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MY FASCISM PROBLEM…
(With no apologies whatsoever to that fucking Norman Podhoretz.)
I’ve told the story frequently, if not incessantly, of how I was introduced to comic books in the summer of 1955—coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the year that the Comics Code Authority infantilized American comic books.
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Two older cousins of mine had been ordered by their mother to get rid of their comics, and they gave them to me, enough to half fill a cardboard box, a refrigerator’s packing crate. You could smell the mildew of that paper in that humid Staten Island August.
Every genre was represented, and I dug them all, except for horror, a narrative form that continues to hold no appeal for me to this day. Yes, westerns, science fiction, teenage stuff, crime, funny animals…but after all is said and done, it was the super stuff that stuck.
And noting the date, that meant SUPERMAN, BATMAN, and WONDER WOMAN. The Trinity, the Rosetta Stone(s), the foundation from which all the super stuff that followed their creation derived, for me and my historically ignorant contemporaries, at any rate.
It was from these comics that I learned to read, and damned quickly too. I’ve also mentioned more than once that my parents never made the connection between my avid interest in comics with my continually advanced reading level, regarding me with no little trepidation as some sort of genetic anomaly, I kid you not. Fucking idiots. Suffice it to say that comics were the center of my shitty little universe, my ever present, and ultimately my future.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That preadolescent kid loved Batman for its nuttiness—remember, those 1950s stories were just bug fuck, no real ideas, per se, but desperate, throw shit at the wall wackiness to keep this stuff in print and on the stands.
I dug Wonder Woman, as well, for similar reasons. The Kanigher scripts, in adult retrospect, come off as if they were written on cocktail napkins during a four martini lunch. And to be completely honest, there was something discomfiting to my preadolescent eyes in the way Wonder Woman looked so damned swell in her Wonder shorts.
Yes, yes, the infamous male gaze. We’ll get back to that in a bit. Maybe. Probably.
All this notwithstanding, it was Superman that was the center of my universe. There was something austere, something avuncular, something magisterial, and most significantly something authoritative about the character, particularly as drawn by Wayne Boring, whose stolid work personified the character in the 1950 as much as Dick Sprang’s BATMAN stuff, or the Ross Andru and Mike Esposito collaboration on the WONDER WOMAN books.
I remember weeping—no shit, seriously weeping, tears, caught breath, the whole megillah, for fuck’s sake—as I read KRYPTON LIVES ON!, (A 3 PART NOVEL, and an IMAGINARY STORY!!) by Boring and Jerry Siegel, the latter of whom I didn’t know at the time had brought all this on us, sitting on my stoop in Brownsville.
Brooklyn, not Texas, for the geographically challenged or dazed among you. At least one colleague of mine was confused by this. Again, I kid you not.
Ultimately, I outgrew Mort Weisinger’s bullshit and sought out other nonsense. I moved on to Julie Schwartz’ revival of the Golden Age super characters of which I had only the vaguest awareness until, of course that Carmine Infantino cover featuring two versions of the same hero. I was now old enough to engage in the all too familiar fanboy partisanship, throwing around the usual overblown overpraise of “best!” when what was really going on, of course, was “favorite.”
A few years later I became an obsessive MARVEL COMICS fan within a month or two of the publication of AMAZING FANTASY #15. I rushed my cash and coupon to get my MMMS membership, and I got a No Prize, too. I was, to be abundantly clear, all in—as banal and bullet point/checklist a fucking fanboy of the first degree as could be found anywhere.
In retrospect, maybe “introduced” isn’t quite the most appropriate descriptor for my experience with that refrigerator packing crate. Inoculated, maybe—infected, even.
I was, like many of us who were and perhaps are hooked on comics, overweight, asocial, inarticulate and terrified. I had a half dozen friends who fit this APB description, but they all outgrew comics and moved on to more reality-based life experiences. I wonder, every now and then, what they’re up to…
Me, I deluded myself to believe that somehow, some way, I could find work in the comic book field, and maintained this foolishness until my delusion somehow came true, through a delightful and spirited mélange of hunger and inchoate rage.
Really. That’s what it took.
All this is to say that super comics were my gateway drug, and, in a life of multiple addictions, those super comics were my first obsession. And, like so many in recovery, I’ve become both a now and then supplier of the substance in question and an occasional counselor in regard to its abuse.
