Wile E. Coyote Died For Your Sins:
Subversive and Hierarchical Uses of Intertextuality
in Sandman and Animal Man.
Comic books are a fundamentally intertextual medium for a number of reasons. What I plan to do in this paper is discuss several ways in which comics are read and written intertextually, and then point out two particular strategies of intertextuality used in comics and discuss the possibilities and pitfalls of each. To begin with, comics are produced and consumed intertextually in four main ways: across media, through continuity and the comic's "universe," through the conventions of genre, and through conventions of the medium.
As serials, comics are heavily dependent on prior knowledge of their elaborately woven story worlds or knowledge of continuity. Major publishers, like DC, Marvel or Image, have complex universes in which their titles take place. This is to say that Spider-man lives in the same world as the X-Men, the "Marvel" universe, and Superman and Batman live in the "DC Universe." The ongoing use of past stories to create a story universe is called continuity.
Continuity can be, and often is a problem for both readers and producers of comics. It serves to exclude new readers since it is difficult to pick up on the history of a title or character by beginning somewhere in the middle. When DC comics abruptly canceled the long running Legion of The Super-heroes and brought it back in a revamped form several months later, one reason for the change was that the title had too much continuity. It alienated potential readers because it was difficult to pick up on the relevant history of the characters from reading the current issues.
For creators of comics, the weight of continuity can be stifling. The past of the characters precludes many storylines. As a result, creators ignore or change continuity regularly. In the fan community, this is called retconning, for retroactive continuity change. Sometimes these retconns are explained diegetically, Dallas style, but more often they just happen without explanation.
Retconns are often heavily debated in the fan community, and changes in the continuity of long-running or popular characters are sometimes regarded as betrayal of the fans who have invested time and money in learning the continuity. The important thing about to remember about retconning is that it doesn't end continuity; it merely restarts the process of building it
Genre is another way that comics are read intertextually. For the most part, comics exist within easily identifiable, highly codified genres. While the super-hero genre is now dominant, comics have long existed in genres; westerns, romance, funny animals, and crime have had each had their day at the top of the heap among comics genres. In reading a super-hero comic, we bring to it varying degrees of experience with the genre which shape our interpretation of the story. In Animal Man 7, for example, the Red Mask, a rather pathetic, retired super-villain says to Animal Man, the super-hero protagonist:
In the Animal Man story, the Red Mask exists intertextually at several levels, and there are many different interpretations possible. In a very basic sense, this story is much like other stories in the super-hero genre. There is an extraordinary problem (the Red Mask's "army of killer robots"), the hero (Animal Man) seeks and finds the source of the problem, which is a villain (the Red Mask). After finding the villain, Animal Man nullifies the problem, and the villain's potential for mayhem is neutralized. Readers unfamiliar with the genre might only interpret the story at this level, that is simply in terms of what happens.
The reader who brings greater experience with the genre to bear on this story would immediately notice the unconventional aspects of it and focus on what doesn't happen. The Red Mask is old and pot-bellied and not a very threatening figure. His army of death robots is ineffective and rusty. He and Animal Man do not fight physically; rather, they have a discussion on a rooftop after which the Red Mask leaps to his death, old, tired and disappointed that his evil superpower was a death touch and not the ability to fly. The experienced reader would understand the self-referential nature of this story, see how it points to the banality of much of the super-hero genre and connect it to Animal Man's own existential crisis over his role as a super-hero. Other readers would interpret it as a parody of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen, an earlier series that examined the conventions of the super-hero genre.
Comics are also read intertextually as a medium. Reading comics requires that we have some sort of comics literacy in the form of a basic knowledge of the conventions of graphic storytelling. For example we know that round word balloons with hard pointers signify speech and fluffy word balloons with dotted pointers signify thought. As a result our reading of comics is always filtered through our past experience reading comics.
Beyond this, comics are read intertextually across media. Comics regularly provide adaptations of the texts of film and television and film and television are in turn adapted from comics. Comics also routinely steal story ideas from books and movies, and on occasion, they also invoke their literary ancestors. Herein lies some of the subversive potential of comics. The use of signs from literature and art, traditional "high arts," in the strictly mass cultural medium of comics can destabilize cultural hierarchies by collapsing distinctions between high and low. The mere presence of high culture references in comics speaks to a breakdown in the insular status of high culture, as comics have the potential to make high culture available to a mass audience, albeit in an altered form. Comics can and do foreground the artificiality of distinctions between high and popular culture.
On the basis of these ways of seeing comics intertextually, I have observed two broad strategies of intertextuality in comics, both of which involve generic, continuity based, and cross media intertextuality. The first strategy, through allusion and invocation, centers its intertextuality around texts from outside comics, positioning itself within the world of myth and literature. The second strategy centers itself within the world of comics. An example of the first strategy is Sandman while the already mentioned Animal Man is an example of the latter. These titles are not, however, ideal types that are restricted to using intertextuality in only one way; they merely provide good examples of the subversive and hierarchical possibilities of the two strategies.
Sandman written by Neil Gaiman, and created by Gaiman and artist Mike Dringenberg, debuted in 1989. While the comic is not immensely popular, it has a devoted following and is known for having a number of fans who come from areas other than regular comics fandom, most notably a large contingent of fantasy fans. Sandman is, for the most part, divorced for the regular DC continuity. It introduced an entirely new character, who represented a complete change from both of the earlier versions of Sandman, the golden-age super-hero and the seventies Jack Kirby psychedelic Sandman. As a result of this distance from the DC Universe, the comic has been mostly concerned with illuminating the past of the title character, who is usually called Morpheus, and his siblings, a race of quasi-gods called the Endless.
