Monday, May 2, 2011

"The batmen and supermen of the commercial dope factories"

It's not my turn to post (look for my mad ramblings on Wednesday), but I had a comment I felt I needed to get down, and hopefully hear some other peoples' thoughts on. As the title indicates, its about Ursula LeGuin's apparent feelings on the superheroes, the cultural device, and perhaps comic books, the medium.

Her statements reek of intellectual snobbery, the same kind that we've been exposed to many times in this class in criticisms of Tolkein. Critics will contend that fantasy is childish, wasteful, unworthy of appreciation, somehow distinct from real literature. We have, rightly I think, disparaged this notion. Then a wont stand by as a fantasy author says that comics are all commercial dope. Graphic media need not be infantillising, or purely escapist; they too can express timeless archetypes of the collective unconscious. I am the first to admit that the vast majority of superhero stories are poorly written crap, but so too are the vast majority of pulp fantasy novels. The fault always lies with an individual story, not a subject, genre, or medium, and to generalize about anyone is insulting. The critics who are aghast that Watchmen was counted amongst the top 100 novels of the twentieth century, or that it is the subject of university classes, are the same people who would complain about our biweekly discussions, or see appreciation of Bohemian Rhapsody as a mark of cultural decline. We don't need them. I think Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, or Neil Gaiman can tell us just as much about the nature of evil, beauty, heroism, dreams, choice, etc. as Tolkien can, and I'm sorry LeGuin doesn't appear to appreciate them.

David Gittin


  1. I thank you for your defense of comic books. I would contend that even the monthlies as opposed to graphic novels can and do "express timeless archetypes of the collective unconscious." Certainly some issues and probably entire titles are sheer pulp. But sometimes there comes a story arc that hits upon something special and meaningful. Yes, it will have the "skkrraakkk" "thooom" "whooosh" and other onomatopoeia galore instead of the linguistic erudition of Tolkien, but that is a matter of packaging and style, not substance.

    However, I doubt ther will be any university classes on the Silver Surfer anytime soon.

    -Jason A Banks

  2. @Jason: Don't be so sure! I used Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics in a course that I taught four years ago at the Newberry Library on prayer (to help us think about the use of images in books of Hours), and Susan Burns and I assigned Prince Valiant and Lone Wolf and Cub the same spring in "Knights and Samurai."


  3. Jason,

    I realize now that I used mostly graphic novels in my defense of comics in general, but the distinction is very arbitrary. Sandman and Watchmen were monthlies first that were republished in a collective. I think Maus, From Hell and Lost Girls are the only graphics I've read that weren't originally serial. I think I jumped to graphic novels not because they are inherently different than serial comics, but because they are often better known and the quality is over all a little higher, because only commercially successful works get an expensive reprinting/binding process.

  4. As per professor Fulton's email request, I am the original poster, and I'm the third (and now fourth) comment.

    David Gittin

  5. I think there's a lot to be said about the dismissal of "genre" literature and graphic novels/comics. As someone whose 7th grade English teacher wanted to know "what all these aliens" were doing in her creative writing assignments, there's a sense that anything which does not deal in "real" problems affecting the primary reality is automatically invalid. It does not apply to the grand, sweeping "Humanity" literature is supposed to address.

    What we forget is that once, Virginia Woolf wrote about "unreal" problems, because Mrs. Dalloway getting ready for a party was not a concern of Humanity. Humanity does not value children’s books, slave narratives, LGBT fiction, authors of color…the same people who, historically, have been denied voices. Only recently I read a wonderful article, “How to Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Ross*, which argues that when a society cannot outright ban a certain kind of literature, the alternative is to recast it as having nothing valuable to say. Fantasy authors and comic artists face the same questions Ross paints women as being asked: “Isn’t there something better/more worthwhile/more practical you could be doing with your time?”

    ~Sarah Gregory

    *It really is a wonderful essay, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in gender studies, or just a different perspective of how a society’s view of art can be used to suppress that art.

  6. Totally in agreement here - I was quite startled when I read LeGuin's comment on Batman and Superman (only acceptable in the singular). As if comics don't use archetypal characters all the time!