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Past Valve Book Events

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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Monday, August 27, 2007

From Krazy Kat to King Kirby

Posted by John Holbo on 08/27/07 at 11:19 AM

With interest in Mr. Kirby growing — and his characters already marching across the screen — a movie of his life is clearly in order. Properly handled, the film could give an abused and neglected genius his full due while offering a fascinating glimpse into one of the most vibrant and creative eras in pop cultural history.

image

Jack Kirby, that is. In the NY Times. “History was late to the party, but it finally arrived. Thanks to renewed interest in Mr. Kirby’s work — and shout-outs from novelists like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem — he is more widely known today than he was in the 1960s.” So there is a connection with Lethem’s Fortess of Solitude, lately discussed hereabouts.

Just last week I emailed Joshua Glenn, remarking that I would like to track the history of the perennial journalistic rediscovery that ‘finally, comics have grown up’/’finally, comics have arrived as art‘. In a way it’s of a piece with other journalistic tics: Chris Mooney grumbles that science journos have trouble rendering ‘normal’ science. There has to be some paradigm shift hook, which is often then exaggerated for effect. In discussions of comics, the only ready-made hook is ‘finally people are realizing this kidstuff is good’. But, honestly, it’s over 80 years since Gilbert Seldes started an essay, “Krazy Kat, the daily comic strip of George Herriman is, to me, the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today” (The Seven Lively Arts, 1924). From that point on it’s been more or less a debate. Which, pretty much, the ‘seduction of the innocent’ and ‘it’s all worthless trash’ side have lost. I guess the scales started tipping around 1970. So it’s too late to be recycling a template according to which the winning side of an almost century-old debate is just now striking like lightning.

In what sense has Kirby been ‘neglected’ until recently? He has always been famous - and well-regarded - by those who care, to any extent, about comics. Is there any presumption that more people should care about comic book artists than actually care about comics? Or are old comics now migrating into some new cultural space? Or what? Perhaps only a Department of Everything Studies can give us the answers.


Comments

If not a paradigm shift then maybe a tipping point?  I hate Gladwell’s work, but there does seem to be some point-of-no-return after which the pro-comics side set the terms of all ensuing debates.  It’s no longer “Are comics art?” but “Which comics are art?”

And we can chart that tipping point around a few key moments: (a) *Maus*, of course; (b) high art novelists taking on comics, such as Jay Cantor and his mind-blowingly brilliant *Krazy Kat*; (c) the rise of the non-super-hero-comic-film, such as *Ghost World* or *American Splendor*.

Of course, all of these have earlier precedents.  Nathanael West wanted to write a novel that would convey the feeling of a comic strip.  But at some point, the random mutations came into contact with the right environment and so caught on as effective survival strategies, as Moretti would say.

Admittedly, I know nothing about Kirby.  As with sci-fi, my knowledge of comics is really that of the *New Yorker*-comics-are-suddenly-art crowd.  I wasn’t even raised on superhero comics as a child.  And I’ve always preferred the strip to the comic book.  *Krazy Kat* and *Julius Knipl* remain my favorite “sequential-visual-textual art works.”

But with Kirby, the question these folks seem to be asking is: When did Kirby become someone that those outside the world of comic-book-fandom need to know about?  We could ask it in the Hirschean way: When did Kirby become a necessary part of our American cultural literacy and not a part of a subculture?  It’s like Sonic Youth.  At some point—and it wasn’t just about record sales—Sonic Youth became a group that anyone interested in popular music had to take seriously, unlike all those other No Wave bands that were known by those in the subculture, such as DNA, Theoretical Girls, Ut, Mars, James Chance, Lydia Lunch, etc.  It isn’t that Sonic Youth sold out—*Daydream Nation* or *Experimental Jet Set* are more experimental than any of the early records—but they entered the American National Culture.

(To bloviate further: it’s like the difference between Bob Dylan and Pearls Before Swine.  The latter is today probably more influential to those in the arty folk scene, but Dylan made the leap from the folk and rock subcultures to be taken seriously as a part of the national culture.  So it’s not necessarily about quality, because Pearls Before Swine or Pentangle are, in their different ways, as good as Dylan.)

By on 08/27/07 at 01:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Re: Lethem. I made the mistake of reading The Disappointment Artist, and, briefly, the problem with his championship of Kirby in that book is that it’s part of his championship of certain Eno albums, Kubrick, the Talking Heads, PK Dick, &c. In other words, Kirby never escapes from the cultural jumble of what certain boys like (and lord knows I’ve been one of those certain boys). Perhaps I’m of the mind that some cultural product/producer arrives in a big sense only when it starts interacting in discourses outside its usual milieu. You know, like various social scientists entering English departments and becoming ‘theory.’ So, when A. S. Byatt starts writing about Kirby, I’ll know that that kind of comic has finally arrived. Until then, I’m pretty sure it’s still boys talking to boys.

