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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

NOTES TOWARD A SUPERHERO IDIOM

I first encountered the term “obligatory fight-scene” when Steve Gerber used it in an issue of HOWARD THE DUCK. I doubt that Gerber originated the phrase, but at the time it seemed the perfect satire of the tendency of superhero comics, particularly those of Marvel, to make up for weak plotting by propelling characters into random, poorly-motivated donnybrooks.

Now, thirty years later, I think Gerber’s critique—so far as I understand it through his various public statements—was wrong. I don’t begrudge him making an incorrect statement for the sake of satire. Satire is meant to be incorrect, to exaggerate, to be unfair, in order to expose real-life, theoretically correctible absurdities.

Yet I think to some extent Gerber was guilty of judging one mode of fiction by the standards of another, and so, entertaining as the satire was, it wasn’t congruent with real life, which manifests both modes for different literary tastes.

I’ve stated before on my blog that I think true pluralism is evinced by understanding that “subtle” entertainments are not necessarily better than “gross” ones; that both are distinct modes of entertainment that can be done well, or done badly, each according to their own lights.

And, as it applies to the superhero genre, I would say that your basic, well-done-but-less-than-genius-level superhero story, obligatory fight-scenes and all, has just as much integrity as does a related work that purports to be more ambitious in terms of well-motivated drama and psychological insights.

Gerber, of course, was nowhere near the first to celebrate things like dramatic profundity over mere spectacle. The history of extant literary criticism begins with the Poetics, wherein Aristotle explicitly downgraded the role of “spectacle” as one of the components of poetic works, and considered “Tragedy” to be a more perfect form than the earlier genre of “Epic Poetry,” and that both were superior to “Comedy.”

Yet as I noted elsewhere, Aristotle did at least have a synoptic view of all poetic forms, which insured that even Comedy had its role to play. And a few centuries later, one of literary criticism’s most keenly pluralistic minds would expand and improve upon Aristotle’s formulations. Following the criteria laid down by Northrop Frye, I’ll try to show that are reasons pertaining to mode and intent that should demonstrate why one type of Good Fiction is as valid as another type of Good Fiction.

Aristotle’s Poetics starts by establishing the differences between different poetic works in terms of their medium, their modes, and their objects of imitation (the types of characters imitated by the fictions). “Medium” should be self-explanatory. “Mode” is a somewhat fluid term, applying to anything about the method by which the artist accomplishes his aims. As for objects of imitation, Aristotle asserts that the poet must choose what representation of humanity best suits his intent, to “represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are.” It is upon this foundation that Frye constructs much of what is good about his ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.

As more than one later critic has observed, the Poetics has an unfinished feel, as many points are given only cursory development. Aristotle gives two examples of creators who represented their characters as being no better or worse than the average, but he doesn’t expound on the nature of those works, nor does he put any name to the genre or mode to which one might assign them. Instead, the philosopher focuses more upon the extremes of “better” and “worse,” as seen in his articulation of the still-familiar dialectical opposition of Tragedy and Comedy: “Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.” Having established that important division, however, Aristotle then keeps his remarks on comedy (and its near relation, “satire”) to a minimum, and concentrates the greater bulk of his observations upon the higher forms of poetry, tragedy and its congener, epic poetry.

In the ANATOMY, Northrop Frye begins his “Theory of Modes” section by observing that the words Aristotle uses for “better” and “worse” have less to do with moral rectitude than with what Frye calls the characters’ “power of action” within their universe, and then revises Aristotle’s three-part schema of literary classifications into a schema of five modes. These are as follows:

(1) the mode of “myth,” in which the protagonist has a “power of action” greater in kind from that of a human being, and so is either a literal or figurative god.
(2) the mode of “romance,” in which the hero is superior to other men only in degree, in that “prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him.” The main model for this mode is not the myth proper but the “legend” and the “folk-tale,” forms that retain some of the fantastic content of myth but are somewhat more grounded in consensual reality.
(3) the mode of “the high mimetic” takes in, according to Frye, those modes that Aristotle called “epic” and “tragedy,” for they are concerned with heroes who are still “superior in degree to other men,” but who exist in a less marvelous world where there are limits on his “prodigies of courage and endurance.” In such worlds, what the hero does “is subject to social criticism and the order of nature.”
(4) Next comes the mode of “the low mimetic,” which in essence is Frye’s substitution for that mode Aristotle does not name, where the hero is no more than average. Frye deviates from Aristotle here, for Frye considers that the typical hero of the pure comedy as being more often “average” rather than “worse than average” (a judgment with which I concur). Frye also includes in this mode “realistic fiction,” his initial example being Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR.
(5) Finally comes the mode of the “irony,” where the hero’s power of action is lower than average, trapped in “bondage, frustration or absurdity,” for which the hero of Kafka’s TRIAL is one of the foremost examples (page 42).

