How to read superhero comics and why

Dodano: 29 January 2016

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The skeleton key


The scientific debate concerning comics, which started in the mid 1900s, has been growing ever steadily in all areas of humanities and social sciences. Comic books drew the particular interest of scholarly circles, mostly grouped in literary studies, cultural sciences and philosophy. In Poland comics are similarly gaining recognition among academics, as evidenced by the growing number of publications and conferences, as well as the placing of a comics journal “Zeszyty Komiksowe” (“Comics papers”) on the official point-value academic index. Likewise, the singular works by renowned comics theorists are being published in Poland, such as Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” and Bart Beaty’s “Comics versus art”. However, translations to Polish are still rare and interested parties are often forced to rely on original texts. One of the more interesting academic works concerning comics is “How to read superhero comics and why” by Geoff Klock.

Klock obtained his PhD at Oxford University and serves as an associate professor at the BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College). His interests encompass literature (mostly British), film, tv shows and comics. He has authored many publications on popular culture.

In his currently reviewed book, Klock points out the existing links between various forms of art, such as poetry and comics. He analyzes superhero comics utilizing tools created by literary studies. Klock’s book is an insightful study on superhero comics, in which he predominantly focuses on select titles, such as “The Watchmen” by Alan Moore and “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller.


The author refers to the existing chronology of XX century comic works. His deliberations focus on the so-called third era of comics (after golden and silver eras), which begun with “The Dark Knight Returns”. In his own words, the author strives to avoid postmodernist or deconstructivist references. Klock tries to focus on the comic itself, as a work, analyzing the patterns and tropes of literary lecture. However, his considerations do not shy away from introducing and entering into arguments with trends based on psychoanalysis, the Jungian school, Campbell’s or Claude Levi-Struss’s popular culture studies. He points out that both cultural and literary studies omit certain aspects. Klock orients his research on the writer persona and narration, not on the artist figure – a creator of a comic work of art. He leans towards abstract analysis of history and narration, but not of the image, in which they are realized.

Klock’s theory is based on carefully chosen examples (the afore-mentioned Miller and Moore, but also “Marvels”, “Astro City” and “Planetary”). It is not an absolutely universal key, though it allows comicbook affiicionados to reflect on their favorite heroes from a different perspective. Klock bases his work on critical models to reveal a “new generation of superheroes”; he refers to the traditions of hero literature, genology, building a coherent image of analogies and inter-genre relations, as well the histories of their development.


Klock places his chosen works in a wide context, the reviewed book is full of references to other texts. It may be an interesting read not only to comicbook and literature lovers. The author himself stresses that his book concerns superhero comics, in which genre determinants are classic and clear. The researcher chose to analyze titles, that can be easily obtained in the American/British market, so as the reader can easily follow his argumentation with the currently discussed comics in hand. The book is enhanced by a relatively formidable bibliography.

The reviewed work can be recommended to comics theorists, researchers and superhero comics lovers, who are looking for new analytical solutions and a fresh look on “heroes in tights”. One must remember however, that Klock does not propose an easy lockpick, a scholarly tool adequate to all hero-themed comics, but only a skeleton key, that fits to works created in one particular convention.

The author of this review is Matylda Sek.

Correction: Klementyna Dec.

We would like to thank Bloomsbury Academic for providing a copy for review.

Title: How to read superhero comics and why

Author: Geoff Klock

Publication date: October 2002.

216 pages

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