Tuesday, April 05, 2016

People were more suspicious than I realised

I spend a very small amount of time thinking about comic book superheroes, especially on the silly matter of how "gay" the relationship between Batman and Robin seemed to be;  but I admit that there is a rather amusing article at Slate all about this particular topic.

I used to assume that it was only through our present sensibilities, and obsessions with gay identity, that people would be seeing any gay "subtext" to the Batman and Robin relationship.  So, sure, by the 1970's when gay rights were starting to become a mainstream issue people were probably sniggering about it, but back in the 1950's?    I wouldn't have thought so.

But I was very wrong.

In particular, the guy behind the comic books moral panic of the 50's (an episode that I was really only made aware of from watching the best of the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movies , "Artists and Models") was specifically offended by it:
People noticed. One person, in particular: Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist convinced that comic books were directly responsible for the scourge of juvenile delinquency, led a nationwide anti-comics crusade that proved hugely effective. He published his “research” (read: testimonials from his juvenile psychiatric patients strung together with anti-comics rhetoric) in a book called Seduction of the Innocent in the spring of 1954, just as he testified before Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.
Wertham devoted a scant four pages of his book to Batman and Robin; he had bigger fish to fry, attacking the luridly violent, sexist, and racist imagery found in many crime comics of the day. (About which: Dude had a point.) He did call Superman out as a fascist, and he noted that Wonder Woman’s whole shtick seemed unapologetically Sapphic. When it came to the Dynamic Duo, he seemed to relish drawing the reader’s attention to Wayne Manor’s “beautiful flowers in large vases” and the fact that Bruce was given to swanning about the estate in a dressing gown.
“It is like a wish-dream,” he famously wrote, “of two homosexuals living together.”
 Dr Wertham strikes me as the Cory Bernardi of his day, then!

Into the 60's, and the writers were more aware of the issue than ever:
The shadow of Wertham lingered long into the ’60s, and Batman editors resolved to do what they could to dispel it, even if doing so came with a body count: When asked why Alfred the butler was killed off—briefly—in 1964 to be replaced by the dithering Aunt Harriet, editor Julius Schwartz averred, “There was a lot of discussion in those days about three males living in Wayne Manor.”
 The writer makes it clear that he doesn't think the "gay subtext" readings is a particularly valid exercise:
This is the issue with gay readings. Any given bond between males can be homosocial without being homoerotic, and even the most explicitly homoerotic bond can exist without ever rubbing up against homosexual desire. To willfully and sneeringly misinterpret what was clearly intended as a familial connection as a romantic one—as Wertham did in 1954 and as so many Tumblr feeds do today— seems ungenerous at best and snide at worst, no?
And that seems right to me, too.  He's also right about the "camp yet [perhaps oddly, in retrospect] not gay" reading of the 60's TV show:
 Although the show became inextricably associated with the notion of camp, its pop-art sensibility never came off as particularly gay despite the presence of guest villains played by such fierce divas as Tallulah Bankhead and Liberace.
So, there you go.  The "gay subtext in comics" issue has been around a long time, then.

It also presents a challenge.  I had been thinking of making a joke post about what it could possibly take to make Jason Soon dislike a Batman/Superman story, given that he appears to be amongst the rather small proportion of viewers of the current movie who would call it "fantastic".   Turning it into a superhero version of Brokeback Mountain?  (And don't ask what happens when Lois meets Wonder Woman, either.)

But, as I say, these gay worries about the superheros are old news now.

No, I think it may take something more dire.  Let me try:  Batman finally gets the grief management therapy he's so badly needed for years.  Newly invigorated with a love for all of life, and while taking the Batmobile on a run to have a picnic in the country, he accidentally runs over a chicken which he discovers has escaped from a cruelly overpopulated farm run by a mad, bald ex-politician who wears a cat for a toupee.  Batman commits his future energies into releasing farm animals into the wild under cover of dark.  Meanwhile, Superman makes a mistake and discovers that a bound man at an S&M club (revealed as Alfred) is not actually wanting rescue.  Embarrassed, Alfred scams Superman into blowing up a truck trailer full of chickens which Batman was actually driving towards asylum in Canada.   CGI mayhem follows....


anon said...

Dr Wertham strikes me as the Cory Bernardi of his day, then!

Al Gore and his wife campaigned against the modern version of comic books - computer games. I've never heard Bernadi talk about such things - have you?

Steve said...

Erm, Bernadi did resign after claiming that gay marriage would lead to bestiality.

Seems to me as equally over the top about homosexuality as it was for Dr Wertham to be fretting that Batman comics were an exercise in homosexual wish fulfilment.

As for computer games - Al Gore probably had a point about the de-sensitising to violence that many of them entail. Just because Dr W was being silly and over dramatic about the alleged morality eroding effect of comics of the 1950's doesn't mean that those of us who find the bloodthirsty and graphic nature of modern computer games 60 years later are wrong.