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Friday, July 31, 2009


"Destruction pure and simple has great prestige value."-- George Bataille, EROTISM, p. 205.

Dirk Deppey's use of the term "decadence" to describe the current state of affairs in comics is not without merit. I've disputed his notions that the superhero genre is inherently juvenile or that he has correctly analyzed the motives of those superhero fans who like "superhero decadence" stories. But the notion of decadence is not inconsistent with my own perception that comic-book superheroes have become transformed from Juvenile Pulp to Adult Pulp.

Still, one must be cautious about the use of the word "decadence." The late 19th-century period of European Romanticism was christened "the Decadent Movement," but in earlier years Romantic art was called "decadent art" by its detractors. Deppey's use of the term is also more oppositional than analytical. Because the word "decadence" carries a colloquial connotation of "sexual excess," Deppey is careful to say that he's not just decrying "sexual deviance" as such in superhero books but all or most adult material that is "more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans." I can certainly agree with him that in terms of execution that often such material is often "wedged" into this or that story in clumsy fashion, but I suspect I'd part company with him as to where it's been done well according to the potential of What Adult Pulp Can Do Well. To put it simply: even if I thought nothing else in mainstream comics had fulfilled that potential except THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS-- that everything else but TDKR was worthless according to "good pulp" aesthetics-- then I would still think the game was worth the candle.

However, there's one major problems with putting forth a simple dichotomy between juvenile superheroes then and decadent-but-not-really-adult superheroes now, and it lies in the fact that even the dominantly-juvenile superheroes of yesteryear were not above using shock tactics. Yesteryear's horrors might not have sustain any comparisons to THE SOPRANOS today, but long before horror comics took shape as a genre in the late 1940s, superheroes were doling a fair amount of gore and grue, for all that the dominant style favored "clean" over "dirty" violence. Mssrs. Wertham and Legman remain famous for their phobic antipathy to acts of violence that readers both then and now would find mild at best, and most of their ire was directed at the crime and horror genres. But had the two of them picked on comic books back during the early 40s' heyday of the superhero, they could've found things like:

AIR FIGHTERS #2-- evil Japanese torture good American soldiers, with particular attention to the former's (foiled) attempt to cause a rat to gnaw its way through a man's torso. One villain is dispatched in his own guillotine, though the effect isn't fully on-panel.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #6-- more evil Orientals (Chinese this time-- didn't they know they were supposed to be Allies with the Captain?) torment a victim with a metal band that tightens around his head.

CATMAN #7-- teenaged Kitten, teenaged ward of the main hero as well as his costumed sidekick, somehow conceives a strange fascination with a group of circus-leopards. WTF? It seems to have something to do with how a mamma leopard tried to raise Kitten as a baby, but didn't actually do so, though the same leopard was sort of a surrogate mother to Catman and-- never mind. Damn weird look on the girl's face, though.

I don't think a rational mind (i.e., not Wertham or Legman) would find very many of these moments of "juvenile decadence" in the entire corpus of Golden and Silver Age superhero comics. But they existed because there was a market for them, and the same thing goes for heroes with names suggestive of grotesquerie, like "the Hangman" and "the Blazing Skull." They existed because juveniles liked a certain amount of horror and violence, particularly when the point of the adventure-story was to kick horror's ass and send it back into the shadows. And while kids surely don't like to see "decadence" in quite the same register that adults do, both audiences are alike in having some desire to see rules broken and ordinary laws transgressed. Crude language probably made no appearances in juvenile supercomics except under cover of nonsense-- the famed %^!*&# and its relations-- and sexual allusions, while present, were similarly obscured. Thus through violence we see the common ground of transgression in both Juvenile and Adult Pulp.

I'll have more to say in another essay about how different *intensities* of violence affect pulp-narratives, but for now it's sufficient to say that Adult Pulp is that form of popular entertainment (in the United States, at least) that earns the right to be as gory as it likes, provided the audience supports it. This is not to say that no do-gooder ever campaigned against Mickey Spillane or similar pulp-purveyors, but the argument for censorship of adults never becomes as emotionally compelling as the basic "what about the children" screed. I noted in the previous essay that modern FX-films could be successful irrespective as to whether they offered "clean" thrills (STAR WARS) or "dirty" ones (ALIEN), so obviously in most American walks of life there remains some expectation, prissy types aside, that adults just by virtue of being adults earn certain rights to experience more fictionalized transgressive behavior than kids can be allowed to witness.

I suggest that at bottom superhero fans are no different than any other fans who patronize some extremely-transgressive version of a given genre, such as fans of "maverick cop" action-films or spaghetti westerns. Their "decadence," far from coming out of some missed opportunity of "moving on" in those fans' pedagogical progress, is just another game, albeit one focused on destruction, on making a travesty of one's own generic expectations.

Dozens of pundits have analyzed the social and economic reasons as to why comic books lost out on the juvenile mass market. Whatever reasons one favors, the upshot remains that comic books lost that audience at a time when most comics-features were still resolutely aimed at juveniles, even though the early Bronze Age marked the mainstream's first concerted attempt to shoot for a somewhat-older audience-- probably as a temporary measure to bolster flagging sales, as I'm sure the producers back then still saw kids as their bread-and-butter. I would think these facts would signify that one could not lay the entire blame for "losing the kids" upon overly-ponderous continuties and assorted crises, though those factors have often received the lion's share of the blame.

If one favors a more analytical view of "decadence," one might take to heart the concepts promulgated by Mario Praz in his classic ROMANTIC AGONY, a study of the intertwined artistic/literary myths of both the Romantic and Decadent periods in Europe. For Praz, Decadence was a natural consequence of the Romantics' investigations into what Praz calls "erotic sensibility" (which is probably the reason both groups got tagged as "decadent.") A lot of both Romantic and Decadent works are forgotten now, some deservedly so, but some remain fit members of the official literary canon, while a few might deserve membership in someone's unofficial "pulp canon."

Will "superhero decadence" lead to anything? At this point I'm not sure how much of it even joins my own pulp canon alongside TDKR, but I believe that at base all the crises and temporary slaughters are still just bloody games, just as much as were DC's talking purple gorillas back in the Silver Age.

In art and literature, Decadence led into Modernism.

Maybe with a little help from Grant Morrison, comics can pole-vault right over the depressing "M" and go straight to the more festive "P-M..."

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Sez Dirk Deppey, superheroes are "a genre created for children."

Obviously, anyone who's scanned my essays on this blog knows that I favor a "big-tent" approach to the analysis of the superhero idiom.

But let's put aside (after carefully listing them) all the counter-arguments I might make to Deppey's statement.

Put aside any observations about the later reception by adults of costumed heroes in other media, principally the two audiovisual media that most unite American culture in terms of cultural referents.

Put aside the question of previous iterations of the superhero idiom, be they medieval knights or pulp-magazine heroes.

Put aside the fact that long before SUPERMAN was published, "supermen" had appeared in print media aimed at adults, and that some of the supermen tales were reasonably sophisticated (Wylie's 1930 GLADIATOR, Stapledon's 1935 ODD JOHN).

Put aside even the observation that SUPERMAN was crafted as a comic strip by Siegel and Schuster, and so was directed (in their minds, at least) at a general audience of both kids and adults, even though the authors failed to sell their product to any comic-strip syndicates.

Let us take as given that all these qualifications have less importance that the historical fact that the costumed comic-book hero, as published in the US for several decades, was dominantly marketed to children. It was not, even during the heyday of Marvel Comics' popularity on college campuses, regarded as a regular source of entertainment for adults.

No one can dispute this aspect of the history of the superhero genre in the U.S.

But does that fact mean what Deppey wants it to mean?

Even subtracting all the qualifications to Deppey's pronouncement, it still has a tremendous logical flaw in that it presumes that the form of a genre predetermines its scope and function as a source of narrative possibilities. There may be some debate in the world of architecture as to whether or not "form follows function" as architect Louis Sullivan claimed it did. However, in the world of literature-- where written words or words in combination with pictures can conjure forth any form an author pleases to conjure-- there can be little doubt that the authorial function comes first, and designs the form to match it. An audience in a given era may project expectations onto a given form and decree that it must always be (say) a juvenile form. But that is far from proving that the expectations cannot be modified or overcome completely.

Since the issue Deppey presents is whether or not a genre "created" to be juvenile must always be juvenile, a parallel is suggested by the example of prose boys' books, most of which are written with young protagonists who usually do not age to manhood within the narrative (unlike, say, Dickens' DAVID COPPERFIELD). In his magisterial LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL, Leslie Fiedler observed that Twain's TOM SAWYER was essentially just another boys' book like many that had been produced in nineteeth-century America, notably Thomas Aldrich's STORY OF A BAD BOY. Based on my own recollections, I would agree that few adults could read SAWYER for any reason save for nostalgia or academic study, and I suspect that the same is true for most of the novels in this genre, both before and after SAWYER. The "boys' book" genre, then, could be easily characterized as intrinsically juvenile because the readership was dominantly juvenile.

Incredibly enough, however, less than ten years after SAWYER was published, the same author wrote another book with a juvenile protagonist, which book *some* would consider eminently readable for both adults and juveniles. At least among that number one would have to include Ernest Hemingway, who said of it:

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."

So, if one goes on the assumption that "all modern American literature" might be a cultural concern for adults more than children, then it should be logically demonstrable that the form of HUCKLEBERRY FINN-- a "boys' book"-- did not keep it from being of cultural concern to many if not all adults.

Thus, the form of FINN follows (authorial) function.

Now, I don't want to be mistaken as falling into the facile elitist equivalence of equating all adult concerns with those of "canonical literature." Adults, perhaps more than children, may be more enculturated to desire "instruction" as a means of coping with the world, but adults too have (to pursue the Horace/Dryden dichotomy) a fundamental desire for *pleasure,* including pleasure unalloyed with instruction, and the getting of that sort of narrative pleasure is no less an adult concern than knowing what's what in the world of "real" literature.

Thus, the development of HUCKLEBERRY FINN from a genre that was (and still broadly is) deemed juvenile is not important simply because HUCK is better canonical literature than TOM SAWYER or other boys' books. In terms of showing how an adult sensibility can transform a juvenile one, HUCKLEBERRY FINN is no better or worse than the grandaddy of all cowboy-western novels, Owen Wister's THE VIRGINIAN (1902).

Though I'm sure Wister's novel has been taught in no small number of college courses, it probably wouldn't meet many (if any) of the criteria of intellectual rigor usually laid down for canonical literature, as HUCK FINN does. Yet, simple though it is in some respects, it is not really a juvenile novel, even to the extent that HUCK still is. Before Wister, the subject matter of cowboy adventures was mostly known through dime novels which played to an audience much like that of later pulps and comic books: to juveniles and to (occasionally) adults whose tastes were considerably less than literary. But Wister's novel took that subject matter and raised it to a new level that might have been juvenile in tone but was adult in the concerns it addressed. This narrative level, in fact, is the one on which I believe most adults then and now tend to read, as opposed to consciously-literary fiction. Thomas J. Roberts calls such narratives "plain fiction," but I have a better name for them: Adult Pulp.

It should be obvious that Adult Pulp does not have to have been published in the pulp magazines, nor is it confined to any particular medium. Indeed, when I pointed out how a couple of generations' worth of adult audiences had validated the modern FX-film as potential adult entertainment, I would view most of these films-- whether good or bad, popular or unpopular-- as belonging within an Adult Pulp aesthetic. From THE VIRGINIAN to THE TERMINATOR, Adult Pulp is essentially simple in its thematic and dramatic aspects, but often possesses an archetypal power in its symbolism that cannot be easily dismissed, even though a lot of elitist critics have tried to do so. The majority of Adult Pulp is consumed and forgotten the same way most food is consumed and forgotten, but on occasion an outstanding Adult Pulp concept rings as deeply with its audience as any literary masterwork. From such works, however contradictory it may sound, a "canon" of Pulp is born.

Such a canon, however, is made up of works read by many diverse coteries who would never dream of reading in one another's subliterary bailiwicks. The readers of "romantic suspense" novels surely have their choice works, as do the readers of "paramilitary adventure," but I suspect never the twain shall meet. And the same holds true for the world of mainstream comic books, even though its readership numbers only the tens of thousands on its best day.

