Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills
Cult-spotting, a branch of the old science of trend-spotting, became a national sport in the days of the old American Mercury, when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan first made fashionable the cultivation of trivia. Mencken and Nathan probably invented Pop as well, but since people had other things to think about in those days, nobody else bothered to record it. Today, the press having finally caught up with Mencken and Nathan, both trivia-cultivation and cult-spotting have risen again to public prominence. Their latest manifestation is pop cult spotting, which began in earnest in 1964 when Time magazine spotted the long-established Harvard Bogart Cult. Since then no trivia-cultist has been safe from the feature writer’s predatory eye.
Realizing that if Time was onto a trend the trend must be in its death-throes, other magazines rushed to spot newer pop-cults. The New Yorker came up with the Sunday-Afternoon-Reruns-of-the-Lone-Ranger-Cult. The Tribune noted that a small cordon of “stay-at-home intellectuals” was watching daytime television. The Times began doing textual analyses of homosexual publications. At this point the whole thing got out of hand and, in a desperate effort to stay a step ahead of the incognoscenti, the press turned to cult-creation. Defining pop as any object of which a normal aesthetic judgment would disapprove, the press took to describing the 18th-century painter Fragonard as the object of a pop-cult. And, “Everybody on the social scene is working on pop movies,” crowed Eugenia Sheppard last October in the Tribune. By “everybody” she meant the girls in Andy Warhol’s “13 Most Beautiful Women” film.
But the Tribune made its master stroke of pop-cult creation a few weeks later when it discovered the Golden Age of Comics and announced that “everybody” is buying old Batman and Superman magazines. Now the Paperbook Gallery has put a six-foot poster of the Phantom in its window, and the Old Comics Cult is, presumably, fact. Two college girls, passing the window last week, looked reverently at the poster. “That’s the ultimate in pop art,” one of them exclaimed, and with these words delivered fashion’s coup de grace upon the literature of her childhood.
Real pop or not, the Old Comic Books Cult has got to be a fake. Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Batman only if you continually remind yourself that you liked him when you were 12. As for the new issues of Batman and Superman, they are thin even by comic book standards. Superman’s only concession to modernity has been his formation of a league of super-heroes, a dubious improvement at best, and he is still as addicted to time machines as he was in 1940. Batman has not even attempted to come up to date. He still travels by Batmobile and Batplane; where is his Batcopter? and why has no one thought to equip him with hali-toxic Batbreath? No, reading Batman, like listening to Lone Ranger re-runs, is merely a Proustian memory trick, a device for creating a state of mind conducive to summoning up the childhood self. There is a real Comic Books Cult, but it has nothing to do with the old heroes, and it has claims on our attention other than those of nostalgia.
I realize that in making the above statement I risk casting my lot with Eugenia Sheppard and the Cult-Spotters Guild. Nonetheless it must be said, for the Marvel Comics Cult is, under the existing Rules of Pop-Cult Spotting, ripe for exposure. It conforms to the first rule of pop (see above) and also to rules two (“Your cult must replace a previous, inferior cult”) and three (“No one else must have publicly spotted your cult”). Furthermore, it is a legitimate cult. College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics professor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them. Schoolgirls and housewives dream about the Marvel heroes. I myself was deeply in love with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the Real World.
The Marvel Comics Group has been in existence less than five years, and during that time their circulation has risen to about six million a year. As befits pop literature in a pop-mad world, the Marvel books are highly self-conscious. Their covers announce adventures dedicated to “The New Breed of Comic Reader,” and two pages on the inside of each magazine are given over to advertisements for the Marvel fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society. All the stories are signed (“Earth-shaking Script by Stan Lee, Breath-taking Illustrations by Jack Kirby, Epoch-making delineation by Chick Stone”), and the heroes who range in style from traditional action types like Captain America to tragic, ambiguous figures like the Hulk, seem continually bemused by the way in which their apparently normal lives keep melting into fantasy. “This is so stupid it could only happen in a comic book,” says the wise-cracking monster The Thing as he and his friend the Human Torch flee across a collapsing dam with a deadly iron ball in hot pursuit.
Recognizing that life has begun to imitate fantasy to such a degree that the public is most comfortable with fantasy which imitates life, the creators of Marvel comics have invented superheroes with discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions. Further, they have given the heroes a recognizable geography.
Thus, a Marvel Comics reader can get the impression that costumed superheroes form a sizable voting block in New York City. In fact, one suspects that they are the real rulers of Manhattan. And they have the citizens quite bewildered.
A New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidently rip the dark scales from the powerful eyes of Cyclops, a benign super-mutant whose refractive lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed. And, last year, New Yorkers awoke to find that their city had been taken over by the undersea legions of Namor, the ruler of the sub-continent Atlantis. Washington was afraid to bomb the invaders lest the bombs injure innocent citizens. “Wait ’til the Fantastic Four get here!” murmured a bystander as the submariners marched through Central Park. He was right: the Fantastic Four ultimately drove the undersea legions back into the Hudson.
