I think I might have a new favorite song ever.
Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts.
I think I might have a new favorite song ever.
From my first San Diego Comic Con:
The second one takes some explication: my brother and I grew up obsessively playing Mega Man II and Palladium’s (crappy, in retrospect) role-playing games, and two years ago I did a summer research project analyzing the music of the Mega Man series; to find those two elements in one of my favorite comic bloggers was a head trip. He and I have a karaoke date at some point; the Top Shelf guys think I sound like Peter Murphy, a claim I must investigate further. I think at the time I was going for Bowie.
The final sentence refers to a separate epiphany I had on Thursday, walking downstairs after a lunch break and thinking about all the fans, and the depth of their genuine enthusiasm for the stuff, and how warm and approachable the pros are, and realizing that chatting with a hundred people per hour had not tired me out but actually was the source of all my energy, and thinking I am good at this; I can make a difference. Suddenly I knew it was true.
So that’s one question answered. At least for now.
ἀλλὰ κέρδει καὶ σοφία δέδεται.
ἔτραπεν καὶ κεῖνον ἀγάνορι μισθῷ χρυσὸς ἐν χερσὶν φανεὶς
But even wisdom is enslaved to profit.
And gold appearing in hands (reckless wage!) turned
that man […]
–Pindar, Pythian 3.551
At Powell’s the other day, I noticed an anthology called Poetry After Modernism (Robert McDowell, ed). Since I think contemporary poetry, in its overwhelming rejection of traditional forms, has often thrown the baby out with the bathwater and created a new, equally boring, status quo, I was curious to see what the deal was with the “New Formalists” mentioned in one essay. The author was particularly enamored with Dana Gioia, author of the apparently-famous essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” and one of Gioia’s poems quoted in the book impressed me. Some research at home reveals that Gioia is an ex-corporate-executive and current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by George W. Bush.
So I’ve been having a morning of cognitive dissonance, reading through this essay by Steve Evans, “Free (Market) Verse” and sorting through some thorny questions about art, commerce, populism, tradition, and form. These questions seem especially relevant now that I’m a member of the arts industry. I’m currently living off (running out of!) the cash award I got for the poetry I wrote for my thesis. As I begin working with Top Shelf I’m going to be intimately concerned with (and dependent on!) the principle of charging people money for art.
My thesis was centrally concerned with questions of accessibility. I may not have succeeded in my goal of writing a thesis my grandmother could read, but I’m a big fan of art that actually reaches people, and in some ways to translate is to popularize (or to vulgarize — in Latin they’re synonyms!). I wanted to get the poems out of the Classics department and into the ears of the public.
My work in comics activism/advocacy is similarly rooted in a desire for accessibility, although I hadn’t made the connection until now. I try to promote comics to people who don’t read them; I hunt for books that appeal to those readers. I’m more likely to change somebody’s life by giving them Blankets or Strangers in Paradise than Crisis on Infinite Earths. The comic book scene, like (Gioia argues) the academic poetry scene, has its head up its own ass and is busy talking to itself rather than communicating with the world.
Yet I’m uncomfortable with the idea of connections between aesthetics and politics. Does nostalgia for an old-fashioned art form imply nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideology? Is the impulse to defend the institution of rhyme related to the impulse to defend the institution of marriage? I think not, in my case at least. I think there are a few more things at work here.
I’ve been asked to write a new school song for Reed College. Writing an alma mater is one of the most public, populist things you can do. The alma mater genre, like the Pindaric victory ode, is inherently conservative — institutionally normative, you might say, or counterrevolutionary — but I love the challenge of writing an anthem that the notoriously cynical student body of Reed can proudly stand behind. (Luckily, Reed itself is weirdly conservative in many ways.) It’s the same challenge I enjoyed as an atheist at Baptist Youth Camp, serving on the worship planning committee: finding ways to create a service that would be meaningful to everyone. In my thesis, I loved the challenge of writing deliberately old-fashioned translations of old avant-garde texts for a contemporary audience.
My father once made a remark that has stuck with me ever since: I was raised in a relentlessly heterogeneous environment, in a world of apparent contradictions. A liberal & educated city in a relatively rural state, a fiercely progressive church in a resolutely conservative denomination, a lower-end neighborhood in a wealthy suburb. My brother and I are both devoted to the idea of applying high-culture perspectives to low culture, and vice versa. I tend to feel like the geekiest person in a room full of “normal folks” and the most well-adjusted in a room full of geeks. In the Taijitu, my father implied, I’m the white in the black and the black in the white.
I don’t think I’m going to figure this all out today. I don’t think that everyone who agrees with my aesthetic values is going to be someone I’m comfortable standing with. But, I realize, that’s nothing new. I’ve been preaching the gospel of heavy metal and comic books for years, and God knows I have a pretty dim view of the average metalhead and comic fan. The fun part, after all, is loving something that’s insufficiently loved by people I respect, and then teaching them to love it.
[Did that make any sense? All of these points could use some elaboration, but this has been sitting on my computer for a long time now and I need to get it out. I’m sure there’s more to come.]
1 Pindar is describing the corrupting influence of wealth on the ancient healer Asclepius, who was once paid a ton of cash to resurrect a dead man. Zeus, outraged at this violation of the laws of nature, killed him with a thunderbolt. As a freelance poet who sold his praise to the highest bidder, Pindar is very careful to denounce the evils of capitalism and conceal the economic realities of his own situation. The way he operates, the poet assures us, Pindar only writes poems about people who are genuinely his friends, and every word is deserved because his patrons really are that awesome.
