Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

So, today is publication day for Superheroes!.My publisher's catalogue.

Officially, I never read them as a child. They were gaudy trash and a waste of money, and I only got to read them round at the houses of friends. Later on, they were one of the things I bought with money I had earned, often by buying National Geographic and Punch cheap at Jumble Sales, and selling them for slightly more at second-hand shops. Like most adolescent geeks, I had to find ingenious ways of subsidizing my habits.

Part of the appeal was that American superhero comics were forbidden. In newsagents in the fifties and sixties, if they were present at all, it was in the lower rungs of revolving wire racks whose higher rungs held pinup and fetish magazines. You did not have to have read Frederick Wertheimer's Seduction of the Innocent to make a connection - beefcake poses and skin tight clothing and queer intimacy.

And somehow it was less OK to read them than to read British comics, with patriotic heroes like Dan Dare, or the strips in the newspapers - and admittedly my childhood was a golden age for those, what with Jeff Hawke and 4-D Jones in the Express, which was my parents' newspaper of choice. The Eagle , and the other comics in its group had lovely art; at one point, a sick friend was lent an entire back-run of both Eagle and Girl, and I got to sit and work my way through both. And still feel that Belle of the Ballet was almost as fine in its way as Dan Dare and that Lettice Leef was signficantly more amusing than her kinsman Harris Tweed.

Like pornography, superhero comics always teased, they always offered more than they could ever deliver, on splash covers where grinning villains played with our heroes and heroines as figures on a giant chessboard, or spun them on a wheel of death. Part of the thrill was always that, no matter how powerful superheroes were, they always managed to find themselves in a jeopardy commensurate with their strength. And yet, to deliver fully on that promise would always have been to make that jeopardy realer than the commercial medium could bear. Comics taught me that disappointed expectation of greatness which is part of the aesthetic experience - things are this good, but somehow, in one's mind, they might be better yet.

And yes, comics were strangely sexy, even when I was young enough to be entirely clear what sexiness was. They offered fantasy and danger and risk and masks and skin-tight clothing. Wertham was a long way from being wrong about comics; he was just an uptight sexist prig who did not understand how complex and various human sexuality is.

As a teenager, I was never quite clear on what the Comics Code was, but I knew that every time I picked up a comic, it had passed some sort of censorship. And I remember resenting this, inchoately, knowing that one of the reasons why comics so often disappointed me was that someone was leaning into my enjoyment, imposing limits on material whose whole point was that it should have none.

Yet, often, especially when I picked up Marvel Comics rather than DC, I found material that blew my head off. Beings that ate worlds like Galactus or who simply had names as resonant as the Living Tribunal. They were creatures of dream and nightmare, available once a month for a shilling. Because comics had to avoid the specifically and overtly sexual, they often dealt in other kinds of ecstasy, and linked them with that pervading sexiness that nonetheless got through. This sense of the vast, oceanic and mildly perverse combined with my teenage religiosity to give me a taste for the sublime that has never deserted me.

At a more intimate level there were moments of psychological insight in the comics that I read that have haunted me ever since, no matter how corny they are, as when Mr. Fear turned to Daredevil (the man without fear) and said that he had his own version of their story and in that version 'I'm the hero and you're the villain'. That was an important lesson for me to learn when I was fifteen years old and a self-centred prig, and I learned it not from religion, or political economy, or great literature, but from superhero comics.

And, to be fair to DC Comics, which I read less frequently, they contained material that affected me as well. If, as a critic, I have been obsessed with shadow doubles, and with the nightmare self that is both threat and parody, it perhaps has something to do with Superman's freakish antagonist/ other self Bizarro, or with the hideous Man Bat that Batman fought and conquered, yet whose hideous wings were capable of skyborn flight where Batman could only ever swing or glide.

There is poetry in this material, both in the ideas and in the drawn images that embody those ideas. I used to own an issue of Daredevil in which for page after page, the blind acrobat lawyer simply traversed rooftops and swung between skyscrapers, in total silence, without speech bubbles, thought bubbles or sound effects. It has stayed in my head as an image of pure atheleticism and joy, as blissful as a Mozart rondo. Gene Colan was the artist, for this as for much else that I loved in the late sixties and early seventies.

Back then, if you liked comics, you liked superheroes, because they were most of what there was. There were still aviators, but I thought that the Blackhawks were big bores, And there were mystic adventurers like Dr. Strange, but he so clearly lived in the same world as Spiderman and the Hulk that it was no surprise when he started teaming up with, or advising, Marvel's actual superheroes. And his mystic powers were rather close to being superpowers anyway.

There is a gray area between magic and impossible powers, to put it mildly. The original Green Lantern's ring was magic, and the later ones were given their rings by an intergalactic agency, the Guardians of the Universe. (The original Green Lantern's magic ring was later explained away as indirectly deriving from the same technology, which involves magic as well as science, conveniently). In both cases, they acted as a focus for will, and, as we all know, magic is a technology of will, and any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.

Comics helped teach me to play with paradox, and with the complex and double-natured; they are one of the reasons why I enjoy the post-modern condition without needing to dignify it with elaborate structures of theory. If my work is 'theory-anorexic' as has been claimed, comics are partly to blame, or thank.

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