As a medium, comics are in a strange place. In many ways, we as comics scholars and advocates have achieved the respect we long sought. Hollywood is so full of big-budget comics-related movies that it’s caused a backlash. Major entertainment outlets and occasionally the news cover comics more than ever before. Academia offers courses on comics. Comics conventions may be bigger affairs than ever, but only because they’re dominated by the movie and video game industries.
But comics culture oddly still seems a kind of cultural backwater. Worse, even with all this attention, the comics themselves seem often particularly insular, written by fans for fans. Concern for accessibility might occasionally simplify continuity, but it has rarely made the comics themselves any more clear or concise.
And while comics might get covered occasionally by both entertainment news and more highbrow outlets, there seems to be little middle ground. The body of critical voices that are both sophisticated and accessible, which exists more or less for every other artistic medium, seems comparatively lacking for comics.
To discuss these matters, I invited Colin Smith, who’s used his blog Too Busy Thinging About My Comics as a way of advocating by example, practicing the accessible but responsible criticism of comics that he’d like to see more of.
1. The Ideal Comics Critic, Intellectual Snobbery, and a Gore Vidal
JULIAN DARIUS: How would you define the ideal comics critic? What is it that you find lacking, in the present climate?
COLIN SMITH: Can I try to answer that by trying to say what a good critic is first? Because I’m such a simpering, gushing fan of great pop criticism, and I can’t begin to think about what an “ideal comics critic” is without wondering what makes an “ideal” critic in the first place.
They’d have to be someone that the reader could trust to really know their stuff, such as the late Ian MacDonald did, while also having a consistently coherent moral and political agenda, such as John Carey, bless him, always has. Yet you’d also want to note a willingness in an ideal critic to continually rethink their position, to forever be pushing back at their own ignorance with a glee for what they’ve still got to discover. For me, that’s Orwell. You’d want them to be able to approach their work without snobbery and with a sense of the wider culture, so that’s Pauline Keal and David Hepworth coming to mind. You’d want their work to carry the sense that while they’ll come to a reasoned if not necessarily objective judgment, they’ll not tolerate foolishness in their subjects with anything other than at best a disapproving pity. Gore Vidal and Dorothy Parker and Charlie Brooker, for example, always carry that sense of waspish menace mixed with absolute common sense for me. And underneath the capacity for understanding and retribution, you need to feel that the critic would be enjoyable and interesting good company for an hour or so, such as Jim Irwin and Mark Kermode surely are. Finally, underneath it all, you’d want to know that a critic always believes that what they’re doing matters not a whit and yet means everything too, believes that criticism is an entirely worthwhile pursuit in its own right if pursued in the right spirit and with the right qualities. At one extreme, Lester Bang’s later pieces are marked by the fiercest and yet most strangely compassionate of punk sincerity, while at the other, Clive James’s TV criticism from the Seventies in the Observer will be read for its wit and erudition long after everything he’s discussed exists only as academic footnotes to his own work. Take all those qualities and combine them and you’ve got an ideal critic, of comics or anything else, and despite what so much of the culture affects to believe, a tremendously smart, wise, modest, opinionated, combative, funny, stylish, popular, moral, democratic, knowledgeable and entertaining critic is a rare thing well worth the cherishing. To say the least!
As yet, comics hasn’t, to my knowledge, produced anyone of the above quality, and perhaps what’s missing is more of a sense of the company which we all might be aspiring to keep.
DARIUS: That’s a pretty high standard you’re setting.
SMITH: But those are those women and men who can do the job. You’d expect folks learning to play an instrument to aspire to be as able as the people they’re inspired by. You’d expect folks signing up to creative writing courses to carry with them a litany of works and authors who’ve moved them and who they want to match in one way or another. Yet where criticism is concerned, there’s a sense that’s any kind of self-consciousness about the whole process is pretentious. Well, that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much mediocre, to say the least, criticism in all fields. Reading Andrew Graham-Dixon on art, to give just one example, at the least keeps anyone dabbling in criticism honest; it reminds anyone who isn’t already brilliant that just expressing an opinion isn’t anything that’s so impressive in itself. If nothing else, realizing that there is a canon and that those writers who’re in it are so incredibly good keeps the amateur critic thoroughly and productively ashamed.
We’ll know what an ideal comics critic looks like when their work demands to mentioned in the same breath as the folks mentioned above. Until that happens, for all the really good work that’s been produced over the past few decades, and I’d be happy to throw a few examples around of stuff I really admire just to show there’s a great deal of comics criticism I enjoy, most of us are just finding our feet.
Which is the point, I can’t help but feel. A canon tells you where to go, it suggests something of how to get there, and it keeps you honest. I’ve got Goldman’s “The Season” by my computer. I’ve got Shaw’s music journalism in a lovely old battered copy there too. If I’m going to have the privilege of talking about comics criticism with you, then I think the first stop is to say that there’s already a tradition of brilliant pop culture criticism out there. Comics criticism has to be understood in that context.
These examples don’t constitute “a pretty high standard.” They are the standard. And it’s really useful to start there, because their work is exciting and inspiring and it puts most of us writing about comics as lil’ league bloggers quite rightfully in our places! It certainly puts me into mine.
DARIUS: Fair enough. But I’ll confess that I have only a passing familiarity with several of the names you mention. Sure, I adore Orwell — his voice in my head often keeps me honest about abusing the English language. I’d personally cite Hitchens or Camille Paglia (the later of which is brilliant on pop culture — she has that kind of searching, wide-ranging mind I so admire, even when she’s wrong).
But I’m wrestling with something here. I thought we were going to agree on just about everything, since I think we’re both trying to elevate the critical discourse about comics. But you’re forcing me into a position where I want to defend the fanboy who’s just writing on his blog. Some of those voices have been inspiring to me, even if when they’re not quite setting the tone or balance I’d ideally like.
SMITH: Hey! I’m a “fanboy who’s just writing on his blog.” And I’ve got scrapbooks of examples of comics journalism that I really admire. Seriously.
Did you read Jill Pantozzi’s piece on the decision by DC to return Barbara Gordon to her Batgirl identity?
DARIUS: I did.
SMITH: Wonderful stuff! Heartfelt, passionately written, insightful, informed — it’s great material and all I could think after I’d read is was “I wish I could write as well, as movingly, as that.” And just recently I’ve been re-reading Andy Mangel’s wonderful two-part essay on homosexuality and the comics from Amazing Heroes #143-144 in 1988. That’s a piece of work that should go straight into the Comics Criticism 101 primer. And there’s loads of great work, loads of it.
One of Brian Hibbs’s pieces earlier this year on the insanity of the Big Two’s marketing was so precise and so effective in nailing the daftness of the whole business that I honestly didn’t write for several days. I just thought, “he’s nailing it and there’s nothing pretentious or indulgent about his work in any way. I’ll give up and take up gardening.”
So I’m not having a go at comics criticism, or if I am, I having a go at myself as much as anybody else. I’m just pointing out that in the end, there’s the big leagues out there, and they’re where we need to look to try to put something of the value of the work into perspective.
But you asked me what an “ideal” comics critic would be. And my starting point to the whole business of what we’re doing, all of us, is that an ideal comics critic can’t be judged by their general competence or their engagement with a particular area of comics. The standard’s already far too high for any of us to think of “ideals” in anything other than terms which look beyond comics writing itself. There’s nought wrong in any way with the fan writing their own blog, or I hope there’s not, because that’s all I do. But “ideal” sets the bar high. So it’s interesting to point our that these role models do exist, and as always with comics, there’s far more to learn outside of the medium as there is within it.
DARIUS: You’re right that I asked that question, and you’re answering it quite ably. I honestly didn’t intend it as some kind of trap. And I certainly agree about the vital need to look outside of this strangely closeted art form and its critics, to reach out into the wider literary and pop culture world and engage with it.
