiographical. Harvey visits a San Diego comics store for an autograph session in “Jack Dickens' Comic Kingdom”;36 Harvey picks up a new edition of American Splendor in “At the Bindery,”37 and an old doctor at Harvey's job tries to think of jokes that Harvey can put into his book.38American Splendor Assaults the Media” overtly discusses Pekar's struggles as a writer, of course, and other stories pick up the theme.

In “Hysteria,”39 Harvey calls the editor of a local Cleveland magazine and harasses her about a review of his book that she has promised. Harvey works himself into a frenzy of paranoia and indignation, then realizes that his shouting into the telephone threatens to overstrain his voice. “Hysteria” ends with a sheepish Pekar waking up and testing his voice, “How d'you sound t'day Harvey, how do you sound t'day?” (the letters are drawn incompletely to signify the weakness of his voice). Longtime readers of American Splendor remember that Pekar once lost his voice for several months in 1977, and his inability to communicate severely strained his then recent second marriage.40 Harvey's anxiety about his voice forces him to rein in his volatile temper, and only if we have read “An Everyday Horror Story” do we fully understand the emotional issues of “Hysteria.”

Interlocking stories are only one way American Splendor becomes self-referential. An unusual opportunity to gauge a Harvey Pekar story against the event it represents occurs in “Late Night with David Letterman.”41 Pekar first appeared on Letterman's talk show on October 15, 1986, and was invited back for repeat appearances in 1987 and 1988.42 In his first appearance on television Pekar came across as nervous, defensive, and contentious; he squirmed in his seat, told the studio audience to “shut up,” and attacked Letterman for the paucity of the backstage food. Letterman and his audience seemed to enjoy Pekar's manic abrasiveness, but the more serious discussion of Harvey's comic-book writing was unclear and fragmented.

In American Splendor, Pekar's story about the television show frames a depiction of the show itself with an explanation of Harvey's attitude toward the appearance. The story opens as Joyce tells Harvey that he has been booked onto the Letterman show. While putting away groceries, Harvey ponders how he will handle himself on television; he absentmindedly puts the detergent into the refrigerator. A few days later, as Harvey walks around thinking of the upcoming show, he considers his strategy for dealing with the condescendingly ironic Letterman:

No sense in tryin' to talk about anything substantive—all the guy wants t'do is banter an' get laughs … light weight shit.

People talk about what a great put down artist he is. Shit … He's just in there with dummies, 'at's why he looks good. I musta rapped with dozens a'faster guys in delicatessens.

Gotta get in his face, take his game away from 'im. Smother 'im from the start.

He's middle class, polite, he Jon't talk fast. I'll overwhelm 'im—even if'e gets off a good one I'll hit 'im quick with two or three shots—won't give the audience a chance to react to 'im.

Street fighting tactics oughta keep 'im off guard, he ain't useta guys like me. … gotta keep cool enough not to freeze an' forget what I'm sayin' or screw up my timin'.

Looks good on paper. I gotta lotta experience, but not on TV. It worked onna street corner, but will it work on TV?

In New York, just before the show, Harvey scrounges around producer Bob Morton's office for free books and food; he tells Morton that since he's only being paid one hundred dollars, “I need t'get as much free stuff as possible t'make this trip a success.” Morton tells him, “Look, Harv, act like you're acting now on the show. Be aggressive.” Harvey replies, “Don't worry about a thing man; aggressive is my middle name.” Harvey thinks, “Good, he digs my shticks.” The frame story here makes clear what no television viewer can know; Harvey's seemingly spontaneous behavior on the Letterman show is a “shtick,” planned in advance and approved by the producers.43

A comparison of the show and the comic-book story shows that sequential art can approximate some of the effects of television quite well. The rectangular borders of the panels work to frame the action as does the television screen, and both media rely on “camera shots” for their individual perspectives. Gerry Shamray's art sometimes follows the producer's camera angles, and Shamray uses a mixture of panels and borderless pictures to capture the seamlessness of video cuts. He likewise often uses lines leading to dialogue drawn directly on the image, rather than standard dialogue balloons; much of the dialogue in the story comes from the show nearly verbatim. But in overall tone the story is quite different from the show itself. Pekar writes the story as a personal victory, “this sour faced, sloppily dressed file clerk turning the tables on Mr. Condescending Wise Guy.”44 But for those watching the show, Pekar's hyperactive baiting of Letterman seems to be less a clever strategy and more the nervousness of an abrasive person on television for the first time.

The rhythm of Pekar's narrative does capture the flow of the show itself, with one major exception. After Pekar and Letterman have a long and argumentative discussion about why Harvey can't make a living as a writer, they move on to American Splendor itself. In the comic story, Harvey explains how writing comics is like writing for dramatic media: “… Writing comics is similar to writing for the theatre or movies because what it involves is writing dialogue and directions to the actors and directors on the one hand or the illustrators on the other.” Letterman responds, “Sure sure,” and the two get into brief squabble. Harvey mimics Letterman:

Relax, relax.
Don' worry about it.
You don't worry about it!
I don't worry about it. I got a job.

The story shows Harvey articulating his ideas about comics clearly, only to be cut off by Letterman's brusque, “Sure.” Perhaps Pekar's smooth discourse on comic writing and drama is what he meant to say.45 But a viewer of the actual show sees that, perhaps because the transition from the earlier banter to the serious question is so abrupt, at this point Harvey begins to freeze and lose track of what he is saying, just as he had feared. He stutters, his speech is filled with “uhs,” and “mans,” and very nearly every other word becomes “y'know.” Letterman's interjection of “sure” and “relax” seem meant to help Harvey over his rough spot, and Harvey apparently seizes on Letterman's words to bail himself out of his nervousness.46 Though this incident in the comic book fails to communicate the nuances of what happened on the show, Pekar does not try to make himself look good in his story. In fact, the panel which shows Harvey telling the booing audience, “Hey, shut up,” pictures him looking much more maniacal and angry than on the show, where he is clearly joking.

Of course, in a comparison of the story and the show, the television show cannot serve as a base “reality” by which to judge the verisimilitude of Pekar's story. Both sequential art and video are representational media, and neither medium shows the whole story; the television show misses by necessity Harvey's thoughts and his encounter with the producer, and the comic cannot communicate Pekar's bristling energy, or the way the two men interrupt each other's words, or Harvey's light but raspy voice. Pekar's articles in the Village Voice and the Cleveland Plain Dealer add further nuances to the story which neither the comic book nor a tape of the show can reveal. The show finally is not an objective grounding event outside of any telling of it but rather a nexus around which the various narratives revolve. There can be no outside “reality check” for Pekar's stories; they either convince as does an anecdote told by a friend or fail to convince at all.

Pekar's appearances on national television highlight the two halves of his public persona: the feisty file clerk and the autodidact “working-class intellectual” writer. Pekar considers the relations between these elements of his identity in “Hypothetical Quandary.”47 An unnamed Pekar-figure drives to the bakery on Sunday morning; as he goes, he thinks about a call from a representative of a “big publisher” who never got back to him. The call leads him to speculate on what his life would be like if he were to become successful as a writer. He thinks of the leisure and freedom from routine a writer's life would give him, then he considers the consequences:

But then I'd sort of be out of the struggle, sort of in an ivory tower watching the mainstream of life go by rather than participating in it. …

I'd be alienated but I wouldn't think I had the right to feel bad about it. I mean, I'd be a well-paid, famous author. What right would I have to complain about anything?

Maybe my writing would suffer. I've got a pretty unique viewpoint. … I'm a writer but in a lotta ways I've got a working man's outlook on life. I'd have to as long as I've worked at regular day jobs.

As he goes into the bakery, buys some loaves of bread, and walks back to his car, he worries that success might make his life and attitudes more bland and boring. Then he thinks, “But then, knowin' myself, I could always find something to get shook up over and write about. Let's face it, I'm not gonna become a mellow man over night, no matter what happens!” He decides that, since the woman from the publisher didn't call him back, the question of his corruption by success is moot. The story ends as he leans over the bag from the bakery, sniffs deeply, and thinks, “Ah, fresh bread!” His sensual enjoyment of present experience contrasts with his fretful speculations about his career; the “real life” he values so deeply finally stands as his bulwark against cooptation by the high culture to which he aspires as a writer and which he also fears as a threat to his autonomy. His status as a working man gives his writings the authenticity of an eyewitness, just as his role as a writer allows him to separate himself from those who are doomed to a lifetime of workaday drudgery.

“Hypothetical Quandary” raises the question that lies behind American Splendor as a cultural product. Why should anyone be interested in the daily life of a hospital file clerk in Cleveland? Pekar must tread the thin line in documentary realism between an accurate, compelling rendering of experience and the too precise recreation of boredom. He casts himself as an American lower-class Everyman, while his idiosyncratic personality and quirky perspective on life raise his stories and vignettes beyond the banality of a camera eye; he is at once both universal and unique.

American Splendor is finally not precisely an autobiographical project but more of a “Life and Times.” Pekar's works look two ways: the stories featuring the Pekar figure are introspective and revelatory like confessions and autobiographies, and the short tales and vignettes look outside the self of Harvey Pekar to examine, celebrate, and decry the customs and mores of contemporary American society. But these are not two separate categories; the pieces without Pekar finally show as much about the observer as the observed, while Pekar's stories of his personal triumphs and tragedies form an extended critique of a cultural situation which is finally hostile to the assertion of individuality.

The tension between the public demands of society and the private impulses of individuals is the subject of several stories in American Splendor's twelve-year run, but “society” is rarely the organized apparatus of the state as much as it is the attitudes and actions of other individuals. One place where Pekar does butt heads with social institutions is in “Jury Duty,”48 where Harvey refuses to participate in what he perceives to be an unjust legal system, to the chagrin of the prosecutor, the amusement of the defense attorney, and the bafflement of the judge.

A more typical example of the way public concerns become private ones is “May 4-5, 1970,” drawn by Brian Bram,49 which deals with the personal consequences of the National Guard shootings at Kent State University. The splash panel sets the scene in two phases of historical time. The panel consists of newspaper clippings laid on top of one another; their headlines show how history moves from the other side of the globe to become a local concern though still a public one: “Sihanouk Ousted”; “Nixon Orders Troops into Cambodia”; “Nat'l Guard Fires on Students at Kent State.” Paper-clipped to the clippings are notes bearing the dates of their publication, showing that we see these events in retrospect. The scalloped lines around the title dates foreshadow the tensions which arise in the story, and the dates themselves suggest that the story will be about the consequences of the action at Kent State, since the killings happened on May 4, the newspaper tells us, and the story covers May 4-5.

In the story the Pekar figure, here called Carl Alesci, chats with a middle-aged plasterer named Mr. Lucarelli at the hospital where they both work. When the talk turns to the recent troubles at nearby Kent State, the two men find that they disagree about the students' right to protest. Carl maintains that the students are peaceful, while Lucarelli becomes indignant, and says, “They keep on raisin' hell, the police need to shoot a couple of 'em!” Carl breaks off the conversation. The next day, after the shootings by the National Guard, Carl is asked to wear a black armband with a peace symbol on it to protest the killings; after some hesitation, he accepts. Lucarelli spots Carl with the armband and confronts him about it, and the two men argue sharply.

Later that day, Carl, appalled at the older man's insensitivity and at his hypocrisy of touting law and order while remaining friends with a local mobster, snubs Lucarelli in the cafeteria and in the hallway. After work in the parking lot, Lucarelli tries to make up with Carl, who fiercely demands that the older man admit that he has the right to his own opinion. The story ends with Lucarelli gazing sadly as the still angry Carl stomps away; the last panel is an iconographic image of the “generation gap.”

Here history is a chain of events that leads inexorably from Cambodia to a hospital parking lot half a world away, and the split between public history and private autobiography becomes an illusory one. The headlines at the story's beginning link up with the protests at the local college, pass to Carl through his brother-in-law, “He lives in Kent, y'know,” and through the newspapers, to spark this conflict between friends; the history of the newspaper headlines is acted out in miniature between the two men. Attitudes like Lucarelli's, the story implies, bring about the killings at Kent State; reactions like Carl's are what end the war in Vietnam. There are no heroes or villains in this story, just people acting in their daily lives.

Carl is not passionately antiwar; he is initially puzzled about how to react to the student protests, and he hesitates before accepting the armband because, “I might get some people here mad at me.” His confrontation with Lucarelli is a result not of his political convictions but of his personal, almost instinctive revulsion to the shooting of the students. While the story has little sympathy with Lucarelli's political views, they are explained at least partly by his immigrant's loyalty to his new country; he says fiercely, “Ay, I don't consider myself Italian—I'm an American!!!” Carl's rejection of his friendly overtures at the end is morally ambiguous; the story shows Carl to be right in his views but self-righteous and hurtful in his actions.

Pekar himself emphasizes the negative aspects of the persona's behavior. He compared this story to another one in which he treats lower-class political attitudes, and he told an interviewer, “In both, I show myself taking a self-righteous attitude toward older people who have hard-line right-wing political positions. In the Kent State story I am actually mean to an old plasterer after he tries to bring about a reconciliation.”50 In this story, the Kent State killings are important not solely as an event in a public political process but because they lead people to act badly toward one another.

While Pekar's relentless examination of his private concerns might seem to be a shrinking away from the kind of historical issues that Jack Jackson and Art Spiegelman confront directly, all three really have much in common. Jackson does deal with sweeping historical processes involving complex cultural interactions, but Comanche Moon and Los Tejanos depict history through the eyes of individual characters such Quanah Parker and Juan Seguin. In the single person of Quanah Parker we can read the fates of both the white race and the red; in Juan Seguin we see a place where cultures momentarily came together, only to split apart again. In Maus, Art Spiegelman takes on an even more problematic historical event, the Holocaust, but he uses the personal relation between Vladek and Art as the fulcrum to move his ambitious project.

Individuals are the means by which larger units of history become accessible and explicable; Vladek Spiegelman enables us to see the piles of bodies in the death camp that we would otherwise be unable to look at, because we know that Vladek might well have been one of those bodies, but was not. Harvey Pekar's American Splendor takes this emphasis on the individual even further and in so doing explodes the distinction between public and private history. The large movements of nations and institutions that we call history finally become an aggregate of individual choices and actions, and Harvey Pekar's refusal to serve on a jury may ultimately be as significant in its own way as a Supreme Court decision. Harvey Pekar's insistence on the importance of daily life finally is not self-aggrandizement or solipsism but rather an evocation of the inescapable interconnections between human beings.

Why history, personal or otherwise, in comic-book form? Comic books have traditionally staked their appeal to readers on their mytho-poeic and imaginative power, not on a connection to literal truth. While the verbal/visual dialectic of sequential art lends itself to a variety of narrative effects which can communicate a great deal of complex information (such as names, dates, chronology, and so forth) while also rendering specific incidents with an immediate and visceral impact, comic books have generally emphasized the physical side of the dialectic and have tended to show grandiose violations of the laws of physics in the context of the most basic sort of Manichean, good-versus-evil conflicts. The underground comix forever demonstrated that the fantasy and escapism of comic books was an artificially imposed cultural constraint, but the willfully adversarial and transgressive stance of the comix ensured that they would remain at the fringes of the culture at large.

The disappearance of a coherent underground movement in the late 1970s left behind a number of inventive and ambitious creators who were convinced of the power of the sequential art medium and were steeped in its peculiar techniques, such as Jack Jackson and Art Spiegelman, as well as newcomers to the field who had been energized by the accomplishments of the comix but were interested in writing other kinds of stories, as was Harvey Pekar. In addition, the undergrounds introduced the potential of the medium to an audience of readers who either had been unfamiliar with comics in general or had associated them solely with juvenile literature.

The move to history in comic-book form is an implicit rejection of the death grip that fantasy has long held on the medium. At the same time, as modern culture becomes less print oriented and more visually literate, comic books become more attractive as a narrative form. Comics are much less linear than prose and more simultaneous in the narrative effects that are possible, while they remain connected to traditional prose narratives by their extensive generic and thematic heritage.

The works of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar hardly constitute a coherent “movement” in contemporary comics. Many artists continue to work in the by now familiar underground modes, and others have transformed the superhero and adventure genres into vehicles for “adult” narratives.51 Other developments in the comic-book scene, like the emergence of self-published “new-wave” comics and various other “alternative” productions, may have far-reaching effects on the cultural place of comic books. But when comic books become an appropriate medium for new visions of American history, for startling examinations of epochal events such as the Holocaust, and for bluntly honest depictions of the individual's plight in modern society, and when these productions vie for literary awards with biographies of Chaucer, then certainly the realm of Superman and Mighty Mouse has undergone a revolution. Pekar fiercely states the conviction implicit in the works of creators such as Jack Jackson and Art Spiegelman:

Comics is as wide an area as prose. It's a medium, and it can be used for fiction, for non-fiction, for any number of purposes. And the fact that it's been used in such a limited way is totally crazy. It's some kind of historical aberration, I think. What I hope people start to realize is that comics can be as versatile as any other medium. … What it takes [for comics to gain a wider audience] is for people to realize that comics aren't an intrinsically limited form. When more people do that, and when more good work is produced, [it will happen]. Because nothing will attract people to comics like good work. If people have a prejudice against them, nothing will negate that prejudice like good work.52

In his first appearance on David Letterman's television talk show, Harvey Pekar gave a succinct and heartfelt explanation of why he works in the comic-book form. He said, “It's words and pictures. And you can do anything you want with words and pictures.” As the sequential art medium begins to cast off the long decades of critical scorn and cultural marginalization, more and more creators are discovering that what they want to do with words and pictures is to tell true stories.


  1. The phrase appears as a subtitle to two collections of selections from Pekar's comic books: From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes—American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar (New York: Doubleday, 1986); and From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes—More American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar (New York: Doubleday, 1987).

  2. Robert Crumb, introduction to American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar.

  3. Harvey Pekar, “Stories about Honesty, Money, and Misogyny,” interview with Gary Groth (August 1984), Comics Journal 97 (April 1985): 46.

  4. Robert Crumb, American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, introduction.

  5. Harvey Pekar, interview, tape recording, Cleveland, Ohio, 11 November 1988.

  6. Donald M. Fiene, “From Off the Streets of Cleveland: The Life and Work of Harvey Pekar,” Comics Journal 97 (April 1985): 73.

  7. Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, “A Fantasy,” American Splendor no. 1 (1976).

  8. Harvey Pekar, Greg Budgett, and Gary Dumm, “Awaking to the Terror of the New Day,” American Splendor no. 3 (1978).

  9. Budgett's work does not appear in American Splendor nos. 9 and 10.

  10. Fiene, “Life and Work of Harvey Pekar,” 69-70.

  11. Harvey Pekar, “Stories about Honesty,” 49.

  12. Writers of autobiographical stories in the comix include, among others, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Guy Colwell, Dori Seda, Spain Rodriguez, and, as I will note below, Robert Crumb. More recently, artists such as Lynda Barry and Michael Doogan have produced autobiographical stories in comics form.

  13. Harvey Pekar, interview, 11 November 1988.

  14. Justin Green, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (Berkeley: Last Gasp Eco-Funnies, 1972).

  15. Pekar's comic book stories appeared in The People's Comics (1972), Bizarre Sex no. 4 (1975), Comix Book no. 4 (1976), Snarf no. 6 (1976), and Flamed Out Funnies no. 1 (1976). Pekar tells the story of his friendship with Crumb in “The Young Crumb Story,” American Splendor no. 4 (1979), and “A Fantasy,” American Splendor no. 1 (1976).

  16. Robert Crumb, Big Ass Comics no. 2 (San Francisco: Rip Off Press, 1971).

  17. Tales from the Leather Nun (Berkeley: Last Gasp Eco-Funnies, 1973).

  18. Zap no. 10 (Berkeley: Print Mint, 1982).

  19. Both from The People's Comics (Princeton, Wisc.: Kitchen Sink Press, 1972).

  20. Robert Crumb, “The Confessions of R. Crumb” (1972).

  21. Some of Crumb's recent autobiographical stories, like “Uncle Bob's Mid-Life Crisis,” Weirdo 7 (Berkeley: Last Gasp Eco-Funnies, 1983), seem to be influenced by Pekar's more mundane approach, but as one critic notes, “despite his serious theme, Crumb still plays his tormented self-pity mainly for laughs.” Steve Monaco, “A Worthwhile (But Weird) Grab-bag,” review of Weirdo,Comics Journal 106 (March 1986): 31.

  22. Harvey Pekar and Kevin Brown, “Grubstreet, U.S.A.,” American Splendor no. 8 (1983).

  23. Ibid.

  24. Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm, “Katherine Mansfield,” American Splendor no. 9 (1984), rear cover.

  25. Harvey Pekar, “Stories about Honesty,” 46.

  26. Harvey Pekar, interview, 11 November 1988.

  27. Harvey Pekar and Spain Rodriguez, “A Case Quarter,” American Splendor no. 11 (1986), inside front cover.

  28. Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, “The Last Supper,” American Splendor no. 8 (1983), inside front cover.

  29. Harvey Pekar, interview, 11 November 1988.

  30. Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Val Mayerik, “A Marriage Album,” American Splendor no. 10 (1985).

  31. Harvey Pekar, interview, 11 November 1988.

  32. Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm, “Overheard in the Cleveland Public Library,” American Splendor no. 3 (1978).

  33. Harvey Pekar and Michael T. Gilbert, “Library Story: Take Two,” American Splendor no. 4 (1979), inside rear cover.

  34. Harvey Pekar, interview, 11 November 1988.

  35. Harvey Pekar and Val Mayerik, “A Harvey Pekar Story,” American Splendor no. 9 (1984).

  36. Harvey Pekar and Frank Stack, “Jack Dickens' Comic Kingdom,” American Splendor no. 12 (1987).

  37. Harvey Pekar and Val Mayerik, “At the Bindery,” ibid.

  38. Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, American Splendor no. 5 (1980), front cover.

  39. Harvey Pekar, Val Mayerik, and James Sherman, “Hysteria,” American Splendor no. 12 (1986).

  40. Harvey Pekar and Gerry Shamray, “An Everyday Horror Story,” American Splendor no. 5 (1980).

  41. Harvey Pekar and Gerry Shamray, “Late Night with David Letterman,” American Splendor no. 12 (1987).

  42. Pekar's short career as a media celebrity apparently ended with his 31 August 1988 appearance on the Letterman show. Increasingly impatient with what he saw as Letterman's condescension and triviality, and resolved to “go out with a bang,” Pekar badgered Letterman about the legal problems of General Electric, NBC's parent corporation. Letterman tried to quell Pekar and the show dissolved into rowdy bickering. Pekar explains his actions and motivations concerning his television appearances in Harvey Pekar, “Me ‘n’ Dave Letterman,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1 February 1987, p. 1 (H); Harvey Pekar, “Late Night of the Soul with David Letterman,” Village Voice, 25 August 1987, pp. 45-46; Harvey Pekar, “Getting Dave's Goat,” Cleveland Edition, September 22, 1988, pp. 1+; and Harvey Pekar, Joe Zabel, and Gary Dumm, “My Struggle with Corporate Corruption and Network Philistinism,” American Splendor no. 13 (1988). Another analysis of the controversial show is given in James Hynes, “The Big Shill?” In These Times (21-27 September 1988): 24+.

  43. Pekar gives further background to his appearance on this show in “Me ‘n’ Dave Letterman.”

  44. Pekar, “Late Night of the Soul,” 45.

  45. Harvey's words in the story are a nearly exact quotation of the opening paragraph of a recent article by Pekar, “The Potential of Comics,” Comics Journal 123 (July 1988): 81-88.

  46. Pekar might have been hesitant in his answer because he felt that he was losing the attention of the audience, of whom he said, “If you used words longer than two syllables, or talked about anything halfway serious, you could feel them going to sleep.” Pekar, “Me ‘n’ Dave Letterman,” p. 4 (H).

  47. Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, “Hypothetical Quandary,” American Splendor no. 9 (1984).

  48. Harvey Pekar and Sue Cavey, “Jury Duty,” American Splendor no. 9 (1983).

  49. Harvey Pekar and Brian Bram, “May 4-5, 1970,” American Splendor no. 2 (1977).

  50. Pekar, “Stories about Honesty,” 50. Note Pekar's total equation of the actions of the persona with his own personal behavior.

  51. See Lloyd Rose, “Comic Books for Grown-Ups,” Atlantic, August 1986, pp. 77-80.

  52. Harvey Pekar, interview, 11 November 1988.


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Jesse W. Nash (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Nash, Jesse W. “Gotham's Dark Knight: The Postmodern Transformation of the Arthurian Mythos.” In Popular Arthurian Traditions, edited by Sally K. Slocum, pp. 36-45. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Nash explores the use of Arthurian legends in the Batman comic book series, particularly Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, theorizing that although the Arthurian mythos is often recognized by modern American culture, most Americans are unfamiliar with the original Arthurian legend.]

All too often, our insights into the nature of popular culture are the result of accidental encounters with the very people professional academics talk to the least—children and young people. Students of culture, and not just anthropologists, tend to operate as if culture is something adults transmit to children. According to that logic, to understand culture we need to talk to adults or study their artifacts. Popular culture, however, is an entirely different matter. Unlike the “culture” of classical anthropological and humanistic studies, contemporary popular culture is increasingly for, about and by young people (King).

A case in point is the fate of the Arthurian legends in contemporary American popular culture. Arthurian themes and symbolism continue to be widely disseminated throughout popular culture, the culture of our young people. Although few specifically King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table movies are being made, interest in Arthuriana can be detected in the themes, motifs, and symbols of many science fiction and fantasy films, from Star Wars to Willow. The heroic fantasy novels that crowd the shelves in our bookstores are essentially variations on the Arthurian legends. Comic books as well feed on Arthurian themes, symbols and artifacts. Series with such titles as Camelot 3000,The Knights of Pendragon,Excalibur,The Legends of the Dark Knight, etc. are highly praised and well-read, my own local comics dealer tells me.

The Batman comic books, and perhaps popular culture in general, exploit traditional Arthuriana to such a degree they actually replace more “classical” Arthuriana artifacts. A local book dealer tells me that very few copies of such works as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are sold anymore, and when they are bought, they are normally bought by adults buying them for unsuspecting and perhaps unappreciative children and young people. Young people, my book dealer tells me, rarely buy any of the many available traditional versions of the Arthurian legends.

Ironically, popular American culture is suffused by Arthurian-sounding titles and images. But the classical artifacts of Arthuriana, such as Malory's text, for example, are neglected, especially by younger people. A high school teacher explains that this neglect is due to the “cultural illiteracy” of her students. “Besides,” she adds, “that King Arthur stuff is really boring.”

Her students, of course, disagree. One student told me: “Man, they're not, like, you know, realistic.” I was intrigued. Not realistic? “No, like, the story's for the birds. King Arthur, his dad, Merlin, the whole crew are real crooks.” Another student was a little more articulate: “I can't really respect Lancelot either. How could someone be willing to die for King Arthur?” Still another student rescued me from total confusion by telling me: “Check out Frank Miller's Batman, not the old caped crusader crap, but the new Dark Knight. Miller's got the story right.”1

I did “check out” Miller's Batman and compared him to the older Batman. There was a difference. With the help of my youthful informants, I was able to confirm that the difference does have something to do with “getting the story right.” And that difference helps explain that generational gap in the appreciation of Arthuriana artifacts, textual and otherwise, classical and popular. We will find that the Arthuriana of popular culture has undergone a considerable transformation.

Classical Arthuriana materials and the old Batman comic books belong to what might be called an Arthurian “mythos.”2 My youthful informants reject this classical mythos as “unrealistic.” The “new” Batman, Frank Miller's recent version, is more than a simple variation on the Arthurian theme(s) but is rather a “postmodern” transformation of that mythos (Collins, 33-34; Nash). Why call this Batman postmodern? Miller's Dark Knight and other popular culture artifacts are postmodern precisely because they have rejected and/or transformed the older Arthurian mythos. This fact makes Miller's Batman and other popular culture artifacts of a similar nature somewhat revolutionary, if not un-American.

The Arthurian mythos is part and parcel of American culture. The Arthurian mythos is the ideology of the American political system.3 The elements of that ideology are so woven into the narrative of American culture that we can still speak of President John F. Kennedy's tenure as that of a “Camelot.”4 Ronald Reagan, too, although very different, appealed to the Kennedy myth to justify his own revolution and would have occasion to refer to America as the “city” on the hill, a Camelot. It is no surprise, then, that Reagan could be described in Arthurian language. He was an outsider, a knight in shiny armor, like Kennedy and King Arthur, riding in to rescue the system (Wills, 299). At his first state of the union address to Congress after the revelations concerning the “Iran-Contra Affair” were made public, Reagan would be referred to by one news commentator as “a wounded leader.” In keeping with the logic of the Arthurian mythos, both Kennedy's assassination and Reagan's problems are understood not so much as personal problems but as threats to the system. As Peter Jennings made clear in his analysis of Reagan's difficulties, what is at stake in such situations is the presidency and the system, not the man but the president, as in the older story, not Arthur so much as kingship itself. And that is the central element of the Arthurian mythos: the health of the system, its maintenance, its periodic degeneration and consequent regeneration. In one sense, because the system is so paramount, the sins of the two presidential-kings, like those of Arthur and his predecessors, only add to the mythic luster of their reigns.

Summarizing, the Arthurian mythos indicates that there was a golden age of politics and culture than can be relived, especially when inaugurated by a politician deemed to be an “outsider” to the political system, but who has “blood ties” to that system as a bastard child of sorts and who because of his uncertain status rejuvenates the system. This outsider doesn't function to tear down the system but to reform it, to make it stronger. A fundamental element of this mythos then is the periodic decline and resurrection of the system, but no matter what, the system must be preserved. As in both the Kennedy and Reagan cases, some will argue that the “evils” they committed, they committed for the “good” of the system and for its survival. Finally, that system must exist because there are forces, the forces of evil and chaos, an “evil empire,” antithetical to civilization, which would triumph if the Arthurian political system were not in place. Above all, the Arthurian mythos fears the triumph of these “evil forces” knocking at the gates of Camelot, and a crucial element in the self-definition of the Arthurian president is his opposition to these evil forces. The Arthurian king and/or president doesn't simply oppose evil, he, by virtue of who he is, regenerates the earth.

My young informants, on the other hand, do not only think that Washington, D.C. is no Camelot and Ronald Reagan is no King Arthur, they doubt if there ever was a Camelot or if such a place is even desirable. They have rejected at least partially the Arthurian mythos. In a way, Batman's Gotham City is Camelot, and that is a frightening thought. Camelot unmasked is Gotham City. And Gotham City is America disabused of the American dream. Camelot, one young woman told me, is a “trick” of the system. The new Batman is postmodern precisely because there is no Camelot-like Gotham to return to or work toward. Miller's Dark Knight, first introduced in 1986 as a revision of the Batman materials, is not a return to an older, more pristine Batman of the late thirties and early forties. The older Batman necessitates a postmodern rewriting because the older Batman himself has become politically problematic.

