Jan 16, 2013

Pop Medicine: Underwear on the Outside

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Underwear on the Outside
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

"Superhero fans take the hyperbole as literal. The fastest man. The strongest woman. The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets."

"Superheroes and villains wear their underwear on the outside!"

"Superheroes and villains are nothing but gendered concepts. Spider-Man. Invisible Woman. Miss Martian. Sun Boy."

"Embarrassingly Freudian!"

"Modern superheroes are just exciting words made proper nouns and drawn excitingly for no reason except to be extreme and exciting!"

"It's all been done before. Why do they even pretend it's new?"

These are some of the most common things one can hear about superheroes or superhero comics. And, with slight adjustments, I can make every one of them say exactly the same thing but in a positive, forward-facing fashion that thrills, at least, me, with the potential, the frisson, and with a good execution.

"Embarrassingly Freudian"? The only good way to be Freudian is to be embarrassingly so. Nobody cares about the unembarrassing Freudian ideas, the comforting pop psychology or reassuring character psychology. The good stuff is squicky. The exciting stuff, the the psychoanalyses and trumped up tropes that get a story moving or make a character intriguing are the sublimated embarrassing psychological motivations. Or, more relevantly here, their denuded cousin, the public psychological motivation, because, as above, superheroes aren't a place to avoid airing dirty laundry, but a technique for proudly and loudly putting the underwear on over the clothes.

One of the great advances in superhero characterization was in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's early Spider-Man. While most superheroes prior to this, behaved essentially the same in both their normative identities and their superhero lives, Spidey was, from the get-go, not Peter Parker in tights, but this freed persona, a performance for himself, and while his origin story has him facing up to the fact that Spider-Man also has consequences and debts, those early comics show time and again that Spider-Man will always have less debts than Parker, because Parker is defined by the build up of his life and associations, and Spider-Man can change his dynamics with much more ease. Spider-Man can be a clown, a hero, a snarky bastard, a carefree avenger, at a time when Parker is a professional wallflower whose snark only comes out in thought balloons.

And, within a few issues, what do we find, but that Parker is becoming less a wallflower, more outspoken, and closer in his Parker-life to Spider-Man's most functional range of behavior. Spider-Man is Peter Parker's anonymous yet loudly named and highly identifiable test run for better behavior and more enjoyable interpersonal interactions.

In retrospect, we can look at 50s and 60s Superman's constant pranking of Lois Lane as something similar, if more insular and unhealthy, but only, really, in retrospect. As Elliot S! Maggin put it, it's a love triangle: Clark loves Lois who loves Superman who loves Clark. Superman is Superman, he masquerades as Clark Kent and he's virtually a jealous, unrequited lover of Clark. When he aggressively lies and cheats to protect his secret identity from Lois Lane, it's because he's preserving his special relationship with Clark Kent.

When Daredevil made up an identical brother for himself, he didn't use the ruse to confuse the mob or deflect a supervillain, but to prank his friends. "Prank" is a necessary word here. Matt Murdock, Daredevil, invented Mike Murdock out of whole cloth, more or less to see if he could snow his friends in a major way, and eventually he stages a death of Mike, just putting one over on those friends, his colleagues in business and closest companions in life. This manufacturing of identities and impish defense of their sanctity isn't to progress in their daily un-dragged life, as Peter Parker, but Superman or Daredevil delighting in fooling others, and in maintaining secret liaisons with imaginary people everyone else believes in.

Embarrassingly Freudian, but only a stepping stone away from Peter Milligan's The Extremist, with Ted McKeever, a comic about a costume and identity that is transferred or adapted from wearer to wearer. The Extremist name, in fact, was not generated by either Milligan or McKeever, but Brendan McCarthy, who gave it to Milligan in a nice bit of art echoes life echoes art. People can get all kinds of bent out of shape over legacy heroes or villains, characters who adapt a name or concept from a previous character to their own ends. Imposter heroes or replacement characters who take a super-mantle and do it wrong are a mainstay of superhero stories, and almost always there is a vocal part of the readership who are dead certain, no matter how horrific the replacement may pervert the ideals of the original, that the talent creating those comics mean for it to be an earnest and permanent replacing.

No one cares if Bruce Wayne is running the family business or not. Whether Ollie is the mayor or an industrialist isn't going to rile up fans the way whether or not he's in green and shooting arrows at injustice does. Not to make superheroes sound like a kind of Marxist ideal, but the job of superheroing (or supervillaining) rewards and celebrates these folks in ways their genuine, paying professions do not - at least, from our, audience, perspective. The look is important, the basic agenda, and it's better when we can forget who the wearer is. When attention is drawn to who is wearing the suit, as is frequently true of performative drag or much any kind of theater, we are, by and large, distressed. Half the people reading Wonder Woman right now can't seem to tell if she is still an ambassador of anything, but they're thrilled she's not wearing leggings and no one else is calling themselves Wonder Woman.

You get some comics talent who would prefer these aspects not be explored. You see artists take the heroes out of obvious costumes, or writers downplay basic drives or novel psychologies, in attempts to make things more realistic or gritty. But those tend to be, a) not that good to read, and b) likely to fall out of print and fall from fan-memory and contemporary discussion. Attempts to make apolitical comics, for instance, haven't the legs of openly politicizing comics, or the teeth, despite a sometime fan insistence that this is what's needed, because apolitical comics are not, they are, rather, unexamined politics in comics. Pulling sexualities you are unfamiliar with out of a comic does not de-sex the comic, it simply presents a false sexual landscape as default. Erasing certain nations, ideologies, or political schema from your comic does not, similarly, mean you have no ideologies or arrangements of this nature, only that you have deliberately eradicated those you aren't so used to that you are self-blind to them.

Unexamined anything, in entertainment, tends to be of only temporary interest, and significantly limited range. Fiction is, at its base, manufactured. We may be encouraged to forget that, but it's inevitably the case. (Nonfiction, too, but we are definitely encouraged to instantly-forget and never acknowledge that.) We can psychoanalyze or ship characters after a story is presented, to add novelty or relevance, but that makes the conversation about the story interesting, not the story itself. The application of pop psychology or predetermined relational alternatives, be those of a sexual or platonic nature, make stories interesting when they are part of the manufacturing of the story. Comics, like any medium of entertainment, tend to be better when the talent know what they're doing and aren't pretending to be not doing anything.

I really like the technique that, to come back to a guy who's been doing interesting comics for decades now, Peter Milligan has been using in some of his team books, of putting what are usually sublimated drives or neuroses to the fore in a most blatant fashion. X-Statix or Infinity Inc were chock full of characters whose internal motivations were announced so loudly, so obviously by their superhero names, their affectations, their powers, that we start to look for traditional foreground characteristics and about the time we realize they aren't there, at least for me, the idea kicks in that maybe, when we're talking tights and superpowers, they aren't all that necessary. That, once you have accepted the basic aspects of the superhero, which are so blatant and close to the bone in refutation of the masking technologies of maturity, like tertiary character tics, childhood traumas, the deep-seated secret reasons for wearing bowties, fictional but exact chronologies and fictional and exact bank statements - once you've embraced that those things are protection from the pleasures of the simple core elements of the superhero, you don't need them anymore.

Knowing why Peter Parker can't budget for the life of him is of infinitely less reward than that Parker is always worried he won't have enough money. And that's secondary, always, in the best of worlds, to Parker putting on his mask and tights to talk trash to supervillains and muggers while kicking them in the ear. It's immature in the same sense as pop psychology talks of "immature orgasms" or when your health-conscious friend berates you for enjoying cheeseburgers regardless of what's in them and what it does to your body. Pleasure is substance, a kind of substance. What we most often mean by depth is the deflating of pleasure, it's the avoidance of tasting and acknowledging the taste. And it's desperately arrested-adolescence that tells us abstaining from tasting, that instead understanding all the ins and outs and never enjoying them, makes us more mature. A listing of chemicals and measures, or a considered treatise on the history of beef and bread, is perhaps more informative, but it isn't as rewarding as biting down into the cheeseburger.

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