Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison.

The Break-Though... is also marked by the promulgation of a theory of revolution as a good in itself, and most notably perhaps, by a new concept of inwardness... Quite as influential as Diderot (or Richardson or Rousseau) in the bouleversement of the eighteenth century is the Marquis de Sade, who stands almost emblematically at the crossroads of depth psychology and revolution-- Leslie Fiedler, LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL, p. 32--33.

Obviously Jefferson and Fiedler are talking about two very different forms of rebellion/revolution, the first as purely political, the second as literary and cultural, though both of the latter are inextricably influenced by political developments, as per the American and French revolutions. Both authors are weighing the benefits of a revolutionary *bouleversement,* though Jefferson speaks of occasional attempts of the citizens to rebel against "encroachments," while Fiedler addresses a change in the history of cultural values, which he terms "the Break-Through"-- a change that transpired within one particular time-frame and influenced a variety of Western cultures.

Given my many admonitions against reading literature along overly politicized ideological terms-- seen prominently in a series beginning here-- it should be obvious that I'm concerned with art and literature, not with politics as such. In the OVERTHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT series, I took issue with what I called "adversarial criticism," which specialized in creatively misreading literary narratives in order to take aim at supposed political boogeymen. Nothing that I write here contradicts that philosophical stance.

However, because I am a real liberal rather than an ultraliberal, I find it necessary to situate even wrong-headed comic book elitists within the history of revolutionary concepts.  I don't believe there's any substance to Berlatsky's claim that the Superman character is a fascist or a bully, as he's stated in separate essays. In this essay I refuted Berlatsky with much the same way that I refuted Reece earlier:

I might understand your queasiness about "extra-judicial violence" if we were frequently seeing Superman descending on African villages to make the natives obey the colonial powers. But Superman's first heroic deed in ACTION #1 is to prevent an act of bullying, beating down a man who is beating his wife (can't remember if the text calls her that or not). Yet in your view Superman becomes a bully even when he stops bullying. How many real-life bullies do that-- unless, of course, it's for some ulterior motive?
I don't buy your objection to vigilantism because you're applying it only to narratives you don't like for whatever reason. Wonder Woman is just as much a vigilante as Superman; she acts with no authority save that of the goddess Aphrodite, whom I suspect would be considered extra-legal in American courts. Any number of WW stories have scenes in which WW slaps down bully-boys with the same ease that Superman does, so is she a bully? Is she therefore "not good" for the same reasons? Or does she get a pass because you agree with Marston's politics?

Readers of this blog may refer to the aforementioned thread to see if they find Berlatsky's response any more informative than I did. Still, even though I think the assertion itself is nonsense, it stems from a powerful, possibly archetypal motif:  the Reversal of Values.

Leslie Fiedler does not reference either Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx in his opening chapter of LOVE AND DEATH, though they are referenced elsewhere in the book, and I deem it axiomatic that both Freudianism and Marxism inform most if not all of Fiedler's judgments.  I've remarked elsewhere that these two "titans of tedium," as I like to style them, have enjoyed their dominion over much of Western thought because of their affective, rather than their cognitive, appeal.  Freud shocked Europe by asserting that the purity of the parent-child relationship was sullied by the brute mechanics of sexual stimulation and emotional entrainment. Marx preceded him, though, not only by "turning Hegel upside-down," as the saying goes, but more importantly, by promoting his secular revision of the archetypal concept that "the last will be first."

Of the two, Marx has been much more influential than Freud in terms of producing an overall "theory of revolution," to which many of Marx's latter-day fellow-travelers-- Adorno and Foucault, for two-- have subscribed. But there's a huge difference between the Marxist theory of revolution and that of Jefferson, much less that of how reversals work in literature.

Political comparisons first: Jefferson envisions a republic in which there will always be discontent, which will be expressed through assorted forms of rebellion, but which can be ameliorated through education and pacification of the electorate.  Marx is certainly aware that even in his imagined workers' paradise, there will continue to be conflicts within the body politic. But most later Marxists do not deal with this practical aspect of life. For them, every defense of an allegedly mistreated or marginalized subject is a step toward paradise, World Without End.

