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Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Returning to the question of Superman's status as myth--

I've said *here* that my criteria for the presence of mythicity in a literary/subliterary work depends on how it communicates Campbell's "four functions" of archaic myth: the cosmological, the metaphysical, the psychological, and the sociological. IMO the first two have no relevance within the sphere of the Siegel/Schuster stories I've finished in SUPERMAN CHRONICLES. I anticipate having more to say about the functions of psychological and sociological myths in the early stories in a future essay. But first I want to go into my criteria for evaluation a little more deeply.

It should be a given that no one cares what any given critic thinks, on a purely personal level, about a given literary object. If as a statement of personal taste I say that I like the Superman of the 1960s more than the Superman of the 1940s, then I'm the only one to whom that fact can conceivably matter. Others only may care about a critic's opinions/observations to the extent that they become (to borrow a Jungian word) "transpersonal."

To take a specific example, look at Gary Groth's summing-up for the life of Will Eisner after the artist's death. Groth includes assorted details on his personal reception with the work of Eisner-- not encountering it at a young age, for instance-- before giving a general history of the artist's career and then pronouncing that Eisner's "seminal creation," THE SPIRIT, deserved Groth's "measured appreciation" due to the "frivolousness that gave The Spirit its charm." I don't agree with this Grothian estimation or various others in the essay, but Groth's opinion has significance for me only on that transpersonal level where I ask, "Was humor the most important aspect of Eisner's SPIRIT?"

Now, though few elitists would begrudge Groth this "measured appreciation," given his almost single-handed founding of the elitist pattern of comics-criticism, hardly anyone else who mounts a defense of a despised "popular" work receives the same consideration. The usual refrain goes something like, "You're only making up reasons to justify liking the trash for which you have personal/childish/nostaglic reasons for liking." This lame accusation takes on new levels of stupidity whenever it is addressed to a critic who has parsed his personal reflections no less than Groth, along the lines of "I liked Work X as a kid but it clearly doesn't have the deeper resonance of Work Y, even though I liked Y as a kid as well." The world of the elitists is always governed by that Carrolesque law, "Sentence first, evidence afterwards."

Now, when I reread the early 40s tales from SUPERMAN CHRONICLES, clearly I can't read them exactly as did the kid-audience of the period. Of course, one also can't read fiction of any kind from any era but one's own and be well-attuned to the way one's own culture received the works in question. Again, one has to use one's intuition for the transpersonal factors that unite readers and audiences across barriers of time and culture. And it's such an intuition that makes me feel like the Siegel-and-Schuster original version of their character comes very close to being a null-myth.

I'm certainly not the only one to comment on unusual tropes in the Superman mythos. In a preface to the reprint-volume SUPERMAN OF THE FORTIES, Bob Hughes notes certain ways in which that mythos differed from that of similar characters before and after the Man of Tomorrow's advent:

"To start off, [Superman] wasn't a crimefighter. Superman, from the start, was a Personality. The original "Champion of the Oppressed" was a wise cracking, whirling dervish of energy, popping out of the sky to right a wrong..."

I'm sure Hughes was aware that the character did fight a lot of crime; what he probably meant was that Superman was not defined by crimefighting, as one might argue that a predecessor like the Shadow was. Alvin Schwartz's notion of Superman as a "guardian angel" may be helpful here, but if so it's a very populist version of a guardian angel, one who didn't mind breaking the law in order to achieve justice. Early Superman also showed more than a touch of the trickster in those stories where his creators chose to have him use his powers to hoodwink evildoers rather than simply beating them up.

A number of contemporary comics-fans have found this populist vision of a Superman more appealing than later versions, including one scholar, Bradford Wright, who expounds on his readings of comics as sociological myths in his book COMIC-BOOK NATION. I won't detail my specific oppositions to this reading of the 40s Superman (except to remind attentive readers of my objection to purely-sociological readings, seen here, but I will point out that if I were as incapable of measured readings as some of my opponents have been pleased to claim, my argument against the superiority of the 40s Superman's mythicity would probably begin and end with "I just didn't like it."

It's certainly possible to bring forth a high degree of symbolic complexity in a populist vision of wrong-righting, even one lacking any metaphenomenal aspects whatsoever. Many of the films of Frank Capra, both before and after WWII, evince a populist vision much like that of the Siegel-and-Schuster SUPERMAN: a vision whose protagonists combine a secular toughness with a sacred Good-Samaritan ethic. Two years before Superman debuted in funny books, Capra and his collaborators put forth a major populist film-myth in 1936's MISTER DEEDS GOES TO TOWN.

However, while MISTER DEEDS, despite existing in a "realistic" world, evokes a number of American mythic oppositions-- small town/big city, selfishness/prodigality, conventional sanity/wisdom-- the 40s Superman manages to touch on none of these sort of topics. Some might claim that this is only because Superman was written for kids, but the Kane/Finger Batman was also written for kids, and though the 40s Batman isn't as pure an emblem of populist sentiment as either Superman or DEEDS, one can certainly observe strong populist currents in many Bat-tales.

So SUPERMAN wasn't automatically bad because it was (as Gary Groth has often said) because it was written for children and sub-literate morons. But it doesn't satisfy my litmus test for symbolic complexity, even though there are some powerful symbolic subtexts, that I've already detailed in Christ with Muscles. Why not?

I would certainly put some blame on the artwork of Joe Schuster. Although Gerald Jones ably defended some of the aspects of the feature's artwork (both by Schuster and other hands), most SUPERMAN art is pretty workmanlike. Yet as I've also mentioned before, I sometimes find charming the simplicity of other Golden Age heroes to whom I was not exposed in youth. (I once remarked to Harvey Kurtzman that I'd discovered a passion for Quality Comics; from his expression I'd say he instantly consigned me to the pits of subliteracy.)

But the main blame IMO has to be the scripts by Jerry Siegel, for they do jump around-- and here's the relevance of this essay's title at long last-- like an OCD grade-schooler on a hotplate. In MOT Gerald Jones remarked on the "impatience" in Siegel's script for the original prose "Superman" tale, but Siegel's hopping-around isn't just impatience; it often seems like a genuine attention-deficit. One might not expect Aristotelian unities in a comic book story (although I could again argue that a lot of BATMAN tales did deliver same), but even considering the herky-jerky plotting one could find in many of the pulps and comic strips that inspired SUPERMAN, Siegel's scripts seem to wander without knowing what effect they're shooting for-- which I'd argue is the reason that his grand populist pronoucements often seem to have less foundation than the average simple melodrama.

Nor was it just that Siegel wasn't able to buttress concepts of realistic life (even though, as I observed in "Christ," his perserverance in a mostly-mundane world had a lot to do with his mirroring of Judeo-Christian attitudes). Siegel also didn't bring a lot of conviction to stories based around metaphenomenal concepts, which, in early SUPERMAN tales, usually stemmed from a mad scientist or some sort. The hero's first encounter with a villain able to invent weapons formidable enough to hurt the hero takes place in ACTION #14, but the evil Ultra-Humanite only shows up in the last four pages of a story that starts out concerned with faulty building materials in a subway. Contrast to the BATMAN tales of Finger and Fox. When the tales were about gangsters, they started and ended with gangsters. When the tales were about vampires, they started and ended with vampires. There were a few Golden Age creators who could leap about in an incoherent manner and still be entertaining-- Fletcher Hanks, for one-- but despite the innovation of Superman, Siegel's stories seem awfully unimaginative, and therefore bereft of the symbolism I'm looking for.

