Alter Identities: The Rise and Fall of the American Superhero in Underground Comix

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    • Presentation speakers
      • Matt Yockey, Department of Theatre and Film, University of Toledo


    The rise of underground comix in the 1960s has been historically characterized simply as an iteration of the iconoclastic counterculture of the period. While the work of influential underground artist-writers such as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton was certainly resisting the strictures of mainstream comic book industry production and censorship, it was also engaged in a productive and more complicated dialogue with the mainstream comic book culture it was ostensibly rejecting. As such, this paper will examine Wonder Wart-Hog, Shelton’s wry deconstruction of the comic book superhero, who appeared in such underground comix as Feds ‘n’ Heads, Radical AmerikaKomiks, and Rip OffComix. This character, a Superman parody, crystalized a contemporaneous ambivalence about the superhero as a bastion of truth, justice, and the American way felt by many young adults at the time who did not want to necessarily stop reading comic books but also could not take them seriously any more either. Shelton’s parody not only offers evidence of the ways in which the superhero was used at this time as a discursive political tool but it also reflects the ways in which the superhero was increasingly available in this period as a reflection of shifting cultural paradigms in America. For example, this period also saw the publication of an independent comic book, Bobman and Teddy (1966), which reimagined Robert and Teddy Kennedy as a Batman and Robin-styled pair of earnest crime fighters, and the release of the subversive art cinema superhero parodyMister Freedom(William Klein, 1969). Shelton’s character appeals to this zeitgeist as a means of speaking to a larger and growing ambivalence about what it meant to be American. Seismic shifts in American political culture were partially managed by pop culture icons such as comic book superheroes because such texts were readily available for a variety of ideological uses by producers and consumers alike. This paper will explore how the subversive status of the underground comix medium/genre exploited the intrinsic expressive liminality of the superhero genre to comment on and reflect the essential transformational spirit of consumer culture and the inherent malleability of an American identity, both especially potent in the mid to late 1960s.