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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...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Cassirer's last major work was The Myth of the State. The book was published posthumously in 1946 after Cassirer's sudden death. Cassirer argues that the idea of a totalitarian state evolved from ideas advanced by Plato, Dante, Machiavelli, Gobineau, Carlyle and Hegel. He concludes that the Fascist regimes of the 20th century were symbolised by a myth of destiny and the promotion of irrationality."-- from the anonymous Wikipedia entry on Ernst Cassirer.

I've used Wikipedia as much as anyone else for quick reference but whenever I see a short writeup on a complex subject (such as neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer) my alarm bells go off. But no bells rang for a certain messboard opponent who quoted the above section of the writeup to me, as proof that Cassirer believed that Plato and the rest were responsible, however indirectly, for the rise of fascism.

To say the least, this is not an accurate reading of THE MYTH OF THE STATE. The book does attempt to portray the historical background against which the ideas of the totalitarian state arose (including not just "right-wing" forms like fascism proper but also "lefty" manifestations like "Bolshevism," as Cassirer calls it.) However, the anonymous author's word "evolved" is extremely misleading, for colloquially it implies a natural progression, when in truth Cassirer's book shows the many ways in which totalitarian states actively distorted even those philosophers from whom they directly borrowed.

In short, MYTH OF THE STATE is first and foremost a history of how said myths come into being. It should be understood that by "myth" Cassirer does not mean something false or illusory, though the ways in which men deal with myth may be misguided. According to Cassirer's system, the very attempt one makes to justify the ways of a given state can be deemed a "myth," albeit not precisely the same sort of myth one encounters in the most primitive societies.

Cassirer devotes his first four chapters to defining myth as compactly as his theme will allow, so it's to be expected that he skips over many of the nuances of myth-definition found in the 1925 book MYTHICAL THOUGHT. Probably the best definition he offers of primitive myth is that "myth is an objectification of man's social experience," but immediately after that definition he labels the constructions of Plato as myths, albeit myths that, unlike their earlier kindred, serve "the purposes of dialectical and ethical thought." Cassirer is a bit vague as to how the earlier type of myths manage to become so encoded in society as to become the Old Order that dialectical thinkers seek to overthrow, but throughout the book this is his basic theme: that the primary type of myth is the first human activity to begin leading man "far from his unconscious and instinctive life," but that afterward new and more rational forms of myth must supersede those that are based largely on "feelings."

Plato, far from being a proponent of fascism, is seen as not only one of the first philosophers to discourse on the subject of the state, but also the first to propose making a choice between "an ethical and a mythical conception of the state. In the Legal State, the state of justice, there is no room left for the conceptions of mythology, for the gods of Homer and Hesiod." Cassirer also notes that Plato is no ally to fascism:

"Justice" and the "will to power" are the opposite poles of Plato's ethical and political philosophy.

Most of the thinkers covered here are given similar readings by Cassirer. With the exception of racial theorist Gobineau, whose real contributions to fascism are obvious, Cassirer shows the thinkers involved in analyzing the nature of the state's power, not stumping for the rise of totalitarianism. The closest Cassirer ever comes to doing what the Wiki essay claims he does is within his chapter on Hegel. I can see why the anonymous writer might have misapprehended Cassirer's theme if all he read was this:

But it was the most tragic fate of Hegel that he unconsciously unchained the most irrational powers that have ever appeared in man's social and political life. No other philosophical system has done so much for the preparation of fascism and imperialism as Hegel's doctine of the state-- this "divine Idea as it exists on earth."

Sounds damning. However, Cassirer points out that Hegel also said:

The highest aim that the state can attain is that art and science are cultivated and come to a height corresponding to the spirit of the people. That is the principal end of the state-- but an end that it must not bring about as an external work but that must arise from itself.

Clearly, neither the Left nor Right versions of totalitarianism had any serious intentions of imitating Hegel's ideal of the "divine Idea." Their political myths are, Cassirer says, "artificial things fabricated by very skillful and cunning artisans." As such, no reasoning being could regard the swastika or the hammer-and-sickle as the natural evolutions from their source material, or think that Cassirer thought so.

However, the idea that the proper response to the Holocaust should be a total refusal of all myths has become itself a myth that has been advocated by others beyond anonymous Wikipedia writers, or even anti-comics pundits like Wertham and Legman. Andrew Von Hendy's MODERN CONSTRUCTION OF MYTH is an academic survey that has some fair criticisms to make of the many scholars who have written on the subject of myth, but von Hendy's chapter on Cassirer subscribes to the "refusal myth" unashamedly.

Without going into all of von Hendy's criticisms of Cassirer here, suffice to say that after the author finishes his pronouncements on Cassirer's philosophical magnum opus, THE PHILOSOPHY OF SYMBOLIC FORMS, von Hendy tells us that MYTH OF THE STATE is "the passionate palinode of a refugee from Hitler's Germany." But any retraction is purely in von Hendy's mind. At no point does Cassirer renounce his belief in the idea that mythical thought remains the foundation for all later developments of human art. philosophy and culture: at most he is more vehement about the necessity for controlling the irrational side of primal myth with its more rational kindred. At the book's conclusion, what I call primal myth-- perhaps comparable to Joseph Henderson's conception of "Moira"-- is made the literal foundation of culture, albeit in the manner that the Sumerian goddess Tiamat's slain body is made the fundament of the Sumerian cosmos.

And yet this is not Cassirer foreswearing the necessity of myth: he merely recognizes, just as he did in pre-fascist Germany, that the symbolic forms often come into conflict. In the aforementioned MYTHICAL THOUGHT, written prior to the rise of Nazi power in Germany, Cassirer again notes how a philosopher like Plato opposed mythical paradigms:

Plato as a dialectician draws the sharp dividing line that can be drawn neither by myth nor mysticism.-- p. 251.

Von Hendy's dividedness of mind is evident. In one sentence alone he praises Cassirer for his "brilliant" defense of the philosophers whom many were then attacking for advocacy of fascism, yet implies that Cassirer "exoneration" is special pleading without citing any of Cassirer's actual defenses. Given that von Hendy shows in the book a marked preference for Paul Ricoeur-- whom I personally tend to consider a second-rate Cassirer-- I suspect von Hendy was not that interested in an honest appraisal of the philosopher. Ironically, von Hendy ends his chapter by remarking on the perils of "romantic affectivity," but I submit that he, like the anonymous Wiki-writer, is guilty of an anti-romantic affectivity, which can be no less deceptive than its opposite.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Is there such a thing as a "good elitist?"

Having resisting the obvious old joke re: "the only good Indian," I'll admit that it's true that, in contrast to superficial intellectuals like Roland Barthes and Theodor Adorno, there exist scholars whose basic program seems elitist in nature but who are broadminded enough that their observations prove useful to pluralist aesthetics. Of course, some concepts may require a lot of reworking.

