Sunday, August 30, 2009
That it plays a large part in human life, no one could doubt. But there are any number of aspects of life not reducible to moral dimensions, and so it should follow that art is similarly capable of being separated into works of "thematic realism" and "thematic escapism," to reiterate my own terms for the distinctions.
On a related topic, while I was answering objections to my "superhero decadence" posts, I remarked that Curt Purcell might well get sick of all the "comic book crapola." I was a little unspecific as to why I thought arguments between comic-book people tended to become excessively crapulous, though.
The reason is this: comic-book people, whether elitist or populist, tend to make extremely-moral arguments against any position they don't like, often taking facile straw-man arguments to save themselves the trouble of engaging with said position in detail.
The two "Noah's Arghs" posts, here and here, exemplify this trend. Not only did poster Noah Berlatsky respond to my "decadence" posts by making some obscure remark about cultural studies-- which had no applicability to my posts-- but also tossed off a snide remark about the "Torture Guardin'" essay, which did no more than observe that in some fictional works torture (albeit broadly defined) simply doesn't have any moral resonance.
I don't doubt that the Spectre of the Straw Man sometimes haunts the blogs and messageboards devoted to non-comics fandoms, but comic-book people certainly seem to invoke its spirit with annoying regularity. Usually at Curt's blog, proponents of various ideas discuss them in mature fashion, without attempting to make up anything about an opponent's position. But often it seems that comic-book people, whether they do or don't read superheroes, tend to fashion their moral universes into Manichean cosmologies.
(Spoiler warning about the movie discussed below)
Admittedly, by the time the comics-people got ahold of Moral Manicheanism, it had already applied to just about every other artform and medium, and it still crops up. For instance, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS has recently come under fire for having supposedly trivialized the subject matter of the Holocaust by allowing a fictional commando unit the liberty not only to kick a lot of Nazi ass (as Simon and Kirby's BOY COMMANDOS did much earlier), but to actually rewrite WWII history by letting its heroes kill off Hitler.
This was pretty audacious for a contemporary film. Of course Hitler was revived in fantasy-tales in just about every pop-cultural medium extant, which could be viewed as a similar distortion of history, but most such stories only altered events taking place after Hitler's historical demise. Even in certain comic books, which asserted that Hitler was burned to death by the Human Torch, hewed close to the historical record by having the event take place in the same locale where Adolf reputedly perished with Eva Braun.
But the claim that such a rewriting of history endangers the ability of viewers to engage with the Holocaust is just more manic Moral Manicheanism.
In this post Brights Lights After Dark treated this question more seriously than I would have. I won't go into a lot of the specific ways I both agree and disagree with Joseph Lanthier-- at least, not in this post-- but I will point out that the originator of the Moral Manicheanism, one Jonathan Rosenbaum, does himself no favors in my book by quoting Roland Barthes:
'Since many people have been asking me to elaborate on why I think "Inglourious Basterds" is akin to Holocaust denial, I’ll try to explain what I mean as succinctly as possible, by paraphrasing Roland Barthes: anything that makes Fascism unreal is wrong.'
Equating a work by a thematically-escapist artists like Quentin Tarantino with "Holocaust denial" is one of the most egregious Straw Men I've encountered in many years. One would hope that Rosenbaum's argument doesn't stand upon the reputation of Roland Barthes, that ingenious but superficial Marxist moron, but I've no faith that anyone who would even put forth such a cocked-up argument, with or without Barthes, would be able to judge what is or isn't "unreal" in the world of artistic endeavor.
So I guess, even if comic-book fandom plays host to countless hordes of Manicheans and their moral fixations, our little peccadillos-- "Superman's a Fascist; Vampirella's sexist"-- don't even compare with the dopiness that sometimes passes in other fandoms for intellectual discourse.
Friday, August 28, 2009
Since FC is old news, I'm not delving into the work in detail. My chief interest is to examine whether or not Morrison's work is "mythic" in the sense I define literary myths. Steven Grant wrote an essay partly reviewing FINAL CRISIS but also asserting that no pop-cultural story, be it by Kirby or Morrison or Steven Grant, could even be "myth." I then wrote an answering essay in which, frankly, I tore apart Grant's logic as through so much tissue paper, but I admitted at the end of the essay that I couldn't refute Grant's opinion on FC, as I hadn't finished it.
Now I have, and as a literary myth it is-- to say the least-- flawed.
It has virtues, of course. It's largely an adrenaline-pumping thrill-ride, and if the Big Two are financially bound to the concept of doing such mega-crossovers, then it's better than they shoot for wild thrills than static setups in which superheroes See a Lot of Dead People.
But is it mythic? I've defined a work's mythicity as its ability to structure its symbolic elements in a complex, interweaving manner, and in this blog's initial essay I quoted Yeats in this regard, who noted that "mythic narrative... cannot tell one story without telling a hundred others."
Given that the mega-crossovers of Marvel and DC are stories that at least evoke hundreds of previous stories in each company's respective continuities, the mega-crossover sounds like an ideal place where a creator like Morrison-- known for celebrating the "metanarrative" aspects of stories in several of his works, not least being the ANIMAL-MAN series-- should be able to shine.
In practice, FINAL CRISIS merely proves the rule about mega-crossovers: with great numbers of powerhouses come diminishing returns. I'm not one of those fans who insists that the "story" is no good unless it's heavily plotted, for by its nature the mega-crossover has the structure of a vaudeville show, where each performer comes out and does his/her thing before being quickly followed by someone else.
That said, although Morrison uses a structure for FC much like that of his previous (and more aesthetically successful) SEVEN SOLDIERS crossover-project, the choppiness of the various DC superhero segments works against most of the characters really getting across the essence of their mythic "talents." Morrison provided a much better mirror for superhero myths in his JUSTICE LEAGUE run, where even C-list characters like Steel took on greater symbolic significance.
