Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reviewing a Review


I began writing about comics in a fanzine published by my good friend Manuel Caldas: Nemo [in the subtitle's last version], O Fanzine Dos Que Gostam Da Banda Desenhada (Nemo, the fanzine of those who like comics - March, 1986 - June, 1998). This is a strange concept: no one likes music or cinema (i. e.: all music or all films). Anyway, it was back then, in Nemo # 21 (March, 1996), that I initiated my campaign against most mainstream comics (the exceptions being Carl Barks' duck stories, Matt Marriott by Reg Taylor, James Edgar and Tony Weare, lots of stories written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and a couple of David Wright's Carol Day story arcs; I'm not sure if comics by Carlos Trillo and Alberto Breccia are mainstream or not). I tried to explain my reasons, of course... but Manuel wasn't kidding when he put that subtitle on his fanzine's cover: some people do like all comics, especially the mainstream ones (they think that alternative comics are badly drawn, so, I'm not sure if they like all comics or just the "for the youth from 7 to 77" kind). Needless to say that I was "the enemy within" subsequently ... I was bitterly expelled from the escapists' (aren't they all?) paradise...
Most of what I wrote back then I recently found in a review of Martin Sheridan's Comics and Their Creators (Hale, Cushman and Flint, 1942) by the New York Intellectual David T. Mazelon. It was published in Dwight MacDonald's Politics magazine (May, 1944: 117 - 118). Unfortunately some of us are condemned to reinvent the wheel, I suppose...
Bazelon opens his review writing that: "Mr. Sheridan has something to say about some seventy-five comic strips. But what he says is singularly unimposing. Each of these strips is covered by a thumbnail biography of the creator, or an interview in the worst newspaper manner. The histories of the cartoonists and their work are presented by banal anecdotes, salary figures, and relative merits at golf. Sheridan's understanding of the comics and the men who draw them really seems to be limited to a hungry appreciation of their salaries." This is a criticism of the author's approach (from the point of view of the social critic and art lover), not a critique of American newspaper comics and comic books (that comes later). (Bazelon also quotes Sheridan's publishers when they say that his book will appeal to "every young-minded American" - it's the "from 7 to 77" cliché again -; he counterattacks stating the existence of the "undiapered reader;" as a huge fan of the "babymen" epithet I have to add that I laughed with gusto when I read the expression.)
He goes on quoting Sheridan and sandwiching comments: "The comics cartoonist "is expected to please everybody." He believes that readers "will follow the strip which offends no one." With these directives, the tendency, of course, is to produce vacuous stereotypes." I could not say better...
I also agree with Bazelon's aesthetic ideas (if they were born with Romanticism, so be it): "One of the greatest effects of good art is to make people see themselves differently, by identification in new, fruitful perspectives. This is the other side of artistic creativeness, for it is the expression of such perspectives which provides the artist's essential worth. However, when the needs of class control determine the material of art, and when these needs are reactionary and disease-like, creativity is sharply limited or completely smothered. Art is dangerous; it tends toward freedom." In the highly commodified world of the 21th century this statement seems a bit naive, but I believe in its core idea: the stereotype can never be great art. And mainstream comics are stereotype-ridden...
To see how the New York Intellectuals changed their minds about mass consumption of the arts from 1944 to 1960 we just need to compare these two quotes... Bazelon (being a revolutionary idealist): "This approach [by Sergei Eisenstein who roughly says that if we give something good to the people they will like it] conflicts with the Philistine attitude that good art is for a small section of the population, while any trash can be tossed to the masses." MacDonald (being a post-revolution realist): "the great majority of people at any given time (including most of the ruling class for the matter) have never cared enough about such things to make them an important part of their lives. So let the masses have their Masscult, let the few who care about good writing, painting, music, architecture, philosophy, etc., have their High Culture, and don't fuzz up the distinction with Midcult." ("Masscult & Midcult," Against the American Grain, Vintage Books [Partisan Review, Volume 17, # 2, Spring, 1960 - Volume 17, # 3, Summer, 1960], 1962: 73). As Neil Jumonville put it: "[the New York Intellectuals] disliked mass culture partly because the working class never turned out to be as revolutionary, noble and cultured as radical intellectuals had hoped. Some of the Partisan group had assumed that, if unimpeded by capitalist commercial values, the mass of citizens would voluntarily seek out high culture themselves. When it became evident that would not happen, most New York Intellectuals deplored middlebrow as much as lowbrow culture." (The New York Intellectuals Reader, Routledge, 2007: 205.) Pierre Bourdieu confirmed scientifically what Dwight MacDonald suspected: high culture is not the culture of the dominant class, high culture is the culture of the dominated fraction of the dominant class (La distinction, Les Editions de minuit, 2002 [1979]). In a word: the intelligentsia. Large parts of the dominant fraction of the dominant class have middlebrow or even lowbrow taste because these "things" are not "an important part of their lives."
Bazelon likes Krazy Kat by George Herriman and that's about it. I put no American newspaper comic strips in my canon, but being forced to do it I would also choose Krazy Kat (see header above), some Sunday Pages from Gasoline Alley by Frank King (the dailies' story arcs seem as bowdlerized as the Sunday Pages, but they're not half as poetical), Dot and Dash by Cliff Sterrett (for their formal ingenuity), some Skippy by Percy Crosby (and not Peanuts... having to choose between the master and the apprentice I choose the former), but not much else... David Bazelon condemns Bringing Up Father (by George McManus): "[Jiggs] prefers corned-beef-and-cabbage and poker with the boys to the life that wealth offers. The sop here is patent[;]" Radio Patrol (by Ed Sullivan and Charles Schmidt) because: "Almost tautologically, art serving banalities itself becomes banal" (I'm not sure if I agree with this one, but that's a story for another time); The Timid Soul (by H. T. Webster): "an extreme caricature against which the pin-point ego of any harassed petty-bourgeois can release itself."
After saying that "Politically, Superman is a pre-fascist creation" David T. Bazelon ends his review contradicting what psychiatrist Lauretta Bender (who was part of Superman's publisher, National Comics' - later DC -, editorial board) has to say about said character: "(He) would seem to offer the same type of mental catharsis Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the drama." Bazelon: ""Superman" gives vicarious satisfaction to explicit social frustrations. It cannot be tragic or displeasing, nor can it contain that essential realism which is a quality of all good art. For it has a purpose: this is art in the service of social neuroses. And that service is the meaning of most comic strips... Pearls are produced not by serving but by opposing disease."

