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!