There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel Group, and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks. On Madison Avenue the Baxter Building (“New York’s most famous skyscraper”) houses the Fantastic Four and their various self-protective devices. Further down Madison Avenue is the flagpole from which Spiderman swung the day he lost his spider powers. Somewhere in the east 60s the townhouse of playboy industrialist Tony Stark (alias Iron Man) is secret headquarters for the Avengers, a group of traditional fighters for justice which includes the thundergod Thor. Thor in his human identity is the lame doctor Don Blake (whose cane turns into a magic hammer when he puts on his Thor costume) who works surgical miracles in an uptown hospital.
The newspaper run by J. Jonah Jamison, sworn enemy of costumed superheroes, is also in midtown. And, “on the outskirts of Greenwich Village” Dr. Strange, the most bizarre superhero of all, has his secret retreat. Strange is a master of occult knowledge and often walks around in ectoplasmic form; his creators imply that he lives in the Village because no one there is likely to become alarmed at being jostled by a wraith.
In other respects besides geography, the Marvel world mirrors the real world. Occupationally, of course, it has a heavy concentration of scientists, but then, these characters are supposed to be members of an intellectual elite and one cannot blame comic book writers for idolizing physicists. Within this larger elite, however, there are subtle gradations. The aristocrats of the Marvel world are the Fantastic Four, four healthy, attractive, and socially prominent people headed by physicist Reed Richards (who is dull but very dependable and has interesting body-stretching powers) and his blonde debutante fiancee Sue Storm (invisibility powers). Sue’s outside interests are clothes, novel reading, and doing her nails. Her brother, Johnny Storm the Human Torch, races cars and seems to have a bit of a death wish, but otherwise we can take him for the Marvel prototype 0f a normal adolescent superhero. The Thing, otherwise Ben Grimm, is Reed’s old college roommate. The cosmic rays which gave the F. F. their powers turned Ben into a monster, and he is a trifle bitter about the whole thing. Still, group loyalty usually prevails over his resentment, and on the whole the Fantastic Four are quite aggressively well-adjusted. Everybody looks up to them.
The most popular Marvel hero, however, is much lower on the social scale. He is the maladjusted adolescent Spiderman, the only overtly neurotic superhero I have ever come across. Spiderman has a terrible identity problem, a marked inferiority complex, and a fear of women. He is anti-social, castration-ridden, racked with Oedipal guilt, and accident-prone.
Spiderman began life as Peter Parker, a brilliant science student at a Queens high school who lived with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a Forest Hills split-level. He had no friends and was plagued by a dominating mother figure. Then he got bitten by a radioactive spider and took on the spider’s climbing, jumping, and web-shooting powers. Being a child of the television age, he immediately went on the “Ed Sullivan Show” (for which he received a check which, having no Spiderman identification, he was unable to cash). On his way out of the studio he saw a burglar escaping but, having decided to use his power only for his own benefit, refused to capture him. When he went home, Spidey found his uncle murdered by the same burglar. So, in a fumbling attempt to expiate his guilt, Spiderman decided to devote his talents to public service.
Ill luck has pursued him ever since. His shyness led him to adopt a cocky manner which so alienated the other superheroes that none of them will have anything to do with him. He is always having trouble maintaining his secret identity. And his powers are so closely allied to his highly problematic virility that they often seem to be on the verge of deserting him. His castration complex is constantly tripping him up. Once, while on the trail of a gang, he was trapped by the sinister villainess Princess Python. “What am I going to do?” he murmured desperately as she caressed his neck. “I can’t hit a girl.” Her presence had evaporated his webshooting apparatus.
Another time, while standing on a roof surrounded on all sides by phallic-looking skyscraper towers, he began thinking about his Uncle Ben and became so consumed with guilt that he lost his spider-powers entirely. As he crawled home, thinking that now he could devote himself entirely to his Aunt May (toward whom guilt has made him more submissive than ever), he received word that Aunt May had been kidnapped by the evil Doctor Octopus. Eventually the need to act brought back his powers, for Spiderman is nothing if not a functioning neurotic.
Spiderman’s most significant adventure took place when J. Jonah Jamison began writing articles about the hero’s mental instability. A psychiatrist had told Jamison that Spidey needed immediate psychiatric care, and Spiderman became so worried by this that he went to the doctor for help. The psychiatrist was finally unmasked as the villain Mysterio, who had been trying to flip Spidey out by pasting his office furniture onto the ceiling and convincing the tormented superhero that he was hallucinating. So Spiderman escaped with his interior defenses intact (a psychiatrist can be the functioning neurotic’s greatest enemy after all) only to fall, in the next issue, into the arms of a robot controlled by J. Jonah.
Spiderman, unlike other superheroes, has never yet saved the human race from annihilation. His battles are unfailingly personal, hand-to-hand combats between a young man of precarious courage and the powerful social forces which threaten to destroy his hard-won security. He has no reassuring sense of fighting for a noble purpose, nor has he any outside support. Even the public which cries up his victories invariably deserts him in the clinches. Spiderman is, God save us, an absurd hero, fighting with purely defensive weapons against foes he cannot understand. And, in last month’s issue, he was finally sabotaged at home: Aunt May burned his Spiderman costume so that he is now unable to venture out of doors.
How can a character as hopelessly healthy as Superman compete with this living symbol of the modern dilemma, this neurotic’s neurotic, Spiderman, the super-anti-hero of our time.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 19, 2020