Wednesday, June 30, 2010


The moment there is imagination, there is myth. We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to.-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 39

The dichotomy Paglia describes between what human beings do to one another in society and what they do within their literary creations has no small application to my own contrast between "thematic escapism" and "thematic realism." To be sure, though Paglia is an insightful commentator on popular art and culture, she applies her statement above not to popular works but to highbrow canonical literature, interpreted though the fairly unique Freudian/Frazerian aesthetics of SEXUAL PERSONAE. Paglia's project in this work is to examine canonical works of literature as imaginative works in terms of their use of sex and violence, rather than in terms of moral prescriptions, the latter mode having been the dominant literary approach from Aristotle to Wayne C. Booth. By eliding many if not all references to the ethical-symbolic world of literature-- what I referred to as "non-body" matters in this essay invoking Octavio Paz-- she throws new light on old classics. I suppose I could fault her for saying too little about "non-body" matters, since for me canonical literature divides itself off from the bulk of popular literature by virtue of the former's strong (though not exclusive) emphasis upon matters of morality and ethics. Still, Paglia admirably shows that literature is more than just a lot of characters standing around having moral debates.

Popular literature is dominantly the literature of thematic escapism, even as canonical literature is dominantly the literature of thematic realism. No matter how "realistic" a given work may seem to be in terms of the type of phenomena described, the content in no way determines the realistic or escapist thrust of the chosen theme, be it explicit or implicit. And if there is indeed an "ethical cleavage" within the canonical literary works Paglia surveys, ranging from Shakespeare to Balzac to Emily Dickinson-- a cleavage that allows such authors to get away with "horrors, rapes and mutilations," all for the greater aesthetic good-- then one might suspect that with works of thematic escapism the cleavage would resemble less the space between two female breasts than the space between the sides of the Grand Canyon.

As it happens, yes and no. Ethical matters, which I termed *themis* in this essay, don't shape the escapist work as they shape the realistic work. Escapist works function at their best as a pure (or nearly pure) invocation of *moira,* which is more or less covalent with what Paglia calls "nature," though I'd advocate a more Jungian than Freudian view of that nature. But given that even the worst popular art has to appeal to human beings who have ethical interests of one kind or another (even if it's just "what's good is what's good for me"), *themis* certainly does retain some relevance, though perhaps more as a leitmotif than a structuring influence.

For example, let's go back to the ethical questions raised regarding the death of the Ryan Choi Atom.

The character's feature incorporated aspects of both *moira* and *themis* in terms of how he was presented to the audience. *Themis* clearly governs the notion of DC presenting for consumption the image of an Asian-American hero, because even in an escapist popular culture images of racial diversification can be deemed good things in themselves, irrespective as to how good other aspects of the character may be. But as a superhero clearly within the agonistic mythos, the main focus of the character's adventures belonged to *moira,* which is the category appropriate to the sensation-oriented aspects of the stories (as well as those aspects in the realm of Jungian intuition, if any-- see GATE OF THE GODS 4 for details).

However, as I argued in the previous essay, a character rooted in sensationalistic adventures was also vulnerable to receiving a sensationalistic demise. The aesthetic execution of Ryan Choi's death sound pretty nugatory, but even bad sensationalistic deaths belong to the aforementioned category of *moira.*

Without my endorsing the execution of the execution itself, the death of Ryan Choi may be take on greater significance over time. Killing a character is a time-honored method (in both popular and canonical literatures) of gauging how much an audience cares about a character. Additionally, given the track record of the Ray Palmer ATOM who will be resuming the role for a time, it's quite possible that Palmer could be eclipsed by a future Choi series.

For now, though, given the failure of the Simone-written series, DC's proper logical course from a business sense is to bring back Ray Palmer, despite his meager track record. I don't regard this as an "ethical cleavage" as certain fans have, however. DC's only ethical requirement was to put Choi out there and see whether or not he sold. When he didn't, he became vulnerable to the mills of the writer-gods, which grind exceedingly painfully most times.

Admittedly Choi's popularity might have been increased over time had he been written into the Justice League. Allegedly Firestorm may have benefitted from League exposure, since his feature didn't start off strong but became more popular over time. However, I'd point out that League association hasn't boosted a lot of other characters into profitable franchises, so that strategy isn't necessarily any more a guarantee of success than the attention-getting ploy of running the character through the mills of death and/or mutilation.

Perhaps the foremost example of such a renascence would be Barbara Gordon, whose "refrigeated" transformation from athletic Batgirl to paraplegic Oracle arguably (in the opinions of many fans besides myself) improved the original character.

