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Dark Knights: The New Comics in Context. By Greg S. McCue, with Clive Bloom. London & Boulder, CO: Pluto Press, 1993.

Paperback: ISBN-10: 0745306632  -  ISBN-13: 978-0745306636
Hardcover: ISBN-10: 0745306624  -  ISBN-13: 978-0745306629
Find in a Library with WorldCat
Library of Congress: PN6710 .M34 1993
OCLC: 26810219   ||  Dewey: 741.5/09 20
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Author's Information

Foreword ... ix

Part I: Knights in the City

Introduction: A Medium not a Genre
... 3

1. Founding Fathers ... 8

2. The Golden Age
... 17
Nothing Less than a Bursting Shell ... 17
A Superstitious and Cowardly Lot ... 22
Keep 'Em Flying!!! ... 25
Seduction of the Innocent ... 29

3. The Silver Age . . . 35

Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-3, Earth-X, Earth-S, etc. ... 36
The Merry Marvel Marching Society ... 39
The Hero Who Could Be You ... 45
New Faces ... 47
Green Relevance ... 49

4. The Moderns
... 55
Vital Signs ... 56
Forbidden Planet ... 59

5. The New Dark Knights
... 68
Frank Miller ... 68
Alan Moore ... 71
Dark Knights ... 74

Conclusion ... 77

Part II: The Interviews     

Stan (The Man) Lee
... 83
Tom DeFalco ... 88
Dick Giordano ... 101
Dennis O'Neil ... 135

... 50
... 152

Reviews / Features:

Kannenberg, Gene Jr. 1996. "Dark Knights Sheds Little Light." The Comics Journal 183 (January): 44-45. [read text below]

Witek, Joseph. 1995. [Review.] Journal of Popular Culture 29.2 (Fall): 261-62.

Dark Knights Sheds Little Light
Dark Knights: The New Comics In Context
A Review By Gene Kannenberg, Jr.

Superhero comic books—which make up a large percentage of the overall comics marketplace—are beginning to receive critical attention within the community of comics scholarship. While the superhero genre is often looked down upon by serious readers and scholars alike, its long history and penchant for periodic reinvigoration make it potential fodder for informed scholarly inquiry. Unfortunately, Dark Knights: The New Comics In Context joins Richard Reynolds' Superheroes: A Modern Mythology as a text which promises much critical insight into the superhero genre but delivers little. Reynolds' work at least raises several questions about the genre and its place within a comics-reading culture, although it fails to address these questions in a meaningful fashion (see Mark Nevins' forthcoming review in INKS); McCue's Dark Knights disappoints on a far less interesting scale. A mixture of derivative comics history and superficial narrative analysis, Dark Knights can be recommended chiefly for the entertainment value of its lengthy anecdotal interviews with established comic book professionals, not for its self-proclaimed "surprising and intriguing" analyses of texts.

The subtitle to this book reveals much about its contents; the emphasis on "context" is all-pervasive, to the detriment of actually talking about the "New Comics" themselves. Dark Knights is divided into two sections: Part I: Knights in the City (77 pp.), in which McCue re-tells comics history exclusively through the lens of the superhero; and Part II: The Interviews (67 pp.), in which McCue provides transcripts of his interviews with "Stan (The Man) Lee" [sic], Tom DeFalco, Dick Giordano (twice), and Denny O'Neil. The only time McCue actually discusses "new comics" at length is in Chapters 4 and 5 ("The Moderns" and "The New Dark Knights") and the three page conclusion. At a total of 25 pages, McCue's analysis of the new superheroes simply lacks the room for any critical depth or complexity. (Clive Bloom appears to have contributed only a four-page Foreword praising McCue's "lucid narrative.")

The interviews, at least, are entertaining. McCue asks informed questions and gets characteristic answers: Lee comes off as genial and exuberant, Giordano drops reminiscences like bread crumbs, and O'Neil reveals a thoughtful editorial stance; DeFalco, however, displays a marked penchant for speaking without thinking, at one point denying that Marvel artists are at all influenced by cinematic storytelling techniques and at another summing-up Barbara Slate's Yuppies from Hell as "20 year-old women just walking around."