The old Batman is an ideal part of the Arthurian mythos. He is orphaned by a criminal, but he is wealthy, thus aristocratic, the victim of the unrestrained greed of the poor. He becomes a “dark knight” to pursue criminals at night, the ideal time for crime, and dresses as a “bat” to induce fear in the “superstitious” minds of the criminal class. Crime itself represents the activities of a “hidden world.”5 He is a caped crusader, which likewise evokes the image of the knight. He is chivalric and single. He has his own squire, Robin the Boy Wonder. He eventually belongs to a round table of sorts, the Justice League of America. And he works for both police commissioner Gordon and the president of the United States.

His wealth and his status as a spokesman for the system become politically untenable. As a superhero, he is only an industrialist protecting the wealth and property of other wealthy Gothamites. At the end of one of the first cases, Batman tells Robin that a certain company of criminals thought they could acquire wealth the “easy way,” that is, by crime (Kane 304). Bob Kane, the creator of the series, portrays a criminal class that threatens Gotham and its upright and usually wealthy citizens. As a spokesman for the wealthy and the political system, the old Batman is preachy, self-righteous and largely unconcerned with the life and rights of the criminal class. All of this makes perfect sense within the framework of the Arthurian mythos, which neatly divides the world up into binary characteristics such as good and evil, right and wrong, law and crime, wealth and poverty, etc.

The difficulty with these binary characteristics and the political system reliant on them is their naivete. They presume that crime is only something one willingly chooses. They presume that the political, judicial and legal system are just and impartial. More ominously, they are ahistorical and immune to criticism. The binary characteristics, being binary characteristics, are also doubles of each other. The Arthurian King is both savior and tempter, just and tyrannical.6 Batman himself is an ambiguous, almost shady figure, working for the law but outside the legal system and occasionally sought by the police. Being Arthurian, the old Batman and the rulers of his Gotham can rule precisely because they already rule. When we can ask why they rule and if they should rule, we are ready for a change in perspective. Miller's Batman is decidedly postmodern because he no longer buys the myth of power Gotham's leaders utter. All postmodern analysis will presume the fictional or mystical basis for legal authority in the first place (Derrida 944-945).

The ambiguity plaguing the Arthurian conceptual apparatus can be seen in the figure of Batman himself, who was once described as: “Count (Dracula) cleansed of his evil and endowed with a social conscience” (Leatherdale 224). Such a description is more apt for the old Batman, the Arthurian Batman, and the description also touches on the problematic nature of the Arthurian mythos. To begin with, it is odd for a system fearful of “evil forces” and “evil empires” to have heroes who are themselves of ambiguous or dubious origin and all too easily labeled criminal. Note that this labeling is equally possible of Arthur, Parzival, Lancelot and Batman. The Arthurian mythos needs this cloak of indecipherability, this air that law is the mystery of authority and not fiction (Nash 9). When he first made his appearance in the May, 1939 issue of Detective Comics as “the Bat-Man,” Batman is introduced as “a mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong doer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society …” (Kane 8). For the old Batman and his creators, evil is antithetical to society—the two descriptions are mutually exclusive. Historically, Kane is naive as to the nature of American society. When that society becomes problematic, the old Batman will become embarrassing, and the Arthurian mythos will be seen as an uncritical and perhaps unhealthy authoritarianism.

This early description of Batman as a loner, however, is really misleading. Batman rarely works alone. Almost immediately in his comic book career, he is adopted by the police and police commissioner Gordon. From a postmodern perspective his cozy relationship with the “Man” is troubling, and telling indeed is the fact that the legal and police system of Gotham City needs his help. Why he becomes the caped crusader is itself intriguing and terribly Arthurian. He tells Robin: “My parents too were killed by a criminal. That's why I've devoted my life to exterminate [sic] them” (Kane 131). He becomes the Batman to seek vengeance against criminals, which could also serve as a description of the political and legal system of Gotham. Although revenge is illegal, the law seeks revenge. Batman's revenge then justifies the system in a strange way. The old Batman protects the system from having to face its own inadequacies, especially the inadequacy of the legal system and police force. It is almost a religious affirmation of sorts: even if the police or courts fail, there is a higher justice which will even all the scores. But the score in the old Batman is always evened out in favor of the wealthy.

As an outsider, Batman functions to keep the puzzle that is Gotham City from falling completely apart. When he first meets Robin in the April 1940 issue of Detective Comics, Batman tells Robin that the future Boy Wonder can't tell the police who killed his parents because “this whole town is run by Boss Zucco. If you told what you knew you'd be dead in an hour” (Kane 131). If this is true, what kind of city is Gotham? And if this is true, why fight to preserve a corrupt and uncaring system? Batman doesn't ask these questions, but my younger readers think he should have.

Gotham isn't quite the Camelot it's cracked up to be, but Batman doesn't seem to notice. He doesn't seem to be aware of the contradictions. The introduction of Robin the “Boy Wonder” only adds to the problematic nature of those contradictions. At the end of their first caper together, Batman mildly scolds Robin for being too eager and not waiting for him before engaging a group of criminals. Robin replies smiling: “Aw! I didn't want to miss any of the fun! Say, I can hardly wait till we go on our next case. I bet it'll be a corker” (Kane 140). Batman and Robin, like the knights of the old round table, have become part of the problem. The heroic mythos, whether it is Arthurian or Homeric, masks the contradictions of society and by masking them allows them to persist. Batman not only becomes part of the problem that is Gotham City; his activities are misdirected. The real problem in Gotham City is not the penny-ante criminals he chases about the nightscape of the city or the masked and costumed super-villains he battles with alarming frequency, again like the knights of old, not dueling to save the city so much as to prove who is stronger, Batman or the Joker. No, the structures of Gotham City itself are the problem. If that is the case, to battle crime and evil, Batman must do the unthinkable for an Arthurian hero. He must rebel against the system. To do that, he must become, not a criminal, but postmodern, since the criminal is already a functioning part of the system.

Which is the starting point of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Batman has disappeared from the scene for ten years, having retired to become Bruce Wayne, not because his job was finished but because his job had become too complex. The Gotham of this series of Batman adventures is very different from the Gotham of the past. The contrast, for the uninitiated reader, is remarkable. This Gotham, the Gotham of the new Batman, is truly dangerous. At the beginning of Batman Year One, which is a rewriting of Batman's origins after the appearance of The Dark Knight Returns, Commissioner Gordon describes his entry into the city: “Gotham City. Maybe it's all I deserve, now. Maybe it's just my time in Hell … in an airplane, from above, all you'd see are the streets and buildings. Fool you into thinking it's civilized” (Miller, Year One 2). Bruce Wayne, who is also flying into the city, is thinking: “I should have taken the train. I should be closer. I should see the enemy” (Miller 2).

The enemy in the Dark Knight texts is also Gotham City. Its very structures and history engender crime. The nature of the criminal hasn't changed. The nature of Batman's perceptions has changed. In Batman: Year One, Batman returns to the “enemy camp,” a slum area. That's what the old Batman would have naively thought: crime is where poverty is, thus the criminal is the poor man wanting the wealth of the wealthy. This postmodern Batman quickly discovers that crime is a structural feature of the city as a whole and not simply the willful actions of the have-nots, who isolate themselves from the wealthy and proper citizens of Gotham.

Crime is something the rich and powerful also practice. And this new Batman declares war. He crashes a party of the wealthy who routinely finance and run the city's politicians. After having destroyed much of the ballroom, Batman announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, you have eaten well. You've eaten Gotham's wealth. Its spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on—none of you are safe” (Miller 38). The leader, a wealthy gangster-type, named, appropriately enough, Roman, calls Batman “a damned Robin Hood” (Miller 40). But unlike the Robin Hood of legend, the new Dark Knight has no loyalty to the system, and he doesn't just wage his war against the wealthy and politically affluent. He wages his war against any and all who threaten human survival.

Having noted this war, we must hasten to point out that Batman as a child of postmodernity is hard pressed to justify his stance. As is pointed out in the Dark Knight texts, Batman's existence, from the perspective of the Arthurian mythos, is a thorn in the side of the legal and political structures. Batman's activities are quite illegal. According to the logic of the Arthurian mythos, Batman has no right to wage war against either the full-fledged criminals or the quasi-criminals of the upper class and the nouveau-riche gangsters of Gotham City. He holds no office of law enforcement and has received no appropriate delegation. According to the logic of the system, Batman too is a criminal. In short, to crusade against crime, the caped avenger must break the law, must defy the law and eventually even fight federal troops.

Batman's stance is not easily taken. Nor is Police Commissioner Gordon's. In the Dark Knight texts, the commissioner is naturally opposed to Batman's involvement in the criminal scene, but Gordon shares Batman's/Bruce Wayne's uneasiness with the system. Both men become more complex in these texts. To adequately express that complexity, the Dark Knight texts must become more complex in terms of their narrative strategy. Unlike the texts of the Arthurian mythos, the Dark Knight texts are retrospective, uncertain. They reveal a change in the understanding of the person, an understanding which is postmodern in that it is reminiscent of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, etc. (Taylor). In the older Batman stories, Batman is a nifty schizophrenic, moving easily from rugged superhero to effeminate jetsetter. Identity is monolithic, a given, naive, we might say.

Frank Miller's Dark Knight is not comfortable with his schizoid state. But it is not something he can really control. There is a “bat” within that limits his control; the bat is no longer a model; it is now a totem. This Batman is more realistic. Fighting crime of whatever stripe in Gotham isn't a picnic. One cannot be nice or flippant in such a pursuit. One does become a bat, a hunter, a dark knight, a knight whose own interiority is labyrinthine and less than godly. As Delueze and Guattari formulate the matter, the human civilization of Gotham City is a sham; what is required is that one become an animal, a human-becoming-animal, a human-becoming-intense. Miller's Dark Knight is such a “becoming,” a creature no longer under rational control, because rationality as a convention only protects the powerful and refuses to address the issues at hand—a city of human beings threatened by the various criminal elements, including the city itself, innocent human beings who aren't really all that innocent. At times, as in the “graphic novel” Arkham Asylum, Batman fears that he is as bad as the Joker (Morrison and McKean).

To express this transformation of the Batman character and the reality of Gotham City, the Dark Knight texts are polyphonous. There is no one narrator. These texts are truly heterogeneous in that no one person, including Batman, owns the texts and speaks unequivocally (Kristeva 10; Collins 60-64). Sometimes Batman or Bruce Wayne speaks. Sometimes Gordon narrates. Quite often, newscasts inform us of what has happened. Even the criminals are given a narrative voice. And no one voice is authoritative, not even Batman's. The absence of one narrative voice reflects the rejection of the Arthurian mythos. There is no one narrative voice because there is no one structure of authority in the city. In The Dark Knight Returns, the various criminals have as much claim to authority as the mayor or the police. As the leader of the gang known as the “mutants” says: “Don't call us a gang. Don't call us criminals. We are the law. We are the future. Gotham City belongs to the mutants. Soon the world will be ours” (Miller 36). Who can dispute their claim? In a postmodern universe, we realize that authority belongs to those who control the city. In an Arthurian universe, those who control the city control it by the will of God. No one is that naive in Frank Miller's Gotham City, not even the mayor who knows he rules by virtue of criminal support and their complicity with the duly elected political officials.

Moreover, the lack of one narrative voice forces us to demythologize or deconstruct our notion of “the people” or “innocent citizens.” Media interviews with men and women in the street highlight the absence of innocence and the problematic nature of democratic or popular approval of Batman's vigilante actions. One man interviewed enthusiastically supports Batman: “Batman? Yeah, I think he's a-okay. He's kicking just the right butts—butts the cops ain't kicking, that's for sure. Hope he goes after the homos next” (Miller 37).

Who runs Gotham City? No one, and everyone. It depends on what part of town one happens to find oneself in. Batman's vigilante efforts are directed toward the wealthy criminal class and the mutants, a gang threatening to take over. Oddly enough, the police negotiate with the mutants and the gangsters. They don't really try to eliminate them. Even in the midst of the mutants' crime wave, the police and legal authorities are more concerned with Batman's interfering than they are with protecting lives. The gangsters and the mutants, aptly named given their punk hair styles, scarification rituals and filed-down teeth, justify the existence of the police force. Batman by virtue of his vigilante actions calls into question the need for the police force. Batman forces us to realize that the Law is designed to protect Itself, not citizens (Nash 9). In this sense, Batman is decidedly anti-Arthurian and postmodern.

The mutants understand the system. Their leader, the archetypal “black knight,” even issues a vaguely Arthurian-sounding challenge: “We will kill the old man Gordon. His woman will weep for him. We will chop him. We will grind him. We will bathe in his blood. I myself will kill the fool Batman. I will rip the meat from his bones and suck them dry. I will eat his heart and drag his body through the street” (Miller 36). The mutants are products of the system, and then they receive what they need to aid in their takeover of the city. A general, himself depressed and angry with the system, sells munitions to them (Miller 14-15). Reminiscent of political scandals in the Reagan administration, these scenes set the stage for Batman's battle with the mutant leader, his eventual branding as a federal problem, and the appearance of Ronald Reagan and his ambassador to Batman, Superman.

At the end of an early case (February, 1941), a military figure tells Batman and Robin: “You've done your country a great service! I'll see that the president hears of this and gives you both a suitable award” (Kane 276)! To which Batman responds: “That's not necessary. Being Americans is enough of an award!” That patriotism is a necessary part of the Arthurian mythos. The old Batman naturally thought that the enemies of the United States were evil and the President of the United States was the standard-bearer of truth and justice. With the appearance of Reagan in the pages of The Dark Knight Returns, those old ideas fade. Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra affair is parodied by the story of the general selling arms to the mutants. The comic's Reagan even gets the United States involved in a nuclear war, and Gotham City is engulfed by a nuclear winter. It is not that Reagan is any different from the other presidents Batman served under; he's not. It's Batman who is different. He is a superhero without a president, which is perhaps the ultimate transformation of the Arthurian mythos, the rejection of the need for a leader, a king, a president. But Batman can't have a president, knowing what he knows, believing what he believes, history being what it is.

While Batman is battling city hall and the mutants in the city's streets, Superman is working for President Reagan in a little dispute with the Russians. Batman's troubles escalate, and he must fight Gotham's finest just to survive. In an Arthurian universe, Batman would have to surrender to the authorities. In a postmodern universe, Batman cannot surrender. In an Arthurian universe, Batman would be vindicated. In a postmodern universe, Batman too is guilty. When he defeats the mutant leader, Batman unknowingly creates a monster: “the sons of the Batman.” Superman unknowingly helps Reagan start a nuclear winter. Unknowingly. Still, both superheroes are complicitous.

When Batman defeats the mutant leader, many of the mutants disband and become the sons of the Batman, a new breed of vigilantes. Again, it's the mutants who are truly Arthurian. Batman, because he has won, should rule and be followed. The king is dead. Long live the king. The sons of the Batman make a chilling media announcement: “The mutants are dead. The mutants are history. This is the mark of the future [pointing to a blue bat painted on their faces]. Gotham City belongs to the Batman. Do not expect any further statements. The sons of the Batman do not talk. We act. Let Gotham's criminals beware. They are about to enter hell” (Miller 46).

The sons of the Batman proceed to clean up Gotham City, much to the displeasure of the authorities and Batman. The sons of the Batman punish and punish harshly, making it difficult for readers to determine what they prefer, justice or crime. But these youthful vigilantes come in handy during the nuclear winter. The streets of Gotham are quiet and safe while cities elsewhere experience the expected panic and chaos. In a scene my young informants literally drool over, Batman and the former mutants ride on horses down Gotham's streets restoring and assuring order. They are no knights. The Dark Knight has no lord. The order they bring is of a different kind; we don't really have categories to describe an order without a legitimate political structure to obey, so Arthurian is our political language.

Because they aren't Arthurian, the order Batman and the sons of the Batman bring is, legally, disorder. Reagan sends in federal troops and Superman to bring Batman to “justice.” Batman fights though as Bruce Wayne. Early in the battle, Superman pulls Batman's mask off. He is no longer a superhero. Only Superman is a superhero, and superheroes work for emperors like Reagan. Batman works for no one, especially no political authority. He accuses Superman: “You sold us out, Clark … I've become a political liability and you … you're a joke” (Miller 41-42). Predictably, Batman/Bruce Wayne loses the battle; he is after all only human; Reagan, America's King Arthur, wins. The TV news announces fittingly enough: “The spectacular career of the Batman came to a tragic conclusion as the crimefighter suffered a heart attack while battling government troops” (Miller 45).

Battling government troops? No one reading Batman twenty years ago or in 1939 could have imagined Batman a federal renegade, but the changed nature of the political situation of the late eighties necessitated a reimagining of Batman. In particular, the Arthurian mythos that provided the framework for the old stories and the justification for Batman's existence is rejected and transformed. The Arthurian mythos of authority and law is decidedly rejected, but the Arthurian desire for order is not rejected so much as transformed. Batman does not leave Gotham City to chaos. At the end of The Dark Knight Returns, there is a postmodern transformation of the Arthurian apocalyptic ending. Batman stages his own death, and upon reviving sets about the task of training the former mutants and whoever else is willing to listen how to survive in a post-nuclear world, lessons not in authority and obedience—look where that got the Reagan generation—but in recreating society and a crippled earth.

With Miller's Dark Knight texts, popular culture provides American society with a brilliant and powerful critique of our Arthurian mythos and a transformation of that mythos. The story concludes with the hero gone, but the human Bruce Wayne working to restore the earth. Unlike the Arthur of legend or the movie Excalibur, Reagan, the king of Batman's America, is still alive but the earth is dying, dying because of the king. To Batman though, the king is dead, and the earth must live. There can be no more kings after the nuclear winter. The king is dead. Long live the earth. The postmodern transformation of the Arthurian mythos is not a retreat into nihilism but an affirmation of the worthwhileness of being human and committing to care for the earth.7


  1. Miller's Dark Knight texts are conveniently collected in Frank Miller, The Complete Frank Miller, which places Batman: Year One first and then The Dark Knight Returns, reversing their original chronological order. My reference to Miller's texts will be to this edition.

  2. By mythos I do not refer to Jungian archetypes but to the often unarticulated and unavowed mythological presuppositions of a culture. As Levi-Strauss makes quite clear this “mythos” is often quite contradictory and ambivalent.

  3. It goes without saying that a deconstructive reading of the Arthurian texts is possible which would point out the difficulties I am referring to at the mythical and cultural levels.

  4. Garry Wills (200-204) uses the phrase “Hollywood on the Potomac” to refer to the mythical, Arthurian air of both Kennedy's and Reagan's Washington, D.C. The point is that none of these Camelots, King Arthur's in the legends, Kennedy's or Reagan's, were healthy places.

  5. In the older Batman materials, the criminal world is a double of sorts of the world of law and order, Gotham; they aren't a part of Gotham. It is sometimes thought that the earliest Batman episodes were more realistic than those seen in the campy 60s, but that isn't really the case. One will be disabused of that notion by a casual glance through the first volume of Bob Kane's Batman Archives.

  6. See Campbell's (53, 345) somewhat naive discussion of the symbolism; it would be intriguing to take Walter Burkert's more critical and politically mature reading of myth and apply that to the Arthurian mythos.

  7. See Derrida (933) who notes that a deconstructionist or postmodernist agenda has as its goal the transformation of the world and its protection. Similarly, Miller's Batman's agenda is no longer simply one of vengeance.

Works Cited

Burkert, Walter. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1949.

Collins, Jim. Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Deleuze, Giles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Derrida, Jacques. “Force de Loi: Le ‘Fondement Mystique De L'Autorite’/Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority.’” Cardoza Law Review 11 (1990): 919-1045.

Kane, Bob. Batman Archives, vol. I. New York: DC Comics, 1990.

King, Arden. “Modern Civilization and the Evolution of Personality: We Have Collapsed Infancy into Senility.” The Burden of Being Civilized: An Anthropological Perspective on the Discontents of Civilization. Ed. Miles Richardson and Malcolm C. Webb. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia U P, 1982.

Leatherdale, Clive. Dracula: The Novel and the Legend. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: The Aquarian P, 1985.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Le Cru et Le Cuit. Paris: Plon, 1964.

Miller, Frank. The Complete Frank Miller. Stamford, CT: Longmeadow P, 1989.

Morrison, Grant and Dave McKean. Arkham Asylum. New York: DC Comics, 1989.

Nash, Jesse W. “Postmodern Gothic: Batman.” The New Orleans Art Review Aug. 1989: 8-9.

Taylor, Mark C. Altarity. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Wills, Garry. Reagan's America: Innocents at Home. Garden City: Doubleday, 1987.

Tim Blackmore (essay date winter 1993)

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SOURCE: Blackmore, Tim. “Blind Daring: Vision and Re-vision of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrranus in Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again.Journal of Popular Culture 27, no. 3 (winter 1993): 135-62.

[In the following essay, Blackmore offers a comparative analysis between Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrranus and Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again, remarking that both works share the theme of the common man as hero in society.]

                              … why was the sight
To such a tender ball as th' eye confin'd?

John Milton, Samson Agonistes

                    Now I adore my life
With the Bird, the abiding Leaf,
With the Fish, the questing Snail
                    And the Eye altering all;

Theodore Roethke, “Once More, the Round”

Despite the enormous gap in time, form and method, Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus (CA 430 B.C.) and Frank Miller's graphic novel Daredevil: Born Again (1989) are strikingly similar creations; each reexamines the idea of “common” man as hero in society. The comparison of these works begins with a discussion of the authors' worlds and the underlying structure of each piece. The paper continues with a consideration of Olympian power, the hero's struggles with, and subsequent “murder” by, such forces. With the character's rebirth the ideal hero is revealed as well as the power of human reason and the path that leads toward a “just” society.


The Daredevil is a comic-book hero, created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in New York in 1964. Matt Murdock, son of an aging, failing, heavyweight boxer, Battling Murdock, is commanded by his father to succeed in some profession (other than boxing), which Matt does. His frustration with his bookish life leads him to begin a sort of Charles Atlas course of “self-improvement.” Ironically, the boy is rendered sightless by a radioactive substance when he saves a blind man from being hit by a truck.

The accident leaves him with super-powers: heightened senses. He can detect heartbeats by listening, “sees” using a sort of radar, reads by running his fingers over print and can remember tactile and olfactory “recordings” at will. The “devil” is created when Battling Murdock refuses to throw a fight and is killed. Young Matt (studying to become a defense lawyer) tracks down the killers and brings them to justice. Murdock becomes the best defense lawyer in New York while by night he prosecutes in the streets of his home—Hell's Kitchen. Only one other person aside from Ben Urich (a reporter) knows of Murdock's alter ego, and she is Karen Page, his lover. The Daredevil's nemesis, the Kingpin (a crime lord), dreams of, and finally succeeds in, discovering Murdock's secret identity.

Sophocles too, was working with a familiar property:

That Oedipus, king of Thebes, had unknowingly killed his father and married his mother was an ancient legend. But upon that rudimentary story Sophocles had the choice of imposing any pattern that he wished.

(O'Brien 7)

Similarly, the comic book writer brings his own specific interpretations to such well-known characters as Superman, Batman, or in this case, the Daredevil. Miller, in full command of the cultural form he's chosen, creates a death/rebirth theme which his Old Testament chapter (or issue) titles reveal: the hero is caught in the Apocalypse, forced through Purgatory to become a Pariah, until he is Born Again,Saved, and in fighting for God and Country faces Armageddon.1

Richmond Lattimore notes the parallel structure of Oedipus and Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest, focusing on the fact that “The tragically fulfilled story mounted on so articulate a scheme for comedy, accounts for much of the essential nature of Oedipus” (O'Brien 42). The basic framework, as Lattimore sees it, provides a superb model for the structure of all drama—comic, tragic or heroic.


Considering the historicity of each author makes the parallel between the two works clearer. Sophocles' priest complains “You see yourself how torn our city is, how she craves relief,” words that easily apply to the playwright's Athens (343). Oedipus, concerned about the health of his city, commands the people to follow his orders, since “It is for me, for God, and for this city that staggers toward ruin that you must fulfill [my] injunctions” (Sophocles 348). The city operates democratically in that Oedipus trusts his people, telling Creon “Say it before all of us. I sorrow more for them than for myself” (Sophocles 345). Such “art … clearly shows the influence of fifth century thought; the portrayal of Oedipus in particular reflects an awareness of the language and attitudes of the fifth century Enlightenment” (O'Brien 1).

Oedipus speaks for Protagorus when he notes “Then I came—ignorant Oedipus—I came and smothered [the sphinx], using only my wit” (350). Reliance on human reason was central to the theistic philosophy then destroying Olympian religion. Athens was a cradle for:

discoverers, scientists, and teachers of the whole Hellenistic world, [where] the new anthropological and anthropocentric attitude reached its highest point of confidence and assumed its most authoritative tone. [Here, man was] master of the universe, a self-taught and self-made ruler who has the capacity … “to conquer complete happiness and prosperity.”

(Knox, Oedipus 107)

Hippocrates, with his diagnosis (the new discovery of the distinction between different diseases), and the increasing reliance on observation and physics, naturally lead man to wonder “unless the oracles are shown to tell the truth” then “Could God be dead?” (Sophocles 360). Protagorus notes laconically “‘As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist’” (Knox, Oedipus 110). The death of God fired up the Atomists, who, as Jocasta explains, feel that “mortals have no need to fear when chance reigns supreme … It is better to live as you will, live as you can” than in terror of divine meddling (Sophocles 361). Oedipus declares himself free, a “child of Fortune—beneficent Fortune” (363).

Sophocles' world is in upheaval, the city torn by debate about the validity of excessive inquiry into man's power, measure, and reason. It is a world in which the gods may have died, a world where many are left wondering whether there is any order in a universe without fate and divine design. Miller's world is also in crisis. Concerned about the erosion of society glaringly obvious in New York (1985), Miller, relying on thinkers like Christopher Lasch and Scott Peck, examines the decay of the American Dream (Schuster 44). New York is a jungle, worse than Belfast where homes are routinely invaded and destroyed (Miller and Mazzucchelli 13). The people exhibit a fortress mentality, too desensitized to be worried about a mugging which they see occur in front of them, too jaded to be concerned about human life (a fellow New Yorker sees a battered Murdock and orders “Just keep driving, man—who needs the grief—” [Miller and Mazzucchelli 64]). This backdrop of darkness and despair looms over a few islands of kinship. Thinking over his nine years residence in New York, Miller notes angrily

crime is so much taken for granted that people live in fortresses and walk around looking and acting like victims, carrying money to bribe muggers, acting as if it's all a numbers game, all up to chance … giving total power over their lives to anyone who's savage enough to take it.

(Thompson 60)

In Miller's view, those who are passive will be brutalized by life. His convictions about arbitrary brutality were confirmed by the December 1984 Bernard Goetz New York subway incident. As an artist and writer, Miller has demonstrated restraint and subtlety before, but the tyranny of violence has angered him, enough that he sympathizes with “films like Deathwish and real life examples like Bernard Goetz … [as a] response to something … a response to the way that society is deteriorating” (Schuster 44). Hair-trigger violence stems from

a desire right now that the intelligentsia aren't aware of and can't relate to—the desire to take back the power that we've given away as human beings, to say no to criminals and to the less overt evils we're surrounded by.

(Borax 41)

Miller's expressed frustration helps to explain the broad, righteous nature of his work.

While Miller represents America as being clean of hypocrisy and stain, a God-fearing, simple, quiet man's world, this view of a ‘simple’ America is not naive. Miller, suspicious of politics, has made sure that “strong political themes have run throughout [his] recent comics work, to an extent that has not been seen in mainstream comic books since the early 1970's” (Sanderson “Elektra” 38). Topping these political concerns is America's involvement with Nicaragua (38). For a man who believes that America's foreign policy should obey the Monroe Doctrine, farragoes such as Vietnam, Angola, Salvador and Nicaragua are insanity. Rather than act for “just” causes,

American officials blundered into the war [unable to] distinguish the country's military and strategic interests from ‘our reputation as a guarantor’. … More concerned with the trappings than the reality of power. …

(Lasch 118)

Gone is the “self-made man, archetypical embodiment of the American dream … [with] habits of industry, sobriety, moderation, self-discipline, and avoidance of debt” (Lasch 106). The sickness of the decade is an all-consuming self-interest in which loyalty is no longer important: “That's no way to think. Grow up. It's the 'eighties. You do what you have to do. And you have to do it” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 5).

Each author is societal critic and philosopher. It is agreed that Sophocles is “a teacher. … The Sophist Protagoras … counted Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Orpheus and Musaeus among the professional educators” (O'Brien 4-5). Webster explains that

we know from the Frogs of Aristophanes that in the fifth century the poet was regarded as a teacher, and Sophocles himself said that he represented men as they ought to be presented.

(Webster 18)

Miller feels his job is “one of criticizing, but not necessarily offering solutions. ‘A cartoonist is in many ways a critic … There are two dangers to this: to become a cynic or to become an ideologue’” (Sanderson “Elektra” 39). This negative view of the artist is later ameliorated by Miller's comment that “just as the artist can learn from his audience, the audience can learn from the artist” and that while he's “been hired to do morality plays … they don't have to be shallow” (Schuster 23, 27). Sophocles, too, engages in a morality play: it is useful to make some crude comparisons before making fine ones.


Each work has the same basic structure: there's an agonizing build to a known conclusion. Oedipus has killed his father, sired children by Jocasta, and will blind himself. Murdock will be beaten by the forces opposing him, refuse to yield, return and end injustice. Each story has a late pivotal point: Oedipus thinks himself free after Polybus' death, only to sustain the shock of the truth. Similarly, it is not until the Daredevil has been purged of his selfishness that he can justify putting the costume back on.

Oedipus and Murdock both share physical and psychological blindness, as well as paranoia. Both are aliens (Oedipus to the city, Murdock because of his abilities) who rely on their own powers and swift actions to solve problems. Murdock begins as a lawyer, while Oedipus lards his speech with terms of Attic law familiar to educated Athenians, as he pursues the “criminal” (Knox, Oedipus 79-82).

Olympus and its voice (Teiresias) are represented by the Kingpin and his minions. The ideal of Thebes has its parallel in Captain America and the Avengers. Jocasta and her inadvertent betrayal of the truth to Oedipus is mirrored by Karen Page, who helplessly surrenders up Murdock to the Kingpin. Creon and Ben Urich, the reporter, make a pair, although Urich eventually surpasses Creon's failings. The Chorus is played by Foggy, Matt's law partner, and Glorianna O'Breen, Matt's ex-girlfriend.

It's easy to substitute Murdock for Oedipus, New York for Athens in the following character description, for both contain

A constant will to action, grounded in experience, inspired by courage, expressing itself in speed and impatience but informed by intelligent reflection, endowed with the self-confidence, optimism, versatility of the brilliant amateur, and marred by oversuspicion and occasional outbursts of demonic anger—this is the character of Oedipus (Murdock) and Thebes (New York) alike. Both the virtues and the faults of Oedipus (Murdock) are those of Athenian (American) democracy. Oedipus (Murdock), a … mythical hero, has been transformed into [a] contemporary figure.

