In comics everything is reduced to two-dimensional images. Thus the use of stereotypes is a way to transmit information quickly to the reader. A stereotype is an oversimplified idea of a thing, a person or a group of people. Stereotypes are useful to convey information about a character or its surroundings in comics, due to the medium in which ideas are expressed. Comic-book artists decide what is to be pictured, in which position in the page is going to be pictured, how much of the action or the idea which they want to convey is going to be pictured given the available space in the page. The artist will decide what to present to the reader in each panel of the page, and how to transmit an idea or ideas in each page. This is called encapsulation.
Because the process of encapsulation is reductive in nature and additive in reading, artists use techniques to trigger meaning into the readers head. Creators reduce the story to snapshots in a page, using different techniques for encapsulating the story. That is why stereotypes are useful. Readers who share the same culture with creators will expand the meanings encapsulated by the creator using the common shared culture and ideas. The process by which readers expand the meanings is called closure.
We can also find symbols and visual metaphors in the comics. All of these are dependent on the context and the culture the comics was created in. This means that the experience of readers can vary greatly, not only by their own experiences, but also depending on the culture they share.
Marvel Superhero Comics are not only read in the USA, but also worldwide. Their comics are translated in many languages, and some are even localized (like the experimental Spider-Man: India re-envisions; or Ryoichi Ikegami’s Spider-Man who was called Yu Komori, in Japan in the 70s). Despite this, most of their comics are just translated and exported as is worldwide, creating different types of closures by readers around the world. Some of the initial stereotypes, symbols and metaphors might be lost when the reader who is experiencing the comic book shares a different cultural background from the creator of the comics.
We can find a recent example with Loki and Thor in Loki Agent of Asgard and the Uncanny Avengers Annual #1. Loki and Thor are being presented to the American readers as the Geek and the Jock. The idea of geek and nerd vary depending on the culture they live in, while the idea of jocks might be non-existent altogether. To see Thor as a jock, a quarterback in a high-school might trigger lots of memories to the American readers, while none to Spanish ones. Preferred sports in high-schools also vary depending on the country you live in. Thus, what Marvel is trying to convey in these comic series-Loki is a geek and Thor is a jock— might not get across once the comics have made their way in Europe. Closure might be totally different for an American reader and a Spanish one.
Being aware of that, we can easily see that the target of Marvel is the American public: they are targeting different audiences, geeks and jocks, so that the number of readers might increase, or new readers might feel closer to the characters. We can see Loki hacking computers and playing video-games. We can also notice his fashion as one close to a cool geek: double sleeves, casual and yet elegant in some shots, much like the nerdy fashion of the characters in Big Bang Theory. He is thin and intelligent. We can see books in his apartment, and a poster of the comic book Thor. Even when other characters come to his apartment to plot a mission, we can also see scenes that resemble D&D role play, further triggering the image of how geeks get fun (to get an idea: see the Big Bang Theory).
Though the American idea/stereotype of “geek” has been exported by media (films, TV shows, books and comics), we can find differences locally. For example, the equivalent word for “geek” in Spain is “friki” (which comes from “freak”). Though “friki” is widely used, those who use the word “geek” are timidly increasing. Both words refer to the same group of people. However, the type of people who are considered to be into the group of “geeks” is different to those who might be put inside the same group in the USA. Even the more positive approach that the Americans are giving to “geeks” is different from the still highly negative one that persists in other countries.
If we take a closer look to the differences in geeks and nerds, we’ll find out that Loki is obviously a geek. He is savvy, intelligent, has social abilities as an adult but not as a young man as stated by Thor the first movie (he is a very good lier and manipulator), and does show traits of geekiness in the comics. If we take a look to the statistics below, we’ll find that:
- 17% of Americans identify as geeks
- 65% of game designers identify as geeks
- 50% of technology engineers identify as geeks
- 37% of bloggers identify as geeks
- 66% of millennials identify as geeks
- 45% of people believe that geeks are earlier adopters
- 31% of people believe geeks have a higher chance of being successful
According to these numbers, it makes sense to portray Loki as a geek. Not only those people who are geeks will empathize with the character in the comics, you also have a chance to get new readers just because of portraying him in that way too.
While the process of encapsulating might force artists to use or abuse stereotypes, the fact is that it is a good technique to pass along important information about the character to the readers. This not only happens in comics, but also in films. Even though the Thor, the Avengers, and Thor the Dark World differ from the comics, reality is that they also portray stereotypes and mimic poses or scenes from the comics. This is done to trigger certain emotions to comic book fans, and to make the characters closer to the viewers. Each scene can be thought as a page in the comics. In this sense, from scene to scene, viewers also need to create closure. Though movies explain and show further than the comics do, reality is that the experiences of the viewers are also important to get the message through.
