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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Before Jules Feiffer wrote THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, American cultural criticism had seen (outside the ranks of comics fandom itself) a few minor pluralistic commentaries on this or that aspect of the comic-book medium. Usually such commentaries appeared within books that were primarily about comic strips, or, more rarely, as solo essays by critics like Robert Warshow, Marshall McLuhan and Leslie Fiedler. But Feiffer's HEROES was, as Gary Groth says in his introduction to the 2003 edition, "probably the first sustained essay on comic books of the '40s and '50s." In addition, it seems to have been the first organized theoretical challenge to Frederic Wertham's attack, which presupposed that "such trivia as comic books" played no more part in the formation of a healthy individual than an aphid played in the maintenance of a healthy garden.

In brief, Feiffer defends the social purpose of junk. which included most if not all comic books at the time: "Junk is there to entertain on the basest, most compromised of levels... Junk, like the drunk at the wedding, can get away with doing or saying anything because, by its very appearance, it is already in disgrace... Its values are the least middle-class of all the mass media. That's why it is needed so."

Insofar as Feiffer recognizes this "separate but equal" status of junk, I term him a "pluralist."

Which does not mean that I necessarily agree with everything he says, any more than I necessarily disagree with everything an elitist might say. But I do agree with Feiffer's methodology more than that of (obviously) Wertham, Gerson Legman or Gary Groth.

I noted *here* that Feiffer seems to have been among the first critics to start psychoanalyzing the triad of Superman, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, as in statements like this one from HEROES:

"Did Superman become Clark Kent in order to lead a normal life, have friends, be known as a nice guy, meet girls? Hardly. There's too much of the hair shirt in the role, too much devotion to the imprimatur of impotence-- an insight, perhaps, into the fantasy life of the Man of Steel. Superman as a secret masochist? Field for study there."

Of course Feiffer isn't entirely serious about this "insight," for by the next paragraph he's claiming that the real motivation for the "hair shirt" is a non-diegetic one, a play for reader identification:
"[Clark] is Superman's opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we, the noncriminal element, were really like. His fake identity was our real one. That's why we loved him so."

Now, in calling attention to the "real," non-diegetic reasons as to why an author does whatever he does, Feiffer is participating in the hermeneutics of deceit, albeit in a much more genteel way than Frederic Wertham. Never mind what the text says: here's what it's *really* about. And it should be noted that most of Feiffer's works generally, as well as HEROES specifically, stand in the considerable shadow of Sigmund Freud, although I imagine that Feiffer, like Wertham, had many points of disagreement with the Father of Psychology. Feiffer was in essence a poet of anxiety, which put him in Freud's bailiwick right off. One can hardly imagine Feiffer staring into a Jungian mandala-painting in search of enlightenment. For Feiffer enlightenment comes from humor birthed by the irresolvable conflict of the pleasure principle and the reality principle-- which is apparent in his analysis of the "real" reason for Clark Kent's existence.

I don't think Feiffer would have been much of an ally for queer theory, however. He rejects (albeit lightly) Wertham's conjectures about the hidden meaning of the Batman-and-Robin relationship, satirically observing that most of BATMAN's young readers could also be seen as "more or less queer" just by virtue of hanging out together and playing contact sports. He does observe that in BATMAN, though, a "misanthropic maleness" parallel to what he finds in SUPERMAN:

"The ideal of masculine strength... was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That's why they got hit so hard."

A proponent of queer theory would presumably say, "Well, I got your 'real rapport' right here, and it's either suppressed gayness or gay-curiosity." Given Feiffer's refutation of Wertham, I don't think he'd buy into that, though by itself the quote suggests that he was aware of other writers (possibly Leslie Fiedler) who had asserted that "misanthropic maleness" was, if not actually homosexual in nature, at least skewed to the "homosocial:" to relations between men that excluded the world of women and domesticity. But it should be noted that this kind of Fiedlerian homosociality is no more open to homosexual than to heterosexual activity: it depends on what HOUSE OF SIN's A. Sherman Barros correctly called an "ascetic" attitude. In other words, once you've got Bruce and Dick *really* sharing a bed with all that entails, then what you've got is just another bloody domestic relationship-- which is in essence the same kind of restrictive "marriage" that makes men (and some women) go out fighting crime in the first place.

Similarly, I assume that when Feiffer says, "That's why [the villains] got hit so hard," he's not seriously advocating that every black eye and busted jaw is a love-note from Hero to Villain. To be sure, there's a sort of passion present in the eyes of the protagonist as he (or she) clobbers an opponent, and I assume that it's there because the same passion for vengeance is present in the eyes of the readers. But I take it to be a passion for a form of dynamization that may be more fundamental than Eros: the passion to win. Francis Fukuyama calls it *megalothymia* and Jerry Seinfeld calls it "getting [the upper] hand," but it may have a lot more to do with what makes a superhero tick than any number of Freudian readings.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Making a short segue from the OUR BODIES series--

As noted earlier, I find queer-theory readings of any text (not just superheroes) highly problematic when they attempt to elide or paper over the text's actual representations of heterosexuality. Sigmund Freud, one of the greatest modern contributors to current notions of the hermeneutics of deceit, answered all attempts to problematize resistance to his theories as proof that they were true anyway. You resisted them because they made you uncomfortable, which was ipso facto proof that they were true.

Nevertheless, while I don't plan to devote a lot more space to refuting the overzealousness of queer theorists, I will suggest that they might hone their craft on some text that isn't nearly as problematic as stories about why Superman doesn't bone Lois Lane.

