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A Little More on Metaphor

Good old David Fiore quoted me into his critique of Tim O’Neil’s review of The Filth. That’s how I ended up in Tim’s response. The question at hand is whether it’s worth analyzing your average superhero comic. I think my own policy on that is pretty clear, although so far Peiratikos has mostly focused on analyzing pop culture we enjoy. I think the beauty of material culture is that it gives you something to look at and think about. I’ve never understood why many people are so insistent about classifying certain movies or books or whatever as “mindless entertainment”, since some thought must have gone into creating them and all sorts of commentaries about their intended audiences and critiques of society implicit in them can be made pretty easily. I’ve already written here about subversive sexual politics in a mainstream historical romance novel and I don’t think I’d have trouble analyzing action movies and certainly not superhero comic books.

I’m probably not a standard reader. Although they disagree about the Big Criticism Question, Tim and J.W. Hastings (and plenty of other readers) clearly treasure pure visceral/adrenaline reactions to particularly thrilling superhero sequences. I’m a word person and a pacifist and I don’t enjoy watching people beat each other up. I flip through fight scenes way too fast, meaning I sometimes miss plot points that are obvious to everyone else. And yet I still read some superhero comics and find many incredibly moving, whether dealing with loss or disappointment or love — just not usually ass-kicking. I don’t think these emotional responses arise from some sort of interaction with the sublime or the profundity of the medium but because, as David quoted me as saying, that I think “[superheroes] are perfect metaphors for a lot of things, which I find so fascinating. I think it’s that lack of specificity, lack of groundedness that lets people make whatever identifications they want. It really has to do with any kind of devotion or single-mindedness or dedication, I think. Or leaders or people working in groups or corporate drones, even. . . .”

What I said was just a throwaway comment to my own post on some superhero genre conventions, but I meant it. Note that I did not say, “For a good time, call John Bunyan.Steven has already discussed the dangers of allegory in the hands of bad writers and I think most good writers are wise enough to avoid it on their own. My point was that beyond any critique of geek culture or economics or moral representation, all of which can be interesting and insightful, superhero stories provide plenty of fodder for many kinds of metaphorical interpretations, and these differ from allegory. I don’t read superhero stories to see some mystical one-to-one correspondence between my life or current political situations in the text. Instead, it’s useful to see resonances with the kinds of choices and priorities and ethical judgments and heartaches I read. I can read myself through the text, or see elements of other sorts of problems through the lens of the comic. Just because I thought School of Rock elucidated some of the personality quirks of a someone I know doesn’t mean I think the movie was about him.

And what makes superheroes particularly useful for this kind of metaphorical reading is their polysemy and their divergence from everyday reality. They come with built-in critical distance. Even though there are standard interpretations of various superheroes, I think there’s plenty of room to add more. That’s what interpretation is, seeing a new insight into the characters or having the characters or story help you see something else in a new light, and then following that train of thought. And if Tim doesn’t want to do that, that’s fine, but I’m among the people who do want to analyze and interpret, and I hope to do so in ways that are meaningful for others. Maybe we’ll find out in tomorrow’s episode, when I start discussing Animal Man at last. (I know, that’s what I said last time too. We’ll see!)


  1. David Fiore says:

    Yes Rose,

    O’Neil’s conflation of allegory and symbolism was yet another problem with his post… If you read Captain America thinking that Cap is a “stand-in” for any one thing, you are, by definition, going to have a lame experience…

    I’m looking forward to the Animal Man series!


    — 24 February 2004 at 8:54 am (Permalink)

  2. Johnny B says:

    Well, for what it’s worth, I liked the thematically similar Flex Mentallo a lot more. But I made a lot of review hay of The Filth, and if you’d like to read them, here’s links to my two favorites:

    Review 1

    Review 2

    I thought The Filth was mostly a failure, but an inspired one, and I’m long overdue to reread it in one sitting.

    [2004-02-24 2:43 pm UTC, fixed Johnny B’s hyperlinks — Steven]

    — 24 February 2004 at 4:58 pm (Permalink)

  3. Johnny B says:

    Obviously I don’t have the hang of linking on your comments yet, so here goes nothing. Cut and paste fun!

    [2004-02-24 2:43 pm UTC, got rid of some layout-breaking URLs — Steven]

    — 24 February 2004 at 5:00 pm (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    Johnny, interesting reviews. I haven’t read the Filth yet and am in no hurry. It didn’t seem to be up my alley, whatever my alley may be. I’ll keep an eye out for any re-reviews you might do, though.

    Thanks for dropping by.


    — 25 February 2004 at 3:23 am (Permalink)

  5. The Forager says:

    Comics Foraging: Weird War Edition
    Light Brigade # 1: Peters Tomasi and Snejbjerg’s Light Brigade is getting a heckuva lot of hype for a religious-horror-World War II book. So far, it seems to deserve it. I’m rather ambivalent about the basic premise–a batallion of GIs,…

    — 27 February 2004 at 11:55 am (Permalink)