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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!


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Good Day Friends!

Dave

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35 comments

  1. “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).”

    You could just read Love and Rockets and resolve this “problem.”

    “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.”

    This is absolute rubbish, and simply false. No where has the Journal or even its message board posters suggested that times were better for comic book creators before the 60s. Additionally, there’s been a good bit attention to the fact that many creators prefer working at the Big 2 today and are paid a good deal of money for doing so. Any FBI representative I’ve read acknowledges that their stable of regulars don’t earn as much as the more celebrated superhero creators of today. It’s pretty much taken for granted that superhero creators are treated much better than they used to be.

    Charles

  2. oh but I do read Love and Rockets Charles! Locas is a great example of “neo-existentialist romance”, and so, of course, I’m making it a cornerstone of my syllabus for next semester–along with Emerson, Animal Man, Public Enemy, Bikini Kill, Capra, Bamboozled, etc… Doesn’t this net me any credit for “pushing comics forward”?

    but as for TCJ and the oldsters! Come on Charles!! I never said that these folks believed that working conditions were better “back in the day”! On the contrary! This was the “heroic age” of craftsmanship! Are you telling me that many writers and readers of the journal don’t employ a double-standard when comparing the “genre work” of today to that which was produced in the past? Isn’t this a big part of good ol’ Domingos’ problem with TCJ? (Alex Toth is no auteur–what makes him more special than Todd MacFarlane? ) And he’s right!!!

    Dave

  3. Dave:

    Methinks you doth protest too much. Ease up on poor New Frontier! Actually, even though I still disagree with you about it, it’s always fun to read your thoughts — however, I wonder if you’re trying too hard. You say you hate things like New Frontier, and then you try to justify what, it seems, is a visceral reaction. You can’t justify gut reactions, can you? I hate Adam Sandler movies. Do I have to justify my hatred? I agree with you that there needs to be more good comics criticism, but can you really criticize something that you hate? Isn’t that ultimately just a review?

    As far as a distinction between “finding your place in society” and “no order but what you impose,” aren’t they but two sides of the same coin? What is society but that which we shape ourselves? One man might not be able to change society, but collectively, we all do. And if I’m reading you right (I could be wrong) you’re in favor of what could be called existential comics. That’s all well and good, but existentialism becomes boring after a while. People in general crave structure, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. I hated The Filth (sacrilege!) precisely because of its lack of cohesiveness and its pretty obvious attempts to be “smarter” than I could ever hope to be. Morrison is best when he imbues his work with some “humanity,” by which I mean narrative structure of, yes, characters trying to find their place in society.

    It’s all about taste, I would argue, and there’s really nothing wrong with escapist art — New Frontier is pretty escapist, which is, I think, what you’re getting at, and it could be argued that it resists your attempts to tear it down, just as Adam Sandler resists all our efforts to destroy him in favor of “smart” comedy like, hell, I don’t know, Ernie Kovacs (now that’s surrealism!). Yes, if one million people do (or read) a foolish thing, that doesn’t make it less of a foolish thing, but it also doesn’t mean it’s destroying literature as we know it.

    Thanks for keeping us all on our toes!

    Greg

  4. Dave, I don’t see the reason for bringing in slave-labor imagery if all you meant was they see Toth as a better craftsman than McFarlane. Simply looking at the work of each man should be good enough evidence for which is a better in that regard. The Image style isn’t highly regarded, that’s a fact, but not because it doesn’t live up to some golden age which didn’t exist, but because it’s incompetent on technical grounds which were demonstrated by certain artists in the Golden Age (and in the Silver Age, and in the Bronze Age, and even in the current age where Quitely is leaps and bounds above any Image artist).

    As for Domingos, his point is more narrative, if you like, that all superhero stories are stupid relative to what we see in novels or even films, so who really cares whether someone like Toth is a better craftsman than McFarlane, it’s all in the service of pretty much worthless crap.

