An Archaeology of Affect: What I Learned About Gender from Defenders #53

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2006 at 2:17 am

In retrospect, it’s clear that the cover image of Defenders #53 (November 1977) was responsible for the my purchase of Avengers #176 (October 1978)—or at least that my attraction to both of these comics stemmed from some common impulse. What was this impulse, I wonder? Why these two comics in particular? What were they to me back then? Why was I drawn to them? And what makes them feel so much like enchanted objects—Spell Books or Arcana—even now?

I should begin by noting that cover compositions like these were something of an obsession for me in 1977—the year I turned five. My fascination with images of gigantic, crackling, energy beings and cowering heroes likely originated with the similarly constructed cover for Fantastic Four #184 (July 1977), on which the Eliminator towers menacingly over the helpless FF. I had acquired this mysterious and thrilling item a few months earlier and had been reading and rereading it with quiet intensity ever since—with a little help from my mom and dad!

Together, these three covers form a sort of triptych of my early unconscious: Fantastic Four #184 is the central panel, flanked by Defenders #53 on the left and Avengers #176 on the right. What was it about this design in particular that made my hand reach out so instinctively and so decisively, again and again?

One possible answer to this question suggests itself when I look at the two most similar of those three covers: Defenders #53 and Avengers #176. They are similar in the way that mirror images are similar—which is to say inverted or complementary: the first cover features the explosive figure of a woman (the Red Guardian), the second, the explosive figure of a man (Korvac, a.k.a “The Enemy”). This relationship of “inverted” similarity is reinforced by the comics’ titles, which are not only complementary (Defenders/Avengers) but have gender connotations that seem actually embodied by the female/male images on these particular covers. By some happy cosmic accident, these absolutely symmetrical covers were published only a year apart, at a time when I was young enough to feel that comics were like signals from the stars, profound messages from a distant planet or from beneath the crust of this one, artifacts, alien or ancient, intended exclusively for me. The messages contained in these artifacts had to do with difference—gender difference in particular—and as I was to discover, these messages were not confined to the covers, but inhered in the conceptual symmetry of the Defenders and Avengers teams themselves.

Once I discovered the Avengers, I was surprised to learn that the Defenders (in both concept and name) was “secondary,” a “sister” book to the former. As I later understood more explicitly, it was the “non-team” to the fully sanctioned, “official,” archetypal Marvel team. (De Beauvoir’s critique of woman as “other” in The Second Sex is perhaps not a frivolous touchstone for the distinctions I was beginning to make). That this difference was reflected through the implied gendering of the teams’ names—the more aggressively reactive, stereotypically masculine Avengers to the more passive, stereotypically feminine Defenders—was not lost on me. (This relation of original and repetition, Adam and Eve, was perhaps suggested as well by the large difference in the two series’ numeration—only at #53, The Defenders had obviously come along quite a bit later.)

What I saw in these two covers, then—what steered my hand to pluck them from the random assortment of other comics on the newsstand—were potent archetypes of male and female embodiment: what seemed, at the time, to be boiled down essences of gender difference—indeed, essences that still boiled in a cosmic soup of Kirby dots. These images became emblematic of these two Marvel series; these series, in turn, became the bearers of a kind of inarticulate affect—a feeling about gender difference—that stayed with me throughout childhood and even beyond. It was here, on the covers of Avengers #176 and Defenders #53 that I mapped most powerfully my early (and, at first, woefully simple) ideas about what it meant to be a boy or a girl. Korvac was my Adam, the Red Guardian my Eve. With the evocative precision of Tarot cards, these covers etched themselves deep into memory as icons of Emperor and Empress.

That the framing of gender in the titles and images of these two covers furnished a rather sexist model of difference (in that it saw the female half as secondary and passive) goes without saying. I’ll come back to this point in due course. There are complications coming that happily change the dynamics of this dubiously “symmetrical” or “complementary” dichotomy quite drastically. I have already written at length about Avengers #176 in a different but (as we shall see) not unrelated context, so I will focus instead on how the initially normative messages about gender difference were scrambled over the course of reading Defenders #53. What did it feel like to “read” this comic at the age of five? Why did it stick with me? And how do the strange power of this comic’s main and back-up stories help to subvert the normative messages about gender that I derived from the juxtaposition of the two titles and covers?

