Thursday, May 26, 2016

I Prefer Him as a Cartoonist

This is a slightly revised version of a "hot take" polemic that was published at The Hooded Utilitarian on February 14, 2013. It was part of a series of responses among Hooded Utilitarian contributors to the Eddie Campbell article in question. A listing of the other pieces is here.

The talk of many in the comics community this past week has been Eddie Campbell’s essay “The Literaries,” which was posted at on February 6. (Click here to read.) The main target was Ng Suat Tong and his essay criticizing the EC Comics line (click here). However, most have taken it--and I think correctly--as an attack on the perceived values of The Hooded Utilitarian and its contributors. (Calling us “The Literaries” is a step up for Eddie; he used to refer to us as “jackals.”) His arguments are nothing new. He combines an angry defense of comics-cultist insularity with a broadside against those who look at comics through the prism of a broader interest in the arts. It’s the sort of thing that used to be directed at The Comics Journal by superhero fans during the magazine’s first two decades. I suppose it’s poetic justice that the publication is happily promoting such a screed now. Things have come full circle, and TCJ has undoubtedly become what it once beheld, although I don’t think even the most obtuse superhero fan stooped to claim that good stories were irrelevant to good comics. Arguing with comics-cultist solipsism is something I’ve done a lot of, and I know from experience that it’s a quixotic undertaking. But Eddie’s essay does offer the opportunity to clarify a few things. Given some of the commentary it has sparked, I’d say taking that opportunity is the best move.

Eddie’s opening paragraph is a masterpiece of misconceptions. I’m actually impressed at how many comics-cultist fallacies he managed to pack into just over a hundred words:

In the wake of the comics medium’s forty-year hike to serious acceptance, the chances are that now a person won’t get laughed out the room for putting them on a par with Literature. The flipside of the medium having gained this kind of recognition is that it has also acquired a new species of critic who demands that comics be held to the standards of LITERATURE. Since the invasion of these literaries, I have been observing a tendency to ask the question: if this weren’t a comic would it stand up? Would the story be any good if it were prose and in competition with the rest of the world’s prose? If we take away all these damn pictures, would the stuff that is left be worth a hoot?

Eddie appears in the grip of the same delusion that afflicts a number of comics cultists. They assume because a handful of contemporary comics efforts have received the respect of the larger culture, that means the comics medium as a whole is now viewed with the same respect. I’m sorry, but no. Claims that comics are now on a par with literature still deserve to get one laughed out of the room. The opinion that comics can begin to measure up to just the last century of literature is utterly absurd, and deserves to be treated as such by any moderately erudite and discriminating reader. To the extent anything has changed, an outside reader might be more inclined to give a comics effort the benefit of the doubt now. That’s all, and it’s not much.

Comics have also not acquired a new breed of highfalutin critic as a result of any "recognition." I can only speak for myself, but I suspect my circumstances are similar to Suat’s and Noah Berlatsky’s and most other critics whom Eddie would likely include among “The Literaries.” I’m a long-time comics reader who also has an abiding interest in other fields, in my case fiction, poetry, fine art, and film. I’ve continued to follow comics because there are comics creators, such as Eddie, who produce work I find worthwhile. I enjoy thinking and writing about what I read, and that extends to comics. I don’t bring the “standards of LITERATURE” or any other snooty metric by which to judge material. All I ask is that I be reasonably entertained, and my tastes are pretty eclectic. I don’t care whether something is a superhero comic, young-adult adventure fiction, or a Clint Eastwood western, or, for that matter, a Tolstoy novel, a Jean-Luc Godard film, or lyric poetry from 13th-century Italy. If I find it reasonably engaging and I choose to write about it, I’ll treat it favorably. The flip side is that if I don’t like something, and I choose to write about it, I’ll treat it unfavorably. Again, I can’t speak for Suat, Noah, or other critics Eddie may have in mind with his diatribe, but I suspect their motives are about the same.

