Month: February 2004


Weekend Update

I’ve been thinking about Cerebus quite a bit lately…I’ve resolved to read the whole damned thing straight through, which will necessitate the purchase of the last 150 issues–in “phone book” form, I guess, and that’s unfortunate, because the trades, like the Marvel reprints, omit the letters pages, and I’d have to say that “Aardvark Comment” (in its’ own crazy way) plays just as pivotal a role in its’ series as the Silver Age Marvel lettercols did in theirs… None of this is gonna happen though, until after my assistantship money comes through, and that’s quite a ways off yet!!!

Anyway, I’ve been doing some Googling…

If you’re interested in the series, but don’t know it very well, or have been as out of touch with it as I’ve been, there’s a good overview here (it begins with the question: “when did this series get good?”.)

And here’s the closest Cerebus-related analogue of Neilalien (of course, no one really compares to Neil!)

Plus there’s always Cerebus

Oddly enough, it was my latest re-reading of The Dark Knight Returns that convinced me to just check my political/philosophical reservations at the door and deal with Cerebus on its’ own terms… Honestly, fifteen years ago, the idea that I wouldn’t be around for issue 300 would’ve made my mind swim! I’m particularly intrigued by the news that Sim has gotten so heavily into Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Biblical Exegesis… I know that a lot of folks have been put off by that stuff–but given the fact that I’ve spent years obsessing on Puritan sermons and romantic/modernist/post-modern literary theory, it sounds great to me! Of course, Sim is not going to convince me that there are any essential differences between the genders, or that liberalism with an “economic bill of rights” isn’t a good thing!

Okay, gotta go–I’m a little tied up with Archibald Lampman stuff right now, but tomorrow night I should be ready to start talking about “Superman’s Dark Knight of the Soul”…

Good night friends!


A Link and a Prayer

Just checking in to direct your gaze Blogfonte-ward, where Mitch H. has joined our Dark Knight/Heart of Darkness disccusion…

No time tonight for anything more than a quick note on nihilism in Conrad:

Mitch, I’ve never read Heart of Darkness as a “cautionary tale”… I think it’s one of the best accounts we have of a subjective encounter with the sublime. Personally, I find The Dark Knight Returns far less rewarding, because, in treating the sublime as an “abyss of nothingness” that the subject can dive into, if he/she so chooses (and Batman surely does), rather than an absolute barrier, that will either make or break the person who runs into it, Miller’s book offers nothing to a reader interested primarily in the relationship between self and Other (or self and world)…

DKR is almost entirely given over to a Nietzschean quest for solipsistic “mastery” (quite unneccesary, and, in my opinion, soul-destroying–because the soul cannot feel itself at all if it cannot feel the pull of another). I say “almost entirely” because I’m on the verge of coming up with a reading of this book that places Superman at its’ center–it may not come to much, but I think it’s the best point of entry for a person with my Kantian/ Kierkegaardian/ Edwardsean understanding of the sublime! I’m gonna sleep on it!

The weekend beckons!

Good night friends


Board Simple

Yep, I admit it, I caught the fever on the Comics Journal Messageboard. But can ya blame me? Take a look at what happened here… That’s no excuse though, is it? As Eli Bishop has noted: “You’re making an ass out of yourself [, Dave]- not that you’re the only one, but you’re putting an unusual amount of energy into it.” No question about that. He’s right. Anyway, as Wilford Brimley says in The Thing: “There’s nothin’ wrong with me–and if there was, I’m alright now…”

Now, on to better things!

1. Don’t miss Rose Curtin’s piece on Animal Man!

2. Babar, at Simply Comics has come up with a great way for people to keep track of what’s going on in the Blogosphere. Thanks man!

3. Okay–we ain’t done with the Dark Knight here–not by a long shot!–but I’ll admit I’m having a tough time with it (have I been avoiding Frank Miller by battling the likes of R. Fiore? Shades of Woody Allen in Annie Hall, using conspiracy theories to fend off Carol Kane? Sadly, there may be some truth in this…)

One interesting idea that’s come up (via yesterday’s commenter, Marc) is that Bruce Wayne himself (as distinct from “Batman”) is the Marlow/narrator, dealing with the sublime fact of his own madness… It’s a good theory, one which really plays up Miller’s book as a precursor of Palahniuk/Fincher’s Fight Club (another apocalyptic work that I have trouble with), with the Dark Knight as Tyler Durden…

Still, I don’t think I can go along with Marc on this one… I don’t see any evidence of a split personality here. I mean–Bruce/Bats is more notable for the absolute single-mindedness he displays from beginning to end: right down to the first-person “call-and-repsonse” of “this would be a good death…but not good enough”/”this will be a good life…good enough”.