Atlantis: A Diagram of My Unconscious

At the same time that the cover of Defenders #53 was impressing some rather powerful images on my mind, the content of its main story—Part 1 of “The Power Principle,” entitled, “The Prince and the Presence”—was blowing it to smithereens. I mean…Jesus. What on earth was going on in Defenders #53?

I have already described the fantastic attraction that incomprehensible narratives held (and still hold) for me in my discussion of Avengers #176. But the twists and turns of that later comic cannot hold a candle to the bizarre, disjointed content of David Anthony Craft, Keith Giffen, Mike Golden, and Terry Austin’s wild, surrealist canoodling. I know that I can’t help but look at it through the veil of the very affect I am trying to describe here, but even so, this book still strikes me as a thing of unusual beauty and strangeness. Far more than Avengers #176, it was utterly incoherent to my five-year-old eyes—actually impossible to follow.

Giffen’s twelve panel layout for page 2, for instance, despite the establishing shot of the interior of Namor’s ship on the splash page, was completely mysterious to me. Nothing seemed to connect, partly because a number of the panels had no backgrounds, but mostly because Giffen’s jerky panel jumps favored what Scott McCloud later called “subject-to-subject” and “scene-to-scene” transitions that required considerable comic book literacy to follow, and which I experienced as pure non-sequiturs (Understanding Comics 71-72). (The panel in which Namor imagines Atlantis blowing up was particularly confusing.) Matters were not helped by Kraft’s delightfully overheated script, which was incomprehensible to a five-year-old in its own right, and it certainly didn’t help that none of the characters aboard the sub-sea vessel ever carried on a conversation. Each character, like each panel, seemed isolated from the rest: Namor, Hulk, Nighthawk, and Hellcat (not to mention the curiously garbed Atlanteans) all marooned and speaking in monologue. The only character who said anything comprehensible was Hellcat, yet her exclamation, “Cheese and crackers!” was itself puzzling. At five, Hellcat’s swingin’ idiom was lost on yours truly, and made about as much sense as everything else I was looking at. (But oh, how I loved panels 11 and 12, where the Atlantean pilot with the absurdly distended finger points at something—me?—and Patsy shouts her enigmatic message. Was it a warning? A command? I loved cheese and crackers too!)

Giffen’s trippy layouts were, moreover, difficult to read. Quite unexpectedly the protocols of reading would suddenly shift as they do on page 15 where, without announcement, I was now being asked to read vertically, rather than from left to right. I couldn’t quite make the leap (nor I suspect, could my parents, on those occasions where they were good enough to read to me). The shift from hand-lettering to typeface on that page was also unnerving. My comic wasn’t behaving like a comic anymore.

These kinds of sudden formal or stylistic shifts and narrative surprises also furnished one of the greatest of all my comic book mysteries: was page 17 part of the comic book story or not? For literally years, the answer seemed to me to be “no.” It contained no superheroes, and did not appear to be connected either to the page that came before or to the page the came after—even the comic book captions at the top and bottom of the page seemed relatively self-contained. Indeed, with its mock-up of a newspaper report with the headline, “KILLER QUAKE JOLTS EUROPE” and a real European map, I thought it might be some sort of educational supplement. It certainly looked serious—as if some adult was trying to fool me into learning something by making it look like a comic book. But I was too clever for that: I could see that it was just boring. Still…I wondered. It wasn’t until I became a much better reader that I was able to piece together enough evidence to discover my error and reintegrate this stray object into the narrative line of the story. Until that time, it just sat there, worrisomely, like an undigested lump.

What I read in the fractured form of Defenders #53, I think, was a free space of almost but not quite random association—what the unconscious might look like if it were possible to represent: an open yet paradoxically claustrophobic plane, swept by strange conjunctions, ruptures, violence, abrupt breaks and changes in direction, a rush of electrifying non sequiturs. Above all: affect, but not meaning. “Cheese and crackers!”

The art style—Kirbyeqsue strangeness with the Perez-like polish of Terry Austin inks—reinforced this narrative experience of uncanny disjunction and diffused pleasure. In other words: bold and weird, but delicate and dreamlike too. And of course, the story is set in Namor’s kingdom—Atlantis. The Hulk must wear a “fish bowl” over his head to breathe down there, as we all do. A dreamscape, in other words. Underwater.

Two images haunted me. That they are splash pages that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with what came immediately before or after was no doubt a significant factor in their hold on me, but the images themselves are unquestionably arresting.