The most interesting thing about FINAL CRISIS is Morrison's elaboration of one of Jack Kirby's key mythic constructs, "the Anti-Life Equation," itself somewhat derivative of the One Ring from Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS. Equation and Ring are both explicitly-modern forms of myth insofar as they resemble none of the threats one finds in archaic myth-epics, where the threats to the heroes are generally physical in nature. Only in modern fantasies does one find the idea of using some device to bind all of humanity to one will, which seems a symbolic translation of contemporary human fears about the ease with which human will can be subverted. Morrison's take on such subversion is of course not informed with the same symbolic resonances as Kirby's was, but there's a good deal of interplay between their creative "universes." Thus when Morrison revives Kirby's "Justifiers"-- humans who place themselves in the role of total obedience to The Cause, even without the impetus of anti-life controlling them-- he's more than able to evoke the abnegation of personal will with quite as much horror as Kirby himself essayed.
Thus, even if the whole of FINAL CRISIS is less than the sum of its parts, I do find that some of those parts still make for damned good myth.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
To my knowledge Ebony's creator never accepted the "racist" accusation, and he always defended Ebony's appearance as appropriate to the art of visual caricature. For instance, the following quotes from a 2003 interview may not be Eisner's last published word on the matter, but they do seem reasonably representative. He begins by discussing his then-current project, FAGIN THE JEW, his re-interpretation of the Charles Dickens character, in terms of using caricature as communicatory device:
"Stereotype has been made a bad word. But it's not a bad [thing] unless it's used badly-- for evil purposes. But [sometimes] it's the only way you can communicate, visually."
Eisner elaborates that though he felt that Dickens did an "evil thing" by constantly referring to Fagin as "the Jew" in OLIVER TWIST, his research showed that Dickens himself was not anti-Semitic and that the author attempted to ameliorate the invidious characterization once he realized it was offensive-- not unlike certain of Eisner's experiences in the wake of creating the Spirit's minstrel-show minion. But of course, as Fagin was created by Dickens' putting words on paper (with any illustrations being ancillary to those words), Dickens would not have defended caricature on the basis of a need for visual shorthand.
The TIME interviewer goes on to ask Eisner about Ebony. Eisner maintains that a crucial difference exists between what he Eisner did and what Dickens did, in that Dickens promulgated a "negative stereotype" which "capitalized" on the "presumed characteristics of the Jew." Clearly, Eisner does not deem Ebony a "negative stereotype" of the same "evil" stripe as Fagin, though one cannot help but suspect that Eisner's sensitivities depended on whose ox was being gored. Eisner does allow that since some people actually were offended, his only "excuse" was being a man of his times, which meant that he used caricature to make fun of "bad English and physical difference in identity."
But this "it-was-the-times" defense is far less interesting than the defense of using caricature as a tool of quick communication, which may go toward answering the second fan quoted above, as to why Eisner did not try to remodel Ebony in order to answer the complaints.
To get one obvious objection out of the way, there probably were not very many complaints back in the 1940s, when minstrel-show tropes still made frequent appearances in mainstream films. Today we've grown used to creators quickly remodeling this or that character based on objections from pressure groups, but in cases where the objections are just a matter of readers' personal tastes, most creators would not instantly jump to refashion their characters to suit a minority opinion. That's one factor that might explain Eisner's disinclination to restructure Ebony.
In addition, artists-- or even artists who employ other artists in a "shop" situation-- value any tool that makes the work both accessible and recognizeable to potential buyers. Caricature is one such tool, but of course it's primarily valuable to artists who have a propensity for that artistic tool. Eisner was one such, and so he clearly valued his ability to do good caricature of a wide variety of ethnic and social "stereotypes." An artist with a more "realistic" take, such as Phil Davis on the early MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN, did not resort to physical caricature in drawing Mandrake's African sidekick Lothar, but he did resort to other visual devices to signal to readers that Lothar was African, such as garments (a fez, a leopard-skin tunic).
Eisner's work certainly testifies to his even-handedness in rendering nearly every ethnic stereotype favored by his contemporaries: dumb Swedes, sentimental Russians, cutthroat Arabs, stiff-upper-lip Brits, and fulsomely-romantic Frenchies are all on display in the Eisner corpus. It's clear that Eisner did not single out Afro-Americans for special treatment, and that he did, as he notes in the TIME interview, render some black characters in an un-stereotypical fashion, even though Ebony remained the most conspicuous black character in THE SPIRIT.
It goes without saying that Ebony is much more offensive today than he was in "his" time, though one imagines that if THE SPIRIT's contemporaneous black readers weren't especially offended by Ebony, it would be because other negative stereotypes, particularly those of the movies, were far more pervasive.
But-- is Ebony White "racist" as such?
I would answer "Yes" only with qualifications. Clearly Eisner did not realize, or chose not to realize, that the minstrel-show visual devices he perpetuated "capitalized" on the "presumed characteristics" of black people, where big eyes and big lips conveyed such characteristics as stupidity and childishness, just as Fagin embodied supposed Jewish traits of criminality and miserliness. Eisner probably only saw that he had given Ebony a lot more wit and personality than one saw in many black characters in the pop culture of the time, and that would be true as far as it went.
Yet, having admitted that Eisner used a racist visual trope, I am still uncomfortable with unreservedly calling Ebony a racist creation. Eisner's case is certainly weakened by his inability to consider how the "negative stereotype" of blacks was used as an indirect rhetorical tool by which real people were consigned to second-class citizenship. And yet, his point about caricature cannot be so easily dismissed.
Caricature is not meant to be fair. Even if I admit that the particular manifestation of the minstrel-show image of blacks is "evil," I'm conscious that no group ever likes the way it's portrayed by another group, unless the portrait is unreservedly noble and heroic. When caricature makes fun of individual or ethnic differences, it can only do so by provoking unconscious associations about How Things Should Be. Mentally it's a short step from "this one person's ears are bigger than ears should be" to "this ethnic group's eyes are smaller and sneakier-looking than eyes should be."
One may reply that one ought not to caricature individuals, real or fictional, on the basis of their race, and in current times there has been a great effort to damp down this tendency. And though I'm sure to be misunderstood by dunce-capped elitists ("Gene Phillips Advocates Racism!"), I do approve of society making such efforts, insofar as the activity makes all peoples more conscious of their incipient prejudices, at least up to a point.
