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Monday, 03 May 2010

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Ahistoricality

What's the point of a taxicab conversation, if not for some authorial insight? Even for a real-life taxicab conversation, this is pretty incoherent. I don't know this work or artist, so I'll take your word for the repeated nature of the gesture. But it's pretty much just a finger or two disguised as handwaving....

Luther Blissett

I'm a little confused by the footnote. What's wrong with not being able to enjoy Pavement because one already enjoys Television? To the music lover who came of age with Television, might a band that sounds just like Television simply seem, well, uninteresting? Especially if what excited you about Television in the first place was the way their sound sounded against the backdrop of all the other sounds of the late 70s?

I'm also not sure why Clowes should have to like genre comics just because he himself makes comics. It's like saying novelists should like popular novelists, or Wilco should like Tom Petty and the Wallflowers because they all do rootsy music.

What bothers me about Clowes, though, is that he's clearly all bent out of shape not about the real aesthetic qualities of his comics versus those of genre comics, but about the cultural capital that he thinks his comics embody -- a cultural capital that only exists because of the distance he establishes between his work and that of the genre artists. Clowes strikes me as the kind of guy to uniformly be OK with all the shit in those Best American Comics collections, which is monotonous and dreadful, and uniformly be NOT OK with anything in a paper cover sold at a magazine stand, even if the particular issue is actually amazing by aesthetic standards. Clowes is the writer who loves anything in the New Yorker but hates anything in Amateur Writers Weekly. Clowes is the musician who loves whatever the college radio station plays and hates anything the Top 40 station plays -- even if that Beyonce track is better, in the end, than that Radiohead track.

SEK

What's the point of a taxicab conversation, if not for some authorial insight? Even for a real-life taxicab conversation, this is pretty incoherent. I don't know this work or artist, so I'll take your word for the repeated nature of the gesture.

I didn't set the book up too well here, but I can say that the titular Wilson isn't an author-proxy ... which makes the hand-waving all the more egregious. Even when the characters aren't standing in for Clowes (as the comic critic in Ice Haven clearly does), they feel compelled to slag genre books for being genre books instead of, you know, self-consciously otherwise.

What's wrong with not being able to enjoy Pavement because one already enjoys Television?

Absolutely nothing ... and yet, there's the brand of fan for whom appreciation of the latter precludes listening to the former. Because, you know, they're snobs.

I'm also not sure why Clowes should have to like genre comics just because he himself makes comics.

He doesn't have to like them, it's just--wait, hold on a minute here:

What bothers me about Clowes, though, is that he's clearly all bent out of shape not about the real aesthetic qualities of his comics versus those of genre comics, but about the cultural capital that he thinks his comics embody -- a cultural capital that only exists because of the distance he establishes between his work and that of the genre artists ... Clowes is the musician who loves whatever the college radio station plays and hates anything the Top 40 station plays -- even if that Beyonce track is better, in the end, than that Radiohead track.

Yes. That's exactly what I'm getting at, but your music example trumps mine in terms of cogency.

HP

I enjoy pre-Code horror and crime comics, but have never gotten into heros, super- or otherwise. And yet, so many of the people whose taste I admire, admire superhero comics. I can't bring myself to dismiss the genre, yet I find nothing in it to identify with.

It always baffles me how many seemingly intelligent people confuse subjective taste with some sort of objective quality. I would say to Clowes that sometimes, when creative people create things, they're not actually thinking of you.

I mean, the whole notion of quality seems bound up with egotism and narcissism. SEK, I don't know how scholars like you do it.

Mike Russo

Isn't the key thing less about where exactly one's aesthetic judgment comes down, and more about universilatization of judgments that should properly remain subjective? I mean, obviously there's a whole lot to criticism beyond just harrumphing about one man's modus tollens, and some things really are worse than others on any reasonable aesthetic criterion. But surely the crime that unites Clowes, our college-radio elitist, and indeed even the pro-Beyonce knee-jerk-anti-Radiohead reactionaries of the world is their eagerness to find somebody to look down on? I mean, you should be able to defend your taste, but it's thinking that it should be hegemonic which is crazy and irritating.