Morality does have a justifiable bearing upon even the most escapist stories. However, it's demonstrably not the ruling power for either the producers of said stories or their consumers. Escapism is primarly about coming into contact, with *moira*/nature/myth. Jung and Paglia would concur that myth is sometimes a place of seeming triviality, but also a place where a crappy little shadow (like Guess Who's death) can sometimes grow into a shape of sublime darkness.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I still like my titular pun in Part One on a famous Harlan Ellison story (labored though it may be-- the pun, not the story). But even when I tossed it out there, I was aware that "elitistsnobmen" were not the only ones attempting to get the Harlequin of pop culture to sit straight and eat right.

Basically, there are two types of reformers: those who want a thing to be made better because they care about said thing, and those who are trying to convince you that the object in question is much less interesting/edifying, etc. than something else. The latter are the "elitistsnobmen" in question. The former, then, are the fans, who often have a certain love/hate affair with the object of dispute, but who are not looking to abandon the object for something else.

My general impressions are that most of the fans who objected to the death of Ryan Choi are of the first type. In addition, most would seem to have a liberal belief in the inherent value of ethnic-and-sexual diversity. I would not dispute that this is a real value, even at a time when comic books have become something of a marginal medium in terms of bulk sales. I doubt that diversity will ever pave the road to greater sales for the medium, as some pundits have asserted, but I think that diversity should be pursued in all genres (be it superheroes, teen humor, or whatever) simply because it's the right thing to do.

Yet we're talking about representations of diversity within a mainstream genre currently noted for extreme sensationalism creates some problems as to what an audience can reasonably expect from the producers of sensationalistic entertainment.
It's a little like expecting Roger Corman, who made his fortune putting tits in movies, to suddenly swear off tits.

Jennifer of REAPPROPRIATE responded to my earlier essay thusly:

"In the end, I think much of the reaction is fannish anger, but just because it is anger, doesn't make it misplaced. There should be some acknowledgement on the part of fans that characters are important to them, and that their deaths should be meaningful. Asian Americans are reacting negatively to Ryan Choi's death specifically because he's APIA. We're not saying he should be immune to comic book deaths, we're protesting the seemingly insensitive and inconsequential death that he suffered particularly considering he is one of the only APIA superheroes to have their own title."

I don't disagree with the anger: as per my earlier mention of Gerry Conway (FOUL SLAYER OF BLONDE VIRGIN GWEN STACY!!), I've been angry about a lot of meretricious comic-book deaths in my time, too. I don't have a problem with critiquing a given comic-book death because it's badly handled or disrespectful to earlier iterations of the character. And on the level of purely personal taste, I don't like the trope of the "insenstive and inconsequential death" that is exemplified by Conway's treatment of Gwen Stacy, and I greatly prefer the sort of "tragic but meaningful death" accorded another SPIDEY character, Gwen's pop George, whom Stan Lee killed in a manner no less shocking at the time but with more respect for the character.

And yet, my impression is that "insenstive and inconsequential death" has become the "new tits" for the mainstream superhero genre. I'm sure that tragic deaths still take place in current superhero yarns, but the trope of the meaningless death has in my opinion taken the lead in terms of its power to shock-- and that makes it of supreme interest to producers of sensationalistic entertainment.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the power of this trope as the "Women in Refrigerators" concept. Long before Ron Marz killed off a fairly minor girlfriend-character in GREEN LANTERN #54 (1994), there was a long and perhaps hoary tradition of killing off support-characters in order to put the main hero through the emotional wringer. Certainly superhero comics did not invent the tradition, and on the whole they *may* have been considerably less misogynistic than other genres (the private detective genre comes to mind, with Mickey Spillane at the head of the pack). But had Green Lantern's girlfriend been given a respectful and meaningful death, instead of a cruel sensationalistic death, would anyone have remembered that the character lived or died? Given a respectful death, would she have become a metaphor for female disenfranchisement?

Ryan Choi is now more or less poised to represent Asian superheroes in roughly the same way, even though, as I took pains to stress in my last essay, he's not being victimized to any greater extent than, say, Hawkman and Hawkgirl. In terms of my own taste, I, like Jenn, would rather see him (or any half-decent hero) get a respectful death.

But I don't see much evidence that respectful death sells comics.

