Before Jules Feiffer wrote THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, American cultural criticism had seen (outside the ranks of comics fandom itself) a few minor pluralistic commentaries on this or that aspect of the comic-book medium. Usually such commentaries appeared within books that were primarily about comic strips, or, more rarely, as solo essays by critics like Robert Warshow, Marshall McLuhan and Leslie Fiedler. But Feiffer's HEROES was, as Gary Groth says in his introduction to the 2003 edition, "probably the first sustained essay on comic books of the '40s and '50s." In addition, it seems to have been the first organized theoretical challenge to Frederic Wertham's attack, which presupposed that "such trivia as comic books" played no more part in the formation of a healthy individual than an aphid played in the maintenance of a healthy garden.
In brief, Feiffer defends the social purpose of junk. which included most if not all comic books at the time: "Junk is there to entertain on the basest, most compromised of levels... Junk, like the drunk at the wedding, can get away with doing or saying anything because, by its very appearance, it is already in disgrace... Its values are the least middle-class of all the mass media. That's why it is needed so."
Insofar as Feiffer recognizes this "separate but equal" status of junk, I term him a "pluralist."
Which does not mean that I necessarily agree with everything he says, any more than I necessarily disagree with everything an elitist might say. But I do agree with Feiffer's methodology more than that of (obviously) Wertham, Gerson Legman or Gary Groth.
I noted *here* that Feiffer seems to have been among the first critics to start psychoanalyzing the triad of Superman, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, as in statements like this one from HEROES:
"Did Superman become Clark Kent in order to lead a normal life, have friends, be known as a nice guy, meet girls? Hardly. There's too much of the hair shirt in the role, too much devotion to the imprimatur of impotence-- an insight, perhaps, into the fantasy life of the Man of Steel. Superman as a secret masochist? Field for study there."
Of course Feiffer isn't entirely serious about this "insight," for by the next paragraph he's claiming that the real motivation for the "hair shirt" is a non-diegetic one, a play for reader identification:
"[Clark] is Superman's opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we, the noncriminal element, were really like. His fake identity was our real one. That's why we loved him so."
Now, in calling attention to the "real," non-diegetic reasons as to why an author does whatever he does, Feiffer is participating in the hermeneutics of deceit, albeit in a much more genteel way than Frederic Wertham. Never mind what the text says: here's what it's *really* about. And it should be noted that most of Feiffer's works generally, as well as HEROES specifically, stand in the considerable shadow of Sigmund Freud, although I imagine that Feiffer, like Wertham, had many points of disagreement with the Father of Psychology. Feiffer was in essence a poet of anxiety, which put him in Freud's bailiwick right off. One can hardly imagine Feiffer staring into a Jungian mandala-painting in search of enlightenment. For Feiffer enlightenment comes from humor birthed by the irresolvable conflict of the pleasure principle and the reality principle-- which is apparent in his analysis of the "real" reason for Clark Kent's existence.
I don't think Feiffer would have been much of an ally for queer theory, however. He rejects (albeit lightly) Wertham's conjectures about the hidden meaning of the Batman-and-Robin relationship, satirically observing that most of BATMAN's young readers could also be seen as "more or less queer" just by virtue of hanging out together and playing contact sports. He does observe that in BATMAN, though, a "misanthropic maleness" parallel to what he finds in SUPERMAN:
"The ideal of masculine strength... was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That's why they got hit so hard."
A proponent of queer theory would presumably say, "Well, I got your 'real rapport' right here, and it's either suppressed gayness or gay-curiosity." Given Feiffer's refutation of Wertham, I don't think he'd buy into that, though by itself the quote suggests that he was aware of other writers (possibly Leslie Fiedler) who had asserted that "misanthropic maleness" was, if not actually homosexual in nature, at least skewed to the "homosocial:" to relations between men that excluded the world of women and domesticity. But it should be noted that this kind of Fiedlerian homosociality is no more open to homosexual than to heterosexual activity: it depends on what HOUSE OF SIN's A. Sherman Barros correctly called an "ascetic" attitude. In other words, once you've got Bruce and Dick *really* sharing a bed with all that entails, then what you've got is just another bloody domestic relationship-- which is in essence the same kind of restrictive "marriage" that makes men (and some women) go out fighting crime in the first place.
Similarly, I assume that when Feiffer says, "That's why [the villains] got hit so hard," he's not seriously advocating that every black eye and busted jaw is a love-note from Hero to Villain. To be sure, there's a sort of passion present in the eyes of the protagonist as he (or she) clobbers an opponent, and I assume that it's there because the same passion for vengeance is present in the eyes of the readers. But I take it to be a passion for a form of dynamization that may be more fundamental than Eros: the passion to win. Francis Fukuyama calls it *megalothymia* and Jerry Seinfeld calls it "getting [the upper] hand," but it may have a lot more to do with what makes a superhero tick than any number of Freudian readings.
DARK SHADOWS, EPISODE 462 (1968)
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