If you make it simply about visual stimulation, it’s simply about visual stimulation, and doesn’t have to have anything to do (or at least, not much to do) with real women. Once you start pretending that you’re talking about a smart, motivated, principled adventurer, on the other hand, you end up implying that said smart, motivated, principled, adventurer has an uncontrollable compulsion to dress like a space-tart on crack. Which is, it seems to me, insulting.
-- I find that Berlatsky's intent here is to show a deep-rooted conflict between two aspects of current superhero comics. One aspect is that of the sensationalism in which the earliest versions of the genre (as with most if not all genres) are rooted. Sensationalism includes, but is not limited to, blatant appeals to the kinetic entertainment values of violence and sexiness (though not literal sex in the case of early superheroes). The other aspect doesn't appear in superhero comics to any significant extent until Marvel Comics changes the paradigm for the genre, injecting the expectation of verisimilitude into stories about bat-cloaked avengers and giant green monsters. Given that Berlatsky is chiding current comics for expecting him to believe that a motivated heroine (or villainess, a la Star Sapphire) would "dress like a space-tart on crack," he's privileging the aspect of verisimilitude within the context of superhero stories, though he doesn't oppose pure sensationalism in the cheesecake cartoons of Jack Cole, since these are only "about visual stimulation."
In my essay-series RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT (beginning here),I critiqued a statement from Grant Morrison on the supposed immunity of fantastic fiction from verisimilitude, and found that "Morrison.... may be too cavalier about the need for some types of verisimilitude in even the most fantastic fiction." At the same time I disagreed with Tim O'Neil in his view that "fiction is a set of rules." For comparable but not identical reasons, I also reject Berlatsky's idea that verisimilitude takes priority, whether in the superhero genre or elsewhere.
The interactions of those narrative aspects that I've called "sensationalism" and "verisimilitude" in this essay (purely for convenience, not as terms for general use) are far from simple; therefore I won't explore them here. I will note that Berlatsky is far from alone in perceiving a conflict between the verisimilitudinous depiction of fantasy-figures and the use (or overuse) of sensational elements.
On a 4-23-12 post to a Comic Book Resources thread I started, entitled "Black Widow-- unzipped, sometimes heels?", a poster named Hrist (identified as female) made this comment:
There's a difference between elements of titillation and a sequence whose purpose is solely to titillate. It's heroic fantasy first, everything else second, really, with superheroes; the sexual elements are mostly leftovers from a power fantasy, not there to say anything much on their own.I won't rehash my response to Hrist's assertion here. Yet I find it interesting in that it shows the poster's conviction-- similar in my opinion to Berlatsky's theme-- that there is a type of "heroic fantasy" that may possess "elements of titillation" but which is not defined by them. Certainly one could find any number of other posts or essays by comics-readers that express diffidence toward the "power fantasies" of the superhero genre becoming infused with explicit sexual sensationalism, as against the various levels of violent sensationalism with which they're dominantly associated.
There's a particular irony in seeing Berlatsky emphasize the importance of verisimilitude within the superhero genre, while championing cheesecake art for being about nothing more than"visual stimulation." Can't one find superhero characters who function on the same non-verisimilitudinal level of narrative as the cheesecake cartoons? Here's one:
And here's another:
Now, in DUCK SHOOT PART 2 I agreed with Berlatsky that the DC Star Sapphire is a contradiction, being a powerful villainess who dresses like a slag. But the contradiction only exists in respect given that other versions of Star Sapphire have not been so focused on "visual stimulation." Titles like RIPTIDE and WYNONNA EARP have no such history, so can one not fairly give them the same free pass that the girly-cartoons are given?
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.
Such a defense I would find even more problematic than the admitted discontinuities between a given creator's treatment of a well-traveled character like that of Star Sapphire. While I may agree with Berlatsky about the unattractiveness of a particular sexualized representation of a particular character, that's merely a statement of personal taste. From a critical stance I find it illogical to disregard the role of "the sensational" in the superhero genre, or, for that matter, the role of "verisimilitude" in even so humble a form as the cheesecake cartoon.
I'll return to some of the more complex aspects of how these two aspects intersect when I return to the somewhat neglected topic of "adult pulp."