Page 3: Sub-Mariner’s Imperial Vessel. For a child, this is a profound piece of science fiction art, a true alien artifact. Patsy’s exclamation is ostensibly a reaction to seeing Atlantis, but the transition from her panel to the full splash on the next page makes it seem as if she is exclaiming at the astonishing vision of the docked ship from which she has, in fact, just disembarked. And what a vision. That bizarre, golden ship of Namor’s that could just as easily be a helmet or a piece of architecture, or a sentient thing. To me it was a wonder of the world, like the Sphinx or the Pyramids, or Stonehenge. Only much later, would that mad philosopher duo, Deleuze and Guattari, give me the vocabulary to finally name it: desiring-machine. This is what the unconscious looks like.

And this:

The final frame of the story, following immediately upon the enigmatic fake news story of page 17. My god, did this image frighten and fascinate me. “The Presence!” What was it? A robot? A person? An alien? Was there a fire burning in its chest like a furnace? And all that power. Power pouring out of him and into him—or was it her? Despite the obvious phallic symbolism, there was something unnervingly androgynous about this transvestite Being called simply, “The Presence.” All that could be said with certainty was that it was evil. An evil, punishing, nebulous presence that, as David Anthony Kraft inimitably put it, was born at “the heart of the nuclear holocaust…deep underground in this fiery core of sheer cataclysmic chaos.” Evil underground. A strange father. “Presence born of power.” Demon of my unconscious. What else? Superego.

To a five-year-old, the shocks engineered by Kraft, Giffen, Golden, and Austin in Defenders #53 were identical in kind, if not in degree, to the shocks that Max Ernst gave the moderns with his disturbing surrealist collage books like Une Semaine de Bonté or La Femme 100 Têtes. And the techniques of these two media (unsettling juxtapositions and hybrid but eerily familiar monstrosities assembled from popular and advertising illustrations) might not in the end be all that radically different either. In this issue, at least, Kraft, Giffen, Golden, and Austin became pop inheritors of Ernst’s surrealist mantle, bringing the mad disarray of the unconscious into representation to terrify, bewilder, and seduce.

To what end? Hard to say. To me, it was a field of possibilities. A beautiful/frightening place. A place I recognized. Where things come apart…

And what was coming apart in particular? Looking back over the main story of Defenders #53 now, it is remarkable how dramatically it thematizes the breakdown of traditional gender roles.

When the Sub-Mariner officiously brings the antique Atlantean banquet (featuring female “acrobats” and “serving girls”) to a halt, clearing the Council Chambers to converse with the Defenders and the Council in private, “all his subjects…file from the vast chamber, all the performers…and all the women. All the women, that is, with the exception of the happy-go-lucky Hellcat!”—whose reply to the greasy eyeball she gets from the patriarchal Atlantean Council is an eloquent and succinct, “Er…gee! Don’t look at me, fellas. I’m just one of the gang!”

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Clea and Val (later called a “dumb broad” and a “pushy feminist” by disgruntled subway-goers) have a (nearly) consciousness-raising coffee klatch that makes the theme of Hellcat’s wry recalcitrance explicit. While Val contemplates a return to university, she and Clea ruminate on the subject of male caprice. Val puzzles over Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond’s sudden, unexplained disappearance, which has left her worried for the Defenders and Clea expresses her feelings about her secondary role in the life of Stephen Strange: “The uncertainty is something you must become accustomed to, Val. Stephen is also often absent without explanation, such as now. I have learned to live with it—though I do not like it!” Clea’s eye glints menacingly at this conspiratorial admission, and in a hilarious outburst, she commands the dishes to magically “BEGONE!”—an absurd domestication of her power whose “abruptness” and hostility are clearly directed at Stephen himself.

As the heroines of Defenders #53 feel their way through the growing pains of second-wave feminism and struggle to assert their own authority, it is the villain of the issue that reaffirms the most regressive and old fashioned notions of female dependence. Sergei—“The Presence”—appears to have hypnotized the Red Guardian, for she speaks haltingly and faintly of her desire to serve him in the most conventionally gendered terms imaginable: “Never have I known…such sensitivity in a man…my beloved. You are a poet, Sergei…and soon all the world shall be yours to…reshape…I am…proud…to have been selected as your…consort.” Indeed! And the climactic scene of nuclear transmogrification in which “The Presence” appears to absorb not just her energy but her very person dramatically confirms the threat this old-world patriarch poses to an incipient feminist consciousness.