As sacrificial lamb, then, I give them-- CAPTAIN AZRAE-- er, AMERICA!

The above cover heralds from the early years of the Captain as articulated by his creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. I'm not going to make any salacious comments about the cover-- they'll probably write themselves--but I will note that in contrast to the oeuvres of SUPERMAN and BATMAN, the early years of the Captain-- collected in two 1998 paperbacks, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE CLASSIC YEARS-- are pretty well summed up by this cover in terms of gender function.

In these collections (which I believe reprint most if not all of the work from the Simon & Kirby studio before the two artists left the feature), women are dominantly damsels in distress. Captain America and Bucky have one female opponent, a minor Nazi operative named Countess Mara ("Spy Ambush," CA #10), but almost every other female here is a distressed damsel of one kind or another.

The closest thing the feature to giving the reader a Lois Lane is one Betty Ross, who appears in the second story in CAPTAIN AMERICA #1. She's some sort of spy for American intelligence, and on a couple of occasions she shows a little spunk, firing a gun or clouting a bad guy. However, she exists to be rescued more often than not, which solidifies her likeness to Lois. One suspects that the only reason the creators made her a spy was to justify her traveling to a lot of different places to be rescued, which jibes with Siegel and Schuster's reasons for making Lois a reporter.

However, while the two characters have a similar function, Betty is in no way as central to the stories of Captain America as Lois is to Superman's. Moreover, a queer reading of CAPTAIN AMERICA would at least be justified insofar as these stories are concerned, for the lead hero never shows the slightest interest in the lady fair. Indeed, the only one to even comment on the fact that she is fair is Bucky ("Ain't she pretty, Cap?"), but maybe he hadn't been fully converted at the time.

Here's the relevant scene from CA #9 (scans provided by A. Sherman Barros):

In "The Man Who Could Not Die," Captain America saves Betty from the usual menace. Having tried in earlier stories to thank the hero, only to have him run off into the night with Bucky, Betty gets a little more grabby. She flings her arms around his neck, demanding that he let her thank him: "You can't run away this time! I won't let you!" But she gets distracted when ever-faithful Bucky runs in and yells about some new peril or other, and Cap escapes.

Now this nutshell description is similar to those scenes in Superman tales where the hero disengages himself from an affectionate female. But unlike the Superman stories, there's no indication in the Cap stories that the hero has any liking for the hot babe whatsoever; just that she likes him.

Is it gay in the intent of the creators? Surely not.

Can it be construed as gay, or indicative of some "masculine incoherence?" Well, I prefer to say "ultramasculine" rather than "masculine," so as to indicate that we're not talking about a dominantly-normative state. But here, the answer is, "Possibly."

Additional factors that recommend Cap for the fuschia couch would include the fact that when the two heroes go out beating up criminals, the violence may be "clean" but the bashing of bodies is pursued by great gusto. Is said violence gay? Well, at least there's some strong emotion attached to these male-on-male encounters, in contradistinction to the rather businesslike way Superman shows in his crook-clobberings.

Intellectually I know that queer theorists won't *stop* going after Superman and Batman. Those two are, after all, the "big guns" (augh, more phallicisms!) But said theorists should ever want a substitute victim for their Procrustean beds, they wouldn't have to do nearly as much cutting with the Captain.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


I take the phrases "body" and "non-body" from an essay by Octavio Paz in CONJUNCTIONS AND DISJUNCTIONS. Paz was mindful of the fact that a lot of the words used by human beings in opposition to the physical body (as well as physical phenomena generally) are highly speculative, such as "soul" and "spirit." For that matter, even words like "mind" and "the unconscious," while more commonly used by materialists, are still "iffy."

"Non-body," then, was Paz's portmanteau term for all that intangible shit. I believe he meant it not as a viable category in itself but just as a means of spotlighting how human beings regard everything that informs their symbolic universe (that's Cassirer, again, BTW), be it tangible or intangible, corporeal or incorporeal, body or "non-body." It appeals to me as a means to subsume aspects of humanity that are sometimes ascribed to "mind," sometimes to "spirit."

So. Back to Superman and his not-so-coy mistress. Here they are in ACTION #5 (Oct 38):

Here one would think that we see a pretty strong verification of Superman's innate, or at least dominant, heterosexuality. But how should we read the fact that even though Superman will at least kiss Lois, he won't go any further that that? Since Superman is stolidly unreflective during the Siegel years, there will be no deep musings on his motivations for assuming the Clark Kent guise. I haven't read all of the Golden Age Superman stories, but I doubt that the diegetic logic ever gets any more complex than it is in the 2-page prologue of SUPERMAN #1, where Pa Kent says:

"This great strength of yours-- you've got to hide it from people or they'll be scared of you."

Concomitantly, his mother then lays on him the injunction to "assist humanity." In a nutshell the reader is given the essence of the self-sacrificial superhero mission, the contradictions of which Siegel did not explore but which Marvel Comics would mine (particularly in THE X-MEN) to great effect twenty years later. Diegetically speaking, though the motivation for the secret identity isn't as solid as it is for mere mortals like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, the basic logic does hold. Even a Superman doesn't want torch-bearing peasants constantly interrupting his quiet time.

Now, these diegetic factors don't make a queer reading of Superman impossible. But if one dismisses these factors out of hand, the reading begins to sound more like special pleading. Any deep reading, queer or otherwise, has to take into account Siegel's construction of Superman as the archetypal savior who sacrifices personal happiness (bodily pleasures, i.e., ""body") in the name of ethical ideals ("non-body.")