However, I am pessimistic as to whether human beings can completely eliminate this tendency to stereotype, and I'm not entirely certain that we should.
Bill Russell once said, "Show me a man without prejudice and I'll show you a man without taste." Everyone has prejudices: it's just the nature of being an individual. Bigotry comes in when that individual thinks his prejudices should become applicable across the board, rather than being the particular expression of one's own consciousness. And, like it or not, one's taste includes how one feels about cultures not one's own-- whether they seem funny or weird or taboo-breaking, perhaps even AFTER one has made some effort to learn what makes that culture tick.
Perhaps no less appropriately, Dave Barry, before taking his trip to Japan, worried that he wouldn't be able to relate to the people. He then set up his readers with a homily about how he realized that the Japanese were just like everyone else-- and finished with the punchline, "They're all CRAZY!"
By which, of course, he meant that all of us are crazy, no matter how sane we may construe our own cultures to be. And the art of caricature is certainly, in its less poltically-motivated manifestations, one way of showing that comedic absurdity.
I'd like to believe that even if as a person Will Eisner wasn't sensitive to *all* of the ways in which some caricatures have been used in the service of bigotry, as an artist he had, not unlike both Dickens and Shakespeare, a wide-ranging, almost *disinterested* sense of What Made People So Damn Funny. And that's the main factor, far more than the defense that "everybody was doing it," that most mitigates the case for racism in the Analysis of Ebony White, Caricature.
Monday, August 24, 2009
'[Curt Purcell] articulates a problem with serialized superhero comics that not even Jim Shooter-style "new-reader friendliness" can overcome, namely that even if a superhero comic uses exposition to provide you with all the information you need to make sense it, it still "presuppose[s] a history of emotional attachment to these characters" to connect with it. And frankly there's no more of a way around that than there would be to make latecomers to The Sopranos instantly connect with the plight of Christopher Moltisanti. It's just the nature of long-form serialized storytelling. The key is to avoid plot points that are simply "Hey look, it's That Guy!" in favor of "Hey, look what that guy is doing!"'
I agree with this-- in part.
IMO, the sort of archetypal characters favored by popular fiction are less independent from their functions in the plot than characters in canonical literature, or at least the literature of what I've called "thematic realism." This means that the "emotional attachment"one gets from popfiction characters like Sherlock Holmes and the Fantastic Four is very different from that of those literary characters who have enjoyed wide popularity, such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
Personal aside: one of my first Marvel comics was FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #5. At that time I believe I might have gotten the sketchiest idea of what the FF were about from a MARVEL TALES reprinting a Human Torch tale, wherein the other three members guest-starred with their fiery partner. For those not acquainted with FF ANNUAL #5, it could almost be retitled FF GUEST STARS ANNUAL #5, since it not only intro'd me to support characters like Alicia and Crystal, but also to Black Panther and the Inhumans, who joined the FF in battling Psycho-Man and three supervillain flunkies.
It was a heady mix, to be sure, considering how little I knew about the various characters' backstories. But I would say that my desire to know more about those backstories proceeded not just from intrigue as to the characters themselves, but also as to their function in exciting, imaginative stories of super-powered conflict.
Sean points out that the problems of "long-form serialized storytelling" are not unique to superhero comics, and I agree. If one tried to pick up an ANITA BLAKE book late in the continuity, I believe one would find oneself deluged in backstory summations no less onerous than any of those of most superhero comics, and probably a good deal less immediately engaging than Lee and Kirby's FF ANNUAL #5.
But, if a reader were sufficiently motivated to read a book about a sexy paranormal adventurer, I think that reader would manage to overcome those barriers for the sake of ENJOYING the GENRE itself, where the characters are far less distinguished from the genre's plot-functions than one finds in thematically-realistic works.
So for me, and possibly others, the primary "emotional attachment" is to the archetypal forms of the genre, and attachments to the characters is of secondary importance-- which is why "new-reader friendliness" may not be as important as some have supposed.
And I seem to be one of the few who garnered some enjoyment out of the overly-long talky-talk scenes in DEATH PROOF, which many found excruciating.
I may be able to enjoy IB better on DVD, where I can fast-forward past these clunkers.
("Jew Bear" is a character in the film, BTW.)
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
In "Aiming the Canon" I presented a mini-history as to how the changes to the comic-book market in the early 1970s led Marvel and DC to inject "adult concerns" into some of their product, though their intended market was almost certainly older adolescents rather than the thirty-to-fifty-somethings who support the current incarnation of the Direct Market. Since the DM was barely getting started in the 1970s, older adolescents were pretty much the only new market that comic books could have pursued with the resources available to them in those days. For this reason, even though the newstand-distributed color comics did become more daring in terms of content, I still regard them most of them as "juvenile pulp." There was at that time no paradigm for tapping into adult readers who made popular such paperback serials as THE EXECUTIONER-- not even when Marvel Comics unveiled their own copycat version of same.
I specified "color comics" above in order to single out those periodicals markted primarily to the less-than-adolescent audience, which category logically cannot include either underground comics or the Warren black-and-white magazines. Both of the latter did contain higher levels of verboten material than the color mags, and certainly both had some effect on the ways Bronze Age creators chose to push the envelope. But I can't speculate on that effect here, as my intent is mainly to touch on the flashpoints that led from "juvenile decadence" to its adult manifestations.
One such flashpoint that precedes the Bronze Age as such was Neal Adams. Technically speaking, Adams' work for the color comics was "clean" insofar as it didn't generally show decapitated heads or spewing blood. Nevertheless, Adams was instrumental in cultivating in some fans a taste for the "grim and gritty," and much of his appeal lay in his ability to suggest violence. In STRANGE ADVENTURES #208 (Jan 68) the hero Deadman (not yet a discarnate spirit) threatens to break the arm of his enemy Eagle. No ruptured flesh or broken bone is seen. But the reader feels the real possibility of the bone being snapped. This was heady stuff to a generation growing up on Batman-and-Robin fisticuffs, or even antiseptic Jack Kirby brawls.
