Posted by: Jeff Lester on September 27, 2007
This essay is about failure. Specifically, it’s a response to Abhay’s brilliant review of Dr. 13: Architecture & Mortality by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, a review which also–among other things–is about failure: specifically, the failure of the “nostalgicore” genre (Brian Nicholson’s term, not Abhay’s; Abhay just defined the genre and called for a “core” name) to prevent the growing coarseness of the mainstream comics industry; the failure of an online critic to critique a shitty comic without contributing to the buzz behind it; and, most damningly–if I’m interpreting his final paragraphs correctly–the failure of those opposed to current trends in the U.S. to present any sort of dissent worth noticing, and/or the failure of the U.S. media to notice such dissent, such that the “don’t tase me, bro” dude becomes a brief symbol of so much that’s wrong with this country (which if I had to enumerate would be: police brutality, absurd attentionwhoreishness , the inability of most of the Internet to process anything other than ironically, and the brevity of the public attention span so that such things are dismissed as tired before they’re ever truly dealt with).
My essay about failure will cover all of the above and also, apparently, my failure to write a short, succinct sentence. Also covered will be my failure to organize my essay coherently, and this failure will actually take the visual form of three centered asterisks, like this:
So when you see three centered asterisks, you can rest assured I am acknowledging my own failure to properly organize my essay.
First, I think it’s pretty obvious that we truly live in a golden age of complaining. The Internet, email, cell phones, talk radio–I can complain about something within seconds of it happening to me, if not to my wife then to my Twitter network, or the people on the message boards to which I belong. And let me tell you, I am not complaining about the complaining: I am incredibly grateful for all the many outlets open for my endless kvetching, whining and fitful tirade making. If you think about it, back in, I dunno, the ’80s, the only people who were able to complain openly and at great length nearly anywhere were sports fans. My father, a lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers, did nothing but complain about that team until, thanks to Joe Montana, they suddenly became a championship team which pleased my dad but disappointed me: now that he couldn’t complain about them, I talked with him that much less.
And this is my first point in response to Abhay’s essay: when he says, “People who care about how charmless and talentless DCU comics in the present are? Stopped reading them, or at least I’d hope they have as that’s clearly the most rational response,” it seems to me to miss some very important point about human nature–or rather, it doesn’t offer a consideration of human nature to superhero comic book fans we tend to offer to fans of other interests. No one but the most beleaguered domestic partner ever says to the complaining sports fan, “Well, if you’re so disgusted with the way the [insert your favorite sports team here] are playing, why do you still follow them?” Interestingly, the response to that question would likely be the same: either, “You wouldn’t understand,” or, if the person responding was being candid, “Because I’ve been a following them since I was little kid.”
It’s what kind of drives me crazy about some of the crosstalk about superhero comics on the Internet: people are considered foolish for blindly following X-Men or Batman or Superman from the time they were little to the present, but is it really any more foolish than those dudes who go to football games painted blue and spend insane amounts of money on autographs and jerseys and box seats? It’d be nice if we could retire the idea that rationality should be applied to comic book fandom , the same way no one ever expects a sports fan to be rational about their favorite team or their favorite sport. It’d also be nice if the public at large complained about superhero fans being idiots for their passion as rarely as they do about sports fans.
I am also particularly fond of the superhero/sports team analogy because it allows some quick and easy ways to sum up long-time superhero comic book readers (some fans follow the team, and some fans follow the players, which means two fans can have utterly different experiences while watching exactly the same game) and in part because it allowed me to explain what I did for so long on the Savage Critic–it wasn’t reviewing, exactly, so much as it was sports writing: people would come to the site and read reviews of books they’d already read to engage in some Monday morning quarterbacking, or to get an idea books they’d missed: finding out what had happened, so to speak, in the game they’d missed. For a very brief period, I considered writing an essay arguing that superhero comics weren’t art, they were sports, and if everyone would just stop confusing them with real art, 90% of our contentious arguments would disappear and people could talk about being fans of certain writers or illustrators without having to make the claim that those writers or illustrators were “artists.”
