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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...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

THE DEAD-ALIVE HAND OF THE PAST PT. 3

In DEAD-ALIVE PT. 2 I came to this conclusion regarding Noah Berlatsky's championing of the Marston WONDER WOMAN over "pulp action heroes" like Superman and Batman:

I suspect what Noah likes is the "ideological" side of WONDER WOMAN, not the imaginative elements as such.
And in this June 2013 essay, Julian Darius makes his ideological priorities far clearer:

Marvels, Astro City, Supreme, JLA, Planetary, and The Authority — all of these were bright and unrealistic works that still demonstrated sometimes titanic literary merit, as well as asking meaningful questions. They were about something, rather than being the simple escapism that had generally preceded revisionism.

Toward the end of the essay Darius makes a minor qualification to his express view on "simple escapism:"

There’s nothing wrong with escapism per se. But there are times when escapism is part of the problem. When the gap between reality and our fictions is so great that it strains the conscience.

For the time being I'll pass over the obvious question as to who decides when "escapism is part of the problem," since I've already suggested my opinion of Darius' discriminatory powers here. My main concern with Darius' "Dark Realism" essay is that it advances quasi-literary terms that take in only fairly recent developments in the comics medium; terms that only make sense as a reaction against the so-called "escapism" of commercial comic books.  One, "revisionism," connotes the reaction against the status quo-- more or less what Darius calls "the State of Grace"-- in genre comics:


Revisionism opposed the concept of the State of Grace as something hostile to literary values and good stories. Revisionism embraced lasting change, whether it was replacing Flash, making Green Lantern a villain, marrying Superman, or letting characters like the Legion of Super-Heroes grow up.


This attitude, Darius claims, " effectively ended in the mid-1990s," and was replaced by a movement called "reconstructionism," a term which Darius credits to Kurt Busiek, at least in this particular context.  This term is a good deal fuzzier, but seems to be characterized by a "movement away from revisionism and its realism."

The obvious problem with such terms is that they are of limited application.  They can't be applied to anything that doesn't conform to the period when commerical comic books began to court a particular type of realism.

For instance, here's a key scene from AMAZING FANTASY #15.




Even before the reader knows that the main character is destined to become a superhero-- though he probably will suspect something of the kind-- the reader knows that this is a more "realistic" treatment of the situations faced by a nerd than one would have ever seen in the high-school adventures of Clark "Superboy" Kent.



So, if this and other Spider-Man stories of the period provide a comparatively "realistic" take on the contemporaneous expectations of the superhero genre, then by the bare bones of Darius's terminological definitions this should be a "revisionist" work.

On the other hand, there are certainly, even in this short tale, scenes that are meant to play to the contemporaneous notion of superhero comics as fun and escapist.  Surely the idea of a high-schooler being able to whip up spider-web weapons in the blink of an eye doesn't play to "realism." 

 



Therefore, if one agrees that the story is somewhat more than typical "escapism," yet it doesn't subject the fun-loving elements of the superhero tale to the relentless gaze of "revisionism," does that make it a "reconstructionist" work?

Some individuals don't like my tendency to take the wide view, as with, say, arguing that so-called "sexism" can only be seen as part of a spectrum of the forms of "sensationalism."  But Darius' narrow view is far more harmful, for like Berlatsky's screed it privileges as meaningful only those works that seem to make outright thematic statements; works that noisily proclaim that they are "about something."

This is a cardinal error in the modern criticism of genre fiction, and it strongly resembles the attempts of those artcomics fans I call the "bloody comic book elitists" to deem as literary anything, from George Herriman to Robert Crumb, that has even a vestigial claim to being "about something."  I suspect that even though the majority of the comics-reading public has evinced no more interest in "artcomics" than they did in the 1980s.  But many comics-critics of this period feel that they can only appreciate even the lowly superhero when he appears to address important sociopolitical issues. In the same essay, Darius shows the same preferences in justifying his liking for the film IRON MAN 3:


...because it didn’t completely betray all the issues it evoked, such as the problematic relationship between corporate weapons manufacturers and the state, the moment they got in the way of glitzy super-hero fight scenes. That’s become a very odd thing, in super-hero movies, which are as hostile to realism as their comic-book counterparts.

This strikes me as a form of "status-seeking" more than a desire to formulate accurate criticism, and I'll probably return to the topic in greater detail in a future essay.

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