Saturday, February 11, 2006

An Archaeology of Affect: What I Learned About Gender from Defenders #53

In retrospect, it’s clear that the cover image of Defenders #53 (November 1977) was responsible for the my purchase of Avengers #176 (October 1978)—or at least that my attraction to both of these comics stemmed from some common impulse. What was this impulse, I wonder? Why these two comics in particular? What were they to me back then? Why was I drawn to them? And what makes them feel so much like enchanted objects—Spell Books or Arcana—even now?

I should begin by noting that cover compositions like these were something of an obsession for me in 1977—the year I turned five. My fascination with images of gigantic, crackling, energy beings and cowering heroes likely originated with the similarly constructed cover for Fantastic Four #184 (July 1977), on which the Eliminator towers menacingly over the helpless FF. I had acquired this mysterious and thrilling item a few months earlier and had been reading and rereading it with quiet intensity ever since—with a little help from my mom and dad!

Together, these three covers form a sort of triptych of my early unconscious: Fantastic Four #184 is the central panel, flanked by Defenders #53 on the left and Avengers #176 on the right. What was it about this design in particular that made my hand reach out so instinctively and so decisively, again and again?

One possible answer to this question suggests itself when I look at the two most similar of those three covers: Defenders #53 and Avengers #176. They are similar in the way that mirror images are similar—which is to say inverted or complementary: the first cover features the explosive figure of a woman (the Red Guardian), the second, the explosive figure of a man (Korvac, a.k.a “The Enemy”). This relationship of “inverted” similarity is reinforced by the comics’ titles, which are not only complementary (Defenders/Avengers) but have gender connotations that seem actually embodied by the female/male images on these particular covers. By some happy cosmic accident, these absolutely symmetrical covers were published only a year apart, at a time when I was young enough to feel that comics were like signals from the stars, profound messages from a distant planet or from beneath the crust of this one, artifacts, alien or ancient, intended exclusively for me. The messages contained in these artifacts had to do with difference—gender difference in particular—and as I was to discover, these messages were not confined to the covers, but inhered in the conceptual symmetry of the Defenders and Avengers teams themselves.

Once I discovered the Avengers, I was surprised to learn that the Defenders (in both concept and name) was “secondary,” a “sister” book to the former. As I later understood more explicitly, it was the “non-team” to the fully sanctioned, “official,” archetypal Marvel team. (De Beauvoir’s critique of woman as “other” in The Second Sex is perhaps not a frivolous touchstone for the distinctions I was beginning to make). That this difference was reflected through the implied gendering of the teams’ names—the more aggressively reactive, stereotypically masculine Avengers to the more passive, stereotypically feminine Defenders—was not lost on me. (This relation of original and repetition, Adam and Eve, was perhaps suggested as well by the large difference in the two series’ numeration—only at #53, The Defenders had obviously come along quite a bit later.)

What I saw in these two covers, then—what steered my hand to pluck them from the random assortment of other comics on the newsstand—were potent archetypes of male and female embodiment: what seemed, at the time, to be boiled down essences of gender difference—indeed, essences that still boiled in a cosmic soup of Kirby dots. These images became emblematic of these two Marvel series; these series, in turn, became the bearers of a kind of inarticulate affect—a feeling about gender difference—that stayed with me throughout childhood and even beyond. It was here, on the covers of Avengers #176 and Defenders #53 that I mapped most powerfully my early (and, at first, woefully simple) ideas about what it meant to be a boy or a girl. Korvac was my Adam, the Red Guardian my Eve. With the evocative precision of Tarot cards, these covers etched themselves deep into memory as icons of Emperor and Empress.

That the framing of gender in the titles and images of these two covers furnished a rather sexist model of difference (in that it saw the female half as secondary and passive) goes without saying. I’ll come back to this point in due course. There are complications coming that happily change the dynamics of this dubiously “symmetrical” or “complementary” dichotomy quite drastically. I have already written at length about Avengers #176 in a different but (as we shall see) not unrelated context, so I will focus instead on how the initially normative messages about gender difference were scrambled over the course of reading Defenders #53. What did it feel like to “read” this comic at the age of five? Why did it stick with me? And how do the strange power of this comic’s main and back-up stories help to subvert the normative messages about gender that I derived from the juxtaposition of the two titles and covers?


Atlantis: A Diagram of My Unconscious

At the same time that the cover of Defenders #53 was impressing some rather powerful images on my mind, the content of its main story—Part 1 of “The Power Principle,” entitled, “The Prince and the Presence”—was blowing it to smithereens. I mean…Jesus. What on earth was going on in Defenders #53?

I have already described the fantastic attraction that incomprehensible narratives held (and still hold) for me in my discussion of Avengers #176. But the twists and turns of that later comic cannot hold a candle to the bizarre, disjointed content of David Anthony Craft, Keith Giffen, Mike Golden, and Terry Austin’s wild, surrealist canoodling. I know that I can’t help but look at it through the veil of the very affect I am trying to describe here, but even so, this book still strikes me as a thing of unusual beauty and strangeness. Far more than Avengers #176, it was utterly incoherent to my five-year-old eyes—actually impossible to follow.

Giffen’s twelve panel layout for page 2, for instance, despite the establishing shot of the interior of Namor’s ship on the splash page, was completely mysterious to me. Nothing seemed to connect, partly because a number of the panels had no backgrounds, but mostly because Giffen’s jerky panel jumps favored what Scott McCloud later called “subject-to-subject” and “scene-to-scene” transitions that required considerable comic book literacy to follow, and which I experienced as pure non-sequiturs (Understanding Comics 71-72). (The panel in which Namor imagines Atlantis blowing up was particularly confusing.) Matters were not helped by Kraft’s delightfully overheated script, which was incomprehensible to a five-year-old in its own right, and it certainly didn’t help that none of the characters aboard the sub-sea vessel ever carried on a conversation. Each character, like each panel, seemed isolated from the rest: Namor, Hulk, Nighthawk, and Hellcat (not to mention the curiously garbed Atlanteans) all marooned and speaking in monologue. The only character who said anything comprehensible was Hellcat, yet her exclamation, “Cheese and crackers!” was itself puzzling. At five, Hellcat’s swingin’ idiom was lost on yours truly, and made about as much sense as everything else I was looking at. (But oh, how I loved panels 11 and 12, where the Atlantean pilot with the absurdly distended finger points at something—me?—and Patsy shouts her enigmatic message. Was it a warning? A command? I loved cheese and crackers too!)

