The (New) Frontier (Anti)Thesis; or, one spaz in East Lansing tests the hypothesis that he has no audience by punning on the minutiae of American historiography! (anyone else got a Frederick Jackson Turner joke to share?)
(Soundtrack: Bikini Kill — Reject All-American)
So! You ask New Frontier to (boldly) go to Hell, and you get talked about, apparently! It’s not good talk–but it is talk, nonetheless! On the other hand, it is kind of liberating to know that a lot of the people who stop by this blog are only doing so in search of (further) proof of my insanity! What more could a writer ask for?
But let’s be cheezy and ponder what “little epiphany” we can derive from this particular “story arc”, shall we? Really, the best answer I can give to that question is that the “superhero genre” is a chimera that has outlived whatever usefulness it ever had. My initial contention was that Darwyn Cooke had given us Top Gun in superhero drag–but I’m forced to reconsider this statement by the fact that, for an awful lot of intelligent people (and I certainly include ADD and Chris Butcher in that group), New Frontier does represent something like the quintessence of the “genre”. I can only infer from this that they are talking about a completely different genre from the one I make a habit of discussing here (the most impressive recent exemplar of which is certainly The Filth… and that reminds me! I really do want to know how Chris plans to align Morrison and Cooke’s respective works–cause I don’t see it at all!)
I think I’m going to stop using the word “superhero” entirely. Criticism is supposed to be about precision, after all, and this term causes nothing but trouble. How about neo-existentialist romance? Don’t know ’bout you–but I like it. It eliminates the “heroism”–which is all to the good. Getting rid of the “super” is good too, because the “powers” manifested by the inhabitants of the genre that I’m interested in are not “super” at all–they’re an existential spotlight. They don’t separate the strong from the weak, or anything like that; they sharpen our focus upon the plight of the human subject. To introduce a familiar dichotomy from romantic literature–these are representative figures (as in Emerson), not “heroes” (to be worshipped, or deferred to–as in Carlyle).
Another benefit of looking at this stuff through the lens that I’m proposing here is that it liberates me (and maybe you too–if you can stop thinking about the comics industry) from having to act as if it’s more important for me to know about “Comics” (and manga too, apparently!) than about the history of literature, film and philosophy, when I want to speak about specific stories that have been conveyed to us in the guise of sequential art. I make no bones about it–I practice narratological criticism. I’m interested in stories as stories, and I don’t particularly care what “medium” they reach me through. There are, to be sure, comics artists whose work impresses me as fine art (Infantino, Schulz, Ditko, Colan, Sim, Barks, Simonson, Steranko, Wood, Eisner, J. Hernandez, and, yes, Darwyn Cooke, etc.)–but I’m not really qualified to say much about that, and, unless these folks happened to participate in the telling of a fascinating story (and, happily, many of them have), you won’t hear much about them from me!
Should all “comics criticism” be narratologically oriented? Of course not. Although it would be nice to see some of it outside of old lettercols and the blogosphere! The lack of “narratological awareness” (which is sort of like the reverse of “cosmic awareness”) amongst the canonizers has led us to inadequate genre-categorizations based upon purely visual elements (which can be reduced to one annoying, all-pervasive term: “spandex”), when, again, it is clear (to me at least!) that there aren’t many similarities between Cooke’s epic and the kinds of stories that I enjoy thinking about.
New Frontier, as I say, is Top Gun. It’s Star Wars. It’s Joseph fucking Campbell. I have nothing against these things except that I hate them all. (Which does not mean that I hate you, dear reader, if you happen to like them!) I can’t help it. I was born hating them, and it’s not gonna change. These are narratives that tell the story of a hero’s progress toward awareness of his/her role in the universe. They’re about finding your place in society, and, upon reaching this (dubious) place of “enlightenment”, acting decisively in accordance with the dictates of the universe. It’s a premodern narrative which presupposes that there’s a reason for everything, and that “happiness” lies in figuring out where you fit into the “big picture”.
The “superhero” stories that I’m interested in proceed from the exact opposite assumption–i.e. that there isn’t any order except that which we impose upon the world. Moreover, our awareness of our own subjective role in this production of meaning short-circuits our ability to believe in anything as “absolutely real”. All truths become provisional truths–which does not mean that we can do without them! By the same token, all decisions become provisional decisions (which, again, doesn’t absolve us from the duty to make them, it merely deprives us of the satisfaction of ever feeling that we’ve made the–objectively–“right” decision) It’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this right? In New Frontier, there’s only one decision to make, right? Destroy the monolith! All of the supporting characters agree that this is what the heroes must do. There is no inner conflict here. Does Peter Parker ever have the luxury of so clearcut a choice? No way. He chooses–but there’s always some residual responsibility left undischarged. Right?
A big part of my problem with New Frontier goes way beyond a silly disagreement about comic book genres and into the realm of the political. This series is like a crazy nexus where the American passion for “innocence” in the political, aesthetic, and religious spheres all collide. There’s the fucked-up myth of Kennedy (“if they hadn’t killed him he would have kept us out of Vietnam and preserved the American Dream”–uh, no…and, obviously, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy in 1960–I’m just saying, the guy was a machine politician like any other, not the “good daddy” some people want to make of him); there’s the weird TCJ-fanboy obsession with the oppressed craftsman-gods, chained to their desks like ink-stained promethei, their beautiful pages ripped from their groins by corporate vultures every morn; and then there’s the whole “superhero-as-myth/symbol-of-uncorrupted-goodness syndrome”. Each of these ideas are linked by the will to believe in an Edenic time before the “horrible present”, a time in which “good and evil” were easy to distinguish from one another, and every decision was final. And, again, my contention is that this is a “retconjob”. The silver age was never actually like this… Not in my reading anyway. It was more like The Filth than a lot of people seem ready to accept. And, as always, I maintain that the “shortest distance” from “now” (Morrison) to “then” (the sixties at Marvel–and even at DC) is through Mark Gruenwald’s work.
I have to go in a sec, but think about what I’ve said in relation to DP 7. Or The Pitt. Or The Draft. Or almost any of the “New Universe” stuff. Are these “superhero comics”? DP 7 is a “32-issue limited series” in which the “superteam” spend their entire lives on the run from a Foucaultian Clinic, whose representatives play havoc with their memories and (para)personalites. At one point, Dr. Semple (a psychotherapist) observes that “the goal of all psychotherapies is attitude and behavior modification.” (this quotation could easily serve as the epigraph for a collection of Gruenwald stories!) These characters don’t wear spandex. They don’t have secret identities. And yet, the storyline they inhabit does share fundamental similarities with all of the “superhero” stuff that I’m interested in–from Ditko to Morrison.
Gotta go! But here’s a page from DP 7 Annual #1 that really cuts to the heart of what I’m talking about!
Good Day Friends!