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With Great Respectability Comes Great Polarization
(Soundtrack: The Muffs —Blonder and Blonder)

Oh those year-end lists!

Karin Kross tells it like it is:

As any longtime reader of my soapbox space knows, I don’t want comics in America to be treated as an immature medium, solely defined by the superhero and SFF genres. But I also dislike seeing the comics medium itself polarized into Art vs. Pulp distinctions, where anything that’s not “serious” or “literary” is immediately shunted off into its own genre ghetto — exactly as has been happening all along with film and novels. A good book — or comic, or movie — ought to be good regardless of its genre, and treated with equal respect. Perhaps it was too much to hope that comics might remain untouched by that polarization, but I’m still sorry to see it happening.

Me too Karin… Me too… And listen–I realize that the pose of “canonizer” ill-becomes me, but man, I can’t take any comics best-of list seriously that omits The Filth (unless they’re considering it as a 2003 publication? that could be, I suppose…but how many people really began thinking about the book until it came out in TPB, last May?)

Anyway, I think that’s it for me today…pretty busy prepping for the beginning of class next week! I’ll post my syllabus here on Friday!

In the meantime, here’s a preview of coming attractions:

1. “Too Much Cooke Spoils My Wrath: An Apology in Close-Reading”–yes! I’m going to go over New Frontier with fine-toothed aplomb! My entry-point, of course, will be Cooke’s frequent allusion to Yeats’ “the center cannot hold” (from “The Second Coming”)… what will I come up with? I don’t know!

2. “The Death-Bray; or, Day of the Jackass”: I’m also planning to do some work on Eightball #23–i.e. demonstrating how well it fits with my frequent contention that the use of “super-powers” is an extremely effective way of shining the existential spotlight upon a character or set of characters…oh yeah–along the way, I’ll be asking the question: “what is the difference between Clowes’ Andy and Owen Reece, the Molecule Man?”

Wanna know the answer?

There is no difference! (which doesn’t mean that the book doesn’t have merit as something other than a “critique of the superhero genre”!)

Good Afternoon Friends!

Dave

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40 comments

  1. “I can’t take any comics best-of list seriously that omits The Filth.”

    That’s pretty funny. I just re-read it last night, and still find it to be a juvenile, pretentious, sub-Morrison mess.

  2. You know, I thought you might agree with this writer when I read her piece, because both of you seem so flummoxed when people read the same works or family of works with the same honest intentions you do and at the end of that process sincerely feel they’re shit that the tired, weird accusations of simply not getting it or trying to maintain indie cred are trotted out (or at least hinted at). Her attempt at counter-examples in both the superhero and female artist categores were so half-assed argued even by her that in her position that she had to assert basically they perhaps they weren’t even considered, which is basically just insulting Andrew Arnold’s approach to his job. It’s so boring and sad.

    Bonus:

    What’s the difference between a anal cyst,fifteen minutes of a child’s first piano recital, and the FDA’s process analytical technology initiative?

    Nothing!

    I have spoken!

    Tom Spurgeon

  3. I didn’t include The Filth because I read it in ’03, in singles format. I didn’t list it in my best-of for that year either- I thought it was better than the previous poster, but I thought Morrison didn’t get his point across very clearly and the book suffered for it. Kinda like Seaguy, assuming he had a point for that one…!

  4. well Tom, I think we can agree that the knees are jerking 24-7 on both sides of this debate…however, I don’t think that my own contributions are nearly so “pigeonholeable”…after all, I write in “literary fiction mode”, and I have no intention of ever going the “pulp” route… Who could possibly be more impartial than me? And, really, the only “great’ pulpish comic that I’m interested in defending right now is The Filth (and Cerebus–if you consider that “pulpish”…) Not having read most of Karin’s pulp parade, I can’t exactly comment on their worth… I am certainly willing to concede that there are just as many contrarian anti-snobs out there as the people they hate on… but I ain’t one of ’em!

