Come Out and Pray

(Soundtrack: Ramones Leave Home)

I’m pretty excited! On Friday, I received my teaching assignment for the Fall:

130 Writing: American Radical Thought

Involves drafting, revising, and editing compositions derived from readings on American radical thought to develop skills in narration, persuasion, analysis, and documentation. Instructors can organize course readings around any combination of topics: conquest and revolution, natural rights, socialism, technology and its problems, radicalism of the 1960s, and capitalism and expansionism. The course will examine the assumptions and positions of radical thinkers and organizations as well as assess their impact and influence on social change and policy.

Plan “A” is to build the course around a discussion of the abolitionist movement. Plan “B” (which would be plan “A” if I was certain of being allowed to do it) is to base the whole thing on Animal Man #1-26.

Naturally, I did a lot of thinking about “American radicalism” over the weekend. Is there anything distinctive about it? Well, yes and no. It’s really just “bourgeois radicalism” (which can be found in any Calvinist-based culture), only purer, because undiluted by the traditionalist Medieval hangups that people like Jim Kalb want to retcon into the origin story.

In Europe, radicalism has tended to run on a rhetoric of “class consciousness”–although, of course, even there, most advocates of the “Proletariat as Revolutionary Class” were not workers themselves… In America, this rhetoric has been conspicuously absent from successful campaigns against oppression. While John Brown, the IWW, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X made their feeble attempts to “fight the power”, their more enlightened comrades busied themselves with the task of yanking the mittelamerikan heartstrings… Sustainable progress is never forced upon society by an oppressed minority, it is conceded by an embarrassed majority, through the agency of a miraculous rejection of class interest. In the nineteenth-century they called this “Come-Outerism”. More recently, it has gone under the alias of “liberal guilt”–and it was a wonderful thing, before Reaganites labeled it “malaise” and declared it bad for morale… Of course it’s bad for morale! The “city on a hill” is no vacation spot, it’s a panopticon–proximity to God brings a more intense scrutiny upon inevitable abuses, not a divine “attaboy!”

Does this have anything to do with superheroes? Is it a coincidence that the purest bourgeois culture in the world produced this unique genre? Of course not! The superheroes that I’m most interested in (those in the Ditko-Gruenwald-Morrison tradition–with Superman as a precursor) explicitly reject the idea that their powers ought to be used to satisfy any of their personal needs (including the Batman/Wolverine/Punisher-style need for vengeance/personal aggrandizement…) I should add, as a corollary to that statement, that this is why the ol’ secret identity chestnut is so crucial to the genre. When Peter Parker puts on his costume, he’s saying: “okay, this has nothing to do with me and what I want anymore–this has to do with my power to help others” It’s like a middle-class person agreeing to pay taxes in order to help ensure that everyone has access to medical care. It’s not “charity”, it’s a duty–and, just to insure against any confusion on that point, it’s best that the benefactor remain anonymous… In this way, superheroes obey Dickens’ (“Bourgeois radical” extraodinaire) famous directive: “It is required of every man that the Spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and [webswing] far and wide…”

Of course, this doesn’t apply to characters (like Batman) whose secret identities are merely hiding places and offer no resistance to the hero’s restless spirit. We called this “failing the Rorschach test”, and I would agree that their stories yield easily to the “fascist critique”. Is it any wonder that this type of character enjoyed an overwhelming surge in popularity during the eighties–when the “liberal guilt” model of democratic citizenship went into eclipse? Again–this is why Morrison and Gruenwald are so much more important than Miller and Moore: the latter pair inadvertently helped drive a Reaganite stake into the heart of profoundly liberal genre, while the authors of Captain America and Animal Man gave us superheroes as fragmented subjects instead of willful monoliths!

Tomorrow, I’ll start looking at some of the problems with “come-outerism”, beginning with Stanley Elkins’ celebrated theories about the limitations of bourgeois activism!

Good Afternoon Friends!


  1. I disagree with you about Batman’s secret identity. Or more to the point, Batman has *two* secret identities: a constructed Bruce Wayne, the idealized playboy, and a constructed Batman, the idealized avenger. Beneath both lies the true Bruce Wayne, and it is that man (crystallized by trauma, frozen emotionally in his childhood) who is the real person.

    I may go more into detail later, after I get done with Superman.

  2. Good stuff lately Dave.

    I’m not so sure that Batman and Peter Parker neatly fit the categories you set up though. Personal aggrandizement fits for Wolverine, but Batman and Spider-Man both have a large element of trying to overcome the guilt of “allowing” loved ones to die at the hands of criminals as a motivating force. I have a harder time than you though in separating the vengeance motivation from the power to help others motivation.

    And I hope your not done with Conway’s Spider-Man run yet. After reading your ideas, I am willing to concede that Conway established Mary Jane Watson as a viable character and I find the scene you posted from issue 122 powerful, but I’d like to see more of what you liked about the run.