Having said that, maybe I’m just too punk rock at heart, always trying to tear down or render simple all of literary theory and the canon. But I venture to say that many of the names you’ve cited haven’t sat there with Goldman or Shaw on their nightstand.
SMITH: I wonder. I don’t think great writers ever develop in a vacuum. They might not have the texts next to their bed. But they’ve read them and read them again, I’m sure of it.
DARIUS: And I’m not. I’m just having that elitism bell going off in my head at the idea that someone can’t be a great critic without having Shaw on their nightstand.
SMITH: I didn’t say Shaw. (laughs) Really, I didn’t. I said “great writers.” Shaw is a such an inspiration to me, and he makes me laugh too, but he doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. All I’m saying is that there will be a canon where every ‘critic’ is concerned, and at some point or other, it ought to contain some of the best critical writing there is. I’m not trying to close off who gets to be in the canon. I’m just pointing out that it exists and that it’s a fantastic resource. In fact, if I was being daring, I’d say it was an essential one.
DARIUS: In comics, I’m often inspired by fanzine writers, by these fans who, in the 1970s and 1980s, when there was no discernible comics criticism elsewhere, put together these annotated lists and these critical essays. Sure, some of them weren’t up to snuff, but plenty of them were. And it’s because of the diligent work of these fine people that we understand a great deal of comics history, which might otherwise have been lost.
And while I’m certainly committed to moving beyond that, into deeper analytic territory, while avoiding the excesses and jargon of almost all academic writing, I think you’re advocating a kind of elite standard that would exclude most of the critics I admire, including (he says oh-so-humbly) myself.
As a teacher, I always wanted to boil things down, to keep lofty standards but to render them simply, and by all means to avoid intimidating people. Which I’ve learned is very easy to do. Perhaps consequently, there’s a big part of me that can’t help but recoil from what I see as an impossible standard.
I know I led you into this particular minefield, and it’s all my fault. But that doesn’t stop this strong reaction I’m having. These combine to make me ridiculously conflicted as an interviewer right now. (laughs)
SMITH: The thing is, I’m not suggesting that anyone’s critical work has to be judged in any terms beyond it’s own. And inspiration for the critic can be found anywhere. I’m not saying that only the texts I most value are those with some kind of academic credibility. Pretty much everything I’ve had to do with academia outside of the hard sciences has left me feeling academic credibility is incredibly overrated. I certainly don’t believe in absolute value or anything to do with it. Yet I do believe that there is a body of work which serves to a greater or lesser degree as canon, that’s so good that it ought to be paid attention to.
No one would argue if I said comics artists ought to know their Kirby and Ditko, their Kurtzman and Adams and Toth. Or that writers should know their Lee from their Broome, their Simone from their Bendis, their Engelhart from their Morrison. Why should it be any different where critical writing is concerned? I don’t mean that only the writers I mentioned are important, or that anyone will necessarily value the particular line-up that I do. But I wonder why critical writing can’t have a canon whereas every other form of creative endeavor is “allowed” to list its must-see films, must-read poems, and so on.
I really do believe that there’s a vital sense of perspective that comes with remembering that there’s a world out there beyond comics, beyond the super-hero book, and that that world is saturated with excellence, and that it’s all there to learn from!
SMITH: And as an old teacher myself, I always found that one of the keys to stopping folks being intimidated by great work was by just showing that it’s perfectly natural to be excited and enthused by it, that it’s as natural to be enthralled by the design of Zimbardo’s Stanford experiment as it is to laugh out loud at the mock-hubris of Take That’s latest stage-set.
It can be tough to do so, because scorn is often the response, but just arguing in the same breath that Austen and The Office and Scrooge McDuck and Moby Dick and Preacher and Coronation Street are wonderful things that can all be categorised under “fantastic” rather than “high” and “low” art is, of course, a really good thing to do. I’m weary, as I’m sure most folks are, of even having to remember that I’m supposed to approach all these wonderful “high” artifacts as if they stood in opposition to the popular ones, as if they’re were so different and superior they can’t be approached with anything other reverence and years of learning.
DARIUS: Yes, absolutely. And it’s a good teacher who opens up material for their students, just as it’s a good critic who does so.
SMITH: But do I feel useless every time I put fingers to keyboard because there’s all this fantastic work around us? Of course. It’s one to thing to know there’s so many comics worth treasuring. It’s another to be aware that there’s a mass of fine critical writing about it too. Being able to make a single sensible point about the first using the good example of the second feels like an impossible busines. Inspiration is one thing. Sadly, achievement is another altogether.
But I do think that paying attention to the worlds beyond comics where critical writing is concerned is a key matter. After all, isn’t there always a sense that the whole mainstream of comics is often incredibly satisfied with material that doesn’t even stand up in terms of the super-hero’s own past, let alone the work that’s been done elsewhere? Although I think comics and comics criticism desperately don’t need to be infected with academic pretension, they do need to be marked by the greatest possible measure of enthusiasm for great work.
And there’s a world of difference between intellectual snobbery and, for example, Gore Vidal’s writing, which for all its erudition is passionately concerned with rejecting pretension and boosting genre fiction.
DARIUS: I like Gore Vidal. I’ve read quite a bit of him. And I admire him for exactly what you’ve mention. But yes, he is a snob.
SMITH: Well, here I go even further into the world’s most unwinnable argument.
Vidal’s really not a snob. He’s absolutely wedded to the very highest standards of craft, but he also adores fine popular fiction. He loathes what he calls the U-Novel, the novel written for academia to write essays about and reward itself for its cleverness. His work is nearly always aimed at a mass audience and works such as “Screening History” show how he adores the likes of popular movies. He hates stupidity, he hates poor workmanship, he refuses not to enjoy the business of thinking, but I’m going to have to say that I find him a profoundly democratic writer. Standards aren’t synonymous with snobbery. His writings on how he’s wanted to produce excellent genre fiction in order to reach a mass audience and escape the clutches of snobs and idiots are thoroughly inspiring. He’s at war there with the worst of snobbery.
DARIUS: How thoroughly enjoyable and so ostensibly off-topic, which is entirely my fault as interviewer. And yet it’s important, if we’re going to nail down what we should be doing, that we interrogate these matters.
I admire each of the points you’ve made, as well as Vidal’s writing on sexuality, especially. As well as his stance on the novel written for academic dissection. But I can’t get Vidal’s droning voice out of my head, and it’s oh-so-very snobbish. There’s a pompousness there.
Not that snobbery is the end of the world, mind you. I’m certainly a snob, to a great extent, even as I would consider myself intellectually democratic. Or at least meritocratic. And a lot of the critics I admire are snobs too.
SMITH: Oh, hell, I don’t agree with Vidal about a great deal. I sat in the audience at the Royal Festival Hall a few years and listened to him arguing that America shouldn’t have engaged in World War II, and that the concentration of state power which resulted from that hastened the corruption of the Republic. Piffle. (Clive James has absolutely slaughtered him there, and quite rightly.)
But that’s fine, because the one thing I don’t want from a critic is for them to be right. What I want is a well-thought through argument, expert knowledge, wit, and intelligence; I want to be told (1) how the object at hand has been constructed and to what effect, (2) what the social meaning of the object is, and (3) what the critic thinks and feels, in terms of how that’s relevant to their argument. But I don’t want to be told what’s right so much as have the pleasure of someone’s company I admire.
Oh, it’s awful. I’m going to look terrible. But I absolutely love great criticism. I think it’s one of the most splendid things ever! I can’t help it; I get excessively enthusiastic about it. Sibellius’s comment that no-one ever raised a statue to a critic? When I make my billion, they’ll be everywhere.
DARIUS: Let’s look at the three points you gave, because I think they’re quite excellent in their specificity.
