Revision and the Superhero Genre

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David Hyman, Revision and the Superhero Genre. Palgrave, 2017.

At a cultural moment when television and film have not only embraced the superhero genre but, in particular, its multiplicity of universes, timelines, and realities (e.g. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the CW’s “Elsewhere” event), David Hyman’s Revision and the Superhero Genre feels particularly relevant. In this book from Palgrave Studies in Comics and Graphic Novels series, Hyman holds up the collective history of the superhero, with its retcons, reboots, and reimaginings as a model for composition. As an example, he offers the character of Superman—mingled with Pre-Crisis, Post-Crisis, New 52, Bizarro, and multiversal variations—as a way of understanding that revision does not always move towards the ‘better’ but perhaps the ‘fuller.’ “Superman is best understood not as a singularity, but rather as an ongoing text composed of multiple versions” (Hyman 12). Without this plasticity, characters such as Superman would have become fixed, lost in the oneiric climate that Umberto Eco famously described rather than transforming within it. The value of Superman (or of Spider-Man or the Flash) is not the latest reworking of the character: it is his evolving state even as the past continues to reemerge from within him. So, too, with the finest pieces of composition and creative output.

At a cultural moment, particularly in the United States with front-page matters of racial and national identity—and such bigotry against them—David Hyman’s Revision and the Superhero Genre seems rather important. Though the comics industry is well and truly a business, superhero titles contain a germ of democratic energy within them as fans exert their degree of influence over such titles. That sway may either be somewhat illusory (e.g. the frequent “because you asked for it!” cover billing) or too potent (e.g. outcry over a story leading to a change in its outcome— or even its creative team), but, whatever its degree, such power lies in the imperishable recollection of the past. No draft made public is ever truly lost, and no iteration of a character, however fleeting or satirical, is ever fully eradicated. “No amount of recursive revision of the story can completely erase reader recollection of the superseded textual realities” (64). Just the opposite, in fact: as ‘definitive editions’ or ‘director’s cuts’ of books and films are released, traces of their supplanted form become cemented. Thus, the Sunshine Superman opens a crack in the door for an African-American Superman of Earth-2. Imaginary genderswapped Silver Age stories help make a Jewish lesbian Batwoman possible. The envisioned MC2 future with a “Mayday” Parker as Spider-Girl presages a present with biracial Miles Morales fulfilling the Spider-Man mythos. Where a heterosexual, white, Christian, cis-male template predominates the core of the genre—as it does the core of many, many creative enterprises—attempts at widening representation build upon each other. And, once expressed, it can never be entirely undone or forgotten. Replacement, in truth, is rarely ever possible—only incorporation remains a sound option.

In a cultural landscape where Islamophobia and hate crimes are surging in prevalence, David Hyman’s Revision and the Superhero Genre comes across as somewhat incomplete. Towards the conclusion, Hyman ties the concept of canonicity, of a singular an authoritative version, directly to religion: “The very notion of orthodoxy is a later development, one that emerges with the early Christian church and the concurrent notion of canonicity” (72). Though there is some truth to this claim, it is left unsupported in the book outside of a parting quotation from Jorge Louis Borges, namely that the “concept of the ‘definitive text’ corresponds only to religion or exhaustion” (qtd in Hyman 80). In fact, this claim, without material borrowed from Religious Studies or Media Studies, not only feels flimsy but, worse, a missed opportunity. Whatever the motivation of so-called diversity initiatives at big comics publishers, the market has exploded with a wider variety of protagonists: a genderfluid Loki, a Muslim Green Lantern, Valiant Comics’ body-positive Faith, Iceman as a gay founding member of the X-Men, etcetera. Though Hyman’s introduction promotes such an exploration—the book promises “a view of revision as a stance of resisting or negotiating identity positions relative to cultural and institutional authority” (33)—it is left under-developed, dropped vaguely at the base of religion. Perhaps this aspect of the book is due for revision.

During this cultural moment when comics are emerging as the reading format of choice for young adults and as one of the most profitable corners of retail book sales, David Hyman’s Revision and the Superhero Genre appears rather prescient. American media scholar Henry Jenkins posits, “Today, comics have entered a period when principles of multiplicity are felt at least as powerfully as those of continuity” (qtd in Hyman 26). If canonicity did hold a grip on both pre-Enlightenment and modern thought, then post-modern thought has begun to slip its grasp. With multiplicity at the core of composition and (re-)creation—potentially, where it has always been, recognized or not – greater access and understanding of the Other rises into view. Better yet, at not too much farther of a distance might be the swords-to-ploughshares smelting of Othering overall. The ragtag, mishmash, multivalent convention of superhero comics has led to a decentralizing of chronological, singular narrative; in part, it has contributed to a richer storytelling space and creative environment across all Western media (from Westworld to journalism on the Mueller Report), potentially reconnecting it to an older, global tradition. Hyman’s Revision and the Superhero Genre may rewrite the historical importance of comics upon a greater worldview.