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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...

Friday, February 27, 2009

UNMOORED, PART 3

I've seen a lot of fans rank Alan Moore as the best writer of superheroes. I've never agreed with that assessment (though a discussion of who is might be fruitful).

Alan Moore is only the best writer of superheroes within an ironic literary mode, as per my remarks here:

"Both of these modes ["high mimetic" and "ironic"] as well as Frye's "low mimetic" mode (which might include something like Bendis' POWERS) exist in a descending scale from the mode of romance. In this mode, protagonists have a "power of action" which, though not capable of creating aspects of reality as are the powers of the gods of myth, is still ineluctably positive. In romance (which connotes what most people call "adventure"). the hero's actions generally result in desireable outcomes, occasionally marked by tragic, comic or ironic touches but not fundamentally attuned to the demands of those mode-forms. As the "power of action" becomes increasingly attenuated going down the scale, the mode becomes more responsive to the perceived demands of "reality," even in works that have the phenomenal content of fantasies. Thus the "power of action" generally becomes more and more negative in tone going from romance to high mimetic to low mimetic to irony."

Moore's own attachment to irony is testified in these remarks from his recent WIRED interview, which directly follow the section I quoted in Part 2:

"That wasn't what it used to mean. That wasn't what it used to mean to me when I was a child. What I was getting out of it was this unbridled world of the imagination, and the superhero was a perfect vehicle for that when I was much younger. But looking at the superhero today, it seems to me an awful lot like Watchmen without the irony, that with Watchmen we were talking very much about the potential abuses of this kind of masked vigilante justice and the kind of people that it would in all likelihood attract if these things were taking place in a more realistic world. But that was not meant approvingly."

So Moore admits that he was not doing a pure superhero story like those with which he grew up-- a story meant to unleash "the unbridled world of the imagination"-- but one which incorporated "irony" and a "progressive spirit." Moore may not see these narrative elements as fundamentally opposed, as I do, but I agree that he was incredibly naive if he assumed that mainsteam superhero stories were going to take no influence from him once the WATCHMEN work both demonstrated strong sales and sustained favorable reviews. In fact, his story that he was only hoping to stimulate other works like unto his own sounds less like naivete than a Monday-morning quarterbacking attempt to un-implicate himself from association with whatever lesser works might have taken inspiration from him.

Frankly, I think the move toward "doom and gloom" started long before either Moore or Frank Miller entered mainstream American comics, but that's another story, which must wait while I critique Moore's impression-- which he himself admits may be "simplistic"-- of superheroes as an incarnation of "massive tactical superiority."

Note that though most of the time Moore's talking about how he's become 'distanced" from the caped crusader genre because it's become so bleak and superficial, he invokes that didactic "superiority" interpretation in terms of Superman. He implies that he's talking about not just current Superman comics, but the original Golden Age comics that posited Superman as an alien given superiority over humans thanks to "Earth's lesser gravity."

Yet these are, as he's said elsewhere, among the comics that introduced him to "the unbridled world of imagination." Could it be that the substance of power-fantasies and that of the imagination are not as distinct as Moore sometimes implies?

Equally wrong is his attempt to characterize superheroes as uniquely American. The fact that Moore may be attempting to do to old European heroes in LXG what he did for American superheroes in WATCHMEN-- to see them through a lens of literary irony in order to make intellectual comments upon them-- doesn't mean that the original characters weren't also all about "massive tactical superiority."

In KING SOLOMON'S MINES, Allan Quatermain and his three allies ride herd on a "lost race" of black Africans, convincing the tribesmen that the four white men are gods thanks to their superior weapons.

In 20.000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, Captain Nemo (who is perhaps more an antihero than a hero) has the world's only submarine, and even if he uses it against corrupt ruling powers, it's still a fantasy of "massive tactical superiority."

