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Friday, September 26, 2014


The book I mentioned in Part 1 of this essay-series is Mike Madrid's 2009 book on superheroines, entitled THE SUPERGIRLS.

In many respects I ought to like this book. The author appears to be a Silver-Age kid like myself. Just as I have devoted a blog to the topic of empowered female characters here, Madrid's introduction depicts the author as having an inveterate interest in comic-book super-heroines, if not for reasons identical to my own.
And unlike the only previous work on the subject-- Trina Robbins' GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES, a very detailed history of superheroines in comics, albeit with some major omissions-- THE SUPERGIRLS is an attempt to interpret the depiction of superheroines in cultural terms, as the book's subtitle indicates: "Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines." (Despite Madrid putting "fashion" first, possibly to appeal to academics, there's really very little about the specifics of fashion in fantasy or reality.)

Unfortunately, SUPERGIRLS is a prime example of an interpretative work laboring under a cloud of false victimology. I'm sure that Madrid must have in his mind some notion of the perfect superheroine, a figure that provides a "happy medium" between a type who is too wholesome and a type who is too oversexualized. But he does not succeed in depicting such a paradigm in the pages of his book. Thus, all through the pages of SUPERGIRLS, Madrid always seems to be carping at the imperfections of almost all those who have depicted comic-book superheroines, without establishing his grounds for true excellence.

The first two chapters don't raise many objections. Madrid divides the majority of Golden Age heroines into a few convenient, perhaps slightly oversimple, categories, and he devotes special attention to comparing and contrasting the two heroines who were arguably both the most influential and best-known comics-heroines; Sheena and Wonder Woman. However, even on page 2, he starts the victimology by claiming that "for now [i.e., 1947] women would have to be content to put on scanty costumes and assume a disguise in order to act like themselves." This sounds for all the world like one of many supercilious putdowns of patriarchy, easily countered by the observation that male superheroes are also predicated on acting like fools and diletttantes to camoflague their real natures. And if one should need a source for this observation, one can find it-- on page 5 of SUPERGIRLS, where Madrid himself admits that male superheroes had to "dumb themselves down" to mix with mortal kind.

However, when Madrid gets into the third chapter, entitled "The Girlfriends," he goes into victimology overdrive-- and both his logic and his accuracy go out the window. I'll try to keep my complaints to the most egregious examples.

Page 12-- Madrid asserts that the girlfriends of featured heroes-- the Hawkgirls, the Bulletgirls-- crusade against crime only to impress their boyfriends. It's one thing to believe this, but Madrid offers no textual proof of this species of victim-crying.

Page 36-- Madrid claims that in William Moulton Marston's WONDER WOMAN origin, "Hercules allows himself to be beaten by Hippolyta." That's not in any Marston origin I've read: as I remember, Hercules loses a fair fight, and then plots revenge through deception.

Page 56-- Madrid claims that "the most important female figure in [Batman's] world" is his "sainted, slain mother," despite the fact that the character rarely thinks about Martha Wayne at all in most of the Golden Age stories. This is a superficial Freudian reading put forth years ago by Michael Fleischer, but there's no evidence that the Oedipus Complex informs the Batman mythos. The idea that this complex is proven simply by the absence of lasting romantic relationships in the hero's life is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse: i.e., romantic relationships are *primarily* absent  from the series because they would interfere with the open-ended setup of the franchise, not because of Batman's personal trauma.

Page 92-- Madrid, having spent a long time chronicling the career of the Silver Age Supergirl, complains that she "didn't show any signs of ever growing up to be a Superwoman"-- apparently another carp about men keeping women down, even though by that time it should have been evident that both male and female characters did not age, given that the readerships were assumed to turn over every few years.

Page 98-- He tells us that the 1990s version of Supergirl "was clearly meant to be a male fantasy, and no longer a character to attract or inspire female readers"-- yet, he has just finished complaining that the tame Silver Age version, which he compares to singer Leslie Gore, also never reaches any sort of potential, even though she was putatively aimed at female readers. There's also, throughout the book, no dealing with the possibility that sometimes female readers enjoy sexual fantasies themselves.

Page 103-- Madrid describes the Silver Age in very inaccurate terms, particularly when he claims that "Magic was a mysterious enemy, meant to be defeated." Granted, a lot of DC's Silver Age books are hot for science more than sorcery, but there are a fair number of magical heroes-- the Spectre, the Enchantress, Zatanna-- and I see no evidence that magic is despised, even by heroes like Superman, who numbered it among his vulnerabilities. This may be extrapolated from Madrid's view that all magic went out the window in the WONDER WOMAN book once Kanigher displaced Marston, but I don't think Kanigher used magic any less; he just didn't use it the same way Marston did.

Page 105-- Madrid claims that there's a victim-based reading possible from the fact that Superman and Batman did not make regular appearances in the early JUSTICE LEAGUE title, griping that "Wonder Woman is not considered to be in the same 'league' as Superman and Batman." This too is better explained by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors. Many pros and fans have attested that DC editor Mort Weisinger maintained, or attempted to maintain, a close hold on these characters, since he Weisinger edited all of the Superman books and arguably influenced the artistic direction of the Batman books even when they were 0being edited by Weisinger's associate Jack Schiff. It's been rumored, with whatever truth, that Weisinger lobbied to keep Superman and Batman out of the Justice League, and I for one find this a more likely explanation for the duo's early JLA absence than some mysterious pecking-order.

