We’re coming to the end of our multi-week roundtable on Charles Hatfield’s book Alternative Comics. Yesterday, Charles wrote a post defending Gilbert Hernandez from…well, mostly from me and Robert Stanley Martin. In this post I’m going to try to clarify my position somewhat, and also try to tie this discussion into why I thought it was a good idea to do this roundtable in the first place.

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Charles spends much of his post defending Hernandez’s use of fetish and pin-up imagery. He says:

I’m not going to argue that Gilbert’s above or beyond the pinup. Essentially I’m arguing here that Hernandez approaches self-parody, that the aesthetics of that passage, indeed of Poison River as a whole, are baroque, self-reflexive, and frankly decadent (in several senses), and that what he is doing with the Maria-fetish can best be understood in terms of the book’s overall agenda. Arguments like these—that such excessive, disturbing, and arguably self-mocking elements have some value other than masturbatory or shock value—depend on the arguers’ shared knowledge of the larger context of the work, so I don’t know how to explain or defend my argument to one (Noah!) who admits not having read the work in question. We’re at an impasse.

The page that this debate has centered on is here:

The page in question: from Poison River

So, let’s start by looking at that page for a second. Then, if you would, answer this question. Suppose Gilbert Hernandez put that page up for sale at auction. Do you think the price would be higher or lower if Maria’s breasts were half the size?

I’ll get back to that example in a minute. Before that, though, I’d like to look at some of Charles’ arguments in more detail. In the paragraph I quote above, he says: “I’m not going to argue that Gilbert’s above or beyond the pinup.” Later in the same essay, he says this:

“I probably stirred some feathers by pointing out that, in our usual understanding of porn, it serves as a masturbation aid. Yes? Was this a fair description of Blood of Palomar?”

I’ll skip lightly over the extremely naive view of porn expressed here (read some Linda Williams!) But I do want to emphasize the contradiction. On the one hand, Charles says Hernandez is not “beyond the pinup”. On the other, he says that Hernandez is not a “masturbation aid.”

So, which is is? Is Hernandez’s work titillating? Or not?

This same confusion — or perhaps I should say anxiety? — runs throughout Charles’ essay. On the one hand, he chastises readers who are put off by the pseudo-pornographic effects in Hernandez’s work, suggesting (to my mind anyway) that said readers are puritanical and stuffy. But he also insists that Hernandez’s work is not actually pornographic; that is, that, if you look at it closely, it actually conforms perfectly well to the standards of important literature. There is, in short, a surface of exploitation which is “not beyond pin up”, but if you look at the work closely (as, Charles points out, I did not) you will see that the core, the heart, of the work satisfies exacting literary standards. Maria’s breasts may look to the uninitiated like a fetish, but if you look closer (though, presumably, not too close) you will see not fetish, but parody, critique, and literary value.

There are a number of difficulties here. I would say they mostly center around the creation of naive binaries between, for example, surface/essence, parodied/parody, and art/porn. My example of the auction is a quick thumbnail way to explain why these binaries might not work. After all, if a viewer such as myself bought that page for the breasts, would that be a misunderstanding of Gilbert’s work? Would I really be misconstruing the pleasures offered by that page? Should Hernandez interview folks about how much or what kind of pleasure they get from looking at his books before he accepts their cash?

Part of art is surface. It’s about initial reactions as well as considered ones; about glib appearances as well as thoughtful meanings. In the page above, Hernandez is, very deliberately, referencing fetish pin-up art. That is one of the traditions he’s participating in . You can say, well, that’s the superficial level — but it’s a superficial tradition. More, he’s used his considerable formal and narrative skills to expand on that tradition; fracturing time so that Maria is displayed in outfit after outfit, juggling narrative so that we see her turning down man after man, the better to objectify her and emphasize her desirable unattainability. She is fetishized. Hernandez draws her in a way to make her desirable. Men (and not just men) looking at this page are supposed to get pleasure from looking at her, just as the men in the narrative do. That’s the surface meaning of this page. No amount of context can change that.

So does that mean that context doesn’t matter? Not at all. Charles argues forcefully that the rest of the story puts the fetishization of women in a context of parody and critique. Hernandez is questioning and undermining the view of women as surface and as objects. I have no reason to dispute that. But — parodying or critiquing a tradition does not mean you aren’t in that tradition as well.

Or let me put it this way. It would be possible to parody or critique the tradition of pin up art and fetishization without yourself drawing fetishistic pin up art. This is what Laura Mulvey, for example, argues for in her famous essay about narrative cinema, in which she insists that the way to get around the male gaze is to create non-narrative cinema — not, noticeably, to create narrative cinema which is self-aware. So if Hernandez is parodying pin up art, that’s well and good — but it doesn’t explain the stylistic choices he makes. Why has he chosen a parody or critique which participates in the thing he is parodying or critiquing? Why allow — or indeed, encourage — people to take pleasure in fetishistic images if he is critiquing those images? If the answer is that he’s implicating the viewer…well then, as I said before, we’re back to a situation where you get your cake and the opportunity for patting yourself on the back for knowing you’re not supposed to want the cake too.