I've not read a biography of Umberto Eco, but he seems beholden to many of the same reductive intellectual influences-- Marx, Saussure, Levi-Strauss-- that helped make Barthes whatever he was. In contrast to Barthes, however, Eco shows a phenomenal ability to think outside the reductionist's box; an ability seen to impressive effect in his 1962 essay, "The Myth of Superman."

Thus roughly three years before Dial Press commissioned Jules Feiffer to sum up his remembrances of his GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES of the Golden Age, Eco devotes an essay, in part, to the study of the then-current Superman comics of the early Silver Age.

I say "in part" because contrary to the title Superman is not the real focus of "Myth of Superman." Eco's essay is largely about his semantic take on the phenomenon of serial fiction, of which Superman is one example, and not even the only one pursued at length in the space of the essay. Eco's readings of serial fiction are complex and not amenable to being summarized in a blogpost, so I'll address just one aspect of the essay.

Eco is remarkably accurate about the mythos of Silver Age Superman-- Lois Lane, Mxyzptlk, "imaginary stories"-- given that in the early 1960s almost no one was writing about comic books. However, about the other half of his title, "myth," he's not much more accurate than his predecessor Barthes. I don't know if in other works Eco offered a working definition for his usage of the term "myth," but here he does not, and his few defintions-by-example are severely flawed. Whether they undermine the logic of the essay is a question I won't try to answer here.

Among Eco's first pronoucements on traditional archaic religious myth-figures, he writes:

The traditional figure of religion was a character of human or divine origin, whose figure had immutable characteristics and an irreversible destiny... a Greek statue could represent Hercules or a scene of Hercules' labors; in both cases, but more so in the latter, Hercules would be seen as someone who has a story... Hercules has been made real through a development of temporal events.

A few paragraphs later Eco will contrast this notion of the traditional myth-hero's "irreversible destiny" with that of the modern serial-hero, whose tales lack "the possibility of any development." And many critics since Eco have followed up on his comments by decrying the static nature of a hero like Superman, whether in contrast to the myth-heroes of tradition or the protagonists of literature. However, though the comparison may be fair in the latter case, the former comparison fails.

First, myth-heroes are not possessed of "immutable characteristics." They have dominant characteristics, but even these are far from immutable. To take Eco's example, even in the culture of ancient Greece portraits of Hercules varied, ranging from the bumptious brawler revered by the common folk to the sort of hero favored by intellectuals, such as the "Hercules" of Euripides' ALCESTIS, whose courage has a more moral dimension than most of the stories of his Labors.

Second, although myth-heroes have their lives ringed by a birth and a death, even as mortal men do, "Mister In-Between" is not the same for a myth-hero as for a mortal. How can one speak of a "development of temporal events" in the life of Hercules if some stories claim that Hercules began his Labors to expiate his guilt for having slain his wife and children, while others (notably Euripides' own HERACLES) claim that he killed them after completing the Labors (which were presumably begun for some other reason)?

In truth, myth-heroes bear a strong resemblance to modern serial-heroes in that between the span of their births and deaths each hero has access to an infinitely-expanding "middle portion" of his life, in which he's always pretty much the same, with no commonplace causality to get in the way. It's true that there are some myth-heroes who don't accrete a lot of stories to add to their legends, as with the hero Roland, whom Eco also mentions in the essay. But these can be viewed as the "B-listers" of the myth-world, whereas the "A-list" features heroes about whom the populace just couldn't stop telling tales-- Hercules, Arthur, or even figures who possess numinous names that hop from identity to identity, as "Jack" hops from beanstalk-climber to giant-killer to vegetable deity.

Late in the essay Eco talks further of how a reader must lose "the notion of temporal progression" when faced with a "massive bombardment of events which are no longer tied together by any strand of logic." Unintentionally he has defined the true status of archaic myth-narrative quite as much as that of the serial-hero. Indeed, in the wake of Marvel's soap-operatic twist on the superhero, it's possible to say that the myth-hero may at times possess less "temporal progression" than the serial hero. One knows that Heracles' first Labor must be to kill the Nemean Lion, because the hero is so often pictured running around in the lionskin. But do the rest of the Labors possess "temporal progression?" Even by the time of the Silver Age, Superman's ongoing encounters with Luthor may have stayed closer to the concept of an "ongoing continuity" (though one easily abandoned whenever it might prove convenient for writers to do so).

Eco finally concludes that Superman lives in a universe where "causal chains are not open" to one another linkages, but are discontinuous. But again, this is as true of Hercules as Superman, as seen by the ease with which Euripides changes the traditional order of events in the hero's life. Other examples from other myth-systems could be multiplied so as to render the same verdict, for myth-cycles are generally cobbled together from many sources, and so must always betray the disunity of their sources.

On the whole Eco's essay remains interesting despite this flaw. His diverse writings on popular culture seem to defend it more often than they stigmatize it, which shows a certain pluralist leaning, even if some of the tools he uses are the products of elitist minds. (For all Eco's subtlety on other matters, "Myth of Superman" can't resist tossing in a de rigeur Marxist mention about "means of production.")

Monday, July 26, 2010


I like to imagine that the second quote pretty much answers the question implied in the first.

First, Tom Spurgeon from this COMICS REPORTER piece back in May 2010:

The prism for talking about most comics, but particularly mainstream comics, is their monetary success, either relative to the industry in which those comics come out or for their value within the wider entertainment world. I'd like to see more discussions on what these comics are actually saying about the concepts they engage. One reason is I think the conversation would be deeply disturbing and thus somewhat hilarious to have. Forcing people used to justifying creativity through marketing language to actually discuss the ideas they're putting out there can be a fun ride. It's not that comics don't exist as items that are marketed; they do. But they also exist as a vehicle for ideas, for stories, and that almost never gets discussed except under a strange construction that relies on the notion of fan entitlement. That's too bad.

And now this quote from Grant Morrison during 2010's San Diego Comicon:

Batman is a mythical figure. I'm being funny, but I'm not being funny. They don't live in the real world. It's like this theory I've been developing – you know what they always say about kids? That kids can't distinguish between fantasy and reality. And that's actually bullshit. When a kid's watching 'The Little Mermaid,' the kids knows that those crabs that are singing and talking aren't really like the crabs on the beach that don't talk. A kid really knows the difference.

"Then you've got an adult, and adults can not tell the difference between fantasy and reality. You bring them fantasy, and the first thing they say is 'How did he get that way? Why does he dress like that? How did that happen?' It's not real. And beyond that, when you're dealing with characters, they exist on paper. They're real in that context. I always say they're much more real than we are because they have much longer lives and more people know about them. But we get people reading superhero comics and going, 'How does that power work? And why does Scott Summers shoot those beams? And what's the size of that?' It's not real! There is no science. The science is the science of 'Anything can happen in fiction and paper' and we can do anything.