Page 112-- After claiming that the Invisible Girl's original powers are useless-- somehow overlooking that she defeats Doctor Doom in FANTASTIC FOUR #5 and engages him in single combat in #17-- Madrid claims that Sue Storm's force-field powers come about because "Reed has figured out a way to boost Sue's powers." Madrid doesn't bother to cite the issue number where this happened-- though he's careful to cite issue #12 as evidence of Sue's non-importance-- but the fact is that in FF #22, Reed only suspects that Sue has powers she hasn't used yet. The scientist's "nuclear-powered" measuring device *accidentally* stimulates Sue into manifesting her new powers, which are, like the powers of the male heroes, attributable to the original cosmic-ray accident they all endured.

Page 139-- Light Lass, Dream Girl, and the White Witch are said to thwart the sorcerer Mordru in a LEGION story. Apparently all short-haired girls look alike to Madird: 'twas Princess Projectra, not Light Lass.

Page 159-- Marvel's Black Widow is said to be facing "hard personal choices" when she deserts her romantic partnership with Daredevil to accept the more "prestigious membership" of the Avengers. Yet what the character actually thinks is not some feminist assertiveness: she accepts the membership because she wants to have time to think about her relationship with Daredevil! The Widow also only remains with the Avengers for two issues in this period; in all likelihood Marvel editors simply wanted an excuse to terminate the ongoing Daredevil-Black Widow relationship for one reason or another.

Page 189-- "Numerous stories focused on the world's obsession with learning Wonder Woman's secret identity in an effort to find her weakness."-- Gee, that's such an original notion. Uncover a superhero's ID to compromise said hero. I guess Wonder Woman must have been the first hero ever to have suffered such investigations. Or, if she wasn't the first, surely this only happens to female heroes, as a marker of the indignities they alone suffer.

Page 221-- "Out of style, Wonder Woman was also erased"-- Uh, yeah, and it was because she was going to be rebooted, as Madrid himself tells us on p. 208.

Page 249-- "The jungle antics [of jungle queens] ended in 1954"-- again, no, Atlas Comics kept jungle comics, including two jungle queens, going until 1957.

On the same page, Madrid has problems with the nefarious Catwoman becoming a "good girl." He overlooks that she only reformed during the years 1951-52, and that she went back to being a "bad girl" for three 1954 stories-- and it was at this point that she was excluded from the DC universe until 1966. Since she was "bad" at the time of her forced retirement, the goody-goody Catwoman did not "pave the way for Batman's new love interest, the more buttoned-up and sexless Batwoman."

These are others, but these examples of inaccuracy and false reasoning are the most egregious. If most of them had been simple matters of misperception-- remembering Light Lass in place of another heroine, for example-- I probably wouldn't have written this review. But most of these citations grow out of Madrid's pervasive victimology: his hectoring insistence that nearly everything ever done with comic-book heroines is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Well, with a few exceptions. Madrid does at least give props to the creators of THE DOOM PATROL for a gutsy lady crime-fighter-- which is more than Trina Robbins did, when she conspicuously omitted Elasti-Girl from her own book. But to elevate the model of Elasti-Girl, Madrid has to drag down the Marvel superheroines using pretty much the same knocks Robbins used in her book : they're too weak, they're too girly, they "pose and point."  Given that Madrid's whole project involves the "close reading" of the ephemera of comic books, one might wonder why he chose to read them so loosely.

Unfortunately, the only explanation I can devise is that he wanted to make comic-book heroines sympathetic for their having been so roundly victimized, whether they were turned into virgin schoolgirls (1960s Supergirl) or teeny-bopper whores (1990s Supergirl). But the question arises-- do we respect these heroines more for being victims-- or for being heroes, irrespective of gender? It is, unfortunately, a question Madrid doesn't even try to address.

Monday, September 22, 2014


I mentioned here that I don't agree with Dave Sim's assertion that Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND was a precursor to modern feminist "victimology."  I don't know Sim's precise reasons for making that determination, so I can't refute him in detail. But I will validate him on one score: victimology is rampant in most discussions of gender-interaction, often on both sides of the discussion at once.

Victimology, to be sure, is a word that originally means "the study of victims," usually with respect to the victims of criminal offenses. Sim's use of the term, however, is pejorative: it implies what is called a "false victimology," an assigning of blame to a supposed perpetrator that is either disproportionate or inaccurate.  This is the sense that I use the term here.

One comics-fandom argument I've frequently referenced on this blog is one I consider more disproportionate than wholly inaccurate: the "male characters are idealized, female characters are sexualized." I've demonstrated why the argument is an oversimplification, but I've also stated that to the extent that there is a real disparity, that disparity is rooted in real factors. The oversimplification comes about from an over-willingness for those who promote the argument to play the victim card, which amounts to playing a chorus of Linda Ronstadt's "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me."  If feminine sexual display was *never* a road to fame, riches, and comparative prosperity, I might tend to join the ultra-feminists in shedding copious crocodile tears for their sufferings.

