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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

MY SECOND LIST O'LOST QUESTIONS

Starting with new numbering:

1) Sayid, convinced by Ben that Widmore is responsible for Nadia's death, kills several people at Ben's behest. Then one day Ben just says thanks for playing, I don't need you any more. Sayid, instead of using his "mad ninja skills" to personally go after Widmore without Ben's help, just gets very glum without a boss to tell him who to kill. Then he gives up on the revenge thing and goes off to build houses in the Third World. Some time after the death of "Jeremy Bentham" Ben again approaches Sayid, offering him the chance to kill kill kill. Sayid wants nothing to do with Ben, but whereas Locke's invitation to return to the island and save the island-bound garnered only indifference from Mr. Jarah, Ben's revelation that Hurley's being watched by a Widmore-agent is enough to motivate Sayid to pick up his gun once more. I really didn't think Sayid and Hurley had much to do with one another back on the Island, so I don't see Sayid having some great protective instinct toward Hurley. Is the real reason he accepts the Mission to Help Hurley because Sayid really wants to be set back on the path of fighting Widmore, even though he won't accept Ben's help any more?


2) We know that Sayid felt pissed when Ben gave him the big kiss-off, but is that the only reason he has such a massive distrust for Ben later? In the dock-scene Sayid warns Ben that if Ben approaches him again things will become "extremely unpleasant," i.e., Sayid's ready to kill Ben dead as a Tex Avery roach. That seems a more extreme emotion than he showed when Ben just gave him the air. Did Sayid find out something new about Ben's manipulations? Does he subconsiously suspect that Ben might actually be the one behind the killing of Nadia, but he won't quite let himself consider the possibility that he was so completely fooled?

3) Did Ben have anything to do with the killing of Nadia? It seems unlikely, since in between his turning the donkey wheel and his popping up in Tunisia, the events relating to Nadia's death have already transpired. Mastermind though Ben is, it's hard to see him pulling strings during his ten-month trip to temporal limbo. I suppose that either he or Widmore might have set up the killing long in advance due to foreknowledge given them by time-travel, though Ben doesn't act like he has THAT much foreknowledge. Widmore still seems the more likely candidate, though both of them share the motivation of wanting Sayid back on the Island.

4)Why is Widmore such a pussy during Season 5?

I mean, Widmore in Season 4 is fricking Lex Luthor. He calls together three top specialists to deal with the Island's freakazoid propensities (granted, maybe he calls them together because his past self KNOWS that he WILL call them together). He outfits a freighter with a helicopter and a shitload of C4, plus a shitload of deadly mercenaries. And though the Island's crazy-making radiations seem to keep the freighter's people off in some cases, Widmore's people do end up capturing Ben, killing Alex and doing other dastardly stuff.

But in Season 5, Widmore, knowing that Desmond's brought his daughter back to America, can't do shit to intercept Ben from trying to kill her: Penny's saved only because Ben muffs killing Desmond, who then beats Ben to a pulp before collapsing. Ben also kills Abaddon with complete impunity once Abaddon's helped Locke make his first attempts at O6 enlistement. Maybe it would've been a good idea to send at least TWO men with Locke, Charles W? One would think he could afford another whole squad of mercenaries to keep Locke safe-- though again, maybe Widmore "knows" that Locke's destined to die and (sort of) return to the Island. However, there's no textual support for THAT foreknowledge.

5) What's Miles' role in all this? Faraday performs lots of calculations that help the freighter mission, and he and Charlotte together neutralize the poison-gas weapon so that Ben can't use it as he used it on the Dharmas. But the only reason Naomi gives for Miles being enlisted is that they want Miles to be able to talk to dead bodies on the Island. Once there Miles does this a few times on his own recognizance, but he never explicitly does so looking for particular info that he's been assigned to ferret out. Since dead people aren't much of a resource for helping Widmore's people locate Ben, was there ever a mission-justification for Miles to be on the Island, or is he going to perform a more crucial action in Season 6, one that Widmore knows or suspects he must be there to perform?

It's also interesting that on one occasion Miles does seem to be able to partially read the mind of a living person, as when he declares that "Kevin Johnson" is not Michael's real name. This may have been nothing more than a cutesy throwaway, though. At the very least Miles seems to have far more ability to read dead people.

That's enough for now.

Friday, January 29, 2010

MAKING A MEAL OUT OF MELIORISM

I'm not the first to wonder to bring up "meliorism" in connnection with LOST, that would be Houston Chronicle blogger Therese Odell. I don't recall the specific essay where she brought it up, but will try to find it later.

Here's the handy Wiki definition of meliorism:

"Meliorism is an idea in metaphysical thinking holding that progress is a real concept leading to an improvement of the world. It holds that humans can, through their interference with processes that would otherwise be natural, produce an outcome which is an improvement over the aforementioned natural one."

Now, here's the closest Jacob comes in Season 5's THE INCIDENT to making a philosophical statement in conversation with "Esau:"

Esau: “...They come, fight, they destroy, they corrupt. It always ends the same.”
Jacob: “It only ends once. Anything that happens before that…just progress.”

Meliorism would seem something of an alternative to determinism, although of course one has no way of knowing what WOULD have occured if humans had not taken action.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

MY FIRST LIST O' LOST QUESTIONS

Season 6's first episode of LOST is less than a week away. I'm expecting to be blown away by some revelations as well as to be frustrated by shortcuts and cop-outs. This state of affairs should make LOST the ideal TV show of all time, incorporating the best and worst aspects of series TV.

