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 A CRITICAL RE-EVALUATION OF THE CONCEPT OF THE COMIC BOOK SUPERBEING THROUGH THE SELECTIVE APPLICATION OF THEORETICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL IDEAS – SUPERMAN & AND POWER

The phrase “Project Zarathustra” is taken from what I consider to be one of the greatest superhero comics ever written: Miracleman. In it, esteemed comics writers Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman explore a panoply of themes, issues, and debates that surround the concept of the comic book super-being, including the issue of  power which is a pre-eminent focal point of my research. What makes Miracleman particularly special is the fact that Moore and Gaiman take perhaps one of the longest withstanding questions concerning comic book super-beings to its radical conclusion: “what would happen if a figure like Superman were real?”


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For my thesis, this question was a germane place to begin. That said, for me “Project Zarathustra” really began in the 3rd year of my undergraduate career, when I was studying English Literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. During a ‘special topic’ course on Shakespeare – instructed by Dr. Richard Van Oort – we were given an option to conduct an oral presentation instead of submitting a paper. I chose to do an oral presentation because just a week previous to the due date of the assignment, I had read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and I thought to perform a comparative analysis between the characters V and Richard III. The presentation was a relative triumph though I cannot recall the grade I received, if indeed grades are the measure of success; yet it did bring with it an epiphany which led to my current academic pursuit: I recognised that Comics Studies was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It came as a surprise, as pleasant as finding twenty pounds in your inside jacket pocket or Indiana Jones re-runs airing on a saturnine Monday afternoon. I had not thought to combine my two most robust passions outside of music: philosophy and comics. It now seems so obvious, so natural, and, crucially, so important to me. And this, for whatever it is worth or will be, is what “Project Zarathustra” is to me.

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“Project Zarathustra” is a thesis operating under the aegis of Comics Studies. As such, it is a project about comic books generally and, more pointedly, the concept of the super-being (here used to refer to super-powered creatures that inhabit and co-habit superhero narratives). My thesis re-evaluates the ‘super-being’ paradigm through the selective application of various philosophical and theoretical ideas and approaches to the concept of power.

Secondly, this project seeks to deconstruct the concept of the comic book super-being using Superman as a case study.  My choice of Superman is in part anecdotal. When asking comic book aficionados the oft-repeated question, “who do you prefer, Batman or Superman or who is your favourite DC comics character or superhero comics character in general?”,  Batman is the typical response; Batman who is typically regarded with a mixture of mild fear, excitement, and stylistic appreciation in these exchanges, proves the victor. He is oftentimes valued as complex, vulnerable, an exemplar of the capacity and aptitude of the human will and so on.  Pursuing the matter further, I would or will ask “Why?”. Again, the answer is almost always the same: “Because Superman is boring” or “Superman is lame” or “Superman is too perfect” or “Superman is too simple, he has no dynamism” or “there is nothing interesting about Superman” and so on. This disturbs me to this day. Not necessarily because I feel a sense of indignation as most so-called ‘geeks’ feel when a beloved intellectual property is under attack, the slaughter of a sacred cow, if you like. I believe what is truly disturbing about the answers I have received to this deceptively simple question is the baseless negativity and reductivist attitude levelled against the progenitor of a genre and a metaphysically complex character in its own right. Reductivist, in the sense that Superman is not seen as a representation of any aesthetic, socio-historical, or philosophical complexity, or nuance. Negatively, in the sense that the words and phrases “unrelatable”, “boring”, or “overly-good” are mainstays in the minds of many people creating a de facto pejorative association towards the character in question. Despite Batman’s appeal, when I asked myself the same question, I found that the combination of Superman’s “extraterrestriality” and  power  alone were compelling grounds for an investigation into what the concept of the comic book super-being tells about our understanding of, desire for, and fear of power.

