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If a picture is worth a thousand words, comic books pack a lot of bang for your buck. Once considered “kid stuff,” comics are now big business for fans of all ages. And many classic comics have kept up with the times, featuring more diverse characters and plots that reflect cultural shifts. We explore the culture of comic books and their outsider appeal.
- Amanda Berry Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature, American University
- Greg Bennett Co-owner and manager, Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, MD
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MR. KOJO NNAMDICaptain America fought Nazis during World War II, Wonder Woman served as a feminist role model starting in the 1940s and just last week Clark Kent the reporter also known as Superman quit his job at the Daily Planet leaving print journalism for a job writing online. For decades comic books have reflected societal shifts and changes from the big and global to the seemingly small and personal, offering both escape and a sense of community to countless teens and grownups along the way.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to explore the cultural and social impact of comic books in turbulent times and how familiar characters change and stay the same from one generation to the next is Greg Bennett. He is the co-owner and manager of Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, Md. Greg, thank you for joining us.
MR. GREG BENNETTGood to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Amanda Berry, professor of literature at American University where she offers a course entitled Narrative and the Comic Book. Mandy Berry, thank you for joining us.
MS. AMANDA BERRYHi, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you're into comics you can start calling now, 800-433-8850. What were your favorite comic characters as a kid and what did they mean to you, 800-433-8850? Greg, many of us think of comic books as a fact of life, something that's always been around. But when were they first published in the U.S. and which character was the first like breakout star?
BENNETTThe sort of modern comic we talk about first started in the early '30s actually as shoe store giveaways to try to -- and movie theater giveaways to try to get people to come back during The Depression and keep getting the next installment. But of course the big, big breakout was in 1938 with Action Comics number one, the first appearance of Superman.
NNAMDIThat was it? Superman was the first?
BENNETTHe was the first of the big super heroes. There -- you can look at the history and they'll say this guy came first and this was this but Superman was the one that blew it all open and made it a mainstream thing.
NNAMDIWhat's the relationship, if any, between comic books and the comic strips that run in newspapers?
BENNETTWell, I mean, the comic strips going back to the Hearst papers go back to around 1900. I mean, Little Nemo in Slumberland is 1907 I think. But the -- then again these first comics in these shoe stores were actually Buster Brown strips repackaged as books. But I think the big difference came -- I mean, the comic strips were considered like a real art form I think up through the '30s and even into the '40s and maybe up 'til the Kefauver hearings in the '50s whereas the funny books, as they called them, were just sort of sold on newsstands and were considered more of a throwaway I guess.
NNAMDIKids and teens are the stereotypical audience, but as comic readers grow up, they're not always putting their comic books down it appears. What does this say about their standing comic books in the mainstream now?
BENNETTI'm not -- part of it is they have become more mainstream in the last 25 years after you have things like Mouse winning the Pulitzer Prize. I think that helps quite a bit. But -- and also I think part of our culture there's less emphasis now on you have to grow up and become a serious grownup. And there's plenty of sort of pop culture stuff that's aimed at adults and you're still allowed to have fun as a grownup.
NNAMDIThank goodness for that. Mandy, some studies have found that comic books are intimately connected to issues of identity on young readers. What influence can a comic book have on adolescents?
BERRYI think it can have a lot of influence. You know, mostly I think comic book reading is a part of youth culture now. I mean, it's part of being young, is, you know, absorbing and practicing forms that sort of belong to young people or younger people. You know, lots of things that are new, exciting, interesting. But also there are characters that are compelling to people, I think, as examples of things. You know, characters with whom to identify.
BERRYAnd I -- you know, one of the things about the super hero -- the classic super hero is he has a secret, right. And his secret is he's someone and he's someone else. And, you know, I think just the model of we move through our lives as whoever we move through our lives as and then, you know, we have an interior that's, you know, an inside that's a different kind of person is a really compelling model. Especially as you can imagine for teenagers who are kind of obsessed with -- or have to be interested in kind of their appearance in relation to is that who I really am, you know. So I think that's a compelling kind of characterization.
NNAMDIGreg, what or who were your favorite characters as a young man and what about them appeal to you?
