Interview: Doctor Liam Burke on Superhero Identities Symposium
By Ben Kooyman
On Thursday 8th and Friday 9th December, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image is hosting the Superhero Identities Symposium, featuring academic discussions of superheroes in comics, films, and other media by a range of industry guests and scholars, including Australian Comics Journal’s very own Amy Louise Maynard. The event also features a trio of illustrious keynotes in Paul Dini, Hope Larson, and (via livestream) Professor Henry Jenkins. Australian Comics Journal spoke with Doctor Liam Burke from the Faculty of Health, Arts and Design at Swinburne University of Technology about this event and other related topics.
How did the idea for the Superhero Identities Symposium originate?
The event is part of a larger project called Superheroes & Me. Superheroes & Me is an Australian Research Council-funded project that will culminate in 2018 with an exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne’s Federation Square. The team is made up of academics who have a history of researching superheroes, comic books, popular culture and things like that, and have a longstanding interest in superheroes and why they are such timeless icons. Most of these characters have been in publication for more than 75 years, and they’ve never been out of print, and through films or TV shows or video games they have a reach that extends beyond that original form, and they have an iconic quality. We’re interested in their enduring popularity, and what they mean at different time periods for different people in different ways. In many respects, superheroes are a great barometer for the age: you can look back and see what the major interests, trends, and anxieties in a given time period were by looking at the superheroes that were popular during that time.
So for this project we partnered with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image – which is a great venue and has events, exhibitions, and masterclasses dedicated to movies and popular culture – and we talked about an exhibition for 2018, which will go on for several months, and what we could do in anticipation of that exhibition. We have a series of research projects and events planned in the run-up to 2018, and this symposium on Superhero Identities is the first of those events. The reason we focus on superhero identities is this. When you think of, say, people coming together recently in Sydney to support an ill child using the figure of Iron Man (which of course is replicating Batkid from San Francisco a couple of years ago) or think of real life vigilantes dressing up as superheroes or people cosplaying for conventions or other similar events, it’s people using superheroes. And other people may just be enthusiastic about superheroes, and go see the latest Marvel movie and wear a t-shirt. Really what we’re trying to do is get together as many superhero scholars and experts as well as industry guests and panelists to sort of tackle from different perspectives this question of what superheroes really mean for us at a given time period – and there’s no one answer, rather a variety of answers – and to bring some texture and understanding to that topic.
For Australian Comics Journal readers not familiar with where comics and superheroes fit in academia, is this a niche field or a thriving area of scholarship?
Comics in the West – not manga in the East, which remains hugely popular – is an increasingly rarefied past-time. Since the heyday of the 40s and the 50s, comics, at least in their print versions, tend to be selling less and less. But for those people interested in comics, it becomes an underground or even a fringe media: even the most successful Marvel or DC comics will be lucky to sell a hundred thousand issues through American stores. So it’s become sort of a niche sub-culture unto itself, and the people in that tend to be very media-savvy and media active; what we’re increasingly finding is that the people who are interested in media and how media works tend to be comic book readers.
So there are a surprising number of academics who may not be explicitly studying comic books, but do have an interest, whether it be in something like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus or the more familiar Stan Lee/Marvel comics, and we find that in our students as well. Here at Swinburne University where I teach, we just had our first comics studies unit which I delivered, and it was very popular. We had lots of guest speakers, such as Tom Taylor who’s also coming to our symposium: he’s a Melbourne writer, writes All-New Wolverine for Marvel and Injustice: Gods Among Us for DC. We also had The Crow creator, James O’ Barr, come for a masterclass. It was a really successful class; like I said, anyone interested in media tends to gravitate towards comics. So our students have an interest and a lot of our fellow lecturers and researchers do.
One of the reasons comics are particularly interesting for media scholars is that a lot of media has moved towards transmedia paradigms. That’s where content is spreadable. Take something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, probably the best example: the story is not just confined to movies but also TV shows, video games, and also prequel comic books. Comic books have a longstanding history of transmedia practices. You think of the shared universes of Marvel and DC, where you have that sort of continuity, and then you think of these new transmedia stories, whether it’s Star Wars or The Matrix, and really comics were the canary in the coalmine for these sorts of practices. Also, comics were very good at dealing with their fanbase, probably starting with Stan Lee and Julius Schwartz at DC; they have a longstanding tradition of narrowing the gap between producers and consumers, and making fans feel like they were being heard. In the 1960s this was confined to relatively few forms; today of course with social media every medium, every entertainment, is trying to be interactive, but comics really anticipated that particular participatory turn.
