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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...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


So here's the exchange that prompted Tom Spurgeon's unveiling of his elitist tendencies, despite an earlier denial of same on THE BEAT.

Rich Johnson, seeking to choose the top comics-oriented story for 2010, chose the management changes at DC Comics. In truth, it was less a writeup of the particular changes from 2010 than a general summing-up of the company's past 20 years. This is roughly when the Vertigo imprint was created, which earns Johnson's restrained praise: "[DC] launched imprints like Vertigo to expand what comics storytelling could achieve."

After sketching a number of examples of DC's expansion-- Vertigo, Wildstorm, Paradox, and assorted merchandising efforts-- Johnson asks the questions:

Will the new DC Entertainment be as experimental and have a vision? Is the vision mining the existing characters for new movies and TV franchises?

Maybe other publishers will pick up the mantle of publishing innovation. There are certainly more out there now, more willing to take a chance on a new artist or author and take a chance on that new story.

Tom Spurgeon's response was to label this a "DC Comics blowjob." He devoted the rest of a rather confused paragraph to a harangue about DC's "shameful" ripoff of the Superman property, which for some reason he associates with 1978 rather than 1938. Then we get him accusing Johnson of having regurgitating DC's PR statements:

"Vertigo expanding what comics storytelling could do 40 years after EC comics did better comics in the same genres and 30 years into the underground/alternative comics revolution is pure boilerplate PR. I don’t begrudge DC being smart enough to put some of their hot comics of that time into a line and make more of them, and I quite enjoy many of their titles, and many of their creators are excellent and Karen Berger is a peach, but this view of Vertigo as a boundaries-pusher outside of anything but the most made-up, self-serving conception of comics is PR horseshit and needs to die."

I've always reprinted my first response in part 1. It was a bit supercilious but it contained a valid point: that EC stories also were not reinventing the wheel. I didn't address undergrounds as I was trying to keep the argument focused on a one-to-one comparison, but I would be happy to extend the same principle to the undergrounds. I would also note that there's really only *one* genre that Vertigo, EC and SOME underground comics all attempted-- and that's the horror genre. Where are the equivalents of Crumb's confessional comics at Vertigo? How many undergrounds devoted themselves to science fiction in the EC mold? Either there weren't that many, or I must've missed all those SF-issues of HORNY BIKER SLUTS.

Spurgeon's response to this argument was a restatement of what he'd already said, sans any justification but personal opinion:

I think the fact that EC did work at a lot like Vertigo of a similar if not superior quality 50 years earlier, and that all sorts of taboos as to genre and content in the alt-undground world were being broken in the 30 years leading up to Vertigo’s founding, kind of makes Vertigo less of the awesomely groundbreaking imprint than is frequently and broadly asserted on its behalf.

My response, to which TS declined to respond by saying he didn't understand it:

Is Moore’s SWAMP THING (admittedly a belated V-offering) not an expansion? Is SANDMAN not an expansion? Were Moore and Gaiman supposed to bow their heads in reverence before the Idol-Head of R. Crumb, for even daring to think they could add more to comics than he already had?

Vertigo is certainly not immune to fair criticism, but claiming that it isn't as good because it wasn't first to break all those taboos is hardly fair. Johnson does not actually claim that Vertigo reinvented the wheel, even the wheel labelled "great comic-book taboos." All he says is that Vertigo expanded "what comic book storytelling could achieve," which is simple truth. SWAMP THING and SANDMAN did expand the horizons, just as EC and the undergrounds had, albeit not the exact same horizons.

This is why pluralism as a critical discipline proves valuable. Though Spurgeon says he has enjoyed some Vertigo products, clearly he enjoyed the EC titles and at least some undergrounds more. This is his privilege. But it's a poor (and elitist) critique that asserts that any taste that finds SANDMAN more of a breakthrough than WEIRD SCIENCE-FANTASY must be the result of the author's desire to keep his tongue firmly applied to the boots of DC Comics.

As a side-note, it's significant that both EC and the undergrounds, like most other comic books of their respective periods, predominantly featured short stories. Many of these were good, many were bad. But in other media aside from comic books, the model of the short story has pretty much given way to extended continuities. The progress of the television medium displays this increasing focus on the long story, going from the never-ending soap opera to the punchily-syncopated overlapping arcs of HILL STREET BLUES to the metatextual epic of LOST. And no matter what one thinks of the tastes of the direct-market comics-audience, this audience also has moved toward long stories rather than short stories. Thus one might fairly conclude that the boundary-expansions of SANDMAN and SWAMP THING (for all that Alan Moore borrows a helluva lot from EC Comics) may be, for this time, greater breakthroughs than those of bygone eras.

Of course a true pluralist attitude doesn't assume that one type of fiction is better than another because the former breaks more taboos than the other. An elitist one does, however, as elitism reifies itself by claiming that it pursues what Theodor Adorno fallaciously called "ideas," as against popular literature, which is only about the sensual. But it may be that any elitism that champions taboo-breaking as an absolute good in itself is not really interested in "ideas" as such, for "ideas" are not universally tied to the breaking of taboos, and I for one can find more interesting "ideas" in a decades' worth of DC Comics-- any decade one cares to name-- than in any decades' worth of undergrounds.

As William James noted, the true answer to any question depends on the terms by which the question is stated. And if the short version of this essay might be rendered, "Is a respect for Vertigo Comics' achievements an automatic 'blowjob' for DC Comics?", then I think I've made my answer more than clear.

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