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The manner of my approach is tripartite and, as such, develops its ideas using three main categories as its basic structure: aesthetics, history, and philosophy. Within each chapter of the thesis, the analysis and commentary focuses, onthese three areas of thought, in varying proportions depending on the subject of each chapter.  I have chosen the aforementioned method for this project as a means to produce as comprehensive and holistic range of analysis as is possible within the stipulated limits. Indeed, I acknowledge the fact that an exercise of this nature is not completely unprecedented. That said however, I believe it is necessary  to perform a close re-examination of the aesthetic, socio-historical, and philosophical assumptions, traditions, and opinions of comic book super-beings using Superman as a case study. This is because with the preponderance of superhero related material being consumed in contemporary mass media, I feel that it is important to examine how this content has developed diachronically. Analysis of this nature will reveal how basic ideas of what a comic book superbeing is or can be have developed and changed, as well as what assumptions, tropes, and standards have remained with a character like Superman, who has seen uninterrupted publication since 1938 and, most importantly, how this effects or informs our interpretation of the character itself. Furthermore, re-evaluating the concept of the comic book superbeing is also a preventative measure in that, re-examining, questioning, problematizing (in some ways, radically so) the content of the concept of the comic book superbeing prevents the concept from ossifying into an over-simplified trope within a genre of literature. That said, however the ultimate goal of this project is to contribute toward, even if only as a possible starting point, the development of a dialectic wherein insights into the philosophical resonances between power and the concept of the comic book superbeing may be elucidated further.

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Though this project seeks to develop its reading of Superman using various philosophical and theoretical ideas from a range of authors and thinkers, it is particularly indebted to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is important to this project because I believe that Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas will allow me to examine the concept of the comic book superbeing holistically. This is because a vast portion or portions of Nietzsche’s body of work address or at least touch on the three areas – aesthetics, socio-historical considerations, and philosophy – that form the core of this project and are in this way ideal and helpful with regard to the nature and structure.

Nieztsche’s ideas and meditations regarding the Dionysian/Apollonian dialectic, the nature of power, the Will, concepts such as the slave revolt, good/bad morality, god/bad consciousness, beyond good and evil, and lastly, the Übermensch form the philosophical foundation for my discussion of Superman. The ideas expounded in Nietzsche’s corpus offer interesting and fresh ways of reading the progression and evolution of Superman and the concept of the comic book superbeing, elucidating both why and how the concept changed.  The commentary of authors, such as Grant Morrison, Umberto Eco, and Larry Tye, Jeoph Leob, Mark Waid, Charles Taliaferro & Graig Lindahl-Urban,  Tom Morris, C. Steven Evans, Felix Tallon & Jerry Walls, C. Stephen Layman, and Peter Coogan will also be used to identify and comment upon various aspects of the relationship between the concept of the comic book superbeing and power. When discussing this project, however formally or informally, one quote always comes to mind which I would like to use to conclude this cursory overview:

“…right from the beginning. And that’s where we’re going. Right back to the beginning. Not the Bang, not the Word… You still don’t get it. It’s not about right. Not about wrong…It’s about power”

(Whedon, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, season 7, episode 1 “Lessons”).

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ABOUT
Kwasu David Tembo is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh’s Language, Literatures, and Cultures department. The working title of his doctoral thesis is Project Zarathustra which is concerned with the dissemination of the DC Comics character Superman through the selective application of philosophical ideas and theories. His research interests include – but are not limited to – comics studies, literary theory and criticism, philosophy (particularly the so-called “prophets of extremity” – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida). Kwasu’s extracurricular interests include producing experimental electronic music (with/through Ableton Live), fencing (épée), writing (poetry,short stories, comics), chess and dancing.

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They say that old houses have character, but in Karrie Fransman’s The House That Groaned, the old Victorian where this story is set might as well be a character itself. Built in 1865, it seems to have been left on its own to rot and break apart from the inside out, much like many of its current occupants. Yet, if the building was properly maintained, the lives of those inside would not be compelled to intersect in such a dramatic way. Pipes slip apart allowing conversations to drift down from the upper floors, the boiler bangs with such ferocity it sounds like angry knocking, and stairs buckle under foot, landing one tenant at another’s front door. Fransman allows the rooms’ walls to act as panel borders, and the gutters are filled with the house itself; its machinations evident, bridging the gaps between people’s lives.

