I’m deliberately injecting the worst aspects of life it [sic] into my readers[‘] heads in small, humorous doses of metaphor and symbol, in an effort to help them survive the torrents of nastiness, horror and dirt we’re all exposed to every day—especially in white Western cultures, whose entertainment industries peddle a mind-numbing perverted concoction of fantasy violence and degrading sexuality while living large at the expense of the poor in other countries.
— Grant Morrison in Brady “A Healing Inoculation of Grime”
The “pornification” of society is a subject that weighs heavily on the mind of Grant Morrison. As the above quotation makes clear, he is intent on using his work to problematize what he considers to be the key elements of the Western entertainment industry: the superabundance of pornographic imagery, the disturbing mix of violence and degradation in this material, and its malign link to global capitalism. However, closer examination of Morrison’s work reveals that his attitude toward pornography itself is not censorious, but multi-faceted and humanistic. In this article I examine Morrison’s depiction of pornography and its influence on society within his comic book works. I begin by situating these readings within the history of Western society’s attempt to define and prohibit pornography, showing how Morrison’s criticisms relate to these deeply entrenched and still ongoing debates. I then progress to an analysis of three Morrisonian texts dealing with different aspects of pornography: his satirical vision of the adult film industry in The Filth; his rebuttal to Fredric Wertham’s writings on the pornographic nature of comics in Flex Mentallo; and his highlighting of the pervasiveness of the male gaze in Seven Soldiers of Victory: Bulleteer (2005). Through close readings of these key texts I demonstrate that Morrison’s work calls not for limits to sexual expression, but a rejection of objectification and commercialization in art and culture.
What is Pornography?
To begin by defining terms is a particularly onerous task when approaching pornography. A famous comment on the subject is that of US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, speaking in 1964: “I know it when I see it.” Potter’s oft-quoted remark is deeply revealing of a number of problems and anxieties surrounding the definition of pornography: its subjectiveness, its seeming defiance of rational categories or fixed generic boundaries, and its dependency upon particular times and cultures.
As a legal category, pornography is generally defined as having both a certain content (explicit depiction of genitals and sex acts) and function (to sexually arouse or excite the viewer).1 Yet, because the label “pornography” has both legal and ideological implications, it is frequently attributed in a polemical, post-hoc fashion to works seen as daring, transgressive or in some way objectionable. John Ellis writes that “pornography as a label always threatens to engulf any sexual representation that achieves a certain level of explicitness” (146), while David Edward Rose drily observes that “for the most part we call it pornography if we decide to ban it” (21).
In ethical and artistic terms, much of the debate is centered on attempts to draw distinctions between “pornography” and “erotica.” The first is a pejorative and negative term, the second either neutral or approving, and, as Hans Maes writes, this “dichotomy traditionally unfolds into such oppositions as art/commodity, disinterested/interested, iconic/mimetic, intellectual/somatic” (18). Yet these essentialist distinctions can founder in the face of individual responses or differing contexts. For example, Pauline Reage’s 1954 novel The Story of O is clearly aligned with pornography in terms of both its explicit BDSM content and its intention to arouse the reader, yet its intellectual and aesthetic qualities mean it could be (and has been) the subject of academic study. Likewise, Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde might conceivably be used as a masturbatory aid by a person who happens upon the image in a magazine or coffee-table book, but a visitor to the Musée d’Orsay who sees the piece hanging on the gallery wall is unlikely to respond to the work in this manner. Thus, as Stephen Mumford argues, there may simply be “separate pornographic and aesthetic ways of seeing” (59), which depend both upon context and individual perception.
Alternatively, we might say that something called “pornography” definitely exists as a commercial enterprise: the industry euphemistically termed “adult film,” which is scripted, directed, performed, recorded, packaged, sold, all to profit from people’s desire to see and be aroused by explicit sex acts. Such texts are relegated to cordoned-off spaces (the licensed sex shop and the Internet) and the motives for maintaining this firm separation between mainstream culture and pornography are partly cultural preference and partly a necessary ideological opposition. Pornography is by its very nature excessive and taboo-breaking; it has an “asocial” function, aiming to trespass limits of social acceptance. As Schaschek writes of adult film: “the genre is set up to stage the fantastic, the dirty, the unwanted, the disgusting, the degrading, and the wasteful” (39).
The contemporary porn industry is the subject of criticism and anxious speculation from a number of different groups, not merely because of the existence of the films in and of themselves, but because of their perceived effects upon the viewer and their wider society. The 1959 Obscene Publications Act described pornography as having a tendency to “deprave and corrupt” (Rose 39), and in more recent years this idea of pornographic representation leading to real-world harm has been taken up by feminist critics, most notably and vocally Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, the latter describing pornography as “the graphically explicit subordination of women” (121). The threat to women posed by pornography is conceived of by critics as both direct and indirect. Sheila Jeffreys’s 2009 account of sex workers within the industry claims that women are exploited in the process of making pornographic films. Other feminist critics point to the much more widespread effects of pornography’s objectification of women, and its eroticization and reenforcement of female subjection and passivity (Eaton 283). Put another way, these criticisms concern pornography’s troublesome tendency to blur (or even collapse) boundaries between the performed and the real. This is evident in both execution and effects. As Sarah Schaschek puts it, there is a sense in which pornography is not acted—”a blowjob is a blowjob” (10)—and we suffer from a prevailing cultural belief that (unlike other fictions) it both recreates and creates, or imports and exports, our gender relations and sexual habits.
In view of the complex history and factors outlined above, the term “pornography” is, I would argue, not so much defined as it is haunted by a set of recurring cultural anxieties: that pornography has no artistic merit; that its aim is to provoke arousal or excitement and not contemplation; that it damages the viewer in terms of their mental and sexual health; that it encourages gender inequality and promotes violence and harm (especially against women); that it is asocial and abject. In the section that follows I consider these same issues as they appear in the work of Grant Morrison, and in particular his limited run series The Filth, which deals most explicitly with not only the porn industry, but all the dirt and indecency of life.
