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July 16, 2004


Kip Manley

And here I am, dreading the cotton-candy sludge of sex-and-death that will o'erwhelm me in less than a week, when I end up in the San Diego Convention Center for, you know, Comic-Con, and you write this and warm my heart toward the whole endeavor once more. (Not sure whether to thank or curse you, though. Friggin' comicbooks.)

Anyway: what you want is Shorter Views, and the essay in there is "The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism," which is mostly the best and most serious attempt to engage McCloud and Understanding Comics that anyone's yet written. But: here's the money shot to the aforementioned anecdote. Delany's speaking with Julius Schwartz, years after the fact, about the kid who wrote the great Batman script on spec, and this is what Julie has to say:

But, frankly, what we need are writers who have just turned in a wonderful, poetic, brilliant script with a downbeat ending, who, when an administrative decision comes from upstairs that all our stories have to have upbeat endings from now on, will throw that downbeat ending out and substitute a gloriously happy, feel-good ending, sacrificing everything of worth in the story—and who will do it without batting an eye. Like I say: craft.

And now I'm once more cynical and bitter about the whole thing, and I don't know whether to curse or thank Delany. —There's a lot of other good essays in there, too; the only real clunker is the puff-piece on Gaiman, though some of the interviews with Delany get a bit repetitive. —Pick up Longer Views while you're at it. Good stuff.


"Okay, at this point, the Spider-Man books were in danger of becoming like that old Marx Brothers movie where everyone was running around dressed like Groucho."

Timothy Burke

OOO, teh shiney. Where to start? (Much more fun than the mess about Michael Moore you've ensnared me in over at CT, you fiend.)

What I'm thinking about with the embrace of the extraordinary is what I think Moore and Morrison have both done very well at times, to make the superhero less stupid by undertaking rather Tolkienesque world-creation and effectively seceding their versions of various superheroic characters from the normal company continuity and putting them in a world where the entirety of life makes superheroes less studpid. Essentially they change the rules for what it is to be human in those worlds, they change the nature of culture and history, and so on. So in a Moore or Morrison standard-superhero story (Busiek, Bendis and a few others do this as well), putting on a costume and forming supergroups and all that makes as much sense as being a dwarf with a grudge against orcs in Middle-Earth. Virtually all speculative fictions are "stupid" in some sense, particularly those that are situated within a world that is meant to have a mimetic resemblance to the one we inhabit. But you achieve "realism" here in one of two ways: either by conforming the speculative fiction to a kind of performative quotation of the excluded "real"--as, say, cyberpunk fiction or Bendis' Powers or Alias do, or certain Batman stories have over the years, or you do it by making the unreality of the world synchronous with the characters who inhabit it, as I think Moore and Morrison have often done.

One of the reasons that the basic problem grates on me is the fetish-object of continuity and its place in comic-book narrative after 1980 or so. One book I like a lot--until recently--has been the variously-titled version of Batman based on the Paul Dini Warner Bros. cartoons. It just told stories in a kind of timeless non-continuity way, no fears about what happened yesterday or what have you. (Now for some reason they've decided to give the book an internal continuity, bad idea.) But in the rest of mainstream comics-land, continuity is a central structure of storytelling, which you note is what produced Crisis on Infinite Earths and its various bastard children.

I think for me, I'd be happy if DC and Marvel just took everything and went the "who cares about continuity" route, just let each writer and artist do "their" version of a character--which is on some books and some moments already close to the practice, OR if they went full-tilt Tolkien and engaged in serious world-creation, with all the fetishistic labor it requires. In that latter case, then yeah, I do think you need to do what Moore and Morrison do, and synchronize the unreality of the world with the unreality of the characters.


Excellent post, but I am not sure I understand all your argument.

1 Moore says an ending or resolution would be more aesthetically meaningful for superheroes because superheroes are like mythical heroes.

2 You claim that myths do not have resolution and that therefore Moore's thesis is flawed because real myths are "bricolage", dream-like improvisations and "bricolesque" and do not have "resolutions"

I don't see why.

Myths had resolutions. The bricolage only means that some contingent or irrelevant elements can be grafted into the myth to achieve its meaning. Mythologies are always since Alexandrine catalogs ordered around the resolutions of the heroes.

I don't see why you say that they are always evolving (this almost sounds like some Derridean myth...). Heracles die on his pyre. You can still use Heracles and say he married Hebe but his death (and all the elements around it, like Philoctetes'arrows) is essential to his myth. I believe Moore is right (although he supports your point of view in Top Ten #7 where Loki kills Balder every day).

