Featured Post


In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Friday, February 20, 2009


"The Superman fantasy stimulated a host of intellectuals to write interpretations analyzing in terms of Nietzschean and Freudian philosophy what any child could have told them. The truth was that Siegel and Schuster's imaginary world tended to be more Adlerian than Freudian... the drive wasn't for sex but for power, for the ability to dominate their environment through sheer brute strength."-- Jim Steranko, HISTORY OF COMICS.

I think highly of Alfred Adler despite my having some philosophical problems with his compensation theory, or at least with ways in which others have applied it. I confess I haven't read much Adler in the original-- only SUPERIORITY AND SOCIAL INSTINCT, a collection of some late essays. My reigning impression is that Adler may well have been a better psychoanalytic theorist than Freud or Jung, since his work seemed a lot more focused on treatment of patients than on promoting broad philosophical concepts. OTOH, the one book I read struck me as fairly dully written despite some strong ideas. It's amusing to wonder whether or not Freud and Jung may've become more popular with general audiences not because their ideas were better but simply because they were more entertainingly presented.

Now, there is a worthwhile nugget in the above Steranko quote, but to get to it, one has to dig through a small mountain of superficial thinking, which should demonstrate even to the staunchest Steranko fan that as a philosopher Steranko was a good artist. Even to someone like myself, not deeply acquainted with Adler, there's rich irony in seeing Steranko invoke Adlerian psychology as some sort of aegis against the foolish "even-a-child-knows-better" interpretations that invokes Nietzsche and Freud-- particularly when one knows Adler was strongly influenced by both Nietzsche and Freud. But why did Steranko feel moved to make such an untenable opposition?

One should remember that Steranko's two HOC books were written in the early 1970s. At that time the anti-comics hysteria of the 1940s and 1950s had long subsided, but the anti-comics polemics (Wertham's SEDUCTION, Legman's LOVE AND DEATH) could still be found in libraries, while the only noteworthy pro-comics books (Feiffer's GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES) were nostalgic in tone rather than full-fledged defenses of popular comics.

There can be little doubt that Steranko, like everyone else in the comics business back then, was aware of SEDUCTION, whether he'd read it or not. The Nietzschean remark strongly suggests that Steranko did read it, since one of Wertham's most telling anti-comics bromides asked the unmusical question, "How did Nietzsche" (i.e., naked power-fantasies) "get into the nursery?" Of course Wertham does not really interpret comics through a Nietzschean lens and I doubt anyone else ever did back then either; for Steranko it may have been enough that Wertham had equated Superman with Nietzsche's Ubermensch. Ironically, though Wertham was (unlike Gersom Legman) a genuine psychologist with a strong if not doctrinaire Freudian bent, it was Legman who actually comes off as the super-Freudian who sees sex in everything, particularly in the narrative element of violence in comic books. Still, Wertham does have his super-Freudian moments as well, and probably other "intellectuals" followed suit, so one need not presume that Steranko read the more obscure Legman, though the juxtaposition of "Nietzschean intellectuals" and "Freudian intellectuals" against Adler leads me to some interesting reflections about compensation theory.

Wiki's entry on compensation says:

"In psychology, compensation is a strategy whereby one covers up, consciously or unconsciously, weaknesses, frustrations, desires, feelings of inadequacy or incompetence in one life area through the gratification or (drive towards) excellence in another area. Compensation can cover up either real or imagined deficiencies and personal or physical inferiority. The compensation strategy, however does not truly address the source of this inferiority. Positive compensations may help one to overcome one’s difficulties. On the other hand, negative compensations do not, which results in a reinforced feeling of inferiority."

Adler elucidated his compensation theory in 1907, six years after he became part of Freud's Vienna circle of psychology-minded colleagues. What precise influence Freud may've had on Adler's theories (or vice versa) I leave to the historians of such matters: likewise, the precise nature of Nietzsche's influence on both men. What interests me is how Adler's theory allows for both "positive" and "negative" versions of compensation, which is a distinction not seen much in critiques of pop culture, where the word "compensation" almost always comes up in a negative connotation. The most banal of these critiques interprets a consumer's liking for pop culture as the consumer's inability to deal with "reality" and his (negative) compensation through fantasy.

Given the affectionate attitude of Steranko's HISTORY toward popular comics, it's clear that this isn't the way he invokes Adler against the overintellectualizing adherents of Nietzsche and Freud, though Steranko's phrasing comes a little close to making the same sort of indictment of "negative compensation" made gainst Siegel and Schuster by their actual detractors. Gersom Legman, for example, would have made no bones about viewing Siegel and Schuster as pornographers who offered the dominations of "sheer brute strength" as a "negative compensation" in place of sexual excitement, while at the same time taking to task the society that made possible such perversities.

Thus Steranko is at least half-right: Adler can be used as a counteragent against the reductive tendencies of Freud, at least as transmitted through his fellow travelers (Freud himself having written very little on specific items of popular literature).

Ironically, though, Steranko gives Nietzsche a bum rap as being an inspiration for effete intellectualism, when in fact certain of Nietzsche's writings might suggest the very sort of "positive compensation" Steranko might've endorsed, had he understood how little Wertham's vilification of Nietzsche had to do with the philosopher's writings.

I would view the following Nietzsche-aphorism as implying the dynamics of positive compensation:

"You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star."

And in future essays I'll talk more about why this notion of positive compensation ought to receive more consideration in the stunted world of comics criticism.

No comments: