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Monday, February 2, 2009


There's no reason that dynamization itself-- described here as a movement from a static to a dynamic state, at least as judged by the observer's set of parameters-- *must* connote that the latter is automatically superior to the former. Equally, the reverse would be no more true of any hypothetical "staticization." However, inasmuch as human society and culture is inherently hierarchical in one way or another, the dominant tendency is to say that what is perceived to be dynamic is usually assigned superior status to that which is perceived to be static, as was the case when Henri Bergson used the terms in his philosophy.

Therefore, culturally at least, every dynamization is a "Superiority Dance" like unto the routine initiated by Dana Carvey's Church Lady in various SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketches.

For a first example I'll return to the example used in my first essay on dynamization: the progress from ignorance to knowledge in a particular objective, such as the building of a birdhouse.

Now, the individual who chooses to undertake the task of learning this skill may feel during his efforts as if the skill itself, or the body of knowledge behind it, is a physical force with which he contends. This is of course an illusion. The conflict is purely internal, between the self who is currently ignorant of the skill and the projected self, who will either attain the skill or, given failure, remains an image of success only.

But should the individual succeed in his goal, moving from the static state of the unskilled non-maker of birdhouses to the dynamic state of the skilled birdhouse-maker, then he will automatically perform on some level a Superiority Dance that celebrates his dynamic status over his formerly-static standing.

Obviously this dance of dynamization can also take place between competing individuals, or even competing literary modes, but I'll stay with the internal type a bit longer.

Take Gary Groth (please). Years ago (and I can find the specific reference if so moved), a letter-writer inquired as to whether or not Groth's scorn toward superhero fans was not a contradiction, given that he Groth had once been a maker of superhero fanzines, had hobnobbed with mainstream creators like Jim Steranko, and so on. Groth's response boiled down "When I was a child, I thought as a child." This too is internal dynamization. Groth did not precisely condemn his juvenile tastes as such, but his response made clear that he felt that those tastes had been superseded by the tastes informed by adult knowledge and/or experience. This pedagogical paradigm informed the rhetoric of COMICS JOURNAL even during its earliest, and still somewhat fan-oriented, beginnings, and to this day the appearance (if not the reality) of sophistication is one of the primary dynamizations which Fantagraphics offers to its coterie audience. (And yes, it sucked me in as well when I used to write for the JOURNAL, though maybe not as much as it did certain others.) A possible slogan for Groth might be along the lines of a famous Will Eisner line: "I'm Gary Groth-- and I don't publish tales for little boys."

Moving to other kinds of superiority dances, it's clear that this is what's going on in this excerpt from Groth's eulogy for Will Eisner:

"Eisner refused to take the [superhero] genre trappings seriously -- which was about the only intelligent way to approach a strip that was designed to imitate the look of comic books, which were at best semi-literate, yet appeal to the adult readership of newspapers."

The Grothian superiority dance here also evokes the adult/juvenile distinction. Groth makes the assumption that Eisner's SPIRIT feature was superior because it (unlike all or most superhero strips in the juvenile-oriented comic books) chose to appeal to adults.

This, however, is a facile assumption. Will Eisner may have decided that he wanted to seek adult rather than juvenile approval, but there's no reason to believe that all comic strips (or anomalies like the "SPIRIT section") had to appeal to adults in order to sell widely. Adults generally bought the newspapers, true, but clearly the average newspaper comics-section was designed to appeal across the board to both adults and their children. A Marxist would assume that this "across-the-board" appeal was born of newspapers' desire to merchandise goods both for adults and children, and for once that hypothetical Marxist would probably be right. When the idea of the "SPIRIT section"-- a comic book distributed in newspapers with the Sunday comics-- was formulated by Quality editor Busy Arnold and his fellow dealmakers, those gentlemen probably had no plans to introduce a more "mature" hero simply because the character was going to appear in the supposedly adult-oriented newspapers. In all likelihood, they probably hoped to coattail on the success of Superman, who made the jump from to the comic-strip grid about a year and a half before the first SPIRIT section. They may well have intended THE SPIRIT to be read by the same kids who read superhero comic books, and even Eisner may have gone along with that notion early on, since the first year of THE SPIRIT isn't notably more mature in tone than the BATMAN comics of the time.

