Monday, May 19, 2008

Freudian Funnybooks: Bizarre Love Triangle

In the 1950s, the gruesome excesses of horror and crime comics provoked a public outcry, resulting in the suffocating strictures of the Comics Code Authority. In point of fact, most publishers were already pumping out comics that were completely inoffensive, but the threat of censorship seemed to have a bizarre effect on comic creators.

Certainly not all, but a lot of post-Code comics went completely insane, and no publisher put out more bizarre and disturbing material than DC with its sci-fi comics and, especially the "imaginary stories" fad.

I'm not talking about the whimsical and knowing hallucinations of a Grant Morrison or Alan Moore in their more playful moments, I'm talking about the work of men driven completely insane by the unreality forced upon them by the Code and the pressures of keeping everything completely inoffensive for merchandisers. 

You can keep your underground comics, if you want to see genuine graphic insanity, check out Jimmy Olsen in the late 50s. Or the pre-Schwartz Batman.

One of the results of this was the parade of inane nonsense in the "Superman Family" of comics, which immersed Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane in a world that was both suffocatingly bland and completely delusional. 

But there was also something else afoot, something that certainly didn't square with the ultra-conservative social weltanschuang peddled in most comic books...

Everyone knows that Jimmy was Superman's "Pal" and Lois was his "Girlfriend" but another personage intruded upon the psychodrama. That was Supe's childhood sweetheart Lana Lang...

...who was the absolute spitting image of Jimmy Olsen when he dressed up in drag. Which he did on more than one occasion, mind you.

Oh, you'll get a load alright, mister....

In retrospect, one really begins to wonder if the writers and editors at the time didn't subconsciously see Jimmy and Lana as being the same person. "Lana Lang" kind of sounds like the stage name of a drag performer, don't you think? Almost like a tribute to Lorna Luft..

Superman's "Pal," indeed!

In fact, in one of Jimmy's cross-dressing adventures he even borrowed Lana Lang's initials. Interesting to see Clark Kent so smitten with Jimmy in drag, considering his superpowers would surely allow him to detect the subterfuge. But then why should he be any different than the mythological heroes he was based on?

Jimmy's feminine wiles were such that even a bunch of mobsters - hyper-vigilant macho men who operate almost entirely on instinct - were driven to jealous violence over him. 

The real-life subtext here is that Jimmy wouldn't have made it through the night without having to pay in kind for this fancy dinner, or the protective punch-up. The whole tableau is like something out of a British gangster movie.

Yeah, go beat it, fellas.

Finally, we see the seasoned newsmen hitting on the outed Jimmy like privateers presented with a fresh cabin boy. The ostensible subtext here is that Jimmy is being teased, but the newsies are drawn looking completely sincere in their solicitation. No one's yukking it up like its all a big gag.

The Jimmy-in-drag stories make it impossible for me to look at covers like this and not wonder if I should read "Superman hates jealous women" as "Superman hates women." 

Eerily, the "emotion machine" strongly resembles a compensatory Sybian device (which weren't even invented when this comic was published). Interesting also to see that Lana usually wears Jimmy's trademark green.

Or look at this cover and notice how masculine Lana is here (she's essentially Jimmy with a mullet). Note that Lana's costume is yellow and lavender.

Or ponder the subtext where Jimmy not only cross-dresses, but appears onstage in a Broadway musical looking like the starting pitcher on the Smith College softball team. The gender-blurring approaches Hedwig territory. 

The 17 on his/her jersey simply throws it all into semiotic chaos.

Jimmy dragged it up even in the 70s, throwing in a minskirt to sweeten the deal. Of course, this means that Jimmy at some point must have shaved his legs, or is the subtext here that he does so as matter of habit? The mind boggles....

The "slick chick" reminds me that comics editors didn't want writers to use the word "flick" because the cruddy printing could render it as the f-word. So what about slick ?

This story is just plain whacked- Jimmy dresses up a woman and takes over as leader of "The Jimmy Olsen Fan Club." This whole story is either a total goof or something genuinely disturbing. As are Jimmy's shorn calves...

...and the boys with their dyed red hair and Jimmy disrobing in front of them? This wouldn't pass muster with a first-year psych student. 

The writer here, Otto Binder, created many female counterparts of popular superheroes like Supergirl, Mary Marvel and Miss America. I'd love to see his analyst's notes.

There's no shortage of Freudian subtext in Jimmy Olsen's Silver Age adventures, even aside from the drag queen tales. Or Jungian, since Jimmy seems to play the Hylas role in so many of those old stories.

This cover is priceless- Jimmy as Superman's hairdresser. Note Jimmy's epicene hand poses. It's hard to imagine it's not, but I'm not willing to bet any of this was conscious; all of these stories play out without a hint of irony or self-awareness. 

But seriously: how can you write stories like these and not be aware of their subtext?

In the screwy world of DC's imaginary story universe, Lois also got her shot at Lana/Jimmy, calling to mind the female-to-male tuxedo drag inspired by Marlene Dietrich, KD Lang and others. 

And what exactly are we supposed to make of a giant muscleman playing the role of flower girl? This is like something you'd see at the Folsom Street Fair. And who exactly is he supposed to be jealous of ? And what's the stuttering all about?

Take out the dialogue and this cover seems quite prophetic, don't you think?