I am relaxed (The Main Man)

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Content warning: discussion of toxic masculinity and implied rape threats

It’s November 9 and 16, 1996. The top song both weeks is “No Diggety” by Blackstreet feat. Dr. Dre; Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Donna Lewis, and Los Del Rio make up the rest of the top five, though the order varies between weeks. At the box office, Ransom opens at number one the weekend of the 9th, and Space Jam does the same on the 16th.

In the news, Bill Clinton is reelected as President on the 5th. NASA launches the Mars Global Surveyor on the 7th. A cyclone kills over 2,000 people in Andhra Pradesh, India on the 8th. And it’s a bad time to fly: a Nigerian plane crashes into the Atlantic on the 8th, killing all 141 people on board, and a midair collision between a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight and a Kazakhstan Airlines flight over New Delhi, India kills over 300 people on the 12th.

On Superman: The Animated Series, we have the two-part episode “The Main Man,” introducing the comics character Lobo to the DC Animated Universe. Created in the 80s as a villain for The Omega Men, Lobo largely faded into obscurity until he was resurrected as an antihero in the 90s. According to co-creator Keith Gillen, Lobo was intended as a parody of Wolverine and the Punisher, a selfish, remorseless, violent, absurdly heavily armed bounty hunter with a nasty attitude who could heal near-instantly from the most gruesome injuries. Which makes sense of his revival in the 90s, since Wolverine and the Punisher (and Wolverine-as-the-Punisher) were the template for the boom of absurdly overmuscled, massive gun-toting, trigger-happy mass murderers that dominated the comics of the decade.

A character who once killed Santa Claus at the behest of the Easter Bunny might seem an odd choice for a children’s cartoon, especially one which has already positioned itself as the (literally) lighter, more optimistic answer to Batman: The Animated Series, but then on the other hand the first word that comes to mind when considering Lobo is “cartoonish.” Everything about this type of character is an absurd caricature; the only difference between Lobo and the constipated stacks of guns and biceps which emerged from the pens of Rob Liefeld and his ilk is that Lobo’s creators know he’s a parody.

The second and third words which come to mind regarding Lobo and the panoply of characters he parodies (despite predating most of them) are “testosterone poisoning.” That is to say, Lobo’s entire character is about toxic, fragile masculinity. He exists in a state of permanent swagger, constantly positioning himself as the most powerful, most violent being in the room. He hits on Lois as an assertion of power, utterly unfazed that she is repulsed by him; he is just demonstrating that she can’t stop him from hitting on her, with the implied threat that she couldn’t stop him from going further, either. Later, while gloating at Superman, he comments that he might go back to Earth to see Lois, again as an assertion that Superman cannot stop him. I am not, to be clear, suggesting that he intends to rape Lois; rather, he is saying that he could if he wanted to, as part of a perpetual and toxic need to demonstrate that he is unstoppably powerful, a need which is closely tied to his conception of sex and gender.

Hegemonic masculinity, after all, is inherently about power and violence; that’s what “hegemony” means. To lack power is to be “impotent” or “emasculated”: for the kind of toxic masculinity that Lobo represents, masculinity means having and wielding power, and sex is an expression of that power. Manhood is something easily lost–any weakness, any vulnerability, any failure to dominate is unmanly. Something like Superman’s flirtatious, back-and-forth mutual teasing with Lois early in the episode is, to this mindset, unacceptable, because it requires treating each other as equals.

Lobo is not the only example of this toxic need to dominate; the Preserver presents another side of it. He is a curious choice of villain, with an interestingly symbiotic relationship to last episode’s villain Brainiac: Brainiac destroys entire worlds and countless species to freeze them in a moment of time that he can remember forever, while the Preserver collects the last survivors of destroyed worlds and species. To the Preserver, it is not the information that matters but the rarity, as he builds a collection of unique and special entities, carefully sealed in transparent containers designed to keep them safe so that he can view them but never interact and look let’s stop pretending I’m not talking about comic collectors.

