American Gods Episode 1.02: “The Secret of Spoons”

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Apologies for such a late posting—writing about the second episode three days after episode three went up is rather more than tardy, but I plead a particularly recalcitrant piece of writing I needed to get done for this past Sunday that occupied all of my attention. So, without further ado: episode two!

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First, a review.

My first impression of this episode was essentially meh. It started well with Mr. Nancy’s magisterial speech aboard the slave ship, but from that point on was rather uneven—the pacing was odd, and it lacked a cohering through-line, thematically or otherwise. There were some stellar stand-out moments, to be sure—Mr. Nancy, Gillian Anderson as the god of Media in the guise of Lucille Ball, Wednesday’s many little brilliant moments, Cloris Leachman!, and of course Peter Stormare’s vituperative, chain-smoking Slavic god Czernobog—but at first glance, the episode felt like a patchwork of unevenly-paced set-pieces interrupted by a montage of Bilquis’ equal opportunity predatory sex.

My second and third viewings made it clear that this is a series that rewards rewatching. That’s not necessarily what television execs want to hear, but it speaks to the depth of material on display here, the quality of the writing, and the brilliance of the performances.

On this last point: can we sing songs of triumph for Orlando Jones, Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Stormare? I’m particularly hung up on Cloris Leachman, whom I’ve loved since first I watched Young Frankenstein. I want to single her out because the other three are given virtuosic text—and they all rise admirably to it—but she manages to bring remarkable gravitas to a part that could easily be played as a one-dimensional stereotype. Considering the dark threat Stormare brings to his role, it’s a testament to Leachman that she makes it clear this is her home.

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Second, my thoughts.

As I said above, there’s no clear unifying theme in this episode, with the exception of Czernobog’s comments about race, which close a circle with Mr. Nancy’s speech aboard the Dutch slaver (about which, more below). Rather, the episode unfolds almost as a trio of one-act plays—or four, if we include the wordless montage of Bilquis consuming her lovers/worshippers, and then having a wistful moment at a museum where she looks upon a statue of her old self and the jewelry her acolytes would wear.

I cannot say enough about Orlando Jones’ impassioned rage as the trickster spider god Anansi, appearing in flamboyant twentieth-century garb on a Dutch slave ship. Did I say last week that American Gods seems to be leaning into the racial politics of American history? The raw rage he communicates here is mind-numbing, and strips away whatever platitudes and obfuscations we might employ to euphemize the brutal, inhuman reality of slavery and its legacy:

“Shit! You all don’t know you black yet!” he says, a line that will resonate later in the episode. “You think that you’re just people. Let me be the first to tell you that you are all black!” As much, however, as he inspires and channels the anger of the slaves—and as much as his speech communicates his own rage at what has been done to his people—Anansi ultimately goads them into a blood sacrifice that will benefit him. When one of the prisoners protests that they will be killed if they rebel, Anansi sneers, “You already dead, asshole. At least die a sacrifice for something worthwhile.” A sacrifice, it turns out, for Anansi, whose incarnation crawls ashore amid the flotsam of the destroyed slave ship, an African god transplanted to America.

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It is a reminder of something we’ve already been learning from Mr. Wednesday: gods in the Gaiman firmament are not deities who exist prior to humanity, on whom we are dependent; they are the product of human belief, and are therefore dependent upon us for devotion, worship, and above all, sacrifice. As such, they are grifters, reliant upon trickery and prestidigitation to goad us into giving of ourselves. Mr. Wednesday, we have seen, is quite the accomplished con man, playacting his way into a first-class seat in the first episode; in episode three, he employs an even more elaborate grift to rob a bank (but more about that in my next post). On one hand, his roguish behaviour is entirely in keeping with the Odin of Norse myth, who delighted in outsmarting his enemies even more than he took pleasure in battle. But his grifting is also what passes for worship in his new reality, as he feeds on the gullibility of everyone he cons. In a speech to the other old gods in the novel—which I will be very surprised if it isn’t repeated verbatim in the series—he says,

We have, let’s face it and admit it, very little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods.

Except, as we’re coming to realize, America isn’t entirely without its own gods. For those who haven’t read the novel, last episode’s encounter with Technical Boy might have been somewhat baffling; Shadow’s latest run-in brings things into slightly more focus, as Media—played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson as Lucille Ball (sorry, Ricardo)—makes her pitch for Shadow’s defection:

“The screen’s the altar,” she tells Shadow. “I’m the one they sacrifice to … Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood.” The battle lines are being drawn: the old gods versus the new, the transplants from around to the world to this “new land without gods.” Religious devotion has changed, shifted, to the deities of secular modernity. Media’s crass little proposition to Shadow—“Ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?”—provides a striking contrast to the kind of desire at the root of religion most obviously, and explicitly, manifested in this episode with the extended Bliquis montage. Religion, or more elementally, belief, is rooted in desire as much as anything else: desire for knowledge, for safety, for plenty, for health, for children, for another year of life. There is a dual critique built into Gaiman’s novel, and it will be interesting to see how much of it the series realizes: a very humanist critique of religion itself, and a critique of the postmodern moment’s monetization of the needs and impulses that led people to create gods in the first place—a critique that is as much about America itself. There’s something vaguely pathetic in Bilquis’ serial seduction of willing victims, both on her part and theirs—her need degrades the rite, as does the obliviousness of her lovers. Her moment of nostalgic longing as she looks on her statue evokes a time in her past when she was worshipped openly and her acolytes were willing sacrifices, which reflects poorly on her need to employ internet dating to feed her needs.

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By the same token, one of the novel’s unanswered questions, which has come up whenever I’ve taught American Gods—if the New Gods have so much of America’s attention, why can’t they just crush the Old Gods?—speaks to the degraded nature of worship itself in the present moment. “Time and attention—better than lamb’s blood,” claims Media, but how powerful is a sacrifice when it is partially a product of indifference? “They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me,” Media tells Shadow, but “Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or in the palm of their hand, so they don’t get bored watching the big one.” Obviously, Media seems to think of this as a good development for her, but it is hardly exemplary of worshippers’ focused devotion. Her offer to show Shadow Lucy’s breasts degrades the understanding of “icon,” with all of the word’s religious connotations, and sets itself squarely in a media environment of hacked cell phones and nude selfies.

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But, onward to Chicago, where Wednesday means to acquire his “hammer.” It’s worth acknowledging the little head-fake here: by this moment in the second episode, viewers will undoubtedly have grasped the central conflict between old and new gods; which of the old gods Wednesday is might still be unclear to some, and his mention of a hammer followed by images of lightning might lead some to wonder if he’s Thor. That question is cleared up, however, when Czernobog calls him Wotan—the Germanic name for Odin (and those who know their days of the week know “Wednesday” is derived from “Woden’s Day,” Woden being the Old English name for Odin). And the hammer is question is Czernobog’s, a relic of his days working in a slaughterhouse before the introduction of the captive bolt gun (used to such devastating effect by Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men).

Czernobog is an old Slavic god—the “black god” of death (whose brother Bielobog, the god of light and sun, is alluded to but never named), who came to America with the Zorya sisters (more on them in my next post). I’ll admit to being a little skeptical of Peter Stormare’s casting in this role—in the novel he is described as being much older, but I was not accounting for Stormare’s ability to play a dissolute and embittered old man who wears the threat of violence on his shoulders like a thundercloud. I loved everything about this sequence, from Zorya’s first ambivalent greeting of Wednesday (“You are worst man in the world!”), to her response to Shadow calling Czernobog her husband (“Family is who you survive with when you need to survive … even if you do not like them”), to the final scene in which Shadow loses a game of checkers, and with it the wager of his life, to Czernobog. “A shame,” he sighs, “You’re my only black friend.”

I freely admit to laughing out loud to this closing line, which would have been funny under any circumstances, but was particularly poignant after Czernobog’s dinner conversation with Shadow. When he observes that Shadow is black, and Shadow tightly asks whether that’s a problem, Czernobog essentially shrugs:

We never cared so much about skin like the Americans. Where we’re from, everyone is the same colour. So we must fight over shades. You see, my brother had light hair and beard, and me dark … like you. I was like the black man, over there. As against my brother, the white. Everybody thought he must be the good one! So I became me.

This little speech resonates with Mr. Nancy’s revelation to the African slaves: “The moment these Dutch motherfuckers set foot here and decided they white, then you get to be black, and that’s the nice name they call you.” It’s a reminder that the very idea of blackness is an imperial invention: a distinction that drew lines between those with power and those without, between those who arrogated to themselves the innate right of rule and those unfit to rise in American society; between the “worthy” nations and countries of origin (i.e. Anglo-Saxon and Protestant Christian), and those whose people possessed the taint and degradation of lesser blood. While we should never equate the immigrant experience with that of African slavery, it is nevertheless important to remember that the waves of immigrants in the nineteenth century from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe—the Czernobogs of America, in other words—were not considered “white” in the way their descendants are today. Czernobog’s words to Shadow—and Mr. Nancy’s words to the men in the slaver’s hold—speak to the contingency and constructed nature of race.

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Who is “white”? Who is “black”? Who decides? Those to whom we give power. And if Neil Gaiman’s inversion of our relationship to the gods teaches us anything, it’s that we hold the power ourselves.

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American Gods Episode 1.01: “The Bone Orchard”

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Whenever a beloved work of fiction gets adapted to film or television these days, one can almost hear the prayer murmured in unison by fans: please don’t suck, please don’t suck. As someone more or less indifferent to the Marvel and DC universes, I have been spared the worst of pop culture’s sins on this front in recent years, and have in fact been rewarded with Game of Thrones and The Expanse (the less said about the three Hobbit films the better, however).