Morrison and the Comic as Porneau
The Filth comes from a period in Morrison’s career where he sought to break away from writing publisher-owned superhero properties and so began a series of independent works published through Vertigo (Singer 180). Despite the creative freedoms Morrison enjoyed in writing The Filth, it seems to have been a dark time in his own life. Morrison claims that the year he spent writing the work was one of “intense psychological and physical distress,” including thoughts of suicide (Brady). Whether this is a result of his immersive process of writing, or other external, personal factors, is unclear. The work deals with all that might be termed filth in modern society: taboo and extreme sexual desires, excrement and other waste, social rejects, and oppressive authority figures (playing on “the filth” as a UK slang term for police).
The comic’s reluctant hero is Greg Feely, a browbeaten middle-aged man with a comb-over, first seen buying a red-top tabloid and a copy of a magazine called Young Sluts from his local news-agent (9). At first Greg appears to be a creepy bachelor whose only emotional connection is to his chronically ill cat, Tony. However, it later emerges that Greg Feely is a “parapersona,” a set of memories used as a cover for a secret agent named Ned Slade. In the course of the narrative, Greg/Ned finds himself reenlisted in a covert government agency called The Hand, which exists to cleanse threats to societal hygiene.
As indicated in Morrison’s own description of the work in this article’s opening quotation, The Filth is concerned with the way that Western media has become increasingly saturated with sexualized imagery. Porn texts abound in the series, forming a backdrop to all characters’ lives: there are the home videos Tex Porneau is perpetually making in his modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah; the blasphemous Anal Quakers series of feature films starring Anders Klimakks as a priapic Satan; the magazines on display in Greg Feely’s corner shop; and the white noise of porn-dialogue emanating from his TV screen. As he sorts through the pornographic materials that have been posted to his house (which, he claims, are subscriptions belonging to a previous tenant), Greg muses:
“Hear Caroline scream as Mike shoves his eleven-inch cock in … her dad.” … “Wet me from above,” “spunk in my pasta,” “one-man gangbang.” … “White men with black dicks … fucking your wife.” It’s not really my sort of thing, this. (17)
The descriptions use the graphic, demotic language of pornographic advertising, and show a conventional preoccupation with juxtaposition and transgression (“White men with black dicks”), but their message has become garbled and strange. The imaginative world of The Filth is one in which pornography has become such a pervasive narrative that no one seems to be clear on what is or is not material for arousal. Can one man constitute a gangbang? Is ejaculating in pasta a legitimate fetish? Is watching her hugely endowed boyfriend having sex with her father proper cause for Caroline to be aroused, or does her scream indicate horror? Greg and the reader are left nonplussed by this selection of texts and their presentation of scenarios which appear to elicit desire without actually being desirable.
Morrison’s own statement on the text is that he intends The Filth to be a scathing indictment of the aforementioned “fantasy violence and degrading sexuality” which permeates entertainment in contemporary Western culture. The literary device he uses to realize this porn-permeated dystopia is reductio ad absurdam: in a future where everything is porn, The Filth suggests, nothing will be porn; consumer excitement will not be concentrated and heightened, but confused and diminished. The episode therefore allows for the criticism to take on a distinctly anti-capitalist aspect, as it highlights the way Western businesses manipulate consumer behavior in irrational ways. Characters like Greg consume “filth” because it is aggressively, inescapably marketed to them; propelled onto newsagents’ shelves and rattled into letterboxes. Instead of supplying a demand, the innumerable pornographers of The Filth simply make their product inescapable, bombarding the landscape with explicit material until this has become the only cultural item their intended customers are aware of, or able to purchase.
After the first few issues, the focus of the comic shifts from the consumer’s experience of pornography to reveal its producers. Issue 5 concerns a Dutch porn star called Anders Klimakks who is highly desirable in the industry because of his unique black semen. He is found wandering in an amnesiac state, and tells the Hand agent Jenesis Jones that he was invited to America by the director Tex Porneau, “the Orson Welles of hardcore” (113). Tex lives in a great domed mansion in the Hollywood Hills, perhaps a modern-day Xanadu. He wears only a Stetson hat, gold chain and cowboy boots, and sees the world through the lens of his camcorder. He tells Anders: “The Latin motto above my door is also my meditational mantra … it reads, ‘fuck or be fucked'” (113). Anyone who crosses the threshold of Tex’s domain is immediately recruited into the ranks of his perverted acolytes. As he has two investigating policemen stripped and gagged with gimp masks, he tells them: “Just relax. You’re very beautiful when you let go. Very sexy baby. That’s good, you can take it. Good girls. Now go, join in and don’t bother me. I’m creating pornographic history” (119).
This scenario is profoundly Sadean. Much of de Sade’s satire in both Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) and The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom (1785) is concerned with this idea of a perverse sort of hospitality, one which involves the “guest” giving up all claims to bodily autonomy, and scenarios where gender and sexuality become fluid or even irrelevant, as humans are reduced to a set of available orifices and “the fuckers” (de Sade 231). Tex refers to everyone, regardless of status or gender, as “girl,” “doll,” or “baby,” and addresses his detainees with a sort of soothing scorn, as if they are starlets on his casting couch. In a parody of the well-worn soft-core cliché, a delivery boy arrives. He is put in a chicken costume, then sodomized by Tex, who is in mid-monologue about his villainous plan to bring hyper-porn to the masses:
Delivery Guy: Please, what are you doing? … In the name of Christ, I’m just the delivery guy. You can’t fucking do this …
Tex: Don’t give me this unprofessional bullshit, honey. I get a thousand girls through here who manage to do what they’re told without bleating like losers. (121)
As Maes writes, “fetish pornographic works typically place no normative claims on reality—they neither ask customers to import their actual attitudes into imaginative engagement, nor do they ask customers to export their imaginative attitudes back into reality” (1024)—yet Tex’s world does exactly this. Tex’s porn-logic is imperialistic, forcing everyone it encounters to bring their attitudes and behaviors in line with the scripts of hardcore films. Morrison’s work is therefore a parodic illustration of our cultural fears concerning pornography’s normalizing effect on society. It is, however, slightly unclear what is being mocked here: society’s willingness to accept fictional tropes as reality, or the scaremongering of those who insist pornography influences or reflects real life behaviors.
Tex does see his porn empire as reflecting the true human condition. He reserves a particular disgust for those who try to deconstruct or intellectualize sex: “Let the fairy-boy critics and the feminists argue about exploitation and what it all means. All their dumb-ass denial just makes me harder” (134). In his world-view, sexual instinct belongs in the realm of primal nightmare. It cannot be rationalized or controlled, and those who seek to do so are weak, frightened, and pathetic:
The existentialists faltered on the brink of the gaping void. “Nausea” … that’s what those limp-dick intellectuals felt. They were afraid of the big black pit. Scared of losing their weeny dicklets in the asshole of being. Not me! By God, not Tex! I’m gonna fuck the abyss raw! I’m gonna make it holler like Lolita! (121)
Here the Nietzschean void that humanity gazes into is a massive all-consuming orifice that is simultaneously anus and vagina; perhaps a primeval cloaca. Intellectuals fear this void because they fear consumption; they have insufficient masculinity and mastery to take charge and fuck the void, as Tex claims he will.
The twinning of sex with “the void” as an image of death or annihilation is commonplace: Freud’s concept of a “death instinct” is that which exists contrary to the (natural, logical) pleasure-seeking principle as a compulsive desire to repeat the unpleasant (and thus describes both pornography use and masturbation), and orgasm is also known as le petit morte. Tex Porneau’s understanding of the sexual urge involves a perpetual conflation of eros/thanatos: “It’s all cum and blood in the end, baby doll,” he tells the delivery boy (134). His ultimate plan involves spermatozoa grown to a giant size in a bubbling jacuzzi (which possibly prefigures the Cauldron of Rebirth from Seven Soldiers). The mutant sperm cells then act as womb-seeking missiles; resulting in many female Hand agents and citizens of LA being “fertilized to death” as Greg/Ned puts it in a memorable oxymoron (133). There is a sense in which death is both the ultimate taboo and transgression, as it is tantalizingly unknowable. As Geoffrey Gorer writes, dying violates the rules of “seemliness” in modern society (49), and terminal illness is now kept hidden from sight; thus our urge to see death is displaced onto fictional accounts and depictions, such as war and horror narratives. Death is therefore allied to sex and pornography in that it now occupies a private, culturally cordoned-off space.
In The Filth, a third element is added to these symbolic links, as sex and death are joined in a triumvirate with money. As he releases his flying sperm herd on LA, Tex crows: “Triple IMAX 3-D super-extreme hardcore. The ultimate equation — sex = death = bucks! I am the future! Are you ready for the money shot, Miss Hills!” (123). The equation stresses not only parity with its equals signs, but a shared and mutually influential symbolism. Death is the ultimate taboo, the conspicuous enjoyment of “dirty money” is the ultimate porn, and porn is a highly profitable industry that manufactures sex and pleasure. The “money shot,” as Schaschek writes, is a concept “loaded with meaning” (6): it allegedly takes its name from the bonus payment an actor receives for successfully ejaculating on screen; it represents not only a physical climax, but also the climax of the film or segment’s narrative; it is a visual representation of the whole profit-centric sex industry which generates the image itself.
The idea of a “money shot” is further amplified—and perhaps even taken to its logical conclusion—at the end of the story arc. By this stage in the narrative, Anders Klimakks is dead, but his super-potent black seed has left behind hundreds of identical babies, imbued with a collective consciousness and memory. Anders’s magic ejaculate has created not only an industry, but an entire society. A group of Anders-toddlers with building blocks sketch out the following vision of the future:
One day soon, the engines of the cars, the airplanes and the high-heeled moon modules. — All will run on the boiling black baby juice of Anders Klimakks. Instead of money, there will be blow jobs. — The job of everybody will be to fuck everybody else for the camera to watch. The cum will flow like there can be no tomorrow, so everyone is happy. (150)
Anders’s super-evolved sperm is tenacious, and creates not offspring, but clones. Sooner or later the whole world will be made up of identical, hypersexual beings absorbed in endless round of solipsistic self-pleasure; a future in which orgasm is the only currency, porn the only work and cum the only product. As an Anders-faced baby in a pram puts it: “All you need is fuck, yeah?” (150). This pornocratic society is certainly both cooperative and egalitarian but it is also dystopian, as the vision conjured up by the Anders-clones suggests a life of mindless repetition and a lack of creative freedom or self-determination. As with the eccentric magazines that so overwhelm Greg Feely in the earlier part of the narrative, Morrison’s criticism seems to be not that pornography is harmful to society for the usual reasons stated by alarmists (perversion, violence, misogyny), but that it is banal and culturally deadening.
That both the Anders and Greg episodes focus on the homogenized, self-plagiarizing nature of pornography underlines Morrison’s dual polemical purpose in the text: first, his highlighting of the causal link between capitalism and pornography; second, a metatextual criticism of superhero comics. The garbled nature of the pornographic narrative in both Anders’s and Greg’s worlds (“high-heeled moon modules”/”white men with black dicks … fucking your wife!”) reflects its mass-production, as these fantasies are the result of an attempt to keep re-mixing and re-using previously successful tropes to maximize profit and dispense with the need for risky innovation. Repetitiveness and risk-averse production strategies are also hallmarks of mainstream comics publishing, and thus suggest Morrison taking an opportunity in this independent work to “express his frustration at the corporate creative control, the conservative ideology, and the ossified conventions that make the genre so resistant to change” (Singer 181). In this reading, The Filth is not merely a comic about pornography, but a text that stresses the commonality between pornography and comics as commercial genre fictions, suggesting that both are narratives suffering from locked-in syndrome.
