or, “The Mirror Has Two Reflections”
or, “Sex And The Single Superhero, Take Two”
Hola, Bloggers. Well, wouldn’t you know it, as is my wont I went around and around and around the topic but failed to strike to the heart of it! As the saying goes, “as I at length debate and beat the bush, there step in other men to catch the birds…”
Though for such a bird as this, I can’t really say I envy them, you know?
So, what happened to superheroes, those friendly steam-valves, those cheery sublimation-machines harmlessly riding the thermal output of the engine of sex? They used to be so good for us, didn’t they? Werthem thought they fucked us up, but Larkin had it righter: we talk all the time about the “escapist” quality of such pulpy storytelling, but we never stop to give a thought just what it is we’re escaping from, and to. However, maybe it’s time to stop for that thought at last, since whatever the above image may represent, it no longer seems, really, to be escape. Escape, that wonderful thing, that makes return possible…weekends and candlelight, the adventure of the dragon’s hoard and the pent-up princess! Jung, despised these days as he is, proves himself once again very apt at putting a finger on a pulse: for who dares to argue with him when he points out that to win the princess is always to win one’s own soul? We have a certain problem these days, in the field of psychology…not just that psychologists lack a sufficient philosophical education (which of course they do) but more pressingly that what’s been peeled away from psychology over about the last hundred years is its introspective character, that beautiful gift of making science also a literary endeavour, of making literature also a scientific endeavour. Of course Freud and Jung both wrote beautifully as journalists, William James took his duties as insight’s quartermaster very seriously, and if you don’t think Proust and Joyce count as very eminent psychologists then I’m not sure I know what to tell you…they say Proust’s great Research (it’s a pun, of course!) is wasted on you if you essay it much below the age of fifty, much as Northrop Frye claimed that without a decent familiarity with the King James Bible you can really only hope to get about half of what’s in English literature…closer to 40% if we’re talking about Donne…and I can tell you from my own experience that I think this admonition about Proust is probably fairly well-founded. Because it’s seemed to me for a few years now that I had some palpable evidence for this view, that when I was younger I never imagined could be actually felt…I mean, I always wondered about that thing, about why, why you couldn’t get as much out of Proust at thirty…and it rather irked me, if you want to know the truth!
WHY DO GROWN-UPS ALWAYS THINK THEY KNOW EVERYTHING
It’s a hard habit of thought to break, and possibly even it shouldn’t be broken…well, possibly wanting to break the demanding spirit of inquisitive youth is actually a sign that one is not yet fully mature? To know better, to be disdainful of youth’s urgency because one is protective of the privileges that come with one’s age…that’s all really a young man’s game, I’ve got to tell you. I mean, if you find yourself talking SERIOUS POLITICS with a person in their seventies, I figure you’re talking to a person who’s just a bit stuck, Freudian-wise, in some weird latency phase…because in my experience, old fogeys would much rather talk to kids about their favourite kinds of dinosaurs than to new Dads about their favourite kinds of taxes…
(And, oh great, a phone call. Just what I wanted. It’s a friend of mine who I tell “look, I’m kind of working right now!” and he says “On what?” and I say “Uh…STUFF” and he says “Oh, that’s such a crap answer” and I say “STUFF YOU ARE NOT SUFFICIENTLY INTERESTED IN FOR IT TO BE WORTH MY PRECIOUS, PRECIOUS WORKING TIME TO EXPLAIN IT TO YOU, WHY DO WE ALWAYS HAVE TO DO THIS DANCE YOU ATTENTION-WHORE” and he says “what a cop-out, what don’t you just tell me what it is…” “FINE THEN, I’LL TELL YOU, PACK A MOTHERFUCKING LUNCH…”
I mean I ask you, Bloggers; how am I actually supposed to sum up the content of this post?
