Not(e) To Self

Not(e) To Self

(Soundtrack: Radio Dismuke)

Adam Stephanides begins with this Tom Spurgeon quotation (from a review of Evan Dorkin and Dean Haspiel’s The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street in TCJ #265)

The real-world elements which [Dorkin and Haspiel] put into play end up being judged not on their usefulness in exploring an issue or theme, but in terms of their appropriateness for marching these characters around a while. Like many Marvel comics, even something halfway evocative about the human condition quickly becomes a servant of the license and the larger story that has accured around it. Dorkin and Haspiel have hit on an unfortunate truth: Marvel Comics are mostly about themselves, the way long-running television shows nearly always lurch away from their original concepts and adopt the characteristics of soap opera.” (p. 185)

and then pronounces this the way of all (long-running serial) texts:

Spurgeon’s insight here is even more widely applicable than he suggests. The same thing happened to Peanuts in its final three decades: it changed from a strip about childhood to a strip about icons named Charlie Brown, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, etc.

Even better, he closes with a flourish that implicates our own blogosphere in this process of middle-aged diegetic spread:

And to preempt the objection Dave Fiore is probably poised to make, for a narrative to be primarily about itself isn’t necessarily terrible — Krazy Kat, one of the greatest strips ever, was about little more than itself throughout its run. But both Peanuts and Los Bros. Hernandez’s work were damaged by it.

Do the words we type refer to reality? Or have they become mere cues for “character bits” to be performed by the legion of hams (a group that I, given my reputation, in this same circle, as a figure of near-Dickensian silliness, obviously cannot excuse myself from) that have established themselves upon this tiny stage. My role, as I understand it, in the discursive economy of the on-line comics world, is to rush to the defense of the Marvel metatext, Locas, and Peanuts  (my other jobs are to overuse exclamation marks!!!!! and to piss off bullies who treat every disagreement as if it were a personal attack…) Well I won’t! (okay–I will, but not in the usual way!) If you’re reading this, you probably know that I love all three of those items…but right now, I’d like to take a different tack (and right here–although I’m getting ahead of myself–we see one of the ways in which “self-referentiality” can “say something about reality” without ever appearing to do so!–i.e. I’m saying that Adam has raised a question that deviates just enough from the more usual formulation of this critique–of which the Spurgeon excerpt itself is a more orthodox version– that I am likewise empowered to veer off from my own wonted path!)

So, yeah, what is “self-referentiality”, and why does it lead to greatness in some cases, and to charges of “masturbation” in others (and, of course, let’s not forget that it’s not only soap operas that come in for the latter type of criticism! Many a philistine has laid these same charges at the footnotes of acknowledged literary masters such as Joyce and Proust…) I, of course, am one of the world’s most enthusiastic champions of self-referentiality, be it in a Roy Thomas All-Star Squadron or a High Modernist Poem. I like that stuff a lot! But, like Adam, I can think of exceptions to my general rule–take John Byrne’s She-Hulk, for instance. Now that’s what I call masturbatory. Why? I’ll tell ya–it’s because, unlike most of the works that fall victim to the stigma of “self-referentiality”, that one really was just about Byrne (and his drooling friends in the audience) flirting with a green woman that he likes to draw, and, you know, reminding us that he’s out there, orchestrating the whole thing (and caressing the baton), because the credits box isn’t postmodern enough. And even here–there’s still plenty to be gleaned about the “real world” from this exercise (see Lillian S. Robinson’s Wonder Women)–it just isn’t very interesting or palatable information… No wonder that jackass gets all up in arms about “deconstruction”–he had his chance and he muffed it, badly.  Can you read the signs? “Self-referentiality” doesn’t kill (meaningful) meaning–John Byrne does.