I even thought of starting another blog just to take care of LOST questions-- and perhaps reach out to a LOST-specific fandom. But I decided that it was easier to post them here: at this late date, most of the LOST-blogs already have their following.

SPOILERS for everything, of course.

1. Will the writers EVER explain why pregnant women began dying if they conceived on the Island? It doesn't seem like an edict from Jacob that they should die, for it's implicitly a peril Sun faces as well from having conceived there (though she escapes before the hammer comes down). For similar reasons it seems unlikely to be a direct consequence of Jughead's presence: radiation underneath Dharmaville wouldn't affect Sun over on the beach-- although maybe one could blame some freaky interaction of nucelar radiation and the magnetism beneath the Island. The dual explanations seem at war with one another, like the dual explanations Bram Stoker gives for vampirism in DRACULA.

2. In season 3 Richard isn't the least bit concerned about the mortality of pregnant Other women, and seems to think all of Ben's tests are a waste of time. He intimates that he expects John Locke to do something different, but what? And will Richard's plans for Locke ever be resurrected now that Locke appears to be Really Quite Sincerely Dead?

3. Faraday states in Season 5 that people can change time because they are the "variables" in the mathematic equation. This would seem to be a development from his Season 4 observation that Desmond was "special" and somehow not subject to the rules of space and time. So far that "specialness" has eventuated mainly in Desmond being able to "talk to himself" across space-time, but he hasn't actually changed the past, to the audience's knowledge, and his changes to the future were minor, in that he prevented some Charlie-deaths but not The Big One.

4. Does Charlie's vision of Aaron as some sort of Holy Child mean anything? Aaron, like Sun's kid, was pretty much sidelined in Season 5, and in contrast to Walt, Aaron was played as Ordinary Kid. Did the whole schtick about the importance of his not being raised by someone other than Claire mean anything in the larger scheme, or is it one of those things that will get "LOST" in the shuffle?

More later.

Friday, January 22, 2010

THE EXEMPLARY AND THE EXCEPTIONAL PART II

I started refining some of my thoughts on the topic of "quality in popular culture" upon giving more thought about how one might defend certain choices for "best comics stories" on a transpersonal basis, rather than just personal liking. If one's only criterion for inclusion on such a list was exceptionalism, then there's no way that one could ever find room for "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," the first story to introduce the character of the Batman. I've mentioned before that in terms of the pulp aesthetic that prevailed during most of the Golden Age, the Batman stories possessed an overall higher quality than that of most other costumed-crusader features. Yet "Syndicate," the story to initiate the Batman series, was in almost every way a thoroughly ordinary tale, as evidenced by the stiff art above, in which nothing seems to have any life but the dramatic figure of the Batman. Moreover, fan-research revealed that most of the story was cadged from a text-tale from one of the SHADOW pulps, so that it's not even merely a derivative story, but a swiped one. If one's only criterion is one of exceptionalism, of that which exceeds the normal boundaries of a given form, then "Syndicate" would not make an exceptionalist's list.



And yet, "Syndicate" does have that one appealing element of the Batman, flitting in and out of the prosaic goings-on. The earliest form of the character's costume is almost entirely an abstract design, with little resemblance to what a real man in a costume would look like in a representational drawing. Even Joe Shuster's Superman, crude though it is, looks more like a real figure. Yet, as I've observed before, the Siegel-Shuster SUPERMAN posited a supernormal crimefighter who automatically outshone almost all of his adversaries and supporting characters, while Batman, a normal crimefighter with only the appearance of the supernormal, quickly propagated his occult aura outward, so that even minor enemies like the Monk and the Duc D'Orterre became significant figures in the series' expressive design.

Thus, on the basis of the one design element of the Batman, with its enormous kinetic appeal, I can fairly pronounce "Syndicate" to be an exemplary tale in spite of its obvious failings. Poor as it is in many respects, it set a palpable example for better stories. I wouldn't say that every origin-story does this, however, which is one reason I disagree with Tony Isabella's 1000 COMICS book, in which he indiscriminately lists any story that begins a significant series. Some origin stories may actually be technically better than Batman's first outing, but not all first stories are exemplary stories.

In contast to an exemplary story, an exceptional story needs to convey the sense that it has not only fulfilled the requirements of a given form or genre but has in some sense surpassed it. Such is patently the case with the aforementioned six-part DETECTIVE COMICS serial by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, which reputedly sought not to simply tell another Batman story but to capture the essence of the Batman concept: condensing in six issues the major tropes of the serial, at least as Englehart and Rogers perceived them.

In the Golden Age there was no thought of attempting such a condensation. Even when Golden Age stories got better, with Bill Finger's scripts becoming more finely-tuned while artists like Sprang and Robinson easily outdid Bob Kane's crudities, there was no sense of "going beyond" the limits of any single Batman story; of telling, in effect, an exceptional "meta-Batman" tale.






In Rogers' work, Batman's costume is no longer as abstract as in the original Kane story, but now it has become a design-element in a greater design, that of Rogers' Eisneresque comic-book architecture. And in like manner, Englehart's story consistently articulates sophisticated (some would say "pseudo-sophisticated") meanings to what the original audience considered to be nothing more than simple pulp fantasies. In the section excerpted, Englehart has villain Deadshot expouse pure moral relativism: "I want what I want, and don't care how I get it!" Earlier in the same story, Rupert Thorne, a crime boss operating behind a respectable front, becomes far more philosophical than any Bill Finger gangster could've been, as Thorne tells Batman that the people of Gotham want the hero gone because he "stirs things up." Whether or not one agrees with me that Englehart and Rogers did succeed in crafting an exceptional Batman story, the conscious intent evident in their stories makes clear that this was what they were aiming for a quintessential Batman story, rather than just another of many stories in the opus.