Here the similarities Morrison draws between comics and pornography have to do with form rather than content, yet The Filth also draws attention to the way pornography’s instability as a category of representation means it always seems poised to bleed into other genres, or be leveled as an accusation against them. As a visual medium, comics have historically been especially threatened by association with pornography, and much of comics history from the mid-’50s onwards is bound up with the genre’s attempt to diffuse and distance itself from such damaging claims. Where Morrison deals directly with these ideas concerning the pornographic intent of comics is in the work Flex Mentallo, an intensely personal account of comic book fandom. In the section that follows, I explore how Morrison uses this work to first acknowledge the pornographic undertones of comics, and then to undermine the conclusions of the anti-comics critics.
Comics as Porn
Linda Williams terms melodrama, horror and pornography “body genres” (“Film Bodies” 3), gaining a particular low cultural status from their crude display of bodily movement. To this list we must surely add the superhero comic, with its obsessive focus on skin-tight costumes and the contortions of highly exaggerated masculine and feminine forms. As well as a preoccupation with bodily display, comics share with pornography their low production values (when compared, for example, to European album formats or graphic novels), their ephemerality, assembly-line production methods, and highly targeted marketing and selling environments.
Their origin as a genre aimed at children and adolescents has left comics particularly open to accusations similar to that of the intention “to deprave and corrupt” we have seen leveled at pornography. The most significant example of this tendency is the American psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham’s 1954 polemic Seduction of the Innocent. This work, along with Wertham’s influence in the Senate Committee hearings of the mid-50s, very nearly succeeded in defeating the superhero, as the culmination of this virulent campaign against the genre was comics having to self-censor with the introduction of the Comics Code.
The arguments laid out in Seduction of the Innocent reflect attitudes and concerns which are already familiar to us from the introductory matter detailing societal fears surrounding pornography. Wertham’s thesis is that “comics stimulate children sexually … in pictures and text, and in advertisements” (175). His principal concern is that crime and superhero comics teach tender minds to associate arousal with masochistic, sadistic, and homoerotic scenarios. The works contain what he perceives as a “mixture of sensuality with cruelty” (178), and many of Wertham’s case studies seek to demonstrate the pernicious way that comics conflate eroticism with violence in the reader’s mind:
One boy discussed the comic book, Crimes by Women. … “When you see a girl and you see her headlights and she is beaten up, it makes you all hot and bothered! If she will take a beating from a man she will take anything from him.” (178)
Recounting an event where a six-year-old comics reader witnessed an older boy taking off a girl’s clothes, he writes: “Ronnie watched a bit, then ran upstairs excitedly, told his mother all about what he had seen and asked her, ‘what’s he going to do to her—choke her?'” (179).
These anecdotes echo anti-pornography rhetoric in insisting on a direct link between fictional practices and desires depicted in a text and the real life practices and desires of the reader/viewer; in particular, the risk of normalizing the objectification of and violence against women. The fear expressed is markedly similar to that of second-wave feminist writer Ruth Wallsgrove, who asserts that pornography is “violent and misogynistic, and nothing to do with the free expression of ‘healthy’ sex, but rather the truly ‘perverted’ desire to trample on another human being” (4). Indeed, it is part of Wertham’s thesis that comics represent a sort of primer in perversion, teaching sadomasochism to adolescents and preparing them to receive it in more extreme forms. In discussing the paratextual advertising material, Wertham draws particular attention to the way the same products (body enhancers, emollients) advertised in scurrilous adult magazines are repurposed for children and adolescents:
In the semipornographic, semiobscene magazines for adults sold at the newsstand, some of the same products and some of the same advertisers can be found. Sometimes the names of the firms are different, but the addresses are the same. When these advertisements are in comic books they are slanted to children and adolescents. (197)
He concludes: “The difference between the surreptitious pornographic literature for adults and children’s comic books is this: in one it is the question of attracting perverts, in the other the making of them” (183).
That comics exist not only to be sold, but in turn, to promote and sell other products through their paratextual advertising material leads Wertham to articulate fears concerning the potential of these texts to push adolescent boys (in particular) towards homosexuality through the prominence of unclothed, muscular male bodies. He asserts, “the concern of boys with growth and body build is exploited in advertisements illustrated with photographs of supermuscular he-men (often with big genitals like some of the comic-book heroes)” (208). He warns of the acute danger in such displays of physical male perfection as what begins as a desire to emulate the body type may be transmuted into a voyeuristic sexual desire for it. Wertham ventriloquizes one case study (allegedly a ten year old boy who had begun prostituting himself to men) as saying: “I thought I could be strong, but it didn’t work. All I did was keep the pictures of the wrestlers and boxers and photographs of strong men and muscle men” (210). In Wertham’s scheme, poorly-directed or frustrated looking all too easily tips over into sexual desire. Steve Neale puts it similarly when he writes of the male sex-symbol in mainstream cinema: “the male image can involve an eroticism, since there is always a constant oscillation between that image as a source of identification, and as an other, a source of contemplation” (8). Thus, for Wertham, comics prompt the reader to feel a heady mix of arousal and shame, and it is this twinned emotional response that marks the texts out as truly pornographic.
“Fredric Wertham Was Fucking Right!”
In Morrison’s 2011 part-autobiography, part-history of superhero comics, Supergods, Fredric Wertham is characterized as largely responsible for bringing about the end of what is now termed the Golden Age of superhero comics through a paranoid and self-aggrandizing witch-hunt. Morrison describes the psychologist’s crusade as “predatory […] fevered […] ignorant” (54) and concludes: “Dr. Wertham can take it from me that young readers of Batman saw only a wish-dream of freedom and high-adventure. It is Wertham whose name belongs in the annals of perversity, not Batman’s” (55).
The response to Wertham in Supergods is brusque and dismissive, and Morrison does not admit to there being any grain of truth in his accusations concerning comics’ seedier elements, or the ambiguous fascination they may hold for an adolescent reader. Yet Morrison seems more willing to actually engage with Wertham when he is not speaking in propria persona, but through one of his many fictional avatars: that of troubled comics fan and would-be rockstar Wally Sage in the four-issue series Flex Mentallo. Flex Mentallo constitutes Morrison’s most in-depth and thoughtful response to Seduction of the Innocent, tackling its accusations concerning comics’ potential for pornographic and homoerotic subtext in a complex, but ultimately valorizing manner.
