Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1994 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
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ISSN 1070-8286

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(6) (1994) 129-146


Jeff Williams
Texas Tech University
English Department

A. Introduction

Social attacks on comics, both books and strips, have a long history in America, beginning with the first day of the appearance of the "Yellow Kid" (in color) on February 16, 1896. The "Yellow Kid" was disliked because of his rudeness, slap-stick style cruelty, and overall sensationalism (Waugh, 1991:6-7). Some early opponents of comics included: Ambrose Bierce, Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, William Rockhill Nelson, and Max Nordau; there were also crusades organized by individuals and groups (Davidson, 1958:255; Waugh, 1991:7).

The most spectacular assault on comics came from Dr. Fredric Wertham and the resulting Congressional Hearings, 1954-55. The debate was quelled, possibly, by two important events, the establishment of the Comics Code Authority (a self-censoring institution of the comics industry) and the diversion of public attention away from comics to television and film. The following years of relative calm witnessed a heightened interest in comics demonstrable by the increasing number of scholarly studies on comics (e.g., Duncan, 1990; Inge, 1990; Sabin, 1993; Whitlark, 1988; Witek, 1989), University Libraries containing special collections (e.g., Bowling Green State, Michigan State, and Ohio State), and the serious study of popular culture in general (evidenced by the existence of the American Culture Association, Popular Culture Association [PCA], and university departments set up for the study of popular culture). This seems sufficient proof to assume that Wertham's ghost was put to rest; however, the outrage over comics is re-emerging.

A direct proof of the re-emergence of Wertham's ghost can be found in John Fulce's attack on comics, Seduction of the Innocent Revisited, published in 1990. And cases of actual censorship are on the rise. Due to complaints from evangelical groups, Fleetway (an independent comic book company) withdrew plans to publish "True Faith", the story of a pious Christian plumber, distraught over the death of his [End page 129] wife and newborn, who desires to inflict vengeance on God through acts of terrorism on churches in south London in order to lure God out of hiding and then kill him with a Colt .44 magnum (Economist, 1991:82).

In another instance a printer for college newspapers, the Ellsworth American, refused to publish an "obscene" comic strip by free lance cartoonist Steve Kurth; a few weeks later Kurth's illustration for another college newspaper was pulled by the assistant editor (Fox, 1991:15-16).

During a conference session on "The Comics Page" at Ohio State University's 1992 Festival of Cartoon Art, the discussion veered from gender and race diversity to heated discussions over the rights of newspaper editors to substitute less offensive words for words such as "damn", "God", and "hell" (Astor, 1992:32-33).

More recently there was a hot debate over a series of the syndicated comic strip, "For Better or Worse", for its sequence on a teen who reveals that he is gay. Forty newspapers (including: the Boston Globe, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette) and the Las Vegas Review Journal, dropped the strip due to protest calls and letters from over a thousand subscribers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch alone suffered a loss of readership numbering eight to nine hundred. Out of the forty newspapers, twenty canceled the strip permanently (Astor, 1992:32; Kiernan, 1993:1; Tipton, 1993:1A). Creator Lynn Johnston did receive support and encouragement from some Canadian readers. "Canadians seem to be more open-minded about gays than many Americans" (Astor, 1992:32).

Though Canadians may be more accepting of gays, they are not accepting of "gun-toting superhero[s] ridding the world of Quebec separatist terrorists" (Authier, 1993:A1). The Parti Quebecois demanded that the first issue of DC Comics' Justice League Task Force be pulled from newsstands declaring it "hate literature". The issue in question contained a story- line where superhero, Martian Manhunter, rescues two hostages from a paramilitary force of French separatists who want Quebec to secede from Canada. The killing of four separatists is described in the comic book as a "politically correct murder" (Authier, 1993:A1).

Another public outcry occurred in Tampa Bay, Florida over the publication of Boiled Angel, an independent publication by Michael Christopher Diana. Diana was taken to court over obscenity charges for his comic depicting satanic sacrifice, sodomy, child rape, and serial murder. On March 31, 1994, he was found guilty of publishing a "lewd and obscene" publication (Romenesko, 1994). Diana claims that his work is [End page 130] satire and should be taken as a joke (Griffin, 1993:3B). In the same vein, Hart Fisher, distributor of a comic book about the famed serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, was ordered by an Illinois judge to stop selling the comic book pending a class action law suit by eight families of Dahmer's victims (Hollywood Reporter, 1992:17).

