In a groundbreaking addition to the Penguin Classics series—long noted for enshrining superlative works of literature—the venerable line is including classic superhero comics for the first time with the publication of the first three volumes of the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection, The Amazing Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Captain America. The titles were released June 14.
Released under the editorial direction of Ben Saunders, professor of English and director of the Cartoon and Comics Studies minor at the University of Oregon, each volume will collect the first appearances of these iconic superheroes in a selection of early stories by the key Marvel creators—among them Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko—that defined each character's personality and history. The collection features introductory essays by Saunders (except Black Panther, which is introduced by Qiana J. Whitted) detailing each character’s cultural influence; as well as forewords to each volume by such acclaimed authors as Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafor, and Gene Luen Yang.
PW spoke with Saunders about his approach to curating this series and the inclusion of Marvel’s superheroes in the Penguin Classics line of canonical works of literature.
Publishers Weekly: Marvel has already reprinted this material in different formats. What makes the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection different?
Ben Saunders: It’s kind of a single-volume essence of the character. To my knowledge, there was no single collection that had World War II-era Captain America and the 1960s stuff. In the Penguin Classics edition you've got World War II Cap, and then, what I consider to be some of the most important Kirby stories from the 1960s, and then all three of the Jim Steranko books.
How did you choose what would go in and what would not?
A lot of comics collectors have this completist instinct: You don’t want issues 1, 3, 7. You want them all. But I think we are now at a point with this material where we can think, instead, in terms of introduction of a key character or a story element that gets played out over 50 years’ worth of material. For the Spider-Man volume, for example, one of the most striking things about the Lee and Ditko run is how many extraordinary villains are created during that period and Ditko’s inventiveness. So, we have the first appearances of these characters, which a whole generation of people know only from their movie iterations.
Both the Mysterio and the Green Goblin characters are media manipulators in their first appearances. This is very contemporary in an era where television is a relatively new thing. I think Stan and Steve are sometimes stumbling into the unconscious fears that rapid technological change is going to create in a whole generation, and also suggesting, don’t worry, with sufficient resolve and ingenuity, we can defeat these fears. So, they’re sort of fairy tales of modernity. In the way that I'm selecting stories, you can help people to see the culturally located nature of this work and its historical specificity.
Where does Black Panther fit into this?
Part of the excitement of doing that was to give people the first appearance of the character from the Fantastic Four and his first major solo story in one volume. I think Stan's anti-racist stance was absolutely sincere, and I think [Lee and Kirby] were thinking about “How can we introduce a super powered Black character into our universe in 1966?” They knew nothing about Africa, except what they had learned from pulps, and they decided, well, let's just reverse every cliché that we know from those things. Whenever you see Africa in a Tarzan book, it's always primitive, so what if we made it the site of the most advanced technological society on the planet? What they are doing is reversing a cliché, but the result is that they kind of fall backwards into Afrofuturism.
Then subsequent creators of the character are almost more fascinated by Wakanda and what kind of society it is, than they are by T’Challa. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ initial Black Panther run is really an attempt to think about this technologically advanced African society—how is that society organized? When you think about writer Christopher Priest’s run from the 1990s, Wakandan politics and Wakanda’s relationship to the rest of the world are huge driving factors in his writing of that series. The first solo series, writer Don McGregor and artist Billy Graham’s Black Panther from the 70s, is like, “We’ll take him back to Wakanda. We're not going to put him in the Avengers and have him in New York. We're gonna take him back there and think about Wakandan society and culture.”
So I think in the Black Panther volume you get to see Lee and Kirby fall backwards into Afrofuturism, and then you get to see the next generation of creators picking up on things that I think maybe Stan and Jack didn't know quite what to do with. And of course, the cultural status of that character was transformed in the last five years or so, because of the success and the social significance of the movie. So, this seemed to me like an important volume to get out there early in the series.
Jim Steranko only wrote three issues of Captain America. Why did you include those?
I think of the Steranko material as in some ways the last attempt to take things back to the World War II vision of the character, which would have been Steranko's own memory, of course. Steranko was really trying to reignite the flame of Cap as the great American soldier rather than Cap the endlessly self-questioning, self-doubting man out of time. If you read beyond this, what you realize is that Stan Lee very quickly decides, “No, those books by Jim look great, but we can't do Cap that way anymore. We're going to go back to the endlessly self-questioning man out of time.” So, there’s a real slice of the history of the character in the one collection.
Works included in the Penguin Classics line are by single, acclaimed, literary authors, but Marvel comics are a corporate product, essentially produced via a creative assembly line for a mass audience. How do these collaborative works fit into a line of titles considered among the most noted works of English literature?
Marvel wasn’t a very big company, and Stan Lee didn’t have time to write eight books a month, so he ended up creating a system that gave more leeway to the artist. So, we can speak of Ditko and Kirby in particular as a kind of comics auteur, in the same way you can speak about Alfred Hitchcock, even though Hitchcock wasn’t working alone. There’s something within that system where these two very different people were able to get a lot of themselves and their vision within these fantasy narratives.
I think the music of the 1960s makes a good parallel, if you think of the speed at which a company like Motown [developed] or the speed at which those early records are actually recorded, and the fact that they were living in a culture where people still thought of pop music as not really music. And now we look back on that material and we think of these artists as some of the great American artists. You think of the music that came out of Motown, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, or the Beatles or the early works of Bob Dylan, and no one is going to sneer at the idea that these are really significant contributions to the culture.