One aspect of being a critic with diverse interests who writes about comics is that you easily can find yourself at odds with the old breed of highfalutin comics critics. These are the ignorant (or insensible) blowhard cultists who liken Jack Kirby to Homer or identify Jaime Hernandez with Marcel Proust and roman-fleuve fiction. They're essentially name-droppers, and one of their favorite platitudes is that comics are the equal of other artistic fields. Their fellow comics cultists don’t get after them for this nonsense for at least two reasons. One is that this cohort doesn’t know much of anything about, say, Homer or Proust, or work in other media in general. As such, they’re not in a position to argue. The other is that this foolishness flatters their tastes, which is the only interest critical writing really has for them. But if one is familiar with the outside figures in question, or is willing to ask the logical question that if comics are the equal of other fields, then how do its best works compare, it is hard not to call out this sort of thing. However, one is not going to endear oneself to the comics-cultist cohort by doing so. Their tastes are extremely bound up with their self-esteem. As such, they take arguments that Kirby or whomever should be treated with a more discriminating perspective as a personal attack. Worse, they often act as if the silliness you're calling out never happened, which leads them to erroneously take you to task for making pompous, pretentious comparisons.

One can see this at work in Eddie’s essay. The question that Suat is implicitly starting with in his EC piece is that if this material is among the best this medium-that-is-the-equal-of-all-others has to offer, then how does it stack up when considered against the best work outside comics? He begins with the Harvey Kurtzman-edited Mad, generally considered the peak book of the EC line and arguably the field’s greatest humor effort, and he observes that compared to the most accomplished comedy material from other fields--work ranging from Aristophanes to Monty Python--the achievement of the individual Mad pieces is relatively modest. This is not to say that Suat does not respect Kurtzman and Mad. If he didn’t, would he have included this sentence in his article?

Harvey Kurtzman was undeniably a master of the form and the influence of Mad on American and European artists is inestimable.

That seems pretty laudatory to me. Eddie, though, only sees Suat’s call for perspective, and he interprets it as a dismissal of Kurtzman and Mad altogether. He mischaracterizes Suat’s position with this rhetorical question: “Since we already have Aristophanes, who needs Kurtzman?” He then goes on to sneer at Suat as a haughtily pretentious snob, one who “while[s] away his lunch hour with the immortals on Parnassus.” Eddie seems entirely oblivious to the fact that the claptrap he appears to have unquestioningly swallowed--that comics are “on a par with Literature”--is what Suat was actually criticizing, at least relative to the EC comics line.

Moving back to the more general aspects of Eddie’s argument, he claims that we “Literaries” are demanding that comics be evaluated in a way that excludes consideration of their pictorial content. All we’re interested in are the words. Um, wow. That’s a straw man if there ever was one. If Eddie or anyone else can point to a critic in our cohort who has argued that the pictures in a comic aren’t at least as important a textual element as the verbal matter, I welcome the link.

But Eddie doesn’t really develop that line of attack. Which is probably for the best, as it’s completely ridiculous. He just shifts gears to claim that we “Literaries” have an inappropriate preoccupation with evaluating comics as stories. We’re applying “irrelevant criteria” by doing so. In Eddie’s view, the proper criteria are those that celebrate isolated flourishes without regard to the greater whole. And he provides examples: the sophisticated temporal construction of a single-image sex gag by Harvey Kurtzman; the energetic design of a costumed-character fight sequence by Jack Kirby; the gritty detail of a Jack Davis panel depicting a dead soldier slumped over his machine gun. For Eddie, the strength or weakness of the larger narratives these incidental bits contribute to is not germane. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Eddie feels the only purpose of the larger narratives is to give the cartoonists an excuse for showing some flash.

That’s right, folks. If you’re reading a comic for the overarching story, and judge it by how effectively it tells that story, or even to what extent that story is worth telling at all, then in the view of Eddie Campbell (and Dan Nadel and Kim Thompson and Jeet Heer and Tom Spurgeon and Heidi MacDonald and numerous others), you’re reading and judging it wrong.

Part of me just wants to point to Eddie's article and its reception among the comics-cultist crowd as Exhibit A as to why none of these people should be taken seriously by anyone outside the subculture. They’re of course entitled to their enjoyments, but they are so preoccupied with their abstruse little fixations that they seem completely divorced from the impulse that guides people to becoming audiences for cartoonists and other storytellers in the first place. The reason I can’t entirely dismiss the essay is because I’ve seen similar arguments in a field outside of comics, where they've been around for six decades and don't appear to be going away. They can be found in film criticism, where they are a key part of the so-called auteur theory.

