Asked to explain what is meant by 'poorly written', anonymous fulfills:
Callahan responds: "Yup. Exactly."
So I'm not exactly sure why Callahan had to write up 3000 words what an anonymous individual explained in 112.
Maybe I am misreading, so let's go through this...
What are "literary comics?"
Not unlike literary novels, I would surmise.
When you hear that term, what do you think of?
Something like PERSEPOLIS, MAUS, EIGHTBALL, ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY?
Do you think of "Persepolis" or "Maus," because they are both serious autobiographical comics?
No, it is the approach to the medium those works make toward comics.
Do you think of "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" or "Ice Haven" because they both address small moments of despair within a formally experimental context?
I'm not necessarily sure if despair is what makes 'literary comics', but compare the handling of despair in any Chris Ware comic, or Daniel Clowes comic, to Marvel's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN "One More Day". Technical and that more ambiguous 'good storytelling gene' at work?
Do you think of "Jimbo" or "Powr Masters" because they're weird and you don't quite understand them?
That's sort of loaded and speaks to Mr. Callahan's own bias. I haven't read JIMBO yet (just ordered it), and let me tell you: if it sucks, it sucks.
Or do you think of "Watchmen" and "Sandman" because, well, they're supposed to be really good and they're written by British folks?
Well, WATCHMEN and SANDMAN (at least the first half of SANDMAN) are actually really good and I don't think either of the writers being British have much to do with that in any real sense, beyond speaking to the lowest common denominator a lot of American creative producers set for themselves.
Would anyone put Geoff Johns's "Green Lantern" in the category of "literature?" How about Ed Brubaker's "Captain America?" Doug Moench's "Moon Knight?" Roy Thomas's "All-Star Squadron?" Do any of these qualify?
I don't even know if Johns, Brubaker, Moench, or Thomas would put those works of their's into the category of "literature". But then neither would Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy. Actually, Clive Cussler gets brought up later on, but let's just forge ahead for right now...
Here's the thing about literature: the way we think about it constantly shifts, and even if we accept a division between "literary works" (which implies the serious, profound importance of the text) and "genre fiction" (which implies that a book about cowboys will have cowboys in it), the terms of that division are based solely on cultural bias. And cultural bias changes, from culture to culture, over time.
No way! Sorry for the snark, but I'm not exactly sure who Callahan is writing for. This is posted over Comic Book Resources, and maybe he thinks that these sort of statements and questions are required to set up for his comic book reading audience.
William Shakespeare, the paragon of all things literary -- what high school student in the Western world has graduated without reading at least one of his plays? -- was, of course, considered a populist, mainstream writer. The "First Folio," the most reliable and, at that time, most comprehensive publication of Shakespeare's plays, wasn't published until 1623. Shakespeare was dead for seven years by then. To crack the literary market, Shakespeare wrote narrative poems, not plays. "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece" were his bids for literary immortality, while "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet" were what he crafted to pay the bills. How many of us have read those two narrative poems? How many have read the two plays? Exactly.
Hey, everyone knows who William Shakespeare is! I graduated high school too, and took a few English courses at my local college! Again, this is quite a few hundred words spent saying absolutely nothing.
And "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet" were both examples of genre fiction. We don't consider them genre fiction anymore, because our popular genres have changed, at least in name. "Romeo and Juliet" is a romantic tragedy. That's its genre. It conforms to the rules of that tradition just as "Hamlet" conforms to the rules of the revenge tragedy (it's just that Hamlet is a really ineffectual avenger). We still have romantic tragedy and revenge tragedies today, and works produced in those genres can be exceedingly popular. Think of recent films like "Message in a Bottle" for the former or "Kill Bill" for the latter. You'll note that both of those films have enthusiastic supporters, but neither was nominated for Best Picture of the Year. Neither was embraced as aesthetically or important by the austere keepers of the cultural flame.
I...really don't get what is happening there. Who didn't nominate KILL BILL or MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE for Best Picture of the Year? The Academy Awards? I can't even imagine anyone who knows what they are talking about regarding the world of cinema thinking of the Academy Awards as the 'austere keepers of the cultural flame'. What's sad is Callahan is going to bring up movies again to prove his point.
Perhaps I'm mixing up my analogy by throwing movies into the mix when we're talking about publishing, but Shakespeare's plays were dramatic performances first, and written literature second. The point is that Shakespeare wasn't considered any more literary during his time than Geoff Johns is today. Am I seriously lumping Johns in with Shakespeare? Not so much. Shakespeare is a unique genius who transcends his own time and the genres in which he worked. Johns may prove to be that -- it's possible -- but the point isn't that Johns is this generation's Shakespeare. The point is that cultural standards change and the automatic dismissal that superhero comics receive in the early 21st century has little to do with the quality of the work produced and everything to do with a cultural bias that we're currently wallowing in.
I understand what Callahan is saying, but it is still incredibly misguided. Callahan is asking these questions that are wrong, followed by a backtrack...incredibly lazy writing that we're all guilty of when we're tackling something we really don't know enough about. I've done it, and it really is paining me to see it right now.
