From the back of the book:
Great Power and Great Responsibility: The Philosophical Politics of Comic Books is a thought-provoking look at what makes comics tick and how the philosophies of the world are reflected back at us through them. From Sheena to Watchmen to Marvel’s Civil War, Douglas Mann considers a variety of comic storylines and characters, in print and in film, illustrating how they echo our ideas of justice, power and responsibility. The collection ends with a fascinating look at the geek culture that both creates and enjoys comics.
This book came across my radar when the editor of it, Ashley Hisson, tweeted a picture of it at AWP 2015. Essays about comics by a Canadian author? Consider my interest piqued! It ended up being everything that I hoped it would be – it taught me a lot about comics that I didn’t know, and gave me greater insight into comics that I was already familiar with.
All in all, Great Power and Great Responsibility is really a book that has something for everyone, no matter the reader’s familiarity with comics. If someone has never read a comic book before, it goes into how to read comics. For those who are comic book fans, it explores themes that you’ll find in various comic book series. As someone who is somewhat familiar with comics, and who is expanding her comic book knowledge, I found this introduced me to a number of series that I really want to read going forward, and gave me a greater understanding of the history of comic books.
Because each chapter covers so much different information, in order to keep my thoughts organized, I’ve broken down what my responses are to each chapter. While they all look at comics as a whole, each chapter looks at a different series as well as different themes that are found in the series.
Chapter 1: An Introduction to Comic Books
This is an amazing introduction to comic books in general. This is the chapter that goes into how to read comics (which panel to read next, how information and motion is conveyed in the imagery, as well as what transitions you can expect to exist between scenes), as well as the different historical periods of comics and what characterizes comics from different ages (which was one of the most interesting parts in the book for me). This chapter, I feel, should be something that anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with comics should read. Tangent: I am conveniently (and coincidentally) also reading McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy right now, so finding a few quotes from McLuhan in this chapter was a rather pleasant surprise (though I’m not sure it SHOULD be a surprise, seeing as Mann is a Canadian author writing a social sciences book).
Chapter 2: To Compromise or Not to Compromise, That is the Question: Watchmen as Ethical and Political Dialogue
I have a complicated relationship with Watchmen. I love the movie. I understand how vital this series is to forming the comic book industry as it is today. Reading the comics, I could see how groundbreaking it was. I completely recognize that Alan Moore, the creator of Watchmen, is an utter genius… and yet when I read Watchmen, I did not enjoy it. I did not like any of the characters – but this chapter of the book lays out where each character stands politically and ethically, which helps me understand what motivated each character. For example, I didn’t realize that Rorschach is ethically a kantian/existentialist, while politically he’s a conservative libertarian… and knowing that helps me understand where he’s coming from a little bit better. I have a greater understanding and appreciation of each characters after reading this chapter, and am convinced that if I reread the comics now, that I would actually really like it.
Chapter 3: Secret Societies and Better Worlds in Planetary
This is one of the series that Mann speaks about that I am completely unfamiliar with… and now I want to devour the whole series. Planetry is a series of superhero archaeologist types, who investigate the strange… and Mann has created an extremely handy reference that goes into what pop culture references and what familiar faces from other literature you will find in each issue. The idea of fictional crossovers always thrills me (harkening back to the days where I read ALL the Age of Sail fanfiction I could find) and I love the idea that this series comes across Tarzan, Godzilla, Sherlock Holmes, H.P. Lovecraft, as well as adaptations of both Marvel and DC superheroes.
Chapter 4: Civil War and the Right to Revolt
I haven’t read Civil War but I am aware of the general storyline… but I don’t think I really understood fully what was happening in Civil War until I read this chapter. This chapter goes into all of the dynamics between the characters, explains why certain characters are on certain sides of the Civil War, and whether the rebels were in the right to rebel against the government. You don’t really fully get all of the dynamics between all of the characters through just the movies, but this chapter explains all of the back story, as well as the political and cultural environment that our Marvel characters are living in. This chapter will make reading or watching stuff about Marvel’s Civil War so much more interesting.
Chapter 5: A Primordial Rumble in the Comic Book Jungle: Sheena Rehabilitated
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle is another series that I haven’t read, though I wouldn’t say that I’m not familiar with it. This chapter felt like it was a very timely read – more and more sexism and racism is discussed when it comes to the entertainment industry, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle is often seen as being both very sexist and very racist. In this chapter, Mann argues (convincingly) that it’s actually the exact opposite – Sheena would end up making a good feminist role model, and isn’t as pro-white-conquerers as people have been led to believe. I’m not entirely sure I would want to hunt down and ready any issues of this series, but it was interesting to see how Mann investigates whether the series is sexist or racist. I definitely think that feminists would have huge appreciation for this chapter – it was very thorough and very positive, and shows how progressive Sheena actually was for it’s time.
Chapter 6: It’s Fun to Blow Stuff Up! Bomb Queen as a Satire on American Foreign Policy
Yeah, I totally need to hunt down and read Bomb Queen now. I had heard of it, but had stayed away because of the imagery of a half naked woman as the lead… but it sounds like a very smart series. Mann looks at how this series satires foreign policy (particularly America’s war on terror), popular culture, and older superheroes. I think what interested me the most with this is that the main character is a supervillain, and yet she is the best person to be the leader of the town she leads… something that may very well reflect world politics. It sounds like an extremely interesting premise, though from the illustrations, it does look like it’s not for the faint of heart.
Chapter 7: The Post-Ideological Hero: Comic Books Go to Hollywood
From the Adam West Batman series, to the Spiderman movies, to the recent MCU movies, this chapter looks at how comic books fare in Hollywood, and why these movies appeal to such a wide audience. This was by far the largest and heaviest chapter in the book, and talks about why this movies are as popular as they are. It’s interesting, and there’s enough content available to discuss this alone that it could very well make up it’s own book, especially as there are so many that aren’t actually discussed. (Though that might be dated quickly, considering how many comic book and superhero movies and TV shows are constantly being made.) This chapter covers what the general audience will be most familiar with, and yes it was interesting, but I don’t think it was the highlight of the book. (Also, I really want to know now what Mann thought of the recent Avengers movie.
Chapter 8: The Phenomenology of Geek Culture
I found that this chapter was the least cohesive with the rest of the book, but it was also one of the ones that was closer to home… A lot of what Mann speaks about in this chapter relates in at least some way to FanExpo, which is the large annual comic con in Toronto, Ontario (Canada). It talks about how being a geek isn’t as taboo as it was a few decades ago, and quotes a number of actors talking about how they grew up as geeks… except this chapter is very much focused on scifi and geek culture in general, whereas the rest of the book is focused on comic books. (But still! Fan Expo!)
Coming away from this book, I feel much more educated and aware of themes that are seen throughout comic series. While I had at first hoped to devour this quickly in a couple of sittings, I found that reading the book in small doses allowed me to really consider what Mann brought forth, to let it really sink in, and decide whether I agreed with the content he presented or not. Great Power and Great Responsibility is definitely a book for those who want to explore a range of themes that aren’t necessarily always discussed together in one collection – the variety of the chapters kept the book interesting and allowed for a wider range of comics that may not always be at the forefront of discussion. Mann has put together a great look at comic books, and I’m going to be coming back to this book in the future to reread certain parts of certain chapters.
The Bottom Line
Overall, this was such a great book, and I’m extremely thrilled that I had the opportunity to read it. I’m going to be passing it on to a couple of friends, as well as my boyfriend, in order to ensure they read it as well. Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in comic books at any level.