Interestingly, of all the Siegel stories I've read, the ones with the greatest mythicity are the ones he did for the 1960s SUPERMAN titles under legendary tough-editor Mort Weisinger. A story like "Superman's Return to Krypton" shows a far greater organization of story elements-- including symbolism-- than anything Siegel had done in earlier eras. Yet it doesn't seem that this was Siegel's normal mode of operation, for after he severed relations with DC in the mid-60s, his scripts became pretty wild-and-woolly once more, as one can observe from his output at the Archie imprint Mighty Comics.

In the final analysis, I think that some of the more covert themes of the 40s Superman do show enough mythicity to keep the corpus of tales out of the null-mythic dustbin, but I do have to admit that uncovering those covert themes is indeed, to pursue another (I think) Aristotelian paradigm, like digging diamonds from trash.

But as I hope to display when I get back to the theme of "the sex-war in Superman," even a diamond taken from trash is still a diamond.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


The following quote comes from this post on the blog I'M SKEERDY, in response to a minor shitstorm last October from a small contingent of comics-critics that decried a particular comic book, NIGHTWING #146 as "torture porn." I don't care about the title any more than the blogger I'm quoting did, but I agree with the spirit of his response:

'if you picked up Nightwing #146 expecting something more profound than "Nightwing beats the bad guy" or "Nightwing fails to beat the bad guy", if you weren't prepared for "torture porn", I contend that you are quite probably a fool.'

I may not agree with everything the poster says in the essay, but I think I've also observed many times where critics become blind to the reality that junky comics are supposed to deliver junky thrills. I will admit that there's a sort of "middle ground" of popular works that deliver their thrills with a patina of sophistication, but I for one wouldn't expect every Scott Lobdell to be transformed into Alan Moore; nor would I think such a transformation would necessarily be an improvement.

NIGHTWING !46 might be good junk, or it might be bad (i.e., undistinguished) junk. But it should be judged for what it's supposed to be, and not according to some critic's preconceived notions.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Writing this on Xmas Eve, it occurs to me-- not the first time-- that for all the limitations of the actual Superman stories (more on which another time), Superman's creators did succeed in imparting to their hero a quasi-religious quality to his role of "secular savior."

Obviously many characters, both in the adventure-genre and elsewhere, had borrowed aspects of Judeo-Christian mythology, whether they were Miltonic rebels or suffering servants. The Lone Ranger, for instance, sports an origin drawn from the archetypal motif of the "slaughter of the innocents," and the Ranger's mission to serve in taming the West was the logical archetypal consequence of his specialness for having survived the carnage. In this dedication to an unending cause of universal justice, Superman is not very different from many of the heroes who preceded him.

What seems to have made the difference, however, was the character's possession of literal super-powers, which prior to Siegel and Schuster had rarely been exploited outside either (1) SF works that did not take place on contemporary Earth, like the Burroughs "Mars" books, or (2) either comic or horrific uses of super-powers, as with H.G. Wells's THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES and THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Moreover, the character's supernal nature was justified through an overtly Christian motif in the Superman origin, even if the motif is played as straight sci-fi drama for the space of one panel in ACTION #1-- a single boy-child being sent from "heaven" to Earth by his father. This is not by any means the only myth-motif suggested by either this short origin or later elaborations, but it is certainly the one that may have caused many readers to associate the "Man of Tomorrow" with the "Lamb of God," though such a blasphemous association had to pretty much remain at the subconscious level.

For instance, though I'm going on memory here, 40s SUPERMAN scripter Alvin Scwartz once said that he didn't consider Superman to be an ordinary superhero, but that he was more comparable to the "guardian angels" of Judeo-Christian myth. Now, this statement-- assuming I've remembered it more or less accurately-- is easily contradicted when one looks at the careers of other superheroes of the Golden Age, for most of them did, at one time or another, act as guardian angels to ordinary folks. As the superheroes were dominantly about physically battling danger, most of the help rendered concerned battles on behalf of the defenseless, just as it had with pulp-magazine heroes like Doc Savage. Had Superman never existed, comic books probably still would featured their share of adventure-heroes succoring the weak, and maybe some of them would even have ventured into more melodramatic territory, as Batman did in one early 40s story where he causes an entire city to care for the suffering of one woman (a story whose title I'll look up later, and one probably liberally swiped from Capra's 1933 LADY FOR A DAY).

But even though many of the other costumed characters were no less dedicated than Superman to helping the underdogs, Schwartz's instinct about the "guardian angel" does seem to me to fit Superman better than it does any other hero. It's certainly possible that in thinking so I'm merely influenced by many later accretions to the mythos (like DC's restatement of the Golden Rule: "Do good and you too can be a Superman"-- though I don't remember hearing that phrase when I was growing up).

I think the real reason many fans (and some creators) of the character may see him as a secular Christ-figure is that, unlike many of the exotically-powered superhumans that followed him (Green Lantern, the Flash, and even the Spectre, who had the literal "Power of God"), Superman always seemed like an ordinary fellow despite his having been born with "power from above." That touch of the mundane was also a pronounced aspect of both Judaism and Christianity, and marks one of the dialectical elements that most separates them (as well as that later "Religion of the Book," Islam) from earlier myth-systems, where arguably the mundane is subsumed by the mythic.

Of course, Superman/Christ is not a perfect fit, if for no other reason than that Superman's adventures are a lot less about "turning the other cheek." Nevertheless, the dominant image one gets with Superman is that of a god striding among mortals, a god almost constantly forbearing to strike with full force even against the evil.

I say "almost" because at times even the creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster yielded to the temptation to let their hero be as wildly violent as the Greek Heracles. In ACTION COMICS #25 (1940), the hero is rushed by two men-- one of whom, admittedly, has the power to freeze the Man of Tomorrow via hypnotism-- and Superman throws a plane at them.

Yes, that's right. THROWS A ****ING PLANE AT THEM! (You don't see the bodies get mangled by the impact but the villains aren't mentioned as having survived, either.)

Still, occasional lapses to the contrary, the image of Christ-like forbearance came across with Superman as it did with no other superhero. And that is why he remains a "Christ with muscles"-- as well as "with girlfriends," though admittedly it did apparently take him over forty years to enjoy carnal relations with any of them.

And that will lead (eventually) to the second most important myth-aspect of the SuperMythos: the Super War-of-the-Sexes.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I've just finished reading the first five issues of SUPERMAN CHRONICLES, which archive reprints all of the Superman stories in chronological order of publication.

