“Artificial” Inelegance?

Adam Completely Futile offers a pretty scathing critique of a recent Daredevil preview that I’m reasonably certain I’ll never read. The only Bendis I’ve ever come across is Powers #1-6, which we had in TBP at the store… Let’s just say it didn’t grab me at all–but I didn’t think it was poorly done either.

I don’t give a hang about what’s going on in Daredevil right now. And I don’t give a fig about Bendis. I’m typing up this little response to Adam because I’m about to embark upon a lengthy series of posts on Amazing Spider-Man #121-151, and I’m here to tell ya–there has never been a less “naturalistically” written saga!

The things that Adam objects to–dialogue that no one would actually say, huge expository monologues, rampant soliloquizing, a narrator that “tells” insteads of “shows” (that “show, don’t tell” mantra ought to go the way of “don’t ask, don’t tell”!! Who ever said that “telling” can’t be as “artistic” as “showing”? this is naturalist/realist propaganda my friends! Be on your guard against these simpering simplifications!)–well, they’re all keyed up to the max in Gerry Conway’s seventies work on Peter Parker. And it doesn’t bother me one bit! In the next week or so, I’ll attempt to give you all a sense of why I’m so drawn to these comics–and why I believe that Adam has applied inappropriate standards to the genre in his critique. (Which doesn’t mean that the DD comic is good! Who knows?)

I’m not saying he–or anyone else–should like this stuff! I’m just saying that there are reasons why a writer like Conway might reject the “naturalistic” mode that has dominated “genre” prose in the last hundred years–the main one being that, while most thriller/horror/mystery fiction has grown out of the Walter Scott/James Fennimore Cooper tradition (high adventure punched across by scenes that are almost cinematic in their fidelity to the surface details of life), superhero comics are the heirs to the Romance tradition (a dense form of storytelling which seeks to envelop the reader in its own narrative strategies, which survived into the twentieth century in uncharacteristically metaphysical pulp like Hammet, Chandler, and Hemingway’s “romances-in-naturalistic clothing”–believe me, no one talks in poetic circularities the way those characters do!)

All I’m asking for now is–why should word-balloons contain dialogue that a “real person” might say? They’re just another element on the page, and they ought to be considered in relation to the pictures they accompany–not the world around you. The “Man Green”/”Man Yellow” sequence-without-sequence in The Filth is probably the best recent example of the complete disregard for the “realistic” deployment of words on a sheet of newsprint that has been a hallmark of the genre since the beginning–and I, for one, appplaud this kind of experimentation/craziness. But then, I also like it when (without warning!) the first-person narrator of Moby Dick somehow acquires the ability to give us a verbatim account of Ahab’s solitary cabin-rants! Superhero comics aren’t “paper films”–they’re text-and-art romances!

I’ll try to clarify my position on this as I go along!

Good Night Friends!



  1. good king wenceslas went out on the feast of —, tenenenen tententen… sorry i forgot all the lyrics, and sorrier still for singing. you must get this a lot. but you reminded me of the carol, and it’s one of my favorites. =)

  2. “All I’m asking for now is–why should word-balloons contain dialogue that a “real person” might say?”

    Among other reasons, distancing. When we read dialogue or internal monologues in prose fiction, generally that dialogue is written in a naturalistic/realistic manner–i.e., how people really talk. The reader brings to comic books a similar expectation, that dialogue, monologues, and character narrations will be similar naturalistic. (Whether we <>should<> expect that is irrelevant. Most of us do). And so when we read Gerry Conway’s (or Kurt Busiek’s) expositional dialogue, it jolts us out of the immersive experience. The jolt might be minor, but it’s not one we were expecting, nor one which is welcome.

    Also–since comics are a combination of art and text, why use the text to tell the reader what the art is showing? Isn’t it a more efficient use of space to use the text to tell the reader what the art can’t show? One particularly egregious example of this was in an issue of <>Astro City<>, in which a narrative caption said something like “I tossed and turned all night,” and the panel showed a character sleeping in a restless manner. The caption was redundant, and a waste of space, and given the limitations of space that comics impose, wasting space is a greater crime than it would be in prose or film.

    But I could be wrong.


  3. Well hey Jess, no one’s “wrong”!

    I’m not a fan of Busiek–but I make no bones about the fact that I prize “teflon art” (works that deflect the human desire for an immersive experience by calling attention to their own status as mental constructs)…

    When (in Avengers #34) Don Heck draws a splash of the Living Laser blasting his way into a vault, and Stan Lee gives us the same info once more but with snark (“See the man in the steange costume! He is a bad man! He is robbing a bank! He is called the laser! Can you tell why he is called the laser? Let us read the story and see what happens to the wicked laser…”) it is redundant, but it’s also wonderfully defamiliarizing!