Certainly it's possible to claim that the reasons for sacrificing bodily desires aren't the *real* reasons. The earliest theoretical critics of comic books, Gerson Legman and Frederic Wertham, paid no attention to psychologizing Superman's Clark Kent persona; they were concerned only with the notion that the representation of the muscular male body enabled rampant homosexuality:

Legman: "the fainting adultation of thick necks, ham fists, and well-filled jockstraps.." (L&D, p. 43)

Wertham: "The muscular male stereotype... is in the setting of certain stories the object of homoerotic sexual curiosity and stimulation." (SOTI, p. 188)

I don't deny that some individuals who read comics then or read comics now were/are so stimulated. I do deny that this overrode, for the majority of the audience, a more fundamental dynamization relating to the challenges of armed combat, as channeled through generic formats.
The fact that such factors are still ignored by many modern textual critics comes as little surprise.

On the other hand, it might be a factor in the deep-readers' favor that questioning the sexuality of Superman isn't confined to elitists such as Wertham, Legman, and the majority of Marxists and Lacanians. Superman also finds his sexuality on trial in the work of the man I regard as the first person to advance a pluralist theory specifically focused on comic books: Jules Feiffer. Feiffer might not be the first person to find something odd (and maybe even a little queer) in what he called the "hairshirt" persona of Clark Kent, but his argument in THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES does strike one as more than special pleading.

Having devoted the whole of this essay to setup, I'll be looking at Feiffer's extremely informal but nevertheless influential thesis in OUR BODIES Part 3.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I'm not going to expatiate in detail on part 2 of the "Comics in the Closet" essay I referenced earlier, but I will use as a conceptual jumping-off point a comment from an individual with the screen-name "Pallas" who took issue with Berlatsky's essay.

Pallas said:

"I think it's a real stretch to say that because Clark can take pleasure in his own super powers, he's somehow gay, or that he can have a homoerotic desire for himself..."

Later he adds:

"Superman is battling other men in order to win reproductive rights to the girl, who is only interested in him due to his masculine strength providing the best genes to ensure her children have the greatest chance of survival."

This is by no means a groundbreaking interpretation of the Superman/Clark/Lois dynamic, but it's a refreshing common-sense statement that is far more supported by the original comic books than Berlatsky's theory.

The first exploration of the Lois/Clark dynamic in ACTION #1 (a little before Lois even meets Superman) coheres perfectly with Pallas' argument. Clark, having affected his nebbishy disguise, is plainly moved by heterosexual desire to ask Lois out, rather than, say, "hanging with the boys" as any good repressed-homosexual oughtta be. A thug and his gang intrude. Lois slaps the thug but Clark won't fight. Lois leaves in her own car, and when the thugs pursue her, Clark has the needed excuse to unleash Superman (who's apparently only made a small handful of public apperances hitherto) to give the thugs a thrashing.

Or, to be more specific, what he thrashes is their car. Can one assumes that the car is essentially a penis-substitute? Probably, though Joe Schuster should be drummed out of the Repressed-Homosexual Corps in that he really doesn't make any of the thugs being indirectly thrashed as being full of masculine potency. Personally I think Schuster tends to focus more on the attractivness of Lois Lane more than any other character, including Superman, but that too is probably just more Freudian repression of the truth.

I don't know if Freud or any of his spiritual heirs were aware of the kind of "pleasure," to which Pallas alludes, that comes from the exercise of one's abilities. As I discussed earlier, Jung was aware that all human energies did not come down to sexuality, which is why he tried (though he failed) to advance "libido" as a term to describe all potential human energies, sexual and otherwise. I have, as some may know, advanced "dynamization" as a substitute neologism for Jung's "libidinization," and will be using it somewhat in the next essay in this series.

As to the other quote I drew from Pallas, I have my doubts that Eve Sedgwick, one of the founders of queer theory, would prove very insightful on the subject of What Men Do to Get Women. I haven't read (and don't intend to read) Sedgwick any time soon, though to judge from her one-note career she ought to be at least as funny as Laura Mulvey.

What's next, Eve? (She's unfortunately deceased, so I can't really ask her.) If the conflicts of men over women in stories really reveals their gayness, should the same thing hold true of real life?

If (as the anecdote goes) young Jack Kirby once had a fistfight to drive a male rival away from his future wife Roz...

Does that mean Kirby was really Kweer for the rival, not the woman he married?

Jeez-us. (And no, that's not meant sexually! Really!!!)

Oh, no! Too many phallic exclamation points--


(To be continued)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


"...all critics are either Iliad critics or Odyssey critics. That is, interest in literature tends to center either in the area of tragedy, realism, and irony, or in the area of comedy and romance... Many of our best and wisest critics tend to think of literature as primarily instructive... They feel that its essential function is to illuminate something about life, or reality, or experience, or whatever we call the immediate world outside literature. Thus they tend... to think of literature, taken as a whole, as a vast imaginative allegory, the end of which is a deeper understanding of the nonliterary center of experience... They value lifelike characterization, incidents close enough to actual experience to be imaginatively credible, and above all they value 'high seriousness' in theme..."-- Northrop Frye, "Mouldy Tales," A NATURAL PERSPECTIVE, pp. 1-2.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Frye then goes on to describe himself as belonging to the "minority" that comprises the "Odyssean critics" as against those whose outlook favors the Iliadic view, whom later in the essay he also calls, tellingly, "moral critics." Then, of course, he relates how the Odyssean critic differs from the Iliadic one in terms of a greater appreciation of form for form's sake, identifying such formalism with the appreciation of comedy and romance, which, in truth, even most non-critics tend to view as more "escapist" and less "realistic" than tragedy and irony (the last of which most people know only as "satire.")