As I commented in my "100 best serial comics" post, I'm ambivalent on the early Siegel-Schuster Superman tales. There are flashes of brilliance in the early stories, but even allowing for the fact that these stories weren't meant to be read more than a few per month, I have to admit that these stories don't come off as nearly as inventive as the earliest Batman or Wonder Woman tales, or even a lot of the second-raters, like Doctor Fate and Starman.

Many years ago in a review of one of the SUPERMAN movies for COMICS JOURNAL, animated cartoon-expert Mike Barrier described Superman as a "failed myth." I don't remember what terms he used to demonstrate that conclusion, and I suspect that I'd probably disagree with them. But I would agree that, no matter how "mythic" a given character may be *in potentia,* it's always possible for the execution to "fail" so as to produce what Ursula LeGuin called a "false myth," and what I call a "null-myth."

There's no question in my mind that the later SUPERMAN with which I grew up, the SUPERMAN of the 1960s, is a successful myth. In future posts I'll be addressing how well the original succeeds or fails from a myth-critical point of view.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


"Valerie has been following the current New Avengers storyline in which Tigra is repeatedly brutalized and humiliated. Writer Brian Bendis hints that it’s just so she can make a triumphant comeback against her oppressor. That’s certainly a valid storyline taken on its own merits. The question is how much the artwork resembles Superheroines Demise. Because if it looks like that, there may be some kind of ulterior motive....So next time you claim your interest in superheroes is completely innocent and devoid of fetishistic aspects, well…you’re going to have to PROVE it!"--Heidi McDonald, 'The One with a Lot of Comments," 1-31-08.

"Naturally, this formula [of men beating women] is not popular with girls. Granting all the masochistic excitement of terror, it is difficult to identify yourself with a corpse. And so there are published not only a handful of female crime-and western-comics, but whole series of so-called 'teen-age' comic-books specifically for girls, in which adolescent sexuality is achieved in sadistic disguise... through a continuous humiliation of scarecrow fathers and transvestist boyfriends by ravishingly pretty girls, beating up the men with flower-pots and clocks and brooms..."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH (1949), p. 47.

Let's do the usual compare-and-contrast between these two statements on comic-book sadism:

(1) They were written by different people in different eras and for very different audiences. Also, the writer of the first comment is a woman; the writer of the second was a man (now deceased).

(2) The first quote is from a short blogpost on a comics news-blog that by virtue of brevity alone probably does not represent every aspect of the author's thoughts about the subject of sadism in entertainment, while LOVE AND DEATH was a book of essays specifically devoted to its author's ruminations on the subject.

(3) Both assertions are dominantly serious in tone though the end of McDonald's becomes somewhat flippant, perhaps because she knows that one cannot prove a negative, as in, "There's no fetishism of any kind in my superhero-readings," etc.

(4) Neither assertion is backed up by any great quantity of specific textual examples. McDonald cites two storylines and a cover to "prove" that female brutalization is rampant in mainstream comics, but then, she may not be all that serious about making the point, and of course it is just a short blogpost. Legman devotes one essay in his book to comic-book sadism, but doesn't provide very many more specific examples than McDonald does, though for the above citation about "ravishingly pretty girls" beating the hell out of male victims Legman does reference an old Timely-Atlas comic, JEANIE #16.

(5) Legman was imo a full-blown crank; McDonald is imo merely cranky.

(6) Finally, though most of Legman's tirade is directed against adventure-comics, and thus against boys' entertainment, he does assert that girl readers of his time were also capable of being warped by sadistic entertainments, not all of them within the adventure-genre. In contrast, McDonald's post speaks only of male-over-female sadism (in the Superheroines Demise website and her three specific references) and of male-over-male sadism (in a reference to a fellow involved in superhero-oriented "rough trade" of the "boys only" variety).

So, since McDonald asks the average superhero-reader for "proof" of his "innocence," should I now ask her for "proof" that she did not intentionally privilege male fantasy-sadism as being a thing unique, without parallel in the female of the species?

Admittedly, though Legman clearly believes women were capable of sadism, he merely "proved" it with overblown rhetoric. His fellow traveler Wertham was no better, excoriating Wonder Woman for providing an unfeminine ideal for young girls, and citing his typical undocumented anecdotal evidence to prove that girls as much as boys could become fascinated with comic-book violence.

Testimonials from female readers of superhero comics don't generally seem to provide much evidence for the existence of female sadism. Trina Robbins is one of the few underground creators to cite an early love for superheroines, to whom she devoted a book, THE GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES, but if any of them tickled her in that way she didn't write of it (though she did emphasize how one heroine, name of Lady Fairplay, defeated a bad guy with a huge POW-ing punchout). Gloria Steinem, in her introduction to the 1972 Holt reprint of several WONDER WOMAN strips, reflects on her early love of Wonder Woman in terms of the heroine's accomplishments, though one wonders if there isn't a whiff of pleasure in seeing villains of the male sex brought low when Steinem expresses satisfaction in the "sweet vengeance" of seeing a female heroine in action. (Of course Wonder Woman fought female villains too, but what aspect of their defeat would connote "vengeance?")

Camille Paglia was one noted if controversial author who openly believed that the biology of men predisposed them toward sadism, while the biology of women had the opposite effect. I disagree, for I believe that though both biological and cultural conditioning keeps the genders from having the exact same orientation toward any aspect of life (such as power-relations), those factors don't inhibit in either sex fundamental human desires, such as the desire to see evil defeated and justice done via fantasized proxies.

If this were not a real possibility, I would think it impossible that any women could ever be fans of any sort of adventure-genre in any medium, not just the genre of superheroes in the medium of comic books. I would think that at the very least McDonald might grant that women could be as given to what I define as "casual sadism" as men are. Perhaps she might argue that men are more dominantly drawn toward the extremes of syndromic sadism, as Paglia believed, and of course this is a question that will never be "proven."

However, even if one wished to grant that men are more prone to fantasy-sadism of differing types than women are, one still must get past the formidable barrier of logic that shows a character like Wonder Woman succeeding in the comics-market long before feminism proper made its cultural debut. True, some critics have argued that much of the feature's appeal was rooted in seeing beautiful women bound, either by men or by other women, but if this was the feature's sole appeal, then WONDER WOMAN would have looked much more like the more titillating breeds of jungle-girl comics of the time.

Instead, WONDER WOMAN was a full-fledged superhero comic of the time, which meant lots of fighting-- and if a comic contains fights and remains popular, then it seems obvious that the fights are one element pleasing readers (thus leading to "sthenosadism" of both the syndromic and non-syndromic varieties). Certainly WONDER WOMAN's creator argued that part of the feature's appeal for male readers was in seeing her dominate men with her superior power, probably as much with her muscles as with her magic lasso. Marston's statement ignores that his heroine also dominated a lot of women both ways as well, but though Gerald Jones' MEN OF TOMORROW implies that this chickfight-aspect was the feature's real main appeal for the male fans, I think Jones was incorrect on the same grounds I stated above with regard to the "bondage of women" theme. Marston's WONDER WOMAN was a polyvalent pulp masterwork which, unlike any other comic of its time, regularly depicted all four of the possible permutations of gendered fantasy-sadism, which are, for anyone who forgot:

Male-over-male// male-over-female// female-over-female//female-over-male

Regarding contemporary comics that are not quite as broadly contoured as the Marston WONDER WOMAN, I do sympathize somewhat with Heidi McDonald's ire against casual depictions of the male-over-female species of sadism. Of all the four, it is the configuration that one could most consider, to borrow from Levi-Strauss, "bad to think." And yet, unlike McDonald I don't think that the configutation's presence "proves" anything about the propensities of modern superhero-comics readers. For many such readers, the possibility of a heroine being thrashed may signify nothing more than the risks of the game, with no syndromic interest. And if such readers also read features where women regularly beat the crap out of male opponents, maybe they should really worry about "proving" that they're not of the Marston persuasion, rather than that of "Superheroines Demise."