But it is true that in Superman's case, his whole identity is more focused on his origin than on his (unlikely) demise.


I think what Moore dislikes about myth and Scott claims is imperative to mytholgy is that the hero is forever in a bookended stasis, suspended between an origin they can never avoid (as that would relegate them to merely mortal status) and a conclusion that is forever just out of reach (as that would relegate the mythic cycle to littl emore than a collection of vignettes; which is hardly cyclical). This would put the mythic cycle of superheros squarely in the Dreamwork catagory, though very likely a subgenre unto themselves.

For my next trick, I will catagorize Romance novel nomenclatures. Library school is getting to me...

Doctor Memory

...the great superheros of the depression era will fall into the public domain...

Well yeah, except that that's not ever going to happen. Two years ago, Congress retroactively extended copyright by another 20 years, because some early Disney characters (a mouse or something) were in danger of falling into the public domain. In 16 years, when the clock is close to running out again, they will do it again, with the Supreme Court's blessing. Superman will remain the trademark and copyright of AOL-Time-Warner forever and ever, amen.



Sometimes when I try to read these really long posts, I eventually find myself thinking, "I sure hope John already has tenure, or else he's going to have a hard time explaining what he's been doing when he's not been writing articles for journals. That's a bit mean, but really, was this worth this much time? And anyway, isn't it obvious that, say, that a big part of what made Watchmen or Sandman so much better than most comics was that they had an end?

Kip Manley

"Better" in what sense? As a single, coherent work? Well, a single coherent work will always be better as a single, coherent work than a never-ending, multivocal bricaresque. (I am so stealing that word. Also, "eschatonnage.")

Colby Cosh

It seems kind of obvious to me. And isn't "picaresque bricolage" just a Latinate linguistic dodge that conceals the disorganization and incoherence of what you're discussing while pretending to address it frankly?

Timothy Burke

I think John is right that Alan Moore is not really meaning "myth" when he says myth. Like John, I'd say that myths in fact do *not* typically have endings or require closure. The Norse myths are unusual in that respect. It's a rather Judeo-Christian-Muslim expectation of "myth", that they should have a linear character. What I think Moore is saying that *stories* are better if they have closure--substitute "narrative" for "myth" in what he says and I'd say it's a pretty fair statement on his part, and one I sort of agree with.


Well, if superheros are embodied archtypes, who depend on their degree of attachment to archtype and their public attention for the extent of their powers, then you would get superheros (and villians) very much like WWF characters.

Further, you would tend to imprison rather than kill supervillians in order to attempt to contain the archtype rather than let it roam free to reform or condense around another.

Origin stories are mythic events, not scientific ones, gadgets are focuses for power, not sources of it (just magical talismans constructed according to the rules of our age) and while archtype character a may teleport, he does so by a form of mythic event, not technology that can be shared, regardless of the appearance.

The conflicts of superheros then become more or less an ongoing WWF style reflection of society, with real consequences mind you rather than staged ones (i.e. people do die, especially non-archtypes, buildings do get destroyed, etc.).

If the power scale is constrained (which comics and Star Trek both learn to do -- after all Spiderman is satisfying, even if he is not world altering, the Justice League TV Comic has depowered Superman and he seems better for it) then a superhero is not much more of an artifact for world change than WWF characters would be if they were real instead of actors in spandex.

You can do a complete world this way that is consistent, that works within the genre (when is the last time a professional wrestler did not have a costume or a sthick?), and that allows for story after story much like any other soap opera for young men.




des von bladet

1) Obviously, as Dr M says, the copyright boundary separates pre-Mouse and post-Mouse, and always will.

2) The Dollman story reminds me of Eos

She made the mistake of fancying ARES, which was the cause of the curse, and had to make do with a mortal husband, TITHONUS. The shame of it. She pleaded with ZEUS to grant him immortality, but forgot about the ageism clause. So poor TITHONUS just got older and older and increasingly withery.

Eventually the Gods took pity and he is now a cicada.

3) Your usage of Lévi-Strauss is either disingenuous or just plain bad. Bricolage means that you use whatever comes to hand, but there are very strong constraints on what you use it _for_. "The structural study of myth" (in _Structural Anthropology I_) is very much more to the point, and hardly supports your endorsement of golden/silver-age kludgery as a way of sustaining infinite plots.

4) Since the work of Parry and Lord on the orality of the Homerian epics, is it really so clear that the H-ster was up to things especially other than oral bardicity with added writing?

