Month: October 2004


“What God? Whose God? Yours?
This isn’t a house of God – this
is a meeting place for hypocrites.”

(Soundtrack: Holly Golightly – The Good Things)

John Holbo has been doing some interesting thinking of late about Zizek and Melville’s Confidence Man.

There’s a brief follow-up post on Elmer Gantry that helps to anchor the discussion in a 20th century pop culture context. It’s a great movie (and if you got to know Shirley Jones through The Partridge Family, all I can say is that you’re in for a surprise!):

Still, when it comes to films that explore the strange intellectual world of the charismatic American figure who (to borrow from Courtney Love) “fakes it so real, they are beyond fake”, you still can’t beat Frank Capra. Meet John Doe may be the most penetrating study of the “ungroundability” of messianism ever produced, and The Miracle Woman (an earlier attempt to deal with the same problem) features an even more nuanced look at the evangelist than Gantry, because Stanwyck eschews Lancaster’s snakeoil salesman mannerisms:

Her Florence Fallon is, in fact, far more aware of the contradictions inherent in her “inspired imposture” than Gantry is, and this is evident from the very beginning of the film, which erupts immediately into one of the most intense Jeremiads ever committed to celluloid (the title of this little post is taken from one of its milder moments, but it’s not really the words that are important, it’s all in her delivery, and in her wild rampage up and down the aisles, abetted by Joseph Walker’s amazing camera!), as Stanwyck excoriates her dead father’s congregation for their worldliness. She drives them all out of the church, but it’s clear that, with her gift, she could easily reverse the polarity of her zeal and draw them in.

This is exactly what happens when she joins forces with promoter Sam Hardy (whose motto is “the only way to lick a mob is to join ’em”). The Capra film is no cheap expose of “fake religion”–it’s a dramatization of the nightmare of communication. Perhaps the only “true statement” that can be made about “the human condition” is that no one “understands” anyone else–everyone, no matter how well-intentioned, is guilty of ruthlessly transforming others into symbols, and capitalizing upon their own “availability” (in the political sense) as fetish-objects. Melville was absolutely right. In a liberal-democracy, the problem of “confidence” is EVERYTHING.

Good Evening Friends!


S-One-Double-yous vs. Dubya’s SS

(Soundtrack: Public Enemy –Apocalypse ’91)

(When’s Marvel gonna give this superteam their own series, hunh? Maybe Warren Ellis could write it…)

Upon further review, and thanks to the timely publication of Locas (but why so motherfuckin’ expensive Fantagraphics? Sure it’s a big book, but why HARDCOVER? Don’t you want all of the young punks–and threadbare scholars–to own this masterwork? Or are you only interested in catering to nostalgic 40-something accountants who like to pose as “alternative”?), I’ve decided that my course next semester will play up the superhero-punk link (I managed to slip in the order for Jaime’s book just under the wire…now let’s hope the kids can shell out the 50 plus dollars!).

This is a theme that I’ve discussed often on this site, but I’m not sure how seriously people have taken it. I assure you that I take it very seriously–the proof of which will be the syllabus that I’m hard at work on as we speak! We’ll still be reading Animal Man, Watchmen, Kingdom Come, Dark Knight Returns, Squadron Supreme, and Emerson, but I’m adding Locas, a lot of punk music by Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Team Dresch, the Minutemen, and Public Enemy (didn’t you know the PE were punks? sure they are!! Young people who don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from who want to change the world, gifted with the power to express themselves and a tiny bit of moral leverage, thanks to the gap between theory and practice in Liberal-Democracy that we generally call hypocrisy… that’s a punk! that’s also pretty much my definition of a superhero), and as many photocopies of punk zines as I can gather up on my own (I’m also very interested in the idea of setting things up so that we, as a class, can follow an ongoing webstrip or two throughout the semester–anyone got any suggestions? Again–I’ve got until December to make these decisions)… We will also, most definitely, be watching movies, and I think Meet John Doe is more important to my conception of the class than ever, but I’m still vacillating on some of the others (although Bamboozled–which I predict will emerge as Spike Lee’s masterpiece, when future scholars look back on his career–is now firmly entrenched on the scheduel too…)

Alright, time to correct some papers!

Go Sox!

Good Evening Friends!


Because YOU (well, Charles) Demanded It!

