So, “High Camp Super-Heroes”. What’s up with that? At a basic level, it comes from an old paperback:
In the 1960s, the convergence of several different, though ultimately probably related, forces gave rise to the book at left:
1) The shifting priorities of intellectuals, following the debates about “middlebrow” culture that ran in “little magazines” from a position of high-culture supremacy. Though there are warning shots before, the publication in 1964 of Susan Sontag’s much-read essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” gives the basic toolbox of ironic cultural appropriation that had largely been the province of the urbane gay community to the larger public — first the big-city intellectual set, and ultimately to America at large. The rise of “pop” art at this same moment, which could best be approached with these same principals in mind, did wonders to promote the camp logic to the otherwise uninitiated.
2) The rise of Marvel Comics, under the editorship of Stan Lee and the art talent of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, as a sea-change in the look, feel, and meaning of the comic-book superhero, spawning a hoard of imitators.
3) The Batman TV show and subsequent cultural “Batmania” that began in January, 1966. Batman pitched the idea of ironic distance from the debris of popular culture, intentional humor that appeared on the surface to be unaware of itself, and over-the-top performativity from the “villains” that made them as, if not more, attractive to the viewership than the heroes. As my friend Jaz Williams has asserted, this was a logical move forward from the “weird family” sitcoms (Bewitched, Addams Family, Munsters, etc.) that had dominated the airwaves in previous seasons. America bought in for a season, and “camp” logic went mainstream.
The book above, High Camp Superheroes (Belmont B50 695, 1966) presents material from the Mighty Comics line, an imprint of the same company that publish Archie comics, featuring their superhero stable characters that date back to the 1940s in a setting deliberately reminiscent of the dynamics of Marvel Comics. The stories (which, as the cover says, are written by Superman’s poppa, Jerry Siegel) are silly and banal in a way that seems almost disdainful of the material — not terribly “high camp” at all. “High camp,” of course, means material that’s designed to be consumed by a knowing camp audience. This material, however, is more aptly called “low camp”: kitsch material that is ripe for re-appropriation by and re-investment from an audience culturally divorced from the original moment/meaning of the object. There’s so much sense here that the material is trash and beneath everyone involved that the character on the cover identified as Fly-Man isn’t that character at all. At the same time, the title “Low Camp Superheroes” wouldn’t sell to any sort of knowing potential audience. And so, this “kitsch” object makes itself moreso by its mis-naming, and trivializes material that doesn’t seem like it wants to be. Nonetheless, the Mighty Comics characters are super camp, at least from the cultural moment we’re in at present. That difference makes a difference.
And so, this is where we take our name. I want to think that what I plan to cover here is more “high camp” than not: I’m writing for a more-or-less like-minded audience that has investment in the archness and possibility of camp. Low camp is a good time, but it often ends up laughing at rather than laughing at and with.