    Charles

  5. “Yes, if one million people do (or read) a foolish thing, that doesn’t make it less of a foolish thing, but it also doesn’t mean it’s destroying literature as we know it.”

    But if a million people treat a foolish thing seriously, it might (rimshot!).

  6. Greg–you’re right, what I’ve done with New Frontier could never be confused with criticism! I certainly want to make that clear–I didn’t find it interesting enough to criticize! And, yeah, for sure, that definitely comes down to taste…you’ll never hear me claim that my tastes are superior to anyone else’s! On the other hand–I stand by my point about the superhero genre–i.e. that it’s made up of at least two completely different genres, and that this often is not acknowledged!

    Charles,

    sure, but MacFarlane did draw some nice pages before he was given the chance to script himself–he’s not a bad storyteller, and he actually has good design instincts, as far as I’m concerned! I like Infinity Inc. and I think he did some interesting work on that title… Abetted by, of course, Roy Thomas–who gets no credit at all as an “enabler of artistic innovation” (particularly in terms of layouts) in his collaborations with Gene Colan (especially on DD and Dr. Strange), Barry W-Smith, the Buscemas, Neal Adams–whom I don’t really like (on Avengers & X-Men), Ordway on the Earth-2 stuff, Guice on Dr. Strange, elsewhere, etc. Is MacFarlane really a less talented artist than Toth? Or did he just have the misfortune to begin his career after Gary Groth “came of age”? As for Domingos–well, his definition of the superhero genre is far too one-dimensional for me to take it seriously, but I do stand by his assertion that no amount of craft can make a sick narrative well (which doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy looking at the pictures!)

    Dave

  7. But if a million people treat a foolish thing seriously, it might (rimshot!).

    uh, rimshot, who are you to say what’s “foolish” and what isn’t? in the long run, it’s the critics who decide these matters–and you don’t do it by attacking a piece (I quite realize that my problems with New Frontier won’t–and shouldn’t–have any effect upon the work’s future renown; on the other hand, I just don’t see how anyone could possibly write anything in-depth about NF as a narrative structure, and, if I’m right, that doesn’t bode well for the book… Clearly, I feel differently about the stuff I really dive into (like Animal Man and Squadron Supreme, and, as soon as I can get to them–Locas, and Cerebus, etc.), but that doesn’t mean I’m making any claim that these things are–objectively–“great art”… It just means I found them fascinating enough to spend my time on them… as for what the future holds, who knows? We don’t have to discuss Herman Melville do we?

    Dave

  8. “uh, rimshot, who are you to say what’s “foolish” and what isn’t?”

    Dave, we’ll never come to an agreement on this, at least one which you’ll acknowledge openly as an agreement. A society where bubbleheaded blondes are the most celebrated musical artists is an impoverished one. Nevertheless, anyone who says the following while denying that he’s not making any qualitative judgments about anything is just ducking the issue:

    “Clearly, I feel differently about the stuff I really dive into (like Animal Man and Squadron Supreme, and, as soon as I can get to them–Locas, and Cerebus, etc.), but that doesn’t mean I’m making any claim that these things are–objectively–“great art”… It just means I found them fascinating enough to spend my time on them… as for what the future holds, who knows? We don’t have to discuss Herman Melville do we?”

    Substitute “feeling” for “thinking” if you want, but that doesn’t change what you’re doing, finding more worth in some objects over others. If you can’t defend the worthiness of studying what you’re studying, then it just might be because your subject is lacking. I know you do defend your taste, so falling back on a position which equates everyone’s taste doesn’t cut it; it’s disingenuous. Either you believe you’re able to say something worth saying about something worth talking about, or we should just let any 8 year old into the grad school of his choice. All well,

    Charles

  9. I have just as much of a right to say something is foolish as anyone does to say nothing is. You’d have to believe in foolishness to argue with me here.