    Dave

  5. Dave & Johnny (Dave),

    I can certainly appreciate that The Filth was not everyone’s cup of tea! What I refuse to accept is that anyone should rule it out based on the number of fight scenes it contains, or on the grounds that it participates in a genre that is “inherently limited’… I will say, however, that I think that looking for a “point” in Morrison is going to get you into trouble, because, like every storyteller that I love, the guy uses narrative to generate a field of inquiry, rather than to convey a message or epiphany!

    Dave

  6. I’ve appreciated Morrison in the past, on the Invisibles and Doom Patrol, and more recently in Seaguy and WE3. If there’s a field of inquiry surrounding The Filth, what is it? That having sexual imagery pounded into your eyes for 13 issues is tiresome? I didn’t see anything in The Filth that wasn’t addressed more fully, more competantly, and more maturely in The Invisibles. Morrison lamely revisiting himself isn’t news.

  7. What debate?

    A few people say, “these are the comics I think are best,” and then a few other people assert some sort of conceptual framework is in place and float possible reasons the first group of people adhere to it, even though there’s no evidence offered that they really do adhere to it other than vague insults and the occasional single-book litmus test.

    Tom Spurgeon

  8. Tom speaks the truth (unless he’s disagreeing with me, but fear not, Tom, you’re not here). The blog is factually incorrect, since it does include a superhero work, Eightball 23.

    Charles

  9. As for Morrison, he has a pretty consistent message, retelling the same story in somewhat different ways a multiple of times: “truth is a construct”, “understanding is a form of narrative”, or whatever you want to call it appears in DOOM PATROL, ANIMAL MAN, FLEX MENTALLO, THE FILTH, and (I believe, but haven’t read it judge for myself) THE INVISIBLES. This isn’t viewed by me to be a flaw mind you, Morrison is about the closest to the old conception of ‘auteur’ that comics has.

    C.

  10. I wouldn’t call that a message Charles–but, yes, I agree with you… as for Eightball #23–well, your reading of it as a straight-up superhero/villain story pleases me, and it’s one that I share, as you’ll see…but I really doubt that most of the people praising the book as a “devastating satire of the genre” see it that way! (but if they do, then I agree with them too!)

    On The Filth vs. The Invisibles–there’s no comparison in my mind (although I enjoy them both!)… The Invisibles features way too many attempts at building a gigantic and pointlessly “diverse” cast–none of which plays to Morrison’s real strength as an artist, which is to tip-toe along the crack between subject and object, “I” and “thou”, the “person” and the “non-person”, and to do it with style/humour, irony rather than cynicism, and a tremendous appeal to the emotions (and this is one of the few times you’ll hear me arguing in favor of concision in the context of a debate about comic books!)

    And Tom, if you can claim to be as impartial (and by impartial I do not mean “objective”) a judge of good work, regardless of genre or medium (which still leaves a lot of room for subjectivity, of course!), as I know that I am–then this is good news! You don’t know how much I long for the day when we can all join hands and sing a paean to our own collective critical good faith!

    Dave

  11. Tom,

    In fairness to the Kross piece, there is a pretty explicit conceptual framework in place in the literary world; see, e.g., Steven King’s award show comments and the resulting melee (which is not a suggestion that King is great writer, mind). Or the Franzen/Oprah donnybrook. It’s worth asking, I think, if comics is going the same way, at least with respect to the big league cultural gatekeepers such as the NYT. Though perhaps it’s not fair to the individual reviewers mentioned to use them as the springboard for the question.

    Of course, given that the best anyone can do when putting together a list, you’d hope that everyone else in the peanut gallery would at least be civil in talking about it.

    Dave Intermittent

  12. I agree, Dave (Intermittent) – but surely that cuts both/all ways. Tom, if you don’t see a debate, you could easily initiate one (or avoid the topic entirely) instead of perpetuating the same vague insults and tired, weird accusations of victimization as a way of dismissing what is, at heart, a fairly reasonable point about the generic monotony of some of these lists.
    Marc

  13. Marc,

    You’re very much right; it cuts all kinds of ways, and damn near all of them are unpleasant.