For those interested, I would say that this refinement should gloss my earlier meditations on the subject, where I devoted considerable energies to defining the reasons "why Batman's as good as The Spirit," with the former being "exemplary" and the latter "exceptional." For my trouble, I was flatly told that I was merely "dancing" around the truth that THE SPIRIT was the "clearly superior work." I don't expect the above refinement to make any difference to proponents of exceptionalism, but I'll put it out there anyway, just for the hell of it.

AN EXAMPLE OF THE EXEMPLARY

Before embarking on the long compare-and-contrast I announced in THE EXEMPLARY AND THE EXCEPTIONAL, I want to spotlight someone else's concept of an "exemplary" comic even though the person in question probably would not use my term. It's my intention to show that the base *concept* of the exemplary already exists in readings of popular fiction (though maybe not only popular fiction) regardless as to what one calls it.

The person in question is Shannon Gaerrity, and her 9-18-09 Comixology essay describes her take, and that of others, regarding the story "Silent Interlude" in G.I. JOE #21 (1984).

Gaerrity begins her piece with a quote from Scott McCloud, who tells her that "that comic was a kind of watershed moment for cartoonists of your generation." Gaeritty goes on to say that she does remember it, though I'm not clear as to whether it was a "watershed" for her in particular, though she later says that it was for others:

'The one remarkable thing about the issue is, of course, its wordlessness. Comic books in the 1980s were wordy. "Silent Interlude" cuts through the verbiage; it's a 22-page action sequence. Hama's blunt, anatomically careful art (he drew this and a few other G.I. Joe issues) isn't beautiful, but it has a clarity that's perfect for pantomime. "Silent Interlude" demonstrates how to tell a story visually. Hearing cartoonists who were kids—okay, boys—in the 1980s reminisce about it, I'm reminded of older manga artists who recall first looking into Tezuka's New Treasure Island, the master's first graphic novel, with its wordless, cinematic opening sequence. Silent, upon a peak in Darien.'



I myself only collected G.I. JOE from the quarter boxes, but would agree with Garrity's characterization re: Larry Hama's take on the Hasbro characters. I remember liking "Silent Interlude" a little, but I've never gone back and re-read any of the JOE comics. In '84 G.I. JOE was something I collected less to enjoy than to study as part of my ongoing critical project.

Garrity's summation makes clear that G.I. JOE #21 was not, to insert my own term, "exceptional." The "clarity" of Hama's art, "blunt" though it was, may have seemed a small breath of fresh air in the domain of Jim Shooter's Marvel, for Shooter, like his former boss Mort Weisinger, seemed to have an animadversion to the power of comic-book art, as if he insisted on heavy wordage to keep the art bolted down. But even without Shooter's editorial controls, it's a safe bet that no one would be comparing Hama with the greats of comic-book art: the Eisners, the Kirbys, the Kuberts.

Still, Gaeritty ends with an encomium on the "silent issue" of G.I. JOE:

"Scott McCloud asks me if I'm familiar with the silent issue of G.I. Joe. I call Andrew over and hope he can explain how these things happen, how a soft-spoken gun nut with a work-for-hire gig can derail a boy's life—half a million boys' lives—without a word."

To me personally, G.I. JOE is not an exemplar of the best a comic book can be while conforming to the expectations of the audience, but I can entirely accept that it is an exemplary work to others. The boundaries of "the exemplary" are circumscribed more by personal taste-- by one's acceptance of what Frye calls a story's "narrative values"-- than they are by "significant values," which have more to do with What the Author Wants You to Get from the Story. The latter values are more often found dominating those works I call "the exceptional," for stories which can coherently communicate an exceptional level of thematic meaning are always rare, in any time or clime.

More on this sort of thing later.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

THE MAYBE-THIRTY-PERCENT SOLUTION

The above title refers to the percentage to which I agree with Tony Isabella's choices in his new book, 1000 COMIC BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ.

I put in the "maybe" because of the "organizational problems" I mentioned having had with the book. Most of the time I can't tell whether or not Isabella is recommending particular comic books-- that is, the whole package as a collector would get it from a vendor-- or particular comic book stories. If Isabella had chosen one or the other, I could be surer of my percentage calculation, and thus I would've been able to satisfy the principal reason fans will have for buying the book: to check their lists, real or pending, against Isabella's.

I can't imagine any other reason for buying the book, as the sheer quantity of individual entries make the book pretty hermetic to someone not already acquainted with the history of comics. I can't see the book serving as an introduction of young readers to comics, despite the suggestion of same in Isabella's explanatory essay:

"...this book will introduce you to some of the best comic books ever published and the amazing writers and artists who created them."

I suppose that the book *could* introduce new readers to certain comics that they'd never heard of, but I think operatively speaking, only hardcore enthusiasts are likely to give it a shot. I think Isabella would have to look long and hard to find young readers to whom his book was a thoroughgoing "introduction."

In the same paragraph as the above quote, Isabella addresses his real audience:

"I won't include every milestone or even the best of the best. I'll most likely omit some of your favorites due to that pesky limit inherent in our title."

See what I mean? What do newbies know about milestones? How often do they have their own lists of "favorites?" Only hardcore fans are going to care about a project this detailed and time-consuming.

It's also a project which I often felt should have been titled 1000 COMIC BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ AT LEAST PART OF.