5) I think the bardic/oral traditions invoked by Parry, Lord and Scott Martens are much worse analogies of comics then or now than Scott and you suggest. The canon of stories is more-or-less fixed (or at least, innovation in producing canonisable plot is not at the centre of the bard's practice). What changes in an oral context is precisely the context of the story-telling - an oral society doesn't _and can't_ produce immutable classic versions, which is strictly a text idea, and would not dream of objecting "That story has already been told!". The (oh, all right, a) central fact of an oral tradition is the necessity of retelling, and even (perhaps especially) distinguishing with myths that have more important goals than being good yarns, the oldest Elder can rework the myth at not-quite-will, in a way that isn't quite the same as a comics retcon.

Have you read Ong's _Orality and Literacy_? You don't mention it at all, and you certainly should - it arguably offers a framework in which to attempt a genealogy of the concept of "fiction".

There was also an interesting article on the political use of retellings of myth in the recent _Nouvel Observateur_ hors-série dedicated to L-S, but I mention this largely by way of showing off.

6) I didn't read the whole post very carefully. (It is very long!) If I missed important counters to any of my objections, I shall continue to blame you for writing so much that I didn't spot them. So there.

Kip Manley

But superhero stuff is constantly re-told. Over and over and over again, in the books, with the origins revisited, the first battle with this villain or that, whether in flashbacks or Very Special Issues or kickass superstar limited series, and this element or that or the other is picked up and tweaked and made the new focus (watch Mrs. Wayne's pearls when she gets shot, again and again and again). It gets retold again when you port it to TV or the movies. And then the comics crew, working under deadline pressure, theft no object (since it's all done by the Company, and the Company can't plaigiarize itself) lifts whatever they like and folds it back in like good bricoleurs. Whatever's to hand.

The canon is more-or-less fixed in superhero comics: Jean Grey will always die and come back; Batman will always find a kid sidekick to keep him from tumbling over the deep end; if Gwen Stacy has to be cloned to return, so be it: she must be lost again. (When they violate this canon, when Peter Parker shapes up and marries the supermodel, when Clark Kent becomes a suave anchorman, it feels wrong, it's a violation, and stories bend themselves out of shape to get back where they want, implacably, to be.) There's an illusion of definite forward motion imposed by continuity, but it's a shredded, haggard, threadbare illusion, maintained only by collective force of fundamental will. Their seeming linearity is like that of a spring stretched into a wire: all sorts of weird kinks spring up, and the potential backlash energy is enormous. Better to coil it back up and start again. Ultimate Spider-Man! Untold Origins! X-Men #0! With a chromium cover!

But I'm descending into analogy and rhetoric on too-little coffee. The basic point: the notion that superhero comics storytelling produces immutable classic versions is a fundamental misreading of superhero comics storytelling. Trade paperback collections and rabid mylar-sleeved fandom aside, this stuff was always disposable, and economics always imposed a disposable mindset on those that told the writers what to write and the cartoonists what to draw. (It's gotten better, but old habits cling to their deathbed yet.) In that sense, it's a lot like oral mythmaking and storytelling, for all that it's printed on paper, and for all that there's moldering flatfiles full of canon to pillage.

des von bladet

My point is rather that comics exhibit a tension between the literary and oral models. The literariness is precisely what allows the accumulation of sludge than Timothy Burke describes. It is when they discard this (Busieks' _Marvels_, the Spider-man movies, other comics origin rehashes not involving John Byrne) that they are often most compelling.

Projects like Watchmen, Astro-City, Moore's ABC line, Warren Ellis's Planetary, and the other team which's name escapes me are also really doing this (with great success), with tweakages as required to avoid copyright issues, whereas the Official Universes often seem to be running on fumes.

When comics retell their essential stories; when they revert to the techniques of oral story-telling; when they achieve, which is to say, a sort of _mythic_ quality, they can achieve greatness.

When they attempt infinite prolongment of plot, they risk drowning in sludge; when they adopt instead a soap-operatic monthly clock-resetting they risk banality (but only risk it, as the excellent Batman Adventures showed).


I mean to make some long comments in response but I don't really have the time. (As Matt says, I really need to be working on something tenurable.) Let me just mention that des von bladet has more than half a point about Levi-Strauss and Homer. Part of my problem is that I just don't buy L-S's theory of myths. (But if I am quoting him, that is a good thing to mention.) There is something right about calling the sort of thing that goes on in the linked article about the silly Spider-Man story 'bricolage', because it's a matter of making do with what's at hand. But that's sort of loose, I admit. (I sort of had in mind Rorty's use of the term. But that doesn't help either.) Anyway, the long L-S quote was unwarranted, since my usage isn't quite what L-S means, even if it fits with the whole 'veering around sudden obstacles' etymology.

