by Irene Vartanoff
An appreciation first published in the catalogue of Cartooning 101, a comics exhibit curated by my sister, Ellen Vartanoff
Comic books have always been the entry to a fantasy world for me, a world I discovered as a lonely pre-teenager and to which I was passionately devoted for many years.
Back in the early 1960s, there were no comic book stores. Finding two consecutive issues of a monthly title was a major triumph for a suburban child. So was persuading my mom to take me to buy comics, which she considered worthless. Why does a kid persist in the uphill battle of reading supposedly socially unredeeming and certainly parentally condemned items like comic books? Why bother? Because comics are intrinsically beautiful and marvelous. And because comics are intensely relevant to real life.
Comics are a visual medium. But they aren’t obtuse, the way great paintings can be without the context or the classical allusion to explain them. Comics have those cute word balloons and captions that give all the necessary words, and even thoughts. And no more than necessary: comics are simple to understand. But that isn’t the allure. Despite the satisfaction of knowing what Superman is thinking, the pictures themselves that are the essence of the comic.
Comics are a visual feast of lovely, bold colors, intricately designed scenes, battles on a cosmic scale, and superhuman feats, none of which exist in the real world. In this textured other dimension, events have a definite beginning, a middle, and an end. Heroic characters struggle with evil super villains. And the heroes win, over and over again, often against impossible odds.
The heroes are perfect physical specimens, pumped and buffed. The men have big chests, and big arms, and the women all have massive breasts and big thighs. These heroes are clearly physically idealized, yet they would also be very comforting to hug. And they are competent, unlike teenagers: their clothes always fit right, their hair doesn’t get in their eyes as they are saving the world from evil domination, and they don’t usually fall over their feet once they are in the throes of an adventure.
Everyone who is supposed to be beautiful in a comic is, and the evil people have mean expressions marring their faces. There is little moral confusion in a comic. The bad guys blow up major American landmarks to emphasize their badness. They lurk and cower and menace. The heroes stand tall, and help society. And they look spectacular as they do it. Their bright costumes contrast vividly with the huge explosions and odd machines and grotesque enemies. Light and darkness clash. Colors clash, primaries against mixed. It’s all larger than real life, and a wonderful escape from the gray of the mundane.
Comic book characters escape their own imperfect lives by becoming heroes. The Flash leaves at super speed; suddenly, the hunched over, isolated technician in his lonely lab becomes a major force who can save his city from the eccentric villains who plague it. Does he grow as a person during these colorful stories? Yes.
Green Lantern accepts the legacy of a dying space ranger, patrols his territory, and uses his power ring to create whimsical defenses against evil. He matures from smart aleck flyboy to a responsible adult, but still has fun.
Adam Strange visits another, advanced planet and uses his Earth wits to save it from trouble. He is alienated from Earth, just as teenagers often feel alienated from the kids in their school. Yet he brings the virtues of Earth to another place and people, and deals with the strangeness of being a visitor.
Hawkman comes from another planet and saves Earth from its problems with his birdlike powers. He is an alien, far from his home and with his own problems. But he reaches out to help strangers anyway and becomes an Earth hero.
Batman turns his opponents’ weaknesses against them. He has been grievously harmed by evil, but he refuses to be a victim. He literally escapes his life as a mover and shaker in his city, to be able to act freely as an individual, and to act directly from his conscience.
Superman’s life is dedicated to service because of his extraordinary powers. He acts up to the highest of principles. He is both pompous and sincere, and not ashamed of being so. But Lois Lane is there to remind Superman, and the reader, that there should be a personal level to all this heroism. The other life cannot be entirely forgotten, imperfect as it is. She and other sidekicks pull the heroes back a little to deal with ordinary human problems.
Other heroes have other scenarios, but the stories are always empowerment and coping fantasies. These characters act. The stunning color and dramatic, fluid artistic rendering make the stories seem to leap off the page. To a kid who feels mired in a mundane world, the symbolism of these stories may not be obvious, but the impact is there. The artists and writers may not even intend all that they convey. Regardless, the art of comics carries such texture that the messages come through anyway, positive messages of hope that the world and people can attain beauty. Messages about the moral value of doing the right thing and of being a good person. What more can anyone ask of a fantasy world?