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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


"I have no chance
"To sing or dance
"'Cause work and play don't mix."

--The Pig with All the Bricks, from Disney's "3 Little Pigs" cartoon

My literary answer to the uptight little pig is that though he's right that the two operations don't precisely "mix," they do complement each other more than he might suppose, and not only in the sense of the old Puritan "first work then play" ethic.

I asked earlier what constitutes, within the continuum of art and literature, the difference between "the adult" and "the juvenile."Clearly, following some of those earlier arguments, the dividing line isn't simply the presence or absence of material labelled as taboo for children: what Sean Collins called "stuff that could get a comic an R-rating." I noted here that "clean" works like Owen Wister's VIRGINIAN and George Lucas' STAR WARS appeal to adult concerns despite their lack of overtly taboo-breaking material (though such material may indeed be there, sub rosa as it were). Both works are equally accessible to both adults and juveniles, but the fact that a large quantity of adults do not dismiss either work as "exclusively for children" demonstrates that the work satisfies them on some adult level.

In this essay on "thematic realism" and "thematic escapism," I compared my categories loosely with the "reality principle" and "pleasure principle" of Freud. I did not advocate Freud's psychology generally, which isn't too far removed from the "work you shirkers" psychology of the Third Little Pig. But there's a more fundamental dichotomy than "pleasure and reality" that suggests to me the phenomenological difference between juvenile and adult: that one is oriented upon "play" and the other upon "work."

I don't see much need to define what "work" is, but because both Freud and the Bricolage Pig didn't define "play" as being more than pointless frivolity, an alternate definition seems worthwhile. And who better to give one than Johann Huizinga, one of the earliest analysts of the human concept of play in his 1938 book HOMO LUDENS:

"Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means."

Additionally I would note that though I stressed the "human concept of play," it's significant that the activity is not confined to humans, and that in other species there is some evidence to suggest that for those creatures "play" serves to duplicate some if not all of these functionless functions. It's been theorized that the activity of play helps the juvenile players improve their motor skills and perceptions, though to say that this was the only reason play evolved in animals would be to subscribe to a teleology like unto that of Richard Dawkins.

In any case other play-acting creatures, just like humans, begin as entities with no ability to work, even if other animals aren't helpless for as long a period as humans. Both animals and humans can, however, play even if they can't work, at least in the most exploratory and unstructured manner. And though humans have a longer development period than other animals, humans don't remain isolated from the concept of work all that much longer than our fellow beasts: if their "vacation" ends with the onset of adulthood in about a year or so, the human freedom to do nothing but play ends not with adulthood but with a protracted period of learning which, because it has a discrete purpose, must be considered as "work."

So human children become intimately acquainted with the dialectic of work and play early on. But because most adults prioritize the need for play in children's development, one may symbolically identify juveniles with the activity of play.

Conversely, though adults too exist within a continuum in which they balance work and play, the essence of being adult is that an adult must work to make it possible for children to grow, develop, and play-- at least until said adult is old enough to retire from work (at least in theory) and to devote the remainder of his life to "play," if he so wishes.

As go the actual adults and juveniles, so too their entertainments. Earlier I wrote about how the foundations of adult pulp began with two dichotomous titles becoming oriented toward older juveniles at the beginning of the Bronze Age:

'The "Bronze Age" doesn't change this dominant [juvenile orientation]. By my reckoning [the Age] 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."'

Now both of these magazines dealt heavily with subject matter not commonly associated back then with the juvenile target audience of comic books. I find both features to be dominantly juvenile in tone, though thematically the Thomas/Smith CONAN is closer to pure escapism while the O'Neil/Adams GREEN LANTERN is closer to realism. And the nature of each feature's subject matter underlies this thematic commitment. To borrow some of Frye's terms referenced earlier, CONAN focused on narrative values, in that most if not all adventures were concerned with delivering to the reader a certain quantity of sex and violence. In contrast, GREEN LANTERN was concerned with significant values, in that most if not all adventures were concerned with giving the reader his daily "food for thought" in the form of socially-conscious melodramas.
And yet, both sets of values are relevant to the juvenile/adult divide in that they are ordinarily taboo to the juvenile for like reasons: they are viewed as impediments to the maturational process. Only when one is adult, or nearly so, is one culturally poised to withstand the impact of witnessing what Linda Williams called the "body horror" of sex and violence. Similarly, although children are given some significant values appropriate to their level of development, the culture does not act as if children should grow up, say, knowing that most politicians are corrupt, even though this may be a common belief among adults. This is why both of these diametrical-seeming sets of values may be described as existing under a taboo with regard to their extreme manifestations. The taboo exists so that children can develop themselves within the sphere of play for a time until succumbing the Necessity of Work.

Perhaps the most well-known fellow who allegedly grew up without a proper childhood would be this recently-deceased obscurity.

I've spoken before of a juvenile "tone" in works like CONAN, GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, OMEGA MEN and VIGILANTE that in my consideration do not qualify as "adult pulp," as opposed to Miller's DAREDEVIL and Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG, for two. (Side-note: I might view the Thomas/Smith CONAN as at least a transtional work between the two states.) This tone I evaluate based not on the presence or absence of taboo material but on the degree to which, even in an escapist work, the story's content is influenced by the adult concept of "work" rather than "play." The adult's consciousness not only of "work" as a profession but as an insight to the way the world and all its elements "work" is what provides the dividing-line between "juvenile" and "adult." Across this Maginot line of maturation, both the narrative aspects of extreme sex-and-violence and the significant aspects of deeper and more portentous cognitions are united to create all manner of adult entertainments, both "escapist" and "realistic."
If I were to boil down the conceptual nature of this perception of "work" within a literary continuum, I would choose to call it "rigor." "Rigor" can be found as easily in Mickey Spillane as in William Faulkner if one knows how to look for it, and even in works that are bad exemplars of escapism and realism respectively. For instance, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I consider Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN a bad exemplar of adult pulp-- but it isn't bad because it's escapist or juvenile: it's bad because Miller knows how to "work" new transformations on familiar tropes but fails to organize his notions (hard to call them "ideas") into a meaningful whole. There are notions that look as if they could have become ideas with a little rigorous effort, but in the end they remain little more than pictures in an artist's sketchbook.

I may explore the notion of "rigor" more in later essays as I slowly compile my list of "adult pulp" comic books. But here lies the end of the dividing line.

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