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Spring-Summer 2000
Vol. 62, No. 3

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Gordon: Where was Superman during the war?

Riddle me this, Batman: If Superman was such a superhero, why couldn't he, at the height of his popularity in the early 1940s, put a stop to World War II with a well-placed "KA-POW!"?

That's just one of the many thought bubbles Ian Gordon '93 (PhD), likes to puzzle about as a historian of visual and consumer culture.

The author of the highly regarded cultural history Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), Gordon knows exactly where the "man of steel" was during the war.

He was busy making the streets safe for his alter ego's girlfriend, Lois Lane, to shop.

"What most comic books did was mirror what the advertising of the age did, which was hold out the promise that, after the war, the U.S. would be almost a utopia of consumption," says Gordon.

Holy co-option!

Gordon, a professor at the American Studies Centre at the National University of Singapore, began his study of comics and culture as his dissertation in history at Rochester. The resulting study offers far more insights into American culture than the whereabouts of Superman.

In the book, which the Washington Post described as "engaging" and full of "irresistible tidbits," Gordon argues that comic strips and comic books provide a window into American consumerism.

The co-option started as early as 1902, when the character of Buster Brown was licensed to sell shoes. Soon Winnie Winkle was fretting about the proper way to outfit herself as a young working woman.

By 1941, Superman was talking up the benefits of a new "krypto-ray gun" that coincidentally was available in a toy version from Daisy. (By the way, Superman sat out World War II because he failed his eye exam. He accidentally used his X-ray vision to read the eye chart in the room next to his examination room.)

Would it be long before Garfield dolls with suction cup feet started showing up in the back windows of cars? Or before Saturday morning cartoons became little more than thinly veiled ads for action figures?

Gordon argues that the marriage of comics and consumerism happened without much
coercion, and resulted as much because the cartoonists themselves wanted to take more control over what happened to their creations.

But it became clear early on that the comics and their characters were valuable commodities in their own right, both through syndication deals and through licensing.

Readers' attachment to their favorite characters also fanned the flames, Gordon says.

"When Gasoline Alley was dropped from the Washington Post, there were letters of outrage, and that's a phenomenon you still see whenever newspapers make changes to their comics pages."

"Readers have a long narrative history with the characters, and they become part of their lives, in a way," Gordon says. "People get up every morning, they open the newspaper, and they catch up on what their comic strip characters are doing."

A native of Australia, Gordon originally planned to write his dissertation on New York intellectuals. But he dropped that plan when four books on the same subject were published during his time as a graduate student.

He turned to his first love, visual communication, and found supportive faculty at Rochester for his interest in a study of comics and culture.

He admits that he has been met with raised eyebrows when he talked about the book during job searches.

"People have to read my book before they understand that it is history," Gordon says. "It's not a book about how wonderful comic books are. It's a book about the important role that comic books have played in shaping part of American culture."

If anyone doubts that importance, Gordon can point to the February death of Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts, and the amount of ink that was spilled over the fate of that comic strip.

Gordon counts himself as a fan of Schulz, who he says, ushered in a reflective, understated style for his characters that was later picked up by trendsetting strips, such as Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County.

But he notes that Schulz was careful to maintain complete control over his characters, even stipulating that no other artist could draw Peanuts after his death.

Peanuts, in other words, was worth a lot more than peanuts.

"We've gotten ourselves into a situation where these characters have shaped our lives and where we can't get enough of them," Gordon says. "But we have to pay somebody else to get them."

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