"We've already got the real world. Why would you want fiction to be like the real world? Fiction can do anything, so why do people always want to say, 'Let's ground this' or 'Let's make this realistic.' You can't make it realistic because it's not. So basically Batman is 75 years old, and Robin is 74 years old. They don't grow old because they're different from us. They're paper people.

Friday, July 23, 2010


In SUPERHUMAN ALL TOO SUPERHUMAN I used the William Moulton Marston WONDER WOMAN as my exemplar of the use of "dynamic violence," with attention to the fact that what makes the violence in WONDER WOMAN "dynamic" is that the characters possess some degree of interiority, of a capacity for transformation that has consequences for the way conflict and violence play out in the story's structure.

For my example of the opposite use of violence, the "static" kind, I offer up Jack Cole's Sadean PLASTIC MAN.

To say that the Cole PLASTIC MAN is esteemed over the Marston WONDER WOMAN would be putting it mildly. There are some good reasons for this, for though the art of H.G. Peter has been dismissed unfairly by many critics, there can be no doubt that Jack Cole was the more innovative of the two artists. Consequently, it's Cole's eyeball-stretching depictions of his "India Rubber Man" that caused a highbrow type like Art Spiegelman to co-author a book on Cole's creativity with collaborator Chip Kidd.

Nevertheless, the exceptional nature of Cole's artwork is of secondary consideration to this essay, which deals with the nature of violence in Cole's work.

Now when I say that I find Cole's work-- both on PLASTIC MAN and other creations-- to be "Sadean," I don't mean that I believe that Cole was literally turned on by his own images of death, torture and mayhem, as the Marquis de Sade reputedly was by his own autopornography. I do however think that Cole was personally fascinated by violent and transgressive materials. I'm sure that on one level he *may* have viewed the labor of grossing out the kiddies as just another aspect of a job, but even so Cole doesn't seem as distanced with such material as, say, his contemporaries Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Around the same time PLASTIC MAN got started, Simon and Kirby could ladle out bucketsfuls of juvenile-appropriate gore and grue in Timely's CAPTAIN AMERICA. And yet the two of them could, without muss or fuss, transition to a "clean" style of violence the moment they started working on features like NEWSBOY LEGION for DC Comics, while Cole continually pursued transgressive images throughout his 14 years in comic books and on into his work for PLAYBOY, in which Paul Tumey of COLE'S COMICS finds "themes of virility and impotence, wholeness and fragmentation."

In support of Tumey's analysis, one finds that even in the first year of PLASTIC MAN, when Cole was still finding his way with the new genre of the superhero, images of violence, death and grotesquerie abound, next to which even the grim BATMAN stories seem rather tame. Plastic Man's first major villain-- a very butch (and implicitly lesbian) woman named "Madame Brawn"-- appears first in PC #4 and makes her first and last comeback in #5, where she dies when she takes a fall and hits her head on a spike. PC #6 includes a victim whose hands are cut off and then used by evildoers for malicious mischief; PC #9 features a villain named "Hairy Arms," who appears to have a shrunken torso out of proportion with the rest of his body. And

then there's POLICE COMICS #11. The cover at left suggests playful fantasy-slapstick, but inside is neck-breaking, bodies blown apart, brain transplantation, and a giant who (a) walks on his hands because he can't walk on his useless legs, and (b) tries to eat Plastic Man alive.

Now, pound for pound Marston's WONDER WOMAN may be no less violent, but as with my comparison of STAR WARS and ALIEN in this essay, WONDER WOMAN never seems as transgressive because the violence is of the *clean* variety. (And if anyone cares, with respect to the other category mentioned in said essay, both works belong to the "spectacular" rather than "functional" category in terms of whether the violence is a means or an end in the story.) But an additional reason as to why WONDER WOMAN might appear less transgressive is precisely because the feature so frequently focuses on the interiority of the characters, with their melodramatic miracles of personal transformation, their better living through the chains of lovingkindness.

There's nearly no interiority in the stories of Jack Cole. Cole gives Plastic Man a couple of stories where the hero expresses his guilt over his antisocial acts as Eel O'Brien, but those are soon forgotten, and, as Paul Tumey points out, the very identity of Eel O'Brien disappears in time as well. Both villains and victims know themselves but slenderly, and so have barely any rational motive for getting involved with criminal doings. The non-body aspect of symbolism only occasionally appears in Cole: often it seems like nothing but body, body, body. Bodies hit, bodies stab, bodies kill or get killed (though Plastic Man seems to stay above the carnage, his unique physique in its way as invulnerable as that of Superman).

Of course that invulnerability is certainly key to understanding the Sadean meaning of PLASTIC MAN. Physically the hero is as above the sufferings of victims and villains, loosely in the same way that a Sade protagonist's money and aristocratic standing put him above those he debauches. The curse of ordinary mortality is what Tumey calls "fragmentation:" only a fantasy-body can be absolutely above it.

Given the unique viewpoints of Marston and Cole respectively, it's not surprising that later iterations of their most famous characters have failed to duplicate the complex symbolisms at their heart. However, of the two WONDER WOMAN has been treated somewhat better. Even when latter-day raconteurs abjure following Marston's specific programs, often the essence of gender-conflict still informs their stories, and invariably some aspects of the Marston mythology are used, with whatever success.

Cole's PLASTIC MAN suffers a more peculiar form of erasure, for with that character latter-day raconteurs labor to imitate only the aforementioned formal aspects of the artwork-- how many crazy shapes can Plastic Man assume-- and the elements of goofy slapstick. It's almost as if they never read the actual Cole stories, but only looked at the pictures. It seems odd that in these days of superhero decadence and the dawning of adult pulp comics, even Kyle Baker's PLASTIC MAN should resemble LOONEY TUNES more than the violent and Sadean world of Jack Cole.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


At the end of GENRE-GENDER WARS PART 3 I said I'd pursue my dichotomy between "static" Sadean cruelty and "dynamic" Nietzschean cruelty with respect to "contemporary comic books." However, I'm changing up two things:

First, henceforth I'll substitute "violence" for "cruelty," since even in fictional narratives violence of some sort (even of the mental kind, such as Nietzsche imagines his great artists using to torment their lesser natures) is the act through which the relevant emotion is expressed.

Second, my last essay on WONDER WOMAN persuades me that the original William Moulton Marston iteration makes a better example of transformative Nietzschean violence than almost any other work in the comic book medium. I'll do a separate essay on an example of static violence, focusing on one of Marston's contemporaries, but for this essay, I'll address only the narrative articulation of Nietzschean violence.

As further prelude a quick summary of GGW #3 seems worthwhile. In that essay, I contended that Camille Paglia was wrong to bracket the "amoralism" of Nietzsche with the different amoral outlooks of Sade and Freud. I didn't say much about Freud in that essay and still won't in this one, for the main thrust of the static/dynamic argument began with my comparison of Sade and Nietzsche quotes and so will continue with them.

(Parenthetically, the static characterizations of Freudianized violence would be better compared to the dynamic ones of his old nemesis Carl Jung. But I digress.)

The first works to which I applied my dichotomy were two of the works Paglia analyzed in SEXUAL PERSONAE: Spencer's FAERIE QUEENE and Shakespeare's TITUS ANDRONICUS. Belatedly I'll admit that while Paglia did devote a whole chapter to the works of Spenser, her analysis of ANDRONICUS is only a page or two. Still, given her knockabout approach to the Bard-works which she does analyze in greater detail-- AS YOU LIKE IT and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA-- I think a long analysis of ANDRONICUS would have still made the mistake the short one did, of applying a Sadean model to something closer to the Nietzchean idea of spiritualizing violence.

So, continuing with my chosen Spenser/Shakespeare dyad, one may ask what separates, in a narratological sense, the characters of FAERIE QUEENE and ANDRONICUS. I said in GGW #3 that Nietzsche's concept of spiritualized cruelty "seems to involve a deeper mental transformation than anything a Sade protagonist might contemplate." This "deeper mental" propensity I will call *interiority.*

Now what does *interiority" mean? Not that the characters of that nature sit around pyschoanalyzing their problems a la Woody Allen's film INTERIORS, but only that the interior status of such a character plays a clear narrative purpose in the character's story. Again, this has nothing to do with a character's "depth." Shakespeare's Titus is not much if at all "deeper" than Spenser's best character Britomart. But Titus' internal workings are far more important to the story of ANDRONICUS than Britomart's are in her tale. To pursue the Sade/Nietzsche parallel again, Britomart largely stays as static as any Sadean protagonist in terms of internal reflections, while Titus must transform himself much as Nietzsche's ideal artists did, as Titus goes from blustering, bloody-handed general to a sly trickster whose "mad act" anticipates Shakespeare's later and more often-lauded Hamlet.

Of course, a new problem for judging the presence or absence of interiority is created when one turns to a character who, unlike Titus or Britomart, was conceived to be a serial character, one who never substantially changes. How can such a character express interiority, given that he or she cannot change her situation even to the extent that Spenser's Britomart does?

The answer is simple: interiority is projected onto "guest stars" who can be changed in line with the author's ideals, and can do so with as many variations as one can conceive, even though the main character remains essentially the same.

In conceiving this projection, William Marston wasn't precisely doing something no one had ever conceived before. Long before the comic book was launched anywhere, serial fiction had coped with this problem, notably with Sherlock Holmes, whose entire raison d'etre involved bringing order to London lives by detecting plots and villains. Superman and Batman simply adapted this pattern into a purely altruistic venture, as the heroes continually played Mary Worth to orphans and sweet young things. However, the closest these two heroes usually got to "transformation" was to get bad young boys back on the road to being good boys.

In keeping with his psychoanalytic training, Wertham further adapted this pattern to bring sinners back into a much more quixotic fold than anything Superman ever dreamed of. "Ya beat me, but hang me if I didn't like it!" says one bully-boy (quote approximate) after Wonder Woman outpowers him, but contrary to the Sadean paradigm, the victim of Wonder Woman's benevolent violence is having his eyes opened to intruiging new possibilities. Nor is Wonder Woman herself in a Sadeaian position of unquestioned power: in one sequence, being outpowered herself by a hyped-up Steve Trevor, she reflects that she finds the sensation of submission thrilling but still prefers being a "top" to a "bottom." However, throughout the Marston years the author's credo remained consistent. To rephrase the old Dean Martin song:

"Everybody's Someone's Bottom-- Sometime!"

What made all this dominance and violence transformative was the attitude with which Marston colored it, placing it all as much in the realm of "non-body" as "body." This attitude Marston called "lovingkindness," and even in the most slapsticky examples of violence-- the Holliday Girls and their butt-paddles come to mind-- Marston always projects this superheroic version of *agape.*

Now, Wertham may not converted any readers to his belief-system. It's quite possible that much of the readership supported the book, as Gerald Jones asserted, in order to ogle scantily-clad Amazons-- though to be sure, there were a lot of "good girl art" books that played more to that desire than did the art of H.G. Peter.

Nevertheless, Marston's WONDER WOMAN is probably one of the few serial works in any medium that manages to put across a psychically-dynamic concept of violence. Most serial works, including the aforementioned Sherlock, hew pretty closely to the static model, though not all of these, contrary to Gerson Legman, are especially sadistic in tone.

Being a work of static violence is, to be sure, in no way inferior to being a work of dynamic violence, or vice versa. In fact, the counter-example I'll address in my next essay is one of the Golden Age's most well-esteemed features-- though it does happen to be part of its charm that it IS pretty deep into a Sadean universe.

Friday, July 16, 2010


If one wants to go by certain recent remarks by Gloria Steinem, the cultural worship of men's pants is responsible for the replacement of somewhat more feminine attire on Wonder Woman. As others before me have remarked (given that I'm addressing this brouhaha rather belatedly), Steinem was mistaken in thinking that DC's premiere superheroine was wearing skirts prior to the changeover, but there is a sense in which DC Comics may well have reacted against negative characterizations of Wonder Woman's "objectified" femininity. This would not be because the company believed that "pants were powerful," but rather that pants were more down-to-earth and "realistic." The various tirades against Wonder Woman's superhero costume have practically become their own meme, ranging from the accusations of non-practicality ("why doesn't she fall out of that top?") to those involving cultural hegemony ("why is a warrior from an island of Greek immortal women wearing patriotic colors?")

Without a doubt, the costume's pretty ugly, but it'll probably be ditched the moment the sales of WONDER WOMAN take a dip (assuming they go up during this revisionary period), though it's anyone's guess whether DC will just go back to some version of the traditional costume or seek out some third alternative. As a note of irony, the more sedate costume still doesn't keep some pundits from making objections about objectification: Steinem mentions that the leggings look more like her legs painted blue, and Johanna Carlson mentions the prominence of the Wonder boobs despite the presence of the concealing jacket. Of course, should WW get heavier pants and a breast reduction, that too could signal yet another attack on DC's deletion of the character's femininity.

Alan Moore has recently given another interview in which he (ho hum) again takes responsibility for the "grittification" of comic books, which I've pointed out to be a delusion here. But his real sin in my eyes is his contribution to the belief that comics are better when they are more "realistic." It's a short step from WATCHMEN's simple-minded joke about superheroes catching their capes in doors to the notion that even mainstream superheroes would be better if they eschewed all the unrealistic aspects of their costumes.

All superhero costumes (and garments with similar iconic aspects) are designed to have what I call "kinetic" effects, which includes but is not limited to elements of sensationalized sexuality. Some, like the costumes of Superman and Wonder Woman, emphasize dynamic physicality, which inevitably conjures sex appeal (though not only sex appeal). Some costumes are meant to signal macabre or mystical aspects of the characters, such as the outfits of the Shadow and Doctor Strange. (Admittedly there aren't a huge number of heroines given such costuming, though Raven of THE NEW TEEN TITANS is generally portrayed more as Goth Weirdie than Mystic Hot Chick.) And some, like Batman, mix effects of sexy physicality with those of the macabre.

Kinetic effects are in varying degrees important to all four literary mythoi, but drama and irony can camoflague their dependence on them by seeming to focus on "ideas" rather than spectacle. Comedy does something similar when it emphasizes the subtle witticism over the pie in the face, but at base comedy's dynamizations are more intimately tied to the sensational. Even the driest Woody Allen comedies often revolve around who gets to sleep with whom. The adventure mythos, then, is the least esteemed because it often proves hard to overlay its sensationalistic elements with a culturally-pleasing patina of realism or social responsibility.

I have no current plans to see whether or not this task can be achieved by WONDER WOMAN's new writer, J.M. (Name-Harder-to-Spell-Than-Shyamalan). I had a mild interest in following his TV show BABYLON 5, but have never felt moved to revisit the series, while my only exposure to his comics-work was a reading of his unfinished multi-parter THE TWELVE. Significantly, I found this work a tedious by-the-numbers "realistic" treatment of various obscure Golden Age heroes, lacking any of the deeper thematic elements that Alan Moore brought to works like EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (though THE TWELVE is a little more accomplished than Moore's lesser work for Image Comics). Nevertheless, it's my conviction that an outsized concept like WONDER WOMAN needs to be made more outrageous, not less.

And I'll probably have more to say later about the general tone of the objectification accusation, apart from its latest manifestation in the pantsing of Wonder Woman.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


In reaction to a review of Chris Claremont's X-WOMEN, Sean Collins remarks:

Calling Chris Claremont "one of the more notably feminist writers of superhero comics" is, uh, one way of characterizing the author of the Hellfire Club saga, I guess.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong-- but wasn't the Claremont X-MEN, particularly of the Byrne era that includes the Hellfire Club, a feature particularly popular with fangirls in that time-frame? Indeed, wasn't the Claremont X-MEN the first new creation of the 1970s to boast a substantial female fandom, including later fans-turned-pros such as the late Carol Kalish? Didn't that period of the feature provide the bedrock on which Marvel capitalized for its X-MEN cartoon, which Hope Larson notes was a "gateway drug" for female fans of the 1990s?

If all of these impressions are correct, then wouldn't it be fair to say that the fangirls who bought the feature did not deem the White Queen's bustier to be especially offensive (even though it played to the iniquitous desires of horny fanboys)? Indeed, bustiers seem to be fairly common in the genre that, from year to year, sells best in North America: ye olde romance genre.

So when Sean Collins expresses dubiousness over whether or not Chris Claremont ought to be styled a "feminist writer," I reply, "It depends on the type of feminist you mean."

For instance, this 2009 article by Rosalind Gill suggests that some branches of feminist have moved from "sexual objectification" to "sexual subjectification."

Gill sees the latter cultural movement as an outgrowth from the earlier one:

... the focus on 'harking back' may miss what is new about contemporary sexualised depictions of women. I want to suggest that what we are seeing is not just a harking back to a safe, bygone or mythical age when 'men were men and women were women', but rather the construction of a new femininity (or, better, new femininities) organized around sexual confidence and autonomy. Indeed, what is novel and striking about contemporary sexualised representations of women in popular culture is that they do not (as in the past) depict women as passive objects but as knowing, active and desiring sexual subjects. We are witnessing, I want to argue, a shift from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification in constructions of femininity in the media and popular culture.

I for one would not hesitate to consider Claremont's depiction of his most heralded X-women of the 70s and 80s-- that is, Storm, Phoenix, Rogue and the bustier-clad White Queen-- as "knowing, active and desiring sexual subjects," within the bounds of their being fictional characters, of course. Over time this even extends somewhat to Kitty Pryde, the juvenile femme introduced in the Hellfire Club sequence, who as I remember eventually becomes an "active sexual subject" even without being a Hot Chick like the other four I've named.

Now, truth to tell, after Gill offers this interesting analysis she then critiques it in much the same terms used by early feminist critics of sexual objectification:

The figure of the autonomous, active, desiring subject has become -- I suggest -- the dominant figure for representing young women, part of the construction of the neo-liberal feminine subject. But sexual subjectification, I would argue, has turned out to be objectification in new and even more pernicious guise.

I don't share Gill's pessimism. The communication of one's sexual nature *as* a sexual object is a physical aspect of life that won't be put aside just because it offends moral standards of either liberal or conservative persuasions. I won't say that there can't be a shitload of problems with "subjectification" of the type Gill describes, most significantly young women who purchase T-shirts that come with the written admonition that onlookers should "squeeze here." But along with these missteps comes a greater awareness of self, not just one's cultural expectations.

I agree with Camille Paglia here: a hierarchy of perceived beauty, not "real" except in the consensual sense of one's cultural parameters, will always be with humanity. That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that the act of one's choosing to wear a tight T-shirt or a bustier is in itself a concession to some "phallocracy" (that's not from Gill). And as Gill observes, with this "subjectification" of femininity has come a greater consciousness of its application to masculinity. Such aspects of male sexual subjectification weren't precisely non-existent in popular culture prior to feminism, but said aspects were often obscured by other factors. (In comic books, this would relate to the "but it's not the same when guys wear tight costumes" meme.)

In addition, I feel that Gill is entirely wrong with one of her attempts to disprove the beneficence of subjectification:

...there is the problem of the exclusions of this representational practice. It is clear from looking at media representations that only some women are constructed as active desiring sexual subjects. Only women who desire sex with men -- except when lesbian women 'perform' for men -- but, equally crucially, only young, slim and beautiful women. As Myra MacDonald has pointed out, older women, bigger women, women with wrinkles, etc are never accorded sexual subjecthood and are still subject to offensive and sometimes vicious representations. Indeed the figure of the unattractive woman who wants a sexual partner remains one of the most vilified in a range of popular cultural forms.

I disagree with this quite as much as I disagree with Collins' implicit characterization of the Claremont X-MEN as no more than a haven for horny fanboys. Since the rise of subjectification there has been a consequent upsurge in which The Princess Is The Frog (and The Frog Ain't That Bad), most notably the animated cartoon SHREK, as well as my earlier example of the merely cute-but-not-hot Kitty Pryde. There will always be jokes involving men or women being mortified by the attentions of those they find unattractive, but current society is a long way from taking sadistic pleasure in the frustrations of a homely spinster a la Miss Hathaway of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES.

