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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...

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


In this essay, I expatiated at length on the association of the affect of  "cuteness" as it applied to, among other things, children's acceptance of cute versions of dangerous monsters or natural creatures.  I noted that "cuteness" could carry the connotation of "weakness," but that this needed to be seen in a broader spectrum.

In affects relating to sexual attractiveness, “weakness” translates into something closer to “that which is appealing,” overlapping with Kantian “agreeability.” For a “cute hat,” the question of weakness doesn’t apply, except in the roundabout sense that its appeal may “weaken” an onlooker to its owner’s charms. If a teenage girl considers a bulky football player “cute,” she certainly doesn’t cognize him as “weak” the way a baby is, but rather that he is, in her mind, both agreeable and approachable. By contrast beauty, as a sexually related affect, connotes “difficulty of approach,” along the lines of Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian.
Kant's idea of "agreeability," which I've expanded into the state of an object's being both agreeable and approachable, serves to show how some types of characters may have an "approachable" outward appearance, but this appearance conceals considerable strength, as with the football-player example.

In this essay I cited some reasons why I disagreed with those critics who have tried to claim Quality Comics' PLASTIC MAN as a comedy.  For me, comedy-elements are certainly present in the feature, though I find them less determinative than the adventure-elements.  Certainly many PLASTIC MAN covers sought to project the hero as playful:

However, there were a fair number of covers which also stressed Plastic Man as a crime-buster, as Jack Cole's interior stories usually did:

This is not to claim that the character was not rethought to become dominantly comedic in later renditions-- in fact, quite possibly all later renditions.

An even more uncharacteristic usage of "agreeability" visual motifs are seen in the 1964 television cartoon UNDERDOG.  Certainly the visual design of the character suggests a superhero spoof.

For that matter, the first "pilot" episode of the UNDERDOG show was completely comic in tone, dealing with the canine superhero screwing up royally in his attempt to save a young boy from perishing in a bank vault.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, the cartoon's makers soon shifted to an approach structually like that of Cole's PLASTIC MAN.  The majority of the episodes were designed to be "cliffhangers," in which Underdog's city would be placed in peril by the villain of the week.  And though there was still a liberal use of humor, particularly stemming from the unheroic sound of Underdog's voice by actor Wally Cox, the UNDERDOG series usually played the menaces straight, no matter how quirky their looks or names might be.  A prominent example is that of the episode called "the Witch of Pikyoon" sequence.  A summary from IMDB encapsulates the essence of the conflict:

After Polly's plane gets caught in a freak storm, she calls for Underdog. He comes after it crash-lands in a strange uncharted land of the Pickyoon. Magically shielded from the rest of the world by a despotic witch that rules it. The Witch becomes aware of Underdog's great powers, which rival hers. Devising a plan in which to exploit that power, she captures Polly and places her under a spell. Ransoming Polly in order to force Underdog to perform Herculean labors. The last labor causes Underdog to forsake Polly and he battles with the witch. To the Death!   

The sequence is, once again, not bereft of humor, but the fight between Underdog and the Witch is played straight, rather than being resolved in some comic fashion.  Perservering readers may recall that I identified this invigorative attitude in the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries earlier.

Because the heroes seem genuinely threatened by bizarre villains and death-traps, both plot and character validate the power of the adventure-mythos even while managing to keep the comic elements in play. This is why, even for later generations of kids not yet jaded enough to laugh at Batman, the series can still excite and fascinate them, precisely because even with the giant OOFS and WHAPS, the invigorating thrill of the agon still predominates.

Therefore it should be noted that having a "cute" or "funny" appearance-- as is the case with Underdog, Plastic Man, and the Adam West Batman-- does not necessarily denote that the character's adventures must fall into any of the "funny" categories.


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