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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...

Saturday, September 5, 2015

REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE, PT. 1

For once I'm going to link to a UTILITARIAN post without dumping on its author. I'll still disagree with him, but this time I can see the difficulty of his position.

For some time a writer named Robert Stanley Martin has providing HU with an abbreviated look at the chronological publication of key North American comic books. He focuses only on what he calls "the aesthetic cream of the crop," an elitist position with which I disagree, as did a poster who replied:

Apparently, the “history of North American comic-book publishing” includes almost nothing other than Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Plastic Man books, with a bit of Disney thrown in. Seriously??? -

Martin defends his concentration on the cream of the crop, stating that he doesn't plan to include anything from, say, the Batman title except things like "the first appearances of Batman and Robin" and "the debuts of the better known villains."  By so doing, it goes without saying that Martin is deferring to the community of comics-critics who tend to marginalize Batman in favor of, say, Plastic Man. I might advance the counter-argument that even though Cole's Plastic Man may boast superior design-work than the best of the Batman artists, the former is not necessarily better written than the latter. Indeed, many of the Cole issues Martin cites are bland tales from the standpoint of the writing, and would never have earned their place amid the "aesthetic cream" if they had been drawn by a less heralded artist-- even if it was by one who was arguably Cole's equal in formal talent, like Paul Gustavson or Lou Fine.

Still, though I disagree with Martin's emphasis on artists who have been validated above their peers for dubious reasons, one of his points is unassailable. Neither he nor anyone else could or should try to include everything. If I attempted such a list, I'm sure that on first consideration I would default to the fannish tendency seen in comic book price guides: to focus on events in DC or Timely Comics that affected the later avatars of those companies-- the first battle between the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch, or the first appearance of the Injustice Gang of the World in the JUSTICE SOCIETY feature. Yet on second consideration, I think I'd realize that these events shouldn't be any more important than events that influenced comics whose publishers did not survive into the Silver Age.

Companies like Hillman, whose big seller was AIRBOY, seen here encountering the ghoulish villain Misery...


Or Lev-Gleason, which gave us the memorable multi-issue crossover of the villainous Claw and the original Daredevil-- part of which was drawn by Jack Cole.



As a pluralist I would maintain that these are as good examples of their genre as Plastic Man is, so I wouldn't concur with the elitist POV that puts them beyond consideration. (The reasons for that superficial opinion I'll detail elsewhere.) However, these examples raise another point: are only the "big events" worth considering in a pluralist "best of" list? Further, to extrapolate from a point Martin makes: are the first appearances of Batman's iconic villains their best "aesthetic" moments? Is the first Joker story the one every comics-fan ought to read? Will it tell the non-hardcore reader everything he wants to know about the Joker? Or would the reader be better off reading a less Gothic but arguably more "aesthetically pleasing' story like "The Joker's Millions" from DETECTIVE COMICS #180 (1952)?




Yet even with the most pluralist will in the world, something has to be left out, and one has to form some criteria for disinclusion. As a reader I feel less fondness for Carl Burgos' seminal "Human Torch" character than for his earlier, much goofier hero "the Iron Skull," shown below (with art by Sam Gilman) bouncing bullets off his indestructible noggin--




--yet I know that if push came to shove, my Golden-Age list would have to include some notation on Burgos' Human Torch, even if I thought it was a great concept that Burgos totally muffed. Old Iron Skull would have to be left behind in the annals of obscurity, because the Torch had one thing going for him that the Skull did not: a superior design, albeit by a less than superior artist.





I can't speak to Martin's aesthetic priorities, but I'll take a wild guess: like many critics influenced by the COMICS JOURNAL-- an influence he cites in another of his posts-- his choices are informed by a vision of comics becoming something other than what they were in the Golden Age. Cole's "Plastic Man" feature didn't really escape the genre-boundaries of the superhero, but a lot of critics, not least Art Spiegelman, pleased themselves to think that it did. That gave Cole's stretchy dogooder a luster that lifted it above the majority of Golden Age work-- not to mention the majority of Jack Cole's other comics work.

But, then, the question arises: how does one form standards for formula-work that was meant to be standard-less? I'm certainly not speaking only of the superhero genre, for which comics became famous, but all of the genres that were meant to be read quickly and tossed away. Is there anything in the first twenty years of ARCHIE that merits celebration, and if so, what makes those ARCHIE stories better than other comics in that genre, like Harry Lucey's GINGER and Morris Weiss' MARGIE?

My "mythcomics" feature was instituted to explore one of the four "potentialities" around which creators organize their narratives, and through which audiences experience them. This is an entirely feasible approach to assigning merit to formulaic material that sought to meet "aesthetic standards" only insofar as they promoted good sales, and thereby put money in the creators' pockets. However, though I consider myth-analysis to be a heuristic device to that of aesthetic criticism-- whose failings I pointed out here-- I must admit that the myth-criticism methodology must be firmly grounded in a sound understanding of the way popular art works-- which I'll cover in Part 2.




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