Featured Post

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...

Monday, January 31, 2011

KANT STOPS THE MUSIC PT. 2

As indicated in Part 1 my principle interest in Kant's evaluation of music in his CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT is not so much to defend music as one of the fine arts, though I'll be referencing a later philosopher who mounted such a defense. My principle concern is with Kant's justification for giving music a low rating, in part because "it merely plays with sensations." (See PART 1 for the full quote.) Elitists often argue against modern popular fiction on the basis that it invokes nothing but base sensation, as against whatever "fine art" they may be advocating. This is at best a partial truth, but one that does not stand in light of a pluralist aesthetics.

One can't help but wonder how Immanual Kant could have viewed music as possessing no qualities of sublimity, given that his lifetime intersected those of both Bach and Mozart. It may have to do, as Susanne Langer suggests, with his over-valuation of "Reason" as the most important quality of mankind's essence. Though Langer's PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY does not address Kant's objections to music specifically, it seems likely that she read the JUDGMENT given that (1) as an academic discipline of post-Kantian Ernst Cassirer, she would have been expected to be familiar with Kant's major works, and (2) some of her own qualifications of music's powers seem to reflect those of Kant.

For instance, she admits that music's effects for its listeners seem transitory, even as Kant asserts. However, in keeping with her idea of the "gesture," on which I expounded here, she adds that music is more than just a play of sensations: that it is a "formulation and representation of emotions, moods, mental tensions and resolutions-- a 'logical picture' of sentient, responsive life, a source of insight, not a plea for sympathy." The idea that feelings might have had a logic of their own, apart from their ability to suggest concepts, does not seem to have loomed large in Kant. Langer imputes this logic to the connotations attached to images as well:

Images] are not only capable of connoting the things from which our sense-experience originally derived them... they also have an inalienable tendency to 'mean' things that have only a logical analogy to their primary meanings.-- Langer, NEW KEY, p. 145.


Langer admits that music is a "limited idiom" (p. 246). This resembles Kant's pronouncement that music "cannot bring about a product that serves the concepts of the understanding as an enduring vehicle, a vehicle which commends itself to these
very concepts, for furthering their union with sensibility" (Section 330). And Langer almost seems to be agreeing with Kant on music's low pecking-order among the fine arts when she says that "music at its highest, though clearly a symbolic form, is an 'unconsummated symbol.' Articulation is its life, but not assertion; expressiveness, not expression."

Yet clearly Langer disputes Kant's notion that music "merely plays with sensations" by saying that there is a logic behind its representation of emotions, and in its ability to evoke the meanings latent in emotional states:

"The assignment of meanings is a shifting, kaleidoscopic play, probably below the threshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking."


And later, quite in contrast to Kant's views on "understanding:"

"Because no assignment of meaning is conventional, none is permanent beyond the sound that passes; yet the brief association was a flash of understanding."


Though I've not referenced Langer's concept of the "unconsummated symbol" earlier here, I find in it an apt metaphor for the way symbolic forms operate in the fiction of thematic escapism. In popular fiction one often finds such archetypal symbolic forms as "overreaching power-seekers" or "deceptive femininity," but they have not been either brought into line with either Langer's "discursive thinking" or Kant's "sensibility." Thus such symbols, like those of presentational symbolism generally, operate "far below the level of speech."

On a side-note, it's odd that though Langer defends the "kaleidoscopic play" of musical symbols, in chapter 7 of KEY she is less than charitable toward what she terms "fairy-tales" as against the more serious myth-stories:

"For the fairytale is irresponsible; it is frankly imaginary, and its purpose is to gratify wishes, 'as a dream doth flatter.'" (p. 175)

Nevertheless, Langer's insight improves upon that of Kant, whose tendency is to regard the "free play" of emotions and associations as the cultural equivalent of lollygagging. But Kant's insights upon the sublime will prove more significant in further considerations of the nature of metaphenomenality.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

KANT STOPS THE MUSIC, PT 1

"The attainment of an aim is always connected with the feeling of pleasure... then [there is] a basis that determines the feeling of pleasure *a priori* and validly for everyone."-- Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, p. 27.


I noted at the end of this essay that I didn't share Kant's belief that subjective judgments, such as those of taste, had to be universal to be valid; for me it's enough that they're statistically dominant, though what the dominance means in each case will vary.

Nevertheless, one can't set Kant aside lightly. In his history of aesthetics Monroe Beardsley points out that Kant "became the first modern philosopher to make an aesthetic theory an integral part of a philosophic system."

Moreover, I believe his idea of the sublime may have some suggestive applications to my Aumtheory, so I'm currently rereading CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT.

As a tertiary motivation I hope to apply what I find to Douglas Wolk's attempt to apply Kant to the modern comics-scene. I haven't watched Wolk's five-minute video yet, but I did read his remarks from READING COMICS and found them too glib by half.

One problem I anticipate with applying Kant to modern literature, particularly modern popular literature, is that Kant came from a fine-arts background that may have been strained to deal with phenomena that didn't seem to validate the ruling concept of the fine arts. An example would be his remarks on music from section 329:

If, on the other hand, we estimate the worth of the fine arts by the
culture they supply to the mind, and adopt for our standard the
expansion of the faculties whose confluence, in judgment, is
necessary for cognition, music, then, since it plays merely with
sensations, 'has the lowest place among the fine arts-just as it has
perhaps the highest among those valued at the same time for their
agreeableness. Looked at in this light, it is far excelled by the [visual]
formative arts. For, in putting the imagination into a play which is
at once free and adapted to the understanding, they all the while
carry on a serious business, since they execute a product which serves
the Concepts of understanding as a vehicle, permanent and appealing
to us on its own account, for effectuating their union with
sensibility, and thus for promoting, as it were, the urbanity of the
higher powers of cognition. The two kinds of art pursue completely
different courses. Music advances from sensations to indefinite ideas:
formative [visual] art from definite ideas to sensations. The latter gives
a lasting impression, the former one that is only fleeting. The former
sensations imagination can recall and agreeably entertain itself with,
while the latter either vanish entirely, or else, if involuntarily
repeated by the imagination, are more annoying to us than agreeable.
Over and above all this, music has a certain lack of urbanity about
it.


To be sure, Kant's comment about music's "lack of urbanity" is predicated on judging the fine arts "by the culture they supply to the mind," so this comment is not meant to be a constitutive statement about music. Nevertheless, if music-- which was generally considered a "fine art" by Kant's class in his own time-- fails the test of "urbanity" and giving "definite ideas," what tender mercies would a fully Kantian system show to modern-day popular fiction?