Giffen’s trippy layouts were, moreover, difficult to read. Quite unexpectedly the protocols of reading would suddenly shift as they do on page 15 where, without announcement, I was now being asked to read vertically, rather than from left to right. I couldn’t quite make the leap (nor I suspect, could my parents, on those occasions where they were good enough to read to me). The shift from hand-lettering to typeface on that page was also unnerving. My comic wasn’t behaving like a comic anymore.


These kinds of sudden formal or stylistic shifts and narrative surprises also furnished one of the greatest of all my comic book mysteries: was page 17 part of the comic book story or not? For literally years, the answer seemed to me to be “no.” It contained no superheroes, and did not appear to be connected either to the page that came before or to the page the came after—even the comic book captions at the top and bottom of the page seemed relatively self-contained. Indeed, with its mock-up of a newspaper report with the headline, “KILLER QUAKE JOLTS EUROPE” and a real European map, I thought it might be some sort of educational supplement. It certainly looked serious—as if some adult was trying to fool me into learning something by making it look like a comic book. But I was too clever for that: I could see that it was just boring. Still…I wondered. It wasn’t until I became a much better reader that I was able to piece together enough evidence to discover my error and reintegrate this stray object into the narrative line of the story. Until that time, it just sat there, worrisomely, like an undigested lump.

What I read in the fractured form of Defenders #53, I think, was a free space of almost but not quite random association—what the unconscious might look like if it were possible to represent: an open yet paradoxically claustrophobic plane, swept by strange conjunctions, ruptures, violence, abrupt breaks and changes in direction, a rush of electrifying non sequiturs. Above all: affect, but not meaning. “Cheese and crackers!”

The art style—Kirbyeqsue strangeness with the Perez-like polish of Terry Austin inks—reinforced this narrative experience of uncanny disjunction and diffused pleasure. In other words: bold and weird, but delicate and dreamlike too. And of course, the story is set in Namor’s kingdom—Atlantis. The Hulk must wear a “fish bowl” over his head to breathe down there, as we all do. A dreamscape, in other words. Underwater.

Two images haunted me. That they are splash pages that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with what came immediately before or after was no doubt a significant factor in their hold on me, but the images themselves are unquestionably arresting.

Page 3: Sub-Mariner’s Imperial Vessel. For a child, this is a profound piece of science fiction art, a true alien artifact. Patsy’s exclamation is ostensibly a reaction to seeing Atlantis, but the transition from her panel to the full splash on the next page makes it seem as if she is exclaiming at the astonishing vision of the docked ship from which she has, in fact, just disembarked. And what a vision. That bizarre, golden ship of Namor’s that could just as easily be a helmet or a piece of architecture, or a sentient thing. To me it was a wonder of the world, like the Sphinx or the Pyramids, or Stonehenge. Only much later, would that mad philosopher duo, Deleuze and Guattari, give me the vocabulary to finally name it: desiring-machine. This is what the unconscious looks like.

And this:

The final frame of the story, following immediately upon the enigmatic fake news story of page 17. My god, did this image frighten and fascinate me. “The Presence!” What was it? A robot? A person? An alien? Was there a fire burning in its chest like a furnace? And all that power. Power pouring out of him and into him—or was it her? Despite the obvious phallic symbolism, there was something unnervingly androgynous about this transvestite Being called simply, “The Presence.” All that could be said with certainty was that it was evil. An evil, punishing, nebulous presence that, as David Anthony Kraft inimitably put it, was born at “the heart of the nuclear holocaust…deep underground in this fiery core of sheer cataclysmic chaos.” Evil underground. A strange father. “Presence born of power.” Demon of my unconscious. What else? Superego.

To a five-year-old, the shocks engineered by Kraft, Giffen, Golden, and Austin in Defenders #53 were identical in kind, if not in degree, to the shocks that Max Ernst gave the moderns with his disturbing surrealist collage books like Une Semaine de Bonté or La Femme 100 Têtes. And the techniques of these two media (unsettling juxtapositions and hybrid but eerily familiar monstrosities assembled from popular and advertising illustrations) might not in the end be all that radically different either. In this issue, at least, Kraft, Giffen, Golden, and Austin became pop inheritors of Ernst’s surrealist mantle, bringing the mad disarray of the unconscious into representation to terrify, bewilder, and seduce.

To what end? Hard to say. To me, it was a field of possibilities. A beautiful/frightening place. A place I recognized. Where things come apart…

And what was coming apart in particular? Looking back over the main story of Defenders #53 now, it is remarkable how dramatically it thematizes the breakdown of traditional gender roles.

When the Sub-Mariner officiously brings the antique Atlantean banquet (featuring female “acrobats” and “serving girls”) to a halt, clearing the Council Chambers to converse with the Defenders and the Council in private, “all his subjects…file from the vast chamber, all the performers…and all the women. All the women, that is, with the exception of the happy-go-lucky Hellcat!”—whose reply to the greasy eyeball she gets from the patriarchal Atlantean Council is an eloquent and succinct, “Er...gee! Don’t look at me, fellas. I’m just one of the gang!”

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Clea and Val (later called a “dumb broad” and a “pushy feminist” by disgruntled subway-goers) have a (nearly) consciousness-raising coffee klatch that makes the theme of Hellcat’s wry recalcitrance explicit. While Val contemplates a return to university, she and Clea ruminate on the subject of male caprice. Val puzzles over Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond’s sudden, unexplained disappearance, which has left her worried for the Defenders and Clea expresses her feelings about her secondary role in the life of Stephen Strange: “The uncertainty is something you must become accustomed to, Val. Stephen is also often absent without explanation, such as now. I have learned to live with it—though I do not like it!” Clea’s eye glints menacingly at this conspiratorial admission, and in a hilarious outburst, she commands the dishes to magically “BEGONE!”—an absurd domestication of her power whose “abruptness” and hostility are clearly directed at Stephen himself.

