Don’t play with me, cause you’re playing with fire…

I hadn’t expected that a roundtable on my book Alternative Comics would become a referendum on Gilbert Hernandez’s work. But something like that happened last week, thanks to the one-two punch of Noah and Robert and their comments about my book’s investment in Hernandez, followed by vigorous point-counterpoint in the comments section, followed by Suat’s considered response to and extension of Noah’s critique of Hernandez in the form of a smart retake on Hernandez’s Human Diastrophism—a retake I’m inclined to disagree with, but articulated well.

The page in question: from Poison River

I’ll not go too deeply into the arguments that raged here last week. Regarding Noah’s critique of Hernandez’s work in Poison River, and specifically the page (above) that fetishizes Maria’s ever-changing form, well, first, a reminder may be in order. Noah:

If Maria is a doll, it’s Hernandez who made her; it’s he who poured her into those bombastic proportions and then into those boldly-patterned clothes. It’s Hernandez who decided to make Maria a Dan DeCarlo pin-up, and then decided to make this page a fashion spread. She’s his Barbie, and much of the pleasure of this sequence, for both him and the readers, must be precisely the erotic montage; the excitement of seeing that form manipulated, thrown out of sequence and out of her clothes, as her life-in-time is chopped up into consumable images of those giant breasts, which are always front and center. [...] Maria’s desirability is validated by the many men who want her, and her availability is confirmed by their failure. Only the creator/reader truly has her in all her surface voluptuousness — a surface which is, of course, all there is to her. In its insistent formalism, the page makes of Maria a form that can be possessed, both by her creator and by those who appreciate his skill. [...]

Hernandez’s portrayal of female bodies is insistently fetishistic, and that fetishism seems only fitfully integrated into his often-stressed concern for women. In terms of his female characters, he eroticizes stereotypes at the same time as he critiques them, and the results, to me, often seem callous or banal rather than insightful.

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.

Jeet Heer put it well in the comments section:

…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.

Yes. Exactly my point when I told that anecdote last week about Hernandez reflecting on, or complaining about, the way some prospective readers would skim but not read the work and come away thinking they knew what was going on and that they had sized up the work and its worth at a glance. To point selectively to loaded imagery without respect to context is the strategy of censors, not critics.

I will say, with the benefit of hindsight, that I think Poison River, which has often been criticized by even loyal Hernandez readers as cruel and lacking in warmth, marks a turning point in Gilbert’s work, and that some of the would-be shocking moves he has made in recent projects such as Speak of the Devil or Chance in Hell or his recent Love & Rockets short stories partake of this same coldly satiric, sometimes self-parodic, tone. These days I prefer “Duck Feet,” Human Diastrophism, and some of the other early Palomar tales to Poison River, but—I’ll grant you this one, Noah—I was totally seduced by form when it came to working through that chapter of the book. That’s okay; no one in academia had paid such sustained attention to Hernandez’s use of form by that point, and, anyway, Poison River is a masterwork of form and remains a fascinating comic. The work of Gilbert Hernandez is rich enough to sustain a lot of different readings over time, from multiple and overlapping perspectives, and I keep on finding myself shifting around inside it, thinking and rethinking about it.

In regard to Noah’s critique of Human Diastrophism, in particular its ending (as expressed in the comments section), I think this critique is essentially unanswerable because it contains a trap that does not allow any way out. Specifically, Noah—and this is similar to what he does in his criticism of my Calvin and Hobbes example from Watterson—says that anything that rubs him the wrong way does so because it’s transparently a “cliché,” that its triteness is self-evident, that the work couldn’t possibly be powerful or revelatory because, well, apparently, Noah has seen it all before. Me, I had seen nothing like Diastrophism in comics before, and the book’s climax hit me like a hammer. That climax, and the way it connected to other things I had been reading—for example, Sontag’s critique of the would-be political uses of photography—made me think hard about issues I had never before considered. The very scene that Noah ridicules because, basically, every single interpretive option is already, in his view, a cliché, is one that wrung me out and really had me reconsidering comics and art. My affective response to the work is so very different from Noah’s, and his response is so invested in finding every element in the work that moved me hopelessly clichéd, that I can hardly get a critical toehold and respond intelligently.

All I can say is, Noah, your characterization of Hernandez as an opportunistic exploiter of packaged “ethnicity” (oppression porn, bone-headed exploitation of one’s own ethnic identity, etc.) is borderline contemptuous, and I can understand why it drove Jeet through the roof. It is also unfounded, an anachronistic judgment based on ignorance of the work’s original publication context and the fact that stories like Diastrophism were initially published against a backdrop of almost complete critical silence about the issues of ethnicity and politics raised in them. It could not have been an easy or complacent choice for Hernandez to have undertaken those stories, and I’m surprised, Noah, to see you making ad hominem judgments of this loose sort. It’s as if you’re unloading a larger concern—say, your distaste for the way the literary critical establishment encourages the “self-commodification” of ethnicity—onto a body of work you’ve only cursorily read, or not read at all.  I can’t buy that.

