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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A TASTE FOR SUPERHERO DECADENCE, part 1

Early this year I encountered the term "superhero decadence" in an essay by comics writer-artist Bill Willingham, where he addressed his distaste for the "grim and gritty" trend in superhero comics. I didn't pay the discusssion a lot of attention and soon forgot it, not realizing that Willingham's term meant something a little different when it was apparently first articulated by Dirk Deppey in a 2007 JOURNALISTA blogpost.

Then Curt Purcell's post here on DC's current "big event" series, BLACKEST NIGHT and its sundry crossovers, provided me with a link to the Deppey post that proved more interesting to me than the one issue of BN that I had read (with an eye to the possibility of responding to Curt's posts somewhat).

I'll still try to weigh in a little bit on BLACKEST NIGHT, but the real darkness to be addressed in this and subsequent posts has got to be Deppey's notion of "superhero decadence."

My finding Deppey's 2007 post solves a problem for me that I've been thinking about for some time. Since not infrequently I decry the critical stance of "elitism" in contrast to my "pluralism," I feel the need of a good, concise example of elitist thought. In past commentaries I have, for instance, linked to things like Gary Groth's tendentious eulogy for Will Eisner, but whatever merits that piece might have, concision is not one of them.

But the core of Deppey's post is marvelously concise: though the post as a whole is concerned with answering another poster's concerns and then concludes by supporting his position with a whole one example of "superhero decadence," the core is here:

'In general, I agree with Carlson’s argument, but I would say that the current kerfuffle is little more than a reflection of a larger problem, which isn’t sexism so much as the continuing effort to wedge an adult sensibility into a genre created for children. I’ve taken to calling this phenomenon “superhero decadence,” and it occurs to me that I should define my terms a bit. By “decadence” I don’t mean sexual deviance, but rather “jaded but unwilling to move on, with one’s tastes growing more ornate and polluted in the process.” Readers of modern superhero comics seem to be chasing a cherished moment from childhood without quite understanding that they’re no longer the people capable of enjoying that moment with the same wide-eyed wonder; possessing a more adult outlook, they thus insist on reading modern variants of the superhero comics that they loved as teenagers, but with a point of view more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans wedged in there as well. The results read like an adult crime drama featuring all the excess sex, violence and a zombie-like attempt at the sophistication of an HBO television series but with a cast composed entirely of professional wrestlers. Would you watch Glengarry Glen Ross if it starred Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper? (Okay, I would too; that would be funny. But you get my point.)'

"Genre created for children"-- "ornate and polluted"(this from a guy associated with Fantagraphics, publishers of Daniel Clowes and Ivan Brunetti)-- "more appropriate to the Sopranos than Teen Titans"-- all of these statements are wonderfully evocative of the elitist tendency toward a blinkered (and of course ideological) view of history and literature. The base of Deppey's argument speaks to what I've called (in the "Dynamization" essay linked above) the "pedagogical paradigm," in which the critic assumes that there is a optimal time by which a reader's preoccupation with a given literary subject or genre MUST expire, or else it clearly implies some dire failure on the part of said reader.

In other words, it's the usual shell game of the High Culture Huckster: "This thing you the reader like is totally without worth: come buy what I or my confreres publish. Not only will no one ever again call you a Babyman, you will be fully initiated into the Cultus of Looking Down on Babymen (though the secret decoder ring is extra)."

Of course, the fact that I find Deppey's logic laughable shouldn't imply that I'm necessarily defending BLACKEST NIGHT specificially or mainstream comics-events in general, at least in their current manifestations.

For sure, more later.

4 comments:

Curt Purcell said...

Oh, the term isn't "Babyman," it's "kidult."

Looking forward to more, and your thoughts on BN.

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I suspect that the next 2 parts will be a little opaque for the comics-newb, but I'll get to the decadence itself eventually.

Lacey said...