Other arguments would seem to be more in the vein of bearing false witness.  In my essay STINKING ULTRALIBERALLY PT. 2  I critiqued my reasons why the media stigmatized celebrity-chef Paula Deen after her aggrieved former employee Lisa Jackson brought a suit against her, alleging that Deen promulgated racist speech and behavior at a place of business.  About a month after I wrote my essay, the suit was dismissed by the presiding judge with prejudice, which according to Wikipedia "indicates misconduct on the part of the party who filed the claim and forbids that party from refiling the case." This may well suggest that the judge thought Jackson was full of hot air, but I'm not interested enough to search out his precise stated opinion, if any.

The peccadillos of comics fandom are generally not this serious. Nevertheless, the biggest problem with making false or even oversimple accusations is not only that it victimizes those who may be falsely accused, but that it also distracts the culture's attention from other, real abuses. Practitioners of indiscriminate victimology seem to believe that they can cry wolf indefinitely, and that no one will ever call them on it-- or more likely, that they can throw enough crap at the walls that some of it will stick, and seem to validate them.

In Part 2 I'll address a relatively new book that manages to throw a little too much crap, managing largely to obscure its better facets.

Friday, September 19, 2014


In PART 1 I said:

I suggest that Heidi's principal rhetotical point in displaying these NSFW photos is not properly an illustration of sexualization in all its multifarious forms, but to portray a particular state of sexual abjection. This state is more or less identical with Ms. McDonald's estimation of the status of all or most sexualization for female comics-characters, who are not infrequently the victims of "boob-windows, brokebacks, etc."  Abjection is, I submit, just one aspect of sexualization as it has been depicted in art and literature.

First I should specify that I am not using "abjection" after the manner of the structuralist-- or maybe post-structuralist-- author Julia Kristeva. I have read commentary on Kristeva's work, but not her actual work. Wikipedia asserts that in Kristeva's system "abjection" connotes something that is repellent but conceals some aspect of nature or culture that should be acknowledged, asserting that Kristeva "developed the idea of the abject as that which is rejected by/disturbs social reason - the communal consensus that underpins a social order.:"

Clearly this is not in line with the highly politicized descriptions cited by Heidi McDonald. Here's an example of one-sided politicization from Amanda Marcotte's SLATE essay:

But really what it comes down to is who is in control of the butts in question. With Spider-Woman, we're looking at yet another example of a man imposing his ideas about the female body and female sexuality onto a character, creating an image that feels like she's reduced to the ass in question. But "Anaconda" is a video with a woman in charge of her own image. She's shaking her thing because she wants to and she's looking directly into the camera and rapping, too, making it impossible to reduce her to a single body part.

This is the position asserted by nearly all contemporary commentary on sexuality: if a man "imposes his ideas" about female sexuality on women-- even fictional women-- this is meant to reduce real women to a state of abjection in the sense of the dictionary definition: that of degradation, of "a low or downcast state" (Merriam-Webster).  A woman performing the same activity, however, is granted the privilege of being "in charge of her own image."

In Part 1 of ABJECTION APOLOGIA, I've asserted that the detractors of all things male have oversimplified the issue of abjection, overlooking the many ways in which male bodies are also placed in postures of helplessness or neutralization. I've specified that not all of these were necessarily of a sexual nature, though some do carry that valence.  What such depictions of both male and female degradation have in common is the threat of violence, of being simply killed rather than being sexually violated or even put on display.

What I also find fascinating is that while Heidi McDonald and others are unceasingly vigilant with regard to scenes of feminine degradation, one hardly ever reads anyone speaking of scenes of feminine empowerment that are the precise obverse of the supposed degradation scenes. Marcotte's politicized opposition is not an example of this, however, since the author chooses to view the Manara piece as intrinsically degrading to women, purely because a man drew it.

McDonald too has loaded her argument in a politicized fashion, claiming that detractors are "copletely ignring [sic] how boob-windows, brokebacks, boob socks and more are not the same thing as a man with a good physique in a dynamic pose."

I for one have no problem with admitting that a lot of superheroine costumes show more skin than superhero ones, though I've also noted that many ideological types willfully overlook any examples that run counter to their ideological certainties. Yet, even if I gave McDonald the ideological victory on the issue of "who's more skimpily clothed," I would find it egregious not only that she ignores the history of abjection in male heroic postures-- described more fully in Part 1-- but also for ignoring the sexual elements present in depicting heroes of either sex "in dynamic poses." Is McDonald's point covalent with Marcotte's, that dynamism is of no importance when it is propounded by male artists?

I for one can see some sexual appeal in abject postures for either sex. But I see an even greater potential in dynamic postures as well-- and I see no reason to assume that most heterosexual comics-readers are more attracted to the former than to the latter.

For example, the character of Phoenix seemed to captivate a fair number of male readers, and she didn't even need to expose much skin to do so.