Nevertheless, post-Kantian philosophers like Schopenhauer, Cassirer and Langer have managed to diverge from the specific analyses of their "master" while managing to reap credible philosophic rewards from application of his method.

So I too will be giving old Kant a whirl (as in "attempting to make him turn over in his grave") in future essays.

Monday, January 24, 2011

PROGRESS AND PROCESS, PART 2

In Steve Englehart's COMICS JOURNAL interview, the writer speculates that the tightening editorial controls of mid-1970s Marvel may have arisen as a reaction to the company having been acquired by a conglomerate. This is impossible to prove, as much as my own related speculation that Stan Lee might have backed off on the concept of "progress" in Marvel Comics in reaction to "negative feedback" over the death of the Gwen Stacy character. (Fwiw, Blake Bell's Steve Ditko biography, STRANGE AND STRANGER, also contains one or two anecdotes about Stan Lee trying a little to hard to please all the fans all the time.)

For a reader like myself, who read most of the company's output in the 1970s, there's no question that some sort of transition took place. From roughly 1970-75, Marvel Comics became far more experimental in terms of form and theme than had any other "mainstream" comics-company, with the usual exception of EC Comics. Some of this development was surely a direct consequence of the company expanding its line and therefore needing cheap young talents to fill the books. Not all of the young professionals who debuted in this time period were moved to experimentation, but for roughly five years Marvel Comics took on an aura of heterogenous creative expression. However, the Marvel "house style" had never completely vanished even during the most experimental period, and the late 1970s were by comparison a period of greater homogenization, even though Marvel's editors did still find outlets for developing new talents like Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz.

Englehart's complaint, that the editors' desire for "the illusion of progress" interfered too much with the creative process, is one with which most fans can sympathize. Yet, even putting aside the alleged personal ambitions of those who tightened the reins, perhaps some pullback was inevitable.

In my essay on Umberto Eco's errors re: his comparison of myth-heroes and serial heroes, I said:

myth-heroes bear a strong resemblance to modern serial-heroes in that between the span of their births and deaths each hero has access to an infinitely-expanding "middle portion" of his life, in which he's always pretty much the same, with no commonplace causality to get in the way.


And later:

Eco talks further of how a reader must lose "the notion of temporal progression" when faced with a "massive bombardment of events which are no longer tied together by any strand of logic." Unintentionally he has defined the true status of archaic myth-narrative quite as much as that of the serial-hero. Indeed, in the wake of Marvel's soap-operatic twist on the superhero, it's possible to say that the myth-hero may at times possess less "temporal progression" than the serial hero.


There are narrative benefits to be had from preserving certain aspects of a status quo. Modern serial characters do not undergo a "massive bombardment of events" with no logical (i.e., "progressive") logic because the audience has been lulled into compliance with some Marxist commodity fetish. Such characters continually expand the "middle portions" of their lives because it's pleasing to audiences that the characters should be as the audience is not: functionally immortal and thus able to stand far more than the mere "thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to."

Elsewhere in the Eco essay I asserted that myth-heroes possessed what I considered "dominant" characteristics rather than the "immutable" ones Eco assigned to them. Dominant characteristics are important to any characters who appear in continuing stories; such characteristics define what expectations the audience should have for the character.

Ironically, many years later the sort of organic progress that Englehart and others advocated mutated into the phenomenon of the "event." Most of the time these events placed serial comics-characters through what I termed "earth-shattering changes at the last minute,", only to largely restore the status quo in the end. Jim Shooter's SECRET WARS series was perhaps most emblematic of this idea, although admittedly the "black Spider-Man costume" subplot spawned in SW did actually become an ongoing concern within the assorted Spider-books. But possibly the most peculiar "event" was one that initially seemed designed to oust the hero of the SPIDER-MAN title out of his own book: the infamous Spider-Clone saga of the 1990s.

In the "Earth-Shattering" essay, I mounted a measured defense of these type of events by noting that they depend on calling forth what Lee Drummond called "the elemental level of crisis," particularly though not exclusively for continuing characters. In terms of my own taste, I prefer the organic approach to progress to the more artificially-promoted "event" mode. At their best (if there any good ones!) event-stories are quick vacations from the status quo, like DC's Silver Age imaginary stories. But anything that can be done can be done badly, and often "event" stories, such as the 1990s Clone Saga, descend into fatuity by undermining the very concepts that make the series workable, as with the notion (later discarded) that the Peter Parker with whom the fans had identified for years was actually a clone of himself. Perhaps this notion would have borne some fruit in a satire, but as past of an ongoing adventure-series the idea was a bit of boneheaded incoherence.

Which may suggest that there's something to be said for homogenous creativity as well as the more experimental form. More on that later.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

PROGRESS AND PROCESS PART 1

My historical Spidey-sense was activated recently by a CBR post in which the OP asked who originated the phrase "the illusion of change." This phrase, as the OP remembered it, described an alleged statement by Stan Lee in the mid-1970s, to the effect that he didn't want real change at Marvel Comics any more, but only "the illusion of change." The OP was able to find the phrase in a 1983 interview by Alan Moore, but Moore didn't claim to have either originated the phrase or to have heard Stan Lee utter it.

I can't say precisely who was the absolute first to use the phrase either, but I am aware of the first place I saw it attested to in print: COMICS JOURNAL #63 (1981), in an interview with Steve Englehart, although the actual phrase he uses is somewhat different.

Englehart, who first came to work for Marvel in 1971, described a change in Marvel's editorial priorities "around '74," which led, in 1976, to at least three talents leaving Marvel at that time: himself, Jim Starlin, and Paul Gulacy. When Kim Thompson inquires as to what editorial restrictions were being promulgated,
Englehart said:

Well, just "don't be so bizarre. try not to progress so fast." There's that famous meeting that happened before the quitting time when Stan said, "I don't want progress; I want the illusion of progress now. We don't want people dying and coming out of the strips, we don't want new girlfriends, we want to try to keep it the same."


This, if it is an accurate recollection by Englehart, is ironic on two counts.

One, because Stan Lee had made Marvel's reputation on visible signs of progress within the structured expectations of the adventure-genre. Sean Collins' ORAL HISTORY OF MARVEL COMICS records this remark by Chris Claremont:

DC’s theory was that you cycled through an audience every three years. Stan’s revolutionary concept was, Why not just keep moving ahead?


And then, it's also ironic because by all accounts Stan Lee had killed off a fair number of characters themselves, and in 1974 had reaped considerable attention for the death of Gwen Stacy the year before. One may speculate that some of the bad fan-press Lee received for the Gwen character's death may have had some small influence upon this editorial reorientation.

