Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Superheroes at the DA

In terms of sales figures, it is difficult to argue otherwise than the readership of comic books is still something of a “subcultural niche” (to borrow a phrase from Phillips and Strobl). A quick look at the sales figures show that for August 2013, Infinity was the highest seller in North America, shifting 205,819 issues, with Superman Unchained coming some way behind at 136,319. The Avengers movie, by way of contrast, sold almost 26 million tickets in the US in its opening weekend.

What is undeniable though is the huge influence the comic book industry has exerted on Hollywood in the past number of decades, remarked on in the articles under review. While movie-going does not necessarily translate into comic book sales, the characters and plots on the silver screen can be traced back to their innovation on the page. The cinematic renderings are often not truly reflective of the moral outrage which can be provoked by comic books. It is a medium with a history of worrying the conservatives, epitomised by Fredric Wertham and his crusade against the medium. Indeed, every few weeks within the industry there are fresh outbreaks of anxiety, most recently in the character of Harley Quinn. That these can sometimes translate to the films they inspire is also evident in Jim Carrey's recent decision to distance himself from Kick Ass 2, for reasons relating to its violence content.

The two articles the DA read this month (during which we were also treated to themed baked goods), explored studies on comic books and superhero television shows. Nickie Phillips and Staci Strobl’s study examined paradigms of justice in current comic books, specifically US comic books. Lisa Kort-Butler’s research focused on the depictions of the criminal justice system in cartoon superhero television show aimed at the children’s market.

Comic books often create fictive societies which remain in a state of constant crisis, depicting heroes as holding back a tide of chaos, Kort-Butler writes that “crime seems to be everywhere and the justice system seems helpless to stop it”. Crisis justification becomes the underpinning for repressive policies and extra-legal responses. Kort-Butler analyses superhero television shows from a 15-year period, examining whether they reflect the so-called ‘punitive turn’ in criminal justice policies in the US. She asks whether these depictions are ‘cultural primers’ for children in favour of the dominant views on punishment.

Phillips and Strobl highlight that structural causes are ignored for pathological, individualistic explanations of crime. They identify a post-9/11 era of comics, arguing that story arcs tend to “reproduce the existing power structures of larger society” (308). Kort-Butler too notes that the portrayal of villains accords with the offender as the neo-classical rational actor. Such a view emphasises the importance of tough sentencing, and downplays the importance of social inequality.

Both studies found that traditional law enforcement was depicted as inadequate, or corrupt. Phillips and Strobl argue that this is poles apart from the depictions of the criminal justice agencies in television series, such as NYPD Blue. However, as Kort-Butler finds, in the simplified world of superhero television shows, the police and official criminal justice agencies are ultimately retrieved as the legitimate guardians of society, and all villains apprehended are sent to the police, or the prison, by the heroes.

The hypothesis that they would find a concentration on street crime turned out not to be the case for Phillips and Strobl; the actual findings showed a prevalent concern with organised crime. Perhaps its hierarchical structure and dense networks allows for greater flexibility and breadth in story-telling. They also found that the stories represented dominant, American, hegemonic views on crime and punishment.

What of the moral qualms of many of the most well-known superheroes, such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man or Professor Charles Xavier, which prevent them from killing when it can be avoided, as noted by Kort-Butler. Phillips and Strobl argue that even these characters exhibit views on, what they term, deathworthiness, in which the lives of some are seen as less valuable, and disposable, to protect a bigger goal.

Phillips and Strobl argue that the archetypal setting for comic book stories is the traditional, tranquil community. This seems to belie the plethora of titles which take dystopic settings for their action. The prevalence of the traditional All-American settings would seem to be further downgraded following the turn, from the 1980s onwards, which saw titles like Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns offer greater reflexivity, and nuanced protagonists with more complex psychological profiles.

Kort-Butler found that in the superhero television shows, aimed at a young audience, these characters tended to minimise some, but not all, evidence of this darker turn. Kort-Butler has published an earlier article working from the same sample of cartoons, in which she found that much criminal activity was centred on greed, criminals could tell right from wrong and rationally chose the wrong path out of self-interest, and that criminals and ordinary persons were sharply differentiated. She writes that this notion of rational actors therefore deserving of harsh punishment matches dominant ideology on crime. Her findings in the article discussed by the DA this month show that incapacitation is prized as the best outcome, and she sees no evidence that there is any confidence placed in rehabilitation.

One of the notable comments from Kort-Butler relates to the use of guns; firearms were shown as the preserve of the law enforcement agencies, rather than the superheroes. The use of guns by the police seemed to be characterised by over-use, and by ineffectual trigger-happiness. The DA speculated that while this did not show guns in a positive light, it may also have the effect of trivialising gun use, after all, in cartoons a bullet rarely finds it mark. However, for the most part her study found evidence of a ‘get-tough’, law and order approach to justice, demonstrated by the heroes’ dismay when villains were released ‘on technicalities’, and in their willingness to go outside the law to capture their foes. However, as the heroes are outside the law, by virtue of the law’s inability and their moral superiority, the use of violence by the protagonists is presented as a desirable outcome.

However, as expressed by Maggie O’Neill and Lizzie Seal, in Transgressive Imaginations, culture can provide sites of resistance to dominant hegemony. In comic books this is demonstrated by heroes like the lesbian, former soldier Kate Kane as Batwoman, Miles Morales, a young African-American boy as Spider-man in Ultimate Marvel continuity, and Daredevil, the character of Matt Murdock, a blind attorney. Paraphrasing O’Neill and Seal, this illustrates the radical, democratic power to culturally re-present normative depictions (O’Neill and Seal, 2012). The empowerment of marginalised groups such as LGBT, ethnic minority or persons with disabilities is all evident within comic books, and recent storylines about the same-sex relationships of Batwoman, in DC, and Northstar and Kyle, in the X-Men books in Marvel, became mainstream news. The DA also pointed to the diversity on show in many of the X-Men books, books which were not part of the sample in either study, despite their huge popularity.

