Thursday, January 8, 2009

Everybody Is Terribly Wrong and I Don’t Really See Where Anyone Is Coming From At All

I’ve been meaning to sink my teeth into this discussion of critical approaches to genre comics for a few days, but as you can see if you follow the link and scroll down to the comments section, it’s rather lengthy, so you have to make time. Mainly, it’s a conversation between Sean T. Collins, Tucker Stone and Tom Spurgeon, but there’s commentary from a number of other people, including spin-off posts by Tim O’Neill and Dick Hyacinth.

In a nutshell, Collins argues that genre comics should be appraised as separate works of fiction that, first and foremost, have to succeed or fail on their own merits. When it comes to works set in a “shared universe” or “continuity” that may include other works with contradictory plot elements, then a critic - or any reader, for that matter – should pick and choose which of the two or more contradictory works is the superior one and just disregard the rest. Also, Collins says, a critical appraisal of any such work should not be hamstrung by parameters resulting from speculations on the target audience.

Stone and Spurgeon, on the other hand, say that it’s just as valid to include factors such as a given work’s position in the context of a wider fictional “universe” or “continuity” (i.e., Does it contradict plot elements from other comics? Is it bogged down by ancillary works of a lesser quality? How well is the overall publishing event of which it may be a part managed?) or its intended audience (i.e., Who is the target audience? What do or don’t they expect? How sophisticated are those readers?) in any critical appraisal. More specifically, Stone also argues that a big genre-comics event such as Grant Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.” story, which is meant to serve as the flagship to an entire publishing line, should be geared towards reaching as many people as possible, and would therefore have to be considered as a failure by default if it’s too sophisticated and ambitious for the sensibilities of the target audience.

To make a long story short, I think they’re all horribly wrong, in one way or another. I’ll start with that last point made by Stone.

I’m sorry, but how am I supposed to take seriously as a critic somebody who makes their appraisal of a work dependent on what they decide the allocated intellectual capacity of the target audience is? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not interested in making accusations of “snobbery” or “elitism” here at all. What I find silly on more than one level, rather, is the notion that it’s possible to gauge the sophistication of the target audience, let alone that it’s desirable to do so when it comes to the creation of works with a supposedly broad appeal.

That kind of approach, from my perspective, is incredibly short-sighted, and precisely the reason why so much of our pop-cultural œuvre is still rubbish: It’s because executives presume to know how much sophistication they can risk to inflict on their target audience, and because marketing people – and this is not meant as a slam on Stone in particular, whose day job, I gather, is in advertising – are exerting too much of an influence on the creative process when they should shut the hell up and mind their own business (which, again, is marketing).

I should repeat that I’m only talking about sophistication and ambition here. Of course running any successful entertainment business will require a solid grasp on what kind of material the audience wants and doesn’t want to to see, read, play, listen to, whatever. But whatever gives you the idea that intellectual and emotional sophistication are the issue, rather than approach? Presuming to judge how dumb a given work needs to be in order to find a broad appeal is a notion that's of no value to anyone, even if your concerns are purely commercial – you’ll just end up gratuitously limiting the breadth of appeal of whatever it is you want to sell to anyone. Because it’s not a high level of intellectual or emotional sophistication or ambition that may hamper a given work’s accessibility, but a failure to relay that sophistication or ambition to the audience.

And that, in turn, is something that’s true for the dumbest work in the world as well as for the smartest. The level of sophistication or ambition, in itself, just isn’t something that enters the equation, on any conceivable level. It’s something that’s still often misunderstood among people responsible for children’s entertainment of any kind, for instance. Does making up stories for children mean that you have to dumb the material down, make it less sophisticated and ambitious? Well, no. It simply means you have to find a suitable delivery system for that particular target audience: a storytelling approach and vernacular that makes whatever it is you’re trying to say accessible to children. And it’s no different with any other target audience.

