Strange Grew Up With Me: Sentimentality and masculinity in readers of superhero comics - article ; n°1 ; vol.7, pg 5-27
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Strange Grew Up With Me: Sentimentality and masculinity in readers of superhero comics - article ; n°1 ; vol.7, pg 5-27

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Réseaux. The French journal of communication - Année 1999 - Volume 7 - Numéro 1 - Pages 5-27
Summary: This study concerns the consumption of superhero comics in the USA and in France. Drawing on a series of interviews and letters published in magazines over the past three decades, the article shows that, for a considerable part of its readership, this medium represents more than the transmission of a traditional masculinity; it is a means of learning a new and complex identity. The author concludes that the learning of gender identities cannot be seen as a univocal process of inculcation of predetermined roles.
23 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.

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Published 01 January 1999
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Language English
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Eric Maigret
Liz Libbrecht
Strange Grew Up With Me: Sentimentality and masculinity in
readers of superhero comics
In: Réseaux, 1999, volume 7 n°1. pp. 5-27.
Abstract
Summary: This study concerns the consumption of superhero comics in the USA and in France. Drawing on a series of
interviews and letters published in magazines over the past three decades, the article shows that, for a considerable part of its
readership, this medium represents more than the transmission of a traditional masculinity; it is a means of learning a new and
complex identity. The author concludes that the learning of gender identities cannot be seen as a univocal process of inculcation
of predetermined roles.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Maigret Eric, Libbrecht Liz. Strange Grew Up With Me: Sentimentality and masculinity in readers of superhero comics. In:
Réseaux, 1999, volume 7 n°1. pp. 5-27.
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/reso_0969-9864_1999_num_7_1_3347STRANGE GREW UP WITH ME
Sentimentality and masculinity in readers
of superhero comics
Eric MAIGRET
Translated by Liz Libbrecht
Summary: This study concerns the consumption of superhero comics in
the USA and in France. Drawing on a series of interviews and letters
published in magazines over the past three decades, the article shows
that, for a considerable part of its readership, this medium represents
more than the transmission of a traditional masculinity; it is a means of
learning a new and complex identity. The author concludes that the of gender identities cannot be seen as a univocal process of
inculcation of predetermined roles. STRANGE GREW UP WITH ME
related to the influence of a sociology of
1 STRANGE roles that prevailed right into the 1970s,
in which gender identities seemed taken
for granted and clearly defined, particulGREW UP WITH
arly those of men.3 Finally, the impact of
currents of thinking such as semiology,
intended to distinguish stereotypes and ME
their conservative function, often sealed
the fate of mass-produced goods. In this
Sentimentality and context, extreme examples of comics
masculinity in readers of with an outrageously masculine content
superhero comics could always be produced as evidence.
Thus, American superhero comics regul
arly served to illuminate both the por
trayal of gender stereotypes and the
process of inculcation of masculine
roles.
Comic books first appeared in the 1930s
and 1940s in the US. They generally Eric MAIGRET
described the adventures of contempor
ary heroes, endowed with a wide variety
of special powers (scientific, magical,
etc), who dispensed justice and righted
Gender identities are, to a great wrongs. These heroes were often
extent, learned through the opposed to 'super -villains'. Superman,
media, with which people have the original and most well-known chara
complex relationships. Yet in this cter, was particularly popular among
domain sociology has clearly put the young readers from 1938 onwards and
emphasis on the shaping and perpetuat inspired the creation of Batman, Flash
ion of predetermined characteristics. and Wonder Woman, among others.
