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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

MERIT RAISED

At John Jakala's blog Jakala raised the question as to what if any superhero comics and which manga his readers viewed as possessing "literary merit." He added: 'I purposely didn't define what I meant by "literature" or "literary merit," instead allowing everyone to name their picks based on their own understanding of what those criteria mean.'

But I find myself wondering: without even a partial definition, does the question reveal anything about how the respondents came to their conclusions? And I would have to say no: as phrased, the question amounts to nothing but a comics-oriented Rorschach Test (albeit less painful than the kind of test where Rorschach breaks your fingers). Whatever criteria the words "literary merit" trigger in the respondents' minds will shape each individual respondent's idea of "literary comics."

The results included a fair variety of the usual suspects, among which were two thematically-related works. One was the work that gave us the aforementioned Rorschach, the Moore/Gibbons WATCHMEN, while the other was SQUADRON SUPREME, written by Mark Gruenwald and drawn principally by Bob Hall and Paul Ryan. Of the two, I think that one has artistic merit while the other does not, but it may prove useful to speculate through what patterns of association these two works ended up on the same list. What I want to do in future related posts is to speculate on what kinds of critical schemas usually inform typical non-critically-oriented readers when they think about the subject of literary merit, be it in comics or in any medium.

(Just to anticipate: no, I don't consider myself a "non-critically-oriented reader." And I suppose some might say, "Why don't you ask the respondents directly in whatever forum might reach them all?" But because by definition most readers aren't reading as part of an ongoing critical project, as I do, their reasons wouldn't necessarily be helpful.)

The three schemas I'll use in future posts will be drawn in part from Northrop Frye's landmark ANATOMY OF CRITICISM. I'll use three of the same categories Frye did-- "ethical criticism," "aesthetic criticism," and "archetypal criticism"-- with the usual caveat that I may differ with Frye on this or that point as to what defines each category. These aren't the only critical categories (what I, not Frye, call "schemas") used in the ANATOMY but they're the only three relevant to my cultural mind-reading act.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

QUICK THOUGHTS ON BLOOD BOOKS

Having enjoyed the short-lived BLOOD TIES TV series of a couple years back, I finally decided to check out two of the books in the prose series by Tanya Huff. Of these "Blood Books" (no relation to Clive Barker's Books of Blood) I knew only that they sounded as if they had been closely patterned after Laurel K. Hamilton's hardboiled-styled series about Anita Blake, a young female detective-type who ends up palling around with a vampire (and occasionally a werewolf) in the course of her adventures. The first of Huff's books introduces her heroine Vicky Nelson to the vampire Henry as well as a merely-human romantic rival, and the second has Vicky and Henry take on a case for a pack of beleaguered werewolves.

Irrespective as to whether Huff was inspired by Hamilton, though, I (a formerly-devoted Hamilton fan who's currently behind on that series) find myself comparing the former to the latter with Huff coming up short. For though both are writing mainstream genre fiction with no pretensions of literary content, Hamilton simply gives us a better thought-out fantasy-world than does Huff.

True, Hamilton has the advantage of riffing on a concept that kicked around the SF magazines for years: what if monsters were regular members of society? This alternate society allows Hamilton to explore a wide variety of sociological myths (in the constitutive sense of that word) that Huff cannot deal with, as her monsters still have to hide from prying eyes.

Still, it all comes down to this: whose monsters are really interesting? And sad to say, where Hamilton's creates a whole werewolf culture that she promulgates through several books, Huff merely strings together some basic notions that do no more than further the book's basic plot.

For me the most telling comparison is that while Huff gives me perfectly serviceable pulp fiction, she lacks that over-the-top delirium that gives birth to excellent pulp.

Having brought up the word "pulp," I'd even say that Huff's Blood Books are a lot many of the stories written back in the early 20th century for THE SHADOW-- readable mysteries with not a lot of punch. In contrast, Hamilton has more of the delirious quality of the SPIDER pulps, where even the weaker outings have a balls-to-the-wall feel to them.

CORRECTION: I happened to look up the date on Huff's first Blood-book, BLOOD PRICE, and it's two years before the publication of the first Anita Blake. So as far as inspiration-- yeah, glad I said "irrespective."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

DAVID BORED? WELL...

Maybe the fault lies in David Bordwell's own expectations, rather than in the films that he says made him bored and depressed.

