The skin-crawling sense of unease that EC Comics artists and writers once gleefully instilled in their readership during the 1940s and 1950s often begins with a disorienting second-person present perspective. In Al Feldstein’s 1951 story “Reflection of Death” from Tales from the Crypt #23, “you” are a middle-aged white man named Al on a long road trip with a friend who drives late into the winter night. After your car veers into a set of oncoming headlights and crashes, you see through Al’s eyes as he emerges from an “empty” and “eternal” blackness in search of assistance. The men and women you encounter (even a hobo cooking stew under a bridge!) refuse to help and flee from you with mounting fear and revulsion until at last, when you behold yourself in a mirror — a dead, rotting reflection gapes back. If this is a nightmare, then you are its monster.

My understanding of this technique has always been grounded in the formalist discourse of reader identification. But are the social implications of EC’s second-person perspective worth further consideration? The second-person mode, so effectively deployed in suspense, horror, and erotica stories, heightens our ability to identify with the thoughts and sensations of bodies that are unfamiliar to us, to immerse ourselves in lives we may never encounter on our own. (A chilling thought for readers who are asked to imagine themselves as a walking corpse.) This unwitting urge to empathize with the Other is arguably the most crucial component of the second-person view, particularly given its role in EC’s most memorable stories. The issue extends not only to comics in which the perspective is verbally explicit, but also to works like “Judgment Day” and “Master Race” where a second-person mode dominates the visual orientation of the sequential narrative.

Nevertheless, I cite “Reflection of Death” here to invite speculation about the figurative potential of the second-person surrogate when it comes to social issues. While there are certainly numerous ways to read Al’s subconscious “fall,” his mortal fears, and his contemplation of the long dark road home, I wonder if we might also see this white male character’s breakdown within the context of the systemic effects of racial prejudice in the 1950s. Works of African American literature from this period suggest an analogous model for evaluating the suspense and horror tropes in which “you” exist only through the gaze of onlookers, and the agonizing inability to see yourself as you are (not) seen sends you reeling back again into a nightmarish cycle of trauma. Perhaps Feldstein’s bizarre story engenders both the desperation and the self-loathing that ultimately compels comic book fans to experience the kind of racial marginalization with which readers of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Ann Petry would be familiar.

To be sure, the title character of Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, takes pains to distinguish the ghosts of classic literature and popular media from his formulation of “invisibility” as a racial condition. Yet at one point in the prologue, he remarks:

You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful. (3-4)

Do you think the Crypt Keeper would agree?

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About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

12 responses »

  1. Conseula says:

    Qiana–I’m reading and commenting here through the fog of finals, but I’m intrigued by your formulation. I’m wondering, though, about this racial metaphor. Does the second person pov encourage empathy with the Other who is viewed (incorrectly) as a monster, or is the Other (actually) monstrous? I haven’t read “Reflection of Death,” but doesn’t the “you” turn out to be *actually* a monster? There is some sense from Ellison’s Invisible Man (but maybe less so from Wright, but that’s a topic for another day) that, if you could only see outside other people’s perceptions, you’d see something other than a monster. Here the monstrosity comes as a surprise, especially because it is true.

    I don’t know I make of this. Just some thoughts.

    • Hi Conseula, Thanks for taking a break from grading finals to read the post! Thanks also for offering a response that allows me to be more precise about my claims. I couldn’t agree more that writers like Ellison work to critique the conditions and consequences under which human beings are incorrectly viewed as “monsters” based merely on their skin color. However, in “Reflection of Death” the lines between human/monster, life/death, dreaming/waking are not entirely clear, and this suspended state of being seems to be the source of the central character’s terror. He initially tries to justify the reactions that people are having to his face; later he believes that he’s dreaming and can’t wake up. His narrative voice remains that of a clear-thinking human being and he goes through a series of very provocative denials, expressing outrage and frustration along the way. So I think it is telling that the story closes at the moment in which he has internalized all that disgust, declaring that the dream is real and therefore he must be dead. The power of the gaze here to shape how a person sees himself is applicable to narratives like Ellison’s, I’m thinking…

    • roytcook says:

      A couple thoughts that are slightly off the main topic, but hopefully interesting:

      Successful second-person narration is notoriously difficult to pull off, in comics as in anything else. Distinguishing between visual perspective (seeing through Al’s eyes) and verbal perspective (“You are Al”), however, it seems like second-person visual perspective (such as in “Judgment Day” and “Master Race”) is much easier to pull off that second-person verbal perspective (simple explanation: when the text tells you that “You are doing F”, your immediate intuitive response is likely “No I am not! Don’t tell me what I am doing!”, but when the art visually suggests that you are seeing and experiencing F, there is a sense in which you literally are seeing and experiencing (a visual depiction of) F.

