Friday, June 18, 2004

Oh, Dios Mio!

Well, shit.

Without meaning to, I seem to have riled up the ol’ interweb hornets again. You see, I wasn’t trying to be controversial, I was just trying to find something interesting to write. Seriously, I promise.

It’s taking a lot of self-control to keep from getting cranky about the whole thing. Everyone else seems to be getting cranky, but I will try to keep a civil tongue about me. I won’t make any comments like “have fun at Wizard World,” or “make sure to double bag your Youngblood back issues,” or even “dude, sounds to me like someone’s spider-sense woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” No, that would just be an asshole thing to do, and I’m hardly an asshole, now am I?

I’m just a floating nimbus of freelance love.

Anyway, on with the show.

Kudos to Dave Fiore for keeping a civil tongue and not dismissing my arguments out of hand simply because I disagree with him. As always, he writes some of the most cogent and interesting stuff around, such as this:

. . . here's my question: what intelligent adult accepts anything they read at face value? That's why I would say that the only people who shouldn't read superhero comics are kids who haven't developed a critical perspective yet! Look at Tim--he's a smart guy, but he seems unable to entertain the notion that these heroes are just textual elements in a swirl of narrative. Why? By his own admission, it's because he read too many superhero comics as a young child . . . (Emphasis Mine>

The answer to your question is painfully simple. Given the state of the world today, when you ask “what intelligent adult accepts anything they read at face value?” I have a hard time not laughing. I’m sorry, perhaps I am cynical. But people are gullible. People are willing to believe anything, and the percentage of the population who practice the kind of critical thinking and examination you and I obviously take for granted is miniscule (and no, for all you smartasses out there, I don’t have any exact figures). It’s just damned naïve on the face of it, and I hate to say this because I respect your intelligence, but you’re giving the average Joe way too much credit. Even the average intelligent Joe doesn’t read everything with that kind of critical eye, and especially not escapist literature like superhero comics.

I would ask you, in all seriousness, if you’ve ever read an issue of Wizard from cover to cover. I have. I used to subscribe to the damn thing, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” (as they say). That’s the mentality of the average reader of superhero comics. And by average, I mean the vast majority.

Fiore points out, correctly, that I “[seem] unable to entertain the notion that these heroes are just textual elements in a swirl of narrative.” Well, yes, that’s true. For an Alan Moore or Grant Morrison story, yes, I’ll definitely buy that. But for the most part . . . the kind of structuralist and post-structuralist lit critique you’re applying to the average superhero book is patently absurd.

You want to know what I think about the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga? Well, buddy, with all due respect to someone who seems to spend quite a bit of time thinking deep thoughts on stories like this: the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga is quite possibly one of the stupidest stories every written. It’s a bad soap opera with outlandish sci-fi elements that break the suspension of disbelief in a premise already filled to the brim with bad sci-fi elements. It wasn’t written with any sort of systematic literary ideation in mind, it was written with the hopes of entertaining 8-12 year olds and hopefully getting them to spend cold hard cash on thirty-two pages of garishly printed newspaper.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that something written for a pop audience as disposable escapism was later revealed to have deep and fathomless depths of which the masses were unaware. But considering the circumstances, an infatuation with 70’s Spider-Man seems masturbatory at best, downright inane at worst. I may be proven wrong by the cascading tide of history, but I doubt it.

Why are we even talking about these books? The superhero genre is such a tiny, insignificant corner of the comics medium that it is simply galling on the face of it that so much literal and digital ink is wasted on the subject. Yes, wasted . . . because I’ll be damned if I think that bad 70’s Spider-Man comics deserve this kind of rigorous explication while Louis Riel or Quimby the Mouse or even The Boondocks are never discussed. Love & Rockets makes 99% of even the best superhero books look like dog puke, and I never see anyone discussing it. I’d love to see Fiore tackle a book like that, something I think could actually reward such a deep examination.

Elsewhere, Fiore states:

My own hypergeneralized tag for the genre was "the literature of moral and epistemological inquiry". Of course, in order to entertain this notion, you have to accept my contention that superhero comics have been progressing toward the work of Gruenwald (Squadron Supreme, Quasar and Captain America) and Morrison (Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and, most recently, and perhaps most spectacularly, The Filth) since the beginning (or, at least, since 1961). There's no reason you ought to accept this. But there's no reason to dismiss my statement simply because most superhero comics have fallen far short of these exalted heights either.

I think that’s a pretty fair and pretty reasoned idea. But I just don’t think it holds water, because the only trends that have any meaningful relevance on mainstream comics history are marketing trends. Now, of course, marketing is a part of every art medium, however much one may try to deny it, but there’s also no separating the fact that editorial decisions in mainstream comics are made solely on the basis of what sells. Manga is popular, so what does Marvel do? They produce numerous books that copy the superficial qualities of manga. Watchmen and Dark Knight were popular in the late 80s, so what did they do? Produce a series of books that questioned the moral and epistemological underpinnings of the genre in a formalistically experimental manner? No, they made their heroes “grim & gritty” and used a lot of spotted blacks to make the heroes look all tortured and dangerous.