  10. but Charles–the proof is in the pudding! We’ve fenced around this before–if my (or anyone else’s!) writing on Animal Man & Squadron Supreme (and I’m sure at least grant that what I do is genuinely the result of my passion for the books–I mean, why else would I do it? There’s more than enough canonical stuff that I love–and that I know I can say completely original things about!–for me to go on about them 24-7, if it was merely a question of maneuvering for academic prestige or some such nonsense…) succeeds in convincing a lot of people that there are matters of serious import to consider within these structures, then that will “prove” that this is, indeed, the (provisional) case… The criticism is actually the “primary text”–i.e. it takes precedence, in determining what “great art” is… and you know it takes a long time to sort these things out, even provisionally! Melville is the ultimate example of how this works–the guy was a best-selling genre writer who took to writing crazy books (in psychotically bizarre pseudo-Elizabethan cadences that anticipate Stan Lee’s Thor) that he referred to by various monstrous nicknames and was promptly dismissed by the establishment as a pleasing hack who had been smitten by delusions of grandeur and spoiled several forests’ worth of pages with pretentious nonsense! It didn’t sell–and it wasn’t well-regarded by 99% of critics either. 75 years later, Moby-Dick is a masterpiece all of a sudden (and I believe it is!), and now, 150 years after its publication, Pierre is finally beginning to get its due! (I’m writing a seminar paper on it this semester!)

    We’ve discussed this a bit with reference to Cavell and the romcoms–you know you can’t think of these films the same way you used to, after accompanying this critic on his excursions! One of my many goals (it’s certainly subservient to my goal of writing great novels) is to work a similar miracle in the field of “superhero” comics–and not just any “superhero” comics, but specifically the ones I like best. I like them because they get my mind going! Do I have what it takes to pass my enthusiasm on to wider audience? Who knows? Again–that’s something for posterity to decide. All I can do is advocate the things I love as passionately as the spirit moves me to! Whether I succeed or not isn’t even really the point!

    Dave

  11. David:

    I’m certainly glad you mentioned that you weren’t trying to critically analyze New Frontier. I definitely agree with you that it doesn’t warrant in-depth analysis, and I’m surprised that people are doing it. I enjoy it as a big-ass story about people fighting a big-ass threat, and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with that (well, maybe the price tag, but that’s another story). I can enjoy an brainless action movie as much as the next guy, but I’m not going to delve into it as “art.” I just bought “The Simpsons and Philosophy: the D’oh! of Homer.” Do The Simpsons really warrant an entire book devoted to its philosophy? Who knows? Someone obviously thought so. When we get critical analysis of Jean-Claude van Damme’s movies, then I’ll know we’ve gone too far!

    Greg

  12. well see that’s the thing–you could always be proven wrong about this stuff, so why bother pretending that there’s any scientific way to identify a masterpiece aborning? Even (especially!) hardcore proponents of “intrinsic aesthetic value” will tell you that great art creates its own rules… I think they’ve got it half-right, anyway: what they really mean is that “great art” calls for an unprecendented and courageous critical response. Which means that, if you really want to make a critical impact, you have to risk making a fool of yourself. All you’ve got to go on is a feeling that the thought & emotions that are stirred within you by the work in question are worth communicating to the world! This imperative may lead you to glory–and it might lead you right off of a cliff! Either way, it’s exciting! Are people really delving into the structure of New Frontier? I would certainly like to read that. So far I’ve seen a lot of stuff (some of it by people that I like a lot, like Ian Brill in this post, and, of course, Abhay’s & James’ comments here the other day) that laud the series for its dynamic visual style and its greatness as an homage–but I haven’t observed anyone diving into the narrative for some excitable close-reading + riffing on the ideas (both philosophical & narratological) contained therein! I don’t believe it can be done in good faith–but criticism is about proving that kind of statement wrong, and I’d certainly be open to reading something that rendered everything I’ve said on this subject moot (except for the “two genres” thing!)