Storm has in my opinion has also proved a perennial favorite, whether or not she sports a costume that exposes much skin:

I could cite many other examples. I suppose that an ideological critic would assume that any such examples would be automatically disproved by the prominence of the "Bad Girl" craze of the 1990s. I would say, rather, that dynamism and scanty costuming are both independent sources of stimulation. Thus the presence of the latter does not necessarily take away from the former, as in this X-MEN cover, where Storm is showing a bit more skin:

The obvious conclusion should be that while there is not much doubt that many male readers do like scanty superheroine costumes, it does not follow that this is the ONLY aspect that they like, nor that exposure of skin or the focus upon feminine attributes are in themselves sources of abjection.  But I've already mounted the argument for the empowering associations of body display elsewhere, so I refer the interested reader to those essays from here on.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


"You’ll never get to universal agreement — as is the case with subjective matters — but that’s not a reason not to try for better understanding than what we’ve got now."

So speaks Kurt Busiek in the aforementioned BEAT thread, who claims that he advocates "better understanding." I don't think that he will achieve this lofty goal by the strategy of imputing straw-man positions to his opponents. However, I will admit that the poster named "Jim" invited such a response. Whenever a participant in an argument resorts to psychologizing his opponent, this strategy also fails to address the argument in a pure fashion, and can also be fairly dismissed as a species-member of the Straw Man Group.

Jim said to McDonald:

You’ve been posting about this for almost a month now, and I don’t mean this as a troll comment, but seriously, is your self-esteem as a woman actually undermined in some way by a drawing on the cover of a comic book?

This is not IMO a proper way to conduct a debate, any more than when Busiek attempts to paint both the poster Jim and myself as "good old boys" who don't want the status quo changed. Whatever faults my own arguments may have, I don't try to psycho-analyze my opponents. I've written that I think "Chicken Colin" acted like a coward-- first, for having written scathingly, and falsely, of my positions, and failing to debate me on his assertions, and later for hiding behind the skirts of Julian Darius, who decided that he would not permit me to comment on the Chicken's subsequent Sequart posts. I find both of these actions reprehensible. But I don't try to invent psychoanalytic reasons for these demonstrations of cowardly behavior, as Jim invents a facile psychoanalytic motive of "lack of self-esteem" to explain McDonald's fixation on the Manara "Spider-Woman" cover. (Later in the thread, Jim said that his imputation was meant as a joke, but it didn't come off that way in the original post.)

I flatter myself that even when I disagree with an opponent, my first resort is to analyze any statement as a philosophical proposition, in order to determine whether or not it proves valid in the light of my own knowledge and experiences.

Busiek's proposition in this BEAT-post is largely of a piece with the principle of absolute equity McDonald has expressed many times before. In GENDER, BEND HER I refuted this principle on these terms:

This ethic passes an unsubstantiated judgment upon all previous incarnations of Bond fiction: said judgment being that, because they were originally fictions designed principally with male buyers in mind, new iterations must and should be corrected to become more “female-friendly.” But this correction hinges on two presumptions: (1) that male-oriented fiction has no integrity in itself, but must be corrected in some fashion, and (2) that the Bond mythos did not already a healthy, though numerically smaller, female fandom even prior to feminist revisions.

Or, to cite a more concise response from this mini-essay:

Fiction is a place where fantasy reigns, and as I said in the [earlier] essay, it's simply a lot harder to sell hyper-sexualized fantasies to women than to men.

Busiek, like McDonald, does not recognize any challenges to the principle of absolute equity between fictional males and females, however, as his response to Jim in the post makes clear:

It’s that women being sexualized in comics is overwhelmingly the standard, while men being sexualized isn’t. If both were treated in appropriate ways depending on the character and story — so you had sexualized men where appropriate, and women were sexualized when appropriate but not reflexively, as they are now.

Though Busiek claim to advocate greater "understanding," it's clear from his posts that he has no interest in any explanations as to how the "standard" came about. It's not equitable, so it's wrong, and anyone who cares to explore the dynamics of the gender situation is on the same level as corporate stinkheads trying to prevent real-life women from earning equal pay.

Of course, I will admit that even if Busiek is an unlikely candidate to bridge the disagreements between the opposing sides, I'm not likely to win any prizes in that department either.  I have no idea if such a rapprochement is even feasible, for there's a sense in which people just like to bitch about these subjects.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Yes, I think the pun still works even if you pronounce the name "Byoo-sik." So there.

Before getting into Kurt Busiek's response to my comments on this now closed BEAT thread, I'll make a general statement: I don't think that any of the complaints from McDonald or anyone else have ever been concerned with the most basic level of "sexualization," which in this essay I termed "glamor." I think the fuss is now, and has always been, about the two more extreme forms of sexualization: "titillation" and "pornification."  The NSFW photos McDonald prints on the BEAT thread fall into the third category. It's debatable as to whether the "boob windows, brokeback [position]s, boob socks and more" fall into the secondary or tertiary category.

My post is directed at McDonald's complaint of a lack of equity in terms of sexualization of males and females. I wondered how one might be accomplish the hypothetical state of total equity, since equity is what most of these critics claim that they want. I wrote:

For sake of argument, let’s say a comics company wanted to have an absolutely level playing-field, but still wanted to be able to depict its characters in a sexual manner. What would be the solution? I for one think it would be both immoral and futile to ask straight cartoonists to attempt to sexualize male characters. With rare exceptions, they simply wouldn’t have the mindset.
Could the company create a level field simply by employing 50% straight artists and 50% gay artists? But then, the gay artists chosen would have to be something along the line of P. Craig Russell, who can draw women competently but IMO generally doesn’t sexualize them as he does his male characters.

