Are comic books the masterpieces of the modern age?


In tracing the mythological roots of modern-day superheroes, few stories join the dots more tangibly than Wonder Woman’s, as told in All-Star Comics #8, published in December, 1941: carved from clay by the queen of the Amazons, given life by the gods of ancient Greece and sent into a world at war as an advocate of peace and justice.

And without delving too deeply into the popular Superman-is-Jesus Christ theory, she is not alone. Like Hercules, Achilles, Atalanta, Perseus and Bellerophon before them, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Green Lantern are writ large in modern graphic literature, usually saving things: tall buildings, cities and mankind.

American comic book writer and television producer Paul Dini has a slightly more earthly approach to their enduring appeal. “I tend to think of them more as modern-day folklore heroes, like the next extension of [lumberjack] Paul Bunyan or [cowboy] Pecos Bill,” Dini says. “The larger than life super-man who performs fantastic deeds, lassoing a whirlwind and riding it across Texas.”

Those two stories – Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill – sit prominently in American folklore. Neither is true, but both inspired generations of stories about their individual exploits in pioneering America. And they are significant because they were in circulation when mass media printing developed. “And comic books became a natural extension of that,” Dini says.

The 59-year-old producer of Batman: The Animated Series also counts the creation of the female comic book villain Harley Quinn – introduced as the Joker’s girlfriend, created for television and retroactively added to the Batman comic book canon – among his credits.

Dini is a guest of next month’s Superhero Identities Symposium at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), exploring the “intersection between superheroes and identity”. Other speakers include film academic Professor Henry Jenkins and graphic novelist (and Batgirl writer) Hope Larson.

Dini’s relationship with comics reaches back into his childhood, past the superhero graphic novellas that popularised the form, to the newspaper comic strips he read with his father. His father brought home three newspapers every day: The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner and The Oakland Times. “That’s three comic pages that had just about everything from the late ’60s to the early ’70s on them,” he says. “I devoured it all.”

As he grew older, Dini retained a lot of the less conspicuous detail. “Who drew what, that [Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow artist] Neal Adams had a very dynamic style, that [Captain America and Hulk co-creator] Jack Kirby was like the godfather of comics,” he says. “Then, looking farther back at romance comics and westerns that Kirby had done and seeing it just begin and end with the Fantastic Four. It was just something I wound up keeping with me.”

Most kids followed either Marvel – home of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America –  or DC Comics (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern), but rarely both. The two “universes”, for obvious reason, never meet.  But Dini was agnostic in his appetites.

“I would buy everything, whatever appealed to me on the stand, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Hot Stuff [a red child-devil wearing an asbestos nappy and wielding a magical pitchfork], Josie and the Pussycats, Uncle Scrooge,” he says. “There were no hard-and-fast rules. I looked at comics like a buffet table, where you take a little bit of something and leave the other stuff behind.”

As he got older, however, a particular affection for the DC pantheon emerged, with three heroes looming larger than the others: the sacrificed-for-man Superman, the baser, revenge-driven mortal Batman and the personification-of-justice Wonder Woman. In properly mythological terms, they roughly equate to Zeus, Hades and Athena. “They’re all really iconic,” Dini says. “Most of the rest, nothing against them, fall into the cool power guys.”

The three also serve as a template from which almost all other comic book heroes spring: Captain America from Superman, Iron Man from Batman and Supergirl from Wonder Woman. “Without Wonder Woman there would be no Black Canary, without a Superman there would be no Flash, they all come from that,” Dini says.

After graduating from college, and dabbling in television – notably as a writer on the animated TV series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe – Dini took a job at Warner Bros Animation, which brought him to Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond. His work there has earned him five Emmy Awards.

Dini believes that elevating the comic book genre via exhibitions and symposiums such as the one being held at ACMI is “long overdue”. “This is something that I’m very grateful to see happen, especially in my lifetime, because a lot of times an artistic movement takes decades to really get started. I’m very happy to see comics and popular culture elevated to that position.”

 He recalls visiting writer, editor and collector Forrest Ackerman, whose home was piled high with  sci-fi memorabilia, at a time when an exhibition of such miscellanea would have seemed absurd or, at the very least, commercially unviable.

“Forrest Ackerman was just perceived as this eccentric,” Dini says. “I got a little wistful thinking, it’s too bad  … that there was never the Ackerman Museum, where it was all laid out.”

There is now an unchallengeable cultural legitimacy around comic books which has come, in part at least, from the generation who grew up reading  them and who have embarked on careers in film and television: J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, Robert Kirkman, Jeph Loeb, Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith and Frank Miller, among them.

“Those are their Greek myths, and in some cases, their religions,” Dini says. “They have embraced that the way that another generation would have embraced the great paintings of the 18th century … Everybody looks back on what they studied and what they grew up with.”

The Superhero Identities Symposium is at ACMI, December 8-9. Details


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