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Pay Your Respects

This John Parker article is attracting a fair amount of blog-reaction (see The Rampagers, Chris Butcher, the wonderful Dan Jacobson), and, along the way, the conversation has morphed (in my mind, at least) from standard “the Emperor has no Blankets” talk to the (again, to me) more important question of the “rage for respectability”… Of course, I do think that Parker’s article has some validity as an attack on the “these comics don’t speak to me about my life” crowd (you know who they are!)–although I’m not sure why you’d even bother to attack these people…


“Realism” is whatever we agree, by convention, to call “realistic”! There is no such thing as “realistic dialogue”, “realistic characterization”, or “realistic plotting”, and I wish the people who clamor for that sort of thing would just stop themselves! Art is, by defnition, “anti-realistic”, and this is a good thing! This is one of the reasons that I always dismiss critiques of (let’s say) the superhero genre as “unrealistic” as red harangues. Let me tell you something friends–they don’t come any more “unrealistic” then Dickens, Hawthorne, Bronte or Melville, and these people were not hampered in their efforts to create fascinating stuff! On the other hand, I imagine that aiming for a philistine standard of mimesis would hamper an artist!


This is why I particularly like the audience-centered tangent that Dan pursued, and so I posted most of my thoughts on this subject at the Blog Found on a Garbage Heap.



Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

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12 comments

  1. You should make a distinction in the “anti-superhero/pro-autobio” crowd: those who, as you say, believe “realism” is the only thing that speaks to them, and those who believe the superhero genre is defective because it doesn’t say anything relevant about the real world. The former encounter all sorts of problems (e.g., are the autobio comics really “realistic” or are they just as cliche-ridden/driven by normative concepts as your average superhero book?), but the latter can make a good case that the superhero genre serves up even fewer insights into anything that might be considered relevant to the Real than the admittedly limited autobio genre.

    –Charles R.

  2. no question Charles! And this is a good place for another disclaimer to the effect that I myself have written a novel that can be construed as “contemporary autob-bio”–although Darkling I Listen was definitely written against the “coming-of-age” grain (and the “coming-of-age” formula is the real enemy here, as far as I’m concerned–not “autobio” itself!–and again, this is another reason for my love of anti-teleological/circular “continuity”!)

    That said, I would take serious issue with a person who tries to argue that a genre which, at its core, is devoted to questions of “power and responsibility”, is irrelevant in the crazy world in which we live! Squadron Supreme irrelevant in the age George W. and Amnesty International? Impossible!

    Dave

  3. I don’t know, Dave, I’d read Palestine or even the Deathray before SS. I tried to read the thing a few year’s ago due to mention by Milo, but it was too poorly written to slog through. I suppose you could argue that poor writing doesn’t make it irrelevant, but it means there are probably better places to get similar themes.

  4. I’d add that I’m only speaking in probabilities, not necessities. There would appear to be some social factors why you’re (or at least, “I’m”) going to see as much “depth” in the superhero genre. I’d say it discourages interesting themes more than autobio does, but that’s probably due to institutional factors more than any inherent ones.

  5. It’s funny: I find much of the ‘autobio’ crowd to be as poorly written as ‘Squadron Supreme’ is argued to be by the poster below me.

    ‘d say it discourages interesting themes more than autobio does, but that’s probably due to institutional factors more than any inherent ones.

    I’d say the opposite, that autobiographical comics (or ones that pretend to be) are much more limited by what is ‘possible’ or ‘realistic’ than a superhero/fantastic comic book can be. Comic books have been argued to have the freedom to show anything that can be shown, like a movie without the effects budget: why would I want to waste all that potential visual power on another tedious tale of James Kochalka’s day to day life? Of course, there are books like Fax from Sarajevo that buck this trend, but the same can be said for comic books like Crisis on Infinite Earths, I suppose.

    Different strokes: for everyone who finds that autobio comics speak to them, there will be someone totally bored and put off by their trite formulaic verities, and for everyone who enjoys superhero comics there will be someone who finds them juvenile or tedious.

    — Matt Rossi

  6. I’m fascinated by how comfidently people apply that “poorly-written” label! What do they mean, exactly? I’m not being facetious here! What is it, particularly, about the dialogue/narration of Squadron Supreme that rubs people the wrong way. I happen to think that the book is very well-written indeed. Or, let’s just say, something about it enthralls me. Do I just have low standards? Or is it just possible that there aren’t any standards?

