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Book Review | Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Published onApr 01, 2015
Book Review | Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl. Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way. NYU Press, 2013; 289 pp.; ISBN: 9780814767887.


In what can be described as an ethnographic content analysis of (super) heroic proportions, Nickie D. Phillips and Staci Strobl’s Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way provides an in-depth exploration of crime and justice discourses presented in the medium of the comic book in the first decade of the 2000s. The authors employ years of in-depth participant observation in the comic book subculture along with group interviews to inform their analysis of the story arcs in two hundred popular comic book series, along with a number of graphic novels, in the post-9/11 American context. Drawing on a cultural criminological framework, Phillips and Strobl skillfully weave in a host of intellectual perspectives as diverse as postcolonial theory, theology, and Freudian psychoanalysis in their interrogation of comic books as cultural artifacts in which they argue the “repetition of cultural meanings… reinforces particular notions of justice, especially the punishment philosophies of retributive justice and incapacitation… meted out by crime fighting heroes and superheroes who are depicted as predominantly white males defending a nostalgic American way of life” (p. 3).

The authors begin by establishing a brief history of the development of the comic book industry and the medium itself. Rooted in gritty detective dramas that arose in the 1930s, the industry rapidly expanded in popularity among youth via the gory and violent depictions of its crime and horror genres through the 1950s. However, a moral panic spearheaded by parental and religious crusaders and fueled by Frederic Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent soon ensued; the (anecdotal) causal linkage of the violent graphic and textual stories with the villainous specter of juvenile delinquency was proclaimed. The comics industry recoiled at potential sanctions and in the 1950s instituted self-imposed plot restrictions known as the Comics Code. The puritanical restrictions of the Code and its explicit directive to uphold the status quo “ensured that comic book content would thereafter perpetuate the interests of the ruling class and reaffirm stereotypical ideas about gender, race, and sexuality” (p. 27). The formulaic imposition of the Code, that “in every instance good shall triumph over evil,” set the stage for the dominance of the superhero genre in the industry. The 1970s and 80s s saw the gradual erosion of the Code’s authority as publishers found it economically viable to publish outside its restrictions to more mature audiences.

Having situated the historical context of the industry, Phillips and Strobl begin their sampling with the culturally contemporary terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. They lay out a post-9/11 comic book formula in which nostalgic longings for an idealized past are juxtaposed with a dystopian present overridden with crime and threats of apocalyptic proportions along with inept and corrupt law enforcement and government officials. These forces drive and necessitate the intervention of messianic superheroes on a quest for apocalyptic justice; they constantly gaze toward utopias perpetually out of reach, utopias largely defined by their adherence to distinctly Judeo-Christian and Western values of goodness, justice, and individual accountability– an American cultural hegemony of globalized proportions. The mass anxiety generated by the real-world events of 9/11 and its aftermath are revealed to induce a “bipolar response” in comic narratives. With the threat of terrorism easily incorporated into this formulaic plot, many narratives fell into more predictable xenophobic riles of patriotic fervor. Importantly, however, other comics broke from the unquestioning loyalty displayed in previous wartime eras and, sometimes indirectly and sometimes more explicitly, challenged the erosion of civil liberties and problematic tactics of the Bush administration’s War on Terror. Unlike the nearly unanimous racist comic depictions of the Japanese in World War II, post-9/11 comics witnessed a significant increase in positively portrayed Muslim and Arab superheroes.

Much of the book is devoted to analysis of the growing diversity and potential counterhegemonic depictions of superheroes in the sample along the lines of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Despite the expanded diversity of the early 2000s, the comic book medium, over  all, lags far behind other popular culture mediums–the vast majority of its characters (hero and villain alike) conform to a White, male, heterosexual cultural script. Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, lesbian, and female characters, while present, are few and far between. Usually taking on supporting roles, these characters often conform to essentialist stereotypes (while occasionally displaying more nuanced character development) and suffer from significantly shorter lifespans. The counterhegemonic potential of these diverse characters is perpetually blunted as they are continuously othered through the hegemonic gaze of White male heteronormativity that dominates the perspectives of both publishers and fans alike.

For the criminologically minded, the most interesting segments of the book delineate the fairly narrow parameters in which crime causation and just punishment are presented. In terms of crime causation, Phillips and Strobl note that the most common explanation provided for the origins of the supervillain is the same explanation posited by a number of positivistic criminological theories: deep-seated childhood trauma which in turn leads the individual down a path of criminal psychopathy. If not crazed psychopathy, the other most common explanation provided for criminal behavior sits comfortably among other conservative criminological theories: the villains are acting out of calculated rational choice. At the expense of any critical criminological explanations of crime causation that implicate racist, patriarchal, capitalist social power structures, the two preferred causal explanations in comics situate crime entirely at the level of the individual. These individualistic criminal origins, the superhero’s utopian strivings, and the graphic nature of the medium itself result in formulaic means of street-level justice and punishment meted out in the forms of incapacitation and retribution, while almost completely ignoring (or degrading) deterrence, rehabilitation, or restorative justice as viable options. Indeed, the serial nature of comics makes temporary (violent) incapacitation the method of choice; there are action-packed panels, but the villain eventually goes on to terrorize another day,  allowing the saga and sales to continue. This incapacitation, however,  is combined with a retributive tease in what Phillips and Strobl call “apocalyptic incapacitation” (p. 205). Apocalyptic incapacitation toys with the possibility of total eye for an eye retribution while rarely completely delivering. Nevertheless the readers thoroughly enjoy the transgressive pleasure of seeing how far the superheroes will push their own ethical boundaries in the deliverance of justice.

While the book does an excellent job of tracing the parameters and identity-intersections of crime and justice discourses expressed in the various comic narratives, there is a glaring lack of subcultural exploration beyond the glossy pages of the comics. With only limited dialogue, excerpts from the focus groups, and references to online posts and podcasts sprinkled throughout, the reader is left with scant description of the inner nuances of comic book culture beyond a note of its insularity and male-dominated social base. While slightly ambiguous in the beginning, it becomes clear throughout the book that participant observation and focus groups are used exclusively as tools to enrich their overall content analysis. As a self-admitted neophyte to all things comic book related, however, the book made me want to not only go pick up a few comic titles but also learn more about the extensive subculture that has arisen around them and how its participants negotiate the themes of crime and justice in other mediums. (Perhaps material for a second book?)

Overall, Phillips and Strobl do an excellent job of expanding the cultural criminological project into the largely un-interrogated worlds inhabited by the likes of Batwoman, Superman, and the X-Men. Their self-proclaimed exercise in “popular criminology” (p. 6) points toward the need of those of us with a critical bent to further craft our own public criminologies, lest the forces of positivist and rational choice theories continue to dominate the realm of popular culture. I believe Comic Book Crime is an endeavor of popular public criminology capable of capturing the attention of multiple audiences; it offers an academic insight into comic book discourses on crime and justice, but perhaps more importantly, it offers the non-academic (and in particular comic book enthusiasts) an accessible introduction to the criminological imagination.

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