Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Thesis Introduction and Acknowledgements

I wrote this thesis for the American Studies Department at Wesleyan University in 1996.

I have posted the entire thesis here, but for a better reading experience, you can also access the thesis on Scribd at this LINK.
I recommend the PDF version at Scribd, as the footnotes have been corrupted in the version posted here at Blogger, and it is easier to read in a printable PDF.

I hope you find it as interesting to read as it was to write.
Taking Off the Mask
Invocation and Formal Presentation
of the Superhero Comic
in Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen
Samuel Asher Effron
Class of 1996
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of Wesleyan University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
Degree of Bachelor of Arts
with Departmental Honors
from the department of American Studies
Middletown, CT April,1996

This thesis is dedicated to the memory of
Homer Richards
You gave me the love of knowledge.

I’d like to thank the following people for their support, assistance and input over the last year: Amy Donenfield, Paul Levitz at DC Comics, Gary Groth at Fantagraphics, Doug Atkinson, Phil Straub at the Museum of Words and Pictures, Steve Flower, Bill at Earth Prime Comics, Joseph Reed, Andre Dogan, and Justin Caplicki.
Special Thanks:
To Remy-Luc Auberjonois, Michael Roberts, Benjamin Stout and Damian Hess for keeping me sane on a daily basis.
To John Johnson at Knight’s Quest Comics for all of his time and patience- and his comics.
Especially to Professor Richard Slotkin: for having confidence in my work, and for being a mentor, a colleague and a friend. Without your tutelage this project would never have existed.
And, of course, to both the Mintz and Effron Families: Bob, Marilyn, Linda, David, Randi, Jon, Sydney, Will, Curtis, Maret, Adele, Neil, Alan, Doug, Liz, Cherie, Bruce, Erica, Lisa, Jack, Rita, Steven, Mike, Neil, Rachel, Grandpa and Grandma Effron, and Grandma Mintz.
Dad, Mom and Jon. I love you. Thanks for believing in me.
Finally, to Grandpa Sidney Mintz- for giving me my first comic.