When I first heard that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was going to be adapted by Starz, however, I was more than a little concerned—Starz not being known for high-quality drama on par with, say, HBO, AMC, or Showtime. (I will admit that my attitude about Starz is largely coloured by my experience of watching the first few episodes of Spartacus shortly after finishing HBO’s Rome. Where Rome is a beautifully written and acted show, watching Spartacus was not unlike having a DVD of 300 taped to a brick, wrapped in a 1970s Penthouse, and flung at your head). But as we learned more, some of my anxieties lessened—especially after learning it would be co-produced by Bryan Fuller (late of Hannibal), and that Mr. Wednesday would be played by Ian McShane.

Still … you just don’t know until it airs. The early reviews were positively orgasmic, which could be a good or bad sign. But then I watched the first episode “The Bone Orchard,” and I have to agree with the reviews.

So given that Game of Thrones will not be airing until mid-July and thus you’ll have to wait several months for my co-blogs with Nikki, I think I will endeavor to post about American Gods episode by episode. I won’t do recaps: ideally, I’ll find something intriguing in each episode that I can tease out into a discussion related to the original novel. So without further ado, here’s my take on episode one.

somewhere in america

First, a review.

I have now watched “The Bone Orchard” twice; my first viewing was largely suffused with delight and relief at how good the show is. Ricky Whittle is powerful and compelling as the laconic, brooding, watchful Shadow; Jonathan Tucker is a minor revelation in the role of Shadow’s cellmate Low-Key (especially considering what we’ll learn about him in later episodes); the scene with Bilquis was startling in that it was precisely how I pictured it unfolding in the novel (which, I presume, inspired a good number of “WTF?” moments among those who haven’t read it); I’m always stoked to see Pablo Schreiber, whether as Nick Sobotka in The Wire or Pornstache in Orange is the New Black—and he’s amazing here as the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (“Okay, you’re a little tall for a leprechaun.” “That’s a stereotype. Represents a very narrow view of the world”); and of course, Ian McShane steals every scene he’s in, bringing a hint of the old Al Swearenegen darkness, but embroidering it with an outrageous, loquacious, and audacious charm. Already there’s a substantial amount of Gaiman’s text making it into the show more or less verbatim, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the balance of it will be coming out of Mr. Wednesday’s mouth over the course of the series.

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Demore Barnes as Mr. Ibis.

There were a number of near-squee moments in this episode, the first one coming when we open, not on Shadow in his cell (as in the novel) but on Mr. Ibis in his study, writing out the history of mendicant gods brought to America in his elegant script. Opening with the story of Vikings touching American soil a century before Leif Eriksson—and the sacrifices they made to flee—is a very smart framing device for reasons I’ll get into momentarily. Visually, however, it signaled its aesthetic kinship to Hannibal: the gouts of blood thrown up into the air as the Norsemen engage in ritual combat, would, in other contexts, be comically excessive—and indeed they are here, but we soon see how consonant they are with the saturated colours of the rest of the episode. The palette on display is a mark of how Bryan Fuller and Michael Green take visual ownership of Gaiman’s text. When I read American Gods, the visuals in my mind (and this is a purely subjective reading) are pale and washed out, as if filmed through a blue filter. The rich and vibrant world on display here is not dissonant, just a different interpretation: one that will, as I will hopefully discuss in this post and the ones to follow, tease out elements of Gaiman’s text not immediately apparent.

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Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon.

Second, my thoughts.

On my second viewing of “The Bone Orchard,” I was struck by the way in which the episode starts laying thematic groundwork for a story about “foreign” or immigrant gods—brought to the continental U.S. by immigrants, refugees, indentured servants, and slaves, and then more or less forgotten by their erstwhile worshippers—in the context of American history. In this episode the striking motif is that of hanging, which bookends the story.

In the novel, Shadow is presented as racially ambiguous, described as having “coffee and cream skin.” In the early pages of the novel, one of the prison guards quizzes him on his ethnicity, suggesting that he might have black blood in him (except he doesn’t say “black”). Shadow’s indeterminate ethnicity and race, coupled with his tendency to be quiet and watchful and aloof, establish him as a liminal figure in a nation preoccupied—both historically and presently—with assigning explicit identities to anyone not falling under the broad rubric of whiteness. In this respect, with his indeterminate origins, Gaiman’s Shadow comprises a sort of symbolic mongrelization, one that allows those around him to project their assumptions upon him, while also functioning as a walking metaphor for the melting pot. (It occurred to me on my most recent re-read that if the showrunners wished to hew to this description of Shadow, they could have done worse than to cast Jason Momoa in the role).

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Shadow meets the leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber).

In casting Ricky Whittle, the series makes Shadow unambiguously African-American, a decision that mercifully occurred—to the best of my knowledge—without the kind of racist carping that accompanied the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games (who was explicitly described as black in the novel, a fact that eluded the carpers) or Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And as I said above, based on the first episode, Whittle perfectly captures Shadow’s quietly observant, slightly brooding mien, something occasionally disrupted with a cutting and sarcastic sensibility. In making Shadow racially unambiguous, however, the show commits him to an overdetermined identity within U.S. culture and history.

This is not, I should be clear, a mistake or a bad thing: on the contrary, “The Bone Orchard” leans right into what I suppose we have to call, for lack of a better expression, the “racial politics” of American Gods. I hesitate to use that phrase because it is inadequate to the history of violence wordlessly presented moments after we meet Shadow: a knot of tattooed neo-nazis glaring daggers at him from across the prison yard, one of whom threateningly holds up a small noose. Later, when a guard leads Shadow to the warden’s office, another Aryan makes a hanging gesture as he passes.

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There are, I would hazard to say, few symbols quite as fraught for African-Americans as the noose, evoking as it does the bloody history of lynching and violent suppression. Nor does the episode leave the hanging rope in the realm of symbolism, as Shadow is subjected to a brutal beating and lynching by the “new god” Technical Boy’s drones at the very end of the episode. It is important to note that this scene is a creation of the show: in the novel, Shadow gets picked up by Technical Boy on his way back to the motel, and their conversation is repeated in this episode very nearly verbatim. But it ends in the novel with Technical Boy dropping Shadow off a few hundred yards away from the motel. Here, he orders his drones to kill Shadow, and what follows is a terrifying and bloody scene in which the drones brutally beat Shadow in the pouring rain and then hang him from a lonely tree in the midst of flat fields. That the drones are then killed in spectacular fashion by an unseen assailant and Shadow is cut down does not detract from the nauseating imagery of lynching.

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Taken in and of itself, this scene retrospectively looks back to the neo-nazi’s noose as foreshadowing, and plays out as a literal realization of white supremacist violence—perpetrated, in the end, not by incarcerated Aryans, but by a petulant and privileged white guy angered by Shadow’s snark (“Then why the fuck am I wasting my time sitting her talking to you?” Technical Boy asks, to which Shadow—in a line not from the novel—responds, “You know, I was curious myself, how long you were going to go on sucking your own dick?”). The violence is more than strictly allegorical, as the new gods against whom Mr. Wednesday and his cohort set themselves are essentially the embodiment and vehicles of hegemonic, cultural power in the contemporary U.S. (technology, media, wealth, celebrity, conspiracy, and so forth). One review I read of the episode said “If a black character is going to get lynched, American Gods better have a good reason for bringing that disturbing act to the screen.” I would argue that the most basic reason is the one I’ve outlined here: that these power structures are even more deeply rooted in white supremacy than the facile and simplistic hatred of the incarcerated Aryans. But I would also further argue that this episode grounds that understanding of power in a more complex, mythic history.

Aesthetically, American Gods shares DNA with Hannibal; thematically however, the series that suggests itself most persistently in this episode is Deadwood—and not just because of the presence of Ian McShane and Mr. Wednesday’s subtle echoes of Al Swearengen. The gritty neo-realism of David Milch’s western might seem completely at odds with Neil Gaiman’s mythopoeic American fantasy—and in many respects it is—but they do share a crucial commonality, which is an understanding of national mythology born in blood. Deadwood is about democracy and civil society emerging from lawlessness and violence (“improvised order” in the words of David Milch), and is an unsentimental critique of the delusion that civilization can be rooted in anything other than brutality. The series is, in part, a dramatization of Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

American Gods is fundamentally about sacrifice. Gods in Gaiman’s legendarium are the product of worship and belief, and do not exist prior to human invention (I have written at some length about the novel previously), but are sustained by belief—but even more powerfully by sacrifice (something vividly illustrated by Bilquis’ rejuvenation after she consumes her would-be lover). What Deadwood tells us about democracy, American Gods tells us about religion: that it emerges from blood. The noose that taunts Shadow in the prison-yard foreshadows the lynching, but it is not the first noose to appear in the episode. The opening sequence depicting Vikings landing on an inhospitable strip of North American shore sets the stage for what is to come: denied egress from the strand by hostile natives and becalmed, the Norsemen carve an effigy of Odin and perform a series of ritual sacrifices: first, in emulation of the one-eyed god, they all put out an eye; when that does not work, they burn one of their own alive; and finally, in order to get the god’s attention, they stage a real and very bloody battle. Finally, Odin grants them wind enough to set sail, but their sacrifice brings an avatar of the god to the strange shore. “Over one hundred years later,” Mr. Ibis narrates, “when Leif the Fortunate, son of Erik the Red, would rediscover that land, he found his god waiting.”

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Just in case you forgot that one of the producers was also responsible for Hannibal

Odin, among his many names, is known as the Gallows God, because he hanged himself in order to gain wisdom. As Neil Gaiman writes in his recent book Norse Mythology,

He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out.