But the larger point, as far as I’m concerned, is that Tom’s distinction between “real world” concerns and “ongoing narrative” concerns is inoperative. An interesting storyteller can do a lot more, merely by adding a new wrinkle to a long-established narrative pattern, than a boring storyteller can do by beaming you directly into whatever s/he thinks “reality” is–as if this were even possible! I don’t mean to be tedious, but let’s not forget that words don’t refer to the world, they refer to a  system called the alphabet, and that every drawing, no matter how “faithfully rendered”, is embroidered with Magrittian fine print–“this is not what it seems to be”… In art, as in all other forms of discourse, “reality” is a product of intersubjectivity, and the fact that a storyteller can touch my heart merely by sending Lucy out into the pumpkin patch to fetch her brother in the middle of the night (and it would be hard to name a scene in 20th century art/lit that is more dependent upon knowledge of its narrative context in order to achieve its full impact) is all I need in order to convince me that the most unabashedly “self-referential” art, by humbly acknowledging its dependence for meaning upon its audience (and a shared history/”narrative alphabet”), is often, in fact, the least “masturbatory” art of all! Of course, I cannot deny that, if you don’t have the requisite knowledge, some of this stuff (not Peanuts, obviously) is going to look like gibberish to you–and deliberately off-putting gibberish at that… but, well, that’s a chance some artists have been willing to take! And God bless ’em for it!

Good Night Friends!



  1. To sum up, then, leaving aside the usual caveats and curlicues: it’s the ability of the creator, not the chosen mode of expression, that makes a work great or not.

    Seems sort of obvious to me.


  2. I knew I should have explained myself better, rather than hoping that Spurgeon’s quote would make my meaning clear. I certainly was not saying that it’s potentially a bad thing for events in the later portions of a narrative to depend upon knowledge of the characters, or of earlier events, for their full impact: that would be to reject long narratives entirely. The best I can do is to go back to what R. Fiore said, as far as I can remember: that Schulz, at the time of writing (the late 90s or early 00s, iirc), seemed to approach the strip as if the characters were personal friends of his readers, who would be automatically interested in whatever the characters did. It’s the difference between Lucy’s coming to fetch Linus being interesting because it’s part of an intrinsically interesting story, or because it says something about the real world (although you may need to be familiar with the characters’ past histories to get what it’s saying), and Lucy’s fetching Linus being interesting solely because it’s Lucy and Linus. That’s what I was trying to get at with my talk of the characters becoming “icons.” Of course, whether or not this applies to a particular case is a matter of judgment. And yes (to anticipate another objection), it is possible for a “self-referring” narrative to say something indirectly about the real world, as I tried to indicate with my reference to Krazy Kat; but I don’t think that the “self-referring” tendencies in late Peanuts and recent Locas and Luba stories serve such a purpose, though I’m open to argument on both counts. (I’ve read too few Marvel comics to talk about them.)

    (And just to avoid misunderstanding, what I’m talking about has no necessary connection with metafiction.)


  3. Adam wrote:

    “It’s the difference between Lucy’s coming to fetch Linus being interesting because it’s part of an intrinsically interesting story, or because it says something about the real world (although you may need to be familiar with the characters’ past histories to get what it’s saying), and Lucy’s fetching Linus being interesting solely because it’s Lucy and Linus.”

    it’s an interesting question though, isn’t it? could that scene really mean what it means without the aid of those two icons? how do you decide if it’s meaningful enough (or intrinsically interesting enough) to transcend the problem that you identify? and if your readers really are so hooked that they need to see you do more with the characters that you’ve created, isn’t that a pretty powerful statement in itself? On the other hand, what does it say if you lose some of them–as the Hernandez bros. and Schulz lost you? I’m really not being contrary here Adam–I just find these kinds of questions fascinating, and, it seems, far more nebulous than you do! This is the terrain that reader-response theory was born to explore…


  4. There seems to be a lot less to this than what’s being made. It’s true, no one’s going to come up with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes any art great or even when self-referentiality is used well, at least, anytime soon. Dave will continue to miss the point I’m about to make because he refuses to concern himself with anything but what he considers intrinsic to the work (I know he tends to reduce meaning to the recipients, but that’s just a matter of where the locus of meaning is shifted and how one defines ‘intrinsic’). What’s extrinisic to Dave? Well, the production of the work. What Tom’s clearly referring to is not so much that narrative refers to itself, but the means by which the narrative comes about tend to be about one thing: the continuance of the means for which more stuff can be made. Take the use of “reality” in the Thing story. It’s not about how such a conceit might impact the fantasy involved, e.g., saying something about the implications for fantasy on reality, but yet another source for products to made and consumed. In other words, Marvel comics are largely about themselves as a means for making money, staying solvent, than anything to do with narrative as such. I’d also that explains why anyone wanting to argue for their value as narrative art is going to focus a lot more on reader interpretations than what the work itself might say.