Image:
The cover of Politics, May, 1944.

PS A page about David T. Bazelon: http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/findaids/bazelon/index.htm#bio

PPS This is post # 100. I'm amazed that I arrived this far, really...

6 comments:

Manuel Caldas said...

Oh, I remember very well that fanzine NEMO. I learned a lot with it and I learned a lot especially with Domingos Isabelinho texts. Really! For example: I learned to like Harvey Pekar and Chester Brown comics.
Recently, when wandering through my bookshelf, I found a copy of issue no. 12 and in page 23 these words by Isabelinho attracted my attention (my English is very poor, sorry, but I’ll try to give you the best translation): “Remco’s bankruptcy didn’t affect the reprint of black and white series… The apprehension is because of possible color projects that may no longer come to life so soon: ‘Lance’ by Warren Tufts and ‘Gasoline Alley’, for example.
In the subsequent years, the way Domingos saw comics and art evolved and some four years later he initiated his campaign against most mainstream comics. And he concluded “Lance”, between others, wasn’t worth more than a respectful despise or the absolute indifference.
I love “Matt Marriott” (more the stories – and what stories! – than the art – but what art!) very much, since I was only 12. I also love “Lance” (so much the stories as the art) very much, since I was 16. I now have 50 (something that unexpectedly happens to everybody who continues to stay alive) and I discovered some years ago that those comics (and many others) are not so good as they seemed when I was young (although, I still can’t understand why “Matt Marriott” is that much better then “Lance”). Even though, I still love them, maybe not the same way but still as much as always. Maybe my eyes are still closed to the real art and I have to wait for my 78th anniversary. Meanwhile, I feel happy for feeling happy with comics who always made me happy.
Isabelinho also refers other titles: “Skippy”, “Krazy Kat”, “Peanuts”, “Gasoline Alley” and “Dot and Dash”. Well, I love all of them; I really love them very much. In fact, how I would like to publish a “Skippy” reprint! And of “Krazy Kat”, I’ve just publish a reprint of 42 selected and restored color pages. And I’m restoring the “Dot and Dash” pages for a future reprint.
That’s why I would translate NEMO’s subtitle as “the fanzine of those who LOVE comics”. I still long for the time that fanzine occupied an extremely important place in my life.
The best for you, Domingos! Keep writing.

Isabelinho said...

Olá Manel:
Thanks a lot for your comment. Your visit to my crib is both an honor and a pleasure.
You like what you like and that's it (de gustibus and all that...). This blog is about my personal canon, which means that it isn't about what I like. It's about what I think should be included in a comics canon. These are two very different animals because my personal taste concerns no one but me... A canon discussion, on the other hand, is a public discussion, hence: it is what we, as a community, view as the best examples of the art form. My personal canon doesn't really exist, of course, because a canon is a collective choice and there are no collective choices made by one person. What I'm trying to say is that what most people in the comics milieu consider to be a comics canon is just, in my opinion, of course, a mediocre corpus of children's art and not much else... This doesn't happen in any other art form, but we all know how strange the history of comics as been so far...
As for the difference between "Lance" and "Matt Marriott" I would say that Tony Weare was a better artist than Warren Tufts. The latter did stiff figures while everything is alive in Tony Weare's art. On the other hand, if Tufts isn't a great visual artist (I say this, but I like what he did just the same) he was a poor writer if we compare him to James Edgar. The characters in "Matt Marriott" aren't just well drawn, they're also very well characterized, they're not cardboard like the ones in "Lance." But maybe all this deserves a post on The Crib.
Thanks again for your kind words. Come over whenever you like!

GAF said...

Hola Domingos te felicito por tu blog, que ya voy a agregar a los que yo sigo, y te invito a visitar los míos, uno dedicado a Hugo Pratt y otro a Alberto Breccia !
Saludos
Gustavo Ferrari

Isabelinho said...

Gracias Gustavo! A ver se vuelvo a las historietas argentinas. Tengo pensados un par de posts: uno sobre El Muñoz de Frontera y otro sobre Oesterheld y Roume de nuevo.

Charles R. said...

I'm glad to see your name again, Domingos. Keep fighting the good fight.

Isabelinho said...

Thanks Charles! Likewise! I liked your post at The Hooded Utilitarian.