For instance, whenever Isabella recommends a collection of stories, such as the ENEMY ACE tales of the Silver Age, I think it's implied that Isabella thinks that everything in it is worth reading, and that satisfies the implications of his title.

Yet he also says of some entries, "Due to space limitations, I generally focus on just one story in any given issue [of an anthology title]. Those same limitations are why I also list just one or two writers or artists per issue, even though many more individuals contributed to these issues."

Thus, for instance, ACTION COMICS #1 is Isabella's first selection, and its only credits listed are for the first Superman story, implying that in this case that's the main "part" that Isabella's readers should be concerned with.

OTOH, for choice #12 Isabella recommends PLANET COMICS #1 not for any particular story, but for the whole package, because it "was the first comic book devoted entirely to science fiction."

I don't doubt that this kind of herky-jerky organization is exactly what Isabella wanted. And I can't say it will bother any of the fans who are its main audience, though I would think the whole point of making a list is so that others could easily check it twice or more.

I think Isabella's book would have been a more solid concept had it focused purely on spotlighting comics in one of two ways:

(1) Comics considered as whole packages-- which includes everything from a single issue's cover, which sells the book, to interior hype-tools like letercols and editorial soapboxes-- as well as collections of whole runs:

Or,

(2) Particular outstanding comic-book stories, whether they were stand-alone tales or continued arcs.

Since Isabella is a writer, and since he does have an encyclopedic knowledge of particular stories, I think he'd have done better to go with the latter.

Admittedly, I'm prejudiced in that I've often contemplated a list of outstanding stories that would combine the best of genre-comics and artcomix.

Also, had Isabella been more consistent, he also would not have tripped himself up as much. In the opening he writes:

"I will cheat our title at every opportunity, often counting collections, runs of issues, and story arcs as if they were merely single issues."

I don't have a problem with this. But once Isabella gets to the Silver Age, he's conferring two separate spots to separate parts of two-part stories, like JLA #21-22 (see pages 117-18) and FF #25-26 (pp. 121-22).

See what I mean about the difficulty of comparing one's own pending list with Isabella's? How can you trust someone who tells you he's going to cheat but doesn't cheat in the precise way he's said he will?

The other major failing of 1000 COMIC BOOKS is that Isabella, despite his warning about landmarks, all too often selects a given comic just because it launched a particular character or group of characters.

Sometimes this is appropriate. While it's true that the first BATMAN tale is nothing special as a story, one can see the beginnings of the Batman mythos in it, and this qualifies it as "exemplary" (which specialized term I'll explore more in THE EXEMPLARY AND THE EXCEPTIONAL PART 2).

In contrast, though, Isabella also selects AMAZING ADVENTURES #21, apparently for no reason than because it was the debut issue of writer Don McGregor on the book's main feature KILLRAVEN. It's true that McGregor was the most important writer who contributed to the opus of the character, though I've pointed out in BACK ISSUE #14 the importance of contributions by earlier writers as well. But the artist on AA #21 was Herb Trimpe, whose work there was some of his worst ever. Had KILLRAVEN struggled on with his art or something of similar quality, had the feature never enjoyed the creative visuals of Craig Russell, fans probably would not remember the series any better than SKULL THE SLAYER. McGregor was an important factor in the series' critical reception, but not, as Isabella's entry implies, the most important factor.

There are many other points on which I could carp (DARK KNIGHT RETURNS didn't make the cut, but an issue of TEEN TEMPTATIONS did?) But by and large the volume does at least communicate how much Tony Isabella loves comics, and even if I can't use his list for comparison purposes, it's hard to fault him too much.

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.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

DELVING INTO DECADENCE AGAIN

"In erotic fantasy there are no ‘wrong reasons.’

Wrongful real-life applications of fantasy exist.

But not wrong reasons in the domain of fantasy proper."

--me, arguing on some silly BEAT post about a "Comics Culture-Clash."


While searching for something else on THE BEAT I came across the above pearl of wisdom, and since it didn't spark a lot of comment on that forum (aside from one note of agreement), I decided to bring it over here and relate it to some of my concerns about the concept of superhero decadence.

I've never quite understood the contradictory attitudes of 'bloody comic book elitits' toward transgressive comics. Such elitists can extol some underground-comics talent along the line of R. Crumb for supposedly letting their ids run wild, as seen in, say, "Whiteman Meets Bigfoot." Then they turn around and get hinky about some sexually-charged fantasy because they consider it "creepy," as per Dirk Deppey's assault on the "decadent" eroticism of SUPERGIRL #14, which position I critiqued in this essay.

One of the things I found a source of continuing amazement is that on one hand Deppey could bald-facedly claim that "superhero decadence" didn't connote "sexual deviance" to him, and yet he critiqued SUPERGIRL #14 for its having portraying Supergirl and Batgirl as two ladies in "pervert suits."

"Pervert suits," Dirk? Really? Is sexual role-playing inherently "perverse" in all its real-life permutations, or only when it occurs within the superhero genre, since the genre was "created for children," even though children are no longer the target audience for most superhero comics?

