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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...

Saturday, October 3, 2015


While some critics are fine with preserving a simplistic, dualistic symmetry-- as in "art is art and trash is trash and never the twain shall meet"-- in my long-running narratological project I find myself looking for symmetries that extend at least into quixotic quaternities.

For instance, I've repeatedly defended heroic fiction against the notion that its primary function is to appeal to its audience's tendencies toward sadism, fascism, or both. Probably my most representative argument against the "sadism" accusation, principally voiced by Gershon Legman and Frederic Wertham, is 2008's POP GOES THE PSYCHOLOGY, while  this year I re-examined the fascism argument in WORKING VACATIONS.  

The Legman-Wertham arguments are poorly reasoned, forcing the material under consideration upon a Procrustean bed of theory. However, because the "sadism argument" addresses, even in the form of a dumb dualism, the dynamics of power between protagonist and antagonist, it's a little more difficult to dismiss across the board. In POP GOES THE PSYCHOLOGY I presented my reasoning as to why the combat between hero and villain typical of the adventure-genre is a near-complete reversal of the paradigm of the sadistic victimizer:

...it seems obvious to me that when heroes fight villains in adventure-tales, the narrative action could not be less like a lynching, much less a Sadean sadist torturing helpless victims or a gangster shooting down old ladies in the street. Wertham and Legman dance around the difference by trying to make it sound as if the villains are merely stand-ins for despised minorities and the like, which argument remains a linchpin of Marxist oppositional thought, both in modern comics-criticism and elsewhere. But neither author can totally expunge this difference of narrative action: in the adventure-genre, *the villain can defend himself.* He may be fated to lose the struggle-- indeed, until recently he always did-- but the struggle itself is essential to the adventure-genre, as it manifestly is not with the crime genre.

Yet, though I continue to endorse this argument, I've always admitted that there are a few adventure-heroes-- specifically those of the 'super" variety--  who depart somewhat from the dominant narrative action of the adventure-genre. In this respect I'm thinking principally of the Golden Age stories of two DC characters-- Superman and the Spectre-- who are only occasionally pitted against enemies who can ably defend themselves against the hero's godlike powers. This narrative departure did not continue to dominate either character's exploits in the Silver Age or in any ages thereafter. But if the majority of Golden Age superheroes gave their villains as little opportunity to fight back as Superman and Spectre did during that period, then *maybe* the fulminations of Legman and Wertham would have been justified.

I could just say, "Yeah, some authors enjoyed the spectacle of omnipotent heroes beating the tar out of whining, helpless villains," and let it go at that. But because I value symmetry in my narratological system-- particularly in the quixotic quaternity I term "the four persona-types"-- it occurs to me that the "sadistic hero" provides a natural, and probably inevitable, counterpoint to the more frequent "courageous hero." Further, this narrative propensity mirrors in reverse the evolution of the hero's inverse persona, the demihero-- for it's far more rare to see a demihero face down the monster who persecutes him, than to see him either fall victim to said monster or to escape the monster by sheer dumb luck.

As it happens, I touched on the dynamics of "hero and villain" and "demihero and monster" once more in the recent essay GOALS, OR ROLES?:

Perhaps a useful distinction also arises from the concept of "paired opposites' I've formulated: to wit, "hero is to villain as monster is to victim (or, more formally, 'demihero.')"  The monster is designed to prey on a victim who is usually weaker than he, although in many cases the demihero may "step up" and conquer the monster through strength, guile, or a combination thereof. The villain may be just as obsessed as the monster, but characters like the Joker and Lex Luthor-- who make rather good comic-book parallels to Freddy and Pinhead-- are always oriented on challenging heroes, often despite having been beaten by said heroes on many, many occasions. That kind of glory may have only negative consequences, but it's still the same glory we descry in Milton's fallen Lucifer.
Anyone who's familiar with popular fiction could hardly deny that it's far more typical to behold exemplars of the "monster persona" enacting scenarios of sadism upon helpless demihero victims than to see exemplars of the "hero persona" doing the same to their villainous opponents. Naturally, ideologues have also railed against the horror genre-- the predominant dwelling-place of monster-types-- and for Wertham if not Legman, the sadism of the monster was apparently indistinguishable from the supposedly equal sadism of the hero. Public critics of the horror-genre, though, are usually not so undiscriminating. Roger Ebert attacked slasher films relentlessly throughout the 1980s, explicitly taking issue with the subgenre's power to make viewers Do Bad Things. In contrast, this collection of short superhero-flick reviews by Ebert shows no tendency to condemn heroes in general as budding sadists. I'm not saying that Ebert rendered any substantive judgments of the superhero genre, for he was as superficial about them as he was about monsters. I merely use him as an example of a popular film-critic who had a more normative reaction to hero-fiction than one sees in the pop psychobabble of Legman and Wertham.

Summing up, the heroes who *may* incarnate a sadistic dynamic-- one for which the Spectre has become far better known than Superman--

--are a distinct minority, just as it's rare to see monsters inspire their demihero victims to fight the monsters on their own terms.


On an unrelated matter, another assertion of symmetry occurs to me with regard to my formulation of the dynamics of the combative mode. In PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX, I explored some of the ways in which works might depart from or adhere to the mode in terms of their narrative strategies. For instance, the best-known paradigm of the combative mode presents the audience with a scene in which the central hero meets his villainous opponent in equal combat.

However, I considered the problem of whether the mode was fulfilled if someone other than the hero defeated the villain:

Another variation is seen in my review of the 2012 DARK SHADOWS, wherein vampire protagonist Barnabas Collins has a violent conflict with the villain but is taken out of the fight, after which the villain is destroyed by the main character's allies. But as long as there has been some narrative plot-thread to leads inevitably to some sort of spectacular combat, it doesn't matter if the combat follows the dominant pattern of the main hero overcoming the villain.
Now, though I did not say so at the time, it occurs to me that having the villain defeated by an ally of the main hero is not markedly different from the scenario in which the main hero fights, not the main villain, but some ally or henchman  of the main villain. As example, here's a still from the 1966 film TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD:

I don't think anyone watching the film felt Tarzan's heroism invalidated because the ape-man fought the main villain's enforcer, rather than the villain himself. By the same token, even though the Barnabas of the 2012 film doesn't succeed in defeating his foe, the fact that she is defeated by a being more or less allied to Barnabas' cause provides the same experience of combative satisfaction.

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