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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Friday, September 21, 2012


So who shall be my next victim?  Hmmmmmmmm...

Could it be-- CHICKEN COLIN?  Well, why the hell not?

Granted, it's about as demanding as taking an axe to a real chicken. At least when I take on Charles Reece and Noah Berlatsky, there's an intellect worth opposing.  As the Chicken's too gutless to engage me, I won't get any mental exercise out of the dissection.

Still, CC's recent over-ideological essay on the Silver Age X-MEN deserves rebuttal, even if he'll never respond.  So here goes.

The very first sentences of CC's analysis of the X-Men feature establishes that this will be a predictably ultraliberal statement founded in righteous oppositionalism:

In a profoundly reactionary society, even a gentle and sincere challenge to the status quo can be read as a significant marker of dissent. When that dissent is expressed in a medium and a form that has been purposefully emasculated so that it supposedly can’t do anything of the sort, the message becomes all the more potentially potent. At the heart of the first 19 issues of X-Men lies a moderate and yet — in the context of the day — challenging set of assumptions about how the America of the age functioned.
In the essay's two parts, the reader will find no justification for defining American society of the 1960s as "profoundly reactionary."  As I stated earlier, this is what defines the ultraliberal as well as his kissing-cousin the ultraconservative: "quoting chapter-and-verse of whatever manifesto they favor."

Having made this unsupported statement, Chicken Colin forfeits any claim he might have on identifying the political content of the feature in question.  But I'll continue to pick apart his analysis as if it had been adequately supported.

CC's first broadside deals with the depiction of ethnicity/race in the Silver Age X-MEN book-- a factor which, as many fans know, becomes of striking importance in the much more successful 1970s iteration of the concept.

That the cast of the X-Men was so profoundly WASP strangely accentuated the message that the Republic was not an inevitably godly and meritocratic endeavour. Instead, Lee and Kirby’s work suggested that America’s insistence upon obedience and conformity could even cause the children of its elite and professional classes to be perniciously defined as the Other.
 Maybe such a message was accentuated to Chicken Colin, but he's overstated his case by a few leagues. 

First, the WASP-makeup of the early X-MEN was one with almost every superhero comics-feature in the early 1960s.  One may assume if one likes that this was all part of some Barthesian scheme to keep other ethnicities down by the insistence on WASP protagonists.  A more likely scenario, though, is simply that comic-book producers aimed their features at WASP readers because those comprised the majority of the purchasing audience.

Naturally, ultraliberals are incapable of acknowledging that ethnic chauvinism may be an automatic response on the part of audiences.  Simply put, most readers like to read about fictional characters who share their appearance, their culture and, in theory, their values.  Whatever political movements or objectives may attach themselves to a fictional character, only a demagogue would claim that it is somehow "wrong" for a Caucasian reader to incline toward Caucasian characters, yet "right" for a reader of Black African descent to incline toward characters that share his ethnicity.

Now, to state the "automatic chauvinism" tenet is not to claim that such an automatic response cannot or should not be modified.  The idea of multiculturalism within American entertainment first began to find a foothold in American popular culture in the 1950s, particularly through the medium of film, as postwar liberals in the film industry sought to redress cultural wrongs by headlining African-American performers like Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.  During these years very few comic books used non-WASP characters as anything but villains or exotic supporting characters, with the significant exception of BROTHERS OF THE SPEAR. This long-runnning feature, which ran as a backup in Dell Comics' TARZAN title beginning in 1951-- one year after Sidney Poitier's first starring film-role-- gave full heroic stature to its black central character Natongo, the "pepper" in a "salt-and-pepper" team of jungle crusaders.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that there were liberal currents fighting against entrenched chauvinism tends to mitigate against Chicken Colin's depiction of America as "profoundly reactionary."  On the contrary, it was no more reactionary than any other society of the period, and a good deal less so than many others.

Let's look at that first sentence again:

That the cast of the X-Men was so profoundly WASP strangely accentuated the message that the Republic was not an inevitably godly and meritocratic endeavour.
"Strangely" is right.  Though Chicken Colin frequently mentions throughout both parts of his essay that the X-MEN series was aimed at juveniles, he constantly overlooks all factors that apply to the needs of juvenile audiences and considers the X-series as if everything in it comprised an ideological resistance to the dominant political discourse of the culture, which was, CC says, "America’s insistence upon obedience and conformity."

But is that what we're seeing in this example provided by the Chicken?

If one knew nothing about the background of this single panel-- that the man wearing dark glasses is Cyclops, a mutant who must wear sunglasses to restrain the power in his eyes-- then I don't believe the average reader would interpret it as a scene showing the "obedience and conformity" present in real American culture.  What the one panel shows is a private citizen making an inquiry of a pair of uniformed policemen-- the sort of inquiry that policemen in all eras don't like to deal with, because it constitutes a private citizen meddling in police business.  In the real world, it would be extremely foolish for any private citizen to approach a cop on the street and attempt to question him for information without at least providing some credentials and some explanation of his reason for being interested.  Cyclops does neither; he acts as if these cops owe him an explanation.

Now, if one knows the backstory, the reader can understand Cyclops making a mistake because he's just overheard news about a sought-after mutant from the two cops.  So he's acting rashly.  But given that he knows he's got this unrestrainable optic power, one would think he'd be far more cautious from the outset--  particularly since the scene does wind up with his glasses coming off, so that Cyclops almost blasts the officers.  Prior to this, the cops' response to this stranger's question is a little preremptory.  But it's not utterly unjustified by the nature of the job they do, and yes, it really is strange for a full-grown man to be wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day. Their response certainly doesn't constitute defining Cyclops as "the Other," nor does show them insisting upon "obedience and conformity" in any significant manner.

