ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING
So, superhero's, snobbery, and the limitations of the genre; the "Topic That Endures" of comics fandom. Propping up that stiff corpse this week is Tim O'Neill. His essay
is longish, and in response to Dave Fiore's earlier comments
. I won't be quoting much of the essay, so go take a look at it before you read on down below.
Basically, I see two main problems with Tim's position. First, I think he makes the fairly common mistake of conflating things that bother him about the genre with objective problems with the genre, to the extent such things actually exist. Second, the categorical distinctions he draws are, in many and fundamental ways, at war with each other. Each of these points in turn; and I'll try to keep this post shorter than Jim Henley's take on the subject
First off, it seems pretty obvious that the structural and storytelling tics of the superhero genre are really irritating to Tim. These little stylistic twitches are so flagrant to him that he can't see past them; because he gets stuck on the stylistic tropes of the genre, such as they are, he can't get to whatever emotional or metaphorical resonance lies underneath. And this is cool, really. Not a thing wrong with that position. I mean, I can't do opera. The genre requirements that opera works within are to me terribly silly and distracting. Same for old movies (please be gentle, Mr. Fiore). The set design, the style of acting; it all seems artificial to me. And so I find watching both opera and old movies to be uninteresting; the nature of those genre's is such that I can't find the point of access that would allow both enjoyment and analysis. The difference though, between Tim and myself, is that I try not to make the error of mistaking my personal, highly idiosyncratic tastes with the world. The mere fact that I don't like opera--or that Tim can't get past Batroc ze Leepah--doesn't compel a conclusion that either opera or superhero comics are objectively, fundamentally flawed. It would be a tremendous act of ego on my part to argue that my tastes are the ones by which the world should judge its art; I'll instead settle on using my tastes merely the guides by which I
judge art. Not a one of us can make the broader claim, nor should we.
Okay, point the first out of the way. My second big problem with Tim's piece is that I think it's logic doesn't hang together. Not that it needs too, necessarily; if Tim were just saying, "hey, I don't much like these" there would be no need for logic at all. But Tim instead tries to construct a reasoned argument for the limitations of the genre, and I think he fails.
First off, he categorically states that superhero's aren't interesting, then later recants and says, sure, there have been some intelligent and thought provoking work done with them. So, his original position is wrong. It's not that all superhero's are uninteresting, but that most, perhaps the vast majority, of superhero books aren't. Okay. Fair enough. So why does this illustrate a failure of the genre versus a failure of the marketplace? Why is his essay about why the genre sucks instead of about ways the marketplace makes the genre suck?
Tim does take a backhanded swipe at the market; the by now standard routine, patented I think by Warren Ellis, of "Servicing the Trademarks." And if Tim were simply making the typical STT claims--that publishers don't want interesting work that hurts the trademark, that artists are better off working on things they own--well, that'd be fine. I might even agree. But he doesn't. His critique is of the whole process of allowing others to use intellectual property that isn't theirs. He more or less argues that those that create a character, or idea, create presumptively better works than those that later use those characters. Which is crap, when you think about it. Leaving aside the vast landscape of counter examples, both within comics and without--Miller on Daredevil, Peter Jackson on LOTR, Sophocles on Electra--Tim's essentially arguing that characters have an objective "essence" against which to measure fidelity. Huh? And even if this is true--even if the original creation retains the spark of its creators--why can't moving that essence within the narrative landscape be interesting, if only for the context? Weirdly enough, Tim's point here would lead to the same sort of ossified genre he deplores; do not take my favorite characters to new places, they were fine with Lee/Ditko, or Claremont/Byrne!
Lastly, Tim bizarrely asserts that supehero's, like fantasy and SF, are divorced from reality; but supehero comics, unlike fantasy and SF, can't construct an alternate reality with resonant psychological depth. This is Jim's
angle of assault on Tim's piece, so I won't go on much longer here. Suffice it to say that I assume that Tim has reasons for this statement, but they're not in this post.
Look. I don't read many superhero titles these days. And even in the best of times, most superhero titles are crap. So I'm sympathetic to Tim; and, like I said above, Tim's perfectly within his rights to throw up his hands and walk away from the genre if it's not working for him. But unless you're already inclined to follow him, I don't see his post as giving anyone else a reason to walk out the door.
UPDATE: Added the links, cleared up a few grammar errors, and extended one or two points. Also, everyone reading this should know that Tim's been doing a bang-up job in trying to fill Dirk Deppey's shoes; the above is offered meekly, and in the spirit of healthy debate. Also, for more on this point, see Sean.