Aug 092011

Silk Spectre: Did the costumes make it good?

Silk Spectre: Dan…?

Night-Owl: Yeah.

Night-Owl: Yeah, I guess the costumes had something to do with it. It just feels strange, you know? To come out and admit that to somebody.

Night-Owl: To come out of the closet.

–Alan Moore and Frank Gibbons, Watchmen, Chapter 7, pg. 28

4thLetter on the not-so-latent sadomasochism of Batman and other superheroes, especially in Frank Miller’s take.

three panels from Frank Miller's All Star Batman and Robin, with Batman having sex with Black Canary. The sex is ellided as a lightning strike

Without the mask, Bruce Wayne is just a man. He’s rich enough to throw some wild sex parties, the type with dozens of guests, representation for every fetish, and all the cocaine you can fit up your nose, but he’s still just a man. With the mask, he’s Batman, the Dark Knight, avenger of the innocent, savior of the world, and secret weapon of the JLA. The same goes for Black Canary, to an extent. She went from bartender to superheroine, and all it took was a short temper and a costume. A semantic change, perhaps, but a change nonetheless.

Throw some furry handcuffs, role playing, or a blindfold into your normal human sexy times and look what happens. Now, imagine that magnified times a million, amped all the way up to superheroic proportions. The constant threat of violence, the hyper-emotional states you flash through over the course of an issue, and the sheer fact that you’re two people wearing more or less skintight, fetish-y crimefighting gear all add up to something more than we can ever get in real life. Everything is heightened for the story. The mask is the gateway to greatness. Normal relationships are out of the question. Superheroes are too big of an idea to bother with the mundane.

Add to that a penchant for self-styling, for coming up with a name and introducing yourself with it. Again, I keep coming back to initiation.

Something that occurred to me after reading Marc Millar’s Kick-Ass, is the importance of origin stories, which are narratives of initiation. And there’s a strong sense that Kick-Ass’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t have one. Kick-Ass has personal tragedy: his mother died. But there was no street criminal, no exploding planet. She got cancer and died. There’s nobody to punch. As Kick-Ass and Red Mist say earlier, “Our origin is we were bored.”

When he encounters Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, he’s awestruck. Big Daddy wears a costume, he fights criminals (far better than anybody else in the story does, except Hit-Girl), he has a code name. So, why isn’t he a superhero? Why is he “just an asshole, like you [Kick-Ass]”?

Because his origin story, about a cop who lost his wife to the mob and took his baby daughter along on his missions of vengeance, is false. Big Daddy eventually tells Kick-Ass he was an accountant and comics collector who got bored, kidnapped his infant daughter, abandoned his wife (who is alive) and went underground, living on selling his comics. Killing mobsters seems to grow out of the story he told his daughter about where her mom is and why they live the way they do.

What links Kick-Ass with Big Daddy, in the latter’s mind, is that they were both frauds. Wanting to do good isn’t enough, nor is boredom or depression, nor is even vengeance. What was lacking was violence.

Hit-Girl is an interesting case, because out of the four costumed individuals the story offers, she’s the only one who takes the superhero identity on in good faith. Not because her origin story is true, but because she believes what her father told her completely. She believes she has survived a violent tragedy, and that makes her the only real superhero.

The narrative of Kick-Ass gives the character a bit of an out. He gets the costume and does half-assed superhero things, but he’s not a superhero. He looks and acts like one, but he’s not. He’s as much of a fraud as Big Daddy. However, by acting this way he ends up in a situation in which he is beaten repeatedly and, the important part, comes back stronger. He fakes it until he makes it. Act like a superhero long enough and you’ll get an origin story.

The first of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies highlights this when he first tests his abilities against a professional wrestler, and the arena’s master of ceremonies literally gives him a new name as he enters a new realm.

Initiation into a new world of wonders via giving and taking violence. Sadism and masochism. Once you’re in, you feel different. You relate to the physicality of yourself and other people in a different way. You don’t think, “Ew, I hate needles.” You think, “How many needles could I take? How will they feel?” You have secrets, new names, special clothing and equipment hidden away in the back of the closet, new jargon and customs to learn, new abilities to master. You have things in your mental landscape you just can’t explain to most people, and when you’re in a situation where you’re with others who get it, it’s a special kind of relief.

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