Wednesday, June 6, 2012

BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW PT. 2

At the end of Part 1 I used a couple of Image "bad girls" as counter-examples to an essay by Noah Berlatsky:



The objection may be raised that RIPTIDE et al are intended to function in roughly the same way as any DC serial superhero character: that they have serial continuities that suggest that the characters have a consistent life outside the boundaries of the panels. But this would be a fallacious defense, for in practice there's no more grounding of the internality of the "Image bad girls" than there is of the "Jack Cole hotties." So the logical extension of Berlatsky's position is that "Image bad girls" too should be exempt from any expectations of verisimilitude, because "visual stimulation" is their raison d'etre, not building up a coherent sense of their characters as heroic, principled adventurers.


To clarify, I don't downgrade either the "Image bad girls" or the "Jack Cole hotties" because they are, in Berlatsky's words, "simply about visual stimulation."  Given that I view all literary constructs as "gestures" in the sense defined by Susanne Langer, it's the nature of all such constructs to be more unreal than real.  Their relationship to reality, then, is always more a matter of common cultural consent than of any objective measure of realism.

As much as Berlatsky, I have my own likes and dislikes with respect to the way this or that character's verisimilitude is portrayed, and I have my own dislike for seeing characters I've liked or appreciated portrayed as (say) "space-tarts."  But I also recognize that individual taste, rather than critical logic, often (though not always) governs the degree to which readers accept or reject a given character's portrayal.

For instance, Berlatsky considers it "insulting"-- though it's not clear who or what's being insulted-- that a "smart, motivated, principled, adventurer" should be depicted as having "an uncontrollable compulsion to dress like a space-tart on crack."  So in this particular case, Berlatsky wishes to see an agreement between the internal characterization of the "adventurer" in question and her choices in personal attire.  In the previous essay I deemed this to be a concern for "verisimilitude" over any sensationalistic elements of a given story in the genre under discussion.

And yet, in 2009's COMICS IN THE CLOSET, Berlatsky shows this panel from an early BATMAN comic, described as "a picture of Batman acting in typical manly fashion."



Does Berlatsky regard Batman's act as that of a "heroic, principled adventurer?"  On the contrary, here it's not verisimilitude that concerns Berlatsky, but its polar opposite (at least as described in the first part of this essay), a particular spectrum of sensations encoded by Batman's actions in the comic-book diegesis.


"So masculinity in super-hero comics is almost laughably straightforward. And yet, at the same time, it isn’t straight at all. Instead, it’s bifurcated, incoherent and, in a lot of ways, really gay. To begin with, super-heroes generally have a secret life, a “secret identity”, that they can’t talk about even to their closest friends and relations. In other words, they are all closeted. And what’s in that closet?. A hypermasculine, muscle-bound body, swathed in day-glo tights; an uber-manly man whose physical tussles with the bad guys preclude any meaningful relationship with the leading lady. Out of costume, on the other hand, the hero is a feminized sissy-boy, whose painful secret prevents him from having any meaningful relationship with the leading lady. Either way, what looked like iconic maleness starts to look, from up close, rather queer. And that’s not even getting into the whole boy sidekick thing."


So when Star Sapphire dresses up like a space-tart, that's an offense against her qualities of heroic (or even villainous) internality. However, Batman's apparent claim to heroism is automatically nugatory, and his appearance, despite a lack of overt sexualization, is nevertheless indicative of hypermasculine defensiveness, whose main purpose is to deflect any appearance of gayness.   I'd like to cut Berlatsky a break by claiming that these contradictions arise purely from personal taste.  However, it's more likely that the discontinuity arises from the type of adversarial criticism Berlatsky practices-- which I'll address in a future essay, though not necessarily one directed at Berlatsky.

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