Now, in determining the nature of literary works within the superhero idiom, the second mode, that of romance, is the most applicable for what one might call the "normative superhero." Superhero stories may include characters with powers like those of gods (Superman) or who are represented as being gods within their fictive worlds (Thor), but for all the many motifs of myth that appear in such pop-cultural stories, they do not share the *form* of myths and so don’t belong to that mode. It remains correct to speak of superhero tales as “literary myths” to suggest that they can have the content and/or tonality of myths cast within a literary format, but this is no more or less true of SUPERMAN than of HEART OF DARKNESS. However, SUPERMAN does not belong to the same mode as the Conrad work, but to the mode of the literary romance, like L’MORTE D’ARTHUR.

“The essential element of plot in romance is adventure,” Frye tells us. For me, though this does not preclude the appearance of other elements of storytelling, it does imply that what Steve Gerber called the “obligatory fight-scene” was not just a crutch for lazy writers, but just such an essential element. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t a lot of lazy writers and artists who produced very tedious and/or meretricious fight-scenes. Indeed, some comics-creators seemed unable to do anything but that. But the fight-scenes were entirely appropriate to the romance-genre in which they worked, irrespective of how well they were done.

By contrast, a work that purports to put aside the element of adventure for other elements is by Frye’s definition deviating from the mode of romance. The most famous example where the genre of superheroes was converted away from the pattern of the romance would probably be WATCHMEN. There are a number of physical conflicts in WATCHMEN, but though all of them are technically as well-done as the best “fight-scenes” in regular superhero comics, their purpose is usually anything but to evoke the spirit of pure adventure. Interestingly, for all that most of the Watchmen are physical prodigies, Moore reduces them to the level of the powerless characters in an irony, in part by having them overshadowed by the only truly super-powered hero, Doctor Manhattan. Taking into account Moore's tendency to give his super-characters existential crises that dilute any spirit of adventure, WATCHMEN is thus a superhero tale told in the ironic mode, where the heroes have lost all significant "power of action."

There's nothing wrong with translating the romance-oriented genre of superheroes into another mode. But all too often, what passes for comics-criticism these days is merely the celebration of one or more “sophisticated” modes over a mode or modes perceived as crude or embarrassing. This is not genuine discrimination, but superficial elitism of the type that gives the elitist comfort by flattering his pretensions to intellect.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

YOU GOTTA LAUGH

I could spend fruitless hours rebutting this article:

http://zeroforconduct.com/2008/07/26/throwing-down.aspx

But what's funniest about it is this line:

"But it’s gotten to the point that superheroes comprise the substantial percentage of movie options we have now, in one form or another, and to avoid them as a grown-up you’d have to avoid cinema."

Comics-fans will find this familiar as it's what a goodly number of comics-fans have been saying about the state of the comics medium since at least the 1970s.

Now it looks like, instead of superhero comics being marginalized by the Greater Expectations of the Mainstream, the superheroes stand poised to be the barbarians at the cultural gates!

Only temporarily, I imagine.

But it's funny anyway.

Monday, July 21, 2008

MY SO-CALLED DARK KNIGHT REVIEW

(As with my Hulk piece, the following is not a general review of all aspects of the Chris Nolan THE DARK KNIGHT movie (2008): the type where I say that I liked Gary Oldman's centered performance or disliked Christian Bale's Billy-Bat-Gruff take on the Batman voice. This is essentially a look at how the director of TDK chose to respond to various elements of the Batman mythos in translating it to the cinema-screen.)

"What is impossible yet probable is to be preferred to that which is possible yet incredible."-- Aristotle, THE POETICS.

