Comics are a visual medium, but so often criticism of the medium hinges on narrative, ignoring or minimizing the visual storytelling and unique structures that make comics so different from cinema and photography. We’ve decided to change that up with a feature that we’re calling Anatomy of a Page, in which we explore pages and panels that showcase the language of comics and how the best visual storytellers maximize the freedom of comics in order to tell stories that can’t be told anywhere else. Today’s entry by Daniel Elkin is on Noah van Sciver’s My Hot Date, specifically page 26 and its simple, succinct but deceptively astute commentary on masculinity and how we behave when no one is watching.
Mongol General: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?
Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.
— From the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian
What makes a man? That is to say, what are the culturally imposed expectations of masculinity.
Are these expectations idealized and thereby unattainable? Are they static or dynamic? Are notions of masculinity a performative byproduct of gender norms and therefore worthy of intense socio-political scrutiny, or is just something inherent in the DNA and unavoidable?
If you haven’t noticed, these sorts of questions have been the center of a great deal of comics criticism lately, and the dialogue they have engendered has resulted in some of the best writing out there. Comics are a typically male dominated medium that tends towards oversimplification and celebration of traditional male idealization,but thoughtful individuals have begun exploring the ramifications of these concepts.
Given this dialogue, the question of what makes a man is starting to be reframed as who makes a man. The act of recontextualizing this question also necessitates reframing the answer in terms of what are the consequences to the individual who does not fulfill the expectations associated with the socially agreed upon construct of masculinity.
Gender theorist Judith Butler talks at length about the cultural history of concepts of gender, but she also draws attention to the “violence that is imposed by ideal gender norms, especially against those who are gender different, who are nonconforming in their gender presentation.”
All these thoughts and questions, in a way, coalesce rather absurdly in a single page from Noah Van Sciver’s recent release, My Hot Date, published by Kilgore Books.
Ostensibly, My Hot Date is an autobiographical comic based on Van Sciver’s childhood in Meza, Arizona. It takes place in 1998 when fourteen-year-old Van Sciver was “poor, ugly, stupid, and embarrassing,” living in a two bedroom apartment with his struggling single mother and five siblings. Van Sciver describes himself at this time as a “stick thin” awkward skate punk with a full head of curly hair who couldn’t keep up with the fashion of the time because of his poverty. He’s gawky, ungainly, and fully self-conscious — when his friend says to him, “You look like an anorexic bitch”, Van Sciver agrees. Still, he masks his insecurity in a projected self-confidence.
Because what he is is a typical teenage boy.
Through the course of the narrative, Van Sciver talks about Colleen, this girl he has been chatting with on-line (using AOL instant messenger), whom he labels his “girlfriend”. Right after Van Sciver talks about his fear of scorpions and the vague notion that, having never met her or talked to her on the phone, Colleen could actually be a “scary dude”, he give us this page:
which has caused me to think about the above questions regarding masculinity.
But first, to the page itself.
Page twelve of My Hot Date features three wordless panels of differing size, dominated by muddled muted colors and clean, crisp inking.
Panel One: Set up. This is an establishing shot, absolutely necessary to understand the entirety. A pasty, shirtless young man looks at his reflection in the mirror, “silver and exact” as Sylvia Plath would remind us, “unmisted by love or dislike.” There is that moment of contemplation, when the person staring into the mirror looks at him or herself and imagines the reflection to be as others see him or her. Van Sciver proclaims his awkwardness in this panel. The unruly hair, the glasses, the stooped posture, the light red in his freckled cheek, framed here as it were against the brown wood grain of the closed bathroom door. The light switch is at the center of the image and it is switched on almost as if announcing a moment of realization. The reflection in the mirror is looser in depiction, more cartoonish and vague — universal inasmuch as we can see ourselves in this.
Panel Two: Juxtaposition. A slightly smaller panel ripped from the pages of a Conan the Barbarian comic. This one drawn by John Buscema (and perhaps inked by Rudy Nebres) which highlights Conan as a shirtless heroic male figure, pectoral muscles bulging hyper-masculine in that way that fulfills the stereotype of strength and power. Here, Conan is tanned with a suggestion of blood on his chest as if fresh from battle. His shining, straight black hair descends past his shoulders. A golden belt cinches his close-cropped, tight loin cloth upon which subtle ink lines accentuate the girth of his groin. He stands ready. His cheek bones accentuated, his mouth frowning as if in disappointment, his eyes stare directly at you out of the shadows — black dots pierce — as if either you are the source of his discontent, his disillusionment, his dissatisfaction. Here, Conan is not looking into a mirror, he is looking at you with a classic “Come at me, bro” attitude — his body is an edifice, coursing with potential energy. He stands in stark contrast to the character one panel previous.