I said above that CC ignored the "needs of juvenile audiences," and his misreading of this scene is symptomatic of his poor thinking.  Lee and Kirby knew when they collaborated on this title-- as with all of their superhero titles-- that their juvenile readers wanted lots of action.  Jack Kirby in particular seems to have subscribed to the old writer's dictum: "Once you chase your characters up a tree, throw stones at them."  Cyclops' unwise encounter with the two cops doesn't serve any plot-function within the story, nor does it support a deep thematic reading; it's just another "stone" being thrown at the heroes in order to make readers empathize with them.

Now, one can make a better argument for those examples from CC in which the human hatred of mutants is overtly referenced. One might even read these examples as Lee and Kirby showing some consciousness of the ugly side of their culture's automatic chauvinism, in which, of course, Jewish-Americans like themselves were expected to keep their heads down.  AND YET, even here, one can't disregard that a lot of the problems with which the X-Men face has the *primary* purpose of giving the heroes their own unique set of troubles so as to create continued reader empathy.

CC writes:

One fine act might win the X-Men a moment’s grace, it seems, and yet tomorrow, nothing substantial would have changed where anyone but a few converts to their cause are concerned.
Well, of course not.  In a serial concept like X-MEN, for the heroes to win the status of "secular saints" (CC's words) would undermine the very factors Lee and Kirby meant to invoke to make them sympathetic.

Now, to be sure, CC does provide a short summation of Marvel's early Silver Age characters, noting how many of them were, like the X-Men, outcasts of one kind or another.  It wasn't universal, however:
Set against that developing tradition were the first incarnations of the likes of Thor, Iron Man, the Wasp, Captain America, and Giant Man, who’d been accepted and admired by society from the off. If there was little logic in why the Avengers were so adored when their peers were so often not, then there might just be little immediate sense either to a child wondering why this strata or that in their own experience should be loved or loathed.
CC does not pursue this point adequately, but to me the logic is first and foremost one relating to the concepts underlying the characters, to which Lee and his collaborators adhered with the hope of selling comics-magazines.  It's pointless to ask, "why were the X-Men not honored as the Avengers were;" they were different concepts with different dynamics. The Avengers had been modeled on DC Comics' Justice League, so early Avengers stories attempted to duplicate that type of larger-than-life concept.  I suspect that even though Stan Lee articulated and fomented the motif of "heroes with problems," he was intuitive enough not to want EVERY hero-feature to be dogged with the SAME set of problems.  Thus, while the five characters he names don't have a lot of trouble with the public, after the fashion of the X-Men, the Hulk, Spider-Man et al, they certainly do have their own set of troubles, all conceived so as to make the characters empathetic.  Thor has daddy issues, Iron Man had to plug himself into a wall-socket, Captain America was a man out of his time.  Giant-Man and the Wasp were more about their romantic dysfunctions.  There was no consistency as to the public reception of different heroes because the creators didn't believe that such equal treatment would be advantageous in terms of exciting the readers' empathies.

CC's ideological interpretations of these editorial exigencies are thus typically overstated:
Lee and Kirby’s collaboration on X-Men suggested that there really were good people who wouldn’t ever be valued for themselves.
Now, in perhaps the most radical of all of Marvel’s first-wave super-books, a mixture of an utterly committed love for America in Lee and Kirby’s work had been combined with a powerful suggestion that the home of the brave and the free was anything but for at least some of its people.
This much is true: Lee and Kirby were aware that the chauvinism in their culture could and did lead to bigotry and repression. There's no question that this is a recurring theme in their work, both with each other and separately. 

Nevertheless, Chicken Colin is far too desperate to see this inherently liberal (though not ultraliberal) theme as the defining theme of X-MEN, and one that sets it apart from the other Marvel features of the early Silver Age.  At the same time, he gives Lee and Kirby the backhanded compliment of having made only a "gentle and sincere challenge to the status quo," while overlooking that such an insistence upon ideology is a misinterpretation of the very nature of a fantasy-series like THE X-MEN.

More on CC's part 2, in my part 3. 


Al said...

Interesting entry, Gene. I guess Chicken Man (whatever the hell his name is, Chicken Man is the old radio feature that always had Chicken Man going "bawk bawk bawk bawk, I'm Chicken M-a-a-a-a-a-n"
"He's everywhere, he's everywhere")
didn't want to go to all the work of actually thinking up an intelligent reubttal.

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for the response. I was wondering whether or not any readers would get a buzz out of my attempt to fry up a chicken.

I haven't yet decided if I'll go after another pair of essays he's written that address the early appearances of Giant-Man and the Wasp. If the X-Men 2-parter is indicative, then this other 2-parter-- which I've not yet read-- will take the form of pillorying Stan Lee for not making the Wasp character a more dynamic, appealing-to-modern-feminism character. Yet I imagine rebutting that essay will just end repeating the points I've already made re: a foolish consistency about "real world relevance."

Maybe I'll write that rebuttal if any reader tells me they'd like to read it, repetition notwithstanding.

vicente said...

I put a link in my website to this article [http://newfrontiersnerd.blogspot.com/2012/09/nfn82-resenhistas-brigam-indies-brilham.html#FARPAS].

It's very hard to see someone with a background in actual criticism, not actual or forced political reading, writing about comics. As someone who is trying to grasp some of the Frye's notions, I find your blog very helpful.

I hope you can do more of articles like this one in the future -- I really enjoy seeing reviewers like the chicken one unmasked and I learned a lot by seeing you doing that.

Sorry for my poor english and thanks!

Gene Phillips said...

Hi Vicente,

Thanks for clarifying the meaning of your post for a person challenged by any language save English (and some would say I'm challenged by the notion of *CLEAR* English).

Your support is much appreciated.