I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it’s unhelpful to all of us, and it’s coming from people who have money and success to talk like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the others, and it’s indefensible.
So I never liked that stuff, I always thought that I had a real Scottish working class thing against the fact that these were done by privileged American college kids, and they were telling me the world was flat. “You’re telling me the world is flat, pal?” And it’s not helpful, it doesn’t get us anywhere. OK, so it is, then what? What are you going to do about it, college kid? My book wasn’t academic. I can’t take on those Comics Journal guys, they flattened me, as they did, it’s just defensive, smartass kids.
This is what I’m into, and here’s how, through my eyes, it’s exalted. You may look at the same thing and just see trash, toilet paper, I’m looking at this and seeing William Blake angels. This is how it looks through these eyes, this is all I’ve got, I can’t talk about it in half degrees, but I can talk about it in the sense of a practitioner of it, someone who has thought about it intensely for an awful long time, and again, I thought, “What can I make, a book that reads the way Nick Kent talks about music,” those guys, it at least gives you a personal connection to someone who takes this very seriously.
In “The Future of a Re-Fusion,” I dropped a few comments about how certain proponents of artcomics, such as R. Crumb and Gary Groth, had been known to toss brickbats at the mainstream in order to champion their respective tastes. Usually, when artcomics proponents put on the gloves to battle the alleged bad taste of mainstream producers and customers, they find themselves shadow-boxing, as the mainstream proponents tend to ignore the “smartass kids” and are often unaware of having been “called out.”
Morrison’s shot at Chris Ware does not, to be sure, signal a major bout between the two estranged branches of the Comics Family. Morrison’s lengthy reply addresses a Rolling Stone question as to whether there has been progress away from the notion that the comics medium ought to grow away from superheroes, which is certainly something Gary Groth has suggested as a desirable outcome. I assume that, even though Morrison does mention the Comic Journal in passing, he focuses on Ware simply because he has a genuine animus toward the “nihilism” he sees in Ware’s work.
As a statement of personal taste, there’s nothing wrong with Morrison’s opinion. But Morrison’s screed flirts with intolerance when he states that “all that nihilistic stuff [is] unhelpful to all of us.” Sadly, this is often the way elitist critics often frame their arguments against superheroes specifically and genre-comics as a whole: in terms of what is “unhelpful” — or, more often, “useful.”
Can one conceive of art in terms of its usefulness? Oscar Wilde for one said no, averring that “All art is perfectly useless.” The opposite position was taken by the tradition of literary social realism, one that has had considerable influence upon modern elitist critics: they said that art was to be found in causing readers to recognize the ubiquity of “the real.” This is surely an overly narrow and utilitarian view of what literature can do, but Morrison’s “unhelpful” comment comes close to saying similar, particularly when one reflects on this comment from page 116 of Morrison’s Supergods:
The superheroes may have their greatest value in a future where real superhuman beings are searching for role models. When the superhumans of tomorrow step dripping from their tanks, they could do much worse than to look to Superman for guidance. Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow.
I can picture the critics of the Comics Journal hooting over this metaphorical flight of fancy, but it’s no daffier than the tedious Marxist agendas soberly discussed in Elitesville. Morrison’s idea of “social realism” isn’t nearly so focused on utilitarianism, of course. But it may be that he’s so concerned with getting his readers to see Blakean angels that he’s dismissed the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Different readers respond to different stimuli. Because of this irrefutable fact, the only objective statements we can make about literary taste are not universal but simply statistically widespread. We know that some readers respond favorably to exalted images of supernormal occurrences while others respond favorably to kitchen-sink realism. Even these generalizations break down under analysis: some of the latter group like a little magical realism to leaven the nihilism, and some of the former group only like heroes like Batman and can’t stand those of the Superman variety.
But as long as there is some group out there that responds to a dominant myth-theme, whether it belongs to the starry-eyed world of the supergods or the tough-minded domain of the kitchen sink, it’s never “unhelpful” for an artist to reach out to that audience.