By Karl Steel on 08/27/07 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry I didn’t write back, John. I’ve just returned from a week away from the computer in Montana.

I’m of two minds about this stuff.

On the one hand, yes, intellectuals from Dorothy Parker to Delmore Schwartz have been arguing comics for decades now, you’re absolutely right. Jules Feiffer wrote a whole coffeetable book about his favorite superhero comics, right? So there’s nothing particularly amazing about today’s mainstream culture of comics appreciation. The parallel phenomenon is the musician who tours for 10 years only to become an overnight sensation. Where have these NYT/New Yorker writers (and editors) been for the past half century?

I think it was Dwight Macdonald who said that only middlebrows feel a need to scorn lowbrow entertainments. (Personally, I like to think of myself as a high-lowbrow.) Perhaps this truism needs to be inverted: today, only middlebrows feel a need to make sure everybody knows that they are not above enjoying lowbrow entertainments.

On the other hand! Poor Jonathan Lethem. Karl, you’re unkind. Like Lethem, for what seems like a million years (at least since ‘95, when I nominated Chris Ware as artist of the year for the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages), I’ve seized every opportunity to sing the praises of comics, always hoping to escape the boys-talking-to-boys ghetto. Same goes for Philip K. Dick, and a lot of other SF writers. Because Kirby and Dick should be mainstreamed. Writers for the New Yorker and the New York Times shouldn’t be condescending or arch or wackified when discussing these brilliant artists. Get over it, people.

On the third hand, there’s something sad about seeing a marginalized figure whom you’ve championed get embraced by the mainstream. But that’s my problem, and Lethem’s, and yours, John. We’ve got to get over this, so we can move on to the next challenge. Like… how can we convince mainstream journalists to mention Adorno without making a crack about how impenetrable his prose supposedly is, or how wrong he supposedly was about jazz? How can we force journalists who mention Breton to abstain from gossiping about how tyrannical he supposedly was to his colleagues?

By the way, my response to Gopnik’s essay on Dick—which was more or less OK after the first page, but added absolutely nothing new to our understanding of the man and his work—was to shrug, sigh a little, and turn the page. We can’t be protective of Dick any more; it would be akin to kicking up a fuss every time some hack drags Sartre or Camus or Nietzsche or Kafka kicking and screaming into their pointless magazine or newspaper essay!

By Joshua Glenn on 08/28/07 at 06:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry I didn’t write back, John. I’ve just returned from a week away from the computer in Montana.

I’m of two minds about this stuff.

On the one hand, yes, intellectuals from Dorothy Parker to Delmore Schwartz have been arguing comics for decades now, you’re absolutely right. Jules Feiffer wrote a whole coffeetable book about his favorite superhero comics, right? So there’s nothing particularly amazing about today’s mainstream culture of comics appreciation. The parallel phenomenon is the musician who tours for 10 years only to become an overnight sensation. Where have these NYT/New Yorker writers (and editors) been for the past half century?

I think it was Dwight Macdonald who said that only middlebrows feel a need to scorn lowbrow entertainments. (Personally, I like to think of myself as a high-lowbrow.) Perhaps this truism needs to be inverted: today, only middlebrows feel a need to make sure everybody knows that they are not above enjoying lowbrow entertainments.

On the other hand! Poor Jonathan Lethem. Karl, you’re unkind. Like Lethem, for what seems like a million years (at least since ‘95, when I nominated Chris Ware as artist of the year for the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages), I’ve seized every opportunity to sing the praises of comics, always hoping to escape the boys-talking-to-boys ghetto. Same goes for Philip K. Dick, and a lot of other SF writers. Because Kirby and Dick should be mainstreamed. Writers for the New Yorker and the New York Times shouldn’t be condescending or arch or wackified when discussing these brilliant artists. Get over it, people.

On the third hand, there’s something sad about seeing a marginalized figure whom you’ve championed get embraced by the mainstream. But that’s my problem, and Lethem’s, and yours, John. We’ve got to get over this, so we can move on to the next challenge. Like… how can we convince mainstream journalists to mention Adorno without making a crack about how impenetrable his prose supposedly is, or how wrong he supposedly was about jazz? How can we force journalists who mention Breton to abstain from gossiping about how tyrannical he supposedly was to his colleagues?