My point here is adamently not that pin up art is automatically evil, or that fetish is always wrong. Rather my point is that you can’t deflect a critique of surfaces through an appeal to depths. What’s on the page is on the page, and what’s on this page is a pleasure in fetish art. What I asked Charles, or anyone, to do, was to explain to me what that pleasure is doing there; how, in other words, does Hernandez reconcile his participation in this economy of pleasure with his critique of same? The response has been, basically, that if I read the whole thing I would realize that it does not participate in this economy of pleasure. Thus, Jeet Heer:

…the “fetishized women” in Poison River are part of a much larger narrative tapestry, one that includes a powerful critique of macho culture and a very sympathetic exploration of all sorts of sexual diversity (not just bisexuality and homosexuality but also transgender issues). If you glance at a page of Hernandez’s work and just say “fetishized women” you’re immediately conflating it with all the other images of “fetishized women” in our culture—pin-ups and beer ads and what not. But if you actually sit down and read Hernandez’s stories […] you’ll see that there is much more at work and at play in his stories.

For Jeet, the context actually takes these pin up images and puts quotes around them. The surface meaning of the image (beer ads!) is disappeared. The “much more at work and at play in his stories” is so much more that our basic cultural knowledge — the visual iconography Hernandez is referencing and participating in — is erased. Don’t get me wrong; sympathy for sexual diversity and a critique of macho culture both sound great. But when Hernandez draws a hot babe, it’s still a hot babe, not (or not only) a critique of hot babeness. Those aren’t “fetishized women”, Jeet. Those are fetishized women.

“To point selectively to loaded imagery without respect to context is the strategy of censors, not critics,” Charles says. Perhaps. But neither calling me names nor covering your ears and shouting “context! context!” is going to make those giant secondary sexual characteristics go away either. Figure out a reading of Hernandez in which an insistent appreciation of fetishized female bodies is thematically coherent or else admit that his use of exploitation imagery is gratuitous. But saying that a deeper reading negates the surface pleasures is to bury your head ostrich-like in silty piles of meticulous pedantry.

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Part of the debate here has been methodological —or, to put it more bluntly, Charles and others don’t think I should be commenting on the page without having read the entire book. Charles frames this somewhat puritanically:

when it comes to rendering considered judgments of a work, judgments that may include not only aesthetic but also ideological determinations (as in Noah’s critique), I believe we have to put in the hard work.

Criticism is, then, “hard work” — not presumably for dilettantes and idlers. Reading comics is serious business. This echoes some of Charles’ most important concerns in his monograph.

Comics raise many questions about reading and its effects, yet the persistent claims for the form’s simplicity and transparency make it impossible to address these questions productively. Criticism, whether formalist or sociocultural in emphasis, will remain at an impasse as long as comics are seen this way — that is, as long as they are rhetorically constructed as “easy.”

Part of Charles’ project is to present comics as complex. That complexity is, he feels, essential if comic are to be taken seriously as art and as worthy academic objects of study. Comics and criticism must be “hard work” if they are to be valuable and valued.

I think that this is an excellent strategy for convincing the academy that comics studies can be a rigorous discipline. I think, though, that it may have some downsides as well. Among those downsides are ones that have come out in this discussion — a tendency to privilege context over surface; an insistence that certain kinds of context (the whole work) are more important than others (actually having some vague theoretical basis for your comments about porn, for example.) In short, the effort to shore up the importance and coherence of comics as a discipline has the downside that it shores up the importance and coherence of comics as a discipline, regimenting, to some extent, who can speak, what objects are worthy of study, and how those objects should be approached and discussed. I think that can end up being limiting, and sometimes blinding.

Which is why I’m so pleased that Charles’ talk and his walk don’t really line up. If he had the courage of his convictions, he should not, in some sense, be out here in the great wild blogosphere, exposing himself to the drooling idiocy of every two-bit wacko with a grudge and a keyboard. He certainly shouldn’t be trading barbs with such a resolutely unserious person as myself. And yet, here he is, giving the lie to his claim that he’s a slow writer, pounding away in comments like a demon, writing not one post in response but two (and more to come!) His arguments in his book and here point to turning comics crit into a more sober, careful, and rigorous undertaking, but his actions suggest that he’s also comfortable with comics criticism as a giant, troll-infested, half-assed, gibbering mess.

For which I’m very grateful, Charles. Thank you for doing this.

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