BENNETTAs a young man I think Dare Devil and Ironman were my favorite super hero characters. And, yeah, I think Ironman appealed to me because he was basically a normal guy. I also like Batman for the same reason. He was a normal guy who could kind of go out and do stuff. And with Dare Devil honestly I think it was because Frank Miller was doing it and it was such a dynamic comic. The guy who did Batman Dark Knight Returns in the '80s, that it just -- I had never seen anything that dynamic and actiony on the comics page. And it just grabbed me as a kid.
NNAMDIHow about you, Mandy? Same question, which comics did you first read and what first attracted you to them?
BERRYWhen I was a kid I read Tintin comic books which were written in France by a guy named...
BERRYThank you. And, you know, they were translated into the U.S. They're sort of large size stories. And I love them. I read all of them in my -- in fact my mother would sort of bribe me to do things I didn't want to do with, you know, well we'll get the next Tintin and I would, you know, say okay. That sounds good. What startled me was when I grew up and read about Hergé, the guy who wrote them, you know, he was a fascist.
BERRYAnd Tintin, as you may know, is this little blond Aryan with a white dog who talks. And all of the villains are, you know, people with brown skin and, you know, something that -- I mean, I just didn't get it as a kid. And learning that, you know, that was a big moment. King of a traumatic sad moment for me realizing, like, wow I had no idea as a kid. I'm also a big Batman fan. Batman is my guy.
NNAMDIWell, as a kid growing up what I didn't get was Tarzan in the jungles of Africa and so I thought it was great until I realized that in that comic strip I was made to look like a idiot. But the one that I liked growing up as a young teenager, Robin, okay, because there was a young teacher -- I was much more interested in Robin than I was in Batman at the time. But here is Eric in Rockville, Md. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICHi, Kojo. Thanks for being on the show. I just wanted to say I grew up like -- I was born in '84 and I grew up through all my childhood through elementary school on Marvel Comics. And I even have childhood pictures when I was even younger wearing Superman pajamas and then I got into Batman. It's just incredible now that how your guests there were saying that it's become so main stream.
ERICAnd it has because now you watch all these movies like Spiderman and The Avengers and everything. And it's incredible how far it's become because for a while, it was only -- I mean, I'll put it as an example. The Hub, I had a lot of friends of mine that used to read The Hub and the Lord of Rings. And now it's a huge, huge production and everything.
ERICIt's just -- you try to -- I'd say you try to identify it has a child like, you know, how you get to know your own identity and everything. And it's just some -- it's a great job to tell you the truth because I used to collect everything from memorabilia to cars and everything with my friends. And it was just something we always gravitated to. And now I have my nephew who is a newborn and he's only like what three years old and he loves Spiderman.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You raise a number of issues. I'll address first the notion that for a long time comics had a reputation as being for outsiders, kids that didn't quite fit in. What is it in those stories that appeals to those young readers in particular, Mandy?
BERRYWell, I think the idea of having super powers, especially if you're someone who's marginalized or doesn't feel powerful for a variety of reasons, is a great kind of figure to identify with and sort of imagine the life of. So I -- you know, in that way heroes -- you know, super heroes are heroes except so much more than heroes and -- because of, you know, the abilities they have. And I -- so I think, you know, that's a lot of it.
BERRYAlso frankly comic books are cheap. I mean, you know, they're, you know, not -- it's not like getting an Xbox. You know, it's something that people can buy and -- some people -- and most people and buy on a regular basis. And so you can have a pretty diverse -- at least economically diverse audience.
NNAMDIYour take on that, Greg.
BENNETTI think that's pretty much right. I think kids like to have stuff like you're saying and that's something you can get and you can afford as a kid with an allowance. Or when I was a kid we used to go find returnable cans behind the fraternity houses and return those and stack up our nickels and go buy comics with them.
NNAMDIBottles in my case is what we used to stack up. And I had relationships with quiet kids in class who I used to describe the relationship as these are my comic book friends. Because there were guys in class who never spoke a lot. And I called up a former classmate this morning and asked him if he could remember certain guys in class. And he said -- when I mentioned the names he said, oh yeah, those guys never spoke. I said, really they were kind of shy and inhibited but they always had a lot of great comic books. And you could exchange comic books with them. Why was that so appealing to people who were shy? Because of the super power thing you think, Greg?
BENNETTI think that and I think also especially if you're shy and you're not social and you don't feel comfortable in school or in these other things, it's escapism, you know. You get -- you read it, you get out of your headspace for 20, 30 minutes and I guess, yeah, I think that's mostly it. Just...