In literary studies this can become even more fatuous. Frederic Wertham remains the go-to guy for Reversing Values in the comic book medium. In his view, every hero is a bully and a fascist, irrespective as to the nature of the villains upon whom he wreaks violence.  In this Berlatsky is his earnest pupil, except insofar as he esteems Wonder Woman for promoting the politics that he Berlatsky agrees with.

In our exchange Berlatsky accuses me of wanting to promote some sort of "one truth" hermeneutic simply because I advocated giving every narrative a fair, close reading. In addition, I've consistently asserted that one of the cornerstones of my criticism is Schopenhauer's theory of will. For me the very appeal of literature is reducible to one form of "will" with "another," not a "politically correct will" with a "politically incorrect will."  Obviously this would apply to a literalist "mainstream" reading as much as to an adversarial one.

I'm also heavily invested in Bataillean transgressivity-- also produced through the influence of Freud and Marx, albeit with an artful mediation via Nietzsche. So I can only approve when Fiedler writes of his "Break-Through" that "whatever has been suspect, outcast, and denied is postulated as the source of good." But aside from some of the more hectoring practitioners of literature-- and Sade would be one of these-- most authors would not be comfortable with a single great revolution. Most authors take pleasure in being able to rebel even against rebellion, if it means telling a good story.

 Elitists, however, want only one revolution, one story-- and sadly, just one truth.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


In QUICK SUPERMAN DEFENSE I took issue with Noah Berlatsky's justifications for considering the Superman character to be an insufficient representation of goodness. Berlatsky's justifications for this verdict were posted on October 8 on the aforementioned thread:

He treats Lois like crap, pretty much. He’s a bully; he occasionally engages in extra-judicial killing

I'll deal in more detail with the second charge later. At the end of "Defense," though, I cited some reasons as to why I thought Berlatsky's reading of the Superman-Lois relationship, as articulated by their creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was erroneous.

I don't have at my disposal all of the Siegel-and-Shuster stories of Superman's Golden Age period. So I admit that the survey I'm presenting here will be incomplete, as it's based only on the stories reprinted in DC's Archive editions of the first eight issues of the SUPERMAN title. As many comics-fans will know, these issues are mixtures of new material and reprints of material from the title's predecessor ACTION COMICS. But though this is an incomplete survey, I think it's indicative of the mindsets of the character's creators in the earliest period.  It's possible that the stories in which Superman "treats Lois like crap" dominate later issues in the Siegel-and-Shuster, but it's just as possible-- if not more so-- that Berlatsky is remembering stories he didn't like from later periods of the feature. Most of the modern scorn toward the Superman-Lois relationship has been founded in fannish dislike of Lois' frequent humiliations during the Silver Age, when editor Mort Weisinger wielded almost incontrovertible power over the Superman titles.  I naturally invite Mr. Berlatsky to offer more detailed proofs of his position, but he won't find much in the issues I'm surveying.

Again, as many comics-fans already know, Siegel and Shuster's earliest surviving Superman continuity was originally designed as a comic-strip proposal, which then had to be cut and pasted when the feature was sold as a first-time comic book. ACTION #1 does not reprint the entire continuity of this first sample, but SUPERMAN #1 does. Most fans also know that in her first appearance, Lois Lane accepts a date with stodgy Clark Kent with an attitude of "it's against my better judgment, but..."

This sequence-- which did make the cut in ACTION #1-- presents Lois as no kind of shrinking-violet.  She has a high opinion of herself: she's giving Clark a "break" by accepting a date with him. On the dance-floor she doesn't specify why she avoids Clark, until after an altercation with a pushy mobster.

An interesting line of speculation occurred to me as I re-read this sequence. There's no question that Lois unquestioningly accepts the morality of violence: that she thinks once the goon has intruded on their date, Clark ought to "be a man" and at least attempt to fight the goon. But does she expect this behavior in part because Clark, despite his demeanor, is obviously a big strapping fellow, almost the same size as the goon?  It's a speculation for which I admit there's no evidence either way, given that Jerry Siegel doesn't investigate his characters' motivations in any depth. But the sequence does show that long before Lois meets her ideal Superman, she already has her ideal of masculinity formed as to what men should or should not do-- and obviously, it isn't OK with her if her date asks her to dance with an obnoxious bully.

In that same issue Lois has her first encounter with Superman, who saves her from the mobster and her buddies, who abduct her, possibly-- though a juvenile comic would not say so-- with the intention of raping her. In the second part of the story, Superman saves Lois from a firing-squad.

