Jun 21, 2017

"A Monster In The Shadows": Gothic Themes in Superhero Comics of the Seventies

(This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the 2017 Calgary Fan Expo. We ran out of time on the panel, so I wanted to get a proper version of it out there.)

Though I have read a number of the classic texts that are included in the genre of “the Gothic,” it is not an era of writing, or a style of writing, that has had much influence on my thinking. Like most, I imagine, we see the Gothic as having spawned the Horror genre but then having been subsumed into that genre fully. Thus it is that in most of my thinking about H.P. Lovecraft, of which I do quite a bit these days, I see his work through the lens of Horror, rather than Gothic, fiction. This is an error I am in the midst of correcting.
The impetus for that correction came in the reading, in close succession, of two Superhero comics from the Seventies. The first, from 1971, is a Supergirl story in Adventure Comics, and the second a 1978 tale of the Hulk from his eponymous comic. The inclusion in both of these comics of elements I recognized from my prior exposure to the Gothic got me thinking about whether or not this genre, perhaps more properly now a sub-genre of Horror, continues its venerable lineage in a much more explicit way than we might have considered, and what role the Gothic in mass-marketed Superhero comics plays in the continuity of that lineage. Killeen Jarlath, whose work plays a large role in my preliminary investigation of this generic mash-up, calls the act of looking at a lineage of the Gothic, in the Nineteenth century specifically, following “the traces of a tradition” (3). This is precisely what I hope to do in this paper.

In thinking through a thesis for this talk, I’m reminded of one of the fundamental postmodern theoretical tenets, which is that we can’t understand a thing without understanding that which came before it and came after it. Meaning is not only determined by content, but by context. So for us to understand what’s happening in the comics I’m going to talk about, we have to understand what came before them. But this recognition of context isn’t simply a recognition of lineage, but also of effect. Jorge Luis Borges sums this up quite nicely in his short essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” in which he notes our ability to read writers who came before Kafka as presciently Kafkaesque, and that our understanding of them is fundamentally altered by our understanding of Kafka. Given all that, I’ll argue in this talk, then, that not only do the Gothic elements in these comics provide for us a through line from an art form popular in the 1800s to an art form of the 20th and 21st centuries, but also that our reading of the contemporary superhero Gothic offers us insight into the genre of the Gothic itself.
Before we get to the superheroic examples, though, it would probably be a good idea to establish two things. First, we’ll need a baseline from which to consider the Gothic. What are its characteristics, where does it come from, and, importantly, how do we distinguish it from its more popular cousin, the Horror story? And second, we’ll need an example of an almost purely Gothic comic book, free of the brightly-coloured trappings of the Superhero genre, in order to discern what exactly it is that the character of the superhero brings to the Gothic.
            In order to establish our baseline, we’re going to have a look at some scholarship written about the Gothic, and then we’ll have a brief look at the novel that is accepted as the one that starts the whole Gothic ball rolling way back at the end of the 18th century, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.
            As I searched for a definition of the Gothic, one about which I might stage my arguments, I came across an introduction to a book called Gothic Literary Studies. This introduction was, very helpfully, entitled, “Declining Definition.” In it, Jarlath Kileen notes that the potential of the genre comes from the fact that “the Gothic is not an aesthetically or ideologically stable mode” (10). For example, were we to explore the idea of ancient and decadent lineages, family lines that have fallen into disrepute, one of the primary aspects of the Gothic, we might find one tale that uses this idea to critique conservative thinking as unlikely to advance the cause of reason or enlightenment, and another tale that might use this idea to critique the chaos that could result from unlimited liberalness. This, I’m sure, can be said of all generic fiction, superheroes being no exception, so rather than trying to define the genre, we should instead think about the aspects of a story that would place it into the realm of the Gothic. Genre is an inherently fluid construct, so something can be both, as we’ll see, Gothic and Superhero. In the Edinburgh Critical Guide to the genre, Andrew Smith offers that “[r]epresentations of ruins, castles, monasteries, and forms of monstrosity, and images of insanity, transgression, the supernatural, and excess, all typically characterise the form” (4). From this list it’s easy to see how the Horror genre grew from this older mode, as each of the aspect listed is most definitely visible in many Horror stories. Other definitions, or delineations, of the Gothic claim for it “an investment in history [as] fundamental” (Killeen 2), and that the form “‘invites readers’ fears and anxieties in highly stylised mystery-tales, using a limited set of plots, settings, and character-types’” (Robertson, qtd. in Killeen 1-2). This set of criteria will give us a good base from which to move forward, though there is one aspect that is central to the Gothic that we have not considered yet: the idea of the Sublime. Sublimity is characterised as an emotional state amongst “the most powerful that people are subject to” (Smith 2), and has been theorized as being connected to feelings from that of the beautiful to that of the terrifying. From a personal standpoint, my best understanding of the sublime has always come from looking up into the night sky when one is far from the lights of the city. There is a remarkably beauty to the stars, but also a deep terror, not necessarily of personal peril perhaps, but of the inability of the human mind to fully comprehend the infinite nature of the universe. This combination of breathtaking beauty and irrational incomprehension is, as far as I can tell, the feeling of the sublime. We can feel it while looking at the vastness of an ocean, or the scale of a mountain. Some might even argue that a deep and profound love can cause such a feeling. But let us be clear: the Gothic does not in and of itself produce such feelings. Instead it is attempting to depict the reaction of characters to such a feeling, often through the use of events and situations that are both physical and supernatural, and, from a particular point of view, are both beautiful and terrifying. Perhaps Horace Walpole can offer us an example or two.
            “[T]edious, artificial, and melodramatic” (Lovecraft 34) is how H.P. Lovecraft describes Walpole’s 1764 novel. Those familiar with Lovecraft’s own prose style will appreciate the irony. But the argument is made by scholars of the genre, and of the time period, that The Castle of Otranto, with its decrepit castle, its hidden ancestries, and its unexplainable supernatural phenomena, is the first Gothic novel proper, and one that “exert[ed] an almost unparalleled influence on the literature of the weird” (33) and, by proxy, the horrific. The tale begins with usurper of the throne Manfred preparing to wed his only son to a young woman to solidify his hold on the throne. As the wedding is imminent, there is are shouts of confusion from the courtyard of the castle, and a servant who, when pressed, cries only “Oh, the helmet! the helmet!” (Walpole 74). Rushing out, Manfred sees “his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque made for human being” (74). 

