Challenging Taboos

Challenging Taboos

Eros Graphic Album No 1. Mark Sobels Essay part 1

Review from Marc Sobel in 'The Comics Journal ' called:
“Birdland Reconsidered”: The roots of Gilbert Hernandez’ sex comic in Reich’s orgone energy.
 Very lengthy read but quite interesting.

“Him and his daddy used to sit inside
And circle the blue fields and grease the night.
It was as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars
cause when he looked up they started to slip.
Then he put his head in the crux of his arm
And he started to drift, drift to the belly of a ship,
Let the ship slide open, and he went inside of it
And saw his daddy hind the control board streamin’ beads of light,
He saw his daddy hind the control board,
And he was very different tonight
cause he was not human, he was not human.”

-       Patti Smith, Birdland
Birdland may be Gilbert Hernandez’s single most misunderstood and underappreciated work.  The book is mostly known for its graphic sex, which is so pervasive, so raunchy and so outrageous, it was released as a standalone series, despite the fact that the four-part story is tangentially tied into Love & Rockets continuity (in a 2007 interview with The Daily Crosshatch website, Hernandez described Birdland as having occurred in “another dimension” so as not “to spoil the relative purity of the Palomar work”).

A brief survey of the book’s smattering of reviews confirms that most readers were too distracted by the excessive use of pornography and too unfamiliar with the book’s obscure literary and cultural references to penetrate its underlying themes.  For example, one prominent blogger concluded that Birdland is “just plain filthy” and that, for all its “mad energy,” it’s still just a “deranged pornographic fantasy.”  Yet to dismiss Birdland as merely a “semen-drenched fantasia,” as so many critics and readers have over the years, is to miss the much richer subtext of the work.
The Title
The key to understanding Birdland lies hidden in the title itself.  Although many assume Birdland is a made-up name for the “alternate dimension” in which this story takes place, the title is actually a reference to a semi-obscure punk-rock song.  Just as Jaime used Sweet’s “Wig Wam Bam” as the title of a story (the first chapter of which appeared in Love & Rockets #33 at virtually the same time as the first issue of Birdland), Gilbert used the third song on Patti Smith’s legendary 1975 debut album Horses as the title of his story.
In Smith’s song, the poetic lyrics are based on A Book of Dreams, the 1973 memoir about the controversial Austrian psychiatrist, Wilhelm Reich, written by his son, Peter.  It is through the lens of Reich’s fascinating life and work that one begins to see beyond the gratuitous sex scenes and understand the deeper themes at work in Gilbert’s graphic novel.  Birdland is a satire of and response to Wilhelm Reich’s theories.

Background on Wilhelm Reich

While a full biography of this complex figure is beyond the scope of this essay, several key aspects of Reich’s life are important to mention in order to better understand Hernandez’s graphic novel.
In his early 20s (during the 1920s), Wilhelm Reich became a well-respected psychoanalyst in Vienna, Austria, working closely with and inspired by the theories of Sigmund Freud.  During this period, Reich published several books and papers, and was viewed as a rising star in the emerging field of psychotherapy.
In the mid-late ’30s, Reich began to explore the connections between sexual inhibitions and neurosis, an area Freud had pioneered. However, Reich took the research much further.  In a series of controversial studies, Reich tried to measure the male orgasm and claimed to have discovered an electrical discharge at the moment of ejaculation, which Reich believed was a distinct type of energy that he later termed “orgone energy.”
Reich argued that the orgasm was not simply a physical experience, but was the body’s method for regulating this orgone energy, which he believed existed within everyone.  He also believed that the failure to release this energy could lead to all kinds of physical and mental illness.  He argued that unreleased psychosexual energy could produce actual physical blocks within muscles and organs, and that these blocks act as a “body armor” preventing the release of emotional energy.  According to Reich, an orgasm was the best way to break through this armor, and the better the orgasm, the more energy was released, meaning that less was available to create neurotic states.  Reich called the ability to release sufficient energy during orgasm “orgiastic potency,” but argued that this ideal release was something that very few individuals could achieve.

Eventually, Reich became convinced that most of the neuroses and emotional blocks that he was noting in his psychotherapy patients were related to this sexual repression, which he blamed on social and moral regulations, including the values and laws imposed by governments, religions and society in general designed to govern sexual habits.  He concluded that the best way “cure” his patients was to encourage and aid them in living an “active, guilt-free sex life.”   Therefore, he became an outspoken advocate for all kinds of social reform, including adolescent sexuality, open relationships outside of marriage, the social acceptance of divorce, the availability of contraceptives and the legalization of abortion.

In Reich’s later years, he moved to the United States and set up a research lab in Maine, where he expanded his studies of orgone energy, claiming that he had discovered the existence of orgone not just within the human body, but everywhere, within all matter.  He began studying the effects of this orgone energy, which he now referred to as primordial “cosmic energy” and “life energy.”
Reich eventually became obsessed with trying to control the orgone energy in the atmosphere.  Like the human body, he believed that a negative form of energy, which he referred to as “DaR” caused blocks in the earth’s biological systems.  To address this problem, he created an elaborate machine known as a “cloudbuster,” which could allegedly be used to direct orgone energy toward the blocked areas in the atmosphere.  In one famous case, Reich was paid $10,000 by a group of blueberry farmers for using his cloudbusting machine to make it rain, allegedly saving the crop from a devastating drought.

In his final years, Reich grew increasingly paranoid.  He was under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration and was constantly being hounded by a vocal group of skeptics who felt his radical social theories threatened conservative values (a massive book-burning of his most controversial works was held in New York City in 1954).
Wilhelm Reich was eventually prosecuted for “contempt of court” related to an earlier trial regarding his use of the “cloudbusters.”  He died in prison in 1957, yet to this day, remains a controversial counterculture hero.  Several organizations and scientists are devoted to continuing and defending the validity of his theories, especially the existence and importance of orgone energy.  Reich is even the subject of an ongoing graphic novel biography by the cartoonist Elijah Brubaker (of which six issues are currently available from Sparkplug Comic Books).

Story Structure

Birdland was originally published as a three-issue miniseries in 1990, with an additional fourth issue released as Vol. 2 a year later. This final issue functions as something of an epilogue to the first volume, which was a complete story unto itself. In the collected edition, released in 1992, Hernandez added additional pages in order to fuse these two volumes into a seamless whole; however, for the sake of analysis of the story’s main themes and symbols, it’s helpful to examine the two sections separately before stepping back to look at the complete book.

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