Swansea University Home - 2009 - 2010

Beowulf meets the 20th century

22 October 2009 Dr Catherine Clarke, a specialist in medieval culture at Swansea University's Department of English has visited Indiana University this month on an Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship to explore representations of masculinity in the Beowulf DC Comic books.

Catherine Clarke

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is widely held as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature. The tale of the fearless Beowulf, slayer of beasts and demons has lost none of its appeal over the centuries, and has in recent years inspired a number of high-profile re-workings including the 2007 film Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie and Ray Winstone.  Central to the poem is the heroic ideal of masculinity immortalised through the figure of Beowulf, an image perpetuated through The Beowulf DC Comic book series.

Dr Clarke who teaches an undergraduate module entitled 'Transforming Beowulf in the twentieth century' as part of the English BA scheme at Swansea, was awarded the fellowship, worth $1500, to look specifically at the way the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf story has been reworked for 20th century audiences through the comics (by Michael Uslan and Ricardo Villamonte 1975-6) situated in Indiana University's Lilly Library.
Dr Clarke said: "The DC Beowulf comics present a deeply divided and conflicted idea of masculinity. This version of the Beowulf narrative presents a hyper-masculine hero and a homosocial world of physical competition and prowess. The advertisements within the comics aimed at a younger male audience reinforce the masculine culture of the comic strips featuring body-building, karate, and air guns. 


"However, the advertisements aimed at adult male readers within the comics, and explicitly at GI's and Veterans, promote opportunities to train as accountants, draftsmen, or in the fields of hotel management or secretarial work.  This reveals that in post-Vietnam society,  the professional lives in which men are affirmed, validated and rewarded - desk jobs, clerical and manual work - present a stark disjunction with the hyper-masculine world offered in the Beowulf narrative and through the adverts for leisure pursuits and recreational activities.

"My thesis deals with the apparent 'infantilisation' of masculinity in the Beowulf comics and their representation of an image of traditional masculinity which is relegated to the spheres of leisure, play, pre-maturity and nostalgia.

"Another interesting element I've been exploring is the way these comics introduce a female character into the Beowulf narrative - Beowulf's feisty, bikini-clad side-kick Nan-Zee! This, together with discussion and acknowledgement in the back-matter of the comics is an intriguing response to contemporary feminist politics in the 1970s US. 

"I also aim to reflect on my reading of the DC Beowulf comics to ask what these comics might add to our understanding of the 'original' Old English poem. The comics call attention to issues of masculinity and maturity which bear relevance to the Old English text (for example, Beowulf's apparent failure to move from the role of youthful, ambitious hero to that of older ruler and patriarch), and raise interesting questions about the appropriation of the Beowulf narrative by different groups of readers.

"The broader holdings of the Michael E. Uslan comic collection at Indiana University's Lilly Library have enabled me to situate the DC Beowulf comics within wider trends of comic-book literature in the U.S. around the period of the Vietnam War. I have been able to look at other comics in the collection including G.I. Combat, The Unknown Soldier, Sgt. Rock, and the various Conan series, many of which use imagined mythic or quasi-historical pasts in order to present images of hyper-masculine heroism and bravery.

"The Michael E. Uslan collection is a unique research resource which has enabled me to develop an understanding of the kinds of images of masculinity presented to comic-book readers in this period, and to explore again the messages which front- and back-matter and advertisements send about audiences and normative masculinities.  More widely, the Lilly Library has strong holdings in areas relating to Anglo-Saxon studies and medieval gender / sexuality, which has provided useful additional materials for my research."

For more information about Dr Clarke's research at Swansea University's School of Arts and Humanities, visit: http://www.swan.ac.uk/staff/academic/Arts/clarkec/

For further information about the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship, visit: http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/fellowships.shtml

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