Aside from these interviews, however, the book contains little to hold the reader's interest. Part of the problem is that McCue seems too intent on developing a historical context for the superhero—or should I say "assembling" one, for the book's prose (particularly the chapter Golden and Silver Ages) contains many lengthy quotations from Waugh's The Comics, Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones' The Comic Book Heroes, and Ron Goulart's Great History of Comic Books. Dark Knights includes little new information, and only sparse commentary. Readers would be much better off simply reading this book's sources; they would be spared such obvious misstatements as McCue's assertion that Amazing Fantasy #15 "would be the last of the series becauseLee had come up with the idea for" Spider-Man (consistently misspelled "Spideman" throughout) (my emphasis). He also credits Jim Steranko with being "the first artist to think in terms of a full comic page rather than a panel"—a claim which ignores at the very least Will Eisner's ground-breaking work on The Spirit.

Some of these lapses, I expect, can be attributed to sloppy editing and inexperienced writing. McCue's text also suffers from an annoying tendency to drop in source quotations without establishing clear and logical links between text and source. For example: in his three-and-one-half-page discussion of Alan Moore's superhero work, McCue inserts a lengthy quotation from Dick Giordano which critiques John Byrne's treatment of Superman, attributed only in an end note. The quotation's uncued placement within the text creates the illusion that it offers Moore's point of view—Giordano is mentioned nowhere in the section. The patch work quality of this book's writing suggests not a scholarly endeavor so much as it does a tentative freshman research paper: an earnest yet unskilled attempt at incorporating another's prose into one's own.

More frustrating, however, is McCue's insistence on not only the vitality but the primacy of superheroes for both the comics industry and comics study. The book's too-brief introduction shows that McCue understands the medium/genre distinction:

By carrying the superhero to its logical extreme, the genre has incorporated so many elements that a diverse and adult audience has become attracted. This has had two effects: other genres and other formats. 

Such an observation might prove valuable if it were expanded in any extended fashion. But the text proceeds to travel backward from this statement, not forward; eventually it discusses "new formats" (the $25 hardcover version of Arkham Asylum), yet it fails to pay even passing attention to genres other than the superhero.

The conclusion shows just how skewed McCue's vision is on this topic. It begins with a lengthy quotation from Joseph Witek's authoritative Comic Books As History which ends: "Comic art is thus a literary medium in transition from mass popularity and cultural disdain to a new respectability as a means of expression and communication." McCue immediately continues, "This change was brought about by the superhero," completely ignoring Witek's categorization of superhero comics (included in McCue's quotation) as "subliterate adolescent fantasies and... the crassest exploitation of rote generic formulas." Rather than engage Witek's obviously contrary observation, McCue simply ignores it; one wonders why he bothered to quote Witek in the first place. 

The conclusion centers around a brief analysis of Green Arrow, a character who for McCue exemplifies the process of "expand[ing] the possibilities of the medium" due to writer/artist Mike Grell's focus on Green Arrow's age (43, not the "standard" 29) and desire for children. While one might believe that these narrative emphases expand the possibilities of traditional superhero narratives (I wouldn't even go that far), it does a great disservice to many underground and alternative cartoonists to state that Green Arrow's mid-life crisis expanded the possibilities of the medium. Such an observation betrays not a selective critical focus but a severe gap in knowledge on McCue's part.

Finally, any book which deals with a visual medium like comics would be expected tocontain at least a few illustrations. Dark Knights can boast none except the cover's image of Spider-Man (from the splash page of Amazing Spider-Man #48,1967), itself a curious choice to symbolize "The New Comics." Perhaps illustrations were considered unnecessary, as McCue never undertakes any formal criticism (close reading) of actual comic-book texts; his arguments primarily deal with plot and history, not layout or design sense. The book's back cover copy, which states that the text covers the "world... in which high adventure joins with the very best illustration of the twentieth century," implies an examination which the book's focus does not reflect.

It is one thing to choose a genre for academic study; it is quite another to valorize it beyond reasonable bounds. Dark Knights: The New Comics in Context follows the latter path by attributing all that is promising in the medium of comics to superheroes, an assertion that most comics scholars and readers will find troubling. Perhaps McCue has more to with say on this subject; if so, he would do well to restrict his discussions to specific primary texts and develop his own points through extended verbal and visual analysis. This book's superficial overview of superhero comic books old and new, as it stands, adds little to our critical understanding of this potentially interesting—although certainly not central—comics genre.

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This Page Last Updated March 17, 2009.