BERRYWell, I'll disagree about escapism only because I kind of don't believe in the idea of escapism in any kind of text. I mean, I think we're constantly sort of processing the world around us. And, I mean, I understand what you mean by something you do for pleasure. But one of the things I was thinking too was, you know, for those comic book kids, those quiet kids with these collections...
BERRY...oh, yeah, is that, you know, fandom, the phenomenon of being a fan of something is I think something that can make a person feel connected to a group, even if they're a shy or, you know, an individual person because there's a whole world in which this is a loved form, or that issue was so amazing. And I think it makes you feel like you have a specialized interest that sets you apart.
NNAMDIHere is Greg in McLean, Va. Greg, your turn.
GREGHi. Your guest brought up self-identification, and I think that's something that's necessary for almost any medium, but in comics I think one of its powers is that it goes well beyond of the genre of superheroes and secrets...
GREG... as much as I love that particular genre.
GREGBecause you get comics and strips like Eric Orner's, "Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green," or Alison Bechdel's "Bikes to Watch Out For," or "Static" by Dwayne McDuffie, and suddenly you have all these characters who are gay and lesbian, African-American, Latino...
GREG...Asian, and so other few mediums for many years actually embraced this minority spectrum, and I think that's what makes comics so important. You really get to see someone who's just like you.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up, because Greg and Mandy, we're seeing greater diversity in comics.
NNAMDIA half-black, half-Puerto Rican Spiderman for example.
NNAMDIAnd Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, just quit his newspaper job. I hope he's not trying to break into radio. When did comic books start to mirror social movements, or did they reflect them from the very start?
BENNETTI would say my personal take on it would be the earliest ones I can think of would be the EC Comics from the early 1950s when Harvey Kurtzman was doing war comics during the Korean War that had anti-war themes in them.
NNAMDIIn the early 1950s.
BENNETTWhich might have been one of the reasons that -- one of many reasons that Kefauver decided to have hearings and look into the evil that was comics.
BERRYMarvel Comics is known also in the '60s for developing a sense of the importance of portraying social issues, even difficult ones, in, you know, mainstream comic books. People, you know, characters would have drug problems, or one of my favorite issues of Spiderman is when Peter Parker is in New York and he sort of accidentally stumbles upon the riots at Columbia -- the student riots.
BERRYAnd, you know, the comic doesn't situate him as having wanted to go but -- excuse me -- there he is in the middle of, you know, something that was ripped from the headlines and, you know, kind of progressive turbulent thing. So Marvel was great at that.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned the hearings Greg, because early on, writers and artists, it's my understanding, had to be somewhat sly about the messages in and the tone of comics. Tell us about the Comics Code Authority. What was its purpose?
BENNETTWell, the oral history version everybody kind of got told when I was kid was that the government imposed it on the comics industry to force them to censor themselves, but in fact after these hearings in '54, the government decided not to intervene at all.
BENNETTSo the publishers instead themselves, since they were all being killed by EC Comics with their horror, crime, war, and of course, MAD which went on to become MAD Magazine, wanted to take out their competitor, so they created an industry code to self-police that banned things like the words horror and terror, banned any kind of homosexuality, almost any kind of sexual stuff at all.
BERRYHusbands killing wives. I mean, just, you know, pretty specific in the beginning.
BENNETTYeah. It was very specifically designed to just put EC out of business so the other publishers could take their market share.
BERRYIt was also the case, I think, of an industry, and we've seen this a lot with Hollywood, I was thinking about the -- I don't know, in the last five -- ten years, Hollywood having those Senate hearings about too many people smoking in films. And one of the moves there was for the comic book industry to regulate themselves before somebody else regulated them, and so it was kind of the moment, oh, oh, oh, we'll take care of this ourselves.
NNAMDIIt was in preparing for this show I discovered that MAD started out as a comic. Because when I started reading it...
NNAMDI...I guess in the 1960s, it was because it looked somewhat like a comic. Of course, I read it late into my 40s as a matter of fact.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this discussion on comic books. If you have called, stay on the line, we'll get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. Did you put your comics away when you hit a certain age, or are you still a devoted reader of your favorites? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Amanda Berry, professor of literature at American University where she offers a course entitled Narrative and the Comic Book, and Greg Bennett. He is the co-owner and manager of Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, Md. Greg, when we went into that break and I mentioned that I didn't know that MAD Magazine started as a comic book until preparing for this show, you told me why it became what it became.
