Sunday, March 11, 2007

Boredom on Infinite Earths

This essay was on the apparently defunct Bridge website for awhile; it came up in conversation on the TCJ message board, so I thought I'd reprint it here.

Boredom on Infinite Earths

“The cliques of artists and writers consist for the most part of a racket selling amusement to people who at all costs must be prevented from thinking themselves vulgar, and a conspiracy to call it not amusement but art.”
-- R. G. Colingwood

Since the passing of Charles Schulz in 2000, comicbook scripter Alan Moore has been the greatest English-language writer in the world.

I believe this statement is true, but it’s also somewhat beside the point. “Reputation,” as Moore points out in the recently reissued Writing for Comics, “is a trap that will turn you into a lifeless marble bust of yourself before you’re even dead.” This has probably been the case since the first sycophant shoved his nose in the unsuspecting (but alas, unprotesting) posterior orifice of the first artist and ruined the second cave painting. Things can, however, always get worse, and so they have. Time was when “arts and entertainment” weren’t mutually exclusive categories; when genre fiction was just, well, fiction; when acknowledged literary giants like G. K. Chesterton and Jack London could write nonsense verse and children’s literature; when poetry read less like this:

The shadowy cave we live in extends far out
Over the world. Plato said that. Even Amundsen
And all his dogs couldn’t find the end of it.
(From “Norwegian Grandson,” Robert Bly, 2003)

And more like this:

“Were all my body larded o’er
With darts of love, so thick
That you might find in every pore
A well-stuck standing prick,
Whilst yet my eyes alone were free,
My heart would never doubt,
In amorous rage and ecstasy,
To wish those eyes, to wish those eyes fucked out.”
(From “Mock Song,” Earl of Rochester, 1680)

These days, though, turning into a lifeless marble bust is not merely the result of a literary reputation, but its guarantor. How else explain the astonishing lionization of Ernest Hemingway, a man whose main achievement was to take the adventure out of boy’s adventure stories? Or the enthusiasm for Joyce Carol Oates, Queen of the Really Dull Gothic Romance? Or for Robert Hass, who, I understand, feels deeply? Or for John Ashberry, who, I understand, doesn’t? Or…well, you get the idea. Like the Kantian who knows he’s moral only because he’s miserable, we can identify a masterpiece of prose or poetry solely by its stolid dullness. It’s little wonder, then, that the most talented writers working today —Posdnuos of de la Soul, Judith Martin of “Miss Manners”, David Wilson of the Museum of Jurassic Technology— have chosen to seek fame and fortune outside the confines of literary fiction.

Which brings us back to Alan Moore and the much-maligned medium of comics. Moore is a hugely popular and respected figure, but it is still a little strange to hear him warn of the dangers of reputation, and even more so to hear him inveigh against “Reputation’s immortal big brother, Posterity.” Posterity? For comics creators? Comics may be inexplicably accepted as art in benighted locales like Japan, but in the U.S.A. comics have been viewed by most commentators as colorful cud for the barely literate. Maus-creator Art Spiegelman has stated that he used to be so embarrassed to be seen reading comics that he would hide them in copies of Playboy.

Dangling reputation in front of a cartoonist, in other words, is a bit like waving red meat in front of a starving Chihuahua. And as the professional arbiters of respect have begun to toss one or two scraps towards comics creators, the latter have responded with a frantic and joyful yapping, cheerfully urinating all over their predecessors in order to mark out the fragrant boundaries of their new literary reputations. Chris Ware, for example, has been hailed as a genius for sensitively suggesting that people who read superhero comics are intellectual, emotional, and sexual cripples. Similarly, in his 1991 New Comics Anthology, Bob Callahan sneered, “Prior to this point in history, comic strips were created by often exceptionally talented men and women as a way of entertaining nitwits and kids.” Self-respecting artists, apparently, aim their products only at the crème-de-la-crème: the wise, the thoughtful, and perhaps the occasional literature professor. If Shakespeare wrote for the uneducated rabble and Mark Twain wasted his days on books for boys -- well, what of it? That was a long time ago, and we’d know what to do with them if they tried that sort of thing around here. You don’t catch Cormac McCarthy attempting to amuse high-school dropouts, do you? Does Mark Strand write children’s verse? No and no -- the literati are for the literati, and as for the rest, let them eat Stephen King. In the meantime, the comics medium, after 60-odd years of over-muscled goombahs and talking cats, is finally ready to bore the pants off innumerable school-children. Dan Clowes, like John Updike, really understand the Souls of Women. Joe Sacco, like Susan Sontag, has visited Serbia. Sincere meaningfulness is in the air, progenitors are being slain, and lavish praise from Harold Bloom cannot be far behind.