Friday, December 19, 2008



'one can schematize the respective attitudes [of sadists and masochists] so: the pure sadist wants to actively inflict his power/strength upon others without opposition; the pure masochist wants to have the power/strength of others inflicted upon him, albeit under controlled conditions. I prefer the term "strength" to the now-dated term "phallic power" employed by Freud and Deleuze, since the former term does not limit itself to the phallically-endowed gender.'

Thus I linked the human tendency to admire strength and/or power that characterizes sthenolagnia to the general concept of sadism. Under this general concept I subsume both syndromic and non-syndromic ("casual") sadism, for from an outsider's perspective it is almost impossible to separate one type of dynamization from the other: to separate the roar of the Roman colosseum's crowd as they watch a real victim eaten by a lion from the roar of a moviegoing crowd as they see a fantasy-villain blown into a thousand pieces. That they are logically separable, though, I believe I've demonstrated.

Though sthenolagnia proper can arise from the demonstration of strength in a non-aggressive context, I define sthenosadism as an affect (whether temporary or lasting) that focuses only upon strength used in an aggressive context. If nothing else such a liminal concept might avoid the logical problems of the Legman-Wertham formulations, in which the reader of any violent entertainment is conceived to be such a vulnerable vessel that exposure to any kind of violence has the power to warp him beyond the pale of normality. The model of sthenosadism at least puts forth a continuum in which most of these readers of said violent entertainment simply shrug off their effects as "only a movie/comic book/etc." while only a few internalize the violence into their own psyches.

Sthenosadism also works better than the Freud and Deleuze formulations re: sadism and masochism, in that both authors tended to characterize "power" as essentially "phallic." By making this distinction, both authors overdetermined the content of sadistic fantasy as a product of one real-world differentiation. That differentiation-- that boys are almost always stronger than girls-- supposedly means that "power" is unilaterally conceived in terms of "the phallus." Yet to a child in the so-called "pre-Oedipal" phase, both of his parents are irresistably stronger than he/ she is, and both for the same reason: because they are as giants beside the stature of the child. I'm sure few children are slow to realize that the mother is usually the giant of lesser stature, but in contrast to Freud I see no reason why that would make a child of either sex conceive power in terms of maleness. Philip Slater's book on Greek mythology/psychology has some pointed remarks on the shortcomings of Freud's male-centered system, and how considerably it overlooks the imposing nature of the mother. Deleuze sometimes seems to verge on making some similar point, but in the end he too falls victim to Freud's phallocentric preoccupations.

Unlike the Freud-Deleuze conceptions of sadism and masochism, then, the conception of sthenosadism would cover all possible permutations of power-fantasy, be they:


In addition, this schema would applicable whether or not the budding young sthenosadist were casual or obsessive, or even male or female. In my next essay (the one that was *supposed* to follow up on the Heidi McDonald remarks), I hope to bring this all to a rousing conclusion.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


One disadvantage of going the historical route in refuting the charges of syndromic sadism made by Wertham and Legman is that both authors are dead and cannot respond to my refutations. There are modern critics who object to violent entertainment on aesthetic grounds, and occasionally one of them will toss out the "sadism" accusation as a passing brickbat, sometimes even with a light-hearted manner (see below). I'm not aware of any who have attempted to make the accusation via a psychological schema, such as the one used by Legman and Wertham, though.

Thus I have to anticipate how these two deceased intellectuals might have found fault with my assertion that the paradigm of the adventure-genre (hero fights villain with both having the ability to defend themselves) does not match the paradigm of classical sadism (victimizer tortures victim, who has no ability to defend him/herself). Based on their writings, I think I can assume that both of them would use some variant of an "inconstant reader" argument. Assuming that both of them granted the difference in paradigms, they would leap to say that even though the hero of a given superhero comic generally faces the villain mano-a-mano (or even womano-a-womano, etc.), the budding young proto-sadist ignores the ethical ideals put forth in the text (much as they thought he did with the phony "you can't beat the law" preachments in the crime comics). From there (they might say) the budding young proto-sadist would go on to become obsessed with characters beating other characters without the benefit of self-defense, and of course, violent comics would be to blame for this development.

While I would not agree with the "blame" part of this imagined argument, I would certainly agree that any individual who did so transform the dominant "hero vs. villain" battles into one-sided beatings for his/her personal fantasies would indeed be a syndromic sadist. (For convenience here I will use "sadist" after Freud's somewhat-indiscriminate formulation; that is, including the phenomenon of "masochism" within the "sadism" rubric.) That such individuals do exist is testifies by a number of sites on the Internet, one of which is touched on by BEAT reporter Heidi McDonald in this post from 1/31/08, "The One With a Lot of Comments."

Now, McDonald does not call for a ban (direct or indirect) of violent comics as did Wertham and Legman. However, she does stray somewhat into their territory when she lumps together syndromic sadism with what might called "casual sadism."

"Casual sadism" as I conceive it is not a syndromic phenomenon. It is just one of many affects communicated by many forms of fiction generally and the adventure-genre specifically, and it refers here to the pleasure one takes in seeing a "villain" violently beaten by the hero. For that matter it can occur in any number of non-literary contexts, particularly those of adversarial sports. Legman and Wertham assumed, perhaps both of them were so phobic to any kind of fictional violence, that "casual sadism" could develop into the syndromic kind. I take the position of Plato's PHILEBUS, which asserted that the "soul" could experience many affects in the course of its "owner's" life, and that some would have transitory effects while others would permanently "make their mark," so to speak. In my opinion, most audiences who temporarily take pleasure in seeing hero beat villain are experiencing a transitory effect that does not noticeably warp their lives. If the effect were more than transitory on a wide scale, one might expected by now to see civilization reduced to the fascist state that both of the anti-comics critics feared.

It's unclear to me as to whether McDonald really believes that most superhero readers are potential syndromic sadists, as her comment toward the end of the post is made with a somewhat flippant tone. However, it would be a mistake, due to that slight humorous tone, to believe that she doesn't hold strong views on the subject of women being beaten. even within the bounds of fiction. In part I'll be examining some of the philosophical aspects of McDonald's expressed views in my next post.

Monday, December 15, 2008


In my last essay, I wrote:

"But what Wertham and Legman failed to take seriously was that all people capable of at least elementary cognition-- whether children or adults-- know that there is always some possibility that they could be victims of violent crime, particularly (but not exclusively) when they reside in urban centers."