      This suggests a couple of things:

      First, we should be especially impressed when the verbal second-person perspective is done well, as in “Reflection of Death”.

      Second, this suggests that comics are better suited than most other narrative media for play with identity of this sort. The only other medium that has anything like as striking an example of this sort of second-person identity trickery is the original NES version of the Metroid video game, where after weeks of playing the game (and deeply identifying with the main character), you discover upon winning that you are a girl (I now think this is really cool, but I remember being less thrilled about it when I was 14 or so).

      Third, it makes one wonder (at least, it makes me wonder) why more of this isn’t done in film. After all, the visual content could be used in second-person mode in film just as easily as in comics. But it does not seem to be used this way (with occasional exceptions such as the awful Dwayne Johnson, video-game based film Doom).

  2. Qiana,

    What a great question to ask! Your phrase “second person surrogate” strikes me as a really important concept in both reading and writing.

    In addition to my linguistics classes at UNO, I teach composition to first-year writers. Part of what we discuss is how to maintain a certain kind of tone or stance in academic writing as distinct from informal writing (email, texting, blogging[?]) and especially conversation. Often our discussions come to the use of person, and especially the strong expectation that writers avoid using ‘you’ in favor of third person. This can be notoriously difficult for students — they are very comfortable using ‘you,’ especially in argumentation, because they want to persuade the reader directly. Writers want to speak to their readers and involve them intimately in the discourse of the essay.

    The nature of ‘you’ is very flexible: it encompasses both singular and plural, and arguably it stands as one of the most generic pronouns we have. It’s fascinating to me, for example, that research in discourse shows that a speaker may use ‘you’ even when ‘I’ is the intent. This is true when a speaker finds it difficult to articulate a position or is trying to be tactful in some way. Speakers also use ‘you’ when they mean ‘they’ — “You have to pay your taxes” is a kind of universal truth and depending on the context would mean “People have to pay their taxes.” Your question reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by April Sinclair, “Coffee Will Make You Black.” The title invites the reader in, even a white guy like me, to think about this proverb and the semantic value of the pronoun.

    In comics, like fiction and academic writing, the pronoun ‘you’ has the potential both to create intimacy (it creates a bond between speaker and hearer or writer and reader) and also to create distance or the sense of objectivity. Your response to Consuela helps cement this for me. You write that “in “Reflection of Death” the lines between human/monster, life/death, dreaming/waking are not entirely clear,” and I think the use of the pronoun ‘you’ means that the lines between reader/writer, narrator/audience, and in this case black/white are not entirely clear either. Or at least the reader/audience is invited to step up to the line and maybe put a toe over it, just to see.

    Maybe the Crypt Keeper would agree with you! Maybe reading EC Comics can make you black, but only if you’re willing to go along with it.

  3. Hey Roy and Frank, thanks for this feedback!

    I think it is significant that both of you have emphasized that the persuasive function of the second-person is inherent to its form and use. I am excited to do more research on this. While the visual and verbal narrative immerses us in the experience being represented, the insistent declarative text: “you’re at the wheel!…you’re tired now!…you’re eyelids are heavy!” demands your consent in every panel. The resulting sensation of being dragged through the story whether you want to or not (unless you literally stop reading) is typically part of the thrill of a horror story, but here it comes with added implications.

    So Frank, when you say — maybe reading EC Comics can make you black, but only if you’re willing to go along with it — I’m wondering if the fact that the reader is already NOT willing, by virtue of the technique, actually helps intensify the experience of marginalization that I’m suggesting.

    I also hadn’t thought about video games as a parallel from a different medium! Even the juxtapositions between game play and cutscenes suggest another interesting venue to consider first- and second-person control.

    • roytcook says:

      Ha. Maybe would should start a second blog on video game theory! (Just kidding, although the aesthetics of video games is becoming a bit of a hot topic in the philosophy of art).

      Qiana: I was wondering if you could say a bit more, for readers like myself who are not experts in minority issues, why you took the ‘mostrous’ nature of the beast in “Reflection of Death” to be most easily read as a metaphor for race, versus a metaphor for some other marginalized group (e.g. homosexual, female, etc.)

      I find it interesting that, had I thought to ask the question in the first place, my own first inclination would likely have been to read the metaphor as one for race. But I am not quite sure WHY I am tempted to read it that way. In other words, why couldn’t we, and why do I not seem remotely tempted myself to, read the ‘other’ as some other marginalized group, rather than as referencing race? In addition, why is it most straightforwardly read as a metaphor for African-American-ness, rather than some other racial minority?