I stress the concept of Adult Pulp and its potential canons because it seems obvious to me that even though the American superhero comic began as children's entertainment, it has undergone fundamental changes-- both aesthetic and economic-- that have made it into a genre of Adult Pulp.

There is no turning back to an idealized time when kids were the mass audience. For the foreseeable future, kids will still like superheroes, but by and large they will pick up on them from film, television and video-game versions of the genre. A few will continue to seek out American comics despite all the economic hassles of doing so, and it may be that there won't be enough to keep the superhero genre viable in future generations.

If so, one may be able to critique the latter-day superhero comics for not being good enough at being Adult Pulp, which would, unlike Deppey's criticism, be a fair one. But if superheroes die out it will have nothing to do with their having failed to remain true to some notion of their inherently-juvenile nature.

As for why the superhero genre's conversion to Adult Pulp could be a good thing, I'll address that in the next essay, regarding the topic of "decadence" itself.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


In my last essay I called Dirk Deppey's "superhero decadence" blog-essay "laughable," so it behooves me to begin with the aspect I found most laughable-- one of three, as of this writing-- and then work my way down. Thus his concepts of the superhero genre as being "a genre created for children" and his use of the term "decadence" must give way for now to the funniest thing in the blogpost: Dirk Deppey's etiology of the modern superhero comics-fan.

"Readers of modern superhero comics seem to be chasing a cherished moment from childhood without quite understanding that they’re no longer the people capable of enjoying that moment with the same wide-eyed wonder; possessing a more adult outlook, they thus insist on reading modern variants of the superhero comics that they loved as teenagers, but with a point of view more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans wedged in there as well."

In playing armchair psychiatrist to a certain subset of superhero fandom-- apparently a dominant one, since "event crossover" titles do seem to keep selling for the Big Two companies-- Deppey isn't saying anything new. Such psychiatric mumbo-jumbo has been promulgated about popular culture since long before a comics-fandom as such even existed (in the 1950s, that is). I mentioned that such preachments always carry the subtext: "Don't buy what you like; buy what I like," which subtext is demonstrable every time such armchair analyses exclude the possibility that a given fan might move easily between the worlds of "mainstream" and "alternatives" (as comics-fans usually call them). The word "elitism" derives from a root meaning "choice," and so the elitist always implies that the smart audience will choose *only* the thing that elitists validate. In Deppey's post the excuse for non-validation-- again, far from being original with him-- is that of the maturation process. When one is an adult, one must put aside childish things, and read not books about costumed people hitting one another, but rather (for example) books about men who drag gigantic penises around with them but can't seem to get laid (my second and last Ivan Brunetti reference).

Deppey's rhetoric of evanescent childhood wonder and the necessity to put aside the search for it, to "move on," might possess some substance if he or like-minded elitists could demonstrate that comics-fans were in some way unique in this regard, as against other patrons of modern entertainment-media. But while one can always *claim* that there is some great chasm between the mere tens of thousands of adults who patronize comics-shops and the millions (in the US alone) who patronize similar product in current FX-movies (and have done so now for two or three generations since STAR WARS), *claiming* it does not make it accurate.

To a pluralist like me, the continued appeal of the original STAR WARS trilogy for drivers'-license-carrying *adults* is obvious proof that the human desire for wonder, childlike or otherwise, does not die out with puberty, however much maturation modifies the desire. And although the STAR WARS franchise may have successfully camoflagued any "decadent" proclivities it possessed (such as the potential for torture and incest), many other Hollywood FX-films, most of them the spawn of SW's 1977 success, cheerfully display their own "decadent" tastes in forms ranging from ALIEN to THE TERMINATOR to THE DARK KNIGHT.

I would not be at all surprised to hear elitists condemn Hollywood FX-films as being another species of "fandom wankery" (Deppey's recent term for BLACKEST NIGHT). Indeed, elitist aesthetics would demand such a position. But no matter how superficial the elitists might find such films, the economic success of the FX-films shows a paradigm change for the country, if not the world as a whole.

The cultural paradigm today, as I see it, goes:

Adults *should* be able to understand more sophisticated stuff than children can (or should), but adults don't have to "move on" from things they enjoyed as kids or teens.

And anyone who says they do is clearly harried with profound shame issues and a history of poor potty-training. (See, the devil too can play armchair psychiatrist.)

There are legitimate ways to talk about what effect the maturational process has upon the child's sense of wonder, without descending into a reductionist pedagogical paradigm.

I'll address a few of them in part four of this series, but next up is the second most amusing Deppey-assertion, regarding whether superheroes are intrinsically "for children" or not.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Early this year I encountered the term "superhero decadence" in an essay by comics writer-artist Bill Willingham, where he addressed his distaste for the "grim and gritty" trend in superhero comics. I didn't pay the discusssion a lot of attention and soon forgot it, not realizing that Willingham's term meant something a little different when it was apparently first articulated by Dirk Deppey in a 2007 JOURNALISTA blogpost.

Then Curt Purcell's post here on DC's current "big event" series, BLACKEST NIGHT and its sundry crossovers, provided me with a link to the Deppey post that proved more interesting to me than the one issue of BN that I had read (with an eye to the possibility of responding to Curt's posts somewhat).

I'll still try to weigh in a little bit on BLACKEST NIGHT, but the real darkness to be addressed in this and subsequent posts has got to be Deppey's notion of "superhero decadence."

My finding Deppey's 2007 post solves a problem for me that I've been thinking about for some time. Since not infrequently I decry the critical stance of "elitism" in contrast to my "pluralism," I feel the need of a good, concise example of elitist thought. In past commentaries I have, for instance, linked to things like Gary Groth's tendentious eulogy for Will Eisner, but whatever merits that piece might have, concision is not one of them.

But the core of Deppey's post is marvelously concise: though the post as a whole is concerned with answering another poster's concerns and then concludes by supporting his position with a whole one example of "superhero decadence," the core is here:

'In general, I agree with Carlson’s argument, but I would say that the current kerfuffle is little more than a reflection of a larger problem, which isn’t sexism so much as the continuing effort to wedge an adult sensibility into a genre created for children. I’ve taken to calling this phenomenon “superhero decadence,” and it occurs to me that I should define my terms a bit. By “decadence” I don’t mean sexual deviance, but rather “jaded but unwilling to move on, with one’s tastes growing more ornate and polluted in the process.” Readers of modern superhero comics seem to be chasing a cherished moment from childhood without quite understanding that they’re no longer the people capable of enjoying that moment with the same wide-eyed wonder; possessing a more adult outlook, they thus insist on reading modern variants of the superhero comics that they loved as teenagers, but with a point of view more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans wedged in there as well. The results read like an adult crime drama featuring all the excess sex, violence and a zombie-like attempt at the sophistication of an HBO television series but with a cast composed entirely of professional wrestlers. Would you watch Glengarry Glen Ross if it starred Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper? (Okay, I would too; that would be funny. But you get my point.)'

"Genre created for children"-- "ornate and polluted"(this from a guy associated with Fantagraphics, publishers of Daniel Clowes and Ivan Brunetti)-- "more appropriate to the Sopranos than Teen Titans"-- all of these statements are wonderfully evocative of the elitist tendency toward a blinkered (and of course ideological) view of history and literature. The base of Deppey's argument speaks to what I've called (in the "Dynamization" essay linked above) the "pedagogical paradigm," in which the critic assumes that there is a optimal time by which a reader's preoccupation with a given literary subject or genre MUST expire, or else it clearly implies some dire failure on the part of said reader.

In other words, it's the usual shell game of the High Culture Huckster: "This thing you the reader like is totally without worth: come buy what I or my confreres publish. Not only will no one ever again call you a Babyman, you will be fully initiated into the Cultus of Looking Down on Babymen (though the secret decoder ring is extra)."

Of course, the fact that I find Deppey's logic laughable shouldn't imply that I'm necessarily defending BLACKEST NIGHT specificially or mainstream comics-events in general, at least in their current manifestations.

For sure, more later.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


In his recent interview with Onion's A.V. Club, Grant Morrison said:

"I have to confess I’m not a huge comics fan in the wider sense of comics as an art form. Apart from the absurdist comics like Michael Kupperman’s Tales Designed To Thrizzle and Steve Aylett’s The Caterer, I just like superhero stuff. I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to the undergrounds or the indie scene."

This led Sean Collins to ask his readers to find Morrison a "gateway comic" that would hook him to the wonders of the artcomics scene.


Anyone remember this interview by Frank Miller in 1998?

Well, I don't have it in front of me, but I clearly remember that in the course of the interview, Miller said that he'd become very interested in the then-current alternatives scene.

And three years later, we got this from Miller:

Otherwise known as "This is Miller's brain after artcomics."

Any questions?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


In the last essay devoted to this topic I was looking for some terminology to substitute for the rather unspecific "primary and secondary concerns" employed by Frye, and suggested that one might find such terms through the help of Professor Jung and his fantastic four functions. But given a blog isn't the best place to examine Jung's mental phenomenology in depth, I'll content myself with linking to one of the sites that examines the subject in depth:

Here one can read loads of insights about the various ways in which Jung conceived his rather Kantian four functions: what he called the "irrational" functions (sensation, intuition) and the "rational" functions (thinking, feeling). For the purposes of this essay I'll confine myself to one quote of Jung's on the subject of the functions:

"I regard sensation as conscious, and intuition as unconscious, perception. For me sensation and intuition represent a pair of opposites, or two mutually compensating functions, like thinking and feeling. Thinking and feeling as independent functions are developed, both ontogenetically and phylogenetically, from sensation (and equally, of course from intuition as the necessary counterpart of sensation)."

I then relate this concept of "mutually compensating functions"-- specifically, those of sensation and intuition at this point, to what I wrote here:

'We surmise that at some point early man began to codify customs that he thought would better control or maintain the practice of pleasurable intercourse with the least amount of friction (of the fatal kind, that is). But before those "secondary concerns" could be codified, we should also surmise that the existential fact of sexuality would have taken on symbolic resonance as a thing apart from the sensational stimulations of intercourse. We don't know if early man made associative links like those of later cultures, where, say, "man" became poetically associated with the sun and "woman" with the moon. (Not that the aforementioned was at all universal even in later cultures.) But it seems to me likely that a certain symbolic resonance was born from the stimulations of those primary concerns, to say nothing of a whole lotta physical progeny.'

By now it should be obvious that I'm splitting up Frye's "primary concerns" into the pair of "irrational functions" asserted by Jung, with "sensation" being the concern of the body-- does this thing feel good or bad-- while "intuition" associates the sensory input with other mental constructs, such as idealized elements, astral bodies, etc.

By the same token Frye's "secondary concerns" are relatable to the two rational functions of thinking and feeling.

But is this any simpler to talk about than the Fryean schema? Probably not, so for the terminology needed I move to a Jungian theorist named J.L. Henderson. At this time I have not read THRESHOLDS OF INITIATION, the book from which the quote below originally derives, but the segment reproduced in Slotkin's REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE would seem to fill the bill, for me at least:

'...Henderson (developing a Jungian thesis) characterizes the basic psychological tension [of archetypal myths] as a conflict between "Moira" and "Themis"-- between the unconscious and the conscious, the dream or impulse and the rational idea, the inchoate desire and the knowledge of responsibility, the gratification-world presided over by the mother and the world of laws and reasons ruled by the father.'

Since Henderson's "Moira" incarnates the "unconscious" part of the human mind, it doesn't seem a stretch to see it as encompassing both of Jung's irrational funcitons: sensation and intuition, while Themis, which Slotkin explicitly sees as "rational," encompasses both thinking and feeling. Ergo, for me at least, "Moira" also = "primary concerns" and "Themis"= "secondary concerns."

A quick example of how this terminology might be used goes like this:

'When Gary Groth wrote that Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL work "was not about violence, it was just violent," he obviously had no appreciation for how qualitatively different Miller's dynamics of violence were from the commonplace kinetics seen in most superhero comics of the time (including most of the ones being drawn at that time by some of Miller's inspirations, like Ditko and Gil Kane). Given that Gary Groth was not stupid, or unversed in reading comics, one may speculate that the only way he would have seen Miller's work to be "about violence" would be if it appealed to the rational functions of **THEMIS,** perhaps after the examples of Kurtzman and his ilk. What Groth apparently could not appreciate was that the violence in Miller's DAREDEVIL was not just an appeal to sensation alone--which is how I interpret the words "just violent"-- but that there were also symbolic ramifications to the violence-- that is, to the other side of **MOIRA**-- which may have played a greater role in Miller's rise to popularity than simply the appeal to sensation.'

While I do believe what I just wrote about Gary Groth's critical blindspots, the more important aspect of this essay, for me, is attempting to deal with art in terms of both its irrational and rational functions, of both MOIRA and THEMIS. Hitherto most comics-critics wouldn't know a poetic association if it were crammed down their throats, as most of them are far more concerned with projecting the image of themselves as being the intellectual version of "king-of-the-mountain."

New terminology, of course, is not likely to change this state of affairs.


It couldn't hurt, either.

Monday, July 20, 2009


In the last essay I said that my answer to Sean Collins' maybe-rhetorical question, "Isn't torture what the bad guys do" came down to a firm "yes and no."

The "no" part applies to the way a particular type of torture-- that is, inquisitorial torture-- is used in a particular way in action-adventure stories. In stories where this type of torture is used as a minor narrative device that has all the drama and suspense of driving one's car over a road-bump, it's morally neutral. The formula "hero needs info so he roughs up a hood to get it" has no more symbolic significance than "hero needs to get somewhere fast so he steals a horse/car/spaceship to get there."

However, it's a different matter when the violence and/or sadism of the inquisitorial torture-scene is ratcheted up to have a distinct effect in itself, apart from simply moving the action of the narrative forward. I observed that comic books in the 1970s began to push harsher forms of violence in the hope of attracting new audiences, with the effect that even "vanilla" heroes like the Flash and Superman occasionally encountered some "rough trade." In American comics this tendency culminated, very near the close of that decade, when Frank Miller became the artist, and then the artist-writer, of DAREDEVIL. This, in turn, led Miller creating his DARK KNIGHT RETURNS mini-series, which showed Miller moving from Daredevil, Man Without Fear, to Batman, Man Without Pity. Sean Collins describes a representative scene of inquisitorial torture from DKR:

"I often think of the scene in The Dark Knight Returns where Batman throws a guy through a window, informs him that he's bleeding out, and the only way Batman will bring him to a hospital is if he coughs up info. Miller's writing is such that even though we're obviously supposed to see Batman as a hero, we are also to understand that he is a dangerous, disturbed man, and that this conduct is not particularly honorable--it's something his demons have driven him to do."

Collins makes one factual mistake here. Batman doesn't throw the "guy" (who in this case is a dangerous felon Batman turned over to the cops earlier) through the window. Bats shows up in the felon's apartment, and the felon is so piss-scared he trips over his own feet, smashes through a window, and cuts his arm on the glass. That point made, some moral interpretations might well find Batman culpable for the injury just on the grounds of home invasion, and of course, before the hood hurts himself, Batman strongly implies that he's willing to torture the guy for a long time if necessary.

In this scene and others like it in DKR, Miller is definitely amping up the pure sadism of the costumed crimefighter. Miller's Batman has wallowed in violence for so long that he does explicitly enjoy the pleasure of crushing and maiming his enemies, though he's a few steps short of being a pure Sadean sadist. Going by the literary examples of Sade, a Sadean lusts to hurt those who are blameless: their innocence is a magnet that draws forth the cruelty of the true sadist. That's why I noted in my earlier essays that the only comics-genre that could be fairly accused of this form of sadism would be that of the "true crime" comic, which put so much emphasis on maniacal criminals killing innocents at random, often for pure pleasure. By comparison, the violence of the superhero is "tit for tat:" a gang of hoods endanger innocent citizens by ripping off a bank, and their violence is the magnet that draws forth Batman's avenging cruelties.

I would say that in many of the works that followed the example of DKR, scenes of inquisitorial torture do indeed become, in Sean Collins' memorable phrase, "icky." To some extent the mroe hardcore version Batman is outside this "ick-factor," not merely because he's driven by his demons but because he exists in a modernized Gothic world where everyone is driven by demons. At its most extreme Batman's world resembles Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, where innocents are just those who haven't done anything wrong quite yet. But the heroes who don't inhabit a Gothic world, like the rest of the Justice Leaguers, don't get that narrative exculpation.

Many of the British comics-writers, of course, seem to think American fans are a bit "nancy-boyish" for even having such concerns. But that speaks to their general inability to work in any mode save the hyperviolent, albeit sometimes-- though not always-- leavening it by clever bits of snarky humor.

And that's why the answer to Collins' question has to be "yes and no."

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Over at the Sean T. Collins blog (whose sesquipedalian name I refuse to type out) he began an essay on superhero torture by saying:

"I suppose there's a degree to which we must give superheroes beating criminals for information a pass just by the nature of the genre, the same way we give their vigilantism a pass but probably wouldn't approve of anyone in real life kidnapping a criminal, pounding the shit out of them, and hanging them unconscious from a lamppost outside One Police Plaza. But I think that a good writer, on some level or other, owns up to the ickiness of this behavior."

And after referencing Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and some current JLA story I've not read, Collins ended:

"At any rate, isn't torture what bad guys do?"

My reply is appropriately Batmanesque: "Yes and no."

A more articulate reply will probably take more than one essay, so right now I'll confine myself to (a) defining what is meant by "torture" in this instance, and (b) defining how I see it functioning in a narrative context.

First, let's take torture. In an earlier essay I made a distinction between two forms of violence that I felt had been conflated by early comics-critics Gershon Legman and Frederic Wertham, thusly:

"...I have to anticipate how these two deceased intellectuals might have found fault with my assertion that the paradigm of the adventure-genre (hero fights villain with both having the ability to defend themselves) does not match the paradigm of classical sadism (victimizer tortures victim, who has no ability to defend him/herself)."

Though both men repeatedly attacked the comics-medium as a breeding-ground for sadism, most of their examples of comic-book violence were drawn from stories featuring violent combat, rather than tales focusing on some helpless victim being tormented, though *here's* an example of an exception, from THE THING #9 (1953):

However, by itself the picture doesn't tell readers why the hoods are tormenting the girl: whether they're doing it simply for the pleasure of cruelty (which would put the scene in Sade's territory) or (more likely) in order to gain information.

Since torture for cruelty's sake is performed for different reasons than torture for information's sake, it seems logical to specify that the kind of torture Sean Collins references is the latter type, which I'll term "inquisitional torture." To the best of my recollection, Legman and Wertham never referenced scenes of heroes wreaking torture on villains, as Collins does above, though probably they could have found such scenes without much effort if they'd looked.

Inquisitorial torture had certainly been around in fiction for a long time prior to the birth of Superman. It's likely it reached its most prevalent (and cliched) form in various offshoots of the crime genre, where it gave us such gems of dialogue as, "Let me beat it out of him, captain!" And though the superhero genre was a fairly distant offshoot from the dominantly realistic crime-genre, Superman's first printed adventure does end on a note of inquisitorial torture, as the Man of Tomorrow sweeps up a criminal conspirator and dangles him from a high building in order to force the malefactor to tell all.

It goes without saying that none of Superman's juvenile readers (and maybe not all his adult ones) would have worried about any consequences stemming from the hero's literally high-handed machinations. Certainly none of those readers thought Superman a "bad guy" for forcing info from a criminal, because narrative omniscience allowed both the hero and his readers to know absolutely that the man was a criminal and so deserved rough treatment. The same would probably hold true for any stories in which Batman or Captain America slapped or punched a crook around to make him disclose needed info. To my knowledge that's as far as most Golden or Silver Age heroes ever went, and usually the crooks gave in so quickly that the heroes weren't forced to indulge in prolonged clobberings, in contrast to your basic Fiendish Orientals, who implicitly enjoyed torturing for pure cruelty's sake.

So it seems demonstrable that this basic, "muss-'em-up" level of inquisitorial torture wasn't viewed as "bad" by the reading-audience. In fact, I'd say that it was approached in such a cavalier fashion that it was little more than a rote storytelling device, whose purpose had more to do with building narrative tension than wallowing in the violence as such. Though superheroes were always omniscient as far as discerning bad guys from honest citizens, said heroes weren't quite omniscient enough to know where all of the evildoers hung their hats, and so "unfriendly persuasion" was necessary.

Now I will admit that as I grew up in the 1960s, I don't believe I saw a lot of inquistional torture by heroes, even of the "muss-'em-up" variety, in the mainstream comics of my time. Thanks to the postwar anti-comics crusade in which Wertham participated, most 60s comics were fairly restrained, even formalized, in regard to how much violence they showed. I feel sure that there must have been instances of "roughing up," utilized as I said for the purpose of building narrative tension, but all I can think of is the schtick in SPIDER-MAN #10 where the hero terrifies a thug into talking through the clever use of a phony spider-monster. As newsstand comics-sales declined in the 1970s, however, the major companies would slowly start pushing a harder brand of violence in the hope of reaching older audiences.

Because I grew up in a time when scenes of inquisitorial torture were rare in the comics, it's possible that I have a predilection to see such scenes as having a purely narrative (and hence non-ideological) function. In other words, a scene with Captain America beating up the Red Skull to make him talk is not necessarily emblematic of the fascism in American culture. I can think of comparable scenes that *might* imply a real ideological stance as such, as when Mike Hammer hauls ass on Dirty Commies in KISS ME DEADLY, but not every such scene carries ideological weight. All cats may look grey when one dwells in the darkness of ideological thinking, but the light discloses quite a bit more variegation.

I'll also admit that scenes of inquisitorial torture never had much significance to me. Since they show one character managing to overcome the will of another, they certainly provide some sort of dynamizing thrill to the audience, whether used in superhero yarns or crime stories. But they certainly weren't as thrilling as the fight-scenes, where the hero could theoretically lose (and at least might have to get help from some ally to win out). Such inquisitions were far more of a foregone conclusion: the hero would slap the villain around a bit and the villain would give in. Such scenes were too drably functional to incite any great moral concern, which is more or less what Collins is talking about when he talks about the possibility of giving such scenes "a pass;" i.e., recognizing them as essentially escapist and so not responsive to the concerns of realism.

And yet, Collins *does* question whether or not some scenes of more extreme nature don't require that their authors 'fess up to "the ickiness of the behavior." Certainly one of his main examples, Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, is one of the pivotal works that made the scene of inquisitorial torture a focus rather than a simple narrative function, and so in my next essay I'll talk more about the moral ramifications of the superhero inquisition.

Monday, July 13, 2009


While working on part 4 of GATE OF THE GODS I decided to get a couple of addenda-items out of the way.

First, in AGON IN SIXTY SECONDS I wrote:

"As far as I can think, the "noncombative" mode doesn't apply to the adventure/romance mythos at all, given the strong emphasis of the mythos upon physical striving."

But on further consideration I did think of a type of adventure-story that could take place in a "noncombative mode:" namely, the so-called "Robinsonade," the subgenre of lost-on-a-desert-island stories that were spawned by the considerable influence of Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE. The basic idea of CRUSOE that's become known to all those who've not read it (including me) is that a shipwrecked protagonist stuck on a desert island has to fight for his survival. Because "physical striving" is at the heart of this sort of story, this means that it would fit into the matrix of the adventure-mythos. Now, some "Robinsonades" may indeed include some "man vs. man" conflict as well as "man vs. nature," even as the original Defoe work does, but this would be enough to move them into either a "combative" or "subcombative" mode. Perhaps the purest example of a Robinsonade known to modern audiences would be the 2000 T0m Hanks film CAST AWAY, since the Hanks character's only struggles are to maintain both physical and psychological equilibrium.

There also certain adventure-stories in which the main hero is passive and noncombative, such as Poe's NARRATIVE OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM, but the Poe work is at least subcombative, since the titular character depends on his more active ally Dirk Peters to do most of the hard work of fighting mutineers and such.

My second addenda speaks to this excerpt from GATE OF THE GODS PART 2:

'Though I haven't seen the specific films that CRWM defends on the basis of their not needing a "higher purpose" to be interesting, I've certainly sampled many, many works whose only aim was to excite the audience n what I've called a "kinetic" manner. Some of these works fail even at that aim and so are both lame and dull: PUNISHER WAR ZONE comes to mind as one that failed to impress, despite its considerable production budget. While not the worst work of its kind ever produced, it was still less interesting than a lot of drive-in junk that on occasion had nothing more than a daring, exploitative idea to run with.'

Having written this, I wanted to come up with an example of a good trash-film which had no higher aim than PUNISHER: WAR ZONE in being focused wholly on martial conflict, to the exclusion of characterization, theme or interesting symbolism.

My choice is 1997's MEAN GUNS, directed by noted trashmeister Albert Pyun. It's by no means a good film except in the sense of being "good of its type," but it does put forth a wide variety of kinetic battles in its rough hour-and-a-half running time, and so should please the lover of pure action far more than the more expensive-- and more tedious-- WAR ZONE. In fact, it's almost the action-film parallel to the old Vaudeville adage: If you don't like one of MEAN GUNS' many gun-battles, wait a minute and there'll be another one from which to choose.

Also, where WAR ZONE is just another by-the-numbers hero-vs. villain tale, MEAN GUNS at least has a striking if absurd premise for an action-film, in which one hundred assassins are turned loose in an under-construction prison to kill one another, with the last three people left standing will get a fabulous prize, in addition to basic survival.

MEAN GUNS' direction looks like Pyun was trying to channel John Woo, without the latter direction's more admirable stylistics (though Woo too has his shortcomings). But in a purely-kinetic work, being derivative isn't so much a knock as a given.

And thus endeth the addenda.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


"Delight is the chief if not the only end of poesy: instruction can be admitted but in the second place, for poetry only instructs as it delights."—John Dryden, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

It may not be evident, given the sometimes dry intellectual tone of this blog, but like Dryden (who was almost certainly building on the dichotomy of delight and instruction put forth by Horace in ARS POETICA), I too favor a poetics that puts delight before instruction.

The above should be abundantly clear from this essay, where I rejected any dominantly ideological theory of art. Ideological concepts are always spun off from what Northrop Frye terms "secondary concerns," which are no more than the assorted mental strategies humankind devises whereby they get or secure the "primary concerns," which are humankind's primary conduit to both sustenance and its concomitant pleasures. I suggested that the "primary concerns" come down to what some pagans termed the "four F's"-- flags (housing), flax (clothing), fodder and frig. To take "frig" as an example, any theory that primarily defines, say, a fictional work's exhibition of feminine charms as "exploitation of women's bodies" is simply a theory conceived to stroke its user in an intellectual rather than a sensuous manner.

In itself the "primary/secondary" dichotomy is sufficient to refute the errors of ideological criticism, but the terms aren't descriptive enough to be used for art itself; to understand how "delight" and "instruction" operate within the spectrum of artistic endeavor. So the terms require further elaboration and cross-comparison.

I stated here that I had encountered "interesting" works whose only real appeal was to sensationalism. I termed these works "drive-in junk," though I didn't give examples (possibly in a future essay). It should be noted that all of Frye's "primary concerns" are oriented upon the satisfaction of bodily needs, whose need is ineluctably communicated to the brain through physical sensations. As a general rule Frye seems, unlike the ideological critics, "rooted" in his consciousness of the fact of human physicality and how it bears on humankind's need to produce art as a non-biological ritual that to some degree orients humans the way biological rituals orient "lower" animals. (This is enlarged upon in the essay "Archetypes of Literature," parts of which I quoted here.)
Naturally, as a highbrow critic (however pluralist) Frye did not explore the possibility that simple "junk" could serve as sources of cultural ritual as much, or perhaps more, than the more elevated forms of art. And I won't explore that possibility right now, though it does indirectly figure into my search for a deeper application of the primary/secondary dichotomy.

"Primary concerns," then, begin with sensation. But is it a straight step from there to "secondary concerns," to an instrumental mode of consciousness that says, "Here's HOW to get and keep them?"

I don't believe so, and I don't think Frye's concept of ritual-- as expressed in the "Archetypes" essay-- is congruent with such a quick jump to an instrumental consciousness. Before humankind begins to think about ways to get and keep the things that convey pleasure, it had to see them as part of what Ernst Cassirer called the "symbolic universe" which human beings alone inhabit. Once again, let's take "frig" for example. We surmise that at some point early man began to codify customs that he thought would better control or maintain the practice of pleasurable intercourse with the least amount of friction (of the fatal kind, that is). But before those "secondary concerns" could be codified, we should also surmise that the existential fact of sexuality would have taken on symbolic resonance as a thing apart from the sensational stimulations of intercourse. We don't know if early man made associative links like those of later cultures, where, say, "man" became poetically associated with the sun and "woman" with the moon. (Not that the aforementioned was at all universal even in later cultures.) But it seems to me likely that a certain symbolic resonance was born from the stimulations of those primary concerns, to say nothing of a whole lotta physical progeny.

So, assuming that the other "primary concerns" give rise to the same sort of symbolic resonance, then we have a dichotomy within one half of the dichotomy. And, all things being equal, one might suppose that "secondary concerns" may not come down to just a broad instrumental consciousness; that it too will have a dual aspect--

Which is exactly what that little old Swiss psychologist Carl Jung found, whose concept of mental functions I'll explore more fully next time.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Repeating the Frye quote from part 2:

"The creative process is an end in itself, not to be judged by its power to illustrate something else, however true or good."

In one of those interesting cross-correspondences I sometimes encounter, the same week I read the Frye quote, I came across this fascinating post on the blog AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS.