It later struck me that this sounded similar to the views expressed by Bruno Bettelheim in his most famed work, THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, which concerned the way children read fairy-tales as a way of coping with the anxities of surviving in a world of (sometimes violent) adults. However, I'm not precisely on the same page as the late psychologist.

I read USES many years ago and thought it was a fair premise, albeit marked by a certain utilitarianism. While I would never deny that readers may internalize the subject matter of fiction so as to give the subject some personally-proactive theme, it's certainly not the principal quality of fiction, nor do I think most readers, children or adults, are thinking to themselves, even unconsciously, "How can I 'use' this?" Much of the charm of fiction, be it 'fantastic' or 'realistic,' resides in the way those elements most similar to everyday experience can be inverted, transvalued, or reinterpreted in assorted ways.

Apparently Bettleheim was strongly influenced by the late works of Sigmund Freud, in contrast to earlier-mentioned Legman and Wertham, who take what Freudian influences they possess from Psychology-Dad's early works. Thus the latter two see things largely in terms of a given reader's gratification (what Freud would later call the "pleasure principle"), while Bettelheim reconfigures the reader's needs in terms of Freud's corresponding "reality principle."

That fiction of all modes and genres can lend itself to both of these principles should go without saying. Therefore, I do conjure three times the name of Bettelheim so that that when he does come forth from the vasty deep, I can promptly send him right back.

Friday, December 12, 2008


This is another segue from my ongoing posts re: a theoretical judgment of "sadism in the comics."

I've coined the term "dynamization" for the purposes of a study that discusses sex and violence in art, but I've done so in order to come up with a term that describes a subjective experience of ego-satisfaction that doesn't call up associations of fictive sex and violence, as I've argued that "gratification" does. The problem of word associations is not a new one: after Freud started using "libido" to mean predominantly-sexual energies, Jung tried to correct that use by asserting that since "libido" meant life, any human activity connected to life (which meant, in effect, every activity) would be "libidinal." But though Jung's logic was impeccable, the Freudian association became dominant. So had I used a term like "libidinization," that too would have suggested naught but sex-thrills.

Dynamization, as I conceive it, is certainly not confined to art. If Person One wants to build a birdhouse, that individual is in a static state with respect to his non-knowledge about birdhouse-building, and he reaches a dynamic state once he has learned the method of crafting birdhouses and does successfully build one. In comics this would comparable to the position of a reader who becomes proficient in understanding the basic rudiments of a given genre; his understanding of that genre dynamizes him and gives Person One (generally speaking) some degree of self-satisfaction. Of course Person Two may come along and tell Person One that what the latter thinks is a dynamic genre is in fact static in comparison to some other genre which Person Two favors. Person Two may even convert Person One to this very belief, but I would argue that the initial dynamization of Person One's learning the genre is a fact within his subjectivity that is not altered by his later change in priorities.

Just as the principle of subjective dynamization can apply to any activity that gives ego-satisfaction, it also has many manifestations even within what may appear a simple fictive experience. The aforementioned comics-critics Legman and Wertham chose to read nearly all comics that contained violence as "crime comics" and charged them with having the potential to infuse their readers with the seeds of sadism and fascism. Given the multifaceted nature of human beings, it's impossible to say with certainty that NO ONE ever had sadistic or fascist impulses "touched off" by reading a comic book, but one can certainly discern other sources of dynamization than that of sadism.

I've asserted that most of the violence in works belonging to the adventure-genre centers upon a fight between a hero (or heroes) and a villain (or villains). Legman and Wertham take pains to claim that comic-book villains are symbolic substitutes for the forces of organized society-- parents, policemen, other ethnic groups-- in order to make the medium's aggression seem hostile to a civilized society. And yet, the two critics never consider that the readers might, at least in part, actually read the castigations of villains as applying to actual criminals-- such as the unknown burglar who caused the death of Jerry Siegel's father.

As Gerald Jones' MEN OF TOMORROW notes, Siegel never publicly commented on the fact that, long before he was writing fast-paced crimefighting tales, his father was shot to death, presumably by a thief, in a scenario that resembles the origin of Batman more than that of Siegel's most famous creation. Since Siegel did not comment upon his early personal encounter with crime, we cannot presume that he took any especial satisfaction in punishing fictional gangsters with his heroes. On the other hand, had either Wertham or Legman known of Siegel's experience, I like to think that they would have at least conceded that his hypothetical motives for enjoying the spectacle of crime-beatings could have more to do with his personal loss than with any buried urge toward sadism.

Of course, they could also rejoin that few comics-readers personally lost loved ones to the depradations of criminals. But what Wertham and Legman failed to take seriously was that all people capable of at least elementary cognition-- whether children or adults-- know that there is always some possibility that they could be victims of violent crime, particularly (but not exclusively) when they reside in urban centers. Many people, knowing this, still do not love adventure-stories; some people may even be phobic toward scenes of violence, as indeed Legman and Wertham seemed to be. But some readers will feel a sense of dynamization at observing scenes in which a hero, with whom they identify, overcomes a real menace. Some may, as Wertham and Legman argued, disregard the "moral" of a given story, and focus only upon the violence. But it's clearly ridiculous to think that all readers of Jerry Siegel's SUPERMAN were so distanced; that the appeal of the Man of Steel was based in sadism alone.

In one of Alan Moore's JOURNAL interviews Moore took the non-elitist position that there was nothing inherently wrong with the ideals of the Superman comics as pertaining to young readers. He elaborated that as they grew older such readers would surely need to deepen and refine those early, elementary ideals in order to participate in the adult world, which is true enough, so far as it goes. I would add a caveat that the adult world, too, is governed by premises about the way culture and society work, and that many of these too have their roots in garnering a self-dynamizing satisfaction for this or that party. I've objected before to the fallacies of unilaterally preferring the sophisticated to the crude:

'The high/low prejudices can be much more virulent when dealing with works in differing modes that do not have humor as their aim, leading to (for instance) the tendency to reject modes dealing with adventure or melodrama in favor of those dealing with “serious drama"'

I take an even more pluralist view than Moore: the type of subjective dynamizations offered by "sophisticated entertainment" are in no way innately superior to those of "simple entertainment;" they can only be *conditionally* superior in certain particular aspects, and the reverse is also true. There will always be some individuals who like only one of those two broad idioms, but as society we need both-- and not just for the children.

We need both because the world in which we live is a "blooming, buzzing confusion" of conflicting energies, and anything that gives us clarity is essential.

NOTE: Some time after I wrote this, I learned that Siegel's father died of heart failure brought on by a holdup, not because of being shot.  My error.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


This essay is a segue from the theme pursued last in "Pop Goes the Psychology." Since my current theme involves in part those narrative elements called "sex and violence," I find myself searching around in the corpus of literary terms in order to express what I want to say, and not finding what I want.

In other words, I feel a neologism coming on.