Wertham’s accusations about the sexualized subtext of comics and their effect on readers are first referenced in the comic’s satirical preface, “Flex Time: A Brief History of a Legend in Briefs” (1). The preface purports to give a history of Flex Mentallo as a Golden Age comics hero (in fact, the character first appeared in issue 35 of Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol in 1990). Flex is here described as a product of “Manly Comics,” a vanity-publishing enterprise run by a debauched Southern millionaire:
The self-published comics proved immensely popular with children and servicemen, who failed to discern the obvious subtext (a typical cover depicts a grinning Hercules thrashing Atlas’s near-naked buttocks with a cruel barbed-wire flail), and thrilled instead to the depictions of mythical worlds and mighty supermen. (1)
The statement that 1940s servicemen bought the magazine while remaining blissfully unaware of its homoerotic subtext is clearly disingenuous, and the comic’s status as at least pseudo-pornographic within its own fictional world is underlined by another piece of paratextual material, a black ink stamp over the introduction’s last page marking it as property of a “USED ADULT MAGAZINE CENTRE” (3). Although this preface seems disconnected from the narrative that follows (the character and adventures of Flex Mentallo as described by the preface actually bear little resemblance to the comic proper), the main story maintains and develops these preoccupations. In particular, it explores the way comics are simultaneously denigrated as “kids’ stuff” and as an expression of violent and erotic “adult” yearnings.
The narrator of Flex Mentallo is Wally Sage, a drug-addled would-be musician; another of Morrison’s author-avatars, as much of his story chimes with the autobiographical details given by Morrison in Supergods and elsewhere—particularly his description of his teenage years as profoundly isolated, and the influence of comic books and his father’s CND2 literature on his young mind. Oppressed by the summer heat and imagined threat of nuclear war, the young Wally distracts himself by sketching his own amateurish pornography: “Hot days and nights in jail, drawing Thunder Girl with her tits hanging out of her top or Supernova masturbating with the light-up end of her solar-scepter. Who needs girls when you’ve got comics?” (3.11). It seems that comics represent escapism for Wally, and are a way for him as a socially isolated and awkward adolescent to indulge in sexual fantasy. Yet comics do not always represent an eroticism which is cozy and safe: “First time I read the word ‘oblivion’ was in a comic story: The Fleshless Ones. It was a black and white comic, an ‘adult’ comic” (3.10).
The work in question is a horror comic, possibly of the EC-type that Wertham denounced for their gore and grotesquery. Yet Wally’s use of the word “adult” suggests ambiguity or ambivalence in his young mind over whether this, too, is a source of erotic fascination. Its title, The Fleshless Ones, evokes a state of nakedness beyond nudity—a voyeuristic fascination that involves removing not only clothes from the human form, but skin and muscle. It is also a reference to the state of a body irradiated by a nuclear blast, and thus the comics Wally reads do not enable escape from the threats of the outside world, but contaminate his imagination so that sex and death are once more tangled and inseparable.
Wally’s own superhero creation is Flex Mentallo, originally a Charles Atlas-style bodybuilder in leopard-print trunks—the same kind of figure Wertham denounced for its capacity to provoke shame and illicit homoerotic desire in young male readers. The comic sees Flex investigating a landscape which turns out to be his creator Wally’s subconscious as the latter lies hallucinating (and possibly dying) of a drug overdose. Flex’s journey eventually brings him to a place called Knight Club, which seems to be the area of Wally’s mental landscape that houses all his erotic desires. These take the form of a never-ending orgy populated by superheroes who are legally distinct from—and yet clearly based on—established DC characters like Batman, Superman, Catwoman, Hawkgirl, Robin, Speedy and Plastic Man. As Flex tries to make his way through the club, Wally narrates the scene in looming caption boxes:
That’s what it’s all about in the end. When you come right down to it. Luscious snake-bitches in red rubber, sexy telepaths stripping your mind naked … Fredric Wertham was fucking right! … Fetish dreams of flying women and boy hypersluts. What it’s all about: power-porn for retards, vigilantes racking up the body count. Rape scenes and cut-away costumes. Seagreen musclemen, wet from the ocean. Flexible people tied in sex knots … (3.18)
In this episode, Wally’s subconscious materializes his fear that he is drawn to comics because of their ability to stimulate pornographic fantasy; and, further, that these fantasies are violent and even point to homoerotic impulses beneath his heterosexual self-image (as seen in Wally’s lurking preoccupation with the ephebic “boy hypersluts” and the Sadean elision of gender and bodily autonomy with the descriptions of bodies that are “wet” or “flexible”). As Wally makes clear in his italicized epiphany, these realizations concerning comics’ ability to stimulate “perverted” sexual impulses exactly fit the findings of Wertham’s case-studies in Seduction of the Innocent, and we might read this episode as indicating that Morrison (through a fictional proxy) is admitting to finding some measure of truth in accusations he elsewhere dismisses.
However, there are already some hints that Wally’s paranoia may be unfounded and indicators of a contrary reading. The technicolor fetish tableau which penciller Frank Quitely and colorist Peter Doherty create to accompany the description suggests that the orgy is consensual and harmonious (nothing like the lair of Tex Porneau), and the colorful profusion of the scene will be echoed in the comic’s ending, where it is ascribed a very different significance.
The comic’s denouement involves the shocking reveal that the villain Flex has been attempting to stop is actually Wally himself, who in a fit of self-hatred has tried to destroy all his own imaginative creations, terming them “pathetic fucking power fantasies for lonely wankers” (4.17). Turning on Flex in a pique of Werthamite scorn, he demands: “Look at you! A half-naked muscleman in trunks. What’s that supposed to signify? What are you? Do you know what you are?” The imperturbable Flex’s reply is: “Sure, I’m a superhero” (4.18). In taking Flex’s offered hand, the adult Wally agrees to be the catalyst for the creation of a new imaginative world where weird and wonderful heroes once more abound. The comic ends with an image we might read as another meta-money shot: a flurry of superheroes flying upwards into an emerging sun like spermatozoa towards an egg: an image of synthesis and creativity. The myriad figures of the Knight Club have been liberated from their fetish dungeon and are now out in the open, suggesting both the erasure of Wally’s shame concerning the figures (and the desires they might represent), and also the characters’ potential to take part in new adventures, since they are now free from the boundaries that sequester sexual fantasy from other kinds of narrative. Readers are therefore encouraged to see no binary or contradiction in a superhero’s ability to represent both heroism and desire: to be both “a half-naked muscleman in trunks” and “a superhero.”
