On Sexuality, Sexism, And The Purpose Of Comic Books, by Bryan Lackey

The Writing Of Bryan Lackey

On Sexuality, Sexism, And The Purpose Of Comic Books

On Sexuality, Sexism, And The Purpose Of Comic Books
or: It's Not Just For The Pretty Pictures

And now for an essay/ramble I've been meaning to write for some time. This is in response to Azundris' comments in a Wonder Woman discussion thread and a response essay posted here (wherein she also comments). Her fundamental point is that superhero comics specifically, and everything else (especially in storytelling), are all about sex. Female characters specficially exist to be nothing more than sex objects, the male characters aren't much better, and without the cheesecake factor and rampant sexual undertones, comics nigh universally degenerate into an oversimplified world of gaudy colored barroom brawls. Further, she goes on to assert "For many people, a story is more compelling when they can identify with the protagonist (or at least one of the characters), and why would you want to do that unless that character looked at least as good as you do? That’d be like watching a movie with only fugly people in it!.

I disagree with all of this, and I think a lot of her views reflect both a strong product of a non-American cultural upbringing, as well as an ignorance of the broader history of comics (to say nothing of quite a few specific examples that would tend to monkeywrench her theory, which I'll get to later on).

To start with the easiest, and perhaps most specific counter-why are superheroes drawn as uberfit, almost without exception. It actually makes logical sense when you think about it. If you're training for hand to hand combat, and you're in hand to hand combat quite a bit, and you have an obsessive personality (which most superheroes and villains do), you're probably going to be in good shape. My brother, for an easy real world example, is ripped like a comic book character-because he bikes a few hundred miles every week, and watches what he eats. Yes, there are bad artists, and ridiculous proportions (I'm looking at you, Liefield, and your anorexic Jesus), but as a general concept, the idea of someone running around constantly being in good shape (which is generally considered visually attractive) is not unreasonable, or inherently sexist. Nor is it a defining characteristic of comics as a storytelling medium, rather it's a reasonable consequence of the first principle of the existence of superheroes and vigilantes, and their nemeses.

More generally, however, there are a lot more reasons to read comics, and factors that shape the stories in comics, than just sex. They're metaphors for real life, they offer ideals to aim for, and cautionary tales, and they illuminate facets of our individual and collective psyche. They are modern day mythology, and the stories we tell each other, sometimes as cheap, lurid entertainment, but sometimes as morality play, or parable, or character study, or culture hero-or reflection of the broader society.

Here's where a brief history lesson is in order. Comics are one of the few truly American art forms, and American culture, which I am positing exists as a unique entity that is more than the sum of its component parts, had a huge role in shaping the stories and conventions of the medium. Yes, the Japanese and Europeans took the basics of the artform and ran with it in their own directions, and there are antecendents (such as political cartoons) from many places, but the medium itself was created, defined, and fleshed out first by Americans, and there is an indelible American stamp on comics storytelling. The first example of this is Superman. Sure, he's a Kansas farmboy who moves to the big city, and he looks like a classic white American, but the character was created by two Jewish immigrants. Superman is a metaphor for the immigrant experience in America-he's the ultimate immigrant, who is given the best of America, adopts the values of his new home, and ultimately makes very good. That aspirational quality, which is not unique to American culture but is certainly more essential to our culture than to most, has echoed in a lot of comics storytelling ever since. Captain America and other patriotic heroes spring to mind readily, but Peter Parker is the nerd who made good, as is Billy Batson. Even Bruce Wayne, who bears on other of my arguments as well, is part of this. Yes, he has tragic beginnings, and a hell of a financial head start, but he is also the peak of human aspiration. He builds himself completely into someone who is capable of almost anything, intellectual or physical-even walking shoulder to shoulder wtih gods.