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The story beings in a fairly straightforward manner; a young woman named Barbara is starting fresh in a new city, and as she moves into her flat, the reader is introduced to the eccentric occupants of her building. By utilizing a structure that the reader feels comfortable with, Fransman is able to challenge our expectations of these characters and pose some complicated questions. It is obvious from the outset that each occupant is emotionally damaged in some way. Over the course of the book we find that every one of them has been abandoned or let down in some traumatic way that has left a hole inside them. It is the divergent way that they satisfy their loneliness that sets up the reader’s judgements about them.

There’s the insensitive cad Brian, who lives on the ground floor, and only dates women who are terminally ill or disfigured. He must be preying on vulnerable women. Janet, who lives across from him, gives weight loss classes and eats a meager salad at her computer each night. Upstairs, a corpulent neighbor Marion tries to convince her to give up her masochistic self deprivation and enjoy the sensuality of food again. Marion must be trying to liberate Janet from her strict notions of self-worth being tied to waist size. Similar assumptions can be made about the touch-up artist who wears gloves when interacting with others, the old lady upstairs who literally blends into the background and the seemingly ditzy Barbara who wants to be a model.

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Just as the reader feels comfortable with their relationship with the characters, Fransman begins to pepper in flashbacks. As the past of each character is revealed, our notions about their moral character shifts and the reader is left in doubt of their own assumptions. In a way, the author seems to be pitting existentialism against moral relativism. Is it what we do or why we do it that’s important in the end? Not that she’s willing to give us any easy answers to this question.

As a boy, Brian had a prolonged hospital stay that left him fixated on death. He truly finds the women he dates beautiful for their pain. The real predator in the house is Marion, who is not preaching self-acceptance but rather a destructive form of hedonistic self-satisfaction. Her wealthy alcoholic parents emotionally abandoned her to fulfill their own desires, and she sees no reason not to recruit others to help her similarly destroy herself. Meanwhile Janet lost weight not in an effort to punish herself, but instead had devoted herself to becoming healthy in order to have a family, which turned out to be unachievable.

Along with confounding the reader’s moral expectations, Fransman makes the reader grapple with their views towards body images. Throughout the book, she depicts her characters in ways that could be considered explicit or gratuitous, but her abstracted style de-sensualizes them. Rather, by unabashedly showing a variety of bodies without shame, the reader’s perceptions of normative body views is foregrounded. The reader must come to terms with how each character’s relationship to body image shapes our feelings towards them. Does the reader admire the dieter for her commitment to a healthy life, or the sensualists unashamed love of her curves, or both? Are we repulsed by the anorexic, obese and disfigured women Brian chooses as his sexual partners? Does his ability to lust after what disgusts us make us uncomfortable about our views of beauty? Then we come to Barbara, who seems superficially “perfect”, at least according to Matt across the hall, who has a phobia of physical imperfection. Her story of coming to terms with a body she is deeply unhappy with leads to the most significant change in appearance of everyone in the house. The casual way that Fransman relates her past makes you realize that transformation is part of everyone’s life, and a dramatic shift in outward appearance should perhaps not be so startling as the transformations that occur within us.

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Meanwhile, the house, in the throws of death, shudders and convulses, bringing the occupants together for a few final dramatic moments. In the end, it is Brian’s honest love of the disfigured that saves him and while Janet has a brush with death, they both emerge relatively unscathed and walk away into the sunset together. Other tenants don’t get such happy endings, but in life, few truly do. Fransman tale serves as a reminder that we have only been allowed a few glimpses into the lives of others and real life is not as clear cut as we might expect a story-book to be.

The House that Groaned is published by Square Peg rrp £14.99.

Available on Amazon for £9.59: http://www.amazon.co.uk/House-that-Groaned-Karrie-Fransman/dp/0224086812/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359118461&sr=8-1

ABOUT

Kat Sicard recently completed a Masters’ at the Glasgow School of Art, where she explored definitions of “the book” and how interaction can shape understanding. During her time there, Kat became interested in the structuralist constructs that are inherent in how we understand comic books and created work around manipulating and subverting these constructs to challenge the reader. Currently, she is researching how comic books can be used to interrogate and analyze narrative structure. Kat is working on a practice-based PhD and will be making work that questions the form and format of the comic book and encourages the reader to engage with the work in non-traditional ways.

