Surveyor of the Superheroes: Kaveney talks New Book

Mon, March 10th, 2008 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Adi Tantimedh, Guest Writer

"Superheroes: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films" on sale March 18

Roz Kaveney's brain is too big. The writer also knows everybody, but not everybody knows her. She helped herald the first graphic novel boom in Britain, writing introductions for the original British trade collections of "Hellblazer," years before the issues were finally collected by Vertigo. She regularly reviews books and movies for the Times Literary Supplement; Science Fiction, Fantasy and Crime novels for Time Out London; and contributed entries to "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" and "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy." She has also written and edited fiction anthologies like "Tales of the Forbidden Planet," "Temps" and "The Weerde," working with luminaries of Science Fiction and Fantasy such as Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, Storm Constantine, Charlie Stross. Most recently, Kaveney has written the acclaimed cultural analyses "Reading the Vampire Slayer: the Unofficial Critical Companion to Buffy and Angel", "Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television form 'Heathers' to 'Veronica Mars,' and "From Alien to the Matrix: Reading Science Fiction Film."

Kaveney's latest, "Superheroes: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films," which is released March 18, purports to be the first book to examine superhero stories as a legitimate genre in itself. It concentrates primarily on Marvel and DC Comics, because the Big Two have been around the longest and have defined the field as everyone knows it today.

"Superheroes" has already garnered blurbs from heavyweights like cultural historian and novelist Marina Warner, who writes that "Roz Kaveney's knowledge is awesome, her analysis passionate: this is a work of eloquent advocacy, urging readers to pay more attention to a crucial arena where ideas about men, women, virtue, and power are discussed--and formed. Like a modern Gulliver, she brings back news of other worlds, of marvellous utopias and dystopias, in order to throw light on the one we live in--or think we live in."

Like her friend Neil Gaiman, Kaveney is engaged in examining stories and why they matter to us, and how they reflect our lives. Unlike many critics who might hide under a veneer of academia, she is an unashamed comics fan. Her investigation of superhero comics, as with any other subject, is intensely analytical and personal at the same time. She is as active in fandom as she is in Media and Publishing, and gender politics, in Britain.

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What made you decide to write a book about the superhero genre?

There was no one point at which I decided to write a book about superheroes; it was more a slow learning process in the course of which I realized that it was something I needed to work on.

When I re-read my book on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," it hit me that one aspect of the show that I hadn't dealt with was the complex relationship between Joss Whedon's work and the comics on which he had grown up. When I was asked a few years later to be a keynote speaker at the Slayage academic conference on Buffy studies, it was a logical thing for me to write about and helped me refine my ideas for a book I was already by then writing.

My book on Science Fiction film had to exclude a lot of material and one of the decisions I made was to leave superhero films out and come to them another time. At a late stage during work on that book, I was talking to the scholar and sci-fi film reviewer Nick Lowe and he mentioned the idea that the DC and Marvel continuity universes were the largest narrative constructions of human culture. I seized on this idea instantly.

One of the ideas I had already had was that popular culture, just as much as the canon of high culture, teaches us the skills needed both to create and appreciate it, that there are, associated with particular genres, what I have called competence cascades, the gradual escalating presence of such skills. The ability to navigate the continuity universes and appreciate fine narrative twists drawn from across decades of work is one such skill - that capacity to sense texture in work is never a waste. I did not decide to write about superheroes when talking to Nick, but again, the ideas that came out of that conversation have permeated my work since.

In a sense, of course, I was preparing to write a book about superhero comics as long ago as the 1980s when I and friends like Neil Gaiman and Charles Shaar Murray first started to write pieces for mainstream periodicals about "Watchmen" and other comics of its period. Back then, we wrote some worthwhile stuff about the cultural importance of comics that helped the process whereby they entered the mainstream; regrettably, one consequence of that was that superhero comics got left in the ghetto as the thing that the sort of respectable graphic novels culturally aware people read had grown out of.

As someone who has spent much of my time involved in sexual politics as a transgendered member of the LGBT community, I recognize the phenomenon whereby a part of the community buys respectability by dumping other parts - and want no part of it.

I suppose the other reason I wanted to write about superheroes is that my fiction has often dealt with the tropes of superhero comics overtly or implicitly. When you are a critic as well as a writer, sometimes you need to work out your ideas in the critical sphere as a way of clearing blockages in your creative work; so that too was a factor.

What did you find most surprising during your reading and study?

I suppose that the thing that surprised me most was the extent to which ever since "Watchmen," the debate about the correct uses of power has become a significant part of what we read superhero comics for. Obviously there is a lot of modish penny-catching crap out there, but there are also storylines as interesting and subtle in their approach as Bendis' "Alias" or Brubaker's Winter Soldier or Gail Simone's "Villains Unlimited." All of this material is about the playing out of emotional consequences. Compare the resurrection of [deceased Captain America sidekick] Bucky with that of [deceased Batman sidekick] Jason [Todd] - the difference is that there is more in the way of pain and of consequences. Also, the sheer sadness of the fact that Bucky comes back just in time for Cap's death and then has to take up the Shield with the most intense feelings of unworthiness. One of the reasons I like the "Villains Unlimited" stuff is that Gail Simone has this knack of talking about the interactions of these quite disturbed people in ways that makes us care about them. "Alias" - well, my love of that is expressed at huge length in the book.