In the comments-thread attached to my post from a couple of days ago, Charles R. asked (and there’s some backstory to this in the preceding comments):

It’s irrelevant whether there’s an infinite amount of possible interpretations. There’s not an infinite amount of existing ones that apply equally well for evaluating all particular readings. Otherwise, you’ve no grounds to say some readings are less valid than others. You’ve already eliminated the text (“the only limitations on a text are the ones put there by readers”), so there must be some extratextual basis for rejecting some interpretations as being inferior to others. Why must there be? Well, why would anyone give 2 squats about taking a course from you? Hell, why would you even care to teach a course where every student is just as right as you are or has every ounce of value in his initial interpretation that you do on your seventh reading. Maybe, you teach to expose them to even more interpretations (“they will have been forced to deal with my ideas concerning them”), but that’s not a justification, only some impulse existing in you. And why these texts? When all texts apply no limitations of there own, any is as good as any other for proving whatever ideological point you’re forcing your students to encounter. Hell, why not just tell them your ideological stance, write a public essay on it without the nuisance of references? It’ll save a lot of time that way. But, then again, no one would be able to determine what point you were trying to delimit with the essay, so scratch that. Ah well, you catch my drift.

But really, David, assuming some moral analogue between an individual who gets god-like power from red light and a kid from Urban Detroit, who just happens to be impoverished in the confines of the last remaining superpower is fatuous at best. You might have something of a valid point if you were teaching the Bush twins or the Hilton sisters, but I doubt it.

here’s my reply


I think it’s VERY important to remind Americans (including middle or lower-middle class kids from suburban Detroit!) that they ARE privileged, and that it’s not just George Bush and his cronies that are fucking up the world, it’s ALL of us… Every realization of this fact constitutes an “origin story”, of sorts. There are so many ways to build upon that fundamental analogy, and if you’re interested to know what I’ve tried to do with it in the past year, the archives are to your left!

on the question of my choice of texts–well, if you can explain to me why you think these texts are banal, THEN we can have a conversation, but it’s not possible to do it this way! Is it only because the people that published them hoped to make money on the deal? Do you take a similar position vis-a-vis Hitchcock or Dickens? If so, don’t tell me! That would be FAR too depressing! From what I recall though, you’ve tended to argue that you “couldn’t slog through” superhero texts (even Grant Morrison?!!), and that’s fine… However, in that case, you owe it to the world (and the texts!) to suspend your judgments of them! I don’t write about things that, for whatever reason, don’t engage my interest, because I fully believe that it’s MY FAULT that I can’t rise to challenge of thinking seriously about them… What makes you any different? I need hardly add that it is my sincere belief that, if you can’t see anything interesting in Watchmen or Animal Man, then it’s because you’ve been reading with “this is pop crap” blinkers on. In case you haven’t noticed, an imperative of my scholarly project (as opposed to my literary project, which is quite different!) has been (and continues to be) to expose the shallowness of Americans’ understanding of their own most deeply fascinating (and characteristic) cultural products–like superhero comics, Hollywood romantic comedies and “weepers”!

You’ve said a mouthful about academia (Charles is “disgusted” by the thought of kids reading “corporate comics” in the hallowed halls!), but what do you really know about it? Are you a professor or grad student? If you are then could you please explain to me how you made it so far with such strange ideas? Will I merely be standing up there declaring my views? Of course! That’s what all professors do! That’s what I’m doing this semester with Emerson and Frederick Douglass and Margaret Fuller. The proviso is that I must use the texts to illustrate my points, and this gives students the leverage to disagree with my interpretations, and to come up with their own. It’s all happening in front of their eyes–and I have NO WISH to appear “objective”.

This is an experiment–I’m searching for ways to force the students to become more conscious of their involvement (and mine!) in the interpretive process. We’ll set up a list-serve to which students will be responsible for writing “letters” concerning individual issues (I will stand in for the “editors”–a nice way of acknowledging the privileged position of the instructor), and everyone will be responsible for considering the ways in which this interplay affects their developing sense of what’s going on the texts!

I’m still thinking all of this through (the syllabus isn’t due until late December!), but Charles certainly hasn’t succeeded in dampening my enthusiasm. Anyone else have any thoughts on these matters?

Good Night Friends!


Do or Dieterle!

(Soundtrack: Prozac+ —3Prozac+)

I’ve often ranted about William Dieterle in this space. He, along with Frank Borzage, is one of the cornerstones of the “soft-boiled noir” tradition I hope to write something substantial about one of these fine days… So naturally I’m pleased that the good folks at MGM DVD (who seem to have acquired the rights to all of the Selznick International films) have seen fit to release two of the unacknowledged master’s mistier forties fantasies (now if only they’d put Love Letters, The Accused, Rope of Sand, Paid in Full, Dark City, Volcano into circulation–to say nothing of the insane
Juarez and Fog Over Frisco–which I must see before I die!–we’d really be getting somewhere!)

