Superheroic Homesick Blues: Captain Marvel, The Past, and Nostalgia for Nostalgiaâ€™s Sake
Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia reviewed by Martin Lund
Brian Creminsâ€™ Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia is a fragmented book, jumping between seemingly unrelated aspects of a vaguely defined topic before fizzling out in a disjointed epilogue. As such, it provides a site to consider different responses to the methodological question: what is the purpose of comics studies?
Creminsâ€™s stated goal is to study Â»the relationship between the medium of comics, the lure of nostalgia, and the art of memoryÂ« (4). Itâ€™s unclear throughout what this means. The book is addressed to self-identifying â€şscholar fansâ€ą and comics fans, and as such takes liberties with the sources it presents and sometimes sacrifices rigor in favor of celebration. The introduction provides a dramatized entry point into the subject and promises more than it provides a theoretical framework. The book is then divided into three sections, the first comprising chapters about artist C.C. Beck and writer Otto Binder. Both chapters focus on works other than Captain Marvel. Beckâ€™s chapter outlines Captain Marvelâ€™s first appearance and another of Beckâ€™s short-lived creations, before describing Beckâ€™s critical musings about comics and art. Most of the chapter is devoted to Beckâ€™s thinking about the artistâ€™s role (an Â»extension of the artistsÂ« ) and the place of realism in art (Â»an illusionÂ« ), repeated with little critical commentary or analysis. The Binder chapter focuses on Mr. Tawny, a minor character in the Captain Marvel cast, whom Cremins sees as Binderâ€™s Â»cartoon diary, a record of his hopes and his frustrations as a freelancer working anonymously in a popular medium which prized action, thrills, and spectacle over emotional honesty, directness, and intimacyÂ« (49). Maybe Binder used the character as a foil, but I remain unconvinced by the arguments for the autobiographical intimacy this self-insertion supposedly provides.
The second section treats WWII and a minor character, the blackface caricature Steamboat. The vanishingly small selection of wartime stories (three) leads to omissions, most notably to the erroneous image that Captain Marvel stories concerned themselves with the war only in July 1942, when there were Fifth Column stories from the beginning. Despite this, and while the casual racism of some stories (Â»little yellow JapsÂ«) goes uncommented, this chapter is stronger than the preceding ones. It captures the dayâ€™s confusion about what the war was to be and who was going to fight it and why, although it does little to contextualize this. The next chapter deserves credit for mentioning opposition to the racist imagery manifest in Steamboat, where many other similar figures â€“ Will Eisnerâ€™s Ebony White for example â€“ have been subject to apologetics; Cremins notes how common this type of manifest racism was in the 1940s, but he does not use prevalence as an excuse. However, while he does not want to hide these images, he euphemizes their use as a Â»flawÂ« in Beckâ€™s theories of art and a Â»failure of imaginationÂ« by Fawcettâ€™s staff (100â€“101), rather than as the products of internalized racism and white supremacy they were. Binder and Beck may have produced racist imagery, we are to understand according to an old and erroneous dichotomy that puts racism at the feet of malicious individuals rather than acknowledge its systemic nature, but they were not racists.
In a both confusing and enlightening move, Cremins opens the final section by stating that Â»[t]his final chapter, concerned with theories of nostalgia and with Captain Marvelâ€™s afterlife in the fanzines, is not so much about comic booksâ€“what they are and how they workâ€“as it is about how and why we remember certain images and objects from our childhoodÂ« (130â€“131). Confusing, because the book is billed as the being about comics and memory, not about what comics are and how they work; enlightening because it tells us, finally, why the lionâ€™s share of the book doesnâ€™t address nostalgia or the Â»art of memoryÂ«. Cremins then rushes the reader through a selective and incomplete picture of nostalgia and memory studies that has little to do with comics but much to do with nostalgiaâ€™s positive effects, ending in florid language that unmoors nostalgia from the theorizing of the preceding pages (138). Next, a capsule review of fanzine history follows, then some fansâ€™ memories of reading Captain Marvel and liking his stories, and finally Creminsâ€™ relationship with the figure seen in a picture of him wearing a branded shirt.