He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of his agony he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree.

Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.

The Vikings hang Odin’s effigy from a noose in the episode’s opening sequence, in honour of the god’s sacrifice, and then proceed through their own ever more brutal sacrifices.

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When we cut to the present day where Shadow lifts weights in the prison yard, his manic cell-mate Low-Key is riffing on the word “gallows,” speculating on the relief of receiving a death sentence: “You get a few days to let it sink in, and then you’re riding the cart on your way to do a dance on nothing.” Leaving aside for the moment that this is a rather nineteenth-century understanding of a death sentence, Low-Key’s evocation of the death penalty—while standing in the midst of a prison’s carceral space—draws a thematic line from the Vikings’ sacrificial violence, to the violence enacted on the bodies of citizens by the penal system, to the history of systemic violence perpetrated against African Americans. Human sacrifice, American Gods comes to suggest, was not merely the barbaric practice of premodern peoples, but is in fact the unspoken and necessary cornerstone of “civilization.”

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Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday.

Low-Key continues to say, “This country went to hell when they stopped hangin’ folks; no gallows dirt, no gallows deals!” To which Shadow wearily rejoins, “No gallows humour.” It is an ironic little throwaway line, considering that Shadow’s association with Mr. Wednesday will provide a great deal in the way of gallows humour going forward.

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Caesarism, Crowds, and Populism

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When I was doing my MA, I stumbled into taking part in a local production of Julius Caesar. I had a tiny part—literally, about two lines, plus some shouting during the crowd scenes—but because the director had the idea that the Roman mob should double as a sort of chorus and witness, I spent about eighty percent of the play draped around the apron of the thrust stage with the rest of the non-principal cast.

The run was an interminable four weeks; at the time I did not appreciate just how exploitative that is for an amateur show, where the theatre company makes money but none of the actors do. For me it was a lark, and the fact that I managed to get decent grades in all my classes that term still amazes me somewhat. But it did grind on after a time, and to this day I still have most of the text of the play embedded in my unconscious.

One line in particular: the play started with a large mound of people pulsating and chanting “Caesar!” in murmurs as the house lights came slowly up. The actor playing Cassius then boomed “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus!” and the people in the heap peeled away in slow, stylized fashion, revealing Caesar, Antony, and the other principals.

Every night I heard that line, and every night it tugged at something in my subconscious, until it suddenly struck me: “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus” scans almost exactly the same as Darth Vader’s line to Princess Leia, “You are part of the Rebel Alliance, and a traitor!” And from that point on, I have never heard either line without thinking of the other.

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I’ve been thinking about that production lately, in part because I had the privilege yesterday of organizing and directing a play reading for my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman’s “48 Months of Finasteride.” Andrew, whose encyclopedic knowledge of theatre is truly astonishing, decided that he wanted to publicly read a play for every month of the Trump presidency—selecting politically themed plays dealing in some capacity with fascism or tyranny, political buffoonery, or really anything that could be used to reflect upon the current clusterfuck inhabiting the White House. Months forty-eight and forty-seven featured Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner, respectively. I suggested that he do the version of Julius Caesar first performed under the direction of Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles, who starred as Brutus as well as directing, made the play explicitly about Nazi Germany—the lighting evoked that of the Nuremberg Rallies, the actors dressed in Gestapo-esque outfits, and pamphlets advertising the play read “JULIUS CAESAR: DEATH OF A DICTATOR!”

Andrew liked the idea, and suggested I direct it. Which I did, and, thanks to a lovely cast of readers, last night it received an enthusiastic response.

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Our lovely cast. Back row: Fionn Shea (Cinna, Cobbler), Olivia Heaney (Flavius, Calphurnia, Publius), Zaren Healey White (Marullus, Portia, Decius, Cinna the Poet); front row: Dean Doyle (Carpenter, Lucius, Casca, Artimedorus, Soothsayer, Ligarius), Luke Ashworth (Julius Caesar), Your Truly (Brutus), Jennifer Lokash (Cassius), Ruth Lawrence (Mark Antony)

I’m always amused and gratified by the little serendipities of life, which seem to appear all the time in my teaching and research—it doesn’t really matter how dissimilar the classes I’m teaching in a given term are, I can be reliably guaranteed to find points of connection in my lectures that are surprising and enlightening (to me, at least). Given that I’ve been expanding research I’ve been doing, on zombie narratives on one hand and militaristic SF on the other, into theories of crowds and mobs (militaristic SF shares a tendency with popular narratives of elite soldiery to depict the enemy as an undifferentiated mass), sitting down to work with Orson Welles’ vision for Julius Caesar was fascinating.

Shakespeare’s Roman plays have long been fecund ground for pointed political stagings, which is entirely unsurprising considering their preoccupation with individual versus collective power, divine right versus egalitarianism, the Great Man versus the mob (and of course, the persistence of ancient Rome in the political memory of the West—no less acute for Shakespeare than it is for us today). At the heart of these plays, especially Coriolanus and Julius Caesar is the spectre of populism and its discontents: Julius Caesar has functioned since its first performance as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the mob, depicting the Roman masses as fickle, dumb, violent, and easily led. Indeed, the manner in which Shakespeare depicts them is almost risible at times. One of my favourite moments is almost Monty Python-esque in how quickly the mob’s attitude turns. Emerging enraged at the assassination of Caesar, they listen to Brutus’ impassioned argument that it was better Caesar was dead than Rome crown him king, and thus sacrifice their native freedoms; so taken is the mob with his words, so happy are they that Brutus saved them from making Caesar king, that they then cry out that Brutus should be crowned.

BRUTUS: With this
I depart—that, as I slew my best lover for the
good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself,
when it shall please my country to need my death.

ALL: Live, Brutus! live, live!

First Citizen: Bring him with triumph home unto his house.

Second Citizen: Give him a statue with his ancestors.

Third Citizen: Let him be Caesar.

Fourth Citizen: Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crown’d in Brutus.

As they say today: <facepalm>.

Such a scene does resonate, however, whether we’re Shakespearean groundlings or 21st-century social media users, for a simple reason helpfully distilled by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams in his landmark study Culture and Society (1958): “The masses are always the others, whom we don’t know, and can’t know … To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people.” This basic fact, to my mind, is the contradiction at the heart of both mass culture and populism: we partake but cannot conceive of ourselves as part of the mass, something played for comic effect in The Life of Brian when Brian leads his followers in an affirming chant of “We’re all individuals! We’re all different!”, only to have a small voice pipe up, “I’m not.” As much as I hate explaining a good joke, it’s funny because it’s an unthinkable sentiment, even as it undercuts its own claim of non-individualism by being a lone voice of dissent in a chorus of groupthink.

My own research in this area has been about the critical mass of zombie films, television, and fiction in the past fifteen years—teasing out a sense of the relationship of the undead hordes to our ambivalent relationship to mass culture. In the past two years it has taken on an added resonance with the resurgence of “populism” as a political force. Re-reading Julius Caesar—and this is what I mean by serendipity—touched a nerve, as the ravening crowd, riled to bloodlust by Antony’s oration, sets upon hapless Cinna the Poet and tears him to pieces. To be certain, this is the dystopian view of populism, but then one’s view of populism is entirely based on where one stands. If you’re on the left, Trumpian populism is pernicious, a melding of unreconstructed racism and white resentment, framed in nostalgia for an America that never really existed, whereas the Bernie Sanders version was an organic grass-roots revolt against systemic injustice and a broken political system. And if you’re an Establishment elite, both groups are the Roman mob—your political leaning only changes whether Antony or Brutus is the hero.

Welles as Brutus

Orson Welles as Brutus.

What I loved about sitting down with Welles’ script was seeing how carefully he’d orchestrated the crowd scenes. And I mean “orchestrate” quite literally—he made them much more complex than the original Shakespearean text, arranging the lines on the page in a way that indicated when people should talk over one another or speak in succession. Considering how exacting a director Welles was, I have little doubt he tortured his cast until the scene played symphonically.

Where Shakespeare identifies the crowd-shouters as “First Citizen” and so on, Welles instead just assigned specific lines to specific cast members. This allowed for a more precise allocation of speaking roles, but in reviewing the script, it also individuates the mob—Welles’ Roman masses have more personality, and come across not as a chorus but a series of individual voices. This dramaturgical change is interesting, considering that the overt object of the play’s critique is the terrifying rise of Nazism in Germany. As a friend of mine once drily observed, Nazis make the best villains—for the simple reason that you don’t ever have to explain why they’re villains. But Welles has another object in his sights: not an always-already malleable mass of “gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, lowness of taste and habit” (to again quote Raymond Williams), primed to give in to their basest hatreds at the slightest provocation, but a heterogeneous group of thinking people convinced to throw over their own freedoms by a talented demagogue.

Most tellingly, Welles completely dispenses with the crowd’s sudden eagerness to crown Brutus—they are swayed by his arguments, but understand them enough to not seek a substitute king. Antony’s funeral oration thus becomes that much more masterful, as he leads his initially skeptical audience through four stages of his speech: sarcastic rhetoric (“And Brutus is an honorable man”), pathos (showing them Caesar’s wounds, and pointing out where each conspirator stabbed him), and then to the crowd’s own material self-interests (revealing that Caesar had left every Roman seventy-five drachmas in his will), and then finally riling them up to rage (“there were an Antony / Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue / in every wound of Caesar, that should move / The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny!”).

