Earlier this year I wrote a short post about comics and poetry. Last summer I read Hillary Chute’s “Secret Labor,” her intriguing essay on the relationship between these two art forms. After I read her essay, I got to thinking about a Stone River Poetry interview with Chicago poet and Columbia College professor Tony Trigilio.
Tony, it turns out, loves comics. Not only does he love comics, but they’ve shaped his thinking about poetry and his poetic practice.
And he really, really loves Man-Bat.
That’s Steve Ditko drawing Man-Bat, with inks by Al Milgrom, from Man-Bat No. 1, Dec.-Jan. 1975/1976
More on that in a second.
“My narrative influences don’t come exclusively from poetry,” Tony explains. “I’m thinking of the way stories are constructed visually and verbally, and with gaps in ‘sense’ we expect from poetry, in Harvey Pekar’s comics, which I’ve been lovingly obsessed with since the late 1980s.”
“Gaps in ‘sense'”: that phrase gets to the heart of what I’m trying to do in my Captain Marvel research. That is, I’m interested not in what the comics reveal, but in what they conceal, in what they deliberately or otherwise leave out. I’m interested in the silences between the panels, even when those panels include drawings of talking tigers and conqueror worms.
Mr. Tawny, the star of my book, from Otto Binder and C.C. Beck’s “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Personality Peril!” from Captain Marvel Adventures#115 (December, 1950; also reprinted in Shazam! Limited Collectors’ Edition #1, Summer 1973).
I wanted to ask Tony a few more questions about the relationship between comics, consumer culture, and poetics. His new collection from Blazevox, The Complete Dark Shadows (of my Childhood), Book 1, is a memory experiment. What would happen, he asks, if I write a sentence for each episode of the campy Gothic soap opera? But, as David Trinidad explains in last week’s blog post on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, The Complete Dark Shadows “is a departure for Trigilio, in that his ‘primal’ relationship to the subject matter teases out some very private (and very moving) admissions.” I wonder if that’s what we find in those spaces—confessions, dreams, secrets.
As much as I love Pekar, I wanted to know more about Tony’s childhood obsession with Neal Adams and Frank Robbins’ Man-Bat, a Detective Comics/Batman second-stringer from the 1970s. What started as a joke has turned into a selection of poems and essays on the character. Last week, we finished Towards a Poetics of Man-Bat, a zine that I’ll have on sale at Quimby’s next week. To celebrate the release of the zine, I’m including an excerpt from the email interview I conducted with Tony late last year.
I started with a simple question: Why Man-Bat? Why comics?
Man-Bat again, this time in a panel by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, originally from Detective Comics No. 400 (June 1970) and reprinted in the Power Records/Peter Pan book-and-record set Robin Meets Man-Bat from 1976.
As I read Tony’s interview again, I face my ambivalent feelings about comics and their ability to trigger memory and nostalgia. Although comics have always brought me a great deal of joy—new friends, stories, and adventures—I also understand them as markers of loss or absence. Let me revise that. I read comics as a kid because they shielded me from ghosts and restless spirits. When I talk about those ghosts I am not speaking in metaphor. My mom lost her father when she was 12, and his death was the secret wound at the heart of the narrative that was my family. Reading comics granted me a kind of permission to investigate, to catalogue, and to speak.
I think I’m attracted to Billy Batson’s story because it’s the story of a secret. To discover who he is, he follows the shadow man through the tunnel to the throne of the ancient wizard. It’s an old story. It’s The Odyssey. It’s Macbeth. It’s Lost Horizon. It’s Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix.
Like Edie says in his interview with Megan Milks, “You have to open the wound! Get your history back!” But I am hesitant to open the wound. I think reading comics for me was (is) a substitute for the act of mourning. Those “gaps in ‘sense’” can be deliberate obfuscations, or simple errors, or careless omissions.
Robin Meets Man-Bat, Power Records, 1976. Cover by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano.
But Man-Bat is not about the sad. He’s about madness, furry ears, and torn pants. He never leaves the lab without a belt. He possesses bat-like sonar and elegant leather wings. He lives in Chicago. He has his own Lego action figure.
So here’s the interview that inspired the zine.
I can promise this: for all my talk about sadness and mourning and silence and absence and, you know, blah-blah-blah, Towards a Poetics of Man-Bat is a lot of fun. If you’d like a copy, just write to me and I’ll send you one.
An Interview with Tony Trigilio
from the zine Towards a Poetics of Man-Bat
conducted over e-mail and edited by Brian Cremins on 12/31/13; copyedited by Allison Felus
BC: So, do you remember why you bought the comics in the first place and how you felt when you read the cancellation notice in Man-Bat #2?
TT: I was a huge fan of the Man-Bat character from the early stories—drawn by Neal Adams—in Detective Comics, Brave and the Bold, and, I think, in Batman itself. I couldn’t get enough of Man-Bat: he was a superhero, yes, but also a kind of mutant-freak, and I felt an attraction/repulsion with him that I felt with no other superhero. I mean, Spiderman was part spider—and spiders are of course grotesque—but I knew deep down that he was really the aw-shucks wisecracking Peter Parker with his best girl Mary Jane and his sweet Aunt May. But Man-Bat was another thing entirely for me. He couldn’t help but interrupt his own sentences with “Skree!” which meant to me that he had much less control over his superpowers than, say, Spiderman, who could turn on and turn off his spider powers at will (with the exception of when his spider sense was tingling). This lack of control made it seem like he was more of a hybrid species than any other superhero—and this made me feel sorry for him at the same time that I was repulsed that he was, really, a giant bat.