The closest extant term to what I want is "gratification." The word comes from a Latin root meaning to "oblige" or "please," and in litcrit is usually coupled with the word "instant" as a derogatory comment of commenting upon simple entertainments that offer only quick but short-lived pleasures. In WHAT WAS LITERATURE Leslie Fiedler contrasted "unearned instant gratification" with the kind that the schools teach one to appreciate-- i.e., the "earned" kind, the type that takes some cognitive or affective noodling to assimilate. He did not, like many critics, make this contrast as a means of privileging the latter over the former, and seemed to regard both as significant to the criticism of literature, even if the two modes (my term) were not covalent.

I do believe that no one reads/views any work of art without some notion of a rewarding experience down the road, even if that experience is one as arid and rigorous as the "alienation" preferred by Theodor Adorno (whose aesthetics I hope to touch upon in a future essay). Yet the word "gratification" does have strong associations with the sex-negative attitudes of Judeo-Christian ethics. The word also carries the association of "deferred gratification," the notion that if one puts off immediate satisfaction of desires, there will be some more fulfilling or at least more prudent outcome as a result. In this essay I've rejected the notion that those forms of literature deemed to represent "unearned gratification" should be curtailed to make way for more prudent or even more mature forms of literature, so for all of these reasons "gratification" does not quite work.

"Dynamization," however, does work as a term for what the reader of a given work perceives to be happening within him, whether he seeks for unearned or earned gratification. The word, not to my knowledge used in literary studies as yet, describes an intensification of potential, as seen by the Wikipedia definition of the term in the realm of computer science:

"In computer science, Dynamization is the process of transforming a static data structure into a dynamic one"

To relate this somewhat indirectly to my essays on sadism, for the reader who wants thrills out of a superhero comic-- whether those thrills can be deemed sadistic or not by an outsider-- he searches not just for gratification but dynamization. The fact that not all gratificatory fictions suit all readers, even among those commonly thought to be undiscriminating, should be easy to demonstrate from a casual perusal of any comic-book messageboard. The same is true for readers seeking sexual thrills through a fictional medium; one size does not fit all, and the reader will obviously seek out the experience that most gives him the thrill of arousal, not just anything that is meant to gratify.

Similarly, artcomics readers, though tending to view what the mainstream-reader likes as uniformly static, seek their own dynamization through whatever experiences they find intriguing or engrossing. A given reader of this type may find a given artcomic to be basically static in its structure-- say, a bad imitation of a Harvey Pekar "confessional" comic-- and therefore his lack of dynamization would be covalent with that of the disappointed thrillseeker.

"Dynamization," by the way, comes from a Greek word for "energy," and thus seems appropriate for talking both about the *energia* through which authors create their works and with which readers come to appreciate those works.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


"Increasingly, in the last century, sadism has been supplied to the American public in massive doses in all its popular arts until, now [1949], one out of every three trees cut down in Canada for paper-pulp has murder printed on it... Whole industries have sprung up based ultimately on the exchanging of printed death for pictorial... The kiddies' korner in this new national welter of blood is the comic-book."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH, p. 27.

When the average pundit claims that this or that popular-media artifact will make its audience more sadistic, that pundit is not concerned with sadism as a syndrome. For instance, when in the 1980s Siskel and Ebert inveighed against slasher movies, their preachments against slashers had less to do with the concept of sadism than against a kind of "monkey-see monkey-do" level of violence. And from reading David Hadju's account of the anti-comics movement in the America of the 40s and 50s, I've the impression that most concerned parents and authorities were also worried mostly about kids learning from comics to be bullies or rapists or thieves, not sadists as such.

Gershon Legman and his fellow traveler Fredric Wertham, however, were not average pundits. Though they tossed around the word "sadism" with as much carelessness as any common commentator, one was a self-educated independent scholar and the other an accredited psychiatrist, and between them they put forth the first intellectual critique of the comic-book medium, almost entirely in terms of its ability to evoke the syndrome of sadism in American culture. There isn't much need to refute them point-by-point: Legman is largely forgotten by comics-scholars and Wertham remains known but in disrepute, despite a recent attempt by Bart Beaty to reform his reputation, examined here. But for better or worse the two of them were historically the first to raise the spectre of culture-wide sadism based on intellectual concepts, and in order to arrive at a more meaningful concept of sadism-- the better to combat current Legmanite/Werthamite uses of the term-- their concepts must be dealt with.

Though the two writers' concerns were not in all ways identical-- Legman was more the fiery Marxist radical who wanted to completely remake society, while Wertham was the liberal who wanted to remold it from within--both chose to identify every instance of fictional violence in every comic-book genre as potentially capable of engendering the syndrome of sadism. Legman's concern for "murder" in all American media is at least not exclusive to comic books, and indeed LOVE AND DEATH only has one section devoted to comic books, which is the inverse of the procedure in Wertham's SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, where comic books are the focus and other media are condemned almost as an afterthought. But clearly from the above quote alone Legman sees violence pervading every genre and medium, "printed" and "pictorial," while Wertham takes the rhetorical stance that all comics that depict "crime" are "crime comics," whether they take place in settings germane to Westerns, jungle-adventure, horror or "the realm of the supermen" (p. 20). Even girls' romance, considered by fans to be one of the least violent genres, comes under attack by both writers, whose main concern is not generic distinctions but the prevalence of "crime."

Of course most current analysts of genre would tend to see "crime" as a distinct genre, almost entirely focused on the depradations of 20th or 21st-century gangsters, usually in an urban environment. Wertham and Legman have a good rhetorical reason to emphasize "crime" as applying across the board, for the specific crime genre usually does emphasize the criminal rather than his law-abiding opponents, and could be, with some small fairness, accused of lining up with the paradigm of the Marquis deSade. Admittedly, Sade's stories are usually about victimizers who capture and then torture victims for pleasure, rather than gunning down little old ladies in the street as did the comic-book gangsters during the heyday of crime comics. Still, one may grant that the essential Freudian paradigm seems common to both: the aggressor vents his aggression on the helpless, and in theory the reader of crime comics enjoys and internalizes the spectacle, "unless he is a complete masochist," as Legman helplfully tells us.

However, as others before me have noted, both writers had to do some quick stepping to include adventure-comics under this sadistic syndrome, inasmuch as most adventure-comics concern a protagonist whose purpose is to prevent or avenge the crimes perpetrated by criminals upon the helpless. Both men chose to read the adventure-genre in terms of a "hermeneutics of deceit," in which every hero was merely a criminal in crusader's clothing, whose exploits against crooks Legman chose to read as "lynching."

Now, while the jury may remain out on the question as to whether the adventure-genre can inspire any sort of sadistic vibe in their audiences-- a question I'll address more fully in a future piece-- 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. As Wertham and Legman both point out, the crime-genre books usually ended with a last-minute destruction of the rampaging crook as a "sop" to morality. But the struggles of hero and villain in the adventure-genres-- best represented in comic books by the superhero-- are not thrown in at the last minute. Narratively, structurally, such physical struggles are the selling-points of the genres, and so cannot be conflated with either the crime genre or the Sadean paradigm by any truly rational approach.