I agree with your first point, that a critic should discuss how the object has been constructed and to what effect, and I’m fascinated by criticism that points out the implications of structure, whether it’s character or plot or even the format of an artistic object, what it looks and feels like.
I also love what you say about having someone’s company, which is touching. There is a sense of intellectual camaraderie, in sharing one’s headspace (for lack of a better word) with another mind, and this is one of the unique joys of the written word.
SMITH: You see — if you’ll forgive me — I don’t think it’s anything to with “intellectual camaraderie.” One of our culture’s most pernicious prejudices is the belief that anything other than an immediate response to a direct experience is unnatural and indulgent, and that reflective and critical thought is “intellectual” and therefore somehow abstracted from typical human experience. To call the appeal of a good critic “intellectual camaraderie” is to suggest that “camaraderie” doesn’t naturally involve critical thinking. But everyone thinks critically.
Long years at the chalkface saw year after year of students arriving in my class with a sense that “thinking” is pretentious and alien to their experience. But all that needed to be done was to get them talking about their favourite music or the soap operas they mostly all watched and it was easy to get them to accept that they too had strict critical categories, that they were always relating experience to them and using them to engage in argument. We all do that, as of course I know you’re keenly aware.
But when we see criticism as being an intellectual business, I think we’re falling into the trap of seeing it as something other than a perfectly normal and necessary human business. And the pleasures of sitting down and engaging with a great critic aren’t in that sense intellectual so much as profoundly typical and human and social and everyday. We need to normalise the business of critical thinking!
Now I suspect that you were using “intellectual” to refer to private thought, a quite different meaning to that I’ve picked up on, but my point is that critical writing can’t afford to be viewed as anything other than a popular, everyday business. As soon as it becomes seen as “intellectual,” as soon as it allows itself to be framed as such, then there’s a great wave of contempt if not revulsion heading for it. Quite rightly too. And that kills it, and quite rightly. The critic is surely supposed to be engaged in trying to get round that sense that criticism is for a snotty, self-involved elite.
DARIUS: That was indeed what I meant by “intellectual.” And I did the exact same thing with my students. Only instead of “falling into the trap” of calling something “intellectual,” I thought it my duty to demystify what qualifies as “intellectual.” Because as you say, it’s an everyday occurrence. Everyone’s doing it all the time, when they explain why they do or don’t like a movie or a person’s behavior or politics or whatever. That might not be intellectualism on a high level — it’s not necessarily trained to understand what qualifies as a good argument, and it might be ridden with fallacies. But it is intellectualism, and it’s often quite a bit better than they themselves think.
So we’re in the same place, but I think you’re falling into the trap of resisting the term “intellectual” instead of reclaiming it.
Maybe that makes me every bit a snob as I accused Vidal of being, but I’m comfortable with that.
SMITH: Ha! Hoisted on your own petard! And not caring either!
Is it okay if we disagree? An intellectual to me is someone who can’t express themselves as clearly as they should. (Who’s the punk rocker now?)
There’s a lovely story that Swift used to read his work to a milkmaid to make sure that it wasn’t disappearing up its own cleverness. I love to think that “A Modest Proposal” was field-tested that way, and that to me is the difference between an intellectual and a typical human being. When we abstract “intellectual” from the everyday, we’re saying worrying things about the processes of critical thought. (But I can feel myself changing my mind as I write that. Is it honesty or cowardice to say that?)
DARIUS: Honesty. And we can certainly disagree — it’s fun (and often educational) to do so. And I love your anecdote about Swift, which think is of vital importance.
But aren’t you contradicting yourself, in that you’re claiming we shouldn’t abstract the intellectual (no scare quotes for me) from the everyday, yet your response to this is to abstract the intellectual as someone who doesn’t express themselves with suitable clarity.
But whatever: we’re coming at it from different angles, though we agree on the underlying point: to render the intellectual — or at least the critical — accessible.
SMITH: Excellent. Without seeing that contradiction you mention, I couldn’t have grasped my own point. What I mean to say is that when we label someone an “intellectual,” we’re saying that they’re special because they can process abstract thought in a critical fashion. And I think everyone does that in their own fields, and I think that by having that “I” word, we create a barrier that prevents folks from seeing that “intellectual” thinking isn’t the province of other people, of our betters.
If we could replace the socially-loaded “I” word with something which meant “thinks clearly, studies widely, expresses themselves transparently,” then perhaps we might meet in the middle?
DARIUS: Well (laughs), I think we’ve met in the middle. But I’ll continue to use the word intellectual, which doesn’t strike me as some all-that-special status, and you can translate that into “thinks clearly and studies widely.” (I’m being too cheeky.)
Expressing one’s self transparently, we both agree is a virtue, but I’d concede that it’s a failing into which intellectuals too often tumble. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say it invalidates someone as an intellectual.
I also hasten to point out that the general public, when it’s trying to be critical, is often the most opaque and faux-intellectual, as if in compensation. Which was always what I thought the jargon was all about, when I’d go to academic conferences. It’s a kind of opaque filter that makes someone sound smarter than they are, at least when it comes to outsiders who can’t penetrate the language.
SMITH: Absolutely. Sociologists refer to the process as mystification, and then they go on to do exactly the same themselves!
Everyone does it, of course. That’s why perhaps I prefer to think of the problem of one of clarity and transparency. Everyone, including of course my sinful self, could do with focusing on those problems.
2. On Social Criticism
DARIUS: So on to your second criterion for a good critic.
Is the social meaning is an essential component? I personally enjoy that, and I think you do a particularly excellent job on that score, one that consistently inspires me to be more socially responsible in my own criticism. But I don’t know that this element is essential, and much of the criticism that has most influenced me simply doesn’t have it.
SMITH: I don’t how to conceive of any aspect of life as separate from politics. Adrian Leftwich, my old politics tutor at York, defined “politics” as being the process by which power is allocated. Whether it’s a family jostling to escape responsibilities for house-cleaning or the British government cowering before Murdoch’s press, it’s all politics. Being human is at every step of the way a political process. I find it impossible not to respond to the politics of what’s before me because in so many fundamental way that is what’s before. It’s the same in comics. Comics create a portrait of how power is being allocated in a given situation. So does all narrative art. It can’t help but do so.
And anyway, given the premise that human activity is always political, it’s a fun business to discuss. Human beings are, amongst a great many other things, fun.
DARIUS: I don’t think there’s any argument, at least in intellectual circles (to use that dirty word!), that all human action is political. Some ancient Greeks said as much. My point was that not all good criticism is social criticism or even has an ostensible social component.
Sure, we can quibble about how this technically isn’t true, but there is a genre of criticism known as social criticism, and it’s that to which I’m referring. You do a quite excellent job of it, such as when you pointed out the social implications of depicting DC’s Amazons as castrators guilty of gendercide. But I take it that you know what I mean: not every good essay does this. It’s just a genre of criticism in which you excel.
Or do you disagree? Aren’t there essays you admire that don’t have an ostensible element of social criticism?
SMITH: That’s a really good question. And I’m sure that there must be, but I suspect I self-edit. I’ve got my bias, and I suppose the books to the side of my writing table are the product of that.
Yet politics surely appears everywhere. It’s there in Twain’s descriptions of his fellow Americans in his letters back from Europe. It’s there in Stephen King’s “Danse Macabre” as he describes how society is scared by the way it perceives certain threats at certain times. And the relation of power to responsibility is all the way through Rob Long’s “Conservations with My Agent,” which on the surface is a humorous collection of columns about life as a Hollywood writer.
Oh, dear. As things stand, I suspect that any essay which didn’t engage in the business of being human to the degree to which politics didn’t occur is probably not going to register on my radar. Even the essays in my beloved Fortean Times tend to relate the phenomena at hand to the world around them. Robert Hughes on American abstract art, which you’d think would be about art and nothing but art, is actually incredibly informed by the politics of the country and of the art world.
