John Holbo is doing some heavy lifting with the capecapades set over at John & Belle Have a Blog, most recently with the one-two punch of “Superbeing and Time” and “Crisis on Infantile Earths,” peering at superheroics through a mock-pastoral lens to good effect. So pardon me as I swipe an epigram from him:
I do not know just how in childhood we arrive at certain images, images of crucial significance to us. They are like filaments in a solution around which the sense of the the world crystalizes for us …. They are meanings that seem predestined for us, ready and waiting at the very entrance of our life … Such images constitute a program, establish our soul’s fixed fund of capital, which is allotted to us very early in the form of inklings and half-conscious feelings.
And then I’ll cite Delany citing Freud :
Freud told us that a perversion was the opposite of a neurosis: In the childhood machinations of psychic development, either we sexualize something or it becomes a neurotic character trait.
Oh, San Diego!
It is and has been for decades the comics convention. It’s the gathering of the tribes: indie auteurs, fan favorites, corporate hacks and shills, visionary geniuses, that guy who did the make-up for the demons on that episode of Buffy, and of course tens of thousands of fans themselves, they all wash up in the great big barn of the San Diego Convention Center for four or five days toward the dog days of every summer. And you can crack jokes these days about how hard it is to even find comics at the Comic-Con these days: sure, the con’s expected to draw 80,000 people this year, as opposed to 40,000 back in 1998, but those 80,000 people are there for the movies and the video games and the toys and the anime and the manga.
And the comics. Yeah. Sure. But if you walk into the middle of the hall you’d be hard-pressed to figure that out at first.
The first is of a woman, long and lean, young, her belly and thighs bared by a gaspingly, laughably fetishistic costume (take your pick: lingerie’d angel; latexed demon; Catholic schoolgirl stripper; battle-thonged nun; tank-topped and hot-panted soldier of fortune; extreme-sports paramilitary cop; strategically splattered with creepy alien encrustations; dolled-up in crotch-floss and body paint). She usually carries a long slender sword, or a gun, or some kind of arcane Japanese farm-implement-turned-weapon, but not always. She sneers, she glares, she’s defiant, she’s angry; if she grins, it’s some kind of feral rictus; sometimes, occasionally, she’s serene, gazing expressionlessly off into nothing at all. She hangs there, on the covers, on the banners, in mid-air, mid-fall, mid-leap, mid-splash; she’s poised, her weapon of choice at the ready, up and back from the follow-through.
The second? Lemme grab At Swim-Two-Birds:
Too great was he for standing. The neck to him was as the bole of a great oak, knotted and seized together with muscle-humps and carbuncles of tangled sinew, the better for good feasting and contending with bards. The chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs. The arms to him were like the necks of beasts, ball-swollen with their bunched-up brawnstrings and blood-veins, the better for harping and hunting and contending with the bards. Each thigh to him was to the thickness of a horse’s belly, narrowing to a green-veined calf to the thickness of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was wide enough to halt the march of warriors through a mountain-pass.
We are so far beyond wearing the underwear outside our tights it’s not even funny.
So let’s sniff and dismiss: it’s simple enough. Comics (cartooning in general) is a perilous shorthand: it traffics in those filament-images of Bruno’s, drawing on them for inspiration, generating them in return, and feeds it with the raw and heady energy of demiurgic subcreation. You draw what you want to draw (if you’re lucky, or at the very least you draw what other people in their wisdom have decided the pop semi-conscious wants you to draw), and you’re making them do exactly what it is you want them to do (or ditto): and any time desire is involved, things get funky fast. We just need to note that mainstream comics (like action-adventure movies, like genre television) is still a heterosexual white man’s game to explain why the images of women are all things to be desired, and the images of men are all things to desire to be.
“The thing about superhero stories,” says John, “is that they make no sense whatsoever, not even a tiny little bit, and never will; but once—when you were small—this made so much sense that nothing else seemed to.” Indeed, except we bemoan the lack of comics for children these days: superhero stories don’t cater to the small as their audience of choice. They fell from grace into a seething pit of that other time when you’re overwhelmed by something that doesn’t make sense, and yet means so much that the rest of the whole wide world can go hang—adolescence. Love and sex; trouble and desire. Those pop-bright demiurgic subcreations are powerful tokens, imagos and eidolons for stuff we couldn’t bear to tackle directly: desire, sex, being desired, having sex, and the world-shaking power it seemed was the only way we could ever get anywhere near the stuff, and yet which required crippling responsibility to keep the rest of the world safe from our terrible might. (Whether this is why superheroes wear their underwear outside their tights, or wearing the underwear outside their tights is why superheroes came to take on this role, is one of those delicious chicken-and-egg questions.) —The battle-thonged Beauties and brawn-strung Beasts on the comics and posters and banners all around us are just those tokens run wild, unshackled from the schoolmarmish constraints of Marketing and Editorial, fastbred at hyperevolutionary speeds to monstrously logical extremes, like bizarre ocean-floor life fished up from a ruthlessly capitalist hotzone. We’re trapped in a straight boy’s daydream, and nothing makes any sense, and it won’t stop grabbing us by the collar and gibbering that attention must be paid, and the post-adolescent fans (and artists, and writers, and editors) all trafficking in this stuff? —Let’s pick up Delany again:
For one thing one learns in fifty years is that, though most of us eventually learn to ask, more or less, for what we want, it is always more or less impossible to ask for what we need. (If we could ask for it, by definition we wouldn’t need it.) That can only be given us. Finally, we are left to conspire, inarticulately and by our behavior alone, to make sure there is as much of it available in the landscape as is possible, in the hope that, eventually, we will be fortunate enough to receive some.
