Some Not-So-Fancy Footwork


Friday, September 14, 2007

So Noah Berlatsky has responded to my last post, and while he does clear up a few misunderstandings, his response basically provides a clear demonstration of my point: he makes a series of over-the-top judgments and claims, based on apparently arbitrary or contradictory premises, and with little or no evidence to back up his theories.

Here is what we learn:

  • The creators of “art comics” are overwhelmingly obsessed by memoir and literary fiction.

    [Berlatsky does not say what he means by “literary fiction”, or provide examples. There exist many, many examples of comics — Jim Woodring, Julie Doucet’s dream comics, Gary Panter’s Jimbo, Teratoid Heights, Marc Bell, much of Love & Rockets, Paper Rad, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, etc., etc. — that I don’t think would fit, whatever his definition might turn out to be.]

  • Memoir and literary fiction are very close to the same thing, and hardly “separable”.

    [I don’t know how to respond to this, other than that I don’t understand it. Again, a definition of “literary fiction” would be helpful.]

  • The cartoonists’ “obsession” with realistic subject matter stems from “a desire for literariness and respectability,” a desire Berlatsky sees “as being linked to the pulp past.”

    [This is his key assertion in both posts, and he really should back it up. I don’t want to simply repeat the substance of my last post, but as I mentioned before, other than a few cartoonists who have dabbled in, parodied, or expressed their affection for the genre, it is difficult to identify any younger cartoonists who seem very exercised about superheroes one way or the other. Surely there must be some evidence somewhere for his main thesis…]

  • All memoir and all “contemporary literary fiction” can be described as tedious, pretentious, and self-absorbed.

    [Again, Berlatsky gives no examples, and no definitions of his terms, but is still quite comfortable providing a very broad-brushed condemnation of two enormous genres.]

  • Elegy and nostalgia are also more or less the same thing, and therefore elegy is “just about the worst of all possible modes for art”.

    [Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, and Rilke: your stock is dropping!]

  • Michael Chabon’s novel, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is the “best example” of a comic book striving for literary respectability.

    [One would think that the absence of pictures would disqualify this.]

  • Berlatsky is happy to use Daniel Clowes as a scapegoat for all the “problems” of alternative comics, but doesn’t feel the need to read the bulk of his work before doing so.

    [Check out his description of Clowes’s comics in the comments of his post: “His stories seem magical-realist in a really perfunctory way that seems completely New Yorker ready.” Are we supposed to take this judgment seriously, applied to the creator of “Needledick the Bug-Fucker”, “Why I Hate Christians”, and “Dan Pussey’s Masturbation Fantasy”?]

  • “Manga is an incredibly vital and diverse art form, with standards of craft and storytelling that leave most American comics whimpering in pitiful little puddles of incompetence.”

    [So what are we to do with all those manga that deal with real-life situations and people, not a superpower or magic spell in sight? Are those manga also “obsessed” with literary respectability? Or is Noah only defending giant-robot and ninja stories?]

There are several other hidden assumptions and unproven assertions and conflations in Berlatsky’s post, but this has gotten boring enough already. In the end, here’s what I take away from his posts: Berlatsky doesn’t like the fiction published in The New Yorker, and somehow, superheroes are to blame.

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10 Responses to “Some Not-So-Fancy Footwork”
  1. Matthias says:

    This is an interesting discussion, I think, because it seems to emerge from the increasing need – amongst critics and scholars, if no-one else – to assess and evaluate the revolution in Western comics that has taken place over the past two decades or so. I have nothing specific to add at this juncture, but wanted to point to Noah’s and my discussion of some of these issues a while back:

  2. T Hodler says:

    Hi Matthias —

    I had forgotten all about those exchanges, which I definitely enjoyed reading at the time. Thanks for bringing them up again.

  3. Anonymous says:


    The punchline to this is that Berlatsky loves the comics of Ariel Schrag, which are of course all-autobio.

    I’m also confused as to what “literary” means. Is it “serious”, “pretentious”, “precious”, “overreaching”? The sense I get is that literary = “boring”, and boring is defined by Berlatsky himself.

    I get the sense that Berlatksky doesn’t like work that puts distance between the comic and the reader, and/or makes it difficult for the reader to identify with the characters. Much of Clowes’ work (especially his later stuff, which I’m guessing is what Berlatsky has read) has that icy distance between reader and character, which can be off-putting for some. It demands a different kind of interaction with the work for a reader than perhaps they’re used to.

    As Eric Reynolds pointed out in the thread on Berlatsky’s site, Clowes has done comics of late that could only exist as comics (I wrote an article on Art School Confidential where I guessed that Clowes did Ice Haven and Death Ray as a response to working in film). You might find them “boring” and might not like Clowes’ distance in those stories, but they are so firmly rooted in the language of comics that Berlatsky’s argument as to why they’re not good comics doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Tim, I thought both of your posts were right on the money. I prefer critics who are more interested in light than heat, and I’ve rarely gotten anything other than hot bluster when Berlatsky sets up his alt-comics strawmen for his scorched-earth assaults.