This instance, literally two pages into the story, is only the first of many strange supernatural occurrences in the castle as Manfred attempts to marry his son’s fiancée, all leading to the revelation of an heir to the true lineage of the castle, and to the madness and repentance of Manfred. Walpole’s take on the sublime in his novel errs far more on the side of the terrifying than the beautiful, and this terror reaches the heights of sublimity as a result of the unexplained, and unexplainable, nature of the events that take place. As Lovecraft famously notes, “[t]he oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (Lovecraft 25). We might consider that what Lovecraft is actually talking about is the sublime, a concept which, both in its terrifying and its beautiful conceptions, can be applied to the central conceit of his own fictions, Cosmicism. What is important for us to take away from Walpole’s novel, in terms of how it might help us understand the Gothic comics, is the culture against which the novel appears to be speaking. Stemming, as it did, from “Enlightenment beliefs that extolled the virtues of rationality” (Smith 2), the Gothic novel in its inception “argue[s] that the complexity of human experience could not be explained by an inhuman rationalism” (2). Frederick Frank, editor of one of the latest reprints of the novel, says that “The Castle of Otranto…gratified timeless human need for inhuman and superhuman things, a need that had been ignored or supressed by the decorous standards of the Enlightenment” (Frank 11). It seems to me that his is all the link we need to establish the lineage from Walpole to superhero comics: a need for the superhuman, a need that flies in the face of the prevailing rationality of contemporary society.
In the introduction to a special issue of Gothic Studies focussing the “Gothic in Contemporary Popular Culture, Catherine Spooner describes the genre as “always…[having] been associated with the popular,” which has made it “difficult to confine within narrow definitions of the ‘literary’” (1). As a result of this straddling of popular and literary, the genre has been dismissed “as, at best, a literary curiosity [and], at worst, popular trash,” a dismissal that “continues to shadow its academic reputation” (1). In combination, then, with the call to the irrational I spoke of, there is also a material, or textual, similarity between the Gothic and the Superhero comic. In much the same way that comic book fandom is often skewered in popular culture, perhaps the best example being Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, so too has the Gothic been a target of such satire, most notably in one of Jane Austen’s earliest novels Northanger Abbey. In Austen’s novel, heroine “Catherine Morland…sees the world through the prism of Gothic novels,” but comes to find that rather than the spectacle of the sublime in the Gothic, in real life “there are no abductions, no brushes with murder. The truth is subtle and all too human” (Baker n.p.). Both Gothics and comics have laboured under both this propensity for satirization and rejection from the literary or academic for a long time. But “good gothic storytelling, though sensational by its very nature, is not reducible to an immature taste for the sensational” (Pepetone 2), and neither are comics. Witness, for example, Swamp Thing.