Flex Mentallo makes no attempt to deny the substance of Wertham’s accusations concerning comics’ potential to inspire fetishistic and homoerotic desires, but it does subvert and valorize these claims. While admitting that at least part of the appeal of comics to the adolescent or adult reader is their ability to entertain unusual or impossible desires, this is not because the medium is simply “power-porn for retards,” but because it is a medium of limitless possibility. Thus, instead of engaging with Wertham’s dispute about whether or not comics are pornographic, Flex Mentallo seeks to collapse the boundary between porn/not porn as reductive and useless—the text’s protagonist, Wally, must move beyond destructive self-loathing and recrimination concerning his desires to a position of optimism and creativity.
Because Flex Mentallo is a personal narrative for Morrison (and Wally Sage is at least partially a fictionalized version of the author’s younger self), its analysis of the comics genre is firmly embedded within a male subject position. While the narrative suggests that the shameful or prurient associations of comics can be overcome for male readers, it does not substantially engage with the problem of female representation and subjectivity within the genre. An important issue raised by Wertham (which remains unanswered in Flex) is that of comics serving to encourage violence against women and objectification of the female body. This claim is a key element in Wertham’s argument concerning the surreptitiously pornographic nature of the texts: comics encourage the desire to stare at and degrade women, and it is this desire which enables the adolescent reader to graduate from comics to “real” pornography. These ideas suggest an unlikely intellectual alliance between Wertham and feminist anti-pornography campaigners, who (as observed in the introduction) are concerned particularly with pornography’s objectification of the female body.
The objection to pornography on the grounds of its female objectification constitutes a different slant on how pornography is, or should be, defined. For feminist anti-pornographers, it is not necessarily the degree of explicitness that indicates pornographic intent, but rather the mode of looking that it encourages. This approach echoes Mumford’s observation concerning “separate pornographic and aesthetic ways of seeing” (59) in suggesting that the designation hinges not on content, so much as the way the audience is encouraged to respond to a text through its internal directions. In this reading of how pornography functions, it is by no means a separate and distinct genre, but a widespread feature of visual culture. This idea has been most extensively theorized in film studies as “the male gaze” and what Laura Mulvey famously termed “scopophilia” (8), a pleasurable and eroticized looking. That Morrison is aware of the scopophiliac tendencies of the superhero comic is shown in one work in particular, Seven Soldiers of Victory: Bulleteer. As I will argue below, Bulleteer constitutes Morrison’s most direct attempt to comment on and satirize the male gaze in comics, an attempt which is made simultaneously daring and limited by its delivery in the form of a mainstream comic series.
Comics and the Male Gaze
The male gaze is, as Laura Mulvey describes it, “the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” (6). It is a visual mode which stresses the passivity and availability of a feminized object, which is offered to the view of an erotically-interested observer who is assumed to be heterosexual and male. The operator of the gaze is not necessarily literally male, but placed in a “masculine” position of subject, with the object of their gaze a figure that is likewise not necessarily female, but “feminized” because put in the position of passivity and “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 11) culturally associated with femininity.
Mulvey’s scheme has been the subject of much additional scholarship and criticism, particularly on the issues of whether there are alternative viewpoints (such as a female or queer gaze) or methods of subverting it.3 Yet while it is indeed possible to read against the grain of the male gaze (an image cannot force an individual viewer to respond to it with an erotic or controlling interest), to do so does not alter the visual conventions at work or what they elicit. As A. W. Eaton summarizes:
This is because “the male gaze” is best construed not as an empirical concept meant to describe actual viewing practices on the part of audiences. … To say that a work embodies the male gaze is to say that it calls upon its audience to “see” (whether literally or figuratively) the woman represented … as primarily a sex object. To describe this “way of seeing” as “male” is not to claim anything about how all, or even most, men respond to such pictures; rather, it is to note that this is the “way of seeing” proper to someone in the masculine social role, a role which, it should be noted, is avowedly heterosexual (293).
Although Mulvey defined the gaze using examples from Hollywood film, this mode of looking is widespread in visual culture, including “high” art forms such as the classical nude of painting and sculpture, and “low” art forms such as pornography and comics. It is signaled by a set of stylized poses and expressions which are indexical of the (usually) female figure’s passivity and sexual availability. In fine art the female nude is typically recumbent, frontal and with one arm raised over her head, and a demure, self-aware expression (Eaton 291). In pornographic film it is marked by maximal visibility of female bodies (supine, legs spread) and what appears to be a male perspective (first person point of view, hands or erect penis as only visible male body parts) (Schaschek 34). In comics the objectified female figure is often portrayed in the figura serpentinata (or spiral pose) that allows the artist to display breasts and buttocks simultaneously, and thereby maximize the image’s erotic appeal, often in defiance of the rules of basic anatomy or even physics. This scopophilic trend in comics art has become the subject of satire in feminist-aligned blogs such as The Brokeback Pose and Escher Girls, which collect and archive particularly egregious depictions of female superheroes. It is the intent of both sites to ridicule the unnatural, static, and exploitative nature of such images, as well as to highlight their continuing prevalence within the genre.