After all, the other major thing going on in superhero comics at this point, besides the rise of toxically masculine musclebound murderers, was the speculator boom. With the shift of comic sales from newsstands to specialty shops in the 1980s, the audience shifted as well. Comics were now something which had to be actively sought out by the buyer, which meant a smaller, more dedicated audience. If you didn’t already buy comics, it was quite easy to never see a comic for sale at all, which meant the business of comics became less about bringing in people who didn’t read comics at all, and more about getting people who already read comics to spend their money on your comic. One of the ways in which companies did this was by playing up comics as an investment; rather than periodicals to be read once and then thrown away, as implied by flimsy construction and cheap printing, the ephemerality of comic books was pushed as a reason to keep them until they became rare antiques. Increasingly fanciful gimmicks aimed at these collectors–first issues, “zeroth” issues, alternate covers, foil covers, holographic covers–became commonplace as publishers fought to expand their piece of a shrinking pie.

The Preserver is one of these collectors. He clearly cares not at all for the creatures he collects, as witness his complete lack of interest in the fact that Lobo and Superman don’t want to be prisoners; the only reason he provides tailored environments in the cages and display cases is preserve his specimens. It is the ownership, the possession, which matters to him, not the creatures themselves, just like a comic collector buying a comic to put in a plastic sheath and preserve in mint condition, preventing it from ever being read. A mint comic is a wasted comic, a piece of art owned instead of appreciated.

His closeness to Brainiac–both in the sense of appearing in consecutive episodes, and in their curiously symbiotic relationship–is no accident either. Several shots throughout the second part of “The Main Man” depict, as a background detail, the mind-controlling, parasitic villain Starro as one of the Preserver’s collection. Starro presumably ends up in the Fortress of Solitude along with the other animals at the end of the episode, and there he stays until he becomes the villain of a two-part episode, set 20 years later, aired three years later, on another show. In comics, this kind of absurd callback–an entire story hinging on a background detail of an issue of a different comic released years prior–started becoming more common in the late 60s, but its frequency greatly accelerated in the 1980s with crossover events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths. The contraction of comics’ audience to a small pool of dedicated fans was tailor-made for this kind of writing, which rewarded the careful curation of a mental library of tiny details gathered through years of reading every issue of multiple comics, and also encouraged curious fans who hadn’t read the comic with the background detail to find and buy it at the specialty shop.

Unfortunately, this approach to text has side effects, one of which is that it enslaves writers to the tyranny of dead stories. Instead of living, amorphous tales which change with the teller and the telling, stories become fixed in a single form that cannot be contradicted, creating an ever-shrinking ideaspace within which to tell new stories. The need to catalog, collect, collate, and curate continuity requires freezing it, killing it; where the Preserver is a collector, Brainiac is a continuity hound. What we see here is the degree to which they are fundamentally related, because both are ultimately about possessing instead of experiencing; one neglects and the other destroys what they claim as their own, and thus neither gets to actually enjoy it in and for itself. Superman cannot be Superman, Lobo cannot be Lobo, in the Preserver’s cages or Brainiac’s memory banks; they can only be looked at from afar, through plastic. They must be suppressed, Lobo by gas and Superman by red-sun radiation, so that they can be contained and controlled.

Both the Preserver and Brainiac, in other words, are about possession as an assertion of power. They are seeking hegemony, Brainiac demonstrating his superiority to others by possessing knowledge inaccessible to them, the Preserver by possessing unique creatures that therefore cannot be possessed by others. Brainiac’s power takes the form of dominating the trivia contest, the Preserver’s the form of “I have it and you don’t.” The fundamental similarity of these approaches to Lobo’s violence is exposed when the Preserver reveals his true, monstrous form and attacks Lobo and Superman; at its core, this is the same need to dominate, just channeled in a different way.