The book initially looks like a welcome addition to the field, suggesting a focused study rather than another selective grand narrative of superheroes, but it is too isolated from related and relevant scholarship, and too fragmented to add much to the field â€” the last five pages are devoted to the aforementioned shirt Cremins once had, and the epilogue devolves into an intentionally jumbled restating of events mentioned in the book. Further, while Cremins makes overtures to memory studies, little comes of them; that field is vast and incredibly rewarding, but Cremins passes over most of it. The theory thatâ€™s ultimately used is not well-defined and exists mostly in wispy flourishes of language that work against precision (12, 138: Â»Nostalgia is a cold draft, a closed door, a cracked window, a scrap of paper, a photograph cut in half, the dedication in an old book, a box of coverless comics, the locked drawer of a desk, a stack of postcards in a junk shopÂ«). Conversely, when Captain Marvel is discussed, itâ€™s rarely in context â€“ his first appearance is described, partially and in passing, filtered through comics theorizing Beck published decades later (33â€“39). Indeed, there is little context or history in the book. Most descriptions keep close to whichever source is being described. The final chapter feels out of place with the rest of the book, until it offers fanzines as models for comics scholarship (144); part of Creminsâ€™ argument, it seems, is that we shouldnâ€™t be stuffy academics about comics, but fans delving into our own joyful memories of the medium. Another leg of the book seems more concerned with searching for another capital-A Â»ArtistÂ« to serve as an object of nostalgia within superhero fandom (e.g. 8â€“9, 47; cf. Beaty, 71â€“99 for other examples of how fans have manufactured Â»ArtistsÂ« to center nostalgia and fandom on) than with critical analysis. Cremins warns of nostalgia for nostalgiaâ€™s sake yet seems in the end committed to exactly that. As such, I do not see much critical value in the book. It is clear that Cremins and I have fundamentally differing approaches to scholarship: what he sees as models for future work, works of nostalgic fandom like Jules Feifferâ€™s Great Comic Book Heroes or Dick Lupoff and Don Thompsonâ€™s All In Color for a Dime, I see as sources to be studied for what they can tell about fan communities, the emergence of the field of comics studies, and the fieldâ€™s view of itself.
Early in the book, Cremins claims that because Superman and Captain Marvel both smash cars on early covers, they Â»possess the power to resist the passage of time and its inevitable endÂ« and, even more curiously, the desire to do so (18â€“21). No accounting here for the fact that Supermanâ€™s co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as well as Beck and Binder, were avid science fiction fans with hopes for the future or that the charactersâ€™ other comics feature no such techno-reactionary ideas. Nowhere does Cremins grapple with previous scholarship on the topic of (these) superheroes and modernity, even though it is fundamental to an argument he uses to frame the book. (Examples of scholarship that discusses the complex interplay of superheroes and modernity include Regalado and Chambliss & Svitavsky.) Further, he could have developed how Captain Marvel complicates comics historiographyâ€™s rosy view of WWII or on the white supremacist memory techniques that continue to allow for apologetics for characters like Steamboat or Ebony. Analysis of the archives of racist cultural memory these techniques and characters like the ones mentioned belong to and â€“ importantly â€“ how such stereotyping is by no means a thing of the past would also have strengthened the book; nowhere does Cremins contend with the racism of WWII era comics or of the harmful spreading of Fifth Column panics as refugees were denied entry into the US for fear that they might harbor spies among them. Such analysis would question the greatness of Beck and Binder. Thus, for example, when Cremins mentions in passing the fact that Fawcettâ€™s guidelines forbidding racial ridicule or intolerance did not apply to people of color or that neither Binder nor Beck seem to have ever acknowledged the racism they reproduced (86, 106), he fails to hold them accountable for their own actions, actions that helped further solidify racism in comics. Instead, he promotes enthusiasm as a substitute for analysis, and nostalgia and fannish sentiment as sufficient grounds for analysis. Such individualizing, under-theorized approaches to history can be counterproductive in the best of circumstances. In these days of Â»ComicsgateÂ«, where innumerable self-described fans are violently pining for a highly nostalgicized comics Â»pastÂ«, we must be particularly careful to critically show how political the comics we study are and how political the nostalgia some hold for them is. Depoliticizing either does nobody any good.
Among the most important things we who study USAmerican comics can do is seek to amplify marginalized voices, uncover and dismantle patterns and forms of oppression, and to otherwise strive for greater social justice. In order to do so, especially when studying something like superheroes, with a long and deep history of reproducing a white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, and otherwise inequitable status quo, we must fight on two fronts â€“ we must counter nostalgic pastorals if they suggest an Â»unpoliticalÂ« comics past and we must strive to lay bare the politics of those old comics, no matter what light that might put their creators in. In order to work for a better future, it is not enough when we look to history that we describe what comics have been or what their makers have said of them; we should redescribe, ask what these comics are saying and why. When we look for heroes and stay determined to keep them heroic, when we seek to act as stewards of the materials we study, we risk compounding injustice rather than fight it.
- Beaty, Bart: Comics Versus Art. Comics in the Art World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
- Chambliss, Julian, and William Svitavsky: From Pulp Hero to Superhero: Culture, Race, and Identity in American Popular Culture, 1900-1940. In: Faculty Publications, October 1, 2008.<http://scholarship.rollins.edu/as_facpub/2.>. 01. October 2008. Accessed 30 October 2019.
Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
210 p., 29,95 Dollar (paperback)