Smash Pages Q&A: Jeffrey A. Brown

The pop culture scholar discusses his latest books on superheroes, diversity and gender.

Jeffrey A. Brown is an associate professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and over the past few years has written a number of books that have looked at comics, fandom and popular culture through the lens of gender and race. Some of those titles include The Modern Superhero in Film and Television; Beyond Bombshells: The New Action Heroine in Popular Culture; Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture; and Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans.

Last year Rutgers University Press published two books by Brown. At the beginning of the year they published Panthers, Hulks, and Ironhearts: Marvel, Diversity and the 21st Century Superhero and at year’s end, Love, Sex, Gender, and Superheroes. What struck me most about his work is the way he manages to combine a broad reading – his new book looks at the comics and how portrayals have changed over time, film and TV adaptations, fan fiction and porn parodies, and everything in between. He combines a close reading of the comics with a broad look at these subjects across media and culture, and he does so in ways that fans can relate to and talk about.

We spoke in late 2021 about his new book and his work more broadly, and the need to be a fan of what you study.

A lot of what you write about in this book and previous books, are thing than fans talk about, if not explicitly then implicitly in many different ways.

I think so. Academia has always looked at a broad pictures of these things and discounted comic books, but fans are much more aware that books are progressive. That there are transgender characters there are LGBTQ characters. That comics deal with intimate partner violence and all these themes and it just and. That was one of the things I wanted to do, address it from a fan’s perspective but with that academic side of looking at what’s actually going on in the comics. These are important cultural things and they’re being treated in unique ways in comics, I think. Progressive ways.

Related to that, how did you end up becoming a professor who studies comics?

I’ve always been a geek for comics. Before it was popular to be a geek and a nerd and all this stuff. I did my undergraduate in anthropology and I thought, this is interesting studying other cultures, but we don’t understand our own culture yet. So I moved into popular culture studies. My PhD is in anthropology and it kind of freaked them out because they asked, what tribe or nation are you picking? I said, I want to study people here in the city reading comic books and how they deal with ethnicity. It seemed like anthropology has the tools, but also the arrogance to be like, I’ll spend a year in the outback and then I’ll tell you all about the outback. So I had to justify it like crazy to be able to do that. Since then, because I’m in a department of popular culture, I haven’t gotten any resistance to it. Comics studies, as you know, is a growing field. There’s tons of stuff in it right now with lots of good scholarship. There’s an Eisner award category, conferences, all kinds of stuff going on. When I was doing my dissertation in the mid-nineties, there was very little academic work and now there’s at least four journals dedicated to it. It’s really exploded. I think it’s because a lot of people in English programs and cultural studies programs also happen to be comic book fans and so you get to study what you love. 

It’s changed a lot, but there’s still a stigma to it. When I say one of the things I study is comics, I get a lot of eye rolling. 

Maybe it’s my parents but I’m imagining, “That’s nice, when are you going to study something real?”

Yes! [laughs] What about Shakespeare? Eh, screw Shakespeare. Lots of people have done that. I try to explain to my students that people in English departments studying Shakespeare  or 14th century Irish poetry are fans. There’s no way you’re not into it if you’re going to study it. I think comics fans in general have always been a little more defensive and smarter about their consumption of comics. I think the smarter has come out of being defensive. We get used to rationalizing it or having to explain to others why these are really cool or important.

I think there are two ways, very broadly speaking, you can look at comics. One is to do this deep dive into the comics and do a close reading of them. The other way is to look at what they mean and represent and what they can say about the culture.

It is a tricky balance. And it’s shifted. I teach a couple different courses on comics and it was comics broadly at first and then I found kids in Ohio didn’t want to read French comic strips or alternative comics from the sixties. Gradually the course became about superhero comics, which they’re familiar with. It ends up being a reading heavy course because each class I have them read two or three graphic novels and three or four articles. For those who are comics fans, it’s no big deal because they’ve read The Dark Knight and Watchmen and The Long Halloween and stuff like that. But for the others who are new to it, it can be pretty daunting. Especially if they don’t know how to read a comic book at first. Left to right? Up or down? It is tricky trying to balance getting deep into the comics themselves and still doing a decent job of covering the themes and the political and ideological issues going on. It’s a tricky balance with the students. There are those who know it and those who don’t – and then there are those who will fight to the death for Marvel and those who will fight to the death for DC.