    I’ve often wondered why is it that Japanese trinkets are clearly superior to other trinkets (you know, the little plastic animals and stuff toys). Not come up with a good answer here, but it seems to do with novelty. There’s an otherness to cute little cats in a hamburger bun that one doesn’t encounter with the baubles of the typical dollar store. While novelty is certainly a component of evaluating the aesthetic importance of a work, it needs to be tied into an argument of significance of some kind. And it seems significance is just what those Japanese toys and Marvel superhero comics are lacking. Rather, any significance they have is to keep things novel enough to get people to continue to buy so that they producer can continue to produce. That’s the self-refernetiality, I believe, of which Tom speaks.


  5. Also, sorry about your cat, Dave. I had to put my poodle to sleep after her liver failed and then had to bury her. No wonder we hire other people to dig graves for our loved ones.


    p.s., fuck any poodle haters. They’re great dogs.

  6. Charles–

    point well-taken, however, where do you stand on Adam’s extension of Tom’s complaint into the world of creator-owned icons? Is it the same soulless march against time? (for dimes?) and if it isn’t, then how can you be sure that there isn’t something more meaningful going on in the more expressly corporate long narratives?

    one day soon, I’m going to post on the real-time/Marvel-time dichotomy, and the unique ways in which it helps to elucidate the problem of what Melville called horologicals & chronometricals… it will be fun, and there will be much discussion of the Marvel Universe Handbooks and the indexing project that George Olshevsky et al undertook in the seventies and eighties… I’ll be looking at all of the fascinating contortions they performed in order to create a reasonably coherent timeline (i.e. “this happened in the sping of Peter Parker’s sophomore year–fall foliage is merely a topical reference”! etc…) again, here, readers are being asked to supply the “sense of the past”…time is marked by the passage of Christmasses (two of them go by between Gwen Stacy’s death and reappearance, for instance–and without them, the reader might not understand that Peter is supposed to have been dealing with his loss for a long time, because events pile up on these characters in such a way that they don’t seem to have “time for time”!) and references to stuff that’s going on “right now”, etc…

    I’m really rambling now–but how do you feel about Schulz/Hernandez/Cerebus et al and the serial/overlong(?) narrative?

    thanks for the kind thought about Simpson, Charles… and I’m sorry to hear that you seem to have been subjected to attacks concerning your own pet’s claim to wonderfulness… it’s obvious that s/he meant a lot to you, and they are great dogs…loss sucks…


  7. I was at my local Borders today and, inspired by a recent post of Tim O’Neil’s (iirc) where he talks about the need to overcome one’s perceptions, I decided to investigate a critically acclaimed superhero graphic novel. Of the ones I hadn’t looked at before, the most likely one seemed to be vol. 1 of The New Frontier. You’ll be happy to hear that I, too, disliked it intensely. But more than that, it’s a perfect example of what I was trying to get at. The story would be of no interest whatsoever if it wasn’t about the familiar DC superheroes. In fact, the story per se doesn’t even matter. All that matters is that the icons act out the bits of business which pass for characterization in NF, in a 1950s setting (itself just a compilation of media stereotypes). There are other things I disliked about the book as well, but I won’t go into them now.

    You asked:

    “if your readers really are so hooked that they need to see you do more with the characters that you’ve created, isn’t that a pretty powerful statement in itself?”

    It says something about what you’ve done in the past, to be sure (though not that much: there are literally thousands of Pokemon fanfics on, but it doesn’t in itself say anything about what you’re doing now.

    And I do indeed find these matters “nebulous,” as my difficulty in making clear what I mean demonstrates.


  8. Not that I’m saying late Peanuts, or recent Locas and Luba, are anywhere near as bad as The New Frontier.

    (Apologies for the double-posting; it didn’t strike my mind that I really should say this until the moment after I’d hit submit.)


  9. Adam–we are very much in agreement on NF, although it’s already fading from my mind, and I have to borrow it again so that I can address some of Cole Odell’s points about the series…

    The interesting thing about NF–again, if you do know the tradition that it’s drawing upon–you could tease a great deal of “real world” meaning out of it, merely by extrapolating from its position in the historiography…. okay, my mind is aswim now and I really must go to bed!


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