And for the producer of genre-comics, as for the carnival barker, his first job is to convince you to plunk down your money. As to whether he's selling you sizzle or steak once you get inside-- that you only find out after paying.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


The best-known indirect product of both actitives is what we loosely term "recreation," though one will immediately get different theoretical answers as to why humans need, or think they need, such recreation. Between games and literature, however, looms the shadow of didacticism, for while games are difficult to structure (honestly) in order to deliver a message, it can be done with varying degrees of subtlety in literature. This lends to literature the appearance, if not the actuality, of having a "useful purpose" in culture and/or society, and the most "useful" forms of literature are usually those which have or are thought to be works of *thematic realism* insofar as they comment with the same varying degrees of subtlety on man's real-world situation.-- me, EARTH SHATTERING CHANGES AT THE LAST MINUTE.

In this essay I reflected that the current trend at DC and Marvel to kill off heroes in gory or disturbing ways was basically a new permutation of an old trend, which involved comics-authors "compelling quick identification through making travesties of the fictional characters' lives." My main example was a Silver Age Superman story focused on "The Last Days of Superman," in which the Man of Steel succumbs to a mysterious ailment that prompts all his friends and relations into orgies of grief, until the last-minute reprieve that saves his bacon. But I could have chosen any number of other Golden or Silver Age stories that reduce the heroes to travesties of their normal identities.

Just as (according to Bataille) taboos exist in order to be transgressed, heroes exist in order to be travestied. This has nothing to do with anything relating to concepts like "masculine incoherence," for it applies as much to Wonder Woman as Superman. True, the superhero can turn the tables and restore his or her own identity rather than depending on luck or good fairies to do it, but the recent trend toward killing heroes outright-- in sure and certain knowledge that death no longer has dominion within the superhero genre-- is essentially a new form of compelling kinetic identification.

This is why I don't quite understand the fannish furor against the recent death of Asian-Atom Ryan Choi. I only read a couple of the Gail Simone ATOM books and didn't find the title interesting, but it seems that for many fans, the new Atom, whose title failed after 25 issues, became a cause celebre in terms of his being a non-stereotypical Asian hero, as seen in this essay from the blog "Reappopriate."
The blogger "Jenn" admits that she is aware that a lot of comics-characters only die temporary deaths these days, giving the example of the recent return of the Jason Todd Robin, and that therefore "it’s quite possible that Ryan Choi will be back."

Nevertheless, she says: "I tend to agree with the notion that D.C. Comics sets a dangerous precedent for so casually eliminating one of the few prominent Asian American superheroes when he appears no longer necessary."

But how can it be a precedent-- presumably one directed against minority heroes-- if the Ryan Choi Atom is but one Asian amidst a long list of Caucasian heroes who have temporarily died and come back (Superman, Jason Todd, Metamorpho) and is presumably now standing around the halls of Turnaround Purgatory (or whatever Grant Morrison called it), chatting with Hawkman and Hawkgirl as they all wait for some writer to resurrect them.

Some fans have correctly noted that Ryan Choi is being treated no less shittily than any other DC hero, but even this misses a larger point. Such a view puts credence in the notion of a pristine Silver Age ideal in which heroes were good and pure and never suffered humiliation and death.

In fact, humiliation and death were always present in the Silver Age: they were merely camoflagued or worked out in highly symbolic form. I remember that as a young fan I wrote an aggrieved letter to DC Comics, complaining that almost every cover seemed to show Superman "dead, dying or scared to death." The emphasis on humiliation and morbidity evidently disturbed me back then.

It doesn't disturb me now. I recognize the pattern of "death and resurrection" as a valid mythic pattern in current superhero comics, even if I must admit that the Geoff Johnses and their ilk are generally incompetent to get any worthwhile mythicity out of the pattern. But to pursue my game analogy above, the game can be good no matter how bad its players are.

Thus I'm afraid I can't agree with many of the well-intentioned fans who want a Ryan Choi to be immune to this game-pattern because he stands as an example of a non-stereotypical Asian superhero (or even seems to, since Jenn was actually fairly critical of Simone's portrait-of-the-Asian-as-a-superhero). I don't know that DC Comics *isn't* replete with closet racists, but I know that expecting a minority character to be immune to the current patterns of the superhero game, because he seems to validate a didactic standard, is the worst kind of tokenism.

And who knows? Death may actually make people like Ryan Choi better than they did the first time around...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


In SEITZ WARNING I goggled at Matt Zoller Seitz's notion that future superhero films should model themselves after the "spectrum of moods and modes" represented by a certain pop-cultural manifestation:

The ZOMBIE film?

Not the horror genre as a whole? Not even some genre that more closely resembles the superhero flick's emphasis on heroic violence, like the western, but--

The ZOMBIE film? That's what he thinks has "poetry" and "soul?

