Sunday, January 17, 2010

THE EXEMPLARY AND THE EXCEPTIONAL

Amusingly, I conceived the above pair of terms as part of my own ongoing concerns for defining the nature of "quality" in the popular arts. I then Googled the terms and found that they'd been used in some context by an avant-garde-sounding academic named Buchloh. Nothing new under the sun, sadly.

Putting aside whatever the other guy meant by the terms, for me "exemplary" means principally "that which is a good example of something," while "exceptional" means "that which goes beyond what is expected."

The exemplary, then, confirms expectations; the exceptional goes beyond them. Given that I view genre-fiction-- which dominates but does not characterize the totality of popular fiction-- as based in any given audience's set of expectations, this duality has significant consequences for my theory.

And for that I must give a little credit to Tony Isabella.

I haven't quite decided how to approach isabella's new book, 1000 COMICS YOU SHOULD READ. Because the book's selection of its recommended comics is based on no criterion save whether or not Tony Isabella liked them, it's a book that is as immune to critical theory as any other outright statement of pure taste. It's my conviction that taste cannot be argued; one can only argue the logic by which people intellectually justify their tastes. Since Isabella propounds no logical grounds for his choices, all one can say is things like, "how could he leave X out" and the like.

Nevertheless, thinking about how I would approach such a project reminds me of my own processes of thought when I complied some of the personal lists I've made here, like my 100 BEST COMICS. Isabella explicitly avoids saying that his chosen comics are "the best," but since I have said so, I as a theoretical critic DO have to justify that statement.

Now, when I wrote STREAMING VISIONS my main concern was simply to elucidate my perception of a "developmental quality" in serial works regardless of whether they were designed with a conclusion in mind or with the idea of running endlessly on, as per these remarks about the Batman series:

'In an issue of COMIC SHOP NEWS Clive Barker said that both serial comic books and serial television shows shared a narrative advantage in that both could take their time slowly revealing whatever ideas or themes the creators had to offer. I agree, and the serials I’ve listed below display this “developmental” quality, whether they run less than a dozen issues (the first Englehart/Rogers collaboration on Batman) or fill up fifteen years (the entire Golden Age period of the same character).'

One question I didn't dwell on, however, was whether or not there was a difference in the type of quality available in these disparate approaches to the serial format. Thanks to thinking about one organizational problem with the Isabella book-- the question as to how to count continued story-arcs as opposed to done-in-one tales-- I would now designate the latter type of quality-- that which is found in the "entire Golden Age" of the Batman chararcter-- as "exemplary," while that which typifies the closed-ended approach of the six-issue Englehart/Rogers arc is "exceptional."

More on this in part two.

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