Like television or novelistic para-litera Dozens of publications and characters
ture, comics in their most popular forms were born and from the 1960s hundreds
have mostly been described - when they of new characters appeared. These series
have been studied - as a reservoir of ide had a turbulent history. In the mid-
ologies which, in the minds and behav 1950s they virtually disappeared under
iours of readers inclined to adhere to the combined pressure of moral cam
paigns and competition from popular stereotypes, sanction and portray masc
uline superiority on the one hand and entertainment programmes on televi
female subordination on the other.1 Of sion. In the 1960s they benefited, howe
course this type of scientific attitude has ver, from fashions spawned by that
same medium, and superheroes were been influenced largely by the discredit
surrounding a popular medium that endowed with new appeal when series
critics tend to characterize by its simp such as Batman were broadcast on TV.
licity and univocity - thus reinforcing Extremely popular among the new gen
discredit.2 It is furthermore erations of school children and existing Eric MAIGRET
teenagers to whom the new characters women on the other - vulnerable, sensi
tive and kind or, conversely, dangerous (eg Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four)
appealed strongly, these series invaded because independent, destructive and
castrating. The content of superhero the US comic market which is currently
series has evolved with time, with the dominated by the major publishing comp
anies. Since that period DC Comics inclusion of phenomena such as war,
and Marvel Comics Group have owned drugs and racism, totally overlooked
over 70 per cent of the overall share of until the 1960s. However, their 'liberal
ism' has clearly not involved a particulthe comic market which has a turnover
twice as high as that of the European arly novel treatment of the question of
market (Pasamonik, 1994). The number gender (Glicksohn, 1974; Williams,
of regular comic readers in the US is 1986) nor of the phenomena mentioned
estimated at one million and occasional above. For the semiologist, the portrayal
readers at about five million. Ten per of traditional gender stereotypes is only
cent of all US junior school pupils are a facet of the structurally conservative
regular readers (Parsons, 1991). The nature of most popular products.
spread of this success throughout most Although these products may have a
Western countries was gradual. In divergent and sometimes original con
France, Superman was sold from 1939 tent, they all share the characteristic of
until it was banned in 1941 by the thinking in terms of schémas and avoid
German occupiers. After the war US ing any form of nuance (Eco, 1993).
Superheroes legitimise the dominant comics in general had great difficulty
moving into the French market because social system by living in it; they solve
of a law (supported by the Communist problems purely by means of individual
Party and the Mouvement Républicain physical intervention (Dorfman, 1983).
Populaire) censuring violence in publica Their adventures represent a new
tions intended for young readers. It was mythology - in the strong, religious,
sense of the term - for their fascinated only in the mid 60s that superhero
comics reappeared on sale. By the end of readers and readily reproduce the se
the decade this medium had become gmented gender roles that prevail in the
content.5 highly successful with the translation of
the new series. A large number of magaz In our view, the shortcoming of these dif
ines were on sale of which the most ferent studies lies not in the fact that they
popular, Strange,4 had a circulation of provide a list of stereotypes effectively
between 80,000 and 100,000 copies - a present in the series in question, nor that
considerable number, even though it they analyse all the ideological conse
was lower than in the US. quences of the use of these stereotypes; it
From the outset these series served as is their method. It is in the object itself
indisputable proof of the fundamentally that the keys for its understanding by the
conservative nature of the mass media, readers have been located, while its
particularly as far as sexual ideologies reception and all the factors contributing
were concerned. In the prototype series, to the production of the content have
Superman, many authors have high been overlooked. From this point of view
lighted the distribution of features it is easy to highlight the generally con
between the hero on the one hand - servative nature of the selected narratives
strong, rational and protective - and - especially when their stigmatization STRANGE GREW UP WITH ME
makes in-depth reading unlikely - and to series? I have tried to answer this ques
overlook other narratives which could tion not only through semi-structured
contradict it or minimize the variety of the interviews with about 20 readers of all