Also telling is Welles’ stage direction: when Antony reaches the climax of his speech, there is no mad yell from the throng as they charge off to wreak havoc. Rather, the script says “Silence. The lights dim as the mob turns slowly upstage and moves to exit with an increasing tempo and crescendo of footsteps.” Such an exit is not about collective rage but chilling unity of purpose—the suggestion being that this is not a fire that will burn itself out, but a movement. This cold implacability—so different from the more typical raging mobs of Caesar productions—surfaces again immediately in the notorious Cinna the Poet scene. Typically, the hapless Cinna, who has the misfortune of sharing a name with one of Caesar’s murderers, is set upon by the mob and torn apart. Welles’ thugs, however, emerge quietly from the darkness and behave in a specifically Gestapo manner.

In some ways, it is clear that Welles’ Caesar was a pre-war production—it allows for a differentiation amongst the rank and file that would become unthinkable in years after the war when Nazis became synonymous with unthinking evil. But it is for this reason that this production is such a valuable document today, as it offers an unusually nuanced depiction of populism. If the masses, as Raymond Williams says, are always other people, it is always worthwhile to remind ourselves of how we become part of the masses.

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Filed under Shakespeare, Trump

A Blog Post In Lieu of Other Blog Posts That Should Have Been

Revenge of the Genres

junot_wao_coverThe past two weeks have been an unforgivable lapse on my part, particularly so because I neglected to post on the text that was the original inspiration for this course: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. That I didn’t manage to get anything up on this beautiful novel—which I count as one of the best of the past twenty years—is rather embarrassing. It wasn’t for lack of anything to say: I have copious notes on magical realism, the way in which the novel uses genre(s) to allegorize intersectional identities, and finally I had planned a post about allusion, in which I would have talked about Oscar Wao and Stranger Things.

Alas. A stultifying combination of busyness and post-election rage has made writing anything more than angry notes in my journal rather difficult. It’s that time of the term, when finishing one stack of grading only clears the desk to provide a clear view of the next stack of grading. It doesn’t help that I have a cat for whom stacks of paper are apparently a more attractive bed than, y’know, her bed:

catesby-grading

When I set myself the task of regularly blogging about this course’s texts, I knew there was a fair-to-likely chance I’d fall down on the job at some point, or that this experiment would simply peter out well before the end of the term. I’m actually halfway impressed that I’ve posted as regularly as I have.

I do want to continue with this, however, even after the class ends in two weeks time. I’ve enjoyed this process too much, and have too much in the hopper that hasn’t made it to the page to simply end these posts with the course. The class itself has been a great experience: my students are amazing, and have been quite tolerant of my lengthy digressions and extemporaneous musings. As sometimes happens with this kind of class, I feel as though I’m only now getting a handle on the scope of the topic … so I will definitely be continuing to use this blog as a space in which to think out loud, and hopefully produce some raw material for some scholarly articles.

It helps than next term I’ll be teaching our second-year course on SF/F. Twelve weeks to do science fiction AND fantasy? Yeah, the reading list is pushing the envelope a little:

H.P. Lovecraft, selected stories
China Miéville, selected stories
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’m thinking I will continue this blog experiment with this class—there will be, after all, more than a little overlap in subject matter.

engl2811

So … apologies for the missing Oscar Wao posts, which I still intend to write; a little bit like closing the barn door as far as my class is concerned, but I’d hate for the stuff in my head to go to waste. In the meantime, look for some posts on Hamilton to go up soon.

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Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching

Well, That was Just Super

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post on genres to bring you this dispatch from the edge of despair.

electoral-map

For the past several days I’ve been making notes toward a post-election post, the title of which was to be something like “Now, the Long Slog Back From Trumpism.” I meant to talk about the radical divisiveness in America that Trump’s campaign made glaringly obvious, and the painful fact that the opposing sides in this divide might well prove to be incommensurable—but that it was the primary task of a Clinton presidency to try and heal that rift.

Well. That would have been nice.

I woke up this morning in a world where “President Trump” isn’t merely a terrifying prospect, but a reality … and it is taking a long while for that reality to sink in. Possibly it won’t—possibly while Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office, I will still be investigating the backs of wardrobes, searching for a way back to the reality I left when I went to sleep last night.

I cannot recall a time in recent memory when I have been so relieved to be Canadian, though even that relief is marred by my fear that Trump’s victory will be a gust of oxygen for the revanchist embers smoldering in this country.

For the last few months, I have been reading a lot in an effort to wrap my head around the Trump phenomenon—more specifically, to try and understand his appeal to what has turned out to be a plurality of the U.S. electorate. I’ve read a number of books and a lot of articles; possibly the most interesting one, and the one I would most recommend, was Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage. In it, he follows around the Trump campaign and speaks to his supporters—basically, just letting them talk and listening. Most striking in the stories he records is a remarkable cognitive dissonance. To be clear, Zaitchik did not sit down with any of Trump’s most rabid and nativist supporters, but people who have felt left behind by Washington and by the economy, and who see in Trump an outsider not beholden to a broken system. But then, after preambles venting about Washington elites and Obama’s “disastrous” presidency, more often than not they complain about the erosion of the social safety net, about income inequality, and health care. To a person, all who mention it deem Obamacare a massive failure, but then voice a desire for a single-payer system. They want better educational opportunities and to improve the schools we have; and while many echo Trump’s sentiments about immigration, all of the people who live by the border articulate a much more nuanced reality, expressing compassion for the Mexicans who suffer at the hands of the drug cartels and who come seeking a better life, and disdain for border agents who behave, in the words of one rancher, as little better than thugs.

That they would put their faith in Trump as someone who would address any or all of these problems is frankly baffling, but is likely a measure of their alienation from the “establishment”—they want to throw a bomb at the government, and Trump is the grenade most ready to hand.

The biggest problem with Zaitchik’s book is its brevity: at 125 pages, it necessarily provides a highly selective sample, presumably chosen for how compelling their accounts are. And however reasonable they sound, I could not shake an oft-recounted experience of Trump rallies, at which attendees are often described as affable until the shouting starts—and then the venom and hatred emerges, given voice and license by Trump and his lackeys.

It is this very vitriol that defeats an attempt at a rational understanding. Most recently, I read Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal!, which is a concise and lacerating critique of the Democrats’ shift from being the party of the working class to neoliberal boosters of the professional class. As I read it, it felt like one half of an explanation for Trump’s popularity: though Frank never puts it in racial terms, what he describes is the Democrats’ abandonment of White middle America. The second half of the story, of course, is the Republicans’ successful courting of southern and Midwestern voters, appealing to their social conservatism and their racial anxiety, soliciting and getting their votes while slashing the social safety net and implementing policies that facilitated the concentration of wealth at the top at the expense of the middle class (a process, Frank points out, that was not hindered by Bill Clinton but accelerated).

This erosion of social programs, it needs to be noted for a point I will make momentarily, was itself racially coded: as Heather McGhee of the Demos Institute points out, middle- and lower-class Whites accepted these depredations more often than not because they were sold as cuts to programs that disproportionately benefitted inner-city Blacks (think, for example, of Reagan railing against “welfare queens”).

Meanwhile, both parties oversaw the busting of unions, trade agreements that sent jobs overseas and denuded the country’s manufacturing base, and fiscal policies that increasingly benefited corporations and the wealthy.

One way to understand Trump’s appeal to this cross-section of White America is to see them as an economically dispossessed group who woke up to the Republican long con of appealing to their social conservatism, either because they no longer cared about those issues, or because they saw jobs as the more important consideration, or (most likely) because they saw the long con for what it was, a bait-and-switch perpetrated by hypocritical political elites with more in common with their fellows across the aisle than the people whose votes they court.

Enter Trump: a swaggering bully who spoke intemperately, gleefully slapped around the Republican establishment, and confirmed all their politically incorrect suspicions about Mexicans and Muslims. And promised to restore what they had lost.

But again, as much as laying it out in socio-historical terms provides an attractive narrative, it falls short. Indeed, while for a time I was most of the way to believing it, I now call bullshit. Back in March, Thomas Frank wrote an article in The Guardian in which he offers his own explanation for Trumpism, which is more or less consonant with what I outlined above. He writes:

[T]o judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern—not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.

It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.

This much is impossible to deny: Trump is obsessed with the U.S.’s various trade deals, invariably referring to NAFTA as disastrous, and frequently banging on about how China and Mexico take advantage of America. Frank continues:

Now, I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.

But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

Again, as with Listen, Liberal!, I don’t think Frank is wrong, per se—just that the economic narrative is deficient in and of itself. One reason it loses traction is because the tacit media perception that Trump supporters are disenfranchised blue-collar workers is basically wrong: Trump voters have a median income of $72,000, which is ten thousand more than the U.S. national average. Which isn’t to say that you can’t be earning a comfortable income and not feel disenfranchised, but the reasons for that feeling are also where the economic narrative runs into problems.

Simply put, Trump’s insurgency is—to quote Danielle Moodie-Mills on CBC last night—“white supremacy’s last stand in America.” The economic narrative is attractive—and has been adopted by many in the media—not least because it helps paper over the discomforting racist dimension of his popularity. Thomas Frank’s argument about trade elides the fact that Trump’s preoccupation with trade and trade deals is not somehow a separate issue from his racism. Rather, he consistently conflates the two. Free trade is not something he abhors solely because of economic reasons, but because it entails a conception of an America with open borders. The rhetoric is of a piece with his signature policy items, the building of a wall and the banning of Muslims. Anyone identified as Other must be either removed or barred from entry. Those Others inconveniently in possession of American citizenship must be policed with more rigor. Since he first rode down that escalator to announce his candidacy, Trump has consistently advocated for a Fortress America, one that would somehow restore its “greatness.”