As mentioned before CONAN THE BARBARIAN #1 (Oct 70) set a new standard for the depiction of both sex and violence in color comics. I'm still impressed that CONAN got away with as much "dirty" violence as it did in its first year-- noses bloodied, men devoured alive by monsters, the hero punching an enemy in the testicles. This is pure speculation, but perhaps Marvel got the feature past the Comics Code as a sort of test-case, to see if the market justified getting down-and-dirty again. CONAN's financial success may've paved the way for the 1971 revisions to the Code that, among other things, made possible the widespread marketing of horror and monster titles once more.
Interestingly, one of the first monsters to anticipate the wave of color-comics bogies was not a traditional Hollywood type like Dracula, but Marvel's Man-Thing, appearing just once in the b&w SAVAGE TALES #1 (May 71) before being transferred to color comics shortly thereafter. As SAVAGE TALES was an incursion on the non-Code market dominated by the Warren books, perhaps it's no accident that one of Conan's co-features in the first issue starred a monster intended for a continuing feature, in contrast to the slightly-earlier appearance of Swamp Thing in a non-continuing horror-tale. In any case, with the revision of the Code Marvel and DC were at last willing to unleash a new world of monsters to counter the world of superheroic gods they'd unleashed in the previous decade.
One narrative advantage of having monsters as stars was that, like the barbaric Conan, they could get away with greater levels of violence than the average superhero could. That said, superheroes too began to lose a lot of their Silver Age innocence, and probably no event of the early 70s captures that slow progress toward increased violence than The Death of Gwen Stacy in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121 (Feb 1973). And even though the event itself was approved by SPIDER-MAN's two previous scripters, editors Lee and Thomas, the execution, as carried out by writer Gerry Conway and artist Ross Andru, exemplified a darker, more disruptive approach to the Marvel Universe. The subsequent introduction of that aforementioned Executioner imitator added yet more fuel to the shadow (so to speak).
The Punisher wouldn't become a superstar for several years, but the Marvel-DC superhero universe grew darker from yet other incursions. The burgeoning monster-stars began to cross over into the superhero worlds, but a more significant effect may've arisen from "straight" superheroes who incorporated far more grotesquerie and violence than, say, the generally-sanitized adventures of Marvel's Incredible Hulk. ADVENTURE COMICS #431 (Jan-Feb 74) exhumed a Spectre who outstripped the juvenile ghoulishness of his Golden Age template, while GIANT-SIZED X-MEN #1 (May 75) provided a certain claw-handed hero with a regular berth for mayhem-to-come. It may be argued, though, that Wolverine does not reach his true potential as a "savage hero" until X-MEN #98 (April 76) revealed that the character's deadly claws were part of his anatomy, which gave him a little more gravitas than just another costumed schmoe with blades attached to his hands.
Arguably DC Comics, though providing a home to the Spectre (in one incarnation) and Swamp Thing (in two), reveled a little less in "juvenile decadence" than Marvel did. Still, the die was cast right up against the handwriting on the wall, as is best seen by the way the Death of Gwen Stacy begat the Death of Iris Allen. Ross Andru, perhaps bringing with him lessons learned alongside Gerry Conway at Marvel, took over the editorship of the FLASH feature with issue #270 (Feb 79), and by July of the same year Iris was dead under quite grotesque circumstances that anticipated the death of Sue Dibny in 2004's IDENTITY CRISIS. And though Andru didn't remain editor for an exceedingly long period, allegedly sales on THE FLASH did go up during its "grim and gritty" period, which factor may well have contributed to DC's increasing investment in "decadent" material, such as the two 1983 features Curt Purcell references, OMEGA MEN and VIGILANTE. Though I liked neither of them, both were significant marketing breakthroughs as they were designed to appeal to the burgeoning Direct Market, and so are ancestors to the "superhero decadence" of current days.
I would not categorize either OMEGA MEN or VIGILANTE as "adult pulp," though, for their narratives are still adolescent in tone, as is Andru's FLASH. But in the same year Andru revised DC's stalwart speedster, Frank Miller became the resident artist on one of Marvel's not-so-stalwart mainstays, beginning with DAREDEVIL #158 (May 79). Neither he nor Moore is "to blame" for any increase in decadence, adult or juvenile, but Miller has the distinction of bringing forth the Adult Pulp paradigm to comic books four years before most Americans knew Alan Moore from a hole in Blackburn, Lancaster.
Whatever one thinks of Frank Miller, no one can argue that, historically, Miller began to influence American comics before Moore. The linkage of these two creators in the public mind through their 1986 projects does have some interesting repercussions I won't address here, just as I won't deal with the question of why Miller's DAREDEVIL does qualify as adult pulp but Wolfman's VIGILANTE does not. As to whether either of those topics will be the next I address-- that too remains a secret, even to me.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Back in this essay I expressed more than a little discomfort with Frye's analysis of the comedy mythos, in which he tended to overemphasize, in keeping with Greek New Comedy, comedy's power to join together disparate parts of society, often through a climactic banquet or wedding-scene. It's true that there are some indications that the tradition of the "happy ending" climax might even go back to Greek Old Comedy, so that aspect of comedy may predate New Comedy's concentration of romantic plot-devices.
That said, when Frye writes something like this--
"These five phases of comedy may be seen as a sequence of stages in the life of a redeemed society."
-- I can't help but feel that something's being left out of the equation, like the question of whether the archetypal theme of comedy should relate to aspects of life we find funny, not redeeming as such. Surely one can find aspects of redemptive value in the other three mythoi as well.
Here's the longest thing Frye writes on the question of why we find things funny:
"The principle of the humor is the principle that unincremental repetition, the literary imitation of ritual bondage, is funny...Repetition overdone or not going anywhere belongs to comedy, for laughter is partly a reflex, and like other reflexes it can be conditioned by a simple repeated pattern... The principle of repetition... is well known to the creators of comic strips, in which a character is established as a parasite, a glutton... or a shrew, and who begins to be funny after the point has been made every day for several months."