One look at my Netflix Queue will tell you I’m a fangirl: Eureka, Dr. Who, Torchwood, Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Enterprise, Deep Space Nine, Warehouse 13, Battlestar Galatica (both incarnations), Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, SeaQuest, The Guild…you get what I mean.

As will the contents of my house:

My shelves include comics such as Hellboy, Batman, Green Lantern, Astonishing X-Men, Fables as well as Serenity, Buffy the Vampire SlayerConstantine and Daredevil. I prefer the omnibus collections, because I’m impatient, and like my stories all at once. But have quite a few single issues that I had to have the moment they were released.

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My DVD collections includes all versions of Star Wars, multiple times (including a few VHS tapes gathering dust), every comic book movie, both director, and original cuts of Blade Runner. The box set of Alien. The Lord of the Rings, extended versions.

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I have well-loved (read: almost destroyed in many imaginary battles) Star Wars figures.Then there are the role playing books for Serenity,Vampires along with three ring binders that include detailed character charts and histories sit on my shelves next to my bag of dice. There are ‘Making Of’ books, companion books to the X-Files and Twin Peaks. The Lord of the Rings version of Risk. One look around my house, and you can instantly identify that a geek lives there.

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So here’s the confession that will surely keep me from finding the love of my life in geekdom, strip me of any fangirl credit I have, and possibly get my twenty sided die repossessed. I am not the geek you think I am. I did not, I am ashamed to say, come by my geekiness honestly. I stole it.

I am a geek by proxy.

It happened by accident. My first memory ever, is of the Cantina scene in Star Wars. My mother’s idea of babysitting was sitting me in front of Tom Baker’s Dr. Who. I was Wonder Woman several years in a row for Halloween, and obviously took my costume very seriously as I refused to take it off once the holiday had passed. According to my mother, I had a gold piece of yarn that I used as my ‘lasso of Truth’, and for months, no one entering our house was safe, as I would lasso them as soon as they came in the door, and wouldn’t let them enter until I was satisfied with their answers to my questions. My obsession was based not on the comic, but on a steady diet of Lynda Carter. I used to think that Wonder Woman could do anything. I still believe she can do anything (except get a major studio to back her).

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We had family pizza nights that were scheduled around when the latest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was on. I really thought I could be Wesley Crusher when I grew up and attend StarfleetAcademy. I know all the lines to all the movies, to the point that some people refused to sit down and watch them with me. I read fantasy and sci-fi. My USB hub for my laptop is a working TARDIS.

But here’s what I began to learn in high school: it wasn’t enough. Because fangirls have it hard. There is a fanaticism with certain people, that if you don’t measure up to their criteria (which usually are bizarre, and differ depending on who you talk to) then you’re not allowed in the club. So many women, who are secretly fangirls in their heart of hearts, won’t admit it, because they are afraid that if they do, that some screaming fanboy or (God help us) “expert” will tell them that they don’t know what they’re talking about and to go away. I first encountered this in high school. Allen was a die hard Star Trek fanatic. Knew everything about the original, and every incarnation. He could name all the red shirt characters. He knew all the episode names, and character arcs. He had read every single supplemental novel and novelization. He wrote fan fiction based in the universe. He built models of the ships. And if you couldn’t reel off the planets that USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) visited in order, he thought less of you.  It started with a small rolling of the eyes which through high school years turned into not inviting you to things because “you wouldn’t understand”. Later, it evolved into a superiority complex. He developed the attitude that he was somehow better, more inspired, more intelligent than you, and was going to DO SOMETHING. It was one of the first times as a young adult where my friendship was rejected because I hadn’t made the grade. I remember being bewildered, but also a little pissed: weren’t geeks supposed to stick together? Writing this many years later, I take no joy from the fact that he still lives with his mother in the same room decorated with Star Trek models and figures. It seems as though he was unable to move on from that time. But what I will never forget is how he made me feel as though I had no right to participate in this conversation.