And the original Bulldog Drummond, though lacking super-powers, was as much a "strongman fantasy" as Superman, as the four books I've read constantly harp upon Drummond's phenomenal-if-natural strength. One book even has Drummond win a fight with a gorilla, with the excuse that it was only a "small" one. In BLACK DOSSIER Moore's "Hugo Drummond" is a reincarnation of the original brawler of the books, who, unlike the cinematic Drummond, was a crude bigot who cheerfully railed against Jews and darkies and anything else against which his Brit working-class audience liked to assail. Moore plays this aspect of Drummond for laughs, but in addition, the prose Drummond actually committed the sort of fascist actions that Fredric Wertham and Gersom Legman falsely attributed to American superheroes, for in THE BLACK GANG Drummond and his fellows arrange to kidnap prominent British Communists and to confine them on a desert island until they learn the error of their ways. Moore doesn't reference this little escapade, though I feel sure that he must have known of it. Maybe if he had brought it in, the author's contrast between Hugo Drummond and James Bond-- or Moore's super-imperialist version of James Bond-- would have seemed less pertinent.

I find it fairly obvious, then, that in terms of indulging power-fantasies there's no demonstrable difference between heroes without powers and/or costumes and heroes with 'em. The satisfying dynamizations of power are what the mode of romance is all about, just as the mode of irony is about critiquing the very notion of power in such a way that power seems not only impossible but fundamentally undesireable.

On some level I feel sure that Moore must've known that the originals of his LEAGUE-heroes were as much power-fantasies as any caped crusader. So why scapegoat superheroes as a symbol of the American lust for "tactical superiority?" Why not just say that he liked superheroes as a young reader but that he finds them irrelevant now (except, of course, for his ironical versions thereof)?

In the same interview Moore goes on a long diatribe against modern FX-movies in general, in part as a way of describing his alienation from both the upcoming WATCHMEN movie and all previous (and future?) cinematic adaptations of his work. Of course, a lot of authors have had problems with adaptations where special effects were not a concern, including Raymond Chandler, whom Moore references toward the interview's end. But I find myself wondering whether or not Moore's real animus is that (a) modern special-FX make it possible for the movies to do "straight" versions of superheroes that please a larger audience than any other era of superhero-filmmaking has enjoyed, which (b) insures some level of cultural validation of the genre of superheroes with that larger audience, which in turn (c) makes it possible for more people to appreciate a genre in which Moore himself has lost interest and which he may think is taking up the appreciation due to better things, whether they are things he does or things by other authors that he admires.

Of course, maybe none of that even remotely resembles what goes through Alan Moore's head. Maybe by imagining that, I am just "putting the worst construction" on him. But if so, it's just a case of tit for tat:

"[Modern comics are] being bought in many cases by hopeless nostalgics or, putting the worst construction on it, perhaps cases of arrested development who are not prepared to let their childhoods go, no matter how trite the adventures of their various heroes and idols."

I'm sure that, despite his blanket putdowns of both Americans and comics fans, I'll probably enjoy Alan Moore's works in future, the same way I can enjoy any other entertainment by anyone else with whom I disagree. He'll probably remain the best writer of superheroes in an ironic mode.

But whenever he talks about unbridled worlds of wonder, I'm going to wonder how much of his literary religion depends on the rhetoric of the scapegoat.

UNMOORED, PART 2

I guess I'll go in reverse order of importance when analyzing the following passage from the Alan Moore : political analysis first, then literary analysis.

"Moore: During the 7/7 bombings over here, it was announced a couple days later that as soon as the first two trains had gone up, all of the American forces that were in London were recalled to safe distance outside the M24 orbital motorway. After a few days, when they realized that it was safe to go back into London, they realized also that it looked kind of bad, sort of rushing out of the capital at the first sign of any trouble when the main reason for the bombing was England's support of America in the Iraq war.
It does seem to me that massive tactical superiority might be a key to the superhero phenomenon. That, if it's a military situation, then you've got carpet bombing from altitude, which is kind of the equivalent of having come from Krypton as a baby and to have gained unusual strength and the ability to fly because of Earth's lesser gravity. I don't know, that may be a simplistic interpretation, but that's the way I tend to see superheroes today."

This statement shows a rhetorical tendency shared by all political persuasions, though one that makes more sense for those labelled "conservatives" than for those who can be fairly called "liberals." (And yes, I think that label applies to self-described "anarchists" like Alan Moore.) The rhetorical tendency is that of scapegoating, of which I've written in more depth here.