Several ensuing stories don't include Lois at all. It's possible that these stories represent an early stage of Siegel's plans for the character, in which he would simply bounce about solving people's problems, with no ancillary cast. In SUPERMAN #2, Lois pops up in "Superman Champions Universal Peace." Her only function in the story is to comment on his recent scoop, telling him that he only got the scoop through "pure accidental luck."

In SUPERMAN #3 Clark Kent, investigating an orphanage that mistreats its charges, takes a little precipitate action in his continuing pursuit of Lois. He suggests that the editor send Lois along with him, and much to her chagrin, she's obliged to keep company with the despised wuss. However, they bond a little as they work together to throw off some rival reporters dogging their trail. Lois displays her first evidence of rash action as she sneaks into the orphanage on an intuition that the administrator isn't kosher, and she does find the villain beating a child with a belt.

The same issue reprints the story from ACTION #5 that I mentioned earlier. Lois' editor refuses to let her report on a dam failure because "this is no job for a girl." He wants Kent, so before Clark finds out about the assignment, Lois sends him on a wild-goose chase, so that the editor is forced to give Lois the job. The editor fires Clark for being unavailable, but as Superman the hero saves Lois from the peril of the breaking dam. For the first time the relationship turns amorous as Lois rewards Superman's efforts on her behalf. Clark gets his job back because he gets the story on the dam before she does, but Lois isn't shown being one-upped in the story; instead, she scorns Clark as a "spineless worm" in comparison with the new "he-man" in her life.

Lois is once more the manipulator in the next story, where she accepts a date with Clark because she thinks it's going to lead her into contact with Superman.  Once Clark escorts Lois to her destination, she takes an action that goes further than her usual hijinks: she slips a sleeping-pill into Clark's drink, so that he'll fall asleep and she can take his place at a rendezvous. Naturally, the drug doesn't affect Superman, who once again intervenes to save Lois' ass.

 The last story shows Lois in an even worse light. She steers Clark into taking her on a date to a toughs' hangout, where she hopes to make contact with a source for a new story. In order to make contact with a gangster, she winks at him while dancing with Clark, so that the gangster shunts Clark aside and dances with Lois. The girl reporter swipes a document from the mobster and then tries to leave, this time using her contempt for Clark's cowardice as a means of disengaging from their date. The result of this foolhardiness is that the gangster and his pals take both Lois and Clark prisoner, though of course Superman intervenes to save Lois while protecting his own identity. Clark also scoops Lois again, and this time she's explicitly shown being flummoxed by his getting ahead of her.

Whereas SUPERMAN #3 is rife with a whole lotta Lois, her appearances in issue #4 are nugatory for my purposes.  In SUPERMAN #5 Clark sees a little boy in danger and, since he has no time to change to Superman, he must save the kid in Lois' full sight. Her words to him are revealing vis-a-vis my earlier theory about her response to Clark: "I've always hoped you'd be like this-- brave, daring-- not frightened of your own shadow!" This strongly suggests that in author Siegel's mind, Lois has contemplated Clark as a possible suitor, but any physical appeal he might have for her is mitigated by his lack of bravado. Lois then proceeds to get them both in trouble again, which Superman has to sort out. In this issue and the subsequent one, most of Lois' other appearances involve the same dichotomy-- Lois admires Superman's courage and despises Clark's cowardice-- until we get to the last story in issue #6. In this untitled story, Superman arrives on the scene of a collapsing stadium, and must choose between saving Lois or a group of children from being crushed by falling debris. Lois, who courageously tells the hero to save the children first, is injured when he does so. However, her injuries vanish like magic when Superman gives her a blood-transfusion. Gerard Jones, among others, believes that Jerry Siegel was floating a narrative that might have made it possible for Lois to become a superwoman, since it concludes with the recovered reporter saying, "I feel stronger than I've ever felt." But if the idea was proposed, clearly the editors, preferring a status quo, rejected it.