Though in that essay I didn't pursue parallels between the western and superhero genres, I will do so now in order to talk about how the idea of standards both "high" and "low" can come to alternate within a given culturally-accepted genre.

In this essay I asserted:

Before [Owen] Wister, the subject matter of cowboy adventures was mostly known through dime novels which played to an audience much like that of later pulps and comic books: to juveniles and to (occasionally) adults whose tastes were considerably less than literary. But Wister's novel took that subject matter and raised it to a new level that might have been juvenile in tone but was adult in the concerns it addressed.

In this essay, then, I demonstrated that early "Ned Buntline" westerns were "juvenile pulp" and thus paralleled the content of most early action-adventure comic books, while Owen Wister's VIRGINIAN was aimed more tellingly at an adult audience that desired "adult pulp." The same division according to adult and juvenile appeal can be just as easily observed in the western genre's cinematic history.

I confess I've seen very few of the extant silent westerns, but from online histories it seems demonstrable that a lot of early "oaters," such as those starring Tom Mix, were essentially aimed at an uncritical juvenile audience. In contrast, summations of 1916's HELL'S HINGES seem to evince a headier, more maturely-rigorous view of life than one would find in Tom Mix, even if most of the generic
expectations are still satisfied. HELL'S HINGES even duplicates the basic "gunfighter/schoolmarm" opposition formulated by Wister's VIRGINIAN, itself first transferred to film two years before.

With the coming of sound to the cinema, "adult pulp" westerns seem to have faded from view to a great extent, and the genre seemed dominated for most of the 30's decade by juvenile oaters essayed by Buck Jones, Roy Rogers, and a very young John Wayne. But 1939 seems to have broken the spell and ushered in several major pictures of comparative adult sensibility: Henry King's JESSE JAMES, Michael Curtiz's DODGE CITY, Cecil B. deMille's UNION PACIFIC and both STAGECOACH and DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (sort of an "Eastern western") from John Ford. All of these I regard as "adult pulp" in contradistinction to more consciously "arty" cinematic works of the time, though not all address the issues of "heroic violence" in quite the same way.

Backtracking a bit, what I find most objectionable in Seitz's careless essay is that in his quest for emotional "moods and modes" he says nothing about how superhero films should achieve this while still satisfying the audience's dominant expectations, one of which is that superhero films will offer them the pleasures of spectacular violence. The history of the western, however, does offer some clues.

First off, saying that all of the 1939 westerns above qualify as "adult pulp" does not mean that they all used identical narrative mythoi. For instance, take DODGE CITY and STAGECOACH.

Curtiz's DODGE CITY is a story of adventure, in which noble sheriff Wade Haddon (Errol Flynn) is challenged to "clean up" Dodge or get the hell out by its ruthless
outlaw boss (Bruce Cabot). There isn't a great deal of time spent expounding on motives or personal conflicts, though in keeping with the film's appeal to an older audience it does present a more well-rounded picture of life than a Roy Rogers film. From what I can gather the film may best be known for sporting one of the best-executed saloon-brawls in cinematic history.

Ford's STAGECOACH falls within the mythos of drama, though some critics may choose to view it as more of a "melodrama." The elements of violence and physical danger

are no less present than in DODGE CITY , as the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) protects an assortment of stagecoach-travelers from marauding Indians. But here, concerns of interpersonal interaction between the travelers take precedence over the action set-pieces.

As a pluralist I don't esteem dramatic adult pulp for being any better than adventurous adult pulp: the two are oriented at doing different things and each does its job quite admirably. I contrast these films to show that it was (and still is) possible for a genre which emphasized heroic violence, and which was once considered dominantly juvenile in tone, to become accepted by an adult audience without sacrificing the pulpier aspects of said genre.

I've already given examples of exemplary superhero-genre films within each of the four Fryean mythoi that have evinced higher standards than Matt Zoller Seitz allows that they have. Perhaps neither WATCHMEN nor SPIDER MAN 2 have won approval with Seitz himself, but I think he would be hard pressed to claim that the two films lack *ANY* of the "standards" he advocates. But the two are as instructive as paradigms for the future of superhero films as the Curtiz and Ford films have been for the history of westerns, and anyone interested in the aforesaid future would be well advised to give them at least as much attention as one gives to ZOMBIE ISLAND MASSACRE.

Monday, June 14, 2010


At the conclusion of this essay I said:

Maybe in a future essay I'll enlarge on the reasons why I think why superhero films, like their cousins in the pure-fantasy and pure-SF genres, can tap and have often tapped that range--

And why said superdude films have often done much better in that range than Seitz' beloved zombie films.