    I’m going to argue that Gerry Conway, in his Amazing Spider-Man run (with no small amount of help from Ross Andru), perfected the Marvel Romance by sticking admirably to the program of satirical narrative intrusion while upping the human stakes considerably! (but I understand, of course, that a lot of people just aren’t ever going to like this kind of stuff…)


  4. It doesn’t bother me a bit. I wonder how much of that is because I’ve been reading comics for so long? I have two friends who are new to comics that love Bendis’ stuff so I don’t really think it’s that. It obviously doesn’t bother them much. They don’t think it’s totally realistic dialogue, but they enjoy the comic. Does it make a difference how you tell a story if at the end of the work it was still an enjoyable story?

  5. Dave–

    Nice of you to say, of course, but I do think there are people who are wrong. Fans of Rob Liefeld’s work. Supporters of Todd Macfarlane’s legal maneuvers. Comic book speculators. John Byrne. Chuck Austen.

    But I digress.

    I have a hard time articulating the particulars, but I think that there’s an essential difference between Silver Age exposition and Bronze Age, and it comes down to selfconsciousness. Stan The Man, I’m convinced, was not selfconscious in his writing. I don’t think StM thought about his style that much. Conway <>et al<> did and do, I think, and so the pros of the latter is missing a certain element of innocence. But I have a hard time articulating this, and I don’t have any issues at hand to do a proper analysis.

    Actually, it might be instructive for me to read Morrison’s glorious Silver Age pastiche in <>Doom Patrol<>, the “Danny the Street Dreams” issue, and compare it to the real thing and to Bronze Age expositional issues, and see why I feel Morrison got it so right, and why Morrison’s work and StM’s work is enjoyable and Conway’s isn’t. But that would require handy access to the issues as well as the time to write it, which I don’t have.

    I’d be interested to see just why you feel defamiliarizing, anti-immersive art is a good thing. I don’t mean that sarcastically; it just runs counter to everything I enjoy that I’d like to know where you’re coming from.

  6. Jess wrote:

    “I have a hard time articulating the particulars, but I think that there’s an essential difference between Silver Age exposition and Bronze Age, and it comes down to selfconsciousness. Stan The Man, I’m convinced, was not selfconscious in his writing. I don’t think StM thought about his style that much. Conway et al did and do, I think, and so the pros of the latter is missing a certain element of innocence. But I have a hard time articulating this, and I don’t have any issues at hand to do a proper analysis.”


    I would love to see you do this! It’s interesting–we both like Stan Lee and Grant Morrison, but perhaps for different reasons–I’ve personally never felt that Stan’s writing was unselfconscious (in that Living Laser passage for instance, and in a million other cases, I find that he’s daring the reader to laugh at these antics and take them seriously at exactly the same time! That’s a really mannered thing to do! Anyway, perhaps this is why Conway’s selfconscious writing style doesn’t bother me–I don’t see the break with Stan Lee that you do–I just see the volume being turned up on the melodrama and the snark!

    On my “anti-immersiveness”: well, that could take days to explain, and I’ve got another job interview to go to, but, in a nutshell: I think the tendency to find “sameness” everywhere is the greatest challenge any human being must face–and I like a work of art that can fascinate me and rile me up while holding me at arms length! That’s what all of my favourites (Hawthorne, Emily Bronte, Melville, Dickens, Hammett, Capra at his best, Dieterle etc.) do, and that’s what I tried to do in my first novel–that life-preserver of “disconnect” in a sea of emotion is my holy grail!

    On the San Diego Con–I got an invite from Peter Coogan, but since I won’t be affiliated with any university until the Fall, there’s no money to get me there, so I had to decline! Next year for sure!

    Thanks for the comments!

    Gotta go!


  7. Dave- your comments are irrelevant and miss the point.

    The piece was saying that Bendis was aiming for a realistic/noirish comic, and failed. The post then goes on to explain why this is so, and in these complaints the essayist mentions that the dialogue is stilted and artificial.

    Your complaint is that dialogue has no need to be realistic, and you go on to defent Stan Lee and Morrison. Fair enough, but you miss the point. If writters try to be realistic, they should achieve at least that. The poster was not crafting a manifesto on realism in comics, he was making a critique.

    And now to hammer the point home: experimentalism in fiction is only effective when set against something normal. Experimentation works best when it’s something novel, when it’s reacting to something. I’m not going to go write an essay on this point.

    I dislike your thoughts on art in comics as well, but thats for later, if at all.

  8. But is Bendis really trying to be realistic in Daredevil? I certainly didn’t think so when I read it (I’ve read up to the beginning of David Mack’s run, and nothing after that yet). Did Bendis claim to be doing realism? If so, he’s a dirty liar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the story doesn’t work as a non-realistic narrative.

