Not(e) To Self
(Soundtrack: Radio Dismuke)
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!