This essay is a prelude to talking about what range of emotions superhero films have successfully tapped, since I find it incumbent to discuss first some of the potential abuses of "the call for standards" voiced by Seitz, Spurgeon and others too numerous to name.

In George L. Kline's essay "The Use and Abuse of Hegel," the author discusses the many ways that Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx-- though hardly fellow travelers in any other respect-- radically re-interpreted many of the "world-historical" concepts of their philosophical predecessor Georg Hegel. Kline concludes the essay thusly:

"It is in their instrumentalizing and devaluing of the present-- of present communities, cultures, practices, and, especially, persons-- that Nietzsche and Marx most unambiguously exhibit the abusive reversal and inversion of Hegel's doctrine which both of them have undertaken."-- Kline, "Use and Abuse of Hegel," HEGEL AND HIS CRITICS, 1989.

Now Tom Spurgeon is certainly not a philosopher re-interpreting anyone's doctrine, but certainly he's practicing his own breed of "instrumentalizing and devaluing" with the provocative if empty title, "If Superhero Movies Suck, And I Suspect They Do, Why Can't Folks Stop Seeing And Discussing Them?" I refuted his essay in my cited response above, pointing out that his assertion that "Many Superhero Films Also Fail To Meet Most Low Standards" comes down to utter nonsense. I'm sure current superhero films do fail to meet whatever Tom Spurgeon *imagines* to be "low standards" as seen through his eyes, but the datum that most superhero films violate what a Spurgeon *imagines* to be low standards demonstrates nothing about why a real audience of moviegoers bestowed financial success upon a respectable number of these cinematic travesties. The only way Spurgeon's statement could be made to yield sense would be if one posited that the moviegoers who made the first FANTASTIC FOUR film a minor box-office success had not merely "low standards," but "no standards." This conception of the hoi polloi viewing-audience may remind one of the standard Marxist/Adornite portrait of the consumer of "light culture," who is essentially little more than an automaton progammed to buy whatever the Culture Industry grinds out.

I suggest that anyone who still propounds this self-aggrandizing view of popular culture today is incompetent to talk about standards, be they high or low, be they indebted to Nietzsche's faux-aristocratic snobbery or to Marx's liberal obsession with leveling all of culture to a flat economic plane.

Devoted as I am to seeking a middle path between these timeworn extremes, my next essay in this series will explore a possible model that superhero films might seek to emulate to their genuine improvement, as opposed to Seitz' oddball model of "zombie movies" or Spurgeon's lack of any model beyond his laundry list of personal complaints.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Back in this essay I wrote of Freud and Levi-Strauss:"the two scholars are alike in their attempt to fit humankind into a monocausal straitjacket, based on a Johnny-One-Note conception of empirical evaluation."

And I stand by that, but I must admit that even if the two of them were Johnny One-Notes, they both sang their one note on key, resulting in some worthy applications of their theories to literary criticism.

The poorest Johnny One-Note, though, has to be the guy who "sang only one note" but couldn't even stay on key: none other than Kapital-Hatin' Karl Marx, whose ideology has propounded more subintellectual drivel in literary studies than any other one-note-singer can claim. Comics-criticism, still in its infancy, is still particularly vulnerable to this game of "Spot the Evil Colonial Influence," as is clear from the dominant tropes of elitist criticism by Gary Groth and his Merry Bund.

However, every once in a while, one gets a glimmer of hope in darkness. I quoted one such elitist in INCEST WE TRUST PART 2, my sometime-opponent Noah Berlatsky, as an example of "overinterpretation," though not specifically of a Marxist bent. However, in a more recent blogpost, Berlatsky wrote the following:

"A lot of pulp narratives, from Sherlock Holmes to Fu Manchu, draw much of their spark from colonial fever dreams, and that’s certainly the case for Tintin as well...
This, then, is really a case where I don’t like the sequence despite its racism and imperialism. As far as I can tell, I like it because of them. The fascination/repulsion Herge feels towards the strange gods of colonized cultures generates real creative frisson. Which makes me wonder if maybe that’s true of racism and stereotypes in general. It seems like, beyond their other uses, they sometimes have an appeal which might be called aesthetic. A certain amount of cultural creativity goes into shaping the person in front of you into a phantom monstrosity, and that creativity can itself be exciting and fascinating. The dream’s appeal is its vividly imagined ugliness; the exhilaration of imposing on the world the gothic products of one’s skull."

