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Comics & Ideology

McAllister, Matthew, Edward Sewell, and Ian Gordon, ed. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. $29.95, 303 pgs, paperback. ISBN 0820452491.

Excluding the introduction, Comics & Ideology includes eleven rather different essays, which is to say that the only unifying themes in the various contributions, as the reader might expect, are "comics" and "ideology." Unfortunately, both have such varied definitions that although they are used with great frequency in the collection, they are often referring to vastly different things. "Comics" include everything from Japanese magna to syndicated American newspaper strips to traditional superhero comics. Similarly, "ideology" refers to gender politics, race and ethnicity, nationalism, nostalgia, as well as more traditional political belief systems. As such it is rather difficult to recommend the book: there is no great concentration of any one mode of scholarship to attract any scholar with specific interests, and with there being so few limitations on the types of texts considered it would be rather difficult to use the whole text in any unifying way (i.e. teaching a course, or even general research). At most, Comics & Ideology may offer potential readers one or two essays of interest, but this will be entirely dependant upon the individual. For my purposes (and I assume for the majority of potential readers), Comics & Ideology offers three (or five if Judge Dredd and superheroes in The 'Nam can be considered) useful essays on American superhero comics, concentrating, respectively, on Wonder Woman, Superman, and gay characters in mainstream comics.

"The Tyranny of the Melting Pot Metaphor" by Matthew J. Smith is a rather interesting approach to Women Woman and her place in the DC universe: Unlike Superman who is quickly homogenized in Smallville, Kansas, Wonder Woman's entire career has been spent in an attempt to slowly acculturate herself to the United States. While Smith wanders from time to time (falling into the inevitable discussion of Wonder Woman and bondage), the article is interesting and the utility of it is apparent: Wonder Woman is the every-immigrant, slowly becoming American through the adoption of cultural practices, and Smith provides an ample framework to understand similar conversions in comic books as well as aliens from more traditional science fiction.

One of the most important pieces of comic book criticism is Umberto Eco's "The Myth of Superman" which Ian Gordon updates in his "Nostalgia, Myth, and Ideology: Visions of Superman at the End of the 'American Century'." The basic argument is that Superman must constantly be reinvented in order to appeal to new readers (or viewers of the cinematic or television adaptations, as is the case with most of Gordon's contribution), and Gordon does a good job of updating Eco's argument, appealing to the more commercially recognized screen versions of the Man of Steel.

Morris E. Franklin's "Coming Out in Comics Books" is the most interesting piece in the collection, largely due to his methodological procedure: Eschewing the typical literary analysis of the text itself, Franklin consults the letter columns in comics to analyze reader reaction to coming out narratives. And while the selective editorial practices that limit the letters that are included in such letter columns prohibit full understanding of reader reaction, Franklin does provide a useful model for scholars interested in more anthropological analysis of comic books and their fans.

Finally, the studies of Judge Dredd comics and superhero appearances in Marvel Comics' The 'Nam are rather interesting -- both deal explicitly with politics, and as such are more at the heart of Comics & Ideology than the majority of the other contributions. Unfortunately though, their political contribution isn't enough to demand owning this collection for political scholars, nor is their loose relation to superheroes enough for those interested in tight- and cape-wearing men and women. Overall, Comics & Ideology has decent pieces, but as a collection it fails to coalesce into a clear academic statement.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer