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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...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

TAKING EXCEPTION TO EXCEPTIONALISM

"Exceptionalism," as defined by Merriam-Webster online, means:

"the condition of being different from the norm ; also : a theory expounding the exceptionalism especially of a nation or region"

Now compare this to Tucker Stone's comment from the BEAT's blogpost "A New Generation Comes of Age:"

"I’m a fan of great comics. If it’s not great comics–then I hope it burns in hell with all of its friends. I don’t give a shit if it’s got Superman in it or if it’s about a lonely obstetrician’s attempt to get over the grief of losing his son. Bad is bad, middling is bad, average is bad, merely okay is bad. There’s great, and then there’s everything else.”

I would define Stone's attitude-- like that of Ursula LeGuin, mentioned elsewhere hereabouts-- as one of "exceptionalism," of viewing what he considers to be great to be so unique as to have virtually no contact with the neighboring "countries;" i.e., works that are "average" or "okay."

Putting aside the demonstrable fact that there's no consensus regarding what works are great, either in the comics world or in any other cosmos, it's nonsense to view "great works" as being somehow beyond the pale of all lesser works.

Put simply, an aesthetic viewpoint that cannot define the qualities inherent in that which is average in a good way and that which is average in a bad way is a worthless aesthetic which, being unable to address the good, cannot address the great either, save in empty rhetoric.

I once tried to make this distinction between these differing levels of "good vs. great" on a Comicon.com message board, comparing the work of two Marvel works: the Lee/Ditko SPIDER-MAN and the Archie Goodwin IRON MAN feature of the late 60s-early 70s. I said the following to my opponent:

'I don't think that something like Goodwin's IRON MAN (GIM for short) is simply "the best it could be given the target audience." GIM's level of goodness would be appropriate to what it was trying to do-- i.e., reasonably-coherent formula adventure-tales-- and that it can't be profitably judged by comparing it to Chris Ware. You might get some profit out of comparing it to the Lee-Ditko-Romita SPIDEY, but even so, a careful analysis would show that GIM shares many of the positive storytelling attributes of SPIDEY. Therefore, rather than indulging in the usual Sturgeonesque b.s., you'd have to show what it was that SPIDEY had going for it that GIM did not, since it wouldn't be enough to say, "Everything not on Level X is just shit," again a la [Theodore] Sturgeon.'

In a later post, I argued that writer Bill Mantlo, who also wrote the IRON MAN title in a later era, would probably be an example of a writer who was "average in a bad way." But the fact that it is possible for an average work to err on the side of badness no more takes away from the positive value of a Goodwin IRON MAN than a flawed Shakespeare play takes away from the positive value of a really great work by the Bard.

I'll be addressing the oversimplications of the fetishization of the "Great Work" later this week.

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