Russian To Judgement

(Soundtrack: Le Tigre —Feminist Sweepstakes)

Well, I was going to write on The Complete Peanuts, but you know that Bill Sherman has already done a bang-up job on that one, so we’ll leave it be for now. (I’ll get back to it though!)

What else?

Oh yes–I’m very excited about this (link via Insult to Injury)

Morrison & Quitely’s version of The Incredible Journey? That’s gonna be ridiculously good. I know it!

Also please note that David Allison has written an excellent review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (I may even go back and try to watch Adaptation David’s way, sometime!)

And now:

Alex de Campi’s Ninth Art Comment

We begin with a simplistic distinction:

Ivan Turgenev wrote an essay in 1860 on how there are two eternal hero types: Don Quixote [bad/superheroes], or Hamlet [good/indie/european]. The man who thinks he is strong, and the man who knows he is weak.

You see how that works?

Now, I haven’t read the essay in question (I like Turgenev as a novelist–but unless de Campi has really misread him, he sounds like a poor critic), but right off the bat, I see a huge (but very telling) problem with the Quixote/Hamlet opposition–Quixote is a parody of a hero, while Hamlet is the central figure in perhaps the greatest psychodrama ever written. Don Quixote gives us Cervantes’ worldview. Hamlet gives us Hamlet’s. This is about as unfair a comparison as you’ll ever see. Moreover, de Campi makes no effort to establish any kind of link between her twin binaries. Does “spandex” automatically lead to Quixote-style heroism? Who said so? Isn’t Spider-Man often referred to, and with good reason, as a modern Hamlet? Putting on a costume means you can’t think about your own motivations? I think that would be news to Gruenwald’s Captain America!

Sure, there are a lot of superheroes that fit Turgenev’s Quixotean formula. But there are just as many that don’t, and if that’s true, then what the hell is this essay about?


Of course.

It’s about drastic oversimplification.

Take this paragraph, for instance:

Whether this is symptomatic of an industry under economic pressure, or of a larger need in the American psyche to be reassured in the post ‘Iraquistan’ debacle, I leave up to you to decide. But I would mention in passing that Marvel is developing a non-spandex title celebrating the heroism of US soldiers in Iraq. And while Chuck Dixon’s AMERICAN POWER for Crossgen has been cancelled, that it got anywhere near publication at all shows that certain portions of America are feeling the need to be reassured that their country is still the City on the Hill.

See, I hate this kind of stuff, because people use that “city on the hill” phrase all of the time, and they think they’re making some kind of point about a culture of complacency.


Yes, the Puritans came to New England looking to establish a “city upon a hill”, but I’m here to tell everyone that these people invented mass second-guessing/introspection. Puritanism is Hamletism. The City on the Hill never materialized, and the lamentation over that fact set in about two minutes after the Arbella landed.

Those are Jeremiads that Michael Moore puts on film and calls documentaries. And Jeremiads, as we know, are what the Puritans did best.

Please understand me–my political views probably don’t differ from Alex’s at all; the thing that makes me crazy is that most liberals these days seem to want to cut themselves off from the main current of the liberal tradition in the West, and that’s an excellent way to strand yourself in an intellectual backwater. Soon enough, you find yourself substituting this kind of talk for actual thought:

Meanwhile, Don Quixote rides forth in ungrateful Iraq (they’re not listening either) with his little buddy Great Britain as Sancho Panza, to tilt for truth, oil and the American way. And we are given shiny spandex heroes to reassure us that Right Always Triumphs.

Mind you, the anxiety and pessimism of the middle years of World War II spurred an artistic flourishing of – not superheroes – but Film Noir. Now, the mess in Iraq is hardly World War II, but perhaps Hamlet has been written off too soon.

First off–either Bush is a cynical oil baron, or he’s a wild-eyed (if terribly misguided!) battler for truth, justice, and the American Way. It’s not possible to be both of those things. I wish this stuff was all about oil. As an opponent of the war, I would welcome the idea that these hawks are just weasels out to make a buck. Weasels can be reasoned with. Sadly, ideologues cannot. Your average student protester cannot even begin to fathom this distinction. Truth be told, they don’t want to think about it. It’s so easy to blame all of the world’s problems on “greed”. The world’s a mess right? Let’s blow the fucker up and start from scratch. Good plan.

And then you’ve got film noir and superheroes offered as if they come from different planets or something. What the hell? These are unique products of American culture, and each emerges from the very same root: the advanced state of alienation which is the gift of unalloyed liberal democratic culture.