Now I can think of any number of failings that I could mention (and have mentioned in one case) in two of the summer's big superhero flicks, IRON MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT. But it's hard for me to imagine someone who was open to the "superhero experience" being bored with BOTH of these works. I mean, if you don't like a light, humorous take on superheroes or a dark, theoretically-weighty take either, then there's not a whole lot left. It's like saying you can't stand light humor or "black comedy" either: it doesn't fill one with a lot of confidence as to your take on comic matters.

(At the conclusion of the essay Bordwell notes, "Comics aficionados may object that I am obviously against comics as a whole. True, I have little interest in superhero comic books..." No, Mr. Bordwell, I don't think any comics-fan would label you against comics as a medium because you don't have a taste for superheroes. Most contemporary comics-fans, even those who are heavily invested in superheroes, are pretty hep to the notion that there can exist fans who like the medium but not the superhero genre. We've had a little thing called THE COMICS JOURNAL hanging around for some thirty years to remind everyone of the distinction.)

The supposed failings of the two films doesn't occupy much space in Bordwell's essay, the bulk of it devoted rather to the question: "Why comic-book superhero movies now?"

To this end Bordwell ruminates on a wide variety of possible reasons that led to this cinematic upsurge of super-doers. None of them are precisely wrong-- and all of them are better than the "zeitgeist" explanation which Bordwell and I both oppose. But it seems to me that Bordwell fails to see the forest for the trees: fails to see how the upsurge in superheroes stands in continuity with the more general renaissance of fantastic adventure-heroes generally. For instance, Bordwell talks about how STAR WARS revolutionized the FX resources available to makers of things cinematic, but says nothing about the widespread audience acceptance of both the genre and its type of hero-- which would have been aimed largely at juvenile crowds in earlier years-- paved the way for a greater acceptance of the heroes who wore their underwear on the outside of their suits.

Here's an example of some more tree-only vision:



"During the 1990s, less famous superheroes filled in as the Batman franchise tailed off. Examples were The Rocketeer (1991), Timecop (1994), The Crow (1994) and The Crow: City of Angels (1996), Judge Dredd (1995), Men in Black (1997), Spawn (1997), Blade (1998), and Mystery Men (1999). Most of these managed to fuse their appeals with those of another parvenu genre, the kinetic action-adventure movie."



Now, Bordwell doesn't define "the kinetic action-adventure movie," but since he calls it a "parvenu" I'll assume that he's not dealing with all adventure films stretching back to the original BEN HUR, but to a specific subgroup action-films that emphasize kinetic action over drama. He doesn't pin down the beginnings of this alternative mode, though he does assert that the crime film, among others, took on greater prominence in the 1970s:

"As the Western and the musical fell in the 1970s, the urban crime film, horror, and science-fiction rose. For a long time, it would be unthinkable for an A-list director to do a horror or science-fiction movie, but that changed after Polanski, Kubrick, Ridley Scott, et al. gave those genres a fresh luster just by their participation."

This jibes with my own opinion (and incidentally, Pauline Kael's) that one of the key films that effected this reshuffling of genre-privileges was Don Siegel's 1971 DIRTY HARRY. Certainly DH has a more "kinetic" visual style than a roughly-similar crime film from 1968, Gordon Douglas' THE DETECTIVE. So I have no argument that there is a distinct action-adventure mode like unto the one Bordwell describes. However, it's not enough (for me, at least) to say that the "appeals" of the two subgenres were somehow "fused." What we see, taking the "forest" view, is most forms of the action-adventure film began to move toward wilder and more outlandish scenarios which some critics of the 1970s would surely not hesitate to call "comic book-y" (meaning, of course, that they were like superhero comics, not like CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST). The makers of the action-adventure films moved toward the outlandish for the same reason the makers of superhero films did: wild action and spectacle sold tickets. Thus it may not be coincidence that six years after DIRTY HARRY, the space-opera came into its own with STAR WARS, which I would say had more long-term influence on the eventual renaissance of filmic superheroes than Bordwell's example of THE MATRIX.

Thus, our differences as to the influence jazz. And I guess that given Bordwell's disinterest in superheroes light and dark, I'm not really surprised that these films bored him. But I'm not sure why they "depressed" him, though I presume that it has to do with "the shift from an auteur cinema to a genre cinema"-- more on which later.

Friday, August 22, 2008

CLASH OF THE TERMINOLOGICAL TITANS

In a recent issue of Kapa-alpha (that's an apazine, for those of you who don't know that before there were messageboards, there were snail-mail versions of same called "apas"), another member expressed dubiousness regarding my search for "complexities in simple entertainment forms." After writing a reply appropriate to that venue, I decided to expand my remarks for this one.