By way of example perhaps: I love the Mountain Goats far more than I really should, poring over every album with an almost religious devotion, listening obsessively even to the weaker entries in their discography when I could be spending that time and effort on broadening my horizons so that, say, I could learn the very first thing about classical music, so that finally I would be able to listen to some of these masterpieces of western civilization with tears not of boredom but of joyous transport in my eyes. But I don't, and I can list reasons for why I don't. Which is all perfectly fine, I think -- it's just that, if I started using that as a reason to go after classical-music-listeners, I'd be an asshole.

And you can substitute pretty much any two things in the universe for "the Mountain Goats" and "classical music" in this equation -- depending on whether you put the high-art one first or second, you're either an elitist or a philistine -- but the dynamic is still the same.

Karl Steel

people who claim they can't dig Pavement because they're into Television or the Wire
what about The Fall, man?

Sad, though, that Clowes is still on this kick, 15-20 years: he was doing this stuff in Eightball back when I ALSO cared about not being tagged as a 'guy who reads comic books.' Thing is, I grew up.

Now, there's nothing about comics, period, in Velvet Glove, which probably remains my favorite thing by him. Probably not coincidental.

tomemos

There's nothing about comics in Velvet Glove, and in David Boring the fragments of the very mainstream comic that David's father drew is used as a parallel for the unanswerables in David's own fragmented story, rather than something inferior. The only thing about comics in Ghost World is that Enid is interested in checking out Dan Clowes, and when she does she finds him to be…give me a second while I find the spot in the book…"this old perv." Casting Clowes as a haughty snob just isn't going to fly.

tomemos

If I may be inflammatory for a moment: anyone looking for an example of snobbery and stereotypical thinking about art should take a good look at Luther's comment. The Best American Comics collections so far span four years, each with some two dozen artists of all styles, genres, levels of experience, etc., but Luther assures us that it's all "shit," "monotonous and dreadful." I'll ask anyone to explain how that's different from making an equivalent comment about mainstream comics. The people who've figured out what a swindle alternative art is, and assure everyone that they aren't taken in by all the critical hoopla, are a class of snob as old as the hills.

(For the record, Lynda Barry chose to include a Batman story in the '08 Best American collection. DC pulled its permission.)

Steve Pick

I'm with you on the general point about snobbery, but confused on the specific Television / Pavement comparison. It never occurred to me for one second to think Pavement was doing anything remotely similar to Television - the latter created masterpieces of precision, elegance, virtuosity, and transcendence; the former was a shambling, disconnected, imprecise, purposely obscure, and mundane mess. Which, as Karl Steel pointed out, was a lot like the Fall.

T. Hodler

Gee, I thought The Dark Knight was a movie...

JPool

I'd like to generally endorse Mike Russo's comment, with the caveat that, while I haven't read Clowes's work and can't really judge whether the pattern you perceive is their in the larger corpus, I don't see how it's supposed to work in this particular vingette. You say the character isn't an author surrogate, but even if they were in this scene, it'd be a pretty self-hating presentation; the speech and its graphic presentation seem designed to cast the protagonist as a self-satified and obnoxious jerk.

As to the more general issue of contempt for mainstream comics and their readers, there's a scene in The Comedians of Comedy where Paton Oswald is musing on both the joy and residual shame attached to reading comics as a grown-assed man. He isn't able to articulate it much beyond the fact that some people think it's strange or nerdy, but he seems aware that part of why it's looked down on is that many people view it as an adolescent interest. While it has become more socially acceptable to collect media or materials designed for children, enjoying them is still seen as evidence of a kind of arrested development. I don't read super hero comics anymore, but I do enjoy children's books and cartoons, and while I don't imagine that I necessarily enjoy them in the same way that a child would, having the burden of memory and experience, I certainly wouldn't claim to to only enjoy the versions of those media that are actually designed for adults. I think that in that dynamic, a desire to mark or distance one's taste from those of children, part of what's going on is a desire to distance one's self from association with a lower status set of readers. In the speech you reproduce, the protagonist's back pocket reading of a film he hasn't seen positions himself as adult/smart/educated rather than childish/unsophicated, and thereby reveals his own anxieties.