Kurt Busiek replied:

>> I for one think it would be both immoral and futile to ask straight cartoonists to attempt to sexualize male characters.>>
Straight cartoonists are all male, after all.
And it’s immoral and futile to ask Olivier Coipel to draw sexy men, but moral and effective to ask Amanda Conner to draw sexy women.
I think, perhaps, that cartoonists, both male and female, straight and gay, should be able to draw what the story needs. If the story needs a sexy guy, it shouldn’t be immoral (immoral?!) to ask for that to be drawn in a story. A sexy woman, same deal. But the idea that straight men simply can’t draw sexy men, and that it’s actually _immoral_ to ask them to do so, is a pretty weird concept.
But then, perhaps to some eyes, sexy women are just and normal and the default setting, while sexy men are weird and unpleasant and squicky. To the point that morality demands that men not have to draw such things.
This is called gender bias, though, and it’s not really a compelling argument.

First, I'll address Busiek's only valid point. A touch, a touch, I do confess it, but yes, not all "straight cartoonists" are male.  However, if one is dealing with straight female cartoonists, then there would be no issue of compulsion with respect to those hetero female cartoonists.  It would be entirely natural for them to sexualize males, even as it would be entirely natural for a gay male artist-- as per my example of P. Craig Russell-- to sexualize males.

What I find "immoral and futile," since Busiek patently misses the point, is this implied element of compulsion for the sake of equity.  Heidi McDonald may or may not really want to see more depictions of male sexual abjection; her actual sentiments are of secondary importance here. But the phrasing of her rhetorical point implies that if you have pornifed female characters in comic books, you ought to have pornified male characters-- and not just, as she says, men "with a good physique in a dynamic pose."

Now, in my scenario of a 50-50 split, I made allowance for 'rare exceptions" to the tendency wherein hetero males are generally stronger at depicting sexy women, while homosexual males would be generally stronger at depicting sexy men. (A similar distribution would of course pertain for female artists as well.) Busiek, puffed up by his desire to score a point rooted in facile sarcasm, names off Olivier Coipel and Amanda Connor as types who do not fit my schema-- happily ignoring that I have already allowed for exceptions to the rule.  He says:

I think, perhaps, that cartoonists, both male and female, straight and gay, should be able to draw what the story needs.

This is also facile thinking because the entire point of extreme forms of sexualization is that they are not "needed" in an absolute sense, unless one is producing literal pornography. With the advent of the Comics Code, comics-publishers often reprinted pre-Code works with substantial redrawing, to avoid being accused of pandering to the youth of America.  In some cases, even artists who controlled their own works sometimes ameliorated the sexier aspects. In one JOURNAL interview, underground artist Jack Jackson stated that in some editions of WHITE COMANCHE he covered up some female breasts because he wanted the story to be more available to younger readers.

Busiek propounds a bland code of the professional artist, who can supposedly draw sexy men and sexy women with equal facility. There are artists like that, as I have admitted. There are also artists like P. Craig Russell, who is not overly strong with female sexuality, and artists like John Romita Sr, who's not overly strong with male sexuality.

I for one want to see artists do what they're good at, not what someone claims that they must do to satisfy a politically correct agenda.

Busiek's final point about "gender bias" is of course predicated on a straw man that is duly torched by my advocacy of gay artists to draw whatever they want to draw.

BTW, since Heidi makes mention of J. Scott Campbell's possible limitations in the arena of sexualizing males with respect to a particular Spider-Man cover, I thought I might as well print this except from a Campbell fan-page to illustrate that maybe with Spider-Man, he wasn't really giving it his best shot.


In a recently closed thread on THE BEAT, Heidi offered some photos depicting her opinion of "what it actually looks like when men are sexualized."

Not surprisingly, I find this a very problematic definition of sexualization-- even more problematic than that of Kelly Thompson.  This visual definition certainly leaves no room for viewing sexual display as something positive, as A. Sherman Barros writes in this essay:

Female body and female power are not and need not be separate realms, something that has not yet been realized by infantile feminists that keep crying out not only for total de-eroticization of art (including its modern popular expression in comics and films), but for its de-sexualization by the erasure of representation of all secondary sexual characteristics. When sex is viewed as a threat, mental disturbance is not very far away.  

I suggest that Heidi's principal rhetorical point in displaying these NSFW photos is not properly an illustration of sexualization in all its multifarious forms, but to portray a particular state of sexual abjection. This state is more or less identical with Ms. McDonald's estimation of the status of all or most sexualization for female comics-characters, who are not infrequently the victims of "boob-windows, brokebacks, etc."  Abjection is, I submit, just one aspect of sexualization as it has been depicted in art and literature.

There are many dimensions to the matter of sexual abjection which I'll address in a future essay. In this post, however, I only want to throw out a few examples of cover-featured male abjection, sometimes in relation to female characters, sometimes not. As I've written before on the subject of equity, I am not asserting that there are necessarily more depictions of male abjection than female abjection. But I do assert that if one does not take into account how this visual trope is used for both genders, one cannot come to any meaningful conclusions on the subject.