Later, after college, this lesson was driven home to me, and is often the case for twenty-something fan girls, it came in the shape of a boyfriend. I met him during a regular Saturday role playing session my best friend ran. I was always intrigued by role playing games, but frankly never understood them (there goes a little more of my fangirl status). However, I was more than willing to spend the day hanging out and meeting people of similar interests. Dirk and I hit it off and were soon dating. It didn’t last long though, because World of Warcraft came to the apartment. And it never left. Or rather, Dirk never left. He stayed on his computer (as did his roommate one wall away) all day and all night. He bought a mini fridge and put it under his desk. A microwave soon followed, and sat on top of the fridge. There became almost no reason to move away from the computer screen. After several weeks, when I mentioned that maybe we might want to leave the apartment, he answered me with “You could always play.” And right there is the problem. Because, as long as I’m sharing all my secrets here, I’m not a fan of video games or computer games in general. I can play a mean Tron. Or Pac-Man, or Tekken. I have plenty of games I’ve picked up for a little while, but the long term investment required for so many of these games, just doesn’t interest me. The only time I ever got sucked into this was for a semester in college, when a friend introduced me to Marathon, which I proceeded to play for weeks on end until I realized I was slipping at work, and, subsequently, with my grades. Once I realized there were other things I’d rather be doing, I set the game down and never went back. So the obsession, the single-mindedness that so many geeks develop over online games, I just don’t get it. So I told Dirk I wasn’t interested. And that was it. It took several weeks of me slowly spending more time outside of the apartment to realize he never noticed I was gone, and eventually it all just faded away. I just stopped going over there, stopped calling. And to this day, I’m not sure when he exactly noticed. Dirk’s cliquish attitude was different from Allen’s – he didn’t talk down to me, for example. But it was obvious that if I wasn’t the “right” type of geek, I literally stopped existing.

I found myself in love with all things geek, a fount of useless pop-culture trivia, in love with fanboys, but somehow, lacking. Experience seemed to be telling me that while I may like geeky things, that wasn’t the same as being a geek.

Like I said, fangirls have it hard. So what’s a girl to do? If you love these things, and love the people who love these things, then what’s the answer? It turns out that there are two issues. The first is that there’s often the feeling that there’s a test to pass before they let you in the clubhouse. The second is that if you don’t learn certain things, not only are you not going to understand the conversation, but you certainly can’t participate in it.
So you memorize the order of Robins in Batman because that’s something only “real” fangirls know. But you’re not quite sure how many times Batman has retired or been killed. You lament the mish-mash timeline in the X-Men movies (where’s Hank McCoy in that first movie? Why is Colossus in there?) you keep to yourself that you don’t really understand (or if you’re honest, care) about the fifty million different timelines in comics. You can thoroughly discuss and debate all of the Star Trek movies, but are probably fuzzy, if not downright out of focus on the original episodes. You know Oracle more through Birds of Prey, than Batgirl.

You become a geek by proxy.

Now, some people are just ecstatic that a girl not only understands that plans can’t be made on the opening day of Lord of the Rings, but also expects you to buy her a ticket. That love is returning my copies of Astonishing X-Men in perfect condition. And who can have long conversations about the number of paradoxes in J.J Abrams’ Star Trek.

But there are others. People who take all the lovely things about being a geek or a nerd and turn it into the same cliques they hated up growing up. Where it’s not enough that you hang out with people that role-play, and help suggest ideas and characters, but you must log a certain amount of hours per week, and only with certain systems. Where you not only have to know who the third guy from the left is on the Enterprise from the original series in episode 13, but you have to have memorized his profile and life story from the supplemental novels/materials. These guys are jerks, but there are other issues with this attitude.

The first circles back to the age old discrimination that women can’t possible like anything having to do with science. Or science fiction. Or “boy” stuff. Or aren’t supposed to. Not supposed to like blowing things up in class, or building model rockets, or imagining going into space. Not supposed to read comic books (although given the lack of female audience geared comics, it’s a wonder any of us kept reading after the first few). Not supposed to have hour long discussions on who’s better, Aquaman or Namor (it’s Aquaman by the way). In a world, that still wants to shut women out of the conversation, it is disturbing to me that a community based on people who rarely fit in their own environments would turn around and exclude people. It’s one of the few places where I think few inroads have been made against gender bias.