    Dave Intermitent

  14. What is it, exactly, about Dave’s style that prompts things like this:

    What’s the difference between a anal cyst,fifteen minutes of a child’s first piano recital, and the FDA’s process analytical technology initiative?

    Nothing!

    I have spoken!

    It deforms Dave’s point about Owen Reece and Andy well beyond what he’s saying. Both Owen and Andy are costumed characters in a comic book, after all, and hardly as dissimilar as an anal cyst, a piano recital and an FDA procedure. I realize Dave’s hyperbolic style seems to enrage people, but I don’t understand why, especially when he hasn’t even written the piece yet. I’m personally willing to hear his arguments before I freak out over them.

    Matt Rossi

  15. Hi, Dave Intermittent:

    I get your point, but I think it’s much too generous to say Kross is engaging the wider and perhaps legitimate issue because she loads her arguments in selecting two lists that fall on a very specific side of the argument.

    Hi, Marc:

    What’s vague about “Kross is loading her arguments through selective examples and by asserting motivations she has no right to assert.” and “Dave is creating debates where none exist by assigning his own thinking to the other ‘team’.”? I think everyone’s following along fine. And no one’s being victimized; it just reveals what I think is the essential bankruptcy of these positions.

    Hi, Dave Fiore:

    I have no idea if I’m an impartial critic or not. I aspire to be one, as I aspire to be a well-read, insightful critic. The thing is, for all I know Andrew Arnold and Sammy Salon are the least impartial critics ever to slide from their Momma’s wumpuses and they had their milk money stolen everyday by people in Brother Voodoo costumes; but it’s not fair to trump up an argument against them based on the evidence of “I think I know what they’re thinking” and “Hey, no Captain America and Falcon.”

  16. Hi, Matt Rossi. I’m hardly enraged. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t respect Dave’s opinion enough to take him head on.

    As for the statement in question I’m EXAGGERATING Dave’s tendency to make arguments by offering up sweeping statements, sticking an exclamation point on the end, and (often) promising to tell us later. I’m not offering it up as an equivalent argument, sheesh.

    Tom Spurgeon (that’s me on the last one, too).

  17. The very simple reason that Dave’s style enrages all and sundry is that there is simply no way that anyone can be so absolutely guileless and naive, so ignorant of human nature as to not be able to predict the effect of certain of his words on certain of his audience. I believe, honestly, that Dave is a lot more ruthless than he comes across, and is fully aware of how his words are interpretated by a large percentage of his audience.

    Anyone who was so consistently tin-eared to the effect of his words in real life would be in a wheelchair for the constant pulpings they recieved.

    “But when I said your girlfriend was ugly and fat,” he maintained. “I was just speaking from an attemted objective standpoint – can’t we have some critical good faith here?”

  18. Tom: fair enough.

    The very simple reason that Dave’s style enrages all and sundry

    Well, it doesn’t: for instance, it doesn’t enrage me, even when (very often) I don’t agree with it or him, nameless stranger. Tom’s response was pretty plain and fairly apt, for all that I don’t agree with it. Your response is “He should watch his mouth when talking about things I feel strongly about” as far as I can tell, and the veiled threat of it is as laughable as it is foolish.

    How about, instead of flying off the handle, you try refuting him? He’s a smart guy, but hardly so impossible to debate that it can’t be done.

  19. this is all good stuff–Tom, I’m really pleased that you drop in here every once in a while (and the anal cyst was fun–as everyone here knows, I consider overstatement one of the finest spices of life, and genuinely good for the mind–which is why I never miss what Butcher and ADD have to say, even though these guys seem to really dislike me!)

    I also agree with Tom that Karin’s examples seem a little half-baked (but you’ll notice that I didn’t include that part of the entry in my blockquote…the important part, for me, was her–possibly unfounded, I grant you–fear that comics are headed for a critical climate similar to that which obtains in the literary world… I don’t even agree with her that film fits into this argument–not with David Lynch, aka the Morrison of the movies, receiving every bit of the critical attention that is his due!)