By the way, and this is slightly off the point, my response to Gopnik’s NYer essay on Dick—which was more or less OK after the first page, but added absolutely nothing new to our understanding of the man and his work—was to shrug, sigh a little, and turn the page. We can’t be protective of Dick any more; it would be akin to kicking up a fuss every time some hack drags Sartre or Camus or Nietzsche or Kafka kicking and screaming into their pointless magazine or newspaper essay! Something else I’ve stopped doing…

By Josh Glenn on 08/28/07 at 06:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"In a way it’s of a piece with other journalistic tics: Chris Mooney grumbles that science journos have trouble rendering ‘normal’ science.”

Most journalists went into journalism because they could write quickly but couldn’t write anything that wasn’t disposeable.  (To the next journalists I talk to: of course, this does not apply to you.  You are the exception.)

But, again in general, the journalist who covers any particular beat usually knows less about that beat than you’d generally expect any informed amateur to.  They don’t have to know anything about it.  They are paid to fill a news hole, and they know that whatever mishmash they write is still more than a general audience can catch them out on.

The best thing to do, if you ever talk to a journalist, is to figure out what story they are going to write by talking to them on background, and then give them only one quote, which makes the exact point that you want to make.  Even better is when you can write the story for them, by giving them some kind of press release that they can copy.

By on 08/28/07 at 08:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The more I think about it, there is a real “boys’ party” quality to this discussion.

Today, we hear countless defenses of comics as art, of sci-fi as art.  Rich and I argued recently about Dick as artist, but at no point was there any doubt that sci-fi couldn’t be great art.

But what none of the comics and sci-fi defenders want to defend is, say, chick-lit or Harlequin romance.  I have problems with the “rockism” critique, but I think we now have a form of rockism that aligns art, science fiction, and comics, while studiously avoiding any mention of girl/women-centered culture.  We’ll defend rap but not Britney.  We’ll defend Dick but not Danielle Steele.  We’ll defend Kirby but not *The Nanny Diaries*. 

So: is girl pop-culture just bad?  Or is there some residual sexist ignorance here?  Myself, I’m guilty all around: I know next to nothing about sci-fi, comics, chick lit, or romance fiction.

By on 08/29/07 at 02:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey! I didn’t realize. Yesterday, when I posted this, it was the King’s Birthday. (You really want to click that link. A tribute to Kirby, from the ISB.)

Luther, you have inspired me. I need to blog about chick-lit.

By John Holbo on 08/29/07 at 07:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, you may have a point, but “residual sexist ignorance” blends into plain old ignorance.  I don’t bring up examples from cowboy novels when these discussions happen, despite their being a stereotypically male genre, because I’ve read perhaps one of them in my life.  I think that this selective ignorance is not just a matter of male vs female-oriented genres, it’s part of certain forms being linked by hipsterdom / geekdom.

A test case for this may be Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, a well-written book that is SF by every common definition of the genre, but is presented and marketed as non-SF because of its Romance style.

By on 08/29/07 at 10:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, we are so thinking along parallel lines. From the Everything Studies post: In all the time I’ve been reading blogs, I have never, ever seen somebody use When Harry Met Sally or so-called “chick lit” as an example of the need for Everything Studies.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/29/07 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the subject of Jacob Kurtzberg, I don’t know if anyone is familiar with the “dark ages” series The Authority.  There is a storyline by Mark Millar in which a Kirby-like figure works for Eisenhower in the Cold War to develop superheroes in a top secret arms race with the Soviets.  It’s kind of gratuitous and gruesome, but you do have a Nick Fury-like cigar chomping soldier badmouth the French, while all the other of Kirby’s Marvel creations appear in some form to be dismembered by the Midnighter, Jack Hawksmoor, and company.  It’s also the only superhero story I’ve read where the heroes show up to the fight with alcohol on their breaths. 

Also, Kirby’s Eternals has been revived recently by Neil Gaiman, who is recognized for his literary qualities.

By on 08/29/07 at 08:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No no no no no no, fuck Harlequin romances.  You haven’t read the Sassy article?  Really?  http://www.nplusonemag.com/sassy.html

I have little nostalgia for Sassy, but I did read it, and N+1’s author nails the aspects of it that seemed routine, even retrograde, in 1992, but do not even seem mainstream today:

“Editor-in-chief Jane Pratt and her staff… would admit to possibly delusional moments in which they swore Matt Dillon was giving them the eye at CBGB.  Every teen magazine of that era swooned over Matt Dillon; only _Sassy_ assumed that you, a teenage girl, knew what CBGB was.”