As the heroines of Defenders #53 feel their way through the growing pains of second-wave feminism and struggle to assert their own authority, it is the villain of the issue that reaffirms the most regressive and old fashioned notions of female dependence. Sergei—“The Presence”—appears to have hypnotized the Red Guardian, for she speaks haltingly and faintly of her desire to serve him in the most conventionally gendered terms imaginable: “Never have I known…such sensitivity in a man…my beloved. You are a poet, Sergei…and soon all the world shall be yours to…reshape…I am…proud…to have been selected as your…consort.” Indeed! And the climactic scene of nuclear transmogrification in which “The Presence” appears to absorb not just her energy but her very person dramatically confirms the threat this old-world patriarch poses to an incipient feminist consciousness.


Clea: Defender/Avenger

If the main story of Defenders #53 was a freaky, sometimes disturbing head-trip through Atlantis (that mythical and chaotic sunken island that dwells in all of us, submerged beneath consciousness), it also contained a partial subversion of the message about gender that I read in the cover. At first, the back-up story by Naomi Basner, Sandy Plunkett, and Tony Salmons entitled “Clea, The Mystic Maiden!” seemed to provide a regressive contrast to these developments. It seemed to mark a return both to reassuringly comprehensible storytelling and to the sexist theme of the cover image in which the radioactive Red Guardian served as archetypal “female” Defender. Like the cover, the back-up story seemed to give us a direct, immediately graspable feminine stereotype. Clea: Dr. Strange’s girlfriend, a Marvel “maiden” defined immediately by her body and by her secondary status, and in a “back-up” story no less! In the opening panel of the story she wears an open trench coat with peek-a-boo indifference, half-heartedly covering her sexy magician’s leotard, seemingly eager to shed its encumbrance, which she does, hastily, in panel two. Moreover, at the same time that we seem to have moved back into a recognizable representation of gender difference, the fractured narrative style of the main story is replaced by lovely realistic art and smoother “action-to-action” progressions (McCloud, Understanding Comics 70) that restore its legibility at the level of form.

Significantly, though, this story was inextricably connected to the weird disarray of the main story for me because it seemed anchored in the only half-comprehensible part of that tale: the brief subplot involving Valkyrie visiting Clea at Doctor Strange’s pad, back in Greenwich Village, and then taking the subway uptown to enroll in University classes that I described earlier. (How I mooned over that picture of white-haired Clea gripping the silver coffee pot in a pink mind ray or that off-kilter panel where here eye flashes enigmatically, perhaps dangerously, at Val!).

Legible, yet anchored in mystery—indeed, passing through the latter—this story acted as a critical gloss on the transfixing cover image, deepening and complicating its vision of archetypal womanhood through a naughty and prurient, but nonetheless proto-feminist, rape-and-revenge tale.

In the first three pages of this five-page story, Clea oscillates between capable (self-) Defender and hapless damsel in distress. First, she is attacked by a would be-mugger who threatens first to “cut” and then to “plug” her. Then, effortlessly and gracefully, Clea dispatches her attacker. But she does not realize that he is actually a rival of Dr. Strange’s in disguise who has lulled the Doctor’s girlfriend into overconfidence in order to surprise her, kidnap her, and steal her powers. (A repetition of the Sergei-Red Guardian motif in the main story.) The subtext of rape in the action that ensues is not subtle. There is a suggestively shaped power-stealing machine that zaps Clea with a deadly, power-sapping ray, and just in case we didn’t get the double-entendres of the first four pages, Nicodemus, the sorcerous, pony-tailed villain of the piece, makes the threat explicit on the final page with the promise of “much more pleasant” forms of servitude for our heroine.

Yet, in the end, the story is of the “biter bitten” variety as a now “powerless” Clea turns the tables on her attacker who has ironically lulled himself into fatal overconfidence. Just as he is about to show Clea what her “much more pleasant” function might be, she clobbers him, appropriately, with a small statue of two fighting gladiators. True, the story does end with Clea phoning Stephen to mop up, but the point of the tale—written by Naomi Basner—is obviously to show that Clea is a Mystic Maiden in no need of male rescue. She begins as a “feminine” Defender, but ends as a feminist Avenger.


Deconstruction for Five-Year-Olds: When Team Books Make Gender Difference, er…Dissassemble

Taken as a whole—cover, main story, and back-up—what has happened in this comic?

Well, for one thing, the childish contrast between “man” and “woman” implied by those Avengers and Defenders covers has gotten a lot more complicated. Somehow, in its passage through the chaotic flux of the main story, the cover image of a “female” Defender was (to borrow an Avengers term) “disassembled,” to be recomposed in a back-up story that sprouts from one of its very own subplots into a very different image of femininity: capable, resourceful, and avenging.

In fact, if we look closely, this was the intrinsic message of the cover’s representation of frighteningly “empowered” femininity all along, but with one very significant difference: the cover codes this empowerment as evil and dangerous, the equivalent of an atomic blast. In other words, the cover-image of Defenders #53 has at least two meanings, both of which confirm the adage that what superhero comics really “defend” is an embattled and regressive fantasy of male power. When read in conjunction with the crackling silhouette of Korvac on the cover of Avengers #176, the Red Guardian seems initially to embody the “femininized” secondary status of the Defenders themselves relative to the Avengers’ “masculine” norm (this was my personal experience of the cover). But even when taken in context, the raging Red Guardian is a villain precisely because she is “maculinized” and powerful. Thus, to the extent that we recognize her as a “powerful woman,” the cover also demands that we recognize her as monstrous and unlawful—an anti-feminist message if ever there was one. It is in this context that Clea’s transformation from “defender” to “avenger” (her claiming of the prerogative of “masculine” agency, even when she seems most conventionally “feminine”) is so thrilling. By the end of this comic female power has been recoded: the role of “powerful female” has passed from turncoat or villainess (Red Guardian) to heroine (Clea). The fact that this recoding is accomplished most decisively in a back-up story written by a woman is itself an exciting detail—as if the important changes are all happening in the margins, margins that end up (by virtue of the “back-up” story’s placement after the “main” tale) becoming conclusions, and thus unexpectedly usurp the priority of the “original” narrative out of which they spring, or beside which they appear merely parasitic. “Clea: The Mystic Maiden!” seemed to play the role of “Adam’s rib” to the Adamic main story—literally emerging from a subplot in the latter—only to reveal itself as an Avenging, agential Lilith.