(Knox Oedipus 77) (Author's emendations.)

It is fitting that enroute to considering these “contemporary figure[s]” the discussion moves to examine the forces of Olympus.


While Zeus rules Olympus, Apollo is Oedipus' chief opponent and the blind, all-seeing prophet is Apollo's enforcer. Oedipus is cautious around Teiresias, welcoming him in politic style: “Teiresias, all things are known to you—the secrets of heaven and earth, the sacred and profane. Though you are blind surely you see. …” (Sophocles 349). Teiresias is a human wiretap, connected both to the affairs of gods and humans.

Wesley is the Kingpin's Teiresias, a man who calmly stands by awaiting the command to issue “the kill order” for those out of favor with Olympus. Wesley is only one of the quiet, sinister, bagmen that surround the Kingpin, a message from Miller that society can no longer distinguish between criminals and corporate men. The Thebans abase themselves before Apollo, begging “Come, Apollo, come yourself, who sent these oracles! / Come as our savior! Come! Deliver us from this plague!” (Sophocles 346). This entreaty ill-befits Protagorus' self-reliant man. Further, the Thebans are blind to the fact that if Apollo can save, then he can surely torture man.

Like Apollo, the Kingpin is no weakling, and “From Parnassus he orders the hunt” (Sophocles 352). He is not so much a man as an indestructible force. Like a malicious god he muses happily that Murdock

faces poverty and public shame. He will be hounded by doctored tax files, deprived of his very home. Survival will become his only concern. Perhaps I will hire … what is left of him … after he has learned how powerless he is.

(Miller and Mazzucchelli 24)

The omniscience of Olympus is duplicated by the electronic nerve-centre in the Kingpin's aerie. From such a vantage point this force plots Murdock's fate. These ubiquitous powers extend to the lowest workers in the free press, so that a “janitor” can ensure a terrified Ben Urich will halt his inquiry into the actions of the god. Miller's warning to society about corruption mocks the most conservative, “legitimate” monied factions that he believes are destroying the common person's society (Miller and Mazzucchelli 166). Such destruction has a focus, and both Oedipus and Murdock have an extensive, unpleasant fate prepared for them: this must be since they are heroes.

But the mantle of hero causes both men anguish. Ignorant of his true birthright, Oedipus believes himself an alien to Thebes. The Chorus echoes Oedipus' own concerns about identity, asking “Who is he? Who is the man? / Who is the man whom the voice of the Delphian shrine / denounced[?]” (Sophocles 352). Anxious to be accepted, Oedipus (vanity prodding him on) rapidly accedes to the people's appeals: “Let no one say you raised us up to let us fall” (344). Despite his anxiety, Oedipus' reactions are sincere and protective: “I'll help you all I can. I would be cruel did I not greet you with compassion,” appointing himself guardian of the city and assuming their burden of suffering (343, 344).

Miller's novel, like Sophocles' play,

belongs to the general story pattern of the lost one found. The lost one may be … any close philos, thought dead far away but discovered to be present, unknown.

(O'Brien 44)

Murdock believes his mother died in childbirth: later he will discover the secret of his mother's identity. Until this discovery is made, Murdock takes upon himself role of guardian, connecting with the city through a loving, supernatural power. Oedipus has learned to move swiftly in the face of disaster, snapping “This is a plot conceived in rashness. It must be met with a quick response. I cannot sit and wait until the plot succeeds” (Sophocles 354). This passage has been variously translated, and while Watling gives the idea (42), it is Fagles' version which transmits the dramatic flair, speed and pragmatism of the man speaking:

When my enemy moves against me quickly,
plots in secret, I move quickly too, I must,
I plot and pay him back. Relax my guard a moment,
waiting his next move—he wins his objective,
I lose mine.


Here is a Tyrannus at work—no stranger to conspiracy, sped and revenge. The pragmatism comes through in the “game” vocabulary (“next move,” “wins his objective”). He's uncannily ahead of the rest: twice he has beaten his advisors to the punch, once with Creon at Delphi and once in calling for Teiresias (Sophocles 344, 348). Oedipus takes full command, proclaiming “Then I—I shall begin again. I shall not cease until I bring the truth to light” (345). For Knox, “The characteristic Oedipean action is the fait accompli. … ‘Swift,’ tachys, is his word” (Oedipus 15). The Daredevil is a man who also lives by speed of his wits, in court and on the rooftops. He hears and suffers through every disaster in Hell's Kitchen, no matter how far away it is. As “A lung collapses” or “A wino cries to God” the Daredevil knows it all (Miller and Mazzucchelli 141).

It is the ignorance of, and painful search for, identity, a name, a link with the human race, that causes each character agony. Discovery of the identity will transform the hero. Begged by Jocasta to stop “For your own good,” Oedipus recognizes grimly that “My own good has brought me pain too long” (Sophocles 363). It becomes crucial, not only for Thebes, but for Oedipus as a human, to “untangle the line of mystery surrounding [his] birth” (363). Against promised horrors he rails “Let [them] explode! I will still want to uncover the secret of my birth—no matter how horrible” (363). Without name or origin, Oedipus will remain an alien, a Tyrannus.

Jocasta reaches the truth intuitively, leading Oedipus there, just as Karen Page, in the throes of heroin withdrawal is forced to sell the key to Murdock's secret identity. Robbed of everything, especially his status as lawyer, only the Daredevil is left. Matt Murdock has been taken to pieces: “Every other part of him is so far away. …” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 9). In an haze of rage, Murdock's alter ego lays waste to the slums demanding information about his tormentor, and more importantly, Murdock himself.


This anguished hero must be cleansed if he is to be transformed into a Human. Tellingly, after ten verses calling on the gods, Oedipus answers the Chorus “I have heard your prayers and answer with relief and help” (Sophocles 347). Similarly, his curse is worthy of any angry god. Knox points out that “‘I’ (ego) is a word that is often on his lips … [it] is not mere vanity [but] is justified by his whole experience … an unbroken record of success due entirely to himself” (Knox Oedipus 29). Oedipus' punning cracks at Teiresias' expense are more the signs of over-confidence mixed with anger rather than vanity.

Such a mixture creates the “Tyrannus.” Creon argues that Oedipus is “wrong to judge the guilty innocent, the innocent guilty—without proof” (Sophocles 354). Oedipus is “hard when [he] should yield, cruel when [he] should pity” (355). While he willingly takes judgement of others on himself, he does so without understanding the pain he may cause others. “The sense of the word tyrannos is exactly appropriate for Oedipus … he is an intruder, one whose warrant for power is individual achievement, not birth” (Knox, Oedipus 54). Sophocles does not choose the benevolent Greek word for king, but rather shows Creon raging “Behold my judge and jury—Oedipus Tyrannus!” (Sophocles 356).

The Daredevil, a fighting machine, is extremely dangerous when the violent undercurrent in his nature overcomes him. Eaten out from inside, the “devil” visits his wrath on those unable to either defend themselves or answer him. Like a wounded animal, he claws ferociously at the trap that holds him. When that energy is spent he slides into the revenge dreams of a child in which he “punche[s] the Kingpin out and he begs for mercy and gives me back my life and surrenders to the police and everybody knows it is me who beat him and there's a parade” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 36).

The line between the Tyrannus and the paranoid is very thin. Oedipus pursues his irrational fears logically, attacking Teiresias, demanding to know “Who taught you this? It did not come from prophecy!” (Sophocles 350). Jumping ahead he quickly sizes up Creon's role, his own alien status and demands of Teiresias “Was this your trick—or Creon's?” (350). Creon sees the paranoia in the king and confronts him “I see that you are mad,” provoking an exchange Lewis Carroll might have written:

In my own eyes, I am sane.
You should be sane in mine as well.
No. You are a traitor!
And what if you are wrong?
Still—I will rule.

(Sophocles 354-55)

Sanity is subjective, dependent on the viewer. Oedipus is right: he rules in his mind. His confidence becomes rashness when he snaps that he “will rule” no matter what. Even he admits that his mind is “blurred by fear and terror” (Sophocles 360, 361). But the “Blind suspicion [which] consume[s] the king” is too much even for the Hero and he falls into the abyss of madness (356).

Murdock reacts the same way when his physical and psychological defenses are stripped from him. Suspicion boils over into paranoia when Murdock's confidence in himself and his world is eroded. His insistence that only he can be right drives off any allies or friends he can trust. Miller pictures the madness of self-pity as the hero complains “Show me one single person who hasn't betrayed me. …” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 32). This pernicious fever goads him to frighten his best friend Foggy Nelson, just as Oedipus alienates Creon, potentially his strongest ally (Sophocles 354). The most terrifying depiction of Murdock's instability is his heartfelt confession to the time signal, the picture of a man who, at all costs, struggles to maintain appearances of sanity.

Finally Miller brings Murdock to the scene of Goetz' madness. The Daredevil, a good samaritan, would never sit still during a robbery. But this man is no longer the Daredevil, nor Matt Murdock. He is just an enraged victim, tortured beyond endurance. Miller cannily restages the Goetz incident so that while the viewers are uncomfortable with the beatings, they are also allowed limited catharsis, release from Murdock's passivity. Miller confronts the reader with the subway incident: the humane intellect dictates that the reader should castigate the vigilante but the visceral feeling is something else again.

Oedipus cry “O Fate! What have you done to me?” underscores his innocence: he has been framed by Fate (Sophocles 368). Since “the future has already been determined” and Oedipus is “cursed and cannot see it” (Sophocles 349, 357), then the audience can neither blame him for, nor judge him by, his actions. Viewers can only judge the manner in which he accepts his fate, and consider the picture of Olympus this innocent man's suffering reveals. It is Murdock's fate to become the Daredevil and for that alone he will be destroyed by corporate forces: because Matt Murdock “is also Daredevil … That's why his life is about to fall apart” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 8). Despite his own knowledge that he is innocent, the rest of the world knows he is guilty and the Olympian network moves swiftly to cut off his lifelines. The frame-up is complete and Murdock's life is ruined.

The destruction of the hero brings damning glimpses of Olympus. Oedipus, powerless before the gods, since “no mortal can compel a god to speak” (Sophocles 348), is robbed of pride in his achievements (the Chorus explains: “God aided you” implying Oedipus has done nothing [344]). Oedipus' birthright can only have been dreamed up by some sadistic, bored god. In the same way Murdock becomes the Kingpin's plaything. Surveying the city he will own (the reader sees him from above) the Kingpin seems a distant figure. Once the Kingpin has thrashed Murdock, Miller is careful to reverse the positions so the reader, now below the Kingpin, is a victim to be subdued and ruled over. For sport, the corporate gods stage a private war in Hell's Kitchen. The “murder” of the hero brings a rebirth—and with that, unexpected new powers.


Teiresias' warning “You are destroying yourself!” (Sophocles 350) is followed by Oedipus' recognition of the truth “O God! O no! I see it now! All clear!” which plunges him into an abyss of darkness (“O Light! I will never look on you again!” [366]). What Teiresias cannot see is that the “death” of one self is necessary for the rebirth of another. Oedipus is shamed before his people, like Milton's blind Samson, who mourns “I dark in light expos'd / To daily fraud, contempt, abuse and wrong” (lines 75-76). Milton's clever wordplay where both the ego and eye are exposed applies to Oedipus' mad self-blinding as well as his shame “Could these eyes look upon the people? Never!” (Sophocles 369). Oedipus has touched bottom and is on the way back up.

Murdock's fate is equally unpleasant. Curled in a fetal position, returned to the womb of Hell's Kitchen, he remembers in his shame that he “attacked [the Kingpin] … and he killed me” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 58). The psychological murder is followed by a physical one (which fails), and instead of struggling in death throes, the blind man opens his eyes and “sees,” as if the water of his death has brought him fully awake.

Teiresias' pun “Know yourself, Oedipus” (Sophocles 349) is followed by a riddle game in which Teiresias asks “Are you not the best man when it comes to riddles?” (351). Despite this gallows humor, Oedipus “will never deny [his] birth—and [he] will learn its secret” (363, italics added). In a very human panic, Oedipus attempts to shift (“Apollo! It was Apollo!”), then evade the blame (he charges “the man who set me free” [369]). But Oedipus has remained courageous where other men would quail (Shepherd: Ah master, do I have to speak? Oedipus: You have to. And I have to hear [Sophocles 365]). When he accepts his lot Creon comments “Surely, you are ready to put your trust in god—now” (370). Oedipus has learned to trust that the gods will be sadistic. He never suggests, though Creon assumes it, that the gods are just. Oedipus, prepared for any fate, is virtually indestructible. Too late the Kingpin realizes the same thing about Murdock: the fire sent to burn him to ashes tempered him instead and it is the Kingpin who has “shown him that a man without hope … is a man without fear” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 74). Oedipus and Murdock have survived the worst Fate has for them causing the discovery that

the Oedipus is not at all … the tragedy of human fate. … Better to call it … the tragedy of appearance in human life, in which the correlative of appearance is being, as in Parmenides Aletheia [truth] is of Doxa [opinion].

(O'Brien 50)

Like Oedipus, Murdock sheds the hero's appearance and is reborn a human hero in the waters of the East River. The Kingpin is a smaller figure, unable to destroy the human spirit that lives beneath the calm lawyer or the devil in the red suit. At this crucial point Matt is discovered by “Maggie,” the nun who has presided over his original “birth” as the Daredevil. Mazzucchelli's strong graphic evocations of the most powerful religious images (Michelangelo's Pieta, the three Marys at the crucifixion and the Trinity, symbolized by the triangle over Matt) erase any doubts about “Maggie's” true nature. Miracle and faith cause the hero's rebirth and entrance into a world of New Testament Christian mercy.2

This rebirth allows Murdock to make peace with his fate as the Daredevil: like Christ, he must act as guardian, without thanks, without pity, without fear. The costume, a symbol of his alter-ego, is defiled when it is worn by a psychopath the Kingpin uses in a further, unsuccessful frame bid. Knowing he has nothing to fear, Murdock advises an old enemy, now a friend, to make the false costume: he does not fear it or resent it anymore. Confronted by the false costume, he beats its wearer soundly. The full irony of his religious rebirth comes when Murdock finally suits up: a devil who has been through Hell and escaped to correct the wrongs he saw there.


The harsher the fate the Olympians have planned for the heroes, the more they gain our sympathy. The audience is sympathetic to, and afraid for, Oedipus. There is nothing special about him: what has happened to him could happen to the viewer, he has done nothing to deserve his fate. Hoping to elude the draconian measures of the gods, Oedipus is stunned by the apparent error in the prophecy and wonders “Why? Why should we even look to oracles, the prophetic words delivered at their shrines or the birds that scream above us?” (Sophocles 361). For Oedipus, a bird's cry holds as much wisdom as the oracle. Oedipus' hopes make his fate appear all the more monstrous.

Miller attacks Olympus when he introduces Nuke. This genetically engineered super-soldier, living on amphetamines the colors of the American flag, is a one-man slaughterhouse. Miller's disgust with America's involvement in Nicaragua is shown in broad strokes with the picture of this barely-controlled psychopath whose love, Betsy, is a “smart” gun that records the number of kills, not the ammunition used. About Nuke, David Mazzucchelli, the artist and Miller's collaborator, has said:

I think Frank [Miller] is always interested in the question of what a hero is and what his role is today. It was very clear who Nuke was when Frank realized he was the super-soldier of the Eighties.
In other words, what the ideal embodied by Captain America has deteriorated into.

(Sanderson Interview 27)

The forces of Olympus are too strong for the Daredevil, even after he's made peace with his fate. Miller understands this, and brings in the Avengers (Captain America, Thor and Iron Man) to handle Nuke, Olympus' monster (Miller and Mazzucchelli 154). Miller lashes out at the Defense establishment, comparing the “Soldier with a voice that could command a God—and does” (154), with the pitiful drug-ridden mutant who shames the ideal of Captain America. Only the Captain has the will and the power to stop the madness Nuke represents. The war between what America was and should be, and what America is and will be, smashes through the heart of the eagle, the symbol of American freedom and strength.

These reborn heroes champion human, rather than divine, justice. If justice is left to the gods, there will be precious little of it, given Oedipus as an example. The Chorus is too timid, croaking weakly “The seer and I, / we are mortal and blind. / Who is right? Who can judge?” (Sophocles 352). Such abdication is irresponsible, as Oedipus' constant action and inquiry demonstrates. Sophocles describes justice in Teiresias' lament “O God! How horrible wisdom is! How horrible when it does not help the wise!” (349). Implicit in this is a curse against gods who would hold back wisdom from humans, making them blind when they should see. A new standard of Human justice can be set only when humans begin struggling with the idea of what is right and wrong. No longer can people take the easy route and leave it to the gods.

Miller, unhappy for a long time that Murdock defends by day those the Daredevil fights at night, took the opportunity in this cycle to have Murdock debarred, closed out from Olympian law. Murdock's status as a lawyer is perceived by Miller as a major design flaw (Schuster 42-43). Miller's suspicion of government extends through law and out to any form of censorship, which he views as abdication of responsibility:

If somebody falls down, a movie gets a rating for violence, and the lazy parents of America need look no further. It's all there, and little Billy can be kept safe from thinking that there's any evil in the world, or, incidentally, any good.

(Thompson 66)

Mazzucchelli depicts the quality of Olympian “justice.” The Kingpin watches Armageddon strike Hell's Kitchen, satisfied that he can keep any unhappy citizens in the bag. Miller is angry at the “rich man's law,” where the poor gain no redress for the most catastrophic wrongs, nor for all the talk about democracy, is there a venue for the poor to make use of Olympian law.

Part of being a hero involves the ability to see the truth and survive. Oedipus urges his daughters/sisters “Come—come, touch my hands, the hands of your father, the hands of your brother, the hands that blinded these eyes … which neither saw nor knew what he had done” (Sophocles 371). Oedipus sets himself as an example to the next generation, he has taken the worst Olympus can do, and emerges a greater man, a lesser “king.” It is Jocasta who cannot face the conclusion she knows is coming and blesses Oedipus in her agony: “God help you! This is all that I can say to you—now or ever” (Sophocles 363), her last word tipping him off about her imminent suicide. Jocasta's fate is worse in some ways than Oedipus' since her

love and anxiety are always at his side. It is her tragedy that she actively leads Oedipus towards their common disaster, and that she realizes the truth gradually, though always in advance of him.

(O'Brien 78) (Italics added.)

Oedipus, not Jocasta, is the life-force, with the courage to continue in the face of sadism from on high.

Like Jocasta, Karen Page cannot face the agony that she has brought on Murdock and he is barely able to prevent her suicide, so intent is she on death. Evoking John Wayne's The Quiet Man, Miller demonstrates the credo he believes America must re-learn, no matter the cost, no matter the pain. Man must never stop fighting, he must rely on his own, not others', power. The memory in a dying mind of Olympian injustice that will go unpunished, unchecked, brings both Murdock and the Daredevil back to life as he remembers “I had an awful dream … The Kingpin … Not a dream” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 76).

Yet this hero should, in no way, have to explain himself: he is to be felt, understood, at a visceral level. He waits for the moment and strikes, and when society turns to award medals, the true hero is gone. Miller, angry about the state of the hero, feels that the erosion of American ideals—individualism, self-reliance, strength, mercy, liberty and responsibility—has attacked the very nature of the hero, the personification of all these things. Heroes who explain their inner turmoil are betrayed by narcissistic writing which has

infect[ed] every kind of entertainment, especially television. It demands nothing from the reader, or the viewer except a kind of unquestioning acceptance that everybody will tell you how they feel, rather than challenging you, by their behavior, to understand them.

(Thompson 69)

New models of heroism have been presented. Few could have had a harder time of it than Oedipus, none “struck by a harder blow / stung by a fate more perverse” (Sophocles 366). Of those who could survive such distress, even fewer could retain the capacity to command men, especially after they've lost the official trappings of power. Yet Oedipus continues to command Creon, who reveals the extent of his blindness when he lectures “Do not presume … Your power has not survived with you” (372). Blinkered Creon is still waiting on the “justice” of the gods (370). In facing Olympus

man's heroic action [brings him] to a fall which is both defeat and victory at once; the suffering and the glory are fused in an indissoluble unity. Sophocles pits against the limitations on human stature great individuals who refuse to accept those limitations, and in their failure achieve a strange success.

(Knox, Temper 6)

In six of the seven extant Sophoclean tragedies the heroes follow Miller's dictum: “Never give up” (Knox, Temper 8). Oedipus is very much an Everyman: like many humans, a victim of malignant forces that appear unbeatable.

The tall-walking, quiet-talking, laconic hero is championed by Miller, who reduces the Daredevil from his Yuppie lawyer life (Miller's own description), to the noble ordinary Joe who slings hash for a living. While Glorianna and Foggy engage in “meaningful dialogue,” Murdock and Karen Page exchange only a few “heroic” words. Murdock's abrupt “I'm in trouble Karen. I have to go” are the only words he uses to signal his intention to embark on a mission which could cripple or kill him. A devout fan of Dirty Harry and Clint Eastwood in general, Miller feels that the actor “is much more in touch with what we should do with super-heroes than virtually anybody in comics” (Thompson 62). Miller ends with a call to the people, nothing that while

presenting a vigilante as such a powerful, positive force is bound to draw some flak, [yet] it's the force I'm concerned with, more as a symbol of the reaction that I hope is waiting in us, the will to overcome our moral impotence and fight, if only in our own emotions, the deterioration of society.

(Thompson 62)

Unlike Sophocles who champions human reason and inquiry, Miller's message is broader, vaguer and harder to execute. Just how the audience will fight deterioration without using Olympian law against Olympus is unclear. Miller leaves it up to his public, as Murdock notes

I was blinded by radiation. My remaining senses function with superhuman sharpness.

I live in Hell's Kitchen and do my best to keep it clean.

That's all you need to know.


Sophocles has championed man, rather than the gods, and Oedipus becomes an

authentic civilizing hero, the bearer of the tragic meaning of civilization for men. Prometheus, the archetypal culture hero, gave men ‘blind hopes’ along with the arts of civilization so that they could not foresee their death. Oedipus tears away the veil and by his self-chosen blindness gives men sight.

(Segal 247)

Miller also champions humans, pitting them against corporate power. Both authors desire some sort of humane justice, instead of the “justice” of the gods (inaccessible to all). Each hero is redefined: transformed into powerful human beings, they no longer fear Olympus.

While the critics agree that Oedipus replays the answer to the Sphinx's riddle (pinned feet, two feet and a blind man with a cane making three feet [O'Brien 47, Segal 245, Cameron 45]), so do all men, and it's more important that they understand that

Oedipus' … learning is a kind of victory—a Pyrrhic one, of course, in which the victor suffers the most. But in the moral sphere, a Pyrrhic victory is surely the greatest.

(Whitman 142)

Miller, too, hopes to teach this generation a lesson: that the American Dream has been twisted out of shape by those who make no distinction between the end and the means. He pillories the pragmatic, heartless, narcissicism of the eighties, explaining that America must be loyal to nothing except the ideal, the individual's vision of God and Country.

Each artist, formed by his time, has created a death/rebirth saga that both criticizes and teaches the audience what to think and do. In each world there are forces too large for one human to grapple with: such an attempt results in the destruction of the appearance of the hero. What is left behind is, through knowledge and acceptance of truth, made stronger. The model of the true hero leads to the model of a just society in which inquiry and human reason have the potential to topple the greatest powers.


  1. It is impossible to over-emphasize artist David Mazzucchelli's contribution to this work. Mazzucchelli has done both rough and finished art for this seven-issue series, a feat stunning in itself. His powerful graphics make Miller's job that much easier. This graphic novel is the creation of both men: a discussion of Mazzucchelli's art would make a paper of its own.

  2. The irony of the “devil's” rebirth is heightened at the end of the text when Mazzucchelli shows a bloodied Nuke, laid out on a press room desk, the negative space delineating an inverted cross (Miller and Mazzucchelli 173).

Works Cited

Borax, Mark. “Dark Knight.” David Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview 31 (1986).

Bowra, C. M. Sophoclean Tragedy. London: Oxford UP, 1944.

Cameron, Alister. The Identity of Oedipus the King. New York: New York UP, 1968.

Groth, Gary, Ed. “Blood and Thunder: Forum on Frank Miller.” The Comics Journal 77 (1982).

———. “Censorship and Comics.” The Comics Journal 77 (1982).

Harvey, R. C. “McKenzie and Miller's Daredevil: Skillful Use of the Medium.” The Comics Journal 58 (1980).

Knox, Bernard. The Heroic Temper. Berkeley: U of California P, 1964.

———. Oedipus at Thebes. New York: W. W. Norton, Inc., 1971.

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1979.

Lee, Stan. Son of Origins of Marvel Comics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Mangels, Andy. “The Dark Knight History of the DC Universe.” Amazing Heroes 111 (1987).

Miller, Frank, and Mazzucchelli, David. Daredevil: Born Again. New York: Marvel Comics, 1987.

Milton, John. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1957.

O'Brien, Michael J., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968.

Sanderson, Peter. “Dark Knight Revisited.” Amazing Heroes 102 (1986).

———. “David Mazzucchelli: An Interview.” Amazing Heroes 102 (1986).

———. “Elektra: Assassin.” Amazing Heroes 99 (1986).

Schuster, Hal. The Great Comic Artist File: Volume One: Frank Miller, A Work in Progress. New York: Heroes Publishing, Inc., 1986.

Segal, Charles. Tragedy and Civilization. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Sophocles. Oedipus Tyrannus. Trans. Luci Berkowitz and Theodore F. Brunner. World Masterpieces. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. Ed. Mack, et al. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1973.

———. The Theban Plays. Trans. E. F. Watling. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1984.

———. The Three Theban Plays. Trans. Robert Fagles. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1985.

Thompson, Kim. “Return of the Dark Knight.” The Comics Journal 101 (1985).

Webster, T. B. L. An Introduction to Sophocles. 2nd ed. London: Methuen and Co., 1969.

Whitman, Cedric H. Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1951.

Wilson, B. A. Interpretation, Meta-Interpretation and Oedipus Tyrannus. Berekely: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, U of California, 1980.

Woodard, Thomas, ed. Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1966.

Lucy Rollin (essay date February 1994)

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SOURCE: Rollin, Lucy. “Guilt and the Unconscious in Arkham Asylum.Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies 1, no. 1 (February 1994): 2-13.

[In the following essay, Rollin argues that Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum is a powerful work that has both puzzled and fascinated readers due to its intense, surrealistic exploration of the subconscious.]

One does not need to be an avid reader and collector of comic books to be aware of the remarkable transformations comic art has undergone in recent years. Once aimed at children and young adults, comic books were chiefly action tales told in serial pictures, printed on pulp paper and full of advertisements. Now, the comic market includes longer and more complex tales aimed at an adult readership. Printed on high-quality paper and free of advertisements, these books have been designated “graphic novels” to distinguish them from more traditional comic books, and their contents are certainly worthy of the term comic art. Their authors use narrative techniques more akin to Robert Coover (out of James Joyce) than to Louis L'Amour, and stunningly versatile artwork which borrows equally from the traditions of Breughel, Turner, and Steve Ditko.

As M. Thomas Inge has pointed out. such transformations parallel those in social consciousness over the last fifty years, as Americans have moved from what seemed a relatively simple society to one marked by pluralism and confusion in almost every area.1 The fragmented narratives of recent graphic novels such as Watchmen attest to, and seem to replicate, the fragmentation of our culture.

Inge notes that the creators of such comics are “free as never before to address some of the philosophical, social, and political issues that are at the heart of all great literature.”2 He also says that one graphic novel has remained puzzling to its readers: Morrison and McKean's 1989 Batman tale Arkham Asylum.3 This essay proposes that the power of Arkham Asylum lies not in philosophical, social, or political speculations, as have its predecessors in the genre, but in an intense exploration of the unconscious. This interpretation may partially explain the puzzlement and controversy which have accompanied it, since it bypasses the externals and goes directly to the human psyche—never a comfortable place to be. As earlier graphic novels face and replicate the fragmentation of our culture, Arkham Asylum faces and replicates the ambivalent human mind and heart, precariously balanced between sanity and madness.

Dave McKean's artwork for Arkham Asylum evokes the unconscious more fully than could any novel of words alone, not only underscoring and interpreting this tale of guilt and madness but expanding it symbolically until it becomes an experience of the unconscious instead of a depiction of it. For example, the color used throughout the book is extraordinarily intense. Black and white pictures occur at moments with exterior focus—moments of evident sanity and truth, such as Batman's conversation with the Commissioner near the beginning of the book. But the chief colors throughout, announced by the endpapers as they draw us in, are black and red, colors appropriate to this tale of interiors, darkness, bats, and blood. Other colors are used for their shock effect, such as the Joker's intensely green hair and nails and the vivid blue of the electrified darkness at the heart of the asylum. A rich brown marks the title and concluding pages, as if to anchor the tale, as its subtitle says, “in a serious house on serious earth.”

Julia Kristeva has suggested that color in visual art is the element that speaks most directly to the unconscious, to that which we cannot name in language: “color … escapes censorship; and the unconscious irrupts into a culturally coded pictorial distribution.”4 Though the usual comic art codes are clearly operating here, the overall use of color certainly suggests such an “irruption.” Moreover, some psychologists have determined that it is not hue or shade which most communicates emotions, but saturation—the relative intensity of color which “manifests itself most powerfully in the analysis of the relations between connotations and perceptions.”5 One has only to page through Arkham Asylum to experience the remarkable saturation of color throughout the book. Even the quality of the paper allows for an intensity of color more associated with gift books or “coffee-table books” than with comic art, and since the white space in this book is limited to occasional thin white lines between pictures, the overall effect is emotionally unrelenting.

McKean's use of collage further replicates the unconscious. Alternating with such drawing as we might expect in comic art are moments of photographic realism, close-ups of fabrics and objects, writing, vague suggestions of shadowy figures, and even “quotations” from other artists such as Turner. Such fragmentation visually reproduces the jumble of memory, sensory experience, language, image, and fantasy that characterizes our dreams, allowing a glimpse into the unconscious. There is also often a figure-ground arrangement: the pictures which move the narrative forward are imposed on backgrounds which appear to be fabrics, torn paper, diagrams, clocks, blood, and the shadow of Batman himself. The entire book gives the impression of dense layers of meaning, symbol on symbol, most of which we can never consciously explain but which nevertheless communicate and disturb—as do our dreams.

