So, first, let me start with the term that is perhaps most unfamiliar to a comic book audience, re-accentuation. Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin postulated, in his work The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, in an analysis of the novel as a form of style and as a process of transformation as well. Bakhtin states that the
. . . process-re-accentuation-is considerably more complicated and may fundamentally distort the way novel style is understood. This process has to do with the “feel” we have for distancing, and involves the tact with which an author assigns his accents, sometimes smudging and often completely destroying for us their finer nuances. (419)
The reality at work here is that the idea of re-accentuation distance between an original incarnation of a concept from what it is now that it is applied. To think upon this with regards to Superman: if Superman is a conceptual embodiment is an embodiment of classical arête then one must acknowledge that time has put distance between what arête was for ancient Greeks (it even evolved for them) and what Superman has come to represent based on the application of such ideas when conceived Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
With the idea of Superman, one is dealing with both the written word and the visual image. Bakhtin is primarily focused on the “written word” and states that
For the word is, after all, not a dead material object in the hands of an artist equipped with it; it is a living word and is therefore in all things true to itself; it may become anachronous and comic, it may reveal its narrowness and one-sidedness, but its meaning-once realized-can never he completely extinguished. And under changed conditions this meaning may emit bright new rays, burning away the reifying crust that had grown up around it and thus removing any real ground for a parodic accentuation, dimming or completely extinguishing such re-accentuation. (419)
Bakhtin speaks of “emit[ing] bright new rays” and that under changed condition something like classical Greek arête may lose its original meaning based on its fixed and “anachronous” ideas, but this does not prevent the idea of virtue, of arête, from being extinguished completely, but may require a form of constant revision and reinvention instead.
Now, retcon (short for retrocontinuity) is something more familiar for the comic book fan and audience. Searching for a definition, I decided to not use the Wikipedia entry and chose to go with the Oxford English Dictionary online version instead. They define it as a noun and verb, as a noun, it is commonly seen as “a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events, typically used to facilitate a dramatic plot shift or account for an inconsistency” (oxforddictionaries.com). Basically, its something done or inserted in order to generate a change or revision of previous material, often to make it fresh or to correct some kind of error in continuity. This ties into it as a verb, where it is defined as being a form of revision, revision that is done “retrospectively,” by asserting its definition given for being a noun” (oxforddictionaries.com).
Now, here is where I am going with this: an example of a bit of retcon and a bit of internal re-accentuation of Superman. This is a re-accentuation as facilitated via retrocontinuity.
I am a big fan of Grant Morrison as a writer, and Frank Quitely as an artist, and a really big fan of their collaborations, particularly their 12-issue self-contained epic of All-Star Superman. Particularly, there is a page where Superman saves a young girl from killing herself; however, he does it in perhaps not the most “expected” of ways. He saves here by imparting to her an inner strength she already has but by functioning as a model, an outward manifestation of that inner strength. It is a brilliant page and perhaps my favorite moment in comic books of all time, definitely it is what I feel is the “essence” of Superman.
So, what is all this to do with re-accentuation and retrocontinuity (retcon)? Well, it is worth noting that this page I admire so very much plays upon a similar premise to one found in one of Superman’s earliest adventures. In Action Comics #9, entitled “Superman: Wanted,” there is another such scene of Superman saving someone who exhibits suicidal thoughts. Now, unlike the depiction in All-Star Superman, and roughly seven decades later, this version of Superman catches a man after he has jumped and just in time before he meets an unfortunate end with the pavement below.
Even more striking is the juxtaposition of these two similar but differently accentuated depictions of Superman’s powers. To begin, the Superman found in Action Comics #9 (February 1939) is a character in his own infancy but one who is also aimed more directly towards an audience of kids. He is appearing in a title billed to be full of “action” and his stories, written and drawn by his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, speaks in direct, overt language and actions that leave no mystery to what he is out to do – save people’s lives. This kind of character works for the audience he is aimed at, but what happens to characters like Superman after decades of time and changes in the audience.
Well, that is where retconing becomes important.
Its through retconing characters that they are kept viable. They need to be reinvented and Superman has had plenty of them himself – most recently the New 52. Morrison and Quitely’s depiction in All-Star Superman (though technically separate from the normal continuity) is no exception. Morrison and Quitely are performing their own grand style, epic retcon of Superman. This maxi-series brings together many different and divergent elements of Superman’s seven decades of history in order for Morrison and Quitely to spin together a magnificent story of Superman facing his own mortality and the choice he makes in the face of death: to continue doing what he always does, save the day. Superman does not abandon his own ethos, in fact, Morrison and Quitely are able to in fact draw out and highlight, relying on Superman’s own complicated and previously retconed universe, the essence of Superman, distilled into a 12-issue series.
What Morrison and Quitely masterfully are doing is re-accentuating chosen elements of Superman’s continuity and developing their own compressed (and separate) retcon of his very essence and displaying it.
If one examines Superman from the Action Comics #9 story with that in All-Star Superman (issue #10) what is revealed is essentially the same character, just different levels of complexity that reveal the evolution of his audience over the decades and the complications/tensions/ expanded abilities of Superman himself.
First, there is the depiction and evolution of mental illness on display. The man who jumps in Action Comics #9 is seem to be outside the window of a sanatorium or mental hospital. This implies overtones of how mental illness was seen, though we are not told how serious his condition was, to be something of a dangerous social stigma. This contrasts with the girl in All-Star Superman #10 who is obviously in a form out-patient care of a psychiatrist, and appears to suffer from depression, to which Superman appears both sympathetic to but also acknowledging a far more common and slightly-less stigmatized view in turn.
Second, and most importantly, in the original story Superman catches the mental patient after he has jumped (Action Comics #9) while this young woman he helps before she attempts suicide and jumps (All-Star Superman #10). Most interesting here is the contrasting of overt vs. covert, explicit vs. implicit powers concerning Superman. In the former, Superman demonstrates his powers openly and without any particular complication or sub-text, no message to pass on other than “someone” might save you too. The later is more powerful because of its complexity. This is an evolved Superman who is able, through the comic book medium, to express more implicit and inspirational powers rather than the traditional overt ones. It is a masterful encapsulation and reveal of the essence of Superman, an essence that existed even in the Action Comics #9 of 1939.
The beauty of this is just how complex and complicated superheroes really have the power to be along with the acknowledgment that they are not static creations, but rather ever-evolving, continually retconed characters who have the power to accentuate or re-accentuate elements of the real world through “living myths” that convey and communicate deeper needs and truths.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl
Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1982. Print.
Morrison, Grant and Frank Quitely. All-Star Superman. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.
“Retcon.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxforddictionaries.com. 22 Nov. 2013.
Seigel, Jerry and Joe Shuster. “Wanted: Superman.” The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1. New
York: DC Comics, 2006. Print.