Of course, the New Comics gang doesn’t think that it is trampling on the best traditions of the medium. On the contrary, it claims to be upholding comics history; to be pointing out, amidst acres and acres of market-soiled virtue, the few unblemished hymens of artistic vision. Art Spiegelman has been particularly good at this sort of thing, publicly and fulsomely lauding the genius of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, and — in a massively over-designed coffee-table book— Jack Cole’s Plastic Man.

What Spiegelman doesn’t seem to have quite realized is that his own shockingly conventional musings (“Maybe everyone has to feel guilty. Everyone! Forever!”) and clumsy co-option of comics history (The Holocaust…but with mice! It’s high art! It’s low art! Genius!) bear no resemblance to the work of his purported heroes. Indeed, the pulp crap Spiegelman despises — the issue of Flash in which our hero’s head grows to the size of a watermelon, for example, or the man-eating Christmas elves with ears for armpits in Eric Powell’s The Goon — are much more in ye olde tradition than anything Spiegelman has done. The thing about Herriman or Kurtzman or Cole is that, basically, they’re a blast. Hyper-active plots, surreal transformations, energy, surprise, a pursuit of the preposterous which never feels like slumming, a deliberate flirtation with self-parody, and endless, endless creativity: these guys, whatever their process, always made it look easy — they had the elan of trapeze artists, effortlessly spectacular and light as air. Does any of that describe Maus? No. Bowed under the burden of his press clippings, solemnly staggering from Holocaust to September 11 like some high-concept ambulance chaser, Spiegelman wants you to see him sweat. How else would you know that he’s a serious auteur? And so we’re treated to scenes of the Cartoonist at Work: panel after panel in which he suggests that his ambivalence about celebrity is somehow made more poignant by Auschwitz, or vice versa.

The arbiters of culture would, like Spiegelman, have us believe that canonization is the highest goal to which an artist can aspire. They fail to see — or, perhaps, see all too clearly — that when an artist enters the canon, he or she ceases to be an artist, and becomes instead a promotional device whereby the elites sell themselves to themselves. Da Vinci, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce — they don’t have audiences anymore, they have worshippers. Once, maybe, they had some ambition to entertain and enlighten their fellows, but now their most revered message is the totemic power of their names, repeated over and over, like television advertisements in a dead language. Indeed, the deadness of the language becomes the point. It is the canonical work’s very inaccessibility and irrelevance which gives it its fetishistic power, and so the initiates dedicate themselves to creating mysteries where none exist. Sacred passwords such as “artistic integrity,” and “enduring human concerns” identify believer to believer, and they smile as they gather in their faculty lounges and gourmet coffee emporiums, confident that their incantations will hold off the sea of drooling peasants which might otherwise engulf them. And for bonus points, why not complain about how oppressed you are by the philistinism of the people who bind your books, clean up your spilled cappuccino, and wipe your fucking ass?