    Dave

  13. Jaime Hernandez once said that if being called a cartoonist was good enough for Charles Schulz, then it was good enough for him. i think that that you can apply that to the term “superhero,” because if it’s good enough for Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and certainly Mark Gruenwald, then it’s good enough for me.
    However, I don’t really consider most of Moore and Morrison’s output to be “superheroes.” I don’t know what the alternative term should be, but these are deconstructionist works, that usually attempt to say something using “superheroes” as a vehicle, not as a means to an end. These “deconstructionist” works (Watchmen/Animal Man/Promethea/Miracleman/Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man/etc.) are a subset of the “superhero” “genre.”
    The New Fontier is a fine superhero comic. But it’s a prime example of another sub-category, the “retro-nostalgia” form (see Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, Mark Waid, Steve Rude, etc.). Does The New Frontier deserve volumes of insightful criticism devoted to it. Not really, but I’m happy to read insightful criticism devoted to just about any comic. You’ve mentioned the effect criticism had on Melville’s legacy. Where are the books devoted to Alan Moore’s work? Or Grant Morrison’s work? Or Jack Kirby’s work?
    A lot of these discussions can be dismissed as self-important navel gazing, but I think that they can be fruitful. By the way, even though I often disagree with what you write (and I am going to get around to reading your paper on Squadron Supreme!), I appreciate that you’re asking questions that hardly anyone else is, either in print or online. Personally, I would love to see your work in The Comics Journal.

    Colin Blanchette

  14. “neo-existentialist romance”

    Are you just determined to complicate matters or what? None of the genres we recognize have particularly useful names. “Superhero” is no more clumsy than “science fiction” if you want to break it down. “Western” is almost totally useless. And spending time debating such does neither you or your readers any good. But, you know, it is *your* blog.

    Also: manga *are* comics. So, um, yeah. Do you separate American and French films by anything more than country of origin? Are they different art forms? Different mediums? Of course not. But I guess if you’re determined to completely disembody comics (they’re independent texts, their creators and creators’ working/living concerns are irrelevant, etc.) then I can almost see how simply reading right-to-left would make it a whole “other thing.”

    Why can’t you critically investigate a book you hate? How is one’s criticism in that regard hampered in a way that differs from critiquing a book they love? (Keeping in mind I don’t think “hate” and “love” are actually *opposites*; if you do, feel free to ignore all that, I guess.)

    Two-genres: So what? Must a food critic constantly remind us that cakes are made with both eggs and milk? The superhero genre has subsumed its two (or more, depending on where you’re coming from) sources– much the same as the comics medium has subsumed its own.

    –James (who seems to be ending every sentence with a question mark these days?)

  15. oh but I never said that you couldn’t write criticism about a book that you hate (I hate Dark Knight Returns–or, at any rate, it really bugs me!), but you can’t do it properly if the work bores you. (and I agree–love and hate are almost the same thing; but I don’t really hate New Frontier–except for the Kennedy stuff… I just can’t think of anything about the narrative structure that’s interesting in any way…although it does usefully bring together just about every single element of the “superhero gestalt” that I can do without!)

    Yes. No question. Manga are comics. I only phrased it that way because you can get lynched in the blogosphere these days for ignoring the “manga phenomenon”. My point remains the same–there are only so many hours in the day…you can’t know about everything! I don’t take a person writng about a contemporary novel to task for “ignoring” nineteenth century American, British, French, and Russian lit!

    As for the genre question–well, yeah, for sure, genre names are all bad…the only point I want to establish is that, really, there are an awful lot of different types of stories going around wearing “spandex”, and you certainly wouldn’t know it from reading a lot of the people who seem to think they know all about the “limitations” of the “superhero genre”…

    Dave

  16. Say my name and I shall appear.

    You’re right Dave, I haven’t gotten too much into the narrative because to me that’s not the most exciting or interesting part of New Frontier. I remember when the series was coming out my friends and I going “we know the end will just be the Justice League going up against some monster (we thought it would be Starro) but that will be a gorgeous looking battle scene!” And it was!