This illumination of the past differs sharply from the common mode of comics storytelling in the super-hero genre. Normally, a character has an origin which encapsulates that part of the story which predates the character's first appearance. In the origin of Batman, for example, we learn that his parents were killed by a mugger when he was young and this drove him to become Batman. But in this model, once the origin story has been told, continuity is created by telling the story of what has happened to Batman since he became Batman. While there are occasional excursions into the past, most of continuity takes place in the supposed present.
Sandman, by contrast, tells the story of Morpheus' present, but also seeks to provide a past for the character that doesn't draw from his previous appearances in comics because he has no discrete origin story. This is primarily accomplished by positioning him intertextually through the use of literary, historical, mythic, and biblical allusions, which point the reader toward a particular intertextual reading.
A good example of this process is the use of Shakespeare in the comic. William Shakespeare appears, rather obviously, as a character in two Sandman stories, "Men of Good Fortune," in which he plays a minor role, along with other literary figures like Chaucer, and Christopher Marlowe, and "A Midsummer's Night Dream," in which his company performs that play for an audience including the real Oberon, Titania, and Puck. In the first story, Shakespeare is invoked to add a period touch to a story in which Morpheus meets another immortal once every century at the same pub in London.
In both cases, the inclusion of Shakespeare serves to suggest an intertextual reading with the text of Shakespeare, that is to say, not the plays that Shakespeare wrote, but rather the concept of Shakespeare as a literary figure. Use of this concept of Shakespeare can be read two ways. First, it can be read as a denial of cultural hierarchy in the same way that the inclusion of high culture signs in pop culture has a destabilizing effect. By declaring the Shakespeare is fair game for inclusion in a comic as an intertextual referent, Sandman collapses the artificial distance between high and low culture.
The use of Shakespeare can also be read as a rearticulation of cultural hierarchy. Especially when coupled with Sandman's estrangement from the continuity of comics, its use of Shakespeare can be seen as making pitch for a higher position within the cultural hierarchy. Reading Sandman this way is equivalent to saying Sandman is a part of the high culture, because it has Shakespeare. Rather than exposing the constructedness of the boundaries between high and low culture, this reading merely seeks to have Sandman taken up into the high culture, much in the same way that film and jazz have moved from the realms of the popular to the realms of art.
The problem with this strategy is two-fold. First, it is unlikely to make any difference to those people who really have an investment in preserving hierarchies between high and popular culture. By and large, comics will still be regarded as a trash medium. Second, what it succeeds in doing is reproducing the same hierarchies within the world of comics. Sandman becomes valorized as a good comic not because it is well written or drawn, nor because it is particularly helpful in helping its readers make sense of the world, but rather because it has Shakespeare,
The intertextuality of Animal Man is of a different species. Animal Man is a reworking of a little used DC super-hero from the sixties. Although the comic continues with different creative teams, the issues relevant to this paper were written by Grant Morrison, and drawn mostly by Chas Truog. Although Animal Man does include some high culture signs, they are much less explicit than those of Sandman and do not make a pitch for a certain kind of intertextual reading. Instead, Animal Man draws heavily on the continuity of comics, specifically DC superhero comics. At times, Animal Man goes beyond suggesting an intertextual reading to requiring one; often, it is not comprehensible unless it is read in relation to DC comics continuity. This most clear during the end of Morrison's long story arc, when the story is dependent on knowledge of DC's "Crisis On the Infinite Earths" miniseries and the pre-crisis DC continuity
This intertextual strategy also has both potentials and pitfalls. In some ways, making this kind of intertextual reading necessary acts as an affirmation of the experience of comics fans. Readers are rewarded with comprehension and the pleasures of recognition for having invested the time reading the earlier texts. Even in stories where specific knowledge is not necessary for comprehension, the reader is given the pleasure of recognizing "in-jokes" and subtle allusions. These rewards act counter to the hegemonic notions of high culture which dismiss comics reading as inferior to reading books, and see time spent reading comics as time wasted.
At the same time, this type of intertextuality can be very exclusionary. It creates a hierarchy of readers with those who lack the necessary cultural capital unable to participate in the discourse. Animal Man is, in many ways, an insider's comic. Beyond the level of continuity, it also rewards familiarity with genre, as was illustrated by the Red Mask example. It's a very frustrating comic for me because I enjoy it a lot, yet I feel that I'm unable to introduce it to people who don't read comics because it is so dependent on the past experience of reading comics.
Neither Sandman nor Animal Man use the same intertextual strategies all the time, and two of the most interesting examples of intertextuality come from issues where the creators backed away from their regular strategies. Gaiman makes his closest connections to DC continuity in "Facade" from Sandman 20, which tells the story of the death of Element Girl, a little used character from DC's past. She has become a depressed agoraphobic whose only contact with the outside world is a weekly phone call to the disability office of the CIA, her former employer. By making the existence of Element Girl one which is far removed from the glamour and power of super-heroes, Gaiman manages to collapse the fantastic into the everyday in a way that forces the reader to reconsider the super-hero genre.
Even more interesting is "The Coyote Gospel," from Animal Man 5. Grant Morrison maps the Christ myth onto the figure of Wiley E. Coyote, who agrees to die painfully and horribly over and over again to save his cartoon world from the ravages of perpetual violence. The juxtaposition of the sacred with the cartoon accomplishes what is perhaps most subversive about intertextuality. It forces us as readers to re-examine and reapproach all the texts we bring to our intertextual readings, creating a dialogue among the intertexts. This sort of dialogue is, of course, created to some extent in any intertextual reading, but these examples push toward making this dialogue a critical one.
In any case, both intertextual strategies that I have described share the same promise and problems of all intertextuality. They have potential to make certain kinds of subversive readings possible. At the same, they can be also used to reproduce the hierarchies of the dominant culture.
© 1993-1994 M. C. Rogers
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