Suat’s critique of Diastrophism‘s ending is the more sustained—and sustainable—and also gratifying insofar as it focuses attention back on the work, on its rhythms and patterns and changes, rather than simply on some presumed ideological fault. I was happy to see discussion revert to Hernandez’s story itself rather than merely furthering our contentious back-and-forth. I agree with Suat—that is, I think he is accurate when he says—that the story’s ending is more obviously didactic than what has come before, and that this sequence brings a notable shift in the rhythm and textual density of the work. I would even agree that there is a kind of moral signposting going on here. I don’t agree, though, that such didacticism is necessarily a blot on the story, and of course I don’t agree that the ideology promoted here is “tired” or that the sentiment is unearned. This debate reminds me of our discussion of “understatement,” and in particular Jeet’s and my point, that a critical preference for understatement is not natural, inevitable, or value-neutral, but rather culturally contingent, hence ideological. Such preferences can become blunt instruments. (I’m reminded of Steve Solomos’ hectoring interview of Chester Brown in Crash magazine #1 [Fall 1994] in which he faulted Brown’s The Playboy and “The Little Man” for their use of verbal exposition and pointed verbal/visual irony—qualities that I think enrich and complicate those works in interesting ways. Brown should not have taken Solomos’ criticisms to heart.)

The curious thing about Suat’s critique is that it begins with a self-canceling claim, one that in effect belies his own careful work:

It is possible to see the virtues and faults in a single page of comic art without relating them to the whole.

Suat then proceeds to shore up and extend Noah’s critique on the basis of work that Noah himself did not do. I think Suat’s performance here, far from supporting his initial claim, undercuts it, because Suat ties the ending into a larger understanding of the book’s patterning and themes. In any case, I maintain that, no, it isn’t possible to spot the virtues and faults of a page from a book-length comic without recourse to its larger narrative context. Not when you’re doing the real work of criticism. Of course it’s possible, often necessary, to make such judgments as a “consumer”—I admit that I’m often guided by such quick impressions when shopping for comics—but 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.

One last anecdote about Hernandez: Back in the, oh, mid-nineties I taught Human Diastrophism (Blood of Palomar) for the first time, probably a bit before I began writing about Hernandez in earnest. The context was a “Literature and Composition” course, workshop-style, at the U of Connecticut. The course, designed to give practice in writing analytically about literature, dealt quickly with multiple genres, including comics, though Blood of Palomar was the only book of comics that we got to. This was one of my odder syllabi, in hindsight, yoking together Samuel Johnson’s droll Menippean satire Rasselas, various short lyrics, probably a prose novel of some kind, a play—Shakespeare, maybe?—and Gilbert Hernandez. I had one student, an articulate, mature, and determined one, memorably Australian, who was perhaps the only one to “get” Rasselas and who found himself growing into the course and loving it—until Blood of Palomar. This was a student whose engagement, and awareness of his own progress, was a pleasure to see, and I valued his good opinion. Palomar, though, seemed to ruin everything for him.

Hernandez’s work, which came at the end of term, cheated him, he argued, of the opportunity to demonstrate the skills he had been working on and improving throughout the term. The work didn’t demonstrate the complexity he wanted—this despite the complexity of plot, characterization, and theme that I thought manifestly obvious in the work—and, worse yet, it was simply, he declared in class one day, pornographic.

Wow. I was nonplussed, but I tried to field the accusation and seize the, as we say, teachable moment. What ensued was a discussion, or my attempt at a discussion—I was young to teaching then, and fairly overwhelmed by any sort of strife in the classroom—of what pornography is, and what it does, that is, what its use value is. 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 also asked students to examine the scenes of sex and lovemaking in the novel—before, during, and after—and to consider Luba’s notorious bed-hopping in light of what her character wanted and what she lacked. I questioned whether the sex in the book was utopian, uncomplicated, simple, glamorous, uniformly superficial. I asked why sex could be an acceptable element of characterization in, say, a prose novel, but was unacceptable in overt visual form. I pointed out that in fact Hernandez had done porn (Birdland), and that it was tonally quite different from the book we were reading.

The charge that the book was pornographic seemed to underlie everything else that my unhappy student had said; for him, any pornographic element or potential was ipso facto proof that Blood of Palomar was a simplistic, artistically unworthy text. In other words, he lashed his moralistic critique to his artistic one. I therefore felt that we, as a class, had no way to go forward except by directly examining the book’s fictive sex. We had to confront the “pornography” charge. I’m not confident that I did so entirely effectively, but I did try, and I did have to say things that, for all of us, were awkward. That day remains one of my most memorable teaching days at UConn in an eleven-year run.

What I realized was that, for at least one student—and the most articulate and intellectually engaged student in that particular class, at that—it was axiomatic that a visual text that dealt explicitly with sexuality could not be anything other than porn, and therefore could not be serious by any measure. Certainly no sexually explicit comic could be. Nothing else—not the social critique in the novel (that which Noah has so bluntly dismissed), not the multifaceted characterization, not the embedding of themes relating to art, social responsibility, and social change—nothing else mattered. My student would not engage on any of the other interpretive fronts offered by the text—not even to the extent of intelligently finding fault with plot, with characterization, etc.—because he was simply offended. The text was flattened out, and my student’s usual good attention blunted, because of the comic’s candor and extravagance.

If we cannot bring such texts forward along with the more decorous comics that have achieved canonical status in classrooms in the years since, if we cannot have a discussion that gets beyond a censorious kneejerk attitude toward such images—if we cannot do those things, then we have not seriously challenged the misguided intellectual iconoclasm (iconophobia, really) that cramps the understanding of comics. We have not really attacked these problems and prejudices at their roots. We have not understood the challenges that comics pose to high-culture assumptions about images in relation to ignorance, childishness, and crudeness. I’ll keep on teaching Gilbert Hernandez because he doesn’t allow me to surrender to those assumptions, and because he makes great comics.

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