A little while back, at Peiratikos, Steven and I kicked around the idea that, while Spider-Man’s origin/conversion precedes the trauma of of Uncle Ben’s murder, Batman’s power derives from trauma itself… After re-reading DKR, I’m not sure if I’m down with that proposition… Bruce’s childhood encounter with the bat appears to be the true source of his obsession–and, yes Marc, the creature definitely partakes of the sublime: “eyes gleaming, untouched by love or joy or sorrow”… but there’s a strange gap between this experience and the decision to become Batman. The kid sees the Bat, and he wants to be like it–be sublime–but, of course, as a subjective being, this constructed non-self is inaccessible to him… It’s as if the kid reaches a bizarre variation of the “mirror stage” in that cave–he thinks he’s the bat, but he also knows what his own terror-stricken face must look like…and this leaves him at an impasse!

Read this way, the book becomes the record of a sick man’s search for mirrors that reflect both his own (ersatz) sublimity and the fear it evokes, which brings him back, always, to that initial encounter with the true–the unreachable–sublime… that crazy Bat! By adding this piece of backstory to the Batman origin, Miller changes it completely! Bruce doesn’t become radicalized by the murder of his parents… he merely uses this event as a bridge across the abyss between his child-self in the cave and his Bat-self.

The key to all of this is the killer himself, who is both sublimely terrifying and (as Miller takes pains to emphasize) terrified–he’s the boy and the bat all rolled into one… and he is the source of Bruce’s epiphany!

Throughout this story, Batman needs the fear he inspires in others–when he doesn’t get it, he has to anesthetize himself with booze… He will always be that scared child–but when he’s facing down a criminal, delivering his best impression of the sublime, gauging the performance that he finds reflected in terror-stricken eyes, he can be the Bat too! It’s not schizophrenia–quite the reverse: it’s the weirdest sort of “integrity”–an overcompensatory fusion of diverse selves; an unnatural dropping of the anchor into the flux of identity…

more on this over the weekend, obviously!

Good night friends!


TCJ Rampage?
(being an attempt to come to grips with the hyperbolically inane, after the manner of Graeme McMillan)

So what did I hope to accomplish, when I launched this thread on the CJ messageboard?

Two things, I guess:

1. it was offered in support of Sean Collins’ call for a Comics Journal that actually takes itself as seriously as the thinking comics community wants to; and

2. I wanted to gauge the Journal’s readership’s openness to a more scholarly level of analysis in the magazine… after all, it’s not as if I’m the only one who thinks that plot summary and vague musing won’t cut it.

As far as I’m concerned, the proof of whether a work of art is worth talking about is in the pudding of criticism–assertions and “appreciation” are cute, but that’s not what I expect from “The Magazine of News And Criticism”…

Unfortunately, according to the vast majority of repondents (including a representative or two of the CJ itself), it seems that genre and/or publication history are the overwhelming standards for determining whether a text is worth discussing.


“Any critical act is, first & foremost, a subjective one. So while you, Dave, might read Silver Age super hero dramas with admiration, some might read them entirely as narratives of power, doing little more than enforcing hegemonic assumptions about the heroism & ‘humanity’ of, almost exclusively, white bourgeois America.”

This one’s not so bad, really–at least it’s an argument, although it is not supported by any discernible process of reasoning (or link to same)

“Reading superhero comics when you’re grown up is like reading Winnie-the-Pooh when you’re grown up; it’s a juvenile taste that you may still have the capacity to enjoy in adulthood, particularly if it’s particularly well done. Furthermore, because so many that turn their hands to it there’s all the more chance that there will be some whose work you’ll find interesting, if you’re not alienated or overly embarrassed by the subject matter.”

this one was actually lauded by many respondents as “fair-minded”! Again–just because R. Fiore read super-hero comics as a kid, and still gets a childish kick out of them, does not mean that there isn’t anything more to these texts than he is aware of… Previously, when I had asked the man to read what I’ve been writing on Animal Man & Watchmen–this is what I got in response:

“Goodkingwenceslaus look out,
Your comparisons are pretentious
Inappropriate contexts
Soon become tendentious . . “

(see, if you use any philosophical or narratological terms in reference to “children’s books”, you are being fatuous… it’s a nice, circular argument, and it has the added benefit of allowing Mr. Fiore to carry on with his lame “comix-chat” without engaging my ideas at all–good one!)

but nothing prepared me for this magnificent bit of foolishness:

“[super-hero stories take place within an] immensely, [BOLD]stupidly[/BOLD] complex narrative frame. I refuse to believe that any of the continuity “crises” that have afflicted the DC Universe should be examined seriously, except as attempts to boost sales or protect market share. I find myself agreeing with much of what Andrei Molotiu says on this subject. I especially like the house-of-cards analogy. In a way, it shows the difference between corporation-owned mythos and culturally shared myth (whatever myth is).”

refuse to believe is the key phrase here–“refuse to think” is the meaning I infer from the statement…

Let’s get one thing straight–a critic cannot concern him/herself with the manner in which a text is produced! I understand that corporations often treat their employees badly, and that they do evil things like think of the bottom line, instead of ars gratia artis! But come on! Once the text is out there, judge it on its’ merits…

Believe me, I have all the respect in the world for self-publishing auteurs like Dave Sim (aka: the reason I got into comics in the first place, in the mid-eighties)–and that reminds me, look for a critique of the whole 300 issue run of Cerebus in this space, sometime before the year is out!–but I maintain that some very interesting things have been done by creators who have “souled-out to corporations”, and I construct my arguments out of material present in the texts themselves… Anyone who wants to dispute my claims is welcome to do so–but they’d better support their cavilling with close-reading, or I’m going to write them off…

A question for those of you who are so dead-set against “corporate comics”–do you adopt the same stance with regard to fiction? Are you going to boycott/pooh-pooh anything published by Vintage? Are you going to buy my self-published book instead? I have no doubt that it is better than most of the novels out there on the market–but the quality of the work has nothing to do with the fact that I chose not to submit it to any “corporate” publishing houses… It could be “indie” and good–it could be “alternative” and bad. I can’t believe that I have to point this out to adults, but I guess I do–you can’t judge a text by its’ publisher. Evaluate works on their intrinsic merits–or keep mum…

In the long run, I’m not too worried about this–we’ve seen these kinds of battles before…in the realm of film-criticism. First, we were “allowed” to treat auteur cinema based upon its’ formal properties, and then, ever so gradually, we got around to admitting that studio age Hollywood “products” could be interesting as more than mere cultural indices… I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang anyone? Just “bread and circuses”, right?

If I can help to do for super-heroes what Stanley Cavell and Ray Carney have done for romantic comedies and “weepers”, I’ll feel pretty good about all of this!

Of course, in defense of the Board, there were many reasonable responses, by people like Ken, Andrei Molotiu, etc, and their contributions were much appreciated!

Dark Knight is gonna have to wait until tomorrow, it seems… but I’ll leave you with this: I think that Sean Collins is right when he argues that “Miller is painting Batman in much the same way that Kubrick paints the stargate in 2001: immense, alien, beyond good and evil…”, and I do think that the sections in which the city dwellers and media heads comment on Batman support this–the problem is that Miller undermines all of this effective stuff by domesticating the sublime (always a no-no!)–giving us access to the brain waves behind “the voice”, drowning us in first-person narration, when that “roar” ought to come out of the void of a dry shell… A psychological profile of the abyss? A force of nature haunted by memories? That “smells the fear” it inspires–and loves it? Anytime we are made privy to Batman’s thoughts, his sublimity comes into question–and I don’t think that this book can afford that! Why didn’t Miller focalize the whole story through Gordon? I’m still thinking about this stuff–tomorrow I’ll get back to the actual text!

Good night friends!


Too Close to the Heart?

