SYNTAX: -- the way in which linguistic elements (such as words) are put together to form constituents (such as phrases or clauses)-- Merriam Webster online.
After not having read THE HURTING for a couple years since I tried to engage blogger Tim O'Neil on the subject of Stan Lee, I happened across his newest post, TRUE BELIEVERS, part of a longer series of essays that I've not read. The substance of BELIEVERS is O'Neil's sussing out of his particular attachment to Marvel Comics and its characters. It's a refreshing piece in that, even though the author expresses more than a little disenchantment with current comics, he doesn't put forth some Grothian notion that comic books were a juvenile phase he should have grown out of, or that his life was hugely improved once he sold his soul to art-comics, or some such. For the most part, O'Neil attempts not to draw any morals:
Do you know why we care? I go back and forth – I’m not sure why I feel the way I do. There’s no conclusion here. Don’t look for a revelation, unless it’s your own. Certainty is comforting. It’s familiar. I don’t want to speak unless I know exactly what I’m about to say, and I don’t want to express an opinion unless that opinion is completely solid. It’s a lot harder to say, “I don’t know.”I don’t know why comics hooked me. All I know is that they did. All I can do is try to tell you what I feel and think. Maybe you can provide your own answers.
I still found some grounds for disagreement, though, in the definition of one's attachment to a given mode of entertainment purely in terms of nostalgia, an attempt to re-connect with pleasurable aspects of one's upbringing:
There’s an old saying, credited to a man named Peter Graham, that the Golden Age of sci-fi is twelve. Knock a few years off and the same goes for comics: the comics you read as a kid will always be the best comics. Nothing will ever come close in your eyes to that first rush, from back before you knew enough about the making of the books to become cynical. Even if the comics you grew up with were awful (and they most likely were), they will always be the pure and uncut high for which you will hunger for the rest of your life.
This needs some modifications. First, I think it should be "the GOOD comics you read as a kid will always be the best comics." I can't speak for O'Neil, but my earliest memories of reading comics as a kid were informed by the sure and certain knowledge that some comics were memorable only because they were so bad. My memories are hazy of my earliest encounters with comic strips and kids' comic books, but I have a few recollections of displeasure. The earliest one I can conjure up had to do with my general disappointment that Gold Key's adaptation of the Warner Brothers cartoon characters not only failed to reproduce the hilarious anarchy of the animated shorts, but they also delivered far less entertainment than even middle-level funny-animals like WOODY WOODPECKER and TOM AND JERRY, much less the greatness of the Disney books.
Second, without endorsing Gary Groth's views on maturation, one does form different likes over the years. The child-reader who was grossed out by the DICK TRACY comic strip of the early 1960s became more tolerant of bloodshed by the 1970s, enough to appreciate at least mildly gory titles like Marvel's 1971 WEREWOLF BY NIGHT. So one's nostalgia isn't exactly the fixed point in time O'Neil describes. It's more of a continuum, formed by the fact that childhood becomes adolescence and one's priorities change, even if (arguably) one's basic tastes do not.
Third, I do have some problems with the idea that one only approaches entertainment in a spirit of weakness or disempowerment, though I don't rule those out entirely. O'Neil happily doesn't dwell on this too long:
I needed something. I needed something to hold onto when so much about the world didn’t make sense. I didn’t exclusively gravitate towards particular characters, although I obviously have my favorites just like everyone else. The characters themselves, I have always maintained, are relatively unimportant: what matters is the whole. What matters is that it hangs together into something resembling a cohesive aggregate entity, one story being told over decades by hundreds of people.
But because his focus is exclusively personal, I think O'Neil misses seeing a pattern applicable to fans of all forms of entertainment: the reader's desire for coherence, to suss out many different views or takes on life and to decide what applies to said reader. One doesn't need the medium of an interconnected universe for this.
The word "syntax" is usually applied only to the way that words are used to form sentences, but it applies no less to the ways in which the ideas behind the words cohere. This is something every person "needs" whether the world makes sense to them or not. People, whether they write stories or not, build up meaning through syntactical constructions, and an understanding of how this occurs becomes part of the Social Contract. I can't substantially disagree with Gary Groth if I don't understand how his conclusions proceed from his premises. So I think nostalgia for past pleasures, at least with respect to entertainment, stems from gaining a sense of empowerment as we master different levels of syntactical awareness.
In conclusion, O'Neil's essay again takes a shot or two at Stan Lee, but since I've already disagreed with his premises here, there's no need to repeat myself on this score. However, the reason I've continually referred to "modes of entertainment" is because I don't think anything O'Neil writes about comics applies only to comics:
Comics started off a shady business built to entice children into spending their money. They are still a shady business built to entice children into spending their money, but inflation and retail conditions meant their audience grew older without ever growing up. Just like me.There may be individual artists who will starve in garrets for their individual visions, or will keep their works to themselves without any intent of publishing them. But none of these eccentrics ever created an art-form. Theater, literature, music and the visual arts become regularized activities when individuals in a society realize that they can specialize in singing or play-acting, and from this stems the role of "the professional," who must be paid for his or her services, so that he can continue delivering his art to society instead of stopping to plant corn or whatever. And none of these forms would gain traction if they did not offer the audience a way to see life through as many viewpoints as possible-- all of which adds up to a "syntax of experience."