In OPPOSING GHOSTS I cited one particular PLASTIC MAN story as an exemplar of what I considered to be artist Jack Cole's raison d'etre. I did so because the late Harvey Pekar's COMICS JOURNAL essay "The Potential of Comics" misrepresented Cole's ouevre by claiming that it was only worthy of notice because it "satirized the costumed-hero idiom."
To those words Pekar added a qualifying phrase, "to some extent." That was a wise move, because if questioned over the matter he could have claimed that only some PLASTIC MAN stories had the satirical elements he deemed laudable. There may indeed be isolated PM stories that would qualify as satire: indeed, in this essay I myself analyzed a particular PM story to show how it elaborated psychological anxieties into a wild fever-dream of clashing identities. This story was not satirical or even particularly funny, but I'll admit that it showed an approach not typical of most superhero stories of that period. All that admitted, I would still say that whatever "satirical" elements Pekar might have discerned in PM are well outnumbered by those that abide by many of the standards of the genre.
In any case, being that I'm a pluralist, I must object to the critical implication that a superhero story is only praiseworthy when it's on the side of elitism's "angels"-- that is, tipping its hat respectfully to highbrow tropes or attitudes-- and that if it doesn't have these, it deserves to be consigned to the outer darkness of the "demons."
By way of further examining the case of the elitists, I'll look at another of Pekar's examples, one with a bit better grounding than his assessment of Jack Cole. Of Frank King's GASOLINE ALLEY comic strip, Pekar praises his synthesis of "contemporary fine art and cartooning techniques." And here Pekar is on stronger ground, for there were a handful of GASOLINE ALLEY strips where King is unquestionably emulating fine art, as in this 1931 Sunday page:
However, as far as his essay is concerned-- whose main rhetorical purpose is to prove that comics can fulfill Pekar's personal vision of creativity-- there's no relevance to the fact that GASOLINE ALLEY's long career is indebted not to a few experiments with fine-art techniques, but to King's mastery of the comparatively lowbrow "family comedy" genre, as seen in this 1933 page.
Possibly Harvey Pekar enjoyed these antics as much as other readers, but one can't tell from his essay. Throughout this essay Pekar finds nothing to praise in any comics that is not some borrowing from or imitation of highbrow art or literature. I'm still amazed that he twitted comic book writers for not being well-read in authors like Proust, given that I find it hard to imagine most of Pekar's favored comic-strip authors sitting around flipping through Flaubert. We don't know why Frank King chose to play around with fine-art techniques for a few Sunday strips. We do know that it doesn't seem to have been more than a short-lived flirtation, since he didn't continue doing so throughout his association with the strip. The sitcom-like antics of the intertwined "Gasoline Alley" families seem to have been the thing that earned King his daily bread, but this was apparently too ordinary, too lowbrow, for Pekar to deem it of any importance in his lofty screed on comic-book potential.
This would seem to be anomalous given that Pekar himself wrote about commonplace events in his own life and in the lives of people he interviewed-- though not that all such events were commonplace, as with Pekar's appearances on the David Letterman show. But throughout the "Potential" essay Pekar privileges the element of "realism" in comics, and it may be that he regarded "sitcom-antics" as fundamentally "unreal," as formulaic. One could argue that Walt Wallet and Skeezix experiencing a hallucinatory phastasmagoria isn't "realistic" either, but perhaps Pekar gave Frank King a pass on anything that purported to evoke highbrow artwork.
In Part 2 I'll examine the demonization of the popular arts in more general terms, and the reasons why the elitists' vision of a heaven of artistic angels is just hell under another name.
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