Gamble A Stamp 02: Fredric Wertham Was Right

October 14th, 2010 by | Tags: , , ,

NSFW images after the jump. Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about you and me.

There was this essay I read the other day on Ciara, abstracted sexiness, and being a Janet Jackson imitator. It’s a good read, and actually a pretty accurate summary of Ciara’s career thus far. Just looking at the “Ride” video is proof positive. If you aren’t at work, watch this video and come back to this post.

It might be obvious, but it’s worth stating–“Ride” is about sex. Not just sex, but acrobatic, flexible, freak nasty wanna know can you get down low sex. The chorus goes, “They love the way I ride the beat/ Like a motherfucking freak.” The metaphor is paper thin. It’s a raunchier take on another R&B classic, with an emphasis on sexual acrobatics rather than just sex as a reason unto itself. “Come and jump on it” becomes “Left hip, right hip, put your back into it ohh,” and they even share a mechanical bull in their respective videos.

Ciara’s video reflects the song’s subject pretty well. It’s visually stunning. It isn’t shot particularly well, or even in an original manner. Ciara’s fashion is nothing particularly new, either, though the Braves cap is a great touch. But no, the video is stunning entirely due to Ciara’s gymnastics. Every frame is dripping with sex, whether due to her wide stance punches, sexed up counting (1 to the mouth, 2 on the breasts, 3 on the side of her face, 4 deep in her crotch, 5 covering her mouth, 6 rising suggestively past her lips), or hypnotic abs.

You’re gonna find something sexy in this, whether it’s how Ciara drops and pops it or the popping and locking. But, at a certain point, a sexy maneuver of a certain caliber isn’t sexy. It’s a stunt. It takes porno acrobatics to a new level, and subtly shifts your interest from arousal, meaning imagining how a quadruple backward hip-spin would work in bed, to spectacle. “She can do that?” rather than “I wish she’d do this!” The sexiness is abstracted, turned into an idea, rather than an actual thing.

In Flex Mentallo, Wally Sage is our POV character. He’s the comics fan, he’s the one killing himself and reminiscing over how comics have had an effect on his life, and he’s full of anecdotes and insecurities. Flex Mentallo was created by Wally, sort of, but one point where the two completely overlap is when Flex enters Knight Club, an underground cavern that the bouncers claim is “for ‘adult’ superheroes only,” scare quotes included. Just before Flex finds the club, members of Faculty X, dressed like some form of clergy, command him to “Never grow up,” but it comes out backwards and slowed down.

Inside Knight Club is a superhero sex orgy. Sage provides the captions while Flex travels through the mass of entwined bodies and come-ons. His captions are punchy, full of half-formed ideas and simple references, rather than being pure exposition. It’s actually a pretty good depiction of the way that your thoughts dial down to a laser-like focus when you’re caught up in the heat of the moment and bad decisions cease to exist. The four pages that make up this scene deliver superheroic sex across a couple dozen configurations and fetishes.

Superheroes are very sexually charged, from “luscious snake-bitches in red rubber” and “seagreen musclemen, wet from the ocean.” Bad girls who are ready to be punished. Father figures who just need someone to help them open up. Young, pliable boys and girls who look up to your stand-in. The costumes, the idealized forms, and the soap opera that runs through much of the genre all stack up to form a roiling ball of sexual frustration and innuendo.

Taken too far, the sex serves as a hindrance to the primary purpose of the superhero, which is to rescue humanity. The abstractly sexy girls, the love triangles, the ‘adult’ comics, all of that is a detour on the path of cape comics. At the heart of almost every hero is that directive: “save us.” The sex in Flex Mentallo serves as a literal hindrance as well as a figurative one. Flex needs to make it to a certain place in order to save the day, but the participants in the orgy don’t want to let him. They’re trying to infect him (literally, he suffers under a barrage of “aphrodisiac stings”) and have him join their sex party as soon as he steps foot into the club. Flex is focused on his goal, salvation, and doesn’t physically partake in the sex, but that doesn’t stop him from looking. But when he gets close to his goal, he’s swarmed, and the panel shows superheroes holding him back or sitting directly between Flex and the teleporter he has to access to save the day. They are in the way. Their obsession with sex is in the way.