B. Gramsci and Subversion

The above amply demonstrates that some comics are still considered subversive and that criticism against the medium is growing. This idea of subversiveness needs clarification in order to analyze a sampling of current comic books and answer the title question of my article. The definition of subversion will be based on Antonio Gramsci's social theory of hegemony. Though Gramsci lived in the early 1900's and died in 1937, most of his writings were unavailable to the non- Italian reading public until the 1960's. Since then because of "conceptual advances within Marxism and [a] strategic relevance to movements for liberation in the developed capitalist societies. ..." (Boggs, 1976:7) Gramsci has received increasing attention in the United States and Western Europe. This is clearly seen by the works of contemporary scholars in various fields (e.g., Adamson, 1980; Cirese, 1982; de Lauretis, 1987; Denemark, 1990; Holub, 1992; Tuman, 1988; Villanueva, 1991). Also the most recent issue of PRE/TEXT: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory (Vol. 13, 1-2 Spring/Summer 1992), is "situated within the project of Gramsci, ..."(Berlin and Trimbur, 1992:12).

Gramsci defines two important terms in his theory: hegemony and counter-hegemony. Intricately connected to these terms are the concepts of reproduction and reification. Hegemony is the ideological power structure in any given society; the status quo. In Gramsci's Marxism, Carl Boggs describes hegemony as follows:

In Gramsci's view, class domination is exercised as much through popular 'consensus' achieved in civil society as through physical coercion (or threat of it) by the state apparatus, especially in advanced capitalist societies where education, the media, law, mass culture, etc. take on a new role (p.17).

Hegemony, therefore, implies that all aspects of society and culture are tools of the current dominant order, either on a conscious or subconscious/subliminal level. Hegemony, like counter-hegemony, is an organic process. And as an organic process there are occasional shifts. These shifts allow an opportunity for change and involve consciousness, action, history and especially language. A question of language is an indicator that other problems are about to emerge, a possible [End page 131] reorganization (Gramsci, 1985:183-84). Gramsci refers to this process as praxis.

Gramsci (1985) conceived that true liberation required the creation of "a new 'integrated culture'" (p.17). This culture would create a different world-view and thereby change the current hegemony. Counter-hegemony is the force behind true revolution and a counter-hegemonic structure is the only force capable of subverting "the capacity of dominant elites to manipulate attitudes, values, and life-styles through media, education, culture, language, etc. ..." (p.40). Changing societal world-views is not an easy task. Hegemonies have two powerful tools (of which the United States is an expert user), namely, reproduction and reification. Reproduction is simply the propagation of the hegemony; it is carried out through mass culture, folklore, language, the media- all the elements that are used by the dominant hegemony to control the subaltern group, the working class as well as any minority or sub group being dominated by hegemonic powers (Gramsci, 1971:52-55; Villanueva, 1991:250-251, 254).

A more insidious tool is reification, where the hegemony absorbs counter-hegemonic elements and presents them to the masses as their own. This process dilutes the original revolutionary strength; it dilutes and distorts a new world- view into something more like the old-world view (Boggs,1984:168-171; Gramsci, 1971:279-318). The term reification has been borrowed from Georg Lukacs (Boggs, 1976:68) and is used interchangeably with rationalization, alienation, and commodification. The reason for relating reification with alienation is that the process takes away the identity of the subaltern group as a group. The process of reification is also closely related to Gramsci's "passive revolution" (p.50).

For the purpose of this paper subversion, using Gramscian social theory, is anything that is counter-hegemonic. The term subversion has previous connotations. In the attacks on comics previously mentioned, subversion has implied moral improprieties. Rock music, the drug culture, etc. are all seen as subversive in a moral sense. Politically, subversion can be illustrated from the left and from the right. For this paper the term subversion will be used as a synonym for counter-hegemony as a way to vary the language.

In order to answer the question of subversiveness in comics, seven different comic book titles will be analyzed. These titles were selected for their diversity and varying degrees of subversiveness. The comics analyzed provide a continuum of subversiveness. The continuum is: the non- subversive comic; the non-subversive comic with slight counter-hegemonic tendencies; the comic with surface [End page 132] subversive tendencies but supports the hegemony; the slightly subversive comic that is actually an illustration of reification; the comic that appears counter-hegemonic but contains reified themes; a comic that was counter-hegemonic at one time but has since been reified; and a current subversive comic. The seven comic books are: Superman #53 (published by DC Comics), Spiderman (published by Marvel Comics), Andrew Vachss' Hard Looks #1 (published by Dark Horse Comics), Palestine #4 (published by Fantagraphics Books), Something Different #3 (published by Wooga Central), The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (published by Rip Off Press), and Girlhero #1 (published by High Drive Publications).

