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Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Amazing Adventures of Lethem and Chabon

Posted by John Holbo on 04/07/05 at 03:12 AM

Very funny. (via TNH.)

A passage from Lethem's essay, "The Return of the King, or, Identifying With Your Parents", in Sean Howe's Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers!

Studying Jack Kirby now, I'm bewildered that one man can encompass such contradictory things. By contradictory I don't mean his diversity of accomplishments in so many different eras of comics history - his creation, with Joe Simon, of the patriotic anti-nazi type of superhero in Captain America; his creation, also with Simon, of the basic mold for the "romance" comic; his dominance in the "movie-monster" style of comics that preceded the explosition of inventions at Marvel; that selfsame explosion, which includes at least a share in the envention of both the star supervillain (Doctor Doom) and the ambivalent antiheroic type (whether craggily pathetic á la the Hulk or handsomely tortured á la Silver Surfer and Black Bolt); the psychedelic majesty (however thwarted) of the New Gods work at DC. Those aren't contradictory, only boggling in the sense that the accomplishments of a Picasso or a Dylan or a Shakespeare are boggling. By contradictory I mean the fact that in that DC work and then especially in the return to Marvel, Jack Kirby, the greatest innovator in the history of comics, gradually turned into a kind of autistic primitivist genius, disdained as incompetent by much of the audience, but revered by a cult of aficionados somewhat in the manner of an "outsider artist".

Lethem goes on about late Kirby as great/awful. (If you simply have no idea what I'm talking about, start here.) I must say: apart from wanting to turn it down from 11 when it comes to roping in Picasso and Shakespeare, I sort of agree. There is something damned hilarious about the aesthetic precariousness of being the Ur-creator of both romance comics and movie-monster comics. But what are you going to do? Say someone else was the greatest innovator? (If you want to push it, turn it up to 12 by postulating the New Gods and after as a sort of Tempest stage. Kirby as Prospero. Ahem.)

But let's talk about the cape and tights nostalgia story, which I find an analysis-worthy literary subject, at which I have periodically stabbed. The parody linked above is as sound a proof as any - if proof were needed - that mucking about hereabouts, you are likely to end up on the wrong side of the fine line between authentic and infantile. Speaking as a regular, raised-on-Kirby appreciator of Chabon and Lethem's fiction, it is worth considering what makes the difference. (Really I'm worrying about more than Chabon and Lethem here.)

Obviously, you've got to avoid playing the cape straight, which would be too simple. And straight parody is still too simple. (As comedy material, musclemen in tights? Let's just say there's a reason Hemingway liked to write, and liked to hunt, and a reason he didn't shoot fish in barrels when he went hunting.) Straight nostalgia wouldn't do: 'ah for the good old days, when good guys were good guys.' That gets old after about three panels.

Supposing these obvious bullets bounce off your chest, the main risk comes when Kavalier and Clay and Fortress of Solitude and the better sort of graphic novel and a few other cultural products make superhero nostalgia an imitable sub-genre, at which point people start trying to horn in laterally - start trying to earn this cred in adult life, when we all know that it can only be inherited from one's aristocratic ancestor, the child who is father to the man. Also, maybe a cultural tipping point gets tipped and it becomes more embarrassing to admit you've never heard of Jack Kirby than to admit you collected him. Pull-up-my-humble-literary-roots to expose them for all to see starts to look less ambitious - courageous - confessional. With love of superpower comes less responsiblity to express it, the more everyone else does. (I think the next frontier should be nostalgia for the more boring sort of late-60's DC Legion of Superheroes comics. The square stuff. It hasn't yet become hip to be square in that way. Unless that was last month and I missed it.)

So much, so obvious. How can superhero nostalgia be good? Most obviously, in a sort of autobiography-as-romanticism vein. At this point I always quote Bruno Schulz. Since I can't write it half so good, I do so again:

I do not know just how in childhood we arrive at certain images, images of crucial significance to us. They are like filaments in a solution around which the sense of the the world crystalizes for us .... They are meanings that seem predestined for us, ready and waiting at the very entrance of our life ... Such images constitute a program, establish our soul's fixed fund of capital, which is allotted to us very early in the form of inklings and half-conscious feelings. It seems to me that the rest of our life passes in the interpretation of those insights, in the attempt to master them with all the wisdom we acquire, to draw them through all the range of intellect we have in our possession. These early images mark the boundaries of an artists's creativity. His creativity is a deduction from assumptions already made.