    I’m not arguing for a “superhero quota” (or any other kind of quota) in best of lists–I just want to feel sure that no one making them (and we know I don’t read enough comics to ever venture into those waters myself!) is discounting anything out of hand!

    And Tim–come on! Do you really think I’m ruthless? I mean, if telling a person exactly what you think of their ideas is ruthless, then fine… I don’t go around insulting people personally! And I have to tell you that I do pursue face-to-face arguments in exactly this fashion, in academic seminars! And I expect to receive as good as I get–with no feelings hurt! My god! The professor I wrote the Squadron Supreme paper for called me a “slave and a dupe” early in the semester and I loved him for it!

    Dave

  20. Yes, Dave, I do think you’re ruthless. I think you know exactly what kind of reaction your comments will inspire and that you relish the conflict. There’s no big deal here: lots of people on the internet get their rocks off by being willfully combatative. I for one just wish you wouldn’t be so disingenuous about it – there’s something vaguely smug about it otherwise. Personally, sometimes I feel like I need high blodd-pressure medication after reading your blog. Sometimes I go weeks without reading it just for that reason. And I know you’re a very smart person, so I am not going to pretend that you are unaware that you precipitate this kind of divisivness. Takes all kinds – I know I’m hardly a runner-up for “most beloved blogger” either. 🙂

  21. okay Tim–I will certainly plead guilty to hoping that the seeds I plant here will blossom into controversy…but I really want to insist that I think controversy (especially about stuff that doesn’t involve anyone being killed, starved, or imprisoned!–i.e. controversies over works of art!) is good for everyone that participates in it, regardless of the outcome…unless one of those outcomes is a heart attack! And, really, man, I’m telling you this sincerely–I like having you around, and I honestly don’t mean you or anyone else I “call out” any harm! I certainly do not want to contribute to your death!

    Maybe it’s because I’m still very new to this kind of debating, I don’t know… I hardly ever used the internet until I decided to start this blog, about a year and a half ago… I suppose that, in face-to-face discussions, I rely on the fact that I am a pleasant little man to defuse any potential hate-bombs in my interlocutors’ minds… I don’t want to bully anyone (and I’ve posted in anger exactly once–I’m sure people remember that one…), I just want to hold up my end of the argument in the most dynamic way that I can–and I expect the same from all comers!

    Dave

  22. Tom, there was nothing vague or insulting about your latest comments, but then they aren’t exactly what you said the first two times around. And I don’t think anyone’s being victimized, either – but claiming the mantle of victimization, even on someone else’s behalf, is another matter entirely. In this context, that, too, is essentially bankrupt.

    Marc

  23. i relish the conflict and controversy of this blog probably as much as the content peturbs Tim O’neil. I think I understand where you’re coming from Dave; you’re just fueling the flames of this fiery blogosphere comics discussion and think you have so much you want discuss that you can’t help but rile others up to get them to discuss it with you. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, I really don’t see how anyone could get really upset with you unless you personally insulted them, which isn’t something you would be likely to do in any case. Just keep it up, this is all great reading.
    Marlon

  24. Dave wrote: >>The professor I wrote the Squadron Supreme paper for called me a “slave and a dupe” early in the semester and I loved him for it!”

  25. Sorry, something has gone wrong while I tried to send my contribution. Here is it again.

    Dave wrote: “The professor I wrote the Squadron Supreme paper for called me a “slave and a dupe” early in the semester and I loved him for it!”

    I seldom use this acronym – now I have to do it: LOL! Dave, you’re priceless…

    Although I agree not very often with the reasons D. gives for his aesthetic preferences (the preferences themselves are a different matter and I like a lot of the things he adores) I never had to reach out for the blood pressure medication.

    Digression: The Motime-Fantagraphics discussion came close to being annoying. Dave started with the reasonable argument that he’d prefer it to be cheaper and somehow managed – at least that’s my impression – to suggest that Fantagraphics should give all their books away for free.

