Tuesday, July 11, 2017


With Spider-Man: Homecoming toppling all box office expectations in its debut weekend, superheroes with comic-book roots are once again showing their muscle. And, no surprise, the mega-big San Diego Comic-Con is just around the corner. As are a whole heap of smaller comic-cons in venues literally all over the world. (I happen to know that Ghent, Belgium, just finished up a two-day gathering of comic-book fans last weekend.)

I continue to marvel (sorry about that!) at the popularity of comic books and the movies they engender. Though I enjoy all the excitement, I admit that comic books have never played a big part in my own life. Blame it on my parents, who disdained the form, though they were avid readers of the Sunday “funnies” in our local newspaper. These days, though, I’m beginning to appreciate comic book aesthetics, which have given life to such remarkably vivid memoirs as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. The graphic novel, after all, is a sophisticated interweaving of deft verbal language and the powerful visual style unique to the comic book.

I was thinking a lot about comic books while touring Belgium recently. As a first-time tourist, I visited many a cathedral and studied the religious paintings of many Old Flemish masters. How did medieval church fathers draw in parishioners who couldn’t read? They spelled out the tenets of the faith through images that glowed down from stained-glass windows and through paintings with a strong dramatic presence. I’ve seen early artwork in which – sometimes all on one canvas – a specific believer is born, grows to adulthood, embraces Christianity, fends off  minions of Satan, and suffers a spectacular martyrdom. Check out (below) the four-panel Bruges altarpiece showing the legend of St. Ursula. (It’s not especially gruesome, but it conveys the idea.) Aside from the religious angle, doesn’t it look like a comic book?

I keep bringing up Belgium because this is a nation with a long history of medieval artistry but also one that has embraced superheroes and comic books with passion. Brussels (once the home of Tintin’s creator, HervĂ©) can even boast a twenty-five year old museum called the Belgian Comic Strip Center. And I saw that ad for Ghent’s  Comic-Con when I poked my head inside the city’s Superhero CafĂ©, where Marvel and DC memorabilia abounds.

I was recently asked whom I’d invite if I were to plan my own dream Comic-Con. I know a five-year-old boy who’d invite Spider-Man in a heartbeat. Sorry, but for me superheroes don’t make the grade. Thinking back to my own misspent youth, sneaking comic books at my best friend’s house, I realize that Katy Keene (she of the fan-designed dresses) wouldn’t be on my invite list today. Maybe Betty and Veronica: they both had spunk, unlike the doltish Archie. Later, perhaps, a few select members of the Peanuts gang: in my teen years we all cherished copies of Happiness is a Warm Puppy. But—absolutely—I’d want to have Michael Doonesbury and his Walden U classmates. These young people, with their angst and their social awareness, formed a real backdrop for my college years. And in Joanie Caucus I found a role-model for a mature female who didn’t stop evolving when she became a wife and mother. For a poignant reminder of what childhood is like, I’d want the sorely missed Calvin and Hobbes. And in tribute to my late parents, perhaps some lovable Shmoos from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner. Before Capp turned reactionary in the Sixties, his was a bold voice, skewering fat-cat pomposity. Seems to me that today we need that more than ever.  

The Belgian passion for B-movies and bad jokes shows up in the poster above, which  I saw in the window of a Manga store just off the Grand-Place. Cribbing an image from Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters logo, it promises the Invasion of the Brussels Sprouts. 

Altarpiece by the Master of the St. Ursula Legend, 15th century, Bruges

Superhero Cafe, Ghent, Belgium

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