Leonard Cohen’s Comics
The video featured in yesterday’s post, “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” contains a number of interesting performances by various artists and comments from Leonard Cohen, but the segment that stands out for me is this brief statement by Cohen about his early reading.
The first poetry that ever affected me was in the synagogue, in the liturgy, and the Bible stories. And that would send shivers down my spine. The stories I was reading, in those days, mostly came from Marvel Comics. Captain Marvel, Superman, Aquaman, Spider Man, the various heroes. I thought I could write. I was never very sure. I knew I could write something. I started writing poetry to girls. Tried to get girls interested in my mind. [emphasis mine]
One book that changed your life: Uncle Scrooge Comics
Learning to read the 200 or so comic books2 I had accumulated by age five was my sole motivation for attending school. I’m told I was bitterly disappointed on arriving home from the first day of school only to find I was still unable to read my comics. But, I did learn, and reading became – and continues to be – a central and essential element of my life.
Consequently, I feel an affiliation with young Leonard as a fellow comic book aficionado despite his publication brand faux pas (Superman and Aquaman are affiliated with DC Comics, not Marvel Comics). 3
The Comic Book Influence On “Beautiful Losers”
Leonard Cohen put some of his superheroes to work, albeit in isolated camped-up paragraph-ghettos, in his novel, “Beautiful Losers:”
You disdained the coupon because of the sin of pride, didn’t you. Charles Axis wasn’t enough for you. In your greedy brain you cherished an unspeakable desire. You wanted to be Blue Beetle. You wanted to be Captain Marvel. You wanted to be Plastic Man. Robin wasn’t even good enough for you, you wanted to be Batman.
You’re breaking my back!
You wanted to be the Superman who was never Clark Kent. You wanted to live at the front of the comic. You wanted to be the Ibis the Invincible who never lost his Ibstick. You wanted SOCK! POW! SLAM! UGG! OOF! YELP! written in the air between you and all the world. To become a New Man in the fifteen minutes a day meant absolutely nothing to you! Confess!
This tension does resolve:
Charles Axis wants to be our uncle. He is one of us slobs who dwells pages behind Plastic Man. But can’t you see that he has made his peace with Plastic Man? With Blue Beetle? With Captain Marvel? Can’t you see that he believes in the super-world?
And, reading preferences are long-lived. In response to the question, “Why Catherine Tekakwitha [in "Beautiful Losers"]?” in An Interview with Leonard Cohen Conducted by Michael Harris,4 Cohen explains,
A friend of mine, Alanis Obamsawin, who’s an Abenaquis Indian, had in her apartment a lot of pictures of Catherine Tekakwitha around. I inquired about them and over the years I began to know things about her and then she lent me this book, which I lost, a very rare book on Catherine Tekakwitha. I had it with me in Greece and I also had a copy of, I think it was a 1943 Blue Beetle’s comic and several other books that just were on my desk. And I sat down in this very desolate frame of mind and I said, well, I don’t know anything about the world. I don’t know anything about myself, I don’t know anything about Catherine Tekakwitha or the Blue Beetle, I said, but I’ve just got to begin, and I began and wrote the book. [emphasis mine]
In his biography of Cohen, “Various Positions, Nadel extends that list of books:
In Beautiful Losers F., a young Montreal poet, asserts that “the texts had got to me,” This was true of Cohen himself, who based his novel on several core readings: P. Edouard Lecompte’s Une vierge iroquoise: Catherine Tekakwitha, le lis de bords de la Mohawk et du St. Laurent (1656-1680) (1927); Kateri of the Mohawks by Marie Cecilia Buehrle; a volume entitled Jesuits in North America; an American comic book from 1943, Blue Beetle; a farmer’s almanac; a passage from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols; and Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.
The Impact Of Comic Books On The Work Of Leonard Cohen – Further Questions
While I am delighted to discover the role of comic books in the development of Leonard Cohen’s literary sensibilities, I am appalled that this aspect of Cohen’s influences has received so little attention. The significance, for example, of Catherine Tekakwitha is a focus of papers, book chapters, and seemingly every review of “Beautiful Losers.” Heck, as far as I can determine, Ms Tekakwitha has never had her own comic book or even been a continuing character in one. Where are the scholarly studies, the ground-breaking re-interpretations of Cohen’s oeuvre based on the trinity of iterations of Blue Beetle, the almost but never quite completed “Leonard Cohen As Superman: The Nietzschean Vs DC Comics Dichotomy” PhD dissertation by that University Of Chicago 12th year graduate student, …
And, did Leonard’s mother cavalierly throw out his comic book collection as did the mother of a certain Cohen-centric blogger?
- My childhood experience also resembled Leonard Cohen’s in that I was, like him, immersed in biblical stories. In my case, that was the unsurprising result of growing up in the literary desert that was my home town. During summer vacation (when the school libraries were unavailable) and between monthly bookmobile visits, my reading choices were my comic books (read and re-read many times), the Bible, my mother’s collection of Reader’s Digest condensed books, and the World Book Encyclopedia, which some fast-talking door-to-door salesman had, thank goodness, convinced my parents was the key to their children’s intellectual growth. I read my way through the World Book volumes a couple of times. In this setting, the only source of evocative prose and poetry that was always available was the church. [↩]
- I had batches of Superman, Batman, other assorted DC Comics heroes, Donald Duck, Looney Tunes, and even the occasional Archie, but Uncle Scrooge was my favorite [↩]
- The Spider-Man reference is a tad suspect, given that the web-slinging superhero first appeared in August 1962 – when Cohen would have been a month shy of his 28th birthday, living on Hydra with Marianne. While it is, of course, possible he may have been reading Spider-Man then (see the section later in this post about Cohen’s “core readings” that informed “Beautiful Losers) , he was not, as implied in the “I’m Your Man” documentary, reading it as a child. [↩]
- “An Interview with Leonard Cohen Conducted by Michael Harris” was published in Duel, Winter 1969 [↩]