messages.6 Yet these messages are abun ages but also by reading letters to
dant and contradictory because of their superhero magazines in France and the
extreme variety - sometimes even within US - without necessarily trying to grasp
a single series - and pressure from con the (male) readership of these magaz
straints, both organizational (those of the ines, which is neither constant nor lim
comics industry) and external (political ited and needs to be redefined each
and moral pressure). They also depend on time. I have chosen here to focus not on
the recruitment of authors and their dis the fringe of irregular readers whose
positions, and on perceived reader expec interest is short-lived, nor on the fans
tations - and hence their demography characterized by an immense personal
and social structure. The variety of mes investment, who create magazines
sages must, moreover, be set against dif devoted to their favourite series, but on
fering reader interpretations in order to a core of readers distinguished by a few
determine what these series represent specific features, particularly a suffi
socially, for the presence of "stereotypes" ciently strong involvement to write to
gives no indication of relationships with the magazines and offer to exchange
them. issues with other readers. Those who
The analysis of the reception of super write in the hope of being published and
hero comics can be particularly interest of entering into the construction of publ
ing in this context because it concerns a ic topics are generally regular readers,
male readership that has been largely including subscribers. It is in this
neglected by recent empirical media respect that the letters published are
studies of essentially feminist inspira particularly interesting, for they accen
tion. The criticism of passivity or alien tuate salient features and highlight
ation in consumers of mass-produced important facts. Their study neverthel
goods, found through-out sociology, has ess requires methodological precau
been particularly harsh in feminist stud tions such as not forgetting that these
ies and comparable to the vilification of letters do not represent all readers and
soap operas or soppy love stories. This that the editor has selected them (it is
critique should, however, be enhanced therefore essential to compare several
by renewed attention to the male sex. editors and types of letter published). In
Exposing the male subject to the same order to study the topics which gradua
questioning on passivity or alienation lly develop between the readers thems
(without leading to the glorification of elves and the editors who publish
cultural resistance) does not mean that letters and create a demand which they
the relevance of feminist studies is chal themselves consistently fulfil, in their
lenged. When half the spectators or own interests, I carefully examined all
readers are overlooked it seems to imply the letters in French superhero magaz
that there is a monolithic, unchanged ines that had translated the Marvel
and obvious male population that does series, starting in the late 1960s - a
not warrant research.7 total of over 2,000 letters.8 1 also read a
What relations do children or teenagers, randomly selected sample of letters in
US comics - several hundred out or even adults, have with superhero Eric MAIGRET
of a total of several thousand (several • differences between young girls and
hundred per month since the early '60s) boys are sometimes minimal.
- as well as the Italian, Portuguese, Considering that the spectacular,
German and British equivalents. This mythical aspects of the series are
work revealed that, for male readers appreciated equally by both sexes,
(who constituted the vast majority of the one wonders whether the small
readership9), regular reading of these number of female readers is not due
series is not part of a process of inculca to the fact that the magazines are
tion of roles but one of learning of a his now seen to be masculine. US sta
torically new and complex masculine tistics in the 1940s indicated no
identity. The extent to which these sexual differentiation in the readers
comics are read in most Western count of comics; as many girls as boys
ries shows that this result concerns read them;
more than a small minority of fans. • boys' 'chauvinism', clearly apparent
in the interviews in which they fr
equently mention the heroes' comFrom superman to human
bats and readily celebrate violence,
being does not indicate (or does not only
indicate) an incorporation of masculThe mail published varies from one
ine psychological features causing country to the next, depending on edi
tors' choices. When editors prioritize boys unanimously to perceive vio
lence as something they desire. It contact with children, the main mode of
relates to the manifestation of exterquestioning is referential or playful (in
nal signs of masculinity (Sefton- Italy, Portugal, Germany and England).