    And I too don’t think he would be so callous to make disparaging remarks about a person’s looks. Fortunately that’s not his style (and if it were I wouldn’t be here). But I can perfectly imagine that he’d take a look at one’s bookshelf and start to argue 🙂

    After all the mini-controversies his remarks sometimes generate in the blogosphere, I can agree with Dave on a basic political level which is important to me.

    (I’m surprised, though, that there are – too many for my taste – religious metaphors in his discussions of political matters but AFAIK he never uses the word “class”.)

    Best regards
    FrF

  26. Well, it seems to me that when you’re speaking about aesthetics, its easy to underestimate the effect your words have on others. The reason for this is fairly obvious: even on an unconscious level, if you think something is crap, you can’t imagine that anyone else can seriously hold the opinion that it isn’t, and vice versa.

    I try to keep a civil tongue in my head, because these things just have a tendency to devolve too quickly. There have been too many times in my history of using the internet that situations have gotten so irrevocably bad that I have just had to foreswear whichever forum I was on and never, ever return. In almost all cases, I have held true to my word: and in all of these cases, the mailing lists which I left are no more. The internet is a big steaming pile of anger, and quite frankly, if I could give it up I would. But you know, its necessary, because having a net presence is absolutely necessary for one’s career, in the fields in which I toil. So basically I couldn’t leave if I wanted to.

    (Although, I will note that I have not returned to the Journal boards in… God, three years? Ever since they did away with psuedonyms, basically. I always signed my posts with my real name anyway, but man, that rule just teed me off.

    But man, you need to learn that what is fun debate for you can quickly turn into blood-curdling anger for another, and because you’re facing the computer screen you have no idea. You know from our mutual shared experiences how easy it is for people to misunderstand you even on a more intimate basis.

    Just remember: what you see as part of a friendly debate, is extremely easy to be misconstrued as agressive baiting. There have been many times I have felt you have been purposefully baiting me, and I know I’m not alone. Just be careful.

  27. Tim–I really will take that under advisement!

    One interesting thing to note, however, is that, with the exception of Identity Crisis,
    I can’t really think of anything that I’ve posted on here that I think
    is “crap” (yes, I said some fairly aggressive things about New Frontier,
    but that’s because I was treating Cooke’s book as an interpretation of
    the superhero genre that I disagree with…not because I don’t think it
    has any merit–obviously, the guy is a very good artist, and I never
    imagined that my post would have upset him or his fans in the way that
    it did! Or, let’s just say that, when I did imagine a response from
    him, I imagined something a little more content-based than what I got,
    which was, basically, “damn you for taking my work seriously!”)

    So, yeah, how many times do I have to remind people that I’m not some
    “anti-art-comix” fanboy? The problem, it seems to me, is that the
    comics subculture really doesn’t have a place for someone like me–i.e.
    seriously interested in superhero comics, but not hostile in any way to
    the sequential art equivalent of “high lit”… Basically, what I’m
    trying to do is make a space for myself in this culture, and there’s no
    way to do it without going to war with the old categories! Sure, lots
    of people love all sorts of comics, but  most of the people who
    fall into this camp also 
    perpetuate the notion that it’s okay to love superhero comcis, as long
    as you don’t try to make them (any of them!) into something they’re
    not–i.e. “art”… Well, I can’t accept that, obviously, but that does
    not, in my mind, necessitate any sort of adversarial stance, on my
    part, toward the vast world of comics beyond the confines of the
    corporate universes that have been my prime focus for the past year or
    so!

    Dave

  28. Sure, lots
    of people love all sorts of comics, but  most of the people who
    fall into this camp also 
    perpetuate the notion that it’s okay to love superhero comcis, as long
    as you don’t try to make them (any of them!) into something they’re
    not–i.e. “art”…

    Ooh! I wanna dispute this one!

    I strongly disagree there, Dave. In fact, I think a large percentage of
    people who love superhero comics (regardless of their feelings on other
    genres) are happy to look at them as “art.”

