The Comics Journal #258
A (Hopefully!) Balanced Appraisal

Okay, first the self-condemnation–it’s not the CJ’s fault that there isn’t much going on in the way of formalist criticism of sequential art narratives in the Academy, and it was foolish of me to expect “The Magazine of [Comics] News & Criticism” to make up for this lack… In the “Blood And Thunder” section, Michael Dean offers Harper’s Monthly, Esquire, and The Atlantic Monthly as examples of publications that he would like to see the CJ emulate, in quality and in tone; which is fine, but I guess I was looking for a comics version of American Transcendentalist Quarterly, and that was stupid… Anyway, here’s my chastened reaction to the first issue of the magazine that I’ve ever read (point-form, because it’s just about time to dive into the weekend with Christine–and some Dark Knight reading, of course…):

1. I still say that the Journal’s anti-superhero stance is narrow-minded. I think we can all agree that superhero fandom is not exactly the world’s greatest repository of maturity and wisdom, but that has nothing to do with the intrinsic interest of super-hero texts themselves! It is possible to read the “capes n’ cowls” stuff without wondering, “who’s stronger?” or, “who’s got the coolest costume?”, and I’d like to see the genre taken a little more seriously by the Journal’s contributors… Superhero texts are no more (inherently) limited than Hawthorne and Hammett’s chosen forms were–although I freely admit that no one (with the possible exception of Grant Morrison) has even come close to achieving the heights reached by H & H. I guess I’ve said enough on this subject–just stop judging a book by its’ cape and I’ll be happy…

2.Donald Phelps’ “Letter of the Law: Ditko’s Mr. A Era” was welcome indeed! The man can write, and he compares Ditko, at different points in the essay, to Gregg Toland, Lee Garmes, Hawthorne, and Dickens’ X-Mas ghosts! This is not a scholarly essay, but it is good Ditko appreciation, crowded with fertile juxtapositions, and it leaves you thinking…

3.On J.W. Hastings’ “All or Nothing: Ditko’s Didactic Comics”–all I can say is: The Forager‘s piece is the only one in the issue that pursues an actual argument, and for that I am grateful, although I don’t necessarily agree with him… I haven’t read the texts that he bases his conclusions upon, but I would be willing to argue that Plato’s Dialogues are just as “rigged” as Ditko’s faux-binaries, and they manage to be entertaining, enlightening, and maddening all at once… I don’t say that Ditko’s achievement is on a par with Plato’s (that would be crazy-talk from a person who’s only seen a few excerpted panels!), but I don’t agree that “wiggle room” is a necessary component of great art! Of course, I am a big proponent of indeterminacy in my own creative work–so maybe I’m being unnecessarily broad-minded in this respect.) It’s a good article!

4.The rest of the articles offer a few pleasures: R. Fiore is an engaging writer, but he doesn’t really take us anywhere in his discussion of Shade The Changing Man–although he has piqued my curiousity about the series… Maybe he just wanted to show us those psychotic panels of the Demolisher on a rampage? They’re definitely worth studying! Bill Randall is right: Ditko’s hands are interesting–I only expressed dismay with this essay (and Craig Fischer’s) because they made me feel the lost opportunity of a more profound engagement with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange most keenly… And what of Larry Rodman’s characterization of the doctor’s adventures as “deep escapism”? Don’t they engage wordly issues? Or at least existential ones? Are Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress works of “deep escapism” too? What do you all think? (those of you who have read these articles, I mean!) Paging Neilalien!!!

Good night friends!



  1. Dave,

    I cited the lack of wiggle room as a reason why I don’t think these didactic comics actually do what they set out to do. Plato’s dialogues are, I think, more subtle and done with better humor. Plato at least _pretends_ to give the other side a say. On the other hand, I think Plato’s philosophy, like Ditko’s, is fairly adverse to compromise.

    I do hope that my appreciation for this stuff came across. I think they’re amazing comics. Too many people dismiss them without even having read them, it seems.


  2. Oh yes JW, the enthusiasm is palpable, and it seems justified, based upon what little I’ve seen… I’m eager to get a more comprehensive look at them!

    I find the whole concept of “Randean propaganda” a little bit amusing actually–how can anyone “be their own person” and subscribe whole-hog to another person’s mantras? Do we know whether Ditko actually thought his work could make a direct impact upon his readers? Is he just obeying an inner compulsion, knowing that only something like an influx of “grace” could ever align others with himself? Personally, I’m fine with that attitude–it’s no different from the sensibility that informed the 17th Century Puritan sermons/poetry that I love!

    Over-the-top rhetoric, when delivered by a master of the form in which it is expressed, can be a sublime thing!


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