Still reading Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet and thinking about how it relates to comics. Of course, speculating on Cerebus’ sexuality is fun because it’s at least a bit counterintuitive. Applying the same analysis to super-hero comics is maybe a little too obvious (secret, closeted, hypermasculine identities decked out in colorful tights. With boy sidekicks.) And, in any case, these implications have been pointed out by everyone from Frederick Wertham to Grant Morrison (in his Beard-Slayer issue of Doom Patrol, among other places.)
Sedgwick has a couple of other insights in this area that are interesting and applicable though, I think. One of the things she talks about is the idea of the sentimental. Sedgwick points out that the sentimental is typically defined in terms of insincerity and femininity. But, she argues, in fact in our culture the sentimental is often used as a male mode; especially in the sense of male efforts to escape it, and/or ultimately succumb to it. Thus, at the end of High Society, the emotional pay-off is the moment when the normally stoic, masculine Cerebus breaks down in tears in the arms of the ultra-feminine elf. Sedgwick links this cultural fact to “an extraordinarily high level of self-pity in non-gay men” in the U.S., and argues that such “straight male self-pity is…associated with, or appealed to in justification of , acts of violence, especially against women.” As an example, one of my high-school friends was shot and killed by her ex shortly after she broke up with him — a narrative which is, obviously, quite common in both real life and fiction.
Sedgwick also notes that “this vast national wash of masculine self-pity” is “compulsively illustrated for public consumption” in , for instance, “the New York Times’s “About Men”…or for that matter any newspaper’s sports pages, or western novels, male country music, the dying-father-and-his-son stories in The New Yorker, or any other form of genre writing aimed at men…” Comics in this country have, of course, traditionally, and still largely, a form of genre writing aimed at men. So how well does this cathexis of sentimentality and maleness apply to them?
Quite well, thank you. The super-hero genre is sodden with self-pity; it’s arguably the main tool of identification, of plot, and of character development. Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, the three most iconic examples of the genre, are orphans, and it is there status as such which impels, justifies, and lubricates their masculine physiques, skin-tight attire, and repetitive violence. Other characters of the Marvel stable (the Hulk, the Thing, X-Men) have their bifurcated difference as the cause of their sentimental histrionics; their status as closeted or outed other is their tragedy, and, again, their excuse. Women in those old marvel comics tended to be opportunities for soul-searching rather than for actual romance; why on earth was Matt Murdock — a grown, successful man — so tormented about his relationship with his secretary? Ask her out, man! But wait, perhaps I don’t really want to…why don’t I want to? Oh woe! The turmoil! (Now, of course, as Stephen Grant has pointed out, it’s the death of female characters which is the engine of sentiment and violence — as in Sue Dibny’s murder providing a plot arc for her husband, the Elongated Man. (Interesting name, that.))
What’s really revealing here, though, is the extent to which the nexus of sentiment/self-pity/troubled maleness transfers so seamlessly from super-hero to art comics. Like Batman and Superman and Spider-Man, Jimmy Corrigan has no father, and, like them, that fact seems to be the defining emotional fact of his life, both in terms of the character and in terms of the reader. Surely it’s his wounding and his loss which makes the utterly repulsive (racist, emotionally inaccessible) Corrigan at all palatable, just as Bruce Wayne’s nocturnal nuttiness is made coherent by his tragedy. I don’t remember David Boring having such a clearly traumatic backstory, but he nevertheless seems cut from a similar cloth of wounded maleness — indeed, our sympathy with him as a character (to the extent there is any) seems predicated on our acceptance and interest in other male prototypes who have a more explicit excuse for their various unpleasant habits (Boring’s unaccountable appeal to women — an attraction linked counter-intuitively to his semi-secret fetishes — seems worth mentioning in this context as well.) Of course, autobio accounts of SNAG sexual conquest/tragedy like those of Jeff Brown and David Heatley are merely a different wrinkle on the same formula. So too are Anders Nilsen’s account of his girlfriend’s death and, in exactly the same way, comics critic Dan Raeburn’s New Yorker article about his wife’s stillbirth.
Sedgwick takes some pains to argue that sentiment isn’t in itself an evil or bad thing. And indeed, of the comics discussed above, I like many of them not despite, but because of the way they work with and on emotions. I love the hoky sadness and frustration of Stan Lee’s Spider-Man comics; I found Jimmy Corrigan affecting; Dan Raeburn’s essay was a little formulaic, but it was certainly also harrowing and moving (and I haven’t read the Nilsen comic, though I plan to.) So the point isn’t that all these things are lousy or self-serving but, rather, that they all plug into a particular image of masculinity, and that that image seems endemic in American comics. Jimmy Corrigan isn’t, in this sense, a transcendence of the four-color genre past: he’s a fulfillment of it.
Incidentally, the title of this post was inspired by a poem I wrote years and years ago. For those with any stomach for contemporary poetry (and God help you), I’ve posted it here.