‘[T]he caustic Sassy became stylized and hegemonic. During an issue produced by readers, one girl rewrote another’s story because “it wasn’t sarcastic enough.” ("I was never actually cool enough to read Sassy,” the victim, still feeling the pain years later, told the authors. “I listened to show tunes and wore leggings until my freshman year in college. But I was smart and funny and subversive in my own way.")’

‘They demonstrate, contra Lethem and Hornby et al., that girls can be just as proud and possessive of their cultural knowledge as boys. They also make the point that Sassy at its best had more in common with Spy than with any women’s magazine of the time--or of today--with articles that deconstructed junk food and skewered Shannen Doherty, and absurdist spine copy like “Bob Hope, Madman,” and “If You Can Smell It, It’s Killing You.“‘

If someone had told me when I was 12 that sixteen years later Sassy would be looked back on with nostalgia and wonder at its progressiveness, I would have dropped dead.  But still: if I had to pick a more woman-oriented topic for Everything Studies, it wouldn’t be chick lit but rather children’s & YA books, which a ton of girls read, an amazing number of grown women still read, and which represent pretty quietly subversive ideas of ethics and gender norms and ways to be human in a fucked-up world.  Not to hate on chick lit (which I don’t read), but I suspect a lot of the classic kids’ books of the 70s and 80s are also better…

By pica on 09/02/07 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry about the sudden barrage of quotes; I got very excited, because I’ve been meaning to blog about that article for a while, but I couldn’t figure out how to get a whole post out of it—so I just dumped it into this thread.  (Cheers!) But someone, surely, could be persuaded to do a guest post about the children’s books that boys usually don’t read (i.e. not “Harry Potter,” “The Dark is Rising,” John Christopher (? the “Tripods” guy?), Philip Pullman, William Sleator, Daniel Pinkwater, Roald Dahl, etc.—all good stuff, obviously, just not what I had in mind).

By pica on 09/02/07 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read the first 20 Trixie Belden books when I was about 10. They were published between 1948 and ‘78 (I think they were reissued/revived a couple of years ago), and were slightly less out-of-date versions of the Nancy Drew books my mother also gave me. She read a lot of girls’ series books in the ‘50s: Judy Bolton (adventuress), Cherry Ames (nurse), Beverly Gray (globe-trotting reporter), Vicki Barr (Flight Stewardess), the Dana Girls (sister high-school adventuresses), and others. They’re all still on her bookshelves, and I read several of them on rainy days. I liked Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew—about as much as I liked the Hardy Boys, which wasn’t that much—but the other ones were really pretty lame. Difficult to find value in them, just as I can’t think of anything valuable about the Hardy Boys. It’s not because they were written as fast as possible—a lot of midcentury science fiction, fantasy, and sleaze novels that I find fascinating were written under the same conditions. I think it’s because (unlike SF, fantasy, or sleaze) the authors-for-hire really weren’t interested in the genre.

By on 09/03/07 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Twenty Trixie Belden books?  That’s amazing.  I think I even punked out sooner with Nancy Drew.  I was thinking specifically of people like Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Voigt, Cynthia Rylant, Margaret Mahy, whoever wrote “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” and… ah, they all seem to be Newbery Medal winners, so you can just look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newbery_award . But all I can do is remark that this set of books seems to be important to a lot of people; I’m not much good for the analysis. 

Well, let’s see: the author and reader are presumably different in age and experience: the author always writes for an “other,” not a peer.  How does the author construct that reader?  Is this an extreme case of something all authors do to some extent?  Does it reduce the effect of the authors’ narcissism on the stories they tell, to have to imagine a reader who can’t share the full extent of their knowledge and experience?  Is there something interesting to say about this?  Maybe not; maybe so.

By pica on 09/04/07 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I read most of those authors, too, in middle and high school. Boys were encouraged to read novels with female protagonists (Julie of the Wolves), and vice versa. In fact, I was one of the shock troops of Political Correctness, since my father used to give me a dime for every sexual or racial stereotype I correctly identified in anything I was reading.

My 9-year-old son, now in 4th grade, reads books by women about girls (Jeanne DuPrau’s “City of Ember,” most recently) without thinking twice about it. Don’t know if he’d be willing to read 20 Trixie Belden books, though. And the girls in his class at school read “Eragon,” “The Hobbit,” “Harry Potter,” etc.

By on 09/04/07 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Forthcoming from Mark Evanier (via newsfromme).

By nnyhav on 09/04/07 at 06:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Other heroes of neglect.

By nnyhav on 09/09/07 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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