Aldo J. Regalado, Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015), 288 pp.
Aldo Regalado’s Bending Steel explores the interrelationship between superhero narratives and American modernity in the twentieth century. He argues that superheroes and superheroines should be interpreted as “cultural responses to American modernity” (4). Regalado maintains that such heroic figures not only reflected changing norms and values in modern U.S. society, but also shaped how people interpreted the fundamental social and cultural changes that modernity entailed. To make this connection between superhero narratives, U.S. society, and individual citizens, he analyzes an impressive array of sources, including superhero comics, autobiographies, letters, interviews, trade magazines, fanzines, and internet fan forums. These sources provide important insights into the lives and intentions of producers, creators, and fans of superhero comics, since they show that heroic narratives were the result of a confluence of contradictory impulses, including capitalist strategies to maximize profit and readers’ calls to challenge traditional notions of gender, race, and nation.
The study’s first chapter explains how nineteenth-century fiction writers created heroic archetypes that would later influence the creators of superhero comics, although the nationalist triumphalism of novels such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales frequently operated in tension with more skeptical views on U.S. nationalism that questioned slavery, Manifest Destiny, and social inequality. The second chapter focuses on the onset of industrial modernity, a period during which a number of writers offered escapist heroic tales that affirmed White Anglo-Saxon masculinity and avoided direct engagement with modernity. Such narratives, too, influenced the creators of superhero comics.
Chapters 3 through 6 examine the genesis of superhero comics between the 1930s and the late twentieth century. According to Regalado, these heroic narratives “tackled modernity head-on” (8), accepting urbanization and industrialization as challenging realities to be actively confronted. More importantly, at least in the 1930s and 1940s, the creators of superhero comics allowed for a more pluralistic understanding of American identity and embraced government intervention in U.S. society. Regalado argues that their stories affected social and cultural discourses prior to World War II, although their progressive ideas operated in tandem with traditional notions of masculinity, Whiteness, sexism, and American exceptionalism. After 1945, as experts and politicians warned of the detrimental effects of comics on America’s youth, even the subtly transgressive nature of certain superhero characters largely disappeared for much of the 1950s, although fan communities managed to prod creators toward less consensus-oriented tales during the following decades. Regalado describes in detail how readers helped transform the comic book industry during the second half of the twentieth century, leading to the creation of a less conformist and more pluralistic superhero universe that took into consideration many citizens’ alienation with regard to traditions of American exceptionalism and tales of White male triumphalism. Regalado claims that this critique of modernity ultimately contributed to the emergence of a postmodern consciousness within superhero fan communities.
Bending Steel is an insightful volume that reads like a synthesis of two decades of scholarship on superhero comics. While most of the things that Regalado addresses in this study are not entirely new, it represents a very good overview that calls attention to the multitude of connections between heroic narratives and American modernity. One wonders, however, whether the study tends to overemphasize the transgressive nature of superheroism. Regalado rightfully points out in his conclusion that the twenty-first century has seen a deluge of superhero films that challenge traditions of White male heroism. In the twentieth century, by contrast, most superhero narratives confirmed rather than challenged entrenched gender and race hierarchies. Regalado could have paid more attention to the transgressive margins of superheroism, including Black superheroes that emerged in the wake of the Black Power movement and post-second-wave feminism superheroines. If we want to fully understand the interrelationship between heroism and American modernity, scholars need to thoroughly investigate how race and gender affected that interrelationship. Nevertheless, Regalado’s fine book is a welcome addition to superheroism scholarship and deserves a wide readership.
Simon Wendt (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)