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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Friday, February 8, 2013

ELICITING ELITISM

Ng Suat Tong (henceforth NST) said:

'A few decades later, the EC line occupies no less than 4 spaces in The Comics Journal’s Top 100 comics of the century list, a ranking exercise which should put paid to any claims that this magazine has an elitist stance. The question for today’s readers is why a line consisting of “the best pulp fiction” and sometimes “a good deal better” is still considered among the best comics ever made.'


Since I've repeatedly called the Journal elitist and still do, I'll challenge NST on his terminology.

The only thing demonstrated by the presence of EC Comics on the Journal canon-list is that their brand of elitism is not the same as that of NST.

Once again, elitism, whose root-word means "to choose," is defined by one online dictionary as:

1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.

2.
a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.
 

In literary criticism this "perceived superiority" manifests as a subject's devotion to a unitary set of standards, as opposed to a multivalent set of standards, which is the hallmark of pluralism.  The elitist measures all things by one ruler. However, instead of choosing to measure objects in terms of the side of the ruler with "feet," or or the side with "meters," the elitist lit-critic dominantly measures in terms of either "form" (Aristotle's "katholou") or "content" ("hupothenta.")
 
NST's quote above demonstrates that here he is a "form elitist."
 
The "form elitist" is concerned with whether all works meet the criterion of being excellent by virtue of their form.  Naive forms of narrative-- that is, narratives that simply tell an entertaining story, be they "pulp" or some related popular form-- cannot pass the gate at all.  Whether or not NST practices "form elitism" in every one of his essays I neither know nor care.  But in the quote above he makes it clear that the form he and others call "pulp fiction" cannot under any circumstances pass through the restricted gates that should keep out everything but NST's choice of "the best comics ever made."
 
Here's NST again, showing that the very qualities that many critics find engaging in EC war comics are the pulp-born qualities whose basic form excludes them from the vale of serious literature:
 

Once we recognize this, we must begin to wonder why some of the most esteemed critics in the field so often choose to place these comics over any other series of adult war comics. Do we find Joe Sacco’s truthful and engaging writings concerning Palestine and Yugoslavia hampered by his lack of exciting narrative technique and close-ups? Do our healthy appetites for dramatic, swanky portrayals of death betray our immature desires? This is the corrupting influence of the EC War line: artfulness and dexterity in place of truth; voyeurism without horror; content in the service of style instead of the reverse.

 
 
In contrast we have Gary Groth's essay defending the EC books from a dissenting review by Chris Mautner.  I have considered Groth's essay more fully here, but here I only intend to show that Groth's essay is also a demonstration of the opposite type of elitism, "content elitism."
 
Once more, here is Groth's working definition of literary values:
 

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.

 
Groth references a marriage of "form and content," but in comparison with NST's exclusionism, Groth is willing to cede some ground to the kinetic effects of the art elevating the content of the stories, whose style he deems less outstanding. 
 
The stories occasionally rose to the level of a decent noir movie — never at the level of, say, Night and the City, but closer to a programmer or B-movie such as Somewhere in the Night; Bill Mason likened one of Wood’s short stories in Came The Dawn And Other Stories to Storm Warning, a 1951 “preachy” starring Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers (and an almost unrecognizable Doris Day), which I thought was on target. Many of EC’s suspense stories were roughly coterminous with an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or one of TV’s 1950s dramatic anthologies like Four Star Playhouse (aired the same time as EC was publishing) — not literary by any means, but not too shabby, either.
 
I take it from this section that Groth allows for some merit in the content of a "preachy" like STORM WARNING.  Since the film is also not noteworthy in terms of forging a new artistic form, I conclude that what he finds substantial is the content, the subject matter.  Similarly, his defense of EC Comics hangs not on trumpeting its mastery of artistic form, but on placing it in a historical context with regard to the depiction of "straight drama"-- or, in some cases, "melodrama."

"Content elitism" is certainly a little more palatable than "form elitism," where a critic like NST can get by on standards even less rigorous than those Groth offers.  But in the end, both are more closely related than one finds in pluralist criticism, which can make its choices without privileging either form or content alone.
 

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