Superheroes: The Undergrowth of Literature

Ah, back on schedule.

Before we get to today’s topic I want to plug a talk by Gordon Smith, the special effects wizard of the X-Men movies.  We had him on a panel at the superhero costume conference at the Met last summer.  He’s sent word about a talk called “Pandora’s Box” that he’s giving at his studio in Tornoto on October 17 and 18, 1-5 pm.  He’s got an amazing career and has done a lot for the special effects industry and for actors by reducing the toxicity of a lot of effects chemicals.

Now, on to today’s topic.

I’m working on an article for a friend’s e-magazine on superhero literature and the superhero in literature. While novels like Michael Chabon’s Cavalier and Klay or Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude have gotten a lot of positive attention for their discussion of the superhero genre and their use of it as a metaphor mine, and  Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible actually works as a literary fiction in the form of a superhero story, it wasn’t always the case that the superhero genre was viewed as a fit subject for literature.

A few years ago I came across a reference to Gillian Freeman’s The Undergrowth of Literature, a survey of fantasy literature that “overtly or covertly, supplies the stimulus which so many people need, from the romance of Woman’s Own to the sado-masochism of Man’s Story.” And stimulus here means sexual stimulus–the book is a survey of pornographic literature and bondage magazines and books, but it includes a chapter titled “Minor Tendencies” about superheroes and comics. Freeman (punny name for someone writing about B&D) seems to have trouble seeing the comics she looks at and her lens of fetishism colors her readings of Batman and Wonder Woman comics, presumably as well as some British comics that I’m unfamiliar with.

Freemen wonders whether “the trappings of fetishist sexual behaviour” that she sees running through superhero comics “form a basis for adult fetishism.”  She perceives the Werthamite vision of Batman and Robin as gay and says that they are clothed “in garments which in any other context could only be considered fetishist.” Which is as much as to say that she doesn’t understand the role of the costume in the superhero genre. She seems to insist on this fetish reading of the costume, identifying the costumes as being made of rubber–including Captain America’s costume, which in the 1960s was clearly made of chain mail and designed to protect him.  Likewise, she misreads Batman’s costume, “he is naked except for tight shorts, satin cape, high boots, wide belt with heavy clasp, long leather gloves, and a rubber hood and mask.”  Perhaps she only looked at one issue and there was a coloring error. And yet this insistence on reading fetish-wear into Batman’s costume–the satin cape and the rubber hood–point to the conclusion that she sees what she wants to see.

On the other hand, she quotes one of Wertham’s stories about a boy who choked a girl in imitation of a comic book story he read and she notes that it is often reported that television Westerns are responsible for the deaths of boys who hang themselves experimentally for kicks. She refutes this charge by pointing out that Eskimo children play a sometimes fatal hanging game. She concludes this section with, “Western films?  I doubt it.”

But she goes on to assert that comics may be to blame for developing sexual fetish practices. First she notes that adult ideas get passed on to later generations of children when they have lost their potency, citing “Ring-a-Roses” (i.e. “Ring Around the Rosie”) as a contemporary meaningless nursery game that started as a plague song (though this explanation for the origin of “Ring” has been debunked).  Westerns, which were originally aimed at adults, ran as children’s Saturday morning programming, but “it is out of line with tradition…that while particular fetishes are flourishing, elements of them are already being distilled into the children’s comic paper” and proposes that a vicious circle is created whereby the fetish associations portrayed in comics and foster tendencies, which would remain dormant without the weekly or monthly stimulation or aggravation of the comics, and are actively nourished into “major deviations which will impede mature relationships later on.”

Though she concludes that there is no way to know the true effects of the masks, capes, boots, manacles, and violence in children’s comics, and that these portrayals may in fact exorcise a child’s fantasy needs even as they might feed an adults.  In the end, she concludes that the greater potential danger is in censorship rather than the exposure of children to fetishistic depictions in comics.

The point here in connection with superheroes and literature is that for Freeman, superheroes are not a fit or worthy subject for literary consideration–they are only fodder, and not very healthy fodder, for small minds.  While her concern with fetishism and pornography (and she directly states that kids comics are not pornographic, but pornography is a central subject of her book) could be seen as driving out other considerations about the superhero genre, it seems to me that her thinking about superheroes is fairly well in line with most literary thinking of the time, though certainly not the thinking among comics-reading college students (and Stan Lee, who spoke at a lot of colleges at the time) of the late 1960s about Marvel comics and comics as a kind of modern day mythology.

How could superheroes be a fit topic for literary fiction?  I’ll explore that on Friday with a discussion of Robert Mayer’s Superfolks.

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