The second is perhaps more insidious. It is the implication that only a narrow scope of knowledge is wanted. People are Star Wars or Star Trek. DC or Marvel. It seems that so much of fan culture is based on breaking down the world into binaries and opposites that should never, ever meet. But there are problems with this, especially in regards to new material. This material is created by people of a new generation and mindset- who may not know everything there is to know about one thing but can tell you lots and lots of trivia about a bunch of things. In a world where everything has become interconnected- where “meta” is the norm, and where you have to have seen/read ten movies/comics/books in order to understand the new release, a wide knowledge base is necessary. You have to understand the references and the background in order to understand the current story. Otherwise, you’re not getting the entire story. And I think this makes for a richer analysis, deeper insight, and quite frankly, more fun (how many of you not only read the entire whiteboard in Cabin in the Woods but also understood all the references?).

We should encourage a mindset that enables people to see the richness of texts, that requires them to make connections, and makes intertextuality a requirement. But if people whose interest are wide, but perhaps not deep, continue to be marginalized, then you’re not just alienating a potential audience, but a new generation of scholars and academics.

I always loved the fanboys growing up. They were always the ones I had crushes on, still do. It’s the fanboys I seek out in a gathering (they’re easy to spot- just check out the t-shirt collection). Hopefully, my confession that I’m only a geek by proxy won’t hurt my chances of living happily ever after with someone with whom I can debate the pros and cons of the Phoenix storyline.

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About

Karra Shimabukuro is an independent scholar from North Carolina, USA.  Her research focuses upon Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, the roots of folkloric characters and how they are forwarded in literature and popular culture, such as comics, fairy tales, and horror films. She firmly believe that popular culture has become our new folklore. Karra is a fan of Joss Whedon, Dark Horse Comics (Buffy Season 8 and the Firefly, Shepherd book series), HellboyIron Man, Superman and Wonder Woman and considers herself a ‘freak’ for all things X-Men. Her favourite comic book character is Daredevil: ‘What I always loved was, like Batman, he was a real guy, with no “special powers” (not really anyway, I know his “sonar” is cool) but you saw him suffer, and get beat up, and yet every day he went out and did it again. I loved that strength of character.’ Karra’s dad is a ‘huge comic book freak’ and she adopted his love of all things Green Lantern. By proxy, of course.

The year was 94. Or thereabouts. It was a slippery time; I dig out my old diaries from the attic and discover that some of this happened in 89, and some of it in 96. But I think of it as circa-94, around the time that Vertigo comics entered me and I entered them. I was living in a tall house with two or three other girls.

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This is what it looks like now, on a digital map. But that isn’t how I remember it. I remember it more like this: like the scene of Rose Walker arriving at her new home in Gaiman’s second Sandman story arc, The Doll’s House. (Looking it up now, I realise it was first published in 1989. You see what I mean?)

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This was my bedroom, or part of it. It was on the top floor, and at night a beacon on the top of the newly-built Canary Wharf tower winked through my window There was a water boiler in the corner that heaved, breathed and gurgled. The room was maybe ten feet by ten, as big as the walk-in wardrobes in the hotel rooms I now occupy. But I loved it.  I painted Molly Bloom’s last lines from Ulysses on the wall, in affirmation. It was, in the words of Shade The Changing Man #9, my pink heaven.

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It was on that top floor that I and my co-editor Alice Constance Ballantyne put together Deviant Glam, a fanzine about comics and cosmetics that was informed by, steeped in, swayed by, and segued into the approach and aesthetic of the Vertigo comics of the period.

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Yes, a fanzine. It was printed out, photocopied and sent out by post. This was a time of inbetweenness: between the days of analogue and the early internet, when mix tapes were starting to feel quaint and clumsy, but long before Napster. It was a time when cut and paste meant scissors and clue, not control-C and control-V. It was a time when a folder meant a cardboard wallet, a desktop was where you typed your letters on a clunky machine or wrote them by hand, when file was the first syllable in filofax, and wallpaper referred to the collage – tickets, snapshots, pin-ups and posters – you stuck above your bed to make your space your own, as I did with that line from Ulysses above my mirror.

And looking back, that’s another line from Ulysses: stolen from chapter 11, Sirens, with Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy in a Dublin bar.