This sampling suggests that, contrary to Berlatsky's unsupported verdict, Lois is actually the one treating Clark Kent like crap. Granted, given his pose he doesn't have the right to expect her to give him the time of day, but her rejections are laced with unnecessary contempt and sarcasm. And while I believe Siegel wanted readers to think that Lois' femininity did not keep her from being a good reporter, he also wants them to see that she's also going too far when she drugs Clark or maneuvers him into a possible fight-- though these shenanigans may be justifiable if I'm right that Siegel also meant their relationship to be a combative one.

I imagine that none of these findings, though, will impress the sort of bloody comic book elitist who can only see things ideologically. To do this, said elitist must perform the gymnastic feat that the French call the *bouleversement*-- which I'll discuss further in Part 2.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Though the meme "Superman is a dick" has entered whatever immortality the Internet may confer, on this HOODED UTILITARIAN thread I've been arguing with Noah Berlatsky as to the inherent goodness of the Man of Steel.

The discussion is probably winding to a close, so for future reference I'll print my latest comments here, largely in line with my frequent admonitions against "overthinking the underthought."


In other words, you're saying that your only rejoinder to Marston is to say, "I don't agree with your interpretation," rather than trying to prove false logic on his part. Anything to avoid close reading, eh?

You're missing part of the quote, too. Wertham doesn't just say that WW is lesbian propaganda, he specifically says it's "anti-masculine," as if Marston were kissing cousins with Valerie Solanas. Not, I emphasize, just a "critique of masculinism," in other words, but taking a philosophical position that despises all things masculine.

It's my contention that *you* are the one interpreting Superman as "something else" when you resort to superimposing the morals of the stories with your own. Few if any of your comments about his dickishness can be justified from the context of the stories. If you just don't like the character of the S&S Superman, that's fine, that's a matter of taste. But you didn't state "Superman is not a good person" as an expression of your personal taste.

I might understand your queasiness about "extra-judicial violence" if we were frequently seeing Superman descending on African villages to make the natives obey the colonial powers. But Superman's first heroic deed in ACTION #1 is to prevent an act of bullying, beating down a man who is beating his wife (can't remember if the text calls her that or not). Yet in your view Superman becomes a bully even when he stops bullying. How many real-life bullies do that-- unless, of course, it's for some ulterior motive?

I don't buy your objection to vigilantism because you're applying it only to narratives you don't like for whatever reason. Wonder Woman is just as much a vigilante as Superman; she acts with no authority save that of the goddess Aphrodite, whom I suspect would be considered extra-legal in American courts. Any number of WW stories have scenes in which WW slaps down bully-boys with the same ease that Superman does, so is she a bully? Is she therefore "not good" for the same reasons? Or does she get a pass because you agree with Marston's politics?

I don't say accept the ideals of the comic at face value. But critics should at least ground their extrapolations in the words and pictures on the page, rather than imposing upon them ideologies that bear no relationship to the original work.


I'll add here one extra thought that I omitted, knowing that Mr. Berlatsky wouldn't give it any credence. He asserts that the Siegel-and-Shuster Superman is frequently seen treating Lois Lane shabbily. While this is a well-trod trope during the Silver Age, I don't think that it appears very often in the period when Siegel and Shuster had some degree of control over the feature. Only a "close reading" of the type I advocate to Berlatsky would prove whether or not Lois gets regularly trashed during those years. But even so, some terms would have to be set.  Is Superman/Clark "bullying" Lois when he scoops her? It might be a tad unfair that Clark Kent frequently scoops Lois because he can call upon the powers of a godlike Kryptonian-- but is it bullying?  In ACTION COMICS #5, in the story retroactively entitled "Superman and the Dam," Lois gives Clark a false message so that he goes for a story to the wrong address. The editor fires Clark, but nevertheless Clark dons his costume and goes on to rescue Lois from the bursting of a colossal dam. The story never depicts what happens off-panel so that Clark gets his job back, though naturally he's back on the payroll, without explanation, with the next Superman story.

What I think Berlatsky overlooks in the Superman-Lois relationship is that by nature they're combative types. I said on the thread that Superman is an alpha-male, but Lois is no less an alpha-female. At worst Siegel and Shuster depict her as foolhardy in her quest for news, but I don't think she's ever less than clever or gutsy, in contrast to the version of Lois that prevailed in the Silver Age, when editor Mort Weisinger called all the shots.

