BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Rick Veitch’s (2005) The Maximortal

9 November 2013


Why does Veitch ascribe the sins of DC Comics to Disney?


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Rick Veitch’s (2005)[1] The Maximortal

One may make a case that illustrations literally drive graphic novels; that even the text itself becomes more of a visual representation than a literary/linguistic symbol. One easily discerns this when Dave McKean supplies the art, as his work almost always elevates a text to a numinous degree—whether in the case of an only middling quality text such as by Grant Morrison[2] or in the case of a very deft but somehow still hollow text by Neil Gaiman[3]—but, as McKean’s own muddled (2010)[4] Cages shows, sometimes whatever story (of a thousand words) comes with each illustration does not necessarily add up to a coherent thing. It seems inevitable that a visual storyteller, especially the more richly the illustrations get made, may have a less sure “control” over the consequences of the meaning of her (or his) illustrations. This results in a sometimes very fruitful ambiguity, of course, but it also means this ambiguity inheres even when an author attempts to clearly delineate a story.  In his succinct criticism of the extension of structuralism out of linguistics and into other domains of human culture, Petit (1975)[5] more than once notes that the basic flaw in such an attempt involves the lack of analogy between the conventional and formal certainty of grammatical structures compared to the usually not conventional and almost non-existent formal certainty of culture forms. In other words, no matter how strangely someone might construct a sentence, the formal features of language and grammar allow readers to determine either (1) a meaning for a sentence or that (2) the sentence means “nothing” (constitutes gibberish). Of course, different people will form different senses of meaning, but the mechanism by which they will arrive at meaning or gibberish remains more or less the same and operates against the utterly conventionalized field of grammar. Nothing like this holds for other cultural forms, so that no ground or basis prevails for determining meaning or gibberish. For a graphic novel that uses no text, more or less as Ott tends to[6] (even though we still find words at times in his texts) or as Gorey’s (1963)[7] West Wing does, poses this problem. Even as we might unambiguously decipher a meaning for any single given frame—since we do in fact have some degree of conventionality about how visual representation works as well as some degree of so-called visual literacy—when we then attempt connect one frame to the next will not, in general, come with or provide the sort of interpretive or formal mechanism available to us as when we connect one word to another (or one phrase to another) in a sentence; instead, we bring our own interpretive thing to  bear on the visual sequence of frames.  The freedom this implies, while fruitful on the one hand, also runs (or will tend to run) against the desires on the part of an author to assert some specific meaning in a story, even if (or perhaps especially when) they overtly maintain a sense of irony or ambiguity about the sequence of images (c.f., Jim Woodring’s work).[8] Comic books, of course, have deployed and taught its readership a strongly linear way of reading visual images—modes of reading that that very often rely explicitly on a verbal text itself to make the desired connections from frame to frame. In these cases, this effectively subordinates or makes the visuality of the comic or graphic form take a back seat to the meaning generated by the words, even though the visuals still actually comprise the most significant portion (I think) of a graphic novel—or so I propose here. As such, outside of the domain of comics per se, many of which have a vast array of conventionalized characters, gestures, use of color, script, &c, we encounter a graphic novels itself, we will find (perhaps especially in authors who stand as illustrators first) them frequently playing precisely with this ambiguity. Having said this, it may also not remain completely unfair to say that illustrators develop less of that kind of facility for (linguistic) “meaning-building” that prose writers must, of necessity, develop acutely in order to effectively write stories. Another way to contrast this involves the difference Jung distinguished between a symbol and a sign. Nichols (1980)[9] summarizes this:

Jung often stressed the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign, he said, denotes a specific object or idea which can be translated into words (e.g., a striped pole means barber shop; an X means railroad crossing). A symbol stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites (7).