If when you hear “art” you think “lifestyle accessory”, you would have liked the Comix Chicago exhibit at the Hyde Park Arts Center in September 2003. Though the ostensible theme of this show was “Comics About Chicago,” a more accurate description might be “Comics In A Really Important Art Gallery.” No super-heroes here, no sir. Also, no flights of fancy, enthusiasm, childishness, or any idea that would raise the hackles of a tenured radical. Many of the traits that have historically made comics great are incongruously in place, but they’re all viewed through a kind of inverse funhouse mirror, which makes the bizarre and outrageous appear mercilessly bland. So Dan Clowes dabbles in a surrealism stripped of drive and panache. David Heatley borrows Winsor McCay’s idea of dream comics, tosses out the magical juxtapositions and improbable adventure, and gives us Curator, a careerist fantasy in which Heatley pictures himself as a feted art star. Jessica Abel takes the addictive narrative melodrama of Stan Lee, adds a heaping glob of earnestness, and ends up sounding like a bad high school literary magazine. (One of her characters actually says, “I love this record. It makes me ache. It feels like the future.”) And Archer Prewitt makes slapstick okay for the bourgeois by replacing imagination and general goofiness with a smug sneer that says, “We’re all superior to these hi-jinks, aren’t we?” At least Prewitt’s characters, like those of his predecessors, still speak in the bastard Negro dialect of the blackface minstrel. Thank God that, in this age of political correctness, it’s still okay for white art school graduates to laugh at po’ black folks.

You’d think that, even if the writing were a wash, an art gallery would pick comics with a certain level of visual interest. You’d be wrong, though; the art, like the text, is frankly pedestrian. The best drawing in the show is little more than competent; nor does anyone represented here have the flair for cartooning that translates into a recognizable and distinctive style. Forget about Dr. Seuss — we’re not even up to Gary Larson’s standards here. The collage which adorns the reverse side of the show’s promotional poster is, in this regard, particularly damning. Someone chose panels from each artist and mixed them together in a loosely sequential arrangement, presumably to highlight the diversity of skills on display. Instead, all the pieces just melts into one big, drab blur, the artists undifferentiated from one another by either subject matter or talent. In the show itself, there are a couple of pleasant moments; Dan Clowes’ “Nature Boy,” has a nice, filmic movement, and the colors and composition of Deadpan #1 by David Heatley (an acquaintance of mine) are lovely. Even if you throw in a couple of cute cat drawings by Ivan Brunetti, though, that’s pretty slim pickings, especially when balanced against Erik Wenzel, who seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that taking multiple photographs of the same boring cartoon is…what? Vaguely amusing? A half-hearted David Letterman routine?

The big, fat exception to all of this is, of course, Chris Ware. Everybody says Ware is the greatest comic artist of his generation, and it’s pretty hard to argue — his hand-lettered calligraphy alone is reason enough to come out to Comix Chicago. It’s Ware’s compositions, though, that are really sui generis. Nobody but nobody thinks about page layout the way that Chris Ware thinks about page layout. Most artists — especially American artists of recent vintage — tend to design comics pages sequentially; whether you’re reading R. Crumb or Stan Lee, you start more or less at the top left, end more or less at the bottom right, and walk away with a narrative. Chris Ware does this too, sometimes, but he’s just as likely to organize the page around a single drawing of a giant house or machine, or as a gameboard, or as an interlocking series of smaller and larger strips oriented in various directions. The result is breathtaking, especially on something like the Jimmy Corrigan book jacket, where the details spiral down into infinitesimal complexity, arrows point every which way, and you can spend hours just trying to figure out which way is up. And, as if that weren’t enough, Ware also happens to be a fantastic writer, with a style somewhere between Beckett, Schulz, and the language of ’50s marketing. In the “Whitney Prevaricator,” for example, the great men of Western art wander through Ware’s tiny panels like heavily sedated office workers searching for the right cubicle. I think my favorite moment is when an eager Renaissance man-in-training starts spouting lines out of True Romance: “That Goethe, he’s a famous humanist! I’ve got to do something to impress him!”