    I suspect your issue is more that not a lot of superhero comics fans
    (myself in question) are willing to analyze superhero comics with the
    sort of academic language you prefer–some because they’re not familiar
    enough with the shorthand and jargon (that category suits me), some
    because they have a knee-jerk (or maybe not so knee-jerk) reaction
    against the academic language of literary criticism.

    I don’t think the lack of this style of analysis is a problem, but I’m also happy to welcome it in. Still, terms like “narratological
    criticism” don’t mean a lot to me, and even though the context usually
    makes things sufficiently clear, enough obfuscation can lead to
    confusion…which will, naturally, lead to people reacting to things
    you didn’t necessarily mean.

    — Alex

  29. but Alex–all I want is to hear people talk–in a playful/serious way–about the stories! The same way I would talk about a Hawthorne novel, or a Capra film…and superhero fans most certainly do this (when they aren’t talking about “who’s stronger” and all of that nonsense)–maybe they don’t all use the same kinds of terms that I often do, but that never bothered me in the old lettercols and it doesn’t bother in the blogosphere…in fact, I credit  the marvel lettercols/continuity-culture for awakening my interest in narratological criticism! That’s what my dissertation is about–the way the Marvel metatext incorporated some pretty sophisticated and creative criticism into its own body, through its interface with the readers!Dave

  30. We’ve discussed this before. I still maintain that you’re going to have to work pretty hard to prove that the Bullpen folks who put the letters pages and Bullpen Buleltins together had any of these narratalogical intentions in mind when the books were originally written – and that they weren’t just filling space that they could sell ads for.

  31. ah but Tim–I’m not interested in intention, I’m interested in results! We
    all know that Stan et al’s primary goal was to make a buck, but that
    doesn’t mean they didn’t stumble into wonderment along the way! Most of
    my favourite works of art grew out of similar fortunate flailings…
    the best example being Melville’s Pierre (an insanely good novel that
    I’ll be writing on this semester), which was actually intended by its
    author to be a “sentimental potboiler” that would break into the mass
    market opened up by hacks like Susan Warner …Melville’s desperate
    attempt to reach out to the public, after failing to do so with the
    more self-consciously “arty” Moby Dick, resulted in a FAR crazier book
    than its predecessor!

    And you know–this is the best argument I
    think of (in terms of, you know, “what’s good for art”) against my own
    frequent rantings about a “world without copyright/art-forgain “….
    Without that desire to strike a nerve outside of their small coterie,
    artists might never take these kinds of chances–thus, in “selling
    out”, they produce a windfall of genius! (of course, that’s only the
    people who FAIL to “sell out” successfully…when you do it right, you wind up with the kind of offal that turns
    Charles’ stomach–and mine!)

    Dave

  32. Surely you’re aware, Dave, that making any claims about the books entails that the book does something, speaks in some sort of manner, that’s not just whatever you make up in your head.  That it’s fairly safe to assume that books sharing a name, containing a similar style, often exploring similar themes, even if the plot elements differ somewhat, are probably more likely to be by the author who’s name accompanies the text than some other author who’s name doesn’t and who differs a good deal on that list of attributes I just cited.  Consequently, one is using intention, even if not owning up to it explicitly, when speaking of what a work’s about.  This doesn’t mean that one is falling back into the intentional fallacy, though, intention being an interpretation, not an a priori.  Just because you don’t care to link up certain inferred intentions (e.g., commercial) doesn’t mean it’s not part of the intentional matrix through which a reading of a work is produced.  It just means you’re ignoring some things which are often quite relevant to understanding the text at hand.

    Charles

  33. That is, results imply a cause, creating interpretation willy-nilly isn’t a result (well, it’s a result of personal psychology, I suppose).  But if your use of ‘result’ is to have any real meaning, then there’s intention of some sort going on.  Eco suggested 3: writer’s, reader’s and the text’s.

  34. One last attempt:

    You’re not interested in using the word ‘intention’, but clearly use intention.

    Alright, I’m done.

    C.

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