One of the significances of this essay for me is that, without my necessarily accepting Frye's terms, I'm in the same minority-boat as Frye. Most contemporary comics-critics-- by which I mean those who expouse an organized theory of literature, not just reviewers who discourse on whether or not they like something-- take their cues from such Iliadic influences as Roland Barthes, the Frankfurt School and sundry other Marxists, with occasional dollops of Freud here and there. I have encountered a few critics I consider to be pluralists and even a few elitists who contradict their main outlooks by expousing pluralist notions when it suits them. All I can do about this state of affairs is take refuge in the Ibsenian observation that "the minority is always right" and plug along.

It does strike me that the essay "Mouldy Tales" (the title was taken from a broadside Ben Jonson took at Shakespeare for the latter's investment in mouldy old folktales) has a possible significance for anyone interested in reading up on the critic I've most often recommended here. I don't expect that anything I write will move a comics-fan to attempt plowing through ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, but any interested party might find it relatively easy to make it through the thirty pages of this one essay. Of course, because the essay's not online, that would mean finding the outtaprint book through an interlibrary loan, so-- probably won't happen. So consider this essay a primer on what "Mouldy Tales" *might* signify to any pluralist critics.

Of strong interest is the way MT confirms my earlier opinion that Frye was a pluralist at heart, for all that he penned some rather elitist statements in the early 195os. By 1963, though Frye was still basically an academic with only mild interest in contemporary popular culture, he had developed enough to write:

"Reading a detective story indicates a liking for comic and romantic forms, and for the contemplation of a fiction for its own sake. We begin by shutting out or deliberately excluding our ordinary experience, for we accept, as part of the convention of the form, things that we know are not often found in actual experience, such as an ingenious murderer and an imaginative policeman. We do no want to think about the truth or likelihood of what we are reading, as long as it does not utterly outrage us; we simply want to see what is going to happen in the story."

Frye goes on to point out that because the more "realistic" forms of literature foreground what he terms (following Freud) "the reality principle." Thus even though tragedies like MACBETH and ironies like THE CASTLE (my examples) have a certain storytelling verve to them as well, there's a sort of proto-critical experience one generally has while experiencing them. To use a set of terms introduced in a separate Frye essay, the audience is oriented upon discovering what "significant values" are allegorized in the narrative, thereby to learn what meaning the work has for "reality." In contrast, comedy and romance, being oriented upon the "pleasure principle" (one presumes), lend themselves more to the enjoyment of "narrative values,"and of the "variety" one finds in the story's conventions. (I've elaborated elsewhere on my dislike for this term but since Frye's meaning is a pluralistic one, I'll continue to use it here.)

Perhaps the greatest mountain an Odyssean critic has to scale is that because comedy and romance are not as often intellectualized as tragedy and irony, their "variety" is perhaps harder to analyze.

Take the question of narrative "outrage." Even with comedy and romance, not everyone agrees as to what real-world notions should or should not be suspended. Probably anyone invested in BATMAN to any extent is willing to suspend disbelief in the costume, the car, the secret cave underneath the mansion. But a convention like "the sidekick" may outrage an audience-member who cannot let go of consensual reality. Said reader may become exercised about the theoretical immorality of an adult endangering a child by taking him into battle. Another reader may be incredulous as to the innocence of the original Batman-Robin relationship, and may choose to read the two characters as gay in order to give the fantasy greater "realism." In both cases the readers may be genuinely outraged, though there is a temptation to believe that they may be succumbing to the cultural tendency to project "significant values" where none are indicated.

But if the conventions have any strength with a general audience, they will survive these sort of objections. Conventions are popular formulas of dynamization: they give audiences pleasure by establishing the superiority of one set of characters or conditions over others, be it a hero over a villain or a happy marriage over a loveless one. The carpings of the realists may even provide new challenges for the artist interested in the Odyssean forms. For instance, Clint Eastwood's 1992 western UNFORGIVEN is essentially as much a "combative" form of narrative as many westerns before it, but early in the picture Eastwood begins by suggesting that he intends to deconstruct his hero, after the fashion of Robert Altman's 1971 MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER. Then, having gulled the audience, he turns the tables and gives them the big shootout that he knows most of them really want. One may critique UNFORGIVEN however one likes, but it was a clever way to manipulate an audience largely disaffected from the western genre because of concerns of "realism."
Anyone who's read this blog knows that my chosen preference is to analyze the "variety" of popular narratives in terms of the Campbellian functions, though I've mentioned from time to time that this isn't the only viable approach. As a pluralist I don't actually believe that the less realistic mythoi should have to "justify" themselves against the more realistic ones, but pressed to present one, Frye's conclusion of his essay might serve:

"The kernel of the Jonsonian [realistic] tradition is something abstract and sophisticated; the kernel of the Shakespearean [escapist] tradition is something childlike and concrete. There is no need to prefer one to the other, but there is some value in distinguishing them, if only to show that both are always with us, the light and the heat of one flickering but unquenched flame."

Monday, October 19, 2009


At least he and all superheroes turn out to be so in part one of this essay by Noah Berlatsky. He hasn't printed the second part yet, but somehow I don't think the heroes get saved in the final chapter.