And permit me to make it perfectly clear. It was the medium, of course. I loved the language, the syntax, the visual graphic vocabulary of comics, the gestalt relationship between text and image. But not to flatter myself, it would be decades before I understood the existence and meaning of this encoding, and could articulate its value beyond an instinctual acceptance of something happening here that held my undivided attention like nothing else out there could.
But far more significantly, for that now adolescent, soon to be teenaged kid, it was the message, and the message was, as anyone paying attention, or for that matter anyone with an ounce of self-awareness and a dose of honesty, was all about adolescent power fantasies, accent on the adolescent, and powerlessness in the search for power…
…Which, in the hindsight of my declining years, I can identify as an embrace, an acceptance of more than one aspect of a fascist aesthetic, if not fascism itself. Violent response to problems. Vigilantism as a solution. Self-righteous justification for narcissistic assumptions of right and righteousness. And costumes—masks, cloaks, emblemology—as symbology. Not to mention, I hesitate to say, that male gaze thing.
In sum, super comics made fascism sexy.
And I hadn’t even heard of Leni Riefenstahl yet.
And, just as all of today’s enthusiasts watch the same IP driven television shows and queue up for the same super science fiction fantasy monster movies—and believe you me, I am under no illusion that if work of such technical excellence had existed for us, we’d have been just as mesmerized and owned out right by this magnificently produced junk—my contemporaries and I all read the same stuff.
Science Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, Sword and Planet, pulp chazerei which maintained embellished, developed and deepened that proto fascist ethos we delighted in as younger kids from the comics that showed us the way.
Rereading this stuff as an adult, I’m struck, but hardly surprised, by the level of might makes right bullshit woven into these narratives. I’m reminded of Robert Heinlein, author of so many books of my formative years, most explicitly in this case STARSHIP TROOPERS, as far as I know still the only science fiction novel on the required reading list at West Point, and who, in another novel said, explicitly, that “…A well-armed society is a polite society.”
Sure. Whatever you say, Bob. Sure.
Norman Spinrad’s THE IRON DREAM, the covert cover title for his sly pastiche of a counterfactual Adolf Hitler’s greatest Sword and Sorcery novel, THE LORD OF THE SWASTIKA, laid it all out, explicitly remaking an implicit subtext contextually as plain as day.
Then, of course, as irony was leached from the culture, George Lucas captivated audiences at the end of what has turned out to be the first scripture, the Old Testament, of today’s most popular secular religion by borrowing from the above-mentioned Leni Riefenstahl, minus, of course, the eroticism—apparently there’s nothing prissier out there than the chastity of a galaxy far, far away—but with plenty of that brutalist adolescent power fantasy stuff intact.
So, so much of my boyhood was an embrace of a not so subtle friendly fascism, without the education, awareness, or experience to identify it as such. All that “Truth, Justice and the American Way” struck me, and I have to say us, as no more than simple common sense.
It might be worth noting here that I devoured and loved this super stuff uncritically, despite my simultaneous embrace of the left wing democratic socialist popular front culture of my family, which contradicts the super stuff point by point. Go figure.
I’d love to congratulate myself for outgrowing my love for this stuff on the basis of, you know, outgrowing it, a sign of early incipient maturity, but I have the queasy suspicion that my growing uninterest in the work, besides and certainly resulting from that maturity, was also an extension, a direct result of my inability to do such work, let alone do such work well.
And just to backtrack a bit, the first comic book I ever stole—I did, as you might have noticed, identify my interest in comic books as an addiction, and an addict will do anything to get that fix—was BLACKHAWK, which, certainly to a visual extent, was the most overtly, graphically and explicitly fascistic comic book, certainly in its visual presentation, ever. I mean, the Blackhawks quite literally wore SS uniforms, for fuck’s sake.
This came to mind in my late thirties, when, at a comic book convention in Barcelona, a city in a country all too recently familiar with fascism in, you know, day to day real life, Will Eisner, the man who created Blackhawk, casually, as if it were just a given, so blatantly obvious a fact as to make contradiction pointless, called me a fascist.
It became abundantly clear that this tossed off accusation was based solely on the covers of a comic book I had done a few years previously, a book that, of course, the grand old man of comics had never actually read, but in his capacity as grand old man/foxy grandpa/beloved figure, felt empowered and entitled to express an opinion about something of which he knew, in a technical sense, jack shit.