BENNETTYeah. Basically EC didn't like the Code. They tried to function under the Code and after a few months they shut down all their titles except for MAD, and the way they kept MAD going was they made it a magazine so it wouldn't be subject to the Comics Code since it was no longer a comic.
NNAMDIMandy, how much of the supposedly hidden messaging in comics do you think was intentional, and how much of it may have been projected onto them by us, the readers?
BERRYYou know, I think -- I have a couple of ideas about that. One is, I think it's important to mention that the Senate hearings in '56, or '54, thank you, were really gutted, and that kind of movement to burn comic books and not, you know, not read, you know, let kids read them. It really gutted the industry, and many, many, many of the creators in the industry, a disproportionate amount were Jewish artists.
BERRYAnd I think there was something about, if you will, difference, and particularly at that time in the United States that was sort of built into the idea of the comic book. And so even though, you know, the themes and the things that we think of as more explicit representations of people of color, or, you know, gays or lesbians, or whatever, women, were kind of built into the idea of the underdog or the marginalized person or something. So not intentional I would say, but there nonetheless.
BERRYThere's a really interesting article I read recently, and I'm going to forget -- it was in a popular publication, and it was called "Is Batman Gay?" And it was great because many people have speculated on that about Batman, and the people who had written Batman over the years said, well, no, he was never intended to be, but I understand readers have taken that away from it, and that's -- so yeah, in a way he is because, you know, the perception is he is.
NNAMDIWell, starting about two decades ago, comic books started to tackle that issue. They started introducing LGBT characters and issues in their plots. What affect do you think that has had, especially for teen readers who might be LGBT themselves?
BERRYMm-hmm. My sense is that it sort of mirrors the culture at large, that are more representations of gay and lesbian people that, you know, think about the kind of numbers of people now who support gay marriage and kind of general trends toward a kind of acceptance and even mainstreaming of gay and lesbian people. So what -- your question is what impact does it have on adolescence, and I think kind of continuous with the comic book for a long time, the idea that difference is interesting and not frightening and not, you know, something to feel scared of or aggressive about.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of Batman, here is an email we got from Angie that mentions Batman and the role of the artist. "Your guest mentioned Frank Miller. When I was young, his art starting in DD 158 and John Burn with the Avengers and X-Men changed by experience with comics forever. At that point, the artist started to motivate my interest. For instance, I never enjoyed Batman until Marshall Rogers started drawing. I think the role of the artist has often been understated in their influence." What do you say to that, Greg?
BENNETTI would say that's very true, especially at Marvel Comics, because people talk about doing comics Marvel style, and the way Marvel Comics -- and this may upset a few Stan Lee fans -- traditionally have been done, going back at least 50 years, is the writer and the artist would discuss the plot briefly, then the artist would pencil the entire book, and then it would go to the writer to write the dialogue.
BENNETTSo someone like a Jack Kirby, or a Frank Miller, even if they were only credited as the artist, they were plotting the storing, pacing the story, they were bringing almost everything to it, and then the writer was the dialoguer effectively.
NNAMDIOnto Beth in Falls Church, Va. Beth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETHHi there. I have a 10-year-old nephew who enjoys reading comics, but I was wondering as just someone that might want to get into reading comics, where do you start? Because if they've been going on for decades and decades, how do you jump into the middle of a series or, you know, something like that?
NNAMDIYou're taking Greg back, but he can handle it.
BENNETTOkay. Well, at this point, things are easier to get into than ever. When I was a kid, you had to hunt around and find back issues, and now things are much more structured to have starting points that are very recent. Most of the books are plotted in four, five, and six issue arcs, and most things get collected as books. So I would find something in the last few years that appeals to them, and is a standalone book so they can get one whole story. That's probably the way to go.
BERRYI would -- I mean, oh, I'm sorry. I would also say like any kind of literature or television or any kind of media form, you know, the first question I would ask is what -- what kind of stories do you like to read? I mean, you can find westerns, you can find, you know, various topics and various kinds of characters. The other thing is, and I do this -- I tell my students, or ask my students to do this.
BERRYGo to a comic book store just to have the experience of what that space is like. There's still independent stores which, you know, as you know, are fading out of our culture. You'll meet characters like Greg and other great people that can talk your ear off about comics, and you can really go to them and say, I like stories with women characters, or I like stories about, you know, Spiderman, he seems cool, or I saw the "Batman" movie, and Greg can point you, you know, to all kinds of things that you or your nephew might like.
