Monday, 03 May 2010

In political commentary, a little nudity goes a long way. At the conference in Manchester, I attended a panel by Roger Sabin and Martin Barker titled "Doonesbury goes to Iraq," and it mostly concerned what is, from a European perspective, the rightward turn in the politics of Trudeau's Doonesbury after B.D. had his leg blown off. Their argument, briefly, is that focusing on B.D.'s gradual acceptance that he had suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder transforms him into an object of sympathy for both the American right and left; and that, as such, PTSD represents a political common ground that is, to the rest of the world, rather unsavory. For example, if an American soldier kills civilians in Iraq, from the American perspective, that soldier suffers a trauma; whereas from the international perspective, that soldier may have committed a war crime, etc. It was an impressive argument, but it didn't sit well with me because it relied too heavily on the notion that, unlike Vietnam, the United States military is a volunteer force. It ignores both the extent to which stop-loss has been used to plug recruitment shortfalls and the class politics at play in all military recruitment. If you want to claim that the United States military is used to achieve imperialists ends, there's an argument to be made there; but if you want to claim that United States soldiers knowingly support an imperialist agenda, you have your work cut out for you. All of which is only to say, it seemed odd that these sharp British scholars were taking Gary Trudeau behind the woodshed for being implicitly conservative when there are so many explicitly conservative cartoonists who better express the ideological incoherence of the foreign policy and cultural politics of the contemporary right. Granted, they might not consider actual conservative cartoonists worthy of their attention, and I can see why. Consider Chris Muir, a.k.a. the man who unwittingly proves that white male Tea Party aficionados only listen to arguments proffered by scantily clad women. The only interesting thing about Muir is how bereft of his ideas his "strips" are: he finds the conservative talking point of the day, imagines a domestic scene in which his female characters would be fully or partially nude, and combines them into a poorly drawn political burlesque. How formulaic is he? He could continue his strip indefinitely without ever needing to "draw" again in his life. To demonstrate the validity of this claim, I've done Muir the favor of remixing some of his recent output into entirely new comics: They do, I admit, border on the absurd, but I'd consider that an improvement. I suppose I understand then why Sabin and Barker decided to treat the implicit conservatism in Trudeau then: they probably had a difficult time believing that folks like Muir realistically represent conservative thought in American politics. Would that they were correct.
Daniel Clowes is not, per his insistence, one of those comic book readers. The title says "per his insistence," but it would be more accurate to say "per his repeated insistence," as he is incapable of writing a book in which he doesn't distance himself from the poor sods who enjoy genre comics. His dismissal of such readers almost reaches the point of fetish, as if he thrills at the thought of being the comic auteur who produces books that don't belong on the same shelves as Marvel or DC titles. So strong, in fact, is his desire to not be numbered among the lowly readers of genre titles that despite banking his career on sympathetic portrayals of losers and misfits, he lumps anyone who's ever picked up a copy of Detective Comics and enjoyed it in with the Dan Pussey's of the world. Which is only to say that in Clowes hierarchy of worth, there are reasonably well-adjusted people, self-conscious consumers of indie comic art, losers, pariahs, and loser pariahs who read mainstream comics. The fate of the aforementioned Pussey is, you recall, to have his "silly books" ransacked and mocked by elderly iterations of Ghost World's Enid and Rebecca. How powerful is his desire to distance himself from mainstream titles? His new book, Wilson, contains exactly one reference to comic books period, and it serves to demonstrate that while his titular character may be a felonious asshole whose misogyny dresses the windows of a much more malicious psychosis, at least he knows what's what: Heaven forefend anyone mistake Clowes for one of those readers.* *That said, my annoyance here is at the gesture more than the gesturer. Clowes is a phenomenal talent, but just as I can't brook people who claim they can't dig Pavement because they're into Television or the Wire, people who argue that their taste was never sullied by the commonplace strike a populist nerve. That comparison only makes sense if you know people with an unhealthy fetish for '70s new wave who hate the modern.

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