Sunday, February 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!

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.


Christopher Sorrentino said...


Your post is reminiscent of several of the responses to ATOMSMASHERS that appeared when the anthology first was published several years ago. At that time I refrained from answering the critics, some of whom had -- as you have -- interesting and valid ideas about what an anthology of essays about comic books might, or even should, be like. Several years down the line, and with ATOMSMASHERS (regrettably, I think) out of print and with no one to defend it, I’d like belatedly to take a shot at a response.

Sean Howe asked me in, I think, 2002 whether I’d be interested in contributing an essay to an anthology he was going to try to pitch to publishers -- the high concept was “writers on comics,” not, to be sure, comics writers on comics. Obviously this distinction by itself may have set the project on a course leading away from any result you may have found more satisfactory. Further to your speculation about the “editorial brief” I was provided, Sean told me that he was interested in personal essays that in some way used comics as a springboard into the personal material. Had I been asked to write a critical essay about comics, I would have written a different essay, and I would imagine that my co-contributors who treated their material similarly would have done likewise, although, as you suggest, our qualifications to do so may be questionable.

There are definite weaknesses in the anthology, the most glaring of which (and I don’t suppose Sean anticipated it) is that, because Sean asked a number of American men born ca. 1950-70 to contribute, there is a glut of material concentrating on Silver Age Marvel productions. In terms of diversity of subject matter, I guess that’s unfortunate, although I derived more pleasure from the individual essays than you did. Of course in one sense you’re absolutely right about my own essay; the source material -- my childhood -- is banal in all the usual ways. To very loosely paraphrase Henry James, we do what we can with what we have. You’re also correct that I fail “to talk about what really matters in comics”; although I believe my essay treats comics seriously, acknowledging their formative role in the development of my critical sensibility, the essay I wrote ultimately was about conformity and the irony of “identifying with the lone heroes of Marvel, embracing their stark emotional seclusion, shoulder to shoulder with a group of fellow adherents.” I won’t hesitate to admit that I’m not really sure “what really matters in comics,” formally or otherwise; my interests have moved in a different direction over the past thirty or thirty-five years, and comics really no longer appear, for me, as an element of the aesthetic landscape I contemplate in my work and my life. This may well be my loss, although it’s one that, so far, I’ve experienced imperceptibly.

Many thanks for your interesting post.

Matthew David Surridge said...

Hello, Christopher.

I really appreciate your thoughtful response to my post. I hope it didn't come off too harshly -- I really didn't mean to call your, or anybody else's, childhood 'banal'. It's just that, in the same way dreams are intensely interesting, valuable, and so often difficult to communicate in an interesting way to another person, I personally find that the traumas and concerns of a childhood are difficult to make relevant to somebody else. This may say more about what I look for in my reading than anything; as I said at one point in the review, I tend to appreciate writing that presents me with something new rather than writing which reminds me of shared experience.

That said, I think that the book is definitely let down by its packaging. To me, "writers on comics" implies, well, writers writing about comics. That is, writing with comics as its focus; as opposed to writers discussing their influences. The dust jacket says "writers weigh in on the world of comics" and that the book "is a quirky, thrilling, and compulsively readable celebration of the unique alchemy of words and drawings that forms the language of comic books." Which sounded to me as though I was meant to take the book as being about comics and to some extent the formal concerns unique to comics. The introduction is more nuanced, but still seems to me to focus on comics as a medium, and the development of the form -- not so much on comics as key influences on other writers.

I think you're right that there's too much of a focus on Silver Age Marvel, but for me, the greater problem is that the Marvel essays tend to treat their subject in much the same way, using much the same tone. I appreciate that from your perspective, you were doing what you were asked to do, and treating as seriously as possible something that, let's say, contains a lot of reasons not to take it seriously. I certainly should have elaborated on the "what really matters in comics" phrase, or at least expanded it to something like "what in the comics mattered enough to him that he wrote this essay". The theme of peer pressure and individuality certainly came through, but for me, the bemused tone of the essay tended to undercut it.