I'm going to assume it's the latter. The original Deppey essay is hard to access these days, thanks to reconfigurations of the JOURNALISTA site, but Charles Reece was good enough to reprint a relevant section in one of my comment-threads:


DEPPEY: "My problem with this image [from SUPERGIRL #14] isn’t that it’s misogynist, but that it’s fucking ridiculous. This looks like sexual-fetish material, sure, but it would have exactly the same weird-ass vibe if both of the depicted characters were men. This image isn’t “sexist,” it’s emotionally stunted. Wrapped in the garb of teenage fantasy, it cannot help but take on an air of unreality that no infusion of sex or violence will dispel. Sixty years of accumulated kiddybook clich├ęs won’t suddenly become adult reading material if you add lesbian relationships, hardcore gore or extended scenes of chartered accountancy; the latter only throw spotlights on the childishness of the former. Sexual objectification isn’t the problem; this picture would actually be more acceptable to adults if the women it depicted were naked and going after one another with knives. Genre-mandated sublimation and ritual creates the effect; the creepiness comes from the costumes. Looked at from any other perspective than that of the diehard fanboy or fangirl, these two women are wearing pervert suits."

Supposing that I put aside my earlier objections to Deppey's reading and conceded that the SUPERGIRL #14 scene is indeed rife with sexual innuendo, the question remains: what is this "air of unreality" that Deppey finds in the scene? Is it more "unreal" than my arbitrarily-chosen example above, of a white guy fucking a Bigfoot?

I know, I know. The fantastic content in "Whiteman Meets Bigfoot" isn't "unreal" because it takes place within the context of social satire. We all know that satire, to the extent that it can be called a "genre," isn't for kids. Therefore it doesn't matter whether or not Crumb drew the Whiteman opus with one hand on his pen and the other elsewhere. It doesn't matter how many underground comics-readers might have enjoyed the scene for a transgressive "creepiness" that some might find a little more extreme than mere superhero costumes. None of that matters because satire, just by virtue of being satire, is "real" rather than "unreal."

Hmm, does that mean that when superhero comics are true to their juvenile roots, then those particular comics DON'T have an "air of unreality?" Food for thought, surely.

I wrote above that there were "no wrong reasons in the domain of fantasy proper," which was my response to a fan on THE BEAT who thought that the TWILIGHT books encouraged an improper, quasi-incestuous type of fantasy. This viewpoint strongly resembles Deppey's conception that sexual superheroes are an improper type of fantasy, at least as practiced by mainstream publishers. I don't know if he views as improper any of the sexy superheroes published by EROS, which were also not patronized by juveniles, to my understanding.

Erotic works, of course, are not the only form of literature fueled by transgression: arguably all of them are to some extent. But certainly transgressiveness is pretty overt in all erotica, though I'm not familiar with any critic who's been able to rate one transgressive scene as inherently better or more "mature" than any other. Deppey apparently thinks that a transgressive scene that is widely "acceptable to adults"-- Deppey's hypothetical naked-knifefight-- is automatically better or more mature than something that appeals to more remote tastes. But by what criteria, Mr. Deppey?

I suspect the answer will continue blowing in the wind for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

POMO AND PLURALISM

"...the usual gang of academic lintheads and popcult apologists display their usual confusion of values by mistaking something of social interest for something of artistic significance."-- Gary Groth meditations on Superman, 1988 AMAZING HEROES whose number I don't care to look up.

'If there is one thing that especially distinguishes postmodernism from modernism, according to [Linda] Hutcheon, it is postmodernism's relation to mass culture. Whereas modernism "defined itself through the exclusion of mass culture and was driven, by its fear of contamination by the consumer culture burgeoning around it, into an elitist and exclusive view of aesthetic formalism and the autonomy of art" (Politics 28), postmodern works are not afraid to renegotiate "the different possible relations (of complicity and critique) between high and popular forms of culture" (Politics 28).'--Modules on Hutcheon at:
http://www.cla.purdue.edu/English/theory/postmodernism/modules/hutcheonpostmodernity.html

Recently I cited the second quote in the comments-section of Curt Purcell's incisive new essay on Grant Morrison's FINAL CRISIS, but the quote may prove equally applicable to both Curt's concerns and my recent discussions of Comics' Greatest Elitist, Gary Groth.

The above summation of Linda Hutcheon's concepts, authored by one Dino Felluga, dovetails with my incomplete reading of one of Hutcheon's works, THE POETICS OF POSTMODERNISM, where I recall Hutcheon discoursing on how modernism was essentially tied to a realistic paradigm not appreciably different from that of representational realism, and that post-modernism was in essence a reaction against that realistic paradigm. Obviously, this approximate summation taken from memory may prove incorrect. Fortunately Curt cites a direct authority, Steven Pinker, whose views on the interactions of "high and low art" may serve as a gloss to those of Hutcheon on the postmodern project:

"The problem for artists is not that popular culture is so bad but that it is so good, at least some of the time. Art could no longer confer prestige by the rarity or excellence of the works themselves, so it had to confer it by the rarity of the powers of appreciation. As Bourdieu points out, only a special elite of initiates could get the point of the new works of art. And with beautiful things spewing out of printing presses and record plants, distinctive works need not be beautiful. Indeed, they had better not be, because now any schmo could have beautiful things."

If Hutcheon is correct on the above points, then post-modernism (or "pomo") may have come about because its artists wished to explore other conceptions of existence beyond those offered by the realistic underpinnings of early 20th-century modernism.

For instance, for all the brain-torturing phantasmagorias that stream out of Joyce's characters, "real reality" in Joyce's world is still there: res extensa basically unaffected by res cogitans. But it's questionable whether "real reality" goes so unaffected by its viewers in the works of Borges and Pynchon.

