Halfway Down the Rabbit Hole

January 3, 2016   •   By Jason Tondro

THE COVER OF Surrealism, Science Fiction and Comics depicts Captain Marvel — known to his archenemy Doctor Sivana as the Big Red Cheese — surrounded by an animated typewriter and angry trashcan while he grapples with a microphone that has come to life to strangle him. The image is from the cover of Captain Marvel Adventures #84 (May 1948), which features the protagonist’s battle against an antagonist named “The Surrealist Imp.” Based on that image, you might think that somewhere in the book’s 10 essays you would read an exploration of the relationship between Surrealism and superhero comics. You would be wrong.

The contributors to Parkinson’s volume don’t discuss the Surrealist Imp and Captain Marvel, although Parkinson does casually mention the antagonists in his introduction. In fact, only one essay (Joanna Pawlik’s contribution on the Chicago Surrealists) discusses superheroes, and then only for a page. The volume contains three chapters on Dalí, but Jim Steranko’s groundbreaking Dalí-inspired covers for Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (to name only the most obvious example) go unmentioned. All this is to say that while Parkinson’s choice of cover art acknowledges a connection between superheroes and Surrealism, the book largely leaves this connection unexplored.

This doesn’t mean that the book isn’t fascinating, well written, and erudite. It includes among its essays no turkeys and three high-flying falcons: Jonathan P. Eburne’s “Approximate Life: The Cybernetic Adventures of Monsieur Wzz…,” Pawlik’s aforementioned “The Comic Book Conditions of Chicago Surrealism,” and Jeannette Baxter’s “Accident and Apocalypse in Alan Burns’s Europe After the Rain.” Eburne’s piece is a brilliant example of what an academic essay can do. It begins by guiding us through Surrealism’s relationship to cybernetics and then illustrates this relationship with the 18-picture ciné-roman tribulations of “Monsieur Wzz,” a rude mechanical who awakens in a junk pile and has picaresque adventures around Paris. Made of wire, pipes, and ball joints, Wzz is cybernetics on the cheap, a Surrealist hitchBOT for 1929. And like the tragic hitchBOT, who successfully traversed Canada and Europe only to be vandalized within two weeks of his arrival in the US, Wzz’s adventures illustrate what happens when the cybernetic longing for homeostasis comes face to face with the starkness of Earthly anarchy. In telling this story, Eburne elegantly illustrates the Surrealist exploitation of the ciné-roman and the travel magazine. His essay shows how, in the work of Man Ray, Max Morise, and Marcel Duhamel, medium becomes inextricably linked to message — a theme that recurs in all the best chapters of this book.

Pawlik’s chapter is quite literally central to this volume — a position it deserves, as she has taken on the brave task of addressing Surrealism in America, specifically the Chicago movement centered around Frank Rosemont. Beginning in 1962 and increasingly through the 1970s, the Chicago Surrealists fought on multiple fronts. I use this martial metaphor advisedly, since Rosemont articulated Surrealism as not simply a style of art but the embodiment of class revolution. And in contrast to the French Surrealists, Rosemont embraced popular culture as a vehicle for the Surrealist voice. Bugs Bunny, Popeye, and the Hulk may not have been created as agents of labor against capital, but with the birth of a homegrown Surrealist movement they could now be read that way. So Rosemont had to reintroduce Surrealism to America, a task he approached using American language and symbols. At the same time, he and his group (which briefly renamed itself Ztangi! in a tribute to Krazy Kat’s Ignatz) also had to convince the world that Surrealism was still alive and relevant. Entire exhibitions (William Rubin’s Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage at MoMA, for instance) had been organized to bury the movement, so Rosemont and others came out to praise it. It’s a fascinating history, and Pawlik’s unusual access to Penelope Rosemont’s archive of Surrealist publications has allowed Pawlik to duplicate some wonderfully illustrative pages. The end product is memorable and important work. 

On my first read-through of Surrealism, Science Fiction and Comics, I labeled Baxter’s defense of Burns “the best essay that doesn’t belong in this book.” The essay is a strong and articulate example of that genre in which a critic makes war upon an author’s unjust fall into obscurity. Baxter’s weapon in this war is the close reading. She unpacks Burns’s distinctive use of grammar and syntax to create what she describes as intentional confusion and impasse, a technique related to both Surrealism and the postwar inability to confront and talk about the Holocaust. And indeed it is within the genre of post-Holocaust literature that After the Rain seems to belong. Baxter’s own invocation of science fiction is limited to a single paragraph in which she insists Burns’s novel may be “‘related to SF’ but not reducible to it.” Some of this may simply be the critic’s need to assert the uniqueness of her subject. But when a scholar so attuned to word choice uses “reducible” in such a context, she implies that science fiction is somehow too small a field for a truly great writer. The essay succeeded in making me want to read After the Rain, but it fits uncomfortably into a volume dedicated to science fiction.

