Nov 15, 2012

Pop Medicine: Six Critical Terms We Need to Stop Wielding Ignorantly

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Six Critical Terms We Need to Stop Wielding Ignorantly
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

I’m getting comics-specific, ‘cause, hey, this is a column about comics, but all these terms are used elsewhere, and the point holds elsewhere, too: don’t misuse critical terms, and dammit, don’t do it because you need an excuse to whine. Yes, “whine.” Whether a professional critic or an armchair critic, print journalist or messageboard junkie, don’t bust out “Deconstruction” because you need a word to hide behind and it sounds negative to you. Don’t tell us Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts is not mainstream and expect anyone to take you seriously.

I am calling no one out specifically, here, and citing no single moment of criticism, because the individual cases aren’t the concern, the prevalence is. If you believe those don’t apply to you, perhaps I’m not talking about you. They both apply to criticism I have put forth in the past, at times, as applicable with a few of these terms. So, don’t write and point out where I screwed up before and assume I don’t know I’ve screwed up.


Term One: Nonlinear

If you are thinking of referring to nonlinear storytelling as “newfangled” or “artsy,” stop yourself before it’s too late. Nonlinear storytelling goes back to at least the Iliad, and has appeared in every narrative medium, from theater to prose to virtually any sitcom you care to mention. It is not new. Types of nonlinear storytelling, such as in media res (beginning the story in the middle), flashbacks (telling/showing something that happened earlier than the beginning of the story, flashforwards (telling/showing what happens far ahead of the present day moments of the story before and after this scene), and a scene transition that takes us to another character, shortly before the timeframe we just left, to follow that character until they reconnect with the scene/time we transitioned away from are so artsy Married With Children used them on a regular basis. Every CSI episode and Guy Ritchie movie you’ve ever seen has utilized at least three of these four techniques.

Very rarely, even when the nonlinear techniques were used poorly, have I seen anyone genuinely confused by them for more than a moment. More often, criticism comes in the form of “I didn’t like being confused for a moment by something designed to throw me off balance for a moment” or “how dare they make me wonder?” Which, is akin to being angry that a ham sandwich had ham in it and made you think about eating it.

Term Two: Deconstruction

I had a sort of epiphany about a month ago, and had to share it with Duy. One of those things where you know, vaguely, what’s wrong, but you can’t articulate it sensibly, and then it leaps at you in brilliant clarity. When, in comics circles, we talk about Deconstruction, what we most often mean is detournement. I knew that it wasn’t Deconstruction, and that’s why we have the whole “reconstruction” BS term in comics, but that it was simply Deconstruction being used to mean detournement had not occurred to me.

Think of the last four comics you heard referred to as Deconstruction. Did they essentially just flip a familiar thing around to show you the stinky, usually covered ass-end? That’s detournement. The comics, or parts of comics that are referred to as “reconstruction”? Those are Deconstruction.

The ugly motivations, post-trauma disorders, and general weathering of the superheroes in Watchmen? That’s detournement. Laurie and Dan rescuing people from a fire, then passing out cups of coffee is Deconstruction. Deconstruction is a set of techniques for taking apart information, most often fiction/entertainment, to see how the language and focuses privilege certain information/positions over others, and ultimately arrest or detain the piece from achieving honestly, and more fully its goals or ultimate state. The love story, for instance, is most often actually the story of everything that separates the lovers, not any real evidence of their love or present culmination of their love. If we absolutely believe their love or have a story where they are happily together without separating factors from moment one, there is no story and we simply care less. Most political doctrines, to give another example, or superhero comics, presume an opposition. Without an opposition, they become less workable as they are arranged, because that is the position that is privileged. Deconstruction is not flipping the thing around for the sake of pessimistic realism.

Term Three: Superstar

Whenever you complain about someone working in comics thinking they are a “rockstar” or acting like a “superstar” because they dress nicely for speaking engagements or signings? You sound like an insecure, whiny idiot. Stop it. Stop whining about Grant Morrison’s suit or Alan Moore’s rings and beard and refusal to write fucking Batman for you. I don’t even know you and I know it’s beneath you, because it’s beneath all of us.

There are no superstars in American comics and there have not been since, maybe, Todd McFarlane left Marvel and created a massively successful character and comic that today, almost no one is really sure is still running or not. Since the Image breakaway from Marvel and DC, since Charles Shultz died, since Bill Watterson has been out of the game long enough, there is no A-list of comics talent, in terms of business behavior or in terms of real mainstream awareness. By which I mean that the business does not treat anyone as a “superstar” in the way film or prose treat their star talent, and the average person on the street has no idea who any of these people are.

Neil Gaiman is not the hottest thing in prose fiction, but he knows writing a novel will get him better pay, better business treatment, and probably better advertising and sales, than writing a new comic. That does not mean he’s acting all rockstar by not typing out scripts for a monthly Terminator vs The Tick comic even though you, the fan to whom he should be singularly and personally loyal, really really want that comic. Warren Ellis was not being an unruly upstart provocateur trying to act big when he wrote those Come in Alone columns, all those years ago (provocateur, stipulated, but not the rest that qualifies it). And, no, Alan Moore is not a furious, crybaby hermit diva who left comics, simply because he does not feel beholden to DC for anything and hasn’t got a great deal of nice things to say about the company.