As mentioned earlier, because Gramsci presents his ideas through a Marxist construct, the notions of subversion and counter-hegemony will be viewed from the left. The reader should be aware that there are right-winged subversive comics (Lobo and The Punisher are two examples), and counter- hegemonies with far right agendas do exist.

The more a comic-book upholds the values and world view of the current hegemony the less subversive. As the world view is changed and the values of the current hegemony are broken down, then the more subversive or counter-hegemonic a comic-book is.

C. Comics and Counter-Hegemonic Subversion

The first comic book to be discussed is Superman #53. This particular issue is noteworthy for its cover (Figure 1). Here Superman is seen as the symbol of the United States with his stalwart pose, salute, and the American flag in the background. The title of the story, "Truth, Justice, and the American Way", is written on the stripes of the waving flag. Superman is seen as an integral part of the flag, almost inseparable. From the cover alone the reader can discern that Superman's function is to reproduce the current hegemony. The story-line in this issue reinforces this opinion.

"Truth, Justice, and the American Way" is the story of a foreign leader gone bad. The United States' government wants Marlo, the leader of Qurac, extradited and brought to trial for terrorist acts in Metropolis. Marlo is being held in the Russian Embassy. Superman is asked to escort the plane that will bring Marlo to the US. Superman agrees, reluctantly, and during the journey appears to have failed in protecting Marlo's life; his plane is shot down by one of the "Sons of Liberty" (a terrorist group). In the last pages, the reader learns that Marlo is safe. The downed plane was a decoy, and a US Major had "fronted" the terrorist group. The crimes and intrigues involved are reminiscent of Noriega, the Iran-Contra scandal and the news stories of the behind-the-scenes [End page 133] machinations of the US in Iraq before the Gulf War. The depiction of governmental scandal may appear to border on the counter-hegemonic, or at least be considered passively revolutionary. But a close reading of the last two panels prove this story to be reproductive of the current hegemony (Figure 2 and Figure 2A).

Superman has learned that the General had suspicions of the Major and was building a criminal case linking the Major with Marlo and the military rebuilding of Qurac. During the six months required to build a case Qurac had launched many terrorist attacks and innocent lives were lost. Superman responds to the General's justifications by saying he, Superman, must respect all human life. The General reminds Superman that the US is his, Superman's, country. Superman responds (Figure 2A) that America "works best when the people know that corrupt officials cannot bend the letter of the law... and get away with it!" (Ordway et al., 1991:22).

With this statement Superman has reminded the readers that the United States has a system of checks and balances. The last panel (Figure 2A) shows two officers agreeing with Superman and saluting, while the General, thinking that Superman is politically naive, prays that Superman "never turns against us..." (p.22). A symbolic interpretation of this last panel reveals that even if corruption exists in the US government, it is only one third of the officials, while the remaining two thirds are actively protecting the laws and ideals of the US. Superman is seen here as the true patriot and defender of the masses and to emphasize this point the reader is told that in the next issue Superman will be in World War II (a subject that harkens back to the days of ultra-patriotic superheroes). Superman is not afraid to admit that corruption is possible, but he knows that the system works and in the end corruption will be exposed. In this way Superman serves as a traditional intellectual; "traditional intellectuals pass on the 'truths' of the State and the dominant hegemony in their work within subaltern institutions, the institutions of civil society." (Villanueva, 1991:25).

The subaltern institutions are twofold in the case of Superman. Within the world of Metropolis, Superman's alias is Clark Kent, a newspaper reporter dedicated to bringing the "truth" to the citizens. Clark Kent was raised by a farm family in a small town, Smallville. Clark, and Superman both, within their respective spheres, have the power to create a counter-hegemony, but instead uphold the "truths of the State." The other subaltern institution is American popular culture and mass media. Clark and Superman are not only carrying their messages to the fictional citizens of a fictional Metropolis, but the message is also being taken to the young readers of Superman comics. The dominant American hegemony is quite safe in the hands of Superman. [End page 134]

A Marvel counterpart to DC's Superman is Spiderman. In "real life" Spiderman is Peter Parker, who is a free lance photographer for the Daily Bugle, a New York City newspaper in the Universe of the Marvel publishing company. Another similarity to Superman is that Spiderman's costume is also red and blue, colors associated with the American flag and ideals of national patriotism. The New York City of the Marvel Universe, however, has a darker side than the Metropolis of the DC Universe. Problems abound in the social order of Spiderman's New York City. But, so do solutions as the most recent story-line illustrates.

