Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers
edited by Sean Howe
This anthology of essays about comics is the definition of ‘mixed bag’. That said, it’s interesting to engage with, if only to see some of the preconceptions comics still have to deal with; to see how widespread a lack of understanding of the medium is, even among those with experience reading it. Most of the writers in this book have no experience writing comics, or writing about comics — though Jonathan Lethem has since gone on to write for Marvel, and Brad Meltzer famously for DC — and it shows; in terms of valuable criticism, the average issue of The Comics Journal beats the book all hollow. What I find interesting is the reason why.
Probably the best essays in the book are Greil Marcus’ piece on Uncle Sam and Luc Sante’s on Tintin. Aimee Bender (writing about Yummy Fur) and Myla Goldberg (on Chris Ware and Renée French) have interesting essays dealing with issues of storytelling — I take issue with a couple of points they make (I profoundly disagree, for example, with Goldberg’s assertion that reading is “a quest for communion”, reinforcing experiences and emotions the reader already knows; it seems to me rather a kind of exploration, giving the reader some new way to understand the world) — but overall appreciate their writing and their approach to their subjects. I never much cared for Ware’s work, and I don’t know that Goldberg’s work shows me anything new in his stuff, but her enthusiasm is catching; I at least know what she likes about Ware.
Tom Piazza’s piece is a clever narrative conceit, and it’s amusing to read Brad Meltzer’s fannish love letter to the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans. John Wray’s piece on Jim Woodring is a good try at capturing the uncapturable essence of Woodring’s work. Geoffrey O’Brien’s piece on Streanko’s Nick Fury has some solid analysis of narrative strategies, and some understanding of basic comics grammar — how panel transitions work, how significant they are to the medium. Geoff Dyer has an enjoyable essay about the importance of Silver Age Marvel comics to his youth. But although on its own terms it’s a fine piece, this is also a symptom of the greatest problem with many of the other essays in the book.
Too many pieces here fall into an uninteresting narcissism — the literary equivalent of a particularly uninteresting 1990s indie autobio comic. Jonathan Lethem, Christopher Sorrentino, Andrew Hultkrans, and to a lesser extent Glen David Gold turn in essays essentially about themselves, not about comics. Gold’s piece almost works, as it’s a piece about collecting artwork, and one of Gold’s own experiences in that area; I can’t agree with him when he writes, in his first sentence, “All stories about collecting are about self-loathing, self-love, and self-deception confused with the piquant cologne of loathing, love, and deception that drenches the object so desired.” Not only is it an inelegant sentence (the repetition of ‘deception’, the trailing-off at the end), it’s a sentiment I don’t recognise in either my own experience collecting or the stories of other collectors I’ve heard or read. Still, the rest of the essay at least explains why Gold comes to think the way he does, and in that way justifies his opening.
Most of the essays in the book refer back, in one way or another, to the writer’s childhood experience with comics. It’s a theme so recurrent you wonder whether it was part of the editorial brief the authors were given. If so, it was probably a mistake. Some of the essays are able to move beyond childishness; Lethem, Sorrentino, and Hultkrans don’t. Each of their pieces is concerned with their own personal experiences as a child, and the importance of comics, primarily Marvel comics, within those experiences. Those experiences are not inherently interesting, though, and their writing isn’t good enough or insightful enough to make up for it. Lethem’s essay is particularly fatiguing, with a kind of facile cleverness — he arranges his text into unusual shapes! Heavens, the ingenuity! This sort of thing is “facile” because it’s not connected to anything profound, anything truly moving. It’s a writer attempting to justify an exercise in self-indulgence.
The worst aspect of this fixation on childhood is the fact that it seems to get in the way of actual critical thought. In some cases one might question the critical perception or understanding of the medium of the authors involved. Perhaps the worst essays in the book, Steve Erickson’s piece on American Flagg! and Gary Giddins’ on Classics Illustrated, demonstrate an incredible lack of any grasp of comics’ form or history. Erickson, unbelievably, says Flagg! “kickstarted the independent comics movement,” — ignoring Cerebus and Elfquest, to name only two books which preceded Flagg! by several years — “and also provided the door through which the medium rushed to the likes of such eighties landmarks as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.” While it’s true Flagg! was an influential and significant comic, Erickson’s list mixes up great work with the merely flashy (yeah, I’m talking about Dark Knight), and throws in one book — Love and Rockets — which preceded Flagg! by a year or two, and actually grew less like Flagg! as it went on.
Giddins, meanwhile, makes such odd comments as “A computerized list, for example, of the popular songs published during the first half of the twentieth century reveals an infinite treasury of found poems: Flip to any page, put your finger on any title, and track the first ten songs upward or down, and voilà, instant lit.” This is the sort of thing that gives postmodernism a bad name. Still, had Giddins focussed on issues of canon formation and the like, he might have produced something halfway interesting. He doesn’t, instead giving a rambling overview of the art of the Classics Illustrated line, littered with asides — for example, criticising the company for transliterating Dostoevsky’s name as ‘Dostoyevsky’, a perfectly acceptable spelling.
Giddins concludes his essay by writing that the comics he’s been talking about “are, after all, childhood pulp, and one wouldn’t go home again even if one could.” If so, why bother to write the essay? This attitude, that comics don’t matter, bedevils many of the other essays. Lethem can’t put together three sentences describing the work of various comics creators without saying “Enough: I fear I’m losing you.” In the context of his essay, it’s an example of the self-loathing (to use Gold’s word) which comics seem to inspire in him. Conversely, Sorrentino is never able to rise above the Marvel-versus-DC paradigm of his youth to talk about what really matters in comics and why. Hultkrans, meanwhile, not only indicts his old comics as charged with “squirmy prepubescent freight”, but even appears to slight the book he’s writing for: “The intervening years have seen the justifiable and largely successful efforts of creators and fans to make comics worthy of adults (Exhibit #8,166: this book)” — this actually makes less sense than it appears, since the book isn’t a comic; I can only assume Hultkrans means that creators and fans are trying to justify comics to adults, an effort I think the rest of the essay implicitly condemns as futile without actually coming out and saying so.
Too many of these essays shy away from grappling directly with whatever real power there might be in the comics they’re talking about. Far too many are far too obsessed with social status and hipness. On the one hand, the writers are trying to reassure their audience that they, the authors, are above being truly interested in mere comics. On the other hand, they’re also concerned with the peer pressure and alienation experienced as children. This has potential as a subject, but nothing is actually said; nothing of worth is put across. In the end, the reader is left to wonder why they bothered; many of the writers seem to have the same question.
Editor Sean Howe, in his introduction, quotes Salman Rushdie as saying “ unlikeness, the thing that makes it impossible for a writer to stand in any regimented line, is a quality novelists share with the Caped Crusaders of the comics.” This is at once more insightful, more mature, and arguably more articulate than most of the essays which follow. Howe’s own introduction includes many of the problems I find with the rest of the book — a concern with undigested autobiographic incident, obsession with acceptance by others, a lack of thought or understanding of what comics are. “The fragility of the stapled pamphlet,” he writes, “hardly designed to withstand travel, is testament to the medium’s resignation that there will be no exposure to the outside world.” But this is the same form children devoured during family trips, in the back seats of cars; the same form that sold, at its peak, hundreds of thousands, even millions, of copies of a given issue per month. Howe’s lack of comprehension of the form, and the creations begot by it, has created an interesting book — but a book mainly to react against.