Term Four: Mainstream

I know you, hypothetical reader, really like Geoff Johns. He made Aquaman cool again. Round of applause. But is Geoff Johns mainstream? No. He’s big in our little niche of low-selling comics. How about Aquaman? People know Aquaman. He’s mainstream. Well, he’s closer, I’ll give in to that. But there’s exactly two jokes you can make about Aquaman, two references, that the average English-speaking person will understand or connect to Aquaman, and those are “swims” and “talks to fish.” Plus, how many people have read any comic with Aquaman in it? You do recognize the name, Aquaman, if I say it, though, and so does your cousin who doesn’t read comics, your boss at work who doesn’t know they still publish a monthly Aquaman book. That is a degree of mainstream.

The Charlie Brown Cafe in Busan, South Korea

I can make a thousand Peanuts-related references, though, and you’d get most of them. Your cousin knows who Snoopy is. Your boss could probably draw at least three faces from the comic, no matter how poorly, if someone put a gun to their head. When I went to buy dishes for my new apartment in Weihai, China, the first shelf of cups I found was mostly mugs with Snoopy, Lucy, Charlie Brown and the little red-headed girl on them. That’s mainstream in about the fullest that English language comics get; people recognize the characters and they have actually read some of the comics.

It probably happens to any niche market, but the self-identifying comics market has got so insulated we don’t see the forest for the occasional Batman-writing tree.

Term Five: Canon

There is no canon. We can, and have, ordered certain comics into several different, sometimes overlapping canons. Further, belonging to a canon does not ensure that works are aligned by a shared chronology or continuity. Canons are personally established, or they are established for business reasons, for marketing purposes, and that’s about it. It’s not a magic thing, it only means, at essence, “these works count towards...” whatever you want them to count towards.

Canon is not a judgment of total value or relevance to all things. And canons are rarely permanent, both the personal and the business sorts.

Term Six: Indie

Indie, in terms of movies and TV, means something produced independently, and I assume that’s how it should work in comics, too. Indie doesn’t mean talking heads, it has nothing to do with being published by a small or foreign press, and it does not mean either quality or amateurish. It just means that it was independently produced, and either independently distributed or via an established firm. It does not imply integrity. It has nothing to do with being artsy. It does not – repeat this with me – indie does not mean that the talent or anyone other than the publisher owns the copyright or trademarks involved in the comic.

There is a different tradition in print than in film, in that small production companies tended to be set up at the mercy of big companies in film, whereas in print, many small presses exist autonomously and functionally, and that's pretty much where they've fallen in comics. Troma and Troublemaker Studios often use other distributors, to list two small film production companies, but the companies exist primarily for self-promotion purposes, not as producers of a broad array of material not directly related to the central owners and operators of the company. A small press magazine – like with comics – is not beholden to a larger publisher, by necessity. Raw wasn't getting its money from Marvel, DC wasn't distributing Tundra's comics, and it isn't so today, either.

So, in print terms, Warrior, Comico, 2000 AD, or Raw, can't count, because they're set up as an organized effort to run other people's work, not as a vanity exercise or purely for self-promotion. Alan Moore wasn't bankrolling Warrior or 2000AD when he worked for them, and he didn't approach them with pre-existent material, looking for distribution, they were paying him to generate content.

The Invisibles, Zippy the Pinhead, Sailor Moon, Maus, Ampney Crucis Investigates, and Judge Dredd are not indie comics. X-Files, Robotech, and Predators comics are not indie, regardless of how few superheroes they feature per page. Peanuts is not an indie comic. Early Axe Cop and Megatokyo were indie comics, but when they began to be produced for an established publisher they stopped being indie, because they stopped being independently produced.


And, in the end, yes, you should use these terms. They are applicable to many things, and they are aspects worthy of discussion. But there is no excuse for you to be ignorant in your usage, now that you’ve read this, if you even had the excuse before. Canon and Deconstruction have more staying power, more value, when you use them correctly and fairly, anyway. Words are given meanings for reasons, and it’s not so that they can be confused for other things or conflated with other terms because you have a beef with a creator or you are so far up your own niche you can’t even remember the broader measures and bigger shapes of the world that surrounds you and yours. Take these, brother, and use them well. From hereon out, use them fairly, and use them right..


Islington Comic Forum said...

This is one of the best things I've read for a while. I mean - there's parts of it which I disagree with: but I love where it's coming from and I love that I now have a new word to add to my vocabulary ("Détournement!") - THANK YOU.

(And: I'm reading too much into it to think that that Peanuts crack was directed at me (for writing this: ) - right? Right?)

Duy Tano said...

Haha, I doubt it! Travis can't view blogspot sites at the moment. :)

Pól Rua said...

The term 'canon' as it relates to popular culture got its start with Sherlock Holmes fans back at the turn of the century.
They established what they called 'The Great Game', which was an exercise in continuity where, taking clues from the stories, they would try and fit them into a historical framework or timeline, and correct any irregularities or inconsistencies therein.
In order to establish the rules for this game, they made it a point to distinguish between the four Holmes novels and the short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and all other, unauthorized uses of the character, such as his appearances in the Arsene Lupin stories.
They came to refer to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle material as 'The Canon', which is where the term comes from.

Steven "" Tatum said...

Non-linear narratives try to capture the choppy, fluid, indelible feeling of living, with all of its nostalgic and optimistic tendencies. It isn't new, as you pointed out.

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