…And that could very well be because of something we could call “second childhood” if we wanted to, hopefully in an effort to reclaim the term somewhat from the ugly suggestion of “senile incompetence”…because before I was Approaching Fifty, Bloggers, I did kick at that Proustian Prescription, but in the last few years I have actually discovered…
…Something that I did not expect to discover, which is…
There’s a pretty good reason for that “wait ’til you’re fifty” thing. That reason being that you don’t just know more about your own memory when you’re older (which you totally do: you begin to enter the phase of your life where you’re on the road to becoming a Memory Expert), but that you also begin to revisit and refresh your sensory perception as you get that way: experiencing it more, at least in flashes, as you did as a small child. Stopped dead in the middle of the street at the sight of a yellow tulip. Transfixed, in the lineup at the supermarket, by the aimless pale green of a balloon. At least, that’s what I’ve been experiencing more and more…and I know that might seem to make me weird, or appallingly self-regarding…
Oh, except that a few years after I started thinking maybe this “sensory-revivification” thing was happening…in fact just recently, like within the last three months…
I came across a new study that explains how attentional resources shift their customary allocations as one ages, and why that does indeed result in more cognitive processing being applied to the perception of shape and colour.
And that’s the set-up, folks…so I suppose you must be wondering what the punchline is?
The punchline is that I’ve got a pretty decent track record of “guessing right” about neuroscience. I have no training in neuroscience, and I don’t even keep up that much on the literature (especially considering that in my long-ago academic career-planning phase I had seriously considered doing neuroscience in grad school), so there’s no reason for me to “guess right” about it as frequently as I do…and yet I do, and this was perhaps the last hurricane-driven straw in that particular coffin of likelihood, because — after all! — why in the hell should I “guess right” about it so much?
I mean I guess right about it without even trying, sometimes!
I beat my brains out around astronomy and cosmology and theoretical physics, and I don’t guess right there even half as much as I do about neuroscience! And you know why I think that is? Well, it’s the only reason that makes any sense, if you think about it…
It’s because I have an English Lit. education. So sometimes I know what those fuckers are testing for before they do…and furthermore I have an inkling of why, which is more than they’ll ever have if they keep going the way they are.
But where was I.
“Alan, what’s happened to you?” Well for one thing he’s grown a green glory hole on his chest big enough to satisfy a submarine, and he’s wearing an armoured diaper, and that’s some Prison Pit material right there, hell you expect him to pose himself like an action figure at this moment, limbs smoothly rotating around axes as he gleefully shits his pants, but you know that isn’t the worst of it? Not really. Because Alan Scott’s always been about as gay as a spring lamb, but there used to be some dignity in it. Even if he had been shitting his pants with delight as he rounded up the bad guys with a big green magnet or whatever, it would’ve been dignified pants-shitting…but this, this, this is too much. This is like wearing a blow-up doll on your chest. I mean, I’ve got nothing against kink, but this isn’t kink it’s KOOK. Who thinks of a thing like this? Who imagines a world where it’d be great if this was an heroic archetype? The hetero gaze here is very strong with this one, you boys: the point of this one is clearly to point and laugh. This isn’t like coming out of the closet, it’s like coming out of the closet with blood spurting from cut-off hands, like Titus’ daughter in Shakespeare. “She looks like one of those fountains…you know?” This isn’t honesty, it’s objectification. Sort of like that period in the Nineties when all the superheroes wore armour, but it just wasn’t “armour”, OH NO! It was dysmorphia blown up to such a hugely steroidal extent that it was like…like…
Like some sort of straightjacket made of shame, I guess. We’ve all made the jokes about the superheroes wearing their giant condoms as they fly about the town punching out bank robbers, but really that joke’s just a little bit off even if it’s funny: if you think about it, to wear one’s underwear on the outside, whether the underwear is physical or psychological or both (it’s both), is a rather brave posture really. When the superhero stands before us he’s just about as naked as he can get, the secret self up-front and exposed and stubbornly constructed as a positive. An embarrassing positive, sure! But hell, we’re all embarrassed about our positives, aren’t we? Deep down? So if sunlight is the best disinfectant, then the figure of the pantsed superhero is an essentially hopeful one, asserting in the strongest possible terms that you can retain your dignity despite all, that retaining your human dignity is indeed a thing that can be done, that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent, and that you may not be better than other people but at least you’re different, and basically the whole inner-child megillah that is usually summarized as “you’re worth something, you count, you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
Which is not what you get when you have a character like, say, Booster Gold decked out in a metallic muscleman suit saying “what, this is totally normal and not weird, right?”, because O LORD the intimations of fear and shame on display there! One must not be hurt, one must not risk one’s integrity whether it’s physical or psychological or both (it’s both), one must go to whatever lengths are necessary to recede from encounter while still nominally performing the act of it. Sex? Yes, it’s sex: but not the good kind. Hell, it’s practically autopornographic; maybe even slightly, weirdly, anthropophagic. Look at that picture! It’s a clash of cannibals, sex reconstructed as ingestion. Remember I said how in superhero comics all the sex codes for violence now, and not the other way around as it once did? Terrifying, heart-eating, solipsistic violence…or did you not notice that there’s been an awful lot of the literal eating and shitting-out of one’s foe in mainstream supercomics in the last few years? Like, IT’S A THING NOW, you know? But it isn’t a thing that stands alone. Oh, to be sure, you can find some mighty strange fixations in comics these days! I note with some amusement, and I think you should too, the slightly-creepy manner in which comics writers and artists have recently been at pains to show that Superman’s eyeballs are as bulletproof as the rest of him…as though that were somehow an important thing, an issue that needs authoritative and canonical settling, before any of us can move on further into our alleged escapism, before we can really feel it snug up comfortingly around us like a warm and fuzzy coffin. Escape, escape…it is perhaps an escape from escape, if we absolutely must apply the term. That most desirous escape of all, the escape from freedom…the escape from autonomous selfhood. Those pouches and those shoulderpads! Those guns, that armour! Don’t kid yourself that it’s innocent fun! Because it may well be the former, but it sure as hell ain’t the latter. You do have to be pretty darn naive to make this stuff up and have it look like this and send out distress signals like this and not know…but naivete, obviously, isn’t the same thing as security, and this stuff isn’t rendered anodyne simply because you can’t see that it’s traumatic. Ah, the mystery of the traumatic flesh, root of all horror and all identity at once: being toyed with and twisted, poked and prodded and pinched and stretched! Alan, what’s happened to you. You used to be so delightfully gay, but now you’re so dismally sad. Look at you, everything about you is screaming “OIL CAN!!”, but your Dorothy is nowhere in sight. You’ve killed the princess to become the dragon, the better to guard the treasure. Inside your own bellybutton, gazing out at an inexplicable world of caprice: all that psychological lightning sheeting down about the entrance to the cave.
Who put it there?
The word, dear Bloggers, is introspection. When did we all become so fearful of it, even to the metaphorical concretization of it in superhero comics? Somewhere out there, even as we speak, a space-tabby with a magic ring is puking cosmic lava on somebody, and I am not saying I ever thought it was “high art”, you know, but even as the very lowest of all possible lowbrow stuff, its meaning is now…hmm, somewhat fugitive, I’d say, and wouldn’t you agree?
Rage-puking cosmic space-tabby?
Which I believe is one of the things in contemporary supercomics that makes the most sense at the moment, so that can’t be a very good sign. Yes, so the lightning comes down about the cavemouth, but if there’s anyone you can’t blame it on it’s Alan Scott — because obviously he’s a fictional character, and therefore is incapable of manufacturing his own irony. Nothing really ever does “happen” to him, you know? Because there’s really no “him” there for it to happen to. This lantern’s really a mirror; that question’s really an answer; and Alan Scott is really just a tympanum, that the writer’s voice falls onto so the reader can pick it up. I really don’t want to do an injustice to a book I’ve never read — the distancing effect of this panel is certainly not without art, and if you told me it was out of Rachel Pollack’s Doom Patrol instead of Geoff Johns’ JSA or something, I could easily accept it as satire — hey, you could also claim it as a weird attempt at reconstructing the superhero by subsuming its potential to generate satiric content, and I might even be able to accept that too! — but I think any way you slice it, the orchestration here smacks more of metatextual violence than of metaphorical violence: what’s “happening” in this picture, is that something essential is being peeled away from the surface of the page, leaving only more surface behind it. “My ring! It’s just making meaningless shapes!” So, nothing to do but let introspection loose on the thing: what does it feel like it’s saying? What responses does it provoke?
What does it contain, that the symbolic engine of the brain can recognize, pull out, and decode?
And what are the limits that apply to that symbolic operation. Over in the world of cognitive psychology they do research by walking into a dark room, fumbling around until they find some levers to pull on, and then they pull on them and record the results. I’m not saying it isn’t decent research. I’m just saying it’s research that necessarily has to reinvent the wheel every time a new project is begun…and it is not really capable of doing so all on its own, as my penchant for guessing right about neuroscience (I think) definitively shows. Science, as Thomas Hobbes informs us, is after all about the dependence of each fact on other facts — and experiment furnishes facts, but experience is what furnishes experiment. Nature, in the form of human capabilities and inclinations, sets a floor to scientific inquiry that experiment is built upon: there is no true value-neutral observation, because human thought is epistemically constrained, subject to inescapable patterns of assumption.
That’s Piaget, sort of.
And yet it is apparently news to psychological researchers. So I think one could profitably suggest here, that perhaps psychology has forgotten the blood drawn from the shoulder of Pallas? And thus possibly psychology is as overdue its own criticism of latency, or criticism of the preoccupation with latency, or preoccupation with the latency of criticism, or whatever it is…as the superhero story was, when Watchmen hit the stands. Well, not that Watchmen’s critique managed to really change the thing it criticized, though…and maybe it even pushed it further down that dead-end road of paedogenesis gone sour than it would’ve gotten otherwise. A backlash; I think we’re just a bit obliged to see all the stories of decadent futures wherein the Teen Titans meet the evil adult versions of themselves as a backlash, honestly, and Geoff Johns above all seems to have a slightly unhealthy thing for the unworking of structures aimed at a potential maturity of expression, yes even in the interestingly-degraded low art of the superhero story. Not that I’m saying you should lay every bit of it at his feet! In fact you most certainly shouldn’t — since that’d be tantamount to killing the messenger. Geoff Johns has what I consider to be some pretty tremendous faults as a storyteller, but give it to him at least that he did not invent this shit, no no, it was like this when he got here…and all he’s guilty of is perfecting it. The backlash was already going on, before he found a way to improve its capitalization. He didn’t make it any better, but he arguably did not actually make it worse.
Although…he did make it more, so for that we can blame the shit out of him, anyway…
And as well, just as naivete isn’t security, so too exemplifying a thing doesn’t absolve you of all responsibility for it. Society didn’t make Geoff Johns the messenger of weird sickened latency, after all! No, he wanted that job, and he got it by his own efforts; he appealed to his audience in just the way he wished to appeal to them, building himself into a Better Tom DeFalco as he went along. And, you know, in this same way I’m not sure you can completely disentangle him from the sometimes-stroppy attitude of that audience? If he hadn’t made it, they wouldn’t have to defend it, and if we don’t let John McCain off the hook for old ladies who think Obama is Osama then we probably shouldn’t let Johns off the hook for his most strident fans…who clearly feel just a little NAKED whenever the subject of Johns being not-very-good comes up, because what do you think is really being challenged by that appraisal?
It’s actually not a very good topic for a blog-post, now that I stop to think about it. What’s wrong with sexuality? Nothing. What’s wrong with asexuality? Nothing. But these waters get deep quick, there is in fact a hell of a drop-off here. What’s the mistake psychological researchers make? They try too hard to be objective, so they miss things that are subjectively obvious…which means they miss seeing where the realm of the subjectively-obvious intersects with the realm of the objectively-verified. They surrender the bird’s-eye view of experience, to more comprehensively catalogue the step-by-step trudge through experiment. So largely speaking it’s a world with few maps, but a hell of a lot of terrain…you know? The bridge between psychology and philosophy used to be literature, but that bridge has been washed out…the reporting of internal mental states has been devalued, in the otherwise-quite-virtuous push toward better measurability, more reliable yardsticks, enhanced peer-review techniques. None of it’s bad, but virtue doesn’t immunize anyone from the procession of effect from cause, from the dependence of one fact upon another…and when it comes right down to it, it’s hard to do science without introspection…!
But then again, it’s also bloody dangerous to do science with introspection, and that fact needs remembering too. Because science rests on a floor of Some Kind Of Truth Anyway, and the mind can so easily get in the way…simple errors can blow up into such complex catastrophes, when subjectivity is added immoderately to the mix, and of course what constitutes “moderation” in this sense is planted pretty firmly in the eye of the beholder. There is a level on which all these questions are ethical questions, and therefore admitting of no authoritative solutions; one man’s intuitive conviction is another man’s grounds for holding an intervention. And that’s just Science, the recent invention and perfect robotic servant of mankind…not Sex, humanity’s immeasurably-ancient master! So the waters can get deepish in a hurry, indeed. I say all these things are pointed the wrong way, and doing the exact opposite of what they’re meant to…but it would be so easy for someone to hear that as homophobic panic directed at some sort of “inversion” (icch), and so as all good literature students I hesitate on the brink of supplying a name, for fear it will be the wrong name…
(Which, FYI, is basically what a literary education’s all about, in a nutshell…)
…And yet I know these things are pointed the wrong way, because there’s a Floor Of Truth here too. You can tell, because when there isn’t one then everything’s just kind of floating there…check out the nightly news if you want to see the process of science decoupled from the gravity of what’s real, by the way! A marvellous natural experiment in what a scientific community looks like when it’s gone decadent and wrong and slightly mad…
And are superhero comics so different, really? If it’s true that “anything, which is possible to be believed, must contain some measure of truth”, then surely such a thing as a superhero comic, with so very much in it which is hard to believe, must contain a greater measure of truth than the usual just to keep up with everything else? All those secret selves…I knew there had to be a reason for them. All that underwear being worn on the outside…
It’s worth something.
The only question is: what?
Is it possible that this thing is satirical, a panel ported out of Seaguy? Or, could it be seen as doing the job of short-circuiting satire, going beyond such simple matters as “good” or “bad”, and on into the realm of the outsider artist? Could you, if you chose to, manage to read Flaming Carrot as a straight drama without significant absurdist elements? Is it okay to side with Travis Bickle and ask what the fuck Cybill Shepherd’s problem is, that she’s too stuck-up to take in a porn flick on a first date? I have a friend who once told me he identified with Travis in Taxi Driver, and I said “no you don’t”, and he said “who are you to tell me that I don’t”, and I said “no one at all; but check the dictionary”. He said “I don’t see anything in this definition that means I can’t identify with him”, and I said…
No, check the dictionary in your head.
“Alan, what’s happened to you?”
Oh, for Christ’s sake, isn’t it OBVIOUS enough? Once, that green light limned the sublime, the sublime found in the most unlikely place! As the insoulment of the basest matter, is the purest insoulment of all! Alec Holland in the swamp, Christ in the stone, Frankenstein struck by lightning, Osiris in his tree, Bruce Banner and his bomb…and you and me in our sleeping bag, baby. That’s what it’s all about, once you get through the bullshit. But what we see here isn’t like that at all, in fact seems exactly opposed to it, like an anti-Watchmen, an anti-Promethea. When people say that the wrong lessons have been taken from Watchmen, this is exactly what they’re talking about: de-insoulment. There’s Green Lantern with his grim ‘n’ gritty grimace, so very serious about it all, whatever it is…as he slowly turns into a fire hydrant, or a mailbox, or whatever it is he’s turning into. Something for dogs to piss on.
Hey, you’d grimace too…!
As Titus Andronicus shuffles through the deck of his family, his rage discolours their living images, turns them into mere counters in his game against his enemy…and once thus objectified by him, they get dead pretty quick. “Grandpa, grandpa, look at me, see me!” But as soon as they’re not people in Titus’ eyes, the text has no further use for them except as kindling, and so it really comes down to the point: what’s the point of this? What’s it intended to show? And why is the Geoff Johns Brigade so, so threatened by criticism of it? Amusingly, over on Hooded Utilitarian one can see (if one looks hard enough) an odd occasional counterstroke to this: more elevated comics critics who are highly resistant to the idea that there is anything elevated about Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and all the supercomics (well…but VfV isn’t actually one of those…), especially but not exclusively the Alan Moore ones, that aim at a more mature expression than Big Dumb Fun…and so, it seems, they’re perfectly contented with the deinsoulment qua deinsoulment of the cape-and-cowl crowd. In other words: not as a satirical observation that “hey, maybe there’s some messed-up sex shit in here, and that’s where all the stoopid comes from”, but apparently just as “this is the dumb stuff, so if you’re going to enjoy it for that it might as well be as dumb as possible.” Dumb, here to my eyes, meaning mute…
Because obviously it’s silly to expect an object to speak to you, right?
But the para-pornographic impulse there, though in some ways elegant and even perfect, isn’t very admirable, I think. Dumb people deserve dumb art?
Christ, why don’t we just hit them with sticks, then? And save all that paper and ink. Oh my God, Bloggers, I laughed so hard when I saw this picture. It truly is a sort of perfection.
But for some people, that’s the most perfect perfection there is.