Media Room

Superhero life lessons

 Lee Easton, left, and Richard Harrison

Professors Lee Easton, left, and Richard Harrison are the authors of Secret Identity Reader.

Comic books and their superheroes are not just child’s play.

In a new book, Mount Royal University professors Lee Easton and Richard Harrison prove there is a lot to learn about life, love and death from the comic book stars.

The nationally published Secret Identity Reader: Essays on Sex, Death and the Superhero is a collection of essays written by the two English professors, each coming from a clearly defined and different voice — modernist vs. post-modernist, gay vs. straight, Batman vs. Batmen and, as Easton (49) likes to point out with a smirk, young vs. old. Harrison is 53.

Harrison, who has been a guest speaker at Comic-Con International, says there are many academic books that explore the history of comics or that look at them from a psychological or sociological point of view, but this new book is unique.

“I don’t see anything out there that is as intimate and autobiographical as Secret Identity Reader,” says Harrison, a Governor Generals’ Award-nominated poet.

Easton, the chair of Mount Royal’s Department of English, finishes the thought, adding: “It is not often that guys talk about this stuff in this way — being frank.”

Academic conversation in print

Though Secret Identity Reader is written by two highly respected academics, it is intended for a general audience.

“We purposely stayed away from the kinds of jargon and the ways of constructing arguments that are more typical of academic journals,” explains Easton. “The concepts are all there, but expressed in an accessible way.”

The wonderful back and forth dialogue featured in the book is not only on the page. Put these two in a room, bring up the subject of comics and be prepared for a fantastically fascinating conversation with a lot of “yeah, but” as one acknowledges the other’s point but then shares his own.Secret Identity Reader

“There is the misconception that after a good conversation everyone goes away happy and has a group hug because you’ve agreed,” says Easton. “But there is another outcome that is equally desirable — that you’ve had a really good conversation, you’ve learned a lot, you don’t have to agree on everything and you still have a hug.”

Harrison adds: “We are modelling a democracy of differences rather than a monarchy of one point of view that everyone has to align themselves.”

The two, who teach graphic novel courses together, have met for breakfast monthly over the past decade to have just these conversations.

In fact, it was those chats and their experience speaking at comic events that gave Easton and Harrison the idea to write Secret Identity Reader.

Manly lessons from manly characters

One strong theme addressed in the book is how reading comics shaped both authors as men.

“For me, I don’t really see how you could talk about superheroes without talking about masculinities,” says Easton. “This is an analysis of stories created for boys and men, which is a good place to go if you want to understand contemporary North American masculinities.”

Adding a personal perspective to these concepts wasn’t always easy for the authors.

Harrison admits writing the essay Grown Women’s Bodies in a Young Boy’s Hands: A Memoir — which talks about his private sexual desires growing up in a prudish society — wasn’t easy.

“It was hard for me to do,” says Harrison. “It took an extra year to write that essay.

“But unless there is something on the line, it is not worth writing about.”

Earning respect

Easton and Harrison agree that the comic book genre undeservedly spent too many years being dismissed as simply kids’ stuff.

Harrison says: “What I hope is that Secret Identity Reader contributes to the re-evaluation of their work.

“Not just because it provides an opportunity and a metaphor for men like Lee and I to explore these issues, but because it shows that they were exploring important issues the way that all writers and artists worthy of the name do.”

Secret Identity Reader is available nationally at a variety of book stores including Chapters and Indigo.

The book is also available at the Mount Royal BookStore. Easton and Harrison will be at the BookStore Feb. 10 from 4 to 6 p.m.

Anika Van Wyk, Jan. 20, 2011

Lee Eason and Richard Harrison recently made a guest appearance on Citytv's Breakfast Television. View their segment.