How perfect, then, that the comic’s boy-attracting cover anxiously announces: “Now the Red Guardian Reborn! Will it be as Friend or Foe?” Such a hesitation in a story called “The Power Principle” whose cover implies the rebirth of an empowered female archetype, toys deliciously with male anxieties about the changing nature of female gender roles in the 1970s, when “the power principle” in relation to women was as much a political slogan as the title of a superhero story. In the context of the argument I have been developing here, the cover’s question—“Friend or Foe?”—lends this image precisely the ambivalence that pervades this entire issue’s treatment of gender.

I was born in the early 1970s, so my ideas about gender were being shaped by these profound and welcome changes as the decade drew to a close. Moreover, the disassembly and “rebirth” of the female archetype that I have been tracing in Defenders #53 was not without visible consequences for my understanding of the fluidity and contingency of masculinity as well. Broadcasting the story’s ironic twist, Clea knocks out her lascivious captor, announcing: “Positions have a tendency to reverse themselves Nicodemus!” And indeed they do—much more profoundly, even, than Clea realizes. Just as “defenceless” Clea borrows the stereotypically “male” power to avenge her own assault and reorganize the image of woman as either secondary and weak or powerful and monstrous, so Nicodemus embodies a suggestively effete version of masculine aggression. (He wears a fin-collared pirate shirt for heaven’s sake!) Significantly too, his very plan to steal Clea’s power already seems to hint at a patriarchal anxiety about powerful women that could only stem from uncertainty about the power of his own masculine prowess. Is the villainous (and impotent) Nicodemus perhaps Naomi Basner’s satiric comment on the crisis in the normative codes of masculinity that I’ve been describing?

What would it look like, I wonder, to imagine a new narrative of masculinity, a narrative that was the equivalent to the new narratives of femininity represented by Clea and (in inverted fashion) by the Red Guardian? Do we catch glimpses of such a narrative in elvish-eared Namor, Monarch of the Atlantean Unconscious, master of that most changeable element, the ocean? In “feminized” Batman knock-off Nighthawk, perhaps? Even the normally rampaging Hulk is subdued here, domesticated by his “fishbowl” helmet! Perhaps such a reimagining of gender inheres in the male superhero himself—in the changeability of his identity signified by (frequent changes to) his costume and the radical freedom of movement he enjoys. Are these power fantasies, or are they diagrams? Maybe both. Partly, at least, they are diagrams for some other way of being. Diagrams that bind themselves to consciousness before we’re fully formed, adhering with a bonding agent that is stronger than crazy-glue: the magnet of affect, pleasure, powerful emotion.

For me, at least, conventional gender roles and distinctions were fraying in the turbulent undersea space of Atlantis. And in that non-space of possibility and juxtaposition, their coming undone was a precursor to their rearrangement and reinvention. But there is also a more general dimension to this deconstructive “disassembly” of gender norms that I’ve been describing, and this has to do with team books as genre, and their potential to distribute our processes of identification in surprising and complex ways. Is there a boy alive who has read Uncanny X-Men #168 (“Professor Xavier is a Jerk!”) and not felt, in the deepest core of their being: Kitty Pryde, c’est moi? (Don’t bother denying it, no one will believe you.) The beautiful thing about the Avengers and the Defenders is that, despite the very conventional gendering of these teams (initially projected for me by their cover images), the presence of powerful, appealing male and female characters on both teams made each book a gateway to intensive and contradictory forms of gender identification on the part of the (in this case) male reader. (This is no less true of the “masculine”-coded Avengers than of the “feminine”-coded Defenders. The mutant X-Men, of course, will go a step further, making this complexity of identification into a badge of honour.) In the issue in question, the availability of weird multiple points of identification was further helped by the surreal, disjointed quality of Kraft and Giffen’s narrative, which thrusts us back into the chaotic, fractured world of drives that precedes the assumption of a gender identity. Truth be told, if I “identified” with any character in Defenders #53 at the age of five, it was Patsy “Cheese and Crackers” Walker—Hellcat. Or Clea, the proto-feminist “mystic maiden” herself. As an adult reading this book, it’s all about Val, the would-be scholar. The sequence detailing her claustrophobia on the crowded subway is like a poem. And then there’s Nighthawk, prototype of the male hysteric: grumbling, introverted, and anxious. My twin!


Why Team Books Matter: Some Tentative Conclusions

Did I pick up on the nuances of gender role “disassembly” at the tender age of five? It’s hard to say “yes,” but it’s even harder to say “no.” It would be almost impossible, I think, to overestimate the power of our formative texts. Of course we don’t fully understand their contents at the time, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t cut paths or grooves in the unconscious into which meanings will later pool. That is to say, these stories and images structure our ways of categorizing and seeing what is most basic and fundamental to us, and we don’t necessarily need to understand these structures consciously at the time to feel their effects later. I’m not claiming that these structures automatically produce subversive effects in every reader. Clearly, they don’t. Nor am I claiming that they are a necessary (much less a sufficient) cause for challenging normative binary oppositions of whatever sort. Nonetheless, it does seem that for some of us, such primary experiences of intuitive deconstruction create complex templates or diagrams that make us more prone to question the cultural scripts we are given.

Do all comics have at least the potential to produce this degree of deconstructive complexity? Perhaps. Though even those great Marvel comics of the 70s can be just as guilty of “assembling” and reinforcing normative codes of identity as “disassembling” and reconstituting them. But as I argued in the epic debate with Marc Singer, the mixed messages of pop culture forms are at least as much an opportunity as a liability because the contradictory, double-voiced messages of superhero books make them potential points of intervention into the normative cultural scripts they both echo and distort. Like Defenders #53, the best comics dangle the bait of normative pleasures before us, only to ensnare us; then they spring the trap: cultural scripts, Disassemble! (Gorjus, of Pretty Fakes, aptly dubs this phenomenon of trash culture that “trick[s] as many people as possible into self-reflection” trick candy.)

My own case offers at least an anecdotal confirmation of these claims. As anyone who knows me can attest, the normative set of masculine gender identifications can hardly be said to have taken. An ongoing aspect of the debate between myself and Marc Singer has been whether or not mainstream comics could be said to have genuinely “political” (or subversive) effects. Speaking only from my own experience—the archaeology of narcissism I’ve been wallowing in here—I would say that they can have such an effect, especially at the formative level of affect and identification. To be cute: the effect is in the affect. The question then becomes whether or not our psychoanalytic “objects” and identifications are properly “political.” It depends how you define that vexing word, politics. I think they are. Especially when you consider the profound (and sometimes profoundly disturbing) degree to which desire and affect appear to shape and even largely determine what we commonly refer to as the “political sphere.”