If your soul says 'yeah!' you understand what the nostalgia superhero book is about. But you can think of similar expressions in other areas, I bet. At its most intense - just before it tips over into hopelessly sentimental childcult that would make a Victorian blush - this sort of attitude makes you see adults as children wearing disguises no harder to penetrate that those stupid glasses Clark wears to fool Lois. Adults? They're just a bunch of overgrown kids. Disguised as adults. Driving this is a sense that everything that really determines anything comes before a certain point in life, yet everyone persists in pretending that everything that matters comes after. So adult life is a comedy, or tragi-comedy, depending on how painful the incongruity between root and growth becomes. (You begin to see already, perhaps, how an apparently ineradicable defect of the superhero genre - namely, the heroes act like overgrown kids - can be transvalued into a sort of commentary on the essential adult condition. This comes out well in Alan Moore comics, the "Under the Hood" chapters of Watchmen, for example. The precarious, 'well, how did we get here?' insanity of the superhero life starting to be born in on the characters.)

More soberly, it may be interesting to recall the way you learned to like Melville because the hyperbolic metaphysical flights that mean the chapter is about to end sort of fit a psychic furrow plowed through issues and issues of way-over-the-top Lee-Kirby dialogue. And then I learned to like Shakespeare through Melville. Funny how things happen. (Who knows? Maybe Lee-Kirby turned me into a philosophy professor by setting me on just such-and-such a verbal vector.)

So I like the superhero nostalgia book. And - now we get to the interesting part - the superhero story can be more than a mnemonic filament. It's a broad form. More specifically, it turns out to be one stage door leading onto a surprisingly broad platform.

I tried to explain this in two long posts that are big messes (here and here). Speaking of size matters: do you think the adjective ought to be 'Holbonic' or 'Holbovian'? The latter wins a fair googlefight. 'Holbovian' echoes 'bloviate', which is good. 'Holbonic' sounds like 'bionic', so you can imagine me making 'ch-ch-ch-ch' sounds while I type in slo-mo. (Young readers won't get that. Ask an old person.) Also, 'Holbonic' can be abbreviated to 'holbon', a unit of length. Let 1 holbon be the length of the longest possible post. How long that is, science can't be bothered to say, but I think one of those links takes you to something 8,000 words long, which is probably near the frozen limit. Blog posts by regular folks are probably only, on average, .02 holbons in length or so.

Anyway, this is just going to be a relatively brief condensation of those messy big things. I argue that good superhero stories, especially the nostalgia-infused ones, are mock-pastoral in form, in the Empsonian sense. For Empson, the formula for pastoral is 'complex in the simple'. From Some Versions of Pastoral:

The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language (so that you wrote about the best subject in the best way). From seeing the two sorts of people combined like this you thought better of both; the best parts of both were used. The effect was in some degree to combine in the reader or author the merits of the two sorts; he was made to mirror in himself more completely the effective elements of the society he lived in. This was not a process that you could explain in the course of writing pastoral; it was already shown by the clash between style and theme, and to make the clash work in the right way (not become funny) the writer must keep up a firm pretence that he was unconscious of it.

This sort of sentimentality for sophisticates screams to be put out of its incongruous misery by transformation into straight parody. Hence the likes of the stupid play the Rude Mechanicals stage in Midsummer Night's Dream. Except you needn't play it as straight parody. Mock-pastoral is more than that. How so? The Rude Mechanicals speak from the heart, flub every line. In light of the complex truth of the play’s outer fairy tale frame – ‘best in this kind are but shadows’; ‘what fools these mortals be’ – this affords them metaphysical dignity. The sophisticated thought: if we are all in the same boat, a ship of fools …


The simple man becomes a clumsy fool who yet has better ‘sense’ than his betters and can say things more fundamentally true; he is ‘in contact with nature,’ which the complex man needs to be, so that Bottom is not afraid of the fairies; he is in contact with the mysterious forces of our own nature, so that the clown has the wit of the Unconscious; he can speak the truth because he has nothing to lose.

Pastoral says the simple bumpkin is wise as a king, because the important things in life are so simple (even a bumpkin can understand.) Mock-pastoral says the simple bumpkin can be as wise as a king because the important things in life are so complex (not even a king can understand.) In the one, the fool speaks the deep truth more plainly, in the other he is a plainer symptom of an unspeakably deep truth.

The fact that straight and mock can be so close means that if you aren’t sure whether life is really simple or really complex - whether adults are essentially childish or not - you can tell a nice mock-pastoral version while hogging the truth by foxily hedging your bets. This is by no means an either/or. At any rate, you don't have to show your hand clearly, regarding whether you think fools are wise. There is an impressive range of moods and modes accessible and sustainable from the mocking high ground in the middle of the field – that is, the pasture. And please note: our Empsonian definition does not need real grass. Pop culture the new nature. Pave paradise, put up a parking lot and convention center, invite fanboys and in no time flat, place is every bit as dumb as untutored yokels could have made it. (Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it seems to be gone, but you’ve still got it.) Hip-deep detritus of mechanically thoughtless pop cultural production serviceable as naive backdrop against which knowing, relatively sophisticated eye watches idiots stage rustic, strangely dignified lives.

Put it that way and the mock-pastoral form pretty obviously has intimate connections with ‘camp’. From Sontag’s classic essay, "Notes on Camp":

All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy … Rural Camp is still man-made, and most campy objects are urban. (Yet, they often have a serenity - or a naiveté – which is the equivalent of pastoral. A great deal of Camp suggests Empson's phrase, "urban pastoral.")

Artifice the new guilelessness. ('Urban pastoral' isn't Empson's phrase. It's someone else's. Can't remember.)

The connection between superheroics and camp goes back at least to Batman TV from the 60's. But what seals the deal is the connection between pastoral and heroic. How shall we understand ‘heroic’? I’m not going to define, merely indicate a characteristic element that makes the connection I want, still following Empson. His heroic case in point is the great blind pulp fiction author, Homer:

One idea essential to a primitive epic style is that the good is not separable (anyway at first level judgments) from a life of straightforward worldly success in which you keep certain rules; the plain satisfactions are good in themselves and make great the men who enjoy them. From this comes the 'sense of glory' and of controlling nature by delight in it. It is absurd to call this a 'pre-moralistic' view, since the rules may demand great sacrifices and it is shameful not to keep them; there is merely a naive view of the nature of good. (Both a limitation of the things that are good and a partial failure to separate the idea of good from the idea of those things.)

‘Pre-moralistic’ – which is a bit confusing - must be a swipe at a term of art from Arthur Waley’s The Way and Its Power, in which much is made of auguristic-sacrificial points of view, versus moral ones. Empson says this opposition is false. That he is right about this is sufficiently demonstrated by the fact that every James Bond movie begins with an auguristic-sacrificial ceremony – the giving of the gadgets by Q. (Waley’s version of Bond is the Duke of Chou, who has cool, telecommunicationally efficacious jade discs and tortoise shells.) But every James Bond movie is a morality tale, just … a naïve one. The running together of being good with straightforward success and having neat artifacts and keeping certain simple rules.

The naïve fallacy of the primitive epic style is not to leave ethics out, for the sake of cool gear. The fallacy is to have a strong conception of moral goodness and a strong emphasis on gear and never to explore the contingency of the linkage. Stories are free to suppress the fallacy by never allowing narrative events to drive a wedge. But to an even mildly sophisticated eye the cheat is obvious; so the inhabitants of these stories look like … well, fools; fools whose peculiar brand of idiocy graces them with charmed lives.

To be hero of a stock genre tale – chivalry, capes and tights, swords and sorcery, secret agency – is most frequently to suffer a sort of enforced self-oblivion and moral idiocy. At least that’s the risk. You are obliged, as a point of convention, not to notice your own essential, highly artificial nature. You are governed by rules that you cannot note without breaking frame, which is not allowed. (Except in parody, where it is obligatory: Austin Powers.) Not to know who you are, why you do what you do? If the unexamined life is not worth living, most genre heroes are better off dead, on pain of the genre ending up dead.

How, then, leap with a single bound the tall building of wise foolishness? Roughly, by converting into Rude Superheroicals. The original may be Don Quixote. Here we have the same initial presumption that this is going to get old real fast. Cervantes' narrator laments from the start: "I could not counteract Nature's law that everything shall beget its like; and what, then, could this sterile, ill-tilled wit of mine beget but the story of a dry, shrivelled, whimsical offspring." The soil here - medieval romance - may seem exhausted or exhaustible. How good can a parody of something that screams out to be parodied possibly be? Pretty good, turns out. The foolish butt of the joke asserts his moral authority through the manifest superiority of imagination and dreams to reality. (Or however you want to put the fact that the Don is a real hero.) Somehow one who is disconnected from reality is more in contact with Nature, since to be disconnected from reality is human nature. Something like that.

Anyway, all mock-heroic/mock-pastoral works on this model: you cram in all the complexities of real life, thereby exploding the simple, naive view. Which should do the trick. But somehow your hero rises from the wreckage, looking deep, rather than superficial, wearing the head of a donkey. Donkey-Man!

The superhero becomes an objective correlative of mad or childish interiority (as in Jimmy Corrigan); or of dreams and despairs. The superhero has lots of applications.

Another interesting case that may fit the bill - I'm not going to go into this. I'm not sure: Ulysses. Ulysses is an ancient superhero. By insisting on fitting the banal complexities of a single day onto a procrustean superheroic frame, Joyce is ... oh, how the hell would I know what he is saying? (Really, no idea.) But somehow the counterpoint between epic simplicity and modernist complexity is the point, no? So much good superhero storytelling (not so much Chabon and Lethem, admittedly) consists in the strategic cramming of banal details of ordinary life into the superhero form. The Incredibles.

Not that superhero nostalgia stories are as great as the greatest modernist masterpieces. (Don't say I said that.) I'm just pointing out how, despite the seeming manifest narrowness of capes and tights, it's part of a broad literary current. In a broad sense.

And that's why I think that Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon are probably better than chick lit stuff. Although I've never read any chick lit. So I don't know, do I? And I can sort of see what would make you totally agree with the parody. Most probably, you will not be impressed by my analysis if you regard these works not as interesting achievements in mock-pastoral ambiguity - is it wise, is it foolish? - but as early-onset literary decadence, due to indulgence in excessive knee-jerk ironizing in late youth. This came up in a thread over at CT just the other day. That Simpsons episode: Teen 1: 'Huh… wait, are you being ironic, or honest, or ironically honest, or what?' Teen 2: 'I don’t even know any more.' Well, we hope this sort of superhero fiction is better than that, at any rate.


Just thought I’d get comments off on the right foot by noting that, yes, Dares of Phrygia won’t like this post. Will, indeed, be driven to abusive rage by every aspect of it. And there is really nothing more of interest to be said on that subject.

By John Holbo on 04/07/05 at 04:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Your Simpsons quote is all wrong. It goes as follows:

Teen: Hey, it’s the canon ball guy. He’s cool.
Teen 2: Are you being sarcastic?
Teen: I don’t even known anymore.

By on 04/07/05 at 07:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An entire post about comic books and not one mention of Watchmen? While confessional “poets” continue to churn out worthless book after worthless book, Alan Moore writes literary masterpieces that no one notices. <sigh> I remember the expected “comic book renaissance” of the early 90s, after Watchmen and Dark Knight returns came out, but as Alan Moore said: “...there wasn’t any renaissance. It was just three or four blokes doing good books. It was no bigger than that.”
Sometimes, in a literary environment like we live in today, three or four blokes doing good work is as good as we can hope for.

