Wednesday, December 12, 2012

THE SAD STORY OF SUPERHERO SADISM

In my previous essay I wrote:

This isn't to say that the "sensuous frenzy" of sadism doesn't have some relation to the world of the "combative" form of conflict. But clearly, contra Legman and Wertham, violence takes a radically different form in the idiom of the adventure-hero.

The factor that underlies this "radically different form" is that of the struggle between two or more superior forces, a form of conflict that has (to my knowledge) no occurence in the works of the Marquis de Sade himself, nor of most works that could be fairly labeled "sadistic," whether the sadism was of a syndromic or a casual nature.

Now the nature of what can be considered a "superior force" must be analyzed, as with most other qualities mentioned on this theory-blog, in terms of narrative function.  Batman, a costumed human being who uses a few unusual gimmicks during his first ten years of existence, is clearly a superior specimen.  Fans remember best his bizarre criminals-- from the favorites (do I need to invoke the names of the Big Three?) to one-offs like the Red Devils and the Duc D'Orterre.  However, in that initial ten-year period most of Batman's foes were not costumed or super-gimmicked villains, but common crooks.  Can common crooks qualify as "superior forces?"

Narratively they can, of course.  Though Batman can frequently fight his way through four or five plug-uglies without raising a sweat, the plug-uglies represent what would prove a superior force to most ordinary citizens.  This is reinforced by the fact that on occasion this or that story finds it necessary for the crooks to get the upper hand, as if to remind the reader that these aren't pushovers just because they're often treated that way.  I presented an example of this narrarive necessity in this essay.

However, what about the heroes whose power-level is like that of gods to men?  If one surveys the first ten years of heroes like Superman and the Spectre-- both creations of wunderkind Jerry Siegel-- one will find those heroes most frequently battling ordinary thugs rather than aliens, mad scientists, occult menaces, etc.  Going by the Legman-Wertham hypothesis, would this not mean that features with godlike heroes, who can rarely if ever be menaced by most of their opponents, are just stand-ins for sadistic abusers of innocent criminals?

Not quite, and again, the analysis of narrative trends holds more relevance than the simple power discrepancy.

Consider Superman.  It's true that within his first decade, he hardly ever encounters a foe who can shake him up. Does this mean that his stories are, as the two psycho-babblers claimed, just excuses for the pleasures of inflicting pain?  Hardly, for while the original concept of Superman depended on his being superlative in power, the hero usually had a different form of conflict.  Because his creators and/or editors didn't want him simply beating up crooks unless he was doing so to put them in jail-- in keeping with societal priorities of the period-- Superman had to make some use of his brain.  Not infrequently the Man of Steel had to play detective in order to figure out not just who to hit, but also how to find evidence that would put the malefactors away.  Thus, as I've pointed out elsewhere, Superman had to be as much a trickster as a warrior.



The Spectre presents a more involved case, for this hero's origin story implies that God Above has given the Spectre limitless power to fight crime and to execute whomever the hero may care to execute.  And to be sure, some of the fates the Spectre visits upon his early victims might be cited as cases of sadistic pleasure, as noted in the quote above.



What I find significant, though, is that even with this scenario-- in which the Spectre never (or hardly ever) had to answer for his actions-- Siegel's scripts still had to find ways to throw in conflict, so that even the omnipotent Spectre had to struggle somewhat.  Thus, in the midst of the hero hunting some blackmailers, Siegel would throw in some cosmic mishap that would temporarily flummox the hero, so that he had to go the extra mile to save a damsel from her distress.

Thus it would seem that even the most powerful heroes within the "combative adventure" mythos are more limited than the protagonists of the Marquis de Sade, who exist to do anything they please.

2 comments:

Al said...

What you state is true, Gene. Our putative superheroes are constrained by their goodness not to use their powers willy nilly, in any way they please. A constraint that the baddies Superman and the Spectre didn't have to worry about. But then again, I don't have much respect for Wertham and his ilk in any case.

Gene Phillips said...

Sometimes I'm a little concerned about the relevance of my attacking dead writers like Frederic Wertham and Gershon Legman. However, when I see a number of naive fans repeat the "superheroes are fascists" argument without even buttressing it as much as a crank like Legman did-- or writer Bart Beaty attempting to valorize Wertham's rep-- I think the arguments against the dead-and-gone representatives of these arguments become increasingly important.