Superheroes of the Round Table: Comics Connections to Medieval and Renaissance Literature
Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011. 248 pp. 68 ill. $40.00. ISBN 978-0-7864-6068-7.
There is no doubt that Jason Tondro’s Superheroes of the Round Table: Comics Connections to Medieval and Renaissance Literature is a remarkable inquiry into the relationship(s) between comics (the superhero romance) and some of the most notable works from the canon of Western literature. The author demonstrates a sharp, accurate, and detailed knowledge of such medieval and Renaissance authors and associated works of literature as Spenser’s Faerie Queene; Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Richard III; Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queens and Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue; all of which he contrasts well with Tony Stark’s invincible Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Marvel Girl, Catwoman, Uncanny X-Men, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Prince Valiant, Batman, Justice League of America, Aquaman, the Hulk, and Superman (just to name some of the many heroes and comics that the author analyzes).
Although the links that Tondro makes between traditional and canonical literature and their modern manifestations or reflections may not be completely tenable in all of the author’s exempla and arguments, it is undeniable that knowledge of one genre deeply informs appreciation of the other. Tondro’s text includes a solid introductory chapter and five scholarly, thorough essays:
- “Double Identities and Arthegall’s Yron Man”
- “Kirby’s Masque”
- “By My So Potent Art”
- “Arthur, the Four-Color King”
- “Grant Morrison’s Grail Quest”
All of these have extensive notes and a bibliography rounds out the volume.
In the introduction the author writes that his book is meant to be an “exploration of the relationship between the superhero romance and its Medieval and Renaissance forbearers” (2), which means that one must understand or reinterpret the comic book as “Romance” in order to reach the intended goal of the book. In this reinterpretation, the comics’ genre belongs to a world where “imagination and the fantastic trump logic and reason” and “protagonists and antagonists alike wear their virtues and vices as allegorical clothing, their emotional hearts are literally on armored sleeves” (2). The superhero romance is one full of dense allegory where the fantastic “prioritizes the imaginative over the starkly real” (5) and in which signifier–signified connections do not always seem to work as expected.
The first chapter, “Double Identities and Arthegall’s Yron Man,” unpacks Spenser’s allegory-laden Faerie Queen, which is dense with characters that have elusive identities, doublings, and complex and metaphorical shadows. Once Tondro has led the reader expertly through all of these intricate character permutations, he then proceeds to an analysis of David Michelinie and Denny O’Neill’s Iron Man. Although these two individuals perhaps never read Spenser’s poem, it is possible to better appreciate the comic book if one is aware of and able to understand the character and allegorical techniques used by Spenser. More importantly, perhaps, one who is familiar with the elusive identities, doublings, and complex and metaphorical shadows found in the comic book may have a greater appreciation for the 1596 epic poem. A very minor quibble with this argument surfaces when Tondro writes that “Arthegall has many characteristics which ring familiar to readers of the superhero romance. Like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and so many other heroes, he is an orphan raised by a foster parent….subjected to test of martial skill…gifted with supernatural aid.” (32. It is surprising that the author makes no mention of the work on mythology and hero morphology done by Vladimir Propp, Lord Raglan, or Joseph Campbell. It would certainly have been a good thing to include their work or reference their studies on the “hero.”
“Kirby’s Masque” focuses on the collaborative work that it takes to produce a comic book or a masque. Regarding the latter genre, Tondro dedicates a good amount of prose to the artistic partnership of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, two men “who dominated the form of the masque through the reign of King James” (62), and the actual masque genre itself. The collaboration between Jonson and Jones is well attested by Jones’ annotations to the Masque of Queens. The comic book, the author writes, “began as, and to a great extent remains, a collaborative art form” (51). This type of joint endeavor can be seen to be in effect in the early days of Marvel Comics when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby bore the brunt of the creative responsibility. (This partnership did not last—it, in fact, in this and in many cases, it degenerated and became something quite nasty). Nevertheless, it should be noted that some successful works were created by individuals working alone, such as the work of Will Eisner on “The Spirit” (or Jack Kirby after Spiderman).
“By My So Potent Art” is a study of the comic books’ use, influence, misuse, and interpretation of Shakespeare. (This is separate from the in-depth and methodical analysis of Will Eisner’s “Hamlet on a Rooftop” [in Comics & Sequential Art, 1985]) found in the preceding chapter). Shakespeare and his work have appeared or influenced a vast amount of comics, such as, among many others, David Messer’s The Tempest (2005); “Tempest Fugit” in Peter David’s Incredible Hulk; Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman; Kyle Baker’s The Cowboy Wally Show; Mike Baron’s The Badger; Chris Claremont’s The Uncanny X-Men; and Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Tondro does an excellent job of sifting through the copious amount of literature and comics that incorporate this interplay between the Bard and the romance superheroes of the comics. This brilliant literary analysis and synthesis continues in “Arthur, the Four-Color King,” where the author divides the legend of Arthur into five categories:
- Traditional Tale: Arthur and company as we know them in comic books with the superheroic elements kept to a minimum.
- Arthurian Toybox: Arthurian elements with no regard for the original literary background.
- Arthur as Translator: modern characters or superheroes in Camelot (or its environs).
- Arthur as Collaborator: Arthurian symbols and themes used subtly and implicitly in the tales of superheroes.
- Arthur Transformed: Arthur with or without his friends in a non-traditional place or context.
Tondro adds that while these five classes are useful, “it would be a mistake to think of them as mutually exclusive from one another” (143). The final chapter, “Grant Morrison’s Grail Quest,” continues the Arthurian analysis through an examination of Grant Morrison’s use of Arthur’s legend (including the Grail Quest) in three comic texts: Justice League of America, The Invisibles, and Seven Soldiers of Victory.
As mentioned above, this an interesting book, which is well-written and informative. Tondro employs a keen analytical approach that is erudite and demonstrates that there are clear, tangible connections between both literary genres. The only thing that may have improved this intriguing book, or at least supported his argument more fully, would have been to examine heroic paradigms as found in other works of literature. After all, a creator of comic books may have been more influenced by the Indo-European heroic paradigm, as found, for example, in Homer’s epics, than by works of literature from medieval and Renaissance texts. Indeed, the authors of the medieval and Renaissance were unquestionably influenced by the classical Greek and Roman authors that preceded them. However, this is a relatively trivial objection. Overall, it must be emphasized that Superheroes of the Round Table is a very good book.
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