The connection I’m about to make is obvious, isn’t it?

Sex and superheroes is something strange. You get hard bodies with absurd proportions, but you don’t ever actually see bare breasts or even pubic hair. It’s a holdover from the days when superheroes were for children and chaste romance was the order of the day. If Rogue is caught in an explosion and all her clothes blow off, you can guarantee that she’ll have strips around her breasts and crotch. Thin strips, maybe, but you aren’t seeing anything, are you?

No, you aren’t. Superheroes flirt with sexiness, but only ever manage to make it as far as raunchy. Black Widow does her spying bra-less and with her top almost entirely unzipped. Ms. Marvel, Elektra, and Psylocke all rock one-piece bathing suits with a sash, and guess what: all of them look stupid. The costumes are getting more and more absurd, maybe peaking with the recent Star Sapphire redesign (which beat the pants off the previous world record holder, Top Cow’s Witchblade) and the sex is getting weirder. The impotence subplot in Rise of Arsenal probably provides a nice link between superheroes and virility, but guess what? As portrayed, it’s gross.

Talented writers do it well, of course. Everyone knows that. Adam Warren’s Empowered and the dissolution of the Scott Summers and Jean Grey relationship in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men both feel healthier than a lot of their stunted, repressed brethren. They don’t let the sex get in the way of the superheroics, but use it as a tool instead. The sex has something to say, and whatever that is is used to build up the characters rather than providing a cheap thrill.

Like the Ciara video, cape comics sexiness reached a point where it turned abstract. While the genre changed its target audience, the industry didn’t. The industry still behaved as if it were still selling comics to kids, so suddenly the writers and artists in charge of actually making the books had to find some way to show adulthood without breaking out of their prisons. “What it’s all about: power-porn for retards. Vigilantes racking up the body count. Rape scenes and cut-away costumes.”

Rather than growing up, cape comics cheated. You can fake maturity if you need to. Show more flesh. More high heels. Push against your limits, but don’t push too hard. Everyone’s got pouty lips, slim waists, stacked chests, and plenty of flesh on display. Butts are emphasized in a weird way (Benes Butts aren’t attractive like Trina Butts are), and anything even remotely resembling a package is studiously ignored, but everything else? It’s a buffet, as long as you don’t go too far. And it’s absurd. It looks stupid and childish, coming across as a 14 year old boy’s greatest fantasy and a 24 year old man’s secret shame.

The genre grew up distorted. We went from classy and older Betty Brant to wholesome Gwen Stacy to party girl Mary Jane to bad by her own self Felicia Hardy and something got lost along the way. The comics were written for adults, but limited to material appropriate for children. There’s a bit from Saul Williams’s “Coded Language” that’s appropriate here.

Your current frequencies of understanding outweigh that which as been given for you to understand.
The current standard is the equivalent of an adolescent restricted to the diet of an infant.
The rapidly changing body would acquire dysfunctional and deformative symptoms and could not properly mature on a diet of applesauce and crushed pears.

Do you see why cape comics tend to screw up when it comes to sex? The execution is too off, the focus on the wrong thing, and those comics feel wrong as a result. “The last great hope for a doomed world” can easily be derailed by a kind of sexiness that’s well worn and probably long out of date.

If you look at it from a certain angle, Faculty X’s “Never grow up” wasn’t a command, but a warning. “If you grow up, if you try to make these things mature, you’re going to ruin them. The framework isn’t built for this. It will break. Never grow up.”

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14 comments to “Gamble A Stamp 02: Fredric Wertham Was Right”

  1. Anybody tried those new Hostess Flash Cakes? Or the Green Lantern GLO-Balls? I have often read stories of my favorite comic characters and thought about what it would be like to taste their Cakes and Balls.

  2. I was looking through Previews a few months ago and saw Next Gen Warz.
    I have no idea how it even got published. It made my penis retract inward on sight.

