The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in downtown New York hosted a lecture series called “1986: The Year That Changed Comics” on Monday night with comics historian Peter Sanderson at the podium. Sanderson worked as a researcher at both DC and Marvel in the ’80s and co-wrote the ” Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe .” He’s written many books on comics, including the recently published “Marvel Classic Heroes” (Becker & Mayer) and writes for Publishers Weekly, as well as a weekly column called “Comics in Context” for Kevin Smith’s quickstopentertainment.com. He hopes to find a publisher for a book of the lectures.
Monday’s lecture was the first of a two-parter on Alan Moore’s incomparable graphic novel ” Watchmen ,” illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Other comics covered in the series have been ” The Dark Knight Returns,” “Miracleman,” “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow ,” John Byrnes’ ” Man of Steel,” “Daredevil: Born Again,” “Squadron Supreme,” ” The Dreamer” and Art Spiegleman’s ” Maus .” Sanderson has covered all the lectures and will return on December 4 for the continuation of ” Watchmen” and again in January for ” Violent Cases” by Neil Gaiman.
During his lecture, Sanderson noted similar themes between all of the books in the series. “There was something in the zeitgeist in 1986, something in the air,” he said. Themes questioning authority and corruption were prevalent in many of the books. At this time, Lex Luthor made his transformation from mad scientist to a corrupt corporate bigwig in Byrne’s ” Man of Steel.”
A multi-layered story like “Watchmen” lends itself to more than just broad themes, with heavy use of symbolism and allusions to not only the history of the medium, but classic works of literature like William Blake, Nietsche and James Joyce. The title of Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry,” is from Blake’s poem “The Tyger.”
One of the main points of Sanderson’s lecture is that ” Watchmen” serves partly as an examination of the superhero genre. As superhero comics have traditionally been dismissed as childish and puerile, so do the retired superheroes in the story who look back on their careers with disdain, as nothing more than a flight of fancy (at least in the beginning of the story).
Some of the characters are loosely based on old Charlton characters acquired by DC at around the same time: Nite Owl on Blue Beetle, Rorschach on The Question, The Comedian on Peacemaker, Doctor Manhattan on Captain Atom and Ozymandias on Thunderbolt. Sanderson points out obvious allusions to other characters as well, even Batman and Captain America. He even sees The Comedian in part as a “Captain America gone bad.”
Moore rescues the medium from this perception of mediocrity with his groundbreaking story, originally published as a twelve-issue series, but gained even more popularity as a graphic novel and popularized that form as well. ” Watchmen” is the only graphic novel to win a Hugo Award in 1988 and appeared on Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.
Just as his characters recapture their humanity by joining Rorschach’s quest for the truth and putting on their costumes once again, Moore rescues the image of the superhero as something childish or dismissible and shows that comics can be taken as serious literature.
The Musuem of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) is holding an opening reception for their new exhibit, “Saturday Morning: Art and Artifacts from a Golden Age of Television,” on Saturday, November 18 at 8pm and will host a reception for Stan Lee in January for an exhibit on his work, co-curated by Sanderson.
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