I have another little bit of a confession to make, everyone. I’m not the only Natalie Reed.
In addition to the model, the contestant on So You Think You Can Dance 5, the maker of handmade jewelery, the character in the Harlequin romance “His Partner’s Wife”, the MD in San Antonio, the alleged “lesbian pedophile” in London who (according to the ever so trustworthy and queer-friendly Daily Mail) allegedly disguised herself as a 17 year-old boy at a high school in order to “groom” two teenage girls as sex partners, and the young LA mom who somehow lays priority claim to the name on twitter and Facebook, we have this wonderful badass:
That’s the second Lady Blackhawk, Natalie Reed. An American-born aeronautical engineering genius who defected to Soviet Russia due to her faith in the Marxist ideals with which she was raised, her expertise advancing the Soviet air-force’s technological edge by years, she ultimately joined the Blackhawks international freedom-fighter force when she realized that Communism had become corrupt under the rule of Stalin and his successors.
I know, she’s awesome.
Apparently DC comics writer Howard Chaykin, when rebooting the Blackhawks title in the late 80s, also realized how cool “Natalie Reed” sounds as a secret identity name. Because, yeah, another confession: it’s totally a secret identity. I’m actually named Natalie *******. And I was born ****** *****. And sometimes I’m Robyn B or Natalie Wright, amongst a couple others.
As such, secret identities are something I happen to know a bit about, and I imagine that every trans person, and most queer people of every kind, happen to know about too. I remember when I was early in transition and “part-timing” (that is, presenting as male most of the time, but as female in situations where it felt safe and comfortable to do so), I would wear girl clothes underneath my boy clothes, sort of like how Clark Kent or Peter Parker would wear their Superman and Spiderman costumes beneath their civvies to allow them to do their supply closet change thing quickly. I’d wear, say, unisex jeans and a unisex jacket, with a women’s shirt (or even a short dress) worn underneath a bulky guy’s shirt or sweater or hoodie or something. Then to change, I’d just take off the outer guy layer, swap out which glasses I was wearing, put on some make-up and accessories, and presto, I was Natalie. And every time, I couldn’t help but think of Peter Parker changing into Spiderman.
The reason I bring this up is because it seems there are lots of ways that I find echoes of queer experiences in the stories, myths and motifs of superhero comics. As wild, impossible and fantastic as those stories are, in them one can’t help but see reflections of the kinds of things that real people need to live with. As mentioned, there is the tension of secret identities and living dual lives. Of the anxiety that comes from having to compartmentalize aspects of who you are, the hurt and inner fragmentation that comes from never being able to be all of you at the same time, the frustration of having to hide parts of your life from those you love, and of having to reconcile your desire to tell the truth and be complete in your identity with the risks and danger that honesty can pose, and how it can compromise the relationships with those you love… even put them at risk , and unfairly draw them into the complexities of your life, place upon them a burden that you feel you need to carry alone.
(One of the reasons I can’t tell you guys my real name, or especially my birth name, is the potential risk to my family. Seriously. We have a very uncommon name. As an example, my brother’s fiance is from a conservative Christian family, so it would make things tough for them if her family googled their future son-in-law’s family name and found an outspoken transsexual atheist blogger who e-hangs with PZ Myers) …ur…anyway,
Many comics also explore feelings of alienation and isolation that can come from dealing with something the people around you can’t truly understand. The feelings of being fundamentally different, alien, apart, other… at best “special”, at worst a “freak” or “monster”. The whole being a “mutant” thing in some comics, or otherwise a particularly unique kind of human being (the “mutation”, to make it even more explicit, often specifically showing up in adolescence). They’ll sometimes address themes of being unable to relate to the people you used to be close to. Or the loneliness of having no one around who is quite like you. The stress of being under constant threat. The loss of a previous identity, thrust into adapting to a radically new life.
Or sometimes positive things, too… such as finding others who are in similar situations, similarly alienated or outcast or alone, and forming your own bonds and surrogate families. Or the strength that can come from fighting these struggles and overcoming them. Of becoming s stronger and more whole person through being faced with these unimaginable hardships and somehow managing to survive and grow. There may end up being scars you carry around with you, but you know that you’ve stood up for something, and did not allow the “bad guys” to win (themselves a stand-in for a million different potential demons a queer person may have to face).