Which is how a lot of fan spaces work, also. Talking about large issues and then someone will bring something else up and it becomes a fight about something else.

It can be fun. Sometimes they get passionate about it. When it works best, we can then bring it back and say, we talked about fandom, here’s an example of it. It is harder to get students who are really into comics to step back and take that bigger look at it. If you’re really into Batman, what is he teaching you about fatherhood and masculinity? Some of them are afraid that studying is going to take away the fun of them. Which hopefully it doesn’t.

Sometimes it does. I think almost anyone who’s taken an English class goes in and says, this seems like my kind of book and by the end hates this book, this writer, everything about them.

Especially if we look at older things and they’re like, wow, this is pretty racist and sexist. Or then you show them new ones and some of those things are still going on. It can be disheartening.

In this new book you’re writing about Love, Sex and Gender, which are in every aspect of superhero comics.

It is! It’s absolutely engrained with superheroes. They are a weird, fun, exciting, but really kinky genre in a lot of ways. Gender is front and center. Everybody is “blank”man or “blank”woman. They’re running around in skin tight outfits with perfect bodies. There’s no way around it. Academia has always said it’s a metaphor for puberty. You can transform if you say Shazam, you go from a tween to an adult magically. But what are those lessons about puberty? This is the same age where you’re learning about sex. So there is a big difference between Batman and Catwoman having kinky one night stands on a rooftop as opposed to a long drawn out engagement. What about rape? What about consent? All of these issues that I think comics have done a good job of addressing when they turn to it because it’s so easy to integrate these sexual themes into the comics.

There is a way for male superheroes they are the epitome of masculinity, which is equated with physical strength, but super heroines are not thought of in that way. And you get at what that means and how it is inherently disturbing.

It is and it really exposes a lot about of adolescent male insecurities about sex. I wish I was built like Batman or the Hulk and just a mountain of muscles because Captain America can beat up anybody he feels like. All these beautiful women fall for him. That’s a great fantasy. But some of these women will steal your strength, they will castrate you, they will control you. Women are scary at the same time. I start with talking about men as phallic symbols of power and how that is bullshit. That’s all sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors. If you really start to look at superheroes, it falls apart. The women become castrating and controlling and make you do things and then it gets up to orgasms and how – metaphorically at least – you have all these characters who are grappling with each other and wrestling and their bodies are spurting out energy all over the place. I don’t want to read too much into it, but on the other hand, there’s a lot going on there that needs to be looked at. There are comics characters whose mutant power is giving an orgasm. It is kind of disturbing. I also think reveals a lot about how we think about sex as potentially dangerous and they negative side.

You talk about the phallic nature of superheroes and what that means and you don’t use the term but I kept thinking about “big dick energy” which is about swagger and attitude and not anatomy. Spider-Man has big dick energy and Peter Parker does not. That’s part of the dichotomy of the superhero

I think that’s one of the reasons why Spider-Man is so popular. We see him enough as Peter Parker and his insecurities that Spider-Man isn’t this weird impossible ideal. Whereas the big dick energy of Superman is impossible. No one could live up to that. Not even them, quite frankly.

You bring up femme fatales in the book, which is very overtly the model for so many villains and even super heroines.

Women’s main superpower in comics is sex. It’s their attractiveness. No matter what else is going on, they can flirt their way past somebody. When I started trying to list them all, it’s amazing how many heroines and villainesses have that particular power. The list goes on and on of ways they can make men do things. Which maybe reveals a lot about the comic book writers, too, but talk about playing to an audience. Cheesecake and pin-up fetish art has been a huge influence on the look of characters from the very beginning. 

One of the things we try not to think about but we can’t really ignore – in part because comics keep bringing it up – is this relationship between violence and sex and rape, especially as it relates to female characters.

Women in Refrigerators and women being treated as motivation for the men. It’s not just in comics. We see it in movies all the time.

It’s clearly a cultural thing. It’s every other action movie.

Exactly. It’s crazy. And it’s a weird balance to have these strong characters, but then also position so that Green Arrow has to come in and save Black Canary, who’s been raped and tortured and so on in The Longbow Hunters. One of the thing I tried to bring up was the gender neutrality of violence. That comics have begun to look at that men can also be raped. That same sex violence can happen. They’ve expanded it I think in a way that movies and other mediums haven’t been able to. You’re not getting much male rape in other genres, but comics can explore that because they’re not under the same microscope.