While the male nude exists and is available as the object of erotic contemplation to the individual viewer, it is not subject to the same visual conventions connoting passivity and openness. As Richard Dyer observes in his essay on the male pin-up, “the image of the man is one caught in the middle of an action, or associated, through images in the pictures, with activity. … Even in an apparently relaxed, supine pose, the model tightens and tautens his body, so that the muscles are emphasized, hence drawing attention to the body’s potential for action” (270). The male nude or pin-up does not coquettishly accept the viewer’s gaze, but typically gazes off at something above the viewer or out of frame (Dyer 267). Thus, as both Berger and Eaton assert, to imagine a male figure in the position and attitude of any famous example of the female nude is to do violence to the original work, “not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer” (Berger 58). For superhero comics, The Hawkeye Initiative does exactly this, inviting submitters to replace the image of posed and seductive female characters with one of the Marvel character Hawkeye doing the same thing.
The Hawkeye Initiative fan art draws attention to a number of gendered conventions within comic book art: the tendency to foreshorten or contort the female form in order to maximize erotic appeal; the disingenuous way these images suggest “action” or “strength” while actually serving only to make the female character more visually available; and the widespread acceptance that erotically self-aware posing is somehow “natural” for female characters and “unnatural” for male ones. Furthermore, the website’s highlighting of the very prevalence of the images it is reacting against demonstrates that comic readership is still overwhelmingly assumed to be male and heterosexual.
Morrison’s Bulleteer evokes similar anxieties concerning the visibility and vulnerability of the female body in comics, as well as its subjection to an overtly male and heterosexual gaze. It forms part of a larger work Seven Soldiers of Victory, a DC Comics mini-event series, following the adventures of the seven protagonists in their separate (but interlinked) quests to defeat the invasion of a time-traveling enemy called the Sheeda. The protagonist of the Bulleteer arc is Alix Harrower, a woman whose body is covered in an experimental metallic alloy that gives her powers of super-strength and invulnerability. The “smart skin” is the invention of Alix’s husband, Lance, who dies when this substance of his own making suffocates him. In what is essentially a meta-narrative about the process of creating and promoting a superhero, the reader follows Alix’s rise to celebrity status as Bulleteer, witnessing her continuing discomfort with the processes by which she is effectively packaged and put on display.
The male gaze is problematized within this text in a number of different ways, and at a number of narrative levels. The first and perhaps most obvious of these is the intra-diegetic looking of the comic’s male characters. In the case of Alix’s husband Lance, this looking is explicitly pornographic. After his death, Alix discovers on his browsing and email history that Lance had an obsession with a niche pornography—a group of D-list former heroines calling themselves “Eternal Superteens.” One email reads:
SEXY SALLY SONIC-
I can’t stop thinking about how you look in those pictures you sent me, with the bullets just vaporizing against your perfect skin—and the shot of you pouring sulfuric acid across your breasts—wow! My wife is really beautiful, but every time I look at her I see her in ten years coming apart like a piece of cheap tailoring and then I go back to your pictures and thinking about you—I’m going to make myself like you and we can be partners BULLETEER and SALLY … (3.18)
There are explicit echoes of The Filth here in the idea of a meta-money shot. Here, the fantasy is of a woman’s pristine skin splashed not with semen but with deadly and corrosive substances. However, this time the sex urge is not twinned with death but with a covetous obsession with immortality, invulnerability, and youth. That the “superteens” are eternal in comic books implies Morrison intends a dig at the genre itself for its refusal to grow up; a particularly morbid iteration of the Peter Pan myth.
That Lance’s fantasy focusses exclusively on the breasts aligns it with the kind of looking Mulvey terms “fetishistic” (14). In Mulvey’s film-based analysis it is associated with the close-up, and with a desire to control the body by anatomizing and deconstructing it. The heterosexual male viewer’s sense of entitlement and desire to control is given comics genre specificity in the scene where Alix is hounded by stereotypical fanboys at a superhero convention: “‘Uh, can you sign my program?’ … ‘I’ve waited in line like forever.’ … ‘Psst! You should open up your bustier!'” (4.64).
That the reader is implicated in this appropriation and objectification of Alix is made clear by the way the comic sets up and frames extra-diegetic looking. Issue 1 opens with a splash page of Alix in lingerie, facing away from us.
On the side of the mirror nearest the viewer she appears in natural skin tones, while the version gazing back in the cracked glass is metallic. Not only are her near-naked front and back available to our gaze, but so are her present and future, and thus the reader is given access to Alix’s body from every conceivable spatial and temporal angle. In the next few pages she appears in a thong and a t-shirt, and the believability of the (allegedly mundane, private) scenario is somewhat strained by Alix striking cheesecake poses that might have been traced over a pin-up girl. We are invited to look and admire, just as her husband and the comic-con fanboys do, but the reader’s position is even more privileged than theirs, because it enjoys the safety and anonymity that exists beyond the frame: our look is that of the Peeping Tom or voyeur.
Voyeurism is not a neutral kind of looking, but one that “signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze” (Schroeder 208) and which, as Mulvey argues, is always tinged with sadism because of its association with narrative: “Sadism demands a story” (14). The inherent voyeurism and sadistic undertones of comics reading are prominent Morrisonian themes from Animal Man (1989) onwards, as the hapless Buddy Baker gradually gains awareness of his own status as entertainment for an omniscient audience who want to see him suffer and commit acts of violence: “I saw them. They’re watching us. ‘Entertainment,’ he said” (513).
In Bulleteer, the malevolent undertone to the reader’s gaze is underlined by our extra-diegetic point of view becoming aligned with the intra-diegetic one of the assassin I, Spyder. A panel looking through a window shows us Alix undressing, accompanied by omniscient noir-tinged narration:
27 years old. Lost her husband in a science accident that left her permanently coated in super hard synthetic skin. Trying to find ways to make money before her savings run out. How to break through? Where’s the flaw, the weakness, the chink in her armor? Where’s the door in her that death can use? (4.61)
The implication is not only that Alix is such an object of desire that even death wants to fuck her (and is looking for an obliging orifice), but that our looking (at the same angle as the assassin’s, and therefore complicit with it) is willing and enabling this fatal penetration.
