Friday, February 04, 2005

(X) + (Y) = You Suck
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Spandex

There are two conventionally accepted ways of reading Marvels, and both seem to involve accepting the basic narrative at more or less face value. The first reading is the positive reading, in which the "cool" superhero visuals and supposedly "deep" story graft retroactive meaning onto 60s Marvel comics through their use of culturally accredited naturalistic signifiers to evoke a more "realistic" and believable milieu. The second reading is essentially the flip side, with the book's assumed attempt at servicing fandom's long-cherished insecurities taken as proof of an unmistakably negative and self-defeating urge for poisonous nostalgia.

The third reading, which I have attempted to illustrate, takes the initial position that neither the story or art elements in Marvels were ever meant to be taken entirely on face value, and that the book supports multiple narrative interpretations which have, unfortunately, rarely been explored. I have heard many otherwise intelligent people profess the opinion that Marvels is totally devoid of critical interest. Certainly, anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time knows that despite my abiding affection for certain superhero books and characters, I am hardly one to ever give a book - especially a superhero book - a critical "free pass" just because I happen to like it. Affection in this context is basically nostalgia, and I like to think that most folks smart enough to think about comics on the kind of reasoned and balanced level necessary to follow most of the erudite and educated discussions (and many of the puerile and pointless ones as well) that fill up the "Comics Blogosphere" also know enough to separate their own feelings of nostalgic affection from their more seasoned critical appraisal.

Certainly, it might sometimes be a hard line to draw - but I believe its still an important one. It doesn't necessarily follow that there is any sort of Platonic ideal of "greatness" to which art can aspire - although I don't discount the notion entirely - but it does mean that every critical consumer of art has a responsibility, if only to themselves, to process their stimuli in a reasoned and knowledgeable manner. Why I think X is better or more significant or more profound than Y tells me a lot not only about X and Y but about the way I think and the ways that X and Y have influenced the thoughts of others.

But with that said, sometimes the most significant obstacle for any person to overcome on the subject of aesthetic merit is their own preconceptions. I know that despite the fact that I try to keep an almost impossibly open mind, sometimes I betray rank prejudices. It's natural and desirable to be placed in positions of second- and third- guessing your own preconceived notions. On the flip side, a more treacherous trap might be the temptation to fit any new piece of input through predesigned filters. Everyone has their own pet theories or their particular interpretations that they like to be able to apply to whatever crosses their path. It's a familiar impulse, as anyone who has spent any time in academia will attest.

(One of the most frustrating experiences of my life was a Shakespeare class taught by an avowed structuralist professor. He knew his Bard inside and out but his interpretations of the plays and the poetry always seemed - to me - needlessly reductive, totally lacking in any understanding of why people actually ever cared about these plays. Although it is always interesting to look at familiar works through novel prisms, there reaches a point where you have to be able to admit that any particular critical perspective - Marxism, feminism, formalism, et al - is merely a tool, and some tools are simply less effective for certain applications as they are for others.)

So with that in mind, Marvels is a uniquely conceived work, in that it seems to have been designed to offer a strikingly opaque critical reflection. If you go looking for something simple and nostalgic, you'll find ample evidence of that for an enjoyable read, and if you go looking for more meaty subtext, you'll find that Busiek and Ross have included that as well, just under the surface where most people maybe wouldn't bother or care to look. The fact that Ross' work has become so divisive hardly helps: so many people feel so strongly about it one way or the other that an original and unbiased opinion can sometimes be hard to find, and the opinion that Marvels stands slightly apart from the rest of his output by virtue of the subtle disconnect between art and narrative is not widely-held.

In a lot of ways, its a much more challenging work to try and get an accurate read on than any of its immediate peers. Watchmen is pretty obvious a complex narrative, with numerous very visible signifiers that could lead you to any number of rewarding and diverse interpretations. The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps a more focused work than Watchmen - even if the thematic content is much more messy and inexact than in Watchmen, with its analytical approach to the intricate interplay between formal elasticity and thematic development - but it also betrays a number of not-so subtle clues which can easily be put to the service of explication.

But understanding what Busiek was trying to say with Marvels presents the reader with multiple conundrums. For one thing, Marvels is perhaps the only one of the great post-modern deconstructionist superhero works to start from a position of affection. (This affection is in itself perhaps the first real stumbling block for many readers, being as they have been conditioned to expect deconstructionist superhero narratives to come clouded with cynicism and pervading dread.) The "starting point" for Watchmen and Dark Knight, to say nothing of Marshal Law or Animal Man or Squadron Supreme, is a pervading sense of moral decay, be it in society, in the mind of the protagonist or in the very fabric of the superhero narrative itself (or, more likely, all three). Marvels takes a necessarily broader approach, beginning as it does at the very beginning of superheroes, and taking them not to "The End" (or, as in Kingdom Come, some kind of an artificially constructed eschatological incident), but merely at an ending, the specific point where one person in particular decides to get off the treadmill.

There's nothing massive or monumental or cosmic about it, and at no point in the narrative are the stakes higher than the natural peaks and valleys of one man's unique but unexceptional career in journalism. It works because it was and remains a singularly unique way of approaching something that had already been torn apart and put back together in as many ways as you can imagine, perhaps the last meaningful statement that was possible before superheroes entered their present fugue state of Baroque decadence. Because Busiek chooses not to smash all of his toys in a huff at the end of the piece, some people chose to interpret this as an acquiesce to circumstances, a passive acceptance, even an example of moral cowardice. But it's a lot more ambiguous than that.

