Comics and Conservative Critics
Yesterday, my friend Stan Rozenfeld alerted me to a column written by conservative John Podhoretz over at National Review Online, a review of the new movie"Spider-Man 2" entitled"The Best of the Worst." (I see that Franklin Harris mentioned this on July 1. Also, check out Jim Henley's lengthy July blogging on Spider-Man.)
I confess I've not yet seen"Spider-Man 2," though I did enjoy the first film in the series. And I also confess to being a bit of a comic-book geek while growing up, with a collection that included everything from Batman, Superman and Aquaman to Classics Illustrated. In adulthood, I've frequently marveled over the artistry of an Alex Ross or the intellectual complexity of graphic novels, such as Kingdom Come.
Well, Podhoretz doesn't much appreciate this form of expression. A self-confessed “anti-comic-book snob,” he dismisses comics as “the most immature and illiterate of cultural forms,” “the province of powerless boys . . . a cultural embarrassment because the common culture has unthinkingly and stupidly accepted them as an art form.” Podhoretz views this acceptance as the “natural outcome of the youth-worship that took over American culture in the 1960s . . .”
Reading Podhoretz, I almost felt the ghost of psychiatrist Frederick Wertham, who had conducted studies into abnormal behavior in young people and, in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), claimed that American youth had been corrupted through their consumption of comic books, which depicted latent homosexuality (Batman and Robin), fantasies of sadistic joy (Superman), and un-woman-like behavior (Wonder Woman). This eventually prompted Estes Kefauver’s judicial committee to hold congressional hearings in 1954 on the subject of “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency.”
Podhoretz doesn't go that far. He simply argues that comics are, well, stupid. He ridicules those who revel in the"very potent fantasy outlet" that comics provide,"a comforting outlet for those who feel totally powerless." He's just tired of hearing about
the wonders of supercharged adolescent fantasies as embodied in the comic book. They present archetypes of heroism, focus on the hidden power of the social outcast, yada, yada, yada. At best, we have been told, they are the contemporary version of the Norse sagas. Their fans use terms like"Golden Age" and"Silver Age" to differentiate them, and can go into extraordinary detail about the difference between your Marvel comic and your DC comic.
Podhoretz, not surprisingly the author of Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane, seems to give credence to those who think the Bush people"radiate negativity." In the end, however, he simply confesses that he's just pissed off because he"didn't preserve comic books from the 1960s and 1970s in little clear plastic bags," while his friends did, and now, they've"made thousands of dollars on them by selling them to comic-book stores whose owners and managers always seem to resemble Jabba the Hut—if Jabba the Hut wore a t-shirt with a Metallica logo on it. So maybe I'm a little bitter."
Well, get over yourself, Johnny! As my colleague Aeon Skoble has written, since the 1960s, the comic genre has become a “vehicle for consciousness-raising every bit as much as popular films and television shows." The visual iconography of comics is worth celebrating. The"sequential art" that it constitutes has often provided youth with a projection of the heroic that encapsulates a romantic aesthetic. Scott McCloud, taking a cue from master comics artist Will Eisner, reminds us that the medium is rooted in epic stories, which were pictured on walls among the ancient Egyptians and the pre-Columbians, or in tapestries (e.g., the Bayeux Tapestry), or even in “collage novels” (such as those of Max Ernst).
Moreover, as Paul Buhlemaintains, the increased interest in the impact of comics derives from the fact that “mass culture, from the early moments when we could take it in as children, has affected us.” Since the '60s especially, comics, as an “underground” art form, have encapsulated “resentment toward, and resistance of, authority in all forms,” which has “added up to a barely visible political aesthetic."
That some of this"political aesthetic" has been of a left-wing vintage is undeniable. But there are many libertarian and even Randian messages that are contained in the world of comics (see, for example, the works of Steve Ditko and Frank Miller). Indeed, Ayn Rand's influence on popular comics is something that I will be discussing in a forthcoming article,"The Illustrated Rand," which will appear in the first of two issues of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, celebrating the Rand Centenary in 2004-2005. Heck, even Batman has featured a story that referenced the works of Ludwig von Mises!
And that is the point, of course: You know that ideas are making an impact when they have been filtered through"popular" art forms, including illustrated media, such as comics and cartoons.
Perhaps some people are just so irritated by comics because they sometimes project a youthful heroism and anti-authoritarianism that rubs against the reactionary grain.
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Matthew Humphreys - 7/9/2004
Uh actually it turns out I actually misread Chris' email...sorry everyone.
Matthew Humphreys - 7/9/2004
At the request of Chris Sciabarra, the following is a link to a discussion of the above over on SOLOHQ, which occured rather bizzarely in the middle of a discussion on foreign policy!
Ok Chris? ;-)
Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 7/8/2004
Terrific, Aeon. In case anyone is wondering, the PDF that Aeon has mentioned is a terrific little piece:
Skoble, Aeon J. 2003. A reflection on the relevance of gay-bashing in the comic book world. APA Newsletters (on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Philosophy) 2, no. 2 (Spring): 185–86.
I look forward to linking to the piece in the near future.
Aeon J. Skoble - 7/8/2004
Nope, it's not available online yet. I'll PDF it and post the link when I get back to the office later this month.
Aeon J. Skoble - 7/8/2004
Chris, thanks for the mention! I'll look and see whether that short piece is on-line. If so, I'll post a link (I have one or two more days of internet before the official "roughing it" segment begins), and if it's not online, I'll PDF it when I get home and link to that.