The order and shape of the pictures also contribute to the phantasmagorical quality of the book and create an image of the unconscious, as the narrative focuses alternately on Batman and on the founder of the asylum, Amadeus Arkham. The pictures in the Batman sections of the narrative tend overall to observe the standard comic book format: rectangles clearly delineated from each other, six or eight to a page, to be read from left to right, line by line of pictures. Alternating with these moments, in which we can be fairly certain the narrative is proceeding ahead in the present time, are the Arkham segments, taken from Arkham's journals from 1920 and 1921. These pictures tend to be narrow vertical rectangles separated from each other on varying backgrounds, sometimes moving unevenly across the page, making the reader feel uncertain about the order of the narrative at times. As the tale describes Arkham's mushroom-induced vision and as Batman moves into the heart of the asylum, the pictures become more randomly placed, the lines separating them crooked, incomplete, overlapping, the pictures themselves showing many shadowy shapes punctuated occasionally by startling, detailed images. At the moment when Arkham and Batman simultaneously kill the “dragon,” the pictures stretch completely across the page horizontally, creating a sense of fluidity that occurs nowhere else in the book and which blends the figures of Arkham and Batman for the reader visually as words alone could not.

In addition to this visual evocation of the unconscious, the plot of Arkham Asylum invites a more specific psychoanalytic interpretation, partly, of course, because it is set in a mental hospital and makes frequent references to psychotherapy. Arkham was a psychiatrist, and says that he met Jung in Switzerland in 1920. When Batman comments that psychiatry has destroyed an inmate's personality, Dr. Ruth Adams, a therapist in the asylum, says that psychiatry must “pull down in order to rebuild … psychiatry's like that.”

More importantly, the character of the Joker assumes an especially psychoanalytic function. On April Fools' Day, he telephones the Commissioner and insists that Batman come to the asylum; the inmates have taken over and want Batman as their hostage. When Batman arrives, he finds the Joker in charge as his usual abrasive and wise-cracking self, his clown-white face often thrust toward Batman or the reader in deliberate attempts to shock. Further, McKean uses the usual speech balloons for most of the characters in this novel, but the Joker's dialogue appears only in red scrawls, uncontained, uneven, its appearance suggesting what we might expect of the Joker: aggression, freedom from the usual restraints of ego and superego, extreme abrasiveness—in Freudian terms, the id. However, as the narrative proceeds, the Joker's function becomes more complex. By urging Batman into the dark places of the building and thus into the dark places of his mind, he becomes his psychiatrist, at one point even giving him a Rorschach test. Moreover, from his first appearance he takes on a feminine role, greeting Batman with “Aren't I just good enough to eat?,” calling him “honey pie,” and goosing him. His red mouth and long nails also suggest the feminine, and in one of the final pictures of him, he is wearing high heels. This particular brand of clowning is not especially new for the Joker, but its significance is intensified in the psychiatric setting of this book. In psychoanalytic terms, the Joker is encouraging the transference that must take place for a successful psychoanalysis: he assumes the role of a woman to help Batman reenact his feelings toward his mother and her death. Batman's journey into his unconscious is facilitated by the Joker, making him a kind of perverse healer, a Dantean guide into the underworld of the asylum and of Batman's mind.

What emerges on this interior journey is Batman's guilt over his mother's death. Of course, this guilt is not a new theme in Batman tales. Batman's painful memory of the violent death of his parents helps establish his humanity—the quality that makes him unique among comic book superheroes—and appears frequently though not centrally in other Batman stories. But set in an asylum peopled with the criminally insane, where guilt is problematic at best, and set against Arkham's confused memories of his own mother and her death (we learn eventually that Arkham murdered his mother). Batman's recurring guilty feelings become the nucleus of this tale.

The visual and verbal complexity of this book makes any single interpretation, psychoanalytic or otherwise, difficult. Other psychoanalytic interpretations might draw on Jung's archetypes, Lacan's mirrors, Winnicott's holding, or Kohut's notions of the self, all of which would illuminate the book in particular ways. But the centrality of guilt and its association with the mother in Arkham Asylum invites a psychoanalytic approach that focuses on these elements, and one particular analytic theorist provides that approach. While Freud acknowledged guilt as the source of neurosis, analyst Melanie Klein, in her work in England between 1920 and 1955, placed guilt at the very center of the human psyche, making it the fulcrum which determined sanity and psychosis. An interpretation based on Kleinian theory has, therefore, special significance here.

Two basic elements of Kleinian thought are particularly germane to this novel. First is the importance of the mother. Unlike Freud, who emphasized the father as the formative figure in a child's life, Klein believed that the central relationship in human life was that between mother and child. The mother, or mother-figure, is the object of all the infant's love and aggression—conflicting feelings that are present from the first, according to Klein, and against which the infant learns to defend itself. Second is her notion of how the infant copes with its conflicting feelings. The frustrations of early infancy cause the infant, in self-protection, to split off the bad from the good, in both itself and the mother-figure, and to project all its aggression outward onto what it has fantasied as the bad mother. Klein called this the paranoid-schizoid position. As the infant's ego develops, however, it begins to perceive a whole mother, not a split-off part, and feels guilt for its aggression, trying then to repair its fantasied destruction of the bad mother. Klein called this the depressive position, believing it a major achievement in human development, for it allows us to learn to love and trust.

Some people, for whatever reasons, cannot achieve a genuine sense of guilt and never work through the depressive position. Their egos, Klein said, regress to the paranoid-schizoid position, the guilty feelings become aggressive and destructive, and they are likely to become psychotic. In Klein's view, though, most of us oscillate between these two positions, to some degree, throughout our psychic lives, returning again and again to the depressive position to make reparation for our fantasied early aggressions.

In Arkham Asylum, the Joker's evident amorality and complete freedom from guilt contrast with the deep guilt of Batman and of his alter ego here, Amadeus Arkham, founder of the asylum. The narrative alternates Batman's visit to the asylum, happening in the present, with excerpts from Arkham's journal of 1920 and 1921, shifting back and forth between the two narratives until they momentarily merge at the climax of the tale. What unites the two men is their guilt about their mothers' deaths. Arkham's widowed mother is established as clearly insane in the opening pages of the novel; after her apparent suicide and after Arkham has become a psychiatrist working with the criminally insane, he returns to the house in 1920 and opens it as a hospital for such people. Soon thereafter, his wife and daughter are horribly murdered by a patient he has treated. He controls his rage for a time, and continues to treat this man, but one day, murders him on the electroshock couch. “I feel nothing,” he says. Eventually, after becoming more isolated in the house, he ingests the amanita mushroom and experiences a vision: he faces and kills his “dragon,” crying out “Mother!” and realizing in that moment that it was he who murdered his mother, when she begged him to protect her from her terrible fears of a huge bat. Kleinian theory would suggest that—perhaps because his mother's insanity prevented a normal relationship with her, perhaps because of genetic disposition—he could not work through his depressive position. Instead of making reparation, he took revenge, his unresolved guilt eventually resulting in complete psychosis; he hears voices, sees visions, and retreats into an obsessive-compulsive state in which ritual and symbol are his only protection from the evil he sees around him, but which is really inside him. He spends his last days scratching a binding spell on the floor of his prison cell.

Alternating with this narrative, we see Batman reacting to Arkham's tale and using it to confront his own guilt. At the Joker's urging, Dr. Ruth Adams begins the process with a word-association test, the opening word of which is “mother,” thus encouraging Batman to recall the circumstances of his mother's death. The next portion of the novel—the journey into the depths of the asylum and into Batman's unconscious—is partly organized around just such word associations, as the Joker's words and those of other inhabitants of the asylum trigger Batman's memories and guilt. As the Joker orders him to “Run!” into the bowels of the asylum, he remembers running terrified from the movie Bambi, a film famous for its depiction of a murdered mother (though a subsequent picture indicates that the movie was Zorro—suggesting that like Arkham's, Batman's memory is factually confused but psychologically accurate). His parents followed, angry, his mother telling him she would leave him “right here” unless he behaved. At this moment, his parents were senselessly murdered on the street, leaving the boy orphaned. The pain of this memory causes Batman to stab himself in the hand, saying “Mommy?” He runs further into the asylum, encountering inmates who become projections of his own psyche, especially of his isolation and his obsession with power. One of these characters comments, “Arkham is a looking glass, and we are you.” Arkham's journal entries then become a kind of voice-over, as in a secret room deep in the asylum Batman encounters his own “dragon” and slays it, joining in Arkham's cry of “Mother!” At this moment, Batman and Arkham are one.

But unlike Arkham, Batman apparently does not become psychotic. Instead, he acknowledges his guilt simply, and takes on the duties of reparation. In answer to the mad Doctor Cavendish's accusation that he is the terrible bat-spirit that haunts the asylum, responsible for the deaths of Arkham and Arkham's mother, Batman says hesitantly, “I'm just a man.” Though his guilt is enormous, the sense that he was responsible for his mother's death a painful and omnipresent burden, Batman has moved outside himself to make reparation, using his guilt to help others overcome evil. In this novel he makes specific reparation, after this dramatic encounter with his guilt, by destroying the secret room and freeing the inmates. He also offers to stay with them, if he loses the toss of a coin. But he wins the toss and goes free, still carrying his burden. We have the sense that Batman will have to return again and again to his depressive position, symbolized here by the asylum, to make reparation again and again, not only by conquering a continuing series of comic book villains, but by facing his own rage and aggression. For unlike Arkham, Batman seems to realize the blurred line between reparation and revenge, wondering which he is engaged in at times, always aware that his actions might be the signs of madness—a theme developed early on in Batman comics and explored more fully in the 1986 graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and in the subsequent Tim Burton films. Batman shares this uncertainty with Superman and the Green Lantern, and with other superheroes who have acknowledged their weaknesses and wondered about their reliance on disguise and violence to achieve their ends.

But in the character of Batman, a superhero without superpowers, this awareness is especially poignant and Christlike, a similarity Morrison and McKean underscore. The religious aspects of guilt are acknowledged directly and symbolically in Arkham Asylum. One of the opening pages calls the tale “the passion play, as it is played today,” and at the moment when Batman says, “I'm just a man,” an image of Christ appears beside him. Images of the floor plan of a cathedral appear often, and at the moment of the dragon-slaying, Arkham—and Batman—compare themselves to Parsifal and to “Christ on the cedar.” Even the blood-sodden wedding dress of Arkham's mother, which he in his madness wears and which later the insane Dr. Cavendish seems to be wearing in his imagined role of purifier, looks more like a bishop's robe than a bridal gown. All of this suggests the themes of guilt and atonement which permeate Christian thought just as they do this novel. But Christian guilt was atoned for on the cross, and believers can be washed clean forever. Arkham Asylum is the passion play “as it is played today,” when the cause of guilt takes other forms: Freudian id, Jungian shadow, Kleinian aggression. Since, psychoanalytically speaking, these are perpetually present, they require repeated atonement, just as Batman must continue his vigilance and his struggle with himself. The Joker's closing words, as Batman leaves the asylum, evoke the original, religious meaning of asylum, a place of refuge: “Just don't forget,” he says, “if it ever gets too tough, there's always a place for you here.”

One of the most useful elements in Klein's work is her assumption that psychological time is not linear. Where Freud examined the present moment of neurosis and reconstructed the past from it, Klein believed that infantile notions of time govern the unconscious and make the past a “perpetual present.” Such infantile time “would seem to be nearer to spatial relationships: here, there; come, gone; horizontal, punctuated duration rather than an historical, vertical temporal perspective.”6 The entire arrangement of Arkham Asylum, both its plot and illustrations, offer the reader this sense of spatial time; Batman's experience of his mother's death is perpetually present in his unconscious, just as Arkham's was. Batman experiences Arkham's past as he reads it just as he experiences his own. He slays his dragon at the same moment—in psychological time—that Arkham slays his. The intensity and ambiguity of this moment are represented by the ambiguity of the fluid horizontal pictures, showing partial moments of Batman slaying a huge reptile but himself being stabbed through the body at the same time. Moreover, it is only in the next moments, evidently, that Batman first sees Arkham's journal, though it has been visually present to the reader from the opening pages of the novel. Thus the narrative takes on a circular quality, suggesting that Batman will relive Arkham's tale, again and again, as he projects his own rage and guilt on to the figure of Arkham. Though Arkham is physically dead, he has become perpetually present for Batman.

One of the problems with Klein's theory is its constant use of duality, a way of thinking that has come under critical scrutiny as oversimplified. Klein posits two basic “positions” in our psychological lives, which continue to dominate our relationships with others; Kleinian analysts speak constantly of “splitting.” And Klein focused, not on the Oedipal triangle, but the mother-child dyad. Yet what Kleinian theory seems to lose in intellectual complexity through this emphasis on the dual, it gains in emotional intensity. Certainly the mother-child relationship dominates most people's early lives, and using it to drive a narrative is an almost infallible way to involve the reader, both consciously and unconsciously. Morrison and McKean underscore the importance of the mother to this tale with their epilogue, a quotation from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: “Is it not a Mother's gentle hand that withdraws your curtains, and a Mother's sweet voice that summons you to rise? To rise and forget, in the bright sunlight, the ugly dreams that frightened you so when all was dark.” In the light of all that has preceded, this is extremely ironic: it is the mother who has caused the ugly dreams, not released Arkham or Batman from them. Arkham is dead, but the dreams have not ended for Batman. The novel plays with duality in other ways as well: in the alternating narratives, in the Batman-Joker confrontation and in the Batman-Arkham identity, both encounters with Jungian shadows, and especially in the presence of the inmate criminal “Two-Face,” who was Harvey Dent. One side of his face having become horribly disfigured, Dent had become obsessed with duality and flipped a silver dollar to make all his decisions. Dr. Adams, the psychotherapist, has weaned him to a pack of tarot cards, so that he now has more choices. Yet at the end of the tale, the choice comes down to two: Batman stays or goes, and it is Two-Face's coin that makes the decision. Here too, complexity collapses like Dent's tarot deck in the face of the emotional simplicity and intensity of the dual.

The duality that characterizes Kleinian theory seems especially appropriate for interpreting almost any graphic novel or comic book, because these literary forms communicate simultaneously in words and pictures. Just as the unconscious mixes words and images in remarkably complex ways to pursue its concerns, the layering of words and images in comic art suggests that words alone cannot hold all meaning. But in Arkham Asylum especially, the pictures do not only add information; they are information, equal to the words. They do not only clarify; they deliberately multiply possible meanings, suggesting hidden significances, other paths to take, a truth always just out of reach. And our eyes must work through both media, balancing, sorting, accepting. Such reading may involve more layers of the conscious and unconscious than can words alone.

Freud's breakthrough was the recognition that the neurotic was an extension of the normal. Jung believed we must acknowledge our evil “shadow selves” before we can be whole. Klein's contribution, working as she did on the borderline between the physical and the psychological, was the recognition of the psychotic in the infantile, and hence in all our dreams, our fantasies, and our hidden obsessions. McKean and Morrison's Arkham Asylum explores the many forms this presence might take. Amadeus Arkham was insane. The Joker may be insane, though Dr. Adams says that he may represent some kind of “super-sanity … more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century.” What about Batman? The closing pages of the novel, a kind of “cast of characters” summary, place him, obsessed with criminals and disguise, among the inmates of the asylum: primus inter pares. With wry humor, McKean and Morrison place themselves there as well; their pictures and bios follow this list of the criminal inmates, inviting the reader to wonder if we do not all belong there, for we all dream, we all fantasize, we all obsess to some degree. As the character in the asylum tells Batman, Morrison and McKean seem to say to the reader: “Arkham is a looking glass, and we are you.”

It may be coincidental that Melanie Klein's work is best known in England and that Morrison and McKean both live in the United Kingdom. But all three have much to offer to readers on this side of the Atlantic as well. Just as Klein's work raises disturbing questions about mothers and about the associations among sanity, guilt, and madness, Arkham Asylum opens a window onto the unsettling world of the unconscious, raising those same questions, and not simplifying the answers. Since the days of EC Comics, comic books have always offered their readers a glimpse of their darker fantasies, but this novel depicts the guilt occasioned by our most elemental fantasies, as its strange, painterly beauty draws us into the dark world we share with all who feel guilty. It is a remarkable achievement.


  1. M. Thomas Inge, “American Comic Books: A Brief History and State of the Art,” The World and I (July 1992): 560-577.

  2. Inge, “American Comic Books,” 577.

  3. Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Arkham Asylum (New York: DC Comics, 1989).

  4. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 220.

  5. Benjamin Wright and Lee Rainwater, “The Meaning of Color,” Journal of General Psychology 67 (1962) as quoted in Perry Nodelman, Words about Pictures (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 66.

  6. Juliet Mitchell, Introduction to The Selected Melanie Klein (London: Penguin, 1986), 26.

Science Fiction Studies (review date November 1994)

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SOURCE: Review of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. Science Fiction Studies 21, no. 3 (November 1994): 438-39.

[In the following review, the critic praises the examination of the graphic novel and comics genre in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, commenting that the work “may itself become the first comic to make its way into classrooms as a text in communications theory.”]

The most remarkable critical/aesthetic work I've seen this year has nothing particular to do with sf, but ought to be required reading for anyone still unwilling to accept the considerable impact comics and graphic novels have had on the genre in the last couple of decades. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics does exactly what its title promises, and does it brilliantly—using the comic format to elucidate the narrative and graphic techniques that make this a genuinely original art form. Casting himself as a kind of Carl Sagan tour-guide surrounded by all the special effects that comics have to offer, McCloud begins with a compelling history of sequential pictorial art, crediting the 19th-century German Rudlphe Töpfer with introducing panels and word-picture combinations. He then analyzes various icons and the importance of levels of abstraction in comic art, arguing that stylized figures increase viewer identification (as in the popular Japanese technique of “masking,” or placing cartoonish figures in realistically-drawn settings).

Central to his argument is a triangular diagram in which he locates comics along three axes—the abstract “picture plane,” reality, and language. He explains principles of “closure,” the role of the “gutter” between comic panels, the various kinds of narrative transitions in comics, the representation of time and motion, the representation of motion and sensation, the various ways words may relate to pictures, the uses of color, the importance of synaesthesia. Along the way, he offers a six-stage theory of artistic creation—idea to form to idiom to structure to craft to surface—which is hardly original in terms of classic aesthetic theory, but which takes on added meaning now that he's shown us how comics, as well as more traditional art forms, can sustain this kind of analysis. McCloud's cheerful advocacy doesn't seem to cloud his judgment, however; he recognizes that much comic art remains formulaic and juvenile. At the same time, he calls attention to the important innovations of artists such as Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Art Spiegelman, as well as the Europeans and Japanese, and shows us exactly why they are important. Understanding Comics stands a good chance of becoming one of the standard works for understanding modern popular culture, and may itself become the first comic to make its way into classrooms as a text in communications theory.

Frank McConnell (review date 20 October 1995)

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SOURCE: McConnell, Frank. “Epic Comics: Neil Gaiman's Sandman.Commonweal 122, no. 18 (20 October 1995): 21-2.

[In the following review, McConnell lauds Neil Gaiman's Sandman series for its innovative use of metafiction and utilization of the graphic novel medium to construct a narrative about the art of storytelling, commenting that the series is “the best piece of fiction being done these days.”]

A few years ago I wrote a column for Commonweal (February 28, 1992) on comic books and how they had become a refuge for some very fine, and very serious, storytellers. And I signaled that Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman, was not only a wonderful comic but one of the best bits of fiction altogether being produced these days.

Now I have to make a correction. Sandman is not one of the best pieces of fiction being done these days: as it approaches its conclusion, it emerges as the best piece of fiction being done these days. And that, not just because of the brilliance and intricacy of its storytelling—and I know few stories, outside the best of Joyce, Faulkner, and Pynchon, that are more intricate—but also because it tells its wonderful and humanizing tale in a medium, comic books, still largely considered demimonde by the tenured zombies of the academic establishment.

And never mind also that Gaiman has won awards and admiration and, most important for a writer, envy, from the whole civilized world. What he has done with Sandman is establish the fact that a comic book can be a work of high and very serious art—a story that other storytellers, in whatever medium they work, will have to take into account as an exploration of what stories can do and what stories are for.

Not that he doesn't have antecedents, and not that he doesn't acknowledge them. Will Eisner and Jack Kirby in the forties, Wally Wood and Carmine Infantino in the fifties, and lately Frank Miller and the superbly gifted Alan Moore—all of whom have been demonstrating that comics are a legitimate fictive mode—or, in Gaiman's simpler, better phrase, a machine for storytelling, no less rich, and no less exciting, than any other.

There are nods, throughout the issues of Sandman, toward all of those strong precursors: Gaiman is not the sort to forget or pretend to forget his guildmasters.

Nevertheless, with some excitement, I have to announce that Sandman, at issue number 71 as I write this in September, and with maybe three or four more issues to go, is a new thing. With the conclusion of the series, which began on a monthly basis in 1988, Gaiman will have created a single, massive tale—as long as a Henry James novel—which works both as an allegory of the storytelling imagination (a “metafiction,” if we must use the word) and as—a term I do not use frivolously—a tragedy. And when I say “tragedy,” I am thinking of Lord Jim and Lear and Gilgamesh: stories that exist to remind us of the terrible cost of being human.

Here's what happened. In 1987, DC Comics approached Gaiman to revive, with changes, an old DC character from the forties. Gaiman chose a relatively obscure character, the Sandman, who in the forties was a guy who would dress up at night in a gas mask, zap bad guys with his gas gun, and leave them to sleep it off until the cops came to pick them up next morning.

All Gaiman used was the name: “Sandman.” The master of dreams; the master of stories; Morpheus, whose name means both “god of sleep” and “shaper of form” (make no mistake, when it comes to recondite allusions, nobody has a patch upon our scarily well-read lad). So he invented a theogony—a Family of more-than, less-than gods, the Endless as he calls them, anthropomorphic projections of fundamental human perceptions. In order of age, the family includes Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (who was once Delight).

The point of this psychic genealogy, is that Dream is at its center. We tell stories, create myths, write gospels of every sort, because we cannot tolerate the irrational. Absurdity offends us, as Norman Mailer says in Oswald's Tale (Random House), just because it attacks our sense that there is a reason for our pain. Is all this sadness for nothing? we ask. And the human answer comes back, again and again, no: it's for something but it may be for a little bit more than what you were expecting.

Sandman, in other words, is about failure: about the failure of the imagination successfully to encompass the chaos of ordinary human life, about the failure of all our stories to explain to us why we are such an unhappy people. Some critics—those at least smart enough to recognize the fineness of Gaiman's work—have described him as a “postmodern” writer, and that phrase, stupid as it innately is, may begin to catch the special quality of his work; but only glancingly.

I won't detail for you the plots, subplots, and skerries-within-subplots that are the tapestry of the work: like the best of Dickens, this is serial storytelling, and part of the fun of the thing is seeing how many more balls the author tosses into the air each month, and whether he can keep them all aloft. He (Charles and Neil) does.

But I will—and now, with the series approaching its end, I can—give you a sense of its grand design.

Dream of the Endless, the Lord of Stories, is imprisoned in 1916, by a necromancer in England. He frees himself in 1988 (coincidentally the year of the series' beginning) and regains his kingdom, only to find that he has become somehow tainted—spoiled—altered—by his captivity. Humanized, in fact. From that beginning, the rest of this great and discursive series of tales is all about Dream—Story—discovering that he is intimately involved with the fate of human beings, and can in fact not exist without them.

I don't want to belabor this but in fact Sandman fascinates us so just because it is a parable of the epochal transformation of the human imagination that began right around the time of the Renaissance. In that age, our myths began to be humanized: beginning, say, with Shakespeare, we began to realize that the gods had not invented us, but that we were in the process of inventing our gods. By now in the series Dream of the Endless has died—or committed suicide—but since stories cannot cease, anymore than the mind can stop thinking, Dream of the Endless has also been reborn—but this time as the exaltation of a human child, rather than as an anthropomorphic configuration. Gaiman is too subtle to say it, but I'm not: as the series ends, the Word is made Flesh, and from now on our stories will be the stories of the gods among us, rather than the gods whose chief characteristic is their apartness.

It is the history of Western storytelling altogether, and especially of the stories we like to call “modern.” It is profoundly incarnational but also—Gaiman is very learnedly Jewish—wisely melancholy about the giant cost of moving from the transcendent to the immanent. If you can really read, it is simply magnificent metafiction, a story about story.

I hope DC will have the good sense to publish the entire run, but they probably won't. I know of nothing quite like it, and I don't expect there will be anything quite like it for some time. How often is a new, and deeply human, art form born? (How often do we invent a new—a really new—sin?)

If Sandman is a “comic,” then The Magic Flute is a “musical” and A Midsummer Night's Dream is a skit. Read the damn thing: it's important.

Joe Sanders (essay date autumn 1997)

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SOURCE: Sanders, Joe. “Of Parents and Children and Dreams in Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch and The Sandman.Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 71 (autumn 1997): 18-32.

[In the following essay, Sanders explores the theme of knowledge and communication between parents and children in Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch and his Sandman series, asserting that Gaiman uses these texts to illustrate the affect of misinformation on the minds of children.]

“I wouldn't want to gloss over the true facts”, says the narrator of Neil Gaiman's first graphic novel, Violent Cases (1987), lounging comfortably and looking for all the world like a portrait of Gaiman himself. “Without true facts”, he continues, “where are we?” Since Violent Cases goes on to demonstrate how few unquestionably true facts there are and how awkwardly they fit together, the answer to that apparently rhetorical question seems to be that we are, without objective certainties to depend on, in a world we build out of our fantasies, a land of dreams. The real question is where, if anywhere, we can go from there.

Violent Cases shows a small boy's fascination with the mysterious, dangerous world around him. Especially as the narrator presents it, the boy lived in a world full of intimations of violence and wonder. For example, the conjurer entertaining at a child's birthday party appears to be somehow allied with the gangsters who spirit away, as the boy watches delightedly, an old man who may have been Al Capone's osteopath. Just so, the angry game of musical chairs played by children at the party may echo Capone's vicious notion of competition as he walks around a circle of chairs and bashes in the heads of his “guests”. Other dangers and mysteries are closer to home. Before the story begins, the boy's own father settled a disagreement by jerking him along so sharply that he dislocated or at least severely sprained his son's shoulder. “Back then”, the narrator says of his father, “he seemed huge. He was my rock and my refuge. But when I read stories of giants fefifofumming their way through rocky castles, the ground echoing to their steps, sniffing for the blood of an Englishman in the way that only giants could—the giants always looked like my father.” Obviously, adult readers may say, the boy is exaggerating: His father was neither God Almighty nor a menacing giant. For the boy, however, those fantastic images are not merely the playful products of an innocent imagination but rather boundary markers within which a weak, uncertain entity can survive. But what did the boy have to do in order to survive? The narrator, looking back as a reflective yet somehow anxious adult, speculates on what was true or important in the child's experience. Since he cannot be sure himself, those questions are left for us readers to decide, based on our own sense of human possibility.

Gaiman and his collaborator, artist Dave McKean, intended to continue their exploration of memory and consciousness immediately (Thompson, p. 71). Instead, it was a few years before they returned to this quasi-autobiographical territory with The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, hereafter referred to simply as Mr. Punch (1994). This book also is narrated by a man, unseen this time, with his youthful efforts to put together bits of information and observation so that he can understand the world in which he must live. Again, the task is extremely difficult, and again the adults surrounding the child are of little or no help. They actually try to deny useful understanding. Consider these true facts:

  • An eight-year-old boy is staying with grandparents during the last weeks of his mother's pregnancy. His paternal grandfather owns a small, unsuccessful arcade in Portsmouth, one of whose attractions is a mermaid who poses semi-nude “in the middle of a very small artificial lake”. (Even while being scrupulously accurate in describing where she performs, the boy never refers to her as a young woman wearing a mermaid costume; to him, she is simply “the mermaid”.)
  • The boy's grandfather and grandmother sleep in separate bedrooms, and the boy discovers that the man is away, possibly for at least one whole night.
  • The teenaged assistant at the Punch and Judy show that sets up briefly in the arcade comments “knowingly” that the mermaid soon will have to quit her job because the costume won't fit.
  • The boy sees his uncle, who may be allied financially somehow with his grandfather, talking with the mermaid. The man is describing how difficult it was to keep quiet what happened to “the last one”. The mermaid replies defensively, “Well, I'm not the last one, am I? And he loves me. He said so.” Before they catch sight of the boy and interrupt their argument, the man tells her, “He's an old man. He doesn't love anybody.”
  • Professor Swatchell, proprietor of the Punch and Judy show, says that as a young man the boy's grandfather was “a bit of a lad for the ladies … That doesn't lead to a quiet life. And he never understood that it was a sin to sell fakes as the real thing.”
  • The boy watches his uncle fill an envelope with money and deliver it to a woman.
  • Although his grandfather has left him in his car outside the arcade one night, the boy enters the building. He sees “three men I recognized and a woman that I didn't” shouting at each other. When the woman laughs scornfully at one of the men, he picks up a stick and begins beating her in the face and stomach. As she runs out past the boy, “clutching her swollen stomach”, he recognises her.

It is relatively easy for readers to connect these hints and glimpses into a coherent narrative of sexual exploitation and betrayal. For the boy, it seems to be much more difficult. He walks down to where he saw the men but finds only his grandfather, “crying, in deep gasping sobs. That upset me more than anything else could have done. Adult helplessness destroys children, or it forces them to become tiny adults in their turn.” The boy does not reveal what sense he has made of what he witnessed but simply shows himself trying to comfort his grandfather and assist him back to the car. Once there, behind the steering wheel, the old man has an opportunity to explain to the boy what happened and to suggest how to cope with the understanding. Instead, now that he has pulled himself together again, he closes the subject altogether: “‘You didn't see anything,’ he said. He was telling me, not asking me.” When the authority figures in your life refuse to help you interpret experience and in fact demand that you deny your senses, what can you do? For good or ill, the boy has available a set of images by which to understand people beating and breaking each other: Punch and Judy. As Gaiman describes the puppet show, during an interview,

Mr. Punch is a murderous little glove puppet, beloved by children. His catch phrase, uttered almost unintelligibly, is … “That's the way to do it,” as he beats to death his wife and the policeman who comes to arrest him. At the end of it, he's killed everyone: he's killed the Devil and the guy who meant to hang him, and he's killed his wife and scared away her ghost … [sic] and now he's going off to bring happiness and joy to children everywhere.

(Thompson, p. 71)

It's fairly clear that the purpose of Punch and Judy shows is not just pleasure but instruction: “That's the way to do it.” Mr. Punch teaches children that big people, especially fathers, can get away with anything. What isn't clear is whether the puppet shows' primary audience is children or grownups. It may be adults who need constant reassurance about their roles. Children, on the other hand, have been brought to most of the performances described in Mr. Punch, and the children sometimes appear frightened or actively hostile. Violence is terrifying to the weak, who realise that they can't defend themselves against it, and Mr. Punch neatly symbolises such absolute violence. Early in the book, the boy mentions that his grandfather eventually went mad, after he wrecked his car, “all his affairs, business and otherwise” were over, and he stayed home, shouting angrily at his wife. On the page describing this, the grandfather is shown with his arms thrust out like a hand puppet's, his face hidden by a huge mask that combines his anguished, frightening features with Mr. Punch's.