    I went it to New Frontier in this essay from when I first had a blog. I praise it for its visual look mostly and that’s still what I love about. The narrative, to me, is just an excuse to see Cooke draw the shit of the Silver Age DC.

    I must say I do enjoy the characterizations of Martian Manhunter, Hal Jordan and others. I like how Cooke doesn’t shy away from the paranoia and racism of the 50’s. I believe Cooke put that stuff, the problems of the 1950’s that were boiling up and eventually exploded in the 60’s and 70’s, in the book to parallel the rise of the Silver Age superheroes. I found it to be a decent little storytelling device.

    I understand that you’re coming to NF from an entirely different direction from me. In this case (certainly not all) I care how a story is being told rather than what is being told. You care about the narrative above how the book looks. That’s cool and that’s why I love reading your blog. You’re hardly the first blogger to not enjoy NF (both Dorian Wright and Sean T. Collins didn’t seem too impressed and they’re two of the greatest minds the comics blogosphere has ever seen). As for insanity, I believe that anybody who starts a blog about comic books is a little insane, in a good way.

    Ian Brill

  17. God damn it, I feel like a punk for getting dragged into this… but…

    “I don’t take a person writng about a contemporary novel to task for ‘ignoring’ nineteenth century American, British, French, and Russian lit!”

    Well, if said imaginary critic is writing about the novel form in such a way as to come across as totally ignorant of the history of said form, and in such a way as it invalidates/compromises his criticism of the modern medium, then yes, I would definitely castigate said critic for his ignorance, and therefore ignore everything he said in the future.

    “Either know what you’re talking about or shut up” is a fair yardstick for critical competence on which I think we can all agree, right?

  18. Dave,

    “There’s more than enough canonical stuff that I love–and that I know I can say completely original things about!–for me to go on about them 24-7, if it was merely a question of maneuvering for academic prestige or some such nonsense…) succeeds in convincing a lot of people that there are matters of serious import to consider within these structures, then that will “prove” that this is, indeed, the (provisional) case… The criticism is actually the “primary text”–i.e. it takes precedence, in determining what “great art” is… and you know it takes a long time to sort these things out, even provisionally!”

    That’s only true if the art is a purely objective substance. You play into this separation of the subject and object when suggesting that meaning is supplied by the reader alone. Another possible view — the correct one, I’d suggest — is that the critic and the work are like 2 vibrating qualities that come into sync, giving rise to something that’s novel and not reducible to either end of the relation. The weaker the art, the more the critic/reader will have to bring to the table to say anything interesting; the stronger the art, the more likely many its interaction with critics/readers will produce something of lasting worth. Thus, the weaker the art, the more the criticism becomes the “primary text”. At best, your exploration of superhero comics shows that the theoretical/philosophical touches everything, but that’s an argument for the aptness of a particlar theory or philosophy, not the value of the work itself. Britney Spears conjures up all sorts of critical theory in my head (she and Adorno “get my mind going”), but that’s not an argument for the value of studying her music as serious art, only that there is something serious to be said about her art. Everything talks, we’re in a world of semiotic cues, but that doesn’t mean judgment loses its importance — quite the contrary, in fact, if we’re to have any sort of control over what’s constantly coming in. Information is not power.

    You mentioned Stan Lee. There’s that continuing debate over what he added to the stories he was involved with. One could go through an indepth analysis, demonstrating Lee’s auteur status, structurally comparing the works of Kirby and Ditko without Lee to those with him, and this would be a way of showing the importance of such a theory in collaborative artworks, but who really wants to delve that deeply into a bunch of Lee’s writing to do such a thing? It doesn’t add up to much in the end. Whoever was primarily responsible was responsible for some not particularly good writing.