Verbal jousting between males and females as an expression of chemistry was certainly old when Shakespeare had Beatrice clubbing Benedick with snappy comebacks in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. The relationship of Lois and Clark borrows its structure from THE MARK OF ZORRO, but Zorro's lovers don't challenge him as Lois challenges Clark. Since fans have only spotty evidence regarding Siegel's earliest version of Superman, one can only say that the published 1938 version is right in the tradition of smart lady-reporters like Torchy Blane.

If I find time maybe I'll do a close reading of early S&S Superman comics, to demonstrate the superiority of close reading to over-ideological interpretations.

ADDENDUM: Upon re-reading the "Dam" story, I find that I was wrong on one point: when Clark calls in his scoop regarding Superman's activities at the dam, his editor promptly re-hires him over the phone.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Well, I would not have thought that in just a little over a month, the comics biz could generate another silly sex-controversy equal to that of "Spiderbuttgate." But I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

The original image, from JUSTICE LEAGUE #12, was a pretty uncontroversial cover showing Superman and Wonder Woman making out in mid-air.

At some point, a T-shirt company used the image thusly:

This probably seemed only mildly provocative to the shirt-makers, whose business is come up with weird shit that people are willing to wear on their shirt-fronts.  Unfortunately, the idea that a male hero might want to shout "score" when he's gettin' some incited various netheads to view the shirt as yet another marginalization of femininity.  It also spurred artist Bill Siekiewicz to do his own version.

I'm indebted to this column on Robot 6 for reproducing the Siekiewicz image; it also features a particularly lively discussion of the moral issues regarding both the original shirt and Siekiewicz's response.  It's a better than average discussion, though I don't imagine that any of the "victimologists" convinced any of the "mansplainers," or vice versa.  The final poster as of today notes that contrary to Siekiewicz's interpretation, the original illustration isn't showing Wonder Woman closing her hand into a fist with the intention of belting the Man of Steel; it's because she's holding her magic lasso.

The selective reading of the image is on a par with the deliberate misreadings of the Manara Spider-butt, comparing it with another image in which a Manara female was "presenting" her butt for a sexual encounter. However, the shirt doesn't just present an image, but also text, and it's certainly the text that got some knickers twisted.

So what are the objectionable features of that text? If it had only featured the word "Score!," then I hypothesize that it would have been viewed as tacky, but not a marginalization of all things feminine. It seems likely that the other phrase, "Superman does it again," is what twisted the panties. The shirt might have even escaped condemnation had it left off the word "again," for with the addition of that word, the shirt as a whole implies to some minds that Wonder Woman has been reduced to a notch on Superman's bedpost.  And according to Siekiewicz, being a Lothario merits a punch in the face.

Obviously, there are creepy Lotharios out there, even when they don't resort to illegal actions like using date-drugs, etc. But the image doesn't show Superman either forcing himself on the Amazing Amazon or even using any sort of psychological tactics to get into her pants. Even with the text, all it says is that Superman is successfully seducing an entirely willing Wonder Woman. If this is a crime, then it's one of which a great many men are guilty, ranging from actors like Errol Flynn and Warren Beatty to sports figures like Wilt Chamberlain.

Ironically, the "victimology" side, in claiming that Wonder Woman has been reduced to an "object"-- e.g, that "notch on the bedpost"-- they actually subtract from her character the ability to choose. In sports, to "score" means to meet a challenge and overcome opposition, not to take something forcefully or, conversely, to take it without effort. And it's arguable that the countless women who "surrendered" to male celebrities did so because the men had gained the reputation for being satisfying on a number of levels.  Since the T-shirt image does not show Superman imposing any force on Wonder Woman, Siekiewicz's response is tantamount to his saying, "A woman has the right to assault a man for making sexual overtures, particularly when that man has gained a reputation for bedding other women."

To be sure, one can see this conceit used for comedy throughout dozens of Japanese manga-series. Whether or not the male star of a comedy-manga is a real Lothario or merely succeeds in attracting a harem of women into his orbit, it's customary for that male to be continually beaten up by at least one woman.

Here's RANMA 1/2:


And finally, CITY HUNTER:

But in these comic circumstances, the beating may be deemed a symbolic displacement for the sex-act, since the female is almost always hot for the male. On the terms of comedy, then, these assaults are amusing and thus stand as positive forces. To the best of my knowledge, there's no political content to these displays-- which is fortunate, since, as Sienkiewicz has aptly shown, applying this sort of sex-and-sadism mix to the real world is the worst kind of bad politics.