Similarly, for the High Modernist author it's entirely appropriate to excoriate the viscerally-appealing, often-nonsensical fantasies of pop fiction for not living up to "reality," as one can see in a work like Nathaniel West's DAY OF THE LOCUST. A "content elitist" like Gary Groth essentially echoes this High Modernist preference by reducing the fantasy of SUPERMAN down to something that has no "artistic" value in itself, but is only "of social interest." For Groth, as for the Frankfurt School elitists he emulates, popular fiction exists only as a quasi-scientific datum by which one demonstrates how shitty the world of pop fiction is, and how much a good reader needs to possess finely-tuned "powers of appreciation." Hutcheon's postmodernism, in contrast, suggests that its authors are more "finely tuned" in terms of negotiating the relations between high and low on more complex grounds than simple exclusionism.

To my knowledge Gary Groth has never uttered a kind word about the Man of Steel. However, he has tacitly admitted, via his many public encominums on Jack Kirby (a popular artist if there ever was one), that popular culture can be "good," if not "good" in quite the same way as the fine arts. Groth's only way out of this paradox is to invoke the auteurist theory that evolved in 1950s film criticism: Jack Kirby's not a fine artist, but he puts forth his popularly-derived visions with the force and integrity of a fine artist, and so doesn't deserve to be lumped in with lumpen-types like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

At base the auteurist theory is just a way for the High Modernist to defer the question of What to Do When You Find Good Stuff in Popfiction. The question is deferred because it's impossible to answer within the scope of any species of elitism, as I've noted here. That's why I continually emphasize the need for a pluralist criticism that recognizes (1) that different forms of art generate different sets of artistic values, and (2) that such a recognition is not, as Groth has it, a "confusion of values" but a deeper elucidation of them.

As Groth is a "content elitist," most popular fiction is "bad art" just by reason of its bad content, so that Jack Kirby isn't really separable from Siegel and Shuster. "Art" in Groth's world signifies High Art alone.

Plainly this definition doesn't help one suss out what "art" is in the more general sense of the word. My working definition is that art is anything that is made with what I'll term "open functionality." For example. a jug that holds water and does nothing else (i.e., has no pictures on its surface) has a closed, purely denotative functionality. A jug decorated with pictures of horses or maidens or whatever would have open, connotative functionality in that the jug is still meant to hold water but now the pictures on it are meant to entertain anyone of a mind to be entertained by them.

For me, then, the aspects of the "visceral" and the "physical" that Groth finds so objectionable in the Superman myth are no less art for so being, for they still fall within the sphere of an open and connotative functionality.

Nothing demonstrates this more than my own essays on early Siegel-and-Shuster SUPERMAN stories. In "OCD on a Hotplate," I expressed my own reservations on the quality of work put out by the early SUPERMAN stories. And yet, even if this work wasn't as well executed as some later iterations of the character, it did show certain glimmerings of a symbolic complexity going beyond the demands of the "visceral."

In conclusion, post-modernism as defined by Hutcheon is an ideal means by which one might come to grips with the different narrative worlds implied by different literary forms, and so is all but covalent with the aims of a pluralist criticism.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

NO MYTHS FOR MISTER GROTH, PLEASE

During the '88 screed recently revived online by Steve Duin, Gary Groth went after two writers who had written celebratory statements about Superman that Groth found "preposterous." I don't know whether or not the statements were any more preposterous than other reflections on the Superman character within the issue of AMAZING HEROES where Groth's remarks appeared-- which, as Duin mentions, was largely a celebration of the "Hero at 50"-- but I presume Groth might've found it a trifle outlandish to attack writers contributing to his own magazine, at least within the sphere of that particular issue.

Groth takes issue with Dennis Dooley for "Dooley's suggestion that Superman is representative of and equal to the philosophical principles espoused by Socrates"-- a position with which I'd agree, though probably for different reasons than Groth's--and with Harlan Ellison's saying that, "one of the unarguable criteria for literary greatness is universal recognition..." I would not agree with Ellison's statement either, again for different reasons.

Since I don't have the exact original text of either Dooley or Ellison before me, I have to assume that Groth's next leap, that of associating literature and myths, comes purely out of his own head.

"...which Superman is revered as a literary icon and successor to the Greek myths? Is it Siegel and Shuster's Superman? Wayne Boring's Superman? Republic Serials' Superman? George Reeve's Superman? Mort Weisinger's Superman? Kurt Schaffenburger's Superman? Denny O'Neil's Superman? Curt Swan's Superman? Neal Adams' Superman? Christopher Reeve's Superman? John Byrne's Superman? Or the countless other Supermen that DC has commissioned over the years?"

Did either Dooley or Ellison mention Greek myths? It's possible, but even if they didn't, others have touted Superman as a myth, though usually only in a loose metaphorical sense, rather than as part of a coherent myth-critical critique (like mine). But ironically, Groth's sarcastic summation of assorted manifestations of Superman confuses myth and literature far more than any myth-critic ever has.

If Groth had confined his sarcasm to Ellison's statement about Superman's being "literary," then his screed would have made some sense. The entire conceptual superstructure of "true literature" is based upon the notion that its works are almost conceived and shaped by one author alone. The notion isn't entirely accurate, as some critics laud the importance of Thomas Wolfe's editor and of Berthold Brecht's wife to works deemed authored only by Wolfe and Brecht. However, the few exceptions do not disprove the rule: most literature that belongs to the canon or aspires to belong to it is usually conceived and shaped by one author.

Against this tradition of high literature, low literature is indeed the haven of authors who may travel from one character or concept to another like so many jobbing actors. So if one accepts as a general rule that the concept of canonical literature is imbricated with the concept of sole authorship, then Superman cannot be canonical literature.