For those not familiar with it, the auteur theory has its roots in the criticism François Truffaut wrote before becoming a filmmaker himself. Andrew Sarris popularized the aesthetic in the United States during the 1960s. It is frequently misunderstood as an argument that the director should always be considered the author of the film. What Truffaut and Sarris were actually arguing was more or less the opposite. In their view, the director is not always the author of the film. With some films the screenwriter should be considered the author, or an actor should be considered the author, and so on. The best films, though, are directors’ films, which are films where the directors do not subordinate themselves to the screenplays. They instead use the screenplay as a taking off point for their own vision. In practice, as Pauline Kael noted, this amounted to "shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots" (I Lost It at the Movies, p. 303). From the standpoint of an auteur critic, writer-directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and Stanley Kubrick (until Barry Lyndon) were second-rate filmmakers. They were concerned with realizing their screenplays as best they could, rather than using the scripts as a starting point for something else. A first-rate film director was someone such as John Ford or Howard Hawks, for whom the screenplays, at least in the eyes of the auteur critics, were beside the point. (Contemporary auteur-critic favorites include Joe Wright, Clint Eastwood, and Andrew Dominik.)

Sarris trumpeted the rise of the auteur theory as the burgeoning triumph of visual aesthetic values over literary ones. In a laudatory 1963 review of the Otto Preminger film The Cardinal, he declared:
The primarily visual critics will hail it and the primarily literary critics will deplore it. […] If I side with the visual critics on Preminger, it is because we are in the midst of a visual revolution which the literary establishment is apparently ignoring if not actively resisting (Confessions of a Cultist, p. 111).

Sarris’s contemporary Dwight Macdonald, who had no use for the auteur theory, didn’t think much of The Cardinal. In his view, it was “stupid,” “in dubious taste,” and “trashy” (On Movies, pp. 155-156). His rejoinder to Sarris’s declaration was especially memorable:
I promise to cease my resistance to the Visual Revolution, turn in my membership card in the Literary Establishment, and consider all future works of Mr. Preminger entirely in ocular terms--20/20 critical vision--as soon as he gives us a movie without plot or dialogue (p. 157).

With that, Macdonald pretty much sums up my feelings about the critical attitudes of Eddie and his fellow travelers. When a cartoonist gives us a comic without a story--Andrei Molotiu’s work is a good example--I’ll be happy to discuss it entirely in terms of its visuals. But if, like Kirby or Kurtzman or even Eddie Campbell, the cartoonist is presenting us with a story, I’m going to treat the visuals as part of a means to an end which happens to be that story’s realization. And one of the first questions I’m going to ask is how well it has rewarded my engagement relative to other comics, and work in other media as well. If Eddie considers that “inappropriate criteria,” that’s his problem, not mine.

There is a certain irony about Eddie’s piece. I cannot think of another English-language cartoonist who has done more to translate literary form and technique into comics terms. With “Graffiti Kitchen,” he did a superb job of realizing the comics equivalent of the personal essay à la Henry Miller; the interplay of exposition, absurdist commentary, and the evolving tropes that unify the material are nothing less than masterful. The Fate of the Artist, to pick another example, just as brilliantly incorporates strategies derived from postmodern literary theory. From Hell, "The Birth Caul," and "Snakes and Ladders," his collaborations with Alan Moore, certainly appear to be trying to compete with literary work on literary work's terms. “The Literaries,” as Eddie calls us, would seem the natural audience for his comics, and several contributors at The Hooded Utilitarian, including myself, consider his material, both on his own and with Alan Moore, among their favorite comics of all. One would think we’d be the last critics he would attack.

In closing, I suppose Eddie is like François Truffaut, whose filmmaking efforts were often far removed from his critical attitudes. In films such as The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and The Wild Child, he didn’t treat the story material as a springboard for something else; he engaged with his content and realized it with an extraordinary richness. Dwight Macdonald, thinking of the chasm between Truffaut’s criticism and his better films, once wrote, “I prefer him as a director” (On Movies, p. 305). My attitude towards Eddie is much the same: I prefer him as a cartoonist.

Notes: The article prompted some reasonably engaging comments during its original publication. Those can be read here. A post by Matthias Wivel, written partially in response to this essay, also rates attention. Click here. The comments on that post are worthwhile as well.

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