Earlier this year, the Russo brothers—Joe (GRS ’95, theater) and Anthony (who studied law here)—released Avengers: Infinity War, the highest-grossing film of the year, and the fourth highest of all time.
The Russo brothers’ films have demonstrated the power of bringing comic books to life on the big screen.
But comic books themselves have a long history, with roots in the 19th century and a so-called Golden Age after the Great Depression.
To mark National Comic Book Day today (Sept. 25), we checked in with Case Western Reserve University’s comic book expert and English lecturer Brad Ricca (GRS ’03, English) to find out more about the topic.
Here are his “5 things to know” about comic books.
1. Comics are a medium of mediums.
Comics have lots of names: graphic novels, comix, sequential art, or—my dad’s old favorite—“funny books.” They are words and pictures presented together to create a narrative. Their stories can explain mitosis as in The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology, or contain layers of visual and textual meaning to convey the legacy of the Holocaust, as in Maus. Comics are not just about superheroes. Their subject matter is legion, and they have spaces for everyone. That being said…
2. Superheroes are awesome.
Superhero movies make billions of dollars at the box office, in movies that are both airy (Justice League) and Oscar-worthy (Black Panther). But where did this phenomenon, now one of our prime cultural exports, originate?
Superheroes are an American invention. While the rest of the Old World was bursting with myths, America had to invent its own. Sure, we have that iffy story about George Washington and a cherry tree, but kids would much rather wear T-shirts with the symbol of the House of El than they would a powdered wig.
In fact, most know the story of Superman—an immigrant baby rocketed from a doomed alien world—even before they reach kindergarten. That is worth thinking about.
3. Engage with comics at Case Western Reserve.
I’ve been teaching USSY 275, a SAGES comics class, for 10 years, after first pitching it with The Plain Dealer reporter Mike Sangiacomo. Over the years, we’ve handled $20,000 comics in person, heard from numerous guests like My Friend Dahmer’s Derf and Lance Parkin, and were among the first people in the world to see and review the film adaptation of Watchmen.
What always surprises students is that not only do comics stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but also they demand it, mostly because of the near-limitless approaches (literary, artistic, economic, scientific, etc.) that you can apply to them.
If you are a teacher and have been thinking about adding a comic component: Do it! Not only will it help the visual learners in your class and open sites for critical thinking, but also it will increase your enrollment. Trust me, the SAGES class fills up like a Springsteen show. (Is that a dated reference? OK, Childish Gambino.)
Case Western Reserve has lots of places to find comics. Mary Grimm in English offers a great graphic novels class and people like Mary Assad and Jared Bendis have had students create their own. Case Western Reserve has hosted Neil Gaiman and Roz Chast for Writers Center Stage talks. We will welcome Matt Groening and Lynda Barry [of The Simpsons] next semester. Kelvin Smith Library Special Collections also has a collection of early Superman material and Jim at Barnes & Noble Uptown keeps a great stock of graphic novels.
Case Western Reserve doesn’t have a comics studies minor (yet), but there are plenty of opportunities (capstones, independent studies) for students to explore. Let me know if you need suggestions.
4. Cleveland is Krypton.
Cleveland has an unbelievably rich history of comics creators, too numerous to name here. But most importantly (you knew this was coming): Cleveland is the birthplace of Superman.
Such trivia may seem quaint and folksy, but it is not. The Superman character is one of the most recognizable in the world and his adventures, in the thousand-issue run of Action Comics (currently being written by Cleveland native and Cleveland Institute of Art alumnus Brian Bendis) may rightly be considered the longest work of fiction in English.
And it all began five minutes up the road in Glenville, in the mid-1930s, when two nerdy best friends, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, came together to create a character and story to make sense of economic desperation, political anxiety, and the death of Jerry’s own father during a tragic robbery. Though Superman is now a billion-dollar corporate entity, he began as two boys trying to make sense of the world through simple words and pictures. If that isn’t art, I don’t know what is.
5. People are passionate about comics.
Sometimes comics are advertisement-ridden pieces of stereotyping and fan service. But that is still a good reason to analyze and argue about them. Because when they’re good—like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Ms. Marvel, or my personal favorite, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills—they are staggering in their complexity. That’s why I love comics. Not just because of the optic blasts and spider-powers, but also for the way this imaginative art was produced as an off-kilter mirror of the real world.
When the Soviets beat us into space, Marvel launched the Fantastic Four; when Captain America punched Hitler in the jaw on the cover of Captain America No. 1, it was almost a year before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Comics were a secret parallel universe where readers could think—wholly and imaginatively—about the world they lived in, a world that was just outside and just out of reach, either because we were too young to really be a part of it, or had asthma, or just wanted to be left alone to read.
Edward Said once remarked that: “I don’t remember when exactly I read my first comic book, but I do remember exactly how liberated and subversive I felt as a result.”
That’s what reading comics unlocks for me. It’s a powerful nostalgia, not for youth itself, but for the imaginative power that comes with it.