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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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...

Friday, December 12, 2008

A SIEGEL SEGUE

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.

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