Objectification of the kind Collins critiques hasn't vanished, of course. But IMO it's clearly fighting a losing battle.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I stated in part 1 that I considered most interviews given by creators of entertainment to be "hype," at least in their primary function, with the main exception being those artists who are no longer producing work to be consumed by patrons. Yet now I think I should eliminate even the retiree faction, insofar as some of them can still profit from good press. Those who own their own works can still sell more works in their remaining years, and some of those who don't own the works with whom they're associated (think Dick Sprang/BATMAN) can still pick up some dough doing new artistic renderings of old favorites. It's not even impossible for writers to so profit: during the late Arnold Drake's last attendance at Comic-con Drake was selling facsimiles of his old DOOM PATROL scripts.

Therefore I define interviews in terms of the old Marxist "cash nexus," and not only for the artist, but for the interviewer as well. I think I enjoyed the Golden Era of JOURNAL interviews (mostly the 80s if you care) every bit as much as Jeet Heer did, but those interviews were never just a matter of Gary Groth conducting some comics-version of the Algonquin Round Table. An interview with Gil Kane was conducted to show readers that Gil Kane was a great artist and that more readers should buy his books, and, simultaneously, that COMICS JOURNAL was a great place to read interviews and that more people (who might be indifferent to everything else in it-- paging Joe Matt) should buy the JOURNAL on a regular basis.

Formal criticism, whether of comics or another medium, is not quite the same. True, the critic wants some reward for his services (be it a paycheck or university tenure) and a critique favorable to the subject can expand the popularity of the subject, even when the author is long dead (think Herman Melville, resurrected from literary obscurity by academia). But an interview doesn't need to appeal to intellectual history, and a critique must. Even in situations where one doubts the intellectual attainments of certain critics-- as I have done with both Roland Barthes and Theodor Adorno on this blog-- the doubter cannot dispute that even bad critics are part of an intellectual history.

I also have a hard time with Jeet's strange divorce between "conversations and the response of artists themselves to earlier art" and what he calls "boosterism" in a separate blogpost:

“The simple fact is that because of the intellectual poverty of most writing on comics, infected as it is with fannish boosterism and journalistic glibness, the interview form has been the crucial venue for comics criticism and comics history.”

This makes little sense in that the "boosterism" of early comics fandom is exactly what caused its emphasis on the interview whose primary point is always: "this is how the artist works his magic." Interviews are theoretical "boosters" to any artist's popularity, so if Jeet meant to create an opposition between the "infection" of fannish adulation and the "crucial" role of the interview in terms of advancing criticism, he has failed in spectacular fashion.

Though, for all I know, my coming out against Jeet's comments will probably "boost" him in the comics-community...

Monday, July 12, 2010


Specifically, what Jeet (Heer) canna do is to conflate interviews with comics-figures with comics criticism.

From his short essay, "Why We Need Criticism," 7-5-10:

If you click here you’ll find a podcast of a lively discussion of Ben Schwartz’s Best American Comics Criticism. Panelists include Schwartz himself as well as R. Fiore, Brian Doherty, Sammy Harkham and Joe Matt. Lots of contentious ideas are put forward (and some Comics Comics regulars are insulted) but I want to focus in particular on Matt’s statement that he doesn’t need to read criticism because he can decide for himself what’s good or not. That’s not an uncommon opinion and I think the proper response to this contention depends on what we mean by “criticism.” If we define criticism narrowly as analytical essays on an art form or particular works of art, then it’s true that criticism is a minority interest. But if we define criticism more broadly as any discussion of art or works of art, including conversations and the response of artists themselves to earlier art, then criticism is as unavoidable and essential as art itself. To be more concrete, some of the best comics criticism has come in the form of interviews done by artists like Gil Kane, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, etc. As Joe Matt mentions elsewhere in the discussion, he turns to interviews in The Comics Journal before anything else. Without these interviews, our entire sense of comics would be very different.

First of all, I'm at a disadvantage here because I can't currently listen to the podcast, but given the remarks of another poster on Jeet's blog, it can be a little hard to know who said what at times. So I can only go on what Jeet said Joe Matt said in these two instances:

Matt’s statement that he doesn’t need to read criticism because he can decide for himself what’s good or not.

and later:

As Joe Matt mentions elsewhere in the discussion, he turns to interviews in The Comics Journal before anything else.

The bulk of Jeet's argument goes something like, "Joe Matt says he doesn't like criticism, but he's actually reading one of the best sources of comics criticism whenever he turns to these JOURNAL interviews."

However, as readers can't tell at a glance exactly what Matt said and in what context, it may be jumping the gun to claim that Matt's reading the interviews for the kind of critically-oriented "conversations" which Jeet counts as part of the critical tradition. After all, the reason interviews are traditionally NOT considered parts of criticism is because they can include many things irrelevant to criticism as such.

Maybe Joe Matt does read, say, a humongous Gil Kane interview because he wants to read the response of that particular artist "to earlier art."

On the other hand, Matt's interests may be entirely instrumental. Since Joe Matt is a penciller himself, perhaps he reads the Kane interview to see Kane discourse not on other artists' exemplary works but on the specific tools he Kane uses in his own work-- types of pens or brushes, et al.

Or maybe Matt is simply interested in industry dirt. Who dun Kane wrong in the olden daze? What did Gil Kane think of Stan Lee? It's quite conceivable that any reader-- not necessarily Joe Matt in particular-- could skim through said Kane interview, ignoring Kane's Scorcese-like summation of the comics-industry and only watching to see Kane praise or blame other industry figures.

But even putting aside the other possible motivations of a reader, the motives of the interviewed have to be addressed as a way of determining whether or not "interviews" are "criticism:"

Put bluntly, with the exception of those interviews given by retired artists:



More later.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


"This book takes the point of view of Sade. the most unread major writer in western literature... Sade follows Hobbes rather than Locke. Aggression comes from nature; it is what Nietzsche is to call the will-to-power... As Freud, Nietzsche's heir, asserts, identity is conflict. Each generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead."-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 2.

"I follow Freud, Nietzsche and Sade in my view of the amorality of the instinctual life"-- Paglia, SP, p. 14.

In contrast to the way the Freudian-influenced Fredric Wertham brackets Sade and Nietzsche as being hostile to his concept of the social commonweal, Camille Paglia brackets Sade, Nietzsche and Freud as prophets of a salutary realization of the aforesaid "amorality of the instinctual life." This bedrock of amorality then proves of great significance with respect to her theory as to how all art, canonical and popular, partakes in Nietzsche's concept of "spiritualized cruelty," also quoted in an early chapter of SEXUAL PERSONAE, and which I covered somewhat in Part 2 of this essay-series. Paglia's theory is a challenging one with considerable importance to pluralist aesthetics, coming only third in importance to the contributions of Frye and Fiedler. However, does Paglia do justice to Nietzsche's concept of spiritualized cruelty by associating it with Sade and Freud? Do these three "instinctualists" really belong in the same category?

Sade, the only fiction-writer in the trinity, is ironically the one who shows the least imagination in propounding his philosophical/literary cosmos. Sade's fantasies of rapine and murder range from the inventive to the tedious, and are exceeded only by the author's ceaseless railings against religion and social convention.

