The protagonists in comicbooks, be they extra-terrestrial or earthly, are losers. They’re losers in the social sense (social, sexual, scientific misfits who wear the wrong things and look awkward in every social situation one could imagine), in the literal sense (they “lose” things like parents, friends, lovers), and in the figurative sense (nearly every comicbook plotline revolves around the recovery, however futile, of whatever has been lost). It’s as if the emphasis on a protagonist’s “loserness”—emotionally, figuratively, literally—is a necessity.
One way to confront the comicbook’s “loser mode” is to look at how comics are understood in a broader cultural context. For instance, most of us learn to read by looking at picture books, which usually borrow (or did they invent?) the narrative structure that juxtaposes words and images to create movement across the page common to comics. From the initial contact with words onwards, we’re always looking for pictures that illustrate the text.
There’s no great interest in the idea that we confront the written word with graphics from the beginning (if you are interested, check out Derrida), or that we conjure images in our minds when we read. What’s interesting is how those representations—the images that go with the words—are often of losers, right from the beginning. Some of you might have read something by these two:
Without doubt the most roundly mocked couple in the history of reading. They’re losers in the strictest and cruelest sense. There’s nothing exciting about Dick and Jane, unless you want to let your interpretation make it interesting. Take the beloved Dr. Zuess as another example:
Sally and “Me” are incapable of making fun for themselves: losers. They’re left alone in the house all day with a fish to look after them and they cannot think of anything to do. Really? If Sally has enough panache to request or tie that red bow in her hair, surely she could produce the illicit machinations common to children left alone in the house. And, how maniacally needy is that cat in the hat? He’s the loser in the class who keeps raising his hand shouting, “look at me, look at me now, look what I can do!”
To some degree, all our early confrontations with image and text are through representations of losers; and it only gets worse. Soon, we’re hit with Superman, Batman, and Spider-man; all social misfits, perennial losers who happen to have a super power, which, in the irony of ironies, they cannot disclose to anyone and thus lose a good many things. Then come the more “realistic” comicbooks: the Jimmy Corrigan, Bruce Bechdel, Art Spiegelman in Maus, Seth in It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, Chester Brown in Paying for It. All losers in the multifarious definition noted above.
Along with the reading of the comics are the individuals we must purchase them from. There is no flattering representation of comicbook store owners in popular culture. Indeed, the most famous of all is frequently imitated by those wishing to convey someone else’s idiocy or “loserdom”:
Wade “Superboy” Adams in Season 3 of Sex and the City is another classic representation of the comicbook store owner. The title, “Hot Child in the City,” is a clue we don’t even need as we watch this man-child woo Carrie to his parent’s home wherein he still maintains a bedroom and dime-bag. Again and again, comics and their consumption is associated with losers.
But all is not lost, we’re just in a rut (coincidentally, the narrative continuity of comics, endlessly replaying the same plotline means that losers are always in a rut, always losers; they don’t even get to grow). When we look at how comics are positioned in popular culture, we see that they exude a calming effect. They almost manage the potential risk of figures who read them, like when Elvis Presley reads a comic book:
At first glance, Presely’s preoccupation with the comic book reinforces his boyish innocence (one is reminded of Presley referring to everyone politely as “ma’am” or “sir”) and takes away from the sexual anxieties he aroused. The comic seems to present Presley as less threatening, naive, and to some extent unaware of his sexual prowess. That said, his reading of the comic book also connects him to a more illicit cultural production, one not bound by “literary” expectations or canonical learning—popular culture will do just fine for The King. Presely’s relaxed demeanour, and low tastes in reading material, work to reinforce anxieties about his corrupt, wiggling, gyrations, and what they do to all his female fans.
The association of comics with illicit behaviour or taboo-breaking has a long history. Eric Clapton, whose string bending, distorted, impassioned guitar playing was the genesis for a slew of “guitar gods,” holds a Beano comic book in the iconic Bluesbreakers album cover often referred to as “The Beano Album.” The Beano was a serial anthology in the UK that featured mischief-makers such as Dennis the Menace (the crueller British version) and Minnie the Minx (who was “wild as wild can be”). Robert Crumb’s first taste of popular acclaim arguably arrived with his album-cover work on Cheap Thrills, the Big Brother and the Holding Company album that introduced Janis Joplin to the world. Just as Eric Clapton reading a Beano comic signals his own string bending feedback roar against the placid guitar playing of the era, Crumb’s album cover signaled the arrival of Joplin’s unique vocal growl and unconventional rockstar femininity.
And so it goes, both losers and innovators. What comics show us is that the disenfranchised, the losers of the world, are the ones who tend to innovative and bring about change, the ones who possess that latent super power that will flourish. That’s a powerful lesson; one that makes up for all the crappy representations of people associated with comicbooks in popular culture. That said, maybe we like rooting for losers because it’s how we first confront the word. And, given that we first confront the word through the interplay of text and image, the association of the comicbook with the loser is simply inked into the guttered page; not something unique to the subject matter and protagonists common to comics and image/text representations, but to the very act(ion) of reading them.
Finally, a bankshot: it’s no accident that all the calming of illicitness—or incitement of it—comes when a man reads—or sells—a comicbook. For women, the comicbook is something forbidden; it’s where boys go, and girls should proceed with the utmost of caution (note Carrie’s clueless assumptions about comicbooks in the above Sex and The City video: “aren’t comics a boy thing?”). Thankfully, many women do proceed without caution and thrive, bringing much needed perspective to the genre. However, that Marylin Monroe is pictured below reading James Joyce’s Ulysses tells us something about the representation of “literariness” works in popular culture, and how it can be subverted the same way comicbooks and the associations they conjure represent the act of reading and the expectations that go with that act.
The picture above, we can only assume, is supposed to make Monroe look smart. I.e.: she’s not just a dumb blonde; she’s got academic literary chops and she’s “high-minded” and “well read”; the perfect attractive, but socially safe, wife. And for some, the photo might temper Monroe’s sexuality and make her seem more intelligent than she comes off singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. But then, there’s this perspective, and all is lost:
What’s really interesting about both these pictures is left to the losers of the world who have actually read Ulysses—itself a book full of losers. The careful observer will note that Monroe illicitly confirms her carnal potential by opening the book to its back pages and Molly Bloom’s protracted and empowering dialogue: “then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes” (Joyce 1). So, perhaps, women reading literature is as subversive, potentially innovative and carnival as men reading comicbooks.