Said post, by blogger CRWM, began in reaction to posts that are fully documented on this blogpost by Curt Purcell. Now as it happened, I've no dog in the specific fight that inspired CRWM's post, as I've not seen any of the films he references: INSIDE or the two HOSTEL films.
But I enjoyed CRWM's defense of the idea of meaning as being inherent in any narrative (which I *think* is implicit in his argument even though in the following quote he speaks only of the film medium:

"Every film, no matter what its final form, is the product of a creative process that inevitably leaves traces of interpretable clutter behind it. No matter how lame or great, no matter powerful or dull, there's always already something beyond the literal. Even if you could somehow remove all human agency from the creation of a film, the fact that you removed all human agency from the creation of the film introduces space for interpretation.You'll never make a perfectly flat film. To even try is to automatically fail."

Now, CWRM is also careful to emphasize that not all forms of meaning are equal by saying that some works can have such a low level of meaning that it's not incorrect to judge them to be "lame" or "dull." But CRWM's point is that it's a critical mistake to speak of any work as intrinsically "pointless."

In making these assertions, I think CRWM has broadly agreed with the above Frye quote, that one work is not automatically superior to another because the first seems to "illustrate something else, however true or good." This would apply just as much, I should think, to the appearance of a "higher purpose" in a horror film, even if that "higher purpose" may not illustrate anything particularly "true" or "good:"

'Again and again we get some sort riff on the idea that violence, even perhaps the most extreme violence, would be okay if it were somehow wedded to a higher purpose. Violence shouldn't be "the point" of violence, but should rather serve "weighty and serious in intent" or be, somehow, necessary.'

It's because I find meaning inherent in works that are not necessarily "wedded to a higher purpose" that I formulated my conceptions of Thematic Escapism, which I explored here and here. Though I haven't seen the specific films that CRWM defends on the basis of their not needing a "higher purpose" to be interesting, I've certainly sampled many, many works whose only aim was to excite the audience n what I've called a "kinetic" manner. Some of these works fail even at that aim and so are both lame and dull: PUNISHER WAR ZONE comes to mind as one that failed to impress, despite its considerable production budget. While not the worst work of its kind ever produced, it was still less interesting than a lot of drive-in junk that on occasion had nothing more than a daring, exploitative idea to run with. Frye in a less charitable moment would have called such works a "babble." But the word "babble" is an interesting one, for though it directly descends from a 13th century European word, it has a perhaps-coincidental resemblance to the words that gave rise to the city-name Babylon: "Bab-ilu," which despite sounding like a Desi Arnaz song connoted "the gate of the gods."

And how can that which seems to be without purpose or function be the gate of the gods?

More in part 3.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


"I will not Reason or Compare: my Business is to Create."-- William Blake

I was almost all Fryed out and ready to put away his FABLES OF IDENTITY when I happened to scan his essay, "Blake After Two Centuries" and decided to read it. This essay fortuitously gave me evidence to confirm my earlier opinion that Frye, though capable like many academics of evincing some degree of elitism, had pluralism at the heart of his theory.

The elitist remarks I mentioned elsewhere occured in his 1958 essay, "Nature and Homer:"

"All of us, even the most highbrow, spend much time in the sub-literary world; all of us derive many surreptitious pleasures from it; but this world is, from the point of view of actual literature, mainly a babbling chaos, waiting for the creative word to brood over it and bring it to literary life."

(nice visualization of Genesis imagery there)

And yet, roughly one year before this essay appeared Frye published the Blake essay, in which the aforecited "Reason & Compare" quote is followed by this observation:

"The creative process is an end in itself, not to be judged by its power to illustrate something else, however true or good."

So in the Blake essay, Frye is taking arms against a sea of critics who might prefer the sort of artistic works that I have labeled "thematically realistic," in that they are oriented on spelling out What Good Men Should Do and What the Real World is All About. Earlier in the same essay Frye also quotes another Blakism: "That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care." So in this essay, as well as others, Frye encapsulates the idea that Great Art must be something more than mere allegory, even if the work allegorizes some principle both "true and good."

And just one later Frye sees "subliterary" artworks are seen to be a "chaos" whose main relevance to literature is as a resource for art's transformative power. Frye is careful to state that such a POV is valid only from that of the true artist or the critic of art, but it's hard to parse out just what mysterious quintessence comes into existence to separate Great Art's use of ideas and/or formulas from the way the same ideas/formulas are used in the babbling chaos. I suspect, however, that on some level Frye valued Blake's intellectual powers as much as his poetic ones, and that much of that "mysterious quintessence" would have come down to the fact that Great Art does address "serious themes" about the real world where most popular art does not-- or if it does, does not do so in an intellectually-rigorous manner.

Of course, the main objection to Frye's elitist cant here is that "subliterary" art is not a chaos. If anything, most of its critics find popular art too structured, too ritualistically bound by the demands of its patrons. And of course even the patrons may eventually become bored with repeated permutations of ideas or formulas that they formerly enjoyed, and it's hard to tell whether those patrons have become bored with the ideas themselves or their reiteration. (Of course, it's arguable that the same patterns develop in the world of "highbrow" culture, where artists do repeat themselves whether they intend to or not, and patrons will grow bored with even too much novelty.)

Still, even popular works that originate as imitations of something else, as much as literary works that take fire from subliterary "waters," may have complexities that neither their original makers nor the original set of patrons may have appreciated.

In previous essays I've noted some of the reasons why I think my approach to symbolism-- indebted in large part to both Frye and Campbell-- throws light on the common ground between the literary and "subliterary" works. And just as I thought Campbell was perhaps a bit too imprecise regarding the dividing line between art and myth, so that I opined that Frye might serve to present a little more rigor in that department, Frye's dividing line between literary and subliterary is a bit too rigid and could benefit from some Campbellian input to show how even works that might be deemed "thematically escapist" possess their own orderly structure and communicate their own sort of messages, even if said messages *might* be fundamentally simpler. A good synoptic critic (which Frye was, even if he simply didn't have that much interest in popular fiction) would be one who can appreciate all meaning in both its simple and complex forms.

Interestingly, I also read Frye's essay in FABLES on Emily Dickinson,and found this quotation from her works more than a little relevant:

"To be alive-- is Power--

"Existence-- in itself--

"Without a further function--"

Is there meaning even in fictions that abrogate all claim to functionality, to relevance to realistic concerns? Stay tuned.