And if your concerns are critical rather than commercial, then it’s even more useless to get hung up on your own ideas of “what the audience wants” and chastise a work for being too demanding, not to mention intellectual cowardice. Let me make this plain: A critic’s job is to start from the work itself, from what and how it means - not from some preposterous notions about what somebody else might not be expecting from it, or might not be able to process or to appreciate. Context is important, of course, but certainly not in the sense that the objective to appeal to a broad audience dictates that a work “not demand a whole lot” of that audience, or any other such ghastly nonsense. Context can serve to shed light on a work, its creation, what it says, why and to whom it says it, and so forth. To use context as a straightjacket for what a work is or is not supposed to be saying and in what manner it is supposed to be saying things, however, is a perversion of critical principles, as well as hostile to creativity.

So if that’s your idea of appraising a text (and I use “text” loosely here; it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about comics, film, drama or whatever), then I don’t know what you are, but it’s certainly not someone I’m inclined to take seriously as a critic. You might be a market or a sales analyst, maybe, but as far as critical reading and textual analysis are concerned, I don’t think you’re of any use to anyone, let alone that mythical target audience with a low tolerance for sophistication you’re conjuring up, instead of bothering to back up your appraisal with critical standards of your own. I realize that this probably sounds harsher than it should, but I can’t think of any other way to put it.

That said, I agree that Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.” (I’m really just talking about Morrison’s story, by the way; I didn’t read any of the tie-ins) ultimately fails, both as a commercial blockbuster and from a critical point of view. The reason for that is not that it's too complex or too sophisticated or too ambitious for anyone, though. It’s because it has a crummy ending that doesn’t pay off on anything, which is unsatisfactory by critical as well as by commercial standards. (I say more on what I think makes it a failure as a supposed blockbuster title in the “DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales” column for November, which should be up later this week at The Beat. But I say it with my “sales analyst” hat on, mind you, not with my “critic” hat on.)

Which brings me to the next point: Should a critical reading of something like, say, Final Crisis (the miniseries proper) necessarily be affected by the quality or the management of “Final Crisis” (the sprawling blockbuster publishing event at large)? I’m somewhat more sympathetic to people who say it should, in this case. Personally, though, I still emphatically disagree.

I can see how people would think otherwise, mind you. After all, North American comics readers have been trained for decades to regard the “continuity” and the “backstory” of a “shared universe” setting as something that is crucial to their enjoyment of most genre works. The appeal isn’t alien to me – I enjoy that aspect tremendously, myself, and I’ve got the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe writing credentials to prove it. I think it’s a lot of fun to have this big, sprawling, superconnected, hopelessly self-referential fictional place called the Marvel Universe, where all the characters live and interact with each other and accrue a common “history.”

However, I don’t accept that as an argument in favor of the notion that Grant Morrison’s miniseries Final Crisis somehow suffers as a text from, say, Jim Starlin’s Death of the New Gods because there supposedly were some contradictions or repetitions between the two supposedly works. I didn’t read the Starlin book, so I don’t know much about that. But I simply reject the premise here. Is it bad management on DC’s part if something like that happens? Absolutely. Should it affect anyone’s critical appraisal of either series that something contradictory or repetitive was established in the other one? No, it should not.

It does happen all the time, of course, because they’re set in the same “universe.” And to that, I say hogwash. As much fun as all the “shared universe” stuff is, it’s really just a marketing tool invented by clever hucksters and eagerly gobbled up by obsessive-compulsive hardcore fans. So if it becomes the subject of criticism, then it has to be with the understanding we’re not criticizing the work itself, but the way in which the publisher chose to market it. I maintain that any work – any work! – that’s unable to stand on its own two feet is inherently flawed and gets the “shared universe” aspect wrong in the worst possible way. And just because a large chunk of the target audience may have a high tolerance for that sort of flaw or even positively encourage it, that doesn’t make it any less of a flaw.