  3. Great article, David. It really gels some stuff I’ve been thinking about off and on since I saw Chris Sims describe how weird the relationship between Spider-Man and Black Cat has become with the addition of sex but no other changes. Mature superhero comics have been missing half the equation for so long, it’s easy to believe the two conceits might not be able to mix at all.

  4. “NSFW images after the jump.”

    Except you forgot to insert the jump, David.

  5. The one thing I can possibly like about Johns’s Green Lantern is that I now have a great idea for a male Star Sapphire story, because boy do I hate Geoff Johns.

  6. @P.B.: As far as I’m concerned, King Geoffrey The Mad will be the Man Who Killed The DC Universe.

  7. great post!
    i like Ciara a lot but both this song and video just… i don’t know, kind of vaguely depressing. :

    i wish they’d reprint Flex Mentallo, i want to read it so bad!!! ARRGH. thanks for posting these pages, though, awesome stuff.

  8. @ross: Morrison hinted very heavily at SDCC that it’s in talks and that Quitely has already done a cover for a new edition of it.

  9. Is using the friendly Internet machine really wrong if you are trying to get hold of material which is legitimately out of print or otherwise impossible to find? Just sayin’, if you really, really want to read it NOW…

    Speaking of legal troubles and unfindable comics: Marvelman! To be exact, the mini-sequence in issue 5 when Hypnos, Deacon of Delirium! summons his Sirens of Slumber, all dressed in far kinkier totemic superheroic garbs, but it’s only two pages… Some of the above orgy participants seem directly lifted from there, I wonder if Morrison or Quietly ever read Marvelman?

    OK, now no-one will have a clue what I’m talking about… Reprint Marvelman goddamnit!

  10. What’s more, the Moore Marvelmen are deliberatly designed after the therein “fictional” Fawcett Captain Marvel: mankind making the fictional superhero real, only to try and fail to keep them asleep and in the end they really do save the world, even if London had a bit of a rough time (and the series never being completed)…

    I dunno, Marvelman seems a rather Morrisionian project, all-in-all.

  11. WildCATs is the ultimate in what you’re talking about: Superheroes as Sexual.

    The first series is rife with characters saying stuff like “Voodoo, use your power to make me get smaller because I can’t control myself if I get to big” or “The madder I get, the longer I get” (from Maul and Warblade specifically).

    Moore’s stint on the title makes them even more sexualized, with Voodoo trying to be intimate with Zealot in the “warriors’ dance” only to get reject because her “blood type is impure.” You even have the fall-out of a sexual encounter/relationship that turns sado-masachistic through role play.

    Casey’s run is all “sexy superheroes by way of corporate power.” It is the Wall Street or Madmen of superheroes, with the sexual power coming from hostile takeovers and corporate intrigue, as well as superpowers. For the most part, all of the characters in Casey’s run use their powers for some sort of grab for corporate or political power.

    The main reason why Wildcats has this trend is because of the Judeo-Christian origins of the characters as either “sexually repressed angels” (Zealot’s hot body that everyone remarks about in the first issue, but no one ever gets to do anything with it) and “sexually free demons that possess you” (like Voodoo who knows your inner most thoughts because she’s a stripper/dancer that makes you tell her stuff).

    I’m always curious what Morrison’s Wildcats would’ve been, in lieu of his work in Flex. His first issue had Voodoo sexing it up with a robot who uses infra-red to get off, so I’m sure it would’ve been interesting…

  12. […] read over David’s Gamble a Stamp 2 a while ago, and came across a sentence that brought me up short.  Re-reading it today, I have the […]

  13. Great post. I’m in the middle of a capes break due to seeing the image of Ice (Ice Princess? I dunno) dressed up like a Guardian of the Universe and suggesting a three way with one of the Green Lanterns and a power ring creation. It was like… I felt embarrassed to be associated with something like that. I’m a grown ass man, dammit. I have my dignity.

  14. […] like the warped cousin of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s gloriously optimistic Flex Mentallo.  I don’t know if Steve Naeman is becoming a nightmare in order to live his dreams, or […]