Of course, on the basis of those covers, of the costume and presentation, he had a point, just as anyone who might have accused him of precisely the same thing based on the covers of Blackhawk. His defense of course, back in the midst of the Second World War, would have likely been that he was, in that case, being ironic, of course.
And, of course, his narcissism, which acted itself out in frequently undisguised contempt for his colleagues and a benignly bemused and only marginally concealed disdain for the audience, which that audience mistook for avuncular affection—see also in this regard Lee, Stan—made it impossible for him to identify such a grasp of irony, let alone a professional application of that irony, by anyone who wasn’t Will Eisner.
And of course, we have to give the old boy the benefit of the doubt for all that persistent irony in regard to fascism, which must have been in play as well in his several decades of well-paid work for the United States Army.
A few years later, at a show in Brazil, when he went after me again, Jules Feiffer, no stranger to Will Eisner, nor to narcissism himself for that matter, pulled me aside and whispered, “Relax—he’ll be dead soon.“
Not soon enough, as it turned out. But good things do come to those who wait.
I mention Feiffer because that very evening, in an address to the conventioneers, he made two points that I now assume were part of his playbook, but here I was, hearing them for the first time. First, that, and I paraphrase, he noted that Superman didn’t come from planet Krypton, but rather from planet Poland.
Not to patronize, but for those of you unfamiliar with the origins of all these super things, the majority of those responsible for this material were teenagers, first- and second-generation children of Jewish immigrants who’d gotten out of Fortress Europa while the getting was still good, who used the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant patriarchal imagery of the super stuff as a beard to conceal their own justifiably terrified Yiddishkeit.
Second, and to my mind at least as salient, is Feiffer’s dismissal of the “…Justice…” thing. He said the mission of these costumed adventurers had nothing whatsoever to do with Justice. Rather, it was about Order—an order desperately imposed on a world spinning out of control, the events of the day contributing to the terror in those Jewish kids’ waking nightmares.
Consider then, the bleak comedy of these profoundly and blithely fascistic costumed ubermensch vigilantes being created and churned out by kids whose relatives were being murdered by the millions overseas at the feckless and blood-soaked hands of the real thing.
The excuse, of course, is that comics then were intended for an audience not much younger than the talent pool that delivered the content. And, of course, this stuff, of so vastly varying quality as to stun anyone with a critical overview, was never intended to be any more a realistic portrayal of life as it is lived than, say, slapstick comedy or stag reels.
Today, what was implicit in those early crudities—narrative that was, after all is said and done, about liberal ends achieved by fascist means—is now explicit. And there’s a culture war being fought over this material that, to be perfectly honest, might very well seem asinine and ridiculous to anyone without a history and relationship with actual comics, as opposed to the billion-dollar IP product derived from this flea on the wagging tail of a dog.
So just stop right there in mid-sneer and consider all the ancillary product derived from what was once a medium, that has now been remade into and rebranded as a genre for the entertainment of billions, the vast majority of whom, if they think about it all, and trust me, most don’t, are sure Stan Lee was responsible for writing and drawing everything. Civilians, who couldn’t give less of a fuck about our little entertainment ghetto, have made the narrative spine, the writing of comic books, the text, for fuck’s sake, the stuff of their dreams.
Every comic book fan at one point or another has evangelized comics’ value to an uninterested party or two. Now that everybody, despite any evidence to confirm this, presents themselves as a (onetime) geek, or nerd, or any other socially diminishing yet intrinsically self-serving descriptor, the vast majority of those comic book fans remain blithely unaware that they haven’t successfully convinced the uninterested, despite what they perceive as the now universal acceptance of what they once had what has to be identified as rarefied knowledge.
Rather, they’ve been co-opted, by entertainment conglomerates, and the overenthusiastic of the enthusiasts all too often provide free oxygen for the corporate junk they love, or love to hate, in their consistent misidentification of best, when they mean favorite.
And oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, most of the disagreements are in regard, not to the writing per se, but to visual imagery, often motivated by the casting of actors who don’t quite resemble the drawings that captivated these enthusiasts, atrophied in their perspective and their tastes as they all too often are.
