I thought I’d reproduce here a talk I gave at Florida Atlantic University about a year ago. A shortened version ran in the Comics Journal, but this is the whole thing, pretty much as I presented it. It’s over 5000 words, so I’ve split it into two parts. I’ll run the second bit tomorrow. (Be warned; there are some explicit images below.)
Comics in the Closet
I thought I’d start by reading a short, short story I wrote. This is called “Alpha Male in…Don’t Be Gay!”
Alpha-Male was bitten by a radioactive penis and gained the proportional speed, strength, and emotional maturity of a penis. He lived happily out of touch with his feelings until suddenly his dick-sense tingles and, wham! The Gay Utopia arrives. A bunny offers him a flower from its anus; a burlesque troop of Hello Kitty dolls sings about bodies and pleasures; he is almost buried in pastel-colored anti-America flyers. Luckily, even the most playful subversion can’t daunt Alpha-Male! Fueled by his Alpha-testosterone, he tears several butterflies asunder and rapes a bunch of queer video projects. But for how long can our hero keep it up in a world without big box retail? Plus he can’t buy any meat so his farts don’t smell right. That’s why it’s time for the ultimate Alpha-power: mind-over-ejaculate! Desperately, courageously, he thinks of Hugh Hefner and achieves one final orgasm . Then he makes his cum take the shape of a direct-market comic store. Inside are a bunch of dudes like Frank Miller and R. Crumb making manly comics with boring layouts about fighting evil and getting laid. He decides to live there the rest of his life. Fuck the Gay Utopia! The End.
And here’s a couple of illustrations done for the story by Johnny Ryan, a very talented indie cartoonist who kindly collaborated with me on this:
There’s alpha male being bitten by a radioactive penis;
1and there’s alpha male using his power of mind over ejaculate to create a direct-market comic book store in which he can live out the rest of his life.
So what we’ve got in this story is a pretty clear binary, right? On the one hand, you have the gay utopia, which is feminine, frilly, and touchy feely. Then, on the other hand, you have Alpha Male, who is masculine, not frilly, and emotionally inaccessible. Most importantly, the gay utopia is gay, and Alpha Male is not.
Except that, as you can see, like all super-heroes, Alpha Male is dressed in flamboyant tights. And he’s escaping from the gay utopia into an all-male environment that is extremely sexualized. What are he and Frank Miller and R. Crumb going to do for the rest of their lives in that direct comic book store? Are they really just going to be making comics about getting laid?
So is Alpha-Male straight? Is he gay? In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick argues
…that many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth century Western culture as a whole are structured — indeed fractured — by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century.
In other words, male heterosexual identity is incoherent, built upon a binary definition of homosexual identity which is essentially untenable. Though it’s taking a few liberties with Sedgwick’s formulation, I tend to think of it like this: Heterosexual men are men who like women. But if you like women too much, then you’re feminine, and so gay. But if you don’t like women, you like men and then you’re gay. Does not compute…does not compute…boom, you blow up like one of those robots out-witted by the very manly Captain Kirk and his close, close buddy, Mr. Spock.
American comics have long been written by, aimed at, and consumed primarily by, guys. They’re basically male genre literature, like Westerns or spy thrillers, devoted to visions of mysteriously manly men performing manly deeds —flexing, fighting, rescuing damsels in distress, and so forth. Super-hero comics provide a vision of fairly stereotypical masculinity — a man is a man when he has big muscles and fights for what is right.
As a for instance, here’s a picture of Batman behaving in a typical manly fashion.
So masculinity in super-hero comics is almost laughably straightforward. And yet, at the same time, it isn’t straight at all. Instead, it’s bifurcated, incoherent and, in a lot of ways, really gay. To begin with, super-heroes generally have a secret life, a “secret identity”, that they can’t talk about even to their closest friends and relations. In other words, they are all closeted. And what’s in that closet?. A hypermasculine, muscle-bound body, swathed in day-glo tights; an uber-manly man whose physical tussles with the bad guys preclude any meaningful relationship with the leading lady. Out of costume, on the other hand, the hero is a feminized sissy-boy, whose painful secret prevents him from having any meaningful relationship with the leading lady. Either way, what looked like iconic maleness starts to look, from up close, rather queer. And that’s not even getting into the whole boy sidekick thing.
Several pictures to illustrate what we’re talking about here:
First, here’s Superman in an ambiguously compromising tussle with a bad guy.
Second here’s the Joker goosing Batman. Incidentally, this is by Grant Morrison, who is quite aware of the homosexuality of super-heroes. Alan Moore also touches on it at several points in Watchmen. I’m far from the first person to discuss this sort of thing, in other words.
Anyway, to move on: here’s Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, canceling a date with Liz Armstrong so he can go have a secret rendezvous with the Sandman. Notice that studly Flash Thompson takes the opportunity to point out that Peter is effeminate, or as he says “Lucky for you, Liz! Now you can go out with a real man — namely me!”
I also wanted to point out here, just as an aside, that the nebbishy alter-egos like Peter Parker and Clark Kent are sometimes associated with Jewishness; most of the creators were Jewish, and you can see it as a metaphor for assimilation. This interpretation doesn’t clash with the one I’m using, I don’t think — Jewish maleness and gayness are often associated with one another, both being grouped together as unmanly. Sedgwick I think would argue that the heterosexual/homosexual binary shapes the way we deal with issues like ethnicity and assimilation, which is why we have the stereotype of the Jewish nebbish in the first place.