  3. thanks H–I’m not done with the clone saga by a long shot, but I do tend to go off in a million directions at once, don’t I?

    and to both H and Matt–I’m willing to entertain as many thoughts about Bats as you guys feel like serving up! I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never really given the character a chance–but it does seem to me that, regardless of which mask he’s wearing, Bruce Wayne always wants the same things, whereas Peter Parker really does live in two completely different worlds… (perhaps my thoughts about the Dark Knight are too much in thrall to Frank Miller’s interpretation?) In any event, I’d love to be proven wrong!


  4. Actually, I don’t think Batman is usually depicted as feeling guilty about what happened as much as enraged and even outraged by it: unlike Peter Parker, even if Bruce Wayne *does* consider himself culpable, he was just a child and probably couldn’t have done anything. (I have seen an interpretation that had him blame his *father* for not wrestling away the gun, however): Peter Parker knows he *is* responsible for his Uncle Ben’s death, due to his own selfish inaction. For Peter, there can be no retribution, since he is in effect the guilty one in his mind. Peter blames himself: Bruce blames the world.

    My take on Batman’s pretty simple, and is in fact inspired by a very logical outcome in Mark Waid’s less than grand run on JLA: at one point he has an alien force called the Cathexis split the JLA between their human and superhuman identities. Soon, the human selves begin to suffer from various problems due to the loss, while the superhuman ones are also strangely afflicted.

    Waid has Batman grow more and more detached, quiet, eventually leading to a powerful moment where Aquaman (who has not been split, since he doesn’t consider himself to *have* a dual identity) pulls the mask off to find a mannequin-like blank face underneath the cowl. Meanwhile. Bruce Wayne has been going slowly psychotic under the pressure of his rapidly exponential hatred and need for revenge without any outlet for it.

    Waid’s argument is that while Batman goes forth to avenge, what he’s avenging is purely Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma. There was no Batman then. If you take all that belongs to Batman out of the equation… the years of training, the gadgets, the Batcave, the costume, the mission… what you’re left with is a very angry man with no means to vent the anger. And it makes sense to me. I would take it even father than Waid did, however.

    I would argue that both the Batman and Bruce Wayne we see are fake. That Bruce Wayne has divided up what the child might consider to be opposing views of adulthood… rich playboy Bruce Wayne, free of responsibilities, a child’s picture of what adulthood might be like (we all remember when we were kids and we thought that growing up would mean we could stay up as late as we wanted and buy as much junk food as we could get, not realizing that adulthood is a lot more complicated than it appears to inexperienced eyes) who dates supermodels and flies around the world… and grim, obsessed, yet strangely paternal Batman (how many teenagers have taken up semi-residence at Wayne Manor at this point? Dick Grayson was actually his ward, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, now the Spoiler and the second Batgirl, not to mention black sheep like Azrael and Huntress that he could dispatch finally yet, like a exasperated but tolerant father, constantly helps out) who embodies both his desire for vengeance against the criminal element and also his wish-fulfillment that someone had been strong enough to protect the family all those years ago. Just as Bruce Wayne is almost a parody, a child’s idea of what adulthood is like, Batman is almost a fantasy, a child’s desire for a guardian angel and protector figure made real.

    Neither’s the real guy. The real guy is frozen inside at 12 years old (or however old Bruce was when it happened): his worldview, despite (or perhaps because of) his brilliance and determination, is frozen at that moment in the alley and he refuses to move away from it, in fact by dividing himself into the libertine and the puritan, he never has to move away from it, since he can vacation from the extremity of one form of his reaction by retreating into the other, maintaining a false equilibrium via a pendulum-like swing between extremes. If life as Bruce Wayne gets too boring and tedious (as it would almost immediately to someone of his gifts and past) he can retreat into Batman, and if he finds himself burning out he can put on the pretense of Bruce Wayne again for a while. (It’s telling that Denny O’Neill had Bane keep Batman in costume more or less constantly in order to weaken him… both physically and mentally, without Bruce Wayne he was unable to cope with the situation, unable to rest.)

    The real person is the child he was. The other two are just masks he invented to cope with a world he finds hopeless and manichean.

  5. When it comes to Batman, there’s an alternative interpretation that got lost in the shuffle, and that’s the way Steve Engelhart wrote him. In that take, Batman is a part of Bruce Wayne’s overall dedication to justice. This was when the Wayne Foundation, the charitable organization, mattered as much as Wayne Enterprises, the business, and Bruce Wayne had an adult social life. He’d sometimes play the buffoon for particular effect, but he could deal with others in adult ways as well, and Bruce Wayne’s public image was of a very competent man who was sometimes a bit scatterbrained about personal stuff. He did what good he could through business and philanthropy, and put on the costume to deal with the problems those channels can’t fix.

    If there’s a dichotomy between the two takes you identify, David, then he’s certainly on the far side of it from Spider-Man, but he stands there with sanity and self-control rather than overwhelming obsession. That’s an axis that got neglected a lot in the ’80s, and insufficiently attended to since: those characters who may be driven but nonetheless have some self-awareness and can stop themselves, and those consumed by their sundry quests.

    Insight, suitable for later development: the latter are like those unfortunate shamans who enter the spirit world and cannot return.

    — Bruce

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