Clea: Defender/Avenger

If the main story of Defenders #53 was a freaky, sometimes disturbing head-trip through Atlantis (that mythical and chaotic sunken island that dwells in all of us, submerged beneath consciousness), it also contained a partial subversion of the message about gender that I read in the cover. At first, the back-up story by Naomi Basner, Sandy Plunkett, and Tony Salmons entitled “Clea, The Mystic Maiden!” seemed to provide a regressive contrast to these developments. It seemed to mark a return both to reassuringly comprehensible storytelling and to the sexist theme of the cover image in which the radioactive Red Guardian served as archetypal “female” Defender. Like the cover, the back-up story seemed to give us a direct, immediately graspable feminine stereotype. Clea: Dr. Strange’s girlfriend, a Marvel “maiden” defined immediately by her body and by her secondary status, and in a “back-up” story no less! In the opening panel of the story she wears an open trench coat with peek-a-boo indifference, half-heartedly covering her sexy magician’s leotard, seemingly eager to shed its encumbrance, which she does, hastily, in panel two. Moreover, at the same time that we seem to have moved back into a recognizable representation of gender difference, the fractured narrative style of the main story is replaced by lovely realistic art and smoother “action-to-action” progressions (McCloud, Understanding Comics 70) that restore its legibility at the level of form.

Significantly, though, this story was inextricably connected to the weird disarray of the main story for me because it seemed anchored in the only half-comprehensible part of that tale: the brief subplot involving Valkyrie visiting Clea at Doctor Strange’s pad, back in Greenwich Village, and then taking the subway uptown to enroll in University classes that I described earlier. (How I mooned over that picture of white-haired Clea gripping the silver coffee pot in a pink mind ray or that off-kilter panel where here eye flashes enigmatically, perhaps dangerously, at Val!).

Legible, yet anchored in mystery—indeed, passing through the latter—this story acted as a critical gloss on the transfixing cover image, deepening and complicating its vision of archetypal womanhood through a naughty and prurient, but nonetheless proto-feminist, rape-and-revenge tale.

In the first three pages of this five-page story, Clea oscillates between capable (self-) Defender and hapless damsel in distress. First, she is attacked by a would be-mugger who threatens first to “cut” and then to “plug” her. Then, effortlessly and gracefully, Clea dispatches her attacker. But she does not realize that he is actually a rival of Dr. Strange’s in disguise who has lulled the Doctor’s girlfriend into overconfidence in order to surprise her, kidnap her, and steal her powers. (A repetition of the Sergei-Red Guardian motif in the main story.) The subtext of rape in the action that ensues is not subtle. There is a suggestively shaped power-stealing machine that zaps Clea with a deadly, power-sapping ray, and just in case we didn’t get the double-entendres of the first four pages, Nicodemus, the sorcerous, pony-tailed villain of the piece, makes the threat explicit on the final page with the promise of “much more pleasant” forms of servitude for our heroine.

Yet, in the end, the story is of the “biter bitten” variety as a now “powerless” Clea turns the tables on her attacker who has ironically lulled himself into fatal overconfidence. Just as he is about to show Clea what her “much more pleasant” function might be, she clobbers him, appropriately, with a small statue of two fighting gladiators. True, the story does end with Clea phoning Stephen to mop up, but the point of the tale—written by Naomi Basner—is obviously to show that Clea is a Mystic Maiden in no need of male rescue. She begins as a “feminine” Defender, but ends as a feminist Avenger.

Deconstruction for Five-Year-Olds: When Team Books Make Gender Difference, er…Dissassemble

Taken as a whole—cover, main story, and back-up—what has happened in this comic?

Well, for one thing, the childish contrast between “man” and “woman” implied by those Avengers and Defenders covers has gotten a lot more complicated. Somehow, in its passage through the chaotic flux of the main story, the cover image of a “female” Defender was (to borrow an Avengers term) “disassembled,” to be recomposed in a back-up story that sprouts from one of its very own subplots into a very different image of femininity: capable, resourceful, and avenging.