In making this crucial distinction about the differing narrative structures of crime and adventure, I'm making an argument similar to the argument of Gilles Deleuze. Just as Deleuze pronounces the syndromes of sadism and masochism to be distinct by virtue of his "literary approach" to the works of Sade and Sacher-Masoch, I am claiming that if there is any "sadistic vibe" to the adventure-genre, it must be radically distinct from not only the crime genre (which no longer exists in modern comics these days), but from the Sadean paradigm of victimizer-torturing-helpless-victims.

This leads to the inescapeable conclusion that every modern pundit who makes a blanket condemnation of the antics of adventure-characters generally, and superheroes specifically, as "sadistic" is as outrageously wrong as both Legman and Wertham. The word "sadistic" cannot help but invoke the paradigm of Sade, and the adventure-genre simply does not conform to that paradigm, any more than the pheomenon of masochism was (as Freud claimed) etiologically identical with the phenomenon of sadism.

Whether or not there is an analogue of paradigmatic sadism present in adventure-comics is, of course, a separate question, which I'll address with reference to my earlier-cited concept of "sthenolagnia." But as to all the modern pundits who toss around the word "sadistic" as flagrantly as did Wertham and Legman, I can only quote to them Andre the Giant's famous phrase:

"I do not think this word means what you think it means"

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Before exploring any questions as to how the phenomenon of sadism might apply to fiction generally or the comic-book medium specifically (see here), it's necessary to establish a theoretical judgment of the phenomenon's nature (as opposed to a judgment on what if anything could/should be done about it).

Most educated persons know that for however long the actual phenomenon has been around (I hold with those that think it goes back to prehistory), the origin of the word "sadism" was coined by sexologist Kraft-Ebing in his 1890 work PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS. In this book Kraft-Ebing derived his term for a subject's taking pleasure in others' pain or discomfort from the name of the Marquise de Sade: thus"sadism." Kraft-Ebing also took a similar literary model for the phenomenon of taking pleasure in one's own pain: "masochism," named after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. I'll be touching on both phenomena here though I'll focus on the former since I don't believe any significant voice since the days of Frederic Wertham has suggested that popular fiction might turn readers masochistic.

Sade's books, starting with JUSTINE in 1791 and published to increasing scandal until (and after) Sade's death in 1814, had only one purpose: to lovingly describe harrowly-explicit scenarios of murder and torture visited upon innocent victims (mostly young women) by ruthless aristocratic voyeurs. According to critic Mario Praz, the "Divine Marquise" had a titanic effect on the development of European literature from then on, to say nothing of creating an entire erotic subgenre that developed in Victorian pornography. Not unlike a lot of literature deemed too "popular" in nature, Sade's works possess an ambivalent status in literary studies, at the very least maintaining a certain cachet for historical reasons.

Naturally "father of psychology" Sigmund Freud had his say on the sexological terms introduced by Kraft-Ebing, and he attempted to define sadism in a causative continuum with masochism. Though many of his precise theories changed during his career, his basic assertion was that sadism was the more primary phenomenon. It arose from a subject's aggressive, even "phallic" desire to inflict pain on others for his own pleasure. Given Freud's general emphasis on guilt and repression, it's not surprising that he defined masochism as pleasure arising from a subject who feels the need to inflict pain but who disavows the impulse and turns it upon himself-- sort of a "self-castration" complex.

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze overturned Freud's formula, using what he called a "literary approach" to disassociate masochism from sadism. He did so by examining in depth the concepts behind the respective syndromes as put forth by the fictional works of Sade and Sacher-Masoch. In addition to finding that the two syndromes had radically-opposed etiologies than those asserted by Freud, Deleuze found that masochism seemed to be the more primary phenomenon, arising during the subject's pre-phallic phase. As Gaylyn Studlar put it, "Deleuze considers masochism to be a phenomenology of experience that reaches far beyond the limited definition of a perverse sexuality" (IN THE REALM OF PLEASURE, p. 14). However, Deleuze agreed with Freud that, even if the etiology of the masochist was not covalent with that of the sadist, the masochist disavowed "phallic power" by suspending his own egoistic desires, thus making it possible to interpret his pains/discomforts as pleasures. The masochist wants to feel overwhelmed by a dominating force-- although he always contracts in advance with the "force-giver" as to what type of force it will be-- while the sadist wants to be that force toward others who categorically do NOT interpret pain as any kind of pleasure.

Though I agree with Deleuze in his distinctions between sadism and masochism, I think that both Freud and Deleuze are guilty of over-intellectualizing the somatic aspects of these sexual syndromes. "Disavowal" is just another intellectual construct devised to emphasize "absence" rather than "presence," thus putting both thinkers in line with similar types like Sartre and Lacan. I would emphasize more the aspect of bodies clashing against bodies, which IMO is the main reason that either activity summons up associations of sexual excitement. With this caveat in mind one can schematize the respective attitudes so: the pure sadist wants to actively inflict his power/strength upon others without opposition; the pure masochist wants to have the power/strength of others inflicted upon him, albeit under controlled conditions. I prefer the term "strength" to the now-dated term "phallic power" employed by Freud and Deleuze, since the former term does not limit itself to the phallically-endowed gender.

And this leads me to consider sthenolagnia.

Many sexual syndromes concerns activities not common to what we consider "normative" (in terms of statistical concentration) sexual stimulations-- crushing bugs, odors, or numerous other triggers. The sthenolagnia syndrome, however, bears some marked resemblance to normative stimulations, for this syndrome deals with stimulation by strength or musculature. Obviously, as per my earlier example of women's romance covers, at least one gender is stimulated enough by male musculature that such books sell in dependably-high numbers. In contrast, normative male stimulation doesn't focus upon strength in the female gender, and if anything femininity is defined in some minds as the absence of pronounced strength and/or musculature. However, even within normative, non-fetishistic sexuality, men have been known to fancy women with strong legs that suggest superior lovemaking skills (Crumb again!) and women have been known to seek out less imposing men, possibly in part to satisfy a nurturing instinct. Or perhaps both of these are pat explanations, much like those of Freud and Deleuze, and it comes down to the possibility that humans just like more variety than other animals.

I should note also that Freud's emphasis upon pain as the constant element to both sadism and masochism has less application to bondage that my theory of strength (stheno= forceful) as the common element, for as Marston pointed out, in bondage the captive is subjected to force but not necessarily to pain. I have no idea whether or not tenured sexologists could ever find a definite link (insofar as any of these heuristic speculations can be definite) between sadism/masochism and sthenolagnia in their researches. But like Deleuze, my main concern is the apperance of these syndromes/fetishes in literature, to which I'll be turning next.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Though I don't have any particular threads to hand, it seems to me that whenever I've gone to webforums and posted aboutthe William Moulton Marston WONDER WOMAN as an example of a progressive comics-feature, fans' attitudes break down into three types. First is dismissive disinterest, for any number of reasons (the stylized art of HG Peter being a frequent stopper for some fans). The second reaction ranks with the tittering of ten-year-olds: "Ooh, whips and chains! And paddles!" And the third is priggish harumphing against the notion that Marston-- no matter how covertly-- introduced scenes of potential sexual nature into what was then deemed children's entertainment.