Monday, October 6, 2014


Posted this on a WONDER WOMAN forum-topic.


Some of the zeitgeist that made Wonder Woman able to sustain two features at once was a consequence of World War II boosterism.  Both Wonder Woman and the Sub-Mariner were in part popular because even though they were not Americans, they made America's cause their own. In an inversion of the trope in which godlike Americans go to Europe to save the Allies, they're godlike Allies defending Americans and other Allies-- and Wonder Woman even drapes herself in the stars and stripes to reduce any sense of her "foreign-ness." It may not be a coincidence that neither character has enjoyed anything like the sales/popularity they once enjoyed.

Wonder Woman was also at her most popular when she was aimed at kids, the primary purchasers of comic books in the Golden Age.  Her fame and the complexity of her original setup could make it possible for her to enjoy success with an older audience-- but it would have to be in a format that modern adults would buy, and that ain't the floppy magazine format.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


I recently came across this Roy Thomas observation from DRACULA LIVES #1 (1973):

"It's our firm conviction that at least a sizable portion of the future of comics lies in a larger, more expensive, even more mature product than today's color-comics market is structured to allow. In a day when Playboy and other magazines sell for a buck (and more, on such gala holidays as Christmas, New Year, and Hugh Hefner's birthday)--in a day when a forty- or fifty cent cover price is possible only to a magazine of tremendous initial circulation--in short, in a time of creeping inflation, rampant overcrowding of the newsstands--we felt that, even though Marvel's popularity is at an all-time high, we'd be fools and klutzes not to experiment with other prices, other sizes, other formats."

It's my theory that what Thomas was saying in '73 was by then common wisdom for Marvel since about 1970-71. I've always considered the Bronze Age-- which I place in 1970-- to be a new era because that's when the Big Two took their first faltering steps toward "adult entertainment," as represented by Marvel's CONAN and DC's GREEN LANTERN. I must admit that there's a big marketing difference in the two, since the former was aiming for success based on the popularity of the paperback Howard reprints while the latter was a gamble aimed at keeping a failing book alive.  Still, both are predicated on appealing to non-juvenile interests.

That Thomas was thinking in this wise long before 1973 is evinced in the 1971 premiere of SAVAGE TALES, for which Roy is billed as "associate editor." The idea of appealing to an older market would be a logical step since it's commonly asserted that sales in the late 1960s went way down, as the superhero bubble, prompted in part by the BATMAN teleseries, went kerblooey.

Marvel-- which also attempted to corner the underground market with the 1974-76 COMIX BOOK-- seems to have been more heavily invested in developing this market than DC, or even Warren. I've read very little of Silver Age Warren, so I don't know if its horror and war stories were on a par with the more mature stories of EC Comics, nor do I know whether or not the Warren audience skewed older than that of Marvel and DC. Warren did begin VAMPIRELLA in 1969, so that would seem to be a more overt courting of an adult audience by Warren, using sex-and-violence in much the same way Marvel used Conan. 

On a side-note, I'd opine that the Marvel guys never seemed to get a handle on adult horror: most of the b&w horror stuff had the same tone as the color comics.  

In 1973 it probably made all the sense in the world to assume that magazines would be a secure foundation on which a comics-company could build. For one thing, the company could expect to raise prices when other magazines did, and not lose out, as DC allegedly did when they tried to maintain 25-cent comics against Marvel's 20-centers.  But then, who could have predicted that the digital revolution would come close to making all magazine entertainment irrelevant?

Friday, September 26, 2014


The book I mentioned in Part 1 of this essay-series is Mike Madrid's 2009 book on superheroines, entitled THE SUPERGIRLS.

In many respects I ought to like this book. The author appears to be a Silver-Age kid like myself. Just as I have devoted a blog to the topic of empowered female characters here, Madrid's introduction depicts the author as having an inveterate interest in comic-book super-heroines, if not for reasons identical to my own.
And unlike the only previous work on the subject-- Trina Robbins' GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES, a very detailed history of superheroines in comics, albeit with some major omissions-- THE SUPERGIRLS is an attempt to interpret the depiction of superheroines in cultural terms, as the book's subtitle indicates: "Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines." (Despite Madrid putting "fashion" first, possibly to appeal to academics, there's really very little about the specifics of fashion in fantasy or reality.)