Which leads me in turn to the difference between DC and Marvel which is, I think, all about that question. DC is all about possibilities and Marvel all about problems; DC about heroes and Marvel about their feet of clay. And the moment you say that, you can think of a million exceptions while, I think, also recognizing its essential truth.

Growing up in the '60s, the first comics I ever read were DC - they captured my imagination at an early stage just from seeing the covers. The comics that I loved, when I first became a fan in my teens, were almost always Marvel, because they spoke to my condition and I identified with their characters more. DC taught me the poetics of superheroes and Marvel the prose.

Grant Morrison has posited the likes of the DC Universe as a living and ever-evolving entity. Can you talk about more about the Marvel and DC universes being the biggest ongoing mythological constructs in human history?

I'm sure no one ever sat down and thought about it until recently, but these things happen by slow accretion. Many titles each month for decade after decade - it all stacks up after a while. So part of the point is sheer quantity of material. On top of that, we have the deliberate desire of a lot of the writers to work with consistent characters and story, and to develop further cool stuff other people had written. We have ended up with this vast sea of story most of which most of the time makes some sort of sense, even when it deals in time paradox and events that never happened but still manage to have consequences. Now that's an idea that the storytellers of Greece and India never thought of.

With the current continuity-wide events effecting entire books and characters, and not always for the better in the eyes of the fans, where do you think the DC and Marvel universes will go next?

Frankly, I would be happy if they just chilled out for a while and let all the possibilities of recent continuity work themselves out rather than constantly hyperactively building in more levels of complexity for their own sake. Recent events - Cap's death, the time paradoxes around Spider-Man, the complex of things that have been happening to, say, Wonder Woman and Booster Gold - these need just to have emotional consequences and play out quietly for a couple of years. And yet I know they will go on escalating and maybe some of the storylines will be interesting – "Final Crisis" has Grant at the helm after all. My preference would be for no more Crises for a while.

Can you also talk more specifically about the difference between DC and Marvel's basic ethos, as in DC had been about possibilities and Marvel being about problems?

Well, that's it really - they are both about idealism, and the use of power. DC tends to be about the sheer wonder of that, and Marvel about the terror and majesty of it.

Would you like to comment on the recent influx of TV and movie and writers like Joss Whedon into writing comics?

As with other influxes - the rise of the British boys [in the 1980s] is the obvious one - you have to judge it by results. I'm not disappointed by Joss's work exactly but I could have done with its being considerably more special than it is. I've loved some of Alan Heinberg's work - particularly on "Young Avengers." On the other hand, I really didn't like Brad Meltzer or Jodie Picoult's stuff - part of what is important is respect for the material, I suppose, and I do worry that some of the people who have been brought in have been allowed to be lazy and mishandle the material they used. Like I say, you have to judge it case by case.

And yet the writers of Marvel and DC comics are not exactly at liberty to tell the stories they really want. The directions of the stories are frequently guided if not dictated by editorial policy at the companies. Would you care to talk about that combination of commerce, editorial edict and creative urges?

Well, that's the most important question of all and the one those of us on the outside are least qualified to answer. Certainly it is clear that many of the dumbest things in comics have come from editors-in-chief - the way that Marvel in the '90s became so dominated by fight scenes at the expense of almost everything else is one of the obvious examples. Comics have always struck me as a field in which William Goldman's remark that "no-one knows anything" was particularly true - a lot of editors down the years have followed their personal whims and crotchets and got interesting stuff out of it, when they found writers and artists to work with that jelled with the material. On the other hand, some decisions are bad in the first place and mean that people who are normally talented do considerably less than their best work, and do not necessarily produce the commercial success that is hoped for. Worst of all, sometimes these decisions retroactively damage something in past continuity that was good or cool. I'd cite the way that having Maxwell Lord kill Ted Kord in cold blood puts a nasty edge on all those glorious silly scenes between them in the old Giffen/ DeMatteis "Justice League."

This is what, in the book, I call strip-mining continuity - treating the material in a way that damages it forever. Or at least until it gets a long quiet time to grow back. My instinct, my quite strong instinct, is that the recent Spiderman storyline and rejigging of continuity is just such a mistake.

But what are writers and artists going to do? Walk away when editors have a brainstorm? I cannot see that happening - and this is a problem with all sorts of collaborative art, not just comics. I'd like to see editors be less arrogant in their assumption that they are right and decades of other people's material is wrong.

What do you hope readers - superhero fans and non-fans - might get out of reading your book, "Superheroes?"

I hope the book at the very least explains to people who do not read superhero comics, and never have, why they should at the very least not assume that people who do read them are consuming an artistic genre that can, at its best, achieve real grandeur and complexity. I also want to remind and reassure actual fans of the same thing - reading superhero comics is not just a bad habit out of which they may eventually grow, but a serious enterprise. This also means that fans should complain when the material they are being sold betrays their best expectations - this are tales of pity and wonder which should have sublime intensity in the mix.

 
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