Now, scapegoating has an indispensible function in both literature and religion. The notion that one can dispense with evil (be it moral evil or mere physical calamity) by dispensing with a representative of evil is well-suited to both of these forms (to use the Cassirer term).

Scapegoating isn't quite as suited to politics. It's true that every political system advances itself by excoriating (whether directly or by implication) an opponent who represents a contrary belief. It's also true that this excoriation can sometimes lend to a process of scapegoating. But political systems inherently require compromise between rival factions. Even Machiavelli, who as Cassirer noted was the first to speak openly of the *realpolitik* that took place in Renaissance versions of the smoke-filled back room, admitted the necessity for compromise between rival powers.

A scapegoat, then, is not the same as an opponent. You may compromise or come to terms with the latter, but the former exists to be sacrificed.

Now, Moore's interview only touches on the background of the Iraq War that informs the incident of the 7/7 bombings, which in turn he uses as a means of both (a) expatiating on the American national character, and (b) scapegoating superheroes. However, given other statements by Moore about his feelings toward conservative political systems, I think it's pretty much a given that Moore opposes both American and British involvement in Iraq.

I have no problem with Moore's opposition to said involvement, or to his pointing out the hypocrisy of the 7/7 incident, in which certain *particular* detachments of American forces in Britain may have made an overly-hasty retreat from a site of conflict. I am, like most liberals, continually appalled that in the past two elections my countrymen voted in substantial numbers for the representatives of a radical-Right psuedo-theocracy that made the fictional regime of Lewis' IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE look like a season at Scout Camp.

My political problem with Moore's statement is that here his expatiation on the American national character is predicated on an incident too limited to be exemplary of anything. Yes, it could be argued those British-based American detachments showed poor judgment in letting themselves look like they were running away from danger.

But how in the world does such a piddling incident demonstrate anything about the American national character?

If Moore wanted to attack America for its fascist tendencies, he should go after us for the whole damned Iraq War, not just for a transitory and trivial matter that irked Moore when he read about it over his morning coffee in Northampton (or wherever the heck he lives these days).

In comic-bookspeak Moore's statement is the equivalent of saying that Professor Moriarty was a bad guy not because he killed or enslaved people, but because he made a rude comment about Mina Harker.

In addition, you could probably find far better examples of American's supposed desire to shoot for "massive tactical superiority" less than a century ago, starting with a little thing called "the A-bomb." But I think a more judicious view would be that most (if not all) human cultures strive to get the upper hand and to keep it. Does the American pursuit of "tactical superiority" really tell us anything distinctive about the American character, or is it simply a development from earlier manifestations of making war, like English history's version of carpet bombing?

Not to mention them durn vanishin' Neanderthals.

Though in UNMOORED PART 3 I'll hold forth more thoroughly on Moore's use of superheroes as a scapegoat to attack the evils of radical-Right politics, here I'm moved to wonder why he would make such an equivalence. Does Moore think Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld formed their notions of *realpolitik* through some childhood exposure to Superman comics? Cheney and Rumsfeld certainly represent the rhetorical tendency I mentioned before, to transmute rival powers into scapegoats; e.g., the famed "Axis of Evil." But I submit that they could have conceivably come up with such a phrase without ever having read a funnybook or even seeing a CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS cartoon.

(And of course it's the guy who's got to clean up their mess who's made his comics-reading public. But I digress.)

I don't think Moore is being a good liberal by resorting to the political rhetoric of the scapegoat. I believe that it's entirely right to downgrade your political opponents, but you have to go after them for real and substantial abuses, not for picayune crap. I would think the conservatives of recent decades have done so much similar crap ("Kerrey threw away his medals! The horror! The horror!") that any good liberal ought to be ashamed to resort to the same superficial strategies.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

UNMOORED, PART I

Alan Moore's new interview with WIRED very inconsiderately interrupts my normal course of thought, so that I now have to put aside the posts I had in mind in order to refute his quasi-assertions on (a) the nature of the superhero, and (b) what it truly means to be a liberal.