It’s not like I’m applying some illusory, unattainable standard here, either. I read 52 about a year after it first came out, for instance, and without being familiar with Infinite Crisis or any of the various spin-off books that were published during and after its run. The 52 paperbacks don’t even collect those “origin” backup stories that were in the periodicals, for that matter, and my prior knowledge of most of the characters was nil. Still, the book works for me, despite the fact that the DC Universe and all it entails are a very big part of it. I thought it was an engaging read with appealing characters that’s able to stand on its own perfectly well. And right now, I have a similar experience with Final Crisis. I haven’t read Countdown or any of the other tie-in books*, but that doesn’t matter: It works as its own beast, and it doesn’t give me the impression that I’m missing anything important.

Nor, for that matter, do I think those awful Chuck Austen and Chris Claremont comics that immediately followed Morrison’s New X-Men did anything to “harm” that body of work, even though they contradict or outright undo many of the things established by Morrison and make it very plain that those creators – and possibly their editors – either didn’t get what Morrison was doing or held it in high contempt, or both. But in the end, they are just bad comics. They don’t affect anything Morrison did at all. They only affect this strange and brilliant marketing construct called the Marvel Universe, which is of no concern to anyone but Marvel, because they need it to sell more comics. Personally, I can deal with Marvel putting out bad X-Men comics without tearing the few good ones they released to shreds, I think.

Going back to “Batman R.I.P.,” now, I agree with some of the criticism brought forward, because that story, unfortunately, does not stand on its own. And ironically, that’s not because of all the spin-off stories, but because Morrison and DC chose not to give it a proper ending. Whatever else I can say about “Batman R.I.P.” or Morrison’s Batman in general, both of which I actually quite like, I have to acknowledge it’s an inherently flawed run, because the big payoff – if it comes at all, of which I’m still skeptical – occurs in another work entirely.

Turning to the points made by Collins, there is one notion that I strongly disagree with: When Collins says that readers or critics should “pick and choose” which works in “shared universe” to give precedence over others, frankly, that’s something I can’t quite seem to wrap my head around. The thought of having to weigh one work of fiction against another just because the publisher wants me to be concerned about how they relate to each other in some artificial construct – the DC Universe - that’s otherwise of no interest to me is something I don’t understand.

Frankly, if DC want me to keep buying their comics, what they need to do to meet my minimum requirements, among other things, is to produce works that, as I say above, stand on their own. These days, the main appeal corporately owned properties have, to me, is the fact that you can get all sorts of different interpretations of them by all sorts of different creators, and in all sorts of different media. You can have the Frank Miller Batman and the Tim Burton Batman and the Christopher Nolan Batman and the Grant Morrison Batman - all at once, for all I care. The notion that one of those interpretations is somehow meant to be more valid than the others, or that the Grant Morrison Batman and the Kevin Smith Batman somehow need to be reconciled with another seems positively outlandish to me.

I think it’s time for DC to realize that different versions of the same character are not a flaw or a liability. On the contrary: They are, in the long run, DC’s best chance at remaining a healthy business. Their job as the caretakers of Batman and Superman and all those other characters is to create a framework which allows as many different versions and stories as possible to co-exist. I think the people in charge of Marvel realized that back when Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada began to run the show. Marvel know now – and I’m sure the realization was helped along significantly by the tremendous success of the X-Men and Spider-Man films - that their biggest assets are their characters and their continued ability to reinvent them and keep them appealing to the audience.

If you get a version of a character that’s broadly reconcilable with the traditional one at Marvel, it ends up in the Marvel Universe somewhere. And if it’s not, or is a little more out there, relax, they can still do it: at Ultimate Marvel, or at Marvel Adventures, or at Marvel Knights, or at Max Comics, or at Startling Stories. Remember The Ultimates? The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man? Unstable Molecules? Those comics all exist because Marvel managed – against quite a bit of initial resistance, by the way, in the case of the Ultimate books - to create a framework that allows them to exist without forcing the readership to “pick and choose” between anything.

