ConCentric is a prototype magazine created as a final project by Emma Gronning for Oxford Brookes University.
It is divided into sections of news, reviews, and deep dives. This is intended to take a more analytical approach to comic book journalism than other on-line products. This prototype aim incorporate the academic and more serious thinking about comic books and the cultural impact of the medium.
The 1940 spring issue of Superman is an important piece of comic book history because it reflects the attitude towards reading of the time. The Man of Steel himself broke the fourth wall to address readers directly about “real” reading. Telling his readers that to develop “agile quick thinking mind[s]” they had to read widely outside of comics, and listed a variation of more than sixty book suggestions, which included a range from classics such as Melville’s Moby Dick to more pulp fiction like Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.
This can be seen as an attempt by National comics, the publisher of Superman at the time, to validate the idea that “real” reading was something separate from comic book reading. National Comics had an advisory board of educators working on Superman, raising the standards of English and readability. According to William Moulton Marston (1943-44), the creator of Wonder Woman, comics were proven effective in teaching school subjects, most notably English. The publisher wanted to attract young readers without alienating parents and educators, answering Marston’s question:
“If children will read comics, [...] why isn’t it advisable to give them some constructive comics to read?”
Although National Comics were unique in pushing readers, particularly younger readers, to broaden their reading material and to take advantage of local libraries, it wasn’t unusual to find lists of book recommendations in their publications between 1935 and 1946. Albert Kanter’s Illustrated Comics might be wider known for their adaptations of literary fiction into the comic book format, but National Comics had already published six novel-length works before the Illustrated Comics series began in 1941.
Comic books have a history of being seen as a throwaway commodity with little literary value. Before the 1960s they were thought if as predominantly meant to entertain children, which was reflected in the production quality of that time.
Between 1967-1990 we can see the beginning of comics striving for more literary content could be witnessed. It became a revival of the industry through improvements in printing and changing to a ‘direct sales’ marketing approach focused on specialist book shops. This period saw a resurgence of fully painted art work and a wider range of more mature subject matters; everything from satire and political documentary, to horror and sexual fantasy.
These changes paved the way for publications such as A Contract With God by William Eisner and the creation of the Graphic Novel. Eisner, who is credited with the term, however not the first to use it, wanted to escape the juvenile connotations of the comic book when publishing A Contract in 1978.
Comics had been included in art books prior to the changes in the industry and the push towards literacy, but only as a digression from the “proper” art.
The pop art movement which is typified by the emergence of artists like Andy Warhol, began to show that graphic and comic like images could be viewed as fine art. The purpose of this artistic expression was to break down the hierarchy of culture by taking inspiration from commonplace objects and everyday life.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition of work by Art Speigleman running from December 17, 1991–January 28, 1992. Calling Maus a landmark in the transformation of comic art.
“I figured it I’m going to tell a story, and comics are about telling stories, I might as well to a story that is worth telling because otherwise it’s way too much work.” (Art Speigleman, Upon Reflections interview 1991).
There is so much power in visual storytelling. And when this power is acknowledged in sequential art like A Contract and Maus it ceases to be connected to comic books and is instead elevated. The issue with this elevation is that it can perpetuate the idea that comic books are juvenile, and are incapable of dealing with the same adult subject matters as other mediums, but makes Graphic Novels the exception.
Approximately 450 comic books and graphic novels were published on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 alone (the number includes variant covers). To create a prototype for the magazine, I narrowed my focus to superhero comics, the genre of comics most notable across mass media and the genre that I believe has been most undervalued.
When Maus won a Pulitzer in 1992 it highlighted how fragmented the medium truly was. Instead of Maus being used as an example of what can be achieved, it was instead interpreted as a digression from an otherwise frivolous medium. Douglas Work perfectly describes the frustration of the comic enthusiast about this separation in his book, “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work And What They Mean”.
“Part of what rankles, of course, is the general perception that Maus was a one-of-a-kind work with no historic precedent (and therefore if you love Maus you can still safely ignore the rest of the medium), when in fact Speigleman is more deeply attached to the whole history of comics than any other cartoonist this side of Chris Ware.”
Today the superhero comic has evolved as legitimate representations of modern culture. They convey the “mythology” of the 21st century in a similar way that Homer described heroic myths in the 8th century AD.
Every age of civilisation has had its poets, myth-makers, and artists. ConCentric wishes to show that comics today need to be taken as seriously as Homer or Virgil as an expression of the human condition. They talk about the fight between good vs evil, the need for heroic achievements and describe 21st century aspirations.
“In primitive times, the teller of stories in a clan or tribe served as entertainer, teacher and historian. Storytelling preserved knowledge by passing it from generation to
generation.” (Eisner, 2008)
Storytelling is a cultural phenomenon globally and historically. It is not only used for entertainment, but also as a valuable teaching tool. Through stories we learn the cultural norms and morals, as well as significant behaviours valued in a community.
The Trajan Column (AD 113) was described by the National Geographic as “one of the most distinctive monumental sculptures to have survived the fall of Rome”. With its intricate carvings depicting the Dacian campaigns spiralling around the column, it can be seen as an ancient form of mythic storytelling and early form of the modern comic book with a similar narrative containing graphic memoirs. The emperor Trajan’s victory against a barbarian empire was a real life event comparable to the battles of ancient myth. Crossing the Danube River, the second longest river in Europe, he defeated the Dacian Empire, situated where what is now Romania twice. The great riches retrieved after the last war financed later campaigns and the rapid expansion of Rome. Trajan commemorated the victory by commissioning several structures that featured pictorial accounts of his deeds in battle. It was important to communicate with his subjects and graphic images were universally understood throughout the Roman Empire.