Aristotle doesn't detail what he considers to be "impossible" in the Poetics, but as he's not opposed to the presence of gods in serious drama and epic-- only to their use in the "deus ex machina" form-- I imagine that any events or beings that have a tinge of the metaphenomenal would meet this criterion. (Aristotle's favorite play, OEDIPUS REX, sported such an event in the form of an oracular prophecy and made reference to assorted fantastic beings, ranging from the gods themselves to the monstrous Sphinx.) But the first part of the quote makes clear that even the seemingly impossible should obey laws of probabilty. To my ears this sounds a lot like modern science-fiction's "one-gimmee" rule: once a writer begins a tale by introducing a strange phenomenon-- what Cioffi calls an "anomaly"-- into an otherwise-stable setting, afterward that writer is expected to observe laws of probability about how the anomaly acts and what it can do.

Conversely, in the second part of the quote, Aristotle is taking issue with writers who are willing to toss out any improbable event for their audience on the theory that it is remotely POSSIBLE, even though not probable. Aristotle clearly considers this psuedo-realism to be far more of a cop-out than invoking gods and monsters to serve as elements of the dramatic action.


Which brings us to the Nolan DARK KNIGHT. The fantasy of a costumed, high-tech vigilante operating at will in a modern metropolis is essentially an "impossible thing" which the Batman concept asks you to grant, irrespective of whether the hero battles fairly-probable versions of real-world criminals or other "impossible things." Here the metaphenomenality obtains not from a showier form of fantasy, like Superman juggling suns, but the equally-far-out idea of Batman possessing a ninja mojo so insuperable that a whole city of cops and criminals can't suss him out. But once the audience grants this impossibility, one should expect that within the parameters of that fantasy Batman acts according to some laws of probability. Often in melodramatic action films those laws may get a little bent-- say, in BATMAN RETURNS, the hero. framed for murder by Penguin, goes through considerable trouble to expose the villain's perfidy but somehow forgets to get himself exonerated on the murder-charge. But Nolan's DARK KNIGHT not only breaks the laws of probability, he even calls attention to his doing so, as if counting on his audience to ignore what he says and pay attention only to the characters' hyperbolic emotionalizing.

Nolan's primary plotline in TDK bears some similariry to Edward Zwick's 1998 film THE SIEGE, in that both concern a major metropolis reduced to chaos by the threats of terrorism-- by Islamic fanatics in Zwick's film and by the mad menace of the Joker in Nolan's. But Nolan's approach to the terrorism of the Joker is to tie it into a motif of renunciation throughout both TDK and Nolan's earlier BATMAN BEGINS. Almost as soon as Nolan's Batman begins being Batman in the first film, he seems eager to quit the whole racket, and he seems even more so in TDK. Along comes the Joker, who starts a spree of systematic killings and claims that he'll keep it up until Batman reveals his identity and surrenders himself to police-- presumably to be killed one way or another once Bruce Wayne is out in the open.

Batman's initial response makes all the sense in the world: "There's no proof that the Joker will stop killing," or words to that effect. And yet, perhaps 30-40 minutes later in the picture, Bruce Wayne suddenly becomes willing to make the Great Sacrifice to supposedly stop all the killing.

Now, this development is an example of Aristotle's "possible yet incredible" device. It's certainly within the bounds of POSSIBILITY that Bruce Wayne could lose his mind and submit to the Joker's whims, even having stated that he doesn't believe his surrender will stop the Joker. But it's certainly thoroughly IMPROBABLE, especially coming from someone who's supposed to be smart enough to maintain his Bat-secret from the criminal hordes, etc.

To his credit, Nolan manages to shuffle his cards fast enough that many viewers don't get a chance to see Wayne go through with this incredible dopiness, because Wayne's crimefighting colleague Harvey Dent stands up and claims that he is Spartacus (or something like that).

Now, the basic plot of the villain who threatens innocents to subdue the hero is not itself at fault. It is conceivable that one could engineer a situation in which Batman faced a villain whose grudge against the hero was so specific that, yes, Batman could believe that that villain would stop killing innocents once Batman himself was out of the picture.

But Nolan doesn't come close to attempting even this level of probability, and given the many other sloppy, overblown scenes throughout TDK, I'm reasonably sure that probability was far from his thoughts. Like many, he may have thought that the existence of an impossibility in a film granted a writer to banish the probable as well.

