It was recently announced that Penguin Classics would be publishing special editions of certain Marvel comic books. The comics will be part of a ‘Penguin Classics Marvel Collection’, which will present origin stories and seminal tales from characters published under the Marvel Comics brand. The decision reflects the “transformative and timeless influence on an entire genre of fantasy”, and Penguin will publish books containing tales about Captain America, Black Panther, and Spider-Man. These stories are not only attention-grabbing for their visuals, drawing on a rich tradition of American cartooning, but also reflect their contemporary cultural zeitgeist, and have influenced writers of many generations. The Penguin Classics decision marks the growing respect for comics as a medium of stories, and may herald the advent of more interesting and ambitious stories in the comic-book industry.
A short history of comic books leads you into the 1930s: they began by reprinting newspaper strips, but soon, they were featuring their own content. In 1938, the world’s first superhero was debuted: Superman in Action Comics #1. At the time, the comic book format was seen as less prestigious than the strip, so it took a few years for the superheroes to grace the back of a newspaper.
For Stan Lee, the leading creative behind Marvel Comics, “Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window”. In the period following the advent of the superhero, the Second World War was on the mind of many comic book writers. Captain America was introduced in 1941 on the cover of his very own book with an illustration of him punching Adolf Hitler, while in 1945, Batman #26 contained a story of a futuristic Batman and Robin fighting against an alien fascist called “Fura”, which sounds suspiciously like ‘führer’. Stan Lee’s creation of the X-Men in 1963 was, to him, a “good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at the time”. In 1966, racial equality took an even more prominent place in his comics with the creation of Black Panther.
More recently, comics have begun to try and reflect wider experiences in modern America. The X-Men became a symbol for the struggles of the LGBTQ+ experience, with a story in the 90s about the “Legacy virus” being a direct parallel to AIDS epidemic. Miles Morales, a black Hispanic teenager, is the new Spider-Man, while Kamala Khan, a Muslim student from New Jersey, is a new superhero, with her own tv show coming soon. Over at DC Comics, the introduction of Jessica Cruz as a superhero was an attempt by writers to capture the experience of having anxiety.
Of course, in reflecting the cultural moment, these comics have sometimes mis-stepped in their presentations, such as Chinese villains produced in 1937 caricaturing the “Yellow Peril”. Depictions of women have also been somewhat lacking – as writer Gail Simone noticed, “it’s not healthy to be a female character in comics”. They were often subject to far greater violence than male counterparts, and often purely for the sake of a male character’s development. For example, Gwen Stacey was thrown off a bridge to anger Spider-Man, and Green Lantern’s love interest Alexandra DeWitt was stuffed into a fridge as a form of vengeance against the hero. In Wonder Woman we can see here most closely Georgia Higley’s statement that comics are a “reflection of the good and the bad of our society”. During the 1950s, Wonder Woman constantly found herself bound and shackled (since the head writer for the character felt that women enjoy submission), and her problems revolved around marriage and love. However, by the 70s, she became a symbol for feminism: she displayed “strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life”. The creation of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection has a chance to capture these reflections – these comics represent how people have thought over the years, and how values have changed and evolved across the decades.
The collection also reflects the influence of comics on wider media. Margaret Atwood and Stephen King turned their hands to comic books recently, while 2002’s critically acclaimed film Road to Perdition was based on a graphic novel. Countless other films have spawned from the pages of comics books – for better or for worse, the influence of comic books on the film industry is unmistakable. As the books published by Penguin Classics inspired subsequent literary culture, these comics have pervaded modern pop culture to the extent that jokes about Superman’s secret identity are commonplace, and Spider-Man made it to Broadway.Ultimately, what the decision to create the collection represents is the recognition of the comic book not as a genre, but as a medium. Of course, when the comic book came out originally, they were generally aimed at children. However, over time, the medium has evolved. We started with a fantastical man from space who could leap tall buildings in a single bound; now, comics test boundaries and ideologies, with Civil War discussing notions of freedom and responsibility pitted against each other in the model of a Greek tragedy. Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the consequences of colonialism and social divisions in Black Panther: A Nation Under our Feet, and Spider-Man confronts human struggles, such as the grief that plagues his life in costume in No One Dies. Perhaps these comics are not on the level of Dostoyevskian classics, but they are their own unique achievements in story-telling, and their own cultural touchstones that deserve their place in the great literary canon.
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