On the other hand, the first thing shown in Mr. Punch is an earlier episode of the boy's life. As a seven-year-old, visiting his other grandfather, he goes fishing with the man, but he gets tired of that and walks alone back up the beach to a forlorn, empty little tent, where suddenly and without explanation a private performance of “the tragical comedy” begins for him. The boy watches as Judy leaves their baby with Punch who, when it begins to cry, “threw it out of the window. Not really. He didn't throw it out of the window. He threw it off the stage. It tumbled down from the stage onto the beach—and lay there, silent and bleeding.” After Mr. Punch's murder of his baby, the boy immediately runs away from the deserted tent, apparently horrified by what he has seen. There is no indication, however, that he even mentions the experience to anyone else then—or ever, until it becomes part of this book and until he has become as uncertain about what actually happened as he is concerned about what it could mean. Though presented as if immediately seen, verified by “pictures,” the boy's/narrator's observations are a mixture of the factual and the fantastic; for example, he corrects himself that the baby was not thrown through a non-existent window but off the stage, but then describes the puppet lying there “silent and bleeding”. But underlying readers' uncertainty about the true facts of events is the question of how perceptions become distorted in the first place and why observers fantasise so persistently. In other words, where did that particular Punch and Judy scene originate, based on the conviction that when one is being bothered by other people, casting them aside is the best solution, “the way to do it”?

From what the beginning of Mr. Punch demonstrates, children have already absorbed that attitude by the time they arrive at the puppet show. The boy apparently is shipped off to stay with his grandparents rather frequently. The reason never is clearly explained, for it may not be clear to the boy, but it appears to have something to do with his mother's disturbing habit of getting pregnant, an awkward process that disrupts living arrangements and family relationships. The boy seems to take little pleasure in the visits, but simply accepts them as part of the way things are. Docile acceptance is the safest way to behave around adults. When the boy's paternal grandfather notices that the boy is watching him as he waves to the mermaid in her lake, he picks him up and asks playfully, “‘Shall I throw you in, eh? Shall I throw you in the water?’” The boy mutely shakes his head, and the narrator comments that

Adults are threatening creatures.
Shall I throw you in the water?
I'll put you in the rubbish bin.
I'll eat you up.
I'll take you back and get another little boy.

That's what they say. And no matter how much you tell yourself that they're lying, or teasing, there's always a chance maybe they are telling the truth. …

Adults lie, but not always.

This comment, remember, is the adult narrator verbalising the child's silent understanding. Powerless, threatened, lied to, a child might naturally feel distrust or even hostility toward the big people around him, even though he would have acquired enough cunning to conceal his true feelings. Readers note, later in the book, how the boy's shadow becomes Punch's. And still later, as he watches the argument between the adults in the arcade, his skin changes texture so that his face looks like carved wood as he sees the baby puppet, lying on the edge of the Punch and Judy stage behind which he is concealed, and knocks it to the ground while his grandfather is beating his pregnant mistress.

The boy and his grandfather are more alike than they appear, far more than either of them ever could acknowledge. Even as a child, the boy sometimes is forced to act like a “tiny adult”, and in any case he is acquiring the skills required to behave like an adult. One such skill is concealment. Adults do not reveal any more of themselves than they must; instead, they create a frozen-faced surface to hide their real concerns. Children realise this and suppose that they must imitate it. When the boy asks his paternal grandfather about his past dealings with Professor Swatchell, he is told that “I should mind my own business; that if I asked no questions I would be told no lies. I wanted to ask whether, if I asked many questions, I would be told many lies, but I held my tongue. Adults do what adults do; they live in a bigger world to which children are denied access.” In order to enter that bigger world, where they imagine adults somehow gained the secret of their understanding and power, children try to become like them. To be a “tiny adult”, it seems to the boy, is to be stoic and unquestioning of others—or of himself also.

The advantage of taking on such a role is that one can avoid looking powerless and alone. The disadvantage is that one can easily drift into believing that role. Such belief can prevent a person from being able to function in the real world, and so that the boy's grandfather goes insane when his arcade goes bankrupt, he casts off his young mistress, he wrecks his expensive car—in short, when he is unable to deny convincingly that he is powerless and alone. It appears to be a circular process: refusing to understand what is happening in our lives lets us continue to deny understanding so that, with constant rehearsal, our performance becomes both seamlessly polished and dreadfully brittle.

And so we find Mr. Punch's narrator—“lonely now and very far from home”, an adult looking back at the adults who surrounded him as a child and at himself as a child studying them. Growing older, one is supposed to know the world better and to be more able to take confident action. Instead, the narrator gropes through his memories, deconstructing certainties and trying to grasp true facts.

Even if facts could be verified somehow, though, what then? The separate facts would have to be fitted together into a whole picture so we could know where we are and what we should be doing. In Mr. Punch, the separate pictures remain separate. The media in different panels vary from altered or enhanced photographs to line drawings or painted scenes; transitions between panels are often close to what Scott McCloud calls the “non-sequitur”, without an immediately apparent relationship. As McCloud continues, however, the very act of seeing panels next to each other leads readers to “find meaning or resonance in even the most jarring of combinations. Such transitions may not ‘make sense’ in any traditional way, but still a relationship of some sort will inevitably develop” (p. 72). Readers do try to recognise the different versions of the boy himself, sometimes in slashed or torn photographs, sometimes in unemotional line drawing—and once, feeling the inner turmoil after he has watched his grandfather drive away the mermaid, as a fully-painted but featureless “tiny adult” in the same panel with bits of other aspects of himself as a child. Mr. Punch's narrator, however, actively resists making the connections that readers can. He knows how vital it is to do so. As he says,

In a perfect world, it occurs to me now, I would write this in blood, not ink. One cannot lie, if one writes in blood. There is too much responsibility; and the ghosts of those one has killed will rise up and twist the pen down true lines, change the written word to the unwritten …

Yet, at the same time, he is too involved in the events Mr. Punch hints at to let himself look at them directly.

And thus the narrator finds himself trying to reveal truth by using story-telling, the same device that also is used for concealment. “The path of memory is neither straight nor safe, and we travel down it at our own risk. It is easier to take short journeys into the past, remembering in miniature, constructing tiny puppet plays in our heads. That's the way to do it.” At first this sounds like an admission of defeat, a surrender to selfish fantasy. Since the narrator has been defeated before he even begins trying to discover or connect true facts, however, it is possible that examining fantasies actually could be a way to grasp the truth. At least we already have been attempting to do so, in our earlier analysis of the book's opening scene in which the boy describes the impossible Punch and Judy performance he “saw”. We humans reveal ourselves as we put on the puppets of our choice, just as the boy imagines himself donning the costume head of a badger after a performance of Toad of Toad Hall, so that he could “become the badger, a tiny stumbling thing with a huge head, uttering vast truths I dared not think as a child.” Later still, Professor Swatchell lets the boy try on the Crocodile hand puppet from his Punch and Judy show, and the boy is thrilled as it comes to life: “I didn't ever want to give it back. I wanted it to sit on my arm forever, brave where I was fearful, impetuous where I held back. I would have taken it to school and scared my teachers, taken it home and made it eat my sister … [sic]” In both cases, playing a part allows the actor to reveal desires otherwise unacknowledged. When the boy requests a chance to try on Mr. Punch, however, Professor Swatchell refuses because “Once you bring Mister Punch to life, there's no getting rid of him.”

Clearly, the boy knows what he wants, although he knows better than to express his wishes. But the only character in Mr. Punch who can admit to awareness of such desire is the man who operates the Punch and Judy show. Unable to deal with true facts directly, humans are forced to approach reality indirectly, through fantasy. To the objection that “Things never happened thus,” one may reply that “Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot” (“A Midsummer Night's Dream” in Dream Country). So says Morpheus, Dream, the title character of Gaiman's The Sandman, the story that ran through seventy-five monthly installments, beginning not long after Violent Cases and overlapped the writing of Mr. Punch. In fact, the form and substance of The Sandman show a great deal about the quest for understanding and purpose that fills Gaiman's other writing.

Rather than beginning with the apparent advantage of meeting a protagonist anxious to communicate with us, readers of The Sandman start off outside Dream. We must try to figure out what he understands and what his purpose may be. And even when we don't have enough evidence, we must guess.

Guessing is necessary frequently in The Sandman. Gaiman used the interruptions of periodical publication to demonstrate how seldom we see a complete story at one time—or how little even the stories we see as wholes can be understood outside their context. Readers of the monthly magazine sometimes found parts of multi-issue story arcs, sometimes “short stories” complete inside one issue; however, they soon realised that each issue contained only some aspect of Dream, not his essence. This is apparent first of all visually. Gaiman utilised the fact that a monthly comics magazine requires more than one artist and that therefore characters are bound to look different from issue to issue. Beginning a new installment, readers cannot be certain what Dream will look like. It stands to reason that an ancient African queen would see Dream as one of her peers, while a contemporary white teen would see him as shaggy-haired punk rocker. In the same way, the character would not look the same in Chaucer's England as in contemporary London. Even within the same series or a single issue, Gaiman requested different artists for different sections, or gave instructions in his script so that Dream looks Oriental to a Japanese storm god while an Egyptian cat goddess sees him as feline.

Beyond that, however, Gaiman reminds readers that there are more sides to Dream's nature than can be reconciled easily. According to an early issue of The Sandman, thousands of years ago when Dream's African lover Queen Nada refused to stay with him, Dream responded by condemning her soul to “eternal pain” in Hell (“Tales in the Sand” in Doll's House). Just a few magazine issues later, during the 1800s, Dream advises the quasi-immortal Hob Gadling to get out of the slave trade because it means “treating your fellow humans as less than animals” (“Men of Good Fortune”, in Doll's House). Each of these actions is a true fact, as far as readers can know, but it is hard to see how they can originate from the same person. Dream remains aloof, enigmatic.

Gradually, through several episodes, readers do piece together something of Dream's origin. He is one of the Endless, beings who represent basic conceptual categories. The other members of his family are Destiny, Death, Destruction, the twins Desire and Despair, and finally Delirium (formerly known as Delight). Although the Endless sometimes act as pure embodiments of their names, they also display more personal identities. What readers can guess about Dream himself, based on what he demonstrates and what he says about himself, is that he is in charge of creating or at least potentially monitoring all dreams. He produces both reassuring fancies and nightmares. The focus of his actions is somewhere between those of his cute, perky older sister Death, who removes humans from this level of consciousness permanently, and his androgynous younger sister/brother Desire, who operates so much inside the world of our present senses that Desire's private citadel is merely an immense replica of his/her own body. Dream is, in short, a being of great power who lives by frequently mysterious rules. He is bigger than readers can estimate, let alone comprehend, but he is too important to ignore, too active in human lives.

Dream sounds, in practical terms, like the adults in Gaiman's Violent Cases and Mr. Punch, especially the grownup family members. Most especially, Dream resembles the fathers. As with grownups generally and parents in particular, one can never be quite sure whether to expect kindness or pain whenever Dream appears. In the first issues of The Sandman, he initially is seen as a prisoner, a victim of foolish occultists who imagined they were capturing Death. This introduction makes Dream appear sympathetic, and when he escapes decades later he takes only what seems appropriate revenge on his captors. As he repairs his realm and reassumes his power, he is sometimes oblivious to mere human concerns. Still, he acts against forces that readers find even less sympathetic, and he is capable of unexpected gentleness, as when he rescues young Rose Walker from the serial killer Funland and then gives a dream of peace to that tormented man who murdered children because of his frustrated loneliness: “I'm sorry, he tells the children. I'm sorry I hurt you all. Do you forgive me. Of course we forgive you, they say. Now let us play some more in these gardens, which are paradise.” And yet Dream himself prepares, in the last installments of the “Doll's House” story arc, to kill Rose because she somehow, unknowingly embodies a “dream vortex” that he believes could break down the barriers between individual dreamers and thus destroy this universe. There seems to be no way to figure out such a character; as the boy in Mr. Punch says of adults generally, the Sandman simply does what he does.

That's not altogether true. But before readers can consider how a grownup's mind can be changed, we must try to guess what Dream has on his mind.

What Dream talks about, whenever he wants to explain or justify himself, is Duty. As he tells Rose Walker, he is “the Lord of this Realm [of dreams], and my wishes are paramount. But I am not omnipotent.” And so, though he tells Rose he is sorry about having to do it, he will kill her because it is his duty to protect his area of responsibility, the supernatural realm called the Dreaming. As far as Dream knows, all this is unquestionably true. However, fortunately for Rose, her dying grandmother, Unity Kindaid, appears in the Dreaming to say that she will take Rose's place because she should have contained the vortex if she had not been unconscious while Dream was imprisoned. To Dream's bewildered comment that he doesn't understand what is going on, Unity replies “Of course you don't. You're obviously not very bright. But I shouldn't let it bother you.” So Duty, as it turns out, is not the absolute Dream thinks—or at least he may be mistaken about how it is to be carried out.

The real question is whether, or under what circumstances, Dream himself could recognise this qualification. Readers should remember both the Sandman's solemn certainty and Unity's irreverent debunking, indicating Gaiman's own balanced view of the character. Taking himself and his duties with utter seriousness, however, Dream seems unable to see himself except in rigid terms. That certainly is true in his relationship with Nada, in which he is willing to let her sacrifice her people and her world to stay with him. In fact, he demands she make that sacrifice, unable to recognise that she feels a sense of responsibility stronger than her love.

Readers can observe the Sandman's inability to reconcile personal feelings and obligations, camouflaged or denied by resolute belief in a public role, in his behavior as a parent. Again, readers become aware of this aspect of the character out of chronological order, after the severed but living head of Orpheus refers to Dream as his estranged father in a short story set during the French Revolution (“Thermidor” in Fables & Reflections). A later special issue of The Sandman, set in Ancient Greece, describes Dream's displeasure at Orpheus' rejecting his advice to get over his grief for the dead Eurydice and stoically continue with life. When Dream refuses to help Orpheus retrieve her soul from the underworld, the boy angrily declares his independence and leaves. After he has failed to save his lover from Hell and still cannot subdue his grief—after, essentially, he has behaved unlike Dream did with Nada—Orpheus is torn apart by the Bacchae. Dream retrieves his son's head on the beach, calmly remarking that he has “come to say goodbye. It seemed the proper thing to do.” He has spoken with priests who agreed to watch over the head from now on. However, he reminds Orpheus that the boy denied their relationship. Therefore, the Sandman will not help his son die, and he will never see him again: “Your life is your own … Your death, likewise. Always and forever your own. Fare well” (“The Song of Orpheus” in Fables & Reflections). And Dream strides away without looking back.

From what readers have seen of Dream by the time “Song of Orpheus” was published, it is not surprising that his behaviour with others is cool and formal. Even with his own son, he appears interested but remote. When affronted by a plea for personal intervention, thus, Dream's idea of punishment is further withdrawal: You did this to yourself, he tells Orpheus, and now you have to live with it. He does not see that by leaving his son in hopelessly mutilated physical condition he has him back under absolute control. He does not admit that he is leaving someone he cares for in helpless imprisonment.

At least, he does not recognise it at the time.

While he is treating the people around him without compassion, Dream justifies himself by appealing to his role as one of the Endless, his need to execute impersonal duty. Actually, his behaviour seems to be based on rigid habit, such a desperate unwillingness to consider change that it denies the existence of alternatives. When Orpheus' uncle Olethros (Destruction) insists that his father does care for him and Orpheus replies that “He has a strange way of showing it,” the Endless comments “Aye. But that's his way. He's set in his ways.” Orpheus' mother, the muse Calliope, says as much: “He cannot share anything; any part of himself. I thought I could change him. But he does not change. He will not. Perhaps he can not.” Centuries later in time—though earlier in the series of comic book stories—Dream frees Calliope from captivity, and she marvels that he has changed; he tells her “I have learned much in recent times” (“Calliope” in Dream Country). He had insisted that he must not and could not change, but now he has. And later, even though he is one of the Endless, nevertheless he dies.

The death of the Sandman, at the end of the “The Kindly Ones” story arc, announced the impending end of the regular comic book and set readers debating the reasons Dream accepts the termination of his existence. One difficulty readers have with The Sandman is that encountering episodes out of chronological order forces us to put the sequence of events together, and it sometimes is difficult to catch hints of how concerns are related. That probably is why Peter David mistakenly guesses that Dream ultimately commits suicide in reaction to his helpless imprisonment shown in The Sandman's beginning episodes, a kind of psychic rape that traumatised Dream unbearably because of his obsession with control. It is true that when, during their last conversation, Dream tells Death he has made preparations for his passing, she replies, “Hmph. You've been making them for ages. You just didn't let yourself know that was what you were doing” (The Kindly Ones). Actually, however, one of the things Dream has been doing frequently since escaping from his imprisonment has been freeing others from confinement, including Calliope, Nada, and eventually even Orpheus. As Dream remarks, he has learned from his recent experience. He is not throwing his existence away because it no longer matters. Nor, for that matter, is he simply purging his guilt. He is following a fuller understanding of duty to what he has learned is right.

Freeing Orpheus from imprisonment by finally giving him death is the direct cause of Dream's own death. Like the other Endless, Dream understands that one of the basic rules of their existence is that anyone who spills family blood becomes the prey of the Erinyes, also known as the Furies or the Kindly Ones. Nevertheless, he watches or even nudges into motion the series of events that brings him and Orpheus together again and that leads him to grant his son's plea for release. At a level below full consciousness, the Sandman knows what he is doing, and he knows what the consequences will be: his own extinction and replacement by another embodiment of Dream.

That the Sandman accepts this personal end must show that he has realised that his own past actions have been mistaken, that the way he has carried out his duties has sometimes been wrong. The immediate cause of that realisation must be what Dream has learned by his own experience what it means to be a prisoner. However, his imprisonment appears actually to be the culmination of a process of unverbalised reconsideration that had been going on for a very long time. As Mr. Punch shows, remember, adults try not to reveal what truly is going on inside themselves for fear of it being noticed by someone else—or by themselves. They must bring out their concerns in fiction, obviously artificial tales that onlookers can hold away at a safe distance. And so in the story “Men of Good Fortune” Dream approaches the eager young hack playwright Will Shaxbeard with the query whether he would like to be able to “write great plays? Create new dreams to spur the minds of men?” A later story reveals that they have come to terms: Dream has given the aspiring writer access to “the great stories”, the tales that embody basic human fears and desires, and in return William Shakespeare will write two plays for him and have the first performed as his patron desires. Thus, on June 23, 1593, a play about the confusions ensuing when mortals and non-mortals mingle, is performed as A Midsummer Night's Dream by a band of human players before an audience the Sandman has invited from the realm of Faerie.

Two aspects of Gaiman's script, winner of a World Fantasy Award for best short story, are especially worth noting. For one, the story contains references to a subject from the past that has not yet been shown to readers: Orpheus and his fate. Queen Titania's comment during the play that she “heard this tale sung once, in old Greece, by a boy with a lyre” may be a reference to Orpheus; the play certainly refers to this part of Dream's past, as he watches expressionlessly, when Theseus finds “The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals tearing the Thracian singer in their rage” listed among possible subjects for dramatic presentation. More than that, readers note that even centuries before he acts to free Nada or Orpheus, Dream expresses uncertainty about the rightness of his actions. Following her comment just quoted, Titania remarks to Dream, “You are a deep one. I would I could fathom your motives … ?” Somewhat later in the play, Dream responds to her invitation to share confidences by musing,

I wonder, Titania. I wonder if I have done right.

And I wonder why I wonder. Will is a willing vehicle for the great stories.

Through him they will live for an age of man; and his words will echo down through time.

It is what he wanted.

But he did not understand the price.

Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart's desire, their dream … [sic] But the price of getting what you want, is getting what once you wanted.

And had I told him? Had he understood? What then? It would have made no difference.

Have I done right, Titania? Have I done right?

He gets no answer; Titania has not been listening. The important things for readers to notice about Dream's soliloquy are, first of all, that it shows him questioning himself at all, then that it shows him questioning himself in mortal terms: He is asking what would be “right” in terms of Shakespeare's welfare, not his own duty. As the directions in Gaiman's script indicate, “He's asking her a question, trying to solve the problem of whether it's Right to have ruined Shakespeare' life, even though he doesn't know that's what he's done” (p. 25). Finally, thus, it is worth noting the different levels of the character's thinking, so that he can ponder the rightness of having done something that he “doesn't know” he has done.

Finally, though this never is stated directly, there is the strong possibility that that Dream's remarks are caused not just by pondering the rightness of his past actions—especially concerning Orpheus, his only son—but by what he may observe happening in Shakespeare's relationship with his son Hamnet. As a playwright newly aware of his powers, Shakespeare appears to care only about his art. Hamnet feels “distant” from his father, as if he is “less real to him than any of the characters in his plays,” and he even repeats his sister's joke “that if I died, he'd just write a play about it. ‘Hamnet.’” Hamnet's doubts are left as unresolved as the Sandman's, as he must stare at his father form a distance “WITH LONGING, WITH LOVE” (p. 26). As I commented in an earlier essay on Gaiman, watching one self-absorbed father ignore his resentful son might also stir painful uncertainty in another father who has lost his son by letting alienation turn into permanent separation (p. 352).

Even if Dream does not react overtly to all that is happening around and within himself, readers notice what is going on. Events in The Sandman demonstrate repeatedly that nothing stays the same forever, that outgrown roles can and must be abandoned. The inhabitants of Faerie cut off connection with the world of humans; Lucifer abandons Hell (Season of Mist); even Destruction, Dream's Endless brother, leaves his role to search for new interests (Brief Lives). Also, in the only story included in two reprint albums, Death shows Dream that the end of existence is not necessarily to be dreaded (“The Sound of Her Wings” in Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll's House). Moreover, in a story in which Dream does not appear himself, Death even endorses the idea of suicide, telling a disfigured, embittered superheroine that “Your life is your own … So is your death” (“Facade” in Dream Country), virtually the same words Dream speaks, apparently without awareness of their irony, to the mutilated Orpheus. After witnessing all this, readers can reasonably surmise what is going on under Dream's unemotional exterior. We may accept the final educated guess by Lucien, Dream's librarian, that “he did a little more than let it [his death] happen … Sometimes, perhaps, one must change or die. And, in the end, there were, perhaps, limits to how much he could let himself change” (“In Which a Wake Is Held”, p. 19). So we may see that Gaiman is not simply indulging in polite euphemisms when he does not say that Dream “dies” at the end of The Kindly Ones but rather that he “passes on” (Foldout chronology of the magazine/publishing project in The Tempest).

The wonder, after all, is that a character like Dream could move at all. Even seeing all the evidence that readers do, Dream resists awareness and change even more determinedly than most mere humans could. Why should one of Endless change? How can one of them change? Dream does not know, at least not consciously. In his last meeting with Will Shakespeare, however, he explains why he chose the subject of the second play Will owed him, The Tempest. “I wanted a tale of graceful ends. I wanted a play about a King who drowns his books, and breaks his staff, and leaves his kingdom. About a magician who becomes a man. About a man who turns his back on magic.” At the time, he denies that he sees himself reflected in the characters who leave one condition so they can enter another: “I do not. I MAY not. I am Prince of stories, Will; but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever.” As readers know, having absorbed The Sandman and having watched Morpheus move out of his endless isolation, he is wrong. What makes it possible for the Sandman to escape self-protective role playing is the experience of fiction. Apparently, as we extend ourselves into other characters and see their confused motives and actions, we become aware—if not fully conscious, even then—of our own. Seeing how they use the possibilities in their lives, we can catch sight of what we might do.

Through fantasies, in other words, we can become aware of our ability to hurt others. We also can become aware that we may be able to choose not to do it.

This is true in Mr. Punch too, especially in two important scenes. The first comes midway through the book, between the first and second “true facts” listed above. Earlier in the same night the boy discovers that his grandfather is not sleeping at home, he has a dream of wandering through his grandfather's arcade alone in the dark, while he hears the sound of “Crocodiles and alligators and older, huger reptiles” moving around him. This happens after he has tried on Professor Swatchell's crocodile handpuppet and has felt the sense of primordial power that identity carries with it, how attractive it is to the wielder and how menacing to an outsider. In the dream, he runs toward a lighted Punch and Judy theatre, inside which “the doctor was cutting open Pretty Polly, Punch's forgotten girlfriend. Punch stood beside him, looking sad.” The idea of illicit sex has barely been hinted at thus far, and the consequences—the pregnancy that a doctor might be operating to terminate—are even farther ahead in the book. However, since people habitually deny understanding of what they have seen, it is quite possible that the boy could have noticed clues that he repressed, before the memories that he does show us. As the puppet doctor cuts the empty female puppet open, though, a life-size hand emerges, which the doctor begins to cut with his knife: “Punch laughed, and I wondered who the third hand belonged to,” the narrator says. The hand is blank white, not yet marked by use. It is raised in the direction of the doctor and Mr. Punch, as if to defend Pretty Polly, but it does not move once it has emerged. It is present but unable to “grasp” its surroundings. Instead, it is at the mercy of the active adults. In all this the hand resembles the boy: “I turned to run: but there was nothing anywhere but the darkness. No shelter, no safety. I had lost my way, and I was alone in the night. And already the crocodiles were beginning to roar.” Accompanying these words is a pair of panels, one showing the boy as a tiny, indistinct stick-figure, the other filled with the largest picture of him in the book, a photographic montage that merges the boy's features and a crocodile's. It may be that the boy feels threatened and is resisting being swallowed; it may be that the boy is metamorphosing into the powerful reptile. The choice is not clearly made, for it cannot be clearly stated. The boy cannot let himself know what he knows, let alone act on the knowledge.

A somewhat clearer choice appears at the very end of Mr. Punch, when the adult narrator attends a celebration of Mr. Punch's birthday, one May in a Covent Garden churchyard. The selfish, murderous Mr. Punch evidently is quite socially acceptable, and the narrator toys with the idea of “abandoning the life I had built for myself” and running a Punch and Judy show, “teaching the children, and those with an eye and a mind to see with, the lessons of death that went back to the dawn times; amusing and delighting both old and young.” He even thinks he catches a glimpse of Professor Swatchell in the crowd, though he later realizes that the old man must be dead by now: “Everybody dies but Mr. Punch, and he has only the life he steals from others.” When, therefore, he is offered a chance to put Mr. Punch on his hand, he is tempted because “It would have whispered its secrets to me, explained my childhood, explained my life … [sic]” However, the narrator appears to realise that those secrets, like the puppet's vitality, would have been stolen from him and distorted before being returned to his conscious self again. Triumphant at the end of the play, Mr. Punch exclaims “Hooray! Hooray! The Devil is dead! Now everybody is free to do whatever they wish!,” but the narrator turns away: “I left the churchyard then, shivering in spite of the May sunshine, and went about my life.”

As in Violent Cases, the narrator of Mr. Punch wants to understand where he is, realising that most of his certainties are undependable. The very categories he uses to make sense of his world may be too distorted and rigid to do more than keep him in the same rut he began settling into while he was deciding how to become an adult. If that is the case, he may be in danger of passing on false information to the people around him so they won't know where they are either. Thus parents unthinkingly lie to their children while tacitly daring them to disagree; and thus children learn to disguise their resentment at being lied to so they unconsciously can pass on misinformation to even younger people. As in The Sandman, however, Mr. Punch suggests that releasing one's inhibitions and exploring apparently remote, fantastic scenarios may be the best way to discover what choices of direction we actually have. We might even begin to share our search for human truth. In any event, since we do live in a world of dreams anyway, the most dangerous thing we could do would be to deny that true fact and refuse to acknowledge our dreams.

Works Cited

David, Peter. “But I Digress” [column]. Comics Buyer's Guide #1130 (September 15, 1995), p. 82.

Gaiman, Neil. Mr. Punch. A Romance. Script.

———. The Sandman: Brief Lives [Sandman #41-49]. New York: DC Comics, 1994.

———. The Sandman: The Doll's House [Sandman #8-16]. New York: DC Comics, 1990.

———. The Sandman: Fables and Reflections [Sandman #29-31, 38-40, 50, Sandman Special #1, and Vertigo Preview]. New York: DC Comics, 1993.

———. The Sandman: Dream Country [Sandman #17-20]. New York: DC Comics, 1991.

———. The Sandman: A Game of You [Sandman #32-37]. New York: DC Comics, 1993.

———. “In Which a Wake Is Held” [Chapter Two of “The Wake”]. The Sandman #71 (September 1995)

———. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones [Sandman #57-69 and Vertigo Jam #1]. New York: DC Comics, 1996.

———. “A Midsummer Night's Dream” [script].

———. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes [Sandman #1-8]. New York: DC Comics, 1991.

———. The Sandman: Season of Mists [Sandman #21-28]. New York: DC Comics, 1992.

———. “The Tempest.” The Sandman #75 (March 1996).

———. The Sandman: World's End [Sandman #51-56]. New York: DC Comics, 1994.

———. The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1995.

———. Violent Cases. Northampton MA: Tundra, 1992.

Groth, Gary. “Neil Gaiman” [interview]. The Comics Journal #169 (July 1994), pp. 54-108.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton MA: Kitchen Sink, 1993.

Sanders, Joe. “Gaiman, Neil (Richard).” St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers. Ed. Jay P. Pederson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996, pp. 350-352.

Thompson, Kim. “Neil Gaiman” [interview]. The Comics Journal #155 (January 1993), pp. 64-83.

Brent Fishbaugh (essay date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Fishbaugh, Brent. “Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen: Exact Personifications of Science.” Extrapolation 39, no. 3 (fall 1998): 189-98.

[In the following essay, Fishbaugh analyzes how Alan Moore portrays the social and humanistic impact of scientific development in Watchmen through the evolution of his characters, commenting that Moore is “quick to illustrate the need for emotion and humanity in decisions concerning the morality of [the potential uses of science] and the weaknesses these same human traits bring to any such implementation.”]

Comic books seem to be eternally stigmatized as garbage for children's minds and sources of potential revenue for the toy market; however, every decade or so a comic book or visionary creator enters the medium, taking the comic world in a different, more adult direction. In the fifties, in his book Seduction of the Innocent and in his testimony before Congress, Fredric Wertham, a child psychologist, made people aware of the adult themes that could be transmitted through this so-called kiddie-lit. In the sixties, Robert Crumb rose to prominence with his underground stories—comics that he and others would use to explore such issues as sexual liberation and drug use. These sporadic and often missed explosions of seriousness in the medium, however, have always paled in comparison to the esteem many European and Asian countries give to their graphic literature. But in 1985, two works appeared that would change the way many Americans would view comic books: Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a dark and violent view of Batman in his fifties, and Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which examines, in a science fiction setting similar to George Orwell's 1984, the cost of achieving world peace. Moore, as the writer, uses his superhero characters—if they can truly be called “heroes”—as symbolic representations of hard and soft sciences and of their potential, shaped by human failings, to create a utopia.