"Maximum Carnage" is a fourteen part story that introduced a new Spiderman title, Spiderman Unlimited, and ran through the four other Spiderman comic books; Amazing Spiderman, Spectacular Spiderman, Spiderman, and Web of Spiderman. In this story, Carnage (a super-villain with powers similar to Spiderman) breaks out of a maximum security institution for the criminally insane, Ravencroft (DeFalco et al., 1993). He teams up with other super-villains, including Shriek. Shriek has the psychic power to amplify the emotions, such as fear, hatred, anger, etc., of others (De Matteis et al., 1993). This super-villain team goes to New York City, commits mass murder and causes large sections of the city to riot and generate "maximum carnage." (Michelinie et al., 1993).

Spiderman teams up with other superheroes to defeat the super-villains (De Matteis et al., 1993; Kavanagh et al., 1993). At first their mere presence calms the crowds and quells the disorder, but Shriek increases the amplification of negative emotions and the populace begin to turn on the superheroes.

Next, one of the superheroes, Iron Fist, uses his own psychic abilities through Eastern meditation techniques to return the crowd to normal. But, the crowd, aided by Shriek, regains their hatred; Iron Fist's methods fail (De Matteis et al., 1993). His technique, however, gives Spiderman an idea. Meanwhile another superhero, Dagger, tries using a metaphysical light to subdue Shriek. Though this attempt succeeds at first; it fails in the end (De Matteis et al., 1993). Spiderman, then fights the villains alone and as he is about to be beaten his allies arrive at the scene with "an Alpha Magni-Illuminizor... a good bomb." (p.18). This device is a scientific invention created in a special laboratory and is designed to duplicate, with higher intensities, the meditative effects Iron Fist used earlier.

Metaphysics, or the spiritual reality, was unable to cure society of the maximum carnage plague, even the combined strength of the superheroes themselves failed the task. But, [End page 135] American technology, through science, came to the rescue. And science is political according to Gramsci; it can maintain the dominant hegemony or contain the seeds of a counter-hegemony (Boggs, 1984:139; Gramsci, 1971:244).

Spiderman, like Superman, is both superhero and worker for the mass media; he is a redefined intellectual:

Rather than occupying a realm peripheral to the social relations of production, or carrying out strictly ideological tasks within them, the intellectuals- as technicians, managers, professionals, academics, cultural workers, and top-level bureaucrats- now carry out a variety of necessary tasks within the economy, political system, and culture (Boggs, 1984:285).
For Spiderman, the "necessary task[s]" was restoring the hegemonic order; anarchy is unacceptable. Though the New York City of the Marvel Universe is more unstable than the Metropolis of the DC Universe, the dominant hegemony is still in safe hands, and has an effective tool in Spiderman.

A world darker yet than Spiderman's New York City, is the world of Andrew Vachss. Vachss is better known for his novels about New York City's backstreets and Burke, an ex-con turned private troubleshooter. His novels include: Flood, Strega, Blue Belle, and Sacrifice. Recently Vachss has been working with the independent comic book company, Dark Horse, where his short stories have been adapted to the comic book. Hard Looks is a hard look at all that is wrong with our society and judicial/law system. Jerry Prosser, editor of Hard Looks, describes Vachss' world in the section "Stalking Horse" of Hard Looks: Number One:

...Vachss explores a horrifying world- a world all the more horrifying because it really exists and most of us choose to ignore it. A world wherein the life of a child is only worth the price it can bring on the street; wherein predators of children move with impunity in a system designed to protect their rights at the expense of the rights of their victims. Our world (Vachss, 1992).

It is a work that appears to be very subversive. The foreboding world of Hard Looks can be seen in the first issue's cover (Figure 3). The story artwork is in black and white, and each issue contains one complete short story. The art and types of stories are reminiscent of EC Comics from the early 1950s and the Alfred Hitchcock television series.

But this comic is not for children, and a glance at the cover bears this out (Figure 3). The movie marquee advertises triple x-rated films, one of the stores, advertising flesh, [End page 136] nude, special service, and forbidden hardcore, is also rated triple X.

