Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A call to arms

If you haven't caught it yet, Rolling Stone did an interview with Grant Morrison (as Devon amusingly put it on Facebook "Well, they're only 20+ years too late but Rolling Stone finally "discovers" Grant Morrison.") The online sidebar is a "deleted scenes" grouping of questions and answers that didn't make it into the print version.

Within contains this juicy tidbit regarding the fact that some think superheroes need to disappear from comics altogether to be relevant:

I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it's unhelpful to all of us, and it's coming from people who have money and success to talk like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the others, and it's indefensible.

So I never liked that stuff, I always thought that I had a real Scottish working class thing against the fact that these were done by privileged American college kids, and they were telling me the world was flat. "You're telling me the world is flat, pal?" And it's not helpful, it doesn't get us anywhere.

Will this be the point where the shit really hits the fan, placing a further dividing line between the alternative and the mainstream? Morrison was one of the few crossover voices between the two worlds, in terms of the people who wish to only see comics as an art form and the people who generally like it for entertainment. Morrison's rather epic brain stimulated the art-crowd-kids ("the ACK") in a way few other genre writers do, and his books were routinely the few mainstream works that would penetrate the ACK best-of lists over the years. I imagine there is already a plethora of message boards, blogs, tweets, websites rallying against what Morrison says here. My main bone of contention would be that a lot of these ACK never went to college, and also that a great many of them aren't American. There's a lot of them in Canada too. I see them all over the place here in Toronto, many of them taking after the Crumb aesthetic of what a starving ACK comic artist should look like, so they're easy to spot.

I also don't think most of them are all that rich, which I'm sure he's going to get shat on for generalizing. Perhaps he should. But he's going to have a huge target on his back, or perhaps in the middle of his brow like Bullseye.

Back to the point, is it an elite viewpoint to say that superhero comics are irrelevant? Yeah, it is. To say that any genre is inherently without merit smacks of elitism. The general attitude Science Fiction was saddled with for decades, or marginalizing Fantasy up until Lord of the Rings went from being juvenile to phenomenon. Like Star Trek did at addressing certain issues in the 1960's via metaphor, superheroes frequently have that same capability to transcend the sheer entertainment value. Entertainment is so often the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

That said, I'm not sure I fully get the gist of Morrison's comment, and really what he's calling Ware and his ilk out on? He states:

My book wasn't academic. I can't take on those Comics Journal guys, they flattened me, as they did, it's just defensive, smartass kids.

So is he upset with those that see comics only as an academic exercise, who only look at the material produced as inferior and beneath their time or attention. Is he basically pointing out the same kind of ACK snobbery that some people have towards cinema, the foreign film goers versus the Hollywood plebs, or the indie music scenesters who immediately dismiss anything that broaches the mainstream? Is he upset with exclusivity, because I don't think he's just upset that TCJ gave his book a bad review (sounds actually like he could care less).

I think the Art Crowd Kids, the ones producing very insular, very depressed little books about their own narrow, self-marginalized lives, I think many of those artists and writers simply reject the mainstream in advance of the mainstream rejecting them. Look at Marvel's Strange Tales collections, with indie and alternative writers/artists providing their own vision for Marvel's characters. You have to think so many of the ACK really do want to write/draw superheroes but just don't fit the mold, so to speak. In that way, I think a lot of the ACK's downplay of the mainstream stems from that fear of getting ostracized or having their fragile egos further demeaned. I should note I'm saying none of this in a derogatory fashion, there are plenty of damaged and broken people out there and the ones that are fortunate enough to learn how to express it creatively, through art, music, comedy, etc often produce something that is rewarding, influential, meaningful and helpful to plenty of others through the curing powers of the shared experience. Then again, there are those that say that dwelling in one's self to the point of mental illness is a form of elitism and entitlement, a by-product of socialist societies and the corruption of primal survival instinct. But I digress.

As a regular reviewer of comics for the past 7 years, I've tried, heartily and often, to embrace the entire medium, but I still trend towards genre works, seeking out the cream of escapism rather than sinking into the morass of the alternative world of comics. The books I tend to review the highest, however, are genre books that do more than tell a story, they have an emotional, social, or political contingent to them, sometimes subversively, others overtly, though I'll also rate highly a book where the story fails but the art succeeds, so I'm not beyond looking at things strictly for the art of it.

There shouldn't be an "us versus them" debate in comics. There's enough crossover material on either side that people, even if they're preferential to one or the other, could find something to enjoy. Shitting on one or the other, as a collective perpetuates an old, fruitless argument that further minimizes the medium as a whole.

(NB. Morrison said a lot more that deserves commentary but I wanted to try and stay on topic here.)

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