Tuesday, April 14, 2009
What’s wrong with Reading Comics? Quite a bit, actually.
Because late to the party is better than never, I’m reading Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics. When I’m not maybe being mocked, the book is a compelling read. This is a problem. Since tradition dictates picking nits with blurbs, I’ll start with the quotation from the Los Angeles Times printed on the cover:
Of all the Times blurbs to pick with nits, this one may not even be the best. From the back cover:
Everything is here.
If everything is there and there is deliciously quotable—but let me begin with the second blurb, because it concerns a minor point. No matter how you define “everything,” Reading Comics does not contain it all. Wolk periodically informs the reader of this fact:
There are . . . several very big names I’m barely mentioning or neglecting outright in the following pages: Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb . . . (137)
And we can ellipses away there because this is a book about comics that barely mentions or outright neglects Jack Kirby and Robert Crumb. Why the Times would make claims the author explicitly rejects I don’t know—but I suspect its decision relates to the tone of casual expertise Wolk displays throughout the book. Every reference I catch—about half of the ones Wolk drops—complements his argument; however, the way you wear your erudition lightly on the web differs from how you do it in print. The book’s delicious quotability is a byproduct of its learned chattiness, and if the medium is ever to attain academic respectability, its expositors will need to try a little harder than this:
[Steve Ditko] shared a studio for years with bondage/fetish artist Eric Stanton and has claimed they didn’t collaborate, but Ditko expert Blake Bell has a Web site on which he points out some work credited to Stanton that’s clearly Ditko—those hands are the giveaway. (157)
Not only does Wolk punt academic form, he punts online decorum too. If you mention that someone has a “Web site,” you provide the reader with a way to find it. A link to Blake Bell’s discussion of Ditko and fetish comics in a printed book would be gravy, but at least provide the name of the site (Ditko Looked Up) and the name of the article. Speaking of which, the article is not on the “Articles“ page, nor is it listed on the “Creations." It took me some time to track down the reference—according to its address, it should have been on the “Creations” page—and once there I realized why Wolk obscured the reference. Behold the first evidence Bell uses to establish that Ditko collaborated with Stanton:
The dead giveaway here is the man in both pages; especially the bottom inset panel on Page 2. How Ditko is THAT guy? Look at the fingers on his smoking hand! Did Stanton even TOUCH that panel?
Now for the second:
That cop in the bottom three panels of Page 6 (on the right) is so Ditko, it is scary. Look at the body contortions of the woman in Panel 1 of the same page.
That’s vintage Spider-Man. This brings us back to the point—Ditko had far more to do with Stanton’s artwork than just inking.
I don’t doubt the authority of Bell’s eyes, but his mode of argumentation is for crap. Papering over his source the way Wolk does will not win the medium any respect. There are ways to talk about how comics are drawn—line and technique, understanding of anatomy, &c.—but Wolk declines to do so here. His technical description of Frank Miller’s work in the next chapter is more robust, but there too he refuses to push too far into specifics. If you aim to establish the distinctiveness of a particular style, you need to borrow or build a vocabulary with which can do so. The claim that something “is so something, it is scary” simply won’t cut it.
I admit to having a vested interested in building a reasonably critical working vocabulary, but even so, I’m not sure how useful Reading Comics will be to the project. Because, pace John, Wolk’s book can’t “the best work of literary criticism [anyone reads] this year” because, though the prose may shine and the erudition sparkle, it just isn’t critical enough to be called criticism.
I say it again: if you’re interested in comic-book art and aren’t reading Dave Sim’s Glamourpuss, you’re only pretending to be interested in comic-book art.
Damn it, Wally, since you called me out like that, I didn’t have a choice. Through one issue—which I read while I should’ve been doing my taxes—you’re absolutely correct about his history of comic photorealism. Anticipated my (elsewhere) complaint about there being no explicit theory of line/lines in the Wolk, just an intuitive discussion of them when they couldn’t not be discussed (late Frank Miller). But—and with Sim, how could there not be a “but”—the notion that he mocks fashion models because they’re vapid but stylized only works if the mocker is pretty much any male on the continent other than Dave Sim. I don’t believe him, and I’ve got a few phone book’s worth of evidence to back me up when I say that the “Skanko” section brims over with late-Jaka-type unsuppressed rage. So yes, you’ve convinced me to whip out my bifurcated thinking cap and learn what I can from Good Dave while ignoring Odious Sim. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to bathe and find my damn W-2 . . .
No no, not a callout! Just encouragement from a fellow fan who apparently has no idea whatsoever how his tone comes across in this comment section...:)
It really is a remarkable piece of history. (And the photorealism stuff is still running a half-dozen issues in.) I admire Sim’s weird quixotic individualism - and hey, I wouldn’t wanna watch TV with Alan Moore either, so I can just roll my eyes at the boilerplate Simsanity.
Sim is like a malignant Ricky Jay: dedicated and reverent preservationist, peerless practitioner, solitary weirdo. But Jay is happily married, apparently.
Yeah, fucking Pater and his fucking *Renaissance* totally lacked proper citations and a technical vocabulary. Fucking asshole.
But Luther’s got some kind of a point. Just what kind . . .
A not very good one: Pater’s academic essays met the standards of his time—I’m asking Wolk to do the same.
And no worries, Wally, as that’s more my annoyance at Sim for forcing me not to dismiss him—and reminding me why I like “the early, funny stuff”—while still being a misogynist prick.
He was a mysogynist from day one, even during the “early, funny stuff.” He became a crazy mysogynist later, so crazy that people decided that they had to take notice.
He was a mysogynist from day one, even during the “early, funny stuff."
