Monday, July 28, 2008
Kip Manley’s Contribution Is Up: Let Comics Be Comics
Kip Manley’s take on new-minted Eisner-winner Wolk is here:
Much as any good fencer has studied his Agrippa, Douglas Wolk has read his Delany ...
And so it goes.
UPDATE: OK, on second thought, this is not the right time to be coy. Kip has written a great essay! Go read it! It’s about that stuff I was talking about. What is it to read? I’ll snip a bit of the hilarious dialogue he relates:
See, I don’t think of comics as reading.
You don’t think of comics as reading?
What’s the big deal? Why is that a big deal? Comics is about looking and reading. It’s not just reading. It’s a sort of dual process that you undertake. It’s a totally different process than reading a novel, and it’s different than watching a movie, so I guess I think of comics as a separate activity than reading.
It rests right next to the same place as reading.
It’s a couple of doors down.
It’s definitely a kissing cousin of reading.
To me that’s like saying that when I’m listening to you or Cecil talk, that I’m not listening the way I’m listening when I’m listening to music. You’re still listening, you’re still using the same—
I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess I think of comics—it’s something else, it’s a different kind of process. I certainly don’t read Dan Clowes in the way I read, you know, Updike, or something. So it’s a different thing. You have to decode the picture—
I don’t read Cecil Castellucci the same way I read Hemingway, either.
And so it goes. If it quack quack wackos like a comic, and it quack quack walks like a comic, it’s a comic.
A very good post. I understand his and Wolk’s disinclination to define, via Delany, I think. But… there’s something functional that people do when they make a definition, or for that matter a canon, that isn’t mostly exclusionary.
It all comes back to limited individual lifespan and the centuries-old expansion of published material, I think. If one could read every text, the idea of a definition, or of a canon, would be fairly pointless—just read everything and make your own judgments. But since people are mortal and the artsphere has grown past the size of a lifetime’s attention, there’s an important role for those people who, as Wolk writes, read the whole thing so you don’t have to, and point out which parts you might be most interested in.
The best recommendations are individual, I suppose. A sort of “You really liked Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol<i>? Then you should check out X.” At least, that’s what every simple-minded Web 2.0 user aggregation program is trying to fool you into thinking that that’s what it’s doing. But perceptive critics can’t spend their time doing that. They have to address a general reader instead of a specific one.
Both the definition and the canon function on a more basic level as a guide to recommendations—the definition describes the universe you’re considering, and the canon says that here, in your opinion, are the best, or at least most influential, works within that universe. Even the perennial which-is-the-earliest-date discussion work in this way. When Adam Roberts in his Palgrave history of SF declines to define SF (for the same sort of reasons as Delany et al, I think), but offers as the one of his provisional functional definitions that I most agree with that some people think that the first SF work was Kepler’s <i>Somnium, that gets me to read Kepler’s Somnium. Which was a rewarding experience that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
So… I’ve finally finished reading Wolk’s book. I think the same thing that everyone who’s read it does, evidently; weak first third, good pieces on individual creators and creations. Maybe the first third would have been a bit more useful if he hadn’t squirmed around quite so much, the ghost of Delany looking on disapprovingly, with definitions and canons as power relations. I think that it would have been a better book—more useful to me, anyways—if he’d just said, ok, I’m going to make a canon now. And since he isn’t making an educational curriculum, but rather a list that we can pay attention to or ignore based of his critical acumen, that would have been fine.
Thanks, Rich. —I’d just say that functional descriptions and even, yes, canons qua lists of recommended works will always be with us; we can’t help but make them, any more than we can avoid discussing or at least making sure we’re all aware of where we disagree on the history around a thing before we situate that thing historically. Maps, y’know?
But to attempt a definition or a canon is to get bogged down in playing defense: holding the line against marginal cases that challenge your authority on every side. —That’s yet another reason to avoid them. Along with everything I said about how the definitions and the canons in comics can’t help but come out wrong.
So be aware and wary, and if you must functionally describe, or canonize this work or that, then do it without doing it, with all the wei wu wei and sprezzatura you can muster. (Lady Montague never complained and never explained, but I’m pretty dam’ sure her friends all knew exactly where she stood.)
One last thought, with tongue rather firmly as ever in cheek: Delany, yes, hovers over me at least, having made me rather self-conscious of how these efforts to define one’s chosen paraliterary field, to fix it in the estimation of others with a definition jiggered to include a genealogy of surprising, mandarin-approved works, with lists of classics to which attention must be paid, signal a deep insecurity: an insecurity perhaps dearly earned, as one’s chosen paraliterary field has been denied through the years the benefits that come with scaling such limited, value-bound heights as the “literary” and the “arts,” but an insecurity nonetheless: if one must demand one’s due, it isn’t really one’s due, is it? —To say nothing of how simple and limited an art must be, to be so easily limned.
—Now I’m hearing that to cheerfully refuse to take part in this is to be overly conscious of power relations, as one would only expect.
Damn. We just can’t catch a break, can we.
Perhaps the problem was that Wolk didn’t seem to be very cheerful in his refusal. He wrote something about his liking for excuses, and created an imaginary straw man questioner who he seemed to feel bad about having to answer vaguely at times, and in general seemed to be fleeing where Delany pursueth.