T. Hodler takes me to task in this post for various things. Most of them stem from a lack of clarity on my part, I think, and on Hodler’s assuming that I’m saying the same thing as several other folks he disagrees with.
Hodler asks, for example:
“Where are all these boring, serious art comics overreacting to superheroes? Is it really that hard to find alternative comics that aren’t memoir? Or that aren’t obsessed with distancing themselves from superheroes? Aside from a few members of the older guard, I find it hard to apply this criterion to nearly anyone.”
However, my point isn’t that the content of the comics themselves necessarily revolves around super-heroes. Instead, my argument (such as it is) is that the dominance of super-heroes, and their low critical standing, has helped to determine the current obssessions of art comics — basically, memoir and literary fiction (to the extent that the two are separable.) It’s a desire for literariness and respectability which is the trouble with comics — a desire I see as being linked to the pulp past.
Hodler also notes that Chris Ware and Dan Clowes don’t write autobio comics. Indeed they don’t. They write contemporary literary fiction, a genre which is at least somewhat distinct, but which has many of the same problems (tedium, pretension, self-absorption.) (And, of course, TCJ isn’t an example of autobio either; it’s just the foremost critical voice arguing for the literarification of comics.)
Hodler’s right when he argues:
“It is true, I suppose, that when Ware and Clowes reference superhero comics, they usually do so through parody or satire, though I think it is far too simple to categorize their approach to the genre as simply contempt or as an attempt at distancing themselves. Clowes’s Death Ray is one of the best superhero comics I’ve ever read, and while his Dan Pussey stories are fairly devastating in their treatment of superhero comics, they don’t exactly treat the “art comics” world with kid gloves, either. I would also argue that Ware’s references to Superman and Supergirl in his Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown stories are just as much elegiac as critical.”
There is a good deal of elegy and nostalgia in the approach of alt cartoonists towards super-hero comics — and towards older strip cartoons as well. Unfortunately, nostalgia is just about the worst of all possible modes for art, in my opinion. Nostalgia has throttled jazz, kicked the shit out of contemporary poetry, and what it’s done to white mainstream rock is none too pretty, either. In comics, I believe it’s also a way to reconcile the genre’s pulp roots with a modern literary sensibility. Chabon’s Kavalier and Klay (which I must admit I was forced to put down in disgust after about a chapter) is maybe the best example of this — oh those darling pulp creators! They were so alive, so vital, so, so…ethnic! Let us appreciate them by penning pompous boring hymns to our own superior taste! Hallelujah!
Also, and in addition, I’ve read way more Dan Clowes than I wanted to, damn it, because everyone loves him and I’m supposed to have an opinion. But when I read it all I ever think is, who would have thought you could make surrealism so boring? It’s like Ira Glass borifying a David Lynch movie. Life is too short for that crap.
Hodler also says,
“I have nothing against manga, the best of which seems to me to be just as artistically valid as anything created in North America, and the inclusion of more female voices would be an obviously healthy development, but I will never understand so many comics readers’ apparent desire for “hugely popular” comics, and the implied belief that that popularity goes hand in hand with being “aesthetically vital”.”
Again, this is me failing to make myself clear. I hope that in the future comics will be popular because I like manga, and manga’s a popular genre. I don’t like manga because it’s popular, though. (Did that make sense? What I’m trying to say is, popularity would be part of comics if comics turned into manga, but the popularity isn’t what makes the manga good.) The point is that manga is an incredibly vital and diverse art form, with standards of craft and storytelling that leave most American comics whimpering in pitiful little puddles of incompetence.
I also think that contemporary visual art (hardly hugely popular) is quite exciting. And some popular art forms (mainstream country) are horrible.
Still, (and maybe in slight contradiction to what I just said) it’s not quite true to say that popularity has nothing to do with aesthetics. The cultural space within which a work is produced, and the way it is received, has a lot to do with a medium’s health, I think. It can just work in a lot of different ways. Mainstream comics’ very limited audience has been quite bad for its aesthetics. The even more limited audience for metaphysical poetry in the 17th century probably had good effects, overall. It just depends.
Update: Hodel responds to my response…and I think we’ll probably leave it at that.
And furthermore: I hope that those of you who came to see the fight will stay to look around a bit. I’d encourage you to check out discussions of Dame Darcy, H.P. Lovecraft and Re-Animator, contemporary R&B, art and education, plus an enormous interview with cartoonist Johnny Ryan. Also, and finally, you can see me imitate someone rather like John Byrne.