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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, June 4, 2010


Given my propensity for title puns I should think Heidi McDonald would appreciate my discretion re: the order of the words in this essay's title.

I'm not going to rehash the entire argument from this 6-1-10 BEAT entry, but I will enlarge on some of my responses here.

The section of this entry to which I responded was this essay by Marc-Oliver Frisch. Without analyzing his essay in depth, I'll just say that I agree in large part with this observation:

The creators of superhero comics are free to imagine and explore all the things mentioned above, but more importantly, they are also free to imagine and explore things not mentioned above—things not mentioned anywhere at all, in fact. The human imagination is limitless in theory, but tends to be hampered by practical concerns like the requirement to adhere to a consensus of what's acceptable by standards of logic and plausibility.

In keeping with my remarks on the nature of "thematic escapism" in popular fiction, I'd say that while I do think that superheroes don't have an absolute lock on this imaginative freedom, they are certainly more free to diverge from consensual reality than many genres. But Heidi responded:

Is this REALLY one of the things that Superhero comics do best…or one of the things that COMICS do best? I think if you were plopped down in a room full of Krazy Kat, Thimble Theater, Milt Gross, Jim Woodring, Walt Kelly, Gilbert Hernandez, Carl Barks, Chester Gould, James Kochalka, Cathy Malkasian, Kozue Amano, Dash Shaw, Renee French, HergĂ©, Moebius, Akira Toriyama, Jeff Smith, Jason, Kazuo Umezu, Charles Burns and Tom Neely, for instance, you might think that comics just did fantastic world building in GENERAL best of all. I’m all for brave people in colorful costumes doing impossible things — the “kick ’splod” paradigm — but as all the talk of “canon” of late shows, imagination in the superhero genre has become ossified into ritual. Or as Will Eisner once put it, “As long as young boys doubt their masculinity, there will be a need for superheroes.”

Thus far most of my responses on Heidi's blog have addressed only the Eisner quote, since I don't believe the appeal of the superhero genre is (a) separable from the appeal of the adventure "supergenre" as a whole (i.e., Hercules, King Arthur, TREASURE ISLAND, Mike Hammer), or (b) reducible to Adlerian compensation psychology. But I have other bones to pick with the above quote.

First, though I'm not sure to what "canon" talk Heidi's referring, I don't believe that there's a automatic disconnect between "imagination" and "ritual." I'd say that a good deal of the imaginative freedom Frisch champions comes about because, as he says, the reader is allowed to put aside "consensus reality" in favor of a just- so story.

"How can Batman fight off a dozen guys while wearing a bulky, clumsy cape, Daddy?"

"It's a one-gimme, Junior; shut up and enjoy the damned story!"

A genre-story is, in essence, a ritual that is expected to go from one point to another without a great deal of complication, though the author is free to embellish that narrative progress as much as he likes. I've shown in my recent Kirby essays here and here that often a given story doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of consensual reality, but must be judged an aesthetic success if it succeeds in putting across "a montage of expressive effects." I would certainly agree with Heidi that there are few current practitioners of the superhero genre capable of rivalling Kirby in terms of putting forth "expressive effects," though I would note that Grant Morrison is at least in the running.

In the case of the superhero genre the expressive montage is oriented around the dynamization of physical combat, which is presumably what Eisner had on his mind when he linked it to Adlerian compensation. Of course one could yell out "J'accuse! Compensation!" at just about every literary pursuit that involves a reader identifying with either a character or with the aims of an author. "Goldang, ah cain't write a scathin' putdown o' dumbass fanboys, but Dan Clowes shore can, and thet's why he's mah artwadd-lovin' HERO." Thus Eisner's compensation accusation is just empty psychobabble that could be applied to anything or anyone.

As I've said consistently on this blog I favor the notion that the foremost attraction of adventure-genres generally and the superhero genre specifically relates to what Gaster terms "invigoration," though the more usual term is "excitement." It's surprising that an artist in his time who produced more than his fair share of this emotion for his readers would ignore this possibility. Of course, by the time Will Eisner said this, he would have been busy trying to sell the comics-reading public on the more lofty and rarefied emotions to be found in his newer works. So he probably didn't care much about anatomizing the costumed crimefighter.

The other part of Eisner's canard is directed at the idea that superheroes are strictly juvenile jazz, an idea that Heidi repeats in the comments-section:

Gene, is there really any question but that superheroes are an adolescent power fantasy (not necessarily just a male one) and nearly every modern interpretation of the development of Superman suggests as much.

Of course, many's the time I've answered this question in response to this or that essay, and most of those who raise the question, like jesting Spurgeon and Deppey, will not stay for an answer.

So I'll fall back on the answer I gave Deppey in A TASTE FOR SUPERHERO DECADENCE, and leave things there for now, though I'll probably touch on a few related matters (like the comparisons Heidi makes to other comics-people) in another post.

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