I’m going to focus mainly on the very first Swamp Thing story, a short from DC’s House of Mystery series, published in 1971, but there is one reaction to the regular series from a couple of years later that is worth noting. In May 1973, a letter was received to the DC offices from none other than Harlan Ellison, science fiction writer extraordinaire, and respected voice in the fan community. His praise is effusive:
No matter how good the best in any line of work are taken to be, once in a generation there arises a talent that goes far beyond the ordained limits. A Chaplin, a Van Gogh, a Twain, a Nureyev, a Namath. No matter what their chosen field, they rise above all others with a superiority that puts them in a class all their own.
Thank you for Swamp Thing. (Ellison n.p., emphasis in original)
High praise indeed. Ellison here places Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson in some stellar company, and skews heavily toward the idea of the comic as “literary curiosity,” rather than “popular trash.” What Swamp Thing does remarkably well, regardless of your opinion of the character or story themselves, is to present the Gothic rather perfectly in this 20th century hybrid medium. The introduction to Smith’s Critical Guide lists a number of contemporary artistic modes within which he parses the contemporary Gothic, but comic books are notably absent from the list. What he does note though is that “[t]he Gothic…mutates across historical, national, and generic boundaries” (Smith 4), and it is in terms of mutation, appropriate for comic books, that we can parse the Gothic comic through Swamp Thing. The original tale, reworked a couple of years later into the more familiar version of the character, takes place in an isolated house in a barren landscape, at “[t]he edge of the swamp [where] the mist-wet old mansion rises like an aging apparition into a cold expanse of sky” (Wein, Swamp Thing 2). 

In the aftermath of her fiancé’s death, Linda Olsen marries his partner and friend Damian, and the two are discussing her memories of her former love even as a strange creature seemingly made of mud and plants watches through the window. As the tale unfolds, we find out that Damian, jealous of Alex and Linda, sabotages Alex’s lab, causing an explosion that critically injures the man. Damian dumps his body into the nearby swamp, at which time, for reasons unexplained, Olsen is reborn into his monstrous body. As Damian prepares to end Linda’s life, in case she discovers his secret, the Swamp Thing smashes through the window, saves his terrified ex-fiancée, and then lumbers back to the swamp. The parallels to Otranto are striking; the usurping antagonist, the forced marriage, even the almost, but only almost, supernatural circumstances surrounding Olsen’s transformation. In the Alex Holland version of the character, the transformation is more fully explained (and then again when Alan Moore takes over the character), but this first version falls into one of four delineations of the Gothic offered in the early Twentieth century by Montague Summers: the supernatural gothic, “in which the existence and cruel operation of unnatural forces are asserted graphically” (Carroll 4). The later Swamp Thing is more what Summers might term a “natural” gothic, which “introduces what appear to be supernatural phenomena only to explain them away” (4). Once again, when Moore takes over the character, this shifts back to the supernatural, though is also explained somehow. This, then, is one of the ways that the migration of the Gothic into comics offers a novel insight into the genre as a whole. What we see in the Gothic of the later Swamp Thing is a natural gothic, one that doesn’t explain away the supernatural, however, but instead offers a rational explanation of supernatural events. The question we are left with, then, is how supernatural these occurrences actually are, and what the boundaries of the natural might be. It is fairly obvious that Swamp Thing, at least in its earliest iterations, is drawing heavily on Gothic traditions, and were it not a part of the larger DC Universe, we might even be able to call it a “pure” Gothic tale, contradictory as that may be to what I said earlier. But it is a part of that superhero universe, so how does that affect the tenets of the Gothic, and vice versa?
Almost as if anticipating my own investigations, Killeen lets us know that in “[e]scaping from the tomb and the castle, the monastery and the mansion, the gothic arguably becomes more potentially terrifying because of its ability to manifest itself and variations of itself anywhere” (3). What we’re again seeing here is the ability of the genre to mutate dependant on the medium through which it proliferates. When we first encounter the house within which Mike Sekowsky’s Supergirl adventure “The Face at the Window” takes place, it bears a striking resemblance to the lonely house of the original Swamp Thing story. The old style of the house, and its dilapidated condition, demonstrates another aspect of the Gothic, namely the “concern with the historical past…[and] rhetorical and textual strategies to locate the past and represent its perceived iniquities, terrors, and survivals’” (Mighall, qtd. in Killeen 2). 