What's interesting is that though Englehart's 1981 statement is the earliest I ever heard of these backroom dramatics, he obviously didn't think he was the first to bruit it about since he calls the incident "famous."

Granted, he was talking to Gary Groth, Kim Thompson and Ralph Macchio, who all had considerable familiarity with fannish lore at the time.

But had fandom as a whole really heard about the "illusion of progress" story before Englehart described it in 1981?

Inquiring minds, etc.

Philosophical extrapolations to come in Part 2.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

SPEEDO BOYS PART 3

Not since the 1960s has Frederic Wertham's name been in good odor, but in recent years a few individuals have tried to lemon-pledge the stink away. I devoted several essays to Bart Beaty's biography of the doctor: here's one example.

Now one can add Alex Vernon's name to that short list. True, he only quotes Wertham on four pages of ON TARZAN, but even these short pages make Vernon's entire project problematic.

Of those four pages, three are just toss-off remarks, though I'll save one of them for later as it's slightly amusing. Vernon's longest pronouncement on Wertham appears on page 109:

"Wertham's argument exaggerated the negative influence of comic books on juvenile behavior, and his inclusion of homosexual activity alongside sadistic violence against women was misguided, but he and the pre-adolescent and adolescent subjects of his study all recognized how the 'muscular male stereotype' worked as 'the object of homoerotic sexual curiosity and stimulation.'
Later, following Vernon's summation of the good doctor's "major example" of such a buff-bod in a comic book, Vernon adds:

"These comics also included 'art nudes' of men in their various advertisements, images 'which correspond to the athletic male art nudes appearing in certain magazines for adults so often collected by homosexuals.'"


I must say that in the last sentence, Vernon shows that despite his tut-tutting at Wertham's stigmatization of gayness, he's learned well from this past master, for the latter statement fairly resonates with Wertham's patented "guilt by association" strategy. Admittedly, whereas Wertham was attempting to stamp out seductive images of perversity to protect innocent children, Vernon may well believe that he's liberating his readers from the very stereotype Wertham championed: the stereotype of the mature and unconflicted hetero male. But as I demonstrated in Part 2, here Vernon vaults over any suggestion that female readers of comics may have liked looking at male forms in the comics as much as the gays did, whether those representations were images of Tarzan or "male art nudes." Moreover, I'd like to know if these "male art nudes" were disproportionate in comparison to the number of scantily-clad women in the comic books of Wertham's time. I seem to recollect Wertham objecting to many of these, but mentioning that might have weakened Vernon's case re: "homoerotic curiosity."

Finally, I'll finish up by noting that on page 129-30 Vernon brackets two separate observations as more evidence for the "love that dare not speak its name," ranging from the distant past of man's evolution to, of course, comic books:

"One scholar's summary of theorized causes of homosexuality from 'the late 18th century to the early 20th century' includes 'regression to a prehuman era when the hindquarters were the primar visual stimulant,' and Wertham asserted that the 'fetishism' of 'girls' buttocks' in comic illustrations 'may have a relationship to early homosexual attitudes.'"


Maybe it's me, but I found it funny that on one hand Vernon's got one guy claiming that homosexuality stemmed from the days when prehumanoids of all persuasions went dorsal instead of ventral, and the other he's got Freddy W. claiming that modern guys liking "girls' buttocks" is evidence of straight-up (you should pardon the term) homosexuality.

All of which leads us to but one inevitable conclusion--

Whatever else he was, Frederic Wertham was never a butt-man.

SPEEDO BOYS, PART 2

So far I've written two posts on the Alex Vernon book ON TARZAN, here and here.

The first essay put forth a semi-personalized disagreement with Vernon's attempt to interpret a particular scene in a Tarzan film, a la Laura Mulvey's "male gaze" theory, while the second elucidates my quasi-Jungian disagreement with any attempt to impose a ratiocentrist straightjacket on creative works, in that case Vernon's quasi-Freudian attempt to read the phenomenon of cannibalism as a "beard" for that ole debbil "homosexual panic."

This third essay is of a piece with the other two in that I'm again drawing from Chapter 4, "Monkey Business." An uncritical reader of this blog could be forgiven for wondering if that was the only chapter I'd read. There are other questionable Vernon interpretations in the book, but Chapter 4 does score highest in my irritation department, possibily because in this chapter he invokes a half dozen authorities whose intellectual legacies I find problematic. Here we have not only Freud but also Rene Girard, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (dealt with this earlier essay), Yvonne Tasker, the ever-doubtable Frederic Wertham, and Laura Mulvey, whose "male gaze" surely underlies much of the theory here though her name's never actually in the book.

Chapter 4 begins by citing as "evidence" of Vernon's theory the climactic (in more ways than one) scene of Philip Jose Farmer's A FEAST UNKNOWN, and then noting how prevalent it was for "gay interest" websites or magazines to co-opt the image of Tarzan for their own use. Neither item proves anything substantive about the Tarzan mythos: they are merely interesting cultural variations on a theme rather than the theme itself.

The Mulveyisms are not long in coming: page 108 tells us that "Adulatory exhibitions of the male body have a difficult time maintaining the integrity of heterosexual manhood." This is of a piece with Laura Mulvey's famous 1975 codification of the dominant cinematic oeuvre as appealing to a "male gaze:"

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.-- Mulvey, VISUAL PLEASURE AND NARRATIVE CINEMA.


Since I'm not of a mind to reread the Mulvey essay at the moment, I'll depend on my recollection that Mulvey never systematically examines to what extent classic Hollywood cinema also represented a "female look" of desire toward men. Had she addressed this tendency in Hollywood film and found that its presence did not negate her theory, I might take her a bit more seriously. As "Visual Pleasure" stands, however, it's merely a hallmark work of ratiocentrism, eager to ignore any contradictory data in order to impose an intellectual paradigm.

Of course, classic cinema is replete with countless examples of male characters being put on display for the delectation of interested viewers. The enormous female fandom of silent star Rudolf Valentino suggests that the "determining gaze" directed toward that star depended far more on his female than his male (be they hetero- or homosexual) audiences. Mulvey's diatribe ignores the influence of female audiences upon cinematic depictions in the early 20th century and how that influence arose from their increasing ability to purchase the fantasies they desired. The fact that those fantasies did not line up with Mulvey's concept of desireable alternatives may suggest that Mulvey, not the audiences, was the one guilty of questionable desires.