And I sort of associate continuity-policing with the stage at which myths make the transition from oral to written and memories start to get longer. But I really didn't pull those threads tight. And even though I know about recent research on Homer and orality, I sort of flubbed the Homer point through sheer carelessness. Damn. Really the problem with the post is that I am most interested in what I am calling 'mock-pastoral'. I'm sort of working up an (academic!) paper on the subject. But when I wandered from that narrow platform, as I do through large swathes of the post, I sort of got sloppy.

Colby Cosh is also right to ask, in effect, whether I haven't just written almost 10,000 words saying something rather obvious about something not obviously of earth-shattering importance. This is a fair cop. Again, I think the mock-pastoral stuff is not so obvious and is worth working out.

The one sentence version of what makes superhero storytelling good might be this: horrible faults of an apparently cripplingly limited genre are transmuted into virtues without the whole thing just being parody (or nostalgic wallowing). That's quite a striking literary occurrence. The whole question is HOW it is possible. 'Myth' doesn't explain it.

Finally, as to Tim Burke's point. First, sorry, sorry about the whole CT thing. As to your point about subcreation: one of the things I am trying to work out is what makes something like Tolkien into successful subcreation? It isn't really right to say that he just assumes X, Y, and Z and then asks 'what if?' and follows it all out. That's what Clancy does (up to a point.) It's not as though Tolkien is really logical. But it isn't a dreamworks either.

Well, anyway ... more to follow when I find the time. Thanks for comments, all.

Timothy Burke

(Just kidding re: CT!)

Kip's last comment makes a point in passing that's rather significant. He maintains that archetypical continuity or character conception is a kind of thermodynamic principle in comics, that they're always going to "correct" back towards the core conception of the character.

This seems to me demonstrably wrong in that a sufficiently compelling narrative which either dramatically resituates what we already know about an iconic comics character or which adds something on that's *not* just sludge, which changes the character's status quo forever, tends to stick and hold. The caveat here is that this is entirely dependent on the quality and ballsiness of the storytelling. So if a hack like Dan Jurgens does something allegedly "daring" to a character, you can bet it won't stick. If Miller or even Claremont does, it might.

Example from Kip's own post: Phoenix. Kip says, "We know she's going to die and be reborn again and again", but the thing of it is, until Claremont's "New X-Men" we didn't know anything of the kind. Other examples: Miller's Daredevil pretty well rebooted the character forever. Tony Stark is now established firmly as an alcoholic whose suit of armor is a kind of protection against the memory of an abusive alcoholic father, but that also wasn't true for ages and ages.

This suggests to me that if comics took storytelling more seriously still, and did equally daring things with their entire worlds, engaged in world-creation seriously, some marvelous shit might happen more regularly that could carry even the hacks along for the ride.

Kip Manley

des von bladet: It would probably help if I could keep more than two paragraphs of text in my head at a time, wouldn't it. —What triggered my intemperate outburst was your paragraph (no. 5) on the limitations of the bardic/oral traditions, which synch pretty much perfectly with what I know of writing and drawing superhero comics in the industry (granted, none of that from direct experience). The comedy of that "Life of Reilly" essay sequence is watching the writers scramble to deal with the mad story-dictates of marketing and editorial (which is just pandering to the audience at a couple of removes—but those removes almost constitute a psychotic break, and these dictates are the weak point where the comparison between bullpen and campfire falters). The tragedy is watching them haul Norman Osborne from the grave because they needed a villain with sufficient gravitas, and couldn't make one themselves; the tragedy is realizing the Spider-clone was a half-assed instinctive attempt to haul Peter Parker back to his old skool wisecracking, hard-luck roots. (Great stories were told in those golden days of yore, and if we just put all the elements back on stage the way they were, somehow, well, we'll be able to tell great stories again.)

John: not to distract you or nothin', but you might find re: subcreation that a side trip into RPG theory would provide a useful focus. The Narrativist / Gamist / Simulationist split tends to make me grumpy (we are all narrativists, darn it), but it at least represents an attempt to get hold of what it is people want from subcreated worlds, and how they try to engineer them to maximize its return. (Plus, the focus thus applied has resulted in a lot of quirky-cool experimental games that would never have cropped up otherwise.) —Check out the Forge for raw material; for a more focused dose of RPGs and subcreation (from another angle), here's that Dylan Horrocks essay I've nattered on about before.

