Bad Reasons, Used Well: Assigning Blame in Will Eisner’s “The Super”

So this week we’ve been talking about Will Eisner’s “A Contract With God” in class, and most recently we discussed “The Super”.  It is clear that Eisner is a master of his craft, not just as a visual artist, but as a storyteller. While the plot of this particular chapter isn’t especially complex, Eisner manages to really make us think, and teaches an important lesson. In the story there is a conflict between Rosie, a young girl, and the Super of the tenement. We seem to have an inclination, as we saw in class discussions, to try to choose a side. Who is wrong and who is innocent? It becomes clear that neither character is entirely innocent, and that is part of Eisner’s point, I think. But even when we acknowledge that the assigning of blame isn’t as black and white as the illustrations, we still find ourselves saying “well alright then, who is MORE innocent, and who is MORE culpable?” But even this is a very difficult question to answer. The really hard thing to accept here is that maybe there is no answer. We must acknowledge that both characters are products of their environment to some degree. Personally, though, I place less blame on Rosie. Essentially this comes down to age. Children are selfish and malleable, and lack insight into right and wrong if they haven’t been taught correctly. My assumption here is that adults, even if raised poorly, have had the time and experience to develop a sense of morality on their own. Now perhaps I am asking too much of people, perhaps no matter how old we are, we are products of our environment and upbringing. Be that as it may, Eisner does a great job of confusing us, of muddying the moral waters so that we can’t quite decide who is worse; Rosie or the Super?

I do have a problem with the tools and clues he uses to cast blame on Rosie and mitigate our anger at the Super. First of all, he draws Rosie to appear sexual. When we first see her she is wrapped only in a towel and is glowering at us out of dark, lidded eyes. He has also drawn her with large, pouty lips. In fact, she is the only character who’s lips are three-dimensional, rather than simply a line. Now MAYBE this is to represent the super’s view of her and MAYBE this is a coincidence of his character concept and the circumstances of the cold shower, but Eisner, as I said, is a master of his craft and I don’t believe these things to be accidental.  Furthermore, she is as tall as the Super the first time we see her, and as the story progresses she shrinks in size, relative to him. Anyway, she later behaves sexually, displaying false coyness and shy body language, even as she asks the super to pay for a peek at her underwear. Now these are behaviors learned from her environment, obviously. And I firmly believe that as girls age they should be aloud to test their influence via sexuality without being shamed, and that an adult’s job in this situation IS TO NOT RESPOND BY SEXUALIZING A LITTLE GIRL. The audience is supposed to blame the little girl here, we’re supposed to think “well she WAS tempting him,” and to think that somehow relieves the Super of some share of blame, which is a terrible, wrong-headed line of reasoning. Furthermore, the Super is shown to be drinking, which again should not relieve him of any culpability, yet it is clear from the sequencing Eisner wants us to acknowledge his drunkenness as a mitigating factor. And so what if she poisons the dog? It isn’t nice, no, but the dog is dangerous. Would we rather she be savaged by the bulldog? Because when the super says “Get her Hugo!” that’s exactly what would have happened.

Now let’s talk about the Super some more, and why he really is terrible. Ok, he doesn’t do his job and send up the steam in the morning, he curses Jews for complaining, he drinks in the middle of the day, he is sex-obsessed and objectifying, as evidenced by his room’s decor, and he pays a little girl to show him her underwear. Now, yes he’s sex-obsessed and drunk and she proposed it. You might be tempted to say, well he’s confused, he wouldn’t normally, he never actually touched her. And maybe you’re right, but he also tries to get her to come back the next day. He wants to keep it up, he’s surely planning worse.

All these devices used by Eisner to try to make the Super seem not as bad and Rosie seem worse, besides the dog getting poisoned, are reasonings associated with rape culture and victim blaming and I find them very problematic. In the end, ironically, even as Eisner asks us how much to blame people and how much to blame their environment, his devices prove him to be a product of his own time and place.

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