So that’s why I think looking for literary trends in commercial comics is ultimately futile, because the trends in commercial comics are fueled by what fifty-year old men in bad suits think twentysomethings in soiled WCW T-Shirts will buy. The percentage of the audience who read mainstream comics in as critical and involved a matter as you people do is statistically negligible, so they just don’t make the comics with these ideas in mind. If they do come out like that every now and again, it’s surely a mistake.

Moving on to the less kind members of our blogosphere, Steven at Peiratikos takes less-nuanced umbrage with my statement that “there is no examination of ethical dilemma in 99.9% of all superhero books.” He sees this as a “cop out generalization,” which is, I suppose, fair. I’m not going to go over every spandex book ever published in order to back that kind of a statistic up. I’ve read a shit-load of the things, both good and bad, and whatever their various strengths or weaknesses may be, they are just not very ambiguous in terms of moral examination.

He finishes up his rather curt arguments with the galling assumption that “[his] real point seems to be that he prefers to read superhero comics in a childlike (uncritical) manner, rather than an adult (critical) matter, and his elaborate justifications merely obfuscate this. Which would be a nice way to win the argument, if it wasn’t a gross misstatement.

This whole argument reminds me, in a roundabout way, of a book that was published a few years back which caused quite a bit of uproar in the scholarly community. It was called The Bible Code and it was written by a man named Michael Drosnin. This book claimed that there was a secret code hidden in the first five books of the Bible by God as it was dictated to Moses, and that this code revealed all sorts of magical secrets of prophecy.

Of course, this is poppycock of the stinkiest kind. The point is, you can find anything if you look for it hard enough. People have been finding explanations for the wackiest behavior in the books of the Bible for some 1,800 years by now, and it doesn’t look like its going to stop anytime soon. Likewise, I think people who insist on reading you average, garden variety superhero book and seeking out deep and subtle meanings are just looking too hard for something that isn’t there. Stan Lee wasn’t trying to undertake any sort of secret philosophical dialectic in the pages of the early Marvels, he was just writing some cheap entertainment, and doing his best to keep Ditko and Kirby’s philosophies (overt and covert, respectively) out of the books as best he could.

I think most superhero books should be read on an uncritical basis because that is how they were intended to be absorbed. I guarantee you that if they had thought people would have any interest in debating these things all these years later, they wouldn’t have made such a botch-up of Wonder Girl’s origin, for one. That’s a cheap joke but it’s basically the truth: for most of these books, if you go looking for deeper meaning, you’re going to end up grafting your own prejudices and conceptions onto the text, because, with some exceptions, the deeper meaning just isn’t there to be found.

(And I’m hardly encouraging children to read pro-Fascist literature. I think kids should read all the wonderful fantastic literature they can find, be it C.S. Lewis or Tolkein or Harry Potter or Captain America. Subtext is something you, hopefully, discover when you’re grown up. When you’re young, its good enough to understand that Cap tries to do the right things for the right reason, and the question of how and why can wait until you’re older . . . or, at least, I hope they can. Likewise, I wouldn’t care about my kid reading The Chronicles of Narnia either, despite the overt Christian subtext. They’ll figure it out later - if they care to - when they’re old enough to make their own decisions about these things. Likewise with Cap.)

Marc Singer over at I Am Not The Beastmaster says some interesting things too, which I would recommend you read, even if I don’t quite agree with him. I’ve already spent enough time defending myself from Peiratikos’ slings and arrows, and I’m getting tired – if I had known I’d be writing about this subject again, I’d have just kept my trap shut – but there is one point where he chimes in with Steven’s argument to add that “he [me] prefers to read superhero comics in a childlike manner and then criticize them for being childlike”.

Which is not the case. I prefer to read them in an uncritical manner, yes, because otherwise (if you’re not going for a formalistic reading of the storytelling geniuses involved in some of the books) they fall apart like the cheaply-printed tissue paper they are. I’m not criticizing the books for being childlike, I am merely pointing out a fact, just as the sun rises in the east and Marmite tastes like ass. I am criticizing otherwise healthy, sane, rational adults for taking such limited, stunted, and downright silly literature so damned seriously. It’s not a criticism to say that the Clone Saga was intended to be read by children and young adults, it’s merely a statement of fact. It’s almost a tautology: children’s books are meant to be read by children, and therefore most of them are childlike.

What a freakin’ concept, Vern.

Sorry if that offends you. It just seems pointless to spend so much time thinking about such damn trivial pieces of art. I mean, I can talk about bad old comics all day long, I love it. But I think it’s a grievous error to accept the vast majority of them as anything more than what they are and were always intended to be: fastly produced, cheaply made escapism.

There is so much good stuff out there that is absolutely ignored, and seeing the heartfelt attention that is paid to the crappiest of the crap breaks my heart.

"This subject of discussion is hereby declared illegal. It is stupid and must be destoyed!"

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