The medium of the comic book allows the storytellers to establish the age of the location without having to use verbal description. The shadows obscuring parts of the house, and the woods around the house, the dark, overcast of the sky, punctuated by a distant bit of blue, and the wildness of the surrounding property all work together to suggest the age of the place. Couple this with the à la mode fashions of the protagonists of the story, and we are given the visual indicators that this is a contemporary tale that is going to investigate the past. Once the expository text details a mysteriously dead couple and their uncle who now owns the house but hasn’t left it in 40 years, despite the bright red, blue, and yellow of the superheroic main character, the Gothic genre overwhelms this story. Sekowsky also supplies us with a ghostly little girl who leads Supergirl around the mansion and a terrifying old man, mad and guilty of a heinous crime which comes to light at the end of the tale. Notably, the supernatural element of the tale goes unexplained in the case of this story, perhaps suggesting that this example of the superheroic gothic fall into the category of “supernatural.” But as with the rewrite of the Swamp Thing tale, and given the superheroic setting of the story, the supernatural itself becomes more a part of the natural way of the universe. Supergirl demonstrates a number of abilities we might call supernatural (though she uses them very little in this story), but the fact of her origin shows these abilities to be natural, albeit from a nature very different from our own. It is in this way that much of the supernatural is described in superhero universes. Death is simply another dimension, to which and from which one might travel, and the manipulation of subtle forces, magic, while still called supernatural, is actually a natural part of the superheroic continuum. Thus does the superhero gothic manage to be both a natural and a supernatural Gothic, according to Summers’ formulation. It is a Gothic that involves supernatural forces which remain supernatural but are also natural at the same time. This said, there is an aspect of the Gothic missing from “The Face at the Window” that keeps the piece from being fully considered as an example of the genre: resistance.
Smith notes that some of the great writers of the Romantic era used the stock characters and locations of the Gothic to critique “quasi-rationalistic accounts of experience” (2). As mentioned earlier, the genre comes into focus during a time when Enlightenment science was arguing for an objective reality, one that could be quantified fully by the observations of reason. We still exist in such a time, really, though now resistance to notions of the rational are decried as the ramblings of the lunatic fringe, rather than the musings of the intelligentsia. If, as the old academic saying goes, all writing is political, then this is certainly an aspect of gothic, and superheroic gothic, that we must consider. Where Sekowsky’s Supergirl tale was not an overtly resistant piece of writing, the Len Wein/Jim Starlin tale “Feeding Billy” from The Incredible Hulk #222 is. After a disastrous run-in with the military, the Hulk is gassed and falls unconscious mid-leap as he tries to escape his pursuers. 