The origins of Watchmen stem from Moore's desire to do a comic series about superheroes and the effect they might have if they were placed in a “real world” setting; there would be real, contemporary issues, such as graphic street crime, the controversy over nuclear disarmament, and human sexual relations; many of these topics would be based around historical events, such as the New York City murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 or the repercussions of the Vietnam War. Moore already had some success as a writer in his native England and had managed to rejuvenate a tired horror comic, Swamp Thing, for DC Comics by turning it from conventional horror and superhero fare to a more introspective examination of the human condition. DC had recently purchased another company's comic book universe, which amounted to roughly seven not-so-famous heroes from the sixties and early seventies. Moore hoped to twist these characters to fit his plans; however, the editors at DC were unwilling to let their properties be turned to a project so dark and untried as what Moore suggested. This led to a decision by Moore and Gibbons to create characters based on those they had hoped to use. Both agreed later that this was for the best; it allowed them to explore avenues of development they had previously ignored. Many of the characters' idiosyncrasies came from this necessity to reconstruct them along the frames of the previous characters' personas. As inspiration will usually have it, this led to the development of traits previously unplumbed by the creators and served to further—albeit haphazardly—the “real world” aspect the creators sought to evoke.

Likewise, as the characters developed somewhat unsystematically, the story did the same as the writer and artist bounced ideas off each other, continually adding to the depth of the book. The work began to take on a much more postmodern feel as the layers of the book began to deepen. Small stories within the main story began to take place, and the New York City environment itself became as crucial a character in its revelations about the so-called heroes as the actual human characters did. By examining the setting, one sees clues that point toward the eventual outcome of the book. Seemingly insignificant props placed in the background play a crucial role, shaping the tone and narrative of the work; the creator stumbled upon many of these, such as the factually based “smiling crater” on Mars, coincidentally, but this only served to strengthen their resolve that they were indeed on the right track. Posters promoting such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Things to Come on the placard for the “Utopia Theater” lend hints as to the method the series mastermind will use to achieve his ultimate goal. The theme of the Gordian Knot and how it runs from a locksmith to Mars to Alexander the Great also points to the architect of the mystery behind the plot and to his motives. A duel storyline in the novel, detailed in a comic book about pirates read by the child at the newsstand, parallels one man's decent into the abyss in order to create peace on Earth—a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein. As these story characteristics begin to take shape in a seemingly unplanned manner, the authors sought to use the last few pages of each installment similarly. In most comic books, these pages are reserved for letters sent by readers commenting on previous issues or chapters as they hit the newsstands. With merely twelve issues in which to tell their story, and since responses would not begin arriving until the third or fourth issue/chapter, Moore and Gibbons opted to forego a letters column and instead fill those pages—at least in the initial issues—with chapters of an imaginary autobiography mentioned in the main story. This worked so well for them and added so much to their narrative that they decided to exclude the letters section from future chapters as well; in its place would be such seemingly inconsequential and unrelated items as articles on ornithology or a police report and psychiatric evaluations of one of the characters. Interviews with or articles about the main players in the story were developed in these sections and further served to define the characters and the bleak world they inhabited.

It was to be something of an experiment for Moore and Gibbons, but it grew beyond anything they had imagined as they opened a door to an idea, only to be drowned in the possibilities it released. The astounding aspects of this novel are that the creators managed to include most of these ideas—such as the Hiroshima lovers' graphitti silhouette and the murder of Kitty Genovese—and, as admitted by the pair, that there were such coincidences in the way these details, like the smiley face crater on Mars and Rorschach's smiley-face button, interlocked and supported one another. The authors admit to incredible fluke occurrences in their research for the book, and they took these as omens for their success; even as they watched, somewhat helpless in the in the flood of ideas they were discovering, the novel was evolving into much more than they had envisioned. It continues to surprise them and most readers with each examination.

The importance of science is made clear from the beginning of the novel when, in the first chapter, the reader is immediately made aware of the advanced science at play in the story. Moore immediately and subtly lays out the advanced technology used by the characters in their 1985—a 1985 where Nixon is still president, a 1985 where people drive electric cars and eat at a chain of Indian restaurants instead of burger joints. Cars are electric; readers learn later that one of the heroes has made this possible. Airships travel the skies between buildings much like those in the film Blade Runner. It is in the heroes themselves, however, that Moore proposes his primary question: Is humanity responsible and humane enough to properly use science? As such, he personifies the sciences within the major characters and through the text, asks the reader if placing the power of various sciences in the hands of the subject morality and wisdom of human beings is a wise idea. In the minor characters, Moore demonstrates to some extent the results of applied science. Both instances serve to prove that mankind is unable to responsibly handle the power of science.

The story begins with the masked adventurer Rorschach investigating the death of a man he learns to be the Comedian, a former comrade and current government operative. Rorschach immediately jumps to the conclusion that this may be some sort of vendetta against adventurers of the past decades, most of whom were forced to retire or go underground when a law banning the fad of masked adventuring restricted all but those for whom the government had use. Rorschach sets out to warn his former friends and, as he does, he introduces the reader to the remainder of the leading cast: Nite Owl, a.k.a Daniel Drieberg, a wealthy ornithologist; Ozymandias, a.k.a. Adrian Veidt, “the smartest man in the world,” a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist; the Silk Spectre, a.k.a. Laurie Juspeczyk, a woman forced into the role of hero by her mother. Laurie is also the girlfriend of Dr. Manhattan, a.k.a. Jon Osterman, a nuclear physicist and the only real “superhero” in the book, with amazing extrahuman abilities, used by the government as a weapon against the communists. None take Rorschach's assumptions very seriously, since he has a reputation as a paranoid rebel; suddenly, however, coincidences begin to take shape that support Rorschach's claims. Dr. Manhattan is accused of unknowingly giving cancer to his close associates; he leaves Earth out of guilt. Rorschach is framed for the murder of one of his old adversaries and is captured by the police, who have wanted him for more than a decade due to his violent methods. Adrian is the target of an attempted assassination. Dan and Laurie break Rorschach out of prison, and they discover the person behind the plots against them, plots linked to a grander one involving mass murder as a way of frightening the nations of the world into unity and peace. This mastermind wants to save the world from itself and, to do so, will kill all of New York City if he must. During this search for the truth, the characters each discover smaller truths about themselves: Laurie comes to a realization about her father, Jon about what it means to be human, Dan about his feelings for Laurie, etc. These “learned truths” reveal much about the aspect science plays in the representations of three characters: Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias.

Rorschach, Walter Kovacs, as he investigates the death of the Comedian, is the first character encountered by the reader. Like his name implies, his link to the sciences comes through psychology. He wears a mask that resembles a Rorschach test itself—a black fluid trapped between a layer of white and a layer of transparent material, with the black constantly changing its pattern to feature test upon test upon test. While he is the link that initially joins the main characters as he seeks out each to deliver the news of the Comedian's death, his own link—besides the obvious symbolic one of his name—is not truly explored until chapter six, after he has been captured by the police. In this chapter, a psychologist comes to examine the imprisoned Rorschach, the man now revealed to be the nameless man in the background who has, up until this point, walked the streets carrying a sign announcing that “The End is Nigh,” his true identity unknown to the reader.

This examination of Rorschach and the revelation of his true identity and past are the most obvious links of this character to the soft sciences. Rorschach was created entirely by his environment, and it is that environment which has driven him to the extreme behavior he so often demonstrates. At first, the psychiatrist uses Rorschach tests to examine the patient, but the reader sees what the doctor cannot; Rorschach lies in his responses. What Kovacs sees are not the simple, pleasant images that lead the doctor to believe his patient is making progress but images from Walter Kovacs's past, which reveal his motivations for becoming Rorschach, Walter's truest identity, and memories that pushed him into his obsessive behavior. Walter sees in the ink spots his prostitute mother turning a trick, a trick which skipped out on full payment for her services, a trick Walter was beaten for interrupting. He was removed from his mother's custody and placed in an orphanage until he left during his late teens to work as an unskilled laborer in the garment industry. When he was twenty-two, a woman failed to pick up a dress made of an experimental fabric, “Viscous fluids between two layers of latex, heat and pressure sensitive. … Black and white. Moving. Changing shape … but not mixing. No gray.” The woman who ordered the dress never collected it; she thought it was ugly. The young Walter put the dress away and forgot about it and her for two years. In 1964 she turned up dead, raped and murdered in an alley while almost forty neighbors listened to her screams or watched her torture; her name was Kitty Genovese, and she presents still another example of how Moore draws the horror of reality into the story. This is a spark that proves to be the ignition of Walter's real life, the ignition but not the full flame. Walter cut up the dress and made it into “a face that [he] could bear to look at in the mirror” (Moore and Gibbons 6:10).1

He joins the fad of costumed crimefighting not for fun, but out of guilt—guilt over what his entire race has become, guilt spawned not just from the events surrounding Kitty Genovese's death but from his own misbegotten upbringing. In 1975, Walter has an epiphanal experience that will overwrite his Kovacs personality into that of Rorschach. In that year, a child is kidnapped under the false assumption that she is related to a wealthy family; Rorschach promises to return her safely. He tracks the criminal to his home, only to discover the man has killed the child and fed her to his German shepherds rather than admit his mistake. “Walter as Rorschach” silently examines the chopping block and the tools, the potbellied stove where a few scraps of the girl's clothes remain, and a thighbone over which the dogs fight. Walter closes his eyes when he kills the dogs and has fully become Rorschach when he opens them; these images of the dogs, heads split by his blows, resurface during his testing by the psychiatrist. It proves to be the turning point in his life. He no longer “mollycoddles” the criminals by allowing them to live and kill again or by walking away from the encounter with his foes merely bound. The kidnapper and murderer of the child is faced with a choice upon his capture: Cut off his arm with a hacksaw to escape his handcuffs, or burn to death in the building Rorschach sets afire. From this point forth, Kovacs becomes a mask for Rorschach instead of the converse as it had been. He is no longer “soft” on criminals, as he puts it; he is more often than not, ready and willing to kill them to rid society of their filth (6:14-26).

This leads to a conclusion at the end that will cost Rorschach his life. There is no compromise when it comes to evil; it must be cut out and destroyed like the cancer it is. At the novel's end and faced with the decision whether or not to expose the hoax which has frightened the world into peace, he chooses truth, knowing that the other heroes will kill him to protect their grand lie. Those who disagree with him justify the act in that millions have already died for world unity; would Rorschach make their sacrifices in vain? However, Rorschach will not lie, and the others kill him to protect the peace: “Joking, of course. … No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise. … Evil must be punished. People must be told” (12:20, 23).

Rorschach is the epitome of soft science not only in his obvious connection to psychology but in his subtle connections to it as well. Two easily recognized examples of this link are revealed in his relationship with his psychiatrist and in the way he is shaped by his environment. The former begins when Rorschach is captured by the police and is given a psychiatric exam involving, ironically, Rorschach tests. The subject knows the game, though, and gives safe, pat answers to the doctor's questions. The doctor is initially pleased with Rorschach's seeming progress but is troubled later by the easy answers as he studies Rorschach's file, so he chooses to review the same ink blots the following day. On the second showing, Rorschach reveals to the doctor what he truly sees and tells the psychiatrist that the knowledge will cost him more than the fame he gains from his patient is worth. Rorschach reveals the abuse through which his mother put him as a child and the inhumanity of the man who fed the child to his dogs (6:9-26). Kovacs is no more, and the doctor sees the validity of Rorschach's existence; he sees the necessity of the vigilante's ruthless presence, and it cannot help but color his view of the world from that point forth. Instead of the doctor helping Rorschach, Rorschach has brought the doctor around to his way of thinking. And this new outlook on the world is visible in the psychiatrist's later actions in the book where he now has no choice but to involve himself in the violence; he cannot look the other way (6:27; 11:20).

Secondly, the whole “nurture versus nature” debate is reawakened with Rorschach's examination. How much of the violence he exhibits is inherited from his prostitute mother and unknown father? On the other hand, this violent behavior may be due to the childhood home and the environment in which he continues to develop. He grows to adolescence in an abusive home and knows Kitty Genovese, the victim of a brutal rape and murder. He witnesses the barbarity of a man who killed a child for no reason and fed her to animals—animals he seemed to love more than other humans. The senseless violence hits too close to home. Is the violence a gene in Rorschach's family, carried by all those of his line, or does it spring from society's ills? Both are represented in Rorschach and his retributive outrage towards crime.

Dr. Manhattan, or Jon, is at the opposite end of the science spectrum; where Rorschach represents the soft, personal, somewhat subjective sciences, Jon represents the cold, hard, true mathematical and chemical sciences. He begins his life wanting to be a watchmaker like his father; however, while Jon is in his late teen years, the first atomic bomb is dropped, and Jon's father sees no future in watchmaking. Jon becomes a nuclear physicist and, one day in the laboratory, is caught on the wrong side of an experiment that removes the intrinsic field from objects. Months later, Jon manages to reintegrate his body, but he now has great control over matter and energy. The government immediately capitalizes on this and names him “Dr. Manhattan,” making him a very public deterrent to the cold-war Russians. The heroes from the fifties begin to feel outclassed by Jon and his incredible abilities; however, Jon is satisfied simply to have a place in which to continue his experiments. Separated as he is from normal humans by his neon blue appearance and godlike powers, Jon begins to distance himself from humanity. He now has to guess at what things a “human” woman such as Laurie might want from a mate and does not see that he is failing to meet a need for her in the area of human spiritual connection. During a television interview, Jon is accused of unwittingly giving cancer to many of his past associates and leaves Earth for Mars to ponder his existence. He returns for Laurie and brings her back to the red planet in an effort to rediscover his lost humanity; he manages to do this to some extent and comes to realize the gulf his power must cause between him and humanity. He returns to Earth too late to save New York from Veidt's plan, but it is these newly discovered qualities that lead him to question the methods by which peace has been forced on the planet.

Jon is the ultimate scientist—so much so that he loses touch with real life and the applications of knowledge beyond the theoretical. Until Laurie reawakens his humanity towards the end the book, Jon is on a downward slide of his disassociation from the human race. Moore relates this in his notes:

Try to imagine what it would be like to be [Dr. Manhattan]. The desk you're sitting at and the chair you're sitting on give less of an impression of reality and solidity to you if you know you can walk though them. … Everything around you is somehow more insubstantial and ghostly, including the people you know and love. … While most of us are intellectually aware of that both our bodies and the reality surrounding us are composed of billions of gyrating waves or particles or whatever the current quantum theory states, we can forget this disconcerting fact quite easily. … [Dr. Manhattan] would not be so fortunate. He would know himself and the world about him from a perspective far more alien than that of the most rabid quantum theorist. He would experience the paradoxes of reality at a quantum scale of existence: that all things can exist in two places at the same time, that certain particles [tachyons] can travel backwards through time and exhibit physical properties that are exactly the reverse of normal physical laws. … [Dr. Manhattan] is no longer human enough to be driven mad by the experience, he is no longer human enough to feel an attachment to the world and its concerns. …

(Watchmen: Special Edition, “Minutes”)

After his transformation, Jon, like God, experiences every minute of time simultaneously. In 1959, he knows what will happen in 1969 because he is already there; he knows about JFK's assassination at his rebirth because he was already experiencing it, unable to change the course of history:

So what you re saying is you knew he'd get shot? Jon, I … I mean, if you're serious, I mean, why didn't you do something?
I can't prevent the future. To me, it's already happening. … In 1959, I could hear you shouting here, now in 1963. Soon we make love.
Just like that? Like I'm a puppet? Jon, you know how everything in this world fits together except people. Your prediction's way off mister.
No. We make love right after Wally arrives with the earrings I ordered for you. [Janey interrupts, but Wally comes to the door.]

(Watchmen 4:16)

He declines dinner with his friends to locate a “gulino” which would validate his “supersymetrical theory.” He creates a double of himself so he can make love to Laurie and continues working on an experiment; Laurie is noticeably upset at his lack of attention (1:23; 3:4, 5). He is obsessed with the abstract principles of the universe and, only at the end of the novel, is he interested in how they apply to life—Veidt: “But you've regained interest in human life.” Jon: “Yes. I think I'll create some” (Moore's emphasis, 12:27).

If Rorschach is the ultimate personification of the soft sciences and Jon is the totality of the hard ones, Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, is the perfect melding of the two. He is born wealthy and orphaned young, but he gives away all of his inheritance in order to prove that he can achieve greatness on his own, without any head-start. Idolizing Alexander the Great, Veidt retraces his hero's path and tries to understand how Alexander, at so young an age, had come to rule and unite most of the civilized world. Veidt, too, becomes a costumed adventurer during the late sixties, but he foresees the end of the fad and retires two years before costumed vigilantism is banned in 1977. He is more interested in the future than the present, more interested in the big world picture than the local one; the “smartest man in the world,” he sees the growing escalation of nuclear armament and realizes before anyone else the probable coming holocaust. It is then—years before the events of the book take place—that he begins to implement his plans for saving the world through uniting it without anyone knowing how or why the new world order has arrived. He is not out to conquer the world but rather to save it from itself. It is not power or fame that he sought, for his part in the united world will never be known; he has killed to protect that secret, but his pride, his limitless hubris in the belief that only he could save the world, leads to his possible failure. No one will know that he saved the world, but Veidt will emphasize the belief to those that discover his secret that only he could ever accomplish such a task.

Veidt is the embodiment of the soft science; however he manipulates the hard ones to achieve his plans. He manipulates the future by analyzing the past. He studies Alexander and Ramses II to acquire the wisdom they used to bring peace to their enormous kingdoms (11:8, 10). He studies the backgrounds and weaknesses—both physical and psychological—of those liable to interfere with or pose a threat to his goals, such as Jon and the Comedian, in order to plan for their removal (11:19, 24-26). Adrian analyzes the sociology and trends of the present; he builds his fortune on knowing the psychology of people. He sits before his wall of television screens, analyzes what he sees and plans accordingly (8:7, 8). He knows the audience to which he plays in both his business- and peace-related goals. Like Rorschach, he knows the value of appearance, violence, and reputation, and he knows the how to make the most of them. Like Jon, Veidt genetically builds an “alien” which he will teleport—technology gained from Jon—to New York City. The enormous monster will die on arrival, but using cloned genes from a psychic sensitive, the creation will send psychic shockwaves around the world, killing millions in the immediate vicinity and causing brain damage and nightmares worldwide. When Veidt implements his plan, he achieves the result he knew he would. The world sees this as an alien invasion; hostilities between nations halt in order to combat what they believe is a greater menace. Veidt achieves world peace by frightening the countries into working together, much like the alien visitor does in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It seems that Veidt has taken everything into account—everything but the fact that neither Alexander's empire nor the works of Shelley's poetic Ozymandias survived the kings' deaths. Adrian is a perfect melding of the sciences, but in the end he is still human.

While Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias are one-sided representations of science, the other major cast members, the Silk Spectre and Nite Owl, demonstrate the affects of these sciences on “ordinary” people. Laurie, the Silk Spectre, can easily be seen as a character containing all of the psychological conflicts personified in Rorschach. Sally, her mother and the original Silk Spectre of the forties, seeks to relieve her youth vicariously through her daughter and compensate for all of the deficiencies she possessed as a hero. Sally trains her teen daughter mercilessly, yet she will not allow Laurie to be included in discussions of the older heroes; she actively seeks to suppress certain information concerning her own past—both as a heroine and a mother—for there are incidents in it that may frighten her daughter from the path Sally has chosen for her. These missing pieces of Laurie's life will be revealed in chapter 9, when she realizes the truth about her father, a truth hidden from her by those closest to her and repressed by herself. While Rorschach raises the question of “nature versus nurture,” Laurie answers it to some extent when she breaks free of her mother's conditioning and begins to make realizations and choices for herself.

If Laurie is like a humanized Rorschach, Nite Owl can similarly be compared to Dr. Manhattan. While Jon is interested in science for science's sake—he wants to know merely to know—Dan is interested in science for the sake of its beauty and for its value to the heroic human spirit. He is an ornithologist and, in his essay, “Blood from the Shoulder of Pallas,” at the end of chapter 7, he reflects that it is possible to study birds so closely that the wonder of them is lost.

Is it possible, I wonder, to study a bird so closely, to observe and catalogue its peculiarities in such detail, that it becomes invisible? Is it possible that while fastidiously calibrating the span of its wings or the length of its tarsus, we somehow lose sight of its poetry? That in our pedestrian descriptions of a marbled or vermiculated plumage we forfeit a glimpse of living canvases, cascades of carefully toned browns and golds that would shame Kadinsky, misty explosions of color to rival Monet? I believe that we do. I believe that in approaching our subject with the sensibilities of statisticians and dissectionists, we distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell-binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place.


This reflects exactly what has happened to Jon, who has become a scientist to the extent of losing his humanity, his appreciation for the beauty of science. Dan recognizes the danger of such a mindset and continues to expound upon it when, in the same chapter, he explains how technology—represented in his prototype exoskeleton—can be dangerous when not tempered with humanity. With this realization, he becomes a humanized Jon—seeing all the wonder and potential of science but also its risks and responsibilities.

Although Moore and Gibbons give exact personifications of the potential uses of science, they are also quick to illustrate the need for emotion and humanity in decisions concerning the morality of such uses and the weaknesses these same human traits bring to any such implementation. Rorschach is all passion and no reason while Jon is the exact opposite. Rorschach will not change and thus is killed. Jon accepts Veidt's plan for the sake of those already dead and regains some of his humanity. Veidt, a blend of the two extremes, is conquered by that same humanity—too much pride; he sees himself as the only possible messiah for which mankind can hope, and he believes that in the universe his work alone is eternal. In this book, science has become a moral object lesson from the authors, working on many levels.


  1. Since the story was initially released as a monthly series, each of the book's chapters begins with page 1. Thus, references are given here with the chapter number followed by the page number(s). For example, this reference concerns chapter 6, page 10.

Works Cited

Daniels, Les. Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. New York: Bonanza, 1971.

Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse, 1995.

Feiffer, Jules. The Great Comic Book Heroes. New York: Dial, 1965.

Gibbons, Dave. “Pebbles in a Landscape.” Comics Journal (July 1987): 97-103.

Horn, Maurice. Sex in the Comics. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Inge, M. Thomas. Comics as Culture. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1990.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink, 1993.

Moore, Alan. “Synchronicity and Symmetry.” Comics Journal (July 1987): 89-96.

Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics/Warner Books, 1987.

———. “Minutes.” Watchmen: Special Edition. New York: DC Comics/Warner Books and Graphitti Designs, 1987.

———. “A Portal to Another Dimension.” Comics Journal (July 1987): 80-88.

Steranko, James. The Steranko History of Comics. 2 vols. Reading, PA: Supergraphics, 1970-72.

Waugh, Couton. The Comics. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. 1954. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972.

Tatiana Rapatzikou (essay date autumn 2001)

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SOURCE: Rapatzikou, Tatiana. “Visualizations of Cyber-Gothic Bodies in William Gibson's Trilogy and the Art of the Graphic Novel.” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 83 (autumn 2001): 73-86.

[In the following essay, Rapatzikou examines William Gibson's representation of human identity in his trilogy of science fiction novels—Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive–and how Gibson's themes are both linked to and informed by the portrayal of the “inhuman” in comic books, particularly in the computer-generated graphic novels, Iron Man: Crash, by Mike Saenz and Batman: Digital Justice, by Pepe Moreno.]

The intrusion of the mass media and information technology in both the external and the physical world of the human subjects, gives way to myriad manifestations of selfhood and multiple versions of realities (“terminal identity”).1 The electronically enhanced simulation of the human body re-introduces the issues of bodily intrusion and disorder that proliferated in the nineteenth-century gothic motif of the zombie.

Before being taken up by technology and science fiction, zombies could only be part of fairy tales, horror and fantasy stories. Throughout the history of the scientifically reconstructed human body (“automaton”, “android”, “robot”), due to the ever-changing perceptions of the organic and the inorganic (the human and the technologically non-human), the image of the zombie was gradually identified with everything mechanised and artificially constructed.2 The mechanical automaton of Olympia in E. T. A. Hoffmann's story “The Sandman” and his images of “living death or inanimate life” puppets in “Automata”,3 constitute examples corresponding to the idea of the automaton as an intelligent imitation of man.4 Manuel Aguirre in his analysis of gothic fiction and symbolism characteristically writes: “The automaton is an imitation of man—but it has that repetitiveness and regularity which characterize the appearance of the ghost […] it may easily be granted numinous powers […] the individual will be haunted by something lost within his shadow, within his reflection, within his mechanical creation.”5 Imitating the exactness of the human form and replicating the precision of its performing ability, the automaton enters the evolutionary chain as a mechanised manifestation of humanness. Although it could be viewed as a manifestation of change and scientific progress, the automaton appears to be terrifying and uncanny due to its incompatibility with humanity's inner drive (instinct) to repeat/preserve the already existing (organic) state of being.6 The paradox arises from the inanimate (mechanical) nature of its form enveloped with animate qualities, making it a personification of both life and death. With the automaton (“inanimate life”), the image of the zombie (“living death”) is no longer a mere shadow. Departing from the worlds of myth and the imaginary, the image of the zombie becomes the new mechanical human construct. It complements the ability science has always had in breeding its own monsters (entities other than human), due to humanity's instinct for further perfection, as recorded in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: “God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance.”7 The scientific creation of human monsters, according to the analogy of the synthetic zombie entity, is actively engaging with the themes of dehumanisation and the confusion between human and non-human. The horror motif of the automaton gradually leads to the biologically engineered android or cyborg variety,8 where the regularity and repetitiveness of the machine mechanisms (the ability to recreate and reproduce other forms of organic/inorganic existence) are combined with the workings of the organic human matter.

In cyberpunk sf the cyborg becomes the new monster, symbolising the disillusionment of the contemporary human subject due to the fragmentation of its subjectivity and degradation of its personality value. Unlike Donna Haraway's utopian reading of the cyborg in her Cyborg Manifesto as a technologically higher form in the evolutionary chain due to the symbiosis of the human with the technological, in William Gibson's trilogy (Neuromancer,Count Zero,Mona Lisa Overdrive)9 cyborgs are presented as humanity's electronically simulated nightmares.10 They live in the margins of society engaging in everything illegal (hackers, cyberspace cowboys) or in the periphery of their own bodies (clones, vats), depicting a world in crisis as the boundaries between the real and simulated reality have dissolved. The dissolution of its physiology traits (gender identity) and its tailored human selfhood make the cyborg the symbol of a human/non-human hybrid identity that can be manufactured and artificially assembled. Being not entirely human, the cyborg exists in the margins of human existence as something other than real. Being digitally constructed the cyborg exists as a simulation of reality, imitating the marginality of the zombie as the shadow and reflection of the real human self (the “abject”, according to Kristeva, that opposes the “I”).11 While emphasis is placed on its synthetic existence, the cyborg develops into a metaphor and an icon for the deep-seated concerns of contemporary humanity over issues of self-awareness and identity in the same manner as the automaton/zombie existed as a metaphor for the mechanisation of human existence at the turn of the nineteenth century.12

The characters in Gibson's novels live in an age of electronically facilitated bodily transcendence. The materiality of their bodies is denounced, since it is the fluid and kinetic nature of cyberspace, as shown in Neuromancer, to be valued: “In the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes pouring in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information” (N [Neuromancer], p. 68: Ch. 3). The passage from a physically defined subjectivity to a new form of selfhood that can fuse and merge with the spatiotemporal reality of cyberspace enables human beings to view their specter and manipulate their image for the production/reproduction of electronically plausible multiple experiences. Being able to simulate real experiences, within cyberspace (or virtual reality), according to Scott Bukatman's analysis, “the disembodied consciousness leaps and dances with unparalleled freedom […] in which the mind is freed from bodily limitations.”13 The breach with the external and internal territory of the human subject, due to the negation of the flesh, has led to the technological colonisation not only of the outer, but also of the inner human space. The irrelevance of human flesh, due to terminal invasion and penetration, diminishes the value of bodily experience, leaving the human subject unguarded against the numinous “vampiristic” nature of the machine.

Through the representational quality of cyberspace and the superficiality of the characters (due to the deprivation of their realistic existence),14 the preoccupation with the human/inhuman is central to Gibson's trilogy. Relying on the conjunction of text and image, Gibson resorts to his comic book background15 for the extraction of visual motifs functioning as metaphors for the contemporary human condition. According to Mark Oehlert's analysis “among the issues comic book cyborgs confront are violence, consciousness downloading, lost humanity, corporations as evil avatars.”16 Cutting into society's fears and desires, the cyborg comic book creatures (The Fantastic Four,The Hulk,Spider-Man,Daredevil,X-Men,Dr. Doom and Iron Man) could be “perceived as warnings as to what might happen if we pursue this line of technology.”17 Science (exposure to radiation, cyborg technology)18 has played a dominant role in creating both heroes and villains in the comic book industry (especially from 1961 to 1970, the “Marvel Age”). This influence will later feed in certain graphic novel titles following the publication of Gibson's trilogy where an attempt is made to visualise Gibson's proposed model of textual graphic representations of a dense and complex cyber-reality.19 Among the graphic novels influenced by the visual intensity of his texts, Mike Saenz's computer aided graphic design constitutes a good example. Saenz's “cyber” graphic novel Iron Man: Crash (1988)20 relies upon the same aesthetics, as his intention is to “incise a kind of ‘digital aesthetic’ into the fabric of art and the story”,21 depicting technologically empowered body images whose human identity has been superseded by its electronically accessed or chemically programmed self.

In Gibson's texts and Saenz's graphic design the reader, besides the power cyberspace has over the human subject, is confronted with other, but not new, forms of technological control over individual consciousness. Drugs and stimulants reinforce the existence of a parallel to this world's temporal reality. Blurring the spatial and temporal boundaries, due to their subjection to a chemically programmed transformation, individuals live in a science-fictionalised reality. The exploitation of the workings of their inner mind by chemically advanced substances pushes their consciousness beyond the reality plane they presently occupy. Bodies and experiences no longer co-exist in Molly's experience as recorded in Neuromancer: “‘I wasn't conscious. It's like cyberspace, but blank. Silver. It smells like rain … you can see yourself orgasm, it's like a little nova right out on the rim of space’” (N, pp. 177-178: Ch. 11). The fragmentation of human subjectivity is underlined, according to Brian McHale, by the existence of “biologically-engineered alter ego[s]”.22 With the alter ego emergence, due to the alienation of the human subject from its external physical and spatial reality, every experience becomes other as if the character is acting out a scene in a role-play game. Oscillating between different levels of perception, Molly's alter ego simultaneously inhabits two parallel worlds due to the self-annihilating nature of her inactive/hyperactive consciousness. Molly's double consciousness reinforces the split between what she really is (human) and what possesses her now (chemical control). The paradox created could be attributed to a visual trick, to her visual ability to instantaneously perceive the herself that was and the herself that is now, which strengthens the equation that the writer draws between the drug and cyber mediated experience described in the text. Paul Virilio, in his study The Art of the Motor, writes that “it is the eyeball that now englobes man's entire body […] the fractional dimensions of cyberspace enable us to transfer the content of our sensations to an impalpable Double.”23 The “impalpable Double” nature of cyberspace alludes to the gothic image of the zombie, also characterised as the shadowy Double of human existence. Cyberspace appears to be more self-haunting than that, depicted not as a human but as a technologically regulated experience. The influence technology exerts over the human senses and mainly over human vision manipulates the inner workings of the human mind due to the negation of the inner/outer dichotomy of human existence. Cyberspace is not a mere reflection, according to the zombie principle, but an extension of human subjectivity where the human and the technological fuse into an indistinguishable entity. The disintegration of the human subject is figuratively presented in Gibson's fiction through linguistic or visual metaphors. It is upon the ability postmodern/cyberpunk sf has to visualise these concepts that the link with graphic art lies.

In terms of conceptualising and rendering techniques, Saenz focuses his attention on the page layout comprised of different shots, body language, and hardware depiction techniques. With the readers following the simple ordering of frames, it is the shots that render the visual events, set the scene and the mood. To emphasise the control of technology over the human subject, Saenz confronts the readers with the establishing shot of a “SHIELD craft”24 (a technologically defined enclosed space).25 Its accuracy of lines strengthens its aerodynamic presentation, while the overhead lighting of its hardware surfaces together with their finely blended shades of blue (use of airbrush) create a sinister deep shadowy effect, making this machine-defined space appear as something other than human.26 Its numinous nature is further reinforced in the second frame where the eye centres around the medium-shot of the hero's (Tony Stark) organic figure (human) contrasted against the inorganic craft space (machine). Emphasis on the disintegration and fragmentation of the human self is achieved by intentionally omitting the full presentation of the hero's figure, focusing instead on his crouching body posture intensified by the slight blurring effect of his facial tonal density. The pictorial narrative suddenly changes focus when the artist is attempting to approach the subject of the chemically designed control substances. The artist, exploiting the visual immediacy between the readers and the depiction itself, chooses to be rough and raw to communicate the visual intensity of the action itself. The same feeling cannot be achieved in the written text where language substitutes for the immediacy of the eyeball. The power of vision in the written text emerges from the ability of language to record the unseen aspects of the event (alienation from external reality and the emergence of an alter ego). The graphic novel is not entirely deprived of language. The high impact of its visual motifs is further stimulated by the epigrammatic sentences incorporated in the image frame, verbalising the thematic idea (drug control) underlying the graphic representation: “When was my last Perpetuon injection? So much has been happening. It's long overdue. Dulls the emotions […] Isn't what I need? I don't know anymore.”27 The economy and effectiveness of the pictorial discourse is achieved by simultaneously combining different visual effects, apart from the different shots used (ultra-closeup), leading to the incorporation of all senses when interpreting a visual motif. Adjusting the saturation levels (colour strength) to very plain but dull colours, tinting the hero's body with shades of ochre and “cold” blue in alternation with the dark brown colours of his face, the artist emphasises the hero's disintegration in an entity other than human due to his subjection to chemical control.28 The use of a particular palette of colours reinforces the hero's biologically engineered transformation with his human form appearing to be passive (what Gibson in Neuromancer describes as “meat puppets”) and entirely subdued to the drug effect. The interchangeable arrangement of the images (in collage) depicting the hero's face alongside the designer drug, strengthen the assumption of the human/technology fusion. Resorting to different scales and theme colours, the artist projects the drug as a tool of technological domination as shown in the strong and firm lines the artist chooses for designing the arms and hands of the hero, revealing his determination in delivering the act (drug injection).

Apart from the chemically designed devices of body and mind control, the Cyber Age zombies are also subjected to biotechnological methods of surgically implanted biochips, enabling total submission of the human subject to technologically manipulated sources of power.29 The emergence of a technologically enhanced human form, surpassing the traditional sf models of electronic surrogates (robots, AIs), functions as a central visual motif for both the writer and the graphic artist.

In Gibson's Count Zero, Angie Mitchell's transformation into technology's own instrument is communicated to the reader through the elaborate presentation of the technological practice Angie is subjected to. Resorting to a somehow unintelligible to the common reader scientific jargon, the writer overemphasises the overwhelming power of bio-technology as he is pushing the text beyond a common and rationally explained code of communication to a hybrid linguistic form: “[Mitchell] has perfected the hybridoma techniques […] he had produced the immortal hybrid cells that were basic production tools of the new technology, minute biochemical factories endlessly reproducing the engineered molecules that were linked and built up into biochips.”30 The dissolution of her identity, due to the biochip implants control, into a hybrid (technologically generated) form, transgresses the barriers of her single mind, senses, and body, vampirising her inner being. Looking so human and the same time so other, Angie is nothing more than a synthetic zombie entity where the monstrosity of its being no longer lies in the periphery of her human existence but has already become an integral part of her being.31

Saenz is graphically approaching the subject of biological control by actually interpreting the metamorphosis of the human subject as an external rather than an internal process. Here again the artist relies on the ability of vision to capture an event in its external intensity, while language records the workings of the inner mind. Following the hero's external transformation (from human to humanoid) frame by frame, the artist mainly concentrates on the conceptualisation of the hero's “exo-suit” (externally worn armoured body case) enabling the audience visualise his gradual fusion with the machine, producing what in sf is called a cyborg. The artist is here moving beyond the traditional experience of the body as something organic to its association with an identifiable inorganic artificial form. Resorting to the lowest possible number of primary colours (red, yellow, magenta, cyan, black, and white), Saenz reduces the image to mere surface (“screen print”) making it resemble a collage of disparate pieces.32 With nothing else filling in the background of the identical square shaped frames on the graphic page, the hero's armoured body appears even more stylised and artificial. Emphasis on its humanoid form is further enhanced by the way the human body anatomy is manipulated for the depiction of something other than human. Experimenting with exaggerated body shapes, the artist chooses to depict his cybernetically transformed hero with muscles bulging in more directions than would usually happen in real life. The correctly planned posture and distribution of the hero's body masses make him look as something other than real, while the positioning of light so that the salient edges of the image to be picked out without direct illumination (edgelighting) add subtlety and forcefulness to the form that the hero has changed into (humanoid).

The stylisation of the hero's humanoid form can be attributed to the attention paid to the accurate and meticulous drawing of the armoured body hardware, resembling the detailed analysis of the biochip implantation technique in Gibson's text. The elaborate depictions are also accompanied by highly stylised fragmented sentences (“stereoscopic occlusion shutters”, “ocular solvent pipettes”), almost imitating the style of the technological jargon found in scientific manuals. This strips Saenz's hero from any human significance diminishing him into an automated object in display, a commodity that can become whatever you want it to be as in a video role game. This humanoid experience is even more emphasised when the meticulous graphic hardware presentation allows the audience to interface directly with the hero's electronic system. Allowing them to envision events through his machine vision as well as items of data scrolling rapidly on the screen with the focus shifting forwards and backwards, it is as if the graphic artist has placed the audience in the machine.33

Gibson explores the simultaneous occupation of an electronically simulated and a humane body, when reference is made to simstim (simulated stimulation) technologies. In Neuromancer he describes it as “a flip flop switch, basically. Wire it into your Sendai here, you can access live or recorded simstim without having to jack out of the matrix” (N, p. 70: Ch. 3). Simstim is a multisensory experience creating in the written text the same effect as in the graphic design. Entering the optical spectrum of Saenz's cyborg image, the audience's vision is enlarged accessing the parallel to real life cybernetic vacuum. While the thorough description of all the electronic devices on the cyborg's armored body, enable the audience experience the multisensory enhancement achieved via the intervention of technology. In Neuromancer the simstim experience is presented as something powerful enough to substitute real experience with technology not simply copying but actually transferring the authentic feeling of external reality: “Then he [Case] keyed the new switch. The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color … She [Molly] was moving through a crowded street […] Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume […] For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes” (N, pp. 71-72: Ch. 4). With Case becoming the “passenger behind her eyes”, in the same way as the audience becomes the passenger behind the cyborg's eyes in the graphic novel, the simstim experience effaces the boundaries existing between the natural and the artificial uniting them into one and the same entity. The technologically plausible union of Case's male and Molly's female body in cyberspace (matrix),34 through the medium of vision, gives birth to a hybrid and uncanny form of androgynous being. Its uncanniness emerges from the power the eyeball has to fuse imagination with reality enveloping whatever is imaginary with realistic qualities.35

The electronic transvestite body does not simply transgress the codes of gender-defined society, but suggests the possibility of imagining the world with bodies whose gender agenda can be electronically altered or even manufactured. Saenz's cyborg image, although complying with the superhero tradition (empowered male bodies), parodies the stereotypical gender roles that want male bodies to be physically powerful and robust. The exaggerated muscular body structure and the removable qualities of the armoured body efface socially imposed gender distinctions, revealing their superficiality and insignificance.

The issue of gender transgression and subversion is evident throughout Gibson's trilogy with Molly in Neuromancer perfectly exemplifying the idea of the androgynous being: “She held out her hands, palms up, […] and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged, four centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails” (N, p. 37: Ch. 1). Her androgynous nature is presented here in its entire monstrosity, proving how dangerous the transgression of boundaries can be. Her organic/inorganic transformation resembles a teratogenesis with her flesh eaten away by a synthetic killing machine emerging through her organic body form.36 What differentiates the disfigurement of her human body form from the graphic representation of Saenz's cyborg image is the nature of the transformation itself. In the first case the metamorphosis starts from within, while in the second the conversion is attributed to an external mechanism (“exo suit”).

The legitimacy of technological violence against external body structure promoting aesthetically “ugly” (due to being unreal) synthetic human forms can be found throughout Gibson's trilogy. Neuromancer and Count Zero are diffused with obscure descriptions of youth troupes (“Gothic” and “Dracs”) where the extremity of their external appearance (human deformity) intensifies the peculiarity of the present human condition: “At least twenty Gothics postured in the main room […] like a composite creature, slime-mould with jigsaw surface of dark leather and stainless spikes. Most of them had nearly identical faces, features reworked to match ancient archetypes called from kino banks” (CZ [Count Zero], pp. 57-58: Ch. 6). The exaggerated but identical features make savagery part of the production line of the technological aesthetics of cyber culture relying on the promotion of hybrid (unoriginal) forms. All the zombie figures besides the main characters filling in the silences of the text are not featured as outsiders or persecuted minorities, but as members of a society whose individuals have chosen to lead a technologically enhanced existence. The writer choosing to name them as “Dracs” and “Gothics” alludes to the nineteenth-century zombie/vampire tradition but not without a reason. Their surgically modified human form and their distorted conventional feminine and masculine personas (“identical faces”, “features reworked”) mark a transition from a tradition employing superstition and supernaturalism as a device for social control (expulsion of everybody deviating from the socially accepted norms) to a cultural condition identifying otherness with the contemporary crisis of technological dehumanisation. Emphasis on the deformity of external traits, as shown in Neuromancer, intensifies the speculative power of technology, while the nouns used (“Dracs” and “Gothics”) to address the underground youth troupes function as empty signifiers underlining the superficiality (iconic hybridity) of cyber aesthetics: “His [Angelo] face was a simple graft grown on collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides, smooth and hideous. […] When Angelo smiled, revealing the razor-sharp canines of some large animal, Case was actually relieved. Toothbud transplants. He'd seen that before” (N, pp. 75-76: Ch. 4). The artificiality of the organic form leads to the demythologisation of the vampire motif. Using technical terms (cosmetic surgery jargon) to describe the machine-induced bestiality37 (“shark-cartilage polysaccharides”, “razor-sharp canines of some large animal) of the character's facial structure, the writer parodies and trivialises (“Case was actually relieved”, “He'd seen that before”) the transformation. The monstrosity and hideousness of the external form could be interpreted as manipulation of the biological form for the satisfaction of the consumerist desire within the framework of postindustrial economy wanting everything to be manufactured and replaceable. With the narrative structured upon two parallel themes (cyberpunk's sf preoccupation with the inhuman and nineteenth-century vampire writing), the writer focuses on the ideological rupture existing between the borrowed literary motif of the vampire (a symbol of non-conformism and social differentiation) and the cultural icon it has become representing the hollowness, artificiality, and commodification of present-day existence.

With the grotesque and savage presented as an artificial rather than a supernatural entity, the dismantling of human identity goes beyond the opposition of good and evil entering the discourse of cultural performativity and iconic representation in the context of a speculative society. Gibson's cyberpunk androgynous models of cyborg consciousness could be compared to Pepe Moreno's graphic representations as part of his computer generated graphic design Batman: Digital Justice (1990). Aiming to transfer his audience from the mundane to the extraordinary (displacement) focusing on creatures that are certainly nonhuman (anthropomorphism), Moreno employs a variety of shots to give visual prompts as to the type of character to be portrayed (characterisation). In Gibson's text the visual prompts (“Gothics” and “Dracs”) used carry symbolic/figurative significance. The disfigurement and destructiveness of the human form is not attributed to mere biological factors, but to the dehumanised forces behind the machine making the body look completely other. In Gibson's text and Moreno's design, the monstrosity of the vampire is not decoded as something absent or unreal (according to imagery of nineteenth-century Gothic novels),38 but represents the technologically generated choices humanity has to live as something else than human.

The image Moreno chooses for the graphic induction of the androgynous but bestial bodies theme heavily draws upon the myth of the female vampire being “the highest symbolic representation of eroticism”.39 He graphically approaches the theme by confronting his audience with a sexually assertive seemingly female image (Gata=Cat=Beast) deliberately endowed with masculine physical traits (face and body structure).40 Unlike nineteenth-century vampire fiction, the focus of emphasis shifts from depictions of vulnerable and sexually repressed female bodies (presented in gothic texts as female vampires)41 to caricatures of apparently eroticised female figures serving as surface markers of constructed sexuality.42 Choosing the “brachycephalic” shape for the depiction of the facial features (emphasis on breadth rather than length) of his androgynous image, the graphic artist gradually moves from a surface feminine marker onto an emergent masculine one. The artist effectively carries this out by concentrating on minor body details (flat face, not protruding nose) to delineate the hybrid (androgynous) nature of his image (male brutishness, female sensuality). The same logic applies to the graphic representation of the body visualised as a cross-gendered (“mesomorphic”) structure (square and fairly well muscled body with exaggerated female proportions). Resorting to visual cues instead of accurate realistic depictions when sketching the body posture of his image, the artist manages to produce a graphic representation of gender subversion by producing sexually neutralised modes of being.

With emphasis placed on an artificial human-like form simultaneously combining animal/machine elements, Moreno graphically produces a warrior image blending technology with savagery and primitivism. The artificial leopard-like claws, the satanic red and icy blue eyes, the sharp canines and the tight black leather uniform self-contradicts the mythologised warrior persona that the image evokes constituting instead its fake (demythologisation) artificially constructed copy. The ferociousness of the primitive warrior (due to the savagery of the armoured body) becomes obscure when viewed alongside the futuristic society s/he (denotes hybridity) emerges from. The forcefulness of the external appearance is dragged downwards into a feeling of its own superficiality in a society obsessed with icons. The initially mythologised savage body gradually dwindles to a demythologised puppet form entrapped within the role of the entertainer (the rock idol) enforced by contemporary society. The stylisation of the external appearance stripped from any spiritual and social function is only valued for its performative and iconic significance. Moreno's androgynous image (the savage warrior and the aesthetisised female rocker) due to its synthetisised form of existence (subversion of gender boundaries leading to the victimisation of the human subject) is metaphorically fighting against the dehumanising influence exerted by the machine.43 The same effect is reinforced with the artist filling in the background with smaller in scale figures (juxtaposing the androgynous image against the diminutive representation of the surrounding crowd intensifies the centrality of the rocker icon) mainly emphasising the dull tones of their visage and “Mohawk” haircut in an attempt to communicate their ineffective raw power. Moreno's graphic design, overtly promoting a simplistic depiction of good (human elements) and evil (machine elements), is inertly parodying the extraordinariness of the visual icon whose exaggerating form pronounces its social hollowness.

The depthlessness of the image combined with the entertainer's icon (the rocker singer) that it wishes to project is an essential motif in Moreno's design and Gibson's text. With Moreno literally relying on the eye contact established between the audience and the graphic image reinforcing the influence of the spectacle, Gibson chooses to approach the issue of image simulation from the perspective of usurpation (sacrifice) of the human subject by the spectacle itself. In Mona Lisa Overdrive Angie Mitchell's (the simstim star) human substance is erased when her persona enters the production line of simulated experience. She no longer exists as a realistic entity but as a mere surface with her image degraded to a commodity (poster imprints, simstim decks): “There was a picture of Angie Mitchell taped up behind one of the tables” (MLO [Mona Lisa Overdrive], p. 69: Ch. 8), “stim those new Angies” (MLO, p. 100: Ch. 11). The surface structure of Angie's image is highlighted in the text as total absence. There is no direct eye contact established between the readers and the simstim's star image. Gibson chooses to be as economical as possible in his descriptions avoiding to offer his readers any exact or even elaborate details concerning Angie's appearance itself, concentrating only on the fake props filling in the poster's background: “the beauty of the poster, the luxury of the pictured room […] it was a kind of castle, probably it was where Angie lived […] you could see the walls were made of big rocks, and those mirrors had frames on them that were solid gold, carved with leaves and angels” (MLO, p. 69: Ch. 8). Moreno's fantasticated and animalistic representations are substituted in the text by the elaborate fakeness of Angie's surroundings enhancing the superficiality and hollowness of her iconic existence. In Moreno's graphic representation, being a rock idol symbolically identifies with the image of the outsider, the social non-conformist resisting social and technological control (hence the allusion to the vampire motif).44 In Gibson's text Angie reverses the star system stereotypes (wanting rock idols to be wild), having entirely dissolved into a technologically generated cultural image caught up between a pseudo-super-naturalism (“it was a kind of castle”, “the walls were made of big rocks”) and a pseudo-mythologisation of her personal space (the castle and the baroque mirror imagery carry no cultural significance). Her total usurpation by the mass media strips her bare from any form of existence (individual and social absence) reducing her to a mere spectrum. The usurpation and complete degradation of the individual to a surface marker reaches its sacrificial moment when Angie's simstim persona is surgically taken over by Mona Lisa: “When she [Mona] was alone again, she rolled over and studied her face, Angie's face, in the mirrored wall. The bruising was almost gone. Gerald taped things like miniature trodes to her face and hooked them to the machine. Said they made it heal real fast” (MLO, p. 185: Ch. 23). The desire for manipulating and transfiguring human physicality (image usurpation) becomes the ultimate expression of human narcissism, also revealing the sickness and psychopathology of a society valuing monstrosity (technological non-human hybrids) as a manifestation of otherness.45

Through the exploration of the non-human by shifting the focus of attention from the biology factor, the issue that remains is that human identity is in crisis. This anxiety metaphorically demonstrated in cyberpunk sf and graphic design in a range of identity ‘zombie’ constructions reveals the fear (the “abjection”)46 of humanity turning into automated functional entities (i.e killing machines, cultural icons). Technology in Gibson's fictional world is presented as a “frighteningly intimate” force that transforms and disfigures the human form by producing multiple technologically simulated varieties. Human beings are confronted with their own myth of imbuing “the objects that they create with a sense of [their] own living spirit—to animate the inanimate and create a new form of “life” based on [their] own characteristics.”47 Saenz's and Moreno's design graphically renders the hideousness of contemporary technology by depicting hybrid images of blended human and non-human forms. By inviting readers to take a speculative leap towards questioning the “unhuman, cold, and impersonal technological [force] that increasingly challenges the boundaries between the corporeal and the mechanical”,48 both text and graphic design explore different ways the human subject is usurped pushing human vanity to its most grotesque and monstrous manifestations.


  1. Scott Bukatman defines terminal identity as “an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen.” Reference to terminal identity, according to Bukatman, can be found in William Burroughs's novel Nova Express (1964): “The entire planet is being is being developed into terminal identity and complete surrender.” See Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 9.

  2. “In the 18th century, Vaucanson unveiled a mechanised excreting duck and a pump-operated flautist with mechanical fingers. The human body was a fabulously intricate mechanism, but it could be mimicked and perhaps even replicated.” See Scott Bukatman, Blade Runner (London: British Film Institute, 1997), p. 64.

  3. E. T. A. Hoffmann, The Best Tales of Hoffmann, edited by E. F. Bleiler (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1967).

  4. Representation of mechanical automata can also be found in Villiers de L'Isle Adam, The Eve of the Future (1886).

  5. Manuel Aguirre, The Closed Space: Horror Literature and Western Symbolism (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990), pp. 130-131.

  6. It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces […] This view of instincts strikes us as strange because we have become used to see in them a factor impelling towards change and development, whereas we are now asked to recognize in them the precise contrary—an expression of the conservative nature of living substance.” See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, translated and newly edited by James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press & The Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1961), p. 30.

  7. Peter Fairclough, ed., Three Gothic Novels (London: Penguin, 1986), p. 397.

  8. “The neologism ‘cyborg’ […] was proposed by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960 to describe ‘self-regulating man-machine systems’ and in particular and exogenously extended organisational complex functioning as integrated homeostatic system.” See David Tomas, “Feedback and cybernetics: Reimagining the Body in the Age of the Cyborg”, in Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows, eds., Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, (London: Sage Publications, 1995), pp. 21-43, at p. 35.

  9. The editions of the primary texts I will be referring to in this article are as follows: William Gibson, Neuromancer (London: Voyager, 1995); Count Zero (London: Voyager, 1995); Mona Lisa Overdrive (London: Voyager, 1995). References to these texts in the main body of the essay will be indicated in parenthesis and take the form of an abbreviation (N for Neuromancer,CZ for Count Zero,MLO for Mona Lisa Overdrive) followed by a page number. Chapter numbers will also be given to aid readers with different editions.

  10. Donna Haraway argues that “by the later twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics.” See Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (London: Free Association Books, 1991), p. 150.

  11. “What is abject is not my correlative, which, providing me with someone or something else as support, would allow me to be more or less detached and autonomous. The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I.” See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 1.

  12. Some texts to be considered among others as examples of the cultural ambivalence of the times towards science are: Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), H. G. Wells's Island of Dr Moreau (1896), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1987).

  13. Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction, pp. 208-209.

  14. “I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border […] nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver.” See Kristeva, op. cit., p. 3.

  15. “Gibson has admitted that a primary influence on his conception of cyberspace was the comic book visualizations of Heavy Metal.” See Bukatman, op. cit., p. 152.

  16. Mark Oehlert, “From Captain America to Wolverine”, in Chris Hables Gray, ed., The Cyborg Handbook (New York & London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 219-232, at p. 226.

  17. Oehlert, op. cit., p. 226.

  18. Stan Lee's X-Men epic tales of tragedy and triumph, among others, serve as prime examples of the newer cyborgs populating current comics. See Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, The Essential Uncanny X-Men (August 1999); Stan Lee, The Ultimate X-Men (USA: Boulevard, 1996); Stan Lee, The Uncanny X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga (USA: Marvel Books, 1990).

  19. Some titles to be considered are: Scott Rockwell and Darryl Banks, Cyberpunk (Wheeling, W. V.: Innovative Corporation, 1989), Pepe Moreno, Batman: Digital Justice (New York: DC Comics Inc., 1990), and Tom DeHaven and Bruce Jensen, Neuromancer: The Graphic Novel (New York: Epic Comics, 1989).

  20. According to Les Daniels's history of Marvel, Iron Man was probably the most popular graphic novel of cyborg culture to debut in Marvel in 1963. It also constituted the model upon which Mike Saenz based his graphic creation. See Les Daniels, Marvel (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1991).

  21. Mike Saenz, Iron Man: Crash (New York: Marvel Entertainment Group, 1988), p. 67.

  22. Brian McHale, Constructing Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 255.

  23. Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, translated by Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. 148.

  24. “SHIELD is now, of course, the official world police organization, dedicating to protecting all nations from extra-governmental threats.” Saenz, op. cit., p. 5.

  25. See Saenz, op. cit., p. 36.

  26. Manuel Aguirre in his analysis of enclosed gothic spaces describes the machine-defined spaces as “no longer a human space; it does not happen to be sheltering a numinous presence, it is the numinous presence, an otherworldly living space […] It is another perfect parasite, another cell in the body of mankind.” (See Aguirre, op. cit., p. 192). His argument reinforces the cyber-gothic dialectic this paper is attempting to present focusing on a continuation of practices and symbol usage.

  27. Saenz, op. cit., p. 36.

  28. “Humans are little more than adjuncts to machines […] rebuilt in accordance with technological needs and capacities, leaving nature and humanity supplemented to the point of extinction.” See Fred Botting, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 163.

  29. “At the moment I'm involved with the ‘Nature of Freedom’ drill you know, wondering if any action of mine is truly my own, or if always do only what They want me to do … regardless of what I believe you see … I've been given the old Radio-Control-Implanted-In-The-Head-At-Birth problem to mull over-as kind of koon, I suppose, It's driving me really, chemically insane.” See Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (London: Picador, 1973), pp. 541-542.

  30. William Gibson, Count Zero, first published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1986 (London: Voyager, 1995), p. 127 (Chapter 14).

  31. Judith Halberstam in her definition of the “postmodern monster” writes: “The postmodern monster is no longer the hideous other storming the gates of the human citadel, […] makes the peripheral and the marginal part of the centre. Monsters within postmodernism are already inside—[…] the body, the head.” See Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 167.

  32. See Saenz, op. cit., p. 8.

  33. See Saenz, op. cit., p. 9 (Top) and p. 38 (Bottom).

  34. As Lance Olsen says, “the world matrix derives from the Latin for womb, which in turn derives from the Latin for mother. So while it is true that only males have access [jack in] to cyberspace, it is equally true that what they have access to is a female region.” See Lance Olsen, “The Shadow of the Spirit in William Gibson's Matrix Trilogy”, Extrapolation, Vol. 32, No. 3, (1991), pp. 279-289, at p. 283.

  35. “This is that an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolises and so on.” See Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), reprinted in Albert Dickson, ed., Art and Literature, translated from the German by James Strachey, Vol. 14 (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 367.

  36. The emergence of a killing-machine personality can be found in the cyberpunk texts of Walter John's Hardwired (London and Sydney: Futura, 1986) as well as in Michael Swanwick and William Gibson's short story “Dogfight” incorporated in Gibson's short story collection Burning Chrome and Other Stories. It can also be seen in James Cameron's film productions of Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991), in Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987), as well as in Shinya Tsukamoto's Japanese production of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1991) where the imagery derives from Japanese manga.

  37. The emergence of a cyber-induced bestiality not only opposes but also parodies nineteenth-century Darwinian scepticism (Origin of Species, 1859) relying on biological justification about the animal stage humanity has emerged from and was about to return to. Rosemary Jackson argues that “[r]eduction to a primal state of inorganicism, of the pre-human, is equally horrific to Machen [The Great God Pan (1894)] and to H. G. Wells [The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897)], whose fantasies shrink from all that is not human.” See Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, first published by Methuen & Co. Ltd in 1981 (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 116.

  38. “Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) […] dissolves the life/death boundary, returning from an otherworld to prey upon the living. He occupies a paraxial realm, neither wholly dead nor wholly alive. He is a present absence, an unreal substance.” See Jackson, op. cit., p. 118.

  39. Jackson, op. cit., p. 120.

  40. See Pepe Moreno, “Part 4”, Batman: Digital Justice (New York: DC Comics Inc., 1990).

  41. “The vampire myth is perhaps the highest symbolic representation of eroticism. Its return in Victorian England […] points to it as a myth born out of extreme repression. It is during his period of engagement to Lucy that Harker enters the world of Dracula and vampirism […] The fantasy of vampirism is generated at the moment of maximum social repression on the eve of marriage […] It introduces all that is ‘kept in the dark’: the vampires are active at night, when light/vision/the power of the look are suspended.” See Jackson, op. cit., p. 120.

  42. “The figures were caricatures in light, lifesize cartoons […] Molly's breasts were too large, visible through tight black mesh beneath a heavy leather jacket.” See Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 249.

  43. “The punks' bizarre and creative use of other forms of modern technology to suggest savagery is an indication of the extent to which these warriors will go to prove that they are unafraid of technology's dehumanising, mechanizing effects.” See Ronald Schmitt, “Mythology and Technology: The Novels of William Gibson”, Extrapolation, 34.1, (Spring 1993), pp. 64-78, at p. 66.

  44. Poppy Z. Brite in her gothic/horror novel Lost Souls (1993) explores the psychology of the outsider, recounting the story of three vampires (Zillah, Molochai, Twig) members of the Lost Souls? rock band. The vampire motif as a metaphor for the outsider is also examined in Anne Rice's novels Interview with the Vampire (1994) and The Vampire Lestat (1986) with Lestat embodying a rock star. In these novels the vampires are the pleasure-seekers (erotic desire), always in search of another form of community.

  45. “Medical technology can be used to miraculously restore life, perpetuate state or compliment human vanity to the point of the grotesque.” See Schmitt, op. cit., p. 77.

  46. “On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safe-guards. The primers of my culture.” See Kristeva, op. cit., p. 2.

  47. Schmitt, op. cit., p. 76.

  48. Schmitt, op. cit., p. 76.

Lisa Coppin (essay date January 2003)

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SOURCE: Coppin, Lisa. “Looking Inside Out: The Vision as Particular Gaze in From Hell.Image & Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative, no. 5 (online magazine), (January 2003).

[In the following essay, Coppin explores how Alan Moore uses both visual and conscious memory to evoke a sense of the “uncanny” in From Hell, linking the creation of this experience in the narrative to the interaction between the characters and their surroundings.]

Some people see images from another reality. We mostly consider them crazy, although in the past some of them used to be called prophets. Perhaps, as it is suggested in following passage from From Hell, visions are all but a sign of madness and most people may miss half of reality. Maybe there is more than what the common mortal can see. Sometimes, images from a repressed unconscious return, through dreams, apparitions, visions. In From Hell this kind of optical apparitions bring the characters in contact with the supernatural.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud defines the unconscious as a picture story, a sort of catalogue of images that is acted in dreams. Images from dreams make a link between the unconscious and the conscious, but, so Freud contends, we cannot simply translate these images into meaningful words, since there will always remain a tension between image and interpretation because of the radically different nature of both: visual versus textual material. In his review of Freud's ideas about the visual representation in dreams, Jay says:

Although there were visual representations in dreams, they had to be rearticulated in linguistic form before they could become available for analysis. In addition, Freud admitted that even the most thorough exegesis of dreams confronted a blind spot, which he called its “navel”: a place “which has to be left obscure … the spot where it reaches down into the unknown.”

(Jay: 334)

Therefore, the original images need to be translated into language in order to be useful as analysis material. Still, because of their specific nature, these images will continue to resist to the interpretation. From Hell is a picture story in the literal sense of the word, it combines image and word. The uncanny effect that will undeniably affect the reader is to a large extent due to visual devices. Thematically as well as formally—as a comic—the work is a reflection on the statute of reality, to which the gaze provides one of the privileged accesses. Critics speak of a “graphic novel”1; technically speaking, it is a comic, but the topics and particularly the way they are treated and put into words used to be traditionally ascribed to the novel. This double, ambiguous nature makes From Hell a very interesting study object.

As Miller states in La fantasmagorie, there are three main reasons why a psychoanalytically inspired literary criticism or a psycho-criticism2 should be interested in optic phenomena. In the first place, the optic is one of the privileged accesses to reality? It is a commonly fact that “the eye deceives”—optic effects and disorders of the psyche—can deform images. Depending on whether the power and truthfulness of images are stressed, or on the contrary, their deceptive or transitory nature, the idea of imagination has been put into question in different ways. Moreover, theoretical changes in the conception of the visual, induced by the theory of Lacan, have resulted in a stronger stress on what optical models can tell us about the statute of the subject and the regime of desire. In this context, the visual relation is seen as the place of encounter between the individual and the cultural sphere, in as far as the imagination power of the writer is not only tributary to the available cultural material, but also, and in no less extent, to the way the culture of a given period represents or visualises that material. In the third place, literature is a modality of “showing” and disposes of a whole arsenal of optic tools that can be meaningful for the functioning of the text. The framing, the perspective, the relief and the exposure of a story not only have a relation to the subject and his desire, but constitute the elements that make a text into a “machine à faire voir” (Miller: 7).

In this essay we will explore two of the three tracks of investigation indicated by Milner. In a thematic analysis we will investigate the status of reality and imagination as they are created through the gaze of the characters and in the second place we pay attention to the way this is brought into image in From Hell. This will lead us to the question that is at the basis of our essay: How is the uncanny created? In the first place and in a preponderating way this happens via visual effects, and in this respect we deal with a particular way of looking that is focused in From Hell, the vision. A second procedure in the creation of the uncanny concerns the repetition of both images and text. The structure of this essay is inspired by the thematic analysis. In a first part we will concisely situate our study object, paying specific attention to the underlying opinions of the authors that are included in the realisation of their creative project. In part two, the relation of some of the main characters with the physical and supernatural reality through their gaze will be discussed. Part three offers a thorough analysis of the evolution of the particular visual relation the protagonist Dr. William Gull maintains with the material and supernatural reality.


In the autumn of 1888 London is stirred by the murder of five prostitutes in the neighbourhood of Whitechapel. The girls of easy virtue are found with their throat cut and disembowelled, and the conclusion of the public and the investigators of the murders is unanimous: this must be the work of a particularly cold-blooded serial murderer. The police are not able to unmask the author of the cruelties who enters history under the name of “Jack the Ripper”. Now, a 120 years later, the story continues to appeal to the imagination of writers, filmmakers and other artists who are fascinated by the killer's calculating way of acting, his precision and his astonishing knowledge of anatomy. Above all we keep on wondering what was the motive of Jack the Ripper, why did he proceed in such a cruel way and why did he suddenly stop after five perfect murders?

In From Hell Alan Moore gives his own interpretation of the facts, based mainly on the book of Stephen Knight Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1977). William Gull, doctor at the Court of Queen Victoria, is pointed as the guilty one. The motive: Queen Victoria discovers Crown Prince Eddy has a child with an ordinary woman and charges William Gull with the mission to avoid the leaking of this secret that could mean the ruin of the empire that is already in distress. Gull takes his task seriously and eliminates all the women knowing about the royal baby. This of course reveals nothing about why the Ripper behaves in such a bloodthirsty way. Moore himself tries to answer this question in chapter four, where William Gull explains his ideological motives. (see 3.2)

From Hell arose from the cooperation of script author Alan Moore and illustrator Eddie Campbell. The drawings as well as the text are based upon thorough historic investigation that was conducted in order to create a comic as truthful as possible. We get a detailed image of what London looked like by the end of the 19th century and Moore overwhelms us in the appendices with a profusion of evidence material and erudition making it, even in spite of his warnings, hard to believe that things did not happen the way he presents them. However nothing is less sure. In From Hell, the border between fiction and reality is continuously played with: almost every detail is supported with possible evidence, and yet, the conclusions drawn by Moore remain conjectures. The title of the book refers to the signature in one of the letters supposedly coming from Jack the Ripper that arrived at the police office, in which the author refers to his supernatural mission: he does not write the police from earthly reality but “from hell”.

If one expects to read a pleasant, colourful comic, From Hell is bound to disappoint. The abundance of violence, sex and especially a lot of blood make reading the work into a real hardship. Moreover, illustrator Eddie Campbell visualizes all this raw material in a very rough manner; his drawings are all but a caress for the eye with their hard and angry pen strokes. Critics sometimes suggest that Campbell's style would be “unworthy” of Moore's screenplay. However, a graphic style always has to be judged according to its integration and commitment to the artistic project as a whole and according to the extent in which structural links of congruency or rivalry between text and image are realised.3 Campbell's work in From Hell definitely meets up to this ideal, reflecting the contents and contributing to the creation of the atmosphere that makes the book into a masterpiece. The above-mentioned structural links will be central in our analysis of the uncanny in From Hell.

From Hell is not a traditional detective story. From the beginning it is obvious who is responsible for the murders and what his motives are. The uncanny effect produced by From Hell has little or nothing to do with suspense or with withholding information. On the contrary, Moore overwhelms us with detailed information of which we can mostly only understand the point afterwards. This procedure corresponds to a particular conception of the course of history. In an interview, Moore states:

I began to play with the idea that the 1880s were a sort of microcosm of what was going to happen in the 20th century—scientifically, artistically, politically. So could you say that the Ripper murders were a microcosm of the 1880s? Could you make it seem—just poetically, I mean—that this was the seed event of the 20th century?


In From Hell, Moore gives us successive views of the social unrest that led to two world wars, including the begetting of Hitler and the growing anti-Semitism. Furthermore, Jack the Ripper was also the first “media murderer”: the press spread his story as never before and the sensation illustrates the increasing power of the media. Moore's conception of the murders as a pre-figuration of the 20th century are echoed in the world vision of the protagonist Dr. Gull who believes in the existence of a fourth dimension. This fourth dimension is understood as an architecture of time wherein different time levels are related to each other. His good friend Hinton communicates this idea to Gull:

—Fourth dimensional patterns within eternity's monolith would, (…), seem merely random events to third dimensional percipients … events rising to an inevitable convergence like an archway's lines. Let us say something peculiar happens in 1788. A century later related events take place. Then again, 50 years later … then 25 years … then 12 1/2 … An invisible curve rising through the centuries.

—Can history then be said to have an architecture Hinton? The notion is most glorious and most horrible.

(Moore and Campbell, ch 2: 15)

Later on, the importance of this idea of a fourth dimension for the construction of the comic will become clear.



Let us begin in the same way Freud does in his article “Das Unheimliche” (1919) and concentrate on the definition the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary gives for the entrance “vision”:

Vision 1 a: something seen in a dream, trance or ecstasy; specific: a supernatural appearance that conveys a revelation b: an object of imagination c: a manifestation to the senses of something immaterial unusual discernment or foresight mystical awareness of the supernatural usu. in visible form 3 a: the act or power of seeing: SIGHT b: the special sense by which the qualities of an object (as color, luminosity, shape and size) constituting its appearance are perceived and which is mediated by the eye 4 a: something seen b: a lovely or charming sight.

(Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary 1979: 1299)4

A vision is a particular way of seeing, an internal view that gives someone a glance on something one “experiences” as prophetic, mystic or supernatural. Notice that this says very little about the nature of the images one would come to see. Part of the description already suggests the uncanny: a vision can be frightening, it is an unusual discernment or foresight. Vidler also insinuates already in the introduction of The Architectural Uncanny. Essays in the Modern Unhomely (1992) that the uncanny is not an intrinsic characteristic of an object—in his thematic, this is space—, but rather the representation of a certain state of mind:

the “uncanny” is not a property of the space itself nor can it be provoked by any particular spatial conformation; it is, in its aesthetic dimension, a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming.

(Vidler: 11)

This is why the effect of the uncanny for a great part depends on one's look upon the world that surrounds him. In this context, it becomes important to point out which elements constitute a particular look upon the world, and how that look becomes substantial. Vidler talks about “a mental state of projection” and hereby again refers to an optical operation, and this is, of course, not a coincidence. Since the Enlightenment, the gaze is one of the most important ways to come into contact with the world. In From Hell this acknowledgement is successfully exploited.


In From Hell, the very divergent reactions of several characters facing the supernatural via their gaze are confronted. In this essay, the specific relation of the characters to the physical and supernatural world will be analysed. The denomination “physical world” refers to the surrounding environment that can be observed with the naked eye and that is usually called “reality”. The “supernatural” is used to talk about the images that reach us coming from elsewhere, as in dreams, rapture, déjà-vu and other similar phenomena. The opposition real versus unreal is intentionally avoided, for precisely this opposition will be put into question in From Hell.


Mister Lees is the professional visionary of the story. He helps Queen Victoria to come into contact with her deceased husband and leads the police to Jack the Ripper. Lees pretends to stand in contact with the supernatural world. He however fails to ever really see something; he in fact feigns all his raptures, as he confesses to his friend Abberline when he is an old man. The reader sees the confession scene in the prologue, therefore he/she knows that Lees' predictions do not correspond to real visions. The fact that what he pretends to see rally turns out to be true, astonishes Lees as much as it astonishes the reader. It gives him an uncanny feeling that reaches its paroxysm when Gull appears to be the real perpetrator of the murders, even though for Lees pointing him out as the guilty person was just a way of making him pay for a previous offence. At that occasion, Gull whispers him in the ear: “Tell me, Mr. Lees, have you ever TRULY had a VISION? A REAL vision? (…) No? I didn't THINK so … but I have.” (Moore and Campbell, ch. 12: 13). Very striking is also the graphic presentation of Lees pretended visions, as when he has a so-called talk with Prince Albert, who's body is represented by Campbell. Lees does not believe that the prince is present at all and he deceives the queen, but the picture suggests that a spirit is really hanging over them. This time the uncanny feeling is situated exclusively on the side of the reader.

In the epilogue we meet Mr. Lees again, when he is telling Abberline about a frightening dream he had. It appears to be the same dream that the mother of Adolf Hitler had during his begetting, announcing the Second World War and the persecution of the Jews. This dream, in which both Klara Hitler and Mister Lees see the church of Hawksmoor in Whitechapel, a Jewish neighbourhood, flooding with blood and Jews fleeing in all directions, had been visualised earlier in the book. The dream not only predicts the Second World War but also links the intensification of the persecution of the Jews at the end of the 19th century with the Ripper murders, which were committed in the Jewish neighbourhood of London. Moore shows how during the investigation the hatred for the Jews in London strongly flared up. Slanderers indeed pretended from the first victim that the Jewish community was responsible for the murders.


The queen wants to look further but fails to do so. She believes in another reality, but misses visual contact with it. It is striking that she seldom or never looks the reader straight into the eyes. She looks aside, absent-minded, feeling superior to others and does not look at them in an attempt to guard distance. In From Hell she is the one who orders the murders, but the reader cannot but feel pity for her because of her loneliness and the way she is manipulated by those surrounding her. Mister Lees makes use of her superstition by pretending that she can come in contact with the ghost of her deceased husband. William Gull transgresses the orders of the queen and exploits her confidence. Where she wanted to avoid a scandal in the first place, she now is confronted with incidents that may cast a dark shadow over the British throne. Because of her public image she cannot but keep silent. The inability of the queen to come in contact with the physical world via her look isolates her and alienates her from reality. The only consolation left are the pretended contacts with her deceased husband where she, as mentioned before, fails to see anything.


The first prostitute to be murdered, Polly, has ominous dreams that warn her if something dreadful is going to happen. Her friends do not take the prophecies serious; they are “but dreams”. When the fire Polly saw in one of her dreams really happens, this is graphically visualised as the melting together of the images of vision and reality: Polly runs in the middle of the flames (as she saw in her dream), while she in fact finds herself in another part of the city (Moore and Campbell, ch. 5: 23). The fact that Polly is murdered shortly afterwards gives her omen an even more morbid character.


Abberline, the police inspector in charge of the investigation of the murders, has a matter-of-fact and analytic view on the case. When a boy from the crowd points to the magic nature of the murders, he severely denounces this attitude (Moore and Campbell, ch. 9: 4). Abberline adopts the scientific approach we would expect from Doctor Gull and seems to completely shut himself off from impressions of a supernatural kind. In spite of this, under pressure of the circumstances, he accepts Mister Lees' visions (after all they lead him to the real murder) and sometimes he drifts back to the past in his dreams, e.g., when he is transported to his childhood, observing his father at work as a little boy. Later on, his visual and analytic capacities will ironically turn out to be rather useless: when he finally sees clear into the true circumstances of the murders, he is forced to keep silent and is forced to retire so that he will never be able to use his talent anymore.


William Gull, the protagonist, is the only character of the comic who has a real relationship to the supernatural. Three stages can be distinguished in his visual relation to respectively the physical and supernatural world that can be schematically represented as follows:

Physical World Looks Looks Looks
Sees Sees Sees
Supernatural World Looks Looks Looks
Sees Sees Sees

In the first phase Gull has an optical relation only to the physical reality, although his concern with the supernatural is not totally absent. In the second phase, he has one foot in the physical reality and the other in the supernatural, a situation that will finally bend him towards madness. Shortly before his death, in the third phase, Gull leaves the material world completely and is left with his mere visual contact with the supernatural.


The second chapter begins with the symbolic birth of William Gull, who, as a child in a boat with his father5, approaches the light at the end of a tunnel. In this scene the reader gets many indications about William Gull's later life. It is suggested that experiences of his early childhood will strongly determine his forthcoming life and the importance of the gaze is emphasised by its position in this “primal scene”. The graphic design of this scene goes from complete darkness to bright light in a gradually widening of the visual range of the spectator. The scene moreover displays graphic similarities with other scenes that put the eye on the foreground6. William's odd question to his father makes clear that the boy believes that his physical apparition is related to his mother's gaze:

—Mother says that when she were with child after Waterloo, the pictures of Napoleon everywhere impressed fearfully on her mind and that's why I look like him. Is that so father?

—Well, it is a medicinal fact that such things may occur. How it accords with Scripture I know not.

(Moore and Campbell, ch. 2: 2)

A second important influence in Gull's life is the Holy Bible. His father is a very religious man and gives his son continuously citations from the Holy Scriptures. The question “What does the Lord expect from you?” concerns the boy most of all. He dreams that the Lord has chosen him for a great task and waits for Him to reveal that task.

The first stage in Gull's relation to reality can be called ‘the formation phase’ and occupies the first seventy years of his life. During this period the protagonist solely has a relation to the physical reality. William Gull observes the environment with a scientifically interested look that excludes any kind of sympathy: it is cold, matter-of-fact and cruel. When his father dies, little William opens the eyes of the body and looks into them. This scene undoubtedly refers to William's professional choice and to his early passion for human anatomy, but there is more. It is possible that William opens the eyes of the body because he wants to know the last image perceived by his father before dying. Maybe he even wonders what lies behind the earthly reality and if the dead have a view on the supernatural. Also his meeting with Merrick, the elephant man, reveals many things about his character and his gaze. Unlike most people, Gull feels no disgust at his encounter with Merrick, not even tremendum et fascinosum applies to him. His interest is purely scientific and therefore he greets Merrick with the words: “Mr. Merrick, you are the most dreadfully deformed human being I have ever encountered. It's a great privilege to make your acquaintance” (Moore and Campbell, ch. 2: 22). For Merrick it is stirring news that his visitor does not start screaming nor look aside and he feels quite comfortable in the presence of Gull. Because of his similarity with the Hindu god Ganesa (a human being with an elephant head), in India Merrick would be a god among human race, so Gull tells him. Indeed in India someone like Merrick is worshipped and his sleep is studied: when the man-god has a restless sleep, this means social unrest or war, a quiet sleep means peace. The Hindus believe just like Gull in the existence of a supernatural world that has its influence on material reality. And as the druids used to observe signs7, they interpret tokens of the Indian incarnation of Ganesa. Gull's interest for the elephant man is perhaps also related to Merrick's possible connection with the supernatural. In other words, Gull sees Merrick as an in-between being, as someone having a privileged access to the supernatural.

In the second chapter, which mostly corresponds to the formation phase, the reader literally comes to see the world through Gull's eyes. The camera takes his perspective, making the voice of the first person coincide with his perception of the world. Often we see hands at work as the protagonist must see them; sometimes there is darkness when his eyes are blinded. In comics, characters talking in the first person are usually pictured as a third person whom we see acting. The original camera position in this part of From Hell forces us to enter the body of Gull, creating thus a particular link between the reader and the main character, for whom we would normally feel little sympathy. At the end of the chapter, our perspective suddenly changes from Gull to the character of Annie Crook8 to finally fade away together with her. This particular position of the camera will reappear: when Annie, the second prostitute, is murdered, during the dissection of Mary Kelly, at William's own trial and in the last vision he has before his death.


During the second stage that can be distinguished in Gull's visual relation to the environing world, he still looks at earthly reality, but in fact he only really sees the supernatural. This phase starts when Gull gets a first vision during a cardiac arrest.9 The architect Nicholas Hawksmoor10, his father, his deceased friend Hinton and God successively appear to him. Gull asks the ghost of his father what is now really his task in life since God still has not given him one. The apparition of God in the shape of Yabulon, the three-headed god of the freemasons, is the apotheosis of this first vision. Yabulon nevertheless does not speak to him and remains image without sound. Gull does not seem to be surprised about having this vision, on the contrary, he is happy that God finally decides to show him the way and that he at least gets to see what he has been waiting for since so long. At the same time God reminds him that He is watching him. This reflexivity is an important theme in the Jewish-Christian tradition: when God makes himself visible to a subject, this act refers to the look of the Other defining the subject over and over again:

Une fois visible, les jeux sont faits: il sera virtuellement regardé de toutes parts et son regard ne pourra à son tour “se poser” sur le monde qu'en déchaînant les pouvoirs du visible qui le cerne autant qu'il “l'incarne”

(Assoun: 9)

When Gull is called shortly afterwards to Queen Victoria for an extremely delicate task, he soon interprets this task as his divine mission. From that moment in the story Gull will correspond to the profile that Freud defines as “paranoia”: he lives in an illusionary world where God has chosen him for an important task. From the moment of the vision, the whole universe is oriented towards the accomplishment of that task.

In the fourth chapter Gull holds a long monologue explaining the deeper motives for the murders to Netley, his coachman, who becomes his accomplice or better, his “slave”, because he in fact gets trapped in a situation that surpasses his capacities. Gull intends to save the world from the decay caused by women and by doing so, he definitively wants to consolidate the age of Reason, or in other words, the patriarchy. In order to save patriarchy, one has to recognise again the ongoing war between the sun (the male element, light of knowledge, personified in the Greek god Apollo) and the moon (the female element, dark, creative, since the beginning of patriarchy personified in the Greek god Dionysus). This war has been going on for centuries and traces of the Dionysus worship can be found everywhere, for example in the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor and in the poetry and pictures of William Blake. Gull is afraid that the omnipotence of Reason will be defeated if Reason fails to give its unconscious antagonist a place. Trying to balance the dark powers, he falls back on an animistic vision of the world wherein magic and reality intersect. Netley is Gull's only confidant, precisely because the coachmen will not understand the deeper motives that drive him: “You realise that I only share these thoughts in recognition of your lack of cognisance?” (Moore and Campbell, ch. 4: 33) Netley is a simple man who has never come in contact with magic and Gull's conceptions strongly disturb his carefully protected everyday life. Up till then, Netley had never felt the need to see any further than the end of his nose. Not only does Netley not understand Gull's explanation, he also rejects it impulsively. Gull then points out the figures of the sun around the horses' necks that symbolise the male force of the god Apollo, making clear that whether he wants it or not, Netley is also involved in the conflict between reason and the unconscious. Gull's words make such a deep impression on Netley that fear makes him suffer physically and he throws up in the gutter. It is not a coincidence that the coachmen had kidneys for lunch, since they are the same organs the Romans used to read the future from.

The description of Gull contains at least two seeds for the uncanny. Freud states: “an uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed [here: what does the Lord expect from you?] are once more revived by some impression [here: the cardiac affection with aphasia], or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.” (Freud: 249). Freud more particularly links these primitive beliefs with our ancestor's animistic conception of the universe that is “characterised by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings; by the subject's narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes; by the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts and the technique of magic based on that belief, by the attribution to various outside persons and things of carefully graded magical powers (…)” (Freud: 240). According to Freud, in our normal development we all have been through a stage corresponding to the animistic world conception of primitive men, so that everything that strikes us now as uncanny “fulfils the conditions of touching those residues of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.” (Freud: 241). All these elements mentioned by Freud can be observed in Gull's conceptions and acts. For Freud, this return of repressed material seems to bear a rather negative connotation, as something “we did not yet overcome”. In the opinion of William Gull, however, the return is highly necessary for it is the only possible way to save reason, not surprisingly symbolised by light (the sun) and the capacity to see. Since the age of reason also corresponds to patriarchy, we can argue that Gull's story also brings castration fear on stage. The protagonist is stimulated by a greed for optic effects—after each vision he longs for a new one-that is closely linked to the fear never to be able to see again. Freud defends in his analysis of “The Sandman” that the fear to lose one's capacity to see symbolises castration fear. This explanation can be useful when interpreting the mortal scene of Gull that pictures his eye as a solar eclipse that later on changes into a veiled moon (symbol of Dionysus and the dark powers) at the moment of dying.

Each successful murder and mutilation is accompanied by a particular vision. The dissection of the corpses is fundamental for the intensity of the visions. Jan Baetens proposes an auto-reflexive lecture of the return of dissection and autopsy, which would offer a metaphor for the activity of the reader:

Car si métaphore il y a, elle concerne en tout premier lieu le geste même du lecteur, lequel à force de vouloir arracher au livre les sécrets supposés, finit par mettre en pièces ce qu'il est censé de rassembler en un tout cohérent, étayé par un faisceau d'interprétations soigneusement vérifiées.

(Baetens: 111)

Because of the excess of information, the dissection becomes a performative act: it is a showing that is at the same time an acting. By contrast, for Gull, the dissection is rather an acting that also implicates a showing: only in the expectation of, or at the moment of the mutilation, images are shown to him. His visions become longer and more intense, in the end involving him personally. As Moore points out in the appendices, it is quite common for serial murderers and psychopaths to have visions before, during and/or after killing. Moreover, the desire to see (to have a vision) and to be seen (by God) cannot be disconnected. Gull is fascinated by his visions and every time again he wants to see; and therefore he has to continue the killing. Since he is also acting according to God's wishes, he wants God to look at him, and to admire him in the accomplishment of his difficult task. Later on, at his trial, Gull will repeat that God has chosen him for the job and that He is the only one to call him to account.

In the beginning, Gull does not experience his visions as being uncanny. The visions of the first three murders refer to the future and show images that above all fascinate him. However, he has no personal link with those images and they do not yet implicate him directly. For the reader, on the contrary, the visions are uncanny indeed: not only do they correspond to possible real situations in the 20th century—so he sees for example a TV-set and electric lamps in a living room—, but, as the appendices teach us, the people in his visions later testify to having seen him as well.11 This reflexive proceeding reaches its paroxysm in Gull's mortal vision.

For Gull himself the visions only become uncanny when he starts seeing images from the past and repetition begins to operate. In the cruellest scene of the book, showing the dissection of the last victim during 30 unbearable pages, Gull experiences various connected visions in which he talks for the first time, though the characters do not yet perceive him. He is suddenly fully affected by an uncanny feeling when his deceased friend Hinton appears to him, for it is the first time he gets a vision of something recognisable from his personal past. As a reaction, he looks around in anguish to see if his friend is really there. For Freud, the uncanny precisely hides itself in the “return of the same” (Freud: 227) and it is frightening because “something repressed (which) recurs” (Freud: 241). From that moment on the images from the past succeed each other and Gull gradually loses his mind. The transition to the third optical stage, where Gull will get snared in the supernatural world, starts from here.


When Gull is cited to appear before the court of freemasons, he finds himself for the first time in a situation he has seen in a vision before. Graphically this is presented by a chiasm: what during the dissection was part of the vision now becomes reality. When Gull realises what happens, he sees himself imprisoned in the crossing and unconsciously lifts his hand as if he still held the knife that he used for the dissection. This confrontation with the uncanny nature of his own visions is what drives Gull to insanity, a process that reaches its culmination just before his death, when he enters a scene he already saw in a vision and which symbolises the negation and the loss of his identity. The same procedure of a graphic chiasm is used here, making clear that Gull has become unable to distinguish vision and reality.


Just before his death, when Gull has been left in a madhouse by the freemasons, he has definitively lost his capacity to look (he does not even remarks the couple making love in his view range), and the only thing he still sees is what goes on before his spiritual eye. This is what according to Freud characterises the behaviour of neurotics: “the over-accentuation of physical reality in comparison with material reality—a feature closely allied to the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts” (Freud: 187). The mighty Gull we could admire for his genius is now reduced to an old child, his fancy suits have been replaced by asylum togs. Campbell visualises the situation in a very oppressive way: Gull's once so lucid gaze now only reaches the top of his nose.

The mortal vision heralds Gull's last optic stage and the uncanny feeling strikes the reader most intensely in this scene. For the second time we get a close-up of Gull's eye, an image that Campbell reserves for the most oppressive visions12, and through the eye we enter Gull's world of visions. In this scene, Moore ties all the ends together and shows the link between many elements he brought to the reader's notice in a subtle or less subtle way during the story. An example of one of those details is the return of the painting The Ghost of a Flea from William Blake that represents a frightening monster. In his monologue Gull already referred to this terrifying painting that is said to be the representation of a ghost that appeared to the poet. The reader also gets a glance of this painting in the middle of the book when Gull menaces the poet Yeats in a scene that does not seem to have a specific function at that time. In the final vision appears that Gull himself is the monster that Blake sees and draws, which means that Gull travels through time: William Blake indeed lived a century earlier.

The images that William Gull gets to see from the past and the future, link the Ripper murders with other serial murderers throughout time. Moreover, the future apparitions in which Gull is the object of the vision of others correspond to existing testimonies. In this last vision, together with the protagonist, the reader seems to access the fourth dimension of time. We alternatively see what Gull sees and how he is perceived, in the past as well as in the future. In this way, Moore seems to suggest the possibility that the hypothesis of a fourth dimension in the structure of time might be right. The visions in this book are not subjective, unique experiences but they are all linked to each other. A good example is the dream shared by Mister Lees and Klara Hitler. Everything that occurs in history is related. Nil novi sub sole.


How does the form of the message contribute to the creation of uncanny effects on the reader? Or, to put it in other words: why can From Hell not be conceived otherwise than as a comic?

  1. Moore and Campbell focus in the construction of their book precisely on the return of both textual and visual elements to create an uncanny feeling. Hereby they skillfully make use of their knowledge that our visual memory does not stock images in the same way our conscious memory stocks words. Images remain brand-marked on our retina in a subtle, often unconscious way. The Coca-Cola advertisements that show a Coca-Cola bottle during a few hundredths of a second in between film images are a well-known example of this phenomenon. It is therefore all but a coincidence that Freud used to define the unconscious as a picture story. Maybe in the beginning of the 21th century, he would have compared it to a comic, maybe even after reading From Hell.
  2. The obsessive return of elements is ideologically justified in the conception of history as a “fourth dimension” that we defined before as an architecture of time wherein different time levels are related to each other. Via visual procedures such as the positioning of the camera and the graphic melting together of vision and reality, the reader gets drawn into the story, what contributes to the efficiency of the uncanny. Moreover, the appendices, full of data to confirm the veracity of the story, implicate us in a direct way in the creative process of the writer. The reader gets the impression to be drawn along in a frenzied search for the truth and might forget that his perception of the case is manipulated. All the pieces of the puzzle fit together in an almost too perfect way and precisely that is what makes us shudder. Or as a critic puts it: “this book is a black hole” (Hausler).


  1. “The term graphic novel is used to distinguish so-called literary illustrated narratives from their more frivolous brethren known as the comic book.” (Hausler)

  2. Milner defines psycho criticism as follows: “une critique d'inspiration psychanalytique dont la visée essentielle est d'identifier, dans les oeuvres qu'elle prend en considération, les processus inconscients dont Freud a révélé l'existence en étudiant le psychisme individuel” (1982: 5)

  3. Jan Baetens, “Une dialectique à l'oeuvre”. (112)

  4. My italics.

  5. It is not a coincidence that his father is present in this symbolic scene for the ghost of his young deceased father will follow Gull for the rest of his life. Besides, the mother figure is strikingly absent in the education of the young Gull. After the death of his father, his mother trusts him to rector Harisson, who makes sure that William gets the best education and is able to study to become a doctor. Women are also absent in his early adulthood years, except as patients. The freemasonry, which will strongly influence his life, is a community of men. The absence of women in his life might have a direct relationship with his later misogyny and the ideological motives for the murders. This remains, of course, a mere conjecture.

  6. See also phase 3.

  7. Gull uses the example of the druids in his monologue (cf. second phase).

  8. Annie Crook is the lover of Prince Eddy and the mother of his child. In order to force her to silence, Gull makes he undergo a brain surgery that makes her insane.

  9. In the footnotes Moore points out that the cardiac arrest striking Gull in October 1887 resulted into recurrent aphasia. Aphasia causes all kinds of weird hallucinations to the patient.

  10. In From Hell, buildings from the 17th century architect Hawksmoor, with in the first place the cathedral of Whitechapel, occupy an important place. From Hell would be a perfect example for the study of the uncanny in architecture; this is certainly a precious research track. A particularly uncanny description of Christchurch can be found in footnote 32 of the second chapter.

  11. The way Moore in this section creates an uncanny effect by providing extra information in the notes illustrates very well the point we made earlier in the first section.

  12. The second close-up is found in the chapter describing the dissection of the fifth and last victim, Mary Kelly.


Assoun, Paul-Laurent. 1995. Leçons psychoanalytiques sur Le Regard et la Voix. Paris: Anthropos.

Baetens, Jan. 2001. “Une dialectique à l'oeuvre” in Neuvième Art. Les cahiers du musée de la bande dessinée 6. 108-113.

Freud, Sigmund. [1919] 1955. “The ‘Uncanny.’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XVII. London: The Hogarth Press: 217-256.

Hausler, Pete. 2000. “From Hell by Alan Moore; Illustrated by Eddie Campbell” Village Voice

Jackson, Kevin. 2000. “Old Moore's Ripping Yarns: Alan Moore's Ambitious and Soon-to-be-Filmed Comic Book Novel Traces the Roots of the 20th Century to Jack the Ripper.”

Jay, Martin. 1993. Downcast Eyes. The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Milner, Max. 1982. La fantasmagorie. Essai sur l'optique fantastique. Paris: Puf.

Moore, Alan, and Eddy Campbell. 1999. From Hell. Being a Melodrama in Sixteen Parts. Northhampton: Kitchen Sink Press.

Vidler, Anthony. 1992. “Introduction” in The Architectural Uncanny. Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge: MIT Press.


Criticism: Overviews And General Studies


Criticism: Reviews Of Recent Graphic Novels