This passage, whose theory of humor sounds strikingly like that of Henri Bergson's, demonstrates that Frye was well acquainted with modern forms of repetitive comedy. Indeed, his description of the glutton sounds a lot like Dagwood Bumstead.
The problem, however, is that a comic strip like BLONDIE is so repetitive that it's hard to imagine it being one of the "stages in the life of a redeemed society." Rather, BLONDIE seems a New Comedy in reverse, where the romantic plot that originally drove the feature was concluded, so that from then on all the humor stemmed not from a young man overcoming opposition to his romance but from an older man finding himself trapped in what Marshal McLuhan called the strip's "mothering-wedlock."
So anagnorisis does not really seem to apply to a work as fiercely repetitive as BLONDIE, which makes one wonder if the term really serves for the archetypal theme of comedy. In that earlier essay I noted that I might use Frye's term with the caveat that I really referenced not his notion of "comedy as redemption" but something more like Kant's "comedy as incongruity," but since that's an easy point to fall by the wayside, I'm now planning to use the Latin cognitio in place of the Greek one. And I seem not to be the first to need something more expansive than the Aristotelian term: according to Terence Cave's study of the concept of literary recognition, Renaissance critics (covered in Chapter 2) also used cognitio to denote a wider concept of recognition that the one favored by Aristotle, which Frye channels into his interpretation of characters experiencing some epiphanic redemption.
I mentioned in the Comedy-and-Irony essay that I thought the archetypal theme of comedy should be capable of embracing every form of incongruity from the philosophical ruminations of Woody Allen to the slapstick of the Three Stooges. I still believe that, but if one believes that the essence of humor is not repetition but incongruity, then it implies that the pleasure we get from humor is not in cognitive knowledge but in knowing nothing in life ever quite coheres the way we think it ought to, as in Milton's encomium on Socrates:
“The first and wisest of them all professed
To know this only, that he nothing knew.”
Thus my theme of cognitio is fundamentally about knowing that humans don't really know anything, but whereas this "discovery" is often a cause for despair or deep reflection in the other three mythoi, in comedy such knowledge is the source of the pleasure itself.
This attempt to refine aspects of Frye's archetypal themes will tie in with a later essay that will cover my earlier-mentioned reading of Theodor Gaster's THESPIS, and why its influence on Frye's ANATOMY might be extended into new territory.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Since a certain online utilitarian, whose perceptions are at least on the same wavelength as those of the fictional Gradgrind, recently saw fit to equate pluralism with liking any piece of comic-book crap out there, it's as good a time as any to review BLACKEST NIGHT #1.
Prefatory remarks first. I've already spoken in the "adult pulp" posts as to the possibility that things like hyperviolence and perverse sexuality in superhero books, which may or may not travesty the normative figure of the superhero, may have some positive connotations. Thus I agree in principle with what Scipio states on this post of THE ABSORBACON:
'I appreciate when DC takes advantage of an 'event' to do more than simply tell a story. Legends, for example, made complex points about heroism. Blackest Night is a commentary (criticism?) of comic books' Revolving Door of Death. As longtime readers may remember, I am an admirer of the Ivory Soap Method of marketing. "Blackest Night" is an astonishingly bold example. DC has said, "Let's take out two most damning criticisms == that we violently kill off our characters with foolish abandon and that we keep bringing people back from the dead == and make those the central issues in our coolest company-wide story of all time." That's sheer genius.'
As a concept, I agree. As execution, not so much.
Though I don't have anything in principle against pitting superheroes against their zombified brethren, both GREEN LANTERN #43 and BLACKEST NIGHT #1 don't really give me much bang for my eight bucks. The art is as cheerfully lurid as the best grotesque-work of Jack Cole and Bill Everett, but Geoff Johns' story isn't working as either thrilling superheroes or mordant horror.
So though I think that the combination can and has been done well in the context of adult pulp, Johns pretty much blows the potential here.
I thought this remark from this BN review by Curt Purcell, a newbie reader to current superhero comics, spoke to the main deficiency I see:
"I've seen any number of comments along these lines--readers who weren't horrified so much as reminded of previous shoddy treatment of these "lighter," perhaps beloved characters, apparently for the cynical purpose of darkening and badassing things up, and who saw this zombie episode in that context. My impression is that Johns somewhat misjudged how this treatment of these characters would be received."
The "beloved characters" to whom Curt refers (as is made clear in the earlier paragraph) are four in all: Hawkman and Hawkgirl, who are attacked and killed by revenant versions of their former JLA teammate Elongated Man and his wife Sue.
Now, my problem is not that Johns put these characters through the wringer. I like them all, but I don't mind seeing them travestied, if it's done with some imagination.
But the attack of EM and his zombie wife upon the Hawk-couple, which should be full of angst ("to save you, why must I kill you" and all that) and maybe some interpersonal baggage, was no more than tediously functional. It's no more than a utilitarian's view of how to stage a good "my brother my enemy" battle.
Most of BN #1 is like that: the work of a journeyman going through the paces, without much attention to style. Only one moment in the story grabbed me as it did Curt: when one of the Guardians, Scar by name, suddenly breaks up a Guardians of the Galaxy kaffeeklatche by viciously fanging one of the other Guardians in the throat.
It wasn't subtle, but unlike the Battle of the Hackwork Zombies, it was something that I hadn't expected, and consequently it at least raised both my eyebrows.
(BTW: I later found out that Scar is female. I thought all the Guardians, by fiat of Steve Englehart, had always been male. Obviously I'm behind on current developments.)
With the possible exception of GREEN LANTERN: REBIRTH, most of Johns' work has struck me as that of a competent journeyman. I mildly enjoyed assorted issues of his JSA, FLASH, and HAWKMAN, but I don't think of him as a skilled craftsperson. I've yet to read anything by him that ranks with the best craftworks of Gail Simone and John Ostrander.
I'm not sure if I'll read any more of BLACKEST NIGHT at this time. But I have a feeling it's not going to make my list of All-Time Best Adult Pulp Comics.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
"clean" and "spectacular"-- STAR WARS
"dirty" and "spectacular"-- ALIEN
"clean" and "functional"
"dirty" and "functional"
I'll soon supply two examples for my functional categories, but first, here's a little more justification for the utility of any such categories.