First, it's true that I as much as anyone have seen my share of pretentious, overdetermined essay about such alleged complexities. Naturally I don't think my approach suffers from such faults. One failing of which I don't think I'm guilty is what I call the "thematic fallacy," in which in a critic tries to impose a theme statement on a given work, as if every artist crafted his works with a specific didactic message in mind. It's true that one can generally find some rhetorical appeal in even the most "escapist" fare-- see Wayne Booth's RHETORIC OF FICTION for a good discussion of the "go thou and do likewise" element in fiction. However, both high and low literary works often have more in their medium than just the message.


To take a high literary example first, it's true that the novel MOBY DICK contains the message "it is wrong to obsess over one's misfortune," but it would be foolish to consider that partial message the "theme statement" of the novel. One can find ample quotes in the book to support the notion that Melville also admires Ahab's obsessive questing after truth, if not necessarily his method, making the "message" more than a little mixed. If one wished to see the problems inherent in a translation that does choose to boil a work down to a theme statement, one would only have to screen the John Huston/Ray Bradbury film of MOBY DICK should , which thoroughly misunderstands the metaphysical side of Ahab's quest and focuses only the morally prescriptive view.


The same is true for "low" works of literature, which I've defined in an earlier essay as being centered primarily upon fantasies of wish-fulfillment. The Frankfurt School chose to define some if not all of such fantasies as stratagems for controlling the populace while Doc Wertham interpreted crime, horror and superhero comics as advertisements for a cultus of fascist violence ("I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry"). Whether one chooses to believe these two interpretations as fundamentally separate or as simply two stalks that share the same root is immaterial: both are attempts to force a spectrum of works to fit into a dogmatic declaration as to thematic meaning.

On a side-note, I'll observe that my approach--related to that of Frye and Campbell-- has often been accused of the sin of "symbol-hunting:" of trying to spot mythic symbols amid the diegetic makeup of this or that work. However, Marxist-influenced critics are usually no less involved in the hunt for symbols. It's merely that they have a narrower, more blinkered view of what to look for, as theirs is a continual search for "tools of oppression" and "fetish commodities."

Now, if someone asked me how my approach is fundamentally different from those critics whom *I* consider pretentious and overdetermined, I would say I have a much better handle on the aspect of fiction that a character from Joyce, probably following the example of Epicurus, termed the *kinetic.* To oversimplify the argument for my purposes, this would be the pure sensory appeal of literature in any medium: the semi-voyeuristic allure of experiencing the lives, conflicts, romances and emotional upheavals of other living beings (mostly but not exclusively human beings). It is, Joyce's character Stephen Dedalus tells us, everything that causes us to be attracted to or repelled by aspects of the story.

In my essay on Ursula LeGuin I admitted that it's almost impossible to say anything about potential meanings of a fictional story without falling into didactic statements: "THE DARK KNIGHT is about the struggle to remain moral in an immoral world." But this sort of statement could be applied to dozens of other works high and low, from CANDIDE to MOTHER COURAGE. With high literature one is a little more justified in making sweeping theme statements than with its low kindred, for I for one define "high" and "low" not in terms of value but in terms of their closeness to the kinetic foundations of literature. Low literature is "low" because its appeal to the visceral always comes first. Symbolic complexities do appear in it, but they may do so more erratically than in the higher works, given the privileging of the visceral over the intellectual. Still, even if the "high" artist is perhaps more adept than the "low" one in terms of organizing the rhetorical elements of fiction, it's still a mistake to say that the high artist loses all sense of his characters as visceral beings: that the theme, whether implicit or explicit, is more important than the audience's feeling of kinetically experiencing the author's fictive creations.

It's been a long time since I read any Heidegger, but based on some recent secondary readings (like that aforementioned Jung book I keep meaning to review) I would say that my Joyce-derived-and-Jung-influenced view of the kinetic may bear some kinship with Heidegger's concept of embodiment, of being-in-the-world. With this concept Heidegger seems focused on the notion that human beings often face the temptation of becoming too abstracted from experiential reality, and that "being-in-the-world," being concerned with the immediacies of life, provides a balance against over-intellectualization (which is not to say anti-intellectual, though some have made that accustation). And at a time when even reviewers of THE DARK KNIGHT are perhaps a little too eager to stamp a "simple entertainment form" like TDK with all sorts of self-important theme statements, a little attention to the lasting appeal of the visceral might provide a little analytical balance.

