A quick history on the following essay: a few months ago in my apa, I tossed out a reference to an essay Gary Groth wrote in the late 90s. When one of my apa-mates asked me to clarify my remarks, I was obliged to dig out and re-read the essay in order to write a response. In so doing I wrote it as it was primarily designed for the blog, as in the opening sentence, but that's a convenient fiction.
I stress the above just to discourage those who'd like to believe that I've been thinking about nothing but how to refute Gary Groth during the 12 years since he published his essay. It's an essay I do find memorable for its skewed nature, and I've probably referenced it at least once on some messageboard or other, but my reason for framing my apa-response in the form of a blogpost was to try clarifying (once again) why a elitist ain't a intellectual.
Often on this blog I’ve made reference to the species of critic known as the “elitist.” In some quarters, like this one, the word is often used carelessly, to signify anyone who tawks dat dere intellegzual tawk. To the extent that anyone conceives an opposite number to the “elitist,” it is the so-called “populist,” whom elitists conveniently characterize as lacking all intellectual rigor.
Neither of these casual definitions is worth the time it takes to type them, but nothing I write is likely to exorcise them from common use, or to significantly advance what I consider the more viable critical philosophy of “pluralism,” with which I identify myself.
As I’ve done a more specific breakdown of these philosophical persuasions in another essay that I may commit to the blogosphere in future, I won’t be repeating my preferred definitions in this essay. My purpose here is to cite a prominent quote from comicdom’s most famed elitist and to demonstrate that it does not, in fact, possess much intellectual rigor, thus disproving the immediate association of “elitists” and “intellectuals.”
The elitist I choose is Gary Groth, and the defining quote—perhaps a theme statement for all elitist positions, or at least for all of those that appeared in THE COMICS JOURNAL—is taken from COMICS JOURNAL #199 (1997). Groth’s essay is one of many in that issue concerned with the question of downspiralling sales of comic books in the 1990s. Since this too doesn’t concern me here I will take Groth’s essay as if it were simply a statement of his general position. The essay is titled “Does Comics Have a Future as a Mass Medium?,” though hereafter I’ll call it “Mass” for short.
Groth wrote: “…comics has been dominated by a single, monolithic idiom that has tended to subsume all genres within it. The idiom to which I refer springs from superhero comics, and it hardly makes any difference if we’re talking about superheroes, westerns, romance, good girl art, bad girl art, fantasy, sci-fi, etc., because with few exceptions, they all adopt the same idiom as has come to be associated with super-hero comics: an oafish, slam-bang physicality that resists subtlety and nuance as well as the ability to communicate any genuine connection to human life.”
My WEBSTER’S defines “elite” as “the choice or select part: esp. a group or body considered or treated as socially superior.” The dichotomy proposed by Groth in “Mass” obviously depends on a “superiority dance” in which various works, which are mostly unspecified and which possess “subtlety,” “nuance,” and “the ability to communicate [a] genuine connection to human life” are seen as superior to those works characterized by “oafish slam-bang physicality.” No proof is offered in this essay as to why one mode is better than the other, though one can probably assume that Groth’s proof would define superiority in terms of the aforesaid “genuine connection to human life.”
One odd aspect of this excerpt is its overdetermined nature. Had Groth simply stated that the majority of genres in the American comic-book market of the 1990s were dominated by a physicality like that of superhero titles, that statement would have been a correct representation: one which still applies to the current market. But as Groth ticks off genres, he tosses in the one genre that was not dominantly characterized by “slam-bang” or even particularly “oafish” physicality: the romance genre. I don’t claim to be an expert on this genre in any medium, but even if one finds the majority of romance comics to be less than artistically ambitious, one usually doesn’t think of their maudlin melodramatic tales in terms of “physicality,” much less the physicality of superhero stories. Romance comics are about emotionality, however un-nuanced. One wonders why Groth brought romances up at all, for they convey far less “physicality” than, say, the erotic comics that enjoyed a constant market in the 1990s (some of which Groth published). Indeed, some of the meritorious comics-artists mentioned in “Mass,” such as Gilbert Hernandez, derive great power from the raw physicality present in some of their work, irrespective of how much “subtlety” chimes in as well.
Another aspect of “Mass”—not the least bit odd, since it’s entirely predictable—is that there is absolutely no middle ground of any kind between the two extremes. Crap is crap and art is art, and never the twain shall meet. Groth’s primary purpose here is to “prove” that the dominance of crap in the comics-medium has led to its marginalization in American culture, so that even “high-quality graphic novels by unique cartoonists could not make any headway in the ‘mainstream’ book market despite the distribution clout of the some of the biggest publishers of the U.S.”
Yet Groth’s essay passes over a fact that he acknowledges in other essays: that most of that “mainstream book market” is, in his aesthetic terms, also dominated by crap. The presence of the crap which dominated that market for the last century did not prevent the continuance of the niche market that nurtured highbrow prose authors (though perhaps not in as much prosperity as some of them desired), and thirteen years later, the continued existence of the crap-dominated direct market has not prevented the evolution of a similar niche market for highbrow comics. Going purely from the standpoint of personal taste I’d agree heartily with Groth that Gilbert Hernandez ought to be/have been better received by the reading public than he has been. But I object to the logic that must blame Hernandez’ lack of stellar success on that old devil superhero comics, when there exists a long list of meritorious works—Melville’s MOBY DICK and Conrad’s THE SECRET AGENT, for two—whose lousy sales records can’t be blamed on their medium’s marginalization.
The third interesting intellectual fallacy in "Grothmass" is how Groth structures his argument to make the financial and social good standing of highbrow prose to be far more “monolithic” (to use Groth’s own word against him) that it really was in history. Groth favors an absolute separation between the factors that promote “the success of a Chester Brown or a Dan Clowes” as against those that promote LOBO, but such a separation has never existed in any medium. Certainly it did not exist in prose, where Melville’s hopes to repeat the commercial success of TYPEE were dashed; where Conrad sought to respond to public fears of anarchists and failed; where Nabokov enjoyed great commercial success by appealing not to “subtlety” but to prurience made palatable by highbrow nuance.
Neither in this essay nor any other does the radical separation of “crap” and “art” prove intellectually viable. This persistent illusion does make a great rhetorical device, though, and without such rhetoric, Fantagraphics probably could never have marshaled its small but fervent core of supporters. In this respect elitism did serve a purpose in the past by challenging fans to think beyond old parameters, though some might find the new Frankfurt School boss to be no less a tyrant than the old mass-market boss. As for the future, I would hope that future fans might learn good logic from observing Groth’s bad use of same.
But I can’t say I’m counting on it.