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Wednesday, August 23, 2006


From Floppity-Rabbits to Horror-Squinkies

I'm barreling through Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester's dazzling 2004 anthology of pre-1960s comics criticism, Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium. It's an important key to understanding of America's early cultural responses to comics—many, if by no means all, negative or at least highly ambivalent. From severe, Protestant excoriations of the fin de siecle illustration/photography explosion, to modernist appreciations of Krazy Kat's surrealism, to Robert Warshow's compellingly conflicted reaction to his young son's EC Comics fixation, the book's selections alternatively frustrate, surprise, and reveal--sometimes they reveal less about comics than they do about the world views and fears of the intellectuals confronting them. Occasionally, the writing startles.

Perhaps the most passionate (not to say best) essay in the book is by Gershon Legman, whose excerpt from his 1949 book Love and Death: A Study in Censorship hits all of the expected mid-century, Wertham-era notes about the corrosive nature of comics, particularly their glorification of fascist violence. It's all wrapped in the overheated language of the concern troll, allegedly defending against the explotation and degredation of the masses, but simultaneously dripping with contempt for all the slow-moving cows who make such easy targets. Still, it's hard not to get just a little swept up in his passion, difficult to deny the retardation of crass, dehumanizing violence. In all of this he's well within the liberal censor/scold tradition. Superman feeds the "paranoid hostility" of the audience, he's a "one-man flying lynch mob", as well as a perfect authoritarian stooge, etc., etc.. But in the last few paragraphs of the essay he pivots toward another of Dr. Frederic Wertham's bugaboos, in a way that really wakes up the modern reader:
The exploitation of brutality and terror is blatantly apparent. The homosexual element lies somewhat deeper. It is not—at least not importantly—in the obvious faggotry of men kissing one another and saying "I love you," and then flying off through space against orgasm backgrounds of red and purple, not in the transvestist scenes in every kind of comic-book from floppity-rabbits to horror-squinkies, not in the long-haired western killers with tight pants (for choice).
I will interrput only to say that Legman here makes old comic books sound completely fucking awesome, and I want to know exactly which Golden Age comics he was reading, or failing that, precisely what drugs he was on. He continues:
Neither is it in the explicit Samurai subservience of the inevitable little-boy helpers—theoretically identification shoe-horns for children not quite bold enough to identify themselves with Superprig himself—nor in the fainting adulation of thick necks, ham fists, and well-filled jock-straps; the draggy capes and costumes, the shamanistic talismans and superstitions that turn a sissified clerk into a one-man flying lynch-mob with biceps bigger than his brain. It is not even in the two comic-book companies staffed entirely by homosexuals and operating out of our most phalliform skyscraper (emphasis mine, all mine—CO)

The really important homosexuality of the Superman theme—as deep in the hub of the formula as the clothes and kisses are at the periphery—is the lynching pattern itself, in the weak and fearful righteousness with which it achieves its wrong. No matter how bad criminals (or even crime-comics) may be, in identfying himself with them the child does consummate his Oedipean dream of strength; the criminal does break through his environment. The Superman, the Supersleuths, the Super-cops do not. They align themselves always on the side of law, authority, the father; and accept their power passively from a bearded above. They are not competing—not for the forbidden mother, not for any other reward. Like Wild Bill Hickock, our own homosexual hero out thar where men were men—with his long silk stockings and his Lesbian side-kick, Calamity Jane—they are too unvirile to throw off fear, and kill as criminals. Instead, unseen and unsuspected in some corner, they put on a black mask, a sherrif's badge and a Superman suit, and do all of their killing on the side of the law.
Damn those murderous, conformist, brown-shirt homosexual cowards in their giant penis towers! Of course I'm familiar with Wertham's famous accusations of Batman and Robin's alleged gayness, and Wonder Woman's lesbianism. Feiffer's Great Comic Book Heroes hipped me to all that when I was 7 years old. I also know that homosexuality was not so long ago considered by leading "liberal" psychologists a mental illness or weakness of character--arrested development, pathological narccisism, what have you. But Legman really lays it bare. Comics are violence. Comics are queer. Homosexuality is violence. This is from a guy who coined the term "make love not war", a researcher for the Kinsey Institute, a "proto-hippy" as the editors call him who spent decades collecting dirty limericks and who eventually relocated to France to escape US government harrassment over publishing obscenity. (Then again, Wertham himself was a liberal crusader, who like Holy Joe Lieberman today on video games, was just worried about the helpless children.)

One of my favorite Wikipedia entries ever describes Legman: "As a young man he acquired a number of interests including sexuality, erotic folklore, and origami." Yes, have you seen my paper cranes? Oh, or my collection of shaved redheads magazines? (Hell, even his name was Legman.) Described one way, as a sex freak and paper folder who puked at the thought of war and its mass-marketed propaganda, Legman sounds perfectly reasonable. Hey, I'm a sex freak. I too hate war. I can even make a hat for my kid out of a newspaper. Let's drink beers! But Legman had more than that rattling around in his head. I can see where he's going; that violence, and the acquiescence to/enabling of violence, is a fundamental weakness, something to be scorned. Homosexuality serves Legman's purpose as a metaphor for this weak, shameful pull toward the thumb-sucking cowardice of violent authoritarianism. It's still ugly stuff, fatally compromised by its dated conception of sexuality, difficult to read.

Jesus Christ. That is ugly stuff. But -- just as with the poisonous anti-gay rhetoric of today -- it's hard to read those lurid descriptions by Legman and be entirely sure if this is just standard bigotry or a case of massive denial and repression. It certainly comes across as Rorshach blot ideation: Legman seeing homos and phalluses and orgasms leaping out at him from the page, fascinating him so much he can't look away no matter how revulsed he is...and the vehemence of his denial gets sublimated into furious denunciation. So long as he violently attacks gays, that proves to the tiny (feminine?) voice inside his head that he isn't one himself.
Legman's primary preoccupation is with violence. In the context of his longer essay (which is itself a few pages in a much longer book) it seems that the attitudes toward homosexuality are almost incidental, they merely illustrate his greater point about the violence. Homosexuality to him seems to be a synonym for arrested development, a perversion of the sexual impulse he glorified elsewhere, a manifestation of retarded male rage and its warping of people's humanity. See how he himself raises, affirms but puts aside two full paragraphs worth of rabid, strange homophobic thought to get to the heart of it, that comics' supposed homosexuality reveals their fundamental appeal to "weak and fearful righteousness", losing oneself in the lynch mob. In 1949, the closet was a lot bigger, and the door was shut tight, so again, I can see where this (fairly common) line of thinking comes from, wrong-headed as it might have been. My gut reaction is that such archaic, bigoted nuttery torpedoes his entire thesis, but if you throw it out, does some part of his bigger point about violence still pertain? Self-styled serious students of comics often make a point of admitting, loudly, that the vast majority of comic books have been utter crap. And so they were, not just poorly executed but frankly debasing, exploitative. But even so, were they the moral cancer that Legman, irving Howe, and Wertham asserted? I'm far more sympathetic to Robert Warshow, also featured in Arguing Comics, who certainly disdained the gory, seemingly amoral EC comics his son collected, but who had even less time for the pompous moral crusaders who pointed to comics as the root of all cultural degredation.
Ah, for the good old days, when the forces of righteousness just KNEW fags were evil. Hell, back then even Travis McGee was sneering at homos. Ah, Travis, if you were with us today you wouldn't know what's become of us. Why, queers can walk right out on any American street right this moment and if some decent God fearing Christian beats the shit out of them, the Christian will get arrested! How's THAT work? No wonder we can't win a fucking war any more, when we're throwing decent Americans in jail for kicking the hell out of nancyboys. My grandfather would move to Russia and raise goats before he'd live for a minute in today's America.
My grandfather once told of how he and his Washington & Lee college buddies hit a black man in their roadster, and the man got up and apologized to them. I'll go with today's America.

Of course there are far more worthy, contemporary targets of scorn for their bigotry than Legman--the book came out in the late 1940s, and he himself has been dead for 8 years. Still, it's something to see how these attitudes, some progressive, some reactionary, some simply hateful, all tangled together, and to wonder how successful our society has been, even today. in disentangling them.
Thanks for the kind comments about the book I co-edited.

I should add that the reader who guessed that Legman was "repressed" is right on target.

Legman if I remember aright "experiment" with homosexuality as a young man. He was well-connected enough with gay culture to put together a very knowing lexicon of code words gay's used amongst themselves in the 1940s. But at some point he turned against gayness and became a militant heterosexualist (if that's the term I want).
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