I was first introduced to Watchmen three years ago by a friend. He was surprised that I’d never heard of it, as it had been immensely popular among superhero fans. But instead of Batman and Superman, my childhood for the most part was spent with Archie, Richie Rich, and Elfquest. So, when I sat down with the dauntingly large tome, it was with some hesitation. Five hours and hundreds of pages later, I was anxious to read it all over again. Watchmen turned me back on to comics and soon I developed a voracious appetite for trade paperbacks and “graphic novels”. These compilations offered me longer stories and I didn’t have to wait a month to read the next chapter. I picked up anything I could get my hands on and eventually some friends and I decided that these works of art needed some scholarly attention. We organized a tutorial and spent an entire semester reading and analyzing a variety of comics from a wide range of genres. We spent two whole weeks on Watchmen, and during that time I began to comprehend the magnitude of its complexity.
Appropriately, I spent the following summer working in a comic book store. For hours I would peruse the stands looking for reading material and after thumbing through countless titles, a pattern began to emerge. Many of the superhero titles told stories and portrayed characters that were much darker, more violent and more self-conscious than I remembered them in the Saturday morning cartoons or the random issues of Batman I had occasionally picked up as a child. It occurred to me that there must have been some catalyst for the new mood but when did these changes take place and how were they affected? My initial inquiries revealed that comic books had enjoyed a surge in popularity during the mid to late eighties. The increases in sales were accompanied by a dark overtone that seemed to settle into most superhero titles. The trend was easily traced to 1986, the year Art Speigleman’s Maus, Frank Miller’s Batman: the Dark Knight Returns and Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen were all published. These three comics were incredibly popular and their phenomenal reception drew quite a bit of attention from the media; comic books began to be legitimated as a developed “adult” art. Maus received the most respect of the three for its sensitive portrayal of a Holocaust survivor’s tale. It was even nominated for National Book Critics Award. Miller, already in the spotlight for his work on Daredevil and Ronin, was lauded further for his modern rendering of the Batman myth. Watchmen, while it garnered some praise, was shadowed by the accolades showered upon these other books. It is generally respected by the comics industry, but the impact of Watchmen on the superhero genre has never been measured.
In this paper, I will attempt to take that measure. I intend to illustrate the extent to which Gibbons and Moore invoke the superhero genre of comics and subsequently improve and expand its vocabulary. They simultaneously summarize, celebrate and criticize the genre and in doing so extend both its narrative and formal capabilities. Moore and Gibbons achieve these ends by presenting the generic units in fresh, innovative ways; their narrative’s intricate structure, with its multitude of cross-references and subtextual details, assigns the novel an esthetic complexity rarely seen in any comics, let alone those of the superhero genre.
Chapters One and Two delineate the origins and development of both the form of superhero comic books and their content. Both chapters outline the genre’s growth and highlight key innovations of the two comic eras, the Golden and Silver Ages, respectively. Chapter One’s history begins with the inception of comic art and leads up to the release in 1938 of Action Comics#1, the birth of Superman. The Chapter highlights the creative inventions that now constitute the basic language of the genre through such examples as the first sidekick (1940) and the first superheroine (1939). Chapter One follows the genre all the way to 1954, when the anti-comic crusade of Dr. Frederic Wertham culminated in the creation of the Comics Code which spelled the superheroes’ temporary downfall.
Chapter Two resumes the narrative and continues the exploration of generic expansion from the birth of the Silver Age in 1956 through the early nineteen-eighties. The second era of the superheroes was marked by the heavy influence of Science Fiction, the revival of old characters and the creation of Marvel Comics. Marvel and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four ushered in a new style of characterization that would revolutionize the way heroes were presented. Consequently, Marvel became the first company to challenge DC’s primacy since the introduction of Superman. The two companies spent the rest of the nineteen sixties trying to outdo one another. Their efforts resulted in both positive and negative creations and the further elaboration of the genre’s units. The nineteen seventies were not as generous to superheroes and the decade witnessed a steady decline of the quality of the comics.
Chapter Three will first briefly outline the efforts of comic publishers to revitalize the genre through the creation of “graphic novels”. These hardcover compilations were seen by some as a divisive marketing tool and by others as an effective way to lure more adults into the comics market. This chapter will also illustrate Watchmen’s generic foundations by comparing its characters, locales and scenarios to archetypes grounded in comic history. Many of the novel’s narrative elements have very specific antecedents. I hope to show how Moore and Gibbons’ intense research and deliberate utilization of these superhero “units” draw the reader into a seemingly familiar world. The nostalgic presentation simultaneously lauds those generic units and opens them up to criticism and change. Chapter Three will begin to illuminate how Watchmen effects this change through examples such as its narrative recapitulation of comic history.
In the final chapter, I will use a variety of examples from the book to demonstrate how Moore and Gibbons’ formal presentation exceeds and revolutionizes the standards of the genre. The discussion centers on examples ranging from the thematic qualities of specific chapters to the non-comic texts that end them. By examining these and other instances of Watchmen’s creative revision, I hope to elucidate the intricacy and complexity with which Moore and Gibbons visually present their narrative-- the compositional and subtextual detail of Watchmen necessitates not only active but also multiple readings.
Watchmen’s exploitation of the potentialities of the medium elevates it to a level deserving of critical study. But comic scholarship in general, until very recently, has been notably absent from academia. The problem is rooted in America’s perception of comic art. Since their inception, comic books have been regarded as literature for children or as lowbrow entertainment. Unlike our European and Japanese contemporaries, who respect comic art as a vehicle for adult fiction, Americans have assigned the entire medium a juvenile connotation; the superhero genre is stigmatized even more harshly. Consequently, scholarly articles and books devoted to comics have only begun to emerge, as the study of popular culture has gained academic credibility. Most of the works published limit their scope to specific heroes or titles, often Superman or Batman. Even comic histories are difficult to acquire because many of the primary sources are held in personal collections. The Golden Age has been documented fairly well in comic encyclopedias but compiled information on the Silver Age (1956-c.1980) is extremely rare. Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones’ Comic Book Heroes represents a notable exception but the scarcity of other texts impelled me to rely heavily on their research.
Besides its lack of comic history or scholarship, the academy has virtually ignored comic criticism and esthetic theory. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics are the only published books that treat narrative theory and formal presentation as it pertains to comics. Both are thorough but neither fully captures the entire subject in all its intricacies. The most difficult factor in my dilemma with reliable sources is Watchmen’s relatively recent publication. There are no recognized publications at this time that encapsulate or discuss the last ten years of comic history. In this project I hope to achieve two goals. The first is to highlight the contributions of Alan Moore and David Gibbons to the comics medium and the superhero genre. The second is to engage myself in a scholarly quest with a subject that has received little academic attention and to excite a debate over Watchmen and comic art. Both my pursuits will be fulfilled if this project induces an increased respect for comic books– both culturally and academically.
I will cite visual and textual passages from Watchmen in two ways. All illustrations will be found following the conclusion in the “Illustrations Appendix.” The citation for illustrations will appear in the form “See Figure X.” Textual citations will appear in the following format Chapter: Page: Frame number. For example, 5:12:4 directs the reader to Chapter Five, Page Twelve, Frame Four. The frames are numbered according to row: one, two, three in the first; four, five, six, in the second, et seq. The non-comic textual supplements which end each chapter of Watchmen are indicated by a “t” and page numbers correspond to those found in the specific supplement. For example, page thirteen of Chapter Three in Under the Hood will be referred to as 3t:13.


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