By on 04/07/05 at 08:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

First of all, on adjectival form: Despite the obviously attractive semantic embroidery implied by ‘Holboinesque’, it’s clear that the proper rude mechanism is ‘Holbotic’.

Secondly, did Lethem really say ‘explosition’?!

By on 04/07/05 at 09:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dares, he did mention _Watchmen_. It’s in there somewhere in the middle . . . .

And lots of us notice Alan Moore’s work. And Frank Miller’s work has, like, defined the whole aesthetic of Hollywood action for, like, a decade. And Art Spiegelman is at _The New Yorker_.

I don’t know the history of your conversation, so sorry if I’m making points you already agree with, or something. But from this post right here, it looks like you are missing JH’s point. Comics nostalgia and the high-art reworking of comics is now widely known and appreciated, so the dynamics of this kind of writing have changed.

By on 04/07/05 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OOPS. D of Ph is the site’s pet troll, and I fed him in my first visit . . . right? Sorry.

By on 04/07/05 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is an audience for superhero comics. This audience supports Alan Moore, but does not support J.G. Ballard. Nonetheless, perhaps Alan Moore’s writing has much more in common with Ballard than with Kirby? I have little hope for success in the critical contortions necessary to try and square Moore with Kirby, let alone to square Moore with those lacking Kirby’s gifts. Moore’s relationship to comics can be compared to Picasso’s studying of primitive masks.

There was a time when Simon and Garfunkel were the opening act for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. How strange is that? Yet the Doors and Jethro Tull, who are equally strange bedfellows, can be heard cheek-by-jowl on “classic rock” format radio stations 24/7. Criticism is impossible until the demographic accidents are stripped away from the artistic essence.

By pierre on 04/07/05 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pierre, I think the comparison in this conversation is Moore (Spiegelman, etc.) with Lethem & Chabon, all metacognizant reworkers of the comics of our childhood, the Kirby legacy. And JH pointed out there are other “naive” legacies that literature reworks this way, and it makes a difference how new & strange this artistic move appears to the audience at the time.

By on 04/07/05 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dares, he did mention _Watchmen_. It’s in there somewhere in the middle.

Oops...sorry. I point out that I don’t actually read posts, I just look for one or two points to comment derisively on.

And while we’re on the subject, I’m going to see Sin City tonight. Anyone caught it yet?

By on 04/07/05 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

rm, your point is taken. (and, since we don’t know one another, you do well to politely make sure your time is not being wasted by trolls.) But I guess I am questioning some of the premises of the essay, whether a comparison of Moore (Spiegelman etc.) with Lethem and Chabon is critically justifiable.

I’ve been following the larger Holbovian examination of genre issues, which seems to center on the idea that certain culturally “low” stuff like SF and superhero comics is a special case of the pastoral and therefore has or can have a place in traditional criticism. I just don’t think this approach is going to succeed.

Let’s try a thought experiment from the music world. Suppose Emerson, Lake and Palmer had recorded an art-rock double album of nursery rhymes. I for one might well listen to it with great pleasure. A colleague could mock me over the lyrics: “hickory dickory what? The monkey chased the what?” but I would patiently point out that this apparently single work of art was actually multiple works of art: the composition of pitches (traditionally understood as “music"); the choices of timbre for the various electronic instruments; all the production choices of recording, mixing, etc. etc. which have tremendous effect on the “feel” of the final result. And so on. I would conclude by saying that while the superficial observer might think the work was a unity to be judged as a unity, the fact that so much of the final work had its form completely determined by the artists meant that they are demonstrating extreme quality in four out of five distinct art forms (say). And the remaining art form for which they have no genius, that of writing lyrics, has been taken up by a traditional placeholder—nursery rhymes.

Now let’s suppose there is another artist who writes remarkable lyrics and also has some interesting ideas about production, but doesn’t play any instruments or “write music”. And let’s say this artist gathers some studio musicians and directs them to prepare, for their part, kind of an offhanded imitation of ELP’s considered grandeur. (Let’s call this hypothetical artist “Hypothetical Peter Sinfield”.) The result is an exposition of lyricism but most of the rest of the work is not to be taken too seriously since in this case it is the other art forms that are filled by content performing a placeholder function.