Martin Wisse

Clowes started doing his comics at a time when that did still mean superheroes, so I don't blame him for a certain defensiveness. Shitty as the comics industry might be these days, at least comics have become respectable enough not to need this anymore and it's hard to appreciate how difficult it was in the eighties to gain even a little bit of attention other than "ziff bang pow".

tomemos

"You say the character isn't an author surrogate, but even if they were in this scene, it'd be a pretty self-hating presentation; the speech and its graphic presentation seem designed to cast the protagonist as a self-satified and obnoxious jerk."

This seemed clear to me as well.

SEK

HP:

It always baffles me how many seemingly intelligent people confuse subjective taste with some sort of objective quality. I would say to Clowes that sometimes, when creative people create things, they're not actually thinking of you. I mean, the whole notion of quality seems bound up with egotism and narcissism. SEK,I don't know how scholars like you do it.

The trick of it is that we don't. We don't have to claim that something is "good" so long as we can demonstrate that it's "complex" in "interesting" ways. Our only value judgment is implicit: if we work on a particular book or novel, it must have value, otherwise we'd be working on something else.

Mike:

[Y]ou can substitute pretty much any two things in the universe for "the Mountain Goats" and "classical music" in this equation -- depending on whether you put the high-art one first or second, you're either an elitist or a philistine -- but the dynamic is still the same.

Well said. All I'd add is that when you predicate your enjoyment of a work on how someone else feels about some other work, you're necessarily at a remove from whatever it is you claim to enjoy. Which means, I think, that you don't actually enjoy it so much as you enjoy the enjoying of it.

Karl:

Sad, though, that Clowes is still on this kick, 15-20 years: he was doing this stuff in Eightball back when I ALSO cared about not being tagged as a 'guy who reads comic books.' Thing is, I grew up.

Nice to see that someone else has the same gut feeling about Clowes, as it seems I did a piss-poor job quantifying here.

Tomemos:

There's nothing about comics in Velvet Glove, and in David Boring the fragments of the very mainstream comic that David's father drew is used as a parallel for the unanswerables in David's own fragmented story, rather than something inferior.

Yes on Velvet Glove, but not on David Boring, because The Yellow Streak is clearly a work of juvenile fiction, and Boring's obsession with it only makes him, you know, boring. More on that later, though, as I need to think through the role of the comic in that book. It's more complicated than the distancing gesture I'm discussing here.

Steve:

It never occurred to me for one second to think Pavement was doing anything remotely similar to Television - the latter created masterpieces of precision, elegance, virtuosity, and transcendence; the former was a shambling, disconnected, imprecise, purposely obscure, and mundane mess. Which, as Karl Steel pointed out, was a lot like the Fall.

I actually thought I wrote the Fall in there too. Must not have made it through the draft. The comparison of Pavement to Television has something to do with the precise sound of the guitars: their harsh clarity and their constant dueling, etc. As someone who doesn't buy that argument, I'm not prepared to defend it on its merits. I just heard it a lot back in the early '90s from snobs at record shops who snickered when I purchased Pavement albums.

JPool:

You say the character isn't an author surrogate, but even if they were in this scene, it'd be a pretty self-hating presentation; the speech and its graphic presentation seem designed to cast the protagonist as a self-satified and obnoxious jerk.

All characters in Clowes' books are unsympathetic. The issue is where a particular character falls on the degenerate asshole spectrum. The reason that sequence stood out is because Wilson falls so low on it and yet he still spits on super hero books. If they're beneath him, the people who read them must be etc. etc. etc.

I think that in that dynamic, a desire to mark or distance one's taste from those of children, part of what's going on is a desire to distance one's self from association with a lower status set of readers. In the speech you reproduce, the protagonist's back pocket reading of a film he hasn't seen positions himself as adult/smart/educated rather than childish/unsophicated, and thereby reveals his own anxieties.

In general, I agree with you about this dynamic. However, as to the particulars, Martin's comment is instructive:

Clowes started doing his comics at a time when that did still mean superheroes, so I don't blame him for a certain defensiveness. Shitty as the comics industry might be these days, at least comics have become respectable enough not to need this anymore and it's hard to appreciate how difficult it was in the eighties to gain even a little bit of attention other than "ziff bang pow".

