Friday, July 01, 2005

Of Further Interest

Anyone who read and enjoyed (or tolerated) last week's essay on the utility of mythic modes in dealing with superheroes might just be interested in the July issue of Harper's magazine. Although it may seem on first glance to be only tangentially important, there's an article called "Mighty White of You", by Jack Hitt, which offers up some interesting corollaries to exactly what I was talking about.

The article deals with the issue of racial preferences and national myths in connections with the sparse fossil record relating to the earliest human inhabitants of the Americas. (The piece is itself quite interesting outside of any connection to comics or myth - I have an abiding disinterest in anthropology based on a badly-taught college course, and any sixteen-page long article on the topic that can hold my interest must be quite well-written by simple virtue of the fact that I usually start nodding off as soon as I see the phrase Australopithecus aferensis or what have you.) In any event, there was one particular passage which caught my eye in reference to recent features on this blog:
". . . [We] no longer have the capacity to appreciate the real power of myth. Most of us are reared to think of myth as an anthology of dead stories of some long-ago culture: Edith Hamilton making bedtime stories out of Greek myths; Richard Wagner making art out of Norse myth; fundamentalist Christians making trouble out of Scripture.

When we read ancient stories or founding epics, we forget that the original audience who heard these accounts did not differentiate between mythic and fact-based storytelling. Nor did these stories have authors, as we conceive of them. Stories arose from the collective culture, accrued a kind of truth over time.

Today we've split storytelling into two modes - fiction and non-fiction. And we've split our reading that way as well. The idea of the lone author writing ‘truth’ has completely vanquished the other side of storytelling - the collectively conjured account. I think we still have these accounts, but we just don't recognize them for what they are. Tiny anxieties show up as urban legends and the like." [Pg. 55]

Of course, the conflict between the literal and metaphorical methods of reading is as old as writing itself, or at least as old as the practice of passing down narratives to successive generations. As Kenneth McLeish put it in his introduction to Robert Graves' seminal Greek Myths:
" . . . [P]opular interest was hardly well-served by the scholars who maintained the actual classical texts and artifacts. Works of ancient literature were studied with an obsessive attention to the minutiae of grammar and syntax - a discipline learned from Bible studies, and intended to serve the same end, namely to ensure that the fundamental texts were interpreted as accurately and prescriptively as possible. In the same way, conservatories of the fine arts devoted themselves to the preservation of the minutest details of past practices, so that to study sculpture, architecture or painting became a discipline as - and hardly much different from - rabbinical exegesis of the Torah or its dismal Christian equivalent: scholastic, authority citing arguments about matters such as the size of the angels or the number of generations since Noah's flood.

"The result of this was that classical scholars became archivists rather than innovators, museum curators rather than original thinkers. In literary terms, European universities became filled with magnificently reconstructed texts which everyone revered but no one bothered to relate to the living beings who had created and enjoyed them in the first place, and with experts who knew the size and shape of each brick in every ancient wall, but could neither see the walls themselves nor understand their purpose. . . . " [Pg. 14, Folio Society Edition]

There's been a lot of talk lately – partly triggered by Marvel's overdue decision to begin reprinting it's less-stellar 70s era material as part of the Essentials line - about series like Luke Cage, The Defenders and the 70s Avengers, books that were by most stretches of the imagination not very good but which retain a pulpy, spontaneous energy that places them at a distance from both the iconic works of the 1960s and the more calculated and competent high-octane soap-opera adventures stories ushered in by Chris Claremont and Co. with the invention of the "All-New, All-Different" X-Men. Books like the absurd but incredibly fun "Celestial Madonna" storyline were the kinds of stories Marvel had previously spent decades trying to escape. Certainly, there's a lot of fodder in any of these books for the type of criticism that bewails the unfortunate, literal-minded prominence of continuity-based storytelling - as well as the fact that the actual stories themselves are not very well put together - but these books also point towards the "missing link" between the generative brilliance of the 60s and the increasingly "sophisticated" but generally dull and perpetually adolescent books which arose in the collective wakes of Claremont's X-Men, Frank Miller's Daredevil, Wolfman & Perez' Teen Titans and the handful of other genuinely interesting (or at least well-remembered) books from the late-70s and early 80s.