In contrast, Freud wrote as an empiricist of a different stripe, as he regarded all literary efforts as compensation for the repressed "wish-dreams" of his Oedipal development-theory. Freud had no more belief in God than Sade did, but Freud firmly believed that the illusion of belief was necessary for society, while his interest in sadism and masochism seems to have been purely clinical.

Nietzsche, the prophet who announced that God was dead, did seem to believe in a Sade-like cruelty that he found at the heart of higher culture. However, Sade is almost entirely focused on the thrill of hurting other people, with only rare exceptions in which one tormentor might whip another for a bit of painful (but non-fatal) titillation. Nietzsche's concept of spiritualized cruelty involves the artist's "over-abundant enjoyment of one's own suffering," which seems to involve a deeper mental transformation than anything a Sade protagonist might contemplate. It's worth noting that later in BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL Nietzsche even allows for the possibility that an *ubermensch* may choose to "aid the unfortunate," as a Sade character would never do, though a Nietzschean spirit would do so not from pity but from his very super-abundance of energy.

For this reason I perceive that the "amorality" of a Nietzsche is far different from that of a Sade or Freud. Because Sade's "sovereign men" are as incapable of transformation as the elements of Freud's "id," I would say that theirs is a *static* amorality/cruelty, while Nietzsche's is a *dynamic* amorality.

Thus I can't agree with Paglia's implication that all cruel cats are grey in the dark: given a certain light, we do see some differences between static and dynamic formations. Paglia's Sade-dominated concept is perfectly fine for works, canonical or popular, that are principally static in their aesthetics. Thus her analysis is Spenser's "hierarchical" FAERIE QUEENE remains one of her strongest essays.

Her weakness shows, however, when she tries to apply a static model to a more dynamic creation, as with her chapter on Shakespeare. To take on her briefest analysis, she pronounces TITUS ANDRONICUS to be a "slapstick comedy."

True, this verdict does at least emanicpate TITUS from the curse of "high seriousness" attached to all things Shakespearean, and admittedly the 1999 film adaptation of the play does flirt with arch humor. But tempting though it may be to see the tit-for-tat violence of Titus and Tamora in terms of a Three Stooges short, there's no place in this conception for the moving drama of Aaron the Moor surrendering his knowledge of Tamora's misdeeds in order to save his infant son, even though the villainous Moor knows that he himself must perish. Thus, though TITUS is perhaps not nearly as successful a drama as other bloody-minded Bard-offerings, the play deserves a more dynamic, more truly Nietzschean conception of its necessary cruelty and amorality.

Next up: static and dynamic assessments of cruelty in-- what else-- contemporary comic books. Expect some references to "adult pulp" if not full-on "superhero decadence."

Thursday, July 8, 2010


The more atrocious the hurt [which the strong individual] inflicts upon the helpless, the greater shall be the voluptuous vibrations in him... it is now that he makes the greatest use of the gifts Nature has bestowed upon him.-- One of Sade's many identical mouthpieces, JULIETTE, p. 119.

Almost everything we call "higher culture" is based on the spiritualization and intensification of cruelty—this is my proposition; the "wild beast" has not been laid to rest at all, it lives, it flourishes, it has merely become—deified. That which constitutes the painful voluptuousness of tragedy is cruelty; that which produces a pleasing effect in so-called tragic pity, indeed fundamentally in everything sublime up to the highest and most refined thrills of metaphysics, derives its sweetness solely from the ingredient of cruelty mixed in with it."-- Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 229, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL.

Disparaging references to both Sade and Nietzsche are scattered throughout Frederic Wertham's SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, and the good doctor isn't any better at distinguishing the differences between them than he is at sussing out differences between different comics-genres. But whatever common ground the two philosophers share (including, apparently, a liking for the word "voluptuous" in connection with "cruelty"), such distinctions are important. Wertham is long gone, but one still encounters new versions of his simplistic view of both philosophers as fascist power-mongers, to say nothing of his characterization of comic books.

Even from these two quotes, though, it should be clear that the two men are not coming from the same place.

Sade's "strong individual," as much as the "weak individual" on whom he also discourses, is a fixed entity; the recipient of "gifts" or tendencies bestowed by Nature. Even Sade's concept of "voluptous vibrations" is based in the positivistic science of his day with regard to concepts of neurology. To return once more to the Octavio Paz Dichotomy, Sade is concerned only with "Body."

Nietzsche, however, is advocating not physical inertia but a transformation taking place within the dynamics of the human mind: i.e., of "Non-Body." Cruelty, which focuses first upon a fascination with bodily suffering, is an "ingredient" within the spectrum of "higher culture," but it's one that must undergo the alchemical-sounding "spiritualization and intensification" in order to partake of "everything sublime."

Most pundits who decry violence in the comics, whether the violence may be dominantly sexual or nonsexual in character, tend to project the Sadean ideal onto the patron of violent fiction, with little if any reflection as to the role that the element of violence has played in "higher culture." SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT complains that a CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic book dumbs down HAMLET to the level of bloody swordfights, but says nothing about the fact that there ARE bloody swordfights in HAMLET, not to mention poisoning, a suicide and diverse offscreen murders. In what way does a pundit such as Wertham enjoy an Elizabethan play such as HAMLET and somehow ignore its bloody-mindedness? The answer will never be known in Wertham's case, but one may assume that the way involves some sort of mental alchemy corresponding to Nietzsche's spiritualization and sublimation.

Nietzsche himself was probably not very interested in anything but "higher culture," though some scholars, following remarks made by Antonio Gramsci, have asserted that Nietzsche's *ubermensch* concept had its roots in the "pop culture" of his time, specifically Dumas' THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. However, some moderns have managed to adapt Nietzsche's theories in interesting new ways, so as to show that the creative alchemy extends across the board, finding expression in both "low" and "high"-- as I'll demonstrate in Part 3.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


The same emotions in man and woman are, however, different in tempo: therefore man and woman never cease to misunderstand one another.-- Freidrich Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, Aphorism 85.

Over three years ago Johanna Draper Carlson blogged this article, "Superhero Comics Aren't for Girls," a brief but accurate examination of the fact that certain genres are simply more favored by one gender than another:

“Superhero comics aren’t for girls” is true the same way “romance novels aren’t for boys” or “action movies aren’t for girls” are. They’re gender-identified genres. The people who make them and the majority of the people who consume them know who their audience tends to be. Recognizing that doesn’t make you sexist or invalidate anyone’s tastes; it’s just realism. “Chick lit” and fashion mags are aimed at women; Mack Bolan books and gun and car mags are aimed at men.

That doesn’t mean that they’re 100% enjoyed by only members of that gender, but it does make the cross-gender participants exceptions.

