Welcome to “Recorded Conversations,” an occasional feature where all the Addison Recorder editors contribute their thoughts about a question, idea, or prompt. Everyone will chime in, and then we see where the conversation wanders. After the annual pop culture festival that is San Diego Comic Con, and shortly before fall semester starts at universities, J. Michael Bestul has posed this quandary:
Question: You’re teaching a class in popular culture, literature, or the like. As part of your curriculum, you need to incorporate one graphic novel or comic book series, and only one. Which one do you use, and why?
I came up with the “one and only one” limit to make this challenging for myself, and to the other sequential art geeks that may inhabit the Recorder’s editorial board. As someone who’s taken a university course that focused on nothing but comic books in culture, and presented a conference paper on them – and whose wife works at a comic book shop – the challenge is in the limitation.
So let’s start with what kind of hypothetical class I’d be teaching. Since I get the unrealistic ability to choose my class in this scenario, it would likely involve American fiction, speculative or supernatural fiction, or mythology in modern — and Modern (and Postmodern) — storytelling. The comic book in question would need to:
- tie back to other class readings, and
- illuminate other facets of popular culture in its own unique manner.
With that in mind, my series of choice would be Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. I’d prefer to utilize the entire Mignola-verse (Hellboy, BPRD, etc.), but if I could only use one book, it would likely be Hellboy: the Conqueror Worm.
Since there would be a heavy focus (in this hypothetical class I’m teaching) on genre fiction (Bierce, Lovecraft, Howard, Borges, García Márquez, Asimov, Pratchett, Gaiman, Hill), and the theoretical underpinnings of mythmaking & intertextuality (Campbell, Jung, Eco), I would want a superhero comic book that could easily connect with these foci.
Tying the Mignola-verse together with these other readings is the easy part. Hellboy is a variation on our old friend, the heroic monomyth, but it also is a study in intertextuality. Mignola is very open about where he derives his stories from – whether he is retelling a piece of Asian or Celtic folklore, or utilizing the cosmic monsters (and their amphibian/human hybrid minions) that are a direct reference to Lovecraft’s Mythos.
But more than intertextuality, there are other pop culture connections that can be taught via Hellboy. One is the difference in storytelling between media (say, the Hellboy / BPRD books, graphic novels, and films – as well as Geek & Sundry’s “Motion Comics”), and another is the conventions of the comic book medium itself. As fellow Addisonian Alex pointed out in our last Conversation, sitcoms always tend to wrap up by the end of the episode. That is, they are episodic – after the conflict is resolved (or pushed back), the fictional world returns to its neutral state in time for the next episode.
Superhero comics are very, very similar. Even if a series-changing event occurs (e.g., death of a main character), at some point the series will only bend so far before that event must be undone or unwound (e.g., character comes back to life, or was not dead) — thus snapping the series back to its neutral state.
The Mignola-verse series defy that convention. The author has acknowledged this defiance in a recent story arc, indicating that in these series, when something is broken, it stays broken. The first dramatic example of this was with Hellboy: the Conqueror Worm, wherein Hellboy is pushed into a situation that goes against his character. When the tale ends, this causes him to reject the neutral state, thereby moving the narrative beyond episodic conventions.
And in the years since, Hellboy has only further broken from the episodic “return to neutral.” In the latest tales, for example, Ragnarok actually happens. Populations are wiped out. The world doesn’t go back to the old normal:
That’s what Professor Bestul is offering up this semester. How about the rest of you gents?
Read the responses from the other editors, Andrew, Bean, and Travis, as they are published throughout today.