Which only makes it more depressing to view the aesthetic atrocity that is “Ruin Your Life: Draw Cartoons.” You might think that with television reality shows our society had pretty much sunk as low as it was possible to sink in terms of dishonesty, pandering, and sham self-revelation. But no; Chris Ware has dragged his massive talent to cultural bottom, and he has begun to dig. Everything that’s delightful about the “Whitney Prevaricator” — most noticeably the sense of social realities which makes satire possible — has here gone horribly awry. The “Prevaricator” mocks the anguish of artists as being idiotic and overblown. “Ruin Your Life,” on the other hand, is devoted to the proposition that life is just really, really hard for alternative comics creators in general, and for Chris Ware in particular.

Now, you might think that things were going all right for Ware professionally. He’s been in the Whitney Biennial. He recently became the first comic artist to win a major British literary award. He’s been positively reviewed in People, for Christ’s sake, and he gets to make his living as a cartoonist rather than as, say, a coal miner. But as a college-educated white boy with skills, Ware knows that he is just not getting his due until all of us awaken each morning and genuflect towards his drafting board. And so he feels sorry for himself. Working in comics, apparently, will doom you to “decades of grinding isolation, solipsism and utter social disregard.” (Silly me; I thought that was working at McDonalds — or being unemployed.) Comics are also “inextricably linked to adolescence and puerile power fantasies,” and “If anyone finds you the least bit attractive, you are not a cartoonist.” Comics artists waste their youth in grinding toil, chained to a “reviled pictographic language” which is nevertheless much more demanding and unforgiving than the mere written word . (If only Kafka had known how easy he had it— maybe he would actually have finished one of his novels!)

Of course, like Ware, the intellectual art-viewers who file past his work know the pain of being under-appreciated; the loneliness that comes from sitting almost, but not quite, at the top of the heap; the struggle that results when all your needs are met and you realize that you’re still mildly disturbed by the hideous rending noises as your domestic servants are tortured outside your studio. If you listen carefully in the gallery, you can almost hear the forlorn souls of the privileged crying, “We find you attractive, Chris!” as they make his self-pity their own. And if they don’t get enough there, they can always walk across the room and absorb Ivan Brunetti’s “Cartooning Will Destroy You,” in which Brunetti moans that “no one even gives a shit about comics,” and wonders if instead of cartooning it would be more moral for him to be “mopping the AIDS ward at a county hospital.” Perhaps he’s hoping for sympathy from the terminally ill. After all, “It’s a lonely business, sitting day in and day out alone…writing and drawing books that have little hope of reaching an audience beyond other comics artists….” Quick, who wrote that, Brunetti or Ware? Okay, you caught me; it’s actually from an essay in the promotional booklet. Comics have, at long last, reached that marketing nirvana where art and puff piece are one.
The irony is that alternative comics are supposed to be more personal, or at minimum more idiosyncratic, than their mainstream brethren. Yet Ware and Brunetti, who focus on themselves obsessively, have written comics which are thematically indistinguishable. Meanwhile, in Alan Moore’s Tom Strong, the title hero discovers an alternate timeline in which he is black and in which, perhaps as a result, everybody on earth is happier. The role of race in the story is complicated by the fact that the white Tom Strong has a black wife and daughter (regular characters in the series) and, of course, by comics’ disgraceful history of caricaturing and ignoring minorities. The impact is somewhere between that of Chester Himes’ detective fiction and the Fu Manchu novels: a straightforward adventure story given a queasy resonance by social and political implications which are suggested but never quite worked out. The story isn’t great, necessarily, and it isn’t Moore’s best. But it’s individual and it’s thoughtful, which is more than can be said for the maudlin navel gazing of Jeff Brown — or, wait, I mean Ivan Brunetti.

I’m not saying that all mainstream titles are necessarily better than alternative ones: for the record, they’re not. But I am saying that dismissing qualities supposedly associated with mainstream super-hero comics —popularity, silliness, a desire to entertain — is the surest way to take a young, adventurous medium bursting with potential and transform it into an ossified piece of crap. Art may be about communication, it may be about truth, and it may be about beauty, but it sure as hell is not about impressing a grant committee. If you’re not willing to look ridiculous, be an accountant or something. An artist who wants to be taken seriously is an artist who needs a swift kick in the pants. And if comics aren’t respected by everyone in the academy or in the hip hang-outs — well, frankly, good. As Alan Moore notes, “The only thing that might seriously endanger either your talent or your relationship with your talent is if you suddenly found yourself fashionable.”