Up until very recently, it would have been impossible to understand the English-speaking comics world without at least a layman's grasp of superhero comic history. The fact is that most significant artists and every significant movement in comics since around the time we now call the Silver Age has defined itself either by its proximity or opposition to the commercial dominance of mainstream comics. Certainly, if you want to appreciate underground comix (Crumb & Co.) or the post-underground generation (Spiegelman, Pekar and their peers) without an understanding of what was considered aboveground comic books when said artists first burst on the scene, you'd be missing one of the most crucial pieces of historical context necessary to understanding why these books were significant. Once you get past the post-underground generation and enter the 80s and 90s, with the black & white boom, the Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly generation, and all the little fits and spurts in between, you're dealing with a pile of cartoonists who were almost universally inculcated on American mainstream superhero comics, if not exclusively, then at least partially. Try to understand the genre subtext of Jaime Hernandez's Locas stories without at least some knowledge of Jack Kirby (how the heck could you explain Penny Century?). Look at the weak and aggressively unmasculine presentation of the self in which autobiographical artists like Chester Brown and Joe Matt revel. Just imagine Jimmy Corrigan or David Boring shorn of their critical passive-aggressive relationship to superhero nostalgia.

It's only in the past five years or so that we've actually gotten to the point where up & coming cartoonists haven't automatically and unknowingly felt the need to define themselves in relation to superheroes - the Fort Thunder crew seems to accept superhero comics as merely a small component in the general pop-culture melange they reflect, and other talents who have recently ripened, such as Dave Cooper, James Kochalka and Jeffrey Brown, seem to possess none of the antipathy towards the material that defined their precedents. (In fact, its worth pointing out that all of these creators have dipped their toes into superheroes on occasion, producing works which are undoubtedly less significant in relation to their broad ouvres, but which certainly look like they were a lot of fun for the creators in question!) All of these significant talents have no problem with admitting the influence superheroes may have had on their early development, but they hardly feel the shadow of Jack Kirby breathing down their necks and forcing their art to bend in a contrarian opposition to the wind. Its such a dirty, shameful and almost painfully intimate subject for most cartoonists of the generation just previous to the current, that it's amazing they get anything done considering how much of their time they spend ruing the fact that they read and enjoyed X-Men in their unformed childhoods.

(Perhaps this is stating the case a bit too strongly, but no one ever said this wasn't the Mighty Marvel Age of egregious exaggeration?)

Even though the vast majority of his career has been spent in the mainstream superhero worlds, Busiek also feels this ambiguity (jusr read his interview in The Comics Journal if you don't believe me), and in many ways Marvels was designed as a response to this, as a deliberate and precise attempt to get inside the mind of the superhero comic and try to understand why it still exerts such a powerful hold on so many people. To do this, he did the only really radical thing that had yet to be done on a meaningful scale: instead of taking the genre apart from the outside, he started from the inside and worked his way out.

This is one of the most fundamental aspects of Marvels significance, and also goes great lengths towards explaining just why some people feel so alienated by the book. If you've spent any part of your life reading superhero comics, you're intimately acquainted with the omniscient first- and second-person narrative modes for most books. Most all superhero stories take place with you peering over the hero's shoulder, privy to their actions and their thoughts, seeing what they do and hearing what they hear. On a very basic level, this creates a strong sense of possessive intimacy on the part of the readers, some of whom identify powerfully with fictional characters whom they spent more of their childhood with than flesh-and-blood friends.

Marvels upends this equation entirely. Instead of being a fly on the wall for Peter Parker's ongoing crises and a passive participant in his thrilling adventures, you see him no more than in passing. For someone with a lifelong affection for these characters, it could be an almost heartbreakingly profound disassociation, like seeing an old flame in passing who doesn't even recognize you. Ingrained reading protocol dictates that you follow Spider-Man as he swings across the city, not that you get left behind on the street below - and the disconnect between what the reader intuitively expects and what the narrative provides can be revealing. Certainly, not everyone who reads the book could have such a negative reaction based merely on their attachment to the characters, but there is something to be said for the fact that Busiek and Ross' casual inversion of the established norms of superhero narrative has produced some startlingly visceral responses. Part of understanding Marvels, at least for me, was understanding that the point of the book was to place me outside of my comfort zone - not merely to sit in judgment of superhero comics from an omniscient remove, as in Watchmen, but to try and provoke a more nuanced rapprochement with an obviously thorny and contradictory subject matter.

The success or failure of Marvels as a narrative has relatively little to do with whether or not you have ever read a superhero comic before, and requires no knowledge of the complex continuity which it utilizes during the course of the story - unlike, say, The Dark Knight Returns, it's possible to comprehend the book's important themes without any knowledge of the characters' labyrinthine pasts. In fact, I daresay that an above-average awareness of superhero contunity might actually predicate an incomplete reading experience, as it's all-too easy for the initiated to get caught up in the book's minutiae, and to get thrown by the understated inversions that compose the book's delicately assembled structure. From a certain angle, it stands apart from the traditional narrative flow of superhero history even moreso than Watchmen or Animal Man, both of which provided violent breaks with established mores. Marvels provides just as much subversion, albeit from a different direction, by putting the entire structural underpinning of superhero narrative on its head, and not by dissecting the inner workings of superhero psyches and their grand existential crises. The questions here are nothing less than how and why we read superhero comics to begin with - and if Busiek's answers are ultimately more ambiguous and perhaps forgiving than Moore or Morrison's, it is to be expected, considering Busiek's more gregarious and humble nature.

Psychological naturalism is perhaps a MacGuffin in certain respects: while this was certainly a very important element in Busiek's inversion of genre, it was by no means the paramount element. To say that psychological realism is not an expected attribute of superhero comics is merely stating a fact, and the fact that injecting small doses of naturalism into a superhero story can still create profoundly odd and sometimes extremely telling effects in the reader is no more than a reminder that the genre is, at its purest, doggedly surreal in character and rigorously formal in execution. Changing this equation can still provoke powerfully informative reactions from educated readers.

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