Basically what I’m saying here is that most “good” stories since the Reformation have featured Hamletesque, rather than Quixotean protagonists (this excludes satire, of course, because in that case the protagonist exists to be belittled by–if we’re lucky–a Hamletesque narrator). And if certain commentators would look beneath the spandex surface, they’d find a lot of Hamlets in places they never dreamed. Which is not to say, of course, that “indie comics” can’t do Hamlet equally well–all I’m saying, as usual, is that the particular binary that de Campi cherishes in this essay cannot withstand the slightest bit of scrutiny. So let’s get rid of it!

Good Night Friends!



  1. “Mind you, the anxiety and pessimism of the middle years of World War II spurred an artistic flourishing of – not superheroes – but Film Noir.”

    Umm…I’m not sure what history books she’s been reading, but there was anxiety and pessimism all the way through WWII. Mind you, the anxiety and pessimism changed, from the seemingly imminent threat of the Axis winning to the negative changes in American society, but the idea that there was no anxiety and pessimism in 1944 and 1945 just isn’t borne out by the facts.


  2. no question Jess–if anything, the anxiety and pessimism only increased as Americans began to realize that they could never go back to pre-War isolationism… As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility–and the opportunity to screw things up royally!


  3. Dave,

    I’m generally not sure what you are saying, although the gist of your argument with Ninth Art is occasionally clear. I think it’s a windmill all of your own, however, since there are at Ninth Art views expressed there at extremes either side of your fairly moderate position.

    Your latest comments on Alex De Campi’s article seem to focus on what you think the messenger is thinking rather than the actual message.

    Here’s some comments on your comments:

    1) The first paragraph you “quote” is contaminated with your interpretation, it is not presented as Alex wrote it, so why suggest quotes? You don’t like what you interpret, since Quixote (the book) is a parody. Well, isn’t Alex talking about Quixote the character ?

    2) Your comment about cynical oil baron versus wide-eyed idealist is based on the following:

    Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote as Great Britain is to George W Bush ?

    3) Film noir is usually defined as arising out of the American mood post-war. Are you being a little pedantic here? Or is it really important WHEN people perceive the shift ?


    Adrian Brown

  4. Adrian,

    thanks for commenting, and I hope you’ve noticed that I no longer attribute any opinions published at the site to the whole of Ninth Art. I understand that a variety of viewpoints are expressed there.

    In the case of Alex’s essay, I don’t see how anyone could fail to see that there are problems with it.

    1.do you really feel that I misrepresented Alex in my blockquote? She does–explicitly–yoke Quixote to superhero comics, and Hamlet to “indie”/european comics… I merely took the ol’ square parenthetical short-cut to establish that fact.

    And, of course, Alex is discussing Quixote the character–but that’s the problem: she’s contrasting a character that is a means to a satirical end to a far more nuanced character that is meant to withstand much closer scrutiny. And that’s what I argue she does with superheroes as well–there is no attempt, in this essay, to prove that superhero comics have, historically, dealt with characters who “think they are strong”–this is merely stated as a fact. And I don’t agree at all. I think there are a lot of Hamlets in spandex out there, and the reason Alex doesn’t see this is that she chooses not to.

    A more interesting comparison might have been drawn between the heroism of The Iliad and that found in The Odyssey–but even there, within the superhero genre, you can establish that binary between the work of Kirby (the heroism of dynamic action upon the world) and Ditko (the introspective hero). But, as I say, she clearly had no interest, in that particular essay, in thinking about superheroes in anything like a nuanced way. And why should she? She is engaging a parody of the genre in question–and this method is founded upon her use of Quixote in the first place.

    2.on Bush/war/oil–again, I think Alex constructed this problem in unnecessarily simple terms. The war is not going to be ended by cries of “greed”. It will end when the American people realize that their idealism, in this case, has been insanely misapplied. but really, who cares about this, right? This is a discusion about comics.

    3.on film noir–I agree that it would have been extremely pedantic of me to quibble about the date of film noir’s emergence (especially since the term did not emerge until French critics projected it back upon film history years after the bulk of the movies were made and released), but that’s not what I was saying at all.

    All I meant to say was that, again, supeheroes and film noir both emerged from the same cultural matrix–the American Romance. You can trace back every thematic element of these two types of art to Hawthorne, Melville, and Emerson (with the Puritans & Jonathan Edwards lurking back of the American Renaissance figures). There was no reason, other than more knee-jerk oversimplification of the superhero genre, to oppose film noir to spandex. There is a much closer relationship between these two things than Alex shows any awareness of in her comments.



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