They don’t say “The Golden Age of Comics is Twelve” for nothing, pally.
As if this stuff was worthy of such hysteria and controversy, as opposed to the shuddering reality of comic book writing satisfying an audience of billions. Significantly, for the most part, the enthusiasts are just as happy as those millions of civilians with the inane narratives of this super/monster/fantasy stuff.
So, it’s not the graphics, the syntax of visuals, the trope-based imagery of the source material that is translated into the massive aggressive multi-platform super-verse.
Rather, it’s the mix of expository dialogue and massive slugfests, now presentable on an apocalyptic scale, thanks to computer technology at its most spectacular. And, of course, the people who used to sneer at your for reading comics in High School are sitting behind you in the multiplex. Whether this pleases you, or discomfits you, I leave to you and you alone.
I am of the mind, as noted above, that despite the current and apparently permanent writer as Alpha state of being in comic books, that the imagery is, if not all that matters, then pretty damned close to all that matters…with all due respect to comic book writers and those who read comic books for the stories.
Which brings me back, circuitously and yes, digressively, to the above referenced male gaze, a gaze which goes both ways, so to speak.
For all the constant and justifiable indication of the sexualized nature of female super characters, one must acknowledge the link that exists between the heavily muscled male super characters, and those two twentieth century pinnacles of homoerotic beauty, Nazi iconography and Tom of Finland.
Maybe it’s the allegedly nonexistent female gaze that missed the sexualized nature of all those slab muscled supermen in their thoroughly justified resentment of the female super body.
Now wait just one minute, you say—what does all this have to do with fascism? Going back to what I said somewhere above, the draw in comics is, or for fuck’s sake, should be, the imagery. And both sides of this cultural skirmish are committed to the same generic power posing that has been the mainstay of this material for what will sooner than anyone cares to acknowledge be a century…
…Which brings us right back to the adolescent power fantasy nature of the source material—with the complication in this regard provided by an audience for this material that transcends the tiny consumer base of comics by hundreds of millions.
And this, for me, is where it gets a bit scary. For me, at any rate.
A colleague of mine once pointed out that fight scenes in comic books are a visual externalized statement of inner trauma. This seemed fair, and continues to do so. But if we look deeper into those two ideas, it’s worth noting that violence and its depiction has to be acknowledged as an erotic component, if not an outright sexualized element, for those with a fascistic turn of mind.
To my mind, it’s not too much of a stretch to identify fight scenes in comics are all too often in lieu of sex scenes. As noted above, to a certain mindset, fascism, particularly in its self-presentation, can be awfully, occasionally conventionally, and often transgressively, sexy-those shiny outfits, those bulging muscles, that conviction bereft of doubt, self or otherwise…
As I said above, the comics code authority infantilized comics. It also infantilized the readers, driving away anyone interested in subject matter deemed inappropriate by those powers that were. Significantly, those who were driven away returned in the next decade with underground comics. The undergrounds, and their transgressive and anarchic sensibility, are all but vanished now, that sensibility never finding a new generation to continue that chaotic mission.
Independent comics and the like can think they are carrying on in this tradition, but, and you’ll pardon me, nope. This material is, for the most part, intellectual exercises, bereft of the spontaneous lunacy that gave the undergrounds their raison d’etre.
So, mainstream comics now finds itself with a tiny readership of men and women, mostly men, all too many farther from voting age than retirement age, completely satisfied by the actual writing of this sort of material—and a vast audience of mainstream consumers, those multimillions uninterested in comic books, who are equally entertained by the text of such reductive heroes and villains stuff on their big and small screens.
Which is of course, to say, that material which boils down to ostensibly liberal ends achieved by glorified fascist means is now as mass market an entertainment phenomenon as THE BACHELOR and all those fucking REAL HOUSEWIVES OF EAST SHITSBURGH horror fests.
And after all is said and done, the grain of sand in this oyster, the ignition, the inciting incident of the creation of this wildly successful selling of the fascist aesthetic as mass entertainment, can be traced to two comic books that also appeared in the nineteen eighties, to universal critical and commercial acclaim. Both of these, to a profound extent, addressed the very idea of fascism in a far more specific way than I had, or frankly would, with different approaches and sensibilities, but similar results.