A greater Grothian absurdity is his notion that Eisner was in some way unique for his un-seriousness toward the superhero genre during the early 1940s, the formative years for the superhero comic book, and for those features, like the Kane-Finger BATMAN, that influenced Eisner as a source for tropes if nothing else. One can certainly say, if one chooses, that BATMAN was written on a simpler level than were some (though certainly not all!) comic strips. But the implications that the majority of Golden Age superhero comics were deadly serious makes one wonder if Gary Groth ever saw a comic from that period. There are a handful of superhero features that start off with a grim tone-- BATMAN, THE SPECTRE, DOCTOR FATE-- but most of these become lighter in tone relatively quickly, and many features were positively whimsical from the start. If I may sit in my amateur psychology armchair for a moment, I suspect that in making such an absurd declaration Groth was not really analyzing the Golden Age comics of Eisner's early years, but was actually expressing his (Groth's) own animus for the over-serious superhero comics that came to dominate the industry in the 1960s and 1970s, after being more or less midwifed by Roy Thomas, High Priest of the Serious Superhero.

So in Groth's eulogy we have at least two superiority dances going: what is "adult" is automatically more "intelligent" than what is juvenile, and a "light" or "frivolous" take on the superhero genre is automatically better than any work that takes the superhero genre seriously (whatever those works might be).

As statements of merely personal taste, there's nothing wrong with either dynamization. If I say I have a preference for serious superheroes better than silly superheroes, then for me personally the silly ones seem static and uninteresting while the serious ones are dynamic and fascinating. This is inarguable. But of course Groth is not merely stating preferences, but putting forth a critical statement that asserts, as objectively as anyone can, that his tastes are more discriminating than those of the average comics-reader (dynamization again) and that therefore his take on comics generally and Will Eisner specifically is exemplary for others. This he can demonstrate only through logic. But the logic of the eulogy piece is clearly flawed in many respects, though here I'm confining myself to the way Groth misrepresents particular media-phenomena to support his rhetoric.

The most charitable reading of Groth's rhetoric is that he *may* want others to follow his example and eschew the static for the dynamic (i.e. "commerce" for "art.") But his concept of art is poorly conceived, as is his reading of Will Eisner, so that he might as well be pointing at the grave of Will Eisner and screaming:


Just minutes before he goes into his superiority dance.


Charles R. said...

Regarding stasis, you might Satie's Vexations of interest. I doubt Groth would argue it's a work aimed at children or not worthy of adult thought. I imagine Groth, like the rest of us, thinks there are intelligent children's works and dumb children's works, and that it has little or nothing to do with stasis versus dynamism. But who knows?

Gene Phillips said...

No, I'm pretty sure that Groth, any more than you, would not accept an equivalence between "static/dynamic" and "bad/good." But the terms good and bad mean so much to so many people that in effect they mean exactly nothing in current society, and it's questionable as to whether said terms ever meant as much as society once thought they did.

It's amusing that Groth has frequently complained about how lax standards are, resulting in so much trash getting a free pass. But he's gotten a free pass on massive distortions like the Eisner eulogy, too. Though readers used to challenge Groth in the "old days" I don't think anyone but me bothered to critique the twisted logic of the eulogy.

But it's not because of low standards. It's because nobody gives a crap.

Charles R. said...

Bergson didn't equate stasis with bad, either. He opposed the use of static metaphors in describing dynamic processes (most prominently, discrete numbers representing the flow of time).

I remember people complaining about the Eisner eulogy. Although, I don't really see what massive distortions are supposed to be in there (isn't it factual that the SPIRIT is a better book than early Batman?). The problems many had with the essay was Groth's take on Eisner's work for the military and his studio.

Gene Phillips said...

"Bergson didn't equate stasis with bad, either."

In TWO SOURCES OF MORALITY AND RELIGION he definitely contrasts "static religion" as bad as against "dynamic religion."

At the start of my essay I covered the essentialist side of the matter, stating that there was no absolute reason to prefer dynamic over static as a matter of course, but that "culturally" there is the tendency to do so.

It's certainly possible that someone somewhere criticized Groth's essay, but there was certainly a lot less heat toward Groth for attacking Eisner himself than against Miller for simply doing a subpar take on the SPIRIT material. That might argue some misplaced priorities.

No, it's not "factual" that the SPIRIT is better than BATMAN. If one discounts the first imitative year of SPIRIT and goes by Groth's model of a more mature handling of crime melodrama, then what Eisner's trying to do is no longer the same thing as BATMAN, which is clearly fantasy-melodrama that allows for far greater use of fantasy-tropes-- giant monster-men, mad doctors and the like.