Clowes is, in this respect, not that different from the rearguard culture warrior who's still fighting to keep Shakespeare in the curriculum: his complaints are no longer valid, but they've become such a part of his artistic identity that he can't stop airing them.

Luther Blissett

tomemos, there's a big difference between sweeping judgments and snobbery. Snobbery is about maintaining class or cultural distinctions; sweeping judgments are what keep most of us alive on a day to day basis. Snobbery is simply one form of prejudice, and prejudice influences how one will act in the future. Sweeping judgments are simply statements about past experience. They are not necessarily prejudicial, meaning they will not necessarily affect one's future behavior.

For example, I make sweeping judgments about art all the time: Yo La Tengo is flawless. But that doesn't mean I won't give them hell the second they are not flawless in the future. Likewise, for a while, I wrote off everything by The Flaming Lips. But I could still give their new album a chance, and I love it.

And I stand by my sweeping judgment. The overall aesthetic of the Best American Comics volumes is essentially the same as mainstream lyric poetry and *The New Yorker*'s version of short fiction (i.e., the Carver model): brief flashes of seeming insight into the mundane or trivia of the artist's life. Too much of it seemed like a hipster's diary to me. Nothing risked, nothing gained.

JPool

If they're beneath him, the people who read them must be etc. etc. etc.

Oooorr, it might signify that the character's critical judgements are in fact suspect and that he's taking this arbitrary stance just for the thrill of putting himself above other people. One might even go so far as to speculate that this is Clowes satirizing a younger version of himself and his compatriots.

Just sayin.

tomemos

"Yes on Velvet Glove, but not on David Boring, because The Yellow Streak is clearly a work of juvenile fiction, and Boring's obsession with it only makes him, you know, boring."

I don't want to be rude, but I just have no idea what makes you think this is the case. Seriously, if you could cite any sign that we're supposed to think of Boring as boring because of this—or boring at all—I'd appreciate it, because a) I think his name is ironic; b) no character ever thinks he's boring; in fact, everyone around him takes a great deal of interest in him, c) Boring's interest in his father's comic book is a genuine enigma.

"The reason that sequence stood out is because Wilson falls so low on it and yet he still spits on super hero books. If they're beneath him, the people who read them must be etc. etc. etc."

I'll let myself be rude here: that's honestly the worst use of the transitive property that I can remember. Clowes made an obnoxious character sound obnoxious when discussing The Dark Knight, and your conclusion is that we're meant to agree with that character's opinions on the film? I haven't read Wilson, but you say the character is a misogynist. Well, are you sure Clowes isn't saying that if women are beneath him, then they must be etc. etc. etc.? Elementary separation between author and character here, Scott!

My honest opinion is that your sensitivity to anti-comics prejudice resulted in the impairment of your critical faculties here. You're projecting your own defensiveness, and it's leading you to make arguments that aren't justified by the text.

tomemos

"Snobbery is simply one form of prejudice"

I agree. And I believe the following represents an example of prejudice:

"The overall aesthetic of the Best American Comics volumes is essentially the same as mainstream lyric poetry and *The New Yorker*'s version of short fiction (i.e., the Carver model): brief flashes of seeming insight into the mundane or trivia of the artist's life."

The reason I call that prejudice is that it simply bears no resemblance to the Tables of Contents of the two Best American collections I own (2006 and 2008). There are a couple of Pekar-esque stories from the artist's life, true, but there's also magical realism, fantasy, comedy, journalism, history, fable, what do you want me to say? It's just not the case. You haven't read the Best American books, or at least not enough to evaluate the "overall aesthetic."

SEK
Oooorr, it might signify that the character's critical judgements are in fact suspect and that he's taking this arbitrary stance just for the thrill of putting himself above other people. One might even go so far as to speculate that this is Clowes satirizing a younger version of himself and his compatriots.

The problem with that is the consistency of the complaint: if this were a singular instance of it, I'd agree that this is a satirization of a younger self ... but this is a gesture Clowes makes with thudding regularity, which places it outside the realm of satire and within the bounds genuine complaint.

I don't want to be rude, but I just have no idea what makes you think this is the case. Seriously, if you could cite any sign that we're supposed to think of Boring as boring because of this—or boring at all—I'd appreciate it, because a) I think his name is ironic; b) no character ever thinks he's boring; in fact, everyone around him takes a great deal of interest in him, c) Boring's interest in his father's comic book is a genuine enigma.

