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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...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


As I've noted before, because I've made calculated defenses of the literary usages of sex and violence, some of my opponents in various arguments have tried to paint me as indifferent to the principle of equity, of fairness in-- for instance-- the depiction of women in popular fiction. I've argued here that "pure equity" of the type desired by many pundits is not feasible. That does not mean that one should never strive for equity in particular circumstances, though.

In finance the word "equity" transmuted from connoting a principle of social fairness to something closer to a properly modulated exchange of capital.  The financial term has also begotten the offspring "positive equity" and "negative equity." On this site I found a felicitously simple definition of these secondary terms: from the point of view of a bank, "positive equity adds value to the bank, while negative equity takes value away."  

If one attempts to transfer these basic concepts to the domain of literary studies-- which patently I intend to do here-- then "positive equity" would add value to the "bank"-- essentially, a particular culture or subculture-- by instilling it with greater value, while "negative equity" would take that value away. But here the 'value" of which I speak is not financial, but one that goes back to the principle of social fairness. 

In short, "positive equity" is achieved when someone points out a genuine abuse of fairness, while "negative equity" is achieved when someone uses the concept of fairness incorrectly, to be unfair to someone else.

As stated here I consider the controversy about Milo Manara's SPIDER-WOMAN cover to be a false one, grounded in unrealistic expectations and bad logic. One of the most egregious displays of poor logic appears on the site known as THE MARY SUE, from which I take this side-by-side comparison.

It would be a legitimate observation, to assert that an artist had recycled some of the elements of an explicitly erotic drawing into one whose erotic content was, at the very least, far more subdued.

It is not a legitimate observation to place two such illustrations side-by-side, ignoring the strong differences in the visual elements and the overall context, and to claim-- fallaciously-- that "this [Spider-Woman's butt] is what our 'hero' is showing the city."

This, therefore, is "negative equity:" the author has started out claiming to call attention to Milo Manara's alleged inequity in his drawing of a female superhero-- presumably as against whatever male superheroes he has drawn-- and does Manara a far greater injustice than anything Manara *might* have done.

In contrast, a far more thorough logical attack on male privilege was made way back in 1980, in the fanzine LOC #1. The cover asserts that I myself have something in the issue as well, but I'm damned if I can remember what it was. And though I'm as egocentric as the next fan-writer, I feel it's demonstrable that Carol A. Strickland's essay "The Rape of Ms. Marvel" is the standout for this magazine.

Fortunately, one need not comb through dusty stacks of zines to reread the essay: for some years Ms. Strickland has kept the original essay online, here.

In Strickland's opening statements, she makes the sort of statement that I've frequently called into question on this blog:

I realize that females are only a small part of comics readers and fandom, but it should not just be the women who raise the roof over such a story. It should be everyone. Isn't everyone entitled to respect as a human being? Shouldn't they be against something that so self-consciously seeks to destroy that respect and degrade women in general by destroying the symbol of womankind?

I've often maintained that fictional characters are not inherently deserving of "respect." I may like or dislike what a given author perpetrates upon a particular fictional character, but I've maintained that "a character rooted in sensationalistic adventures [is] also vulnerable to receiving a sensationalistic demise."  But I also maintain that each author's rendition of a particular character, or set of characters, should display its own internal logic, apart from any other renditions.

Strickland's essay shows relentless good logic in explaining all the myriad ways in which AVENGERS #200, written by David Micheline and edited by Jim Shooter, violates the probity of the Ms. Marvel character. She asserts that Jim Shooter-- who wrote the series prior to Micheline-- allowed Ms. Marvel to develop "a pushy, intimidating quirk." Though in contrast to Strickland I have more positive memories of Jim Shooter's treatment of female characters in his early LEGION stories, I have no compunction about stating that his Marvel work of this period was indeed marked by the imposition of illogical "quirks" upon various characters, both male and female. (I really ought to reprint my own barn-burning review of Jim Shooter's SECRET WARS on this blog someday.)

Strickland does not comment on the fact that the original concept-- that Ms. Marvel would be impregnated by the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree-- was at least in line with the basic concept of the character, once it was established in Roy Thomas' "Kree-Skrull War" narrative that the Kree had a need to tap the essence of the younger, more vital human race.  Shooter's veto of this concept thus forced writer Micheline to attempt a patch-job in order to save the storyline. This is something any professional writer might do, and thus Micheline cannot be faulted for the attempt, only for the execution.

Strickland points out the psychological avoidance-rituals in the culmination of Ms. Marvel's unwanted pregnancy, a key example of violating internal logic:

In a male-fairytale version of birth, Ms. Marvel delivers in a non-birthing sort of way (I don't understand it either. Let's look at the physical processes involved--!) There is no pain, no labor, no logic... All the while Ms. Marvel is exposed to the other Avengers without shred number one of privacy during the non-birth birth.

And finally, we have the improbable reactions of the other Avengers to the entire situation. Their blase acceptance of a bizarre situation, their lack of empathy to their fellow hero, and their weak-willed consent to a dubious solution-- all of these are hallmarks of a writer attempting to force a foregone conclusion, rather than making it cohere properly on its own terms.

Now, can one prove that Shooter and Micheline concocted the "Ms. Marvel rape" out of hostility to women generally? Not really, especially since both of them can be shown to have depicted certain female characters in an empowering manner at given times during their respective professional histories.  But it's entirely appropriate to state that their handling of the character was clumsy and counter-productive to good storytelling.

Now, given my quasi-defense of "fake-rape" in this series of essays, it should be clear that I'm not asserting anything along the lines of, "Ms. Marvel should never be raped because it's disempowering."  I still believe, as I said, that "a great part of fiction's appeal is its ability to conjure forth fantasies of supremacy, with or without sexual content."

At the same time, the best fantasies are usually-- though not invariably-- the ones that create their own sense of internal logic, be it the logic of J.R.R. Tolkien or of Mickey Spillane.

And that's how the Strickland essay took a bad story, held up a light to it, and created the value of "positive equity" by so doing, enriching in a small way the subculture of comics fandom.

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