But I don’t think the people writing most superhero comics initially intended for the themes to resonate so strongly with the experiences of queer folk. I think it emerges just from the capacity of certain kinds of powerful archetypal images to end up being relatable to whatever takes on the most significance in our lives, and for which we most need to find something that offers us guidance, meaning, a framework for understanding. Sort of like how tarot cards or dream interpretation work… not through actually having any kind of magic power, but just by offering a pattern of powerful images in which we see what we most need to see. Except comics aren’t random like the cards or dreams.
In the immortal words of J.R.R. Tolkien: “Allegory is for chumps, but applicability totally kicks dick.”
Um… something like that, anyway.
I’ll get back to this in a second, but yeah, comics often do go in the direction of relatively overt allegory. The Incredible Hulk is fairly clearly a classic story about the struggle between Id and the Ego and Superego, between our primal impulses, our sometimes terrifyingly uncontrollable emotions and our calmer, intellectual mind. In Spiderman we’re treated to a lot of little metaphors for adolescence and growing up. In Superman we think about universal ideals, the virtue that lies in the heart of even the most mild-mannered person, and who we wish we could be if we could toss aside our glasses and suits… as well as an interesting look at the relationship between physical power (Supes) and intellectual, political and financial power (Lex Luthor). In Batman we think about how to walk the razor edge between dealing with the darker aspects of humanity, and our inner demons (personified in its villains… The Joker and sociopathy and irrational cruelty, the Scarecrow and inner fears, Two-Face and our duality and inner conflicts, etc.), without succumbing to them. In Captain America we think about what aspects of American values truly are universal and ideal, and the conflicts that can emerge between blind adherence to government or law or nations or power and measured and thoughtful adherence to a set of principles. And perhaps most importantly to me personally, X-Men, which was my favourite when I first began reading comics as a kid, in which the themes are all about oppression, bigotry, minority rights, discrimination, and the often complex ethical considerations of activism, where and when it ceases being the right thing to do and starts becoming a vindictive replication of the same old cycles of violence (though I was always very sympathetic to Magneto’s views… perhaps I should start a Sisterhood of Evil Trannies? Any takers?)
The degree to which these allegories are kept overt, or reference specific real-life issues, can oscillate in accordance with the writer or story arc, or even just from issue to issue. But what gives them part of their power is not the occasional specificity, but that they’ll always lean away from that and back into general applicability, then lean again into a different specificity. And more so, what is strongest is how they lend themselves to us finding ourselves and our own issues and struggles reflected in them, and rather than waiting around for them to directly touch on our experiences, they remain pliable enough for us to pull the metaphors into our experiences. They make it easy for us to do the work of having them be allegorical representations of our experiences for ourselves. More parallels from the world of woo: Horoscopes. Psychic cold reads. But without the pretense of being crafted to the individual (though it can sometimes feel that way anyway, when it’s done right… like that story arc was written just for you, that this character over here seems to be going through exactly what you went through, just with superpowers and a cuter costume).
It’s interesting to me that the narratives, themes, genres… just the way comics are written… would be so geared towards perceiving our own narratives in them, in that it seems to replicate some of the conditions of the medium itself on its visual level.
Have you ever looked at a power outlet or coat hook or plastic coffee cup lid and seen a human face? This has a lot to do with the appeal of cartoons, and how we relate to them. They may or may not actually look much at all like what an actual human being looks like, but our brains are wired to perceive human faces in other things. We see ourselves everywhere. Which is a big part of how pareidolia works, and how Jesus and Elvis manage to appear in tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Because of this, as a cartoon becomes more abstracted, the ability to read it as human (or otherwise personify it, even if technically non-human, i.e. Mickey Mouse) remains steady anyway. But as it becomes abstract, it’s specificity begins to wane and its universality (and applicability) expands.
A highly realist drawing, for instance, will only apply to one specific person, only legitimately be able to be claimed as a drawing “of” that one person (or maybe a small number of people who look very similar). As a drawing becomes less realist, though, and more and more iconic, symbolic or “cartoonish”, the number of different people that drawing can plausibly be said to represent expands (until you reach the smiley face, where it is plausibly a drawing of any human being at all). Along with that increase in the breadth of representation, there is also an increase in our ability to relate to it, to perceive it as a drawing or representation of ourselves.