You know me well enough to know better than to appeal to the trope of the rude infidel: I'll take what you say seriously even if I disagree with it on account of it being, you know, whatever. That said, Boring is boring because he's an agglutinate cliché: combine the escapism with the noir with the etc. etc. and you have David Boring. Not only can I cite "any sign," I can cite pretty much every one, starting on the first page of David Boring. I could cite the combination of the monochromatic visuals and the deadpan noir delivery of the voice-over. He's boring because he's modeling his life after indelibly familiar clichés, and while the interest he generates within the book is real, it's also always at a remove: people aren't interested in his interests, they're intrigued by the way his life accords with narratives with which they're already familiar.

That said, of all that he's involved in, the one thing that interests no one is his relation to the "silly books" his father wrote. As Dot says, "There's nothing there, David." Because, for Clowes, there isn't. Because there can't be. Because such books have no meaning for folks like Clowes. Now, as Martin and Karl have noted, there's a sound historical reason for Clowes' repeated overreaction, and I grant him the power of that. However, it ain't my fucking impairment at work here. I'm actually not that sensitive to "anti-comic prejudice," for the simple reason that, as you know, I only started re-reading mainstream and mainstream-ish comics in the past two or three years. I was so far out the loop, you'll remember, that I hadn't even ever read The Invisibles.

In short, then, I'm not being defensive because I'm not invested in any of these ramparts. They can fall without me caring; however, if someone who's otherwise astute starts reflexively jerking his knee against an entire genre regardless of, well, anything, I'm going to try to discover not only why he's thrusting such, but also whether whatever kicks he lands can justified after the fact. In this case, I don't think they can be. I believe, in all honesty, that Clowes' complaint here is pro forma. I think I can prove it, too. Just give me a couple of days.

tomemos

"The problem with that is the consistency of the complaint: if this were a singular instance of it, I'd agree that this is a satirization of a younger self ... but this is a gesture Clowes makes with thudding regularity, which places it outside the realm of satire and within the bounds genuine complaint."

But this is circular. You're saying that we can tell that Wilson's dislike of mainstream comics culture is meant to be taken seriously, because Clowes is always serious about his dislike of mainstream comics culture. I don't see how Clowes can ever escape from that; even when he engages in self-parody or self-deprecation, even when his mainstream characters are unpleasant misogynists (and again, surely those views are distinguishable from the author's?), you'll continue to maintain that he's being serious, because that's what he always does. I think that predetermined argument leads you astray on David Boring:

"That said, of all that he's involved in, the one thing that interests no one is his relation to the "silly books" his father wrote. As Dot says, "There's nothing there, David." Because, for Clowes, there isn't. Because there can't be. Because such books have no meaning for folks like Clowes."

I think this is kind of a tortured reading, and certainly an uncharitable one. Dot isn't criticizing the art or the characters of The Yellow Streak, she's saying that there's no narrative there—because, after all, the comic has been torn to shreds and only a dozen panels remain. You have to work like a steam engine to turn that into some kind of criticism of Green Lantern or whatever, and it just doesn't come off. The Yellow Streak is by no means clearly meant to represent real mainstream comics, and certainly not successful ones—I mean, who would name a superhero after a pejorative term for a coward? Putting Dot forward as a stand-in for Clowes seems really untenable. And most importantly, David's examination of the comics is a really interesting part of Clowes's book. David is not criticizing the cheap production values and the cliche dialogue; he's searching for meaning. What's David's response to "There's nothing there"? "I'm not so sure."

Look, calling you defensive was unnecessarily personal on my part, and I apologize for making an unworthy contribution to the discussion in that way (that reads as sarcastic, but I'm sincere). But it doesn't matter whether you or I are taking it personally, the result is the same: you're starting from the position that Clowes is permanently hostile to mainstream comics based on his work in Eight Ball, without allowing his more recent work to speak on its own. Artists change, people mature, themes evolve in the course of someone's work. We can't just point to what Clowes may have said in the past and ignore the clear signs that the message has become much more nuanced.

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