Given the space I've just devoted to just aspect of the movie-- albeit the most central one-- I should probably close this up and make my further thoughts on it as a Part II--

Thursday, July 17, 2008

MONSTERS, HEROES, AND FOOLS

I'm currently playing around with the notion that all literary genres as we now know them could be extrapolated as coming from three major parent-genres that have theoretically existed since mankind first started telling stories.

This is on balance a heuristic assumption as none of us can know that much about the ways in which early humans developed his first version of what we now call "art/literature." But though the assumption's unproveable, it's not necessarily false.

The three parent-genres would then be:

THE TALE OF HORROR, where the star is the "Monster" who wins out by killing or otherwise defeating the human protagonist

THE TALE OF ADVENTURE, where the star is the Hero, who is presented as being capable of killing the monster even if he goes down the grave with the beastie (Beowulf).

THE TALE OF COMEDY, where the star is the Fool, who has none of the hero's fortitude but somehow, usually via dumb luck provided by the storyteller, manages to survive and win over monstrous threats with much the same outcome as the hero, except for the dying-in-battle thing.

An argument for these forms' history from antiquity to the present is not doable at this time, nor do I plan any time soon to address why I view some of the genres we now know (the "romance," the "drama") as being somewhat less antique. But here's the thought that struck me recently:

As long as the monster of the horror-tale remains just that-- the thing that either "gets you" or at least comes so close that you still feel "got"-- there's not much similarity to the other two parent-genres.

However, when modern serial stories are built around the figure of the monster as a quasi-hero, the writer has to resort to an awful lot of Incredible Good Luck to keep the monster from slaughtering all the sympathetic characters in sight, and keep him somehow focused only on victimizing muggers and rapists (a popular trope of comics and film in the 1970s).

This Incredible Good Luck actually has the effect of making the Serial Monster less of a hero and more like the Serial Fool, whose favorable destiny is carefully rigged by the author.

The Serial Hero also may have Incredible Good Luck at times, but in theory the author is supposed to set things up so that it at least LOOKS like the hero has won through grit and determination, and not by any deus ex machina of his creator.

More on this line of thought later.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

ASSASSINATIONS PART TWO

In addition to maligning the defenders of Golden Age comics, Beaty also takes issue with many of the media-effects czars who failed to give W. his due. Beaty invalidates media-effects scholars Lowery and deFleur because they complained that W. failed to supply "systematic evidence" in SOTI, with which estimation I agree. Beaty objects that "these comments failed to acknowledge the fact that SOTI was in no way presented as a volume that adhered to generally accepted scientific reporting methods" (pp. 195-96). Yet on page 199 Beaty slams comics-fan critics of Wertham by saying that their criticisms were "not on the level of rigorous scientific rebuttal." The question then becomes: If W. crafted a layman's work on the topic of science, but included no documentation of his procedures and findings because of the work's popularizing nature, how could comics-fans critique it scientifically? How could anyone critique scientific findings that are not there? "You fans will just have to take my word for it: my patients done told me all this jazz."

(Side-note: given how vocal the good doctor was with respect to his distaste for "crime comic books," one has to wonder how many of his psychiatric charges might have been astute enough to guess the doctor's feelings on the subject, and might have tailored their conversations accordingly. I recollect no incidents in the entirety of SOTI where any child gives a positive testimony on comic books, except in instances where Doc W. could twist the testimony into something sinister.)

I might not dismiss W.'s clinical method out of hand as Beaty claims many scholars did, but clearly, any such analysis would have to satisfy two demands necessary to scientific investigation: (1) the results of one researcher must be reproducible by other researchers, and (2) the results should be arrived at without intrusive preconceptions.


Clearly no other researcher can duplicate W.'s findings given the lack of hard data as to how he arrived at said findings. Indeed, whatever one thinks of the "confidentiality" defense, it provides no excuse for the egregious lack of data regarding the comics themselves, such as issue numbers and dates of publication. For instance, Wertham refers to a comic entitled "Jungle Girl," which he condemns with his usual overkill. But if he had not happened to mention the name of the protagonist in a quoted line of dialogue, one could not have been certain that he was referring to an issue of Fawcett's NYOKA THE JUNGLE GIRL. And this is just one example among dozens where Wertham, whom Beaty extolls for having at least considered comics important enough to write about, couldn't be bothered to name dates or titles so that others might check his data.