An old joke goes, "There are just two categories of people: those who put everything into two categories, and those who don't." Since in the history of this blog I've been leaning toward quaternities I don't know just where that puts me. I do know that I think James Twitchell is wrong to formulate his "preposterous violence" theory on the basis of what he calls "intensity of violence," and what I call the "dirtiness" or "messiness" of violence. For me the baseline in my "spectacular violence" concept is whether or not the violent actions in a given work go beyond their bare functionality in the plot, and Twitchell himself hints in this direction in the section of PREPOSTEROUS VIOLENCE quoted in part 1.
My reasons for making this categorical split are doubtless rooted in my own perception of spectatorial pleasures. When I grew up watching spectacular violence in the 60s, there really was barely any "dirty" violence available to me. But I did have a sense of the difference between realistic and exaggerated forms of violence, if only from adults. I clearly remember watching a TV showing of a Mexican masked-wrestler opus, where the now-obscure protagonist "Neutron" was wading through a collection of adversaries. My father, who loved Westerns and war adventures but didn't care for superheroes, dropped a disparaging comment along the lines of, "You know, it's really not that easy for a man to knock another man to the ground." But whether that particular thought had ever crossed my young mind at that time, I think I knew even then that heroes without powers, like Neutron and Tarzan, were just "fantastic" than someone like Superman in the department of showing fantastic, exaggerated forms of violence-- unlike the majority of Westerns and war films.
Based on these perceptions, I don't think that the "clean violence" of STAR WARS or NEUTRON VS. THE MANIAC is any less spectacle-oriented than a more graphic film, like the aforementioned ALIEN.
Moving on to the matter of how "functional violence" functions-- that is, as a spectacle that remains subordinate to plot and theme rather than becoming, in large part, the activity toward which the plot and theme are directed-- I tried to think of film-texts that were at least as well known as STAR WARS and ALIEN, as well as being within the same supergenre of science-fiction. What I came up, oddly, were both science-fiction stories that, unlike the works directed by George Lucas and Ridley Scott, began as books.
Jules Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA makes a good example of clean functional violence. Because Verne's tale is principally a story of a long (and sometimes quite tedious) undersea-voyage, with copious references to marine facts and trivia, there's actually little violence in the book at all. To the best of my memory, the only violent acts in the story are the same ones presented in the canonical Disney adaptation from 1954: the ramming attacks of Nemo's Nautilus against imperialist sailing-ships, and the battle of the submarine-sailors, Nemo and Ned Land against a giant squid. Again, though, I emphasize not the paucity of violent acts as the thing that marks it as in the functional mode: Verne does not allow any violence to occur that does not directly support the events of the plot.
Contrast with LEAGUES the profligacy of STAR WARS' spectacles. In a rough sense, the middle portion of the film, with the heroes infiltrating the Death Star, poses a dilemna for them parallel to the three heroes of LEAGUES: being stuck aboard a vessel full of real or potential enemies. But the SW heroes only need a brief subterfuge, and there then follows an escape with lots of spiffy laser-fire, an escape so improbable that Princess Leia has to burst the heroes' bubble by declaring that the heroes only escaped because "[the villains] let us go."
For an example of a dirty functional type, I turn to the novel (though not the film) of FRANKENSTEIN. Again, Mary Shelley, like Verne, wrote for an educated audience that would have eschewed too great a liberality of violence, but her book certainly does dish up some moments of grue-- the strangling of five-year-old William, the unjust hanging of the maid Justine (a fortuitous likeness to deSade's famous character of that name?), and, perhaps goriest of all, Victor Frankenstein's decision to dispense with his female creation-- not by mercifully putting the creature to death with drugs but by stabbing it to death.
Yet here too these "grim and gritty" scenes are entirely subordinate to the plot and the greater theme of Frankenstein's sins coming home to roost-- though some critics have commented that on some level of subconscious Freudian hostility, the monster kills off everyone in the creator's circle because Frankenstein wants them all dead. (Certainly he does little to prevent their deaths.) So these spectacles of horror remain far more controlled than the flagrant gore-by-the-gallons approach of Ridley Scott's extraterrestial stalker.
Having provided examples for all four categories, I plan to use these in a future essay on the evolution of mainstream comics from Juvenile to Adult Pulp.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Roughly twenty years have passed, and to my knowledge no one's forged a better overarching analysis of the element of violence in pop culture than Twitchell. I don't advocate his thesis as a whole, which focuses on pop culture as pedagogical training somewhat after the fashion of Bruno Bettelheim, but the book puts forth a number of telling insights, one of which is his above-cited concept of "preposterous violence." I won't be using his term here, in part to distance my theories from Twitchell's, and in part because one of the problems with his theory as expressed in PV is that he doesn't formulate a term for the opposite of his "exaggerated" form of violence.
I said in an earlier essay that I would address the differing "intensities" of violence in fiction, by which I meant what I called "clean violence" vs. "dirty violence." These are NOT meant to be covalent with my versions of Twitchell's preposterous violence and its unnamed opposite. I refer to the "intensities" of clean and dirty because they are determined purely by how intensely the work does or does not present scenes of violence. As I see it preposterious violence and its opposite are not determined by intensity of effect but by narrative function.
In that earlier essay I used STAR WARS as an example of "clean" violence while ALIEN served for "dirty violence." Clearly the distinction doesn't arise from any quantification of violent acts, since there are many, many more scenes of violence in SW than in ALIEN, and many of those scenes culminate in someone's death. ALIEN's violence involves only the title critter and a half dozen humans vying with one another.
But ALIEN, though less violent in terms of numbers, is "dirtier" than STAR WARS because of the former's determination to show the visceral side of violence in all its oozing, bleeding, gushing and chest-bursting glory. The violent acts in STAR WARS are "clean" because the film declines to show Storm Troopers with their chest cavities blown open, or with their blood gushing out onto the hangar deck, and so on. Indeed, scuttlebutt asserts that the only reason Lucas had Obi-wan cut off some alien felon's arm in the Cantina Scene was to avoid having the film given the kiss-of-death "G" rating.
