"Increasingly, in the last century, sadism has been supplied to the American public in massive doses in all its popular arts until, now , one out of every three trees cut down in Canada for paper-pulp has murder printed on it... Whole industries have sprung up based ultimately on the exchanging of printed death for pictorial... The kiddies' korner in this new national welter of blood is the comic-book."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH, p. 27.
When the average pundit claims that this or that popular-media artifact will make its audience more sadistic, that pundit is not concerned with sadism as a syndrome. For instance, when in the 1980s Siskel and Ebert inveighed against slasher movies, their preachments against slashers had less to do with the concept of sadism than against a kind of "monkey-see monkey-do" level of violence. And from reading David Hadju's account of the anti-comics movement in the America of the 40s and 50s, I've the impression that most concerned parents and authorities were also worried mostly about kids learning from comics to be bullies or rapists or thieves, not sadists as such.
Gershon Legman and his fellow traveler Fredric Wertham, however, were not average pundits. Though they tossed around the word "sadism" with as much carelessness as any common commentator, one was a self-educated independent scholar and the other an accredited psychiatrist, and between them they put forth the first intellectual critique of the comic-book medium, almost entirely in terms of its ability to evoke the syndrome of sadism in American culture. There isn't much need to refute them point-by-point: Legman is largely forgotten by comics-scholars and Wertham remains known but in disrepute, despite a recent attempt by Bart Beaty to reform his reputation, examined here. But for better or worse the two of them were historically the first to raise the spectre of culture-wide sadism based on intellectual concepts, and in order to arrive at a more meaningful concept of sadism-- the better to combat current Legmanite/Werthamite uses of the term-- their concepts must be dealt with.
Though the two writers' concerns were not in all ways identical-- Legman was more the fiery Marxist radical who wanted to completely remake society, while Wertham was the liberal who wanted to remold it from within--both chose to identify every instance of fictional violence in every comic-book genre as potentially capable of engendering the syndrome of sadism. Legman's concern for "murder" in all American media is at least not exclusive to comic books, and indeed LOVE AND DEATH only has one section devoted to comic books, which is the inverse of the procedure in Wertham's SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, where comic books are the focus and other media are condemned almost as an afterthought. But clearly from the above quote alone Legman sees violence pervading every genre and medium, "printed" and "pictorial," while Wertham takes the rhetorical stance that all comics that depict "crime" are "crime comics," whether they take place in settings germane to Westerns, jungle-adventure, horror or "the realm of the supermen" (p. 20). Even girls' romance, considered by fans to be one of the least violent genres, comes under attack by both writers, whose main concern is not generic distinctions but the prevalence of "crime."
Of course most current analysts of genre would tend to see "crime" as a distinct genre, almost entirely focused on the depradations of 20th or 21st-century gangsters, usually in an urban environment. Wertham and Legman have a good rhetorical reason to emphasize "crime" as applying across the board, for the specific crime genre usually does emphasize the criminal rather than his law-abiding opponents, and could be, with some small fairness, accused of lining up with the paradigm of the Marquis deSade. Admittedly, Sade's stories are usually about victimizers who capture and then torture victims for pleasure, rather than gunning down little old ladies in the street as did the comic-book gangsters during the heyday of crime comics. Still, one may grant that the essential Freudian paradigm seems common to both: the aggressor vents his aggression on the helpless, and in theory the reader of crime comics enjoys and internalizes the spectacle, "unless he is a complete masochist," as Legman helplfully tells us.
However, as others before me have noted, both writers had to do some quick stepping to include adventure-comics under this sadistic syndrome, inasmuch as most adventure-comics concern a protagonist whose purpose is to prevent or avenge the crimes perpetrated by criminals upon the helpless. Both men chose to read the adventure-genre in terms of a "hermeneutics of deceit," in which every hero was merely a criminal in crusader's clothing, whose exploits against crooks Legman chose to read as "lynching."
Now, while the jury may remain out on the question as to whether the adventure-genre can inspire any sort of sadistic vibe in their audiences-- a question I'll address more fully in a future piece-- it seems obvious to me that when heroes fight villains in adventure-tales, the narrative action could not be less like a lynching, much less a Sadean sadist torturing helpless victims or a gangster shooting down old ladies in the street. Wertham and Legman dance around the difference by trying to make it sound as if the villains are merely stand-ins for despised minorities and the like, which argument remains a linchpin of Marxist oppositional thought, both in modern comics-criticism and elsewhere. But neither author can totally expunge this difference of narrative action: in the adventure-genre, *the villain can defend himself.* He may be fated to lose the struggle-- indeed, until recently he always did-- but the struggle itself is essential to the adventure-genre, as it manifestly is not with the crime genre. As Wertham and Legman both point out, the crime-genre books usually ended with a last-minute destruction of the rampaging crook as a "sop" to morality. But the struggles of hero and villain in the adventure-genres-- best represented in comic books by the superhero-- are not thrown in at the last minute. Narratively, structurally, such physical struggles are the selling-points of the genres, and so cannot be conflated with either the crime genre or the Sadean paradigm by any truly rational approach.
In making this crucial distinction about the differing narrative structures of crime and adventure, I'm making an argument similar to the argument of Gilles Deleuze. Just as Deleuze pronounces the syndromes of sadism and masochism to be distinct by virtue of his "literary approach" to the works of Sade and Sacher-Masoch, I am claiming that if there is any "sadistic vibe" to the adventure-genre, it must be radically distinct from not only the crime genre (which no longer exists in modern comics these days), but from the Sadean paradigm of victimizer-torturing-helpless-victims.
This leads to the inescapeable conclusion that every modern pundit who makes a blanket condemnation of the antics of adventure-characters generally, and superheroes specifically, as "sadistic" is as outrageously wrong as both Legman and Wertham. The word "sadistic" cannot help but invoke the paradigm of Sade, and the adventure-genre simply does not conform to that paradigm, any more than the pheomenon of masochism was (as Freud claimed) etiologically identical with the phenomenon of sadism.
Whether or not there is an analogue of paradigmatic sadism present in adventure-comics is, of course, a separate question, which I'll address with reference to my earlier-cited concept of "sthenolagnia." But as to all the modern pundits who toss around the word "sadistic" as flagrantly as did Wertham and Legman, I can only quote to them Andre the Giant's famous phrase:
"I do not think this word means what you think it means"