Thursday, January 31, 2013

E.C.? P.C.!-- PART 4

If I got nothing else out of Gary Groth's EC essay over at the Journal site, at least I lived to read Groth pen these words:

I should mention here the obvious, which is that there is no consensus as to what exactly constitutes literary values.

 
In few if any of Groth's essays and reviews does he ever admit this lack of consensus.  Time and time again, regarding of what verdict Groth renders, he stresses the "argument from taste:" that persons of good taste are as a united front against the maundering hordes of the subliterate.  Certainly there's no doubt in his mind in the quote I cited here.  Art is art and the Punisher is junk and never the twain shall meet. 

The second most interesting thing about the Groth essay is that though it was written, at least in part, as a response to Christ Mautner's negative review, Groth does not address Mautner's assertion that some if not all of the EC works referenced were "melodramas."  Since I noted here that this is an important part of Mautner's review, this omission begs speculation.

Groth does mention the concept of melodrama in passing:


There was certainly drama of a sort in strips like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo, but it was the graphic element of the strips that propelled them into the first rank. There was melodrama in such strips as Rex Morgan, Mary Perkins, and Mark Trail (and probably others I don’t care to think about), but these were hokey, dull, tepid soap operas. There were adventure strips — Flash Gordon, Captain Easy, Prince Valiant, Terry and the Pirates — but these, too, were not first and foremost drama (with the possible exception of Valiant) so much as melodrama within adventure, sci-fi, or fantasy trappings where the latter were just as important as the former.

But EC attempted to do straight drama in comics form, undiluted by comedy or slapstick or adventure trappings. True, most of EC’s dramatic stories were bound within genres — crime and suspense and science fiction — but they played it as straight as they could within those — and their readership’s — limitations. The preachies were the most naturalistic, many unrelentingly grim and tough-minded, such as “…So Shall Ye Reap” and “In Gratitude.”
 
I won't get excessively picky about Groth's use of the term "melodrama" as an ingredient rather than a form, though I'll note that I would consider most soap-opera serials to be the purest incarnation of melodrama in the annals of genre-literature. I agree with Mautner that many of the EC stories reprinted are melodramas in terms of form-- while disagreeing with him that melodrama is something implicitly bad.  But I don't know whether or not Groth agrees that some of the EC stories are melodramas.  He does admit that they have flaws:



To bring us back to the original question of where EC resides in the history of comics: As I said, EC’s flaws are pretty obvious: Even when the artists were striving for greater seriousness than the ironic gore of the horror stories or the outrageous early sci-fi plots or even the clever but predictable crime and suspense stories, the writing was often overwrought, prolix, and ham-fisted, and the artists were straightjacketed by EC’s rigid visual grid (which Kurtzman and Craig avoided by writing their own stories, and Krigstein rebelled against time and time again).
 
 But flaws have nothing to do with the essence of melodrama; one can find flaws in any number of serious canonical authors.  To repeat what I wrote before:


Wikipedia defines melodrama as "a dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions." In my book that means that a melodrama is all about jazzing up the audience with hyper-emotional effects, not about making an appeal via the relative subtlety of so-called "serious drama."
 
I return to Groth's attempt to give EC Comics precedence as an innovator in terms of bringing the ethos (my word) of drama to the comic-book medium:


But EC attempted to do straight drama in comics form, undiluted by comedy or slapstick or adventure trappings.
 
The problem with this statement is that before one can sing hosannas to EC for its innovation, one must define on some terms what "drama" is in its "straight" form.  Preferably, too, since Groth so often dismisses earlier attempts at drama (or melodrama) because they have been "leavened" by other elements, a definition of "melodrama" would also be preferable in a paragraph like this (which precedes the long quote above):



Next, portraying drama in comics form had never been one of the form’s fortes. In fact, it had almost never been done successfully. The best newspaper strips over the first half of the century — Moon Mullins, Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, Barney Google, Popeye, the Gumps, Skippy, Mickey Mouse, et al. — always couched their drama in comedic terms (usually a mélange of slapstick, vaudeville, and gags) that also, miraculously, reflected a dimension of (usually) lower or middle-class life as most urban Americans experienced it. Slapstick + kitchen-sink drama. There were only three significant exceptions that I can think of — Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, and Gasoline Alley, two of which were couched in adventure terms, and all of which had humorous elements to leaven the drama or make it palatable to what the newspaper editors or artists thought was their audience.
 
If I were to attempt a sweeping defintion of both terms, I would probably pursue something in the vein of the "subtlety/exaggeration" dichotomy.  Nevertheless, I would not consider GASOLINE ALLEY less of a melodrama because it has humor in it, any more than I would consider SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES to be "straight" drama even if all of the stories were devoid of humor (which they are not).

It's certainly Mr. Groth's prerogative to formulate a definition with which I disagree, be it based on a "purity test" or whatever.  What I find onerous is that Groth does not define his terms at all, being content to take refuge in his overarching view of historical development.  To be sure, his essay is a decent comics-history lesson, even if it's informed by his desire to submit a reason why EC Comics are important to every comics-fan's library.  But if he's going to speak of strips that have "couched their drama in comedic terms," it seems logical for him to define what there is about drama that is not comedic, or what a "pure melodrama" would look like as opposed to his impure examples of MARY PERKINS or FLASH GORDON.

Only once does Groth offer, albeit briefly, a literary POV from a resepected critic that might allow for some leeway in artistic evaluation-- a leeway Groth only rarely admits in other essays:


As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that looking for literary values in comic books from their inception in the ’30s through at least the ’70s and ’80s is a pretty fruitless task. This leads us straight into the territory of Manny Farber’s elephant art vs. termite art, but, put succinctly, there are a lot of fascinatingly recondite or rarefied or compartmentalized aesthetic virtues to be found in commercial comic books, none of which should be dismissed out of hand, but in terms of fully realized literary works — or oeuvres — very few.  
I should mention here the obvious, which is that there is no consensus as to what exactly constitutes literary values. My dear friend, Don Phelps, who is on the side of termite art, has argued persuasively that strips like Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, and Popeye are examples of literary visual art.
 
But as he says, this is just an aside, after which Groth proceeds to take issue with Mautner's review and to cite the handful of EC works that for him "represent genuine artistic or literary achievement." 

Gary Groth admits that he doesn't intend to define art in this essay, which is entirely appropriate given his concerns:

What constitutes “literary” values won’t be disposed of in this paragraph, but maybe we can agree that form and content have to be successfully married to create something of human relevance, depth, and substance, or otherwise offer the play of pure aesthetic pleasure.

This is certainly an adept statement of Groth's own personal taste, but as a formal statement of principles, it's useless.  The statement does seem to be a very "drama-centric" definition in its first part, though the second part offers an "out" for works of canonical art (or would-be canonical art) that don't address issues of "relevance" or "substance" in what I've called a discursive mode.

Having found Groth's formulation flawed, the question becomes: can I do better?

Stay Tuned For the Absolute Best Definition of Art Ever.
 









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