    Dave

  7. Matt, I agree about much of the autobio stuff, particularly the example you cite, but I think independent comics are much more likely to foster interesting themes than the mainstream, not because of some phony ‘realism vs. fantasy’ divide, but because of institutional practices. There are exceptions, just as in classic Hollywood — Dave’s beloved Morrison and a few others — but the numbers come up short when you start bringing in not only American indepedents, but foreign artists as well.

    Dave, I’m afraid that I’ll have to cop out on any meticulous argument about the failing of SS, since, it was a couple years ago and, as I mentioned, I couldn’t make it through the thing. Much of even the “truly thought-provoking” superhero stories by the better writers of the genre amount to little more than beautiful shimmering structures with few particularly interesting panels. So I’m inlcined to follow Adorno in saying that the structure needs to be built on parts which are integrated and working with each other lest the Metropolis start sliding during the next rain, you know?

    — Charles R.

  8. Just to sink your teeth into: how about something like the Cornel Woolrich/Raymond Chandler separation here: Woolrich, like an Alan Moore, makes your teeth rattle with some of his prose, but his plots are enough to keep me entertained and even enthralled, but I’ll be damned if I want to reread him. Chandler, page by page, makes me linger and want to come back to visit.

  9. Dave, for me, if it’s boring or causes revulsion not due to the story itself but because of the construction of the words themselves, it’s poorly written. Similarly, if a comic book consists of page after page of 9 panel grids full of talking heads, that’s an example of a poorly written comic book: by poorly written, I literally mean ‘failing to take advantage of the possibilities inherent in the form’ when I speak of ‘poorly written autobio comics’.

    –Matt

  10. Matt, I agree about much of the autobio stuff, particularly the example you cite, but I think independent comics are much more likely to foster interesting themes than the mainstream, not because of some phony ‘realism vs. fantasy’ divide, but because of institutional practices. There are exceptions, just as in classic Hollywood — Dave’s beloved Morrison and a few others — but the numbers come up short when you start bringing in not only American indepedents, but foreign artists as well.

    I think we’re kind of arguing at cross purposes here: I’m arguing on behalf of a genre of comic book, that is, the fantastic/superhero tale, while you’re arguing for a means of production, that is, independent/small publishing. Does that seem accurate to you? It may be that to date, the big comics publishers in the US have been pretty close to exclusively superhero/fantasy (I count most of Vertigo’s output as fantasy, because really, any tale of the fantastic is fantasy, be it science fiction, sword and sorcery, whatever…) but that, to me, isn’t an indictment of the *genre* as much as it is an indictment of the publishers. What’s mainstream and what’s ‘indie’ (to borrow a term from music) changes over time. In the 1950’s, cowboy stories and true romance comics were mainstream. Right now, Manga is making a big push into the mainstream.

    Are foreign artists independent just because they’re not being published by the big two (or three, or four) American companies? Is Dark Horse mainstream or independent?

    All of that can possibly be seen as unimportant compared to the discussion of which is more likely to produce ‘interesting themes’ because, well, what are the interesting themes? To me, Superman over his sixty year history has produced plenty of interesting themes. I’m interested in them, so they’re interesting to me. Meanwhile, I couldn’t be less interested in the themes in Harvey Pekar’s work. But is that because of the thematic strength or weakness, or is it just because Pekar leaves me cold? I honestly couldn’t tell you: in part, I think it’s because I can get what Pekar’s trying to do from William Golding, and enjoy the ride more. But that’s not a thematic weakness… the themes of, say, unflinching honesty about one’s self, are worth pursuing… I just find Pekar’s stuff to be tiresome and uninteresting.

    –Matt

  11. Well, Matt, I can’t say I really disagree with anything you’ve said. I think it’s important in these type of discussions to understand what’s typically meant by a condemnation of a genre is a condemnation of means of production. Genres are rarely pure and are using marketing tools, after all. We can argue ad infinitum about whether more freedom is allowed independent or mainstream artists. And I’m sure you’d be able to point many mainstream books with content that was of the artist’s choosing. And I’d return by saying something to the effect that most mainstream artists are inherently more limited by what they have to include in such books, but that doesn’t mean interesting things can’t come out of such constraints. I’ve had this argument more times than I can count on the web, but I still see a higher portion of crappy superhero books to my reckoning. Just like I see a higher portion of crappy Hollywood films, despite a few illustrious examples in the history of the sudios. I suppose it comes down to whether you’re counting such artists as exceptions or rules. I don’t understand why anyone would count them as the latter, but such is my bias (based on the facts of the matter, I believe, but maybe you’d disagree).

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