All Over the Place!

(Soundtrack: Frank Black & The Catholics– Black Letter Days)

O ASM #121-122, I’ll delve into thy mysteries in good time, but right now, well…let’s see what we’ve got here:

1. Look for a big Benchley post soon, since Rose asked for it! And to all of you Benchleyites out there, make sure to join The Robert Benchley Society, ya hear? It’s free and those are good people! Now everyone go read “Owl Data” (in My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew) and treat yourselves to a fleeting glimpse of the Platonic Idea of a humour piece! That is all!

2. I also want to discuss the Marxes–especially A Night in Casablanca (1946)–since Jeff Chatlos asked, and I’ll get to that as soon as possible too!

3. But first, I’d like to say a few words in response to Steven Grant’s column on Jim Henley’s notion of the superhero genre as a “literature of ethics”. (link via Dave Intermittent).

I don’t know whom Steven is referring to when he declares that “…a number of other bloggers have seized on Henley’s argument, some as though it’s no mere argument but a statement of The New Reality.” Did anyone react that way? If so, I can’t remember whom it was. Personally, I found Jim’s idea very interesting (not to mention elegantly expressed: “people are as outlandish as they can afford to be”, indeed!), but I never agreed with it.

My own hypergeneralized tag for the genre was “the literature of moral and epistemological inquiry”. Of course, in order to entertain this notion, you have to accept my contention that superhero comics have been progressing toward the work of Gruenwald (Squadron Supreme, Quasar and Captain America) and Morrison (Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and, most recently, and perhaps most spectacularly, The Filth) since the beginning (or, at least, since 1961). There’s no reason you ought to accept this. But there’s no reason to dismiss my statement simply because most superhero comics have fallen far short of these exalted heights either.

Nor do I believe that attempts such as Jim’s (or mine!) are mere efforts to “elevate” a debased art form. Let’s take a look at Grant’s SF-as-“literature” para-argument for a moment–I’d like to know what he would accept as a “true” “literature of ideas”:

But does anyone really kid themselves that STAR WARS, probably the most spectacular instance of market crossover in the history of sf, has anything to do with ideas? Or that the MATRIX TRILOGY ultimately had anything to do with ideas beside tossing them around like special effects and dumping them by the wayside when their shock value had ended?

I hate The Matrix precisely because it does buy into certain fading structuralist ideas that we’re better off without. As far as I’m concerned, a true “literature of ideas” (exemplified by books like Mann’s The Magic Mountain or Huxley’s Point Counter Point) does exactly what Grant (falsely) accuses The Matrix of doing. That’s what the greatest philosophical storytellers do–they splash around in the pool of ideas, and they avoid taking on metaphysical ballast. Remember Henry James? The man with an “intellect so fine no idea can penetrate it”? That’s literature my friend!

Lurking behind Grant’s reluctance to dignify “genre work” with such “exalted” scrutiny is the chimerical habit (especially common, it seems, among the insecure purveyors of pop culture–yeah, I’m lookin’ at you Warren Ellis!) of thinking that “high art/literature/classics” really, really “mean something”, while everything else we read/watch/listen to is just “escapist pap”. There’s a lot more to be said about all of this, but for right now, I think I’ll just say: “Rubbish!”

4. Lastly, well, take a look a Jess Nevins’ response to my little “favourite moments” post a few days back:

*urk* Wow, do we have divergent tastes….

Spider-Man: Lee-Ditko. Never been touched.

Captain America: Lee-Kirby.

Dr. Strange: With great respect for your tastes, sir, Roger Stern’s run (and the subsequent Peter Gillis’ run) make the Thomas/Colan run look like a small, mean, petty, insignificant thing.

Avengers: Jim Shooter circa Korvac Saga, for me.

X-Men: Thomas/Roth over Claremont/Byrne? Really?

DD: Miller’s “Born Again” issues. Predictable, I know, but those stand up very well.

Flash: Hasn’t yet been done, though Waid came close for about 24 issues.

SHIELD: Dead on, pardner.

FF: You’re joking, surely. Moench/Sienkiewicz over Lee/Kirby?

Hulk: Yep.

Thor: Yep.

Spectre: Gotta go with the Ostrander run.

Iron Man: not a fan of the Bob Layton issues?

I like just about everything that Jess points to (although I haven’t read the Ostrander Spectre), but what I mainly wanted to address was the Dr. Strange question. I firmly believe that Doc’s series is the finest symphony of quality (& contradictory) interpretations that we’ve seen in any pop genre in any medium–and, as such, it is the best place to apply my model of “historiographical crticism”. Stern’s work with Rogers and Smith was brilliant, as were Englehart/Brunner/Colan, Thomas/Colan, Thomas/Guice, Gillis/Case, Fox/Smith, Claremont’s efforts in the late seventies and, of course, Lee/Ditko. (My vote for “second best symphony” would go to Spider-Man, all that great work by Lee, Ditko, Romita, Kane, Conway, Andru, Wolfman, Pollard, Mantlo, Buscema, Stern, Romita Jr., DeFalco, Frenz, Peter David, Al Milgrom, etc.–and, since Doc lost his series about the same time that I stopped buying new comics, I’m pretty sure Spidey’s surpassed him by now!–speaks pretty well for the “memecraft” of the Lee/Ditko team, doesn’t it?)

I invite your thoughts on this matter. What other superhero titles do you believe provide a particularly rich diversity of interpretations? And what do you think of my two suggestions? (I expect to hear from H on this matter–since he’s fresh off an excellent post on Johns’ JSA and its place in the context of its tradition)

Good Afternoon Friends!



  1. Well, if you respond to all my requests, keep in mind that Steven and I watched Duck Soup with my little brother yesterday, so there’s plenty more Marx Brothers discussion to be had!

    As for Robert Benchley, My Ten Years in a Quandary is the first book I read and my favorite, though I think it was “Talking Dogs” that sold me for good.

    I’m not really sure what Steven Grant was going on about, but it didn’t make much sense to me and I think he was really advocating things similar to Jim’s points.

  2. Haven’t read the Ostrander Spectre?


    Well then. You’re in for a treat, amigo. That was a series which actually grappled with moral issues, as opposed to treating them in a perfunctory manner, while also tipping the hat to continuity-conscious fanboys, most especially and gloriously in FINALLY, after ~20 years, resolving the death of Mr. Terrific. jess

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