However, for whatever reason Gary Groth did choose to take a pot shot at the idea that Superman could be a "successor to the Greek myths."

And that statement shows me just why Mr. Groth failed his Mythology 101 class.

There is no general rule that archaic myths should have sole authorship.

Therefore, Groth's scorn toward this Superhero with a Thousand Authors makes no sense whatsoever.

In most cases we do not have any authors for our extant archaic myths, though many have been preserved through literary and artistic works, some of which have attributed authors and some of which do not. And in most cases those authors for whom we have names-- Sophocles, Firdausi-- certainly did not originate the mythic stories, but simply elaborated upon stories that were widely familiar to the populace.

Is the process by which mythic stories and modern popular stories are made identical? Certainly not.

But are there aspects in which the two are closer in the method of promulgation than either is to canonical literature's method of promulgation? No intelligent person could deny it.

Even the tiresome Marxist distinction-- "Superman was only invented to sell stuff"-- is not so distant from the practice by which archaic myths were promulgated in the days of oral literature. A wandering storyteller, earning his bread by going from community to community telling the stories of Hercules' labors, might be free to embellish this or that detail of Hercules-- but not to put aside the audience's expectations for a Hercules story. An archaic version of Eddie Campbell would not have lived long enough to promulgate his arty version of Dionysus.

I believe the only reason that Groth scorns any connectedness between Superman and archaic "Greek myths" is such myths, even though they are not in their raw form literature as such, possess a literary cachet. In his attempt to cut off any claim to such a cachet, Groth scorns any likeness between a hero with many authors and "Greek myths"-- but what he's really scorning has nothing to do with myth and everything to do with his notions of canonical literature.

There are some significant differences between archaic myth and all forms of modern literature, though they do not relate to the aforementioned method of promulgation. I'll be addressing this topic in a future essay, tentatively titled, "Rituals Open and Closed."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

THE INAUTHENTICITY OF PEANUT BUTTER, Part 2

Gary Groth also writes in the aforementioned excerpt:

"Superman... is the perfect American commodity, representing nothing so much as the 20th century triumph of market engineering, of image over substance, of visceral perception over the concrete understanding of coherent values."

Groth does not use the word "inauthentic" in his essay, but I choose to use it (again, colloquially rather than as a specialized term) as a convenient shorthand for all of the faults that Groth imputes to the character.

In the previous essay I've shown that the only distinction Groth gives us for finding Superman to be the "ultimate icon" of American marketing was that of the sheer preponderance to which a secondary icon like Superman could lend itself to marketing many different commodities. However, Groth does not supply any particular reason as to why SUPERMAN is a more fundamental icon of marketing than any other seconary icon, such as Schulz' PEANUTS. In similar fashion the above quote never pins down just what it is about Superman in particular that makes him "the perfect American commodity," as opposed to any number of any franchises one might nominate for that honor. The closest Groth comes to narrowing down some quality of Superman in particular in the essay is to characterize the franchise in terms of "visceral perception."

By this one assumes that Groth means that the character appeals to those pleasures associated with "good old American junk," pleasures which many critics besides Groth call "visceral" in the same careless way Groth does. "Visceral perception," however, is a surprisingly inelegant phrase even for Groth, potentially leading one to picture something very like a stomach peeking out of one's torso with little eye-tendrils, in search of superheroic stories to digest.

I wonder that if one could actually prove which modern icon actually has sold the most unrelated items-- and if that icon was actually PEANUTS rather than SUPERMAN-- would Groth find PEANUTS also characterized by "visceral perception?"

Be that as it may, Groth seems to find something particularly horrible about the act of using an image to market an item. This probably stems in part from the tendency of Frankfurt-School intellectuals to view everything related to the "culture industry" as inauthentic in contrast to "authentic" art which has, one assumes, "coherent values." Yet if Superman is both "ultimate" and "perfect," then it must be more objectionable to use a derived, secondary image rather than one that is original to the thing being marketed.

Here's where peanut butter comes in at last.

On one hand, there's the now-defunct label of SUPERMAN peanut butter.

On the other, there's the still extant JIF peanut butter.

Now, if either one simply had a purely denotative name, like "Ben and Jerry's Peanut Butter," then there would, one assumes, be no reason to speak of "visceral perception." But both brands of peanut butter chose to sport a name with associations that might evoke the "visceral"-- or more probably, Joyce's "kinetic"-- than a simple denotation of who made the stuff.

In neither case does it seem that the image or action conjured forth by the brand-name has any actual relation to the thing so labeled.

SUPERMAN peanut butter, as with most secondary usages of iconicity, has no real associations with Superman: it is not made by "him" or by any of the people responsible for Superman's adventures. It will not give anyone powers like Superman, and though I've seen testimonials to how good the actual peanut butter was, I'm going to surmise that it probably never made anyone literally feel any more "super" than any other good-quality peanut butter.

The name JIF, so far as I can tell, was, like McDonalds' Golden Arches, a primary marketing label. Reputedly the name "JIF" was chosen because it was short and easy to remember. It may be that the person who decided to use that name was thinking of the only English word that approximates the brand-name-- "jiffy," for which "jif" is a shortened form-- but there's no way to know this. However, the word can have a favorable connotation insofar as one getting things done "in a jiffy." This favorable connotation may have subliminally appealed to mothers anxious to get peanut-butter sandwiches made quickly, as in the marketing tagline, "Choosy mothers choose JIF." But if so this too is a false association: there's nothing about anyone's peanut butter that has any aspect of swiftness.