Kip Manley

Timothy: Well, there's more than one "they" at work. I think the parenthetical aside I tossed in at the last minute in the comment just prior gets at what I'm getting at best: there's a prevalent myth (in the debased sense of an untruth we all hold to be true) that Giants Walked the Earth in those Golden and Silver Days of Yore. Great stories were told. (And there were some occasional great stories. But the inherent curatorship of Time makes it all-too easy to dismiss those ageold misses and relish the golden hits.) And there's a couple of ways to deal with this nostalgie: you can honor it, cherish it, snarl at it, kick it around, punish it and bring it back for more (which is the pushme-pullyou line John's getting at, I think), or you can treat it as a secret decoder ring: it's a cookbook! If only we put everybody back onstage just like they were before, great stories will once again spring forth from the heads of committees!

And that second approach is more prevalent among editors and marketing hacks than it is among writers and cartoonists in the capecapades trade, but only just, and since writers and cartoonists still take their marching orders largely from the editors (who listen to the marketing hacks), it doesn't matter how much integrity the writers and cartoonists bring to their jobs: their jobs depend on whatever it is the company decides in its wisdom will move units.

Of course, it's hardly that simple, either. But there's only so much space here.

Ongoing continuities accrete new material: yes. Yes indeed. One of my dirty not-so-secrets is how much of a fan I am of long-form, episodic storytelling: the worlds they build almost by accident through the accretion of incident—this is fascinating stuff. And when Chris Claremont comes along and turns Marvel Girl into the Dark Phoenix, or Frank Miller shoves Matt Murdock off the edge into obsessive nastiness, or etc. and etc., well, that's the stuff we sit through all the boring newsprint for.

But in the absence of that spark, demiurges will hearken back to old stories, old rivalries, old set-ups, out of the desperate need to keep bottling that lightning. (Chris Claremont killed the Phoenix the first time, and then he brought her back, and now whenever they need a boost, boom!) Those old, ur-stories don't have a single definite shape; they change over time, with the telling and re-telling, and when flash new bits come along, they're opted-in. (I am hardly an essentialist, sir.) But that gravitational pull is nonetheless very much there.

Stephen Frug

Comments on a few (probably marginal) aspects to a marvelous essay.

First, it seems to me that -- unless I'm reading too hastily -- there is a conflation between the Superhero story as a genre and the indefinitie, open-ended serial as a form, which is just as misleading as conflating comics as a medium with the Superhero story as a genre. It is the combination of all three that leads to many of the pernicious effects noted above; and it's worth noting that one of the things that both Miller's Dark Knight and Moore's Watchmen ditched in their remaking of the superhero was the indefinite, open-ended serial -- Miller by writing an ending, Moore by writing a self-contained narrative. At any rate, these might be worth keeping apart.

Secondly, in reaction to this: "As Burke correctly notes, the real trouble for superhero storytelling comes from so many events of such cosmic proportions generating no real change, let alone development, let alone progress, let alone revelation or epiphany. 'Reed Richards may invent things that would completely, utterly change the world that we know, but they just sit in his headquarters, gathering dust. Superheroes may teleport to the moon or travel to the stars, but humanity just keeps taking the subway.' "
-- it's worth noting that Planetary, one of the few superhero narratives even in the running to be on a par with Moore's work as far as I'm concerned, is turning this around by making this the center of the series. The point is that Reed Richards -- he's not called that but the character is a clear trope, albeit in an evil way -- *IS* keeping technologies, etc, for the use of himself & the rest of the Four; and that's precisely what is so pernicious about him (as Snow says more or less openly in issue #6). So that Ellis has 'solved' this problem by making it precisely the center of his story.

Just a few thoughts.

Timothy Burke

Planetary is most definitely a metacommentary on the feature of serial comics storytelling that gets my goat, as it attempts to offer a world-creation explanation for why weirdness is confined to the principal protagonists, their associates, and all the things they come into contact with, and not to the world as a whole, as to why weirdness and extraordinary events are a "secret" or hidden side of experience. And the chief protagonists are trying to liberate the world from this condition, to unleash the secret wonders into the banal space of everyday experience. Which is not just a nice commentary on comic mythoi, but also a nice reversal of the usual X-Fileis/Stargate/Kolchak narrative, in which people who know are in many ways trying to protect those who do not from the secret world around them.

Julia Yogabe

i would like some feedback on the bricolage of dating with flash email on your cell phone.
what does it all mean anyways?

Steven Roach

checkout my political comics updated once a day

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