I’m struggling here. Gerard Jones’s brilliant-brilliant-brilliant Men of Tomorrow? Politics from beginning to end. Actually, if we see that as a work of comics criticism, and of course we should, then that’s top drawer. I was wrong. That’s definitely a great piece of comics criticism.
It’s wonderful, and how brilliant to be proven wrong! No, really. Whenever I put an argument forward, I’m always keenly aware that it has to be wrong, and it’s such a relief to see the flaw and get to work past it. Thanks, Julian. I owe you for this debate.
DARIUS: No, I owe you for being here and engaging with it, instead of walking away! And I’m struggling to formulate my own thoughts, which is frustrating and invigorating both.
Jones’s Men of Tomorrow is a fascinating case in point, because I see exactly what you’re saying about it being social criticism, although I never thought of it as such. I can’t express how much I admire it, and much of what sticks with me most is indeed the description of 1930s and 1940s New York, in which a scrappy Kirby could grow up to eventually write the Newsboys. Hell, his dichotomy between Donnenfeld and Eisner on women has become such a staple of my thought that I have to explain it to strangers endlessly because I cite it so frequently. And that’s social too.
But my own background is literary, and in those circles, social criticism is too often a kind of ghetto within English departments, dominated by “How are white men bad in this text too? May I count the ways?” Now, that’s an exaggeration, and I also know that’s not at all what you do, and I’m certainly not making the comparison. I’m simply saying that I come from a biased place, as surely everyone does, and I tend to be aware of a work’s social consciousness without necessarily thinking of it as social criticism.
So maybe you’re right. Still, I can think of plenty literary essays that aren’t ostensibly social — or maybe it’s that I’m just not as keenly aware of this element as you are.
I think of Nabokov’s literary criticism on, say, Dr. Jekyll, which is dead-on in terms of its praise for Stevenson as codifying the alter-ego. And yet, of course, that’s a profoundly social text, about the horrors of (and perhaps need for) repression, especially sexual repression, with which we are still regrettably dealing.
SMITH: And facinatingly grounded in specific historical circumstances, as well as social responses to them.
DARIUS: Yet I don’t think an essay tracing the alter-ego, the id as Other, throughout literary history, including comics history, need be social.
SMITH: I do, of course, agree that there’s undoubtedly a whole world of completely apolitical work out there. I’m just ignorant of it, Julian. And that’s why conversations such as this are great, if they’re undertaken in the right spirit. If we’re butting heads in order to score points for ourselves, then it’s a waste of time.
DARIUS: I hope I’m not doing that. I did find myself a bit at a loss for words, observing the reaction I had to your answer about the ideal critic. But I think finding a voice for whatever anti-elitism I was feeling (as an often notorious elitist myself) was able to get us on the right path, towards nailing down some of these issues.
SMITH: It’s been really good for me. Any conversation about difficult subjects which is done in good humour and in the spirit of wanting the other person to be right is a great conversation. And I do get tired of not being able in so many ways to just be both enthusiastic and also open to being entirely wrong. I’ve always been terrible at compartmentalizing knowledge and about feeling precious about being right. It’s not a virtue of mine. I just don’t want to be wrong, and I do want to have fun with what I’m doing. Fun while thinking and watching the cricket and reading comics and wandering with the Splendid Wife and listening to the Ramones., and so on and on.
DARIUS: I love being wrong. I wish I were wrong more often! (laughs)
SMITH: I’m very glad I can hear you laughing there!
DARIUS: I know it’s absurdly cocky to say. But I learn way more from being wrong. And when I’m proven wrong, I keep how I was wrong in the back of my mind always, like I’ve adopted what the other person has said as a personal mantra. It makes me better.
SMITH: Best thing about my blog? I say this without sentimentality, but there’s been so many times when kind and generous and knowledgeable folks have popped in and shown me my mistakes, have pointed out where I’ve missed sources or misphrased arguments or even confused — save me — “protagonist” and “antagonist.”
In that, I’ve found that the net is remarkably open to civility and critical thinking, and it’s one of the things that’s made me want to be a competent “critic.” If there is a community that really is tolerant and smart and generous, then it just makes the whole drive to write just one worthwhile sentence all the more powerful. And so, perhaps we might add that, if even at best mediocre criticism can inspire such a heartening response, then better and better work might just help the wheel turn in a more civil and more… can I say “life-affirming” manner? Because that’s what such a conversation seems to me to do.
DARIUS: For all the flame wars, the comics community can be a wonderfully smart and tolerant place. It’s astounding, I think, especially in comparison with many other forms of art.
SMITH: But you know, it’s obvious that I’ve been massively editing the critical work I’ve been reading without realizing it. There we go. I need to do something about it.
On the English front, your point about the relationship between English and Social Science reflects a great deal that John Carey, the wonderful Merton Professor of English at Oxford, writes of. I don’t know if you’ve read his Intellectuals and the Masses. I found it one of those books which explains so much that I almost grasped and yet could never frame. His assault on the politics of Bloomsbury is so clear and well-informed that I practically broke into applause reading it. And if you’d like to read the single best demolition of a public intellectual, his review of Greer’s book on Shakespeare’s wife is on the Sunday Times website [though recently moved behind a paywall]. That one I have pinned to the wall before me.
Oh, yes. That’s how sad I am. It’s really there.
DARIUS: I read Intellectuals and the Masses a ways back, but I’ll look up the rest. You’re making me look bad. (laughs)
SMITH: No, I’m making me look bad. Look at me, I’m a geek about everything. What could be less credible?
DARIUS: Geek is in.
SMITH: There’s a limit to everything. (laughs)
DARIUS: That’s true only when it comes to knowledge one is embarrassed to have. Such as — I don’t know — episode titles of Masters of the Universe. Even recalling exact numbers of comics doesn’t even qualify anymore, and that used to be super-geeky. We can thank Big Bang Theory, I suppose, for part of that.
SMITH: Well, there’s the limit to my geek chic. I’ve never watched, or even heard of, Big Bang Theory. Oh, dear.
DARIUS: You’re not missing much. (It’s not a porno. Just a sitcom with physics and comics nerds. That is popular, apparently.)
It’s funny that we’re talking about elitism and intellectualism. And we’re both academics. But you’re coming from a “I don’t like the ‘I’ word” place, yet you’re citing Shaw and Carey. I’m coming from a “I’m perfectly comfortable with intellectualism” place, and I’m citing (of all things) Big Bang Theory. We’re contradictions.
SMITH: Yes, but I’m ashamed that I don’t know what Big Bang Theory is. I’m on the side of the people, brother.
DARIUS: As am I, but I’m ashamed you know Shaw and Carey better! (laughs) Well, to be honest, I’m not really with the people, especially when they vote for creationism in public schools or are fundamentally irrational or just plain wrong in any other respect. I’m against inefficient and unjust power structures, but I’m really just fiercely meritocratic. And people are part of the problem, when it comes to the creative output of Hollywood or the comics industry. Good sales is no defense against accusations of poor quality, as I’m sure you’d agree.
SMITH: Well, no one ever should be with “the people.” It’s like Swift said — and he’s obviously the dead white male of the day! — he loved individuals and loathed crowds.
We’re just not a species that’s very good at getting along and doing so sensibly. That’s why all the business about framing debates and making laws and so on is so fascinating, and why even thinking of “the people” — an utterly imaginary construct — will only lead to a great deal of grumpiness.
After all, people always will be a challenge, to a greater or lesser degree, you and me and everyone else. That’s how we’re wired. But laws don’t have to be stupid. Or schools. Or indeed the comics industry. Can’t change the species, can always try to change the context in which it makes its never-ending, never-will-end screw-ups.