When I was on the debate team in high school we learned a trick to use to dismiss an opponent's argument. That trick was to label it something negative, then dismiss it as a trivial negative everyone already agrees is wrong. Use words like "chauvinistic," "exploitive," or even "elitism."

That last one works well went talking to a crowed that you want to win over quickly. By calling your opponent (or his argument) "elitism" you dismiss it because, after all, who wants to be elitist? (also the "your" [bad]and "my" [good] was a nice touch)

I am glad to see that my coach taught me real world skills as that tactic seems to be in good use today.

Your basic argument is wrong, and simply labeling the opposite opinion as something negative does not, in the real world, make it right.

People change as people grow. What is fun and appropriate for small children will not be as intellectually stimulating for adults of say, 25 - 35.

When you are an 18 year old male, every girl is fair game and any change in society that makes her easier to bed should be made law. When you are a 40 year old father with an 18 year old daughter, you do not have the same opinion (though you might support a law making it easier for 40 year old men to get 18 year old girls . . . just not your daughter).

Adults who move from one era of life to the next look fondly at the easier times of the past. Often through rose colored glasses I grant you, but they remember the fun they had and hope for that fun for the next generation.

Some remember the fun of comic books, the color, the adventure, the excitement, and recoil at what "comic-books" have become in the hands of their own generation.
This is a legitimate concern because the entertainment industry has long shown that it will sink to the lowest depths when allowed. All in the name of art, of course, but to the depths never the less.

Should comic-books be for kids alone? No, of course not. There is children's literature and books for adults. Why should not the graphic work be the same. But understand that as you move toward "superhero decadence" you must drag your whole publishing catalog with you. It is an all or nothing proposition. Today, the current generation, as established by "baby-boomers" equates "legitimacy" with "adult," and every artists wants to be seen as legitimate.

So, grandma wants to buy her grand son a comic book when she is at the store before her visit. She goes to the rack and chooses a Batman or other superhero comic because that is what boys like. She picks up "Blackest Night" because she does not think to pre-screen a "comic-book" for her 8 year old grandchild. She should of course. It is her responsibility. However do you think that will be her thought when she buys it? I mean, a "comic-book"?

And as the child grows up with what passes for comic-books today he (or she) will feel the need to oil their rebellious gears by moving the medium one step away from "child" and closer to "adult." After all, isn't that their responsibility as the next generation to come of age?

Robert Klein, the comedian, told a story of his first appearence on an HBO special. He said the producers assured him that he could say anything as this was not network TV. He said how glad he was of that as he had a number of strong thought on the current administration. The producers looked puzzled and said, "no, we mean you can use all the profanity you want."

The to the current "powers that be," adult is synonymous with profanity, not insight into the world's complexity.

That, I would argue, is the "superhero decadence" comics writer-artist Bill Willingham was referring to.

Gene Phillips said...

I call Deppey and others "elitist" because I think that philosophical position follows from what they write, not because I'm playing to the gallery (hello? gallery? Are you even out there?) Sometimes I can respect the conclusions that elitists come to even if I think they're the wrong ones. I call myself a "pluralist" simply to help enunciate a viable philosophical alternative.

By now hasn't Grandma got used to watching out for sex jokes in SHREK cartoons? I really don't see too many grandmas making careless purchases these days. I used to hear more about it when the DM shops were new, but it's been a while.

"This is a legitimate concern because the entertainment industry has long shown that it will sink to the lowest depths when allowed. All in the name of art, of course, but to the depths never the less."

But did the comics-industry seek out the lowest depths-- if they did-- have any viable alternative? As I noted in another essay in this series, it looks to me like the mainstream public started leaving comics in the dust even when the books were still dominantly juvenile-friendly. I don't think the majority of comics are all the way to the "lower depths" (though some might prefer them to get even grosser!) But *if* your most dependable audience wants the gross stuff & nothing but, you either give it to them or you get out of the biz.

And if everyone really did get out of the biz-- not that it would ever happen, but if it did-- there goes the audience that made the DM possible, and maybe a lot of the alternatives that battened onto that market as well.