Not to turn this into a Sim-fest, but I don’t think that’s true. The early Red Sonja parodies were clearly parodies, but—not to psychologize too much, because I don’t want to end up here (my blog, someone else’s comment)—to read the early material in light of the later misogyny is, I think, to deny how fundamental the breaking of Sim’s mind was. St. Augustine may be content to tendentiously read his early life as a coming-to-Christ narrative, but I don’t think all “conversions” ought to be read that way . . . and yes, I think the best way to talk about early vs. late Sim is the language of conversion. He didn’t gradually turn into a misogynistic adherent to a Choose Your Own Religion—which is not to say he didn’t struggle with the issues that would eventually cause the conversion. I think we see that being worked out in Jaka’s Story before his blows his old self to bits in Mothers and Daughters.
Parodies? Come on, this is “They’re not gonna release the album… because they have decided that the cover is sexist” “Well, so what? What’s wrong with bein’ sexy?” territory. The Red Sonja parody is pretty clearly described here. The reason that people describe this as a funny parody is because the concept of a “break” allows them to respect the cult of Sim’s genius. Otherwise the early material would be viewed as the juvenile, misogynistic, unfunny, poorly drawn tripe that it is.
"Otherwise the early material would be viewed as the juvenile, misogynistic, unfunny, poorly drawn tripe that it is.”
The early stuff isn’t that funny, nor is it particularly misogynistic, as Red Sonja parodies go. But the middle stuff - Church and State and High Society - is a scream. I gave up after “Jaka’s Story”.
(By the way, I’m hoping that ‘nor is it particularly misogynistic, as Red Sonja parodies go’ will someday appear as a blurb for a scholarly edition of Sim’s early work.)
"nor is it particularly misogynistic, as Red Sonja parodies go”
Do I really have to point out that it actually is? I guess so. Sim’s parody far out-does the original in misogyny, because the original character, even with her tremendously scarred post-trauma sex life focussed around her abuse, was at least a highly skilled warrior and a protagonist of her own story. Sim doesn’t turn her writers into a joke, nor does he precisely turn her into a joke. He systematically strips away the only strengths that she’s been written with. She’s so inept that she gets spanked with a sword, for christ’s sake. And it’s “funny” that she wants to get sex from anyone now.
That isn’t a parody, really. It’s just straight-up misogyny, approved of as such because Sim was and is writing within a deeply misogynistic subculture. And I think that there’s a danger that when academics study comics and decide that they have to be taken seriously—which they should be, I suppose—they tend to excuse the values of this subculture as going along with the artworks themselves.
Red Sonya had a scarred post-trauma sex life? In the original comics? I defer to your greater scholarship on the subject, then, Rich.
Well, yes. She was raped, and afterwards she would only sleep with men who could beat her in combat. That doesn’t sound like a “scarred post-trauma sex life” to you?
Did you actually know anything about the original before you decided that the parody wasn’t particularly misogynistic?
Rich, by “the early, funny stuff” I was pointing to the consensus that the late material wasn’t any good—via the reference to Stardust Memories—I wasn’t actually saying the early stuff was funny. My claim here is that the Red Sonja parodies were clearly parodies, so out-doing the source material in the amount and degree of its misogyny would’ve been the point. This isn’t to say it’s not misogynist simply because it’s a parody of a misogynist work, only that to lump incidental genre-based misogyny in with Sim’s intentional, ideology-based misogyny diminishes the monumental awfulness of the latter.
And I think that there’s a danger that when academics study comics and decide that they have to be taken seriously—which they should be, I suppose—they tend to excuse the values of this subculture as going along with the artworks themselves.
Generally speaking, this is a reasonable critique; but with regard to Sim, I think it’s irresponsible to say that his casual, acculturated misogyny is of a piece with his strident-as-a-fresh-convert misogyny that occupied the second half of the series. The casual misogyny is there in High Society and both volumes of Church & State, and I recognize it the way I recognize the racism in Jack London—which is to say, it’s not the most salient feature of the text, others have written about it, I can mention it and move on to my particular topic. But if I were to write about any of the late material, I wouldn’t be able to ignore the misogyny, because it’s become the most salient feature of the text.
I understand what you’ve written, Scott, and it’s the standard way of reading Sim, but I think it’s a misreading, and one that serves a particular bad purpose.
First, the Red Sonja parodies just are not parodies in the sense that they “[out-do] the source material in the amount and degree of its misogyny”. That would mean that Sim was parodying misogyny—and he isn’t. I don’t see any sign that his parody is saying something like “Oh, those sword-and-sorcery writers—always writing stupidly misogynistic stuff!” Instead, the sequence seems to be much better explained by Sim’s explanation later, referred to in the link I provided—that he wanted to mock feminists.
It’s not incidental genre-based misogyny at all. The chain-mail bikini is an example of such, and it’s one that has been well parodied. It’s Sim doing at the beginning of his arc the same thing that he does at the end. Sim’s mind may have broken in one way or another along that trip, but I don’t see any sign that his mysogyny changed. It was monumentally awful at the beginning, middle, and end, and it’s just that critics couldn’t ignore it at the end because he’d written so many crackpot theories about it. The purpose of the “break”, then, is to enable the fiction that Sim’s work only became bad in this way after a certain point. His work did become bad in many other ways after the “break”—for instance, he became far more willing to lecture—but the misogyny was always non-incidentally there.
And this hiving-off bit seems very problematic to me. If the second half of Jack London’s career had been one racist tract after another, people wouldn’t look at his early works and say “oh, there’s casual, acculturated racism there”. They’d say that he was a racist writer who became more willing to express his racism in a different way.
Actually, Scott, Pater’s *Renaissance* was not “academic” and so did not conform to “academic standards” of the time. Compare it to a work of philology, to a scholarly monograph, or to a dissertation from that era.
Wolk’s book sounds like classic belles-lettres to me, not academic prose.