Don’t Keep Perspective, Pursue Perspective
by Travis Hedge Coke
Colossus, who is about eighteen, decides to wait until Sprite, age thirteen, is old enough to date. He waits until she is fourteen. This is 1980s Uncanny X-Men, a beloved run by heralded names in comics. This run shaped modern superhero comics. This run shaped modern comics fans in ways that are impossible to fully appreciate. No matter how, externally, you know that an eighteen year old dating a fourteen year old is squick, that it is inappropriate, that it is bad, how much of you, as a fan or a comics reader, lets it go in this case because sometimes, as adults, they have also been happy together? They have also broken up, each time, and once he left for a genocidal eugenics cult and then came back and put her boyfriend in a wheelchair for the high crime of kissing her after a night out. Oh, we forgive that too?
Of course we do.
Comics have done us some bad turns. It is not only superhero comics, not the medium itself, not simply this series or that. The Comics Code Authority shoulders not enough blame for a malaise, a morass of moral waffling at the heart of the superhero comics fan, of the traditional American comics fan, even if they began reading after the Code was kaput.
See, the Code put restrictions on human interactions and on the consequences of human interactions in ways that seemed, I am sure, at the time, ethical and kind, but which generated a necessarily warped causality and damaged ethics systems by erasure and placation.
I love how old comics would advertise clothes, including underwear, they would market makeup and facial cleansers and vibrators. Yes, you could purchase through a comic a variety of electronic rubby devices to help you relax, sleep, lose stomach weight. The Code removes almost all of these, including those not explicitly sexual like eyeshadow or facial masks, because they were perceived as nefariously sexual in the context of comics advertisements. Almost all advertisement directed as female readers is diminished in such an extreme, so quickly and thoroughly, that the myth that comics in America always lacked a female readership is born essentially with the Comics Code. And, along with the vibrators, and with the Code explicitly combining “seduction” and “rape” into a single clause, irrevocably connecting them in their appraisal, the dynamic between narrative and women is inevitably wrecked, the dynamic between narrative and sex is skewed, the dynamic between the narrative causality of gender, sex, and society gets weird.
I am not calling for children’s comics to sell sex toys or feature more seductions, but what is a seduction is… What is a seduction? You know it when you see it, but your neighbor may not agree.
The Comics Code is birthed stating, “Advertisements for medical, health, or toiletry products endorsed by the American Medical Association, or the American Dental Association, shall be deemed acceptable if they conform with all other conditions of the Advertising Code.”
The Code set itself above the American Medical Association when it came to things like medicine for cramps or selling menstrual pads.
And, this is how we get to narratives such as the Sprite and Colossus romance, described above, or the extremes to which comics publishers will go when they need, for narrative or commercial reasons, to end a superhero marriage, even today, with the Code long gone. The Code has been out of service for years, but need Spider-Man to not be married? The clear answer is a deal with the devil. “Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable,” as the Code says. Couples cannot walk away, one of them has to be carried off in a coffin or the marriage must be dissolved through magic.
We can. We can’t. We can. becomes a push-pull dynamo without concern to cumulative effects. A relational dynamic, including a sexual/romantic one, can be revisited immediately or twenty years later in publishing time, three years later in the timeline of the fictional characters’ lives.
Adult fans, today, still look on Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, even thinking about another man – a fit, wealthy, brilliant, powerful man who is totally into her – while dating a guy who often just flat out ignores her, as if this is evidence she is unworthy, unwell, or several misogynistic terms I am not going to repeat here but you know what they are. Simultaneously, there is seen something kind and meaningful in an eighteen year old waiting months – whole months! – for a thirteen year old to have a birthday that will make her some kind of fair game. And, let us not pretend that many of these fans use terms like, “fair game.” Nor, can we pretend this is only comics’ fault.
The ongoing Zatanna comic, long canceled now, opened with the title character turning the rape, degradation, and deaths of friends into a snappy Vegas show where she is literally impaled with a drill by hired men, one of whom is dressed as a rapist. That’s not transgressive. It has no narrative weight in the story. It is visual in-jokes and brushed off and god and damn.
“Special precautions to avoid references to physical afflictions or deformities shall be taken,” as a regulation, prevented physical or psychological damage from having any genuine exploration, with all blows resulting in injuries that could be quickly bounced back from or death. “Scenes of… physical agony… shall be eliminated.” Physical injury, physical disability, without ever addressing “agony,” or affliction, creates an unheroic ally misaligning understanding of disabilities, of injuries, of the difference between a disability and an injury.
This is not merely a stagger down one flight of stairs and now we are on a landing and do not know how to get back up to ground level. The degeneration is cumulative and while it is reinforced by narrative stories and by absence or erasure in accompanying advertisements, in ways that are subtle and not immediately noticeable, it is also culturally supported. It is endemic enough that toleration becomes requisite to any sense of belonging, to comfortable presence. From there to acceptance, to forgetting that these are problems, is so short a road it isn’t even a jump over a puddle.
When storylines like Sprite and Colossus, or scenes therefrom, are referred to as “subtle,” compared to romances in comics today, what they really mean is that this built in nastiness occurred, sure, but they also never said the word, “sex,” because oh the subtlety and art. They never said the word, “lesbian,” or showed an honestly lesbian kiss, they just did homoerotic fan service, because “It’s better if left open to the reader.”
Artists and writers, many of them good people, many of them talented, have been able to coast on “better if left open to the reader,” and cries of, “subtlety,” that are blatantly defensive. Subtlety is not a bad thing, but when it is used to defend erasure or the obfuscation of unhealthy ideals and practices, it is insidious. It is not necessarily, or in most cases, malicious, but insidious, yes.
You learn to keep your mouth shut. You learn to stop thinking about it. You excuse. Conflate. Confuse. You, too, erase and aid in erasure.