Probably drawing more from Yvonne Tasker than from Mulvey, Vernon goes on to give as one example of "adulatory exhibitions" of maleness the "images of Eugene Sandow and other musclemen" who "in Burroughs' day" were "consumed by some men for their erotic appeal." Having admitted that only "some" of the audience may have had homosexual lust for Sandow, Vernon then leapfrogs over the question of female viewers and their possession of both "determining gaze" and economic power. He next tells us that "Sandow had inserted himself into a feminine tradition," which only makes sense if one ignores the long tradition of the male nude in painting and sculpture. Granted, some of these depictions, more so than either Eugene Sandow or Tarzan, may have been directed at a dominant homosexual populace, if the stories about Classical Greece are even partly accurate. But in Classical Greece women definitely had no economic power to influence art, while the women of early 20th-century America, the America of Sandow and Tarzan, unquestionably had such power.

As a sidenote, the entrepreneur most responsible for bringing Sandow to fame in America was one of the same architects of the so-called "determining gaze" of Mulvey: Flo Ziegfeld-- who worked with Sandow some time before his better-known "objectification musicals" with Busby Berkley. A quick check of 'net biographies suggest that Ziegfeld was hetero, but even if he had been gay, it's pretty unlikely that he would have been making much money with Sandow if he'd been depending entirely on the closeted gay population of his time to keep him afloat.

Vernon's indirect quotation of Laura Mulvey's unfounded notion that the recipient of a "gaze," male or otherwise, is automatically "feminized" is integral to Vernon's argument, for only so can he read displays of masculine strength and/or power as codes for some odalisque-like feminine prostation. In my view, neither male nor female are any way "feminized" by receiving an admiring look, be it erotic or non-erotic, or from a male or female. Actual violation *might* be another story, but contra Mulvey and Vernon, looking is-- "just looking."

I find it amusing that while Vernon never pauses in making this "she-male" argument, later in the chapter he backs off a little in stating the equivalence of cannibalism and male homosexuality:

"I am not insisting that every mention of cannibalism carries unconscious coding of sodomitic bestiality, or that we must translate every fantastic ritual sacrifice into a gay oral sex all-night blowout... But we can't ignore the confluence of the primitive, cannibalistic,animalistic, and polymorphously erotic... in Tarzania" (p. 137)


Lest my position still be unclear, it's the same as it was in the essay entitled
A SACRIFICIAL LAMB FOR QUEER THEORY. Yes, the "polymorphously perverse" may well underlie much if not all the energies that go into narrative fiction, though I naturally like Jung's take on those energies better than Freud's. But one does not master the "hermeneutics of deceit" by deceiving. One ought to consider all potential interpretations before settling on one, or at the very least, ought to be able to refute at least the extremely OBVIOUS objections to one's pet theory.

Hmm, wanted to deal with Vernon's quotation of Wertham but this has gone on a little long. More in Part 3.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

SPEEDO BOYS, PART 1

This post on THE BEAT directed me to a sight I thought I'd never see: a post on THE HOODED UTILITARIAN which doesn't overstate the case for "queer theory," in this case as applied to a 1990s MARVEL SWIMSUIT SPECIAL. Author Richard Cook, after considering the possibilities that Marvel included the drawings of hot, buff guys either to placate the gay audience or to offset accusations of one-sided objectification, considers a third possibility:

the (mostly) straight, male artists wanted to draw pictures of idealized young men, and their (mostly) straight, male audience wanted to look at those pictures. There’s a homoerotic appeal, but it has less to do with a desire for men than the wish to become a desirable man. Superheroes are a fantasy of physical perfection, as straight men define perfection. But most nerdy guys fall far short of the ideal, being either too skinny or too fat. They’d rather be Nick Fury, a mountain of muscle and chest hair who casually smokes a cigar while the girls oogle his ass. Or they’d like to be Colossus, the embodiment of raw power (in leopard skin underwear). The juxtaposition of beefcake and cheesecake allowed the reader to shift from the fantasy of being the perfect male to the fantasy of acquiring the type of hottie that only perfect males can acquire.


This is actually a pretty well-reasoned (if non-theory-heavy) rebuttal of the usual "naked guys=gay appeal" knee-jerk position of queer theory. But you couldn't tell it from Heidi McDonald's writeup:

Just how gay were the old Marvel Swimsuit Specials?
Very, very gay, Richard Cook writes


Uh, if you say so, Heidi.

My finding that I agree with another writer on the Internet anywhere, much less on the HOODED UTILITARIAN, has therefore left me (temporarily) without more to say on the matter. However, by coincidence I've meaning to put Alex Vernon's ON TARZAN book under the inquisitorial lamplight once more. Therefore Part 2 of SPEEDO BOYS Vernon should give me loads of opportunities to make fun of the excesses of queer theory with particular relevance to the question of "the Male Gaze" and all that garbage.

More later.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

OPPOSITION VS. OPPUGNANCY

"Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy."-- Shakespeare, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA.

"Opposition is true friendship."-- William Blake, THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL

As noted in the NO FEUD IS AN OLD FEUD essays, online critic Tom Spurgeon was good enough to state that my criticism of his post was rooted in my trollish resentment of some monstrous wrong he did me in past encounters, not in a considered objection to his elitist views of both DC Comics and the supporters of same. I've little left to say about this weasely excuse for an argument, but may as well as well use the occasion to voice some thoughts about the differences between "opposition" and "oppugnancy."

The latter term, apparently one of many words Shakespeare coined expressly for his plays, has not entered the modern lexicon. But for me it resonates well as a description for actual trolls as I've experienced them. "Oppugnance" comes from the same Latin root as the more conventional "pugnacious," and real trolls are nothing if not pugnacious. Most trolls can be recognized by their love for starting long Internet flamewars on any topic that comes to mind, whether it derives from the "real world" of politics or the "fake world" of fictional creations.

Now one may fairly ask, "Gene, how does that differ from this self-description from FEUD PART 4:"

I once told TS during one of our long arguments that I'm naturally contentious by nature and, as proof, cited my long history of writing the lettercol of COMICS JOURNAL back when it was a magazine worth a damn. Many of my letters pick fights with various other columnists/essayists-- R. Fiore, Carter Scholz, Kim Thompson. Some led to long discussions probably no more profitable than this one; one led to a simplistic "fuck you" reply from none other than that Thompson boy.


However, what sets me apart from real trolls is the same thing that sets elitist Journalistas apart from them (at least in their better moments). This would be the concept of "degree," not so much in Shakespeare's original terms (i.e. the Great Chain of Being) as in the search for provisional truth. To attempt even provisional truth in literary studies requires one to sort out "degrees" of quality between one work and another work. Only by this comparative method can one put forth any rationale as to why one thinks one work is better than another.

Now, most trolls don't bother with degree. Their primary reason for posting on forums is to play "king of the hill," to trumpet their opinions with such overwhelming "oppugnance" that eventually everyone else gives up the game. If a troll thinks that Alan Moore's SWAMP THING kicks the ass of Harvey Kurtzman's TWO-FISTED TALES, then he will never recognize any aspect in which the latter exceeds the former, not even to the slightest degree.