Friday, August 15, 2008

FEEDING THE KIDDIES

The following was a response I made to a topic on THE BEAT re: the return of kiddie comics.

The problem with saying that the Big Two should re-orient to kids is that any attempt to do so is going to be a terrific loss leader for several years, and even then the kids' comics won't become profitable unless they (a) put themselves in a format economically feasible for kids, and (b) manage to come up with original characters capable of competing with all the popular manga/anime characters, many of whom have had a "leg-up" in the form of dubbed cartoons seen by the kid-audiences on TV.

Are there any preteen-friendly, American-made characters out there that are as prominent as ARCHIE, the Turtles and SONIC? Those are the only ones I can recall.

For that matter, did any of the Big Two's original "manga-format" books score big in sales? I've yet to see any big movement there.

The format thing as I see it would also have to be on two fronts: floppies would have to be on cheaper paper to make it possible to sell them to kids. The big companies would still lose on individual sales but might make enough in volume long enough to nurture one or two appealing characters, whose adventures could then reach bookstores in the Tokyopop-TPB format. But that's assuming one can come up with characters with mass appeal for kids. Star Comics, the last attempt by one of the Big Two to create a kids' line, isn't terribly well remembered these days.

But let's leave behind the idea of quickly graduating beyond the hardcore 20s-30s audience. That's not going to change any time soon. The majority of mainstream books will still be written for that audience, and the "artcomics" movement will continue to exist in a codependent relationship with the mainstream, world without end.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

CONTENTIONS OVER CONTENT

In Tim Callahan's essay "In Defense of Superhero Comics," seen here:

http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=17623

Callahan poses the musical question, 'Would anyone put Geoff Johns's "Green Lantern" in the category of "literature?"'

The short answer is yes, but the question isn't well-phrased: you can find people who will aver that the earth is flat, but the dominant consensus right now is just the opposite, just as the dominant consensus right now is that poplit like GREEN LANTERN cannot be literature. A better way to phrase the question might be, "In what ways might the dominant consensus be wrong?" An astronaut's photo of a round Earth in space is usually all the "round Earthers" need to support their argument, but is there a vital piece of evidence that proves the case of the "Hell No It Won't Go (in that category)" Party?

Callahan's principal argument is founded on the shifting nature of cultural bias:

'Here's the thing about literature: the way we think about it constantly shifts, and even if we accept a division between "literary works" (which implies the serious, profound importance of the text) and "genre fiction" (which implies that a book about cowboys will have cowboys in it), the terms of that division are based solely on cultural bias. And cultural bias changes, from culture to culture, over time.'

I too take cultural bias as a given factor in the historical changes between what is or isn't considered literary, as per Callahan's example of Shakespeare moving from being merely a popular playwright to the epitome of all "serious" writing. However, Callahan fails to ask a question that in part transcends cultural bias: what was it about Shakespeare in his own milieu that caused his contemporaries to consensually dismiss him from the realm of literary lights? Callahan says that it was merely a matter of one form being extolled over another; that poetry was automatically considered superior to theater-plays. Yet it's possible that it wasn't merely a matter of form, but of some content associated with that form. It's quite possible that critics of Shakespeare's time were not "tuned to hear" the content in Shakespeare within his form; certainly the Bard's fellow playwright Ben Jonson expressed dismay over Shakespeare's penchant for exotic settings and spectacles.

Yet, just because we have come to believe that plays can be as high art as poetry-- if anything, the former has eclipsed the latter as an expression of "culturedness"-- this does not mean that every play from Shakespeare's time has the same content as Shakespeare. Most of the plays from that time, certainly, lie unread save by academic scholars.

Yet for all that, such plays are still considered as being within the corpus of literature, as much as is Shakespeare's own stinker, THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA. Even bad literature is part of literature.

So if TWO GENTLEMEN is bad, yet is still part of literature, can not GREEN LANTERN not be bad, and still be part of literature? It would seem so, though I am sure that even if defenders of literary standards agree to this logic, they will still banish the Lantern and all of his kindred to the outer darkness of "trash literature."

However, then we come to another impasse: if even a single item within the corpus of trash literature can be re-interpreted as Shakespeare's plays were in later years; can be shown to possess content that goes beyond the disreputable form it shares with others of its ilk-- then yes, those literary standards will have to be revised. But I emphasize that it is understanding the content more than the form that makes the re-interpretation possible.