And, through the slight-of-hand that is the experience of reading comics, the connective closure implicit in the careful placement of these panels next to each other, we, the reader, understand that this image of the construct of the masculine ideal is the vision of male virility that young Van Sciver holds in his head. He looks in the mirror and this is what he wants to see.
Panel Three: Payoff. The largest panel of the three. Given the point of view of this panel, the reader is now looking through the mirror, as if we are to view dispassionately the scene before us. Here the juxtaposition of the earlier two panels manifests in what can be seen as humor. The spindly boy flexes in a sad aping of the image in his mind and the wildly disproportionate reality is so vast that, given a particular reading of the page, we get the old bait-and-switch brand of a joke.
Given another reading, though, it’s not funny at all.
But an examination of the elements of this panel first.
The bathroom door remains closed, shutting off access, providing privacy. There is an adage that goes something like, “How you act when no one is watching often reveals your true self”. Here in this quiet, locked away from the scrutiny of cultural expectations, the boy acts according to his own dogma. Here, unwatched in this cell, Van Sciver judges himself in lieu of the fear of others judging him first. Here, in front of this mirror in the bathroom alone, he can, like in that English Beat song, “talk free.” And yet, still, in this private moment, he doesn’t sing or celebrate himself, rather he conceives of himself in terms of the cultural stereotype.
The pink shower curtain acts as background. The symbolic resonance of a curtain should not be discounted in this panel. It acts as a theater motif, as if the boy is just a player on the stage, acting out a character others have written for him. As well, the curtain hides that which is behind it. It provides a barrier between that which we perceive and that which we suppose. Curtains hide the things we don’t want others to view. Finally, Van Sciver’s choice of having it be a pink curtain speaks loudly about gender concepts as well. Through a seemingly random cultural agreement, the color pink is associated with femininity. Having this provide the backdrop to the scene accentuates Van Sciver’s own failures to meet the masculine standards promulgated by the society he inhabits and accentuates his own self-defeating insecurities that such a realization begets.
In addition, the corner of the room is rendered as such to provide depth of perspective as well as further commentary. Through this choice, the concept of being backed into a corner comes to the fore. Due to the forces that shape his understanding of his own gender role, Van Sciver has no choice but to see his own reflection in terms of the ideal. His failure to accept his own body as it is, backs him into a corner of disappointment and self-loathing.
With the yellow towel wrapped around his waist echoing Conan’s yellow belt in the image in the second panel, Van Sciver adds resonance to the adjacency between the idealized and the reality. The expression that Van Sciver chooses to put on the face of his youthful self is, in itself, hard to read. Is it supposed to be seen as a “battle-face” — that which the convention of masculinity demands, powerful, ready for action? Is it supposed to be read as determination or the result of the strain of flexing? Or is it something else?
Van Sciver adds an extra bit of red to the cheeks of the young man here. While the case could be made that this darkening could be a further indication of the force in which the young man is willing himself to live up to the ideal, it could also stand as evidence that he has realized that he is nothing like the picture of masculinity society has foisted upon him. His cheeks redden as he is embarrassed by his failure, or they redden because he hates the body he inhabits solely because it is not what it is “supposed” to be.
At the top of the page, Van Sciver has written the word “Manhood”, thus adding credence to the notion that these three panels are an exploration of the violence created and the toll enacted by idealized, culturally created gender stereotypes on those who fail to live up to the ideal. Van Sciver goes so far as to add a simple punctuation mark, a period, after the word, marking it as a simple expression of fact, as much as adding a tone of sad resolution.
With this page, Van Sciver is offering up another perspective regarding the impact of gender stereotypes in comics. Comics have long been the source of perpetuating a specific idea of what it means to be a man to the detriment of those who, because of reality, cannot conform to that ideal.
This fact brings up questions of why so many men hold on so tightly to their superhero constructs. One must consider why they are so vehement in their outrage when questions of representations of diversity in gender, race, and sexual orientation are asked of their beloved medium when they themselves are obviously not represented in terms of their own inherent masculinity.
Hopefully, as progress is made in the idea of representation in comics, the answer to the question, “What makes a man” will broaden as well, and as that occurs, those who cling so tightly to the past will begin to realize that their shame own making. Relieved of that burden, perhaps they will take off their mask, open the door, pull back the curtain, and embrace themselves as they really are at the same time as they embrace everyone else.
Which, I think, should be the answer to the question, “What is a man.”