I mean ... you immediately follow the line about "lone heroes ... shoulder to shoulder" by noting that "If there's a paradox here, it's not one into which I feel inclined to read a lot of meaning." So you're diminishing the "lone heroes/shoulder to shoulder" bit with the hypothetical construction, and then saying that it doesn't matter much anyway. As a reader, when I come across a line like that, at that point in the essay (the last paragraph), it makes me wonder why the essay was written in the first place.

For what it's worth, it seemed to me that the autobiographical aspect seems to drop out of the essay a bit more than two sections before the end. You describe your feelings at seeing the Spider-Man/Superman crossover -- but don't say whether, or how, it affected your point of view in the long term on Marvel or DC or conformity in general. The essay begins with two sections -- three out of the first four sections, in fact -- about your life and your situation, with relatively little material about comics. Fair enough for a personal essay; but once the pressure to conform comes in, that quasi-narrative seems to end. Obviously you have a different perspective now than you did then; to me, some kind of hint toward the end of the piece about how you began to reach that perspective, perhaps about how you grew out of Marvel, or DC, or both -- some sort of incident to develop and tie off that autobiographical strand of the essay -- really would have helped the piece a lot.

Finally, with respect to treating comics seriously in the essay -- the concluding sentence of the essay, following the line about the insignificance of the possible paradox, says "It may simply be that no matter what their staunchest champions claim for them, comics are really intended for kids, who, whatever the quality of their social milieu, have yet to find their true lives, and who, in continuing to see things through a glass, darkly, when searching for those lives, see only themselves." If you'd said superhero comics, I'd have no problem with that. As it stands, though, that's a hell of a thing to say about Maus, or From Hell, or It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, or Eightball.

For what it's worth, those are books I'd recommend if you have any interest at all in finding out whether comics can fit into your contemporary aesthetic landscape. The first, famously, is a story about a man trying to relate to his father and retelling his father's experiences in the Holocaust in comics form; but it's also about the experience of telling that story, about the unreliability of memory and perception, about metaphors collapsing, about the limits of truth and fiction. The second is the story of Jack the Ripper presented not as a horror or whodunit but as a resonant myth which shaped the twentieth (and twenty-first) century; although impeccably researched, the book doesn't aspire to being history, being in fact highly self-conscious of the fact that it's only a story, a narrative which structures real events into a form with meaning to its creators -- so it plays with things left out of history, with improbable-but-true connections, with resonant coincidences which give meaning.

The third book, Seth's It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken, is a quiet, poem-like comic which plays around with the idea of autobiography -- a Canadian cartoonist, fascinated by the past of his medium, tries to track down a Canadian who apparently had a single gag cartoon published in The New Yorker in the 1950s. The story was presented as autobiography, and only after it was largely complete (it was originally serialised in individual comics issues) did it become clear that it was actually fiction which happened to incorporate some true experiences of the author. The fourth book I mentioned, Eightball, is actually the title of Dan Clowes' ongoing comic, which features short stories (and formerly presented serialised longer works as well). Most of the comics from Eightball have been published as books in their own right -- Ghost World, about the complex friendship of two teen girls at school, is probably the best-known, as a reasonably accurate and thoughtful film was made from it (with Clowes' involvement, no less), but most of his work is rewarding -- I'd probably recommend Ice Haven and Caricature in particular.

Even if you figure these things aren't really for you, what I want to get at is that these are books that are aimed at adults. I don't mean that they have explicit sexual or violent content (some do, some don't), but that the techniques they use and the concerns of their authors are probably best served by an adult audience. The perception that "it may simply be that ... comics really are intended for kids" is obviously something that comics have struggled with for literally decades. I have to say I'm still disappointed when I see it turn up.

Thank you again for your response. I appreciated your insight into the book, and what you were trying to do.