I also liked this idea, because it meant I could compare the direct market to those big schools I’ve read about where 80% of the funding goes to the athletic department (superheroes) and 20% went to the band (indie comics), the library (classic reprints) and the horribly underpaid, disenfranchised, potentially pervy teaching staff (Joe Matt).
Ultimately, though, I decided against it: not just because I was slandering Joe Matt for no good reason, but because there are enough examples of superhero comics as genuine art that it’d just be the grounds for another endless set of arguments. In fact, I’ll go in the opposite direction and suggest that any medium able to construct a meta-work is an art: you can have literature about literature, you can have painting about painting, you can have nostalgicore –superhero comics about superhero comics–but you cannot have a football game about a football game. So, things that are unable to discuss themselves are not art? Discuss.
Years and years ago, I read a Joseph Campbell book describing how a group of seventeenth century monks explained how, precisely, Christ’s sacrifice redeemed mankind. As I recall, it was a charming theory that suggested Christ on the cross was like bait on a hook, and his sacrifice lured Satan/Leviathan to try to ingest him, at which point God the Fisherman yanked Leviathan out of the “water,” freeing all of us from evil being able to gobble us up in the future. What struck me most about this theory is how much it sounded like the stuff of Marvel letter pages from the ’70s, where people tried for no-prizes for pointing out mistakes and then suggesting ideas that explained the mistakes: which is to say, that’s the point I realized reading superhero comic books stemmed essentially from a religious impulse. Sports fandom, comics fandom–hell, probably all fandom since the word “fan” is likely short for the word “fanatic,” deriving from a Latin word meaning “insane but divinely inspired”–stems from this impulse: the desire to belong to something bigger than oneself, and to participate in a ritual that is given power by the nature of one’s belief. Weirdly, I don’t believe sports stem from a religious impulse, but sports fandom does.
This brings us to one of the central paradoxes of religion, if you ask me–religion draws its power from the religious impulse, but it must contain the religious impulse in order to survive. There must be something that distinguishes the priests from the masses to which they administer, a closeness to something chosen as the vestment of spiritual power and, for the religion to survive, it must be the religion that defines what that thing is, not the masses. Moses and Jehovah raged against the building of the golden calf; The Catholic church burned any number of monks for heresy; the Pope decides what’s a mortal sin, not the masses. Similarly, although the sports and comics industries need their fans to survive, a contentiousness exists between the owners and fans: the DeBartolos decide where the 49ers call home, not the fans; Joe Quesada decides whether Spider-Man stays married, not the fans. (And yes, I just compared the Pope to the DeBartolo family and Joe Quesada .) Although there are other factors in the struggle–sports teams, religions, and comic companies have all proven all susceptible to the lure of short-term profits–you cannot underestimate the not-quite-conscious battle for control that occurs between the insane and divinely inspired ones and the keepers of what they covet. For desire to remain desire, it must promise satisfaction and yet must also always go, in some crucial way, unsatisfied.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. In it, Doctor 13, a man who refuses to believe in anything supernatural or irrational, no matter what evidence is presented to him, finds himself joining forces with a number of wildly unbelievable allies–a ghost pirate, a vampire, an intelligent caveboy, and a talking Nazi gorilla, among others–on a quest to meet The Architects: not their makers, but rather their unmakers , the men who will remove Doctor 13 and his companions from reality. In the end, Doctor 13 is able to defeat The Architects by refusing to believe in their power, but he is unable to defeat an even greater force–the readers–who in the end remove the good Doctor from reality by reaching the end of the book. And I guess this is the second point in response toAbhay’s essay: the conclusion to his review is, “I enjoyed Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality— it’s a well made book. But seeing talented people spit in the wind– it’s talented spit, but my point is the wind’s a motherfucker. Basically. That’s my point.” For me, the end of Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality suggests Azzarello and Chiang seem perfectly aware of this in a way other creators of nostalgiacore are not: in Doctor 13, the needs of the reader do destroy these characters, even if not in the way Abhay discusses. Azzarello and Chiang, it seems to me, are spitting in the wind deliberately, and for the same reasons I used to spit in the wind when I was a kid: to see if I could get it to hit the people next to me (in my case, my younger brothers; in Azzarello and Chiang’s case, the four writers of 52) and in doing so amuse myself.