To put it slightly different terms: a friend of mine recently worried that her three-year-old son was becoming too preoccupied with superhero violence (I foisted my DVD of 1960s Spider-Man cartoons on them) and that he identified excessively with Batman (indeed, insists on being addressed as “Batman”!). But then she said that she and her husband were reassured by the fact that most of the comic-reading men they knew were anything but the thuggish rednecks a mother might worry about her impressionable young superhero growing into. (I believe “gentle” is the euphemism she used to characterize the comic-reading guys of her acquaintance.) And so, only the old chicken-and-egg question remains: does our choice of objects reveal who we “are” already? Even at age 5? Do we disclose our identities by the comics we read? Or do the comics we read actually change who we become? And do superhero comics provide an unusually fertile ground for broadening the possibilities of what it is possible to imagine becoming? If the answer to these latter questions is a self-congratulatory “yes,” then we will have to stop believing that superhero comics are just the male power fantasies for which they are popularly mistaken.

19 comments:

plok said...

This really is turning into the most fascinating diary, Jim! Nighthawk is instantly revealed as a far more unusual superheroic creation here than I ever noticed before, and it makes me wonder how I didn't since he was obviously like that all along...but maybe showing that was just part-and-parcel with the bizarrely fractured Kraft/Giffen style, still some of my favourite brain-damaged comics of all time.

And now you've got me wondering about Hellcat, too...I'm sure it must be by some sort of design that she's the most reader-friendly character in this run of the Defenders, even the usually-comfortable Hulk being a little strange and stressed...and yet surely it isn't by accident that of all the female characters she's the one who's sexualized in the clearest and most easily-comprehensible way?

Or was that just me who always thought that?

Wow, there's too much here to respond to all at once. Incredible post!

Jim Roeg said...

Hi plok - Thanks--it's reassuring to hear that my impressions of Nighthawk are not entirely projections of my own neuroses! I actually don't know the character all that well (when I was a kid, I only knew two issues of the old Defenders series: this one and #51, in which Nighthawk battles the Ringer, which I will write about some day too). Still, whenever I see this character pop up, I like him instantly, so there must be some connection there!

Hellcat too is one of those amazing Marvel characters--one just likes her instantly, especially as written by Kraft. (Again, I don't know the character very well, but she always struck me as having no powers at all--just that fact that she was this cool girl who was "one of the gang" was awesome. She was definitely the point-of-view character in the main story for me, though in issue #51 it was probably Nighthawk.) Man, I just can't adequately convey how special these issues of the Defenders were to me back then. Even the ones I bought later from around this era (especially the "Who Is Scorpio?" storyline that precedes these issues) hold up as dizzying, astounding work. Sniff!

gorjus said...

Cheese and crackers, Jim! I seriously wandered over here to chastise you for not writing much lately. Um.

An extraordinary post and, like plok, I need some digestion time before I might respond. In one post, you not only dissect & critique (much more gently than you could've) Keith Giffen's emerging use of the 12-panel page and dynamics (I adore his "Five Years Later" Legion art), but inferences of feminism and otherness in 70's Marvel. Magnificent.

It's also noteworth how you bring up that we have no control over what gets to us as children--the trick candy. I am absolutely floored by your notion of Kitty Pryde as the most identifiable X-Man to many teens; I've never though of that before, but I must revisit it soon.

It is Kitty, of course, who is the youngest; the one who has the crush on the (literally) dense older person who seems out of reach, and who finally betrays her for nothing more than physicality (a la Secret Wars). It is also Kitty who--incredibly!--becomes a samuari-level martial arts master (as a 16-year old Jewish kid from Chicago!), earns perhaps the greatest deference of any other X-Man from Wolverine, and has a pet dragon and a soul-sister who is a demon sorceress??

I might ask if Kitty was just as much a wishfully-young Chris Claremont as she was you, or me.

Too much to think about, especially what with you throwing DeBeavouir in; I'd also like a splash of Irigaray, for the idea that defending is no less paramount or worthy simply because it is not avenging (i.e., vagina v. penis in This Sex Which Is Not One; the penis does not gain some sort of greater power simply because its possible use as a pentrative instrument).

Cheese and crackers AGAIN! I gotta go walk around.

Prof. Fury said...

Helluva post, Jim! I wonder if Hellcat is working towards the kind of complication of gender binaries by her very inclusion in the comic: superhero comics are supposedly a "masculine" genre, yet Hellcat, as Patsy Walker, had her origins in Marvel's romance comics, right? A supposedly "feminine" genre. So just her being in the "mainstream" MU in the first place constitutes a blending that is not just generic but gendered.

Jim Roeg said...

Hey gorjus, hey Prof. Fury, thanks for the nice comments! I love Giffen's "Five Years Later" Legion art too--that period was the high point of the series for me, both story-wise and artistically. And Kitty Pryde...much more to be said about her for sure. Definitely a Claremont fantasy, I think, but also a point-of-view character that really worked for both boys and girls. I'm not sure that there's any other X-character from that era who quite achieved the life-likeness of Kitty--perhaps that had as much to do with reader involvement as with Claremont's own enthusiasm for her. Perhaps it'll inspire a post at Pretty Fakes? (hint, hint)

As for Irigaray, I'm so with you. The original draft of the parenthetical de Beauvoir comment read as follows: "(DeBeauvoir’s definition of woman as “the second sex” and of Luce Irigaray’s updated paradoxical version, “the sex which is not one,” are serendipitous but not frivolous comparisons—sexism, it seems, starts early.)" I kid you not!! I took it out, only because I was too lazy to work out the implications of that particular name-drop fully--so thank you for your thoughts about this. I can only add that the masculine/feminine avenger/defender oppositions throughout the essay gave me quite a bit of anxiety. It was very much a case of trying to describe a deconstructive process through the language and categories of childhood. A crude business at best! It is, as you point out, preposterous to equate "avenging" with power or agency. Ah, language.

As for Hellcat's romance comic origins, Prof. Fury, I honestly had no idea. But is that ever cool! More food for thought, and of course, I like her even more now. :)

gorjus said...