In contrast, an argument between two opponents in search of the stimulation of "opposition" can be a genuine exploration as to what constitutes one's concepts of "quality." These two ideal opponents need not back down any more than the troll does. But a sustained rational argument must make use of the power of "degree."

I've stated in various forums that I believe taste to be inherently inarguable, and not simply in the dismissive sense that "Everyone has his own taste." I have no problem with anyone saying, as a simple statement of taste, that TWO-FISTED TALES is better than SWAMP THING.

I only object when this expression of individual taste is projected as an ideal that all should share, as in Spurgeon's statement about DC's Vertigo line, to the effect that it was wrong for anyone to think that Vertigo had in any way pushed the boundaries of the comics-medium past the boundaries pioneered by EC Comics. This stratagem has sometimes been called the "argument from taste," which posits that if any subject has taste, he will agree with the assertions of an authority who has in some way demonstrated that he definitely possesses taste.

As a sometime phenomenologist, I do believe in certain concepts of intersubjectivity. However, I don't believe in universal intersubjectivity and therefore I don't believe in universal taste. It's a point of honor with me that, however much I may have railed against works I personally considered poorly executed, I've never argued from universal taste. I believe that whether it's inveighing against major lapses by Marx or Barthes or puzzling over Jack Kirby's odd word-choices, I've only put forth my oppositions when informed by the appreciation of degree, never "mere oppugnancy."

Within this view of positive oppositonalism, elitists and pluralists could be joined in what Blake calls "true friendship." But as this would be a purely metaphysical "friendship," it has the advantage that the parties involved don't have to stop hating each other.

Sounds like "win-win" to me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

WORD WARS II

This is a short post I wrote in response to some praise of Stan Lee's writing.

***

Stan's writing may suffer from any number of flaws, but generally he knew how to evoke strong melodramatic emotions-- worrying about a job, about a girl, etc. Then he could toss off a quip that would reassure the reader and make it seem like the characters could get through anything.

One of my opponents insisted that it was stupid to talk about Lee's dialogue being more "realistic" than solo-Kirby's. It's true that neither Lee nor Kirby sounds like the way people actually speak. But Lee's dialogue sounds like a potpourri of many different idioms derived from film and prose, and so it convinces us, because we've all heard movie-words that are like the words Reed Richards says.

Solo-Kirby's dialogue strains for this quality, but never gets it. You can tell that Kirby wants his characters to speak in different idioms but too often it all comes down to a sort of "Shakespeare by way of Brooklyn." That's one reason I've always found it hard to believe that Kirby wrote his Golden Age works; because their idiom just seems like competent pulp-style writing, with none of the loopiness apparent in solo-Kirby work.

Monday, January 10, 2011

NO FEUD LIKE AN OLD FEUD, PART 4

A lot of comics-forums remind me of a certain SOUTH PARK episode in which the main characters egged on a fight between two other kids who didn't have anything against each other. Often the posters on comics-forums don't care anything about the issues involved: they just want to see cyberblood.

But in Part 3 of this series A. Sherman Barros made an intelligent request as to my question, "Should I bother to respond to Tom Spurgeon when he'll never read it?" So I'm bound to tilt my lance at the Spurgemeister once more, and see if indeed his response is the "chickenshit mendacity" I predicted it would be.

Let's see here...

Seriously, I didn’t understand any of that. I also don’t understand why you think I’m suggesting you feel inferior to me and my kind, although it seems psychologically revealing that you’d just toss that out there. I don’t even know what “my kind” is supposed to mean (Methodists?), although again that I’m representative of some group that you might feel is against you could also be seen as psychologically revealing


Yep, bigtime mendacity. In addition to having tossing out a lame caricature of fanboys as (horrors) Wearers of the Dreaded Unhip Ponytail, Spurgeon tells me that he's sorry that "life turned out the way it did for you" as a stratagem to make me sound like a simple troll who's taking issue with his statements out of a frustration with life's unfairnesses. But that wasn't meant to make me feel "inferior," heck no. It was just another one of the sage observations by the guy who just got pegged (by someone or other on THE BEAT) as "the conscience" of the online comics-community. Odd thing to say of a fellow who unjustifiably accused one of your fellow workers of having given a blowjob to DC Comics, but hey, maybe tossing the rabid dog a steak will keep him from biting off your balls (if any).

I guess I could spend the time trying to figure out what you’re getting at, attempting to identify where you went off course and trying to explain you out of what I feel are your leaps of logic and what I’m guessing you think are your great gordian knot splitting sword-slices of truth, but that would be silly and likely a huge waste of my time.


And Tom Spurgeon knows whereof he speaks as to leaps of logic, since as noted earlier Rich Johnson's cautious praise of DC's past achievements becomes in Spurgeonworld a "blowjob."

However, I don't think he knows what a "reducio ab absurdum" is. When I ask him rhetorically whether he thinks Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman should bow down before the Idol-Head of R. Crumb (a DC Comics reference that people on THE ABSORBASCON would probably get), I already know that he doesn't expect either individual to "worship at the feet of Robert Crumb."

The entire point of taking a premise to an absurd level is to show that the premise is absurd at its core. In Spurgeon's case it was this statement:

A lot of the rest of this seems like nonsense to me, too. To take one: 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.


Putting aside many side-issues-- that Rich Johnson did not call Vertigo a "boundaries-pusher" or claim that it had eclipsed EC and the undergrounds, that the Vertigo line was an attempt to *make* experimental comics "hot" under a banner of their own, rather than a marketing of comics that were already "hot"-- the central premise here is that once EC and the UGs reached some lofty level of quality, no one who didn't exceed EC and UG by Spurgeon's standards can claim to have "expanded what comics storytelling could achieve" (Johnsons's actual words). I suppose in Spurgeon's mind "expansion" correlates with the notion of real-life explorers pushing into new territories. I don't know if that's what "expansion" means to Rich Johnson, but I'm certain it doesn't mean that to me. Literary accomplishment, even in pop-literature, is more than just "who did what first" or "who supposedly climbed higher in the rankings of 'who's more significant.'"

In TS's final paragraph he floods THE BEAT with crocodile tears about the "damage" he thinks he's done me. Yes, flatter yourself some more, Tommy Boy. I once told TS during one of our long arguments that I'm naturally contentious by nature and, as proof, cited my long history of writing the lettercol of COMICS JOURNAL back when it was a magazine worth a damn. Many of my letters pick fights with various other columnists/essayists-- R. Fiore, Carter Scholz, Kim Thompson. Some led to long discussions probably no more profitable than this one; one led to a simplistic "fuck you" reply from none other than that Thompson boy. Sorry, TS. I've crossed swords with many before you and will cross swords with many after you. You're just not that special.