Before doing so, however, I will say this much to contextualize Moore's remarks:

Without a doubt, WIRED asked Moore for an interview because of the impending WATCHMEN movie. That's not to say that they wouldn't do an interview with Moore at any other time too, but unquestionably they wanted one now because the WATCHMEN movie is news now.

Alan Moore knew this when they asked. There's no way that he could not. He's also made no secret of his dislike for the idea of a WATCHMEN movie.

Why then did he give the interview?

One reason, of course, is the same reason Paul McCartney suffers through questions about the old days with the Beatles while he's trying to sell current work: sometimes the only way to get more publicity about the current stuff is to endure questions about the past.

Now, in this case Moore has to put up questions about a project that was finished long ago, which didn't have the impact on the comics-world that he says he hoped it would-- and on top of that, the work's now being adapted into a medium for which it wasn't made, by the fiat of a company with which he wants no further associations.

It's not surprising, then, that his feelings toward the movie are something less than charitable. Still, the interview does allow for a sizeable section concerning "what I'm working on now," so it's pretty hard not to picture Moore using the hype surrounding the movie as a way of advancing his own new projects.

There's nothing morally objectionable in Moore's participation in the process of hype. Still, his current concerns color everything he says here. So when I do go more deeply into refuting his statements, I have to do so with the knowledge that he's not making definitive declarations as such, as he might do for a JOURNAL interview, but hedges a lot of what he says.

Still, since a lot of the illogical assertions he makes here are often proclaimed as gospel by others, the refutation-game is still worth the candle.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DON'T

The following is an excerpt from Harold Schechter's 2005 book SAVAGE PASTIMES, which I plan to reference in a coming essay on Alan Moore:

"While the news media has a vested interest in whipping up mass hysteria-- as Barry Glassner makes abundantly clear in his indispensable book, THE CULTURE OF FEAR-- the truth is that homicide rates have been steadily declining in this country for two decades. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, there were 10.2 murders per one hundred thousand people in 1980. By the year 2000 that number had plunged to 5.5. Even during the height of the hysteria prompted by the Columbine massacre, a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that there had been no significant increase in violent crimes at U.S. schools for two decades."

In other words, life doesn't always imitate art, be it in regard to the effect of violent entertainments on domestic crime. In my next post I'll consider Moore's superficial argument that the violence of superheroes reflects American desires for "massive tactical superiority."

Friday, February 20, 2009

ADLER PATED

"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.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

RADICAL VIOLENCE

'Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych's death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, "it is he who is dead and not I."'-- Tolstoy, THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYCH.

I was reminded of Tolstoy's insight into human attitudes on death-- perhaps THE fundamental attitude, as one can imagine it translating to any time or culture-- the other day while reading Harold Schechter's SAVAGE PASTIMES. Schechter, both an academic and the author of several books on true crime, presents ample evidence to the effect that since recorded history humankind has always nurtured a fascination with murder, torture and violence. This in itself sounds unremarkable, but Schechter is refreshing in that he doesn't explain the fascination as resulting from class or racial inequities, as do Marxist critics like Patrick Brantlinger, or on repression of sex, as did sometime comics-critic Gershon Legman, whose theories I've refuted here. PASTIMES even quotes large sections of the now-obscure Legman to demonstrate that, contrary to Legman's expectations, Americans' fascination with violence did not simply fade away once the pop culture of the Sexual Revolution made both sex and sexual entertainments far more widely available to the average consumer.

As I continued to read account after account of ordinary goobers, whether modern or medieval, fetishizing mementos of hideous murders and those that committed them, the Tolstoy passage occured to me as a way of explaining such a constant phenomenon. Most critics explain the love of human audiences for gore and murder through the compensation theory, which assumes that audience-members exorcise their real aggressions by viewing fictional ones. This explanation almost certainly accounts for some of the appeal of fictional violence, but it seems most applicable to adventure-oriented stories, in which the audience's identification figure, the hero, usually wins out against his enemies. It seems less broadly applicable for the horror genre, or any genres that take the same basic approach as horror (for instance, black comedy), insofar as the identification characters are as likely as not to be destroyed, driven insane, etc.