In the pages of Hard Looks are stories with twists and turns. "Dumping Ground" is about two security guards who rape women and then feed their dead bodies to a pack of wild dogs. After tossing their latest victim, the security guards return to their car to find the dog pack waiting for them, and justice is finally served. "Statute of Limitations" is the short story about a woman who wants revenge on the step-father who abused her from the time she was a baby until her teenage years. "The Unwritten Law" is a story of murder and how two con artists outsmart the law. The last story, "Hostage", is about a "bad" cop who has had his gun taken away and schemes a way to get it back.

As Prosser wrote in "Stalking Horse" the world Vachss writes about is "our world." And for all the potential subversion, Vachss does not want radical change, but rather reform of the current system. Besides being a novelist, short story, and comic book writer, Vachss is an attorney who specializes in cases pertaining to youth; he is another redefined intellectual.

Though the current hegemony is not exactly safe in Vachss' hand; he is not an open threat either and the reader can rest assured that if the system fails to bring about justice some unseen force will (as described in "Dumping Ground"). Or if the criminals get away with the crime, as in "Unwritten Law", the story can have a cathartic effect through the reader's vicarious experience of the "perfect" crime. Hard Looks is not as clean and pure as the Superman or Spiderman books; it is not so totally reproductive of the dominant hegemony; it fits more in the reification role in that the dominant hegemony can be seen as having a liberal side by allowing its publication and thereby admitting it can do no harm.

Palestine is a comic that offers another portrayal of "our world," but the world here is not New York City, but the world of political turmoil in Palestine and Israel. The writer and artist, Joe Sacco, spent two months in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories to research Palestine during the winter of 1991-92. Jim Woodring writes that "Joe Sacco's light-seeking personality and superb storytelling skills enable him to convey with raw, sweet humanist compassion the bitter passions of this seemingly insoluble conflict" (qtd. in Sacco, 1993). In describing Palestine, Woodring further writes that "...Palestine seems to point to the manipulation of both factions by a common enemy: a malignant and invisible monster of hate that has men and governments at each other's throats for reasons that defy resolution" (qtd. in Sacco, 1993). [End page 137]

This comic book is more subversive than Hard Looks in that the subject matter is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and international politics has a tendency to generate more impassioned debate than domestic crime and inner-city street life. Such sympathy towards the Palestinians can be construed as subversive because of their alleged ties with terrorism and far left politics (associations with the Soviet Union and Marxism). The short work, "A Palestinian Joke", is a scathing attack on Israel through their secret service, Shin Bet (Figure 4 and Figure 4A). The Shin Bet comes across as irrational, inordinately cruel, and worse than the CIA or KGB.

As subversive as Palestine could be, it still does not fall into the counter-hegemonic category. Many readers will already be familiar with the dissident material of the late 60s and early 70s from the then Soviet Union. The atrocities in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and police brutality in the US will also be familiar reference points for readers of Palestine. In other words, there is nothing really new here; in fact, the contents fit well into the schema of political pluralism and the Gramscian notion of passive revolution. Palestine is simply a small voice for the other side and can just as easily be ignored as foreign propaganda, as something that is happening somewhere else and not "in one's own backyard." Another argument can be made, the same made in reference to Hard Looks, and that is the argument of intended audience. Palestine is intended for "mature readers," readers who may already be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause or have strong opinions that cannot be changed one way or the other. The recent events in the Middle East may also serve to dilute any subversion and remember, according to Woodring, Sacco's emphasis is on hatred and not governments. Sacco wants compassion, not the overthrow of governments or radical changes in foreign policy.

A comic that lies even closer to the edge of subversion than Palestine is Something Different. To support the Palestinians is one controversial issue, but to support witchcraft, or the occult, is another issue altogether. "Ember Days" is the first part of a two part story-line, "The Last Song of the Benandanti," which is a parody of Franz Werfel's The Song of Bernadette. Instead of visions of the Virgin Mary and a young woman entering a convent, "Ember Days" is the story of a witch's coven and the inquisition. While the members of the coven are applying the "transvecting ungent" that will enable them to leave their bodies and engage in a spiritual battle to save the local crops, Rotaro, the miller, is being interrogated by the inquisition and attempting to dispel any connection between the Benandanti and witchcraft (Cusick & Mangan, 1993:25-26).

A closer look will illustrate some of the subversive [End page 138] qualities of Something Different (Figure 5 and Figure 5A). The most notable social deviation is the nudity, though the nudity is casual and non-sexual. The most subversive element of this page is when Anna is asked to tell a story. Anna, in turn, asks "A story? A true story or a myth?" (Cusick & Mangan, 1993:26) and when Wolf asks "Is there a difference Steelenmutter?" Anna answers "No, Wolf. I guess there isn't..." (Cusick & Mangan, 1993:26). The subversion is the questioning of reality and totally erasing the boundary between myth and history and the larger dichotomy between folklore, or religion of the people, and that religion set up by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is the backdrop for "The Last Song of the Benandanti." For Gramsci folklore represents a world-view that is in opposition to the "official" world-view, or the conceptions of the world held by the dominant hegemony (Gramsci, 1985:189). In this way folklore is vital in bringing "about the birth of a new culture among the broad masses... ." (p.191). Therefore, seeing myth as truth is the beginning of creating a counter- hegemony.

The editorial comment would also lead the reader to view Something Different as subversive. Here, the reader is told that the purpose of this comic is to include "spoof, parody, humor...." and another purpose is to "annoy, anger, outrage, irritate...." (Cusick & Mangan, 1993:49). Though with humor and spoof as the first objectives, there is a question of seriousness. In addition to this, the occult, including psychic readings and new age philosophies, is something of a fad in popular culture as indicated by the numerous specialty shops which cater to occult related books and paraphernalia. And the Supreme Court recently ruled that animal sacrifice is protected under the constitutional protection of freedom of religion. So for all the subversive pretensions, Something Different comes up short. It, too, falls into the realm of reification; the tolerated "subversion."

A comic book that does fall into the counter-hegemonic camp, is The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. This comic book and other "underground" comics, such as Zap Comix, Skull Comics, Quagmire, and Slow Death Funnies, comprise the popular culture of the counter-culture from the 1960s. The advertisements alone demonstrate this notion. In the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers there are adds for drug related practical jokes: exploding joints, plastic "roaches", police siren cushions and dribble syringes (Shelton, 1985). Another type of advertisement asks for real stories; "keep those cards and letters coming, fellow freaks! If you know a true tale of revolutionary adventure, or an interesting bit of dope lore... put it down on paper and mail it in!" (Shelton, 1991). With such "folklore," these comics become more than a vehicle for humor, they become the vehicle for the kind of folklore and popular culture mentioned above. [End page 139]

The "underground" comics illustrated an anti-hegemonic, anti-authority, anti-war sentiment and expressed a desire for freedom from many current mores of the late 1960s. Mark Estren (1993) discusses this point in excellent detail in A History of Underground Comics. And yet for all their subversion, these comics have been subjected to a subtle form of reification. Recently there has been increased scholarly interest (e.g., Estren, 1993; Groth & Fiore, 1988 ; Wiater & Bissette, 1993), there is a market for original printings and first issues (Kennedy, 1982), and reprints are being published and made available through catalogs or in area comic specialty shops. "Undergrounds" have been accepted, the times and condition of society represented between their covers is considered past. They now have a status that is reminiscent of an old joke. A young American is talking with a young Russian and says, "In America I have the freedom to stand before the White House and criticize American capitalism and politics." The Russian replies, "So what! I have the freedom to stand in Red Square and criticize American capitalism and politics, too."

The last comic book to be analyzed also falls into the counter-hegemonic camp, but it falls squarely into the middle of it and has yet to fall victim to reification. The comic is Girlhero by Megan Kelso. This work combines cyberpunk (the most recent counterculture), feminism, and Marxism. The story-line is about a young woman, Bottlecap, who works in a factory, Boehauser, and she thinks she is making parts of airplanes. Bottlecap is laid off and uses stolen equipment and medication from the factory to operate on her arm, turning it into a rivet gun. Later she gets her job back and organizes a revolution. This issue ends with all females being fired, Bottlecap and friends living in a hideout, and Boehauser security getting a lead on their whereabouts.

The subversiveness of this comic takes five forms. First, the title offers the reader some subtle messages. Girl, which in this case could be interpreted in the same derogatory manner as calling a mature black man "boy", is combined with hero and plays on the constructs of women's role in society. This concept is reinforced in the story-line, where Bottlecap and company show themselves to be powerful, thoughtful planners of revolution. Bottlecap is a "girl" only in the eyes of the exploitative company Boehauser, while she is a hero to her peers.