Steven Berg’s look at The Dark Knight Returns introduces us to an interpretation of Miller’s Batman as a figure of the sublime (and here I am using the term in the Kantian sense of an object that taxes the rational mind beyond its’ capacity to judge…) The problem, for me, is that the text is confused in its’ exposition. As I stated yesterday, I believe that Busiek & Ross do a better job of conveying the same idea–we are not competent to judge “marvels”… For what it’s worth, I like Marvels much less than DKR (as this post makes fairly clear)–at least Miller has the courage to show us that the sublime is horrific and nothing but; he doesn’t ornament the face of apocalypse with simpering traces of pseudo-beauty, as B & R do…

However, Marvels does give us a spectator-narrator (Phil Sheldon) who fills the role played by Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness… In DKR, on the other hand, we are most often positioned within the sublime, which is the one place that a human subject can never be!

It starts with panel one, in which Bruce Wayne begins his first-person account of one of his habitual runs at a “good death”. Contrast this with the opening of Heart of Darkness: “The Nellie, a crusing yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.” Both stories are headed in the same direction, towards a date with “the horror”; but Miller’s tale begins in psychotic flux, Conrad’s in the eye of the storm–“at rest”. Is that really such an important disctinction? Well–for me–yes!

All of those layers of narration around the core of nihilism in Heart of Darkness are there for a reason! Critics usually interpret Marlow’s failure to dash “the Intended’s” hopes against the rocks of the plain, unvarnished “Truth” as some kind of failure of nerve–like Conrad’s whole book is just a mealy-mouthed indictment of “hypocrisy”. I, on the other hand, believe that Marlow’s fabrication, at the last moment, of a “noble lie” that he knows he’ll never forgive himself for telling, is the only authentic human response to this existential crisis (and, in bestowing this gift upon “the Intended”, at the cost of his own integrity, Marlow anticipates “Grant Morrison”‘s act in Animal Man!) By giving us Batman’s world primarily through the eyes of Batman himself, Miller robs his narrative of a great deal of the complexity that it might otherwise have possessed… I don’t know why he chose to do this–is it just the effect of an addiction to hard-boiled, Hammett-style prose? aping Red Harvest‘s style without grasping the significance of the style? I’m not sure… There may be reasons for it that are not yet apparent to me. Is Clark Kent left in the Marlow-position at the end of DKR? Maybe so, but that wink looks even lamer then, doesn’t it? You can bet that I’ll be mulling this over at the ol’ bookstore tomorrow!

Unfortunately, I’ve spent too much time on the CJ messageboard, and I’ve got some Canadian poetry to read, so I’ll have to cut this off early again–tomorrow I should be free to post more expansively!

Good night friends!


“And this also has been one of the dark places of the Earth”

Well, my excursion into The Dark Knight Returns is going to be somewhat different from the Watchmen and Animal Man posts, because I just don’t like Miller’s book… However, as I’ve been arguing on the Comics Journal Messageboard, there’s a big difference between “appreciation” and “criticism”–texts do not enter the canon, Stuart Smalley-style, because “people like them”, but because people have written interesting things about them… Thus we can say that The Dark Knight Returns has earned its’ reputation merely by occasioning Geoff Klock’s work, not to mention J.W. Hastings’, Steven@Peiratikos’ and Dave Intermittent’s.

I plan to explore the relation of this book to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (with a sidetrip into Purloined Letter territory), but it’s gonna have to wait until tomorrow! Suffice it to say, for now, that I think Miller’s book works best when there is an analogue of Conrad’s Marlow at the narrative helm, and suffers when we are forced to inhabit the mind of Batman himself–a Kurtz-figure if I ever saw one, a sublime horror, not a protagonist… The strongest moments occur in Part 4, when various awestruck witnesses recount their experiences of Batman as a commanding voice, rather than a man (of course this echoes Marlow’s “A Voice! A Voice!”). In fact, the more I think about this, the more apparent it becomes that DKR could really have benefitted from a narrative structure similar to the one employed by Busiek in Marvels–the two books are basically about the same thing.

Artwise, I much prefer Miller’s Simonsonian performance in this series to anything else of his that I’ve ever seen (and, of course, any Miller is far more interesting than Alex Ross…)

To be continued!

Good night friends!


Genre & Genius

Tim O’Neil replies to my critique of his article on The Filth in TCJ #258… I want to thank Tim for responding so promptly–and for kindly agreeing to transform himself into a great big pinata for those of us who have an interest in seeing superhero comics receive their critical due!
Christopher Butcher was the first up to bat, although he played it cagey, taking most of O’Neil’s pitches–meanwhile, Jim Henley was swinging for the fences! And here I am again, ready for more!

