In an essay first published in 1948, the American folklorist and cultural critic Gershon Legman wrote about the comic book -- then a fairly recent development -- as both a symptom and a carrier of psychosexual pathology. An ardent Freudian, Legman interpreted the tales and images filling the comics’ pages as fantasies fueled by the social repression of normal erotic and aggressive drives. Not that the comics were unusual in that regard: Legman’s wider argument was that most American popular culture was just as riddled with misogyny, sadomasochism, and malevolent narcissism. And to trace the theory back to its founder, Freud had implied in his paper “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” that any work of narrative fiction grows out of a core of fantasy that, if expressed more directly, would prove embarrassing or offensive. While the comic books of Legman’s day might be as bad as Titus Andronicus – Shakespeare’s play involving incest, rape, murder, mutilation, and cannibalism – they certainly couldn’t be much worse.
But what troubled Legman apart from the content (manifest and latent, as the psychoanalysts say) of the comics was the fact that the public consumed them so early in life, in such tremendous quantity. “With rare exceptions,” he wrote, “every child who was six years old in 1938 has by now absorbed an absolute minimum of eighteen thousand pictorial beatings, shootings, stranglings, blood-puddles, and torturings-to-death from comic (ha-ha) books alone, identifying himself – unless he is a complete masochist – with the heroic beater, strangler, blood-letter, and/or torturer in every case.”
Today, of course, a kid probably sees all that before the age of six. (In the words of Bart Simpson, instructing his younger sister: “If you don't watch the violence, you'll never get desensitized to it.”) And it is probably for the best that Legman, who died in 1999, is not around to see the endless parade of superhero films from Hollywood over the past few years. For in the likes of Superman, he diagnosed what he called the “virus” of a fascist worldview.
The cosmos of the superheroes was one of “continuous guilty terror,” Legman wrote, “projecting outward in every direction his readers’ paranoid hostility.” After a decade of supplying Superman with sinister characters to defeat and destroy, “comic books have succeeded in giving every American child a complete course in paranoid megalomania such as no German child ever had, a total conviction of the morality of force such as no Nazi could even aspire to.”
A bit of a ranter, then, was Legman. The fury wears on the reader’s nerves. But he was relentless in piling up examples of how Americans entertained themselves with depictions of antisocial behavior and fantasies of the empowered self. The rationale for this (when anyone bothered to offer one) was that the vicarious mayhem was a release valve, a catharsis draining away frustration. Legman saw it as a brutalized mentality feeding on itself -- preparing real horrors through imaginary participation.
Nothing so strident will be found in Jason Dittmer’s Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics (Temple University Press), which is monographic rather than polemical. It is much more narrowly focused than Legman’s cultural criticism, while at the same time employing a larger theoretical toolkit than his collection of vintage psychoanalytic concepts. Dittmer, a reader in human geography at University College London, draws on Homi Bhabha’s thinking on nationalism as well as various critical perspectives (feminist and postcolonial, mainly) from the field of international relations.
For all that, the book shares Legman’s cultural complaints to a certain degree, although none of his work is cited. But first, it’s important to stress the contrasts, which are, in part, differences of scale. Legman analyzed the superhero as one genre among others appealing to the comic-book audience -- and that audience, in turn, as one sector of the mass-culture public.
Dittmer instead isolates – or possibly invents, as he suggests in passing – a subgenre of comic books devoted to what he calls “the nationalist superhero.” This character-type first appears, not in 1938, with the first issue of Superman, but in the early months of 1941, when Captain America hits the stands. Similar figures emerged in other countries, such as Captain Britain and (somewhat more imaginatively) Nelvana of the Northern Lights, the Canadian superheroine. What set them apart from the wider superhero population was their especially strong connection with their country. Nelvana, for instance, is the half-human daughter of the Inuit demigod who rules the aurora borealis. (Any relationship with actual First Nations mythology here is tenuous at best, but never mind.)
Since Captain America was the prototype –- and since many of you undoubtedly know as much about him as I did before reading the book, i.e., nothing – a word about his origins seems in order. Before becoming a superhero, he was a scrawny artist named Steve Rogers who followed the news from Germany and was horrified by the Nazi menace. He tried to join the army well before the U.S entered World War Two but was rejected as physically unfit. Instead, he volunteered to serve as a human guinea pig for a serum that transforms him into an invincible warrior. And so, as Captain America -- outfitted with shield and spandex in the colors of Old Glory – he went off to fight Red Skull, who was not only a supervillain but a close personal friend of Adolf Hitler.
Now, no one questions Superman’s dedication to “truth, justice, and the American way,” but the fact remains that he was an alien who just happened to land in the United States. His national identity is, in effect, luck of the draw. (I learn from Wikipedia that one alternate-universe narrative of Superman has him growing up on a Ukrainian collective farm as a Soviet patriot, with inevitable consequences for the Cold War balance of power.) By contrast, Dittmer’s nationalist superhero “identifies himself or herself as a representative and defender of a specific nation-state, often through his or her name, uniform, and mission.”
But Dittmer’s point is not that the nationalist superhero is a symbol for the country or a projection of some imagined or desired sense of national character. That much is obvious enough. Rather, narratives involving the nationalist superhero are one part of a larger, ongoing process of working out the relationship between the two entities yoked together in the term “nation-state.”
That hyphen is not an equals sign. Citing feminist international-relations theorists, Dittmer suggests that one prevalent mode of thinking counterposes “the ‘soft,’ feminine nation that is to be protected by the ‘hard,’ masculine state” -- which is also defined, per Max Weber, as claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. From that perspective, the nationalist superhero occupies the anomalous position of someone who performs a state-like role (protective and sometimes violent) while also trying to express or embody some version of how the nation prefers to understand its own core values.
And because the superhero genre in general tends to be both durable and repetitive (the supervillain is necessarily a master of variations on a theme), the nationalist superhero can change, within limits, over time. During his stint in World War II, Captain America killed plenty of people in combat with plenty of gusto and no qualms. It seems that he was frozen in a block of ice for a good part of the 1950s, but was thawed out somehow during the Johnson administration without lending his services to the Vietnam War effort. (He went in Indochina just a couple of times, to help out friends.) At one point, a writer was on the verge of turning the Captain into an overt pacifist, though the publisher soon put an end to that.
Even my very incomplete rendering of Dittmer’s ideas here will suggest that his analysis is a lot more flexible than Legman’s denunciation of the superhero genre. The book also makes more use of cross-cultural comparisons. Without reading it, I might never known that there was a Canadian superhero called Captain Canuck, much less the improbable fact that the name is not satirical.
But in the end, Legman and Dittmer share a sense of the genre as using barely conscious feelings and attitudes in more or less propagandistic ways. They echo the concerns of one of the 20th century's definitive issues: the role of the irrational in politics. And that doesn't seem likely to become any less of a problem any time soon.