The other expressions of subversion are best discussed in the context of the text itself (Figure 6 and Figure 6A). This comic has a surrealistic style in the panel design, artwork, and verbal text. Girlhero is in black and white, and the top panel (Figure 6) is reminiscent of a scene from Metropolis, the surrealistic silent film about a future society. Notions [End page 140] of reality, conceptions of the world, and world-views are all very important in maintaining the dominant hegemony; any tampering with any one of these notions can be considered counter-hegemonic as seen in Gramsci's (1985) writing on folklore (pp.188-195). Other examples of this blurring of reality is seen by the operation Bottlecap is performing on Yolanda, hooking her brain up to Boehauser's main computer (Figure 6A).

The touch of cyberpunk is especially important as it marks the appearance of reification from the counter-hegemonic perspective. The surface message relates to the social comment on American subalterns; readers are forced to ask whether becoming part machine isn't part and parcel of working in a factory, whether that factory is designed to build airplanes, or educate the children, youth, and young adults of American society. However, Bottlecap and her gang are using this concept as a means to carry off a revolt. The mechanized human as a subject of submission has been reified to a concept of rebellion.

These ideological questions comprise the second subversive expression. Thirdly, Bottlecap is "sowing the seeds of dissent among the women workers at Boehauser." (Kelso, 1993). Open revolt ensues and Bottlecap kills a Boehauser security man, which, according to one of her friends is peanuts compared to killing a cop (Kelso, 1993). It is true that this scene is obviously Marxist, due to the factory setting. But what makes Girlhero truly subversive or counter-hegemonic is the blending of all five components. The subversive qualities of Girlhero are, therefore, the bending of reality, the ideological questions that are raised, and the advocacy of revolution along with the practice of reversed reification.

D. Conclusion: Comments On The Industry

The comics analyzed can be divided into two major groups; mainstream comics and independents. The main difference between the two is market share and distribution. DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and to some extent Dark Horse Comics can be considered mainstream because comics published by these companies can be found in grocery stores, drug stores, and convenience stores in addition to specialty comic shops. In terms of market share, Marvel Comics has 41.7 percent, DC Comics has 29.4 percent, and all other comic book publishers have 28.9 percent (Jefferson, 1990:B1). In a Preview comics catalog there were a total of 169 comic book publishers (and there are many companies who do not advertise in the major catalogs). Though the comics analyzed make up a small portion of all the comics that are published, other scholars (e.g., Belk, 1987; DiFazio, 1973) have analyzed a wider sample that [End page 141] cover a greater diversity. In terms of reproducing the hegemony, John DiFazio (1973) claims "that comic books generally present values considered important in our society... ." (p.231). Russell Belk (1987) found that "comic books may have a positive socializing influence on children; those emphasizing themes of wealth conform to socially acceptable stereotypes concerning the acquisition and use of wealth." (p.38). As the two comics that were the least subversive were published by companies that comprise a combined total of 71.1 percent of the market, it would seem to be safe to conclude that most comics are not subversive. In fact, comics are more likely to be propagandistic in favor of the current dominant hegemony, and the article "Propagandistic Aspects of Modern Comic-Books" by H. Paymans (1976) leans slightly in this same direction. It is interesting to note that the more subversive comics are published by independents and are less accessible to the general public than the mainstream comics.

It is tempting to make vast generalizations when dealing with a medium such as comics, and the time has arrived to ask if such generalizations are possible. The material here has been presented and analyzed in a way to convince the reader that comics, for the most part, are not subversive; the vast majority serve to reproduce the hegemony, or at the least have fallen victim to reification, but a quick glance at the comic book industry will prove that the days for making general statements about comics is over, if those days ever existed in the first place.

Annual sales of comics have reached $700 million (with current predictions of one billion dollars for 1994), which is a 500 percent increase from 1980 (Jensen, 1993:33). Some 800 titles are published a year and though the comic book market has not regained the household penetration rate of 90 percent from the 1940s, comics can be found in 50 percent of today's households, with signs of a steady increase apparent (Bianchi, 1993:108). With over 169 comic book companies producing everything from Disney characters to such titles as Real Smut and Mistress of Bondage (both published by Eros Comix) the diversity is such that generalizations are not possible. In order to truly discern if comics are subversive, each title must be taken on its own merit and analyzed carefully over many issues. [End page 142]


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