Sunday, February 22, 2004

Letters, We Get Letters, We Get Sacks and Sacks of Letters

In case some of you weren’t aware, I do some writing for The Comics Journal occasionally. The recently released issue #258 features a review I wrote for Grant Morrison’s recent Vertigo series “The Filth”. I was quite pleased with how that review came out. It was originally a lot shorter, but when Milo George saw just how impressed I was with the book he offered me the chance to expand on some of my ideas. I did, and I think that of all the pieces I’ve had in the Journal to date it’s the one I’m most happy with. Credit where credit is due – it wouldn’t have been half of what it is without Mr. George’s help.

Anyway, I recently received an e-mail from a fellow named David Fiore in response to this review. In case you’ve never heard of the fellow, he runs his own blog, Motime Like The Present, which has to be one of the more intelligent and literate blogs you’re likely to find. But, he had some issues with my review, and I thought it best to answer some of his critiques in this forum.

”I wrote about your piece on Motime Like The Present yesterday--and then it occurred to me: you probably have never read my blog, because when I write about comics, I always write about the s-h's...

“Fair's fair and I wanted to give you a chance to respond, if you are so inclined:

“The "Firing Line" section features a review of Morrison's The Filth, by Tim O’Neil. Now, I'm in no position to debate the merits of that series (I'm "waiting for the trade"), but that's not particularly important, in this case, because O'Neil spends about 50% of the article whining ADD-style about the perils and temptations that comics-writers must face (awww!) and the baleful influence of superheroes in general.

“What are we to do with this statement?

“’The problem with mainstream comics is not that superheroes are somehow inherently bad, but that they are inherently uninteresting.’

“Send for a doctor? Or just laugh?

“Rose @ Pieratikos has noted that:

[Super-heroes] are perfect metaphors for a lot of things, which I find so fascinating. I think it’s that lack of specificity, lack of groundedness that lets people make whatever identifications they want. It really has to do with any kind of devotion or single-mindedness or dedication, I think. Or leaders or people working in groups or corporate drones, even…

“That sounds kinda ‘interesting’ to me, Tim! Almost inherently so... I'm not too into the movies that have been wrung out of Marvel & DC material, and I know next to nothing about the quality of the current superhero books, but don't you think that the popularity of the former and the persistence of the latter go a long way toward disproving your statement? (ah, but you are above the herd of fools who go in for that sort of nonsense, aren't you? fine--although that makes you a kind of superman yourself...)

“And it only gets worse, 'cause after delivering this impassioned plea on the behalf of ‘talented’ writers reduced to the indignity of producing "hackwork" in order to feed themselves, he proceeds to damn Animal Man with faint praise! Tim, could you please tell me, precisely, what is ‘jejune’ and ‘cloying’ in Morrison's ‘exploration of the nature of morality and love’? We can fight about this if you wanna!”

Well, I don’t really want to fight, no, because I think there’s a lot of room here for reasonable people to disagree. I’m not offended by your viewpoint – even if I don’t agree with a lot of it.

I would like to first disabuse you of the notion that I dislike superheroes. Although I am very harsh on the genre in my critical capacity, I do still get a lot of enjoyment out of them. I grew up living, breathing and sleeping the damn things. I never really stopped loving them – I’m just not about to let my admitted affection for the genre overwhelm what I consider to be my reasonable critical faculty.

Is this disingenuous on my part? I don’t think so. Honestly, everyone has their own particular “guilty pleasures” – something they consume even know they know its not really that good for them. The only difference is, I don’t feel particularly guilty about buying and reading some superhero books. I’m not going to lie to myself about the genre’s limitations, however, just because I get a kick out of reading them.

I’ll agree with you that superheroes are metaphors, at least at their roots. Sometimes these metaphors can even be harnessed to the service of a good story – but most of the time these metaphors go unobserved. And I also think that because of the simplistic nature of morality in most superhero books, these metaphors just don’t stand up to a rigorous scrutiny.

Or, to put it another way: it sounds as if you’re saying that the ideas behind superheroes are more interesting than the superheroes themselves. I can understand this. Captain America is, to use an easy and fairly uncontroversial example - a metaphor for American political mores in turbulent times, and Captain America’s attitudes have changed to reflect similar dynamic changes in our country and our world in the forty or so years since he’s been resurrected. (I think his first run during WWII can be dismissed, in this context, as propaganda.) But when you have Captain America fighting Batroc, its just not a metaphor for anything so much as, um, just two guys wailing on each other. I think when all is said and done the metaphorical underpinnings for these characters are basically superfluous to the main reason they exist – to fight each other, to look cool, and to, nowadays, hopefully graduate to a major motion picture and Underoos. But mostly to fight each other.

Because the thing that gets to me about superheroes is that, ultimately, they're just inherently stupid. You can hem and haw all day about their metaphorical underpinnings but at the end of the day they’re too detached from reality to really say anything significant. People don’t dress in funny costumes and run around on rooftops beating each other up – they don’t gain superpowers and devote themselves to the common good – they don’t form clubs and societies to combat evil scientists and giant purple starfish. None of these things (especially the damn purple starfishes) have any bearing or relation to reality as we know it.