Right now, Marvel’s management of the Punisher is a prime example of how to exploit this versatility: We’ve got, at this time, a largely sanitized Marvel Universe version of the Punisher that takes shots at the Sentry, plus the “mature”-themed Max Comics series, plus a Marvel Knights miniseries by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon that’s probably somewhere in-between – all completely different versions of the same property, all existing concurrently. If there has been any notable outrage or commercial disadvantage because people are confused by that, I’m not aware of it.

DC, by contrast, still exists in a world where the formation of the Justice Society of America and Crisis on Infinite Earths and what they did for the “DC Universe” are somehow more meaningful than the fact that they own Superman and Batman. Guess what: I’ve never read Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I don’t have the slightest inclination to change that. I did see The Dark Knight, however, and I thought it was a very good film.

I keep waving and pointing people who wonder what might be going wrong at DC at this essay I wrote in response to Steven Grant a few months back, where I go into more detail on the issue, so right now I will just say that I don’t believe it’s a great mystery what’s been going wrong at DC at all. Give it a look – I’m biased, but I think it’s still a pretty good assessment of the situation as it stands right now at DC, and why their line of superhero comics isn’t working as well as they might like.

So, anyway, I don’t really see where the “picking and choosing” enters the equation. As far as I’m concerned, if a publisher forces me to “pick and choose” between rivaling interpretations of a given story or character by not ensuring that each of those interpretations stands on its own, then they’ve already blown it.

That said, I guess I’m much more sympathetic to Collins’ perspective than to Stone’s or Spurgeon’s, after all. It seems to me that Collins - as a critic and as a part of the audience – largely applies the same critical standards to his pop comics that he’s also applying to other forms of entertainment, and I have a lot of time for that approach. Given how much of Spurgeon’s argument seems to be hinging on notions like “continuity” and such, I’m not sure the same can be said for him. And Stone’s imposition of a ceiling for sophistication just seems repulsive to me as a critical standard. Both of which I find regrettable, by the way, because they seem like otherwise pretty smart writers.

)* Well, that’s not true, actually: I did buy Countdown #51 and Countdown to Final Crisis #26 and maybe one or two other tie-ins for review purposes.

But once I’d written about them, I forgot them again, because one of the invaluably precious joys of growing older is the onset of selective memory.

7 comments:

Matthew J. Brady said...

In Tucker's defense, I think he was talking more about complexity than sophistication, with the distinction being that it's not about the audience being too dumb, but being expected to know too much information about Batman. The story referenced decades-old stories and obscure ongoing DC plots (or at least plots that would be obscure to somebody that isn't a regular reader of their comics). Tucker wrote something similar in an article on Comixology, saying that DC wasn't helping themselves by having something like this going on in their flagship Batman title when an incredibly popular Batman movie had the potential to get people interested in the series. People who ventured into a comic shop after seeing the movie and picked up an issue of RIP would have no idea what was going on (and they would probably be put off by the ugly, hard-to-follow art as well).

And also, Tucker's quotes were taken not from a review, but from an interview with Tom Spurgeon about the year in mainstream comics, so the discussion at that point was more about marketing than criticism. In critical terms, I think he had a very similar reaction to your own concerning the end of RIP when he reviewed it on his blog. He doesn't need me to defend him, but I figured I could speak up on his behalf.

Tim Pilotus said...

I'd like to hear your thoughts on the unique perpetual nature of telling stories in the Marvel or DC Universe(s) juxtaposed with the mission to judge stories on their own merit.

I'm particularly interested in where and how the line is drawn. Orthodoxy might have dictated at one time that a story is satisfied with a single issue. With collected editions being so formidable, it would seem that a complete story would be present in a trade paperback. But in some cases, a provision is offered to full runs by creative personnel expressed by delineations like "Morrison's X-Men."

