Dr. Daniel Peretti, Assistant Professor of Folklore at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, is the author of “Superman in Myth and Folklore” (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), as well as other essays on folklore, myth, and popular culture. His current research focuses on Santa Claus, ritual, and the traditions of Christmas. Here Dr. Peretti answers our questions about his career and his use of the Library of Congress’ comic book collection.
How did you get started researching comics and folklore?
Not long after finishing my PhD, I came across a retelling of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in a book on mythology. It was the part when Satan brings Jesus up to the top of the Temple and tells him he could step off without worry because God wouldn’t let him die like that. It reminded me of a joke I heard a long time ago, about two guys in a bar in a tall building. I’d been thinking about things like that because my PhD work on mythology in modern culture kept leading me toward Superman. I’d seen a lot of studies of folklore in literature, folklore in popular culture, but I’d never seen anything about popular culture becoming folklore—though I did find a few articles and book chapters, there’s not much. When I remembered the Superman joke, I thought it might be interesting to write a short paper on it. As the research went on, I found that there’s a lot of material: tattoos, costumes, festivals, personal experience narratives…So the article became a book. And in the process, I saw a lot of interesting material about Santa Claus. I wasn’t so much studying comics at the time, because my interest was in folklore, which for me specifically refers to oral tradition, hand-made objects, and unmediated interactions. But whenever someone I interviewed talked about a comic, I read it. To understand these comics, I had to read a lot of other comics, and I started noticing how often Santa Claus showed up; not just in the comics, but in the Superman television shows, too. So I thought there might be something worth exploring, and I soon saw that there wasn’t much work by folklorists on Santa. This project started taking shape, but I wanted it to be broad in its scope. I’d been more interested in comics in general, especially since working on Superman material, and it just fit. A big part of it, honestly, was seeing all the books and articles that equate comics and folklore. Several of them are by folklorists, and I was just thinking that comics aren’t folklore. The study of folklore is, above all, the study of how certain types of cultural knowledge are transmitted. And comics are transmitted by a variety of media now, but it still comes back to a distance between elements of performance. The comic creators aren’t face to face with their readers, not as part of the creative process. Beyond that, there’s the mythological element of it. So many studies of Superman and other superheroes call them myths, and for me it never works because the writers who call them myths are more or less just pointing out structural similarities to the stories. In my view, myth is as much behavior as it is a story. It requires a certain type of attitude toward a story, and it requires a community built around that attitude. I found that when I looked for it, and that formed my book on Superman. It’s how popular culture, specifically a comic book superhero, becomes folkloric.
What brought you to the Library of Congress?
I got a Marshall Fishwick grant, which funds travel to popular culture research collections. I’d been conducting library research where I was at the time, Indiana University, but I knew that there were a number of comics from the 1940s onward that featured Santa. I’d been looking through several collections, such as the comics archive at Michigan State University. The LOC had what I was looking for—specifically, the older material. I wanted to read the entire issues, which include a lot of material beyond the stories themselves. I wanted to see the advertisements, letters pages, and front matter.
Tell us a little bit more about Santa Claus and comics.
I started out reading children’s literature more broadly for how Santa is depicted, what he does, and how he is associated with traditional culture in fiction. A couple of years ago, Boom Studios started publishing a comic called Klaus, which features an origin for Santa as well as an annual release that chronicles his adventures. I found that because the writer, Grant Morrison, also wrote a very popular Superman story that I read when I was doing fieldwork. From there, I just kept digging. I found a lot of Disney comics, a number of Looney Tunes, a lot of comics not associated with any IP character, such as Santa Claus Funnies. The Archie comics, though, feature Santa and Christmas more than any other series, as far as I can tell. I found the comics without licensed characters to be the most interesting. Those tended to feature family traditions more frequently. I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I started reading through the collection, but I was surprised to find so many comics that focused on baking cookies. It makes sense, of course, because the cookies form part of the children’s interaction with Santa. I’m not sure when visiting Santa at stores and malls became common, but it would be interesting to see if the comics stories shifted to showing that interaction after it became popular. The Archie comics, especially from the later 1970s, showed professional Santas a lot. He comes up a lot in superhero comics, too. There’s more variety in Santa comics these days, with Klaus showing Santa as a super hero, and other stories showing Santa on a quest for revenge, or dealing with the generation gap.
What were a few of your favorite finds in the Library’s comic book collection?
Well, I came to the library with issues of a single series in mind, but I was fortunate because the librarians found a lot more material for me—more than I could read during the time I had. There’s a book called Lobo’s Paramilitary Christmas Special, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s about the Easter Bunny hiring an assassin to kill Santa. That’s the sort of variety that I found in the comics after 1990 or so.
Did you find any inspiration for future research?
I did, mostly in the form of comics that present traditions having to do with Santa. I wasn’t expecting them to include so much ethnographic information. I think of it as the popular culture representation of folklore—a topic that is often called folkloresque. It has broadened my scope quite a bit, and I’m currently working on a book that focuses on folkloresque aspects of comics, which I probably wouldn’t have begun if I hadn’t seen the potential for it as I went through the collection.