On that note, comics function, among other things, as modern mythology. And just like the mythology of other cultures, it reflects the values of America, its conflicts, and its ideals. War comics (Sgt. Rock, Nick Fury, Haunted Tank, Enemy Ace, etc.) have very little to do with sex, and feature very little in the way of pretty people, but they're stories we tell each other about history, and conflict, and how we deal with it and understand it. The interplay of superheroes, who are almost gods, and literal gods, and "mere mortals" is part of how we explore faith, and our need for it. The Sandman touches on this quite a bit, using comics to explore morality, consequences, purpose, dreams...

And of course there's Michael Holt/Mr. Terrific, who has met The Spectre (an aspect of God), still being quite incredulous about the whole thing.

Because doubt is a part of American culture too.

Beyond that, superheroes and the stories about them often function as ideals to aim for-not just in physical development (rightly or wrongly), but also in intellect, morality, and ethics. We want to be as good as Superman, as strong willed as Captain America, as unyielding as Wonder Woman (to go back to what started this). We want to be as smart as Reed Richards. We want to overcome our demons like Tony Stark. And most generally, we want to believe that if given the chance, we will do the right thing, no matter the cost.

Comics also reflect attitudes about power. Here's where I'm going to make my biggest assertion of this essay, and it has to do with cultural attitudes towards power. Azundris says that "If you take out the sexy, you’ll just be left with “everything that’s wrong with the US”, foreign policy- and otherwise, writ small, and that’s just offputting. I mean, that’s why they’re called vigilantes" and goes on with "The thing however is that I stopped caring about power fantasies as a child, and vigilantism as a concept in the real world scares me". This is fine and fair, but there is more to it than that, and moreover vigilantism is a part of American culture.

In Europe, political power originally devolved from the sovreign, downward through society. Even when democracy came, the mindset persisted, and I think that's a large part of why Europe has always been much more collectivist minded than the US, especially in terms of its politics, and why Europe has been so much more receptive to large government solutions, welfare states, and socialist ideas-the idea of the vanguard in Leninist theory, for example. In America, by contrast, power has always flowed (theoretically at least) from the bottom up. In America, the people, and more precisely, the individuals are sovreign, and we delegate some of our authority upwards to make things easier. The cop on the corner doesn't get to do what they do because they have a mandate from God via the king, they get to do it because they're highly specialized employees hired by the rest of us on loaned authority. However, the power never stops belonging to the people, and they can (again, theoretically) always revoke it at will, and remake the way things are done.

This is at the heart of vigilantism in superheroics. It's not just about simple power fantasies, it's about reclamation of sovreignty, it's about justice, and sometimes it's about revenge, and it's about doing for oneself when the delegates have failed-which is quintessentially American (America, unlike Hot Topic, is punk rock, essentially :) ). Yes, there are consequences for this sort of behavior, and the better comics tend to acknowledge them (Return Of The Dark Knight and Kingdom Come are classic examples of this, and most of the modern era Spectre stories deal with this on a literally religious level), but it comes from a much more complex place, and is a line of thought that's well worth exploring intellectually. We read comics not just for idle thoughts of Punisher style revenge, but to explore these ideas, to try and understand them, and perhaps be inspired to do for ourselves (in the very broad sense) in real life. Alternately, by exploring those ideas we decide that in real life there are reasons that that kind of power is delegated to employees and trained professionals, or that justice can only be done collectively. Either way, comics raise those questions.

So yes, Azundris, there is a great deal more to comic books than just sex and relationships. Empathetic characters happen in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons, and more often than one would expect without pretty people or lots of sex, ie the 90s Starman series, which had, among other main characters, a slacker, a dead swamp monster, and a somewhat frail old man...who used to be a pudgy scientist, and was interesting because it was about old things, and cities, and making peace with your parents and your children (and Oscar Wilde). Comics can be bland, trite, eye candy entertainment, sure, but just like any other medium they can be so much more, and often are-for every five or ten Jersey Shores at least one Mad Men, for every five or ten Liefield clones a Sandman, a Spectre, a Marvels. They can titilate, but they can also reflect and teach us about ourselves-in our lows, our fears, and our base instincts, and in our hopes, and all of our possibilities.