Personally, I feel deeply offended by the suggestion that all superheroes are gay, because--

Seeing them all as actually or potentially gay is just as stupid as believing they should all be straight, or Caucasian, or all anything-else.

Are we really to believe that every superhero creator who ever lived couldn't conceive of sexuality in any regard except in terms of a hetero/homosexual nexus?

How gay is that?

(Not that there's anything wrong with that-- oh, wait, there is)

Frederic Wertham and Gershon Legman used to accuse comic book characters of nearly every type of "deviancy" (as the term was then understood) ever chronicled by Kraft-Ebing. Next to the kind of narrow focus expoused by Berlatsky and academics like Eve Sedgewick (cited by Berlatsky in the above piece), I think I prefer Fred 'n' Ger over Noah 'n' Eve. At least with the first pair there's a wide range of perversions from which one may choose. To focus only on homosexual influences is to overlook all the other manifestations of kink in comics, such as:




And finally...


So one doesn't need to invoke homosexuality to exercise the thrill of the forbidden, which flourishes quite healthily in even the superheroic versions of male-female encounters.
Sure, there are special cases, where homosexual vibes are either present unconsciously or evoked with cynical manipulativeness (such as the Bucky-Robin schtick Berlatsky reprints).
But criii--tic, please! Homosexuality is not the polar opposite of heterosexuality any more than a dog is the opposite of a cat.
I speak, then, for all the neglected deviants whose voices are almost lost in the overwhelming straight/gay discourse:



In the previous installment of this essay I think I explained everything I meant to explain, except the title.

"Furniture," as I mentioned, was my metaphor for whatever elements of a narrative were strictly functional in terms of getting a story told, such as the sort of purely-denotative concept of "a door" through which Joyce characters must walk as much as do Jerry Siegel characters.

However, I didn't explain "fear," though now I think "hate" might've been more appropriate.

I would like to think that I've got to a point where I don't feel anything but simple disappointment when coming across a work that seems merely functional, without any special character of its own, be it the early scripts of Jerry Siegel's SUPERMAN, discussed here, or the foot-dragging frustrations of BLACKEST NIGHT, briefly reviewed here. I can easily accept that for creators who make their living from trying to create things, often the Muse flies away and there's nothing to do but move the old narrative furniture around in order to keep food on the table.

Still, in elitist circles it's often fashionable to hate, and possibly fear, the threat posed by what is viewed as conservative creativity. That's why Clement Greenberg, quoted here, resorts to military metaphors by viewing mere popular art as a "rear guard" action taken in response to the advancements of the "avant garde." In such circles the myth of the "barbarians at the gates" is often invoked, despite the logic of a writer like James Twitchell, who points out that the barbarians are always at the gates. Freudian Twitchell thinks this enemy is always "us," in the form of the up-and-coming "younger generation," and there is some truth in this. The unsophisticated literary tastes of the young do wield considerable clout over the market of fiction in many if not all modern media.

That said, lack of cultural sophistication is not the same as the lack of culture. Indeed, arguably modern pop culture has become the functional culture of most Americans, and possibly of the majority of other nationalities as well, with the "high cultures" of great literature and religion apparently losing more ground with every new generation.

Possibly there can be no peace between high and low, as the elitists generally aver. For the elitists, the world of pop art is an undifferentiated mass, a "babble," as Northrop Frye called it in the early 1950s. However, modern elitists might take some instruction from Frye's turnabout on this matter in the early 1960s, where this critic, never a devotee of poplit as such, nevetheless came to appreciate the links between high and low. Noting first that "all art is conventionalized"-- a statement that would probably provoke the ire of Clement Greenberg-- Frye goes on to state:

"One normally rejects a convention by saying that the individual works which belong to it are all like... if one is interested [in the convention], one accepts the convention and makes the most of the variety within it."-- A NATURAL PERSPECTIVE, "Mouldy Tales," page 5.

The notion of variety being enfolded within the typical is possibly too great a conundrum for many elitists to wrap their brain about it. Nevertheless, the constant search for such variety by fans of "the conventional" seems a good deal more plausible than the notion that all of these fans are simply slaves of some elitist's concept of a "false consciousness," which I briefly satirized in my response to this Jeet Heer blogpost.

Critically speaking, there's nothing wrong with asserting that a given work-- say, BLACKEST NIGHT-- is the literary equivalent of moving one's furniture about. But it's absurd to state, as Greenberg does, that this is all that *ever* happens in the world of popular art. It's far more likely that the fans are perceiving a variety in their chosen entertainment-- even those who may like BLACKEST NIGHT-- to which the elitist critics are literally blind, because they are not "interested." Unable to speak to the fans on the fans' terms, the elitist's usual refrain devolves to, "You should like what I like instead"-- and we all know where that gets us.

Even I, a pluralist, would rather read works that strike me as "super-functional" rather than only functional. But that which is purely functional informs every narrative ever conceived, if only insofar as all narratives need the denotative as a buttress for the connotative. So fearing and/or hating the functional is, in the final analysis, not much more profound than the activity of moving around one's old furniture.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Shortly I'm about to print another essay on one of the critical works of Northrop Frye, which I'm sure will be as welcome to the assembled hordes (mini-hordes?) of comicdom as the flowers that bloom in spring. But because Frye uses a term I don't accept, I'm leading into the longer essay with a shorter one on that term, and why I think there's a better one.