BETHOh, great. Thanks so much.
NNAMDIBeth, thank you very much for your call. Now, we go to the other extreme if you will. Here is Rick in Manassas, Va. Rick, your turn.
RICKYeah. I was born in Washington D.C., grew up most of my teenage years in Washington, and have lived in the area all my life. Several of my friends had large collections of comic books, but I didn't. I had no interest, and quite a few of my other friends did not have an interest in comics. What was wrong with us? Especially since I didn't save any and make a fortune at 74 years of age now.
BERRYHmm, that's right.
NNAMDIWhat was wrong with Rick, Greg?
BENNETTThat's a good question. I don't know what you would have been into...
BENNETT...at that age instead. That might point us towards stuff. But...
BERRYI don't know if we can help you, Rick. I'm kidding.
NNAMDIEspecially since you don't have a collection that you can sell at 74 years old.
BENNETTAnd it's never too late to start.
BERRYYeah. I mean, it's….
NNAMDIThat's the point.
BERRY...it's interesting, because when I teach the graphic novel and the comic book, I think some students come to the subject with a sense that these are easy books to read or, you know, a quick read, a fun -- only fun, and, you know, comic books are really complicated to read. And, in fact, I'm not suggesting you didn't have the capacity for complicated reading, but, you know, they require a kind of -- a sense of what it means to think about two-dimensional words and images at the same time.
BERRYLots of channels of information, and if you never kind of acquire the particular things that one needs to read a comic book, I mean, you know, you may decide you don't, you know, don't want to do that, and I would assume like Greg said, you -- there are other things that were, you know, the pleasures of your youth, and those were more important.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move onto Peter in Leesburg, Va. Peter, your turn.
PETERThanks for taking my call. Growing up in the '50s and '60s, whenever I presented these comics to my mother, she would always purchase them. They were the Classics comics books which were all the great novels...
PETER...made into comic form, and my brother...
NNAMDIAll the things we refuse to read in school. Go ahead.
PETERRight. And yet some of them still capture my imagination like "Last of the Mohicans," and "The Three Musketeers" with the graphic pictures of people being impaled back in the '50s and '60s. And in some way I feel like they -- I always enjoyed the action comic books too, but I always knew that there was something special behind these classic comic novels...
PETER...which did lead me later to investigate the novels themselves.
BERRYYou know, it's amazing what the form of the comic book has done and has been used to do. So lots of, you know, classics portrayed as in a comic book form. Lots of, I mean, as someone who works in literature and in academia, lots of theoretical texts now that are put into these books called, you know, " (word?) for Beginners," or, you know, books that explain complicated theoretical material in the comic book form.
BERRYAlso, I don't know if a lot of people know this, but the 9/11 report was a very, very long, you know, stack of paper as you can imagine, that was also turned into a graphic novel with a preface by a couple of Senators.
NNAMDIWe got this tweet from Kelly. "What do your guests think of web comics? There's a thriving and diverse community of comics online." What do you say, Greg?
BENNETTI say it's great. I think it lets more and more people get exposed to them, in some cases almost for free, and it just broadens the audience for them as far as I can tell.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Mandy?
BERRYYou know, I -- it's something I don't know very much about, and one of the things about teaching at a college where most of my students are 20 to 25, is I feel old a lot, and a lot of my students love web comics, and I -- I just haven't really gone there yet. Every once in a while I look at something, but it's -- yeah. I sort of like the material object still.
NNAMDIHere's Jennifer is Laurel, Md. Jennifer, you only have about 30 seconds. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFERHi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to comment that I grew up with fairy tales, with the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen...
JENNIFER...and I come at this with the perspective of these really seem like our modern myths and fairy tales. That these are our mythology that we're leaving for our children.
NNAMDIMandy, care to comment? We only have about ten seconds.
BERRYThat's absolutely right. I mean, you know, Greek mythology, other mythical stories about, you know, fantastic people who do amazing things. That's the structure and the content is, you know, right on. I think it's a great observation.
NNAMDIMandy Berry is a professor of literature at American University where she offers a course entitled Narrative and the Comic Book. Greg Bennett is the co-owner and manager of Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, Md. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein with help from Stephannie Stokes, Jessica Guzman and Ryan Mixson. Our engineer is our own Superman, Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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