It is not only the reader who is complicit in Alix’s objectification, but also the writer, Grant Morrison, and the artist, Yanick Paquette. The visual narrative of the series operates on two levels: that where it is a satire of objectification, and that where it continues to objectify and reap the commercial profits of the gaze. We might ask, does the comic shop walk-in who sees the cover image of Bulleteer #3—Alix reclining in her bustier on a mountainous heap of golden bullets—see a satire on cheesecake, or simply respond to it as erotica (and does it matter, as long as they buy a copy)? Likewise, do readers always “get” the joke when Alix hits Sally with a refrigerator,4 or do they simply enjoy the girl-on-girl violence?
The dual valence of Alix’s body in the text as an erotic object or a satire of objectification is a result of Morrison and Paquette’s chosen mode of address: irony. As Annie Gérin observes, visual irony is highly dependent on an audience’s ability and willingness to “see” the message, and “Certain codes at play in the work might be meaningful only for a limited group” (162). The ironic codification of Bulleteer requires a reader/viewer to recognize its allusions to contemporary debates surrounding gender in comics (the gaze, fanboy culture, Women in Refrigerators) in order to respond to the narrative “correctly.” However, there is no essential bar to reading the text incorrectly: those who are unaware of or uninterested in these issues are welcome to respond to Alix as cheesecake titillation.
A second factor inhibiting the narrative’s potential for irony is the medium of its delivery. Clearly there are limits to how subversive Morrison and Paquette can be while still operating within the profit-driven arena of mainstream comics, and using characters and properties that are not creator-owned. In a very real sense, both Alix and the comic she appears in are objects, things to be bought and looked at; if they are not, the comic fails as a commercial venture for DC. This point can be labored to the point of fallacy—of course, all texts are objects and many of them are created for profit—but mainstream comics have an especially material status because of the production-line nature of their creation, and unique consumer culture (direct marketing, comic collectorship). If Morrison intends Bulleteer to function as a satire of the male gaze in mainstream comics, then as one who helps to produce and directly profits from these works, he himself must be one of the targets of the satirical barb. In writing Alix into her bustier and profiting by others’ desire to see and be aroused by her, he steps (whether ironically or not) into the role of pornographer.
I have shown that Grant Morrison’s work considers the intersectionality of comics and pornography, and the significance of both as denigrated genres within wider art and culture. The article’s opening quotation suggested that Morrison’s view on pornography is a censorious one, and that he views his own work as opposite and counter to its narrative. However, the three texts considered evince a more complex and multi-faceted reaction to pornography and its influence on society. In The Filth, porn appears as a capitalist plague and an enemy of creativity, but in Flex Mentallo, comics’ ability to stimulate vivid and atypical sexual fantasy is part of their creative importance. Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer, like The Filth, concerns itself with the embeddedness of pornography within Western culture, but does so (uniquely in Morrison’s work) from a female subject position, considering the pervasive- and invasiveness of the male gaze both in comics and society. To sum it up another way: The Filth is a comic about porn; Flex Mentallo is a defense of the pornography of comics; and Bulleteer is a confused and confusing hybrid text: part an indictment of the comic genre’s profiteering from female objectification and part a participation in this very act.
A common thread running through the comics discussed is that of the entwined nature of sexual representation and commercialism, whether it be through the activities of a rogue supervillain pornographer or Bulleteer‘s highlighting of the inevitability of female superheroic bodies being made profitable through display. Sex is profit, and for Morrison, the converse is also true: capitalism is pornographic, it is about excess and display, and money is “that ultimate obscenity” (Williams Hard Core 107).
Morrison’s pornographic world is one where everyone is confused by just what constitutes an appropriate object of desire: a strongman in leopard-print trunks is not necessarily arousing, but a moon module or a bowl of pasta might be. Morrison’s characters are the opposite of Justice Potter: they don’t “know” it when they see it, and so they see it everywhere. Because no one is quite sure what constitutes desire, or even sex, everyone is potentially implicated in the pornification of society. The use of paratext and metatextual devices shows that this culpability extends beyond the comic frame and into the “real” world occupied by the reader, the writer, and the artist.
The seeming all-pervasiveness of pornography as it is figured in Morrison’s comics continually returns us to the problem of definition, and of establishing a boundary between pornography and comics as genres. As we have seen, the two are grouped together because of their low cultural status, their focus on bodily display and objectification, their generating cultural fears about a capacity to “deprave and corrupt,” and the specialized circumstances of their production and distribution. Yet perhaps the most important link between pornography and comics is that both genres create pleasure through seriality. As Schaschek writes, “as a film genre, pornography derives a great portion of its pleasure from the recurrence and predictability of its images, and the meaning of the formulaic structure of the genre cannot be underestimated” (2). The same is undeniably true of comics, an episodic form with recurring characters, scenarios and plots that simultaneously comfort the reader with their familiarity, and yet contain the capacity for infinite variation. Umberto Eco describes seriality as an “infantile” pleasure, one which speaks to our need to be reassured by the familiar (86). Pornography and comics are therefore both “childish” and “adult” at the same time. Morrison further complicates this contradiction by having comics embody the best and worst of these two qualities simultaneously. As Wally Sage discovers at the end of Flex Mentallo, it is the case that “Fredric Wertham was fucking right” about the eroticism and depravity of comics, but it is also true that comics are magical and sublime. A half-naked muscleman doesn’t have to “signify” just one thing to a comics reader: he can be an object of erotic fascination, but also a role model or a benevolent mentor.
The ultimate solution to pornography offered by Morrison is not that of imposing definitions or attempting to keep innocence separate from depravity. Instead his work proposes a humanistic and inclusive approach where child and adult, serious and playful, and filth and cleanliness all coexist in one melting pot. The world may be all the better for what Morrison terms “a healing inoculation of grime” (Brady).
 For an overview of this scholarship see Daniel Chandler, Notes on “The Gaze” (1998). http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/gaze/.
 A visual pun referencing the website Women in Refrigerators (http://lby3.com/wir/), a list compiled by the writer Gail Simone and others highlighting the number of female characters in superhero comics who are killed, maimed, depowered or raped in the service of providing male heroes with motivation.
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