Oh, but that’s mean, that’s cruel, and unfair. Look away from the comics and the posters and the banners we’ve been talking about and watch the people go by. Ignore the costumes for a moment—we’ll get to them—and note how many people who aren’t male and who aren’t white are walking past. It doesn’t look like America—not yet—but it looks a hell of a lot more like America than it did five years ago. Much less ten. —And as for the costumes, well, no one can quite manage battle-thongs, though the occasional Vampirella will come close (with lots of spirit gum in uncomfortable places), and nobody’s brawn is strung quite like that. Still: there’s women dressed as the Beauty we’re all supposed to want, and men dressed as the Beast we’re all supposed to want to be. Dozens of Lara Crofts, a couple of Vampirellas, merry-widowed dominatrices with electrical tape over their nipples, a smattering of Shis, a Lady Death, fresh from her boudoir; Punishers by the score, and that guy from that vaguely western anime with the long red duster and the angular blond hair, Agent Smiths with their hands on their earpieces, and your more faceless Beasts: Imperial stormtroopers in hardcore hardshell, proletarian Ghostbusters toting unlicensed nuclear accelerators, Federation officers and redshirts from a variety of eras. Except—there’s women in those Ghostbuster coveralls, and Federation uniforms; there’s women under the hardshell, and that was a woman walking past in full-on conquistador plate. And if there aren’t any men in battle-thongs, well, there’s the guy in the amazing Las Vegas floorshow fire demon get-up, and the long-haired bare-chested dark wizard-priest guy, in the long black sarong, and—well, maybe we’ll skip over the guy in his boyhood Spider-Man Underoos. (To be wanted? Or wannabe? He doesn’t look like he’s mocking, which is good: one thin layer of parody or pastiche and this whole house of cards of mine collapses into a merry war.)
We’re outside of the simple maps of Beauty and Beast now, the banners and comics that are running lower than the commonest denominator after some ur-image that will make the passersby stop and stare and spend. These people are bodying forth their own filaments, those mysterious, contingent images around which so much that is vital and necessary crystalizes, and if none of them deal directly with sex, still, they’re all tokens of sex and power, trouble and desire, and desire is inherently anarchic, and yet—“The power involved in desire is so great that when caught in an actual rhetorical manifestation of desire—a particular sex act, say—it is sometimes all but impossible to untangle the complex webs of power that shoot through it from various directions, the power relations that are the act and that constitute it,” says Delany. (If the John Birchers up in the valleys knew what was going on down here, they’d be out in force with pitchforks and torches.) And then:
During such power analyses we find just how much the matrix of desire (the Discourse of Desire and the matrix of power it manifests here and masks there) favors the heterosexual male, even if there is no such actor involved. Whoever is doing what the heterosexual male would be doing usually comes out on top. Though his 1915 footnote makes perfectly clear that, by the use of the word “masculine” he simply meant “active,” this may nevertheless have been part of the thrust of Freud’s statement: “that libido is invariably and necessarily of a masculine nature, whether it occurs in men or in women and irrespective of whether its object is a man or a woman.”
Women taking on their own pop culture images of things to be; men toying with the idea of being wanted—oh, but this is desperately simplistic, a dreadfully reductionist reading of a small little piece of everything that’s going on around us. And to read it all as “sex” (/sex/; «sex»; you know, sex) is to miss the terrible, wonderful, obliterating utility of trouble and desire. (Still: to read it as
sex is not to insult capecapaders and cosplayers as somehow stunted, deficient, maladapted: we all need something to get us past those terrible shoals, whether it’s football or ponies, and just because we’re on the other side doesn’t mean we don’t still have a use for boats.) —This is something of what Grant Morrison’s getting at when he talks about fiction suits and pop culture technologies, and it’s rich and strange and powerful.
It’s also enervating and headache-inducing and frankly boring, after a while. (I get it.) Which is when I want to get off the floor and find a dark corner somewhere with some friends I haven’t seen in a year to talk about, you know.