As I said earlier, comics are also interesting because when you look back at comics they’re not like a Pulitzer Prize-winning play or an Oscar-winning movie that someone spent years sweating over; they tend to be made very quickly, grabbed from the headlines and be very reflective of attitudes and changing trends. If you want to look back and get a snapshot of “a moment”, you’ll be much better served looking at the World War II comics rather than the movies produced at that time. The Marvel comics of the 1960s dealt with everything from the hippie subculture to the civil rights movement. Comics are really interesting in that respect; they are, as I said, a barometer for the age.
You said that Marvel and DC sales are waning, which I guess makes comics increasingly just the raw material for the transmedia empires built around them. In that respect, the partnership with Australian Centre for the Moving Image makes a lot of sense. You actually wrote a couple of books on this subject – The Comic Book Film Adaptation and The Pocket Essential Superhero Movies – and I’m curious how integral movies are to sustaining mainstream comics in general, and what does that mean for a smaller national comics industry like Australia’s?
DC Comics has been part of Time Warner/Warner Communications since the early 1970s. In 2009, Walt Disney Company obviously bought Marvel. As you quite rightly point out, these publishers are being positioned as the research and development branches for larger media conglomerates. The cost of production on a comic is quite small, certainly compared to TV and definitely compared to video games or movies, so new ideas, new concepts, new characters are trialled out often in comics. Guardians of the Galaxy had a resurgence in comics in anticipation of that movie; different iterations of Suicide Squad were trialed in DC Comics. So it becomes a way to test out new ideas.
What we’re not seeing though is the flow of fans back to comics. Despite the unprecedented number of comic book adaptations over the past fifteen years, the sales of comics – and I’m talking about mainstream comics – have not really increased dramatically. And of course that makes sense when you think about it. I did research at several cinema screenings of comic book adaptations, and half of the people who described themselves as comic book fans actually don’t read comics. That’s a weird statistic to arrive at, all these people going around describing themselves as comic book fans but not actually reading comics. But if you drill down into that, those comic book fans are sort of like the armchair supporters of a sports team: they get the comic book content not through the actual pages, but through popular TV shows, video games, animated series, movies and so on. So, they consider themselves to be comic book fans even though they don’t necessarily read comics.
Conversely, about 10% of non-fans who I surveyed actually read comics, but they tended to gravitate towards graphic novels or more highbrow comics or humour titles. There’s something about the term “comic book fan” that didn’t sit with them; they didn’t consider themselves to be comic book fans, even though they were in fact comic book readers. So, the definition of comic book fan and comic book reader is more nebulous than we’re sometimes lead to believe. And the industry hasn’t benefited in terms of readership from these popular adaptations, because the fans, such as they are, can watch the next episode of The Flash or watch the next Marvel movie or get the next Batman Arkham game; there isn’t this need to return to the source to get their superhero fix, because there is this constellation of comic book content in other media.
What that means for the long-term ramifications of the industry, at least in its mainstream format, is actually quite problematic, because you have a case of the tail wagging the dog where the comic books are being primed to lend themselves to adaptation. And if that becomes the case, often they’re not embracing what comics can do, both narratively and aesthetically. Instead they end up with black gutters and widescreen panels and all these other devices that make them look filmic. But the benefit of that is you see a flowering of other genres. For the longest time, if you talked about mainstream comics, what you were really talking about was superhero comics, but in recent years, particularly with second tier publishers like Image, you see an expansion of what was traditionally a mainstream comic. Books like Saga, The Walking Dead, Fables – books that are more into horror or supernatural or science-fiction genres – are becoming as successful as the longstanding superheroes, and that can only be a good thing for the industry. And so the argument becomes: if movies and TV shows can now, due to special effects and other affordances, convincingly do superheroes, do comics need to have superheroes in them anymore? And while I love superheroes on the page, a more diverse output is always welcome.
What that then means for Australia is interesting. I spoke recently to Wolfgang Bylsma at Gestalt Comics. Gestalt are probably the biggest independent comics publisher in Australia, based in Perth; they do books like Changing Ways, they gave Tom Taylor his start with books like The Deep, and they really are a proactive and active publisher. And I said to Wolfgang, “You really don’t so superhero books”, and he said “It’s hard enough for an Australian publisher to complete with US publishers and manga publishers, so why would you move into the same genre as them?” By focusing more on horror or comedy or supernatural elements, Australian publishers like Gestalt, like Dark Oz in South Australia, are able to differentiate themselves from the US publishers, not just because they’re Australian, but because they’re tackling genres that have been overlooked by those mainstream publishers. This creates an opportunity and a space for Australian publishers to tell those stories that aren’t being told.
Also, I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve had their adaptations produced, such as Steve Niles, the creator of 30 Days of Night. He described how he tried to get 30 Days of Night, which was a vampire horror comic, made as a script; he tried to get that made in Hollywood for years and got blank faces. But once he released it as a comic, the studio heads and producers understood it and it was greenlit very quickly. If you think about it, the people who have to read these scripts, it’s exhausting, so if they can see a visual example in a friendly version like a comic, then they’ll get it and read it more quickly. So, a lot of publishers, a lot of people trying to break into the film or TV industry, will go via comics because it’s a low cost, visual medium that serves as a very readily accessible pitch item. That’s good for Australian publishers and creators: take the recent success of Tom Taylor. He came up with The Deep, which is about a family of underwater explorers, very much a family-friendly, kid-friendly book, and that now is moving into its second season as an animated show. Now if he’d been trying to pitch that from Australia as a straight-up script, it might have got picked up, but undoubtedly the fact it was already realised in a comic helped facilitate that movement from page to screen. And so there’s an opportunity, even though Australia is on the other side of the world from Hollywood, for these comics to cut through in a way that scripts perhaps wouldn’t, which is a very exciting and very lucrative opportunity for local creators. But then, of course, you get yourself back into that catch 22 that if you always have one eye towards another medium, are you making the best comic or are you trying to make sure that it lends itself to film, TV, video games and so forth?
Having touched briefly on local creators, will there be Australian comics and creators represented at Superhero Identities Symposium, either as speakers or as the subjects of different talks, or is it largely discussing overseas content?
Australia is definitely well-represented. We’ll have a Women in Comics panel and that is made up of academics and industry guests, including Tom Taylor who does All New Wolverine and is a Melbourne creator, and Nicola Scott who is an Australian artist who does the art for Wonder Woman now and is based in Sydney. We also have Naja Later, who is one of the founders and organisers of the Women in Comics reading group at All Star Comics in Melbourne. That’s the largest women’s reading group I think in the world. So there will be a focus on Australian creators, but also Australian comic book culture, the reading groups and the convention culture. Beyond that, thinking about the topic of identities, we have a lot of papers from academics that focus on regionality and national identity, and presenters who are going to present explicitly on Australian topics. We have one paper here that is ‘When Indigenous Australians taught The Phantom to vote: Educational comics and postcolonial national identity’. We have ‘The Antipodean Anti-Hero: The role of satire in Australian superhero comics’. And the list goes on and on. It’s up on the ACMI website now so you can get a sense of the variety of papers and how they deal with superhero identities. And not just in Australia: in one panel we have ‘Mission in Action: The late development of the German-speaking superhero’ followed by ‘The Soldier’s legacy’, which is by Paul Mason, an Australian creator. Then the next paper is called ‘No crescent or stars: Turkish superheroes and national identity’, and it goes on and on.
So, we are really trying to get into the diversity of superheroes when we talk about identities, how they mean different things in different contexts, and how people have taken what is traditionally seen as a very American icon and re-purposed it at a local level to reflect local interests, local attitudes, local practices and customs.
Special thanks to Doctor Liam Burke for being a generous and expansive interviewee. For further information about the Superhero Identities Symposium and to view the full timetable of events, click here. For further information about the Superheroes & Me project, click here.