The Bayeux Tapestry also shares similarities with the modern comic. The tapestry is 70 meters long and 50 centimetres high depicting the conquest of England led by William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy. It is seen as some of the world’s greatest works of art, showcasing the ‘true’ account of an important battle. Although this was done centuries later, the tapestry like the Trajan Column was an important way for the heroic deeds of the Duke to be understood by his subjects.
In ancient Egypt telling stories in the form of images was not only to showcase the achievements of reigning Pharaohs, but also the reserved for the sacred text. Hieroglyphs were known as the ‘Language of the Gods’, created by the god of knowledge Thoth.
Joseph Campbell was an American mythology scholar who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work is still influential today and he noted a recurring plot in the mythologies of the world, which he defined as classic monomyth, regarding the hero’s adventure:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Since the beginning of the genre with the publishing debut of Superman in 1938, superhero comics have had a strong relationship with mythology.
Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who took the name Superman from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra where the term “Übermensch" had been translated as ‘superman’. Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying history of America’s most Enduring Hero, likened the story of Superman to the story of Moses as both Siegel and Shuster were both jewish.
“He came in from another planet. Looked at one way, his story was the Moses story: parents trying to save their first-born son, floating him out to outer space.”
Superman fulfilled the universal desire to see good overcome evil, the need to see wrongs righted. His character still represents a blend of Homeric traditions as Achilles without the vulnerable heel, peace-loving Hector defending his home, the righteous Agamemnon pursuing vengeance, and Odysseus known for his cunning intelligence.
In his essay ‘The man of Steel and Me' for the book Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend, Donald O’Neil recounts how he turned to mythological models without realising it in some of the Superman stories he wrote in the early 70s:
“A few days ago, just before beginning this reminiscence, I happened on a summary of the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh and realised, bemused, that this is my Superman story. Yet, to the best of my recollection, I’d never read Gilgamesh before, had never studied mythology in either high school or college, [sic].”
With the success of Superman, other authors wanted to create similar stories at a rapid rate. To avoid potential plagiarism claims of Superman, and to easily justify powers, they looked to the original heroes of ancient myths.
Martin A Burstein and Jack Kirby created a comic in 1940 called Mercury in the 20th century, a story about the ancient god himself sent by Jupiter to defeat Pluto on earth, who is disguised as the dictator Rudolph Hendler, a reference to Adolf Hitler. Showcasing an early example of how the superhero genre blends ancient myth with the relevance of the time. Through Kirby’s comic book career you can see his expressed fondness for Mercury and ancient myths. Later the following year as Mercury in the 20th century, he introduces a character visually identical to Mercury named “Hurricane, son of Thor, the god of thunder, and last descendant of the ancient greek immortals,” who had similar story to that of Mercury. An obvious attempt to continue using the character in a different periodical without copyright issues.
Later in 1962 he incorporated a piece of Mercury with Thor once again when the designing the god of thunder with a winged helmet, rather than the stereotypical viking helmet with horns. Kirby is also probably most notable as the creator of the Marvel universe alongside Stan Lee, a name in the comics hall of fame.
The perfect example of a character who knowingly embodies ancient myth as well as an individual identity as a hero is Wonder Woman. She was created in 1941 after William Moulton Marston was invited to be a consultant for National Comics to use his background in psychology to recommend improvements. He found the genre of superheroes to be blood-curdling masculine and he created Wonder Woman as a counter balance, using greek mythology to build her origin. Marston used mythology to give a clear definition of who Wonder Woman was through a caption found on her splash page that followed her all the way through the sixties. “As beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, swifter than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules. Her creation mirrors the greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love his creation Galatea. Wonder Woman’s mother Hippolyta moulded her in clay taught to her by Athena and she adored the statue so fiercely Aphrodite gave it life. Named for the moon goddess Diana, mistress of the chase.
Her story opens with the history of the Amazons and how they withdrew from “man’s world” after a conflict with Hercules, until Steve Trevor landed on their shores bringing with him the modern conflicts of man.
“Just as the homeric bard used the trojan war, the superhero genre incorporates the events that has the most relevance for the society addressed in the work (in this case, the western readers faced with the great depression, Word War II, the Cold War, september 11) and refines such events, shedding their most isolated ephemeral details to project its figures into the heroic realm of myth and the absolute, of great forces and clear-cut conflicts.” (Arnaudo, M. 2013)
Heroic themes easily identified in ancient times and throughout recorded history are reflected in the 21st century through several mediums but their purest representation could be through modern comic books.
The limitations of this project are defined by the nature of magazine publishing. Creating a full publication requires a team of skilled individuals. ConCentric reflects the creative and productive limits of one individual. The articles written for the website were all written by myself, with the exception of the main article featured on the front page; The Conversation of Representation and Colonialism in Marvel’s Black Panther and the reviews.
With the overwhelming amount of comics published every week I had to use personal preference and past reading to narrow down the coverage material. For instance I maintained that around an 800 word maximum word count for the magazine articles would accommodate my perception of short reading retention online.
The domain and project is also financed by me personally, and as a student I was unable to finance commissions. There is also a lack of activity to showcase the potential of the project as it is created as a university project and not marketed prior to the project deadline.
The direction I would take the project in the future would be to focus on developing a podcast. The limitations of text is readership retention and interest, whereas a podcast lends itself to portability and is likely to be a medium encouraging users to delve more in to details without loss of interest. Squarespace has a podcast function that fully cooperates with Apple podcasts, making it easy to incorporate into the site in the future.
What a podcast can also do is introduce more discussion, and deeper dives. Ideally the podcast would have a team consisting of people with different political views and backgrounds to create a more dynamic discussion. Promoting openness when faced with opposing views instead of defensiveness.
Journalists writing for the site would also ideally represent different views to promote deeper learning. You cannot broaden your views without leaving your bubble.
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