And of course when super heroines get brainwashed or turned evil, their costume becomes more revealing and they become hyper sexualized.

They literally become dominatrixes.

Which again, says a lot about the people making them and who they think their audience is.

Right. The heels get higher. The costume becomes black. A few years ago they turned Mary Marvel into a villain so they made her little miniskirt black and low cut and she was much more sexy. They never do the same for men. When superman goes bad, he just looks angry; he doesn’t walk around in a g-string.

The sexualization of male superheroes is so rare. Nightwing stands out because it has become such a thing.

It is amazing how that all gets put on Nightwing. They always talk about how hot he is and check out his ass. I was just reading the new DC vs Vampires and for no reason, Nightwing swings onto a balcony and Batgirl is lying there and says, you’re looking good, Dick. What does that have to do with anything? [laughs] It’s very strange. All that gets put on to him alone, which is interesting. Whereas the other men are seen as sexually attractive, or if they’re coded that way in the comics, they’re not as interested in women. Bruce Wayne is supposed to be incredibly handsome and all these women throw themselves at him, but he just wants to get away and go fight crime. He doesn’t really want anything to do with these women. That’s the ultimate power, right? To be able to attract beautiful women and to be so cool, you don’t need them. 

That also gets at the adolescent notions of sex and gender. And an adolescent idea of sexuality. To be attractive and desired, and, well, to not know what to do.

Or to be so cool that you can turn it down. To not be controlled by it. You are the master of it. These women will do what you want. You don’t have to chase them, they’ll chase you. It’s a very adolescent thing. And even calling it adolescent, it’s a very male thing. It’s something we have throughout life and I don’t think it’s just heterosexual or just male. Everybody has insecurities and anxieties.

Everyone wants to be wanted.

Exactly.

Getting back to older comics, I wanted to talk about two things. One is Batman and Robin and this has been written about a lot but Batman back then was not queer coded, but Batman and Robin and that dynamic was queer coded.

And there’s no way around it. [laughs] Especially when you look back at it. I don’t know how many panels I’ve seen out of context of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson’s beds side by side or their legs wrapped around each other. I think at the time they were coded as homosocial. Just two guys. Friends. That was an important dynamic, especially back in World War II. That camaraderie. Those close relationships were seen as very positive. After the war, and the comics got a little silly during that period, it started to be read differently. A lot of queer scholars have talked about how nothing was different. Batman and Robin had no sexuality. But a queer reading strategy of being able to see yourself and your desires in same sex partnerships opened up the door. Some people have argued, who cares. I don’t want to say it was explicit, but it’s very easy to read as a queer relationship. Unfortunately they got scared of that and they’ve had to define it so strictly. DC used to say that you can’t use an image from our book if you’re saying there’s a possibility or even exploring this idea. It is interesting now that they’ve come so full circle that they now own Apollo and Midnighter. 

I think especially as it got campier, it’s like, how else can you read it? But also that’s the nature of reading a lot of older texts with that dynamic. Frodo and Sam, and the list goes on.

You have slash fiction and work on the internet now. People are much more attuned to camp and gay aesthetics than I think in the fifties. When Wertham said there are young boys who are reading this as a gay relationship, people were like, what?! Nowadays people would go, okay, but we were not as aware of that. That was before my time but I remember being a kid and watching the Batman TV show in reruns and it was high drama for me. It wasn’t campy or silly. I was worried he wasn’t going to get out of that trap. In the seventies and eighties, we didn’t know Boy George was gay. We didn’t know about Elton John or Liberace or Freddy Mercury. I mean the band was called Queen. We were that not attuned to it. So to have Batman and Robin be used as a gay example I think it really freaked everybody out.

You brought up slash fiction but in the book you talk about the movies and porn parodies and so much of people’s understanding of the characters comes from mediums other than comics. 