If we can accept that multimedia like recorded music or graphic stories have multiple facets, then can we also identify consistent excellence in one or two facets for a particular artist, and disregard the rest? I don’t think the two albums of my thought experiment need to be seriously compared with one another for example. The composition and performance of the one, and the lyrics of the other might be held up as an example of craft, but any head-to-head comparison would not make sense once the basic structure was understood.

I put Kirby/Spiegelman in the former category: a genius at graphical storytelling for whom it does not matter what the stories were, so long as they met minimal standards. (And Spiegelman took an opportunity with “Maus” to tell a very personal story, I’m not saying the stories were bad or uninteresting, just to be separated from the area of Kirby/Spiegelman’s real genius.) And I would put Moore in the latter category: just like Peter Sinfield should be judged (not too favorably, I’m afraid) mostly as a poet, Moore should be judged against writers like Ballard.

(Finally, imagine an opportunistic and talented HBO producer makes a really entertaining and award-winning tv series set in “the” world (as misunderstood by the accidental fanbase of ignoramuses, no offense) of the two albums hypothesized above. This would be Chabon.)

To sum: reducing the critical problem to the status of a false problem by closely examining the phenomena is a better long-term strategy, I think, than identifying a philosophical category called “pastoral” and trying to fit the phenomena into it.

But, I could be wrong.

By pierre on 04/07/05 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment


rm writes

(the artists under discussion are) all metacognizant reworkers of the comics of our childhood, the Kirby legacy

for the purposes of this thought experiment, my hypothetical examples are all (obviously) metacognizant reworkers of the first King Crimson album.

My point being, metacognizant reworking of a shared legacy still isn’t enough to make them essentially critically comparable, but only accidentally so.

By pierre on 04/07/05 at 04:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pierre, are you grouping “Kirby/Spiegelman” together because they both draw, and distinguishing Moore as a writer because he writes the scripts? I don’t follow you there, because “the arts” have always been compared to each other and drawn inspiration from and imitated each other. All comparisons have their limits, but we use them anyway.

I think I’m agreeing with JH’s essay in ignoring these technical distinctions and talking, instead, about how artists in different media all work with versions of the pastoral.

You’re right that you question the premise of the essay while I accept it. That’s our disagreement.

Pastoral is not a philosophical category, it’s an aesthetic mode. One can be a straight Romantic naive pastoral “primitive” creator like Kirby or your nursery rhyme rockers, or you can take the Modernist road of exploring the pastoral with some ironic and/or sentimental distance and using it to approach larger themes of human experience—which is what I think JH was saying about using this to explore the nature of childhood memories as they live in our adult experience. I think this was a way for JH to defend the manly comics lit of Chabon & Lethem.

By on 04/07/05 at 04:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and I could be wrong, too, since I am not Giblets.

By on 04/07/05 at 04:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I guess the crux of our disagreement is that I don’t think one can ever separate “artistic essence” from “demographic accidents,” if by “demographic” you mean the social/rhetorical context that a work first appears in. We always experience it as an artifact of its era.

Got to get off the computer, so don’t be offended if I leave the conversation.

By on 04/07/05 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

More hypotheticals. Still trying to find the leverage point.

<i>Pierre, are you grouping “Kirby/Spiegelman” together because they both draw, and distinguishing Moore as a writer because he writes the scripts? </i>

Only because I’m afraid we’re not capturing the proper object of criticism.

Compare a Picasso painting to a poem by e.e. cummings; this can be done.

Now suppose they both made a comic book: Picasso’s drawings could be compared to cummings’ scripts just as before. But we cannot simply compare P’s comic book to C’s comic book, because the technical question of how well P dealt with the practicalities of providing a script for his graphics-dominated work is a different problem from how well C dealt with the practicalities of providing art for his script-dominated work.

Kirby’s scripts cannot be compared to Moore’s scripts since the technical situation differed. Kirby always had his graphical impulse as a given; Moore does not.