What’s more (still on the subject of why I bought Man-Bat comics in the first place), I was enthralled by his complicated relationship with Batman. I loved what Neal Adams did to Batman, reviving the goth-noir aspects of the character, and followed Detective Comics and Batman religiously. (I subscribed to both comics because we had no great comics shop in Erie, PA, at the time, and I didn’t want to risk missing an issue.) After Neal Adams (and without Robin), Batman was a character I identified with—and I lived for those elaborately rendered panels when The Batman’s cape would flow in exaggerated billows off the panel and into the margins of the page. So I loved Batman, and I thought the Man-Bat character was brilliant. The stories got complicated for me, though, because Batman would sometimes be supportive of Man-Bat, yet just as often was patronizing toward him—as if, somehow, Batman thought he really should be the true bat instead of Man-Bat. When Man-Bat got his own comic, I was ecstatic that finally he was throwing off the paternalist yoke of The Batman (of course, at age 10, when Man-Bat #1 came out, I didn’t use phrases like “paternalistic yoke”). I have to say, though, that the Man-Bat logo suspiciously resembled an inversion of the Batman logo, so it seemed like DC wasn’t ready to let Man-Bat be his own person . . . or be his own bat. Man-Bat was the real thing—the real bat—and Batman was only a metaphor for a Bat. So Man-Bat felt authentic to me in ways that Batman did not.
I felt crushed when the comic was canceled—and after only two issues, no less! I remember reading the announcement on the letters page of Man-Bat #2. The letters page comes up early in the story. It’s just seven pages into an 18-page story. I’d barely picked up any narrative momentum for issue #2, and then suddenly I discover that the entire comic has been canceled because of low sales. I couldn’t believe it. Even at age 10, it was clear to me that you couldn’t really determine how good sales would be based on just one issue. DC never gave it a chance. It seemed to me that DC was saying it had no interest in developing this mutant-freak character and his Bride-of-Frankenstein wife—even though the potential for complexity of these characters was, for me, endless. What’s worse, in those two issues Man-Bat never shook off the paternalist Batman. Batman is a vital element of the plot of issue #1; and issue #2 features one of my favorite Batman villains, The Ten-Eyed Man (a character who has optic nerves in his fingertips; I can’t tell you how many times I’d look down at my fingertips and try to imagine how a person could see with them). Even when The Batman doesn’t appear in issue #2, one of his villains does—which makes The Batman linger like a ghost in nearly every panel.
BC: Also, do you think a comic such as this has had an impact on your work as a poet or as a scholar?
TT: I have no doubt that it did. Man-Bat was one of my first comics obsessions—I mean, I truly missed him when he was gone, and when, as a kid, I’d look at issue #2, I’d get angry that DC killed the title before it had a chance to grow. Much of my work is part of an effort to turn my fixations, obsessions, and eccentricities into a poetics, and figures like Man-Bat were among the first to show me that when I fixate on a particular piece of textual and/or visual art, I get a deep emotional, intellectual, and bodily charge out of it. It was like Man-Bat gave me permission to trust my obsessions—since Man-Bat was one of the first obsessions that brought me deep pleasure. Also, Man-Bat was so weird, as a human-bat hybrid, that it felt like regular everyday language couldn’t adequately represent who he was (which is probably why issue #2 begins with the Roethke epigraph). You need something like poetic language to render what is so beyond-language and beyond-representation as a hybrid man/bat. He was almost like a religious figure in this respect: like, how can you describe things like a man/bat or things like Ezekiel’s chariot in everyday language. Man-Bat was one of the first literary characters to teach me the limits of language, I guess—though I never had the vocabulary to say these sorts of things when I was 10 (but I felt them, in whatever way you feel these things at 10).
Man-Bat also, in a weird way, helped teach me about the joys and limitations of metaphor. He was clearly linked to Batman, but Batman was only a metaphor for what Man-Bat really was. The fear that criminals felt when they saw Batman was that he resembled a Bat—he suggested that he was a bat, even though he wasn’t really a bat. Man-Bat, however, was a human-sized bat. When criminals saw him, they lost their marbles because they were seeing a real (not metaphoric) bat. I loved how Man-Bat constantly would say to villains, “You want to know if I’m wearing a mask—right?” They do want to know. And when they find out he’s a real bat, and he’s not wearing a metaphor of a bat-mask, their whole world turns upside down.
Also, one more thing about scholarship. I bought Man-Bat #1 with the thought that, too, this would become a collector’s item. I thought the title would take off—because I assumed everyone loved Man-Bat like I did. I was never a serious comics collector as a kid, but I was as serious as I could be. Collecting comics, and at times getting furious when a title like Man-Bat was canceled, helped stoke the archivist’s zeal that I developed as an undergraduate and that led nicely to the work I do as a scholar. Paying attention the various titles, and continuity among titles, energized the part of my brain that later would pay close attention to, say, why poets of the Modernist era write so differently than Postmodern poets, and why audiences for Modernist poets helped create audiences for Postmodern poets, and so on.
From the zine: David McCarty draws Man-Bat. Notice the frayed pants and the belt buckle.