DARIUS: Sounds good to me.
3. An Apparent Digression on British and American Culture, Ambition, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers
SMITH: But I should admit, it’s you that’s the academic. I’m not. A teacher and a graduate, yes, but no academic. I just want to own up there. I’m boxing above my weight if I’m promoted up to that class. And just mentioning Shaw and Carey doesn’t mean I know the first thing about them.
DARIUS: Which is — I’m going to get into trouble here — such bullshit. Because neither you nor I think the academy has a lock on intellectualism, or writing well and thinking well, let alone writing clearly. And you’re so obviously kicking the ass out of the blogosphere — no, out of comics criticism, generally, at least in my estimation. And that’s the reason why I invited you to do this interview, but you’re always so damned humble.
SMITH: It’s impossible to say how much I appreciate your kindness and encouragement, as well as how funny it is to note that we’re both speaking in the language of two quite different cultures. I love the idea that I could kick the ass out of everything, it’s such a brilliantly vigorous expression!
SMITH: In fact, I want a T-Shirt with the phrase on it.
But I have to say that I feel a total klutz when it comes to writing, and that isn’t to solicit a pat on the head and a comforting and encouraging word. (I think “klutz” is the least that some of the few folks who know of me would say.) I don’t think I’m self-effacing. I think I have a keen sense of what I’d like to achieve, and all I know is that I just haven’t earned it yet, baby, as the blessed Morrisey once said. And I suspect that thinking like that is anything but humility. It’s actually ambition. I know you never get any better by pretending that you’re good enough. If I was, I’d have boring and irritated a less people. Yet trying to explain that just makes me sound somewhat Uriah Heep-ish, so I’d really best shut up.
Okay. Shutting up achieved.
DARIUS: The interview is going to suck now. (laughs)
I know a lot of writers are very self-critical because they set high standards you themselves, as you obviously do. I’m just an arrogant prick, so I come at it a little differently. I know what I’m writing is the most brilliant thing ever written, and then I look at the mess I’ve produced, want to shoot myself, and then try to figure out how to make it live up to the meekest approximation of this ridiculous standard I’ve set for myself.
So once again, we’re coming at it from different perspectives, but the result is the same.
SMITH: I’ve often wished that I could have come from a culture that encourages that wonderful sense of confidence and purpose. That’s a great way to feel about yourself and the world. I wholeheartedly approve. We Brits still aren’t terribly strong on can-do.
DARIUS: Yeah, but the downside is that, as de Toqueville pointed out all those years ago, everyone in America thinks they’re a genius.
SMITH: They do here! They just feel a touch ashamed for feeling it sometimes.
DARIUS: (laughs) I certainly don’t want to minimize that shame, which I think can be incredibly painful. But I do see this “confident genius” effect’s downside in the comics blogosphere too. Most of which is composed of American writers, I’d venture to guess. Now, I’m not saying that these writers aren’t self-critical — I’m sure many of them are. But I think there’s this myth of “I’m going to start writing about comics, and I’m going to get 50,000 visitors a month overnight, and I’m going to be somebody!” Maybe that’s an exaggeration. I’m sure it is. But you take my point, which is that this lack of self-criticism is maybe related to how these critics aren’t exactly pouring over good criticism, let alone good literature, before venturing out.
SMITH: Well, we know resilience and high self-esteem are key attributes for a successful life. But you make a good point which, in my regard for American culture — if I can be forgiven such a broad use of the term — I probably do fail to note the downside of all that ambition and energy. And limiting ambition can pay off in its own parochial, rather sad fashion I certainly think it’s been really good for me to have started off expecting not a single visitor at all. Every person that strays in is an absolute victory.
I know, it doesn’t sound very ambitious, but I am ambitious. It’s just I’m more ambitious about the work. I’ve already had one career, and a fair one too. That gives a touch of perspective to things. My start-up plan for the blog was “apologise when you get it wrong.” So far, I’ve fulfilled all my expectations.
DARIUS: And as an American, with my own ridiculously heightened sense of ambition and self-worth, aggravated by parents who told me from the time I was three that I was a genius, I find your story and (if I may be forgiven my own brazen characterization) British culture so refreshing. Because the flipside — and again, I want to keep touching back on criticism — is that I find myself constantly disappointed. I almost have to insulate myself completely from caring about whether anyone likes what I write or what Sequart does, just to keep myself sane. Which is quite good for a critic to do. But in your case, it’s coming from ambition but from a lack of expected success, whereas in mine, it’s a kind of flood wall to keep the suicidal sense of failure from crashing down.
SMITH: Actually, that is true. I was about to try to trump you in the game of “my culture’s more dysfunctional than yours,” but I really don’t expect success of any kind. I’d love it, and anyone who says otherwise is a unique proposition, I’d suspect. But rather than expecting success, I find myself amazed at things like occasional transatlantic phone calls and 12 words exchanged with a much-admired professional.
Mind you, I had the grandest of ambitions when I was much younger. Thankfully, I was never able to earn their fulfillment. The old catastrophe of success doesn’t look like such when you’re young, but it does now. (And you are red-lining all of this, aren’t you? I’ll stop derailing things now. Sorry.)
DARIUS: No, I love these digressions. Because I think they always end up being quite relevant.
In this case, we’ve learned that being a comics critic involves some kind of ambition, and the tensions that plays out within the individual — which are very real and very important to acknowledge, in such a conversation — are different, depending on one’s upbringing and culture.
SMITH: It’s true, though of course I suspect a lot of Brit bloggers, particularly from the generations who’ve arrived since mine, are far less traditional in their worldviews. And good for them too. I’m not just Brit, I’m a Scot from the early Sixties born into the Protestant Work Ethic. That really does help a lid on the self-regard, as well as encouraging the automatic self-belittling.
Anyway, I wonder if there’s anyone who starts writing or blogging who thinks of anything else but the work and their own immediate self-regard, to a lesser or greater degree. “Was that anything other than shameful?” must surely be most people’s starting point. And it’s not as if there was any career path in comic’s blogging – (laughter) – there’s no riches, there’s no society of the elect to belong to. And if you’re writing in anything of an honest fashion, you’re only going to alienate a great many of the folks who’d be useful to you as ways into institutions involved with comics like the big websites. (It’s a small world, comics, and if you’re not offending somebody, you’re probably not saying anything at all.) Given all that, I would have thought that ambition would’ve directed folks elsewhere. It’s got to be love and a measure of ego, hasn’t it?
DARIUS: I know someone who’s a very highly-regarded comics critic these days who confessed that he started blogging about comics as a way to get a free pass into comics conventions. Mind you, it worked, and he’s paid to do it now. And he’s quite good.
SMITH: Well, good for him. I admire ambition, as I keep saying. Good for him.
DARIUS: I think you make a very good point about self-interest. And about alienating people who might otherwise be useful. That, in particular, seems to come up a lot. Especially in an industry in which so many people think of themselves as potential creators.
SMITH: It’s of considerable regret to me that writing about comics involves sometimes writing critically about someone’s work. It’s the thing that has, most of all, made me constantly think of stopping in the midst of my 10,000 hours. And the truth is, that I don’t write about work unless I can genuinely see virtues to it. At least then I can always shake someone’s hand, if they’ll care to do so, and say that I do admire their work. Not that I’ll ever meet anyone, not that they’d care. But the rule now is to only discuss folks whose work is at least in several vital ways competent. If there’s something that’s just entirely awful, I leave it alone for fear of the cheap shot. The only exception to that would be a piece of work which was ethically appalling.
DARIUS: Could you explain the 10,000 hours thing, for those who might not catch the reference?
SMITH: You’re right, it’s so much part of my thinking that I don’t notice I’m referring to it. It’s a reference to [Malcolm] Gladwell’s [2008 book] Outliers, where he discusses the proposition that genuine competence requires 10,000 hours of work invested into it. After a short while blogging, I realised how much I loved the process of writing, so I thought investing 10,000 hours of my time would be a good use of my days.