In particular, the presence of seeming opposites renders the symbol immune to rational analysis, e.g., the Christian image of the Cross, with its simply crossed lines, denotes simultaneously death and life in a rationally irresolvable contradiction. We might, of course, reason away this contradiction in some way, but Jung explicitly stressed that this meant the transformation of a symbol, along with the loss of its numinous power as a symbol, into a sign. Jung’s emphasis on polarities of opposites within a symbol may represent simply a special case; it may suffice simply to note that the presence of inherently multiple interpretations of visual material makes the visual image more ambiguous than whatever tortured deconstruction we might offer of a verbal phrase of sentence. An image of a superhero, for instance, for all that the author intends it to stand for the good may still have an unavoidably threatening aspect, since nothing prevents that goodness from turning into an evil will to power, as Alan Moore explores often in his ultra-powered figures. If this suggests that visual material will tend more toward the symbolic and verbal material will tend more toward the semiotic (the sign), I would add (from Jung) that one discovers more than makes symbols and would add (from my own readings and experience) that at times verbal material may, contrary to a writer’s desires, uncover something more symbolic than signifying in a text (especially in certain types of poetry). In the graphic novel with text, any clarity the above offers becomes almost undisentangleably muddled because sign (the text), symbol (the image), designated symbols (visual imagery meant to support the text) and symbolic text (verbal material meant to explain the images) all crash together over and over on multiple pages and across one frame to another. I raise all of this because Veitch seems (historically) to have served as an illustrator first, albeit one who worked under the pen of that most adroit (verbal) author Alan Moore on Swamp Thing. To suggest that one finds illustrators and writers implies the rare beast of the writer-illustrator or illustrator-writer, and I will not attempt to identify here cases in point or not. I will hazard only that one would find more advantage in specializing in one or the other, an truly mastering the ethos (of writing or illustrating), rather opting for a jack-of-both trades. And Veitch’s book—as also McKean’s on a similar ground—provides a case in point, particularly in the way it opens and closes on the same thematic material, which definitely has an archetypal (symbolic) sense to it. Either I did not follow the text or my attention failed enough to not dig out whatever clues I might have found, but the figure at the beginning who seems to change sexes and to reproduce with himself/herself remains monumental but vague at the same time. From Veitch’s afterword, he expresses an interest in the notion that given sufficient belief in an idea—in this case the Nietzschean Superman—might actually manifest in culture. On the literal plane, this means the emergence of Superman himself, as a desired and desirable figure in the collective human imagination. And Veitch compares the culturally disembodied superman (no capital letter) as an ideal in Fascist states (like Germany and Italy) to the goofy, literally cartoon-colored version in the pages of comics in the United States, and that the latter “defeated” the former. Whatever problem one wants to have with this dubious historicity—I don’t care to engage or take up that objection—I don’t think he entirely ignores the fact that US Sueprmanism at the time rested in part on an ambient eugenics (a eugenics ultimately adopted by German National Socialism itself, with thanks to the US inventors of it) or that the exaggerated cartooniness of it actually fits with the kind of exaggerated cartooniness  that Tacey (2001)[10] critiques extensively in the US psyche, pointing at the poetry of the early Whitman as an apt case. Along with this project of depicting the social life of an idea, Veitch also mashes together a pseudo-history of the development of the Superman figure in US comics. And this represents, actually, the most serious problem I find myself having with the book. To illustrate the point in just one way, Veitch depicts the ruthless exploitation of Superman’s creators by a thuglike (and gelded) comics publisher. Historically, this comics publisher (with his testicles intact, I believe) Jack Leibowitz ultimately founded  along with others what became DC Comics and thus laid the groundwork for the present-day Time-Warner empire. But Veitch shifts this figure to a (fictional) Sidney Wallace—whose anagram of his first name (cleverly) makes Disney, but in case you missed that, Sidney Wallace’s signature appears in the text in the unmistakable form of Walt Disney’s. At the time of Veitch’s novel, Disney stood second to Time-Warner in the media world; that has since changed. But it still seems a significant and glaring piece of historical revision to place all of the shysterism, exploitiveness, and cruel “business” practices committed by the “fathers” of DC comics on the (not at all innocent itself) Disney Corporation.  This strikes me as deeply fishy and disingenuous, and I really don’t understand why Veitch wants to lie about DC Comics by defaming Disney. In this era of oligarchically consolidated media giants—where something like 95% of our media gets generated by only six media gigacorporations—to try to unsully the DC brand by shifting blame for the sorts of unethical behavior that led, in part, to the virtual (some say deliberate) collapse of the comics market, ultimately makes Veitch’s piece seem like some sort of propaganda piece, dressed up with a bunch of philosophical balderdash about the manifestation of believed-in ideas. That Walt Disney fucked a couple of naïve Jewish kids from Cleveland, OH out of a property that then became the launching point for the whole superhero industry in comics involves a falsification of history, whatever else Disney (as a person or a corporation) has done; rather, Harry Donenfeld and his accountant Jack Liebowitz stand as the primary victimizers. And if DC had anything to do with the censorship brought down by the Comics Code, as Veitch’s book implies (with, again, the blame seemingly shifted to Disney), then we might revisit all over again that consummate hackwork by Fredric Wertham as well, since his (1954)[11] Seduction of the Innocent, grotesquely still in print, played such a crucial role in the Code’s creation. Tilley’s (2012)[12] “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics” documents his overstatements, falsifications, and creation of evidence in arguing against certain kinds of imagery in comics. “Wertham intentionally mis-projected both the sample size and substance of his research, making it out to be more objective and less anecdotal than it truly was” (from here). Heer (2008)[13] notes:

Hajdu[14] is right to point out that Wertham’s ideas of proof were extremely primitive, more forensic than scientific. (Wertham had often testified in court cases, which skewed his sense of evidence.) Wertham thought he could prove his point by stringing together many anecdotes collected from his clinical research, making his claims virtually unverifiable (2)

Tilley further notes that Wertham “generally did not adhere to standards worthy of scientific research, instead using questionable evidence as rhetorical ammunition for his argument that comics were a cultural failure” (403).[15] He presents flawed conclusion based on sampling errors and altered, combined, or excerpted statements from his subjects to create false or misleading impressions. Whatever grounds Veitch infers for DC’s involvement in the Code, they certainly benefited from it inasmuch as it basically destroyed the comics market except for the type of squeaky-clean heroes DC featured. Why Veitch allows this point to get shifted to Disney, and by extension Marvel Comics, remains fundamentally unclear.


[1] Veitch, R. (2005). The maximortal (King Hell Heroica vol. 1). West Townshend, VT: King Hell Press, pp. 1–176.

[2] Morrison, G., & McKean, D. (2004). Arkham Asylum: a serious house on serious earth. 15th anniversary ed. New York, NY: DC Comics.
[3] Gaiman, N., & McKean, D. (1995). The tragical comedy or comical tragedy of Mr. Punch: a romance. 1st paperback ed. New York, N.Y.: Vertigo/DC Comics
[4] McKean, D. (2010). Cages. Milwaukie, Or.: Dark Horse Books
[5] Pettit, P. (1975). The concept of structuralism: a critical analysis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
[6] See especially Ott, T (2006). Cinema panopticum. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books.
[7] Gorey, E. (2009). The west wing. 1st Bloomsbury USA ed. New York: Bloomsbury.
[8] Woodring, J. (2011). Congress of the animals. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.
[9] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.
[10] Tacey, D (2001). Jung and the new age. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge.
[11] Wertham, F. (1954). Seduction of the innocent: the influence of comic books on today’s youth. New York: Rinehart & Company.
[12] Tilley, C. (2012). Seducing the innocent: Fredric Wertham and the falsifications that helped condemn comics. Information & Culture: A Journal of History. 47(4): 383–413.
[13] Heer, J. (2008, 4 April). The caped crusader: Frederic [sic] Wertham and the campaign against comic books. Slate [online] access 2 November 2013 from here.
[14] Hajdu, D. (2009). The ten-cent plague: the great comic-book scare and how it changed America. 1st Picador ed. New York: Picador.
[15] Wikipedia summarizes Tilley’s observations:

Wertham used New York City adolescents from troubled backgrounds with previous evidence of behavior disorders as his primary sample population. For instance, he used children at the Lafargue Clinic to argue that comics disturbed young people, but according to a staff member’s calculation seventy percent of children under the age of sixteen at the clinic had diagnoses of behavior problems [Tilley, p. 392]. He also used children with more severe psychiatric disorders which required hospitalization at Bellevue Hospital Center, Kings County Hospital Center, or Queens General Hospital. Conclusions drawn from flawed sample populations cannot be extrapolated to society at large, leading to sampling error. Statements from Wertham’s subjects were sometimes altered, combined, or excerpted so as to be misleading. Relevant personal experience was sometimes left unmentioned. For instance, in arguing that the Batman comics condoned homosexuality because of the relationship between Batman and his sidekick Robin, there is evidence that Wertham misrepresented the testimony of young men. He combined two subjects’ statements into one and the two subjects had been in a homosexual relationship for years prior. He failed to inform readers that a subject had been recently sodomized. Despite subjects specifically noting a preference for or the superior relevance of other comics, he chose to give greater weight to the readership of Batman [Tilley, p. 393–5]. Wertham also presented as first-hand stories which he could have only heard through colleagues. His descriptions of comic content were frequently misleading, either by exaggeration or elision. He mentions a “headless man” in Captain Marvel while the comic only shows Captain Marvel’s face splashed with an invisibility potion [Tilley, p. 396], not a decapitated figure. He exaggerated a thirteen-year-old girl’s report of stealing in a comic from “sometimes” to “often” [Tilley, p. 397]. He compared the Blue Beetle to a Kafkaesque nightmare, failing to mention that the Blue Beetle is a man and not, in fact, an insect.


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