The best science-fiction and fantasy stories can approach the most bizarre and unbelievable situations and imbue them with plausibility through psychological depth. Failing that (as is the case with Tolkien) writers can suspend disbelief by creating a plausible alternative to conventional psychological and societal mechanisms. Superheroes just don’t work when you look at them too closely because they supposedly inhabit a world very similar to our own. The only reason the stories work at all at this point is through the virtue of a Byzantine series of genre conventions, ossified and hardened by generations of recycling, and increasingly incoherent to the uninitiated.

Like I say, If I want to sit down and read the latest issue of the Fantastic Four (which I just did, actually) I can put on my reader’s hat and enjoy the hell out of it. But I can’t sit here in a serious discussion of aesthetics and tell you that the books holds up at anything above the level of a soap opera or action movie - because it doesn’t.

So, yes, from a critical and aesthetic standpoint, I do believe superheroes are inherently uninteresting. Do my opinions count for much? Not really, and especially not when you look at how popular superheroes are right now (ironically, in just about every medium except comics). But there you go. You may find them fascinating on many deep and meaningful levels, but I do not. I’m going to read them and enjoy them but I’m not going to spend any longer than I have to analyzing them because I just don’t believe they can hold up to that kind of scrutiny.

(I should note that there are obvious exceptions, there are a few superhero books that I do believe hold up to this kind of critical scrutiny. I just discussed the Milligan/Allred ‘X-Force’ a few days back, for example, which I absolutely adored and think will come to be regarded as one of the highlights of best comics in years. But . . . how many ‘Dark Knight Returns’ are published every year? I think Morrison does some interesting things with the genre, and Alan Moore’s ABC books are very good, but in terms of real critical meat that’s, what, 1 or 2% of the mainstream industries output? Most of it is stupid people in tights hitting each other... you can see why my expectations are low.)

I think anyone who sits down to write a superhero story should take a long and hard look at just what it is that makes the genre so hidebound, so calcified and almost decrepit in its mannerisms and its conventions. After so much water has been under the bridge, it seems that it almost takes a genius to find some new life in the genre, to find stories tell that need telling as superhero stories, that take advantage of those things the genre can do that no other genre can. Take the unreality, take the genre conventions and use them to tell a story that is uniquely suited to exploit these limited restrictions. It’s not impossible – but as I said in the Journal the amount of effort almost makes you think it isn’t worth the while. That’s what makes superheroes uninteresting.

If you want to write a story about saving the whales, why not just write a story about whales and not about Superman saving the whales? If you want to write a story about the inefficiencies of the criminal justice system, write a courtroom drama without men in red tights beating up ninjas. By injecting the spandex into these situations you also inject too many distracting and disorienting elements to keep your original message intact.

So many superheroes are uninteresting because they exist only to propagate trademarks. For the most part the most interesting and essential work on any given character is done by the people who create him – because the understand what he’s all about, they understand the metaphors they drive the conflict and fuel the drama. In a perfect world, Spider-Man would have ceased publishing when Ditko left – because while there’s been some nice work done in the intervening years none of it has held a candle to Lee & Ditko’s in terms of the sheer simplicity and unadorned efficiency of their model. Spider-Man is basically uninteresting to me now because I’ve read Lee & Ditko’s – everything else might as well be fanfic because they’ll never be able to capture that spark again.

Man, where was I?

Oh yeah. I recognize that a great many people can wax poetic about superheroes, can write some pretty interesting stuff on the genre when they want to – but most of it just seems kinda silly to me. I mean, if you want to talk about how great Mozart sounds on the kazoo, you’re perfectly entitled to so, but I’m also entitled to think you’re rather missing the point. Mozart on kazoos might be fun for a lark, but its just kinda silly on the face of it. Even if 90% of all the records in the store became kazoo music, it wouldn’t change the fact that the kazoo is an instrument with an extremely limited range. There are a few things that the kazoo can do, true, but the kazoo just looks silly trying to play Mozart or Back or the Beatles or even Slipknot. And just because everyone is playing the kazoo doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my own standards to reflect this – I’m no Objectivist but I’ll stand by my own perceptions in the face of popular scorn for as long as you care to scorn me.

And as for “Animal Man”, well, I quite liked the series. But again, I find myself wondering what someone as talented as Morrison could have done if he hadn’t had to channel what was, at its core, a very sweet and honest story about personal loss through the filter of a third-tier DC superhero book. I’m not going to say that he should have written a straight autobiographical story or anything like that – but it seems odd that he should have used that particular platform for that particular message. But, then again, Morrison’s work has always managed to use the unique aspects of the genre to tell interesting stories – as I said – so I can’t really complain about that part of it.

No, the parts of “Animal Man” that didn’t quite ring true were, from a craft standpoint, the parts where Morrison’s reach clearly exceeded his grasp. Its all in the eye of the beholder – one man’s jejune is another man’s profound – but, for instance, the part in the last issue with the flashlights on the hills just seemed forced and manipulative. Purely from a mechanical standpoint, it was an obvious and derivative mechanism that made me cringe when I read it the first time. By now, though, Morrison has mostly outgrown these types of gaffes, but it still reads like the work of a young man – a talented, passionate and worldly young man – but still a young man.

. . .

And that, as they say, is that – I really had no desire to write this much but that’s pretty much the story of my life. Maybe I’ll post a review or something tomorrow – maybe not – but at least you can expect the linkblogging to resume on Monday.

Hi yo silver and away . . .

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