“Make America Great Again.” As I have written previously, Trump’s slogan is rank nostalgia, and I mean “rank” in the sense of the odor it emits. He of course does not specify when America was great—he lets his followers fill in the blanks. But his rhetoric of jobs and manufacturing, of bringing companies back to the States and punishing those that leave, speaks very obviously to the few decades after WWII when the U.S. was ascendant—when there was little economic competition because the rest of the world was rebuilding in the aftermath of a war that never touched continental America. When there were high-paying jobs available to men without college degrees, and a family could flourish on a single income.

But to again quote a professor I once TA’d for, “The problem with ‘the good old days’ is that they were invariably bad for someone.” The America Trump evokes is a White America, one in which all of the opportunities enumerated above were predominantly available only to Whites. Thomas Frank is not wrong when he outlines the ways in which both the Democrats and Republicans have dealt in bad faith with working-class Americans, but the rage and resentment, the vitriol and virulence of the Trumpistas, is rooted in that cultural shift of the late 1960s when Nixon recruited former Democrats with the Southern Strategy. Well, to be certain, it’s rooted in a much longer tradition of racism in America, but the voters who gave us President Trump last night are the scions of Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater.

As the saying goes, “to someone with privilege, equality feels like a loss.” A section of a speech by President Obama keeps rattling around in my head today. Remember when he was in the midst of a bitter primary fight with Hilary Clinton eight years ago, and for a brief time it looked like his candidacy was over because of intemperate words spoken by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Obama turned everything around, and ultimately won the nomination, by delivering a speech that is—to my mind—one of the greatest pieces of American political oration. At one point in the speech, he said:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

It’s a sad thing to realize that the election of Obama did not do much—or anything, perhaps—to salve this resentment. Instead, it has only grown. While live-blogging the Republican National Convention, Andrew Sullivan wrote hopefully that perhaps Obama has functioned as a poultice, “bringing so much pus to the surface of American life,” which would allow for the cleansing and sanitization of America’s racial wounds. I’ve long harboured the same hope, which rested to a large extent on this election and the possibility that a Clinton victory would have provided a space in the aftermath to address the ugliness that had arisen.

Instead, America has embraced the ugliness.

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Filed under politics, wingnuttery

Fun Home, Part Two

Hello everyone, and welcome back for the second part of my conversation with my friend and colleague Andrew Loman, whose knowledge of comics and graphic novels (as both this post and the last one amply demonstrate) is considerably greater than my own. Last time we talked comics more generally; this time we get into the weeds with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

Revenge of the Genres

Christopher: Perhaps we can start with something I teased in my introductory Fun Home post: Bechdel introduces her story by specifically citing James Joyce’s autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is just the first of many allusions she makes to canonical literary works in whose mold she specifically crafts her own memoir. Proust also makes a number of appearances as a model. But in some ways, Bechdel is far from alone in creating a graphic memoir—MAUS falls into the same realm, as do Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and a number of other texts (arguably, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half qualifies, and our own Kate Beaton is currently at work on the story of her time working in the Alberta tar sands). And then you have the work of people like Joe Sacco, who produces historical-journalistic accounts like Palestine. To my inexperienced eye, it seems that graphic narrative has a decided inclination toward autobiography or otherwise documentary formats. Am I just imagining this? And if not, why do you think the graphic narrative has proved so amenable to this kind of storytelling?

 

Andrew: You’re not just imagining this: graphic memoir is a popular genre, both in America and in France (Satrapi’s Persepolis and David B.’s Epileptic being the best-known French contributions, both published by the great publisher L’Association). Depending on how flexible you are with your genre classifications, you might even say that graphic memoir antedates the superhero: in 1931, seven years before Clark Kent first took his pants off and jumped out his window, Henry Yoshitaka Kimanga self-published a book called The Four Immigrants Manga. It dramatizes his life and the lives of fellow Japanese immigrants in early twentieth-century San Francisco. It’s a fascinating book and it suggests that for whatever reason, comics have been a congenial medium for life-writing for longer than even many of its own practitioners know.

spiegelman-hellplanet

But most graphic memoir is of far more recent vintage, emerging as a distinct field of comics in the 1970s. That’s when Spiegelman wrote Prisoner on the Hell Planet – the harrowing account of his mother’s death that he later incorporated into MAUS. Spiegelman has said that he was emboldened to write something so painful and honest upon reading Justin Green’s Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary, which is – how do you summarize Binky Brown? – which is about the psychic travails of a young ardently Catholic boy of a visionary bent. In the first pages, when he’s a small boy, he hears blades of grass talking to him; at the height of the book, he’s hallucinating that a magic ray is emanating from his penis and hitting all the statues of the Virgin Mary in its path. The memoir is alarming and blasphemous and tragic and funny and a bit of a beautiful mess: where Fun Home is tautly constructed and formally elegant, Binky Brown is raw and shambolic. But it had a profound influence on graphic memoir, if only because without Binky Brown, there’d be no MAUS.

As to why the genre of memoir has had such success in comic – who knows? Champions of the form will surely make the argument that there’s something peculiar to the combination of images and words that makes comics an especially suitable form for life-writing. (Here, for example, is Hillary Chute, an eminent American comics critic: “The stories to which women’s graphic narrative is today dedicated are often traumatic: the cross-discursive form of comics is apt for expressing that difficult register….”) I’m allergic to that class of argument, which always sounds to me less like an attempt to explore the quiddity of the form and more like special pleading by comics devotees, but to give the claim its due, there is something about a drawn image that immediately emphasizes the idiosyncrasy of the artist and hence the life. I can’t think of many graphic memoirs where the images are in the vein of old Classics Illustrated comics – inert and bereft of style. (Now, of course, I’m imagining a parodic graphic memoir in exactly that lifeless non-style, an account of a conventional white middle-class American life in mid-century Muncie. R. Sikoryak should write it.)

But as I say, I’m skeptical about that argument. A more convincing one would begin with the economics of writing comics. Relative to other mass media, comics are cheap to make. And that inexpensiveness is of course liberating: it permits artists to explore far more idiosyncratic material. I love Hollywood, but even small-budget films are too expensive to risk exploring the kind of subjects that are common currency in graphic memoir – not if the filmmakers are aiming for the multiplex, at least. Debbie Drechsler’s Daddy’s Girl is a harrowing memoir of child abuse that no one would ever greenlight. It’s conceivable that some Bowdlerized, banalized version of Fun Home will make it to the screen someday, but that will only be possible because the book and the musical have been such successes. Think of the other literary form with a significant confessional tradition: poetry.

But above all, life-writing is a dominant genre in comics because life-writing in the book industry as a whole is a dominant genre. James Frey disguised his work as a memoir because no one was interested in it as a novel. I remember reading an essay in Bookforum by the curmudgeonly Walter Benn Michaels after the 2008 collapse. He was full of hope that the crisis in capitalism would lead to a crisis in the memoir industry: he saw a link between memoir and individualism, and hoped for a reorientation towards less narcissistic literary forms. No such turn is on the horizon, but don’t feel bad for Michaels: he enjoys his splenomegaly. And I think he’s right in drawing the connection. On the first page of Binky Brown, Justin Green makes this combative confession to his readers:

I officially left Catholicism on Halloween, 1968. … I daresay many of you aspiring revolutionaries will conclude that instead of focusing on topics which would lend themselves to social issues, I have zeroed in on the petty conflict in my crotch! My justification for undertaking this task is that many others are slaves to their neuroses. Maybe if they read about one neurotic’s dilemma in easy-to-understand comic-book format these tormented folks will no longer see themselves as mere food-tubes living in isolation. If all we neurotics were tied together we would entwine the globe many times over in a vast chain of common sufferingPlease don’t think I’m an asshole, Amen.

binky

Christopher: “Narcissistic literary forms.” I like that, if for no other reason than that I wonder if there’s any act of literary (or artistic) creation that doesn’t require at least a small measure of narcissism, enough self-regard to assume that one’s voice is worth hearing.

Michaels does get my hackles up a little, however, because however much hubristic self-regard we might read into Joyce or Proust, or for that matter someone like Norman Mailer or Karl Ove Knausgård, the flip side of that memoiristic coin are those people articulating experiences from the margins: the long history of slave narratives from Fredrick Douglass to Harriet Jacobs, for example, accounts that deploy the tacitly ascribed truth-value of confession and revelation in the service of communicating the realities of lives otherwise invisible or ignored.

While I wouldn’t necessarily situate Fun Home in a comparable tradition (though as a queer woman, she does write from a culturally marginal position), Bechdel is very canny in the way she situates her memoir in a canonical context with her allusions to Joyce and Proust, but also ironizes her relationship to such texts. One minor detail I’ve found interesting about her illustrations is the way she replicates text on the page: at various points, we see images of passages from a variety of books, from dictionary entries to the novels she or her father read, rendered carefully but not exactly—she does not simply paste in photographic or photocopied reproductions, but scrupulously draws the fonts and formatting (and does the same with handwritten notes and letters).

proust-lilacs

Again, perhaps this is a minor point, but it seems to me an interesting choice: in conventional documentary forms and memoirs, archival photographs and texts perform a significant semantic role, providing a touchstone to something “authentic” or “real” (and while sparing in his use of such elements, Spiegelman does use them in MAUS). Bechdel’s mimetic reproduction of text self-reflexively references her chosen medium of graphic narrative: drawing Proust’s words gives them a visual tactility we rarely ascribe to printed text. The intrusion of such text as image rather than narration turns it into a visual object, which then in turn highlights the medium in which Bechdel works, which is itself a repudiation of the written word as the apogee of narrative art.

What do you think? Am I completely off base here?

 

Andrew: You’re so far off-base you may be Paul Ryan.