The twaddle about "colonial fever dreams" is the usual Marxist cant, which fails to perceive the universality of cultural chauvinism beyond the boundaries of Marx's dialectic. But the perception that there is "cultural creativity" in such acts of chauvinistic projection has the pure sound of Sigmund Freud's single good note, even down to the "fascination/repulsion" ambivalence.

Of course, though Sigmund kicks Karl M.'s ass, the former is just as well-and-truly kicked by another Carl: Freud's sometime follower Jung. In another essay I'll talk about why Jung's phenomenology of evil has much wider relevance to cultures popular and otherwise than even Freud's best insight(s). But for now I'll finish by saying:

Attaboy, Noah.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Going back to two of Heidi's quotes already cited in Part 1:

Is this [sheer fantasy] 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.

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.

In the spirit of making the last be first, I'll start by saying that even if all existing iterations of SUPERMAN could be fairly judged as adolescent power fantasies, I don't see why that would ipso facto prove that the superhero genre was intrinsically and irredeemably adolescent in nature. It's true that there are a great many people who believe this, but even a statistically dominant belief does not make a given proposition a fact (though said belief certainly conditions the way society receives a given genre).

I assume that Heidi says "nearly every" interpretation because she's aware of a few super-iterations that have pushed the proverbial envelope: Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomrrow?", Morrison's ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and the Brian Azzarello-Jim Lee collaboration. But why should one put any of these aside? The basic design and mythic reputation of the Superman character may well always have some appeal in juvenile quarters for however long the character remains a going concern. But some superheroes have been known to largely reject their ties to juvenile audiences and wholly enter the realm of Adult Pulp, which was the case with the DAREDEVIL title for several years (though I confess I haven't looked at it in the last year or so).

I'm aware of the school of thought that says that superheroes are juvenile material whether they're blissfully innocent or they include quasi-adult material like Dirk Deppery's perceived "fuck dolls." I reject this view because it's superficially reasoned and emphasizes social reception over literary analysis. This is pretty much the same reason I reject Will Eisner's reading of superheroes as a form of negative compensation, though I should point out (as I did in ADLER PATED) that Adler also recognized forms of "positive compensation," in which one finds new pathways of growth in response to negative given situations.

This brings me to the earlier Heidi quote, in which she takes issue with Mark-Oliver Frisch's privileging of the superhero genre's ability to take flight from the dreary domain of consensual reality. Heidi lists a lot of artists who don't do superheroes as her counterexamples, though I'd have to say that at least one work by Akira Toriyama, DRAGON BALL, is pretty thoroughly implicated in the superhero idiom.

As for the others... well...

A lot of them are INVENTIVE--

But not that IMAGINATIVE, in the sense of departing from consensual restraints in the way Frisch indicated. I responded to Frisch by saying that the superhero genre didn't have a lock on this quality, but I don't think Heidi was thinking in these terms when she assembled her list (though I'm not familiar with a handful of the names on her list).

For instance, I've not seen examples of what Heidi calls "world building" in
Charles Burns, Jim Woodring, Walt Kelly, or Chester Gould. Basically, all of them are just giving us our consensual world filtered through some fantasy-trope, whether it's through the use of funny animals as in POGO and FRANK or through a fever-dream version of the real world a la BLACK HOLE and DICK TRACY. Of the four I think Chester Gould is the most imaginative in terms of one particular trope, that of dreaming up a splendid catalogue of nasty TRACY adversaries. But I don't think that constitutes building a world. I've read one or two of the FRANK collections and was impressed with his command of surrealistic effects, but again-- what "world?"

Jeff Smith's BONE does build a world, all right, and it's reasonably well executed, though I can't say it resonated with me as deeply as Narnia or Middle-Earth, or even The Land. Segar and Herriman take an approach to fantasy structurally close to the approaches of Woodring and Kelly, but the strength of the former two is less additive than subtractive: they tend to paint minimalist portraits of slightly wonky worlds that don't get as flat-out surrealistic as Burns and Woodring do. Lastly, Barks, Gilbert Hernandez and Herge all paint on bigger canvasses, and thus I could see all three of them as closer in spirit to the extravagance of the superheroes as formulated in the best works of Siegel, Finger, Fox, Kirby, et al.

And of course Tezuka and Takahashi, each of whom seems to have had just one major work in the superhero idiom (ASTRO BOY and INU YASHA, respectively), ought to make anyone's shortlist for the Most Extravagantly Imaginative Comics-People of All Time. Certainly they're on mine.

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.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


(Continued from part 1)

PAGE 4-- While the swordsman prepares to attack, Mister Little tells Panther that the little metal frog was the instrument that caused the death of Alfred Queely, the corpse occupying the chair. For some reason the Panther takes this assertion very literally: "Whoever killed Queely moved faster than that frog ever will!"