Superman’s power, on the other hand, is positioned as being fundamentally different. Just as his teasing with Lois is contrasted to Lobo’s aggression (note the implied violence of the phrase I used for it before, hitting on her) in the first part, their positionality relative to women is more subtly contrasted again in the second. Where Superman is caged alone–complete in himself–Lobo is given two scantily clad female-presenting robots to wait on him. Given someone to dominate, he is happy, and the mise-en-scene is cheesily complicit in his dominion, with smoky saxophones playing while the camera focuses on the robots’ butts. Until Lobo fails to comply with the Preserver’s control, at least, at which point their jaws unhinge and hoses emerge to gas him. It is about as subtle as the vagina dentata in “Pretty Poison”: they are temporarily decapitated by phalluses that allow them to dominate and control Lobo.

Once free, he subjects them to the male gaze once more: one of the defining features of the male gaze is the way it dismembers female bodies, often by metaphorically decapitating them by placing the top edge of the frame at the neck line, because what the camera is interested in is breasts, butts, and legs. Lobo makes this literal, first destroying the robots’ heads, then their arms, so that they momentarily are nothing but torsos with legs, before falling apart entirely.

This is where the contrast to Superman comes in: the very next shot is a slow pan up Superman’s legs and torso before finally reaching his face, precisely the kind of camera motion that, if he were a woman in a similarly tight, bodyhugging costume, would be accompanied by cheesily smoky saxophones and possibly a wolf whistle. Superman is being positioned as an object of desire; specifically, given the position of the camera and the fact that we just saw Lobo enforcing the male gaze on the robots, he is being positioned as an object of Lobo’s desire.

Which is, of course, the joke. Hegemonic masculinity is reflexively homophobic: if masculine sexuality is about asserting power over the object of desire, then to be desired by a man is to have someone else assert power over you and therefore to be emasculated, while at the same time to desire sex with a man is to desire for him to assert power over one and therefore to be emasculated. Hegemonic masculinity is always fragile, but it is particularly fragile to homoeroticism, because both the subject and object of the desire are emasculated. Yet Lobo’s combination of biker outfit (which in isolation is an attempt to broadcast toughness and defiance of social order) and porn-star mustache (which in isolation is an attempt to broadcast sexual power) screams “leather daddy,” just as his male gaze positions Superman as an object of homoerotic desire–just as his constant braggadocio and violence don’t so much assert his power as demonstrate how desperate to appear powerful he is. Hegemonic masculinity inevitably self-destructs, because the constant need to appear powerful creates unavoidably huge vulnerabilities; hegemony is inherently fragile and toxic.

Superman’s power, by contrast, is shown to not be fragile at all. Unlike Lobo, his real power cannot be taken away: even sapped of his superhuman abilities in the cage, he is able to find a way to get free by relying on the power of others (in this case, a rhino-like alien that he tricks into shattering his cage). Even though Lobo has his full strength and Superman is only partially recovered through most of their escape, it is Superman who leads the way, his willingness to (for example) ask Lobo for help fighting the snake-like alien demonstrating that he feels no need to prove he is powerful. Through wit, manipulation, and straight-up asking for help, he is able to recover his powers and return to Earth. Through it all, he is shown to be comfortable with not dominating a situation, from his conversation with Lois early on to his willingness to rely on others.

Even his decision to take possession of the Preserver’s collection is depicted as an act not of dominance but of caring, with Lobo asserting that he would have let them die, but Superman expended effort to save them and bring them to the Fortress of Solitude. It is the same action as the Preserver, but the motivation is different: Superman is rescuing endangered creatures, not investing in rarities. If the Preserver is a comics collector buying up comics for future rarity value, Superman is the archivist who builds a library of already-rare comics to ensure that they continue to exist.

In short, Superman is depicted as possessing a different sort of masculinity from hegemonic masculinity, and a different sort of power than hegemony. The key difference is that his is less performative and less fragile; like Superman himself, his masculinity is invulnerable. The implication is that his power and masculinity (which have been decoupled from one another as far as such a decoupling is possible within a culture of hegemonic masculinity, which isn’t very) are therefore also non-toxic–but that remains to be seen.


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