Anonymous said...

r u serious? i quit readin after 2nd yeah, great!

Noah Berlatsky said...

Thanks! Or whatever!

SEAN said...

I hate Chris Ware. He wastes his talent on these shoe-gazing woe is me stories when he could be doing work for the children who need real high quality entertainment. Chris Ware is a self-hating cartoonist & he must change or be excomunicated from the faith. The main problem is that comics & cartoons are supposed to be an accepted as is mass medium & they aren't for some reason. Americans don't get comics, they need some Bill Gates looking nerd to explain them to them in a ridiculous book & they need a calcified magazine that argues about cerebus & peanuts to make sure everyone is on the same page about how we should "think" about comics. YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO THINK ABOUT COMICS. You READ THEM & THEN SPILL YOUR SLURPEE on them. The alternative seems to be even worse, collecting comics. Jesus christ.

Robert Adam Gilmour said...

Navel gazing and stories that need to be taken seriously need not be made by creators who want to be revered, they could be quite good.
That is "NavelGazing" Sean, not my beloved "Shoegazing" music.

Good article, I agree that these clowns need to be ignored, I think they actually have a lack of respect for comics themselves that they need the chinstroking elite to appreciate them too.
Even though I'm not a big fan of the majority of DC and Marvel stuff and that Marvel wants to be taken seriously with all the War and 9/11 stuff, atleast they still have plenty of enthusiastic creators who are enjoying the status they have and genuinely appreciate all their fans.

SEAN said...

Oh yes, well corrected there Robert. Navel gazing it is.

Anonymous said...

In my humble opinon, I think you've got it backwards.

The "mainstream" comics are nowadays just fanfiction and fanart. There's nothing original. They're using characters made decades ago, often in stories written decades ago. And yet the mainstream superhero creators think their fanfiction is somehow "important".

The indie croud at least is doing something original. Whether it has literary value or not is irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

People involved in the "fine arts" do tend to give their contemporaries the benefit of a doubt, and overpraise the undeserving. It has always been so. As long as there's one or two or ten great artists in any generation (which is surely the most we can hope for), I don't see the problem. It'll be sorted out in the wash after we're all dead.

Anonymous said...

I've met Chris Ware a number of times, and he's a gracious, modest fellow. Anyone can see that his strip, "Ruin Your Life, Draw Cartoons," is intended to be self-mocking and not a broadside against those who make superhero comics, or anything else. Gee whiz, it's called "irony." Maybe you've heard of it. I know plenty of other writers, poets and painters who, with rueful laughters, express a similar sentiment. All this toil, and for what? 99% of everything will be forgotten soon enough, and the other one per cent will perish with the heat death of universe in due course. Yet they go on. They can't go on, but they go on. As do we all.

So if you don't like Ware's work, don't buy it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to dig up the past. In response to Matthew's:
The indie croud at least is doing something original. Whether it has literary value or not is irrelevant.

Original in what context? Certainly the independent tendency towards autobiographical comics mirrors the Iowa School/Confessional School of poetry that dominated the American landscape for years and years. Much like Language poets rebelled against the tropes of the dominant lyric form of the day (albeit a "minor" art form in both reception and collecting capital, much like comics), many critics/creators seem to be calling for a deeper examination of form in comics. I imagine that the coming shift in comics (a comics exploring both language and image, eschewing the moral and judgmental I) will parallel the rise of the language movement in the 80s—creators producing criticism within the moment rather than afterwards. Will comics be doing something original then? Probably not, but even if it were, is newness and originality a creative pass? I don't think that we should sit on our hands, ignoring a discussion of the merits of an artwork, simply because the presentation is unfamiliar.

Noah, could you qualify that statement at the top: Alan Moore [is] the greatest English-language writer in the world.

I'm not offering an opinion on the matter. I just want to hear the argument.