The word is "convention," used in the sense of "a literary convention." American Heritage online gives this definition of the word in this sense:

"A widely used and accepted device or technique, as in drama, literature and painting."

In itself this sounds innocuous enough. However, the same source tells us that the adjectival form "conventional" can sound innocuous:

"Based in or in accordance with general agreement; customary."

Or not so innocuous:

"Devoted to or bound by conventions to the point of artificiality; ceremonious."

I've argued elsewhere that not only does this negative application of the adjectival form taint the word "convention," it also makes little sense in terms of application to the first version of a convention, when it would be, rather, an "invention."

For instance, Poe's detective C. Auguste Dupin is usually taken to be the first fictional amateur detective. Dupin did not arise out of nothing, of course, but if it were agreed that his only influences were, say, Poe's knowledge of then-contemporary crime detection, then the character of Dupin could not be a literary convention because (after American Heritage) his type was neither widely-used nor accepted at the time within the corpus of literature. He would be, rather, an "invention."

This then has the effect of putting a descendant of Dupin like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes behind the evaluative eight-ball: no matter how popular Holmes may be, no matter how many readers may think him a superior creation compared to Dupin, poor Sherlock will always be a mere "convention," though few would really call Doyle's creation "conventional."

For me it's plain the word "convention" is a malapropism: whoever first applied it to literature was not thinking of how literary works are made-- that is, that they are always derivative of something in their symbolic universe-- but how they are received, as to how their readers think of them as being conventions that they either enjoy in a conventional manner or reject because they find said works too conventional.

The word I prefer I take from Vladimir Propp, one of the influences on structuralism: in place of "convention" I would generally write "function." There is, I think, no automatic onus to its adjectival form "functional:" if one wants to use it with opprobrium one has to add something, as in "drably functional."

Thus a character who is acutely aware of hidden plots does not have to be confined to the "convention" of the detective: as a literary function such a character crosses generic boundaries and can be found as much in MACBETH (cf. Edgar, who disguises himself to ferret out the crafty plans of evil brother Edmund) as in the more strictly generic tales of Poe and Doyle.

I should add that when Propp formulated his term he applied it only to plot-functions, for his single influential work, MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLK-TALE, was devoted to folk/fairy tales alone, and not to literature as a whole. However, one can usually find functional congruities in character-types, setting-types, and types of theme in all walks of literature, even in literary works that endeavor to reject any connection with genre and/or convention.

Back in this essay I spoke of functions without any great associative complexity as "simple variables," akin to narrative "furniture" that an author had to move about. Somewhat later I used "null-myth" as a term of evaluating such simple variables in terms of their lack of mythicity. "Function" is meant to be more inclusive. Say that I consider Sherlock Holmes mythic while I deem August Derleth's imitation-Holmes "Solar Pons" to be null-mythic. That does not mean that I might not be amused in some way by a Solar Pons tale, depending on how well the author presents his material on the purely kinetic level. But I would not expect the level of associative complexity that makes the Sherlock stories generally more appealing.

Both Holmes and Pons stories share functions that their respective authors did not "invent." The Holmes stories, because of their added associative qualities, may be said to be "super-functional" in that author Doyle forges more felicitous associative connections within the literary elements of his tales than Derleth does. But Doyle doesn't escape the need for narrative functionality.

Indeed, even the most avant-garde artists can't do without some representational functionality. If James Joyce wants a character to go through a door, and doesn't have it in mind to discourse on the doorness of doors everywhere, then the door through which the Joyce character steps will be no less functional-- or even "conventional"-- than the one through which a Poe or Holmes character steps.

And that's why the convention of misapplying the word "convention" is functionally wrong.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


I've stated in earlier essays that I consider the bulk of mainstream American comics to have been directed primarily toward juveniles-- which for convenience's sake I'll define as anyone too young to vote-- even though obviously some comics, like the pulp magazines that preceded them, were intended to skew more toward older juveniles.

But there isn't a unanimity of opinion on the mattter. This site printed the following opinion:

"Obviously, many of the below comics [from the Wertham survey] are not intended for children. While all of them were probably read by children, they were not necessarily the intended audience for them as far as the cartoonists were concerned. Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat, for example, was written with a military audience in mind, and Kurtzman frequently received fan letters from men in the military."

When this excerpt was posted here on THE BEAT, I responded:

"I don’t see how these Golden Age comics could not have been “intended” for children– if not by the cartoonists, then by the publishers.

I’m sure a lot of adults sneak-read the comics, especially those that had quasi-adult themes. But I’ve never seen any history of the period that didn’t affirm that the bulk audience for comic books was made up of juveniles, and that the publishers all knew that comics could only succeed by selling to that audience, though some books favored the older set of juveniles."

Poster Eric H. responded, in part:

'Mr. Phillips, A lot of the crime and horror comics continued the traditions of the pulps and “spicy” magazines both of which had a significant adult audience.

Here’s a quotation from “The Monster Show: a Cultural History of Horror” by David J. Skal:
“The circulation figures for comic books during the early fifties are impressive even today: in 1950 50 million comic books were being printed and distributed every month. They were being read mostly by adults (54 percent, according to one Dayton, Ohio study), and by 40 percent of everybody in America above the age of 8.”

When you consider that the population of the U.S. was about 152 million people in 1950, 50 million comics is a huge number. Most people probably wouldn’t have thought anything of reading a comic. But then SOTI and the hearings made them out to be dirty, seamy things, so most adults no longer wanted to be associated with that material. And to top it off, the code ensured that most of what was published from then on was only going to appeal to an audience of children."'