Pastoral is not a philosophical category, it’s an aesthetic mode.

But the question is whether the philosophizing that has been done with the term truly retains contact with the reality of the aesthetic mode that goes by that name?

By pierre on 04/07/05 at 05:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, at least Dares likes comics. That’s a relief. I admit to getting the Simpson’s quote wrong. Apparently an apocryphal version got lodged in a CT thread. I should have gone to a scholarly source like a Simpson’s fansite. Oh, well. My analysis of the healthier sort of superhero nostalgia as mock-pastoral ‘wise fool’ literature was indeed inspired primarily by Alan Moore. (See great long posts linked above. Also my classic, Crisis on Infantile Earths.) I think “Supreme” is the textbook case, although not necessarily Moore’s finest work. But everything Moore does is in this area. Busiek goes here too, and (less clearly) Bendis. ("Alias" more than something like “Powers”, though “Powers” in certain moods.) Lots of comics writers want to be Alan Moore, of course. Only a few do it well.

By John Holbo on 04/07/05 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pierre, I’ll respond to your criticisms a bit later. Just a quick note about your starting point. You suggest my view is, roughly, that

certain culturally “low” stuff like SF and superhero comics is a special case of the pastoral and therefore has or can have a place in traditional criticism.

You may have meant to place the ‘certain’ a bit further along in the sentence. I don’t want to argue that ALL this stuff - all SF, or all superhero comics, or all of the better sort of superhero graphic novel-type comics - are pastoral. For example, Jack Kirby comics are not pastoral, or mock-pastoral. They are - well, what Lethem said. My view is that this stuff ends up serving as raw nature, if you will: pastoral fodder, then. Those who work in the mock-pastoral vein will be appreciatively drawn to Kirby. But Kirby is obviously different than his appreciators - Lethem and Chabon and Moore. Tell me whether me granting this is enough to placate you, perhaps into accepting my pastoral thesis?

Thanks for the thought-experiments, by the by. Your objection was most imaginatively exposited, or explosited (if Lethem really said that.)

By John Holbo on 04/07/05 at 10:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to complete that thought. The thread running through the block quote from Lethem on Kirby and my discussionof mock-pastoral is the sense of Kirby as a great naive artist - a force of nature. This is why he is a good pastoral backdrop. (Which is very different than saying he himself worked in the pastoral mode.)

And another thought that doesn’t come clear in what I wrote, though I was thinking it (my students always say that about their papers, when they get bad grades, do your?): it is interesting that superhero stories are not just power fantasies, or moral superiority fantasies; they can be, additionally, wish-fulfillment fantasies that ethical life itself - ethical truth - could be simpler than it is. This is why I find Empson on the heroic significant in this connection. I think plucking a string of yearning for a universe whose very moral fabric is different than that of the real one is a common element in a lot of this stuff. This is actually not particularly childish, if only because children are seldom aware that their moral views are rather simplistic (whereas they are keenly aware that they aren’t very powerful, and probably aware that they aren’t moral paragons.) If it’s childish, it’s a kind of childishness that only afflicts adults. I think it’s an element that shows up all over the place if you start looking for it under that description. But that’s enough for now, for a comment box.

By John Holbo on 04/08/05 at 02:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

sin city fucking rocks.

By on 04/08/05 at 07:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, thanks very much for the clarifications, and I look forward with great interest to the further comments you promised—if not in this particular thread, I’m sure the issues will arise again. If I may be permitted a personal remark to provide some context: I am working on a larger theory of media for which genre fiction is an important test case. Hence my interest in these issues and my appreciation for this forum. (And it’s rude of me to address you by name when I am posting anonymously, but ... well, secret identities and so on. Media theory. All that.)

My view is that this stuff ends up serving as raw nature, if you will: pastoral fodder, then. Those who work in the mock-pastoral vein will be appreciatively drawn to Kirby. But Kirby is obviously different than his appreciators - Lethem and Chabon and Moore. Tell me whether me granting this is enough to placate you, perhaps into accepting my pastoral thesis?