Are these stories compiling an ongoing account of the lives of fictional characters and universes? Is there a metastory (or in nakedly fiscal terms, "back catalogue") to consider? Calls are being made quite frequently along the X, Y and Z axes.

There is never going to be a natural endpoint to Spider-Man or Batman's story, barring some cataclysmic failure of the comicbook industry as it is known currently. How does one critically approach these episodic chapters in the lives of if not by picking and choosing at some point?

I humbly submit this ramble and I'm going to read your entry as well as the discussion again. I'm probably being redundant and unintelligible.

Thank you.

Tucker Stone said...

"More specifically, Stone also argues that a big genre-comics event such as Grant Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.” story, which is meant to serve as the flagship to an entire publishing line, should be geared towards reaching as many people as possible, and would therefore have to be considered as a failure by default if it’s too sophisticated and ambitious for the sensibilities of the target audience."

This isn't really accurate. What actually happened is that I called the conclusion, and the overall story of Batman RIP, a "miserable failure" when I was doing one of the little Factual Opinion reviews, and then Tom Spurgeon asked me why I called it a miserable failure in his interview. The specific reasons I gave, neither of which Sean really addressed, where many, most of which were the shitty art and the derivative story, and then at the end I gave these:

1) That it read like a niche comic for Grant Morrison fans. That's not really provable, and it's just a random thing I felt when reading it.

2) That people responded to it by saying that "they didn't get it." Now, that's all anecdotal stuff--comments on websites, message board complaints, etc. But it's been on stuff you frequent, so I'd imagine you've probably seen it. And again--that's just people's opinion, and you're going to find people expressing opinions like that about everything, like people who say Wall E is boring and confusing, or people who argue that Watchmen is overrated. But with Batman RIP, I just felt like I saw that a lot, and the other thing I saw was people (and I'd name names, but I can't remember who they were) that liked Batman RIP saying things like "How dumb are you that you don't understand Batman RIP?"

But both those reasons were just part, the end part, of what I answered Tom with. That's it. Then Sean went on his trail with it, and he cherry picked the end, and it turned into something else, which is where the whole "Tucker thinks the audience is dumb and things should be dumbed down", which is...well, whatever. I took part in it, and I said stuff that included "mass audiences don't embrace complexity", so i'm not going to bitch about that. But it's really just a common sense thing to me: it's not about a dumb audience, it's about a wide audience, and you get a bigger audience when you make Finding Nemo than you do when you make a Werner Herzog documentary on the Woodabe tribe. That's the point, or the argument, that I was thinking of on Sean's comment board. And I don't think that anybody would deny that, and I think if you or anybody else wants to turn that into something about elitism or snobbery--well, that's your deal. Wider audiences embrace complexity, sure, wider audiences embrace smart work, of course: but you draw more comic cash when you do a Green Lantern Sinestro Corps crossover than you do with a Young Liars. That isn't some fancy opinion or critical analysis. It isn't some alternate tea-leave reading of magic audience interpretation. It's looking at numbers and seeing that one number is bigger than the other number, on a consistent basis.

On the thing at the end--that I'm implying a critical ceiling for sophistication--well, that's just straight up bullshit. That's just some nonsense that somebody else may have implied or outright said in that comment section, and it isn't my bag, but yeah: it's incorrect. I think that if you're trying to reach a mass audience, a portion of the one who went and watched Dark Knight, and you don't, which the Grant Morrison Batman didn't, than it's worth some time to figure out why. And part of it was that it seems to me that some people didn't get the story--I don't know why they didn't, maybe it is because they're stupid, maybe it's because they like zombies better, maybe it's because Tony Daniel's art sucked. But whatever it was, it sold the way that a vaguely successful Batman cross-over comic sells. Except that this was the billion dollar Batman year and it should have sold fucking better, and it's just more self-loathing comic fan nonsense to pretend that another Ra's Al Ghul Battle Complex was the only goal with it. Comics can be about whatever they fucking want to be, they can be Automatic Kafka or Marvel's Power Pack for kids. I don't care. How sophisticated they are has no reflection whatsoever on their quality. But when they don't work--and work in this case meant "huge financial success"--it's absolutely, 100% fair game to come up with a billion different reasons why.

