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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...

Thursday, May 5, 2011


This essay on HOODED UTILITARIAN brought me back to a subject that I raised back in 2008 in a series titled MERIT RAISED. The series detailed three distinct critical approaches, modeled on Northrop Frye's explication of them in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, and in the concluding essay I summed them up this way:

I further stated that while I felt that the focus of ethical criticism was upon moral *content,* and that of aesthetic criticism was upon *style,* the focus of archetypal criticism was upon *literary form,* upon the type of story the author was trying to communicate, which attempt largely predestines the symbolic discourse of a given work.

The UTILITARIAN post is a response to both Tom Spurgeon's review of the new Chester Brown graphic novel PAYING FOR IT-- which I have not read-- and to responses by Berlatsky and Jeet Heer to that review. Of PAYING's main topic-- Brown's experiences as a john paying prostitutes for sex-- Spurgeon says:

I felt myself at a disadvantage throughout the entire process of reading Paying For It, Chester Brown's long-awaited graphic novel about his becoming a john and how that part of his life developed over a lengthy period of time. I have no interest in prostitutes, less interest than that in the issue of prostitution and sex work, and can muster only the tiniest bit of prurient intrigue for watching how a cartoonist of whom I'm a fan orients himself to the aforementioned.

In the remainder of the review, Spurgeon principally focused on what I termed above "aesthetic criticism," a focus upon style, as seen in this excerpt:

Brown is a master of quiet insistence. Much of his work is about orienting the body, frequently depicted as full figures rather than partial or suggested ones, to oppressive outdoor spaces, insidious interior blacks and, no less dramatically, other people in the room. No cartoonist draws odder images that so quickly register as normal, and no one in the narrative arts makes such routinely inexplicable story decisions that one accepts for the authority with which they're introduced.

He does address PAYING's polemical content, but even then, that's framed in terms of the emotive identification Brown succeeds in putting across to readers:

When Paying For It functions as a comics-format documentary about how Brown's way of moving through the world is improved by his employing prostitutes, it accrues effectiveness in a variety of ways. We like Brown, or at least come to respect the unadorned honesty with which he describes his personal journey, the way his worries and fears are resolved. As much as he seems to have benefited from his current choices, we celebrate that he was able to secure these things in his life.

The review provoked a response from Jeet Heer, which said in part:

Given the nature of the work, I think its important to be upfront about one’s response to Brown’s arguments/opinions, although of course it’s possible to like the book and think that the legal and cultural changes he’s advocating are completely out to lunch.

And Berlatsky himself said:

I do agree with Jeet’s first comment, that works of art, especially polemical works of art like, say, James Baldwin’s essays, really seem to be demanding an engagement with their ideas. If you refuse to grant them that engagement — if you insist, I will not talk about racism, I will only talk about Baldwin’s prose style and the moments of personal revelation of universal human insights — you are in fact missing the point in a fairly profound manner.

Both Heer and Berlatsky do modify these somewhat militant statements, which interested readers may read for themselves, in addition to Spurgeon's responses. None of these "dyspeptic" volleys concern me here. All that interests me is the question as to whether there really are good and bad ways to address a given work.

If as I suggest Spurgeon's review is in essence an aesthetic one, then one may conveniently label the type of criticism Heer and Berlatsky stump for to be "ethical criticism." Based on descriptions of PAYING's subject matter, and on my acquaintance with earlier Brown work, I can see some validity in either approach. However, given that the work's content is both biographical and hortatory, in all likelihood the third-named critical orientation, that of "archetypal criticism," would probably be a bad way to analyze PAYING in that such narratives tend to put forth a very low level of symbolic discourse.

That said, if PAYING is indeed amenable to both ethical and aesthetic criticism, not all such works, even by Chester Brown, are so well-balanced.

For instance, one might enjoy Brown's 1992 work THE PLAYBOY-- a detailed autobiographical study of his experiences with PLAYBOY magazine-- in aesthetic terms like those laid out by Spurgeon. The work has no strong ethical content, no pronouncements on whether or not Brown as a horny young PLAYBOY-reader felt himself at odds with his culture's ethos about sex, or anything of that sort.

In contrast, Brown's historical work on the Canadian political figure Louis Riel-- which allegedly coincided with Brown's turn toward Libertarianism-- seems entirely informed by Brown's ethical proscriptions. One could survey it from a purely aesthetic sense more easily than one could glean any ethical content from PLAYBOY. But in the end ethical criticism would be the more appropriate analytical tool.

And though neither of these works possesses a strong enough symbolic discourse to make archetypal criticism worthwhile, such an approach would be the most rewarding one for Brown's early YUMMY FUR stories. These stories, which will definitely comprise my first "Y"-letter mythcomics-selection, are best understood as exercises in pure form, as opposed to being concerned with conscious meditations on ethics or aesthetic arrangement.

Naturally, this opinion ties in to my conviction that both ethical and aesthetic approaches are inferior, if not entirely nugatory, with respect to superhero genre-works. But that's a subject for yet another essay.

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