I stated in my last post, that I bring no “theory” with which to read comic books. Obviously, as one might have guessed, that is not entirely true. No one can spend years reading all kinds of comic books, reading and writing superhero fanfiction, and not bring with him some amount of baggage as to how he reads comic books. However, the way I’ll explore my reading of comics in this blog has not the necessary gravitas to be held as a theory. Maybe even to refer to it as a method would be too pedantic. Let’s just call it a set of flexible postulates that guide the kind of questions my reading of comics usually faces. And how should we call this set of vague postulates? One might think of it as common sense, but in this murky days of intellectual post-modernism, even that could sound pedantic. So, let us just call it “comic book logic”. Said logic, at least for me, derives from three very simple premises:
1 – WHERE WAS SUPERMAN ON 9/11?
This was a question heard more than once after the cowardly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in that fateful year of 2001. It was, understandably a cry of frustration, maybe even an unfair indictment against the inadequacy of the modern American mythos embodied in comic book superheroes. And the concept to stress here is unfair.
Surely no one was expecting Superman or The Avengers to intervene and defeat the very real evils of terrorism, international politics, and pre-9/11 government inadequacy to deal with both. After all, it was not the first time that superheroes were called to intervene in deeply traumatic historical events. Both Superman and Captain America (among a plethora of other costumed heroes) fought alongside American GIs on the battlefronts of WWII. And yet, even in that early period of development of such a demigod as Superman, one must have had the notion that with the Kryptonian hero on the side of the Allies, the war would be over in less than a month. It would take less than that to pinpoint the exact localization of the OKH officers and Hitler himself with Superman X-Ray vision and super-speed, and neutralize each one of them (lethally or non-lethally) even inside the strongest bunker. No V-2 rocket would fly past Superman’s heat vision , super-blow and super-velocity. What were the Axis’s chances then against the combined powers of Superman, Wonder Woman, The Justice Society, etc… (Come on, even the Commando Cubs were able to get into Hitler’s own bedroom on the cover of THRILLING COMICS #41, cover-dated April 1944, even if not on the interior story.)
No GI in the Pacific Front or on the fields of Europe, carrying a battered copy of ACTION COMICS rolled up on his duffel bag was expecting the red and blue marvel to come flying through the trees and start smashing German Panthers or blasting Japanese Zeros from the sky. This inherent impossibility – that goes beyond the as-yet-impossibility of good Science Fiction – must perforce define Comic Book Logic. And define the way we read comics. We accept their internal logic, even though we know every aspect of it, is impossible. We cannot ascribe to superheroes (with the possible exception of masked vigilantes like Batman and other un-super-powered characters) the degree of highly-improbable-yet-possible credibility one can ascribe, for instance to a Jack Bauer or a James Bond (that we can think of as believable characters in near-impossible circumstances). That is the same as saying, superhero comic books are part of Fantasy, not Science Fiction (even when using SF’s tropes or modes).
And so, the first corollary must be: comic books are ruled by their own self-validating logic, a logic that cannot be challenged by facts extrinsic to their own internal consistency.
2 – HOW CAN SHE/HE FIGHT IN THAT THING?
Or, Spandex Works Fine, Thanks. There has been in recent times a recurrent ballyhoo about superheroes costumes. To be more honest, most of the ballyhoo confines itself to female superheroes costumes, and to how revealing they are of the female charms. Most of the criticism leveled to female costumes is mere cant from feminist crusaders that were never able to enjoy freedom of speech, aesthetic values, or mere biological constants. That is to say, most such criticism is political and ideological. Which would be very fine if they weren’t so blatantly masked as arguments concerning practicality. And what makes that smart-ass technique even more infuriating, is that the arguments presented are so stupid, that one cannot believe that their authors are not in the least aware of how intrinsically ridiculous they are.
The only true ‘practical’ problem with superheroes costumes arose when superheroes became the object of millions-of-dollars budgeted film adaptations. More precisely, during the pre-production of Bryan Singer’s seminal X-Men (2000). The garish comic book look of the mutants’s uniforms didn’t translate as well to film as the ones of Superman (1978-1984) or Batman (1989-1996). Singer wanted them to look real, as he was planning a less comic-bookely and more realistic film (how ironic that at the same time costumes were becoming more practical and real, everything else in superhero film adaptations was going down the drain of garish video-game CGI visuals and action). The film and its first sequel was a tremendous success, and the looks and textures of film-real costumes began to infiltrate comic-books. So far, so good. But “real-looking” does not necessarily mean “real-practical”. As a film like The Incredibles has laugh-out-loudly demonstrated, any costume with a cape is inherently impractical. And if practicality was of essence, every super-hero costume would tend to become a uniform, as every element (helmets, gloves, cybernetic-armor, flying shields, whatever) conferring a modicum of advantage would be adopted by other caped-crusaders. Fortunately, that is not the case. Capes work as symbols with long traditions. And so do garish uniforms, which, until recently, had a totemic quality relating to the origin-story of each character. Superhero costumes are not meant to be practical, they are meant to be symbolic.
“For decades [Starfire] sported one of the comic book industry’s most infamously skimpy, at times gravity-defying, and downright impractical get-ups.”
One's attention is immediately called to the “at times gravity-defying” part, something that, judging by what they write later on, has something to do with Starfire’s cleavage. Well, one cannot help but note that Starfire has the power of flight – you cannot get much more gravity-defying than that! The relation of superheroes to gravity has never been subjected to Newton’s laws but exclusively to the “comic-book logic” I mentioned above.
So, the second corollary is: superhero costumes are exclusively aesthetic or erotic in nature, and are not bound to constrictions of realism or practicality.
3 – COMIC BOOKS ARE SEXY
And one must not forget that to most young boys, in an age before the advent of the internet, when even under the counter was to high to be reached, the first glimpses of perfect female bodies they ever got, came through comic books. Not the fleeting blink-and-you’ll-miss-it images of movies or tv shows, but gorgeous perennial panels in garish-colored comic books, that you could appreciate longingly for as long as you liked. So yes, comics are sexy. There’s always an erotic tension that arises from female (and male) bodies in action: and in superhero comics, that action goes always over the top. Any killjoy can cry his throat sour about torn costumes, and impossibly firm breasts peeking through the tears on the fabric (never the nipple, mind you) , but one must surely stand in awe as how resistant all those costumes are to the level of power and high energy those fights yield. If you ever got into a fisticuffs you know that no matter how brief it turns out to be, or how unprepared any of the combatants is, both will end up with shirt buttons missing, torn sweaters, or broken wristwatches. But you can throw a nuclear bomb on Supergirl or Power Girl and if their costumes get even a small rip, that rip will be artfully located in such a way not to be the least revealing (talk about practicality and realism in comics). But that is as well, as the forbidden fruit is ever more enticing. (As a male reader, I tend to talk of superheroines, but the same is surely true for female readers ogling Conan’s six-pack or Wolverines manly naked torso, sweaty from killing hundreds of ninjas; and it is curious as every twerp complains about Red Sonja going into combat in a chain mail bikini, but give a free path to Conan who does the same in leather breeches).
Further on, I’ll detail my own take on this imbecile list, as I believe there are some valid points to be made about its subject, points that Marston-Pitts go out of their way to ignore. But for now, let’s finish with this third corollary of comic book logic: super-hero comics are inherently sexy, as their heroes are idealized archetypes of physical perfection.
So these are the lines that will guide my appreciation of any superhero comic book I’ll happen to comment on. Obviously, I do not confine my reading to superhero comic books. So, take these lines as my manifest. This is what you’ll get if you stick around or just come by one in a while. And I hope you do.