Flagging your identity

Friday’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro (Wayno’s title: “Logo Design”):

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

There’s a relatively straightforward implicature from what Superman says, that there was a time when he didn’t wear an identifying logo — “the big red emblem” — but used only his spit curl (BrE kiss curl) to identify himself.

(Well, there is the rest of the costume, including the cape, but I suppose the idea is that those items would merely identify him as some superhero or another, speeding through the streets and airspace of Metropolis, but would fail to distinguish him from all the others. While the spit curl would have been something unique; it could have been, oh, a goatee, red eye shadow, pixy ears, a big butch metal neck chain, red knee pads with S on them, brass knuckles, high-heeled boots, any manner of things, but a spit curl ought to work.)

As it happens, in his early appearances, starting with Action Comics #1 in June 1938, Superman had the S shape on his chest, but not on his forehead. What to make of that? — Has he forgotten? Is he confabulating? Or does his use of “is too subtle” not implicate a spit-curl-only period?

Perhaps it merely conveys that when he started his career he, or maybe Martha Kent, realized that spit curls alone apparently are, as a general matter, insufficient to distinguish exceptional individuals from the herd, so added the logo from the beginning; in that case, he might have said “an S-shaped spit curl apparently would have been too subtle [for our purposes]”, so they axed the spit curl completely in favor of the much less subtle logo.

In any case, a page from Action Comics #1 clearly shows a logo and no spit curl:

(#2) Logoed but spitcurlless in 1938

(In case you were wondering, OED2 has spit-curl from 1831 on, kiss-curl from 1856 on. So the physical feature was not only recognized, but also named, in 1938.)

But why is this relevant to a Bizarro cartoon? (Rhetorical question; it’s not. Not at all relevant; research into the history of the DC Comics Superman is entirely beside the point.) The Bizarro world is not only not the real world, it’s also not any other fictional world, though it can borrow whatever it wants from other fictional worlds. Superman in a Bizarro isn’t any of the DC Comics Supermans, but a conventional pop-cultural figure put to use for cartoon humor. Not Superman, but a Superman figure.

And then a Superman figure in a Bizarro, or a Zippy, or a Pearls Before Swine, isn’t even an action-adventure hero; he’s a figure of fun. For an appearance in other cartoons, Superman brings only the merest set of features that will make it clear to the reader that he’s supposed to be a play on a DC Comics Superman. His S-shaped logo might be might have the shape backwards, or lying on its side, or be Z-shaped, or swastika-shaped, or colored neon pink or lavender, or be an image of red ruby slippers. Or be absent. Whatever. It can be whatever will serve the cartoonist’s purposes.

Including the character we see above, with both the logo and the spit curl. Which together form the basis for the joke.

Why is the cartoon funny? The joke comes, first, in the Bizarro Superman figure’s having a spit curl in the first place — what sort of man sports a spit curl? — and then in what he says about the purposes of his logo and spit curl — what does he think they’re for?

In brief, the spit curl might be seen as displaying a certain degree of male vanity — Superman cares about how he looks and goes to some trouble to fix his hair just so, which is endearing but deeply silly (he is, after all, a superhero constantly on alert to save the world through his enormous powers) — and also as projecting a specific type of masculinity  — “cute guy”, amiable, fun to be around, maybe a bit racy, but certainly unthreatening), which is also deeply silly (the point of a superhero figure being to be big, hugely muscled, immensely powerful (able to bend steel bars in his bare hands and all that stuff), and passionately earnest (committed to fighting evil and doing good).

That’s two Silly Points.

And then the Bizarro Superman figure tells us that his spit curl was supposed to be a mark of his identity — as if he needed to flag this for the people of Metropolis, which is another big Silly Point  (see my mockery above) — but then he realized it apparently was insufficient for this purpose (and that, at least, is surely true).

Racking up three Silly Points makes the Bizarro Superman figure ridiculous. And the most powerful man on (fictional) earth looking ridiculous is funny (so the woman in the cartoon looks disconcerted). Kind of sweetly funny, but definitely risible.

The comics / tv / movie Superman and his spit curl. I’ve argued that the history of the media Superman and his spit curl is irrelevant to the Bizarro cartoon, but of course it’s an interesting question in its own right. I know the curl wasn’t there at the founding, and then it turns out to have gone in and out in tv and the movies. No doubt some Supermanfan has tracked things, but this little display (from Super Museum @supermanmuseum on Twitter) is information (and entertainment) enough for me at the moment:

(#3) In (chronological) order: Kirk Alyn (1948 movie serial, first live-action Superman), George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, Henry Cavill

The actors range over my personal Cuteness Scale, with Christopher Reeve at the top (with a perfect score) and Dean Cain second.

Spit curls and their social meanings. I begin with the Wikipedia article as of today (in its entirety):

A kiss curl describes a lock of hair curling onto the face and usually plastered down. Although the curl could be flattened with saliva (hence its alternative name spit curl), soap or hair lotion was more typically used.

Pre-20th century: In the late seventeenth century there was a fashion for fringes composed of curls described as fripons, guigne-galants, or ‘kiss-curls’, sometimes augmented with false hair.

20th-century onwards: The kiss-curl was worn by both men and women.

