Subtext? What’s Subtext?

The latest issue of one of my home-town alternative weeklies features a jokey interview with Phil Jimenez. There’s nothing too exciting in there, but I thought I’d bring it to your attention anyway.

Here’s an example of what I dislike about the piece:

[Jimenez asks, rhetorically:]Why isn’t Batman bi? This is part of a constant need by people in their 30s and 40s to apply complex sexual and emotional ideas upon these characters. Batman was not designed to talk about man/boy love, he was designed to beat up bad guys. There have been some wonderful adult comic book treatments of these ideas, but I would ask how much further we need to deconstruct these characters. What needs are we fulfilling when we mix childhood fantasy with real-world concerns? Anyway, so long as Time-Warner owns them, we will never see Batman go down on Robin.

They even pull out the old “politics and ‘sexual stuff’ cannot be incorporated into a superhero narrative” chestnut! Uh…sorry, but politics and “sexual stuff” are part of every narrative. For exhibit “A” of what happens when you try to pretend that this isn’t the case, see Kingdom Come.

Whilst reading various KC/Incredibles discussions over the weekend, I was struck, once again, by the artificial barriers people take such pains to erect between “story”/”entertainment” and “subtext”. Now, I have nothing specific to say about The Incredibles, because I haven’t seen the film and don’t plan to anytime soon, but I do think it’s odd that anyone would insist upon either “enjoying” the film or “analyzing” it. You see this all the time though: “Oh, it was great entertainment, but if you start to think about it, it’ll make you sick!” [In a hushed voice] “It’s Nietzschean…” (or Randian, or fascist, or whatever) Well, you know what? It doesn’t become Nietzschean just because you decided to pay attention to this fact. It already was (unless you don’t know what you’re talking about–in which case it probably wasn’t). And you enjoyed it! So what does that say about you? Well nothing of course! Oh, I guess it means that you were capable of being “entertained” by a piece that participates in an objectionable philosophical discourse. But so what? Is that such a terrible thing to learn about yourself? I think Plato is an extremely dangerous thinker. But I still love reading the Dialogues! There’s a lot to object to/think about in any text (even Emerson! even Amazing Spider-Man!), and you don’t have to go spelunking for it either–it’s all right there on the surface! There’s no such thing as subtext.

Good afternoon friends!




  1. How true! I despair of ever understanding what makes people say things like: “I don’t know — is it fair to expect a book to question its own belief system, its own thesis? That’s the kind of snake-eating-its-own-tail thinking that made me skip grad school and head right for a writing job in the real world, to be honest.” (A quote from the aforementioned Kingdom Come/The Incredibles discussion.) If self-questioning isn’t part of the “real world,” no wonder I so often find myself at odds with the way so many people seem to consider and engage with the rest of reality.

    This refusal, from my perspective, to pay attention and carefully read texts is certainly the most annoying thing about online comics conversation for me, and it seems to me to involve a couple of things (which I should probably write about at length on my own blog rather than here):

    1) The unending battle in Western thought between a philosophy of rhetoric and a philosophy of universal truth.
    2) A conception critical reading, inexplicable to me, which includes insistence and reliance on authorial intent, willful ignorance of the text in favor of the author’s claims about the text, and denial of the reader’s interpretive role in reading ((often unstated, but necessary, following from the reliance on authorial intent). (This conception sometimes ‘substitutes’ an attempt by readers to discover the true, intended meaning of the text for interpretation by readers.)


  2. Well, as the source of the quote you anonymously attribute, I stand behind it one hundred percent. I think it’s unrealistic to expect a book like KINGDOM COME to challenge its own theme within itself. And to chastise it for failing to do so seems like nothing more than a needless exercise in academic forensics.

    As for what you consider a “refusal to pay attention and carefully read texts,” I beg to differ. I just don’t look for things in the text that aren’t there.

