The Great Debate is a weekly column examining new and classic books about the creators, craft, and history of comics. If you know of upcoming books you would like to see reviewed, please let us know in the comments!
Authors: Monica Flegel & Judith Leggatt
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Publication Year: 2021
WHAT IS IT?
Superhero Culture Wars is a timely and thought-provoking reflection on attempts by Marvel Comics to add diverse new characters to its lineup in the mid-2010s and tracks how the company’s position as a producer of “progressive but not political” corporate art has become increasingly difficult to maintain as our cultural climate becomes more politicized and fractured.
For invested readers of Marvel comics, this book has remarkable insight into the past and future of Marvel, and is a fascinating read!
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Monica Flegel and Judith Leggatt examine the contentious “All-New, All-Different Marvel” (ANADM) initiative of 2015 as well as numerous restarts and reboots stemming out of it. They look at “diversity done right” in the introduction of Miles Morales and Kamala Khan, consider the problems of “temporary” diversity with Jane Foster as Thor and Sam Wilson as Captain America, and wrap things up with a fascinating look at the disaster that was Secret Empire (2016).
I love the exploration of “reflective” and “restorative” nostalgia, which allows Flegel and Leggatt to show how callbacks to older stories can either allow for modern reinterpretation or can further calcify an idealized and often outdated past. They argue that successful reinterpretations of characters are “reflective” in that they draw on and reward fan knowledge of the past even as they challenge invested fans to reread and rethink classic stories through a more modern and critical lens.
The authors are clear-eyed and pragmatic in what they expect out of Marvel, Disney, and other large corporations with multi-generational investments in popular intellectual properties. They note that in the end any corporate embrace of politics – progressive or conservative – is essentially a marketing ploy; they do not expect corporations to have a “soul.” Because of this, Flegel and Leggatt contend that Marvel comics are best examined as corporate commercial art products that balance creativity, sales potential, and concern for protecting and enhancing the corporate brand.
Superhero Culture Wars does an excellent job comparing and contrasting the notable successes and failures of ANADM. The middle chapters show why the introduction of Miles and Kamala went over well, and why the elevation of Jane and Sam did not. Moreover, they look at what that tells us about where established fan bases are flexible to change, and where they are not.
Flegel and Leggatt conclude with a comprehensive analysis of the Secret Empire storyline from 2017 in which Marvel published a major event centered on a Fascist Captain America even as Trumpism was on the rise in the country. This resulted in an uncomfortably on-the-nose vision of the “world outside your window” that Marvel had always been known for and plunged the company directly into the middle of America’s culture war. The book deftly deconstructs the text and subtext of Nick Spencer’s story, looks at initial fan and media reactions, and examines Marvel’s questionable marketing and damage control efforts related to the event. They do brilliant work bringing this together and making sense of it all!
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
Superhero Culture Wars has no images at all, which is distressing for those of us used to books that are mostly pictures. This lack of accompanying images is evidently due to a (new?) Marvel policy denying reproduction rights for “third-party works where Marvel is the sole subject.” This is a disturbing limit for those wishing to undertake critical analyses of Marvel properties, and I hope this restriction is lifted soon.
The “All-New, All-Different Marvel” campaign debuted just over five years ago. While I find the arguments and conclusions in Superhero Culture Wars to be compelling, many of the events and controversies dealt with here are still painfully fresh, and as a historian sometimes I wonder if it is a bit early for this analysis.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
If you are a fan of modern mainstream comics (Marvel or DC), this is a fundamental text. It helps you to understand why Marvel is working so hard to diversify its brand and explains why that process can be so difficult and perilous for them. Superhero Culture Wars will make you think about Marvel and its characters differently and will help you to better understand the modern comics landscape.
Who it's for: Anyone who is reading current “Big Two” comics should pick this up. Moreover, it is especially perfect for anyone who ever wondered: “What in the world made Marvel think that Captain America as an agent of Hydra was a good idea?”
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
For more on Marvel’s diversity efforts: Panthers, Hulks and Ironhearts by Jeffrey A. Brown
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Both Monica Flegel and Judith Leggatt teach in the English department at Lakehead University in Ontario. Their areas of specialization are varied, with Leggatt focusing on First Nations literature, science fiction and indigenous comics while Flegel has published books on pets in Victorian England and cruel children in popular literature. As far as I can find, this is their first (but hopefully not last) book related to comic studies.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can, find a local bookstore, and buy there!
The copyright for image(s) used in this review are likely owned by either the publisher of the book, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the book. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
This book is ©2021 Monica Flegel & Judith Leggatt. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED