Telling Secrets

  • Richard Harrison (Author) and Lee Easton (Author)
    Secret Identity Reader: Essays on Sex, Death and the Superhero. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
Reviewed by Tim Blackmore

As fans once more watch DC Comics prepare to commit commercial suicide and stupidly reissue and renumber every comic by putting a 1 on the cover (ironically the DC June 1st blog entry on the matter is titled We Hate Secrets, because they’re so exhilarated about cynically flooding the market in September 2011) in the hopes of making a sale to every sucker . . . sorry, fan, who thinks they’re buying a piece of history, it is a great relief to read a book as thoughtful, intelligent, well informed, perceptive and smart as Lee Easton and Richard Harrison’s Secret Identity Reader. Easton and Harrison, two professors at Mount Royal College, have pooled their brains and voices to explore, in depth, the world of Marvel and DC golden to iron age comics. As the book title indicates, the discussion revolves around sex and death, but most of all, identity, in the world of the superhero and the superhero reading audience. It’s a pleasure to see this kind of study done right (the word properly just doesn’t pack the colloquial wallop it needs).

Easton and Harrison discovered each other’s love for comics and decided to write this book together. They’ve done it in a way that makes it easy on the reader—there’s no guessing about who wrote what. Instead, the chapters alternate between authors: Harrison may weigh in on identity, and then it’s Easton’s turn. After a few chapters, the reader comes to know and identify each of the voices: Harrison is the modernist and poet who has struggled with his father’s at times overpowering presence in his life; Easton, the postmodernist, is the queer man from Sudbury who found in comics’ repeated narratives of hidden identity and male beauty some refuge from the narrow closet of 1960s northern Canada. Each has a touching, intriguing vision of how comics operated not only for them, but how they still operate for a culture at large. Together they agree and disagree, creating a true discussion between them about the value and intricacy of comics across time.

The reader who prefers other graphic texts to superhero comics (I’m one of those, although there’s a time for good crazed costumed stories) may think this book has nothing worthwhile to say about comics more generally. They’d be wrong. Across the text it is clear that both authors know the material, all of it, thoroughly, and can apply what they see in superhero comics to all kinds of graphic narratives. Harrison begins by addressing why the book is about foundational superheroes, not Maus, Jimmy Corrigan, and Persepolis. They’re not writing about superheroes because it’s all they know: they’re writing about superheroes because they’re reflecting on how these iconic figures have functioned and continue to function in the culture.

The two authors get it right in a number of ways. They show themselves to have the kind of particular knowledge that a scholar should have: they’ve followed the online debates, have listened to creator commentaries that accompany films of Marvel and DC comic characters (even atrocious failures like Marvel’s 2003 Daredevil), know the literature of comics scholarship, and understand what a spoof can say about the field (Harrison’s tangential comments about Brad Bird’s The Incredibles shows just how much he’s attuned to the genre). They follow the chains of production and consumption that we know, in graphic fiction of the twentieth century, so drove (and still do, although in different ways) the art form. We cannot talk about the way Marvel and DC Comics created their books without talking about distribution, work for hire, creator’s rights, and the suborning of artists. Easton and Harrison get this, and get beyond it, too. They consider who produces the text, from the corporate author, to creative minds and hands, right down to the fan. It’s a satisfyingly thorough discussion. I suspect the classes on comics each teaches have the same kind of depth and complexity. This is the kind of mature comics scholarship we’ve been looking for: it doesn’t have to lard the text with heavy theoretical references in order to be legitimate, but it can actually talk about its subject. I don’t need someone to read me a Foucault (or Derrida, Freud, Habermas, Adorno) superhero story, thanks. I can do that myself. Here instead is the real deal: the connection of icon to memory, sexuality, power, fantasy, and identity. The fact that Harrison says about these graphic works, I love them, only makes the book stronger and more intriguing. Let’s have lots more of this kind of discussion, and no more secrets.

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