As for preconceptions, Beaty may not agree that a scientist should not have them given his defenses of W. on the basis of the doctor's liberal passions. But ironically some of Beaty's attempts to prove W.'s insight may prove to be the most valuable aspect of the book. Intentionally or otherwise, Beaty shows readers how utterly intransigent W. was on the matter of exposing children to any level of violence, be it the outrageously-gross scenes of the EC horror books or the far milder conflicts of Superman and Nyoka.

Beaty, of course, means a statement like the following as complimentary: "For Wertham, good literature and art obviously did not need to contain violence, and when it did contain violence, it should be circumspect." However, none of FW's quotes from Wertham go toward proving that this distaste for shown violence is anything more than a personal preference, as is seen by some of the clearly-artistic works that made W.'s shit-list: films like THE DEVILS and THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, the poetry of Rilke and the philosophy of Nietzsche (which last I doubt W. understood in the least). What Beaty ends up doing with such citations is proving that W. was not only intransigent but unwilling or unable to see his personal tastes as less than objective in nature. This is demonstrated whenever Beaty quotes Wertham as having compared violent fictional scenes and their effects to the influence of tuberculosis bacilli. For W., the effects of fictive violence were as objectively real as those of the germs, which is nonsense just by virtue of the fact that the debate over media effects still goes on today, while no one seriously questions the facts that tuberculosis bacilli cause tuberculosis.

Amusingly, Beaty also undermines his own case when he attacks comics-fans who have attacked Wertham for "killing comics," pointing out how they have oversimplified all the factors leading to the medium's downslide in that period. Beaty is marginally right to take fans to task for seeing W. as the only cause. Yet Beaty tells us again and again that Wertham never said that comic books were the only causes of juvenile delinquency; just that they were a particularly pernicious cause that could be remedied. By that same logic, comics fans would be entirely correct to see Wertham as but one of several pernicious agents that aversely affected the medium of comic books, at least temporarily.

And though W. did not "kill" comics in reality, Beaty quotes a chilling prescription by the good doctor that I feel would have resulted in the extinction of the medium:

"...Wertham repeated his call to isolate the single factor of comic books with national legislation based on the public health ideal that would prohibit the circulation and display of comic books to children under the age of fifteen. Wertham suggested that this type of law would bypass claims of censorship because publishers would remain free to produce material with violent or objectionable content for adult audiences..." (p. 157)

I suppose this sort of statement, this end-run around the First Amendment, allows some people to assert that Fredric Wertham did not want censorship as such. Once again, this is at best a half-truth, for a health bureau that shared W.'s opinions about the harmful effects of even the mildest media violence (Superman again) could have been even more extreme than any governmental agency. Certainly the comics-medium in the 1950s-- which as Beaty notes was heavily directed at the young consumer-- would have died on the vine under the doctor's "health ideal," for the publishers would have been able to offer the buying public only the most ultra-sanitized children's fare, there being no market for adult comics in that period. (The failure of the 1950 "graphic novel" IT RHYMES WITH LUST demonstrates this obvious truth.) It may not be coincidence that W. picked the age of fifteen, since most mass-media comics-readers of the 20th century have traditionally given comics up in the general vicinity of that age, when dating (as well as earning money for the purpose of dating) takes on greater importance for the teen. So if Wertham is not really the man who killed comics, he is still the man who really, really wanted to kill them.

A fuller argument of all the reason why W. was completely, even naively, wrong about the effects of media-violence would require separate discussion, as would a more extensive look at what happened to comics as a result of the anti-comics hysteria of the 40s and 50s. But if there are limits that should be put on mass-media to shield children from adult subject matter-- and most would agree that such limits do exist-- one would have to search a long time to find a worse candidate to determine those limits than Frederic Wertham.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

ASSASSINATIONS OF VICTIMS LIVING AND DEAD

One of the most surprising aspects of Bart Beaty's FREDERIC WERTHAM & THE CRITIQUE OF MASS CULTURE is how little space Beaty devotes in it to Wertham's most (in)famous work, SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT (henceforth SOTI). One might expect that since Beaty takes issue with comic-fan critics making uninformed attacks on the work ("SOTI is better known than read," p. 198), Beaty's own book might provide a bully pulpit from which to analyze SOTI's purported virtues in detail.

