Noah Berlatsky, frequent contributor to The Comics Journal, is a sharp, perceptive, and almost always provocative critic, though he indulges in critical overkill and scorched-earth tactics far too often for my taste; his judgments often appear over-the-top, and based on arbitrary or contradictory premises. That being said, I almost always read his work when I see his byline, which is more than I can say for most comics critics.
Berlatsky recently started a blog, and his post from yesterday is an excellent example of what I often find so maddening about his writing. It’s a pox-on-both-your-houses piece, claiming that both superhero comics and “alternative” comics are fatally flawed for certain, aesthetic reasons. I don’t want to pick on Berlatsky in particular too much for this, because it’s a depressingly common argument, but I’m frankly tired of hearing it.
He begins by deriding today’s superhero comics as largely formulaic exercises in nostalgia, and that seems to me an at least arguably fair judgment; I can’t think of many exceptions. He then goes on to describe alternative comics as the flip-side of the same coin.
[S]uper-heroes still hang over the art comics like giant, four-color, cadavers. Alt comics seem to be constantly looking up nervously at these suspended, bloated monstrosities, feebly protesting, “What that…oh, no, *that* doesn’t have anything to do with me. We just came in together accidentally.” Or to put it another way, alt comics have a huge chip on their shoulders, and they have responded by rejecting everything super-hero in favor of Serious Art — which, alas, often means seriously boring art. Why on earth is autobio and memoir the standard for art comics? Is there an imaginable genre which makes less use of comics’ inherent strengths — the ability to represent fantastic, magical situations with charm and ease? The answer’s pretty clear: it’s the very boringness which appeals. Alt cartoonists are desperate not to be associated with super-heroes, and the best way to do that is by becoming literary fiction. God help us.
As I said, this is becoming a common position (Douglas Wolk made a somewhat similar argument in his flawed but interesting Reading Comics, as did Marc Singer in his Mome takedown a while back), but I really don’t understand the basis for it. Where are all these boring, serious art comics overreacting to superheroes? Is it really that hard to find comics that aren’t memoir? Or any that aren’t obsessed with distancing themselves from superheroes? Aside from possibly a few members of the older guard, I find it hard to apply that criterion to nearly anyone.
At least Berlatsky has the courage to name names, unlike A. David Lewis in his anti-autobio Publishers Weekly rant from earlier this year. (Berlatsky should read Tom Spurgeon’s response to that, by the way.) But his supposed culprits (Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, The Comics Journal) only make his argument more confusing. Clowes and Ware rarely write explicitly auto-biographical comics, and Clowes is responsible for probably the funniest, most merciless satire of boring memoir comics ever (“Just Another Day”, Eightball #5, rivaled only by Johnny Ryan‘s “Every Auto-Bio Comic Ever Written”). Of course, Berlatsky has admitted to having read very little of Clowes, so he may not be familiar with that particular story. (He is partly right about The Comics Journal, which sometimes allows its reviewers far too much room to go on about themselves rather than the work at hand, but I doubt that was his intended point.)
It is true, I suppose, that when Ware and Clowes reference superhero comics, they usually do so through parody or satire, though I think it is far too simple to categorize their approach to the genre as simply contempt or as an attempt to distance themselves from it. Clowes’s Death Ray is one of the best superhero comics I’ve ever read, and while his Dan Pussey stories are fairly devastating in their treatment of superhero comics, they don’t exactly treat the “art comics” world with kid gloves, either. I would also argue that Ware’s references to Superman and Supergirl in his Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown stories are just as much elegiac as critical.
Outside of those two artists, it’s hard to think of cartoonists struggling against superheroes at all. Gary Panter and the Hernandez brothers have made no secret of their affection for the genre, Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka make decidedly friendly parodies of it, and most alternative cartoonists of today seem more than happy just to ignore it altogether. (Note that ignoring the genre is not the same thing as “constantly looking up nervously” at it.) It’s true that some older cartoonists, such as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Bill Griffith, haven’t been shy about badmouthing superheroes, but even they have been willing to champion superhero artists they think are worthy, such as Jack Cole and Fletcher Hanks. In any case, when those artists began working, it made some sense to distance themselves from the superhero genre, which still overwhelmingly dominated the public conception of comic books. These days, I don’t think many younger cartoonists care one way or the other about it.
I think the main problem with Berlatsky’s complaint is a confusion of subject matter with form. At the risk of being pedantic, let me explain. Recently, superhero stories have arguably been better told through movies than in comics. Many of today’s superhero comics, slavishly attempting to recreate cinematic effects, are consequently often closer to glorified photo-funnies than real comics. This, however, does not mean that the superhero comics of Kirby, Ditko, Toth, Cole, etc., are any less purely “comics”. They were told by gifted artists and masters of the comics language, who knew how to exploit the medium’s strengths.
Likewise, just because a cartoonist chooses to tell a realistic story about ordinary life (subject matter that has historically more often been tackled in literary prose than in comics), it does not follow that the resulting comic is therefore “literary”. Both Ware and Clowes know the language of comics as well as anyone, and have innovated hugely within the form. It is hard to think of any cartoonists more engaged with comics history. And whatever your opinion of their merits, it is likewise difficult to imagine works more purely “comics” than Building Stories and Ice Haven. I can name maybe a handful of current artists who might actually fit Berlatsky’s description, creating dull, pseudo-respectable “literary” comics stories and apparently unable to or disinterested in fully utilizing the language of comics. On the other hand, I can think of scores of innovative, engaged cartoonists who are advancing the form in many different genres without seeming to worry about literary respectability at all.
Berlatsky’s conclusion also baffles me:
In moments of hope, I think that in twenty years Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and the Comics Journal will all be seen as a quaint detour in the history of the medium, and comics will be a hugely popular, aesthetically vital medium mostly created by women in a manga style. That’s not because I hate Chris Ware or the Comics Journal (I don’t). It’s just because I think, overall, it would be a better direction to go.
Again, this is a not uncommon refrain from comics readers, but its logic escapes me. I have nothing against manga, the best of which seems to me to be just as artistically valid as anything created in North America, and the inclusion of more female voices would be an obviously healthy development, but I will never understand so many comics readers’ apparent desire for “hugely popular” comics, and the implied belief that that popularity goes hand in hand with being “aesthetically vital”. While there are many popular works of art that are also aesthetically vital (Dickens), there are at least twice as many aesthetically vital works that will unfortunately never be hugely popular (Melville).
I don’t care if comics in the future are aimed at 13-year-old girls or 31-year-old boy-men or both or neither. I don’t care what genre they fit into, or what country they’re produced in. All I want are comics that are good. Hoping that cartoonists of the future ignore the best American cartoonists of the recent past, especially for reasons that don’t make a whole lot of sense, doesn’t seem like a particularly promising way to go about getting them.