This is an essay I wrote for my course "Concepts of Culture" last term. I got an A+ on it, and it constitutes my first actual piece of comic book scholarship. This is the essay exactly as it was handed in for the class. I am planning on revising it later on this year, perhaps once I've got a bit of time in the summer.
(Note, Mar.7/09: This essay won 2nd place in the first term 2nd year Humanities Essay Writing awards at McMaster University.)
Batman vs. Mighty Wing
In Dreamworld and Catastrophe, Susan Buck-Morrs references a pair of strikingly similar pictures from strikingly different cultures. The Gulf Refining Company ad and the Magnitogorsk newspaper illustration (Buck-Morrs 191) each portray a man staring from his window at the factory that defines his life, though these definitions could not be more dissimilar. In considering how two opposed cultural viewpoints, the individualist and the collectivist, can make use of near-identical artworks to propagate their disparate views, it is useful to look at the doctrinal tools each culture uses. The North American comic book Batman and the North Korean comic Great General Mighty Wing, through many practices common to comic books, disseminate vastly different viewpoints on the individual and his or her role in society. More specifically, the shared use of animal motifs in these comics concretely demonstrates the difference of ideology through the sameness of form.
Batman, first published in 1939 (Giordano 7), and Great General Mighty Wing, first published in 1994 (Fenkl), are both comics aimed at the youth of their particular nation and era. Both are examples of what Scott McCloud calls “iconic abstraction”(46). This is a cartooning technique that is a process of “not so much eliminating details...as focusing on specific details”(30). McCloud further elucidates this point by saying that a photo, or a realistic drawing, will make one think of an “other,” where a cartoon will make one think of the self (36). In Great General Mighty Wing, all the bees, including the main character, have incredibly simplistic facial features, wide-eyed, innocent, and somewhat child-like. Batman too, in his first appearances, is greatly abstracted by the bat cowl he dons. McCloud goes on to posit that the reason for this abstraction is that if one were viewing realistic images, one would be “far too aware of the messenger to fully receive the message”(37). The respective icons in the two comics are facially abstracted so much that a reader can place him- or herself in the hero's place, and thus receive the cultural message embedded in the piece.
The physical depictions of hero as animal in Great General Mighty Wing and Batman serve very different cultural functions. Mighty Wing is a bee, anthropomorphic and abstracted, but still a bee. His physical depiction is identical to that of the other bees he inspires. This is, in many ways, similar to the depiction of Aleksi Stakhanov who, while described as a hero and leader, blends in completely when pictured with a group of “Stakhanovites”(Buck-Morrs 183). The hero is not physically set apart. He is one of the people, thus showing that any person can be a hero, or indeed that service to the state makes heroes of all people. Batman is not an anthropomorphic animal. He is a man dressed up as an animal, which immediately causes the reader to separate him out from the general population. Underneath his mask he is a man, but by donning the mantle of the bat, he sets himself apart from society. He no longer looks like everyone else. Rather than the image of the hero as belonging to society, the image of the bat makes the hero into a “weird figure of the shadows”(Kane 70). Batman does not lead an army of like-minded, like-costumed heroes in service to the state. His animal depiction separates him from society in exactly the same way that Mighty Wing's inextricably links him to society.
The physicality of each hero aside, even the shared use of animalistic behaviours shows the differing cultural foci. The hive-mind, the collective mentality, as portrayed by the bees in Great General Mighty Wing is a familiar one. Indeed, the perception of the bee as constantly working toward the betterment of its society gives even a Western individualist culture an aphorism such as “busy as a bee.” In remarking that “Mighty Wing's squad worked through the night” and that “they're fast as lightning”(Cho), coupled with the aforementioned iconic abstraction, a reader is invited to identify with the homogeneous, industrious citizen of the state. Batman springs from a cultural idea that is completely antithetical to Great General Mighty Wing's, but that can still be illustrated by an animal behaviour. By picking a creature that is nocturnal, rather than diurnal, one that will “strike terror into [people's] hearts”(Kane 70), Batman is again set outside of the society that he protects. Where Mighty Wing's peers regard him with awe and gratitude, Batman's peers think that “real cops shouldn't have [their] pride stripped away...by some vigilante who's twice the criminal as” those he tackles (Moench 6). In much the same way that his bat mask physically sets him apart from his peers, his propensity for acting in darkness and for using the bat image to instill fear, behaviourally sets him apart. However, individual or collective, bat or bee, an animal behaviour is used to illustrate both.
The animal motif, as used to portray behaviour, physicality, and abstraction, allows Batman and Great General Mighty Wing to elucidate the ideals of two very different cultures. Like the captain of industry in the Gulf Refining Company ad, Batman shows the betterment of society through the actions of the exceptional individual. In contrast, both Mighty Wing and the factory worker in the Magnitogorsk picture better society by being one of many. The use of such similar forms to portray such different ideas not only speaks to the universality of the comic book format, but hints that there are tools that can manipulate people, regardless of the cultural ideology that uses them.
Buck-Morrs, Susan. Dreamworld and Catastrophe. M.I.T. Press, 2000.
Cho Pyong Kwon. “Great General Mighty Wing.” Trans. Heinz Insu Fenkl. Words Without Borders. February 2008. November 3, 2008. http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?front=FEBRUARY%202008
Fenkl, Heinz Insu. “Translator's Introduction.” Words Without Borders. February 2008. November 3, 2008. http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?front=FEBRUARY%202008
Giordano, Dick. “Growing Up With The Greatest.” The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. Ed. Mike Gold. New York: DC Comics, 1988. 6-11.
Kane, Bob. “The Origin of the Batman.” The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. Ed.
Mike Gold. New York: DC Comics, 1988. 66-78.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: DC Comics, 2000.
Moench, Doug. “Prey part 1.” Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight 11 (1990): 6.