Green (1993) talks of 'markers' with Questions are short or summarized by
regard to these readers) and to the the editor, for example: 'Who is the
strongest character?' 'What effects does production of messages which boys
send out to peers and adults to the earth's atmosphere have on so-and-
prove their masculinity; so?' Letters manifesting curiosity come
• the world of superheroes, made of second only to letters of praise, poems
and proposed narratives.10 Interviews combats in which one is never ser
iously hurt, of encounters between with children under 12 confirmed a fact
enemies and of conflicts that is now well-known: understanding
friends, also seems particularly relof the series is clearly gender-related, for
evant for children who automatically children grant more importance to cer
tain features of the heroes' relate it to fighting in school playpersonalities,
grounds, with their climate of physidepending on their own sex, and even
cal and psychological insecurity, and reintroduce differences in those
to competition between children. It instances where the series have reduced
them.11 We cannot, for all that, conclude thus enables them to develop
thought processes and to overcome a that the media plays a univocal role of
fear of violence which the youngest production or reproduction of gender
ones experience most intensely. roles. Several explanations exist, but
they are considered only very briefly in
this article, which focuses essentially on When editors prefer publishing letters
from teenagers - which have become reception by teenagers:
10 STRANGE GREW UP WITH ME
increasingly numerous in the past three and heroic actions, it is the human
decades12 - the content changes. In beings in their irreducible individuality
France and the US most editors ignore and their daily lives that interest the
letters from curious new readers and readers. We cannot say that this reading
focus on regular readers who tend to is done entirely against the grain and
write for reasons other than a request for that it amounts to a form of poaching
information on a particular character. within an essentially male-oriented text.
They thus opt for a form of 'elitism' The content of superhero series has
which enables them to flatter the large evolved over time with the slackening of
core of regular readers and to render a editorial constraints owing to protest
more 'intellectual' or at least more adult movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and
image of their magazines.13 Mail in the under pressure from older and generally
US is more speculative than in France better educated readers. The transfor
and directly addresses political, artistic mation of topics among conservative
and even metaphysical questions. This authors, as well as the appearance of
tendency is more clearly apparent in new authors who are sometimes more
specialized magazines than in comic interested in social issues, has favoured
books. A rudimentary public sphere is increasingly novelistic narratives which
constituted on the fringes of the official focus more on daily life and on social
public sphere; it is a forum where cer and romantic relationships.
tain problems can be discussed, Spider-Man, an emblematic character
although in relation to the specificity of from the 1960s and 1970s,15 was the
each participant (eg women protest most most popular comic character at that
about female stereotypes). In France, let time. He is a persecuted superhero, used
ters to magazines are selected more to half-success and half-failure, a poor
strictly by editors than in the US, and student living off his meagre earnings as
the readers who send them have far less a photographer for a newspaper which
ability to change the course of the stories tyrannizes him and has declared war on
or to influence the authors' choices or his alter-ego. He is constantly concerned
the editorial policies. This explains the about his Aunt May's health and is
lower degree of investment in protest or heartbroken time after time. His slim
in the expression of loyalty.14 body also has little in common with the
Apart from differences in the way topics other supermen. Thus, superheroes
are dealt with in different countries, it is read by French and American teenagers
interesting to note their convergence. entered into the era of humanization and
From the 1960s, in France and the US, internal torment. Their social and sub
when reader mail could be expected to jective existence became more complex
be a locus for the crystallization of an and moved away from that of the more
aggressive masculine identity, congruent linear, empty and repetitive series
between 1930 and 1960. Scriptwriters with supposedly warlike content, it has
proved, above all, to be a forum for no longer hesitated, for example, to
debate on the aesthetics of the series, as develop sentimental stories and to have
well as a place for the expression of emot the drawings done by male authors who
ions and descriptions of the characters' had simultaneously launched into
psychological make-up. Under the cos female 'love comic books'. (We thus find
tumes of supermen capable of exploits amusing coincidences between certain
11 Eric MAIGRET
stories or pictures in superhero comics book differently; I got something
and love stories.16) Soon letters celebrat deeper out of it: the daily life and sent
ing the 'humanization' of heroes prolifer imental and social problems of some of
the superheroes. When I was 15 my ated in magazines, reflecting a strong
demand for the presentation of the char favourite hero was Peter Parker alias
acters' private lives, 'a faithful reflection Spider-Man; for me he represented the
of our anxiety and disillusions'. teenager that I was. Apart from those
wonderful combats, he confronted life Numerous letters indicated agreement:
in a modern society where it's difficult 'Your magazines are more gripping and
in fact very realistic (the science-fiction to trust people. (Strange, 172).