No, you’re not: you’re squarely astride the base.

Let me say first, apropos of MAUS, that the three photographs Spiegelman uses are themselves complicated in all sorts of interesting ways. I think it may be the critic Thomas Docherty who first noted the ironies of the third photo in the book, a portrait of Vladek Spiegelman in camp uniform. One might assume that it was taken while he was an internee in Auschwitz. In fact, it was taken after he had left the camp, in a “photo place,” as he calls it, which had a uniform that people could pose in for souvenir pictures. It’s a photo that might well mislead those naïfs who still imagine that photos point to authenticity and the real, but instead calls attention to its implication in an emergent (and bizarre) culture of remembrance.

In Fun Home, the mediation is a striking feature, and it’s more thoroughgoing than you may realize. Bechdel’s method is to take photographs of herself for every human figure she draws: it’s a way, she argues, of capturing the idiosyncrasies of gesture with a subtlety and specificity that she couldn’t achieve if she were relying only on her imagination. In other words, the mediation you’re noting in her drawings of Proust’s words and elsewhere extends to the whole book, which is altogether a strange palimpsest.

I might, however, quibble with your assertion that Fun Home offers a “repudiation of the written word as the apogee of narrative art.” I’m not sure who would still accept that notion of the written word: surely it’s been tottering at least since the moment that movies turned from a cinema of varieties into a predominantly narrative form, if it ever had much solidity outside the circles of its champions. It doesn’t seem to me to be a battle that Bechdel needs to fight, nor do I see much sign that she feels such a need. If she’s engaged in any kind of struggle or negotiation through her emphasis on the iconicity of the printed word, I think it might be with her father Bruce, who taught English literature when he wasn’t running the family funeral home and whom she identifies, at various moments, with Camus, Fitzgerald, and Proust. She’s crafting a Kunstfigur of this man, who is so strongly identified in her memory with the written word, and maybe that informs her process of graphic mediation. But evidently “repudiation” isn’t the right word to describe her relationship with her father. In a two-page comics essay she published in Granta, Bechdel discusses the photo of her father that she used as the basis for the title page of Chapter One. She struggled, she says, “with the technical challenge of rendering the tonality and blurry motion [of the photo] using only line,” before admitting that “my drawing is as crude a schema of the color photo as perhaps the photo is of the raw, unspooling life it purports to capture.” Perhaps the point of her mediation is to insist on the inevitable crudeness of her schemas – the clumsiness of even this miraculously subtle work to capture the quiddity of her dad’s life.

fun-home-photo

Christopher: Granted, “repudiation” is probably too strong a word for what’s going on—say instead that it troubles or critiques a canonical understanding. I realize it’s perhaps a little disingenuous to discount authorial intent with a memoir—what genre is more about authorial intent?—but I also think it’s valid to see the ways in which a text offers a critique independent of the idiosyncratic and personal dimension informing its production. If this were a fictional narrative, it would be a pretty straight line between her father’s forbidding, aloof, and indeed authoritarian tendencies, and his symbolic connection to these texts that have played a comparable role in the normative discourses of literary study. That Fun Home is a memoir doesn’t necessarily change that fact: I think your reading of Bechdel’s agon with her father as the site and source of her graphic mediation is pretty spot on, but I also don’t think that discounts or obviates a broader reading in which we can see this work as a representative point of resistance to the canonical tradition … whether or not the written word still holds the same status I seemed to be claiming for it.

On that point, I should note that when I brought this up in class last week, I was surprised to find that the balance of my students could not tell me what “the canon” was. As I told them, I didn’t know whether to be dispirited or heartened—dispirited because they’d progressed to the fourth year of their English degrees without having gleaned an understanding of what, for decades, constituted the core of literary study in English; or heartened because it signalled that we’re now past the pro- and anti- canon arguments that pervaded literary study for so long. On reflection, I’ve decided that I’m heartened: whatever other problems bedevil academe in general and the liberal arts in particular these days, I like where we’ve arrived, where we’re (starting to) question long-held assumptions about what makes a given text worthy of scholarly and pedagogical attention.

After you take apart my argument above, I’m curious as to your thoughts on the way Bechdel spatializes the narrative. I may not know much about comics on the theoretical front, but even I can see that comics art is about compartmentalizing: literally framing each image in sequence, except for when we get more elaborate double-page spills and the like. The titular “fun home” of course references the funeral home Bruce Bechdel operates, but it’s hard not to see the title also as an ironic reference to the gloomy, gothic house in which much of the story unfolds, a structure (like all the literary allusions) indelibly associated with him. Again, this is an element Alison Bechdel draws from her life, but which here functions symbolically—the compartmentalization of the lives within the home, which also connotes the metaphor of the “closet”—as well as allusively, bringing to mind the long tradition of novels, from nineteenth-century Irish fiction, to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, in which the old and often crumbling manor house is itself a character in the story.

I don’t have a question here, I’m just curious to hear your thoughts.

funhome-brothers

Andrew: A discussion about the literary canon isn’t quite the same as one about the written word as the apogee of narrative art, though, is it? Those are different topics, despite having points where they overlap. The kinds of judgement that a would-be canon-builder has to make are different from those of a given narrative form’s champions. The aspiring canon-builder says: “Within this range of forms that we admit as literature, these are the best works.” The champion of the written word says: “This narrative form is superior to that one – and all those others, too.” I took you to be saying that Fun Home attacks the second creature, which I think is such a demoralized and thoroughly confuted shadow of a thing that Bechdel would hardly need to bother with it.

But let me talk about Fun Home as a “point of resistance to the canonical tradition.” It is and it isn’t, which I’ll start to argue by focusing on a related tradition that Bechdel portrays in Fun Home – literary interpretation. When I first read those parts of the work that are set in college, and specifically those portraits of male professors holding forth about interpretation, I felt modestly uncomfortable. Bechdel’s satire on the Jungian literary critic and his genital reading of Heart of Darkness is devastatingly funny, but it cuts to the quick, since I’ve elaborated my fair share of harebrained interpretations to bemused students: “You think the Headless Horseman is Irving’s figure for a man without capital? Isn’t that just a bad pun?” But even as she makes quick work of these dopes, she makes interpretation a key part of her book. What is Fun Home, after all, but an interpretive project, an attempt to solve the mystery of her father’s life and death, using the texts of her own memories and the family archive? It’s a work of interpretation, in other words, that also happens to satirize interpretation. I think it has a similar ambivalence about literature. There’s no question that there’s a connection between her father and the canonic works that he loves and that he teaches, often bullyingly, to his bored and captive students. But at the same time, there are very few comics that are as literary as Fun Home. As you note, the book is crafting itself in the mold of all the literary “classics” it cites. I’ve just distributed the topics for the final essay in my comics course, and one of my questions invites students to pick just one of the references to other books in Fun Home and explore how the cited book works intertextually to illuminate or enrich Fun Home itself. If you find an instance where Helen Bechdel is reading the part of Mommy in Albee’s The American Dream (and you will), then consider how that play’s meditations on national fantasy intersect with similar meditations in Bechdel’s memoir. It’s a perverse essay topic in that by design it invites students to distort the text, a single allusion among hundreds becoming, at least in that thought piece, the key to the memoir. But it’s making a point that I hope won’t be lost on my students, which is that Fun Home is richly implicated – in the sense of being entwined or entangled – in literature. Again, that’s part and parcel of its treatment of her literary father. You’re right to note that he’s forbidding and aloof and has authoritarian tendencies. He’s a terrible husband and often a terrible father. But he’s also intelligent, stylish, seductive, and dryly funny; and he’s vulnerable, and tormented, and desperate; he’s an artist but also an abuser of young men; “in short a complex personality, an enigma, a contradictory spokesman for the truth, an obsessive litigant and yet an essentially private person who wished his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized – in short a liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging, fornicating drunk not worth the paper, that’s that bit done.” (It wouldn’t be a real conversation between us without someone quoting Stoppard’s Travesties.) Insofar as Bruce stands for the Canonical Tradition, the complex relationship that Alison has with him extends to literature itself. To read the attitude towards Modernist literature as resistance alone doesn’t do the complexities of that attitude justice.

Two last notes on this front. First, the authors identified with Bruce Bechdel are all men. When Alison, in college, starts exploring a Lesbian intellectual tradition, she almost immediately borrows Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness from the library, and we later see, among the books strewn on the bed that she shares with Joan, Adrienne Rich’s Dreams of a Common Language. Even if I don’t agree that the memoir is antagonistic to literary tradition, it’s certainly interrogating that tradition, or inviting us to understand it as a particular, contingent body of works, or to think in terms of literary traditions in the plural. Secondly, as the critic Michael Moon noted in one of the early works of Fun Home scholarship, many of those male authors that Bechdel quotes in Fun Home were gay. Proust is Moon’s key example, but I mentioned Albee, above, and Helen acts in a performance of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, and Henry James figures in a sly literary allusion, too (the short piece in Granta offers a more thoroughgoing reading of the Bechdels alongside James). I mention Moon’s insight to emphasize, first, how judicious Bechdel is in her choice of allusion and secondly, to destabilize once again the notion of a literary tradition as an uncomplicatedly “normative discourse.”

But to carry on. You’re of course right to understand the home of the memoir’s title not only in relation to the Bechdel Funeral Home but also the Gothic revival house that Bruce restores so carefully. It’s in a long line of crumbling manors in American literature, from the House of Usher and the House of the Seven Gables to the Bates Motel – and a cousin, of course, to the crumbling manor houses of other Gothic traditions. In keeping with the allusions to Icarus and Daedalus that pervade the memoir, the labyrinth is a key figure, too: Bechdel writes that “[her father’s] shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous, period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it. Mirrors, distracting bronzes, multiple doorways. Visitors often got lost upstairs.” And lurking somewhere inside, the minotaur who is also the labyrinth’s inventor. The home is, as you suggest, a metaphor for the closet.