Are such arguments, long or short, a waste of time? In the sense that they don't accomplish any physical aim, like removing grout from your bathroom walls, they are. (Of course, one could say the same of ranting about other people doing PR for DC, which TS has carped at on other occasions before this one.) Still, even if you can't see your mind's muscles, they do need exercise even as the body's do. I didn't get much exercise contending with TS this time, but maybe the next opponent will offer more of a fight. I did think that anyone who wanted to be as insulting as TS was in his original BEAT post was someone who wanted the exercise of a good cyber-battle.

But-- it seems not so.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

CHILD MINA TO THE DARK DANCE CAME


In recent years I’ve been rather depressed with most of the commercial manga-serials offered in the United States. Even a lot of moderately entertaining works seem to lack any real drive to excellence. But my manga-depression comes to an end with DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND.

[Spoiler warnings: plot points revealed herein.]

In an earlier essay I reviewed Kim Newman’s alternate-world take on the DRACULA mythos, in which Dracula became consort to the Queen of England and turned Old Blighty into a haven for his vampire spawn. I wasn’t enthused with the Newman work, but Nozomu Tamaki wreaks wonders with the same basic idea. Here it’s a man-made island that becomes a haven for a kingdom of bloodsuckers: quite naturally for a manga-series, the island has been built off the coast of Japan. The heroes of DANCE are Mina Tepes, queen of the vampires, who facilitates the worldwide emigration of her people to the island, and Akira, her werewolf bodyguard. DANCE also sports a large cast of allies and villains, most of whom are incredible hot-bods. But Mina and Akira are the focal heroes, and their complicated relationship is the core of the series as they defend their makeshift kingdom (the “bund” of the title) against assorted threats—meddling human beings, assassins, conspiracies, and, most formidably, three vampire overlords, the last survivors of “the 100 vampire clans.” Grotesque horror and frenetic action dominate the storylines, though Tamaki makes considerable time for comic byplay and the Japanese “cult of cuteness.”

The notion of warring clans is but one narrative trope that DANCE adapts from medieval Japanese history in order to construct a vampire society attempting to find its “place in the sun,” so to speak. Another is the Japanese culture’s love for the evanescent, for Tamaki establishes that his vampires, unlike Newman’s, are not a long-term threat to human society. Despite the vampires’ potential for immortality, Mina explains, they usually burn themselves out by the violence of their own desires, and cannot possibly grow beyond a limited number. In this speech Mina references the silent film NOSFERATU, even as her own name references the book DRACULA and the legend of Vlad the Impaler.

Medievalism also informs one aspect of the relationship between Mina and Akira. He is not simply a paid bodyguard, for his werewolf clan has sworn fealty to the queen of vampires and thus he plays loyal samurai to her “daimyo.” But there is also a personal bond between Mina and Akira, who became friendly as children, a bond which leads to a germinating romantic relationship, forbidden because Mina is destined to marry and bear children by one of the remaining vampire clan-lords.

In this summation I’ve focused upon what DANCE owes to medieval models from Japanese culture. However, I’ve held back one aspect of the Mina-Akira relationship that stems principally from modern Japanese culture. That aspect stems from the phenomenon called “lolicon,” concerning the apparent sexualization of an underage girl. For though werewolf Akira has aged into a young man, vampire Mina has remained a child who looks to be about ten, with even fewer secondary sexual characteristics than Nabokov’s original nymphet Lolita.

In the first book, the reader isn’t told the reason for this arrested aging, and none of the characters question that she has not aged. I initially wondered if Tamaki were depicting a situation like that of Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, where anyone who becomes a bloodsucker stays frozen at the same age he/she was turned. In INTERVIEW this results in a perpetual female child-vamp who yearns for a maturity she can never have. But in DANCE it’s eventually revealed that not only can Tamaki’s vampires age and give birth, Mina asserts, “Vampires are creatures whose very form is ruled by their minds.” Later it’s revealed that Mina has chosen to suppress her own aging to prevent the clan-lords from forcing her into marriage, though at best this remains a delaying-action. Further, for brief times she can assume the form of the nubile, busty woman she could have been, tantalizing Akira with mature erotic possibilities.

The role of the “nymphet” in Japanese pop culture is one upon which I’m not knowledgeable enough to speak with authority. I know, as many do, that the figure of the nymphet appears in many manga that aren’t exclusively erotic or romantic in tone, such as TENCHI MUYO, which some have called the progenitor of all Japanese “harem manga.” Many of the appearances of “girls-on-the-verge” are not “lolicon” as such, and their primary purpose may be to tap into a mass-market demand for the presence of “cute kids” to offset even the most grisly or violent serials.

And yet Tamaki is clearly playing around with the concept of “lolicon,” teasing the reader with the possibility while making clear that Humbert Humbert doesn’t live here. In the first DANCE continuity, Mina meets Akira for the first time in seven years, and uses an assortment of stratagems to make him want to serve as her bodyguard willingly, rather than out of a sense of impersonal duty. One of these stratagems includes disrobing in front of him. Her pre-pubertal form doesn’t entice Akira, but making him uncomfortable accomplishes the same end: that of helping her manipulate him into her service. This is made palatable by the fact that she does have an abiding love for him, and clearly would like to assume her mature form in order to be with him. During a dream-sequence in TPB volume 6, Mina imagines herself living a normal human life, which attests to her romantic desires for Akira, though only in mature form.

Though Tamaki holds off on the lolicon, he does present a sequence of outright “shotacon,” which is the same setup with the sexes reversed. Like many vampire-sagas, DANCE allows for a wide range of sexual arrangements. Characters Josie and Hamaseji have a “normal” hetero relationship, but Mina’s female bodyguard Vera had a relationship with Mina’s deceased mother, and a male-male vibe is fleetingly suggested between Akira and an androgynous werewolf buddy.

In closing I’ll note that Tamaki is one of the best “cinematic” manga-artists I’ve ever encountered. Tamaki avoids the cluttered, frenetic look found in many of the popular action-manga, using white (or dark) space skillfully. He also shows a facility with facial expression comparable to that of Dave Sim, whose talents in that department eclipse most of his contemporaries. The plots about various conspiracies and skullduggeries are simple but provide the groundwork for solid action-sequences that don’t get lost in a maze of speed-lines. My only complaint is that Tamaki depicts a few too many women with torpedo-tits. I've nothing against fan-service for us evil hetero overlords of the dominant phallocracy. But perhaps in this case a little less would count for more.