Y'think, T'Challa? Eventually Little will explain that he meant that the frog summoned Queely's assailant from some bygone time-era, but just then the Armored Hot Dog attacks, trying to shish-kebob the Panther. Despite the Panther's "cobra speed," the heavily-armored opponent breaks off the fight and outpaces the hero to the nearest window, where he crashes through it. Little tells the Panther to let the man go because "he'll be picked up by the police in short order." And the Panther, who presumably *could* overtake the armored guy, agrees to let him go, even though the guy's just killed one man and still has his sword in hand. Hey, King Kirby, what if the armored nutjob comes across a couple necking in the park and decided to do a Friday the 13th on them? Or, assuming the cops do come across the warrior first, how do they subdue the guy without either their bloodshed or his? But of course the armored guy is just a tool for some opening action, and is never seen again despite having been rudely plucked from his own era by the fellow he kills.

PAGES 6-10-- Once Little has detailed the frog's ability to open the "door of time," Little and Panther leave Queely's house by "jet-copter," and Little explains that he wants to return the frog to "its original resting place-- King Solomon's burial chamber!" But their dialogue is interrupted as a hostile aircraft attacks the copter. Little blows the attacker to bits and then continues telling his story. The brass frog was liberated from the burial chamber by a group of thieves, one of whom, name of Baba, unleashed another time-displaced being, this time a barbaric giant six stories tall, whose uncanny rampage led to the legend of "Ali Baba and the genie" (!)

PAGES 11-12-- Again Little's copter is attacked, this time by men in jet-packs. This time Little goes into hyperdrive and outdistances the men, who work for some unspecified "competitor." Little then lands his copter inside a mountain that is his own concealed hideaway from competitors like a certain "Princess Zanda." Not needing two more mentions of her name, Zanda and her henchmen promptly pop out of the shadows.

(So if as suggested the aircraft and jet-pack guys were both in her employ-- why did she bother making either attack? Waiting to surprise Little and Panther in Little's own retreat certainly works a lot better, as well as avoiding collateral damage of the coveted froggy.)

PAGES 13-16-- After a gunshot fells Mister Little-- whom a henchman claims to be dead-- the Panther fights the henchmen but is brought down by Zanda's nerve ray. After Zanda tries to sway the hero to her side, he breaks free again, and swipes back the frog. A hasty shot from a henchman hits the brass frog instead the hero, and causes the artifact to do the time warp. And the issue ends with a cliffhanger as a big-headed visitor from a far future-Earth menaces both the hero and his foes.

So in the space of one sixteen-page story, we have Kirby making by my count five major errors of continuity/verisimilitude:

1) a dead man somehow holds an object in the palm of his curiously-upraised hand
2) Panther makes a dumb remark about the brass frog killing someone (which would have been appropriate with a dumb character)
3) Panther lets a dangerous time-traveler run free even before he knows that he is a time-traveler, rather than a modern-day maniac in knight's clothing
4) the story of "Aladdin and his genie," which Kirby certainly knew as well as any of his contemporaries, suddenly becomes "Ali Baba and his genie" just so that Kirby can draw a line between a gang of thieves and a marauding monster (though Aladdin's genie isn't known for playing Godzilla and knocking down buildings)
5) Villainous Princess Zanda goes through all the trouble of breaking into Little's hideout and yet apparently is so impatient that she sends other minions to bring Little to heel

Further, the list grows to six if you include the lettercol, where Jack Kirby addresses his readers in an introductory letter. For though we find out in BP #2 that Mr. Little doesn't die of his wound (the old armored vest trick), we're not supposed to know it in BP #1. Yet here's Jack Kirby telling readers:

"You've seen the mysterious Mister Little (you thought he was dead, didn't you?)"

For me, though probably not for my opponents, a crazy-ass pulp tale like this one shows conclusively that when Jack Kirby was his own editor, he was capable of generating just as many problematic narratives as he was while under the editorship of Stan Lee. Thus attempts to whitewash Kirby as the Mistreated Artist won't, so to speak, wash.

In addition, such a flagrantly sentimentalization betrays Kirby's status as a great pulp-style artist, a master of what I've called "thematic escapism."

I've made a little fun of the oddball errors in BLACK PANTHER #1 (though I'm pretty gentle compared to some sites), but the errors don't bother me in the context of what is meant to be a wild-and-woolly adventure. In this essay I wrote of a Gardner Fox JUSTICE LEAGUE story:

The story’s game of “vanishing powers and weaknesses,” though, is arguably one that comes forth in its full glory only in a tale able to ignore the demands of thematic realism, and to focus on what the 1940 film THIEF OF BAGDAD calls “the beauty of the impossible."