    I agree that critics are often wrong, letting their biases blind them to the worth of some work, but is it the same sort of blindness that makes it easy to dismiss 70s Spiderman comics as many once dismissed Hitchcock? Hitchcock is a fund of philosophical themes that is never reducible to those themes, but I’m willing to look the fool and say Conway is not. Sure you can talk seriously about the latter, but that’s not the same as helping to establish his work as being worth serious study. You’d need the work itself to help in that regard, and it ain’t doing much of the heavy lifting. This is another way of saying great art should question our categories, not really as some say “creates its own rules” for it might be a matter of laying truth bare (our categories are sometimes right, sometimes wrong), nor really as you say, “calls for an unprecendented and courageous critical response,” for criticism can be unprecendented and/or courageous without the art being so.

    Charles

  19. Dave–

    I’m willing to bet you’d take a person to task if his ignorance of the history of the field hampered his criticism (which is why you have a blog and I don’t).

    Limitations of genre– I think that hinges on how you’re defining the genre to begin with. Trying to map my own definition onto NEW FRONTIER, I realize that the book isn’t really *about* much beyond the actual plot– which may be why it bores you so.

    The essay I would write would focus more on the mechanics of the thing, which would likely bore you as well.

    –James

  20. goods stuff here folks!

    time to put aside the oatmeal!

    Tim, you say:


    Either know what you’re talking about or shut up” is a fair yardstick for critical competence on which I think we can all agree, right?

    And I do agree–but then we are faced with the problem of what’s relevant to the discussion, and what isn’t! I could make a serious argument that any critic talking about any American cultural artifact who doesn’t know Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville by heart “cannot know what he/she is talking about”… but that’s because of the particular (largely philosophical) lens through which I evaluate art… I don’t ask everyone to take the same approach–all I ask is that they know what they need to know in order to do a good job of whatever they have set out to do… and, of course, I do appreciate being shown the same consideration! It is really not necessary for me to know Nausicaa (which I don’t) or Cerebus (which I do) in order for me to delve into Squadron Supreme… right?

    And Charles–well, we agree that the art needs the critic and the critic needs the art, but we part where you contend that a critic could ever be “compensating” for the inadequacies in a “primary text”. I can see that this might be the case in a cheezy paper where the critic goes on at tedious length trying to make a previously unheralded work look spiffy, by leaching off of works that have preceded it into the canon…but that’s certainly not what I do! If you read the Squadron Supreme paper, you can see that, whatever merit my ideas or writing might have (and I’m quite willing to admit that there may not be any merit in these things!), the entire argument emerges from the the text itself–it’s all right there on the page! Nowhere do I say “you must believe that this is a great work”, but I do say that, if you are pay attention to the way in which this narrative is structured, you might begin to see just how compellingly it stages the drama of undecidability. Doesn’t that “lay bare” something important? It seems to me that it does. Moreover–a narrative is always more interesting than any philosophy that might inform it–because narrative is life itself! Philosophizing is just what we do when we’re on a holiday from life… That’s why, no matter what theories I might apply to the books, comics, or films I study, it’s always the story, and the “story I tell about the story” that matters, not the tools that help me do it!

    Dave

  21. James wrote:


    Limitations of genre– I think that hinges on how you’re defining the genre to begin with. Trying to map my own definition onto NEW FRONTIER, I realize that the book isn’t really *about* much beyond the actual plot– which may be why it bores you so.

    I don’t see why–you aren’t boring me right now!

    But hey–I’m not asking for stories to be about more than their plots! As a close-reader who obsesses on narrative choices, shifts in focalization,etc. I pay an awful lot of attention to plot (at its root, narratology is the study of how “plot” is used to convey the “story”–to use the good old “New” Critical terms)! No story, really, is ever about anything besides itself… right?

    Dave

  22. I think I would get very bored if I *only* liked fiction that held that “there isn’t any order except that which we impose upon the world.” I mean, I love the last two seasons of THE SOPRANOS, but I love THE LORD OF THE RINGS, too. Life is too crazy to say with certainty that there can’t possibly be a big picture to fit into–to argue that is to argue for a “big picture” view itself, is it not?