Now, in my view both SW and ALIEN, despite the intensity or lack of same with which they depict violence, are alike in the way both use violence as a narrative tool. I don't know if James Twitchell would find that both of them qualify as "preposterous violence" (neither gets much attention in PV), but I consider that both qualify as "spectactular violence," which I re-define as "that violence whose depiction is more the point of the story than the ostensible plot." Spectacular violence is the violence of the spectacle: it's meant to be looked at.
In contrast to this, I offer the term "functional violence." Twitchell doesn't put a name to this category of violence in PV but he clearly describes its distinction from its more exaggerated relation on page 188:
"The three film-genres which the Museum of Modern Art chose as being the most violence-prone [in 1969] were the Western, the detective, and the juvenile-gone-delinquent... But if you really examine the films chosen to typify violence in America in the early postwar decades, your immediate reaction is that they seem tame by modern standards... Violence is almost always a means to an end..."
Twitchell goes on to compare a list of these tame postwar films, including classics like LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE BIG HEAT, against both the films that rose in the late 60s and early 70s (WILD BUNCH, STRAW DOGS) and in later periods (NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST, DAWN OF THE DEAD). [Side-note: he mistakenly implies that 1963's BLOOD FEAST belongs in this third list.) Twitchell stresses the greater "intensity of violence" in the later films.
Yet some viewers might find the scalding of Gloria Grahame's face in THE BIG HEAT as viscerally horrifying as anything in STRAW DOGS. Because of this sort of viewer ambivalence I choose to determine the "intensity" of the violence in a work purely on the "clean/dirty" dichotomy. Does blood flow, do arms get broken, are heads blown off? If not, they're "clean;" if so, they're "dirty," using "dirty" in the sense that Mary Douglas defined dirt as "matter in the wrong place."
For me the defining distinction is that films like THE BIG HEAT generally use their violence, no matter how visceral, in a "functional" way: as "a means to an end." In such a work a given violent act may be spectacular but it does not detract from the plot.
More in Part 2.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Of course, that's not the case. Both before and after TDKR, there have been a good number of works that deserve praise for melding adult tone with fantastic/escapist subject matter. They're not all superheroes, and some of the ones that have the necessary adult tone are not "pulp" in the sense that I used it earlier: being fairly simple in thematic and dramatic terms. For instance, WATCHMEN would not be an example of "adult pulp."
However, some temporal limitations seem applicable. The EC horror-titles can be seen as fairly adult in content compared to much of their competition in that genre, but they debuted at a time when comics were still dominantly seen as a juvenile medium.
The "Bronze Age" doesn't change this dominant POV. By my reckoning it starts around 1970, when CONAN THE BARBARIAN and GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW debuted. The latter, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempted to retrofit the ongoing GREEN LANTERN in order to explore social problems in terms of relevance melodramas, which marked it as addressing "adult concerns" in terms of ethical development. Adult concerns in CONAN, were in the context of "stuff that you have a license to see because you're an adult." Admittedly most of the adult material appears only in the magazine's early run (like an early issue-- #8, perhaps?-- where for one story young Conan becomes a gigolo to a wealthy queen).
The first major works of adult pulp come into being right around the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s. The rollcall is well-known: Miller's DAREDEVIL, Moore's SWAMP THING, Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG. Indeed, very nearly the entire lineup of First Comics (1983-1991) was devoted to works with an "adult pulp" flavor. I would include the first three of these in my hypothetical canon, which brings the number up to four.
Still, only after 1986 (end of Bronze Age and beginning of "Iron Age" for me), do the twin towers of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN facillitate any sort of progress toward the goal of wooing an older audience. A lot of that progress had to be trailblazed by dopey "Comics aren't for kids anymore" articles, but maybe it was all worth it. So if I actually make progress in coming up with an adult pulp canon, most of the works selected will be post-1986.
I think I can probably come up with a representative sampling, though I don't plan to make one huge post as I've done for "best serial comics" and "best mythopoeic comics." Instead, I favor giving one post to each selection, and maybe counting down from 100 to one, just to encourage myself to keep going.
More to come.
Monday, August 3, 2009
"If Gene Phillips beleived that telling other people what to like is bad, his reponse should be "Nobody should tell someone what to like," which is a pretty simple response, and isn't going to make for very long blog posts. But of course, he can't resist trying to engage the critic on his own level"
I agree with Nietzsche that though one may go Beyond Good and Evil one should still be able to tell the difference between what's good and what's bad.
That said, "this thing sucks" doesn't show much analysis, does it? In practice you're not likely to change the opinion of anyone who doesn't at least have a tendency to valorize what you valorize. But a good critic, who in theory should be able to review anything, should have some insight into the variety of human perspectives. The elitist isn't mature enough to deal with the proposition that "one man's meat is another man's poison." He's gonna try to convince you the meat is poison even to the guy who likes it. Objectively speaking, this is a silly-ass falsification that is to me worse than a mere bad work (like BLACKEST NIGHT will probably be).
Howard D also says:
"So why does he doth protest so much? Is the critic worth responding to, or is his opinion inherently invalid?"
No critic is inherently invalid. For all I know Deppey may've said some things I would agree with. But in that particular blogposts, I "protest" his attempt to put his thumb on the scales.
Jon Hastings said:
'But that said, Dirk's statement (and coinage of the phrase "superhero decadence") is part of a larger conversation that centers around the (ill) health of the direct market and to pull it out of that context, as if it's from an essay in the NY Review of Books, is a dodgy move.'
From my perspective I'm trying to pull Deppey's assertions into an even larger conversation about aesthetics and niche marketing in general, both of which have some ramifications outside the direct market.
"IMHO, Deppey's biggest sin was accusing the readers of super hero decadence when he is actually talking about the writers and publishers of super hero comics."
