Conflicting Counternarratives of Crime and Justice in US Superhero Comics

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Crime and justice are central themes in superhero comics. As vigilante figures with a moral mandate, superheroes conventionally affirm the status quo, protecting the social order by acting outside the law. Rarely antithetical to popular sentiment, they still enable conflicting positions on crime and justice. They articulate these positions through counternarratives that unfold within, rather than against, the master narratives of the genre and that encourage a controversial reception by making connections between the fictional storyworld and real-world contexts. Situated at the intersection of comics narratology and criminal narratology, this chapter investigates the interaction of master narratives and counternarratives in the superhero genre with a focus on a recent instalment of Batman (“A Simple Case”, Batman #44, November 2015), a story about police brutality and gentrification, and its reception (online articles, reviews, blog entries).

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... Narratieven kunnen met name een script opleveren dat suggereert welke acties passend zijn (bijv. geweld) in welke context en voor/door wie (Stein, 2020). Narratieve criminologen spreken dan ook van sociale werkelijkheid als inherent storied en van de mens als homo narrativus. ...
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Cultural criminologists suggest that realities of crime, deviance, and criminal justice practice cannot be understood outside the context of media and criminal justice forces that act, consciously and subconsciously, to shape hegemonic definitions of "crime" and "justice." Because the comic book medium has historically thrived on mythologies of crime and justice, comic book research can provide valuable insights into the practical implications of cultural criminology. By directly and intentionally challenging the editorial guidelines of the Comics Code Authority, Marvel Comics' publication of issues 96, 97, and 98 of The Amazing Spider- Man in 1971 represented a turning point in the construction of criminal justice ideology in American comic books. This case study is relevant to the study of criminal justice in popular culture because (a) it illustrates the evolution of criminal justice ideology in the medium of comic books through the processes of cultural criminology; and (b) it confirms the hegemonic paradox of the modern superhero mythos as critical criminological discourse.
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This article examines the representation of crime and justice in the worlds and lives of two of the most popular and pervasive comic book superheroes: Batman and Superman. The messages conveyed in the stories of these two superheroes are identified and discussed in relation to three different contexts: (1) the structure of the society in which the superhero resides, (2) the crime and criminals they come up against, and (3) the crime-fighting superheroes themselves. The perspectives of crime and justice conveyed by the predominant images and messages are then examined in accordance with Sutherland's tripartite framework of criminological inquiry: The representation of law, the breaking of law, and the reaction to the breaking of law are considered. Finally, the hegemonic messages implicit in the comic book superhero mythos are discussed.
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Purpose – Crime, criminals, the criminal justice system, and criminal justice system actors have traditionally occupied a prominent place in popular media. Comic books and graphic novels are no exception to this trend. Despite this, these media have received comparatively little attention from criminal justice scholars. This chapter seeks to explore the depiction of crime and justice in modern-era comic books and graphic novels. Methodology/approach – Content analysis techniques were used to examine 166 individual comic books from the modern age (mid-1980s to present), including those compiled in graphic novel form. Particular emphasis was placed on issues of crime control and due process. Findings – Clear criminal justice themes were seen across the sample, including an emphasis on crime control and crime prevention. Further, comic books featuring the individual characters of Superman and Batman portrayed opposing conceptions of justice, such as justified/unjustified use of force and a willingness to follow or break the law. Research limitations – This research represents an exploration of the depiction of crime-related themes in comic books and graphic novels, but is by no means definitive. It would be useful to extend this research by examining other eras in comic book history as well as other comic book characters and publishing companies. Practical implications – The public's perceptions of the criminal justice system ultimately affect societal views of the legitimacy of the system. Since legitimacy is a requisite for compliance, it is important to understand factors that may influence these perceptions. These may include comic books, graphic novels, and other popular media. Originality/value of paper – Comic books stories and themes have long reflected the times. However, it is unclear how crime and the criminal justice system are portrayed in the comic book world. This chapter is an attempt to fill a gap in the extant literature by examining this often neglected form of popular media.
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As an emergent orientation in sociology, criminology, and criminal justice, cultural criminology explores the convergence of cultural and criminal pro-cesses in contemporary social life. Drawing on perspectives from cultural studies, postmodern theory, critical theory, and interactionist sociology, and on ethnographic methodologies and media/textual analysis, this orientation highlights issues of image, meaning, and representation in the interplay of crime and crime control. Specifically, cultural criminology investigates the stylized frameworks and experiential dynamics of illicit subcultures; the symbolic criminalization of popular culture forms; and the mediated con-struction of crime and crime control issues. In addition, emerging areas of in-quiry within cultural criminology include the development of situated media and situated audiences for crime; the media and culture of policing; the links between crime, crime control, and cultural space; and the collectively em-bodied emotions that shape the meaning of crime.
Broadly speaking, the term “counternarrative” refers to a narrative that takes on meaning through its relation with one or more other narratives. While this relation is not necessarily oppositional, it involves a stance toward some other narrative(s), and it is this aspect of stance, or position, that distinguishes counternarrative from other forms of intertextuality.
After debuting in 1938, Superman soon became an American icon. But why has he maintained his iconic status for nearly 80 years? And how can he still be an American icon when the country itself has undergone so much change? Superman: Persistence of an American Icon examines the many iterations of the character in comic books, comic strips, radio series, movie serials, feature films, television shows, animation, toys, and collectibles over the past eight decades. Demonstrating how Superman’s iconic popularity cannot be attributed to any single creator or text, comics expert Ian Gordon embarks on a deeper consideration of cultural mythmaking as a collective and dynamic process. He also outlines the often contentious relationships between the various parties who have contributed to the Superman mythos, including corporate executives, comics writers, artists, nostalgic commentators, and collectors. Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of Superman’s appearances in comics and other media, Gordon also digs into comics archives to reveal the prominent role that fans have played in remembering, interpreting, and reimagining Superman’s iconography. Gordon considers how comics, film, and TV producers have taken advantage of fan engagement and nostalgia when selling Superman products. Investigating a character who is equally an icon of American culture, fan culture, and consumer culture, Superman thus offers a provocative analysis of mythmaking in the modern era.