I've already cited the first example with respect to the rather jejune assertion that any sort of "assault with a long object" should be automatically viewed as a form of rape.

Then there's the time that the Flash went the bondage-guy one better, and hired himself out to the foot-fetish community.

As a young fan, I remember writing DC Comics, claiming that I was tired of seeing Superman "dead, dying, or scared to death." Here's "dead:"

Here's "dying:"

And finally, "scared to death."

One may argue that not all of these depict sexual abjection. I have little doubt that I could find other covers more in line with the GREEN LANTERN "rape" cover. Yet it's a given that no matter how many such illustrations of male abjection I might display, the answer of those who advocate total and unstinting equity would always be, "But there's MORE covers showing Wonder Woman about to have a missile slam her in the lady parts!"  And this MAY be true, though I submit that it may not mean as much as some critics think it does.

More on the topic of abjection later. For now, I must address one of the responses made to my comments on the aforementioned closed thread.

Monday, September 15, 2014


In ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS, my extended contemplation of my trope "exotic lands and customs," I wrote:

For a time I flirted with the notion that maybe the "jungle-adventure" film was unique in offering so many uncanny versions of its cultures, both real and imagined. Westerns, for example, are full of real and imagined "exotic" Native American cultures, but the majority are almost always naturalistic.

I've read very few western prose stories, so I'm far from an expert on that subject. But I've viewed a few hundred western films, and most of them, in my opinion, regularly take the same elements that are usually "uncanny" in jungle-stories and render them as "naturalistic."  In this essay I mentioned that the original Zorro story from 1919, "The Curse of Capistrano," was an exception to this rule, and I'm sure that there have been various others in all media. But my recent reading of an avowed prose western classic, Zane Grey's 1912 RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, gives me an example of how westerns more often than not use tropes with uncanny potential in a thoroughly naturalistic manner.

I've mentioned before that a character's wearing of a concealing mask is not enough to confer an uncanny phenomenality-- that of the trope I term "outre outfits, skills and devices"-- upon a narrative.  RIDERS makes an excellent counter-example to figures like Zorro and the Durango Kid, in that the Grey novel also contains a "masked rider," and not just in the context of a commonplace holdup artist.  About a third of the way through the novel, Bern Venters-- a young hero who occupied a sort of "B-plot" next to the primary tale of hero Lassiter and his romantic partner Jane Withersteen-- encounters a masked rustler. Because no other rustlers go masked, the locals have dubbed this figure "Oldring's Masked Rider"-- that is, a member of a rustling-gang bossed by their leader, an owlhoot named Oldring. Venters comes across the masked rider and another rustler, whereupon the unnamed fellow tries to shoot Venters. Venters slaps lead, killing the second rustler but only wounding the masked rider-- whom he soon discovers is actually a female who has been passing herself off as a male bandit. Venters nurses the young woman back to health, and eventually learns that the woman, Bess by name, was explicitly masked so that no outsider to the gang would know that she was female.

This employment of a "masked rider" trope is thus entirely functional.  Bess wears a mask not to create an attitude of awe, as Zorro and the Durango Kid do, but only to camouflage her gender. (Since she is not known by any locals save the rustlers, the mask doesn't even serve to conceal her identity.)

RIDERS comes slightly closer to the domain of the uncanny in its creation of Surprise Valley. This valley is imbued with slight overtones of the Garden of Eden, particularly since it's the place where Venters nurses Bess and where they mutually fall in love, though neither ends up staying in the valley.  The entrance to Grey's Eden is metaphorically guarded not by an angel with a whirling sword, but Balancing Rock, a gigantic stone that nature has positioned at the valley's only passageway to the outside world. But though Balancing Rock serves an important role in the novel's conclusion of the Lassiter-Jane plot, it is not given any uncanny phenomenality whatsoever.

However, inside one of the valley's multitudinous rock formations is a cave-aperture which makes a bell-like sound when the wind rushes through it. Bess tells Venters that the superstitious rustlers call the sound "Oldring's Knell," claiming that it will sound when their boss Oldring meets his maker.  Under the right circumstances, this geographical peculiarity could assume an uncanny phenomenality. In Rider Haggard's 1885 novel KING SOLOMON'S MINES, Allan Quatermain's voyage to exotic Kukuanaland is presaged by his expedition's encounter with a pair of peaks called "Sheba's Breasts:"

These mountains placed thus, like the pillars of a gigantic gateway, are shaped after the fashion of a woman's breasts, and at times the mists and shadows beneath them take the form of a recumbent woman, veiled mysteriously in sleep. Their bases swell gently from the plain, looking at that distance perfectly round and smooth; and upon the top of each is a vast hillock covered with snow, exactly corresponding to the nipple on the female breast. 

Or, on a much less ambitious note, another wind-produced sound lends an uncanny tenor to the B-western RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL.

But Zane Grey, though he has created the opportunity for a spooky moment-- say, of having the wind create its "knell" through the caves just as the rustler Oldring perishes-- the author does not follow up on this narrative opportunity. Oldring does die in the novel, but he perishes in town, far from Surprise Valley. Thus I would conclude that the only reason Grey creates the Knell is a purely functional one: he wants to prepare readers for the inevitability of Oldring's death, just as the author uses a "masked rider" purely to conceal the gender-identity of the character Bess.