Tolstoy observes that, however restrained it may be, the most fundamental emotion one feels upon hearing of another's death is that of relief: "it is he who is dead and not I." To my knowledge, there have been few if any critics who have addressed the radical of violence in fiction-- not only pop fiction, but also in canonical literary works-- as a way of watching others go, usually not too gently, into that "good night," before we ourselves have to. That insight in itself is not that revelatory, but it might be more meaningful when coupled with a deeper understanding of the power-relations that dominate life, until one no longer has a life to be so dominated.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I KEEP PITCHIN' 'EM

...and he keeps droppin' 'em.

(This title was drawn from a classic line delivered by Foghorn Leghorn and so has nothing whatever to do with current slang interpretations of the words "pitchers" and "catchers.")

I refer to BEAT employee Steven R. Stahl, who posted the following in a discussion with me on 2/13/09:

"Gene, you seem to be taking the position that there generally aren’t bad ideas, only bad execution of ideas. Character concepts, however, can be fundamentally flawed. One example on the list is Hawkeye (Kate Bishop). She has no powers, only combat skills, and her primary weapon is a bow that’s used with conventional arrows. Other weapons include a sword “similar to” (Wikipedia) the one used by the Swordsman and staves like Mockingbird’s. Whatever one might think of her personality, or whether the Young Avengers is a legitimate concept, this Hawkeye has no reason to exist. Using conventional arrows against supervillains is laughable; her fighting skills would be limited by her muscle mass and total body mass; her other weapons are copies. The character is so derivative as to be offensive, and probably wouldn’t exist outside of the Marvel Universe."

http://pwbeat.publishersweekly.com/blog/2009/02/12/deep-thoughts-21208/#comments

I draw the reader's attention to this phrase:

"her fighting skills would be limited by her muscle mass and total body mass"

To which I replied:

"This sounds like an unintentional blanket indictment against all female heroes who don’t have superpowers, not just those that are derivative. Black Canary doesn’t have the muscle mass of Batman, so she’s inherently not as good as Batman, right?
I presume the majority of female fans would disagree."

As yet Mr. Stahl has not replied, but I must say that in addition to the objection I posted at THE BEAT, I would also add that the matter of lesser muscle mass is key to my potential discussion of the action-heroine as symbol of the Schopenhaurean Will.

Now let's see if I get two links out of WHEN FANGIRLS ATTACK.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ACTION-HEROINES

What is the cultural significance of action-heroines?

It's not that they make female readers feel more empowered, though there's not anything wrong with that.

It's not that they make male readers either more empathetic or more horny, though there's nothing wrong with either of those.

It's simply this:

The action-heroine is a better symbol of the Schopenhaurean Will than the male action-hero.

This, despite the fact that Schopenhauer was a misogynist whose writings could make the anti-feminist essays of Dave Sim look like they came from Simone deBeauvoir.

More on this later, when I see whether or not this essay gets me a second listing in WHEN FANGIRLS ATTACK.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

THE NUDE EVOLUTION BOMB


A fellow fan who has read (as I have not) 2008’s BRUSH WITH PASSION, a biography of Dave Stevens (1955-2008), informed me that in that book Stevens reminisced that in retrospect he wasn’t entirely happy that he’d done a near-nude drawing of a Bettie Page lookalike character for Pacific’s ROCKETEER comic. True, most people would concede that this “exposure” (the pun had to be said) renewed fandom’s interest in the works and career of the classic queen of nudie-photos, who had prior to ROCKETEER been largely forgotten by mavens of pop culture. The renewed interest led to an assortment of Bettie Page comics and merchandise and some money to the long-retired Page before her death, the same year Stevens passed.

Of course, Stevens may have been regretful because he became personally acquainted with Page after drawing the heralded ROCKETEER scene. Even though what he drew was largely if not totally based on photographs over 30 years old, one might argue that he “unveiled” some of Page’s feminine mysteries for a new audience, so he may have felt self-conscious about that.

IMO, though, he had no reason to be self-conscious. Putting aside the material benefits to Page in her later years, what Stevens did in his drawing—modest as it is, even compared to nudie-photos of Page’s time—is just another of countless manifestations of the “look/don’t look” sexual dynamic that defines men and women, perhaps not just culturally, but biologically.

