The Aesthetics of Embellishment

The Aesthetics of Embellishment

(Soundtrack: Pixies — Live in Minneapolis, 2004)

Tim O’Neil has another “comics-history”-type post up today, and I must say that, unlike yesterday’s effort, I find this one rather  platitudinous. Yes, nostalgia is a big problem in the comics industry today. Yes, New Frontier does suck–hard-style–for precisely this reason (and no, Cole Odell, those John Henry interludes don’t help to “complicate” Cooke’s nostalgia at all…they are there in order to give Cole Odells a sad little defense, just in case one of their friends points out that they appear to be longing for Pleasantville–and this strategy might even work, if their interlocutor is the kind of person who found Pleasantville “hard-hitting”–i.e. if they are particularly feeble-minded..***.p.s.*** here I must add that Cole has presented a pretty interesting defense–upon narratological grounds–of this lack of integration in NF, in Tim’s comment-threads!). But no–critical interest in the Silver Age is not merely a by-product of nostalgia, and the key to my disagreement with Tim can be found in his weird dismissal of all “continuity-obsessed” storytelling as “fanfic”.

I would love to rescue that term itself from the tender mercies of critics like Tim, who are absolutely in thrall to a modernist conception of “The Artist” as somehow “self-generating”. Let’s put it this way–I’m sure Aeschylus would be highly insulted by the idea that any storyteller who sets up for business within the narrative confines of his/her influences/inspirations (and lacks the good grace to at least turn the whole thing into a “secret-handshake” for the iniatiated by encrypting this scaffolding into an ostensibly “new” structure) is merely indulging in a “wank-fest”. No. No. I’m not comparing Roy Thomas to Aeschylus. I think what he and his fellow Marvelites did was even more interesting than the Big A’s straight-up brand of ancient Greek fanfic–because they invited their readers  (through what I call “editorial call and response”) into the narrative process itself. When I talk about “The Silver Age”–I’m not talking about any specific “events” that I’d like to see Alex Ross embalm for me, I’m talking about this unprecedented mode of storytelling, which could even, in the hands of masters like Thomas and his collaborators (“professional” and epistolary), precipitate the involvement (in every sense of the word) of a whole new generation of readers in the saga of a “Golden Age” they never longed for.

Good Afternoon Friends


  1. If I’m reading you right, Dave (I must always preface my comments on your blog with this), when you talk about The Silver Age, you’re talking about an aesthetic and not a specific era in comics storytelling. That I can get behind. It’s not, as I understand, nostalgia for the stories that were told in the late 50s/early 60s, but the way in which they were told. Am I right? Have I understood the mind of Fiore?

  2. you are reading me loud and clear, my friend Although, for my purposes, the timeline is a little different than Overstreet would have it! The major changes that I’m talking about started with FF #1, not Showcase #4, and, in fact, they didn’t really begin to go haywire in the best possible way until Roy Thomas hit the New York scene in the mid-sixties…also–there is no difference at all, in my mind, between the “late silver age” and the “bronze age”…except that the ol’ narrative turbine of “dynamic stasis” just kept getting stronger, at least until the mid-seventies (culminating with ASM #149, right Conway fans?), and even far beyond that, wherever people like Gruenwald and Stern were able to exert their influence!


  3. Dave – Don’t make assumptions on m. I’m certainly not in thrall to any notions of the artist as a “self-generator” – it looks great on paper but the end result is reams and reams of paper wasted on boring, quotidian books and stories every yearf, written by the products of Creative Writing graduate programs who get it drilled into their heads to only “write what they know” when, in fact, they don’t know anything of interest at all, or any particularly interesting way of perceiving what they *do* have.

    But I do believe that art should speak to something outside of one’s self, and most continuity-obsessed storytelling in comics speaks to nothing more than the desire to play with the same toys you played with as a kid – or rather, that you saw in the toy-store window as a kid. It may be fun as hell, but it’s also seriously masturbatory. I would rather not pay to watch Roy Thomas masturbate, thank you very much! 🙂

  4. “But I do believe that art should speak to something outside of one’s self”

    I absolutely agree Tim–but how does one decide if a work of art has succeeded in doing this? Isn’t it when the work of art speaks to you? This is not about the world–it’s about the reader (or viewer, etc.) What I’m saying is–it’s only “wanking” if it feels like a peep show, and that feeling originates in the eye of the beholder, not the work itself. Right?


  5. ah Charles–I’m sure Roy is quite capable of masturbating all by his lonesome…but in order for his work to be labeled as masturbatory…well, you need a witness… I could allude to trees falling in the forest and all that, but I think we’ve been literal enough about Roy and his “wood”, no?

    my basic point is that I don’t see how anyone can claim that Thomas’ work is “ingrown” when (in my opinion) it is so plainly dialogic in character…


  6. For some reason, I find myself wondering if the dialectic is possible within the Borg. Sure, they modify their knowledge when they assimilate a planet, but always for the same purpose, a purpose existing before any assimilation took place.

    Only somewhat unrelated, I draw your attention to the latest issue of _Cineaste_, which features an excerpt from Eric Smoodin’s new book _Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930-1960_. The description of the book says: “Drawing on archival sources including fan letters, exhibitor reports, military and prison records, government and corporate documents, and trade journals, Smoodin explains how the venues where Capra’s films were seen and the strategies used to promote the films affected audience response and how, in turn, audience response shaped film production.” I can’t think of a book that’s more targeted toward you.


  7. hey thanks for drawing my attention to that stuff Charles!

    I’ve just ordered the book through Interlibrary loan (I’m particularly eager to see what the author does with the famous five-previewed endings of Meet John Doe!)…and the article seems fantastic…I’m gonna read it tomorrow, as soon as I get hope from my big presentation on Hawthorne!

    also–do you really think that thomas is comparable to a Borg? (I kind of know what they are–but I must confess that I’ve never seen an episode of the post-Kirk-Spock Star Treks)… I think Thomas’ innovations changed the superhero genre in a really fundamental way…although I don’t say that this was his initial intention!


  8. Two things I read in the same day just happened to point to you, haha.

    Anyway, color me skeptical when you begin to talk about the influence of readers on Marvel as “dialogic.” I’m sure, like all businesses, Marvel has an audience model, that, if it works at all, reflects the audience to some degree, but that’s not quite the same thing as a give-and-take dialogue. Any letters or talk from the fans serves more as weights in the market model than an interactive creative endeavor. And buying behavior is always going to be considered more reliable. Since novelty isn’t as easily testable, then it’s not hard to see what sort of influence this has on creativity. As with the Borg’s assimilation, fans are good for fact gathering, but not much else.


  9. Well, I’ve never seen Pleasantville, and while I am as fond of happy childhood memories as the next person, I have no particular longing for a simplified 1950s which obviously didn’t exist–or, more to the point, for a more innocent, noble kind of comic book. So no “sad little defense” intended. I’m someone who couldn’t care any less about Hal Jordan or any of the fan wars that been waged in his name. I simply thought that New Frontier was exhuberant fun and well-done on its own terms. But heck, I thought the same thing about The Filth.

    It is quite something to have my name used as a blanket term to describe a entire type of pathetic comic book fan, however. That’s a first for me.

    Cole Odell

  10. Cole–you’re an awesome sport!

    In fact, I left the entry in this form–even though I saw your narratological argument about one minute after I posted the initial entry and I probably could’ve gotten away with deleting the whole Pleasantville excursus–in order to remind myself to try not to jump the gun on imputing motives to my interlocutors!


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