This sense of self-amusement, something that usually frustrates me in Azzarello’s work (I never feel half as delighted with his writing as he seems to be) works startlingly well here, perhaps because the self-awareness that manifests itself in all the puns, visual gags, and relentless verbal slapstick, is par for the course in a work of metacommentary. Although I would’ve recommended this work just for the splendor of Cliff Chiang’s artwork and Patricia Mulvihill’s colors, I’m happy to report Azzarello’s in fine form here. But I do wonder if, like Moore, Morrison, Waid & Ross or other Nostalgicore creators, he actually feels for the state of current affairs where goofy characters are conveniently excised, or if he’s merely having a laugh. Certainly this quote from the last part of the Azzarello and Chiang’s multipart cross-platform interview:
Well, I’m not into comics as much as you think. But I am into music. I needed to spill my love for something into this book to make it work. So I used music. I guess I needed to honestly geek out, to be able to get that geek out of the readers. Who knows why we love what we love?
suggests that, like Doctor 13, his scorn for the Architects comes more from pragmatism (how’s a writer who doesn’t much care about standard superheroes continue to find work when everything that’s not a standard superhero is being taken away?) and obstinate rationality (a talking Nazi gorilla isn’t more absurd than a guy in long underwear who flies and fights crime–they’re both equally absurd) than the sort of mad love that drives Grant Morrison or Alan Moore to bemoan the fate of Animal Man or Mandrake the Magician. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, mind you, but I think it’s worth noting how Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality distinguishes itself from Pictopia or Flex Mentallo.
By the way, I want to say I agree with what K.L. Anderson points out in the comments, that Abhay’s review of Dr. 13: Architecture & Mortality is quite possibly the best thing posted here on the Savage Critic, and all of my points (which so far seem to disagree with Abhay’s) aren’t a dismissal of that work. In fact, I was so incredibly energized by that essay (and also the section of this entry from Dick Hyacinth that discusses it), I wanted to respond. Just making that clear, before I go on to mangle more of my points, and perhaps pick more at his fine piece of work. Please remember that, as the kids today say, it really knocked me on mykeister.
Ironically, for someone that just spent a few hundred words defending the rights of people to continue buying and bitching about superhero books they’re not happy with, I’m a huge proponent of walking away from superhero books for large periods of time. From 1989 to 1992, when I was living in Los Angeles, I shopped at Golden Apple every month and bought nearly nothing of a superheroic nature. I mean, I bought Doom Patrol, Sandman, and a few other Vertigo titles, but I couldn’t care less about the Marvel books (this was during the rise of the Image artists) and was incredibly indifferent to DC (this was when everyone was dying and having their back broken, I think?). I mean, there may have been some titles I followed (I remember picking up that second Legends of the Dark Knight arc because Grant Morrison wrote it) but for the most part? I stayed away from superhero books. There just wasn’t anything interesting.
Apart from causing some blind spots in my knowledge later when I worked the counter at CE (people would ask about Darkhawk and I would just stare at them blankly), this presented no problems with me at all. Fantagraphics was on a roll, not only with Love & Rockets (which I’ve followed from way back), but Bagge and Clowes moved from Neat Stuff and Lloyd Llewellyn to Hate and Eightball, respectively, which were tremendous improvements. I picked up an issue of Arcade that finally–FINALLY–made me “get” Crumb: since I realized I loved his middle to late period work, I slowly bought up a collection of Weirdo which turned me on to other artists. Julie Doucet and Chester Brown. There was plenty of stuff to keep me coming to the comic book store, and my knowledge and love for the form grew.
I’ll be honest. I’m kind of at that point again: I brought home twelve comic books from CE last week, only seven of which were superhero books (and this was, frankly, from two weeks worth of releases) and none of which I’ve yet read. But I also bought (and read) the Doctor 13 trade, and Confessions of a Blabbermouth, and Hitoshi Iwaaki’s amazing Parasyte, and Fumi Yoshinaga’s Flower of Life. My passion for manga, which started out a few years back as a mixture of curiosity and embarrassment (I was mortified I could work in a comic book store and have such a huge amount of ignorance about such a fast-growing part of the market), is keeping me coming back to the store the same way that next issue of Eightball or Dirty Plotte or Weirdo did when I was in L.A. And just as I read Doom Patrol and Animal Man and Sandman and what have you, I’m still picking up Iron Fist and Ultimate Spider-Man and the modern day equivalent of what have you.