In fact, if we look closely, this was the intrinsic message of the cover’s representation of frighteningly “empowered” femininity all along, but with one very significant difference: the cover codes this empowerment as evil and dangerous, the equivalent of an atomic blast. In other words, the cover-image of Defenders #53 has at least two meanings, both of which confirm the adage that what superhero comics really “defend” is an embattled and regressive fantasy of male power. When read in conjunction with the crackling silhouette of Korvac on the cover of Avengers #176, the Red Guardian seems initially to embody the “femininized” secondary status of the Defenders themselves relative to the Avengers’ “masculine” norm (this was my personal experience of the cover). But even when taken in context, the raging Red Guardian is a villain precisely because she is “maculinized” and powerful. Thus, to the extent that we recognize her as a “powerful woman,” the cover also demands that we recognize her as monstrous and unlawful—an anti-feminist message if ever there was one. It is in this context that Clea’s transformation from “defender” to “avenger” (her claiming of the prerogative of “masculine” agency, even when she seems most conventionally “feminine”) is so thrilling. By the end of this comic female power has been recoded: the role of “powerful female” has passed from turncoat or villainess (Red Guardian) to heroine (Clea). The fact that this recoding is accomplished most decisively in a back-up story written by a woman is itself an exciting detail—as if the important changes are all happening in the margins, margins that end up (by virtue of the “back-up” story’s placement after the “main” tale) becoming conclusions, and thus unexpectedly usurp the priority of the “original” narrative out of which they spring, or beside which they appear merely parasitic. “Clea: The Mystic Maiden!” seemed to play the role of “Adam’s rib” to the Adamic main story—literally emerging from a subplot in the latter—only to reveal itself as an Avenging, agential Lilith.

How perfect, then, that the comic’s boy-attracting cover anxiously announces: “Now the Red Guardian Reborn! Will it be as Friend or Foe?” Such a hesitation in a story called “The Power Principle” whose cover implies the rebirth of an empowered female archetype, toys deliciously with male anxieties about the changing nature of female gender roles in the 1970s, when “the power principle” in relation to women was as much a political slogan as the title of a superhero story. In the context of the argument I have been developing here, the cover’s question—“Friend or Foe?”—lends this image precisely the ambivalence that pervades this entire issue’s treatment of gender.

I was born in the early 1970s, so my ideas about gender were being shaped by these profound and welcome changes as the decade drew to a close. Moreover, the disassembly and “rebirth” of the female archetype that I have been tracing in Defenders #53 was not without visible consequences for my understanding of the fluidity and contingency of masculinity as well. Broadcasting the story’s ironic twist, Clea knocks out her lascivious captor, announcing: “Positions have a tendency to reverse themselves Nicodemus!” And indeed they do—much more profoundly, even, than Clea realizes. Just as “defenceless” Clea borrows the stereotypically “male” power to avenge her own assault and reorganize the image of woman as either secondary and weak or powerful and monstrous, so Nicodemus embodies a suggestively effete version of masculine aggression. (He wears a fin-collared pirate shirt for heaven’s sake!) Significantly too, his very plan to steal Clea’s power already seems to hint at a patriarchal anxiety about powerful women that could only stem from uncertainty about the power of his own masculine prowess. Is the villainous (and impotent) Nicodemus perhaps Naomi Basner’s satiric comment on the crisis in the normative codes of masculinity that I’ve been describing?

What would it look like, I wonder, to imagine a new narrative of masculinity, a narrative that was the equivalent to the new narratives of femininity represented by Clea and (in inverted fashion) by the Red Guardian? Do we catch glimpses of such a narrative in elvish-eared Namor, Monarch of the Atlantean Unconscious, master of that most changeable element, the ocean? In “feminized” Batman knock-off Nighthawk, perhaps? Even the normally rampaging Hulk is subdued here, domesticated by his “fishbowl” helmet! Perhaps such a reimagining of gender inheres in the male superhero himself—in the changeability of his identity signified by (frequent changes to) his costume and the radical freedom of movement he enjoys. Are these power fantasies, or are they diagrams? Maybe both. Partly, at least, they are diagrams for some other way of being. Diagrams that bind themselves to consciousness before we’re fully formed, adhering with a bonding agent that is stronger than crazy-glue: the magnet of affect, pleasure, powerful emotion.