Anyway, for right now, put down that motherfuckin’ Star Wars Box Set and do yourself a favour friend–
I’ll Be Seeing You (a holiday melodrama starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten that Dieterle didn’t get a chance to finish himself–and it shows!–but there are more than enough brilliantly characteristic scenes–most of them involving Joseph Cotten’s attempt to deal with nerve-damage–to make up for that! The scene in the cafe with Chill Wills is, if you’ll pardon me, absolutely chilling–and the scene after the fight with the dog [“you’re in for it now, Zack…”] is unbelievable! Quite apart from this, the film does a magnificent job of forcing the viewer to participate in the intimacy of the “charmed interval”–blips of “tangible ephemerality” that humans build together and then savour until the inevitable “tragic word” or action dispells them…) and Portrait of Jennie (which is indescribably great–well, maybe I’ll try to describe it soon, but I doubt my powers! Among other things, the film is cinematographer Joseph August’s liebestode: he was so satisfied by the images he brought to light that he decided it was time to die just as they wrapped the shoot–and I, for one, think his judgment was sound. For now, let’s just call POJ Somewhere in Time to the power of ten and leave it at that!) await you in the classics section (assuming the store you buy DVDs from doesn’t suck, which is unlikely! I just laugh when comics people whine about their retailers…)

Also–I just read The Princess Casamassima! Henry James writing about anarchists! And brilliantly! Despite my love for his work (The Wings of the Dove would definitely place highly in any prose fiction top ten list I might assemble), I had always avoided the Master’s “social novels”, figuring that his genius simply could not accomodate itself to the demands of that genre… Suffice it to say–I was wrong!

Good Afternoon Friends!


Consider Yourselves–Warned!

(Soundtrack: Public Enemy — It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back)

The Rubicon is crossed! The books have been ordered! Next semester, my intro to American radical thought course will have a much more contemporary flavour! Inspired by the readings and research I’ve been doing for my own graduate courses, I’ll be zeroing in on questions of power & responsibility–particularly “radical”, “liberal” and “reactionary” approaches to the use of violence as a political tool. Is there any doubt that superhero comics deal more directly with these issues than any works of mass culture ever have? The texts I’ve chosen are Animal Man, vols 1 to 3, The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Kingdom Come, and Squadron Supreme. I’m nowhere near done the syllabus, but I know I’m throwing Emerson into the mix, plus viewings of I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Meet John Doe, Moby Dick, Fight Club, and, quite possibly, Pola X!

Now, I ask you, what more could any freshman want?

Good Night Friends!


Is this a Shit-Knife I see before me?

(Soundtrack: New Kingdom–Paradise Don’t Come Cheap)

Question–has anyone written anything about “anti-fanboyism” in comics? I’m thinking about the distinctly complicitous relationship that exists between a site like Fanboy Rampage and all of those superhero-centered messageboards that I would never in a million years even think about visiting if people like Graeme didn’t link to them…

Now, you might think that this is just Fiore trying to start trouble with “elitists” again (the only reaction to my comment on the latest Rampage post was “Motime was here”–I have no idea how to take that, but I know it ain’t conversation!), but it’s nothing of the sort! What it is, my friends, is a serious invitation to the more enlightened members of the North American comics community to consider what the figure of “the fanboy” means to them–and, furthermore, to ponder whether they can do without “him”. Why do people like Daniel Clowes waste their time parodying superheroes? (and, perhaps more importantly, why does Alan David Doane focus so obsessively upon this aspect of Eightball #23?) Why does every comic book fan who hopes to be taken seriously by her or his peers have to come forward with a “conversion narrative”, with the moment that they “realized that there is a whole world of art beyond the confines of the Marvel Universe” standing in for “God’s caress”? I understand that there are problems with the direct market and the public’s perception that “comics=superheroes” (although, on second thought, scratch that! I’m pretty sure that, if you conducted empirical research, you’d find that the average North American equates comics with the newspaper strips) Still, I don’t think this fully accounts for the pathological imperative, on the part of comics cognoscenti in general, to construct “Marvel Zombiedom” as a stage on the road to aesthetic maturity.

For a perfect example of this, see Bart Beaty’s essay on Cerebus in the latest TCJ (on the whole, I’m enjoying the issue immensely, by the way)… R. Fiore’s essay is even more mindlessly locked into this mode, while seemingly protesting against it (we won’t even bother to get into the question of what you “can” or “can’t do” with a narrative involving a “giant squirrel”!!)–imagine treating Sim’s Marvel parodies as anything like the heart of the graphic novel’s achievement! Sure, these little performances may have brought in some readers, but anyone who isn’t blinded by the weird politics of this subculture can see that they’re more important for what they reveal about the Roach than for what they say about “corporate comics”… Fiore is asking Sim to take the fall–unjustly!– for the entire North American comics community’s tendency to muddy the critical terrain by overemphasizing every work’s relationship to superheroes… (I’ll get back to Cerebus as soon as I can, friends, believe me!)

