The Reel You

(Soundtrack: Breeders–Title TK.)

We watched A Woman’s Face (1941) last night–a great Crawford melodrama, and a real departure, stylistically, for director Cukor, who tended to do stagy (though wonderful) celebrations of the “Hollywood Two-Shot” like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. Not here. This one is right there with Welles and Huston at the founding of Noir. It’s not all the way there, though. For one thing, the courtroom frame is too clinical–unlike, say, in Mildred Pierce, where the “flashback zone” is even murkier than the items dredged up from it. On the other hand, there’s no such thing as a “pure noir” film. “Noir” isn’t a genre, it’s a set of techniques, all of which aim to elevate a crucial character or two “beyond good and evil”. A lot of noir films are “crime melodramas” (from Double Indemnity to Moonrise), but you can just as easily have noir “weepers” (The Strange Love of Matha Ivers), noir romantic fantasy (the Dieterle duo: Portrait of Jennie and Love Letters), noir westerns (Pursued), noir comedy/drama/fantasies (It’s A Wonderful Life), and even screwball noir, as demonstrated by key–and prescient–scenes in It Happened One Night (chasing Oscar Shapely) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Cooper behind bars). The one thing I would argue that you cannot have is “noir relevance”, at least not the kind of relevance that a person like Alex Dueben would recognize. Why? Hey, it’s because, when you get right down to it, “relevance” is irrelevant.

You will often hear that noir is concerned with “moral ambiguity”, but that’s hogwash my friends. Noir is about radical subjectivity–the confusion is just a symptom. In the best noir-inflected films, we get a character who, for whatever reason, finds him/herself on the outside of the ideological structure known as “society”, looking in; perhaps longing to be a “part of it”, to follow the rules unselfconsciously, but unable to do so. That’s what gives these films their power to fascinate–the noir techniques enable a dramatization of the most thrilling spectacle we can imagine: a human being making an existential/radical choice. The main question in a film noir is never “what are you going to do?”, it’s “what stance will you adopt toward the world, given the knowledge that you cannot ever belong to it?”

Joan Crawford’s horrific childhood scar, in A Woman’s Face, works pretty much the same way that a superhero (or supervillain) origin does in our favourite comics genre. As both Conrad Veidt and Melvyn Douglas point out, the scar enables them to see the “real woman” behind the face. Being set apart in this way enables a character to remain “purely themselves”–they are beyond “nurture”.

This movie is set in Sweden, in 1941. NINETEEN FORTY-ONE. And yet, there is no mention of World War Two. At one point Veidt exlaims: “The world belongs to the devil, Anna. And I know how to serve him, if I could only get the power.”

He’s a fool of course. You don’t “get” that kind of power. It “gets” you. Crawford understands this. Like Emerson, she’s beyond caring whom she “serves”:

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?” my friend suggested,–“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

“Goodness” is not a constellation of acts, it’s a disposition of the heart. Epistemology is morality. Ethics is politics. You either love the world (and the beings in it) or you hate it. Film noir and superhero comics convey this psychodrama more effectively than anything since the American Renaissance.

I know I said I would refrain from defending the validity of the superhero genre in this space. But it’s hard to keep quiet when essays as bad as this one are drawing applause. It seems to me that Alex Dueben is confusing marketing hooks with aesthetic viability.

What are we to make of this?:

I enjoy reading GLOBAL FREQUENCY and THE LOSERS and QUEEN AND COUNTRY, to name three of the best action series on the stands right now. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in characters and subtext, but I think there’s more to it than that. Each of these books is engaged in the world, and they gain from that interaction. If each of them were to exist in that odd vacuum of reality that is “the comics universe”, there would be almost nothing to them.

So. Alex is not satisfied with CNN–he wants “art” to “engage [with] the world.” “Comics universes” are not valid because they refer only to themselves. Well, I’m sorry, but as a disciple of the romance tradition my point of view is pretty much the reverse. If a work of art cannot fascinate without making topical references–by impressing us as a separate reality–then it might as well be an essay. Did the fact that the New X-Men were a multicultural band of misfits have something to do with the book’s success on the market? Probably. But that’s not what made the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne comics “good”. If you like them (and I do, although not as much as a lot of other things!) it’s probably the Phoenix storyline that grabs you–and there’s nothing less “relevant” than that. When’s the last time you destroyed a universe Alex?

Good Day friends!



  1. Is the applause for the Alex Dueben essay happening somewhere else besides the blog you linked to? Because I read that comment thread, and aside from the one poster who happened to have the temerity to disagree with you, I didn’t see a lot of applause.


  2. “My issue with superhero comics isn’t that they aren’t capable of saying something, of being more than people in spandex with violent tendencies, but that they seem almost universally disinterested in being anything more than that. The writing tends to be simultaneously anaemic and overwritten to the point where I have to force myself not to grab a red pen and edit it. Most of the artwork I admit to being disinterested in – where I don’t enjoy it or like it but I don’t hate it either – and that seems to be the reaction most editors are actually looking for when selecting artists. That casual apathy seems to be what propels most successful superhero comics. The maintenance of an artificial status quo surrounding characters that cannot change.”‘

    Someone’s applauding that?

    He commits one of the most basic of critical errors: the idea that because something has been done badly, it can *only* be done badly.

    His position is, really, nothing more than the quite tired assumption that realism and naturalism is inherently superior to other approaches to art. That’s a subjective position, not an objective one, and moreover a rather facile and poorly thought out position.

    This whole “superheroes: good or bad” blogthread grows more tedious the longer it lingers. Genres–and superhero stories are definitely a genre–aren’t good or bad. Art is good or bad. Genres are simply sets of assumptions and stylistic tics.

    Sigh. Life’s too short to read bad criticism.

  3. that’s basically how I feel about it too Jess. the weirdest thing about Dueben’s essay is that he seems to be saying that superhero stories themselves have agency of some kind (otherwise, what does “…they seem almost universally disinterested in being anything more than that…” mean?)

    Okay, that’s it! Never again will I discuss this nonsense! It always breaks down into a “Thor vs. Snoopy” war anyway…

    Everything that needs to be said about this (along with a lot that need not ever have been uttered outside of an asylum!!!!) came out in this thread at TCJ. And for the record–yes, “genre comics”/”art comix” is a false binary.

    Now let’s get back to talking about specific examples of fascinating work!


  4. I think you’re granting him too much credit. I think that was just sloppy writing on his part, ala “the comics blogsphere is mostly interested in superhero comics.” He’s eliding the “the writers of superhero comics” part.

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