Reckoning with Detective Comics

I want to talk about a cre­ative act of reck­on­ing and, maybe, redemption.

Growing up, when it came to comics I read mostly DC — Super­man, Bat­man, Won­der Woman, you know the roster. With its comics and their many, maaany TV and movie adaptations, the com­pany is a global cul­tural titan. Modern mythology.

It’s called DC because the publisher’s first series was Detective Comics. Bat­man first appeared in issue #27, pub­lished in 1939, and from that point onward, the series was devoted mainly to him. Today, eighty years later, you can walk into any comic book store, buy the new issue of Detec­tive Comics, and catch up with the Dark Knight.

But there were issues before Bat­man.

This is the cover of Detec­tive Comics #1, pub­lished in 1937.

Detec­tive Comics #1

Detective Comics #1

Depicted, in hor­rific Yel­low Peril caricature, is the antag­o­nist of the issue’s Bruce Nel­son detective story.

How can an insti­tu­tion like DC Comics con­tend with stains so deep-set? How can its readers? Its writ­ers and artists?

It’s eas­ier to begin with what doesn’t work. I am unwill­ing to ignore it, or say, “that was a long time ago.” Even before Bat­man’s first appearance, Detec­tive Comics was enor­mously popular; it flew off the racks. The com­pany’s suc­cess is founded, literally, in these images.

There’s another response that goes, “ah yes, rot­ten at the core, just like every­thing else in this night­mare world.” But that’s almost as blasĂ©, in its way, as the first response, with the addi­tional ben­e­fit of being suffocating.

For me, these are mat­ters not pri­mar­ily of judgment — who was wrong? Who con­tin­ues to be wrong? Exactly how wrong are they?? — but of repair.

And in this case, amazingly, we have an exam­ple of what repair might look like.

Gene Luen Yang is a popular, prize-winning car­toon­ist and writer. (I met him once, years ago; he is also the nicest.) In a series for DC that started in 2016 and ran for 24 issues, he chron­i­cled the adven­tures of a young man in China gifted with Super­man-level powers: Kenan Kong, the New Super-Man.

Gene, who is Chi­nese-Amer­i­can, knew about Detec­tive Comics #1, and with a rare tool at his disposal — a series set fully within the con­ti­nu­ity of the DC universe — he decided to con­front it.

His inter­ven­tion begins on the penul­ti­mate page of New Super-Man #8. These pan­els are very mys­te­ri­ous and sur­pris­ing even if you’ve been fol­low­ing avidly up to this point, so there’s not a ton of fram­ing to do. I know read­ing dis­sected comics on a web­site is … not the best … but bear with me.

On that penul­ti­mate page, you encounter a new voice — cryptic, cloaked in shadow:

New Super-Man #8, second-to-last page, last panel

New Super-Man #8

Then, you turn the page, and the voice’s source is revealed:

New Super-Man #8, last page

New Super-Man #8

The image is the shocker, but I think it’s the speech bub­bles that carry the payload. “Without me, there would be no super­heroes at all. For I am the very beginning.” Right there on the page, inside the fic­tion, this fig­ure takes his place, asserts that he mat­ters, is foundational, must be reckoned with.

Several issues later, he con­jures a vision — a his­tory les­son — for Kenan Kong. The effect for us, the readers, is that the New Super-Man, ren­dered in full mod­ern gloss, is dropped into the mis­reg­is­tered pan­els of a 1930s comic, racist car­i­ca­tures and all.

New Super­man #16, first page

New Super-Man #16

Quickly, Kenan Kong’s X-ray vision reveals the real peo­ple behind the car­i­ca­tures:

New Super­man #16, fourth page

New Super-Man #16

In the pages that follow, the New Super-Man’s his­tory les­son builds toward a con­fronta­tion with the pro­tag­o­nists of the early Detec­tive Comics. It’s strange and stirring, and it could only work in a comic book.

That’s why it’s so exciting.

There are other ways to talk about this. I can eas­ily imagine a critic’s essay delv­ing into the deep prob­lems of Detec­tive Comics’ early issues. Likewise, I can imag­ine a let­ter from DC Comics itself, acknowl­edg­ing its origins. Both would be … fine.

Gene Luen Yang’s inter­ven­tion is different. It’s not about the comics — it is the comics. It’s a diegetic reck­on­ing! Yang flips the cover of Detec­tive Comics #1 com­pletely around, makes it the mask of a pow­er­ful mys­tic who under­stands exactly what’s hap­pen­ing in that image, and why. Redemp­tion through retcon; is there any­thing more comics than that?

On his blog, Gene wrote about his thought process:

... DC wanted to bring past and present into a single, uni­fied mythology. That means that every issue, every story from the 1930s until now "mat­ters" in some way.

How do you do that with­out acknowl­edg­ing that DC debuted with a straight-up racist image? By hav­ing Chin Lung/Fui Onyui show up in New Super-Man, we could talk about the past explicitly, on-panel.

We didn't want it to be all about guilt over an ugly past, though. DC Comics has gone from debut­ing with a cover that dehu­man­ized Chinese peo­ple, to tak­ing their most impor­tant symbol, the Superman S, and putting it on the chest of a Chinese superhero. Chin Lung/Fui Onyui appears at the very end of New Super-Man #8. That issue was writ­ten by a Chinese Amer­i­can writer and illus­trated by a Chi­nese art team. To my mind, it shows how far DC has come, how far we as a soci­ety have come. Things aren't perfect, of course, but (this is a very "Super­man" way of look­ing at the world) they're bet­ter in so many ways, and that's a rea­son for hope. I'm proud to be a part of today's DC Comics.

Gene’s point about the Chinese and Chi­nese-Amer­i­can cre­ative team is impor­tant. If it was Robin Sloan with the bright idea to bring back Chin Lung and con­front the past by repro­duc­ing that image with painful fidelity … whew. I’m not say­ing it’s impossible, just that — no, actually, it might be impos­si­ble.

Even in Gene’s hands, this was a risky move. He writes:

The vast major­ity of our fans have under­stood what we were try­ing to do. Some were shocked, but they were also intrigued and supportive. I hope we lived up to their expectations.

The process of repair is ongoing, and I believe that what it requires, any­where there’s a deep-set stain (so, maybe: everywhere) is truly cre­ative acts like this one. Gene Luen Yang’s inter­ven­tion in the mat­ter of Detec­tive Comics #1 is gravely seri­ous but/and it’s also clever. Electric. Cosmic.

With courage and ingenuity, Gene demon­strates what’s possible, and what’s pos­si­ble is still: every­thing.

January 2019, Berkeley