There's something to be said for this view, in view of the aforementioned study and at least one other I've seen cited elsewhere. And I've already stated myself that comic books helped force the pulp magazines out of business by usurping much of their place on newsstands, though I would modify Eric H.'s statement to give cheap paperbacks their share of the credit for killing off the pulps.

However, as stated Eric H.'s judgment requires a great deal of supposition. One can fairly say that a lot of servicemen read comics on the front, though in the early 40s most of these would have been juvenile-oriented works like SUPERMAN and CAPTAIN MARVEL. It's quite likely that some publishers in the late Golden Age tried to capitalize on this exposure by concentrating on genres that might have more adult appeal for those audiences than superheroes, such as crime and horror. And some adults may have read them just as the previous generation read the pulps.

However, one should keep in mind that the pulps were a disreputable source of reading-material, and that to whatever extent comics might have taken their place, they would have inherited that same bad odor, irrespective of the effects of the anti-comics hysteria that arose in the postwar years. In contrast, the medium of the cheap paperback, that other famed Pulp-Killer, only had a bad reputation as long as it concentrated on lurid subject matter, which the paperback-medium shed as it began publishing more societally-acceptable fare. So I would maintain my view that even if some adults partook of comic books from time to time, the majority of those that wanted pulpish thrills probably turned to the paperback more quickly than the comic book. So while I don't dismiss out of hand all contemporaneous studies of comics-reading adults, they still don't weigh that heavily against the then-dominant opinion that comics were for kids.

Why did so many concerned mothers and lawmakers of the period accede so easily to the notion that comics should be for kids? Kiddie comics, far more than superheroes (no longer very popular by the late 40s), were the culprit here. Bad as the pulps' reputations might have been, no one ever considered them the domain of small children, as there were no kiddie pulps along the line of a LI'L DOC SAVAGE. The anti-comics polemics of both Wertham and Legman make clear that they think mass-market comics should have been kept clean for kids (though neither of them was entirely consistent as to how "clean" the kiddie-comics were). Kiddie-comics were the origin of the Pedagogical Paradigm that still pervades comics-criticism, even now that there are hardly any kiddie-comics, or kiddie-readers, to be found.

So it isn't supportable that comics simply stepped into the vacancy left by the pulp magazines. As to whether they were ever dominantly intended for juveniles or not, the determining factor would have to be whether or not the advertising for even the theoretically-adult comics of the period was directed at adults or juveniles. I don't have any information about the specific advertising in EC's magazines, but I did ask one fan with some knowledge of the originals, who asserted that EC used to issue phrases like, "Kids; send in your dimes" for items like glossy reproductions of the Crypt-Keeper and the Old Witch.

I'm sure William Gaines would have liked to have converted adults to his "picto-fictional" tales. Adults were where the money was. But dominant evidence suggests that he was still playing to kids, albeit the older ones. With the possible exception of the Kurtzman war books, I would put most of the ECs, as well as comparable older-juvenile works of the time, in the category of "juvenile pulp."

Monday, October 5, 2009


"THANK YOU, Frederic Wertham and McCarthy-Era bullshit! for creating a repressive atmosphere in which only the STRONG survived!"-- Lysdexicuss, TEN CENT DREAMS, 2009.

Although I took exception with Bart Beaty's defenses of Frederic Wertham in earlier posts, I have to agree with Lysdexicss (master of a most excellent comics-reprint blog) that some good things resulted from the Wertham-influenced rise of Code-approved comics.

For instance, though I have considerable affection for the mad old, bad old days of mass-market comic books, especially when they were at their most deliriously pulpy, I have to admit that there was no way that the more salacious and/or violent comics could have survived long-term public outrage. As David Hadju's TEN-CENT PLAGUE makes clear, such outrage predated Wertham's public jeremiads against comic books, and so the anti-comics hysteria would have transpired had he never put in his two cents' worth.

What I find interesting that a similar argument as to the artistically-beneficial effects of censorship was made for the mass-market films of Hollywood: an argument put forth by Thomas Doherty in his 1999 PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD. Toward the end of the book (page 345), Doherty registers his opinion of sound films in the years before the Motion Picture Code clamped down on them in 1934:

"...it would be tempting to sing a lament for the brief four-year-flowering of a vital and liberating motion-picture art in pre-Code Hollywood... The inconvenient truth is that Hollywood's output on the other side of the Code reveals no ready correlation between freedom of expression and aesthetic worth. To take an even longer view... is to suspect that the most vivid and compelling motion pictures-- glorious as art, momentous as texts-- were created under the most severe and narrow-minded censorship ever inflicted upon American cinema."

Doherty's judgment may not be the final court of appeal, but he renders an interesting verdict: as vivacious and compelling as the sound films of 1929-1933 may be. they have the air of the carnival-barker about them, just as did comic books of the Golden Age. Doherty argues that the strictures of the Motion Picture Code caused the artists who worked for the film industry to become more creative, or at least more devious than the low-down approach of the carnival, in finding ways to appeal to the public tastes and still appease the guardians of morality.

This would seem to have strong application to the world of comic books after they underwrote the foundation of the Comics Code in order to present similar guardians with a imprimatur that acted as a Greek aegis, warding off any suspected taint with "the bad old days."

To be sure, many comics-publishers had to kowtow to arbitrary demands from the Code's enforcers, even as film-producers did, and this could and did result in works that became absurdly mannered or preposterously moralistic. Nevertheless, as Lysdexicuss argues, once the mainstream publishers of the early Silver Age found their options somewhat more limited, they had to find new approaches to their material, much as post-Code filmmakers did.