    Scott Tipton

  3. I’d like to see a whole series on this subject Steven–it’d be wonderful!

    Scott, I think we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on this one… Your way of approaching texts is very different from mine (i.e. I do expect an artist to make war upon her/his own ideas… All of my favourite novels/movies/comics are notable chiefly for the fact that they are coming apart at the seams…)
    And it’s not because I seek out stuff that’s easy to “deconstruct”. You can “deconstruct” any text. The only difference is that, when you feel that the author is in on the absurdity of it all, you can laugh with him/her, instead of at them, you know?

    Too many people (including a lot of writers/artists who think of themselves as “deconstructionists”) confuse “deconstruction” with plain, old-fashioned “unmasking”. Thi is the source of my problem with the “entertainment” vs. “subtext” binary.

    Case in point: “superheroes are adolescent power fantasies”… That’s the “subtext” that anyone who writes about comics has to work their way around. A lot of people, even those who love these stories, have actually bought into the notion that, at bottom, these things are juvenile and reactionary, and that, if they allow themselves to think about the genre at all, it will ruin everything they love about the comics themselves! (maybe that’s true for you, and if that’s the case, then, by all means, forget about what I’m saying, because I really enjoy “Comics 101”, and I don’t want you to stop writing it!) So they adhere to the line that spandex is for “entertainment purposes only” (with the exception of “serious spandex”, which generally does nothing more than demonstrate that superhero texts really can’t deal with “adult problems”…)

    The reason I want to get rid of the whole idea of “subtext” is that it causes intelligent people to go in fear of really trying to understand why they love certain works of art. You can’t “unmask” a text. It’s all mask, and there’s nothing behind it. If you like a text, then you like it, and that’s all there is to it! The enthusiam is there–so spread it out on the table and study it, that’s what I say! It’s more like a map, really. And if it leads us into some unpleasant places, they’re only places within ourselves and our world!


  4. I realize you were being facetious, but I’ve never really understood this idea that has developed that Nietzshe was some sort of fascist monster. I mean, I know it’s born out of people not actually bothering to learn about his work for themselves, and I’m perhaps biased because I’ve always found his notion of the Appolonian and the Dionysian as useful analytical tools…but where did this idea come from and how has it spread so far in the culture.

  5. it’s true Dorian–Nietzsche is a far more complicated figure than his “Nazi” rep indicates! It’s unfair, but when you become the poster-philosopher for a movement like Hitler’s, it’s gonna colour the way future generations see you (never mind the fact that Nietzsche was long dead before any of that stuff got started, and that he had had a famous falling out with his pal Wagner over the latter’s anti-semitic demagoguery…) It doesn’t help that post-Nietzscheans like Heidegger (a brilliant and interesting philosopher in his own right) actually did join the Nazi party!

    My own feeling about the guy is that he’s the German Emerson (N himself admits his debt to the Sage of Concord in several places). The major difference between them is that Nietzsche was more interested in aesthetics, and had no slavery crisis to help him to focus on political/social issues. Neither E nor N were careful to child-proof their metaphors (Emerson’s “are they my poor?”, Nietzsche’s “blond beast” and ubermensch)–that’s part of each writer’s immense appeal!–and both paid dearly for this in the 20th century…


  6. Dave:

    I don’t necessarily disagree at all — if I didn’t think there was more to these characters and concepts than what’s on the surface, i certainly wouldn’t devote as much time to writing and thinking about them as I do.

    I’ve got a degree in literature myself, so it’s not that I don’t see the value of subtext. Where I was differing with Abhay was in some of his more specific examples, such as his view on the book’s supposed racism and his reading on the significance of Superman’s giant plow.

    I just found it a little disheartening to come here and find someone taking my words out of context so as to brand me as the poster child of “willful ignorance and denial.”


  7. Well, as regards Nietzsche, there are actually historical reasons he became so popular with the Nazi party– one reason, actually: his sister.

    After Nietzsche went mad (from contracting syphilis) his sister endeavored to spread his fame. She edited his diatribes against middle-class values into attacks on Jews. She revised his concepts about the individual’s “will to power” and of “supermen” so as to advocate military conquest and displays of power.

    And, of course, anti-Semitism and competitive, militaristic nationalism fit right into the popular European politics of the late 19th century– and not just in Germany either, not by a long shot.


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