As to how Bechdel spatializes the narrative: the page you include above is a great example of how she finds apt visual metaphors for a given moment in her narrative. The isolation of the Bechdels within their respective bubbles is itself a canny way to figure their absorption in separate pursuits. But placing the viewer outside the house, privileged with a kind of X-Ray vision that nevertheless only reveals the Bechdels’ silhouettes, is another means of emphasizing alienation, in this case of the reader from the five obsessives inside the fun home. That flirtation with the voyeur (if that’s the right way to put it) suggests to me a representational tradition I’m familiar with as a student of early American urban literature. It’s a tradition that’s embodied in what the historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz calls “the fascinating character of Asmodeus, a fictional devil with origins in the Apocrypha, who had been refashioned in the nineteenth century as a devil-dandy who could reveal urban secrets by taking off roofs of houses to reveal the vices of those dwelling within.” The appetite to see these domestic secrets is itself a function of what Franco Moretti has characterized as the “great novelty of urban life, [which] does not consist in having thrown the people into the street, but in having raked them up and shut them into offices and homes.” And into small-town fun homes, too.

But I prefer another example of Bechdel’s use of the comics page – one with some affinities to this one. Bechdel divides the last page of the third chapter into two panels roughly equal in size. The first of these shows Alison and Bruce in profile, sitting alongside one another in Bruce’s library. The two of them are companionably silent, Bruce reading a book about Zelda Fitzgerald and Alison sitting at his desk writing a check that he’s promised to sign. In the caption, the narrator Bechdel is imagining that her father killed himself in “deranged tribute” to Fitzgerald, who was, like Bruce, 44 when he died. But, she reflects, if that were true, then it would mean that his death had nothing to do with her. “And I’m reluctant,” she says, “to let go of that last, tenuous bond.” The second panel, the last one of the chapter, shows them still sitting alongside one another, still in the library, each of them at ease. But now we the viewers are outside, looking in through two windows; Alison is visible through one window, and Bruce is visible through the other. The curtains are a funereal black, and even though the static medium of the comics page means that they’re frozen in place, their appearance at the end of the chapter suggests a closing, after the fashion of a stage play. Alison and Bruce are still in the room together, but the new perspective on them now emphasizes the tenuousness of their bond. The first of the two panels immerses us in Bechdel’s memory of domestic happiness; the second reluctantly retreats from that memory. It’s a beautifully subtle dramatization of mourning that Bechdel articulates primarily through the image.

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Christopher: As much as I would love to keep going with this, I’m overdue for posting it, so that will have to be the last word … which is only appropriate, given that it is an eloquent and incisive final word, and far subtler than my own evolving understanding of Fun Home. Thank you so much for your time and thoughts, Andrew. Perhaps we’ll have to do this again when we talk Hamilton in a little more than two weeks.

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Filed under Revenge of the Genres, teaching

A Wee Bit of Comics Context

As I mentioned in my previous post, we’re moving on to Fun Home by Alison Bechdel this week, which is the text on this course I’m most trepidatious about teaching—mainly because, as I’ve said before, I’m not much of a comic book / graphic narrative person. Of all the various species of nerdiness I enthusiastically embraced when I was young, comic books were not in my wheelhouse … I think, in part, because I was a very fast reader. I loved to read, and could tear through a medium-sized novel in a day or two. Comic books were a matter of mere minutes, so when the time came to spend my allowance, it made far more economic sense to buy a chunky fantasy novel by Terry Brooks or Anne McCaffery.

That being said, I seem to be having a mid-life comic book renaissance, having read Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga (on the most excellent Nikki Stafford’s recommendation), the new Black Panther series by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as re-reading all the Sandman comics while we did American Gods in class. And of course I’ve read such staples as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful Persepolis, but this still leaves me far from being a competent commentator on comics.

Enter my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman, who not only embraced the comic book dimension of nerdiness in his youth, but has parlayed that love into scholarly production: he has published articles on Spiegelman’s MAUS, has taught classes on comics and graphic novels here at Memorial, and since his first sabbatical two years ago has been plugging away at a massive project annotating Watchmen. And most recently he presented a paper at “Mixing Visual Media in Comics,” a conference on graphic narrative held here at Memorial just a week ago that featured some of the biggest luminaries in comics and graphic narrative scholarship in the world.

We’re going to have two discussions, the first of which will deal with comics, or “graphic narratives” as a field of academic study more broadly; the second will look at Fun Home more specifically.

Revenge of the Genres

Christopher: Let’s begin with the question of comic books as a field of scholarship, something that once upon a time, like film studies, would have been considered unthinkable as a viable area of academic inquiry. But now there are numerous English departments that feature classes on comics, many scholarly books and articles have been written on the subject, and our colleague Nancy Pedri can get a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) grant to host a conference devoted to it—and, indeed, feature respected scholars who have built their careers publishing and teaching on the subject. How would you characterize the emergence of comics as a scholarly pursuit?

tintinAndrew: That’s a complicated question. The first important point to make, I think, is that while North American comics studies have only emerged in the past fifteen years, comics studies in France emerged considerably sooner. The first work of criticism I ever bought was Jean-Marie Apostolidès’ Les Metamorphoses de Tintin; the second was Benoit Peeters’ Les Bijous ravis. These studies of Hergé’s Tintin albums were published in France in the early 1980s. So while Comics Studies was until recently unthinkable in the Anglo-American context, it has been thinkable in the European context for decades.

In the Anglo-American context, Comics Studies is still new, and it hasn’t yet established a firm toehold in the academy. Part of this belated emergence has to do with the disdain for mass culture that was part and parcel of the Anglo-American academy, which saw mass cultural forms, including comics, as Kitsch. I know you’re familiar with that prejudice from your interest in TV and genre studies: Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno cast long shadows. Part of it has to do with histories of censorship in comics: I’m thinking specifically of the Comics Code Authority, which came into place in the McCarthy era, which was modeled on the Hollywood Production Code, and which imposed various restrictions on mass-market comics, largely confining them to a child readership at a time when Children’s Literature itself flew under the scholarly radar. (The emergence of Children’s Literature studies is a related disciplinary tale.) And the largest part of it has to do with the slow emergence of the kind of the literary comic of which MAUS and Fun Home are exemplars.

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MAUS
was a breakthrough work for what would become Comics Studies, in two respects. First, its success emboldened publishers to take risks on other “weighty” comics, so that MAUS’s publisher, Pantheon Books, later published Chris Ware, Ben Katchor, Marjane Satrapi, and David B., and gradually there accumulated a critical mass of the kinds of comic that people mean when they use the not-very-useful term “graphic novel.” Secondly, because of MAUS’s seriousness of purpose, literary critics could appreciate it in a way that they couldn’t appreciate a work like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. In its way, Watchmen is just as formally daring as MAUS; in some ways, because Spiegelman mostly kept his formal experiments at bay while writing MAUS, Watchmen is even more daring (there’s nothing in MAUS equal to Watchmen’s chiastic Chapter V). But Watchmen was still a superhero comic published by a mass-market publisher – that is, still caught in the grates of the mass-culture gutters. (I remember showing Watchmen to my Shakespeare professor at the University of Calgary. “It’s very violent,” he said, before returning to his lectures on King Lear and Titus Andronicus.)

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The thematic seriousness of MAUS was its passport to the academy: it was often the first comic ever taught in university literature departments, because English professors could both appreciate it themselves and also represent it as a legitimate work to skeptical colleagues. Geoffrey Hartman wrote about it! And it made those other colleagues receptive to the argument that there might be other works that were as interesting and challenging, even a whole field worthy of scholarly inquiry. By the time I came to Memorial, I encountered only nominal resistance when I proposed a course on comics – only from the usual departmental mastodons, and even then only in the “this isn’t what I understand as literature, but go with God” attitude of the already-resigned.

I should add that comics scholars in Canada tend to be relatively young: we’re generally mid-career, which means we came of age as readers in the 1980s and later. MAUS and Watchmen and Love and Rockets have always been part of our cultural landscape. It isn’t surprising that as we displace an older generation of critics, we remodel the institution so that it reflects our own sensibilities. But we have no reason to be smug about that: you’ll remember, I’m sure, how our department reacted when someone proposed hiring a specialist in Gaming Studies. “The idea!” we all said, dust rising from our clothes as we shuddered.

Christopher: Right, I’d forgotten about that. Though for the record, I’m not opposed to the idea of hiring a Gaming Studies person, I just want us to hire the half-dozen other positions on the departmental wish list before we get there. Though now that we’ve absorbed Communication Studies, perhaps that IS something we should consider …

Okay, there’s a lot there in what you said that I want to unpack, but just a quick question first: in my introductory blurb, I made a point of saying “comics” and was careful to mark out “graphic narrative” just like that, in scare quotes, because I want in our classes on Fun Home to trouble that distinction; to my inexperienced eye, it sometimes seems that there’s a tacit (or not so tacit) hierarchy of texts in which “graphic novels” are designated as serious or literary, and “comics” play a role comparable to genre fiction in literary study (and your lovely history of comics scholarship seems to bear this out). Is this still a thing? Are these distinctions points of dispute?