I’ve been awaiting Douglas Wolk‘s new book Reading Comics — “the first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics criticism by the leading critic in the field,” according to the publisher — with a breathless enthusiasm not seen since the last Scott Pilgrim book was released.
Thanks to my accidental subscription to Amazon Prime last December and the miracle of two-day shipping, it’s now in my hot little hands and I’ve been tearing through it eagerly.
I have, admittedly, a gigantic man-crush on Douglas Wolk. He’s smart and observant, he’s a talented writer and communicator, he likes the right things (i.e. almost everything), he’s forward-looking and intelligently backward-looking, he cares and writes about things besides comics (his article on Numa Numa was great; his definition of rockism is extremely relevant to comics), he’s done his homework and knows some actual aesthetic theory, and he’s got a genuine boyish love for everything he talks about that comes through in his writing. He is, in short, one of my role models. Here’s the list of “SEVEN STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT COMICS” that appears on the postcard advertising his book:
- The Golden Age of comics is right now.
- Comics are a medium, not a genre.
- Comics are not literature, in the same sense that they’re not film or sculpture or cooking.
- Comics are drawn: they’re not just representations of a story, but images made by an artist’s hand.
- In fact, they’re a specific kind of drawing: cartooning, which is based on visual metaphors — deliberate kinds of distortion and symbolic abstraction.
- That means that extended metaphors are what comics do best. Their style is their substance.
- Also, comics are awesome.
If you’ve known or read me for any length of time, some of these will sound familiar.
Actually, that’s one of the problems for me in reading Reading Comics: everything in here is so damn familiar. It’s delightful to see my own secret thoughts expressed by another and published in a mass-market book with a national distribution, but once the “finally! somebody said it!” feeling wears off, I fear that I won’t have anything to say in response.
Thankfully, Wolk and I are not in complete brain-sync, and although I’ve only just finished Part One of the book, I have a couple thoughts so far.
Never has a book cried out more desperately for footnotes. Wolk’s critical worldview demands that he be all-encompassing, but I suspect it’s his personal tendencies that call him to write with humility — to cover his bases, qualify his statements, and admit the exceptions to his theories. It’s another way in which his writing feels familiar, because I do the same thing myself: I don’t hesitate to praise another’s work but tend to present my own ideas tentatively, attempting to communicate every subtle nuance of my perspective, and phrasing them with enough caveats that I can be sure of their truth. Unfortunately, as some helpful mentors have informed me, such equivocation weakens one’s prose and makes it harder to read.
Sometimes his parenthetical style is a sign of that hesitance, but other times it’s a sign of disorganization — his (admittedly contagious) enthusiasm is such that he can’t resist throwing in tangential comments and anecdotes, when they might better belong in another section. In fact, the whole structure of the first half feels a little uncertain to me — it’s all very good stuff, but chapters begin and end somewhat arbitrarily and don’t always flow. I think I’ll have more useful comments along these lines later, when I’ve digested more.
One of the central ideas of the book is this divide between “art comics” and “genre comics.” There’s no arguing the fact that the market is quite bifurcated (or, as he points out, trifurcated, when you include manga), but I believe that the division is harmful and stupid and does readers no favors. It locks them into one school or the other, exacerbates their existing prejudices against comics on “the other side of the fence,” and discourages cross-contamination or cross-examination from one side onto another. And honestly, I see a hell of a lot of “in-between” works cropping up — the eternal “Scott Pilgrim question,” you might call it. Maybe he’ll address this in the final chapter, but comics as an industry desperately needs to address the concept of “the new mainstream” — the folks buying Buffy comics and Blankets and, hell, Sandman (this is not a new phenomenon). Comics are never going to reach the general public as long as people feel that reading a comic involves joining a subculture, regardless of whether that subculture’s mascot is Superman or Crumb or Naruto. I’m desperate for a view of comics in which readers don’t have to “choose sides”; I wonder how much the childish good-vs-evil mentality of our childhood heroes continues to lock us into that framework.
To drop a music comparison (which is my natural instinct, but coincidentally also one of Wolk’s techniques): Is there a division between art music and pop music? Of course. Ought there be? I’m not so sure. I know that for listeners of my generation, John Bach and John Lennon are both dead white guys who wrote good music a long time ago. They’re next to each other in my iTunes library, and switching between them is trivially simple. If I sort by date, the 1950s section is populated by the black American gospel of Sam Cooke, the white American rock of Elvis Presley, and the melodic French modernism of Francis Poulenc. In the 1950s, the three of them played to completely separate audiences — probably no one on Earth attended the concerts of all three — but fifty years later they’re all accessible to me from the same place, in the same listening context. And that prods me to consider how all three of them are working from the same Christian themes, how all three made public the conflicts and connections between spirituality and sexuality, and whether that tension is reflected in the way their music balances passionate chaos with tempered control. Presumably, similar ideas could be inspired by simply putting the entire library on “shuffle” and listening for new connections.
The point is, I’m much more interested in criticism that is colorblind rather than segregated. It’s (usually) not difficult to read a work within the context of its closest neighbors — what’s more difficult, less common, and more useful is to read a work out of its niche, to find the context dictated by its content rather than its circumstances.
Wolk is doing some of that, simply by writing the book he did: READING COMICS, not READING ART COMICS or READING GENRE COMICS. Comics, he argues, are united by certain formal characteristics and are worth considering as a body, and I’m completely with him. God knows most Marvel artists could to learn something from Charles Schulz, or Jaime Hernandez, or Ai Yazawa. In his effort to be descriptive, though — to explain comics as we see them — I think he’s missed an opportunity to encourage that assimilation process.