For me, at least, conventional gender roles and distinctions were fraying in the turbulent undersea space of Atlantis. And in that non-space of possibility and juxtaposition, their coming undone was a precursor to their rearrangement and reinvention. But there is also a more general dimension to this deconstructive “disassembly” of gender norms that I’ve been describing, and this has to do with team books as genre, and their potential to distribute our processes of identification in surprising and complex ways. Is there a boy alive who has read Uncanny X-Men #168 (“Professor Xavier is a Jerk!”) and not felt, in the deepest core of their being: Kitty Pryde, c’est moi? (Don’t bother denying it, no one will believe you.) The beautiful thing about the Avengers and the Defenders is that, despite the very conventional gendering of these teams (initially projected for me by their cover images), the presence of powerful, appealing male and female characters on both teams made each book a gateway to intensive and contradictory forms of gender identification on the part of the (in this case) male reader. (This is no less true of the “masculine”-coded Avengers than of the “feminine”-coded Defenders. The mutant X-Men, of course, will go a step further, making this complexity of identification into a badge of honour.) In the issue in question, the availability of weird multiple points of identification was further helped by the surreal, disjointed quality of Kraft and Giffen’s narrative, which thrusts us back into the chaotic, fractured world of drives that precedes the assumption of a gender identity. Truth be told, if I “identified” with any character in Defenders #53 at the age of five, it was Patsy “Cheese and Crackers” Walker—Hellcat. Or Clea, the proto-feminist “mystic maiden” herself. As an adult reading this book, it’s all about Val, the would-be scholar. The sequence detailing her claustrophobia on the crowded subway is like a poem. And then there’s Nighthawk, prototype of the male hysteric: grumbling, introverted, and anxious. My twin!

Why Team Books Matter: Some Tentative Conclusions

Did I pick up on the nuances of gender role “disassembly” at the tender age of five? It’s hard to say “yes,” but it’s even harder to say “no.” It would be almost impossible, I think, to overestimate the power of our formative texts. Of course we don’t fully understand their contents at the time, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t cut paths or grooves in the unconscious into which meanings will later pool. That is to say, these stories and images structure our ways of categorizing and seeing what is most basic and fundamental to us, and we don’t necessarily need to understand these structures consciously at the time to feel their effects later. I’m not claiming that these structures automatically produce subversive effects in every reader. Clearly, they don’t. Nor am I claiming that they are a necessary (much less a sufficient) cause for challenging normative binary oppositions of whatever sort. Nonetheless, it does seem that for some of us, such primary experiences of intuitive deconstruction create complex templates or diagrams that make us more prone to question the cultural scripts we are given.

Do all comics have at least the potential to produce this degree of deconstructive complexity? Perhaps. Though even those great Marvel comics of the 70s can be just as guilty of “assembling” and reinforcing normative codes of identity as “disassembling” and reconstituting them. But as I argued in the epic debate with Marc Singer, the mixed messages of pop culture forms are at least as much an opportunity as a liability because the contradictory, double-voiced messages of superhero books make them potential points of intervention into the normative cultural scripts they both echo and distort. Like Defenders #53, the best comics dangle the bait of normative pleasures before us, only to ensnare us; then they spring the trap: cultural scripts, Disassemble! (Gorjus, of Pretty Fakes, aptly dubs this phenomenon of trash culture that “trick[s] as many people as possible into self-reflection” trick candy.)

My own case offers at least an anecdotal confirmation of these claims. As anyone who knows me can attest, the normative set of masculine gender identifications can hardly be said to have taken. An ongoing aspect of the debate between myself and Marc Singer has been whether or not mainstream comics could be said to have genuinely “political” (or subversive) effects. Speaking only from my own experience—the archaeology of narcissism I’ve been wallowing in here—I would say that they can have such an effect, especially at the formative level of affect and identification. To be cute: the effect is in the affect. The question then becomes whether or not our psychoanalytic “objects” and identifications are properly “political.” It depends how you define that vexing word, politics. I think they are. Especially when you consider the profound (and sometimes profoundly disturbing) degree to which desire and affect appear to shape and even largely determine what we commonly refer to as the “political sphere.”

To put it slightly different terms: a friend of mine recently worried that her three-year-old son was becoming too preoccupied with superhero violence (I foisted my DVD of 1960s Spider-Man cartoons on them) and that he identified excessively with Batman (indeed, insists on being addressed as “Batman”!). But then she said that she and her husband were reassured by the fact that most of the comic-reading men they knew were anything but the thuggish rednecks a mother might worry about her impressionable young superhero growing into. (I believe “gentle” is the euphemism she used to characterize the comic-reading guys of her acquaintance.) And so, only the old chicken-and-egg question remains: does our choice of objects reveal who we “are” already? Even at age 5? Do we disclose our identities by the comics we read? Or do the comics we read actually change who we become? And do superhero comics provide an unusually fertile ground for broadening the possibilities of what it is possible to imagine becoming? If the answer to these latter questions is a self-congratulatory “yes,” then we will have to stop believing that superhero comics are just the male power fantasies for which they are popularly mistaken.


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