In closing I'll note that I'm using my terms "functionality" and "super-functionality" in a different manner than I did in A QUICK ASIDE ON FUNCTIONALITY. In that essay I said that a stereotype was merely functional because, unlike an archetype, it was a simple variable that could not garner more than very limited associations. This essay was concerned with the symbolic complexity extrinsic to narratives, not the intrinsic factors that determine a narrative's phenomenality.  When speaking of phenomenality, functionality applies rather to the idea of pure materialistic causality, in which every effect has but one cause, and so on, while "super-functionality" applies rather to the ways in which the phenomenalities of the uncanny and marvelous ally themselves to principles that oppose pure causality, i.e. "anti-intelligibility" and "anti-coherence."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014



...it's the nature of all [literary] constructs to be more unreal than real.  Their relationship to reality, then, is always more a matter of common cultural consent than of any objective measure of realism.

I return to this topic because the topic of verisimilitude in fiction is a complex one.  There's a widespread tendency in all criticism-- be it that of the hoity-toity elitst or the unambitious populist-- to critique fiction in terms of reality. "That's not realistic" may be the most fundamental of all complaints. It can take in representations of factual conditions, as when Carol Strickland's essay, referenced here, complains that the "rape of Ms. Marvel" story mishandled basic facts about pregnancy without even some sci-fi hocus-pocus as an explanation. It can also take in the subject's interpretations of factual conditions, which the subject is likely to deem as fact, and we see this in the fannish assertion that if superheroines existed, they'd never jump around in high heels because they'd break their necks.  In a similar vein there's also the frequent complaint about comics' "brokeback pose," in which a female character's body is twisted so as to put both boobs and butt on display.

I've done some 'reality-testing" complaints myself, as in the essay CARICATURE ANALYSIS.  I stated that although I did not deem Eisner's "Ebony White" character to be a racist creation as such, I did fault Eisner for "his inability to consider how the 'negative stereotype' of blacks was used as an indirect rhetorical tool by which real people were consigned to second-class citizenship."

Yet I've also demurred on some topics where I believe certain forms of  "common cultural consent" have become, in Emerson's phrase, "the hobgoblin of little minds." In GENDERIZATION GAP PT. 2
I wrote:

Janelle Asselin's complaints about "an underaged teen girl being drawn with breasts the size of her head" may be entirely sincere, but they are also in the JOURNAL's tradition of bear-poking. Unlike MacDonald, I don't think Asselin's comments "shed light on matters that are not discussed enough;" I think they're no more than preaching to the choir, though a bit more cogently than some of the critics I've assailed here.  No one but the members of that choir are going to care about Asselin's carping at unnatural breasts on a teenaged girl...

So again we have differences of interpretation. I'm aware that it's almost impossible for women to have boobs as big as their heads-- almost, given the example of Chesty Morgan-- but I feel it's basically a harmless male quirk, not a device to keep women down. OTOH, I validate the idea that "minstrel-show" physical distortions of Negroid physiognomy have been used in this oppressive manner.

Since no one ultimately has an infallible "take" on reality, it seems logical to me that in fiction-- which is not meant to be a true representation of reality-- reality takes more the position of "counselor" than that of "Supreme Court judge."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 8, 2014


To Heidi McDonald's question: "so three Sub-Mariner covers equal the entire Bad Girl era?", I said:

The whole "who's exposed more" question should never have been one of pure equity.  Equity is something to be observed in the workplace or the boardroom, but not in fiction.  Fiction is a place where fantasy reigns, and as I said in the essay, it's simply a lot harder to sell hyper-sexualized fantasies to women than to men.  I tend to think that this is because in general men are hornier bastards than women, but others' mileage may vary.

Equity should never have been the question because equity of this sort is not feasible.   There will probably always be more sexualized female characters in pop fiction than sexualized male characters-- but that doesn't mean that the latter don't occur at all, or that one can sluff off all the chiseled chins and buff bodies as manifestations of "idealization."

Also, one of the three covers is actually neutral on Subby's hottitude, which goes to my point about how certain artists just may not be tuned to produce this form of sexualization.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


I am impressed-- but hardly surprised-- at the incredible superficiality of the objections recently raised by Milo Manara's "variant cover" to SPIDER-WOMAN #1. Here's the much critiqued cover:

This BEAT post happily reprints a translation of Manara's response.  Since I've been recently expounding on theories regarding the evolution of female homo sapiens, particularly in this essay, readers of this blog may anticipate that these Manara comments would get my equivalent of a "high-five:"

it’s not my fault if women are like that. I’m only drawing them. It’s not me who made women that way: is an author much more “important”, for those who believe … For evolutionists, including me, on the other hand, women’s bodies have taken this form over the millennia in order to avoid the ‘extinction of the species, in fact. If women were made exactly as men, with the same shape, I think we would have already been extinct for a long time.

Most ultra-feminist posters will not deal with weighty questions of the extent to which "biology is destiny."  For most of them, the matter is purely one of marketing to a male demographic, and so offends against the injunction: Thou Shalt Bow Down Before the Buying-Power of the Female Fan. THE MARY SUE comments:

The series is being written by Dennis Hopeless with art by Greg Land, and although it appears Marvel is attempting to draw in women with a slew of new female-led titles, this does not instill confidence. Nor does it tell women this is a comic they should consider spending money on. In fact, what the variant cover actually says is “Run away. Run far, far away and don’t ever come back.”