Now, I've specified in the previous essay that a secondary icon can have wider applicability than a primary one. But is a secondary one any more "perfect" in its inauthenticity than a primary one? The above would suggest that this is not the case. Both brands of peanut butter use names with vaguely favorable connotations that have nothing to do with the product as such, and so are about equally "inauthentic" by standard Frankfurt-School estimations.

But-- is hype "inauthentic" if everyone in the society to which the hype is directed already expects it to be nothing more than an insubstantial come-on? This is the question Groth does not raise because he's invested in his "image over substance" rhetoric, which would only mean something if he had supplied a form of advertising that was in his opinion based in substance rather than image.

Unfortunately for him, there is no such form. All advertising, even for "substantial" works like LOVE AND ROCKETS, is hype which emphasizes the good and elides any possibility of badness. Long before there was industrialized civilization or a bourgeoise class, the ancient Romans warned, "Caveat emptor." This was not the nature of any modern "marketing engineering," but a symptom of the nature of any kind of merchandising activity, even down to the merchant selling his wares in the local market.

I therefore conclude that the supposed "perfection" of the Superman character as a marketing tool is a delusion of Gary Groth's slanted rhetoric.

This is all she wrote for the "inauthenticity" essays but I'm not finished with Groth's SUPERMAN tirade quite yet...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

THE INAUTHENTICITY OF PEANUT BUTTER, Part 1

A couple of months ago Steve Duin, a writer for the Oregonian, put together an article based on parts of a 1988 AMAZING HEROES tirade by Gary Groth against the Superman icon. Of the various reflections printed in that issue of AH, Duin calls Groth's screed "the only one that stands the test of time."

If one means that the Groth essay makes it onto a hypothetical list of "Worst Essays about Superman Ever," I would certainly agree.

I write the folliowing in the sure and certain knowledge that no matter how thoroughly I destroy Gary Groth's arguments, he would never deign to attempt refuting me anywhere but in a place conducive to the JOURNAL's good fortunes. I am sure that this reticence is merely a practical business decision and not an indication of Groth's lack of courage. I--

Ah, excuse me, I've a cold and think I'm going to--

***cccchhhiikkknnnshttttt!*

That's better. Where was I?

Ah, yes. First let me say that the aspect of Groth's essay I'll be debating here makes use of the word "icon," with the result that I too must use the term in my rebuttal. I should note that in semiotics this word has assorted special usages but I'll be using it only in its colloquial sense here, even as Groth did. The passage in question says:

"[Superman's] the ultimate American icon--he can be sold, marketed and merchandised, whose image can be replicated on everything from pillowcases to beach balls to underwear."

I don't doubt that this is the only significance Groth sees, or is capable of seeing, in the Superman character. (I think I'm safe in assuming equivalence between Groth's views on this subject today and his views back in 1988.) But by calling Superman "the ultimate icon" of marketability, Groth opens himself to an obvious question. In what way is the marketable image of Superman more "ultimate"-- that is, more fundamental, more elemental-- than that of, say, the "Golden Arches" of a certain fast-food restaurant to which Groth makes passing reference?

Though Groth does not offer any organized criteria to prove that Superman is an "ultimate icon" of American marketing, logic would dictate his main criterion is one of quantity: that Superman's iconic image is associated with far more commodities than comparable icons. I for one would like to see how the Man of Steel stacks up against Charles Schulz's PEANUTS for sheer preponderance of tie-ins, but I'll agree that Superman's image is indeed affixed to many commodities that have nothing directly to do with telling stories about the character (that is, excluding not only comic books but all other narrative media).

Since Groth's essay scorns one fan's association of Superman and Socrates, it seems appropriate that I should use a little Socratic "definition by division" to sort out Groth's problematic anti-Superman rhetoric.

First, aside from quantity, in what way is Superman's usage on pillowcases, beach balls, and underwear distinctive from the uses made of other marketing icons, like the Golden Arches? I assert that the greatest difference between the two is that the latter was conceived for no purpose but to advertise McDonalds, while Superman's use as a marketing icon was after the fact of his having appeared as a serial character whose adventures could be purchased on newstands.

Thus, McDonald's arches are a "primary icon of marketing," since they began as advertisements conceived primarily to sell McDonalds' food.

Superman, however, was primarily conceived to sell the serial adventures of a fictional character. Without the character's becoming popular through those fictional adventures, the character would never have been of consequence to the makers of beach balls, peanut butter, et al, and so would never have become a marketing icon. Since the etiology of the two icons is distinct I wil label Superman's marketing status as that of a "secondary icon of marketing."

Therefore, if as Groth says Superman is the "ultimate American icon" of marketing,being a secondary icon of marketability must count for more than being a primary one.

Having made this distinction, my second point is if Groth's notion of "ultimacy" is indeed linked to sheer preponderance, then within his proposition there is no contradiction in the above. Observation would suggest that the icons that most often lend themselves to being attached to many different products are indeed those of a secondary nature. McDonalds' Golden Arches may appear on T-shirts and a few other items, but they can't compete with such secondary-icon examples of marketing as Superman Peanut Butter, Peanuts Met-Life commercials, LOVE AND ROCKETS lighters or R. Crumb's DEVIL GIRL candy.

However, Groth's imputation of "ultimacy" to Superman fails because there is no meaningful correlation between quantity and the act of marketing itself. A LOVE AND ROCKETS lighter will not sell as widely as Superman Peanut Butter, but the former is still an attempt to use a secondary icon to market an unrelated commodity.

More about finding authenticity in primary and secondary versions of various products-- such as the titular peanut butter-- to come.