Created to function as a commodity, something to be purchased, read, and thrown away, quickly replaced by the next issue, comics have always had an inferiority complex. Though the medium has gained traction in elite intellectual circles and expanded its story arcs beyond black and white moral tales, it clings to its underdog status. It does so because without the impending trauma that comes with obsolescence, comics would cease being innovative.
As a subject for interpretation in the comics medium, trauma is a foundational theme. Superman’s arrival on earth from a dead world, Batman’s ascension from the psychological cave created as he bore witness to his parent’s death, Jimmy Corrigan’s ongoing disassociation from anything resembling a father, Valdek’s stationary cycling through memories of the Holocaust, all serve to prime readers for the character’s battle with traumatic events.
Trauma is so frequent in comic narratives it is almost overwrought. It’s presence a requirement for any story within the medium. Even Archie and Jughead dance with the trauma common to all, of being in high school, relationships, sexual innuendo. Trauma is the necessary fissure in any storyline that moves the characters to action—the classic example of course being Rorschach whose psychological trauma pulsates in his mask, his social outlook, and his behavior toward the criminal element.
Not only is trauma present, it’s worked over. One of the essential elements of the genre’s narrative form is to constantly revisit the traumatic moment, both to remind readers and rev the engine that will propel the character development into new regions. As Eco notes, superheroes are doomed to repeat their storylines lest they be “consumed,” just as “slice of life” comics are doomed to revisit the character’s past, the causes of her present predicament, or the impending crisis of some looming moment. Even seemingly innocuous comic treatments such as the graphic version of the 9/11 report themselves rely on the traumatic event itself to justify such visual retellings.
Littered with failed relationships, murdered family members, suicide, dead fathers, dead worlds, parallel dimensions, military coups, last stands, comics are the medium for the traumatic.
Of course, comics also work it through. Constantly on the verge of being rendered redundant by failing sales, flagging readership, and other media overwhelming their position, comics are a medium in the habit of responding to trauma. Their story arcs reflect this perseverance. In fact, it’s ingrained into the medium itself. The very presence of the traumatic consistently through all the varied narrative modes comics have to offer speaks to the central role coping with the traumatic plays in the medium.
Comics, better than any other medium, responds to the threat of obsolescence by reinventing itself. An ironic twist in that its storylines, particularly in the case of superheroes, are repetitive; its non-superhero formats dominated by the personal memoire, which revisits and repeats a familiar narrative. What keeps comics innovative and adaptable to myriad onslaughts from other media is their experience with the traumatic. The medium and its storylines are built on the traumatic; its readers expect the traumatic. To put it baldly, comics never need to develop a set of rules in order to perpetuate the genre. Instead, they rely on a set of guidelines formed around experiences with the traumatic intersections of obsolesce and the new, futility and hopefulness, sickness and cure, fracturing our expectations for their resolution.
Unlike Goofy on the dance floor in Firehouse Five + Two, comics expect to be unprepared for the traumatic event, or better, predict the traumatic event because the genre knows it’s coming; it has to, that’s how the medium works after all, and makes for the dance floor legs akimbo coping with the trauma of its own obsolescence as only it can—by representing trauma.
Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” Trans. Natalie Chilton. Diacritics 2.1 (1972): 14-22.
Jacobson, Sid. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. New York: FSG Adult, 2006.
Morrison, Grant and Frank Quitely. All Star Superman.. New York: DC Comics, 2011.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I & II Paperback Boxed Set. New York: Pantheon, 1993.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. London: Jonathan Cape, 2004.