In SEX, TIME AND POWER, Leonard Shlain argues (and I paraphrase for convenience) that human evolution came about largely when the female of the species changed from a predictable estrus-cycle to a more unpredictable form of reproductive availability. From that, Shlain argues that the female animal in human form gained the ability to exploit her newfound mysteriousness, an ability to say “no,” so as to make the male of the species a little more deferential to her whims, which in turn promoted more lasting forms of familial bonding.

Thus history, not Dave Stevens, casts woman in the role of the veiler of mysteries, and man as the unveiler. One can cavil about exceptions, but dominantly, hetero men want to look (and more than look) because they’re told they can’t/shouldn’t/need to wait till the headache goes away. A good nudie picture, whether snapped or drawn, captures this ambivalence between looking and not looking.

If I were compiling a “best 100 most iconic moments of comics” list, Stevens’ROCKETEER homage to the nudie-cuteys would place high on that list.

Monday, February 9, 2009

LESBIAN BRANDED

Saith Matt Damon re: the James Bond movie icon:

"He's repulsive. Bond is an imperialist, misogynist, sociopath who goes around bedding women and swilling martinis and killing people."

I assume that the "misogynist" part is directed to the part about "bedding women" in promiscuous fashion, since swilling martinis and killing people aren't essentially sexual activities. Also, Damon said his character Bourne is better than Bond in part because Bourne was a "serial monogamist."

So the reason Damon considers Bond "misogynist" is that Bond is a "player."

The question then becomes...

If a lesbian is a player toward her female conquests...

Is she a misogynist?

BTW, the title doesn't relate to much of anything but to see if anyone knows what it's a pun of.

Monday, February 2, 2009

DYNAMIZATION= SUPERIORITY DANCE

There's no reason that dynamization itself-- described here as a movement from a static to a dynamic state, at least as judged by the observer's set of parameters-- *must* connote that the latter is automatically superior to the former. Equally, the reverse would be no more true of any hypothetical "staticization." However, inasmuch as human society and culture is inherently hierarchical in one way or another, the dominant tendency is to say that what is perceived to be dynamic is usually assigned superior status to that which is perceived to be static, as was the case when Henri Bergson used the terms in his philosophy.

Therefore, culturally at least, every dynamization is a "Superiority Dance" like unto the routine initiated by Dana Carvey's Church Lady in various SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketches.

For a first example I'll return to the example used in my first essay on dynamization: the progress from ignorance to knowledge in a particular objective, such as the building of a birdhouse.

Now, the individual who chooses to undertake the task of learning this skill may feel during his efforts as if the skill itself, or the body of knowledge behind it, is a physical force with which he contends. This is of course an illusion. The conflict is purely internal, between the self who is currently ignorant of the skill and the projected self, who will either attain the skill or, given failure, remains an image of success only.

But should the individual succeed in his goal, moving from the static state of the unskilled non-maker of birdhouses to the dynamic state of the skilled birdhouse-maker, then he will automatically perform on some level a Superiority Dance that celebrates his dynamic status over his formerly-static standing.

Obviously this dance of dynamization can also take place between competing individuals, or even competing literary modes, but I'll stay with the internal type a bit longer.

Take Gary Groth (please). Years ago (and I can find the specific reference if so moved), a letter-writer inquired as to whether or not Groth's scorn toward superhero fans was not a contradiction, given that he Groth had once been a maker of superhero fanzines, had hobnobbed with mainstream creators like Jim Steranko, and so on. Groth's response boiled down "When I was a child, I thought as a child." This too is internal dynamization. Groth did not precisely condemn his juvenile tastes as such, but his response made clear that he felt that those tastes had been superseded by the tastes informed by adult knowledge and/or experience. This pedagogical paradigm informed the rhetoric of COMICS JOURNAL even during its earliest, and still somewhat fan-oriented, beginnings, and to this day the appearance (if not the reality) of sophistication is one of the primary dynamizations which Fantagraphics offers to its coterie audience. (And yes, it sucked me in as well when I used to write for the JOURNAL, though maybe not as much as it did certain others.) A possible slogan for Groth might be along the lines of a famous Will Eisner line: "I'm Gary Groth-- and I don't publish tales for little boys."