I disagree; I think Deppey got that one right. I'd grant that the publishers may start the ball rolling with a given overhyped event-- let's say "death of Superman." But nothing forces the fans to keep buying event-stories. In a few cases the fans have voted with their feet against certain events, like the Spider-Clone saga, where I understand sales took a precipitous dip. But to the extent that the fans accept the marketing stunts, it seems likely that the events do have some pleasurable aspects to the fans who buy them. Deppey chooses to analyze the audience's pleasure only in terms of the comics-medium's history: I choose a wider literary context.
Also from Bryan:
"I seems to me Deppey is saying super hero comics have a foot in two different worlds (adult and children's literature) and doing neither very well, while Phillips is arguing that it's OK for adults to like fantastic things."
I'm arguing that, by virtue of the fact that a substantial number of adults like a fantastic genre once relegated to juveniles, that genre becomes "adult," at least in terms of market concerns.
Deppey's also stated that superhero comics were "created for children," as if that datum determines their nature for all time. I disagree.
Noah B gets back into it:
"He thinks Dirk is making fun of children's comics. But Dirk is in fact arguing that children's comics are good. Thus we have a disconnect."
Yes, and it's your disconnect. I clearly stated that Deppey is "making fun," if you want to call it that, of adult fans who haven't moved on from a children's genre.
"That's nothing compared to Phillips posts on torture, though. Oi."
Wow, you summoned up the energy to read 'em? I'm impressed.
Eric B said:
"Comics buyers will keep buying/reading Superman or X-Men whether they like the stories or not. They hope that a Superman story they like will come along...a creator they like, art they like, or whatever, but they don't necessarily buy for that reason (some do, but many don't). Why do they buy? Well, they like the character (or liked him)--they enjoyed some stories with that character at some point...and they're hoping something good will come along."
Exactly right. I had a similar point that got left out, noting how Stephen King claimed (in DANSE MACABRE) that horror fans were the most optimistic of fans, endlessly searching through tons of dreck in search of that unique frisson. (Wonder if Curt Purcell will agree? No, by now he's probably jumped ship, and is the better man for it...)
Mother of Mercy, will this be the end of responses?
PREDICTION: After reading this wrangle about comic-book aesthetics and elitists and such, Curt Purcell will undoubtedly flee back to the sanity of horror-blog discussions and never again want to be exposed to any more comic-book crapola.
So Noah B tells me that I "talk like a poncing grad school cult stud liberal elitist." I do not neither; I talk like a poncing grad school cult stud liberal pluralist. Shows what he knows.
In my opinion, sometimes academe-se is really the only language one can use to accurately phrase certain concepts. And Noah must agree in principle, since he sounds not much less poncey than I do, here:
"Through a mockery of a contract, in other words, Harry rapes the main lawgiver of the film, who has been transformed from a mysterious, distant man into a hysterical, violated woman. In humiliating himself, Harry humiliates masculinity in general — and, by doing so, he contradictorily asserts his masculinity in particular."
So now we've both quoted Deleuze and established ourselves as way heavy readers, man. BFD. Can we talk about our differences analytically?
"I may have more about this later...but it really frosts me when people pretend that cultural studies is somehow a movement for the people. Putting yourself above the fray on some lofty academic perch and presuming to speak for the people: that's the very definition of elitist, my friend. Because you know what? Most everyday, regular people who haven't undergone academic lobotomies — they think the stuff they like is good, and that the stuff other people like isn't. And the only people who think that the people can do no wrong are ivory tower intellectuals cavorting about in proleface."
Right; like ivory tower intellectuals who analyze women-in-prison films like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE. (And who come to some mistaken conclusions in that analysis, which I once thought I'd blog about but then didn't bother).
I believe I've mentioned the specific topic of "cultural studies" on this blog maybe once, in a review of an academic Cassirer collection. Yet Berlatsky's decided that I'm a "CS" guy based on Thoth-knows-what. Oh, and I did mention cultstudies in a COMIC INFORMER piece that I should probably blog here, so that NB can use it to help him sort out the differences between elitism and pluralism. I did say that think cultstudies had helped break down overly-ideological readings of fiction, pop and otherwise, but I don't think Berlatsky read that piece, since he seems not to be able to finish even the "decadence" series:
"Just trying to read through the whole series of posts...and, yeah, I have to agree with most commenters here that the game isn't really worth the candle."
Second verse, same as the first: I haven't said I was speaking for any people. I think that though I'm not a superheroes-only guy, I may have more insight into what makes them tick than the guys who are telling the superhero fans to "move on." (Will Berlatsky or any of his posters address this point? Bet not.)
I haven't said "the people can do no wrong:" I've argued that one needs to figure out what people want out of a given genre, or manifestation of a genre, that makes them plunk down money for it. Just in the "decadence" posts alone I've hinted that I was somewhat less than taken with BLACKEST NIGHT, which might suggest to some that a pluralist can manage the feat of disliking a bad work without venturing half-baked opinions on the pedagogical progress of the work's readers.
Tom Crippen then asks:
"It seems like the quote is saying that maybe superhero fans aren't the only media consumers who fixate on material they've loved since they were kids. Is that what the post's whole argument comes down to?"
I'll make it easy on you, Tom:
No. If you can find a place where I used the word 'fixate' in the series, you deserve to get a pony. I won't buy you one, but you'll deserve it, and that makes you special.
Then Noah sez:
"And yes, I'm charging him with elitism -- because I think it would annoy him, not because I actually think elites are evil or that anti-elitists are virtuous. (Anti-elitism has at least as unpleasant a pedigree as elitism. One of the few things Nazis and Stalinists can agree on, after all, is anti-elitism.)"
The proper opposite of elitism is populism, which is the actual belief that the people can do no wrong. Usually detractors label me a populist, so you get points for originality, if not close reading.
"Arguing Deppey's logic without bringing centering your argument around the very specific artwork Deppey's discussing seems incredibly odd as well..."
I did say that I would not comment on the piece w/o knowing the context, aside from saying that as a single panel piece of art it looked pretty confusing, and was probably bad on that score. But the Supergirl drawing isn't the center of the argument; it's just an example of a syndrome Deppey's cited in other superhero comics, in at least one other post to which Curt linked.
Hmm, this is getting kind of long. Better do a "part 2."