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.