It became a trademark of the singer Bill Haley, who wore a large spit curl over his right eye to divert attention from the other blind eye. Other people who became known for kiss/spit curls included Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, Coco Lewis and Superman.

That’s two women, one man (said to be an actor; see digression below), and Superman (who, as we’ve seen, is in and out on the spit curl front). But this isn’t a matter of counting ballots. There’s no question that men as well as women wear spit curls. But, in my experience, hugely more women than men. It’s what I would describe as a weakly gendered cultural practice. Not like wearing lace underwear, which is strongly gendered, but more like wearing “colored” underwear (in colors outside white, black, shades of brown and gray, and very dark hues): a practice that has a feminine tinge to it but men can engage in without automatically being accused of femininity (and, therefore, homosexuality).

Now these genderings are highly variable, over time and place and social context, so everything (including what I just said) has to be socially located, and that’s a fiercely difficult task. So what I’m reporting here are my rough impressions, not backed by hard research (of which I’m pretty sure there isn’t any).

I’m suggesting that some (straight) men use a spit curl to craft a presentation of themselves that softens the hard edges of their masculinity, makes them look “cute” to some (straight) women — agreeable, a good companion, perhaps a good father for their children. (I’m not suggesting that this crafting is carefully thought through; it’s quite likely to involve trying out various looks in front of a mirror to find one that looks right — I have watched many men, straight and gay, engaged in this exercise, and have done it myself a number of times since I was a kid.)

[The Coco Lewis digression digression. The spit curl was already a digression. In the midst of that came Coco Lewis and his spit curl. Coco Lewis? Who the hell? (This was from Wikipedia, which often has odd introduced weirdnesses, so the problem might have been Wikipedia, not me.)

Googling on “Coco Lewis” got me a variety of women, men, and dogs with the name Coco or Lewis (FN or LN). But exactly one thing for someone named Coco Lewis. From IMDb, where the full bio, no picture, is:

Coco Lewis is an actor, known for Ego.

Ah, but there’s an entry for Ego too. It identifies Ego as a short music video, directed by Danielle Derisse and starring Esther Kibreab, Coco Lewis, Skyler Buen, and 17 others; it provides no release date or official sites; another site gives 2017 as the date. Danielle Derisse is a real music video person, with other videos you can find on the net. Just not this one.

You can find at least two videos for songs entitled “Ego”. One is the (justly) famous Beyoncé, the other is a really delightful performance by Willy William of “Ale ale ale” in Jamaican Creole. So the search was not without its pleasures.

But of Coco Lewis I know nothing. Neither does my daughter or my grandchild. Three generations, no Coco Lewis.

I don’t actually give a crap about Coco Lewis, of course. I’m just annoyed that Wikipedia expected me to know who he was — and to recall his spit curl. (Of  pictures I have none.)]

Flagging an identity. Going back up the thematic tree of this blog, we return to the Bizarro Superman figure’s attempting to flag his Superman identity to the world with a spit curl (poor uptake) and a logo (yes!). Of course it’s absurd to think that he needs to do this.

I, on the other hand, have, among my various identities, one that I think that I do need to flag, for my own well-being, for the good of some of my worlds, and for the enlightenment of the outsiders: my identity as a gay man, in the larger MMS (male-male sexuality) world (on MMS, see below).

I’ve been working on the flagging for about 50 years; when I started this posting yesterday I was going about Palo Alto in rainbow pride gym shorts and one of my flagrant t-shirts — this 100% Certified Queer item:

(#4) From a catalog, model emoting facially in a hard-to-interpret way

The point is that if I don’t keep announcing it, people rarely take me for gay. So I wear symbols and slogans. A matter of pride for me, and an announcement that we are everywhere, we’re not going away, and though we might seem outrageous, we’re not actually threatening — intended to be a public good, for guys in the MMS world, for people in the larger LGBT+ world, and especially for the outlanders. I realized a long time ago that I was in a position to do this without losing my job or my networks of friends, and in my moral world that meant I should do it. (I don’t expect other people to live by the moral standards I try to hold myself to, by the way.)

Anyway, it’s fun. Especially shopping for things to wear.

Note on MMS. From my 3/4/22 posting “The construction workers that bloom in the spring, tra-la”, taking off from a ToF (Tom of Finland) drawing:

[about] the MMS (male-male sexuality) world. (I use MMS to sidestep the issues involved in using the existing modifiers homosexualgay, and queer, because these labels fail to embrace the broad range of sexual tastes / desires, sexual practices, and sexual identities in the world in question.) ToF’s MMS world embraces a variety of homomasculinities …



3 Responses to “Flagging your identity”

  1. RF Says:

    Good catch on Coco Lewis. The edit summary for the addition reads, “A known Medicine Man who has the Kiss Curl. He might not be well known but this gives the page a small bit of variety as he had been well known before his death.” I think it is probably just vandalism, but at best it is a poor example for the reasons you mention. I removed it.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Thank you. Wikipedia is a fabulous resource and really needs careful editing to get it there and keep it there. I’m not able to put the time into helping to make it better, but I admire those who do the job and I’m happy to provide some input. (Much the same is true of the OED, by the way, even though the editing there is done by professionals.)

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    I found Claudette Colbert’s niece and heir Coco Lewis, but I didn’t find any pictures of her to see if she had a spit curl.

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