As of now I’ve only read six of the nine TPB’s released, but I’m certain I’ll be accepting further invitations to this DANCE.

Friday, January 7, 2011

INDUCTION JUNCTION

In DEDUCE I SAY I stressed the necessity for expanding the bounds of theoretical criticism by stepping away from the quasi-scientific inductive method, in which the critic usually has in mind some fixed notion of “the good” and then simply surveys an assortment of works that exemplify “the good” by either positive or negative example.

As with any endeavor, inductive critical works can be done well or poorly. In my short review of T.E. Apter’s FANTASY LITERATURE, I found that Apter’s criteria for her “good” in fantasy-works was too amorphous to prove useful to me, as well as being too weighted toward works of canonical literature. I’ve commented in more positive terms on Richard Wright’s COMIC BOOK NATION. I didn’t agree with Wright’s essential message: that comic books are only “good” insofar as they expoused liberal social messages for the edification of the reading public, which caused him to largely dismiss the Superman comics produced under the editorship of Mort Weisinger. But Wright’s criteria were cogent and his research solid, and so NATION is one of the best inductive studies of comic books, far superior to Harvey Kurtzman’s disappointing comics-history FROM ARRGH TO ZAP!

Somewhere between the middling example of Apter and the superior example of Wright stands Brian Attebury’s THE FANTASY TRADITION IN AMERICAN LITERATURE (1980). In contrast to Apter, Attebury’s writing-style is breezy and non-academic. I was fairly certain that I’d read the work before years ago, probably in the decade for which it was written, and indeed, several passages were still pleasantly familiar to me. And naturally, I appreciated that Attebury, unlike Apter and Tzvetan Todorov, dealt with all manner of fantasies by all manner of authors, ranging from a canonical figure like Hawthorne to more popularly oriented American fantasists like L. Frank Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs. As an inductive study about how the idiom of fantasy evolved in America, Attebury’s study is invaluable.

However, though his criteria for “the good” in fantasy-literature is better formulated than T.E. Apter’s, Attebury’s criteria is a bit too limiting and could stand some deductive theoretical input. In his first chapter he cites his criteria for fantasy, as against genres that may use similar materials, thusly:

“Narrative poetry often approaches the fantastic, but narrative verse seems to have been all but phased out by less restricted lyric forms. Surreal fiction has the same freedom: it can flash a succession of words before the reader or suddenly drop all pretense and begin speaking discursively. Fantasy, though, needs consistency. Reader and writer are committed to maintaining the illusion for the entire course of the fiction. Tolkien refers to this commitment as “secondary belief;” E.M. Forster speaks of the reader of fantasy as being asked to ‘pay something extra,’ to accept not only the conventions of fiction but also implausibility within those conventions. Fantasy is a game of sorts, and it demands that one play whole-heartedly; accepting for the moment all rules and turns of the game. The reward for this extra payment is an occasional sense of unexpected beauty and strangeness, a quality which C.N. Manlove, among others, calls ‘wonder.’”—Attebury, TRADITION, p. 2.


As should be clear from my RULES OF ESTRANGEMENT series, I agree that it is important to immerse oneself in the rules of a fictional game, since I didn’t agree with a Grant Morrison statement that suggested that one could throw a narrative’s rules away on the slightest pretext. (Fortunately, most of Morrison’s actual comics don’t do this.) However, it’s a mistake for a reader to pay attention only to rules—to what I’ve called the “discursive” mode (a word Attebury uses for a different purpose above). What Suzanne Langer calls “presentational symbolism” is the chief means by which we experience “beauty and strangeness,” not through the rules about whether or not magic is possible in this or that world.

Attebury’s study might have benefited from some deductive emphasis like that of Suzanne Langer, for Attebury’s over-stressing of fantasyworld-rules causes him to devalue Peter Beagle’s masterful THE LAST UNICORN. Attebury, somewhat following in the footsteps of some of Ursula LeGuin’s polemic, carps at UNICORN—by my lights one of the hallmarks of “beauty and strangeness” in all American fantasy—because he says Beagle indulges in “anachronisms at the expense of the story” (p. 159). Yet one page before claiming that Beagle does not gather his fantastic phantasms “into a satisfying whole,” he comments favorably upon SF-fantasist Andre Nortion. He admits that she is not a great writer, with which I concur, but says, following the Forster dictum, that “her lack of irony and displacement often pays for itself in commitment to the story being told.” I’ve enjoyed assorted Norton books, and I can agree generally with Attebury that there’s a critical mindset that too often validates irony over all other elements of storytelling. Yet all the Norton books I’ve enjoyed don’t hold a candle to Beagle’s UNICORN, where it’s clear to me that irony is only one voice within many.

On a side-note, I enjoyed re-encountering the aforesaid Forster notion of “paying something extra.” Twice in recent essays—-both in response to online essays by one online critic in particular-—I’ve been surprised to see comics-fans speak as if their lack of response to visceral stimulations in the comics-medium—in one case to scenes of horror, in the other, to scenarios of violence-- had something to do with the limitations/execution of the medium. Relating to such visceral stimulations has never been a problem for me, and so I wonder if those who find it a problem have worked themselves out of the ability to “pay something extra” in terms of total investment in a given type of narrative. Food for future essays, perhaps.

CHIEF CONCERNS






















Back in October, Scipio of THE ABSORBASCON wrote an impassioned salute to the character Niles Caulder (aka "The Chief") of the 1960s DOOM PATROL comic by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani, here. As a longtime fan of the DOOM PATROL title of that period, I agreed with almost everything Scipio said about Caudler, except for his contempt from Grant Morrison's rewriting of the original character. In the comments-thread I said:

I'll play Odd Man Out here and say that the Grimmy Grittification of Niles Caulder is very nearly the only such major rewriting that I *DON'T* consider worthless, and that's because Morrison had a Thematic Point To Make in trashing the old Caulder. Fans can try if they like to find Theme in the trashing of Doctor Light or Captain Atom or whoever, but all they shall find is dross.

That doesn't mean that I don't consider Drake's Niles Caulder a superior creation, though.

I like to think that when Morrison travestied Caulder he was then still under the spell of Evil Alan Moore, and that Moore's really the one to blame. But that's me.


By this time, I'm sure Scipio has forgotten that he challenged me to elaborate:

What "thematic point" did Morrison have to make by trashing Caulder? And... was it worth it?


Nevertheless, the following meditation on "continuity" is my belated answer to that question.

