plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Realism, Respectability, Whatnot

What a time to be blogging! Any number of topics from around the comics blogging world are swirling around in my head, and I will attempt to bring some of them together here in this post and see what I come up with. I anticipate that this will be a rambling, meandering post, and it would be more succinct and would make more sense if I had the time to go back into it when I'm finsished. But I don't, so here we go.

John Parker, fellow Kansas City area guy and friend of mine, has a new Ninth Art article up (incidentally, these are occurring more frequently lately and I say well done, John) giving voice to the idea that comics with realistic plots are most often just as average as those with fantastic plots. Fair enough. I would argue that there is no such thing as a realistic plot, because a plot is an artificial construction, but that would be meaningless here as John wasn't the one who used that language, I was. Anyway, John refers to them as realistic-slash-autobiographical, which is distinct from simply saying "indy" (lest we inadvertantly turn this into a company vs. indy thing) inasmuch as a good many indy books are also fantastic, absurd, surreal, or really anything they want to be.

John's point in the piece is that the ambassadors-in-comics-form to the large mass of people who don't have a history of reading comics tend to be middle-of-the-road in content and quality. I guess what I would ask is: why wouldn't they be? That's the type of culture product that most people consume. Film, television, music, novels and even restaurants tend to be exactly that. We would do well to remember that hype, even in the form of those "comics are actually worthy of your time, whodathunk" articles, is primarily about marketing. It stands to reason that the comics that most resemble the other cultural artifacts people consume are the ones that will receive the biggest push. John makes a lamenting remark to the effect that more interesting work is ignored in favor of the mediocre stuff, but doesn't say what the more interesting work is, so I can't say whether I agree or not.

Anyway, that's really all tangential to what his article really got me to thinking about (so I guess technically, I'm the one who's going off on a tangent here), namely realism. Now, trying to identify realism in artifice is a rather dicey proposition. What is it that makes one work realistic while another is not, and what makes one work more realistic than another? In order to determine those things, we'd have to first determine what the works are about, in every sense of about-ness that can possibly be gleaned--including perhaps the ones we ourselves might miss but that someone else can kindly point out. And even supposing that was possible, we'd still have to then connect what we find out to some sort of greater truth about life or whatever, and then do some kind of audit between the works to determine which one has more of that. Whew, what a lot of trouble! An unread work of art is like an incomplete circuit; it does nothing at all until connected to something that it can output to. That's the reader, who also has an effect on the content. There are things that readers will see that authors may not know they put there, and yet there they are. Yeah, so what is realism? Did we perhaps mean to say genuineness, or maybe honesty? Or do we mean simulacrum (I would bring in Baudrillard, wouldn't I)? All things considered we could just be talking about drawings of cars that look like cars (except they don't look like cars, they look like drawings of cars), or conversations written the way people talk (except that they're not conversations, they're carefully chosen written words), or situations that mimic situations that might happen in real life (except with discernable beginnings, middles, and ends). So yeah, it seems to me that striving for realism is a useless endeavor.

With that in mind I can see why Dave has so much difficulty with respectability. Now I'm admittedly making a leap here that might not necessarily be able to be made. I'm assuming that there is some link in the imaginations of a large number of folks between perceived realism and respectability. This might in some way explain the ruinously stifling influence that striving for respectablity has on a work. And I'm not talking about genuinely good works here; I'm more talking about work that over thinks and over extends itself, where the author creates with the audience too much in mind. In my experience the best creators are the ones who allow the work to function as a buffer between themselves and the readers, who focus on the work itself and allow the reader to do the same. In other words, creators who realize that that's all they can do, and so they don't try to manipulate/control the audience so much. Yes, of course this gets back to power. For what is respectability if not a relationship of power and approval? Do you remember all of your embarrassing attempts to write essays that impressed your professors? How did that work out? Did you over-reach? See how the art gets lost in all the manipulation? Writer tries to assert power by controlling the reader to receive the reader's approval. The reader asserts power by setting the conditions by which approval is given to the author. The work itself is, in this case, not what really matters. I wish that I could come up with specific examples in comics, but I try not to presume that that's what's going on in most of what I read. I really don't know and am in no position to judge. I assume that if I find something interesting to chew on, then the work itself was, on at least some level, of primary importance during its creation.

Okay, so I'm tired and really starting to ramble. I'll probably have to come back to this subject later, so enjoy this and let me know if anyone has anything to add.

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