‘She laughed:
—O wept! Aren’t men frightful idiots?
With sadness.’

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You wonder why every comic book and graphic novel cover by Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz and their imitators between 89 and 95 was a mixture of postcards, pebbles, photographs and shells, with bits of lace laid over the top? Because our bedrooms looked like that. Because our diaries looked like that. It was a time of scraps, of bits and bobs. The Psychedelic Furs had a phrase for it, in their song Alice’s House (Mirror Moves album, 1984): ‘it’s a mess of souvenirs… there to remind you, telling the time.’

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But Deviant Glam wasn’t just about comics (and not just about cosmetics). It was also – as the Fall put it, in their song Glam Racket, ‘entrenched in suede’. Brett Anderson’s indie band, dubbed ‘the last big thing’ by the music press, had released ‘The Drowners’ and ‘Metal Mickey’ in 1992. I bought all their singles, on vinyl, the day they appeared. It was a time of objects and physical artefacts. I was about Brett’s age. I became entrenched in Suede. The lyrics echoed and entered my diaries, which, I now admit, I often wrote when I was drunk.

‘I see you’re moving, see you’re moving

Moving in with her.

Pierce your right ear, pierce your heart, this skinny boy’s one of the girls.’

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By coincidence, I’d bought my first Fall album (I Am Kurious Oranj, 1988) because of this frame from Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s superhero epic Zenith, where minor character Penny Moon wears their badge on her leather biker jacket for a moment in Prog 606, December 1988. The panel is barely the size of a postage stamp, but it stuck with me.

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I probably bought a leather biker jacket because of Penny Moon, too.

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Or maybe it was because of Zenith himself. Fiction had a way of blurring into fact, after a few drinks. And drinking had a way of blurring into sobriety. And the week had a way of blurring into weekend. There was a constant, low-level sense of party that segued into hangover and back to party, up and down, midnight to midnight. In May 1991, I borrowed the title of an REM song to describe the mood.

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‘Carnival of Sorts’ was included on Dead Letter Office, REM’s compilation of B-sides and rarities, their rummage through the attic, their archiving of old files. I bought it to celebrate finishing my finals. (I’d gone out to buy the Cure’s album Mixed Up, but I got mixed up, and came home with REM instead).

All letters are dead now – antique museum pieces – but that was our means of communication not so long ago: not mails, but letters, with pen and paper. Straight boys sent handwritten letters to other straight boys, and added love and kisses at the end. I’ve kept them.

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For a while, I looked a little like Zenith. That’s me reading Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Sebastian O, near Comics Showcase in London, in 1993.

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For another while, I looked a bit like Penny Moon. At another point, in another place, I looked a little like Kid Eternity, from the Grant Morrison and Duncan Fegredo reboot of 1991.

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Grant Morrison and Richard Case later introduced a character named after another REM song, ‘Driver 8’, as one of Crazy Jane’s multiple personalities in Doom Patrol. The number on  his or her cap was turned to one side, and the eight became infinity.

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Lines from Ulysses escaped my diary and spread across my bedroom wall, above the mirror.

At the same time, James Joyce’s style was also shaping Grant Morrison’s prose, in Zenith.

I think it was a coincidence – that I was into Ulysses anyway, rather than that I read Joyce because of Zenith – but at this distance, it’s hard to be sure.

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Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes I said yes I will Yes.

At around the same time, Peter Milligan (author of Shade the Changing Man) and Duncan Fegredo released a Vertigo miniseries simply called Enigma. Again, I was more taken with one of the minor characters: in this case, Victoria Yes. The Envelope Girl.

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Victoria’s pages were the colour of manila. She could transport her victims across time and space, from one time to another place. That was her one power. I was entranced by her.

It was a time when the boundaries between producer and reader, author and fan blurred a little more than they do now. Grant Morrison published reviews alongside mine in Fantasy Advertiser magazine. I spoke to Alan Moore for hours at the theatrical adaptation of Halo Jones, and published our conversation as an interview in one of my earlier fanzines, Frisko (itself named after the Halo Jones disc jockey). I wrote comics, and without even meeting the artists who drew them – we communicated by letter, of course – I seemed also to appear in comics.