Jim, check out this Wikipedia entry on Hellcat for more.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellcat_(comics)

Now I've gotta go dig out a lot of Kitty Pryde comics. Fantastic! Lots more to say, still, about this subject.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Jim --

You bring up some interesting points, but I feel compelled to bring up a counter-point: namely, that David Anthony Kraft is terrible story-teller. He was the first comic book author I made a point of avoiding because I found his work so dreadful on a simple, technical level. (I need only point to the massive confusion you admit to upon first reading the story.) Which leads me to wonder whether this may be an instance when you are reading too much into Defenders #53.

I don't doubt that any creator brings some contemporary issues to the table while they're working -- that strikes me as nearly inevitable. But it seems to me that a writer trying to work in those issues consciously will either A) drop them in clumsily if s/he is not talented enough, or B) weave them in gracefully and subversively so as not to appear "preachy" if s/he is talented. Given Kraft's bad technical form throughout his comic writing career, I have a great deal of difficulty believing that he was indeed trying to weave deconstruction of gender roles into Defenders. I would suggest that it's more likely he was simply laying down relatively base characterization, based on the more involved and complex work of those before him. Indeed, he didn't create any of the characters in those issues; any of the deconstructivist notions you're seeing are shadows of the work of Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and Steve Englehart.

As to whether we choose comics based on our personalities versus whether our personalities are shaped by the comics we read, I would point out that this is effectively the classic nature vs. nurture arguement. My understanding is that the general consensus on that point is that both play critical factors -- that a person's baseline psychological makeup is pre-determined, but his/her environment (in this case, which comics s/he stumbles upon) re-inforces particular aspects of that baseline. So if you're friend's son is emulating Batman, that could easily just be an identification with the character's independence and/or detective skills, both aspects of a character that are likely too nuanced for a three-year-old to cognitively grasp. If he continues reading Batman, I'm sure you're as well aware as I am that that could help focus him on critical thinking or self-reliance moreso than any number of episodes of Seasame Street.

Jim Roeg said...

Which leads me to wonder whether this may be an instance when you are reading too much into Defenders #53...

Hi Sean - Guilty as charged! In fact, to clarify: I'm reading everything into Defenders #53--or nearly everything. I should probably have been clearer about this in the post, but this is an instance of (almost) pure "reader response"--more self-analysis than comic criticism. The main thing I was trying to do here was describe my own five-year-old experience of reading (and, if I'm being really honest, my subsequent rereading from ages 5-10 or so).

That said, there are two elements of the "interpretation" I'd be willing to defend as "actually there" in the comic as a whole (not just Kraft's script but the cover and back-up too):

1. The contradictory structures themselves (which were, as you say, almost certainly unintended). (I.e., even if only by accident, Kraft & Giffen & even the DC editors who included a back up story created structures related to gender difference that were contradictory enough that they stuck with me a screwed with the simpler binary oppositions that culture tends to give us about gender difference. The fact that this was all a big accident didn't make the effects of it any less real for five- or six- or seven-year-old me! In fact, it is precisely because the script/breakdowns are so incoherent that the whole comic became a sort of free-association excerise for me. In other words, as a narcissist who likes to see myself reflected everywhere, I actually like "bad" writers--sometimes even better than good ones. That's a terrible admission though, so please don't tell anybody.)

2. The other aspect of the reading I would defend is the second-wave feminism, which is indisputably part of Kraft's characterization of the women. This becomes even more insistent in the Clea back-up story by Naomi Basner, which I'd be even more willing to defend as "intentionally" proto-feminist--albeit in the usual mixed way of this type of vaguely exploitive sex-kitten feminism.

Oh--and about the nature/nurture baseline, I agree...I think! Things are rarely either/or, but I can't resist the rhetorical flourish at the end. It always gets me into trouble.

Jim Roeg said...

Thanks for the Hellcat-Wiki, gorjus. Too crazy! And here's another one:
http://www.toonopedia.com/patsy.htm

plok said...

Don't forget Gerber, Sean!

I'd actually argue with the conclusions a little bit here, on two fronts: on the first, Jim is slowly convincing me (though he probably doesn't intend to) that these gendering issues really are deeply integrated into the form and structure of superhero comics, and in some ways can be said to be what they're "about" in reality, and not just what they can be made to be about by interpretation...Hardy Boys, anyone? Or maybe a little Nancy Drew? I'm not a particularly pomo guy, but I'm not sure I'd be willing to say that the attraction of comics for young boys (just to speak for myself) has nothing to do with this, or that this content is just projected onto the comics from outside. Just possibly, a juvenile fantasy is a juvenile fantasy because of what it's actually got in it, and not just because of who reads it. Oh, chicken or egg, chicken or egg...I guess I'd go with egg, is what I seem to be saying here. Or at least I wouldn't _not_ go with egg.

Although (full disclosure!) that could be naive of me.

But anyway, in that light the incoherence of Kraft and Giffen (as well as that of the backup story, which in a strict craft sense is somewhat of an amateurish effort too, even if enjoyable) might be seen as fortuitous, but not because absolutely anything at all might be read into it: if it fails to have enough art to disguise the fascination with gender issues, possibly it has just enough art not to exclude it completely, as any number of equally-incoherent storytelling methods might. Bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, I guess, but there you go. But I should say that on first reading these comics never gave me too much of a problem as far as technique goes. Although maybe that's naive too.

Second point of departure: "nature vs. nurture". Although both you guys play fair with the idea of that classic tension, I have to admit I've grown to mistrust the way we in this modern age of neurobiological materialism seem to rely on it to explain difference. To me, it's a suspiciously cozy idea, no matter that the conclusions drawn from it sometimes make a lot of sense, and lay inconsistencies to rest. Maybe that's the problem, that they always do that, and never don't!

Just wanted to say that, because it's something of a pet peeve. Of course I don't expect anyone to share my pet peeve, necessarily! But it's a relief to say it anyway.

Pretty snappy discussion here. Do I get extra credit for this?

plok said...

Of course I mean do *we* get extra credit for this. Obviously.

Sean Kleefeld said...

So, the overall conclusion that we're looking at here is that, ultimately, the messages coming from comic books (and by obvious extension, fiction in general) are generated as much by the audience as they are by the creators. The audience is an active participant in the creation process by developing their own interpretation(s) of a work based on their own prior biases and experiences.