I don't think any of Kirby's vagaries of verisimilitude hurt one's experience of BLACK PANTHER #1, nor do they indict the superhero genre as a whole, as I can imagine some critics saying. The errors only hold importance for comics-criticism as a corrective to the fallacious fan-vision of Saint Kirby, Apostle of Comic Book Art.

Jack Kirby would not have been a better artist had he been more concerned with the probable. Often he took the simplest way, and for what he was doing, the simplest way was best. Kirby didn't want to deal with the time-traveling swordsman as a character, so he has his hero take the most expedient step and let the killer go free, using a justification as lame as (if not worse than) any of Stan Lee's. But lame justifications are much of the essence of pulp escapism. With such works their internal consistency is generated by a montage of expressive effects, not by obedience to Aristotelian mimetic unities, as must the case with works concerned with thematic realism, of which I've written here and here.

For comics-critics there will always be many grey areas to consider when dealing with matters as complex as the intersecting creativity that comes from collaboration. But the grey has to be explored for what it is, rather than solving it in "superhero" fashion, as a contest between black and white.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Since Sean Collins brought up the theme of comics arguments that probably ought to be retired, I will add the whole "Stan Lee vs. Jack Kirby" argument to the heap.

Of course it won't end. For many fans, Kirby is the Mistreated Artist while Lee is Everyone's Evil Boss, two archetypes that have too much appeal to die easily. The reason that the argument *ought* to go away, however, is that even though there are a handful of stories about the collaboration of Lee and Kirby that are valuable to the history of comics and comics-criticism, too often these few stories are extrapolated to ridiculous lengths, and applied to situations regarding which no outsider to the Marvel Bullpen has knowledge.

For instance, here's one such story, originally published in the JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #24, which concerned creative friction between the two creators. As far as expatiating about the particular story discussed, the so-called "Beehive" two-part tale in FANTASTIC FOUR #66-67, the essay itself is a valuable piece of interpretation.

However, in recent weeks I've been on a private yahoogroup in which I've encountered fans who have extrapolated this particular story into the notion that every time one would encounter some narrative goof-up in a Lee-Kirby collaboration, it was because Lee changed his mind about the storyline or forgot what was going on. Thus again Kirby becomes the Mistreated Artist, whose stories are travestied by an irresponsible boss, and whose true unsullied works can only be found in a fantasy-library like that of Dylan Horrocks' HICKLAND.

Since my opponents' remarks appeared in a private venue, I won't quote them here. I've given them notice that I'm summing up my objections here and that they can either respond here or respond on the yahoogroup. If none respond here, other readers of this blog will have to take my representation of the opponents' arguments on faith.

To repeat, my opponents took it as gospel that any time Kirby's art seemed to make a narrative error, it was either Lee's fault for messing with the story or that Lee was culpable for not catching a minor gaffe (Reed Richards being drawn with two left hands). So I decided to turn to one of the works on which Kirby edited himself, to see if he was gaffe-free on his own. I randomly chose his tenure of BLACK PANTHER, beginning in 1977.

I honestly thought I'd find one or two problems with continuity or verisimilitude in an issue here or there. But as it happens, the first issue is so stuffed with them that I don't even need to go any farther.

PAGE 1-- Black Panther enters a room with a newly-introduced character, "Mr. Little," a midget whom we soon learn is notorious for collecting obscure artifacts. In the room is a seated dead man and in one dead hand he holds, raised slighly above his head, one such artifact: a brass frog referenced in the title as "King Solomon's Frog" (and which my essay-title references as well). But, cool though the visual is, how can a dead man be holding anything above his head? We soon find out on--

PAGE 2-3. This splash panel shows that as Little and Panther examine the body, learning that the man's been killed by a sword-thrust, a mysterious armored swordsman waits around a corner, preparing to pounce on the intruders. Since Kirby evidently did think he needed to account for the "dead man's hand," a caption tells us that "his hand is stiffened in rigor mortis." However, though we've all seen countless fictional images of people dying while tightly clutching objects, this dead guy is just holding the frog on his open palm. Wikipedia tells me that rigor mortis stiffening usually takes about three hours to occur, and since on the next page we learn that the wound is "fresh," I think it unlikely that our menacing swordsman has been standing around for three hours, waiting for Panther and Little to come in.

(Hmm, this is getting long. To be continued.)