Superhero Lit 101: Why Penguin Classics’ Marvel Comics Anthologies Matter

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Marvel Classics Anthologies - Credit: Marvel Comics/Penguin Random House, 3, Adobe stock (background)
Marvel Classics Anthologies - Credit: Marvel Comics/Penguin Random House, 3, Adobe stock (background)

You can pick them out by sight on book shelves: the trade paperbacks with the Gill Sans and Perpetua typeface font, the austere black spines — all the better to make the orange-and-white lettering stand out, my dear — and the tiny flightless-fowl logo. This is the signature design of Penguin Classics, the division of Penguin Publishing that, for over 75 years, has put the canon of Western literature from Homer to Hawthorne in the hands of readers. It’s a distinct look that screams, “You are in the presence of a Very. Important. Book.” Bibliophiles have been known to reflexively drool on sight when they spot them. There’s a reason that Morrissey wanted to publish his 2013 memoir as a Penguin Classic edition.

Its roster of over 2000 titles now doubles, by default, as an essential reading list for both students and scholars: The Odyssey, The Illiad, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Leaves of Grass, Their Eyes Were Watching God. And, thanks to three new volumes that have just been added to their collection, that canon now also includes Captain America Comics #1, which features the title character socking Hitler right in the puss eight months before our country entered World War II, and Jungle Action #8, an issue with a cover promising an exciting new origin story of how an African king became the legendary masked hero known as the Black Panther.

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The Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Series compiles stories from the comic-book company’s golden age, focusing on a trio of different superheroes — Captain America, Spider-Man and Black Panther — and buffering their respective tales to amaze and astonish with annotations, essays by celebrated authors and the sort of scholarly rigor associated with the high-lit imprint. A joint effort between the publishing house and the folks that gave us the world’s greatest teenage webslinger, these anthologies not only contextualize the collaborations of Marvel co-creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and more; they help to change the conversation about what gets dubbed a literary “classic” and why.

“To me, the idea of what a Penguin Classic is: It’s a responsible engagement with the past,” Elda Rotor, the vice-president and publisher of the Classics line, says. “Where you’re looking a work through a historical lens, and discussing its impact and relevance now. It can’t just be a set group of titles that were picked by some publisher, you know, 60 years ago. If that wouldn’t be fair to what I think the intent was of [Penguin co-founder] Allen Lane when he started putting these editions out.”

It was Rotor who, as a representative of Penguin Classics, met with Marvel’s V.P. of licensing publishing Sven Larsen back in 2018 when the latter suggested that there was a way for the two companies to work together. She naturally assumed that Larsen was interested in mining the great works of Western literature for new stories; she even brought along several paperbacks of centuries-old epics as conversation starters. Instead, he proposed to Rotor that the publishing house put out editions of various Marvel comics featuring what have now become iconic characters and supergroups. The idea momentarily surprised her: Penguin had never put out fully illustrated books, nor had they ever considered dipping into the communal well of modern pop culture. The more Rotor began to think about the way these projects might look, however, the more enthusiastic she became.

“We now regard this as some of the more important popular culture of the last 100 years. So it’s time to start thinking of these things as not only something worth anthologizing in unique ways, but as art.”—Editor Ben Saunders

“I could already start to see what these comics might look like if you put them between our covers and within the black spines of our editions,” she admits. “It didn’t take that much convincing to think about how exciting it would be to put out works which are already parts of readers’ personal canons. It’s already part of the history of American literary storytelling. They are already considered to be classics for their communities. The bigger questions were really: If these are Penguin Classics, which scholars would we pick? Which authors could we get to write the forewards, and who could frame these as works that shed light on the world around them?”

Rotor reached out to Ben Saunders, an English professor at the University of Oregon who had written extensively about comic books for years and had helped put together “Marvel Universe of Superheroes,” a touring museum exhibit that had collected hundreds of pieces of original art and MCU movie props. (His latest exhibit, a deep dive into 60 years of Spider-Man that he co-curated with Patrick A. Reed, opens on July 1st in San Diego.) She envisioned him as the main editor for the series, someone who’d be able to connect the dots between these four-color sagas and ancient tales of bravery and heroism. “The project was still at the talky stage then,” Saunders says. “The idea was that Penguin would reprint several volumes of the Marvel ‘Masterworks'” — the company’s in-house, trade-paperback compilations of consecutive comic-book runs — “in regards to a few key series. I told them, if that’s what you’re looking for, I’d that in a heartbeat. But what if we thought about coming at these from a different angle?