However it remains the case that comic books often present a women-unfriendly world. In a similar vein, Phillips and Strobl question whether ethnicity is a factor involved in deathworthiness, and whether characterisation plays into stereotypical representations of ethnic minorities. It is still true that the rosters of superhero teams are predominantly white and male. This inevitably, would appear to be the flipside of deathworthy, those characters whose lives are valued more highly.

Regarding the limitations of the studies, both articles highlight issues of race and gender which were not explored. This seems to have provided a half-realised opportunity, especially in the case of Phillips and Strobl, who reference these issues in the body of their work without going further. Information on the demographics of comic book readers might also have been interesting. Some figures estimate that almost one-quarter of readers are women, while the general readership skews towards male, and older than what might be expected, considering comic books are so often dismissed as a children’s books, or the domain of the teenage boy.

The DA would also have found a reflexive element to the articles interesting, in which the authors revealed whether they were coming to the research as fans. It was felt that the inclusion of such a reflexive element could have significantly enriched the presentation of the authors’ methodological approaches, particularly so in the case of Phillips and Strobl. Considering that such entertainments are considered ‘niche’, the difference between previous exposure or not could provide immense differences in the selection and interpretation of the content.

In a discussion of the images of crime and justice found in comic books, it should be remembered that we are dealing with a very wide and varied spectrum. Interestingly, in Cultural Criminology and Kryptonite, the authors exclude children’s comic books – a seemingly arbitrary move considering that the readership of many of these titles extends into adult demographic, such as in the newly launched My Little Pony Friendship is Magic line, or the Archie comics. The DA was curious as to the rationale behind such a design choice, and again, the absence of reflections on the authors’ knowledge and engagement with the genre was lamented. Phillips and Strobl’s study lacked definition of the terms of the study, and more concrete rationales for selecting the sample would have been welcome. The aims of their article seem to overspill its capacity, and issues that were briefly touched on, like the Judeo-Christian moralism, and gender and race, were never explored to satisfaction. Phillips and Strobl appear to be aware of this, offering acknowledgement of these limitation and encouraging future research to address such questions at the conclusion of their article. However, these issues may be explored more fully in their recent book on the topic, which should provide an excellent opportunity for the more comprehensive analysis they envision.

Perhaps the most profound insight to emerge from the articles, was the ironic moralising response to comic books considering the dominant hegemonic message they convey. However, while we may agree that the desire for retribution demonstrated in comic books and superhero television shows may be a base response, it is simplistic to say that these gut responses actually dictate criminal justice policy. The comic books, especially, act as dark imaginings of our underlying fears. As such, they may represent safety-valves, and hypothetical world-building, in which we can play out larger concepts and notions of justice. Considering that comic books cover a diverse array of different formats and themes, what can we ultimately say about the industry as a whole? Perhaps only that crime and justice themes continue to be overwhelmingly popular topics for entertainment. Considering the alternatives to the idea of retributive justice found in the sample, in Wonder Woman’s peace-making response for example, it seems that we should focus on the diversity of views. To conclude that “Best-selling comic books are a cultural touchstone for conservative, reactionary values… and reinforce the status quo with seductive and exciting storylines” (328) may be too pat a summary for such a diverse genre.

Epilogue, the story continues...

Having just finished Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice and the American Way The DA can now answer in the affirmative one question posed above, the book is a comprehensive analysis of all those issues the article could not include within its scope. The book tackles issues of gender, sexuality and race, devoting a substantial amount of space to these analyses and presenting the figures Batwoman, among others, as examples of a counter-hegemonic characters.

The use of excerpts from focus group research are particularly fascinating, providing a telling insight into reader identification; for example, male readers expressed a difficulty relating to female characters in comic books and many participants felt a stigma attached to males reading female-led titles. Reflective of this gender bias, in their focus group research only one female participant could be persuaded to take part. However, the demographic figures suggest female readership is significant.

Interestingly, we also learn that Philips and Strobl did not come to the sub-culture of comic books as total neophytes, and had followed various titles prior to their decision to embark on the study. As the first comprehensive attempt to grapple with comic books through a criminological lens, the study is a hugely welcome addition to cultural criminological.

This months blog was written by Lynsey Black and Colette Barry.

The views expressed herein are the authors' alone.


  1. Your friendly neighbourhood criminologist1 October 2013 at 02:35

    In my opinion “Cultural criminology and kryptonite” suffered severely from a confirmation bias. The authors theoretical framework made it quite clear that they disliked the concept of retribution and were seeking to find out if comic books depiction of justice was retributivist. And indeed as it turns of their interpretation of justice in the comic books was overwhelmingly retributivist. It is interesting to note that in the less subjective area of the prevalence of street crime their findings conflicted with what they had expected to find. It’s hard to ignore the facts but in the subjective area of justice it was clearly a case of seek and you shall find.

    But could their interpretation have been otherwise? For example, in Batman reference is often made of the symbol of the bat striking fear into the hearts of Gotham’s underworld. It would seem to me that very few citizens of Gotham’s underworld ever come into contact with batman and yet the myth of the bat acts as a major deterrent. As batman is usually pre-occupied with criminal masterminds and other such high level criminals he cannot be personally responsible for the fall in low level crime in Gotham. However, as a symbol his power his truly overwhelming. Could the same be said for other super heroes? What would the researchers have found if they had sought to find out if Superheroes acted as a deterrent in comic books?

  2. Great blog! I will definitely visit it again!