Anyway, on to boy sidekicks: here’s Bruce Wayne (Batman) in bed with his youthful ward, Dick Grayson. Apparently when the unhealthy sexuality of comics was being condemned in the 50s, this panel served as an important case in point.
And here’s a multiple boy sidekick panel; Bucky, who’s Captain America’s partner, is grinning lasciviously and saying “Did you see the way Robin kept looking at me, Cap? I guess he knows who’s got the better partner…and the more exciting life!”
And one more boy sidekick image, because I couldn’t help myself.
Sedgwick incidentally points out that one of the main uses of the closet, perhaps for those inside, but definitely for those outside, is the way it allows one to feel smart and knowledgeable. You look at these images in this context and you say, hey, I know something here that most people, maybe even the creators, don’t. In this case, though, knowledge isn’t so much power as it is participation in mechanisms of pleasure. Enjoying your knowledge is one of the ways that the closet has power over you, not the other way around.
So, besides a desire to feel that I’m especially clever, why point this stuff out? Well, one reason is that the fractured masculinity we’re talking about here has some important effects on the way men are presented in these comics. In her books, Sedgwick argues that anxiety about homosexuality, or homosexual panic, is a trait *not* of gay men, but of *straight* men. If you’re gay and all the way out, you don’t need to worry about the closet, because you don’t have to worry whether people think you’re masculine enough. Straight men, on the other hand, have to always keep one hand on their masculinity (so to speak.) This can be expressed very dramatically, thorough, for example, homophobia or gay bashing. But it can work in more subtle ways as well.
One of the things Sedgwick talks about in this context is the idea of sentimentality. She points out that the sentimental is typically defined in terms of insincerity and femininity. It tends to be connected to genre fiction for women (romance novels, Hollywood romantic comedies) or else to a camp aesthetic associated with gayness (musicals, Joan Crawford melodramas.)
However, the fact is that sentimentality is just as much a male mode as a female one. It’s just that, where sentimentality in romance tends to be focused on tragic relationships, in male genres the sentimentality is tied up with the crisis of masculine identity which we’ve been talking about. Specifically, men are figured as stoic, and anti-sentimental. The male sentimental mode is all about men’s lack of sentimentality —the tragedy of the man who would cry, but will not, or cannot.
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.” This is one typical justification for domestic abuse, for example — the idea that the woman emasculated, or made the man feel bad about himself, and therefore he is tragically driven to beat her up. You also see this in murder ballads, where the protagonist, as Hendrix puts it, is always “going to shoot my old lady/caught her messin’ round with another man.”
This link between maleness, self-pity, and violence, is readily apparent in American comics. Though on the surface super-hero stories seem to deal with very masculine subjects like law-and-order and fist fights, when you look a little deeper its clear that comic-books are sodden with masculine self-pity and sentimentality. This soppy maleness is, in fact, 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 their status as such which impels, justifies, and lubricates their masculine physiques, skin-tight attire, and repetitive fisticuffs.
As a particularly clear example, of what I’m talking about, here’s a page from an early 80s Daredevil story, in which they’re retelling his origin. Daredevil’s Dad, Jack Murdock, is a prizefighter, and he’s being threatened if he doesn’t throw the fight. But inspired by his love for his son, and, one suspects, by his investment in his own masculinity, he refuses to lie down, and in an orgasmic surge of violence and sentiment, defeats his opponent.
For not throwing the fight, Jack is killed, which, naturally, inspires his son Matt Murdock, not to cry, but to don yellow tights and unleash an orgy of violence of his own.
And here’s Daredevil, not crying, but threatening.
As you can see, love between men is expressed not through tears or affection, but through bellowing and bashing.
Other characters of the Marvel stable 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. This is the case for the Hulk, a semi-nude, muscle-bound id who gets to express his emotions by bashing everything in sight — but it’s all morally okay because when he turns back into snivelling, skinny Bruce Banner, he whines about it. The Thing works in a similar way. My son is currently obsessed with this one old cartoon where the Thing changes into human form and decides to go get married; before he can, though, he’s changed back into his orange rocky self by Dr. Doom — and this provides the occasion, not for tears, but for him to go on a murderous rampage in which he almost kills the bad guy. And then there’s the storyline in which the Thing and the Hulk switch bodies. Here’s a picture of the Thing trussed up and willing, as the shirtless and oddly ripped Bruce Banner explains the pseudo-science whereby their intimate attachment is going to save both of them from their hyper-masculine selves.
I don’t know if you can read the text here, but The Thing tells Banner, “Ya ain’t got any idea how long I’ve been waitin’ for somebody ta say that. If I didn’t think ya’d get the wrong idea, I could kiss ya!”
Of course, they don’t actually kiss each other; instead the experiment goes wrong, the two switch minds, and then they spend the rest of the comic working off the repressed sentiment by assiduously whacking at each other.
Part 2 tomorrow, where we extend the argument to Cerebus, Jimmy Corrigan, and shojo.
Update: Part 2 is here.