Three years later, this simple but telling assertion has gone largely ignored, as both male and female fans continually act as if the cross-gender participants are not exceptions, and further, that any aspects of the genre enjoyed by the gender which dominantly buys the books-- in this case, the male-- should be corrected to fit the preferences of the minority gender, who is in this case happens to be the female of the species.

To some extent I can respect the attempt of a minority audience to make its voice heard, to make an impression on a genre dominated by the opposite gender. But when the demands seem determined to leech away those absurd or larger-than-life aspects that characterize the genre itself, that comes down to a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

For instance, on 5-18-2010 Hope Larson posted her "Girls & Comics Survey Results" on LiveJournal, which features, among other conclusions, this unsurprising assertion:

The hypersexualization/objectification of female superheroines makes female readers uncomfortable, and sexual violence as a plot point has got to stop.

From the gender-political stance implied in the second part of the sentence, it's almost a given that the respondents were primarily thinking about sexual violence of male characters perpetrated against female characters. But even if this was the only kind of gender violence perpetrated in comics-- which it is not-- I'm not sure that one would wish to forbid it so absolutely.

Not long ago, I more or less finished the Marquis deSade's elephantine novel JULIETTE. I say "more or less" because despite my having a general ability to weather some pretty hardcore writing, I frequently got bored and skipped past many of the Marquis' lumbering and repetitive scenarios of multiple rapes and murders. Despite the facts that the victims include some young men, and that the novel itself is told from the POV of a female initiate into Sadean ethics, most of the victimizations are women being raped and killed by men.

Sade, of course, is the original poet of sexual violence. By way of comparison, I would say that the entirety of all the male-over-female violence in mainstream comic books from the Golden Age to the present-- from Sheena getting tied up by drooling African tribesmen to Jim Balent's stories of "haunted vaginas"-- is baby stuff next to even one chapter of JULIETTE.

But of course, though one can certainly find particular authors who *may* have been kindred spirits to Sade in terms of their preferences, violence in the mainstream comics-genres does not begin and end with tormented, refrigerated women. Even Frederic Wertham and Gershon Legman, the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber of the anti-violence screed, recognized that the Golden Age of Comics included many opportunities for the Fair Sex to be unfair. Legman went so far as to assert that the teen-humor comics offered female readers the chance to get some of their own back, watching as female characters continually maimed and humiliated their fathers and "scarecrow boyfriends" in orgies of slapstick schadenfreude.

If Legman's wildly-phrased assertion contains even a germ of truth, then one would assume that not all female readers today are entirely uncomfortable with images of sexual violence of one kind or another, even if none of them were represented in Larson's survey of 198 readers. Certainly female horror-fans on assorted blogs have shown themselves comfortable with playing out the gender wars via fantasized sex-n-violence, so it may be merely that the majority of female superhero-readers are not speaking for all tastes within their community.

But let's say for sake of argument that all superhero-readin' women don't like no kind of sex-violence, no matter who's on top. I would allow that their voices should be heard, but should their complaints be allowed to cut off the nose (or perhaps some other more pertinent body-part) of the superhero genre?

At the risk of misrepresenting of Friedrich Nietzsche-- who's isn't exactly the go-to guy for gender relations-- I think his notion of "tempo" could be applied to the disparities of dominant male and female preferences in pop fiction.

It isn't that men are incapable of having "ooh ahh" reactions to babies and puppies, for they have the same range of emotions as women. But for reasons of biology and/or sociology, the "tempo" with which they are expressed is less immediate, more roundabout by reason of gender defenses.

And it isn't that women are incapable of going "yeah!" when they see some nasty bastard (or bitch) blown away by hero or heroine. But their reaction to such purgative scenarios is generally less immediate than a male's, and has to be justified more by appeals to character and situation than a man's does.

Thus the superhero genre would seem to be dominantly attuned to the male "tempo." Any modifications to it that don't account for that tempo are bound to end in a sort of chaos that benefits no one but the anti-fanboy elitists.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Well, as I pretty much predicted w/o looking in advance, the majority of the covers do indeed deal largely with "disempowerment" from the threat of getting killed, and with very little sexual-humiliation content. Only a couple in each category show the hero in either a triumphant situation or one that's fairly neutral in terms of peril (the 1975 WONDER WOMAN cover is one of those "what's going on now?" type covers.) Few are particularly sexy, which might indicate that (a) the overall sexualization of WONDER WOMAN may have been less statistically prevalent than the common wisdom asserts, and (b) something in the water at DC Comics seems to have made for a lot of Dull Covers with these two titles.

As I said before, I'm not denying that there have been *more* sexy-disempowerment-- or even sexy-empowerment!-- covers for WONDER WOMAN than there have been for FLASH. But I think that even a more rigorous study than this random sampling would still find against the common wisdom in some respects-- to say nothing of an examination of the actual stories which the covers were selling.


Thanks to Wonder Woman's forthcoming costume-change there's been a recent resurgence to that old standby fan-topic: Superheroines Who Dress Slutty and the Fanboys Who Make Them Do It.

I came across this 2-16-09 Noah Berlatsky post thanks to a reference in one of Curt Purcell's blogs (more on which later):

Disempowerment in various forms is a staple of super-hero covers. For men, though, it usually involves bodily transformation (Flash's big head) or humiliations in which the sexual implications are at least a bit more repressed. But here...Wonder Woman tied up and smiling as she playfully cocks her crotch and begs for it with the (ahem) Elongated Man looking on eagerly; Wonder Woman tied up and legs spread with a missile propitiously aimed; kneeling with legs spread...I mean, it's not especially subtle, is it?

For now I'll put aside my general disagreements with NB's theories on sexual objectification and ask, "Is his basic contention about the gender disparity true? Let's grant that in the fifty years since Feb 1959-- when THE FLASH got a title that put his covers on the same stand as the published-since-1942 WONDER WOMAN-- there probably have been *on the whole* more sexy-disempowerment WONDER WOMAN covers than sexy-disempowerment FLASH covers.

But frankly, I don't think either character has quite as many *sexual* disempowerments as Berlatsky indicates, given that I think most disempowerments in comics have more to do with *thanatos* than *eros.*

Let's see what happens when we compare the covers of Silver-to-Bronze-Age FLASH and WONDER WOMAN with a random sampling. I'll start with Feb 1959 for both titles and then jump about five years to the next Febrary-labelled comic for respectively 1965, 1970, 1975, 1980, and 1985, which is about the time when CRISIS killed those incarnations of the respective titles.

Here goes:

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Wrote one poster on THE BEAT in response to a comment about "PC harpies:"

“And I bet you’d have *nothing* to say if a popular comic written by a woman had men tortured, raped and murdered on a regular basis, in between them lounging around like cheesecake. You wouldn’t say anything about it at all? You wouldn’t draw any conclusions about the woman who wrote that comic or the audience that liked it? Somehow, I doubt it.”

I responded:

Well, I for one would have something to say when faced with that scenario:

“Hey– that sounds kinda hot.”