Unfortunately, SUPERGIRLS is a prime example of an interpretative work laboring under a cloud of false victimology. I'm sure that Madrid must have in his mind some notion of the perfect superheroine, a figure that provides a "happy medium" between a type who is too wholesome and a type who is too oversexualized. But he does not succeed in depicting such a paradigm in the pages of his book. Thus, all through the pages of SUPERGIRLS, Madrid always seems to be carping at the imperfections of almost all those who have depicted comic-book superheroines, without establishing his grounds for true excellence.

The first two chapters don't raise many objections. Madrid divides the majority of Golden Age heroines into a few convenient, perhaps slightly oversimple, categories, and he devotes special attention to comparing and contrasting the two heroines who were arguably both the most influential and best-known comics-heroines; Sheena and Wonder Woman. However, even on page 2, he starts the victimology by claiming that "for now [i.e., 1947] women would have to be content to put on scanty costumes and assume a disguise in order to act like themselves." This sounds for all the world like one of many supercilious putdowns of patriarchy, easily countered by the observation that male superheroes are also predicated on acting like fools and diletttantes to camoflague their real natures. And if one should need a source for this observation, one can find it-- on page 5 of SUPERGIRLS, where Madrid himself admits that male superheroes had to "dumb themselves down" to mix with mortal kind.

However, when Madrid gets into the third chapter, entitled "The Girlfriends," he goes into victimology overdrive-- and both his logic and his accuracy go out the window. I'll try to keep my complaints to the most egregious examples.

Page 12-- Madrid asserts that the girlfriends of featured heroes-- the Hawkgirls, the Bulletgirls-- crusade against crime only to impress their boyfriends. It's one thing to believe this, but Madrid offers no textual proof of this species of victim-crying.

Page 36-- Madrid claims that in William Moulton Marston's WONDER WOMAN origin, "Hercules allows himself to be beaten by Hippolyta." That's not in any Marston origin I've read: as I remember, Hercules loses a fair fight, and then plots revenge through deception.

Page 56-- Madrid claims that "the most important female figure in [Batman's] world" is his "sainted, slain mother," despite the fact that the character rarely thinks about Martha Wayne at all in most of the Golden Age stories. This is a superficial Freudian reading put forth years ago by Michael Fleischer, but there's no evidence that the Oedipus Complex informs the Batman mythos. The idea that this complex is proven simply by the absence of lasting romantic relationships in the hero's life is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse: i.e., romantic relationships are *primarily* absent  from the series because they would interfere with the open-ended setup of the franchise, not because of Batman's personal trauma.

Page 92-- Madrid, having spent a long time chronicling the career of the Silver Age Supergirl, complains that she "didn't show any signs of ever growing up to be a Superwoman"-- apparently another carp about men keeping women down, even though by that time it should have been evident that both male and female characters did not age, given that the readerships were assumed to turn over every few years.

Page 98-- He tells us that the 1990s version of Supergirl "was clearly meant to be a male fantasy, and no longer a character to attract or inspire female readers"-- yet, he has just finished complaining that the tame Silver Age version, which he compares to singer Leslie Gore, also never reaches any sort of potential, even though she was putatively aimed at female readers. There's also, throughout the book, no dealing with the possibility that sometimes female readers enjoy sexual fantasies themselves.

Page 103-- Madrid describes the Silver Age in very inaccurate terms, particularly when he claims that "Magic was a mysterious enemy, meant to be defeated." Granted, a lot of DC's Silver Age books are hot for science more than sorcery, but there are a fair number of magical heroes-- the Spectre, the Enchantress, Zatanna-- and I see no evidence that magic is despised, even by heroes like Superman, who numbered it among his vulnerabilities. This may be extrapolated from Madrid's view that all magic went out the window in the WONDER WOMAN book once Kanigher displaced Marston, but I don't think Kanigher used magic any less; he just didn't use it the same way Marston did.