Andrew: Your eye may be inexperienced but it’s keen. “Graphic novel” is a term associated with the comics artist Will Eisner, who started using it to describe his work in the late 1970s. But the term owes its present currency not to him but to publishers and booksellers, who liked the distinction it implied from the vulgar comic book. Hey adults! Graphic novels! It would draw in the status-conscious readers that booksellers coveted – and power to them, because without those readers and the market they helped create I probably wouldn’t be teaching comics.

joe-sacco2From a critical perspective, though, the term is troubling. It associates comics with a single literary form – the novel – with its own complex history and its own contract with readers. Among the terms of that contract is the (typical) expectation that the novel is a work of fiction. (I know that that adjective “typical” does a lot of work, but that’s my point: why saddle comics with all the sub-sub-clauses of the novel’s particular contract?) Is MAUS a novel? No, though in some respects it’s novelistic: it’s a work of dramatized testimony. Fun Home isn’t a novel, either, but rather a memoir; Joe Sacco’s Palestine isn’t a novel but rather a work of comics journalism. It’s true that “comics” isn’t a perfect term, either, insofar as it implies that we should respond to MAUS with laughter. A term that gained currency in the past few years, “graphic narrative,” is only marginally less bad than “graphic novel.” Finding the right word for this strange form is tough work, and maybe the only thing to do is to use different terms situationally and always ironically. But “comics” has one key virtue: it isn’t pretentious.

Christopher: Amen. This all reminds me of the New Yorker ad for season five of The Wire (which I noted in an early post for this series), which is basically an interview with Tony Kushner on why he thinks The Wire is great art—basically, giving permission to the intelligentsia and literati to watch television without guilt.

We’ll talk about the distinctions between “graphic novels,” “graphic narratives,” and “comics” in class, but I think in general I’ll stick with “comics,” however inaccurate the term might be at times.

Something I’m curious about: many of the “literary” comic writers/artists, like Spiegelman and Bechdel, emerged from a bohemian underground of “alternative” comics; again, not something I’m overly familiar with, but from what I gather, Spiegelman cut his teeth writing comics that were the equivalent of garage rock or poetry chapbooks, and Bechdel made her name with the lovely but (at the time) necessarily niche comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. By contrast, as you point out, such luminaries as Alan Moore (or for that matter, Neil Gaiman) came up through the more popular, superhero-laden imprints, and thus took longer to gain academic recognition—in part because of their ostensibly unserious subject matter, but also because of their popular appeal. Does this kind of—what? I guess since we’re talking comics, I can say “origin story”—does this still obtain? (I guess in some ways I’m asking you to make a Frankfurt/Birmingham argument here. Sorry).

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Andrew: I plead guilty to having first become aware of The Wire thanks to that very ad. But no one understands how much I love Tony Kushner. At least twice a month, I make pilgrimages to the Stephen Barclay Agency website to see if his profile mentions any new upcoming work. I’m still waiting for The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures to see print; I cling to the hope that he’ll write the Phenomenology-of-Money cycle that he mentioned fifteen years ago; and I’ll be first in line if he and Spielberg ever make the Eugene O’Neill biopic he conjured up somewhere – maybe in his notes to the National Theatre’s 2003 production of Mourning Becomes Electra. I brought his comments on Sir Thomas Browne to the comics conference just in case someone asked why I thought Alan Moore might have read “The Garden of Cyrus.” (No one asked.) I love him. So I’m guilty – but I hope I get a reduced sentence.

You’re right that Spiegelman and Bechdel both come from alternative scenes, and that Moore and Gaiman’s path, lined as it is with capes and cowls, has set the terms of their institutional recognition. But Moore left DC years ago, and he went on to write many, many works that neither conform to recognizable genres nor would be well-received in the mass market (try pitching From Hell or Lost Girls to a media empire). Even so he still doesn’t have the critical stature of Spiegelman or Bechdel of Chris Ware. One suspects other factors at play. His work is seriously uneven (though Spiegelman’s is, too). He’s too weird for the generally middle-class critics who’ve made it through the polishing machine of graduate school and the job market (he worships a snake puppet!). And unlike, Spiegelman and Bechdel and Ware, who are all writer/artists, he relies on collaborators (as does Gaiman). That last one may be the most important: in spite of the collaborative example of film and theatre, cultural criticism remains most comfortable with single authors (witness the auteur theory in Film Studies, or the status of the showrunner in prestige TV).

I’d guess that critics’ preference for the alternative comics creator will persist as long as the high art/low art binary does. To me it seems robust. Bart Beaty recently wrote a critical study of Archie Comics in a spirit of rebellion against the canon-builders who’d only choose “respectable” artists while scorning the “litter auteurs” (if I may). An honourable project – but I think there are institutional and cultural forces working against him.

But ask me again tomorrow and I might tell a different story. The elevation of comics’ reputation has given rise to wonders: The New York Review of Books reviewing a Batman comic; Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther. We may yet wake up in a world where Nicole Eisenman is drawing Wonder Woman, and where Archie Comics are understood to be just as significant and sophisticated, on their own terms, as MAUS is, on its.

Christopher: I was going to save mention of the Ta-Nehisi black-pantherCoates Black Panther until later in this discussion, but since you brought it up, there’s no time like the present. When I first conceived of this course, I knew I’d want to include a comics component (in spite of my ignorance of the field). At the time when I was first jotting down the notes that would evolve into “Revenge of the Genres,” I was avidly reading Coates’ blog and his account of what it was like to write a comic book when this was something he’d never done. I was also, at that point, reading his heartbreaking and deeply affecting essay Between the World and Me, his cri de coeur about being a black man in America.

His Black Panther was in very close contention with Fun Home as the representative graphic text for this course.

I won’t ask you what you think of Coates’ take on Black Panther (that, presumably, will be an informal conversation over beer); I will, however, ask you what your thoughts are that a person who is arguably the leading African-American public intellectual of our historical moment (Toni Morrison has compared him to James Baldwin) has taken authorship over one of the very few black superheroes we have?

Andrew: It’s astonishing. I hope Suzan-Lori Parks or Tarell Alvin McCraney or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins gets an invitation next (I’m naming playwrights because I think they’d make the transition to comics more easily than would an essayist). I had an intimation that Coates might try his hand at comics a year or so ago when the New York Times asked him what he was reading. He mentioned E. L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks, which was the sort of book I would expect him to read; and then he mentioned Jonathan Hickman’s run on The Avengers, which was not. That’s when I first learned that he’s part of the nerd collective; I gather some wise person at Marvel figured that out sooner. It still gives me vertigo when I see his name on the covers of Marvel comics. Time will tell if his run is just a fluke convergence of personal inclination and corporate canniness (Disney jealously eyeing Coates’ cultural capital): that kind of literary tourism happens semi-regularly (“Why not dash off a comic or two, Ms. Atwood?”). But of course I’d love to see him alternate between essays and comics over the long term – especially as he becomes more dexterous as a comics writer.

But apropos of his take on Black Panther – why wait for beer? – I’ve read the first two issues and found them pretty forbidding. Coates has inherited the continuity and characters from earlier writers, and he begins in medias res, during some sort of Wakandan civil unrest. I’m sure it all makes sense to Marvel habitués, but I’m afraid I come to Black Panther knowing nothing about the character – so I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it so far. But I want desperately to believe. I’ve rarely been moved by any paragraph as much as by this one, from Between the World and Me:

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

Someone who can write like that is worth trying and trying again. I’ll be buying the trade paperback.

Christopher: That actually sets up both a great final question to end this discussion, and a useful segue into Fun Home. Which is to say: given its place on the literary fringes, do you think comics studies offers a more fruitful space for previously marginalized voices to make themselves heard than “literary” fiction?

Andrew: Not comics studies, but maybe comics – maybe. The received wisdom is that because American comics have been perennially a despised form, marginalized voices have made themselves heard there. The great example is the superhero, created by young writers who were overwhelmingly Jewish American. But if that received wisdom is true, then as comics come increasingly into the literary spotlight, they’ll become less, not more hospitable to marginalized voices: the legitimation of the form will be bad for its diversity. But the story is no doubt more complicated than the received wisdom would allow. Those inventors of the superhero were overwhelmingly men, for instance, while “literary” authors of the 1930s included many women. Where gender is concerned, “literary” fiction today is still substantially more diverse than comics. And the legitimation of comics seems to have made them more rather than less hospitable to gender diversity. Alison Bechdel is a trailblazer not only because she’s a Lesbian cartoonist but also because she’s a woman: in 2004, two years before she published Fun Home, The New York Times profiled five comics artists – Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Seth, and Chester Brown – and as you can see from that list, there was not a woman among them (there were of course women writing comics, including Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Lynda Barry, but they didn’t have the stature or visibility of those five men). Fantagraphics – a major publisher of comics with pretensions to art – was still largely a boy’s club. Glance at the comics section in a bookstore now (sorry, the “graphic novels” section), and you’ll see a number of women represented there – the brilliant Eleanor Davis, Leela Corman, Rutu Modan, Jillian Tamaki, Sarah Glidden, and many more.

But literary fiction is itself at the fringes of culture, so maybe we’re making the wrong comparison. Compared to Hollywood, comics are a festival of difference, and present a grand opportunity to those true artists, no matter their gender, ethnicity, or class, who are prepared to live hard-scrabble lives in draughty roach-choked apartments, struggling to make ends meet while they craft heartfelt works of subtlety and beauty that will finally come to press when they’re in their late 40s.

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Christopher: And on that ringing endorsement of the comics-writing lifestyle, we’ll bring this discussion to a close. Thanks so much for talking with me about this, and for bringing your encyclopedic knowledge to bear on a topic for which I am but a neophyte.

And thanks everyone for reading. Stay tuned for the next installment: Andrew will be back to talk in more depth and detail about Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

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