      These could just be my own intuitions, and not shared by others. That would be a fair answer too.

      • Roy, I’m really glad that you asked this question. Despite my sensational title, I tried to make an effort to emphasize that the narrative mode of “Reflection of Death” communicates the experience of otherness in ways that are potentially not limited to race and blackness. Nevertheless, there are some context clues that make this particular reading attractive (to me). When I take into account the panicked reactions of the onlookers as each comes face to face with his and her own mortality, the fears expressed amplify the schism between Al’s outward appearance and his perception of himself: “You only wanted to ask him a question! Why does everyone stare at you wide-eyed…faint…scream…run from you?” The hysteria is over the top here, but I think the racial metaphor is plausible. These white spectators cross socio-economic lines, includes not just men, but a woman that Al admits has every right to be frightened by “a strange man…stepping out in front of her car” on a lonely road at night. I’m especially struck, however, by the characterization of Al’s limbo state that uses blackness as an open signifier of emptiness and “darkness…on…on…dark black.” Later this darkness initiates the nightmare cycle again, closes in and envelops him in a “sea of velvet black.” Relevant here, I think, is Toni Morrison’s concept of how an “Africanist presence” often accompanies the figurative language of dread and desire in American narrative (intentional or not) – this is particularly valuable when we recall that the story is written and takes place during the pivotal years of racial segregation. Then again, this is also the McCarthy era, so I’m not trying to exclude other potential readings…. And EC certainly did not shy away from stories with broad social subtext. But I am suggesting that this confluence of spectacle and terror, the marginalization of the self and other via this “empty blackness” bears strong similarities to the kind of language that African-American writers use to scrutinize matters of race. I have more research to do, but I just don’t think it is mere coincidence!

    • When I read comics (and when I watch movies), typically I’m the kind of reader who will immerse myself in the world of the story. What excites me about reading comics is that I get to experience the world that the artist has created, and I like to willingly/willfully suspend disbelief. I think this way of reading differs quite a bit from Roy’s earlier description, that he resists direction from the narrative. I guess I’m a believer when it comes to comics, so I will follow the rules of the comic that the artist has created as far as I can.

      I don’t have much experience reading 2nd person pov comics, but I will definitely be on the lookout for them now, and I’ll be thinking about my reaction to the technique of the ‘you’ invitation.

      • Frank, let me know if you find anything I can use!

      • roytcook says:

        Frank,

        I wanted to clarify something I said earlier.

        I didn’t mean to imply that I resist direction from the narrative (given my obsessions with formal aspects of comics and metafiction, it is entirely possible that I do, but that is another issue). Instead, I just meant to suggest that it might be more difficult to immerse oneself in second-person verbal narrative, where one is ‘being told’ what is supposedly happening to oneself, when it is apparent that these things aren’t really happening, than it is to immerse oneself in third-person narrative (or even first-person narrative) where one is ‘being told’ what is happening to someone else. In short, it isn’t that I am less willing to immerse myself in fiction, but that I find it much, much harder to do so when the fiction is second-person, no matter how willing I am to try.

  4. roytcook says:

    Qiana,

    Your reply is really helpful. The moral, in short, is that there is nothing in the use of second-person otherness-identification strategies that forces a racial interpretation of the metaphor, but in this particular story (and in the social context in which it appeared) there are various clues that suggest that reading.

    It would be interesting if there were existing comics that used a similar manipulation of perspective to bring about identification with other groups – females in particular, given the currently male-dominated demographics of mainstream comics.

    I don’t know of any examples, but, like Frank, I am going to keep a close look-out for them in the future!

  5. roytcook says:

    I wanted to throw one last comment in on this issue. During my recent flights to and from India I read (amongst other things – it’s a looooooong flight!) Jeffrey A Brown’s Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture (highly recommended, by the way).

    He points out that in video games, there is a sort of gender-based double standard with respect to identification – at least, if the advertising is anything to go by. For example, the video games based on the Spiderman (2002), Hulk (2003), and Batman (2005) films are advertised as follows:

    “Be Spiderman!”
    “Be the Hulk!”
    “Be the Batman!”

    The videogame based on the Daredevil spin-off Elektra (2005), however, was advertised as follows:

    “Now you can control Jennifer Garner!”

    [emphasis added]

    Both the distinction between “be” (that is, identification) and “control”, and the fact that it is not Elektra the character, but Jennifer Garner the actress, that one is being encouraged to control, are very disturbing.

    I wonder if similar gender-based identification issues occur in comics (I am sure they do, but I wonder if they are this blatant!)

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