In his introduction, Parkinson describes the collection as bookended by Verne, but in fact the collection contains much more discussion of Dalí and J.G. Ballard, and fans of both will be pleased to read it. Indeed, the last three essays are united in their focus on Dalí, who would have been delighted to see so many interior illustrations devoted to his work, his wardrobe, and his intentionally ridiculous mustache. The standout essay in this section may be Julia Pine’s reconstruction of Dalí’s involvement in the marketing of the 1966 Hollywood science fiction classic Fantastic Voyage. “A Fantastic Voyage: Mapping Salvador Dalí’s Science Fiction World of Tomorrow” helps us to understand Dalí as a futurist as well as a Surrealist. It begins by walking us through Dali’s abandoned efforts to build The Dream of Venus, a Surrealist pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Pine then turns her attention to Dali’s relationship to Fantastic Voyage. 20th Century Fox, she tells us, commissioned a painting from Dalí for the film and hired David and Albert Maysles to film a six-minute documentary about the enterprise, Salvador Dali’s Fantastic Dream. The Maysles were hands-off filmmakers interested in capturing authenticity, and Dalí was an energetic self-promoter and showman. Their collaboration resulted in a chaotic, entertaining film that must have thoroughly confused the studio’s publicity department. This is a delightful episode in the making and marketing of a science fiction classic, and we owe Pine a debt of gratitude for bringing it to light.

Parkinson himself has two essays in this collection: “Surrealism, Science Fiction and UFOs in the 1950s: ‘Myth’ in France Before Roland Barthes” and “Surrealist Painting as Science Fiction: Considering J.G. Ballard’s ‘Innate Releasing Mechanism.’” He also has a bad habit of reminding us how much of the book’s content is his. There is no phrase more tempting to the academic than “As I have written elsewhere,” and Parkinson never fails to take this bait, always reminding us of his contributions in other chapters. One imagines that an editor other than Parkinson would have cut these self-congratulatory moments. The truth is, we academics have a terrible anxiety that we are not read, and so we take every opportunity to point readers to our own work. An anthology, though, is not the place for the editorial voice to trumpet itself. Someone who has that much to say on a subject should work it up into a monograph.

But any criticism of this book must acknowledge the challenge of its tripartite topic: Surrealism is a movement, science fiction a genre, and comics a form. As independent fields of study, each is enormous and intimidating. Their intersection, while substantial, arguably ignores the largest parts of all three categories. Scholars are likely to focus on one of these fields and bring only limited expertise to the other two, resulting in curious misunderstandings which only specialists from the neglected fields will notice.

Parkinson and his contributors deserve credit for taking on this challenge, even if the volume does not always rise to it. For example, if you come to this collection with knowledge of the comics form, you will find a great deal of conversation about Krazy Kat (sometimes it seems that’s the only comic intellectuals were allowed to talk about in the ’60s), but much of this conversation will frustrate you. There is, moreover, some confusion in the volume about what exactly the word “comics” means: some contributors use it to mean comic strips, others comic art, and still others (least satisfactorily) material that is comic in tone. Some of the essays, that is, proceed on the assumption that comics must be funny. Thomas Inge put forward the academic argument for this position in his groundbreaking 1990 book Comics as Culture, but it’s precisely this section of Inge’s book that has suffered the most in the 25 years since its publication. Nevertheless, Inge’s is the only significant work of comics criticism that makes it onto Parkinson’s bibliography. By contrast, Barnaby Dicker, the author of the essay “André Breton, Rodolphe Töpffer and the Automatic Message,” demonstrates a much more up-to-date knowledge of comics criticism, comfortably building on the work of David Kunzle, Thierry Groensteen, and Charles Hatfield.

Throughout Surrealism, Science Fiction and Comics, Parkinson and his fellow authors take on a bold challenge: not one field, but three. Their work reminds us just how big each of these fields is — so big that even their intersection is a rabbit hole down which we find endless wonders. There are, in fact, too many wonders to fit in a single book, and that’s why the Surrealist potential of Captain Marvel and other American superheroes will have to wait for a future volume. In the meantime, we can hardly fault the authors of this book for going as far down that rabbit hole as time and space allowed.


Jason Tondro is an Assistant Professor of English at the College of Coastal Georgia, where he teaches comics, cultural studies, writing, film, and British literature.