Coming to (Literary) Terms: Horizon of Expectations

Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.

The term of the day is Horizon of Expectations!

Horizon of Expectations (HoE) is used to discuss the nature of how a work can be read and interpreted differently as a result of the shift in culture and ideals (zeitgeist). It can also be further personalized to how the reader’s own literary history and knowledge factors into a particular reading; our perspective, personal experience and our own set of knowledge contributes to our general sense of understanding. Additionally, while an author may write about an idea that is controversial for it’s time, it may have less impact for someone who is well versed in that idea, or the issue may have run it’s course, and no longer retains the impact that it once did. HoE is mostly for literary analysis and criticism; to discuss it provides us with arguments about relevance, intent, cultural impact, etc.

A few nights ago, a few friends and I were talking about Wonder Woman, and the upcoming film which will star Gal Gadot. While I am a personal fan of the choice, it brought up a bit of contention which boiled down to how our personal points of view often mar our perception of certain actors who portray characters (Interestingly enough, this topic also came up in a recent DC podcast). It also stemmed from a simple perception of who the character is to us, as we each have a different iteration in mind (Comic Book Resources has brief visual history of Wonder Woman). While each of us had our personal opinion on who Wonder Woman is and who would best portray her, it is our personal experiences that we bring into our arguments, all of which have merit (even if we know we’re convincing no one).

HoE is great for examining seminal works. Reading some comics, such as the first appearance of many characters, we can see how much culture carries into our reading. Being amateur historians of comics allows us to put into perspective the effect of the canonization of stories. Superman and his first appearance is a great start to that discussion. It is the baseline for the hero, but by no means is there a cry for fidelity towards the source material. Superman began as a baby from an alien world, and as a result of the society being advanced biologically, Superman was granted relatively superior physical abilities, all of which were stated to be within the bounds of biology found on Earth. The canonizing of Bryne’s Man of Steel series is what comes to the minds of most readers when thinking of Superman; he is the son of a destroyed world, whose power set, which includes heat vision, x-ray vision, and flight, is the result of radiation. Mass media has a great effect as well as Donner’s film, Timm and Dini’s animated series or even the WB’s Smallville, continue to add and define the character in deepening, and occasionally confusing, ways. Being able to segment our understanding of a characters relevance within the time they were created, and the time and culture in which we are exposed to it, is the merit of HoE. Superman, in order to become even more otherwordly, needs to have powers and abilities that are completely alien, yet paradoxically allow him to be more human. He is an individual that is nothing like us, yet his best quality is that he strives to be the best of us. In each iteration, the time period and context in which we are exposed to Superman help to define our future readings or viewings of the character. I can whole heartedly enjoy Snyder’s Man of Steel as an attempt at situating Clark in modern terms, just as much as I enjoy Loeb and Sale’s Superman for All Seasons as a nostalgic take on the naivete of Superman. Both works attempt to tell a story of origin, but they do it on two completely different levels. While I like to think of Superman as the good old farm boy, I can also admit that a man of that nature would emerge differently in 2013, struggling with a skeptical environment. HoE allows me to be one with multiverse.


HoE also forces us to seek relevance and meaning from when and where something was created, in order to better analyze and appreciate a work. Waid and Ross’ Kingdom Come theorizes the affect of the more violent nature of superheroes and how Superman would be affected by it. As a stand alone book, it is great, if not out of date (the future is one that is directly tied into character histories circa 1994 with big events being the Death of Superman and Knightfall). The themes in the story are no different from our common points of view on generational gaps, responsibility and the relevance or need for Superman. The story in itself carries far more weight as an examination of the times as the younger generation of “heroes” is inspired by more violent characters such as Cable, which Magog is derived from. Do comics still embrace our anti-heroes? Yes, but the novelty of the gruff violent protagonist has faded in lieu of the desire for depth; we seek more reasoning behind action, even with our antagonists. Studying up, and contextualizing a work adds layers to our reading.

How are new readers of Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns affected by its impact on the modern portrayal of Batman? In what ways has McFarlene’s Spawn remained an example of a protagonist of depth, as well as representative of the politics of the industry? Is O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series accessible to older readership? How is the reception Kirkman’s The Walking Dead defined by its genre or how does it define its genre? How have our sensibilities changed over time, and how does that affect our reception of works we refer to as classic, pivotal, or game changing? Those are key questions we need to ask, if we are to use HoE as part of our literary repertoire.

Thanks for reading. Hope this has expanded your (literary) horizons.


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