Thursday, June 05, 2003


Just rediscovered "Dressed for Success," an internet essay by some guy named Meesh written in those crazy hazy days in the aftermath of 9/11/01. In it, Meesh! (responding to a brash statement apparently made by the otherwise wise and wonderful Grant Morrison in shock after the collapse of the Twin Towers) offers 10 reasons why America still needs costumed superheroes and why superheroes still need their costumes.

Some of the reasons: because disguises are cool, they're practical, they're intimidating; because comic book stories reconnect us to our childhoods, etc. You can read the entire list for yourself if you like; it's a nicely written essay (and Meesh!'s entire "Comics of the 80s" site contains both food for thought and lots of sexy comics panels). But what I want to focus on is this part:

"Any first-year anthropology major can tell you about the symbolic significance of masks among primitive tribes; how the wearer of a mask becomes something greater than himself once he puts the mask on. In other words, the simple act of putting on a mask or ceremonial costume allows the individual to sublimate his own personality and assume a new, more potent identity. I submit that this psychological 'trick' is an invaluable tool to our modern-day super-heroes, as well.

"Think about it. You're a rational human being, whose body and mind have been honed to near perfection. You have a plausible motive and the means to become your own one-man army on crime and corruption, and yet there's something holding you back from leaping willy-nilly into the fray. You recognize it for what it is: doubt. And you recognize that doubt as the one thing that will someday get you killed. So what do you do? Answer: Get yourself a talisman -- something that separates your 'secret-identity' self from the being you become when you go fight crime. And what better talisman can there be than a costume that literally covers your 'other' self?" [italics are author's]

As I see it, those same issues apply whether you're a one-man army or simply a kink-loving queer on your own personal journey. Your armor can be leather, rubber, lycra, fur, a uniform, whatever turns you on. My batsuit is a place to hide from the "real" world, but also a chance to expose a side of myself I once kept hidden. I can relax in it, but also confront some of the things I fear most (death, self-doubt, loss of control) on my own terms, albeit in a metaphorical way.

I'm using the ideas of costuming and masking interchangeably here in an effort to engage those of you whose specific erotic interests are slightly different than my own, but I guess it's important for the purposes of this discussion that the guise you adopt be one which alters or conceals your everyday appearance, and masks tend to do that best of all. (Let's not get into the amusing conceit that nobody recognizes Clark Kent once he removes his glasses, musses his hair, and slips into a change of clothing -- a subject best covered by a "Saturday Night Live" routine with The Rock playing Superman, who turns out to be the only person fooled by his half-assed attempt at deception.)

When you've got something obscuring most of your facial features and the color of your hair (along with garments you don't usually wear), you grant yourself temporary permission to transcend the limitations of your body--your personal history, the judgments others make about you based on your appearance, etc. Drag queens and leathermen know plenty about this kind of transformation; mere mortals only experience it at Halloween.

I find it interesting that masks are outlawed in many localities. That's generally because they're associated with crime (from robbery to anarchic confrontations with teargas-wielding riot squads), but it strikes me as a way of forcing everyone to limit themselves to a single, inescapable public persona. We're suspicious of masked men (as the Lone Ranger knows all too well), who are thought of as con men or liars. But I see the mask as bearing a different kind of truth.

There are times when I think of Bruce Wayne as the ultimate closet case; he's spent at least as much of his time and money trying to cover up his secret nighttime obsession as he has fighting crime. There is always much confusion about which is his "true self" and which is the phony one. (Although that implies one has to be more authentic than the other, and I suggest that each role has its own crucial place in his life.) One of the things that fascinates me about the myth (aside from the tights and the bondage, of course) is the contradiction at its very core: the vigilante hero's calling obliges him to adopt a disguise and work outside the usual channels, but instead of allowing him to disappear into the night, his getup screams for attention. It makes him both a target and a celebrity. (The official constructors of the myth keep going back and forth about that last part: on the TV show. in the movies, and in the comics of the 50s and 60s Batman is very much a public figure who is not above making personal appearances in broad daylight, while the earlier and later comics (and the animated series, if I remember correctly) depict him as exclusively nocturnal and often something more like an urban legend. Either way, though, his striking and unconventional appearance can't help but call attention to itself, and it would do so even more if a real-life Bruce Wayne tried to pull off something so outrageous.)

If you're interested in the deeper meanings of masks, allow me to recommend a couple of bat-tales which explicitly address the subject, both of which are available in softcover book form from DC. The first half of the story arc compiled as Robin: A Hero Reborn (by Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle and Steve Mitchell, first published as issues 455-7 of the Batman comic) is built around compelling quotes from The Encyclopedia of Magic and Superstition (no author cited) as it portrays Tim Drake's decision to don the mask of the new Robin --AND it contains some very hot images of Batman bound and suspended upside-down by the Scarecrow, to boot. Bryan Talbot's story "Mask" (originally in issues 39-40 of the once-excellent Legends of the Dark Knight comic books, later republished as Batman: Dark Legends) is a beautifully told adventure about a villain fucking around with the sanity of a captive Bruce Wayne.

Probably the best, most detailed discussion of the deeper implications of masking that I've ever seen is Walter Sorell's book The Other Face: The Mask in the Arts. I stumbled across it in my public library years ago and I'm sure it's long out of print, but it's well worth haunting your local used bookstore in search of a copy. I'll end this entry with a typical passage from it:

"The mask is the beginning, trauma, and essence of all metamorphoses, it is the tragic bridge from life into death, it is the illusion of another reality, or the disguise with which man reaches reality on a higher plane, stronger in its awareness, clearer and more concrete in its expression than the elusive image of reality itself. The mask contains the magic of illusion without which man is unable to live."

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