Sean T. Collins said...

Turning to the points made by Collins, there is one notion that I strongly disagree with: When Collins says that readers or critics should “pick and choose” which works in “shared universe” to give precedence over others, frankly, that’s something I can’t quite seem to wrap my head around. The thought of having to weigh one work of fiction against another just because the publisher wants me to be concerned about how they relate to each other in some artificial construct – the DC Universe - that’s otherwise of no interest to me is something I don’t understand.

I totally don't think you should have to weigh one work of fiction against another if you don't want to. That's my whole point: you don't have to read these comics the way the company wants to. I'm saying that if two contradictory comics cross your transom, you're just as free to ignore the contradictions as fixate on them, if you prefer.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

Tim:

You can look at the problem you're addressing as a case of picking and choosing, I guess, but I would argue that it's a different kind of picking and choosing.

In the case of serial comics, I'd say it's just a matter of deciding what the subject of your criticism is, and on what terms you're examining it - in other words, I think you'll just need to make up your mind whether you want to look at a single issue, at a complete story (such as in a done-in-one story or a specific run of issues, e.g. "Morrison's X-Men"), or at the series at large. All of those are fair game, and each one of those will have to work on its own terms: as a single unit of serial storytelling, or as a complete work, or as an ongoing serial, respectively.

But the difference, I think, is that the picking takes place at an earlier stage. If you're looking at DC's management of the overall "Batman R.I.P." event, then sure, it's fair game to criticize contradictions or inconsistencies. If you're just looking at Morrison's "Batman R.I.P." story as a work of fiction, however, I don't think it's valid to criticize it because it's contradicted by something that happened in one of the tie-in books (and vice versa, by the way). That would just be placing undue importance on continuity (i.e., marketing) stuff, and, as I said in the essay, I have little time for that when it comes to the critical appraisal of a text per se.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

Tucker:

Well, as far as the "ceiling for sophistication" is concerned: You did bring up the notion that a work with a supposedly broad appeal should "not demand a whole lot of the audience," and so forth. I apologize - sincerely - if I'm misrepresenting you on that point. If you think I do, I can't really argue with that. But that means I'm not sure what you're saying, because that's still precisely what it sounds like to me.

And as far as "Batman R.I.P." is concerned, I just reject your premise: There is no standard by which that book is a commercial failure, by any stretch of the imagination. It shifted in excess of 100,000 units with each and every issue. Given that mainstream audiences pretty much NEVER translate to comics sales unless you've got a much more streamlined property like Hellboy or Watchmen or 300, I'm not sure by which standard you're suggesting that "Batman R.I.P." has been a commercial failure. For all I can tell, it's a bloody big hit. It sold through the roof, and it took all of the participating second-tier books with it. For the current era of film adaptations, this is arguably the biggest success any comics publisher has had with any of its long-running superhero serials while a major film on them was being released, in fact.

I agree "Batman R.I.P." was hard to understand (at least as a serial; I found it rather easier to grasp when I went and re-read it in one sitting). I also agree it's a failure in some respects, critically. But I can't, for the life of me, see why you think it's a commercial misfire.

Finally, I think your analogy is rigged. The key aspects aren't Nemo and the Woodabe tribe, but the fact that one is a Pixar movie made as family entertainment and the other an avantgarde documentary. If Herzog and Pixar swapped subjects but maintained their approaches, I'm sure the Pixar film on the Woodabe tribe would still be more popular than the Herzog fish documentary - maybe even as popular Morrison's take on Batman's identity.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

Sean:

I take everything back and assert the opposite.