aspect is actually just a background for
stories which perfectly depict our soci The action alone is not the subject of the ety)' [Strange, 260). Some protested longest comments. The hero in the con
against the authors' reserve: 'You didn't text of his friends, enemies and rivals, as
keep your promise for more pages on well as his psychological characteristics
Spider-Man's private life' (Nova, 9). The and their evolution, are discussed in
romance between this character and his detail. Psychoanalytical language is
girlfriend Gwen, developed extensively in sometimes used to define individuals'
the series, was commented on. Older personalities and their underlying
readers expressed themselves at greatest motives, and to describe their relation
length on their attachment to a world in ships. This tendency was even more
which they had invested expectations - a marked during the 1980s with letters
world shaped to meet these about the X-Men series. The series, the
and one which, in turn, influenced most popular both in France and the US
them. One reader summarized this during the 1980s,18 recounts the adven
process of reciprocal choices in the fo tures of a team of young male and female
llowing way: 'Strange grew up with me'. 'mutants' who are occupied fighting fear
The series evolved with him but he also ful opponents and, above all, learning to
evolved with it; he was an actor in his understand one another. The emphasis
own development and participated in his is on the team's internal conflicts, the
own social construction. This involved love affairs that develop, the characters'
the discovery of the existence of super psychological difficulties and their
imposed narrative frameworks (heroic, inability to talk about them.
novelistic, etc) which are read selec Psychological analyses of the characters'
tively: problems by male readers show that
It was on a cold winter's day that, for they serve as a framework in these reade
rs' the first time, I discovered Strange. I understanding of their own prob
lems. It is around teenagers' difficulties was 10 then and I immersed myself in
the superheroes' saga. Of course in that all the discussion turns. The follow
France, in the '70s, supermen with ing letter, one of a multitude, shows that
supernatural powers weren't really the through the model of the hero it is a
masculine but 'humanized' ideal that is craze. As the years went by, the evolu
tion of this fantasy world made its way sought: controlling the expression of
into the field of comics and movies. emotions, one's feelings, in
Strange grew up with me. When I was general, as well as one's behaviour in
a teenager I considered this comic public, growing into a reasonable and
12 STRANGE GREW UP WITH ME
self-confident person without forgetting the one he had in his past as a
how to understand others and how to be 'toughie'. He's finally become sociable
gentle. and, above all, human [Spécial
Strange, 61).
I devoted myself to these dear X-Men
For a growing number of readers, talking ... A while ago, I started reading all the
about others' private lives is the first episodes I had, from number 15 right
step before talking about their own. up to now. What an evolution since
Confidences or biographical relations that first issue! There were these
tough guys always willing to fight for are, moreover, encouraged by those edi
tors who have engaged in dialogue with humankind, without really giving it
their public for several decades. They try much thought, generous and straight
to encourage people to share their expeforward guys; that's certainly not the
riences: the discovery of superhero case today. Now they're more mature
series, the feelings they arouse and the and serene. Claremont has managed
to turn them into men (or women) knowledge they provide, particularly in
an understanding of behaviours in socicapable of introspection. He has given
ety. By talking about this discovery readthem a soul, a mind capable of sifting
ers also explain the circumstances in through all life's difficulties. ... Storm,
which the interruption or resumption of the loss of her powers, has
the relationship took place. Use of biobecome a woman capable of reasoning
graphical elements often goes hand in and able to see that her power was in
hand with discussions about the lack of fact just a way of staying in an intro
value attributed to comics in society, verted world, leaving no way open for
and the perception that others have of her to express herself, to finally be
someone. She can now think for her reading practices.
self and act on her own without her
conscience, her power, being there to I saw the birth and evolution of Special
Strange, Nova, Titans and Spidey, it show her the way. Colossus still
was great. I followed all that till 1981 appears to be a frail young being who
lacks experience and character. when it all ended. I got back from my
Sometimes he loses his temper, like in military service and couldn't find a job.