Instead, neither of the final two chapters of FW deals with SOTI in depth, focusing far more on attempting to set a position for the good doctor's life-work within the greater context of general media-effects studies. Since Beaty consistently argues that W. was marginalized within the sphere most related to his intellectual activities, that life-work must not have had any profound effect upon that sphere. Thus, Beaty's strategy is to extoll W. for his far-thinking devotion to liberal causes. ("W. was a liberal who was proud to put his career and reputation in jeopardy to speak out on important issues when others would not.")

This statement is a half-truth purely by the evidence Beaty himself musters. Beaty is quick to point out how W.'s psychiatric findings contributed in an indirect manner to the legal precedent of "Brown vs. Board of Education," but inasmuch as a number of others involved in that case also had a little bit to do with eliminating segregation, the outcome hardly bespeaks a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. And though W. may have been derided by poetasters like Leslie Fiedler and Robert Warshow, Beaty cites dozens of prominent social critics who agreed with Beaty on that subject for which W. remains best-known: the general awfulness of comics in the closing years of what we now call "Comics' Golden Age." So, again, W. was hardly expousing an unpopular cause after the fashion of his mild support of the Rosenbergs. I see no evidence that his career was truly jeopardized by having spoken out against comic books, unless one puts credence (as Beaty does) in the belief that W. suffered long-term effects from comics-companies threatening to sue him (their legal right, surely), or from those companies' alleged attempts to hire "private detectives to tail him and intimidate his staff"-- attempts which have yet to be proven, and which go against the historical record that shows most of the publishers trying to keep their heads down during the whole business.

But if Beaty doesn't analyze SOTI deeply, he follows the book's basic strategy. Throughout SOTI W. claims to represent the voices of all right-thinking persons, and takes great trouble to ballyhoo their endorsements, and yet despite all these endorsements poor Doctor W. is constantly thwarted by the forces of apathy and special interests. In FW Beaty proves himself an apt pupil of this practice.

Early in FW, Beaty's exhaustive research into W.'s papers reveals that W. disagreed with Sigmund Freud's late-formed concept of the "death instinct." Like most of Freud's concepts, particularly those revolving around the questionable concept of "instincts," this idea is not in much favor today, but one can disagree with it without casting aspersions upon the philosophy of the theorizer. W., it seems, could not just disagree with the "death instinct" concept without attempting to tar that conceptual baby with the brush of evil associations, pointing out that some similar concept had also been proposed by "the most influential Nazi philosopher" Martin Heidegger. In other words, rather than reasoning out differences of philosophy, W. resorts to conceptual mudslinging. (But when W. thinks that Freud has said something that he Wertham agrees with, Freud becomes an authority that others-- though not W.-- tend to misperceive.)

Beaty, like W., finds shallow reasons to dismiss those voices from the past that once defended Golden Age comics against W. and similar reformers. When FW mentions the testimonies of the ACMP-- the first advisory board that attempted to self-regulate the excesses of member publishers-- the board-members' status as paid consultants is highlighted. But the pecuniary interests of W.'s supporters is not brought up, as is the case with early comics-critic Sterling North, who falsely calls SOTI "totally documented" but whose authorship of children's books is not so highlighted. The notion that North might be jealous of the success of comic books with child-readers is not entertained by Beaty.

William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, is mentioned as well. Here Beaty indirectly scorns Moulton's defense of superhero fantasies: "the wish to be super-strong is a healthy wish," according to Marston. That this quasi-Nietzschean-sounding pronoucement would not have flown with Marston's contemporaries goes without saying, but Beaty simply cites this fact as if it disproves the validity of Marston's opinion. (In other words, if W.'s opinions are unpopular, that's bad; if Marston's are, that's the true voice of the people at work.)

Marston, however, gets off easy next to Wertham-opponent Laura Bender, who was, like W., a prominent child-psychologist of the time. Instead of disproving Bender's contention that comics were harmless to healthy children, Beaty brings up a stunningly-irrelevant article by Bender that has to do not with media studies but with childhood incest. Beaty then dismisses Bender's opinions on comics' harmfulness as belonging to what Beaty calls the "'blame the child' school of media effects," and uses Bender's opinions on the possible culpability of the child in some incest-cases to invalidate her opinion on comic books. This attempt to drum up moral opprobrium is logically worthless, but it does show that Wertham managed to find at least one disciple who uses his weapons in precisely the same way Wertham did.

