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Craft’s Work


(Just another short note in response to Tim O’Neil and this comment:)

“If you’re into layers, issues of construction just add that much more to play with, you know?”

Absolutely! But “intricate structure” qua “intricate structure” is meaningless! It’s either part of what stimulates thought, or it’s useless ornamentation… my first novel is planned out to the last comma, and it was written that way in the hopes of expressing certain things that absolutely could never be conveyed in discursive/linear terms (which is not to say that I succeeded mind you!)

What I do object to, though, is criticism which stops at statements like–“this is a finer work of art because it is more intricately structured”… That’s a purely subjective statement that reveals nothing about the grounds of the appreciation… you don’t read a book and say to yourself “wow, that was a brilliantly structured book!” do you? Don’t you, rather, say: “wow, the way in which this particular aspect of the text plays off of this other aspect of the text, especially in light of the larger context of the work as a whole–and all of the works it can be construed as being in dialogue with–, really switched a gear in my brain!”… And if the second formulatIon is a closer approximation of the way in which a reader reacts to formal complexity (which I’m as appreciative of as anyone, believe me–inattention to the formal complexity of, say It’s A Wonderful Life, or the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga, is the bane of my existence!) why not write criticism in the same way? Write about where the craft takes you!



Anyway–this is all just to say: 1. “form and content” are always in sync, ’cause they’re the same thing–anytime you express an idea, you’re expressing an idea, not planting that idea directly in another person’s mind… It stands to reason, therefore, that we can forget about the “idea” and focus purely on the expression of it—that’s what I try to do (and of course I like complex “expressions of ideas” more than simple ones!) And 2. I’m glad Tim is planning to reread Squadron Supreme, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say about it! Okay, back to work!

Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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7 comments

  1. you don’t read a book and say to yourself “wow, that was a brilliantly structured book!” do you? Don’t you, rather, say: “wow, the way in which this particular aspect of the text plays off of this other aspect of the text, especially in light of the larger context of the work as a whole–and all of the works it can be construed as being in dialogue with–, really switched a gear in my brain!”

    Actually, yes, I have said the former without the latter. Sometimes a work of art (especially in literature) can, as you pointed out, be brilliantly structured or constructed without stimulating thought, or at least not thought about anything other than its structure. One work that comes to mind is Finnegan’s Wake, where the elaborate presentation can overwhelm you: similarly, Dhalgren or More Than Human are two books where the structure can be (and often is) contemplated purely on its own grounds. (I chose those examples because they have much more going on than their format of expression, but said format is very distinctive and can catch the reader off guard and divorce him or her from the storytelling taking place. I didn’t mention, say, Tristram Shandy because that book moves into more of your second point, where the structure is itself an expression of the idea of the story) – I will admit that I have never stopped to think ‘wow, the way in which this particular aspect of the text plays off of this other…’ because it’s a very awkward construction of the basic idea that it is all interconnected. (Which may have been your point.)

    I would argue that Watchmen is very much like a virtuoso performance: there are runs, airs, flashy effects, it dances around like a symphony, moving from note to note in an attempt to encompass much of what’s best of the comic book form and doing a bravura job of it. Squadron Supreme does not do this. It’s certainly competently illustrated and the narrative is effective, but it lacks the style and confidence displayed by Moore and Gibbons in their collaboration. Instead, Squadron Supreme takes itself entirely seriously within the idea of a comic book that would be on newstands: it very deliberately restricts itself to the form and visual iconography of a recurring superhero comic book. It presents itself on the page just like an issue of the Avengers might: it’s not until you see superheroes taking over the world or mind-controlling their villains into ‘heroes’ (shades of the old Superman red and Superman blue imaginary story, taken to the extreme of asking ‘If you force someone to be unable to make the wrong decision, how is that good?’) that you realize you’ve crossed over into something you weren’t going to get from an issue of, say, Justice League or what have you.

    I think it’s useful to consider Moore and Gruenwald here as Mozart and Saliere in Amadeus, without the bitter rivalry: Moore may well be the more blazingly original of the two, the more daring and explorative, but Gruenwald had a rock-solid understanding of his chosen medium and was applying it as a baseline to tell a story that only deviated in one place from a standard superhero tale: it considered why Superman shouldn’t use his powers to force world peace.

    That’s just my take on it, of course. I prefer Watchmen, as a work of art: I think it’s more assured, tells its story more effectively, is groundbreaking and breathtakingly well done. That doesn’t imply that I don’t find Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme series to be excellent comics, however: while I suspect Moore to be the more assured artist, Gruenwald knew exactly what he was doing here, and did it very well indeed. Just looking at the panel you used below shows a comic book that isn’t attempting to hit all the notes, but to hit a few, and hit them well. I think it did that in spades.