Despite their commercial appeal and cross-media reach, superheroes are only recently starting to attract sustained scholarly attention. This groundbreaking collection brings together essays and book excerpts by major writers on comics and popular culture. While superhero comics are a distinct and sometimes disdained branch of comics creation, they are integral to the development of the North American comic book and the history of the medium. For the past half-century they have also been the one overwhelmingly dominant market genre. The sheer volume of superhero comics that have been published over the years is staggering. Major superhero universes constitute one of the most expansive storytelling canvases ever fashioned. Moreover, characters inhabiting these fictional universes are immensely influential, having achieved iconic recognition around the globe. Their images and adventures have shaped many other media, such as film, videogames, and even prose fiction. The primary aim of this reader is twofold: first, to collect in a single volume a sampling of the most sophisticated commentary on superheroes, and second, to bring into sharper focus the ways in which superheroes connect with larger social, cultural, literary, aesthetic, and historical themes that are of interest to a great many readers both in the academy and beyond. © 2013 by University Press of Mississippi. All rights reserved.
This essay collection examines the theory and history of graphic narrative as one of the most interesting and versatile forms of storytelling in contemporary media culture. Its contributions test the applicability of narratological concepts to graphic narrative, examine aspects of graphic narrative beyond the 'single work', consider the development of particular narrative strategies within individual genres, and trace the forms and functions of graphic narrative across cultures. Analyzing a wide range of texts, genres, and narrative strategies from both theoretical and historical perspectives, the international group of scholars gathered here offers state-of-the-art research on graphic narrative in the context of an increasingly postclassical and transmedial narratology. This is the revised second edition of From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels, which was originally published in the Narratologia series.
Batman is allied with modern natural law in the way he relies upon reason to bring about his vision of ‘true justice’, operating as a force external to law. This vision of justice is a protective one, with Batman existing as a guardian—a force for resistance against the corruption of the state and the failures of the legal system. But alongside his rational means, Batman also employs violence as he moves beyond the boundaries of the civilised state into the dark and violent world outside law’s protection. He thus sacrifices his own safety to ensure the safety of others—he is a Dark Knight, a sentinel, fighting the nasty and brutish underworld of criminality in his effort to bring rational order to the world and protect the people of Gotham from criminal harm. This fight for justice is fuelled by a deeply private trauma: the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents: a private desire for vengeance that Batman transcends. In navigating Batman’s jurisprudential dimensions, we are ultimately reminded that private desires and motivations are enfolded within the public structures of justice.
“Carrying ahead the project of cultural criminology, Phillips and Strobl dare to take seriously that which amuses and entertains us—and to find in it the most significant of themes. Audiences, images, ideologies of justice and injustice—all populate the pages of Comic Book Crime. The result is an analysis as colorful as a good comic, and as sharp as the point on a superhero’s sword.”-Jeff Ferrell, author of Empire of Scrounge. Superman, Batman, Daredevil, and Wonder Woman are iconic cultural figures that embody values of order, fairness, justice, and retribution. Comic Book Crime digs deep into these and other celebrated characters, providing a comprehensive understanding of crime and justice in contemporary American comic books. This is a world where justice is delivered, where heroes save ordinary citizens from certain doom, where evil is easily identified and thwarted by powers far greater than mere mortals could possess. Nickie Phillips and Staci Strobl explore these representations and show that comic books, as a historically important American cultural medium, participate in both reflecting and shaping an American ideological identity that is often focused on ideas of the apocalypse, utopia, retribution, and nationalism. Through an analysis of approximately 200 comic books sold from 2002 to 2010, as well as several years of immersion in comic book fan culture, Phillips and Strobl reveal the kinds of themes and plots popular comics feature in a post-9/11 context. They discuss heroes’ calculations of “deathworthiness,” or who should be killed in meting out justice, and how these judgments have as much to do with the hero’s character as they do with the actions of the villains. This fascinating volume also analyzes how class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are used to construct difference for both the heroes and the villains in ways that are both conservative and progressive. Engaging, sharp, and insightful, Comic Book Crime is a fresh take on the very meaning of truth, justice, and the American way.
The origin of the Batman
  • B Finger
  • B Kane
Batman #44: A departure from typical Batman fare, and better for it
  • C Hayden
Spider-Man, the question and the meta-zone: Exception, objectivism and the comics of Steve Ditko
  • J Bainbridge
Batman” #44 is one of the best and most powerful comics of the year
  • K Dooley
Even Batman addresses police brutality in latest issue
  • E Krayewski
Batman confronts police racism in latest comic book. The Guardian
  • S Ackerman
October 6). An interview with Scott Snyder
  • J Broadnax
Batman #44: Bruce Wayne and readers beaten with racial guilt baton
  • D Ernst
Holy social justice warrior, Batman: The dark knight now battles police racism, gentrification, and sides with Black Lives Matter. The Unz review
  • P Kersey
Batman #44 and why white allies aren’t heroes. The resist daily
  • R Quinn
The latest ‘Batman’ doesn’t depict police brutality. The federalist
  • J Trent
The aesthetics of supervillainy
  • J Fennell
“Riddle me this …?” Would the world need superheroes if the law could actually deliver “justice”?
  • C Sharp
Representing the state of exception: Power, utopia, visuality and narrative in superhero comics
  • M Miettinen
  • M Stochetti
  • K Kukkonen