If Howard Chaykin had come to prominence in the comics industry a decade earlier, he would probably have been working on a book like Luke Cage or The Defenders. But by the early 80s, when Chaykin did rise out of the mainstream ranks (penciling Star Wars, of all things), there were other options for conscientious mainstream creators besides merely plowing particularly weird ruts in corporate fields. There was a lot of piss and vinegar in 70s Marvel, because there were a lot of people who had grown up with Stan & Jack & Steve who wanted to express themselves in similar ways but did not as yet have a vocabulary that allowed for more than the occasional flashes of ingenuity.

At some point, as has been chronicled and debated ad infinitum, the people producing mainstream comics switched over from professional craftsmen who just happened to be working in comics to people who had grown up consciously yearning to work in comics, and the resulting change produced a steady but irrevocable sea-change in the way that the stories would forever be conceived. The best way I have found to typify this division is by pointing to the long-standing and somewhat baffling (to me and many) enmity held by John Byrne for "British Invasion" creators such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, creators who rose to (American) prominence as part of the first generation of creators to follow Byrne. (Of course, there are also serious Oedipal issues involved in Byrne's dismissal of almost all younger creators, from the Brits in the 80s to the Image boys in the 90s, but that's neither here nor there.) The difference is that at a certain point the relationship between creators and the texts which preceded them - the "ur" texts, the 60s runs of books like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man - became less one of innovator and more one of archivist. The kernel of genius behind 60s Marvel - the artistic presences who actually created the books and developed their distinctly communicative styles and concepts - was forgotten, or at least ignored, as fidelity to the characters and concepts became the prime denominator. Plus, it’s easier to devote yourserlf to rather facile reinterpretations of existing characters, as opposed to doing any conceptual heavy lifting yourself.

Of course, Alan Moore never got that memo, and neither did Grant Morrison. They understood (and understand, for the most part) why what Stan & Jack & Steve did was so important, and why it garnered the attention it did. It was new, it was different, it was just kinda weird - and the best way to pay tribute to things like that is to go forth yourself and create things which are, in their turn, new and different and weird. This does not mean, for the most part, putting new coats of paint on forty or sixty year old ideas. It means taking what was originally so good and inspirational about them and discarding the rest, the outdated, ill-fitting anachronistic baggage.

Trying to write a Fantastic Four comic that instills the same sense of wonder and imagination in a grown adult as the original Stan & Jack run did on 6-12 year olds during the 1960s is a fools errand. While this does not mean that fun Fantastic Four stories may not appear from time to time (they do), it does mean that the likelihood of anything honestly revolutionary or breath-taking appearing in those pages is very, very small. Of course, Frank Miller was able to knock all the literalist cobwebs from the Batman mythos in two fell strokes - with Dark Knight Returns and Year One - but Miller also recognized the importance of tilling your own fields. (Later work like Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman & Robin strikes me as more Miller just having fun - which is certainly allowed, even if I may not have thought DKSA was very fun.) Also, perhaps coincidentally, Miller’s own revolutionary works were later used as the basis for the new status quo, in the form of the particularly churlish Batman we’ve had ever since. The point, again, is not that it isn't possible to do interesting or - even very occasionally - honestly important work when you're working with other people's ideas, but that imitation is not necessarily the sincerest form of flattery. The sincerest form of flattery, in terms of art, is inspiration, because imitation in the name of literal slavishness is not art, it's a form of indentured servitude.

So, why are the Fantastic Four important enough that the world is gearing up for the release of a big-budget motion picture starring their exploits? Why have they been remembered all these years? Of course, the cynic in me wants answers that it's because the corporation that owns them has trademarks to exploit. But the characters themselves wouldn't still be around some forty-five years later if something in their execution hadn't sparked the interest of someone or another down the line: media history is filled with useless trademarks that have been abandoned or fallen into disrepair simply because no-one cares anymore. How many people relate to Gasoline Alley or Flash Gordon anymore? Aside from low-level archival projects and the occasional resurgence, they are dead in every way that matters. If people still care about the Fantastic Four, though, the best thing that could come of it would be if some dazzled ten-year-old kid walked out of the Fantastic Four movie and decided he wanted to create something as cool as that himself. If, on the other hand, he is suitably impressed but says he just wants to write more Fantastic Four comics, that seems slightly sad to me.

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