I figure some time will pass and more superhero books will come out that I care about. I’m fine for when that happens. But I thought it important to say to those who would care to hear it (and I know this is mostly preaching to the converted at this point) that it can actually be kind of a relief to leave the religion in the hands of the money-changers and see where else you can find your passion. In some ways, it was easier back in the ’90s because the alternative market still mimicked the superhero market, and Bagge and Clowes and Brown published more than annually, but there’s such an amazing backlog of material out there now, it’s not going to be that hard to find something. And maybe it’s time to look, for reasons I hope to explain below.
Because there is another reason we complain, apart from the spiritual component to which I alluded earlier. In the same way that hope is an admission of present misery, a complaint is an expression of powerlessness: someone who complains is either powerless to change something, or chooses not to change something (an abdication of power). The complaining on the Internet and elsewhere about seemingly everything is an expression of powerlessness, which is part of why I think Americans are probably bigger complainers now then we’ve ever been: no matter how we vote, no matter what we say we want, no matter what we do, we’ve reached a point where things aren’t changing. It doesn’t matter how mad people get about health care in this country, about voter fraud, about special interests and lobbyists and soft money and corporate interests and media spinelessness: it’s not going to change because the people with the money don’t want it to, and as long as they have the money in the banks, and the legislators in their pocket, and the media in their corner, we can’t really do dick about it, other than (a) something stupid and near-meaningless, or (b) something utterly ineffectual, like bitch.
(To clarify that first option, I remember when the first big protests against the Iraq War started up here in San Francisco and how stupid it seemed: I couldn’t imagine anything that would amuse the Republicans in power more than San Francisco shutting itself down. Until we can work out the kinks in the whole “Think Globally, Riot Locally” program, I’d say dissent is probably gonna stay a big old problem here in the U.S.)
I think this is part of the reason why Abhay’s review hit me so powerfully: I can feel that link between Nostalgicore and the Countdown to Infinite Crisis Special and the “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” guy: John Kerry didn’t do anything other than let an annoying attention whore get tased for the same reason the creators of Nostalgicore can write eulogies for their beloved characters but can’t revive them–powerlessness. And Abhay complained, and we responded, about a very shitty comic because it gives us a feeling of power although that feeling is itself an expression of powerlessness. And that powerlessness is what we feel when we get frustrated with “the buzz.”
Which is why I think maybe those who find ourselves bitterly complaining about superhero books should, if that’s the case, try something else for a while–to see if I’m wrong. Maybe we don’t complain about everything as a way to blow off steam over our ultimate powerlessness in the face of our crazy-ass culture; that, just as BrianAzzarello decided to spit into the wind at the publishing company behind him, maybe it’s just god-damned fun to do so. (There are times when this is god-damned fun, certainly.)
Or maybe we’re just so god-damned spoiled and entitled that a terrible issue of Amazing Spider-Man seems like an exemplar of everything that’s wrong in the world today?
Or maybe we recognize how wrong and flat and fake “Don’t tase me, bro” sounds and we highlight that by putting it in a remix of an M.C. Hammer song?
Or maybe desire, in order to remain desire, must always in some crucial way go unsatisfied, and it’s just easier now than it’s ever been to express the frustration that results from our mostly-thwarted passion. In some ways, it would be comforting for me to think that?
But maybe we’re getting on our computers every night and throwing the revolution we cannot have–not against the oppressors we cannot see and cannot name (in the same way Doctor 13 cannot see or name his readers), but against their easier-to-face analogues: the Architects who hold our superheroes and our superstars and our season passes from us. After all, the flames of spiritual passion are frequently fanned by material causes, and perhaps we find ourselves playing out our passions where people without recourse have chosen throughout history to play out their passions and desires–in the stories and struggles of mythical creatures, those mostly-imaginary beings we dimly recognize, in some unacknowledged corner of our hearts, as gods.
And if we turned away from them, and the passion remained, we might know.