"Just because Geoff Johns isn't literary today, doesn't mean he won't be Shakespeare in 500 years!" Get real, and Callahan even admits that. However, in a mere words afterwards he is saying "Shakespeare is a unique genius who transcends his own time and the genres in which he worked", which is parroting the very attitude which apparently this article exists to actually criticize. So what we really do have is a 'defense of superheroes' under the guise of 'challenging the ivory tower'.
Where did the cultural bias come from, though? Why are superhero comics automatically considered less literary, or less aesthetically significant, than the latest Jeffrey Brown release?
The bias probably came from critics who are approaching the medium with stuff like Cultural Theory behind them, and other modern marvels of literary discussion. Superhero comics (and by that, based on the examples of superhero work listed above by Callahan himself, I guess he only really means Marvel and DC superhero comics) don't get talked about for the same reason that DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES doesn't receive the same shake as THE WIRE (and remember that THE WIRE has been ignored by the 'keepers of the cultural flame' in The Emmys). I guess Jeffrey Brown is like the TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW, GREAT JOB to Marvel or DC's TWO AND A HALF MEN. Here's that point I mentioned I would bring up again... Apparently I'm not the only person who thought about the 'corporate' angle of superhero comics, so here's another bit from Callahan's own blog, in response to this article.
Apparently I'm not the only person who thought about the 'corporate' angle of superhero comics, so here's another bit from Callahan's own blog, in response to this article.
There is one complaint against superhero comics that I'd be curious to see you address further, that being the corporate ownership of the titular characters. This isn't the case for all heroes, but it is for most of them, and certainly for the most visible (Batman, Spider-Man, etc.) I think the fact that anyone who writes Batman, for example, loses some popular respect because:Okay, let's see. First of all, I think the comparison to TV writers is almost valid, but not quite, because very few TV writers work on an extended run of episodes in a row, which is very common in superhero comics. The TV writers who do have a strong voice and a lot of control -- David Simon, for example -- are held in increasingly higher cultural esteem, though. And it all depends on what you mean by cultural esteem, and which novelists you're talking about, too. I don't think Clive Cussler is held in high cultural esteem, but he's a novelist who sells a lot of copies. And many of the novelists held in high cultural esteem are only esteemed by a small, elite group. Anyway, it's a sticky issue of high culture vs. low culture and all of that stuff, and I'd rather just move on than have to wade through that old debate. Especially since it's clearly changing as academia embraces popular culture more and more wholeheartedly.1. They didn't create the characterIt also seems that the comics writers who achieve the most fame with a company owned character are the ones who are given the most freedom (Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns").
2. They can't significantly change the character without approval
from the owners.
(Grant Morrison's current arc aside, such change is rarely approved.)
This doesn't make such comics writers any different from television writers, but I don't know if saying that accomplishes anything. Even today TV writers are not held in anywhere near the high cultural esteem as novelists.
I would say that Callahan doesn't want to actually write about what it is he's actually already talking about and doesn't realize it. I personally don't see much of a difference between literary and genre comics, though I understand that the difference exists for some people...and setting up your argument as 'literary versus genre' IS setting up 'high culture' and 'low culture'. Unless I'm missing something, is he not embracing that very old debate he doesn't want to talk about? Comics were considered low culture up until the last couple of decades, and the works that tend to find their way into TIME magazine's Top Ten lists are usually 'literary'....but so are the novels they select as well. I love George R.R. Martin's fantasy novels, but I'm not crying a river that some people might not like Martin's novels and would rather read a Dave Egger or Zadie Smith novel (those examples are like five years old...man am I behind on my reading). Looking at Callahan's favourite books, he has DeLillo, Nabokov, Melville, Shakespeare (ha!), Stephenson, Eco listed. Surely he can perceive the difference between a 30 year old Roy Thomas ALL STAR SQUADRON comic and Don DeLillo novels? He's written a book on Grant Morrison's early work....I mean, he must realize why he enjoys Grant Morrison more than Doug Moench MOON KNIGHT?
So let's talk about the notion that superhero comics can't be as good as literary comics because of the corporate control of the characters. I think it is a giant hindrance to quality, sure. The more comic writers and artists I talk to, the more stories I hear about how individual issues were changed because of corporate mandates. A distinct lack of freedom, plus editorial meddling, probably get in the way of superhero comics being anywhere near as good as they might be. But that doesn't mean superhero comics can't be good. It just means they often are not -- largely because of the corporate influence. It's not an inherent aesthetic flaw in the genre; it's a flaw in the business model. The same is surely true for novelists who are forced to make concessions to a perceived audience -- or from publisher demands, and the same is definitely true for anyone working on a movie with any sort of reasonably high budget. So comics aren't along in their restrictions.
*Some snarking comment about the obviousness of this statement* I am just amazed that it has be repeated so often that what most good and readable creative content is down to its execution and merit. I don't think I'm being unfair in picking at the article for not talking about, well, obvious things....but the article is so obvious, why not some more thrown in for good measure?