Yes and no. Now I think we are in agreement that Kirby was not a “naive genius” but a real genius—but a genius at what? I’d say a genius at something that, while it can only be expressed in the comic book form, it is not an essential requirement for comic books, so there are many comic books that don’t really exemplify this thing at which Kirby was a genius. If this is correct, greater precision in a shared critical vocabulary about the components of multimedia arts will be necessary before the conversation can go further.

Regarding the relationship between the childish (or seemingly childish) and the pastoral, I’d like to question this linkage as well. I’d prefer instead to identify a compositional strategy of synthesizing material that is considered “naive” for the purposes of the composition, whether or not the artist thinks it’s “really” naive on its own. Moore has done with superheroes something like what Gaiman did, in the “Sandman”, to world mythology: created a synthesis out of folklore. I compare them both to the first Christianized saga poets who busily recast all their old gods as heroes in a different order of things. I don’t see any connection between this powerful strategy, which is well attested in the history of folklore and mythology, and concepts of childhood or the pastoral. In the canonical examples of true excellence in comics writing, I find this strategy dominant.

In my view it’s Lethem and Chabon who are the outliers. While they know that Kirby was not naive, they also know that lots of academics and university-educated professional people in their 30s have a powerful guilty pleasure in superhero comics and associate these with their own (personally mythologized) childhood. So Lethem and Chabon are developing and exploiting an evocation of childhood by representing, to the adult, the adult’s relationship to superhero comics, in a way which has no relationship to the child’s previous experience nor any necessary connection to the comics themselves. But is emotionally plausible. Which is fine, except that it thorougly confuses any attempt to critically analyze comics.

By pierre menard on 04/08/05 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You mean you aren’t the real Pierre Menard? And here I was getting ready to make a joke about how, yeah, maybe your Quixote isn’t mock-pastoral ... But you already thought of that joke.

Seriously, thanks for your comment. It’s a big question and we obviously disagree at some fairly fundamental level. I understand your view. I don’t think there’s anything brief I could say that would be evidentially compelling, to bring you over to mine. You might try on my oversized posts for size. Particularly the one linked a little distance up this thread. Not that it functions as an argument against your view, but it might help you understand mine. (I think that stuff is pretty sloppy looking back at it now. But I don’t think it’s wrong.)

Another thread, maybe ...

By John Holbo on 04/08/05 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re convincinger than you might think. Thanks for confirming that we seem to have identified the ground of the argument. Again, I look forward to your future remarks here and elsewhere.

(and thanks as well to the other Valve principals and commenters)

By pierre menard on 04/08/05 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Even me?

By on 04/08/05 at 02:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

PS: ... except Dares.

PPS: JH, you say

it is interesting that superhero stories are not just power fantasies, or moral superiority fantasies; they can be, additionally, wish-fulfillment fantasies that ethical life itself - ethical truth - could be simpler than it is.

Though different from the formal definition you provided, perhaps this specifically ethical wish-fulfilment is the essence of mock pastoral?—it wishes pastoral could be true but harbors doubts, while the genuine pastoral has no doubts? So defined I have much less trouble with your subsequent use of pastoral and mock pastoral.

I say this in part to invite further commentary but mostly so Dares does not get the last word on the thread, even indirectly. Dares, you now may demonstrate your moral discipline to us all by refraining from another comment. I predict that your character will improve if you accept this challenge. (Improved character means greater personal “mana”. Do not take this opportunity lightly.)

By pierre menard on 04/08/05 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s no way in hell I’m taking advice from the only person on this blog with a handle more pretentious than my own. 

I am the crusty old medievalist that this blog sorely needs, and Borges would agree with me. To stop posting now would be a disservice to the ALSC Old-Guard for whom I carry the flame of intellectual fuddy-duddyism.

By on 04/08/05 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seems to me “holbonic” could describe posts that stylistically, or leghthwise, resembles yours, whereas “holbovian” clearly implies agreement in substance.  Or at any rate you could so stipulate.

By on 04/11/05 at 09:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis’
On Haffenden on Empson

Bangs on Eno

By on 04/17/05 at 09:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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