As you know, I had to retire from teaching — entirely honorably, I hasten to add! — a few years ago, and all of sudden, as my health returned, I found I had a life ahead of me. It’s a really strange thing to suddenly be at the end of a career and be wondering what you’ll do when you grow up again.
I love writing. I admire the heck out of creators. I’ve always written for the stage and bands and stand-up. I thought this was a great way of putting the hours in. I’m about 4,000 hours into the process. In order to simulate real-world intensity, I try to make sure that I’m putting out at least 7,000 words a week and that there’s at least five pieces going up somewhere over that time. Otherwise, I could spent all week writing a page of supposedly, suspiciously beautiful prose. Real writers work to deadlines and under pressure, so I thought I’d try to simulate that. And though I could’ve written about a range of things, comics are demanding in that it’s a relatively narrow field. Again, it creates pressure, which is all to the good. And of course, I love comics too.
Yes, as daft as it sounds, I’m on a self-help course. My regret is that I’m constantly writing to immediate deadlines, and that means the work just isn’t polished. But my job is to try to get to the point where I can write well at speed anyway. So there we go.
Long ago, I stopped counted how much I was writing when I passed half a million words. It just reminded me of how hard you have to work to learn so relatively little. But perhaps by 2013, I’ll be doing okay. I’ll at least be a little better!
DARIUS: I don’t think anyone doubts your ambitiousness, at this point.
It’s funny, but I did pretty much the same thing for creative writing, starting as a teenager. Which only goes to show, I suppose, how writing is indeed a profession, whether it’s critical writing or creative writing. And that doing it seriously involves a real commitment.
SMITH: I admire writers and artists so much more now, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. Even given that I’m something of a slow study, just to be able to note in my own attempts how much effort it requires just to take one baby step forward means that if nothing else, I’ve gained a tiny insight into why creative folks really do deserve respect for the skills they’ve worked to acquire.
4. On Being Harsh and Insisting on Craftsmanship (Not Necessarily Related)
DARIUS: I do want to briefly return to what you were saying about creators and shaking their hand, because it occurs to me that you’re one of the harshest critics out there at times. Not unfair — in fact, you’re remarkably precise, and you build an argument — whether it’s harsh or not — in a way that’s considered and designed to be fairly airtight.
In fact, it’s one of the things I’ve admired very much about your criticism is how willing you are to take something apart, piece by piece, and take the time to do it, when it deserves doing, in a way that is so effective that it’s just devastating. And makes me realize, again and again, just how much I too am imbued with old expectations that come from reading too many super-hero comics, much as I’d like to think that I’m immune.
Would I be right in guessing that what you mean isn’t necessarily about seeing the virtues and more about doing justice to the text? Or have you turned over a new leaf?
SMITH: No new leaf, I’m afraid. Again, a damn good question. I’d hate to think of myself of being a harsh critic, but I do think that’s a fair comment.
DARIUS: Let me just interject that I think it’s justly harsh. Certainly impeccably argued. And needed, arguably, if comics and comics criticism are going to evolve.
SMITH: Thank you. If we’re getting to the critic’s responsibility, I think it has to be to the idea of the story itself. As soon as the story is out there, the reader is justified in asking the three key questions: does this work as a story, does it carry an ethical meaning consistent with what we can deduce of the creator’s intentions, and what are the text’s politics?
Where the business of story is concerned, I just don’t think that folks should be sold product which isn’t well crafted. It’s the responsibility of the producer to make sure the comic book that arrives in the consumer’s hand is incredibly well-crafted. It certainly shouldn’t be choc-a-bloc with careless, stupid, complacent storytelling.
Now, it may not be a creator’s fault that problems are there on the page. I tend to believe that the buck stops with the editor, though with the confusion over what editors are required to do these days, who can say? But I don’t think that it’s asking too much to expect stories to make sense, to expect the simplest of conventions as regard storytelling to be respected, to be able to note that creators have done everything they can not to produce shoddy work.
This is especially pressing when the marketplace is continuing to contract and times are hard; there’s less buyers, and they’ve less money to spend. It’s an obligation that the companies produce the very highest quality of story.
Does that sound awful? Who am I to be arguing what a good story is? That’s why I always try to avoid my own opinion and reference the narrative itself, the way the page is composed, the density of information that’s being offered up to the reader, and so on.
And then, I think, following on from our earlier discussion of responsibility, that it’s important to pay attention to the political dimensions of the work. Important for whom, you might ask, but I choose this way of filling out my 10,000 hours, so I damn well ought to take it seriously. And there are a lot of books which get very little attention paid to the fact that they’re often — without ever intending to — pushing anything but a socially inclusive meaning; there are debates out there which I can’t help believe ought to be kept open.
Gosh, there’s a statement of a man asking to be burned at the stake.
SMITH: But there’s huge problems with issues of race and gender, with physical and mental disability and ethnicity and sexuality in the super-hero books. There are massive problems with how politics in general are dealt with, in how the state is continually portrayed as a hostile body in the super-hero narrative, about how political action is constantly portrayed as inevitably flawed when compared to a good problem-solving punch-up, and so on.
Yep, in one way I am harsh. But what’s the counter to that? That creators can produce thin texts which carry little story while suggesting some dubious political meanings? I think that word “harsh” probably reflects the fact that the critical community all too often, and with dozens of notable exceptions, lets the publishers off scott-free. It’s going to seem harsh if I’m hammering away at things which some others don’t see as worthy of note, let alone a long critical piece.
DARIUS: There’s a lot to chew on there, and I want to move through it carefully.
First, there’s the issue of the critic as someone who insists on quality. Here, I only want to commend how carefully you have pointed out objective problems — or at the very least concerns — with what you’ve examined. I think it’s quite brave and quite right. Because there’s a complacency on the part of comics critics, just as there’s a complacency on the part of comics producers.
I don’t think there can be any argument that comics readers have come to accept at least the occasionally ambiguous panel, in which it’s not clear where the characters are or what’s going on, in the most basic sense. Readers are more inclined to say “I just didn’t get it,” or “Oh, there was a miscommunication between writer and artist here,” instead of being aghast and saying, “How the holy hell did this make it to print?!?” And you’re right: that should be an editor’s job.
One of the things I’ve found so refreshing about your writing has been the occasional focus on the cost of these titles. It’s something I used to think very much about, as a critic, before the fad for decompression ended this emphasis on story-content-per-dollar, at least for most readers. And there’s no argument that manga has played a role here. I don’t think comics will ever go, as a whole, back to a Silver Age level of compression, and it’s interesting that, with all this Silver Age nostalgia going on, this compression has been the one element no one’s tried to bring back. But while we can agree that comics have changed in this respect, that’s no excuse for shoddy content that fails to communicate on basic levels.
SMITH: I think some of the most important issues to do with value-for-money is how some writers have approached the matter of combining decompression in order to deliver quality and quantity to the reader. By which I mean that I don’t think the debate is about old-school and new-school storytelling methods. Plenty of books are delivering packages which seem to be thin, which appear to fulfill the market’s apparent love for splash pages and narrative-thin panels, while actually doing something else entirely. It’s something I’ve enjoyed writing about because it’s so inspiring.
Kieron Gillen and the Dodsons in the recent “Breaking Point” serial produced a fine story which delivered a considerable mass of information in a form which was easy to process and quick to read, if such was the consumer want. It was both very traditional and rather modern at the same time. Splendid! Brian Michael Bendis’s scripts for Scarlet alternated scenes which were crammed with data and scenes which were anything but. In such a way did both books carry the best of both the modern-era and the past after their own fashion. They’re comics marked by a variety of reading experiences and I suspect they’re rewarding for consumers with perhaps quite opposing demands.