To be finished up in ASSASSINATIONS part two.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

PROPHET WITHOUT HORROR

Up to Chapter 4, Beaty sedulously avoids saying much about Dr. W's critique of comic books in order to build up a fuller picture of Wertham's contributions as a psychiatrist and philosopher, as against the dominant comic-fan picture of W. as a blue-nosed busybody. I have to rather admire Beaty's ability to play devil's advocate for the long-deceased doctor, and to conjure forth all sorts of obscure items from W.'s now-little-read works and unpublished papers in order to buttress his argument. However, the argument-- that of W. as a prophet without honor in his own land, a lonely righteous soul seeking reform where others sought appeasement by "workin' for the Man"-- is always pretty transparently weighted, and thus fails as a whole.

The substance of Beaty's argument is that W. was one of the few voices within the sphere of what Beaty terms "the New York Intellectuals" who actually called for reform of inequities, and other Intellectuals in this sphere-- particularly those who wrote disparagingly of W., like Robert Warshow and Leslie Fiedler-- did so because they had been seduced by the elitist conservatism of their times. As one of his few citations of evidence for this view, Beaty asserts that W. was supportive toward Julius and Ethel Rosenberg-- testifying on behalf of the imprisoned Ethel to get her better treatment, giving psychological examinations to the Rosenberg children-- while both Fiedler and Warshow wrote "coldhearted and condemning" essays on the convicted traitors. (In modern times there's been some debate as to what *degree* of treason the Rosenbergs committed, but as of this writing the consensus is that they did conduct real espionage against their country, not merely "alleged espionage," as Beaty writes.) It's probably true that Wertham was, according to a claim made by the doctor and cited on page 85, unfairly pilloried by superpatriots for having said anything remotely favorable about the Rosenbergs during the time when they were blamed for selling atomic secrets. But this event does not mean that the negative essays of Fiedler and Warshow were informed by superpatriotism, nor that their differing views of the Rosenbergs suggests anything of substance about their negative appraisals of Wertham's approach to the comic-book medium. If Fielder and Warshow are to be deemed superpatriots because they felt the Rosenbergs deserved their punishment, then the same pronoucement should hold true of Wertham, who disapproved of seeing Ezra Pound pronounced incompetent and who wanted to see Pound tried for high treason.

(Sidenote: surely the funniest moment in this book is seeing Beaty try to portray Leslie Fiedler, noted for his radicalism even back in the 1950s, as a conservative highbrow a la Lionel Trilling. Ditto the implied notion by Beaty that Wertham was in any way a more formidable intellect than Fiedler, who, as all students of popular culture should know, could crush puny Wertham like little bitty bug.)

Beaty's cognitive dissonance in the matter of superpatriotism finds a similar echo in his pronouncements of the "Cold War hysteria" against the Communist menace. Not having begun Chapter 4 yet, I wonder whether or not Beaty will choose to see the anti-comics fervor that swept America as a similar "hysteria," or whether he will choose to view it as a "critique of mass culture." Will he at least see that both have a common cause, both having erupted as a result of a culture feeling its stable way of life endangered? I would certainly think that the anti-comics jihad would be more classifiable as a hysteria given the dubiousness of their harm to that culture, as opposed to the fear of Communism, which comes down to a fear of real soldiers with real guns and bombs.

But I feel almost sure that Beaty will not see it that way. Thus far it's been Beaty's practice to elide or smooth over the more absurd or attention-getting statements by Wertham, such as the one reported by David Hadju in TEN CENT PLAGUE, where W. took the stand in a 1934 murder trial and proceeded "to interject that he also believed that virtually all psychiatric testimony in criminal trials was specious" (p 98).

The most valuable sections of Beaty's early chapters are not those dealing with W.'s very real contributions to the fight against racism, or with the doctor's far less weighty pronouncements against other psychologies or philosophies than his own, but those dealing with W.'s ideas about violence in the media. For the question of the effects of violence on so-called impressionable minds is the historical cornerstone of W.'s impact upon the cultural scene of his time, rather than any good intentions that motivated or seemed to motivate his anti-comics crusade.