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I became part of a small-press network, pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace, pre-Friendster. We wrote and drew comics, and circulated them by post.

My first script was called ‘Vertigo’. It wasn’t very good. I found my style writing stories about a man who, like Victoria Yes, had a girl somewhere inside him, an envelope waiting to be opened. And when she came out, he saw stars.

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When I re-read those scripts now, I cringe a little – but perhaps not for the reasons you imagine. They are texts of their time: the year was 94, and I was raw. I didn’t have a better word than ‘transvestites’, and — because I was so young — I thought it was all about passing on the outside, not how you identified inside. These are stories from before LGBT was an acronym; before I had anything more than a sparse, inadequate vocabulary and a briefly-glimpsed community.

I didn’t have the words, at the time. The right word would come later.

But meanwhile, pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace, pre-Friendster, how did we all find each other? Through pamphlets, through fanzines, through comics: through postal addresses in the back pages of magazines.

I wrote a letter to Shade The Changing Man every month, and it was printed every month: almost a regular column. And once, Shade wrote back to me. Artist Gavin Wilson sent me an original print of Shade, from his photoshoot for issue #23 (May 1992), ‘An Illusion of Real’.

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So Shade was a real man, and we fans were a little like comic book characters. We were all so pretty, so seemingly-immortal. So young, so gone, as Brett Anderson put it in 1993. We’ll scare the skies with tiger’s eyes, oh yeah. (The opening lyrics to ‘So Young’ aren’t listed anywhere: Brett simply cries ‘Seeker! Star!’ a euphoric yell of yes.)

The Vertigo titles reflected us like a looking-glass. They showed us we could be a certain kind of superhero: shades, suede, leather, boots and buckles, broken parts and mosaic minds. Teams like Morrison’s Doom Patrol offered a gang of misfits we could all join.

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I even performed in a Suede covers band. Funny, at the time I didn’t realise everyone in the house, everyone at the party, was gay.

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But then, the boundaries were slippery. Brett Anderson claimed to be bisexual. Everyone I dated turned out to be bi. The binaries blurred. Shade the Changing Man woke up one morning as a woman, and went into a word-panic worthy of Molly Bloom: why man, woe man.

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Milligan’s self-conscious wordplay – Joyce himself even featured in one episode of Shade – climaxed in a particularly slippery trick towards the end of Enigma.

‘Michael remembers the first time he stood naked in front of a strange girl…

Because that’s what he feels like now.

A strange girl.’

Like Shade, I was sharing a house with two or three other girls. I couldn’t always count them. That’s the kind of curious house it was: like Morrison’s sentient transvestite real estate from Doom Patrol, Danny-the-Street, things seemed to shift and move when you turned your back. I didn’t have the words, at the time, to describe the scene, the house, the carnival of sorts we were all part of – but later, I realised it had been starring me in the face all along, on the cover of a comic book.

Enigma, part 8, the final issue. A face stared straight out at the reader, with the caption ‘queer’.

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Enigma is a remarkable comic: it seems obscure now, rarely-remembered, out of print. It’s astonishingly similar in its themes and approach to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s later four-part series, Flex Mentallo (1996), but it’s not been examined or obsessed over to anything like the same extent.

It tells the story of an ordinary man called Michael who meets a superhero – a gorgeous, larger-than-life superhero called The Enigma, who comes to life from the pages of a childhood comic book. But where Flex only implies the homoeroticism of the relationship between fan and icon, reader and character, civilian identity and costumed alter ego, Enigma faces it full-on.

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Enigma makes Michael gay. And then, in the last episode, offers to turn him back. And Michael says ‘NO.’ But it’s a no as positive as Molly’s final yes.

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And as for me? I put the envelopes in the attic. I moved out, I moved house, I started a new life, I sold out.

I left everything behind and got a room in Cardiff, and began a PhD about Batman.

But that’s another story, for another time.

Will Brooker

November 2012

ABOUT

Will Brooker is the Director of Research in Kingston University’s Film and TV department. He is the author of several books on popular culture and fandom including: Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon (2001); Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (2002); Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture (2005); and his latest book, Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman (2012). On January 1st 2013, Will will become the first British editor of The Cinema Journal.