  9. Right Steven–

    I don’t know who anonymous is–but just the fact that he/she used the compound term “realistic/noir” gives me pause! Noir (in film, in prose, in comics) is about as “artificial” as it gets! That’s why I claimed Chandler, Hammett, and Hemingway as romancers… Again–I don’t know anything about Bendis’ Daredevil, but I know (from Who Killed Retro Girl?) what he’s all about: he’s a hard-boiled romancer–and applying naturalistic standards in a critique of his work just doesn’t make any sense! The proof is in the pudding–the review is not helpful. Does anyone else think I missed Adam’s point?


  10. I think you missed Adam’s point. His point was that Bendis’ DD is generally touted as a certain type of thing (a “realistic” take on superheroes; or a “noirish” take on superheroes) but it fails to succeed as that type of thing. Now, maybe Bendis himself never did the touting, but I have seen similar claims made about his DD run, so I can understand why Adam was approaching the comic with that in mind.

    – John Jakala

  11. I understand that John–and I guess I was more concerned to speak out against this habit of yoking “noirish” and “realistic” together… Tough-guy writing is as stylized as it gets–and it’s hard to do properly: Hammett, Chandler, Hemingway, Nathanael West, Cornell Woolrich at his best, Dawn Powell when she works in that mode, maybe Jim Thompson–that’s pretty much the complete list of writers who’ve done it well. Frank Miller certainly doesn’t belong on that list. And neither, from the little I’ve seen, does Bendis…

    But let’s go after the guy for the right reasons! Failing to create the proper noirish atmosphere would be a good reason. Failing to craft poetic dialogue would be another. But failing to mirror the world? Whatever Bendis thinks he’s doing–he’s clearly working in a tradition that is the furthest thing from mimetic. That’s why I disliked Adam’s review.


  12. Sorry about not giving my name, it’s Isaac. I have no blog. And yeah, noir and realism are far removed, I think gritty would be a more appropriate word. At this point, I don’t think there’s any need to keep defending the article. The Bloggoshere loves it.

  13. Welcome Isaac!

    I hope you’ll return. I must confess that I have a problem with negative reviews in general, and that certainly factors into my dislike of the Completely Futile piece.

    I tend to write only about works that I have some substantive reaction to–hence my silence re: Who Killed Retro Girl? until the subject of Bendis came up in connection with an issue I did want to discuss. If it fails to interest me, I can’t imagine myself writing anything interesting about it.

    And here we come to my second major (major to me–not to the world!) theory of art: first, there’s my predilection for “teflon melodrama”; and second, there’s the idea that art is kinetic–a work is “successful” if it spurs others to create/perform a gloss upon it. I don’t want to obstruct the path of those who do get something out of the stuff that leaves me cold. What’s the point? This isn’t politics. No one’s life is at stake.

    Of course, every once in a while, a reviewer will transmute a negative review into a humour piece that generates heat of its own–but this happens very rarely. And, as I’ve often remarked, I just don’t enjoy parody…


  14. When I showed Dad the Crimson Skies XBox game, he laughed and said that it was a very realistic simulation of what early to mid-20th century pilots WISHED flying was like. I feel that way about the sort of crime fiction that Bendis often writes – anyone who claims it’s realistic, or should be, is missing the point. Just like superheroes in their way, it’s about liberating the interior life to become manifest in the world. I often say that the human heart isn’t realistic, knowing nothing of finite time or space.

  15. “I often say that the human heart isn’t realistic, knowing nothing of finite time or space.”

    I’ll say it with you Bruce–it’s true!


  16. Can we all agree that there is no such thing as “realistic dialogue” in any medium? I’ve had the misfortune of having read lots of transcripts of actual conversations; and I can’t say as I’ve encountered in any medium any dialogue which approximates the imprecision, incoherence, and referential nature of actual human speech. Realistic dialogue in art is dialogue that approximates this confusion, but doesn’t replicate it. If it did, books would be three times as long and eight times as confusing.

    Which is a long way of saying that attacking Bendis for unreal dialogue isn’t frankly all that exciting; if everyone is guilty than Bendis’ crime is pretty prosaic.

  17. Thanks for the Welcome!

    By now, the spider man post is up, and people are surely more interested in that by now, and tired of Bendis-bashing. I would rather do some realist re-enforcing.

    Yes, correct dialog is hard to reproduce. It calls upon a lifetime of experience between the participants for comprehension that authors cannot reproduce in it’s entirety.

    Should they still try? Of course! But to represent life and provide a meaningful exprience that relates to it is a far more rewarding enterprise than throwing together a handful of ideas for scholars to shift through. THIS is where Bendis fails. He tries to reproduce life, especially banter, and delivers something that ultimately fails to relate to it while at the same time giving something of no consequence or style.

    Thanks for your time;


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