*****

In a sense, real “continuity” would be very like death, because it would be a state in which everyone came to resemble everyone else. George Bataille’s EROTISM emphasizes that the nature of living beings—at least those that propagate by sexual reproduction is “discontinuity,” in the sense of the organisms being non-identical with one another, cobbled together from the discontinuities of each organism’s parental units.

In comic books the usual connotation of “continuity” applies to the illusion of seamlessness between the many adventures in an open-ended serial, which, if it lasts long enough, may be worked on by many raconteurs. It’s inevitable that none of these raconteurs will have the same set of interests or priorities, no matter how much one of them may strive to write like a model.

To be sure, even though serial seamlessness is an illusion, it’s a valid part of the way we expect our serials to unfold. A raconteur is expected not to radically change the nature of the game he’s hired to play--unless, of course, he’s hired to write new rules.

Example time: One of my favorite superhero serials of the 1960s was THE DOOM PATROL. Though writer Bob Haney created the characters with artist Bruno Premiani, Haney quickly yielded the title to colleague-writer Arnold Drake, who wrote the remainder of the stories until the feature’s cancellation in 1969.

Within the continuity of Drake’s stories, the best character may have been Niles Caulder, the “Chief” of the Patrol. Drake made the crippled genius a man of immense feeling and humanity, who brought together three “freaks” to become superhero icons, and in so doing, fostered a kind of ersatz family. Drake leavened Caulder’s saintliness with occasional moments of hauteur or bad temper, but on the whole he was a believably good man. By the rules of the DOOM PATROL game—which began again when the title was inevitably revived—every subsequent depiction of Caulder should’ve been the same.

But, as it happens, the best revival of the DOOM PATROL did exactly the opposite. Grant Morrison’s DP was his breakout-series with American comics-fandom, but one of the big changes he brought about was to present a “Chief” who was not only brittle and arrogant, but who turned out to be toward the end of Morrison’s run, a villain.
No logic-parsing could ever reconcile the selfless and self-deprecating Drake character with the coldly manipulative Morrison version, who admits in DP #57 that he actually engineered the catastrophes that cost his heroes their normal status.





As this Chief reveals his hidden history to Robotman, he rationalizes that “we need shocks in our lives… Catastrophe forces us to think in new ways.” Of course, a page earlier this Caulder admits to some baser motives in the case of Elasti-Girl: “Impotent in my wheelchair, I wanted to exert control over a beautiful woman.”


But though Morrison’s Caulder is a villain, Morrison clearly means us to take his rationale seriously, especially in respect to Morrison's own rewriting of old continuity. It’s a bit shocking to an old fan like me to see a favorite character like Caulder rewritten, but unlike many raconteurs who do so with no greater theme in mind, Morrison clearly has a point to make. He’s not just trying to keep the illusion of seamlessness—though he is faithful to some aspects of old “continuity”—but rather, he’s showing what does and must happen whenever a later talent attempts to follow in an earlier one’s footsteps.

To put it simply, Grant Morrison makes the inevitable discontinuity an overt part of the continuity, and makes a virtue of showing off the seams amid the apparent seamlessness.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

NO FEUD LIKE AN OLD FEUD, PART 3

I took a quick glance at the "Spurgeon blowjob" post, scrolled to the bottom, and saw that, true to form, Heidi McDonald had closed the thread for reasons beknownst only to Heidi.

TS managed to get in one last post before it closed, which I've not yet read. I suppose that it'll be more of the usual chickenshit mendacity, phrased in that clinical Spurgeonspeak that some fans take as evidence of intelligence.

I suppose I could read his parting blather and respond to it here, but I probably won't bother unless the stats for these posts should go up a bit. I don't expect that they'll ever go as high as they did for the essay MY NEW FAVORITE ADULT-X SPECIAL, but a few more pageviews would be hard evidence that someone out there would like to see Tom's ass cyberkicked a bit more.

Time will tell.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

NO FEUD LIKE AN OLD FEUD, PART 2

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.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

NO FEUD LIKE AN OLD FEUD, PART 1

I was trying to avoid putting Tom Spurgeon in my subject list, but now it seems there's no avoiding it.

I've never met Spurgeon. I had ceased submitting to the COMICS JOURNAL about 1990, which is about two-three years before he became the JOURNAL editor. I don't recall having argued with him, as I did with so many others, in the magazine's letters-pages or elsewhere. My first arguments with him were a couple of really long ones on the Board That Must Not Be Named. In the last year or two I'd argued with him a few more times on THE BEAT, but none of those contretemps were nearly as long. That's at least partly due to the fact that the comments-threads could be shut down at any point by the management, though Tom has at times evinced a tendency to make statements and then blow off any attempt to make him back them up. Tellingly, when he thinks others do this to him, he puts on that fine JOURNAL veneer of righteous contempt.

In this post I've already alluded to one of those BEAT-fights. Now there's been another, which from my POV came about because I tried to question TS more closely about some of the points he made. Anyone interested can read TS' comments on a Rich Johnson piece at the post called TURN THE PAGE. But I will reprint my initial comment on Spurgeon's rant:

What an odd Spurge-splurge.

I respect EC Comics as much as the next geezerfan, but why would anyone state, as if it were unalloyed fact, that they pushed far more boundaries than Vertigo did? A lot of EC stories kick ass: a lot of them are just good time-killers. I’m not sure any of the kickass stories pushed any more boundaries than did SANDMAN. One could argue that, but not without establishing some sort of terms.

And while we’re attacking “conventional” stories, let’s not forget that an awful lot of EC stories build on established conventions picked up from prose stories.

Is the denigrating image of the ponytailed fanboy now that widely accepted over that of the fat slob? I never got the memo to that effect.


Now, that's supercilious as hell, to be sure. But I think TS went a bit overboard here in his comment to me:

Gene, like I said last time, I just feel sorry for you at this point. I am so sorry that life turned out the way it did for you, and that you’re so unhappy that you read personal insults into broad caricature and feel the need to strike back in a way, albeit in a way that hasn’t hurt all that much since I was 14.


I shouldn't need to point out that Tom Spurgeon has not one half-baked idea about how life has "turned out" for me. I have to assume that this extreme lameosity is (a) a standard Journalista dodge, to avoid answering faulty points by pretending that one's critic is an envious cretin, and (b) Tom's attempt to disengage by being as offensive as possible, far beyond the level of the merely supercilious (which is OK when Journalistas do it, natch).

I also shouldn't need to point out (though I will) that Tom's weird accusation is of a piece with all those accusations levelled at him and other Journalistas by more conservative comics-mavens, to the effect that they "hate comics."

In Part 2 I'll look at some of the stuff Tom said in response to my EC/Vertigo points, in order to show (as usual) the superiority of pluralism to elitism.