Freshly Showered

Today Jeet Heer pay us a visit to look at some issues surrounding Jill Lepore's much-discussed book about Wonder Woman. Here's a bit:

The major problem with the book is it’s unwillingness to engage the rich existing literature on Wonder Woman (in particular) and comic book history (in general). Lepore has written a narrative history, which means her extensive footnotes are largely devoted to giving the sources for her facts. She doesn’t feel the need to argue with earlier scholarly excavations and interpretations. This has the distorting effect of making it seem like she’s the first person to tell this story. Many innocent readers will think that everything in the book is Lepore’s discovery. Yet the broad outlines of Marston’s life – his work inventing the prototype of the lie detector, his polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne, his ties through his lovers to the feminist and birth control movement – have been known for at least two decades or more. In a very real sense, Lepore is working on the foundations built by scholars like Geoffrey Crinson Bunn, Lillian Robinson, and Francine Valcour. (Bunn and Valcour wrote important doctoral theses which are as yet unpublished. The late Lillian Robinson was the author of the 2004 book Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes) All of these scholars go unmentioned, which is a troubling omission. Particularly objectionable is the erasure of Bunn (whose scholarship was pioneering) and Robinson (whose theoretical approach would have enriched Lepore’s book). Other, more recent books that take up Wonder Woman – notably Ben Saunders Do the Gods Wear Capes? (2011) – are also ignored. Ignoring these scholars is especially troublesome because of the power dynamics at work. Lepore has a lot of institutional strength: she teaches at Harvard, her book is published by Knopf, and was excerpted by The New Yorker. By contrast, Lillian Robinson was for much of her career a nomadic scholar, moving from one adjunct job to the next. Despite her precarious status in academia, Robinson wrote many important books. It seems churlish of Lepore to write Robinson out of history.

Jeet's is the third and, I think, final piece we'll run on the book. Here's Ron Rege, Jr.'s interview with Lepore and Sarah Boxer's review.

And we are pleased to have Simon Hanselmann is joining us for the week with a Cartoonist's Diary. Here's day 1.


Zoe Taylor interviews Seiichi Hayashi.

Tom Spurgeon interviews Zak Sally.

I always enjoy "behind the cover" features about the New Yorker, and this one's no different.

TCJ-contributor Sean Rogers recommends three recent graphic novels. Roberta Smith recommends my very own What Nerve! in the NY Times. The same "gift suggestions" section of the Times includes the usual deplorable suggestions from Captain Fanboy George Gene Gustines (I refuse to link to it), who manages to make one of the best eras in comics mostly about complete junk. It's as if the Times film coverage was devoted exclusively to Michael Bay pictures. Weird, depressing and embarrassing. Grow up, George! And Dana Jennings is ecstatic over the new giant Marvel book from Taschen. I have spent some time with the book, and it does feature a ton of great art -- no real discoveries or anything you haven't seen, but it's nicely reproduced, and certainly treats the art better than Marvel itself ever has. But ultimately it's a very expensive corporate brand book. It faithfully sticks to the script regarding the company's "fun" and "greatness", which I'm sure was the mandate. Of course the company's deplorable treatment of its artists is nowhere to be found, and no real history is done here. That's not what this book is about. The artists are mentioned and given short profiles, but they are always secondary to the product. Why would Marvel do anything else? So, you get what you pay for here -- it makes perfect publishing sense (i.e. a gift book about a "beloved" company) but little moral or aesthetic sense. There are plenty of other books out there that cover the artists, but it is sad that writers and researchers like Roy Thomas and Michael Vassallo, among others, would participate in this kind of whitewash, or the idea that Marvel is "beloved" or a "myth maker" or in the business of anything other than making money.

5 Responses to Freshly Showered

  1. John Sonnett says:

    Pardon my ignorance of academia, but Heer’s statement:

    “In a very real sense, Lepore is working on the foundations built by scholars like Geoffrey Crinson Bunn, Lillian Robinson, and Francine Valcour. (Bunn and Valcour wrote important doctoral theses which are as yet unpublished. The late Lillian Robinson was the author of the 2004 book Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes) All of these scholars go unmentioned, which is a troubling omission.”

    makes no sense to me. How can Lepore credit (in fact how can anyone but their professors even READ) these theses if they’re… unpublished? Does Lepore know Bunn or Valcour?

  2. Nate Atkinson says:

    Many (most?) dissertations and master’s theses are available through online databases of the sort Lepore was citing. Those that aren’t are available through university libraries. It’s common to see dissertations in histories, especially when those histories deal with under-researched subjects.

  3. Dr. Michael J. Vassallo says:

    The Marvel age will always be a source of never-ending moral angst between disciples of actual history and corporate history. When approached to oversee the 1940’s and 1950’s, I realized if I didn’t do it myself, then a book on the 75 years of Marvel would lack an awfully large part of their history, and golden-age creators would definitely have gotten the short shrift, pretty much being written out of Marvel’s history. Thankfully, my job was to make sure the 1940’s and 1950’s got proper placement and recognition, which it now, thankfully has. I wrote all the captions from page 1 to 213. While I did not choose what images got full-page treatment, nor even what images were chosen for use (I did make a lot of suggestions), I can vouch that absolutely nothing in the captions was changed in the way of corporate mandate. Marvel made no suggestions from pages 1-213, gave no stipulations, nor made any demands, for which I was very thankful.

    I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to actually read the book Dan, but the editorial support from 1939 to 1970, meaning captions to the the imagery, gives all of the weight and context to the creator side. Given that there would be no book like this without Marvel’s ok, this is definitely the best that could be done under the circumstances. The perfect book on Marvel’s 75 years, in a format like this, cannot be done. At the very least, we were able to weigh it in the right direction.

  4. Dan Nadel says:

    Hi Michael,
    Yes, I read it, and it would be foolish to underestimate the amount of work you put into those captions, ensuring proper attribution to the artists who made the images. Of course it weighs the book in the “right direction”, as you wrote. But giving bonafides to a fundamentally skewed (to put it mildly) version of history is not always the answer. It’s a tough quandary though. I suppose I’d rather not see something so abjectly corporate given any excuse — i.e. “well, at least we did THIS”. But of course I understand your position. To me it just legitimizes a broadly incorrect stance. So… a mixed bag there, and certainly a tough decision. Thanks for writing in.

  5. It “is” a quandry Dan, and I don’t have the answer. As I wrote, without my input, the 1940’s and 1950’s would have been a disaster and possibly cut down at least in half. I do know that as I was working on it, probably based on my enthusiasm and suggestions, the period was greatly expanded. The final 30 years from 1985 onward are basically glossed over in comparison, of which I am extremely happy about. The 1940’s and 1950’s actually got a near full third of the book. To me, getting Allen Bellman, Syd Shores, Joe Maneely, et al, a spotlight, was worth it.

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