The first was a perfect example of a perfect storm of a mindset mutually shared by talent and audience. There seemed to be a pivot point at which the zeitgeist of comic book enthusiasm seemed to indicate it wanted something more, whatever more might be or mean, but, if not specifically then subtextually, in familiar trappings, with familiar tropes.
The result was a visual screed, a comic book that flattered its audience and its presumption of seriousness in regard to the rescue and transliteration of material from goofiness to gravitas. This production made assets of its liabilities, and was an occasionally arresting, occasionally incoherent reinvention of one of the trinity, a comic book that was the medium’s resonant equivalent of that brilliant remark of Irving Kristol—the one-time City College Trotskyite and founding father of Neo-Conservatism—in his definition, “A Neo-Conservative is a Liberal who’s been mugged by reality.”
Maybe I do owe a tip of the Chaykin chapeau to Norman Podhoretz after all.
The other comic book was a brutally formalist assault on the very nature of what that zeitgeist had demanded of comic books in the first place, identifying the nightmarish notion of transliterating these children’s stories, these adolescent power fantasies, into realistic narrative for the consumption of adults, along the lines of, say, taking Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat back to Africa to address the crisis of female circumcision.
Both these comic books were, as noted, hugely successful critically and commercially, and, of course, enormously influential too. The first opened the door to an epidemic of self-dramatization and self-mythologizing, of the paper-thin characters, and, curiously, of a discomfiting bunch of the talent pool itself, too, who made it clear that mistaking gravity for enormity was no mistake at all if they made it.
The second, as was clear to anyone paying attention, was a cautionary tale…and like all too many other cautionary tales, it became an instruction manual. A perfect example of this is Budd Schulberg’s novel, WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN. This vicious satire, frequently announced as in preproduction as a film, but likely never to be made, has been recommended as a training manual to prospective producers by at least one wildly successful Hollywood subliterate.
And for all of Norman Lear’s pride in ALL IN THE FAMILY, I have a sneaky suspicion that, if not a majority, then a healthy minority of those millions of viewers identified Archie Bunker as their spokesman—just as all too many comic book enthusiasts regard the psychopath in that formalist cautionary tale as the hero.
(I’ve often wondered whether the “fascist” toss around was ever leveled at the talent behind these two by the Grand Old Man. I’m dubious—he always had a nose for which way the wind was blowing, and was unlikely to risk taking a stand averse to what everybody else seemed to love. The only misstep he made in his lifetime in this regard was his dubious and ultimately unsuccessful collusion to deny Jack Kirby a place in the Pantheon of American Comics.)
And yes, once again, I digress.
The influence of those two properties were, for a while, reserved solely for comic book enthusiasts, and for the curious civilian who tested the waters at Barnes & Noble, to put them on the shelf alongside the Special Pulitzer Prize winner, never to be consulted again.
Then, of course, some of those enthusiasts became players in the wider world of the show business. Finally, there were those in the show business clamoring to make Brandon Tartikoff’s dream of comic books as the next center of international entertainment’ Thus, the super stuff continues to be the money maker on the big and small screens, the simplicity—not to say simplistic but I will and did—of the narrative finding a universal appeal in an audience that couldn’t begin to give a fuck about comics as a medium.
All this is to say that the appetite for narratives incorporating the more deliriously entertaining elements of fascism was already in play, with an audience that had been educated, or perhaps more specifically miseducated, to be bored by actual characterization that didn’t reflect a shared sensibility with the viewer, to resent the gray areas between the black and the white, to reject nuance, and to look at the world through a zero sum lens of heroes and villains, one to root for, the other to hiss.
I grow weary of hearing grown men and women criticize material as lacking a likeable protagonist, someone to root for. Fuck this utter nonsense.
So, to my mind, the universal embrace of superhero movies is less the instigating element in society’s shift toward fascism, than it is, to paraphrase that observation of my colleague, an externalizing of inner trauma, of a culture which has lost the ability to communicate except in the most brutal and simplistic of terms, the CGI equivalent of Bread & Circuses.
We, as a nation, as a culture, and to a frightening extent as a species, have been primed for fascism for decades. The current crop of super stuff, in its reflexive pandering to any idea that seems au courant, its patronizing and flattering of the audience in that audience’s smug misread of reality, and of course its simplification and reduction of any idea too complex to address in so black and white a narrative form, might be just what we deserve.
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