    –Rob Clough

  4. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    It seems pretty likely that Berlatsky has only read Clowes’ later stuff and maybe, to judge by his remarks about boring surrealism, “Velvet Glove”.

    Needledick etc. are fine, fine strips. But to be fair to Berlatsky, has Clowes really done anything in the last thirteen years (to pull a figure out of a hat) that’s as startling and funny?

    I do agree with Berlatsky that Ware and (especially) Clowes have become duller as they’ve traded in their earlier, zanier work for the more staid themes of much literary fiction since modernism, viz. suburban alienation, the emotional pains of the objectively well-to-do and the ineffable epiphanies of everyday life. I’d rather have Needledick and Robot Sam any day.

  5. T Hodler says:

    Hey Rob —

    Thanks! Lots of good stuff in your comment. Your idea that Berlatsky might not enjoy comics that make it difficult for readers to identify with the protagonists is an interesting one. I’m not sure if it holds water, since Berlatsky fave-rave Johnny Ryan (who I think is often hilarious myself) doesn’t exactly make it easy to identify with his characters. Still, you may be on to something. And maybe the comedy aspect makes a difference there.

    And Jones —

    It’s true that Ware and Clowes aren’t doing as many overtly humorous strips and stories as they have in the past (though I personally still think they’re two of the most consistently funny cartoonists working today), and if Berlatsky was simply arguing that he wished they’d go back to their “earlier, funnier” stuff, a la Woody Allen fans, he’d have a reasonable point, even if I didn’t agree with him.

    But that’s not really what he argued. He argued that all non-superhero comics are desperately trying to replicate literary fiction in an attempt to distance themselves from superheroes, and earn literary credibility with magazines like The New Yorker. And that that fact was more or less destroying American comics. Even if what he said were true of Ware and Clowes (and I personally don’t think it is), there are one or two hundred other wildly different cartoonists who got tarred with the same brush.

    As I wrote before, it’s not that I’m saying there aren’t some boring cartoonists out there. I just don’t think are so many that it’s any kind of “problem.”

  6. Jon Hastings says:

    I prefer Marc Singer’s argument against “little-epiphany stories” (which is what I’d guess Noah means when he talks about “literary fiction”).

    Really, the main problem with his argument is that it is like 10 years out of date. He should get up to speed and start criticizing alt/art cartoonists for getting too wrapped up in the whole “the book should be an objet d’art”-thing. Then, at least, Chris Ware really would be to blame.

  7. T Hodler says:

    Hey Jon —

    Thanks for commenting. I don’t know if I agree with that criticism much either, though. I don’t think it makes sense for critics to dictate an artist’s goals. If someone creates a bad “objet d’art”, then absolutely, that work should be called out. But unless it’s impossible to imagine a good comic book objet d’art, why should we try to limit the form’s horizons?

  8. Jon Hastings says:

    Tim – Oh, yeah – I actually agree: my comment was more an attempt at a joke than anything else.

    Regarding the actual discussion:

    I find myself agreeing to all of your points, but can’t help being, emotionally at least, on Noah’s “side”. For me at least, there’s so much baggage from old internet arguments over the merits of super-hero comics vs. alt/art comics that I find it is really easy to make the kinds of mostly baseless, sweeping judgments that Noah is making here. My beef was never really with alt/art cartoonists, but rather with those comics critics (self-appointed or otherwise) who I saw as using the work of those alt/art cartoonists to attack my beloved super-hero books.

    I blame the internet, really.

  9. Adam Greene says:

    I’ve been enjoying the tête-à-tête between you and Berlatsky. I am somewhat sad that it is over because there were the seeds of enlightened discussion of the medium in the issue.
    I tend to lump most of Berlatsky’s argument in with a large group that doesn’t like their entertainment to have anything more than the most superficial aspects working. The arguments of this group of people are peppered with the words “boring” and “pretentious” and I find that their analysis as shallow as they want their comics (or movies or music).
    I find it a joyful that this is even a discussion, because there was a time when it wasn’t superhero vs. alt/art comics, it was superhero (marvel) vs. superhero (dc). I think the true answer is that diversity breeds strength and that having the comic industry, “mainstream” as well as “alternative”, veer away from being entirely superhero genre comics then the medium will grow in popularity and possibly thrive. Popularity doesn’t breed quality but the money associated does lure talented people who otherwise would be working in fields where you can put food on the table (i.e. not comics).

  10. A. Buchet says:

    Noah’s opinions are extremely ill-informed and stupid and he should shut the fuck up. His whole argument can be dismissed as knee-jerk reactionism against a nonexistant ‘literary’ creed unsophisticated minds like his resorts to when reading things that aren’t confined to a narrow, myopic framework. His categorization of alt comics are glib, as is his angry critic posturing.

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