All Worn Out
July 10, 2007
Ah, why not. This is something that I just wanted to expand on from comments left elsewhere, see if I might be onto something. I thought of tying in Adorno, but it would’ve been too much, and it’s already tough enough to get through my ramblings alone.
Journalista’s Dirk Deppey has a term for the era of comics roughly kicked off by Identity Crisis leading to Infinite Crisis and Civil War and still running relatively healthy today. He dubs this trend “superhero decadence,” possibly maybe as a nod to Joanna Russ’ Wearing Out of Genre Materials. (If you can get on a university or library connection, the full article is located here.)
Russ’ concern was with the future of the science fiction genre, but she looked across other genres to find similar patterns and ominous warning signs. According to Russ, a genre goes through three stages:
- Ideas and themes are treated with a naive wonder.
- Pleasure in novelty for its own sake; being all about the “concept” and the pleasure in running with it as far as it can go.
- See: those crazy Jimmy Olsen comics and old “Imaginary Stories” from the Silver Age.
- Furthermore, Russ argues that one sci-fi story of this age follows the structure that: “The rest of the story is merely a set of devices to delay that final revelation and the creation of a sketchy world into which the final revelation can erupt.” This is sort of the same principle with the old DC practice of coming up with the big cover idea first, then writing around that.
- The pleasure is in working things out, and treating things with more of a logical rigor.
- Which means, I think, constraints being put down for the sake of logic, but also coming up with a logical system explaining everything, and playing with that structure.
- Ideas and themes “petrified”
- Things have been reduced to formulaic rituals, and the pleasure is in these cliches and rituals.
- Ideas and themes “stylized”
- Where they are creatively manipulated or parodied, and the pleasure is in aesthetic play
- Ideas and themes “petrified”
I think we’re pretty well stuck in the decadent stage. Decadence isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Writers like Grant Morrison and Dan Slott tend to fall in the positive end. As for the negative end, leading the genre to a petrification the likes westerns, vampires, slasher and maybe the entire horror genre have seen… well, they all work at DC (Marvel’s big flaws seem to be being spastic and oblivious, then stagnating with rituals and old characters… well, I’ll give you the recent Skrull mulligan). Morrison’s Animal Man and Flex Mentallo. Sea Guy manipulated the conventions and themes of the genre by placing it in a mundane, “post-victory” world. All-Star Superman is Morrison’s attempt at emulating a certain aesthetic and, in so, is hitting on the pleasure of the Silver Age rituals.
Alan Moore, on the other hand, strikes me as more in the “Plausibility” stage. Like Morrison, he tries to evoke and emulate a certain aesthetic (like Tom Strong and Top Ten). But Moore’s more structural and dense than Morrison, I think, also drawing on much more outside the cape genre and its “formulaic rituals.” Russ describes the Plausability mindset as asking “‘What, if really?’ and the author isn’t satisfied until he has constructed a whole society, a whole technology, and a set of rules for the aperation of rebellion robots.” Kind of like Moore’s SF comic Halo Jones – Moore took the “space marine” idea and started constructing a society, and bringing in hazards like time dilation and extreme gravity. But back to superheroes, Moore’s ingenious revelation of Swamp Thing follows the sort of a plausible reasoning, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has the tons of literary references and meticulously created vintage advertisements and back up stories. Watchmen, I think, might even serve as the sort of fuzzy boundary – Moore is definitely trying to take a plausible look at superheroes by weaving in serious real world issues (Vietnam, rape, war) and deeply personal issues (age, sexuality). Top Ten also has this kind of meticulous world-building.
Russ was also trying to figure out how, with the eventual nostalgic copying or general creative recycling, a genre can stay viable. Where once Bela Legosi terrified many with Dracula, the reaction now is more towards derision or camp, she argues. Because the vampire genre (and I would assume parodies thereof, kind of like how The Crying Game is sorta forever dulled) wore out that movie’s motifs, reducing it to “quaint” and “predictabile.” Similarly, there’s only so much you can do with Batman or Superman and so on. Russ cynically notes that with the saturation of mass media, “Motifs begin to rot before they have got out of the first stage… The mass media seem to have got stuck at a level of ritual repetition, what passes for ‘new ideas’ on TV being mostly a desperate addiction to quirks and the trimming with cheap gimmickrv of very stale stuff indeed.” Of course, you can probably apply this to the cape genre with the “continuity porn,” gore, character deaths, rape, events, weekly releases, and all that. Warren Ellis seemed to try and kick start the cycle again with the off-the-wall novelty and fun of NextWave, and the format of Fell.
To be fair, Russ’ model could also be applied to manga genres as well. The shounen genre is a prime candidate for the decadent stag, stuck in the rituals of Inexplicably Powerful Young Male Scamps, power surges, Stoic Loner Rivals, Sidelined Announcers, etc. I kind of wonder if the deluge of yaoi manga might bring up the same issues as well…
So what do you think? Do you agree with Russ’ model? If you do, where do you think the genre or certain writers are on the scale?