The theory of iconic signification and cartoons is a lot more complex and fun than just that, but I’ll leave it there for now, because what I want to do is relate that to narrative and story. I wonder if similar principles might be at work when we begin working our narratives around particular kinds of archetypes or concepts or structures. Is there a similar principle, to see our stories in a suitably structured blank slate?
As a narrative becomes less grounded in events or concepts that are relatable to specific real life issues (for instance, a young adult novel that is directly a “coming out story”) and stray instead into the abstract or mythic (a young boy “finding himself” through some kind of quest), does the sense of being able to perceive ourselves (or people we know) in the story expand the same way that an increasingly iconic or cartoonish drawing expands its breadth of representation? Does therefore drawing their stories in broad and mythic strokes allow writers to make superhero comics more applicable to the real life struggles of more individual readers than if they’d made them more direct and specific allegories, or about specific real life issues? Is there something about the medium of comics that lends itself particularly well to (or particularly appeals to artists interested in) that sort of push-pull relationship between specificity and broad applicability?
When I read superhero comics I see myself there. I see my struggles with identity, balancing different aspects of myself, fighting against alienation and loneliness, fighting against all the “bad guys” of the world who would force it into their image, and the “bad guys” who just want to destroy people or people like me, I see the effort to try to stand up for those who are vulnerable, I see trying to cope with the responsibility of being given a way to fight for others that you didn’t necessarily ask for but know it would be selfish to turn down, I see struggling and sometimes losing but always growing and moving forward, being a freak or monster or outsider, forming friendships with other freaks and outsiders and monsters, being persecuted and rejected (sometimes even by the people I’ve been fighting for), and all kinds of other things. And I find it hard to imagine that other trans and queer people don’t see pieces of their own struggles similarly reflected in comics, perhaps largely the same struggles. The parallels feel impossible to ignore.
And seeing yourself there can give one a great deal of hope and strength, and reminders of why it’s important to struggle onward. There are some comics that, while not in the superhero genre, I keep on hand for exactly that reason; reminders of my values and why I carry on, or touchstones for my experiences and feelings. Whenever I need to remind myself of the value and power of the written word, and of being willing to tell the uncomfortable truth, I read a little Transmetropolitan. When I need to cope a bit with feeling like an outsider, and re-explore the feelings associated with my adolescence and discovering my sexual and gender identity, I can poke around a bit in Black Hole. When I want to remember the beauty and comfort of the ongoing rhythms of day-to-day life, and the beauty even in the most mundane, I can enjoy a bit of American Elf.
Does knowing on some level that it’s a bit of a trick of my perceptions, not much different than tarot cards, dream interpretation, horoscopes and cold reads, detract from the sense of seeing my narrative reflected in comics, and deriving a feeling of strength and grounding from them? Should it? Does the intent of the author matter in how strikingly familiar and recognizable some of the themes of superhero comics are to the struggles faced by queer people, and does it matter if groups facing wholly different struggles see the same intense familiarity to their stories in the same comics?
It’s probably one of the strengths of superhero comics, and one of the reasons it is so often related to mythology and folk tales, that it lends itself so well to a reader seeing their own story reflected in the narrative. It allows for a very broad audience to all develop deeply personal connections to the work, rather than having to make the choice between a broadly understandable story or a story with great personal significance to a smaller niche. Of course there are other compromises that go along with adopting that structure, but having the capacity for each reader to develop a personal bond with the story and feel it is “their” story too is pretty cool.
I wonder, though… how. Yeah, superhero stories are abstracted from real life specifics which could ground them in experiences that feel definitively apart from the reader’s own, and having them be instead something nobody exactly experiences but lots of people experience in their own way, yeah, sure, I understand. But why that abstraction? Why do we in this culture find that so appealing of all the different ways we could find similarly applicability? Science-fiction, fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk, horror, all the things… all of that offers the same possibilities, but none of them end up occupying that particular medium to nearly the same degree, a medium that above all others seems so particularly well-suited to this kind of narrative technique, to our modern myths and narrative mirrors. So why superheros specifically, given all the infinite ways to render an archetype?