    -Matt Rossi

  2. Matt!

    1. See my comment below on Watchmen, and

    2. I agree, in large part, with your formulation of the differences between Moore & Gruenwald’s works, with the proviso that I think Gruenwald’s choice to tell this story in the form that he did (as you say, it looks just like an issue of the Avengers–but man, it’s not!) was (especially from a “reader-response” point of view) absolutely inspired! The “prestige” of Watchmen is part of its weakness for me, as a critique of the genre–it doesn’t trust itself to effect a “transvaluation of values” without the crutch of what, in the context of the medium at the time, can only be seen as a species of aesthetically-distanced “avant-gardism”… this is part of the reason I love Animal Man so much too–Morrison just says: “okay here we are in the post-Crisis DC universe, and, over the course of the next 26 months we are going to explore the implications of that fact…” I don’t love Squadron nearly as much as Animal Man, but I do think that the two travel similar roads–moreover, while I agree with you that Gruenwald doesn’t hit all of the notes, he does hit almost every note I can think of that he could have, and more notes than is generally supposed , (for example, to the extent that people talk about this series at all, no one ever talks about the extraordinary way that romance is dealt with in the series!) without deviating from his fundamental purpose of making something absolutely new, using only the basic conventions and style of the genre…

    Dave

  3. To your two proposed reactions to a well-structured work, I’d say both work for me, actually. I concede this may be– in large part– due to the fact that I make art as well, and am always trawling for more effective ways to do it.

    And I have to say, Matt, that what you define as a lack in SS actually makes it sound more interesting, formally speaking.

    –Jamesmith

  4. If you mean the style and confidence I argued for Watchmen, well, different strokes for all. If you mean Gruenwald’s decision to write and present Squadron Supreme as a straightforward comic with the governor taken off of the consequences of certain choices…

    Well, I don’t think it’s a *lack*, but a *choice* – Gruenwald did know what he was doing, as Dave mentions. I have a more elaborate response in my head, but it will have to wait for now: I will just say that, leaving Watchmen out of the equation, Gruenwald was playing the tropes for effect: Squadron Supreme is, in general terms, a comic book with a bit of a remix feel. It’s like the way Stephen King wrote ‘Salem’s Lot’ by deliberately keeping Stoker’s Dracula in mind as the monolithic wall he was reacting to, and Salem’s Lot was the ball he bounced off of it. Squadron Supreme does that with Superhero comics.

  5. you don’t read a book and say to yourself “wow, that was a brilliantly structured book!” do you?

    Actually, yes, I have said the former without the latter.

    Why I agree with this, Matt, is because, contrary to what most litereary critics believe, not all thought boils down to being a matter of language and text. I look at Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem and don’t necessarily need to say anything “discursive” to say about it while I’m recognizing how brilliantly structured it is; when I’m reading (yes, I did type “reading”) one of Bartok’s string quartets, I’m hardly thinking about it linguistically, textually, or discursively while I’m recognizing how brilliantly structured it is (the 6th quartet is a one of the greatest musical masterpieces!!).

    Now, I can certainly talk about them discursively, and even critique them “textually”, but this hardly implies that the only way to think about them is through the constraints of language. I think far too much criticism is textually prejudiced, and far too much is made of the “thought=language” bias and obviously, for me, to say that:

    That’s a purely subjective statement that reveals nothing about the grounds of the appreciation

    regarding thinking about the formal structure of any work, would throw quite an interesting wrench in the purported “objectivity” of mathematics, logic, and science (ironically, I don’t have a problem with throwing that wrench myself, for very different reasons and with very different justifications). But while we can contest the objectivity/subjectivity issue and dichotomy, I don’t think making such a bold and almost “absolutist” claim to “thinking” about formal structure as being subjective (and therefore “meaningless”) is hardly going to repudiate the fact of the matter that there really are people out there that DO consider “intricate structure” qua “intricate structure” to be meaningful (and not just “useless ornamentation”) because these people don’t necessarily put as high a premium on language since it’s hardly the case that they think solely through language

    Ok, I’m going back to reading “The Dark Knight Returns” now…

  6. Interesting…there’s no question that my brand of criticism really can’t deal with music, which pretty much has to be appreciated for its “structure qua structure”–and that’s why I never write about music! On the other hand, I am committed to the proposition that you cannot tell a story without using language (and literary criticism, in my view, is a story about a story), and that you can’t “just read” a story without retelling it to yourself as you go–even if that’s not how it feels!

    Dave

  7. Interesting…there’s no question that my brand of criticism really can’t deal with music, which pretty much has to be appreciated for its “structure qua structure”–and that’s why I never write about music!

    Haha…fair enough.

    On the other hand, I am committed to the proposition that you cannot tell a story without using language

    I might disagree there, unless you’re talking about, say, Neil Cohn’s ideas about a “Visual Language“. I’ve listed numerous examples of stories told through dance and non-western theatrical forms in my readings and criticisms of TDKR, as well as several examples of textless comics, e.g.: Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe #21 (Hama attempted that again, in a sense, with Wolverine #102–while there is narrative text and boxes, the visual tells it’s own story, with the narrative only providing a meta-commentary to the visuals while telling its own unrelated story–the text merely “inflects” the reading of the visuals which could just as well have been odne by itself); Andrew Arnold’s “Blood Work: A Silent Ballad“; and the proto-wordless comic by Frans Masereel “Passionate Journey: a Novel in 165 Woodcuts” (actually, here’s a nice short article about wordless comics by David A. Beronä: BEYOND WORDS).

    I also have given a preliminary trajectory of the split between Theatre as Text as opposed to Theatre as Movement in the afore-mentioned criticism project, and while I do use the idea of reading movement I’m not at all talking about reading movement as language or Eco’s notion of reading Theatre semiotically.

    and literary criticism, in my view, is a story about a story

    True, very true…

    and that you can’t “just read” a story without retelling it to yourself as you go–even if that’s not how it feels!

    Only if we operate under the presupposition that everyone necessarily “sub-vocalizes” while reading movement, which I don’t think is the case.

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