Further, one could argue, that a comic book (and, again, by obvious extension, art in general) is not complete until and unless it is read and interpretted by a third party, unrelated to the "traditional" creation roles. A comic that is never published is not incomplete because it has yet to be printed -- it is incomplete because it has yet to be read and interpretted!

A question, then -- if a comic book is published/distributed/read in a single country, does it qualify as art in a different country who has never seen it?

Thomas said...

Even as a lover of comic books and a believer in the ability of art to influence reader’s real lives and political views, I find it hard to swallow an argument for the medium as being progressive towards gender issues.

I’m a bit younger that Roeg, so I’m part of the generation who grew up reading the Image comics of the 90’s, rather than the Bronze Age comics that Jim immersed himself in. As such, I guess I missed out on the second wave feminism of those books which he discusses here. I have found examples of progressive approaches to gender politics in superhero comics few and far between over the last fifteen years.

Lately, I’ve had a few occasions where I actually found myself embarrassed to be reading a comic. For example, my girlfriend glanced over while I was on the notorious “Vicky Vale gets dressed” pages of All Star Batman #1. She asked, “What is ARE you reading?” and I had to answer honestly, “Honey, this is what we call a terrible comic book.”

Similarly, at Chapters the other day, I thought I would flip through the latest issue of New Avengers. As I approached the comic rack, I saw that the cover of the latest issue was a drawing of Spider-woman that so sexualized that I was unable to pick it up. I’d feel as comfortable reading that in public as I would the latest issue of Playboy.

Again, I felt quite ridiculous reading a recent issues of Ultimate Spider-man, because its cover image was basically just Silver Sable’s boobs falling out of her top.

This industry constantly claims that it is trying to get people to take this medium seriously, to draw in new younger readers, and to reach a female audience, yet look at what they are putting on the cover of their books. I’m not some uber-feminist anti-porn lobbyist by any means, but at the same time, I’d like to be able to read a superhero comic book while sitting next to my girlfriend without feeling embarrassed.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting old. I remember reading J. Scoot Campbell’s Gen13 for no other reason than his depiction of sexy super gals. Maybe my frustration is just a reflection of the fact that I am still reading comics that are aimed at a 16 year old, not a 26 year old. I’m sure I would have had no problem with any of these covers back in early high school.

Qusada recently said that if Marvel puts out another gay Rawhide Kid comic, it would have to be under the MAX division regardless of the content, due to the current conservative climate in America. Yet there is no problem with Greg Horn’s pin-up girls gracing the cover of half of Marvel’s line. That’s the industry we are talking about here.

As much as I love Roeg’s celebration of the medium at Double Articulation, I feel that when it comes to gender politics, mainstream Superhero creators should be taken to task for what they have done in the past and for what they continue to publish today, not praised.

plok said...

Thomas: of course any reasonable person would have to agree with you, I think. As things stand, mainstream superhero creators aren't impressing anybody, by and large.

Sean: though I agree with your summation in broad terms, I'd like to clarify what I said before, 'cause I think I may have said it badly. It seems plausible to me that it's not just the creators and the readers that between them make meaning, but also the organizing tendencies that are naturally (whatever "naturally" means) embedded in the formal requirements of the genre itself play a role, whatever that genre happens to be. (For the superhero genre, it's the forms initially laid down by Siegel and Shuster and Kane and Finger, that were the things that proved so unexpectedly popular they created said genre in the first place.) Additionally (and perhaps with a nod to Thomas' point of view), there's a strong editorial intrusion into the creation of meaning in comic books which we as readers often overlook: the editor's function as half-reader and half-creator is nevertheless powerfully motivated by concerns that lie outside the story proper, and that's a whole other kind of feedback that gets into our chicken-and-egg loop.

Hey, maybe we could even say that what makes a bad comic in the first place, especially now, is a lack of sensitivity to these "fractured drives that precede the assumption of gender identity", that assumes these concerns can be easily sidestepped! Jim's triptych would look awfully peculiar with a bunch of 90s Liefield creations standing in for the older Marvel creations, I think...maybe those vapidly hypersexual dysmorpho-figurines of his are just not made to carry on the sort of dialogue with the reader we've been discussing.

And if that were true, it could probably be seen as resulting from the failure of the editorial function. Maybe. Just spitballing here, this is kinda fun...

Still trying to think of something to say about that triptych, though. It evokes something in me beyond what Jim said about it, but I don't know what it is yet. Anyone?

Sean Kleefeld said...

I don't know that I'd put that much emphasis on the "natural" organization tendencies of a genre. I think that a lot of the superhero genre's so-called organization tendencies are simply conventions based on the work of Siegel/Shuster/Finger/Kane, but they're not necessarily indicative of the genre.

Explanation by way of examples (in no particular order)... Watchmen - a book largely written to prove that the existing conventions were just a lazy way to avoid expanding the genre. The old Atlas stories about Venus - clearly steeped in the superhero genre, but with a huge crossover into the romance genre. Fantastic Four #1-3 - These are more monster books than superhero ones; we only think of them as superhero books because of the 500-some issues that followed. Scott McCloud's Destroy! - a book that's SO steeped in the superhero genre as to become a parody of itself. Hellboy - argueably a superhero book, but it bears little resemblance thematically to anything Marvel or DC is doing. Planetary - Using the superhero genre to comment on itself and related genres and media. And that's not even going outside the American market; what about Asterix, Astro Boy, and Miracle Man?

I agree that there's a lot of superhero books that have similar elements and themes along the lines of what I think you're talking about, but those seem to me more like conventions that are easy because they've been done before, not because it's more natural.

As far as the triptych goes, I can only go as far as to say that they suggest to me an inherent power. Those three figures are effectively just standing there, and they evoke a huge amount of raw power. I get a similar sensation if I'm driving with one hand clenched at the top of the steering wheel. Something about the way the muscles in the back of my hand shift as I tighten my grip on the wheel seems to evoke a latent power -- the kind of power that Jack Kirby could regularly tap into with his drawings.

plok said...

And his driving, no doubt! What did Jim Woodring say in The Comics Journal, about Kirby in his later years? Something about how Roz had to drive, because Jack might think he was in a rocket ship, or something...somehow I never took that as meaning Jack was senile or anything, just that his imagination had become so unfettered as he got older that he might actually try to make the car fly...