The question as to whether sexual elements should ever be introduced in children's entertainment is for me a moot one: they do enter, no matter what the author's intention, as an inevitable result of depicting more than one gender in a story (and sometimes even when the story confines itself to one gender; a homoerotic reading of TREASURE ISLAND is certainly not beyond thought). One might cavil that Marston was guilty of over-emphasizing his particular fetish in the world of 1940s comic books, and certainly critics like Frederic Wertham and Gershom Legman jumped on him for it, though their accusations that WW inculcated homosexuality and sadism in young readers have not stood the test of time. But I found it interesting that according to this article, Wertham himself considered that his heavy usage of bondage was a means of imperilling his protagonists in a less sadistic manner, according to a 1943 letter Wertham wrote to his publisher M.C. Gaines:

"Sadism consists in [sic] the enjoyment of other people’s actual suffering…. Since binding and chaining are the one harmless, painless way of subjecting the heroine to menace and making drama of it, I have developed elaborate ways of having Wonder Woman and other characters confined."

Now, one may fairly argue that Marston is papering over the apparent fact that he had a personal liking for bondage, but it does emerge as more than just that, insofar as Marston weaves his personal kink into a Empedoclean philosophy of Love and War as it pertained to the cultural events he saw around him. That philosophy had its flaws, but no more than that of Robert Crumb IMO. So Marston does deserve some credit for being one of the first raconteurs in comic books (and strips, for that matter) to articulate any sort of philosophical stance.

WONDER WOMAN's lesbian element has been attacked less frequently in recent years than its quasi-sadistic elements, and the homosexuality arguments of Wertham, Legman, and a few later writers (Jim Harmon, for one) have been adroitly refuted by Trina Robbins here. However, the question of sadism requires more in-depth study, since it is also a frequent objection made against not just WONDER WOMAN but superhero comics in general, and so will be the subject of my next essay.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


In the comments section for EARTH SHATTERING CHANGES AT THE LAST MINUTE, Charles Reece brought up the question of the function of ideology in fiction. I think its function subservient to that of what Northrop Frye says about human beings and "primary concern," which I'd already brought up on a Comicon.con thread. Therefore I searched out the relevant passage on Comicon.com and have reprinted my summation of Frye's position below:

'In short, Frye asserts that "myth" and "ideology" (which he would probably interpret as a kind of allegory, or "forced metaphor") are idioms that deal respectively with "primary concerns" and "secondary concerns."

"Primary concerns" are basically what pagans call the "four F's"-- flags (housing), flax (clothing), fodder and frig (no explanation needed). Around such primary concerns myth, both in the religious and literary senses, orients itself.

"Secondary concerns" are the concerns of ideology, which is concerned with the best ways to obtain the items that make up "primary concerns." Name any ideology out there and at base it's just another way for its adherents to maximize their chances of getting those things that make life pleasurable and fulfilling. Myths in the raw are not concerned with ideology. Ideological notions derive from them, but such notions are entirely a secondary product.

And that's why it's silly to try to judge SPIDER-MAN as ideological fiction. Its concerns-- sex, money, power-- are the stuff of wish-fulfillment. As I noted in my earlier post, these are the forms that come first, and everything else builds on top of them.

Starting with an ideological approach to everything is like building a house without any knowledge of the ground on which you're building it.'

As should be evident this was written with reference to a debate on SPIDER-MAN, but it serves just as well to illustrate my point in MAKING A CLEAN BREAST. The statistically-dominant male attraction to the female breast is not defined primarily by its ideological usage in fiction but by its presence as a physical datum in the real world. The same can be said of the corresponding fetishization of the ripped-yet-often-hairless male chest on the covers of female-directed romance fiction (for the curious, I work at a library, so no, I don't seek this stuff out, but I can't help but see a lot of it). Both breast and chest are used in fiction to evoke a kinetic response on the part of the reader and any ideological interpretations of same are strictly derivative (Kant might say "contingent.")

Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with wish-fulfillment fiction. It might be dismal if that was all there was, but contrary to elitist critics, I know that that the danger never has existed and probably never will.


Since sex evokes strong feelings in human beings generally, I suppose it's not surprising that whenever the subject gets raised in comic-book circles, strong feelings and opinions are the norm. What I can't quite figure out is the extreme priggish righteousness that so frequently appears in both the "mainstream" and "artcomics" portions of the comics-audience. The artcomics crowd seems to me the worse offender, which is odd since these fans are claiming greater maturity on behalf of their reading-interests, and thus, by implication, for themselves. The artcomics fan apparently thinks himself deep because he can look upon the frank depiction of homosexual acts in, say, LOVE AND ROCKETS, but mention DC's Power Girl and she's immediately proof of the slobbering mentality of the mainstream fan.

Yet artcomics certainly sport their share of big-busted women, ranging from Crumb's "female Bigfoot" to Kurtzman's Little Annie Fanny to Gilbert Hernandez's Tonantzin Villasenor. Why then isn't Little Annie Fanny a "proof" of the slobbering mentality of the artcomics fan?

Thee answer, of course, is what it always is whenver "art" uses narrative elements common to what the canon considers "non-art": where non-art is giving the reader no more than gross flesh, art gives the readers subtle ideas, grafted atop the spectacle of alluring women like so many conceptual silicone implants. But this is a dodge. Demi-intellectuals like Kurtzman and Crumb may indeed have had ideas they wanted to convey, but by evoking the spectacle of alluring women-- particularly those of pneumatic proportions-- it's arguable that they're just using a showman's trick that was old in the days of traveling carnies, and that by so doing they've compromised whatever ideas they may have meant to convey.

However, were one to expouse a less elitist and more pluralist view of literature's purpose-- one in which the expousing of Brilliant Ideas designed to dazzle the brain is not literature's main purpose-- then one might contend that there's nothing inherently wrong with evoking the kinetic appeal of a sexual stimulus in a work of fiction, whether the author stops with that appeal (which was often if not always the case with Power Girl's creator Wally Wood) or goes on to supplement his work with other elements related to thematic, dramatic or mythopoeic aspects of literature. I've addressed this train of logic before in this piece and so refer the reader to that essay for more critical detail if needed.

So, though I don't think the "idea implants" theory of literature has any validity, I do not in fact criticize a work like Crumb's "White Man Meets Bigfoot" because it combines thematic and kinetic/sensual concerns. It's simply a different mode of work than a POWER GIRL series, or for that matter a literal work of pornography. All three belong to modes that can be done well or badly, and invidious comparisons between them are merely statements of particular tastes, not true critical analyses.

There's nothing wrong with making jokes about fictional characters with huge cleavage: since big breasts symbolize excess, and comedy is meant to take advantage of any excess, humor is inevitable. But there's a big difference between the "joi de vivre" of Frank Tashlin's THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT and the priggish condemnations of psuedo-intellectuals who politicize a difference in taste with the underlying message: "Don't support what you like; support what *we* like."

Just to give equal time I'll talk about some of the priggishness on the part of mainstream fans sooner or later.