While in the comics it’s easy to spot Loki as a geek, it is harder to spot the same in the movies. In Thor we find an awkward Loki, a dramatic figure, expert in magic, who seems envious of his “perfect brother.” Even though, he might not look like a geek, those who share similar backgrounds or experiences will easily empathize with him, specially geeks. His story is very similar to those who have been set apart in schools and high-schools. While Loki is hard to grasp, Thor is easily understood both in the comics and the movies: he is the jock, the muscular silly guy who is popular among girls in the high-school, the quarterback.
We can see Thor drinking loads of beer in the comics, dressed as a quarterback, and we can also appreciate his huge muscles. He is huge in comparison with Loki, who is way thinner. He is also easy to trick, he does not understand technology much, and his manners are quite rude when he is angry. Despite this, he has a good heart. He is the nice jock.
Jocks found their origins in Tom Brown’s School Days, a young adult novel written by the English lawyer Thomas Hughes, which was used as an example for healthy students across the US. In the novel, we find Tom, a nice jock, and Martin, a nerd who likes machines. He was bullied at school, and Tom used to save him from them. However, the pair was created here. The preferred sport was rugby. Though this is an English novel, the ground where it took roots was the US, promoted by the educational ideology of the XIX century.
When American readers and viewers take a look to Thor, they see the nice jock. However, European readers and viewers might not grasp the whole idea while taking a look at Thor. Popular kids in schools across Europe might practice other sports, like soccer, while might have even different attitudes towards similar things. What we are used to see in high-schools across the US through movies and high-school TV shows does not resemble the reality in other parts of the world, thus creating a loss of meaning when comics and movies cross the Atlantic (or the Pacific).
Despite the cultural differences, reality is that exporting comics and movies worldwide also means exporting ideas and stereotypes worldwide. Even if the experiences of readers and viewers are different locally, they start to internalize the real meanings of the stereotypes, and they can even localize, when possible, those stereotypes and make them “local.” Exporting culture is what Marvel is doing through its comics and its movies. Marvel is sharing the American culture worldwide. In doing this they are exporting ideas, stereotypes and words all over the world. This creates a cultural change, even if subtle, where it takes roots.
Technology is amplifying and helping the process of assimilating, copying and adapting new ideas. While new ideas are assimilated, copied and adapted to local realities, we might be in front of a degree of acculturation. For example, years ago, a comic book fan needed to wait for the comics to be printed and translated in their countries. Now, with just a click, they can purchase the digital copies of the comic books. English is a language used and studies worldwide, thus, if young people are able to speak, even if rudimentary, the language of the comics, odds are that they will also want to read the comics, or watch the films, in original language, online. The geekier the fan, the stronger the feeling to get “the comic now,” or “the movie now.” In having the same things at the same time as Americans do, it also creates af feeling of belonging to the same group. Comic-book fans share their ideas worldwide. Thus, those who are reading the comics “now” but belong to other cultures might internalize culture aspects that cannot be found in their own culture that might substitute other local aspects.
Stereotyping in comics and movies have a deeper effect than previously thought. While stereotypes are useful to convey shared ideas in a given culture, and are, thus, useful when trying to communicate certain traits from a process of encapsulating to the readers closure; they are also means of change when exported to other cultures. While they can be totally unseen to certain cultures, or even misunderstood, the media which carries them is creating changes in cultures worldwide.
Comics and superhero movies have to be taken more seriously, since they are not only stuff for kids. They target broader sectors of the population, with different age ranges, and even export ideas, stereotypes, fears and views of the worlds in other cultures.
- The Power of Comics. History, Form & Culture. By Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith. This is a good academic book that introduces you to comics, in a serious way: history, the culture behind, techniques, fans, etc.
- American Nerd. The Story of My People. By Benjamin Nugent. A must-read to understand the nerd, and also the jock in American society.
- Comicbook Nation. The transformation of youth culture in America. By Bradford W. Wright. Highly recommended to realize what the comics might hide behind.
- Loki Agent of Asgard. Marvel Comics. To see the new Loki and his image. Also to notice how Thor is portrayed.
- Ucanny Avengers Annual #1. Marvel Comics. To see Thor as a quarterback, along with Steve Rogers.
- Thor, The trials of Loki, Young Avengers, etc. Marvel Comics. Highly recommended to read the comics and pay attention how the characters are portrayed.
- The Avengers.
- Thor the Dark World.
Copyright: Images on this post (C) Marvel / Other images found on Stephen’s Light House