In contradistinction to Lysdexicuss' focus on Marvel alone, I would cite three developments of the early Silver Age: (1) Mort Weisinger's expanding mythologization of Superman and all related titles, (2) Julie Schwartz's injection of hard (albeit juvenile) aspects of prose science fiction into his revivals of Golden Age characters, and (3) Stan Lee's editorial emphasis on humanizing his new stable of superhero figures.

Of the three, the direction of Marvel Comics is most obviously opposed to the "carnivalesque" orientation of the company's earlier incarnation as the entity fans term "Timely-Atlas" after two of the company-names used by publisher Martin Goodman. Admittedly, DC Comics in the early Silver Age was the least carnivalesque publisher still in business at that time, and the content of their post-Code comics probably was not hugely affected by the anti-comics hysteria. But even so, the decision to bring back a new stable of superheroes at that time-- when there was scant evidence from other publishers that such characters were due for a comeback-- marks a shift in their editorial priorities. If nothing else, the DC people may have upgraded their already-stolid repertoire just to further distance themselves from gratuitously-pulpy comics. And without their decision to so upgrade, the Marvel of Lee, Kirby and Ditko probably would have devolved into tame monster stories, quirky "Twilight Zone" stories, and westerns for the rest of the 1960s-- assuming the company even survived that decade.

I'll have more to say later about why superheroes proved such an important choice, against all the other genres which the mainstream publishers might have chosen to "gentrify."

Sunday, October 4, 2009


On a couple of previous blogposts (here and here), I've tossed out brief references to Roland Barthes, as well as talking about his work on Some Damn Messboard, though always with the caveat that I'd only read two of his works: the execrable MYTHOLOGIES (1957) and the somewhat more thoughtful PLEASURE OF THE TEXT (1975).

In one of my Messboard posts from 9/30/99, I stated:

"both [Jung and Campbell] are a good deal more concerned with scientific process than Roland Barthes, who at times seems to be making it up as he goes along. I've read but two works of his, MYTHOLOGIES and THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT, and the only science he cares about is his version of semiology, which can pretty much mean whatever he wants it to mean, the very objection that's often tossed at Jung and Campbell. I also have my doubts as to how many of his historical readings are supported by experts in history, and how many are just disguised ideological rants."

As the first of my blog-essays shows, the Barthes concept I found most interesting was his dichotomy of the "readerly" and "writerly," which are referenced in PLEASURE but were first introduced in 1970's S/Z. I happened to come across a cheap bookstore copy of S/Z and finally decided to see what all the fuss was about.

What I read convinced me that Barthes should be considered as being about as profound as that other French guy famous for taking mammoth leaps (albeit not of logic): Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's BATROC THE LEAPER. (I considered making a MAD-style pun out of Barthes' name but it just didn't work.)

The book S/Z was Barthes' attempt to formulate his own system of interpretative codes by taking a single short story-- Balzac's SARRASINE-- and breaking it down into narrative units he called "lexias," each of which he then interpreted according his system.

I have no problem with such in-depth interpretations. But I read nothing in S/Z to contradict my earlier-voiced impression that Barthes was often guilty of making massive logical leaps that make one of his main influences, Big Sigmund Freud, seem a model of restraint by comparison. I have to admit that, as little as I like Frankfurt-School critics like Theodor Adorno and Frederic Jackson, their arguments are coherent even if they argue from false premises. Half the time Barthes seems to argue not from premises but from his impressions about art and culture. In this his writing-style resembles that of philosopher Henri Bergson. But whereas Bergson would sometimes throw out a subjective statement or apparent non-sequitur, he usually developed the notion into some more refined concept.

Not so Roland the Leaper. On occasion certain of his observations about the Balzac story-- which is a good deal more enjoyable than Barthes' analysis of it-- seem on target.

And then, even putting aside the doctrinaire Freudianism, you get howlers like this on page 49:

"What is amazing in the myth of Minerva is not that the goddess sprang from her father's head but that she emerged 'tall and strong,' already fully armed and fully developed."

This is a response to Balzac's use of the classical Minerva-image to describe the appearance of a young woman whom the narrator thinks of as being "at once a hundred years old and twenty-two years old." While it's true that Balzac is conflating impressions of contradictory ages to get across the narrator's weird mental mood, it is certainly not experientially the case for any reader-- save perhaps Barthes-- that there's nothing "amazing" about any sort of offspring proceeding from the head of a male entity, be it the god Zeus or the imaginative narrator. Thus Barthes has given his readers a highly-overdetermined interpretation that is meant to emphasize not what Balzac has written but Barthes' own hierarchy of impressions.

Similarly, his other hierarchies-- the readerly and the writerly, joissance and plaisir-- are also overdetermined by Barthes' haphazard reasoning and highly-personalized methodology.

What I find "amazing" is that this erratic thinker became such a name to conjure with, for all that he's been far less imitated than the Frankfurters. I have to put it down to his appeal for those who like ideological correctness: who prefer to see complex myth and symbol boiled down to some refined-sounding concept like "the writerly," which purports to be above the ordinary processes of reading but represents nothing more a quasi-intellectual's attempt to exalt his own intellect above all else.

So while I may not have been fair in calling him a "moron" earlier, I do think he's not far removed from the colorful insult bestowed on Batroc by Captain America, courtesy of Stan Lee:

"You Gallic, granite-skulled gorilla!"