Manara-- who claims that his regular work doesn't seem to make his clique of female fans run away-- goes on to situate the question as one that cannot be reduced to simple ideology, by virtue of his observation that women's bodies evolved to exhibit sexual attractiveness.

I don’t know if this character will also become a movie, but it does, I think they would have their sweet problems to make her do what Spider-Man does (frame her in the same vicissitudes and athletic performance and so on) without her becoming seductive. If she’s played by an actress endowed with an ass, it is clear that her ass will be seen. I0m reminded that her tights are “painted on” … I also noticed that some website says that more than a suit, what you see in my drawing, it’s body painting. It’s true. Sure it is. But because it is so in all the superhero comics: These tights are painted on them. You don’t see a crease, a wrinkle. You read the muscles perfectly.

Now, I've stated that I don't think any human being is defined entirely by biology. But suppose we begin with the postulate-- as I believe even Kelly Thompson has admitted-- that most audiences prefer to read about good-looking heroes.  If one also grants the previous postulate that women's bodies evolved to spotlight their sexual nature, then it would seem all but inevitable that women's bodies, in the midst of the frenetic activity characteristic of the superhero genre, will display feminine sexual features with greater emphasis-- unless, of course, you could convince producers to cloak all the female characters in burkas.

A few years ago, illustrator Kevin Bolk produced this spoof of superhero art, in which the male heroes show off their butts the way their female kindred do:

What no one (to my knowledge) noticed was that the spoof is funny not purely because the butt-spotlighting practices of the comics industry are grievously inequitable, but also because male heroes look stupid showing off their butts.  This isn't to say that hetero females don't like to see real shapely male butts. But tt's very unlikely that comics-producers can expect to sell a lot of funny-books appealing to the demographic that will buy CAPTAIN AMERICA for butt-shots.  It should come as news to no one that hetero males will buy sexy photos or drawings of sexy women in far greater quantity than hetero women will buy pictures of sexy males.  If there is any ideological truth to the many ultra-feminist rants about "objectification," it's a truth that is entirely secondary to the differing ways in which each gender displays sexuality.

A less insightful set of Tumblr "faux covers" were reproduced on this BEAT post. In response I wrote:

I can think of a number of commercial “non-erotica” comics that treat ripped male heroes rather neutrally– which is what people are thinking of, and incorrectly labeling as, “idealization.” But I can also think of a number of comics in the same category that show off ripped guys as being attractive to women within the diegesis, which in my book is still “sexualization,” even if it’s not as blatant as it is with women. (Okay, no Morbius butt-shots, but it used to be very popular with Nightwing–)
But supposing feminists who advocate “absolute equality” got what they wanted. What then? A ceaseless quest to monitor the balance at all times, to make sure no one steps over the sacred line?
Good luck with that.

For example, here's the Tumblr version of "sexy Sub-Mariner."

Now, to follow up on my remarks above, here's an equally "full-frontal" John Buscema rendering of the character from the cover of 1968's SUB-MARINER #1:

Is one drawing inherently "sexier" than the other? Of course not. All one can say is that the Tumblr cover makes greater use of visual tropes that suggest male sexuality. That does not mean, however, that the Buscema cover is devoid of sexual representation.  The hero is not merely "idealized," as Kelly Thompson and others have claimed. He's drawn bodybuilder-style in part to suggest immense strength-- a factor that speaks to the combative mode of the series-- but he's also ripped to represent a level of male sexuality that is at least *believed* to be intrinsically appealing to the female of the species.

At the same time, it should be expected that whenever one has male characters drawn by hetero male artists, one should also expect to see some of the "neutrality" I mentioned above.  Just as Manara says in his response, he draws sexy women because that's how he sees women. Putting aside the old "everyone's-subconciously-homosexual" canard for now, it's also logical that some full-frontal depictions of a given hero will be somewhat neutral to the question of attractiveness.  Here's another "full-frontal" pose of Prince Namor, in which male sexuality has, for whatever reason, been played down. The effect of this John Romita Sr. cover is not unlike some of Kelly Thompson's "cover-up" tactics for feminine superheroes.

And then there's Jae Lee's version of Namor, from SUB-MARINER #26 (1992). I for one hardly see much difference between this savage sea-man and the one from Tumblr:

To follow up my point about idealization in more detail, I find it presumptuous that certain feminists should expect that artists should draw males and females with equal sexuality, or lack of same.  John Romita Sr's work showed an unquestionable talent for drawing glamorous women, while his male characters tended to be more "neutral."  Would modern feminists be satisfied if all hetero male artists drew both sexes with equal neutrality (or "idealization," as Thompson calls it)? I assume that is the goal, since I don't see any feminists demanding an equal level of over-the-top sexuality, except in a satirical context. While I can't agree with Milo Manara that these American cultural developments have anything to do with the influence of Islam, the "equity proposition" is devoted to an ideal of sameness that I deem deadly to any form of creativity, and is therefore not that far in basic sympathies from any ideology of conservative religiosity.