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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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...

Friday, July 6, 2012

OUTCAST OF THE COMICS-ISLANDS PT. 2

The title of this 2-part essay, obviously indebted to the Conrad novel, should put a particular complexion on the word "outcast."  In common usage the word implies a person who has been cast out by others.  But Conrad's outcasts-- Lord Jim, Kurtz, Nostromo-- effectively cast themselves from the mainstream of life.  In the world of America comics fans are more used to the image of protagonists being outcasts through no fault of their own, as with most of the X-Men. 

So to the extent "outcast" applies to me, I'm of the Conradian type, having veered off the well-beaten path followed by most of the comics-intelligentsia.  I'm currently planning a series of essays which "crosses over" the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer with the academic analyses of myth-ritualist Theodor Gaster.  In contrast, most of the intelligentsia stick with those well-traveled titans of tedium, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. 

This is rather ironic for those critics who have gathered a reputation for telling superhero fans to be more venturesome; to read other things than superheroes.  I can't object to the advice, but one wonders how seriously one should take it, when a writer like Chicken Colin browbeats readers to read an allegedly subversive LGBT superhero title, but in another essay sneers at Friedrich Nietzsche as a "19th century syphilitic sexist."  With the possible exception of Kenneth Smith, known for rambling at great length on an assortment of philosophers, most critics stick close to the "intellectual comfort zone" provided by Little Karl and Big Sigmund.

Many critics don't invoke Marx or Freud outright.  Nevertheless, one can usually discern some indebtedness to the tedium-twins wherever one finds an attempt to marginalize a given reading-preference with some form of "negative compensation," as formulated by onetime Freud-acolyte Alfred Adler.  Wiki says in part:



Compensation can cover up either real or imagined deficiencies and personal or physical inferiority. The compensation strategy, however does not truly address the source of this inferiority. Positive compensations may help one to overcome one’s difficulties. On the other hand, negative compensations do not, which results in a reinforced feeling of inferiority.


Because I'm working on the aforementioned series I'll try to keep my criticism of one such essay to a minimum, addressing for the time being just one section of Julian Darius's ON BODY TYPING IN COMICS.  The section entitled "What Male Readers Aren't Saying" begins with this assertion:

This cultural failing to address gender difference is part of what I hear, when a man says he faces body typing too and doesn’t whine about it. His statement translates roughly as, Hey, you wanted equality. How is it fair for you to complain about this but not me? But underneath even that is the deeper, underlying truth: I’m aroused by these pictures, and you’re saying they’re wrong.

This assertion would be stronger had it been built upon some fan's literal comment, but let's assume that such opinions have been expressed, possibly even in the comments-sections of Kelly Thompson essays.  I'm suspicious of the claim to boil down a "deeper, underlying truth," particularly when it takes the form of "methinks the fanboy protests too much" (a favorite Freud-strategy, by the way).  But at least there's a chain of logic here: if it doesn't apply to all, surely it applies to some.

The next decisive statement is more dubious:

I can’t recall a single man who’s dared to make the simple and obvious confession that these images make me horny.

Since Darius quotes from Thompson's essay, I wondered if he had read any of the comments on the essay as a resource.  It would seem not, as the very first post reads:

I like a certain amount of sexiness in comics, but the industry has taken that to an untenable point.

This is, to be sure, not a general defense of sexiness in comics, and the same is true in the ninth post:
 Very much agree. As a ten year old my Vampirella comic was kept hidden from my folks, and I thought it was great. But it was really one step away from action porn. Since I’m all “grown up” that shit just seems gratuitous and is laughable. Sexiest shot of a woman I have seen recently, is in the recent Batwoman, a super tight shot where she grins after realizing she is bullet proof. It was both bad ass, and hot.
I'll concede that Darius may've only been saying that people making unalloyed defenses of "sexism in comics" don't admit that the "images make them horny." I imagine that some defender somewhere has probably made the admission, though, and possibly along the same lines I have: that art should have the capacity to bring to life any fantasies whatever.  If it helps, I'll be happy to say that some comics-images make me horny.  However, I'm not a regular patron of comics these days, so I'm not precisely the best defender of the modern stuff, my liking for the Winick-March CATWOMAN notwithstanding.

 However, the following Darius quote allows for no equivocation about particular defenders:
 True, men might say that a woman (or a representation thereof) is “hot,” or even that they’d “do her.” But that’s an evaluation of a body, or a statement of what one would be willing to do to it, not a statement about the internal experience of the male in question. Despite these words’ aggression, they are a defensive way of speaking about a primal experience so strong that it alters even the way our brains process information. “I’d fuck her” usually really means “I want to fuck her but know I can’t.”
Now we're in the heart of the Negative Compensation Thicket.  Darius makes a major mistake by applying the same theory of defensiveness to the male gazer's target, irrespective as to whether it's a real "woman" or a "representation thereof."  Everything Darius then says about the male gazer's reasons for not believing that he can succeed at fucking said target-- that the gazer has pent-up doubts about his own manliness, because he's not wealthy or successful enough-- all of this is Pure Unalloyed Compensation Theory.

I'll pass quickly over the confusion between real and represented women, making the obvious jab that "I know I can't" means something very different with representations of women, simply because they aren't real.  Comics-drawings, photographs, movies on big or small screens-- not one of them has a vagina, penis, or any other sexual organ.  With that out of the way, the question becomes: does compensation theory apply if one is talking only about a flesh-and-blood object of desire?

I doubt it, particularly in terms of "wealth" and "success."  In my belief most men who fantasize about sex with (say) hot movie stars aren't compensating for anything in so doing.  Given that Darius admits that "male brains are visually aroused at much higher rates than women," why is it even necessary to posit some secondary reason behind the primary one of creating the aroused state?  If the real thing is not available for whatever reason, is there any reason not to take pleasure in the fantasy of arousal?

I presume that the real target here is not just the casual male gazer macking on some strange woman he sees on the street, but comics-buyers who validate so-called "objectification" by buying comics with lots of sexy imagery.  In contrast to Darius, I would jump to no conclusions about their motives in a universal sense, though yes, it's likely a lot of male readers buy them to masturbate.  I suppose it's possible that the upper 1% has access to hot and cold running vaginas, so that the wealthy and successful-- those that the rank-and-file male gazer supposedly envies-- never never never never bother with simple fantasies.  I suppose it's possible-- but I don't think it's likely.

 More on these matters when I have more time.

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