Moving to other kinds of superiority dances, it's clear that this is what's going on in this excerpt from Groth's eulogy for Will Eisner:

"Eisner refused to take the [superhero] genre trappings seriously -- which was about the only intelligent way to approach a strip that was designed to imitate the look of comic books, which were at best semi-literate, yet appeal to the adult readership of newspapers."

The Grothian superiority dance here also evokes the adult/juvenile distinction. Groth makes the assumption that Eisner's SPIRIT feature was superior because it (unlike all or most superhero strips in the juvenile-oriented comic books) chose to appeal to adults.

This, however, is a facile assumption. Will Eisner may have decided that he wanted to seek adult rather than juvenile approval, but there's no reason to believe that all comic strips (or anomalies like the "SPIRIT section") had to appeal to adults in order to sell widely. Adults generally bought the newspapers, true, but clearly the average newspaper comics-section was designed to appeal across the board to both adults and their children. A Marxist would assume that this "across-the-board" appeal was born of newspapers' desire to merchandise goods both for adults and children, and for once that hypothetical Marxist would probably be right. When the idea of the "SPIRIT section"-- a comic book distributed in newspapers with the Sunday comics-- was formulated by Quality editor Busy Arnold and his fellow dealmakers, those gentlemen probably had no plans to introduce a more "mature" hero simply because the character was going to appear in the supposedly adult-oriented newspapers. In all likelihood, they probably hoped to coattail on the success of Superman, who made the jump from to the comic-strip grid about a year and a half before the first SPIRIT section. They may well have intended THE SPIRIT to be read by the same kids who read superhero comic books, and even Eisner may have gone along with that notion early on, since the first year of THE SPIRIT isn't notably more mature in tone than the BATMAN comics of the time.

A greater Grothian absurdity is his notion that Eisner was in some way unique for his un-seriousness toward the superhero genre during the early 1940s, the formative years for the superhero comic book, and for those features, like the Kane-Finger BATMAN, that influenced Eisner as a source for tropes if nothing else. One can certainly say, if one chooses, that BATMAN was written on a simpler level than were some (though certainly not all!) comic strips. But the implications that the majority of Golden Age superhero comics were deadly serious makes one wonder if Gary Groth ever saw a comic from that period. There are a handful of superhero features that start off with a grim tone-- BATMAN, THE SPECTRE, DOCTOR FATE-- but most of these become lighter in tone relatively quickly, and many features were positively whimsical from the start. If I may sit in my amateur psychology armchair for a moment, I suspect that in making such an absurd declaration Groth was not really analyzing the Golden Age comics of Eisner's early years, but was actually expressing his (Groth's) own animus for the over-serious superhero comics that came to dominate the industry in the 1960s and 1970s, after being more or less midwifed by Roy Thomas, High Priest of the Serious Superhero.

So in Groth's eulogy we have at least two superiority dances going: what is "adult" is automatically more "intelligent" than what is juvenile, and a "light" or "frivolous" take on the superhero genre is automatically better than any work that takes the superhero genre seriously (whatever those works might be).

As statements of merely personal taste, there's nothing wrong with either dynamization. If I say I have a preference for serious superheroes better than silly superheroes, then for me personally the silly ones seem static and uninteresting while the serious ones are dynamic and fascinating. This is inarguable. But of course Groth is not merely stating preferences, but putting forth a critical statement that asserts, as objectively as anyone can, that his tastes are more discriminating than those of the average comics-reader (dynamization again) and that therefore his take on comics generally and Will Eisner specifically is exemplary for others. This he can demonstrate only through logic. But the logic of the eulogy piece is clearly flawed in many respects, though here I'm confining myself to the way Groth misrepresents particular media-phenomena to support his rhetoric.

The most charitable reading of Groth's rhetoric is that he *may* want others to follow his example and eschew the static for the dynamic (i.e. "commerce" for "art.") But his concept of art is poorly conceived, as is his reading of Will Eisner, so that he might as well be pointing at the grave of Will Eisner and screaming:

"SAAAATANNNN!!!"

Just minutes before he goes into his superiority dance.