Anyway, I think Asterix and Astro Boy are outside the American market, technically, but I certainly won't argue that Hellboy is barely superheroic stuff at all, and I'm not familiar with the Venus stuff so I will cheerfully take your word for it...however isn't everything else you mention an example of the formally subversive, an effort to deliberately toy with existing superheroic conventions in an audacious way, rather than an effort that just happens to go outside them? I don't know...I guess I have to except Mister Miracle from that, as it's unquestionably more than just a twisting of what's already there, and I would be surprised to learn it had an awful lot of self-conscious nose-tweakery behind it.


Hmm. I'm not sure I'd say that the S/S/K/F conventions don't amount to a set of organizing principles, in fact. Who can explain the sudden popularity of a new genre anyway? Where does the enthusiasm for it come from? But clearly further research is needed. So glad you mentioned "Destroy"! I'm still eagerly awaiting its sequel...

By the way, Sean, I enjoy your site. Where the hell do you get those 60s FF cartoon pictures? If I could just see that show once more before I die...

Anyway, still mulling the triptych. Will report back.

Jim Roeg said...

Had to step away from the blog for a bit this week and so have unfortunately dropped the ball on the fascinating conversation unfolding in the comments section here...

Just a couple of personal things to add, for what it's worth:

Thomas - I agree that “mainstream Superhero creators should be taken to task for what they have done in the past and for what they continue to publish today, not praised.” I’d only add that—aesthete and pig that I am—my objections are as much aesthetic as political. Simply put, most of the cheesecake that dominates the comic market these days just isn’t sexy for anyone over the age of 16. (Personally, I think that Marvel has a worse scorecard on this issue than DC; I don’t count Power Girl because, as with The Bulleteer, there’s more going on with her cleavage than meets the eye).

plok - This comment gave me an involuntary shudder of horror:

Jim’s triptych would look awfully peculiar with a bunch of 90s Liefeld creations standing in for the older Marvel creations, I think...maybe those vapidly hypersexual dysmorpho-figurines of his are just not made to carry on the sort of dialogue with the reader we’ve been discussing.

Yikes! No kidding. The wonderful thing about what I like to think of as “1970s bodies” is that although they are, in a sense, idealized, they still obey some minimal requirements of realism. How I wish that this style of comic art would make a comeback! (My slavish worship of Perez has clearly got something to do with the fact that he still draws bodies in this style.) I’m inclined to agree that these (now almost quaint) 1970s bodies are in a sense necessary for the kind of reader-dialogue I had with them. I’d almost go so far as to say that their “idealized realism” is what gave them traction as potential sites of identification. On the other hand, though, everything’s relative. I would be fascinated to hear if anyone born in the 80s, for instance, does have a Liefield-triptych lurking somewhere in their make-up! On second thought, maybe not. (I kid.)

Sean - Your comments about how "a comic that is never published is not incomplete because it has yet to be printed -- it is incomplete because it has yet to be read and interpretted!" are spot-in in my view. As literary theories go, this type of phenomenological or "reader response" theory seems to be out of fashion in the academy these days (though feminist critics gave it some new life). Secretly, I still really like Wolfgang Iser's account of the production of literary meaning. Here is a snippet from his wonderful essay, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach” (the references are to David H. Richter’s anthology of literary theory, The Critical Tradition:

“The text as such offers different ‘schematized views’ through which the subject matter of the work can come to light, but the actual brining to light is an action of Konkretization [realization]. If this is so, then the literary work has two poles, which we might call the artistic and the esthetic: the artistic refers to the text created by the author, and the esthetic to the realization accomplished by the reader. From this polarity, it follows that the literary work cannot be completely identical with the text, or with the realization of the text, but in fact must lie half-way between the two…The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence, and this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed, but must always remain virtual….It is the virtuality of the work that gives rise to its dynamic nature, and this in turn is the precondition for the effects that the work calls forth. As the reader uses the various perspectives offered him by the text in order to relate the patterns and the ‘schematized views’ to one another, he sets the work in motion, and this very process results ultimately in his awakening of responses within himself.”

My own little pseudo-psychoanalystic forays into self-analysis take matters further than I think Iser intends for us to take them as he ultimately holds to a liberal humanistic ethic of being educated and transformed by our encounters with the “difference” or “otherness” represented by the text. In a very general sense, I like his ethics of reading, so I have no problem acknowledging that my various childhood reading experiences go too far in the direction of imposing meaning and are not sufficiently dialogic. Still, his thoughts about the degree to which readers can “fill in the gaps” left by the text in order to participate in the “realization” of textual meaning are notoriously unclear, and I find the following passage from that essay very suggestive as a model for what I think I’m attempting here:

“The unwritten aspects of apparently trivial scenes and the unspoken dialogue within the ‘turns and twists’ not only draw the reader into the action but also lead him to shade in the many outlines suggested by given situations, so that these take on a reality of their own. But as the reader’s imagination animates these ‘outlines,’ they in turn will influence the effect of the written part of the text. Thus begins a whole dynamic process: the written text imposes certain limits on its unwritten implications in order to prevent these from becoming too blurred and hazy, but at the same time these implications, worked out by the reader’s imagination, set the whole given situation against a background which endows it with far greater significance than it might have seemed to possess on its own. In this way, trivial scenes suddenly take on the shape of ‘an enduring form of life.’”

Oh, and as for plok's question about whether we all get extra credit for this...? I certainly hope so!

Marc said...

"What I saw in these two covers, then—what steered my hand to pluck them from the random assortment of other comics on the newsstand—were potent archetypes of male and female embodiment: what seemed, at the time, to be boiled down essences of gender difference—indeed, essences that still boiled in a cosmic soup of Kirby dots."

That somatized essence, along with the "map of the unconscious" provided by the interaction of panels and gutters, may be the most truly radical thing about the superhero genre and the comics form. Or maybe I should say "potentially radical," in light of our earlier discussion--but I see it as the most potentially radical, certainly moreso than any putative thematic correspondence between genre conventions and political ideologies.

Great post, Jim!

Jim Roeg said...

Thanks Marc! As I was writing this, I realized that what began as a very personal unpacking of a childhood reading experience was morphing into a sort of addendum to our earlier discussion. I just can't let a good thing go, it seems!