“It’s funny, because I’d already been thinking about a project like this when they approached me,” he continues. “I’ve taught Captain America in my classes for a long time now, and as a professor, I’d always thought that students needed to see how Cap starts as this figure of propaganda from 1940, 1941, and is then transformed into a sort of PTSD survivor and guilt-ridden symbol for a more uncertain, self-questioning America in the 1960s. And there was, to my knowledge, no anthology easily available that presented both the World War Two stuff and the Sixties revival stuff between the same two covers. So that became part of my pitch: Let’s revisit these superheroes but in a way that didn’t favor completism over character? And amazingly, she said yes.”

From there, Rotor, Saunders and the brass at Marvel narrowed down a core six titles that they felt made sense to start with. (Three more Marvel editions will be coming out next year; Rotor says they are not ready to announce what those titles will be, “but we think fans will be very pleased with what we chose.”) And they all agreed that, unlike the majority of anthologies and hardback omnibus collections of Marvel comics on the market, the idea was not to go after comprehensive artist/writer runs or stand-alone storylines. They would have the freedom to skip around if it meant tracing a character or characters’ arc over several years, or even decades.

So, per Saunders’ dream, the Captain America volume does indeed begin with his first appearance delivering a right cross to Der Führer‘s face in 1941, before mentioning his failed resurrection in the ’50s as “Captain America, Commie Smasher”; it then skips ahead to his Stan Lee/Jack Kirby revival in the ’60s, and concluding with artist Jim Steranko’s brief mondo psychedelic, Pop Art tenure in 1969. The Black Panther edition opens with T’Challa’s introduction in Fantastic Four #52, before hopscotching into writer Don McGregor’s groundbreaking expansion of the Panther’s world in the early ’70s. And while the Spider-Man volume pulls heavily from the first two years of Lee and artist Steve Ditko’s gamechanging take on Peter Parker’s alter ego, it isn’t afraid to jettison some issues entirely in the name of chronicling the toll that great power — and the great responsibility that comes with it — takes on someone trying to finish high school.

“I know when you say Marvel plus Penguin Classics, some people are like, Huh? And others are like, Yes. It’s about time.”—Penguin Classics Publisher Elda Rotor

Saunders has also included many of the issues’ original letters’ pages, as well as supplemental material — including a pre-Spider-Man Lee/Ditko story that namechecks Aunt May and Uncle Ben — and a series introduction that spells out how Marvel’s creative corps helped set the template for a more psychologically complex superhero for the modern age. Hugo- and Eisner-winning Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor (who’s written her own Black Panther comic) talks about feeling ostracized as a young Black woman going into comic shops, and how T’Challa helped her reclaim a space in that world. Writer Jason Reynolds weaves in his own childhood story and the struggle of a sibling into Spider-Man’s “vindication for the under-dog.” Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang talks about Captain America as a symbol of freedom and democracy, and how that entire notion has became co-opted and bastardized over the years. Rotor singles that foreward out as one of her favorites of any Penguin Classics edition. “I was reading it again on the subway again this morning, and started tearing up,” she says.

For some, the chance to slip gorgeous editions of Spidey and Cap comics next to their similarly orange-lettered/black-spined versions of Henry James novels, Alain Locke’s Harlem Renaissance essays and, yes, even Moz’s autobiography is enough to seek these books out. For others, it’s a validation that what was once considered disposable and a pulpy guilty pleasure at best — and the literary equivalent of junk food that caused juvenile delinquency at worst — can be taken a little more seriously and evaluated with a more appropriate amount of intellectual, sociopolitical heft. Not that comics fans needed validation (MCU movie culture is mainstream culture now) or that superheroes needed to be “rescued” from the dustbins of history. It’s more that these are the closest things we have to modern mythologies, and these tales of gods and monsters, heroes and villains aren’t just childish things to be put away after childhood’s end. They deserve to be discussed in the same breath as other classics of the literary form.

“Yes, this is pop cultural material with all the rough edges of a commercial art form being produced at a breakneck speed in a society that didn’t particularly value it as art,” Saunders says. “Nonetheless, we now regard this as some of the more important popular culture of the last 100 years. So it’s time to start thinking of these things as not only something worth anthologizing in unique ways, but as art.”

“I know when you say Marvel plus Penguin Classics, some people are like, Huh? And others are like, Yes. It’s about time,” Rotor says. “But even though I’ve been at Penguin for 16 years, I still think of myself as a student. And I have to admit, I’d never thought of debt and family obligation through the lens of Spider-Man until I read through these editions. I have thought about otherness a lot in the books that we’ve chosen to publish, especially in the last 10 years — but then my ideas about that concept was elevated and enriched by reading the Black Panther stories. And then with Captain America, I was kind of blown away by the way my ideas were changing my own inner dialogue about patriotism and who does or does not get be considered ‘American.’  I hope that something similar happens with people, but especially if it happens because they’re reading these or revisiting them within the context of these being considered classics. Not classic comic books. Just classics.”

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