Absolutely and that’s why I always try to emphasis the difference between a genre and a medium. That superheroes can be in movies and television and radio as well as print and those are all different universes. I think the cohesion of the movies, at least the Marvel cinematic universe, works well for people. It explores a lot of the same ideas, but it’s different from the comics. In the comics, especially because they’re a niche audience, the readership is very small. The familiarity with the past and the trivia and minutiae constitute difference things. Comics readers understand that you can have Midnighter, a queer Batman analogue, but I think it would blow the minds of a lot of movie goers if they did an Apollo-Midnighter movie. But as people are getting far more familiar with superheroes as a genre in film we’re getting things like The Boys that are playing with the genre and conventions.

For the most part they’ve done a good job of adapting them. And appeasing both the newcomers and the comic book diehards. I’ve been watching the Disney+ Hawkeye series and they clearly in the promotional materials and the storyline they linked it to the Matt Fraction-David Aja series, and they’re not exactly doing that. They’re messing with it a lot, but they’re dropping in enough easter eggs to keep the fans happy at the same time that they’re moving it in a really interesting direction. I do think the biggest challenge for them is going to be introducing new versions. There’s been enough people who have played Batman that everybody will be fine with Robert Pattison as Batman. It’s like James Bond. We know there’s going to be a new one. But who’s going to replace Robert Downey, Jr.? Who’s going to replace Chris Evans? That’s going to have a huge effect on the universe going forward. I think that will be a big change if suddenly the Iron Man character is a black teenage girl. Is there going to be mass acceptance for it?

I really enjoyed your book and you really do find ways to look at these issues and really dive into the comics in different ways.

Thanks. It’s not easy. You don’t want to knock the life out of it. These stories are fun and if you just analyze them and don’t enjoy them, it loses all life. I think it’s a sacrilege to not enjoy the stories as well.

I’m sure there were parts where you’re relating one comics to another and then relating it to porn parodies and the movies and part of you went, I get why this is important, and I have to write this, but it’s exhausting.

There’s also the point where I’m like, is the dean going to come in and ask, why do you have this on your laptop?

What are thinking about next? You mentioned before about finishing a new book.

I just finished a manuscript that’s out now about superhero art. I’ve been frustrated with there’s been so little analysis of the art. As much as English has looked at the stories and people talk about the writers, there is next to nothing about the art style of comics and the artists as part of the co-creators. They’ve really been overlooked in academia. This isn’t exactly an art history book, but looking at the different styles like the cute style, the little baby versions of superheroes, or the retro style, or the photo realistic type of illustrations. Talking about how these different styles work. How if a superhero is drawn as grotesque, that changes the meaning of the story. How does the style of illustration influence the genre? That’s one I just finished. I’m probably going to give comic books and superheroes a break for a while.

Do you think some of it is that Comics Studies came out of English and Cultural Studies departments and so that became the lens they used to analyze comics?

I think so. The writers gets cited as the creator and only if the writer and artist are one person do they get a lot of attention. The art is hard to talk about. As I found when I started doing it, you end up just trying to describe these weird qualities of retro looking art as being “nostalgic” in a way and it’s hard to describe Tim Sale’s art and how it’s nostalgic. You can say that Darwyn Cooke’s art looks nostalgic, but the comics didn’t look like that in the fifties. But it has this fifties aesthetic to it. It’s tricky, but I think it is important because it does change the intention a lot. We see that most clearly when different styles are used in the same book.

The initial creators who got a lot of attention like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman show their work in different ways that for an English or cultural studies person is exciting. It’s easy to talk about Alan Moore and what he does in From Hell, but talking about what Eddie Campbell does and how he does it and what he brings to the book and the way that their sensibilities interact is much harder to articulate.

From Hell would have been a very different story if, say, Neal Adams was drawing it. It would have a very different tone and effect. It’s difficult to talk about those things. I think fans do have a recognition of it. And fans pursue artists as much or more than writers. Amanda Conner or Adam Hughes’ cover will sell regardless of who’s doing the stuff inside or even the character. Variant covers have proven that people will follow the artists around.

And you talk about how some comics will attempt to tell a nuanced, thoughtful feminist story – and then slap a J. Scott Campbell cover on it, which undermines it all.

[laughs] That drives me nuts. Or when they have 50 variant covers. But some of them can be amazing. It’s a tricky balance. They’re trying to sell to many audiences. There’s a commercial need to keep leveraging these characters over and over again – even after they die. They’re desperate for sales figures. Especially as comic book stores are disappearing. It’s a tough time right now for the industry. 

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