I had to stop buying comics and even the Irish bar and his fight with
had to sell all those I'd collected. Juggernaut. But he's only 20.
Nightcrawler has clearly taken on a Now, in May 1988, I realize that I still
like these comics - even more than different dimension in the life of the
group. He's got experience; he's before. I'm 26 and it's like I'm going
become a man, somewhat in the tradi back 10 years and it's tremendous!
tion of Wolverine who's gone from During the past seven years I missed
lots of things, especially the X-Men, being a wild animal, relying only on
his senses, to an experienced man, the most fantastic comic ever drawn.
sure of himself and particularly of his I've spent so much time with these
gestures and words. He's lost some of heroes that I've ended up experiencing
his aggressiveness as he's matured, their hopes, fears and joys. Adventure,
become more intelligent and devel friendship, love are all great, even if
oped a conception of life other than they come from a comic. There's a lot
13 Eric MAIGRET
more to it than meets the eye. [Spécial 1950s) by the tension between a set nar
Strange, 58). rative and an irreversible one, and by the
inherent contradictions in a mythical
Some stories recall readers' own experi account incorporating novelistic el
ences; they can therefore serve to analyse ements: Superman had to be an arche
them and to recall painful memories. This type, unaffected by the passage of human
type of testimony is found more fr time, but he could not avoid reference to
equently in US comics which have a sound this time in a 'civilization of the novel'. His
tradition of exchange, both between read study stopped just at the time of the
ers and editors/authors and among transformation of the series and the sud
ers themselves. Daredevil's struggle den switch to the novelistic.
against drugs, in a very realistic issue,19
prompted a reader to write for the first From masculine to feminine
time ('I've never written to Marvel before')
to express his emotions after his cousin On both sides of the Atlantic certain
had died of an overdose.20 events in the superheroes' world tri
We see that among regular readers, ggered an avalanche of letters filled with
superhero comics no longer represent (or emotion. The slackening of censorship in
nor longer only represent) a mythical the late 1970s allowed editors to give a
world in which the heroes have to con horrible death to certain subordinate
form to what they have always been. The characters in the series (usually women)
temporal and psychological dimensions, and even to certain heroes on the
decline. These heroes were sacrificed for largely absent from these series between
the early 1930s and late 1950s, can be the sake of renewing interest in the
deployed more or less freely. The heroes realm of superheroes in general, and in
still live in a largely unrealistic world in some cases were revived a few years
which they defy time and the laws of age later. The list of noteworthy disappear
ing, but they change enough in the eyes ances lengthened as the years went by:
of readers who generally follow them for Spider -Man's girlfriend's father; the gir
about ten years at the most. Some of lfriend herself, Gwen; Elektra, an
them may get married or die, and atten ambiguous heroine, a friend of
tion may be focused on their daily lives. Daredevil; Phoenix from the X-Men;
Thus, the development of superheroes Captain Marvel; and so on. The death of
from their invention on paper in the a character is often experienced by read
1930s to their present form could be ers as a misfortune affecting other char
acters' summarized in the following terms: 'from destiny and even their own. By
superman ... to human being'. That is admitting that they cried, these readers
how strongly the psychological dimension freely express their sensitivity in public -
of the heroes has entered into and been something which runs counter to tradi
asserted in these comics. In retrospect, tional definitions of masculinity. In
we note that the earliest series were not France the phenomenon is still con
totally devoid of psychological content tained by the editor who, in the case of
and that the heroes' daily lives had Captain Marvel's death, decided to guar
already appeared in the traditional world antee the anonymity of letters published
of these supermen. Eco (1993) character because of the highly personal nature of
ized the Superman series (that of the this mail.
14