He is discovered, incongruously, by two small children, not unironically called Donny and Marie, who drag his much lighter Bruce Banner self into an isolated cavern so that he can be a playmate of their monstrously deformed brother, Billy. The Gothic theme of “tainted blood” (Pepetone 7) is explored fully here as we are made aware of the unfortunate circumstances of Billy’s monstrosity, in which a small baby wanders across a leaking container of radioactive material and is somehow transformed into a hideous beast. Written in the late Seventies, this tale is obviously taking its cue from the resistance to nuclear power and its waste materials that was a part of the peace movement from the Sixties all the way into the early Nineties. But where any radiation-related mutations caused in lived experience end generally as cancer, in the superheroic gothic this waste product of rationality creates monsters, a corruption that infects not only those touched by the chemicals but also those around them. This origin of Billy is another instance of the superheroic gothic being both natural and supernatural, in that we have a “natural” explanation for Billy’s mutation, but that explanation is outside the realm of our own lived nature. Coupled with the isolated location and the meditation on the past, though the recent past, this natural/supernatural conflation and the resistant tone of the story give us a remarkable example of contemporary Gothicism in a decidedly popular medium.
If the case is indeed that the Gothic is supremely malleable, then the chances of nailing down a precise exemplar of the genre in comics is impossible. Recalling that the genre appears in the wake of the ultra-rational Enlightenment, it makes sense that the genre itself can only be defined irrationally. Or rather, its definition is based as much on enumeration of characteristics as it is on how a story makes one feel. There is an affective dimension to the Gothic, and given that the Hulk is a creature of affect, it’s unsurprising that his is the story that perhaps can be held as an exemplar of the superheroic gothic. The caveat that must be added here is that before such a claim can be made of “Feeding Billy,” more examples have to be uncovered and analyzed. If Walpole and the Romantics used the Gothic to protest a strain of thinking that they saw as damaging, or at least close-minded, then was there a similar protest occurring in superhero comics in the Seventies? And, looking ahead from that decade, what prompts the revolution of Gothic superheroes represented by the early titles published under the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics? Further questions we might ask could focus around Len Wein, writer of two of the three comics under consideration, and the source of his gothic imagination, or around the idea that “[t]he Gothic is…a form which is generated in different…national and social contexts” (Smith 3), and if so, how is the superheroic Gothic intrinsically American? One conclusion that the present paper suggests is that the superheroic Gothic conflates two of Montague Summers’ four formulations of the Gothic, namely “the natural or explained gothic” and “the supernatural gothic” (Carroll 4). Ironically, Summers put forth this formulation in The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel, published in 1938, the same year that Siegel and Shuster published Superman’s first tale in Action Comics, inaugurating the genre of the superhero. And as we’ve seen, just over 30 years later, the comics medium demonstrates its ability to engage with far older literary traditions, not only in upholding their tenets and respecting their origins, but also in updating these venerable lineages, the 350-year old Gothic genre specifically, and offering perspectives on these traditions we might only glean from the considered study of comics.

Works Cited

Baker, Jo. “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: Val McDermid’s ‘Northanger Abbey’.” The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2014/06/15/books/review/val-mcdermids-northanger-abbey.html?_r=0. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.
Ellison, Harlan. “May, 1973.” DC Special Series, vol. 1, no. 2, 1977, frontmatter.
Frank, Frederick. “Introduction.” The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother, by Horace   Walpole, Broadview, 2003, pp.11-34.
Killeen, Jarlath. Gothic Literary Studies: History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914.      ProQuest ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/lib/ucalgary/detail.action?docID=10817766. Accessed 3 Feb. 2017
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature. Edited by S.T.      Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2012.
Pepetone, Gregory. Hogwarts and All: Gothic Perspectives on Children’s Literature. 2012.          ProQuest ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/lib/ucalgary/detail.                 action?docID=10551965. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017.
“Reading the Collections, Week 3: The Castle of Otranto.” Echoes From The Vault,             standrewsrarebooks.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/reading-the-collections-week-3-                            the-castle-of-otranto/. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
Sekowsky, Mike. “The Face at the Window.” Adventure Comics no. 408, July 1971. pp. 1-14.
Smith, Andrew. Edinburgh Critical Guides to Literature: Gothic Literature. ProQuest ebrary,             http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/lib/ucalgary/detail.action?docID=                             10695133. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017
Spooner, Catherine. “Introduction: Gothic in Contemporary Popular Culture.” Gothic Studies,      vol. 9, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-4. Academic OneFile, go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca                       /ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=ucalgary&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA392479748&sid                  =summon&asid=4bc53ff8cb55d2c6ca2827b5df147689. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother. Edited by Frederick S.        Frank, Broadview, 2003.
Wein, Len. “Feeding Billy.” The Incredible Hulk, vol. 1, no. 222, Apr. 1978, pp. 1 – 31.
---. “The Saga of the Swamp Thing!” Illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. DC Special Series, vol. 1, no. 2, 1977, pp. 1-24.
---. “Swamp Thing.” Illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. DC Silver Age Classics House of Secrets    92, 2001, pp. 2-9.

No comments: