Sep 16, 2015

Queer Medium

Queer Medium
Travis Hedge Coke

Comics are gay. Batman is gay. Superheroes are gay. Earthian is gay. Fantastic Four is gay. Charlie Brown is gay.

When these are asserted the assertion commonly means that things are mercurial or camp, sensitive, sexual, or conflicted. When we consider the labelling of a character as “gay” regardless of a character’s sexuality or a medium or story as gay despite their inability to have sexual preference, we need also to consider the oblique perspective the terminology comes from. Like the male gaze of cinema and other narrative arts, the perception of gayness is rooted less in genuine homosexuality and mostly in a straight male expectation from particular cultural firmament.

When we use “gay” we often mean, “other.”

Gay is Clark Kent’s glasses and hairstyle stopping everyone from seeing Superman. Many people have trouble suspending belief enough to buy that, but we accept it, because it is kind of funny, it’s absurd, and it lets us feel in on the joke when dumdum Lois and Jimmy aren’t. (Or, maybe they are; maybe everyone is just pretending to buy into the disguise because it amuses them and it works out okeh.) That’s camp. That’s bearding. That is gay.

Or, it’s us-versus-them subculturalism.

Inside the community, as it were, or once the issue is personal and not academic, defaulting to this term is almost autonomic. Characters understand Clark is not Superman, some fans understand everyone close to Clark probably knows his secret or is willfully blind to it, and a general audience assume it’s something weird and unintentionally silly. Whichever position we are in, we generally assume that it is the truest or most aware position.

Just as “antihero” or “headlights” spur certain meanings in a comics fan’s mind, certain interpretations, while an auto mechanic may instantaneously-interpret “antihero” in the same vein as the comics fan, but not “headlights,” and a particularly invested literary scholar may reflexively belabor “antihero” to encompass indecisive existentialists and quiet cowards as well as Venom or various leather-clad badasses with stubble. There is crossover between the interpretations regardless of whether they are academic or social distinctions, because all distinctions are academic and social, particularly when there is a serious interest and prolonged exposure to those interpretations.

In the microcosm of comics fandom or auto mechanics, homosexuality, Kenyans, teenagers, etc, meanings and interpretations can seem concrete and real, but taking a broader view, we see that, especially where these microcosms intersect or overlap, particularly in one person, the meanings and interpretations are unstable in any objective sense. If we consider an author as someone who establishes where we are, there is a world of difference in what an author feels is “high” or “low” and the precise scientific measures of elevation, but beyond both, and perhaps most importantly, there is our relation to these measures. “Four hundred feet above sea level” is not as instantly understood or as important as knowing if your feet are touching the ground.

“Gay” is a trained reflex. Gay as affected, gay as multiple-meanings, coded repertoire. This is queer theory. If queer theory had come from outside, it would likely be called gay literature or gay coding. Gay, straight, bi, men, women, queer, et al, we are so thickly indoctrinated in, in English-language societies, that we use “gay” to mean “camp,” “fluid,” or any kind of winking deceptive affectation or flashy gesture that draws attention to the artifice and the bigness. It is only because of the sensitivity to the term’s immediate meanings that causes queer to become used, instead, in queer theory, the same way it’s important to know the difference between a drag club, a gay bar, and a lesbian eatery.

But what does this have to do with comics? All our comics aren’t gay.

But, they are queer. All our comics are queer. In this sense, queer isn’t merely an end or chunk of a sexuality or social spectrum, it is the spectrum. Queer theory and analysis focuses on female and homosexual authors and characters, with some over-bleed from postcolonial and ethnic works because those places are most easily identified as “other” than the expected. On a global level, women are treated as a variation on man. In the very small sphere of American comics, something like My Faith in Frankie or Preacher is treated as a variation on Superman. Fun Home and Maus are praised for, among other things, not being superhero comics as if “not being superhero comics” is, indeed, a strange, new, weird world. Not being superheroes is queer.

And, not being superheroes the way “you” or “they” understand superheroes is queer. Even when what isn’t being superheroes that way is Superman. Or, Batman.

Authors and audiences work in a basic pattern of Assume, Destroy, Build, and Deconstruct. This is true of Jim Lee and Jim Lee’s audience, of J.M. DeMatteis and the readership of Batman: Year One.

Authors and audiences have assumptions because they are trained to them, encouraged to have them, rewarded for having them. These assumptions do not have to be correct, they just have to go with the flow. This is where Biff! Pow! headlines come from. This is where “manga is porn” comes from. But, it’s also where incredibly esoteric or blatantly absurd received wisdom come from. “Ms. Marvel is fat” is a learned assumption. That the hero will win in the end. A person in a yellow and blue costume with a flared mask and six claws is Wolverine.

Received wisdom might tell us the next stage should be Build, but it isn’t, because we expect that and human beings like novelty as long as it is novelty that doesn’t interrupt our assumptions too much. Authors and audiences that have their assumptions in place proceed to destroying parts of those assumptions to prove the whole mess. We know armor is working best, not when a haze of bullets has no effect at all, but when the bullets just sort of score the surface a bit. Battle damage impresses the hell out of us, and imperviousness gets kind of tedious, and maybe the impervious thing or person is just a bit too smug standing there all untouchable and uninjured and fuck that guy.

The transition from Assume to Destroy is why Superman gets so often depowered to, essentially, the power level he was just at anyway. Superman feels overpowered before the current story starts and has to be set low within the story. The assumption of Superman has to be dented and scored mildly to prove Superman’s value.

So, we progress to Build. After we have identified and tested our materials, from characters to settings to stories, we fit them together in interesting and useful formations. The Dark Knight Returns is often treated as an angry corrupting of Batman or something, but it isn’t. Within the first few pages, and again, larger, over the whole of the comic, we see these stages recapitulated by the authors (Miller, Varley, and Janson), so that Batman is presented as an assumption, a ghost from the past that we can fill in with our expectations and memories, then those expectations and memories are quickly challenged by tone, behavior, lack of or presence of appropriate costuming, then Batman is built up from the tested elements. What we are given within that first handful of pages is clearly Batman. And, then the authors and the audience deconstruct that Batman.

Deconstruction, here, is to simultaneously destroy and build, to test and reaffirm, chip away and reshape not in a controlling, dominant fashion as assumption does, or to challenge, as with the Destroy stage, but in the sense that a sculpture is revealed by tearing away or massaging off what is inherently that sculpture or not.

And, one audience’s moment of Build may be another’s moment of Deconstruction. The author may be destroying, while the audience is building, assuming while the audience is deconstructing. When an audience/author assumes that a superhero must be socially abnormal to wear a superhero costume, another audience/author may be destroying that by positing a social tradition of superhero costumes or subcultures of costume-wearing contemporaries without tipping their cards explicitly to the other. This isn’t out of malice, simply that each audience/author is probably of the belief that their understanding is the one everyone has. Or, everyone knowledgable.

Knowledge, in this sense, is the Assume stage, the stage from which all other actions and effects will spring as our interpretation guides us. But when we position it as “knowledge” as opposed to “assumption,” we give it a kind of power over our own safety. We might feel we cannot afford to poke holes in it to test its ability to stay afloat, or even to poke fun at it, in case the intensity and value deflate like a sad unrolled condom drying discarded under a hotel nightstand.

Our interpretation can always be flawed but it is the version we invest in. Our version, from assumption to deconstruction, is the comic we learn and benefit from. Our interpretation is personal but we must accept that without shearing from the interpretation the value or veracity of our understanding. This without sacrificing the potential for our version to change. Or, for our version to be flawed.

We must acknowledge that all narrative works are a) authored, b) intermixed, c) fluid, e) interpretable, and f) have agency. This is the case when the work is created, and it is the case with each reading and rereading, as well as with each distinct audience. This is the basis of queer theory, of deconstruction, rooted strongly in deconstruction, in linguistics, but it is also the basis for most soundly understanding any comic you are going to ever read.

Queer theory is applicable to queer cinema and any other cinemas, to queer literature and any other literatures. There are no other comics, at least in English-language societies. For English-language societies, queer comics is comics, in the sense that there is no normative base for comics that is so large and clearly understood the way that the basic swath of movies or general television has. The other, the non-normative, the blind spots in societal assumptions and cosmogony, loom larger and more readily in comics than other mediums.

I would like to say that comics makes better understanders, better readers, because a good comics audience/author can see the bastardizing of visual and text together, the synthesis of image and word, of still frames and a sense of narrative movement. A good audience/author can handle a comic on multiple levels, acknowledge varying interpretations readily. I’d like to say, even, they can do this way more than any other medium can inspire or handle. But, it isn’t true.

Comics is a queer medium because English-language comics is messed up. Our basic cultural understanding of comics is busted. From almost the ground level of understanding comics, we distinguish single panel comics as less than serial-panel comics, we consider comics from one press (or “the big two”) as more comic than other comics, print comics superior to digital, or digital as the future of waning print. The average person encounters comics most often today via one-panel memes and gags online, but the average person does not consider that to be comics. Comics, in English-language societies, are not seen as pervasive or common. It’s always novel. Comics are always other.

Superheroes having a resurgence in common popularity is not going to see a significant climb in comics readership. It’s not even going to make current comics readers feel like they’ve got a larger society. Fans of monthly superhero books think weekly strips about hockey enthusiasts and their pets aren’t truly comics and vice versa. Comics can’t be said to make better readers, better audiences and authors, because in English-language societies at least, actively marginalizing our sense of what comics are and can be, we’ve jacked our potential to interpret comics and all other media. It isn’t exposure to comics that messes up our comprehension skills, it’s our constant and variably-complacent enduring a blanket marginalization. We let ourselves get stupid.

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