It’s in this level of craft, regardless of how the individual finds the stories themselves, that the hope of the industry lies. That carries the scent of hyperbole, doesn’t it? But I believe it’s true. There are fantastic storytelling mutations going on at them moment, experiments which are designed to try to appeal to both the hardcore market and quite different markets too. In many ways, the most important debates about the future of the super-hero book are going on in the pages of certain comics which appear to be standard-issue and yet are anything but.
So yes, short-changing the reader by careless and thin storytelling is a cheat. And yet, even as some folks seem content to shovel out books composed of 25% splash pages and the least satisfying of waffling linking them up, others are really having a tilt at the future. Sometimes, it’s those details of craft which are the most telling signs of a writer’s skill and good will.
Take the 3-part Secret Six / Action Comics crossover earlier this year. Paul Cornell structured the first two parts of that to serve Ms. Simone’s last chapter so unselfishly that his first chapter had barely any action in it at all. The second chapter was marked by an ever-increasing allocation of action and tension across its pages, so that the key last part of the tale, which he wasn’t even writing and which didn’t appear in his book, would have the appropriate springboard to race to its climax from. Now, how brilliant is that? Not only was the story which both writers collaborated upon worth the money, but its very architecture reflected a genuine concern for the reader. And in the way that Ms. Simone dealt with Lex Luthor from Cornell’s book, we could see how all the members of the creative team were playing for each other.
The craft is central to the worth of the individual comic. Ignore it, and I’m a little lost as to what to write about.
5. The Super-Hero as Inherently Political (and in Which We Prove the Earlier Digression on Nationality to in Fact Have Been Anything but)
DARIUS: On to the social issues you bring up, which is a far touchier matter. I don’t think anyone could really argue that comics don’t have problems with race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality. I certainly respect your views on these matters, and I agree with them far more often than not. But I also want to really get at these issues and the critic’s role here, and that involves playing a bit of Devil’s advocate.
Isn’t it one thing to point out that, in general, comics need to be more diverse and inclusive, and another to single out a given comic? It’s one thing to fault the industry for not having enough diverse characters. But isn’t it another to condemn a particular story? Isn’t the problem not that one such story exists — which is an artistic choice, one worth pointing out as a critic — but that this is the norm?
SMITH: I think it all depends upon context. If the Big Two were producing product which was genuinely concerned to reflect the social representations mentioned above, then who could complain about some stories which involved nothing but wall to wall white men? The problem isn’t that some comics star white men in the leading roles. The problem is that pretty much all of them do, and not nearly enough people notice!
We have a comics culture where a huge amount of folks simply don’t notice that comics today too often portray a picture of America, and indeed the world, that’s profoundly conservative. It neither represents reality nor the values which the companies claim to hold. Indeed, I’m sure the Big Two are committed to anti-sexist and anti-racist practises. But the problem is, all the good intentions in the world can’t obscure the fact that those books are so often appallingly white and male, hetrosexual and conservative.
And here I’ve a personal bias. To me, Marvel Comics in particular were a tremendous comfort and an inspiration to me as a boy. I was a Scots lad suddenly dropped into an unwelcoming English environment, separated by nationality and class from a great deal of the folks around me. I wasn’t on the outside because of who I was, although I was hardly the most charming and interesting bloke, but because of what I was. And the Marvel Universe portrayed a world where difference wasn’t a badge of the disgusting outsider, but of the individual who should be valued for the contribution they alone could make, for the unique individual they are. The super-hero as reformulated by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was all about those who didn’t fit in and those who excluded them. It was always concerned with the struggles of the powerless against the powerful.
Throw aside for the moment all the arguments about social representations and prejudice and the rest of it, and the modern-era super-hero still carries the sense that it stands for those who are on the outside. It sells itself in part off the back of that appeal. Well, it has a tradition to live up to, and a social appeal to justify. If the only outsiders that the super-hero book on the whole ends up representing are white guys in comic shops, then that’s a terrible thing, and a shameful waste too.
I’m building a bigger bonfire for myself, aren’t I?
DARIUS: (laughs) Aw, you managed to touch me with your story of a wee lad, not fitting in, looking to good-ol’ New York City, as depicted by Stan and Jack, and then you got me to laugh. Now, there’s a critic!
SMITH: But it’s true! These characters were quite literally my friends, and their experience strengthened me and helped set my ethics and expectations at the most vulnerable time of my life. Argh! It’s true.
I longed to visit New York, and I still do! America has always been the most fundamental of influences upon me, for good and ill.
DARIUS: Well, back to nationality and culture again. As an American, I find this very touching, and it’s much of what I do love and still admire about this country, warts and all.
SMITH: Don’t ever forget what America has meant to many of us beyond its borders. It doesn’t mean that we’re ignorant of America’s weaknesses, limitations, and even her barbarisms. That’s a fact of the existence of all great powers, not excusable but no surprise either. But there’s another America too, part fiction and to a large degree absolutely true too.
In short, given a choice between fighting for the country Thomas Paine abandoned and the one he supported, I know what side I would have been on. And in a daft way, the super-hero comic is as bound up with that as any other aspect of U.S. pop culture. It’s a wonderful sub-genre, and it deserves a touch better treatment.
Perhaps some folks have forgotten exactly what the super-hero comic meant before. I don’t know, but sometimes I think that’s been in part forgotten. Face front, America! Get those super-heroes back into the ranks and doing right, or rather: put them to use to discuss what doing right is, rather than creating so many of these reactionary texts!
DARIUS: Peter Fritzell, a brilliant American literature professor and author of Nature Writing in America, would always emphasize this. It should be day one of every single American literature or American studies course. It’s that there is the United States, and there’s this dream of America, this utopian nation that may not live up to its ideals but at least was founded on them, in this very inspiring way.
And that dream doesn’t start with the land on a map designated America. It started with Utopia, with Atlantis: this notion of the just and fair place, in which we just might be able to build a finer world.
Which makes me think, in this context, of The Authority. Or Moore’s conclusion to Miracleman, which is so painful to me, in a particular American way. Or the final chapter of Watchmen.
SMITH: Yes, that’s exactly the nation which the super-hero inhabits. The super-hero, by the very fact that it’s about state power being claimed by individuals, serves as a debate about the limits of individual responsibility, about the virtues of collective action, and about what happens if the state doesn’t or can’t do its duty. And as a Brit, I’m part of the country which gave birth to much of those debates which informed the mythical America of the super-hero books. Some of those dreams and those conflicts are still ours too. Given that America is still so much a work in progress, it makes sense that so much of its pop culture has, at its best, the capacity to be a discussion about how to create new communities.
There’s the most ridiculous lack of ambition in so much of the super-hero books today. No one wants relevancy, but when writers do look up from the punch-ups and consider something more, the results can still be heartening and impressive.
Gail Simone’s work in Secret Six in refusing to bow down to the all-criminals-are-monsters-hang-‘em mentality is very much worth mentioning. She never obscures the fact that a fair number of her cast are terrible and fatally disordered. But she also insists on showing them changing as far as they can, learning fragments of empathy and compassion, acting as something other than stereotypes of bogey women and men.
DARIUS: Well, I for one want relevancy. I crave it. I can’t read Miracleman #16 without weeping, and not only because it speaks to this notion of utopia but because it speaks to the painful reality behind these four-colored dreams of ours, the awesome, dream-like, creative power of the super-hero.
SMITH: By “relevancy,” I don’t mean comics which are relevant. I mean the nakedly didactic issues of Green Lantern / Green Arrow, wonderful and important as they are.
DARIUS: Right, the “social relevancy” movement of the 1970s.
