by Shelley Streeby
For most of the twentieth century, the intellectual and political leaders of the United States denied that the nation was an empire. Then around 1994, things began to change, with the neoconservatives aligned with the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) openly embracing the idea of an American empire capable of ruling the post–Cold War world. This shift is a good example of the process Raymond Williams describes in Keywords ( 1983, 11–26) whereby changes in the significance of words occur rapidly at times of crisis. For Williams, World War II decisively shaped the remarkable transformations in the meanings of certain keywords that inspired his book. In the twenty-first-century United States, the response of the Bush administration to 9/11, which sociologist Giovanni Arrighi calls “a case of great-power suicide” (2009, 82), precipitated a similar crisis.
Writers, artists, inkers, editors, and readers of comic books and comic book adaptions leave an indelible imprint on cultures across the globe. Popular film adaptions of classical comics characters and narratives, including Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Avengers, and the X-Men series, yield immense profit because of an ongoing yearning to witness strength, perseverance, and heroism in the face of social struggle, political uncertainty, and the many forms of global cruelty and wickedness. Small-screen televisual and digital adaptions of wildly popular comic book series, from the earliest iterations of Superman and Batman to the twenty-first-century installments of The Flash, Black Lightning, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Batwoman, and Supergirl, underscore that widespread interest in heroic narratives and increasingly diverse representations of heroic power in comics media remains an enduring impulse over decades of cultural production and across multiple visual platforms.
Genre is a loaded word for comics studies in the United States, as it has been for studies of mass and popular forms since the industrial and print revolutions. On one hand, genre is an indispensable term in scholarship that focuses on comics as a genre of literary, popular, mass, and visual culture and sequential art. Genres such as superheroes, crime, humor, children’s, romance, war, memoir, and others are central to comics history. On the other, this keyword is still often used pejoratively to situate comics as low and suspect within hierarchies that distinguish genre-marked cultural forms from “literature” and others with more cultural capital. In the last twenty years or so, however, comics have risen within cultural hierarchies—partly because of the publication of graphic novels and other kinds of comics in more expensive formats with cultural prestige—that experiment with genre and can be understood in relation to realist codes that privilege the representation of everyday life and allied forms of memoir and autobiography. Experimenting with genre and engaging comics readers’ multigenre literacies is not a recent phenomenon, however, and this has long been a strength of the form. And while the mark of genre has historically been stigmatizing, the translatability of genre across cultural forms is surely one of the biggest reasons for comics’ continuing significance in global popular culture.