So! “Marvel” is something you “outgrow”. When you turn twelve. Or (as many of these folks like to put it) when you “discover girls”. And there is no going back! Oh, you can wax nostalgic about superheroes in an ironical way, and even buy all of the new issues of whatever titles you followed when you were a stupid punk who didn’t know any better, as long as you are careful to maintain an “oh, look how much money I’m wasting now” smirk on your face. The “fanboy” is the “mudsill class” of the comic book world–the “body in the foundation” of any enlightened fan’s self-respect. If “he” didn’t exist, they’d have to invent “him”. And, quite frankly, when I do glance at those Newsarama boards, I can’t help thinking that someone has! Extra copies “in case the pages stick together”?–get real!

Good Night Friends!


Ay oh, let’s go
Shoot’em in the back now
What they want, I don’t know
They’re all reved up and ready to

(Soundtrack: The Ramones)

(image courtesy of the extraordinary Silver Age Marvel Comics Cover Index, where you can find Mike Costa’s Bullpen Bulletins Page!)

There’s no contradicting Paul O’Brien‘s basic point that the Big Two Comic Book companies are now catering exclusively to hardcore fans. The problem with the article is that it fails to deal adequately with the fact (certainly since the dawn of Marvel–with DC quickly following suit–for what else does the rise of the Legion and its fandom represent, other than the “Marvelization” of creator-reader relations at the older company? The people actually voted for team leaders for Christ’s sake! That is major “fan entitlement”, no?) that this is exactly what has always set superhero comics apart from the other “popular arts” that O’Brien brings into the discussion. Things have come full circle–in more ways than one.

O’Brien laments the “near-total absence of anyone else” (other than hardcore fans) in the readership of these titles. But does this explain the perceived drop in vitality within the comics themselves? (and isn’t the massive expansion beyond the committed fanbase of the late-eighties/early-nineties usually cited as the (or, at least, “a”) point of no return?

From the beginning, Marvel explicitly demanded (in the caption boxes, in the footnotes, in the lettercols, in the Merry Marvel Marching Society publications) “total commitment” from all of its readers. Their strategy (both aesthetic and economic) was absolutely dependent upon the overnight construction of a rabidly loyal interpretive community. It was a newstand blitzkrieg–fan letters provided the backbeat. And DC was forced to adopt similar methods.

Does this compromise “aesthetic integrity”? Hell yes!–and thank God for that! Better to be honest about these important facts of life. And what’s the trade-off? An incredible infusion of vitality from interested narrative partisans, and a built-in defense against the type of “pandering” that has undeniably plagued less responsive “mass culture”. Can fans pander to themselves?

Hmm…from what I’ve seen of the past ten-fiften years worth of comics, it seems clear that they can. I love to place the whole blame on Marvels, but the truth is that Busiek and Ross are a symptom of the problem, not the true cause of it. They did play the decisive part in determining the form this pandering would take–the pathological return to “the origin”–but they could never have done it if a whole bunch of inept artist/writers hadn’t washed out the bridge between the current issues and the past that had sustained the “Marvel Story” from the beginning. This is one of the reasons I’m so interested in seventies/early-to-mid-eighties Marvels–these texts scrupulously avoided taking this route! And they were able to do it because they took it for granted that the readers knew–or knew where to access–every detail of the backstory. Whatever you think of their individual merits, it’s pretty clear that John Byrne (you could argue that it begins with the FF, and breaks into overt mutiny with Man Steel) and Frank Miller (Year One) began the assault upon the principle of “dynamic stasis”.

Now, far be it from me to tell people how to write their books, but it seems to me that Geoff Klock could have worked Bloomean wonders with Byrne and Miller’s respective powerplays, if he had been at all interested in exploring the superhero narrative as it existed before the “strong works” he zeroes in on. Is there any doubt that Byrne’s FF is in oedipal conflict with Jack Kirby? Or that all of Miller’s projects are driven by the anxiety of his influences? And these guys merely opened the floodgates for the Image crew a few years later. “Dynamic stasis” simply can’t survive this kind of treatment–instead of dialogic melodrama, narrative is appropriated as a weapon to be used in the struggle against the “honoured dead”, and the idea of superhero storytelling as a “relay race” (a philosophy adhered to by Walt Simonson–pretty much the only writer/artist who has used his “powers” responsibly, in this context) falls by the wayside.

So dynamic stasis evaporates. The treadmill (happy blogday, by the way H & Mag!) shudders to a halt, and all the hardcore fans are left with is a memory.

Which brings us up to date. Instead of an “eternal present”, kept vital by fan interest, we’re stuck in an “eternal past”, rendered impotent by completely unreconstructed fan nostalgia.

Good Night Friends!