SMITH: And I don’t mean that only left-wing ideals should and could be dealt with in the super-hero comic. It should be a debate, just as the criticism of them at best should be. There’s lots of areas where only the most closed-thinking of left wingers could deny the validity of right-wing thinking, whether its conclusions are accepted or not. And I’m not talking about the super-hero book as a vehicle for the propagation of what some Americans call socialism. What I’m suggesting is that the super-hero book should be tapping into the debates about America today.
Yet its books so often reflect 1970 better than 2011. That’s not only unfair, it also cuts the books from a source of considerable narrative power.
Have you ever the seen Paul Cornell’s Dr. Who episode dealing with his becoming a human school master just before the first world war? It’s a beautifully judged piece which shows respect to the bravery and some of the ethical qualities of the time, while also discussing the era’s problems with racism and sexism, and all without obscuring a moment of the drama. That’s what the super-hero book can do too.
And if it isn’t used to do tha very often, then at least it shouldn’t be being used to produce a vision of pre-Watergate white America as seen from many of the comics of the period.
DARIUS: This is the revived series, right? It’s with Martha Jones as the companion. Season three? The  two-parter ["Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood"] based on the Dr. Who novel [Human Nature]. With the watch that holds the Time Lord’s essence?
SMITH: Yes. It’s a masterpiece. An absolute masterpiece. I weep buckets at the end of it every time. Every time.
DARIUS: God, the ending is good. I love that voice-over narration, in which the Doctor suddenly becomes this horrifyingly scary personage. And you suddenly realize his power and that it’s capable of cruelty and even abuse. Which has been implicit all along.
SMITH: Ah, but if you were British, “the ending” you’d probably remeber would be the scene set at a Remembrance Day parade, a ceremony which is practically the only sacred secular day in the British calender, and quite rightly too. (And one day I’ll argue with you about the Doctor being cruel and abusive too, though not about him being capable of abuse.)
But I honestly believe it’s a key text in not just TV sci-fi, but in fantastic fiction itself. Because to be honest, the fantastic is there to serve the narrative and moral purpose, meaning, that it achieves the holy grail of being a popular text as well as one serving a niche market. Of course that kind of achievement been pulled off before, but this is the contemporary exemplar. And super-heroes can do that, they really can. Of course they can.
DARIUS: We’ve definitely dovetailed into the political. And I couldn’t agree more. So much of what I love does that, and I’m itching to ask you about a bunch of different examples, in this respect, as well as to return to race and gender for a moment.
But maybe to cap off the political, you’d mentioned how government is generally depicted as something incompetent, as incapable, even as evil. And that certainly goes back to Reagan and Thatcher, but it’s become oh-so-very-popular and so very extreme these days, at least in the states.
SMITH: Hasn’t it?
DARIUS: There’s this way in which Americans forget that we have roads and cheap water and libraries and parks and firefighters and policemen — all those people who ironically were celebrated on 9/11 — because the government, for all its problems and failed missile shields and botched intelligence, does do these things more or less right and is important.
SMITH: It’s something which I tried to talk about in connection with Captain America in my blog. Even when Cap became a traitor in Civil War, and by that I mean not a super-hero traitor but a genuine one according to the law, he still somehow came out of it as the victim of the state, which in the Marvel Universe awarded a 100% traitor a great state funeral and so on.
A traitor? Disobeying a legitimate law without making any attempt to organise legal public opposition? Making war on the government of the U.S.A., as represented by her law enforcement agencies? Inviting in the troops of an often hostile foreign power — Atlantis — in his rebellion against the state? And yet the state is still wrong and Cap is the noble representative of all that’s good.
He’s not. He should have gone to jail forever.
He betrayed the Constitution from top to bottom, and yet he’s the good guy. Madness.
Well, unless you’re off the “from my cold dead hands” fraternity. In which case, yay, Cap!
DARIUS: Civil War was one of the texts I wanted to ask you about. Because I might not agree as vociferously, but we’re on the same page. As was Mark Millar, which I thought was great. Yet the fans, bred to think of Captain America as good and the Mutant Registration Act as bad, certainly sided with Cap.
SMITH: There’s a whole range of different forces at work here, many of them narrative convenience. It’s the very nature of the super-hero as the individual who breaks the law to do the great good. In the super-hero narrative, the very fact of government is an admission of failure on one level or another. That’s fine if the issue is dealt with with some measure of understanding, but if the creators don’t get that point or don’t care, then strange things start to appear in the stories.
And so the government and the organs of the government gradually become obstacles to the hero winning the day. And as the level of jeopardy is raised, the government and all those working for it becomes at best incompetent and at worst plain evil.
What argument do we end up with being constantly represented in the super-hero book? Super-heroes can solve the problem; governments should either get out of the way or be knocked out of the way.
Now, a comic which worked from the premise that government is a necessary evil which constantly needs jousting with would be one thing. (That’s my take.) But a government that’s either foolish, impotent, or just plain bad? That’s not a good thing to be adding to the drip-drip-drip of modern American politics. And yet no one much seems to care that it’s just ludicrous to have Obama allowing Osbourne in power, just as it’s terrible to have Cap keeping the President on hold because he’s worried that Bucky’s been kidnapped. You’d think that the state was good for nothing, that those who work for it are either worthless or oppressed by their office, and that individuals in tights can solve every problem at the flinging of a shield.
DARIUS: Right, and this has profound implications. At the moment, my nation has passed an insurance reform bill, in lieu of a federal option, in lieu of socialized medicine, which Britain’s effectively had since not long after World War II. And you’d think it was a national draft, from the reaction.
Now, one can certainly object to the specifics of the bill on many levels, but there’s something in this reaction of a deep distrust of government, which goes beyond any rational fear of tyranny, which I certainly understand in this nation. It goes back to these myths, and they’re not only in comics.
It’s The A-Team, who were vigilantes and escaped from a maximum-security prison, then perpetually from the incompitent government agents. It’s there every time the criminals break out of jail for the sequel or the next issue.
SMITH: Well, that’s what the super-hero is: a dialogue about tyranny and government responsibility. And at the moment, much of the super-hero text has effectively placed itself not on the liberal left, despite many creators’ and editors’ intentions, but way over there on the right. Of course, the messages are far more nuanced and complicated than that, but for the sake of a quick summary, that’s too often what we see.
If creators don’t keep a close eye on the politics of their work, they’ll end up saying things which they never intended, and then as time passes, such statements will pass into the common conventions of the genre, and then you end with very dodgy statements being made without too many folks noticing.
DARIUS: I’m amazed by how progressive by comparison a lot of Golden Age comics are. I mean, Superman beating up a domestic abuser in his first story. Or winning the war single-handed. Which is basically Millar’s The Authority in two pages, without the implications — because the follow-up is the real story, the much harder one to write.
SMITH: There’s a vigorous, not to mention muscular, attitude towards right and wrong in those early Supermans. It’s hard not to read a progressive agenda in a great deal of them.
The super-hero steps in to do what the state doesn’t. Yet we know they’re not doing so to take power themselves. If things are put right, they’ll go back to their private life. That’s why the super-hero is a democratic rather than a fascist icon. Even with the Authority, they loath power and only take it because the powers-that-be are so impossibly entrenched.
I don’t think that the super-hero sits well with a conservative or an effectively-conservative-through-being-passive agenda. But then, the superperson doesn’t sit well with a radical agenda either. The super-hero wants people to be fair to each other, but the state they function to criticise is a democratic one, and that’s the solution to all the problems they encounter too. Muscular popular democracy with a populist left-of-center bent was where the sub-genre started with Superman. Long before Lee started representing the super-hero as an outsider, the super-hero was imposing order upon the powers that be, so that no one would ever have to be an outsider.
This interview will conclude tomorrow with part two, in which we’ll discuss the critic’s responsibility regarding depictions of torture or rape (including that of Identity Crisis) and other matters.