  23. Sean,

    you’re right to point out that my contention that certainty is always pernicious is a kind of certainty…

    that doesn’t help me out of my quandary, however (i.e. I really hated Star Wars as a kid–I saw the first one in the theatre, when I was 4–and it wasn’t because I had decided beforehand not to like it on theoretical grounds, you know? it’s just the way I am…)

    but I don’t think I’m in any danger of ever tiring of existential romance… perhaps if the works in question did nothing more than harp on the formula that you quote, I would… but the modern age (and by that I mean–the post-Reformation era) has produced so many fascinating and complex works that grow out of this fundamental view of the human condition that I don’t worry about ever tiring of this stuff–I only worry about dying before I get a chance to read/watch/see more than 1% of it! I mean, how many people love spider-man, Barbara Stanwyck weepies, the Maltese Falcon, Little Women, Keats, Frank O’Hara, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Bronte, and Kierkegaard with the kind of all-embracing fervor that I do? I don’t feel limited!

    Dave

  24. “Life is too crazy to say with certainty that there can’t possibly be a big picture to fit into–to argue that is to argue for a “big picture” view itself, is it not?”

    An “incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard) (i.e., “big pictures”) is no more a metanarrative than atheism is a religion (something lots of Christians try to argue).

    As for The Lord of the Rings, with its elegiac yearning for a Grand Narrative from an era of degraded modernization, I’d say that it foreshadows — presumably despite Tolkien’s desires — Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism that I quoted above. But yeah, there’s plenty of of good non-incredulous stuff out there, but a lot of it ends up more incredulous than it’s maybe supposed to be, and The Lord of the Rings is actually a great example of that.

  25. Steven wrote:

    But yeah, there’s plenty of of good non-incredulous stuff out there, but a lot of it ends up more incredulous than it’s maybe supposed to be, and The Lord of the Rings is actually a great example of that.

    exactly–any narrative can be deconstructed (if you’re on board with Lyotard at any rate!)…Storytelling itself–as something that comes out of nothing–always betrays its own lack of foundations… although I prefer to focus on the works that seem to me to be conscious participants in this kind of thinking…

    Dave

  26. “exactly–any narrative can be deconstructed (if you’re on board with Lyotard at any rate!)…Storytelling itself–as something that comes out of nothing–always betrays its own lack of foundations… although I prefer to focus on the works that seem to me to be conscious participants in this kind of thinking…”

    Sorry, Dave: _The Lord of the Rings_ is actively deconstructing itself, and is postmodern, all the way through the text. Moreover, if you read the work carefully, that point is fairly, almost immediately, explicit.

    Rob Hermann

  27. perhaps Rob–and since there’s no way I’m ever going to read it, I’ll just have to take your word for it…

    Dave

  28. “perhaps Rob–and since there’s no way I’m ever going to read it, I’ll just have to take your word for it…”

    Spoken like the truly open-minded critic!

    I guess every time you pause to bash it, then, I’ll just have to stop and remind myself that you -haven’t actually read it- and don’t ever plan to. How enlightening this all has been.

    Dr Hermann

  29. hey, I read the Hobbit, and that was enough–no matter how long my life winds up being, there will never be time for that stuff… We all have our regions of interest, after all… I’m glad that you enjoy it, though…

    Dave

  30. Ironically, the series might be a reference to Kennedy’s speech, but Nixon also made a New Frontier speech. I’d like to see that integrated into the political commentary of “Us vs. them” simplicity in the story (even though I love New Frontier).
    Robby

  31. This has nothing to do with New Frontier, but I was reading an interview with Morrison where he was explaining about a fifities Superman. One where Superman developed a new power in which a smaller, more powerful Superman came out of his hand. by the end of the book Superman begins to become paranoid about being ignored when this smaller Superman is around.

    He basically explained that his stuff is probably a lot closer to silver-age work than anyone else around today. The stuff was bizarre and complex and really freudian in a weird way.

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