Page 105-- Madrid claims that there's a victim-based reading possible from the fact that Superman and Batman did not make regular appearances in the early JUSTICE LEAGUE title, griping that "Wonder Woman is not considered to be in the same 'league' as Superman and Batman." This too is better explained by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors. Many pros and fans have attested that DC editor Mort Weisinger maintained, or attempted to maintain, a close hold on these characters, since he Weisinger edited all of the Superman books and arguably influenced the artistic direction of the Batman books even when they were 0being edited by Weisinger's associate Jack Schiff. It's been rumored, with whatever truth, that Weisinger lobbied to keep Superman and Batman out of the Justice League, and I for one find this a more likely explanation for the duo's early JLA absence than some mysterious pecking-order.

Page 112-- After claiming that the Invisible Girl's original powers are useless-- somehow overlooking that she defeats Doctor Doom in FANTASTIC FOUR #5 and engages him in single combat in #17-- Madrid claims that Sue Storm's force-field powers come about because "Reed has figured out a way to boost Sue's powers." Madrid doesn't bother to cite the issue number where this happened-- though he's careful to cite issue #12 as evidence of Sue's non-importance-- but the fact is that in FF #22, Reed only suspects that Sue has powers she hasn't used yet. The scientist's "nuclear-powered" measuring device *accidentally* stimulates Sue into manifesting her new powers, which are, like the powers of the male heroes, attributable to the original cosmic-ray accident they all endured.

Page 139-- Light Lass, Dream Girl, and the White Witch are said to thwart the sorcerer Mordru in a LEGION story. Apparently all short-haired girls look alike to Madird: 'twas Princess Projectra, not Light Lass.

Page 159-- Marvel's Black Widow is said to be facing "hard personal choices" when she deserts her romantic partnership with Daredevil to accept the more "prestigious membership" of the Avengers. Yet what the character actually thinks is not some feminist assertiveness: she accepts the membership because she wants to have time to think about her relationship with Daredevil! The Widow also only remains with the Avengers for two issues in this period; in all likelihood Marvel editors simply wanted an excuse to terminate the ongoing Daredevil-Black Widow relationship for one reason or another.

Page 189-- "Numerous stories focused on the world's obsession with learning Wonder Woman's secret identity in an effort to find her weakness."-- Gee, that's such an original notion. Uncover a superhero's ID to compromise said hero. I guess Wonder Woman must have been the first hero ever to have suffered such investigations. Or, if she wasn't the first, surely this only happens to female heroes, as a marker of the indignities they alone suffer.

Page 221-- "Out of style, Wonder Woman was also erased"-- Uh, yeah, and it was because she was going to be rebooted, as Madrid himself tells us on p. 208.

Page 249-- "The jungle antics [of jungle queens] ended in 1954"-- again, no, Atlas Comics kept jungle comics, including two jungle queens, going until 1957.

On the same page, Madrid has problems with the nefarious Catwoman becoming a "good girl." He overlooks that she only reformed during the years 1951-52, and that she went back to being a "bad girl" for three 1954 stories-- and it was at this point that she was excluded from the DC universe until 1966. Since she was "bad" at the time of her forced retirement, the goody-goody Catwoman did not "pave the way for Batman's new love interest, the more buttoned-up and sexless Batwoman."

These are others, but these examples of inaccuracy and false reasoning are the most egregious. If most of them had been simple matters of misperception-- remembering Light Lass in place of another heroine, for example-- I probably wouldn't have written this review. But most of these citations grow out of Madrid's pervasive victimology: his hectoring insistence that nearly everything ever done with comic-book heroines is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Well, with a few exceptions. Madrid does at least give props to the creators of THE DOOM PATROL for a gutsy lady crime-fighter-- which is more than Trina Robbins did, when she conspicuously omitted Elasti-Girl from her own book. But to elevate the model of Elasti-Girl, Madrid has to drag down the Marvel superheroines using pretty much the same knocks Robbins used in her book : they're too weak, they're too girly, they "pose and point."  Given that Madrid's whole project involves the "close reading" of the ephemera of comic books, one might wonder why he chose to read them so loosely.

Unfortunately, the only explanation I can devise is that he wanted to make comic-book heroines sympathetic for their having been so roundly victimized, whether they were turned into virgin schoolgirls (1960s Supergirl) or teeny-bopper whores (1990s Supergirl). But the question arises-- do we respect these heroines more for being victims-- or for being heroes, irrespective of gender? It is, unfortunately, a question Madrid doesn't even try to address.