May I submit, Tim, that your disdain for superheroes (in your “critical capacity”) has a lot to do with the fact that you “grew up living, breathing and sleeping the damn things” and have “never really stopped loving them”? I’m well aware that a good many people read superhero comics mainly in order to get a nostalgia buzz, and of course they’re welcome to do so–but it should be obvious that this buzz seriously impairs the critical judgment of the addict…

At the root of the problem is the word “genre”. This is a real buzzword in the comics community today, and it seems that people are using it mainly as a synonym for “bad”. But the “good comics”/”genre comics” binary just doesn’t work, for a number of reasons, the most important being that many (if not most) cherished “artcomix” fit quite snugly into a generic category of their own (“coming-of-age/slice-of-acute-observation”). Now, you’ll never catch me saying a negative word about the aforementioned genre–how could I, when I’ve written a novel that falls under the very same heading? (and I’m writing another one!)–but it’s time we all admitted that no work of art is sui generis… “Genius” does not “transcend the limitations of genre”, it marshalls the conventions of whatever genre it partakes of in startling ways!

Tim nods to this definition of “genius” in his post:

I think anyone who sits down to write a superhero story should take a long and hard look at just what it is that makes the genre so hidebound, so calcified and almost decrepit in its mannerisms and its conventions. After so much water has been under the bridge, it seems that it almost takes a genius to find some new life in the genre, to find stories tell that need telling as superhero stories, that take advantage of those things the genre can do that no other genre can. Take the unreality, take the genre conventions and use them to tell a story that is uniquely suited to exploit these limited restrictions. It’s not impossible – but as I said in the Journal the amount of effort almost makes you think it isn’t worth the while. That’s what makes superheroes uninteresting.

However, what’s missing from this passage is an understanding that every story must accomodate itself to some generic conventions… You cannot “just tell your story” in a vacuum. Good storytelling is all about playing with the reader’s expectations. It’s about deviating from–and creating permutations of–ur-texts. It doesn’t matter one whit what you are deviating from, as long as you do it brilliantly…

All artists use their precursors to help structure their own work–James Joyce used the legend of Odysseus, Jazz musicians use Kern and Berlin standards, Capra maneuvered within the confines of romantic comedy and melodrama, etc. The big problem I have with your post Tim, is that you seem to have no understanding of how irrelevant your “Cap-beating-on-Batroc” example is… You want us to look at said battle in isolation? Well I’m here to tell you that nothing in a work of art can be isolated from the whole–and, in this case, “the whole” includes not merely that particular issue, but, at the very least, the entire Marvel Universe.

The thing about “continuity” that a lot of intelligent critics don’t seem to get is that, far from being a “straight-jacket”, it’s a perfect ready-made semiotic system, just waiting to be used to good effect by adepts… This is why I agree with Sean Collins’ assertions last week about the relative inaccessiblity of super-hero comics–it’s true, if you just read this stuff piecemeal, you’re going to think it’s sophomoric…but if you happen to have taken the time to familiarize yourself with the “rules”, you can learn to savour those instances in which they are broken intelligently! (naturally, this makes superhero comics an iffy commodity to be relying on, economically speaking–thankfully, that’s none of my concern…)

There’s a lot more to be said here, but it’ll have to wait–or perhaps others will cover it for me… But on Animal Man–if that final scene with the flashlights is such an “obvious and derivative mechanism”, what, pray tell, do you interpret it to mean? Do you agree with me that it indicates that meaning is always elsewhere, and that any attempt to fabricate narrative involves the conscientious storyteller in an “infinite egress”? And if you don’t, is it really such an obvious device? What do the rest of you Animal Man readers think? You needn’t look any further than this very series for a perfect example of “expert rule-breaking”–Morrison takes the “hide-bound” convention of the origin story, splits it in half with a wordquake of gibberish, and basically strands us in the abyss between the “myths”… in a state of permanent “Crisis”! I can’t think of a more thorough demolition of ontological inquiry in any other work of art, and it could not have been accomplished without the conventions of the genre! That’s genius man!

Tomorrow–the Dark Knight, at last!

Good night friends (that includes you Tim–this may be a “fight”, but I hope it’s an amicable one! and, of course, I’m not saying that you ought to start reviewing super-hero comics this way; but I think that someone at TCJ should, just for a change, every once in a while, y’know?)

right! good night!