Saturday, October 14, 2006

Too Much of a Good Thing: Pleasure and Its Discontents

It’s times like these that I look back to the days of drought with a pang of longing. You remember the nineties, right?

Everything today is just…too good. And there’s too damn much of it. I’m not talking about Marvel, of course: there, at least, you can still experience that quickening of the heart that once attended the discovery of a sand dollar or a shell or a starfish on a grey and empty beach. When confronted with a wall of Marvel monthlies, it’s still possible to remember what it truly was to “collect.” Not simply to accumulate or even to read, but to choose. To exercise what was once called, without even a hint of embarrassment, “taste.” Everyone knows that that is the earliest and still most basic act that we perform as comic fans—the exercise of taste, the perfection of a certain style of choosing through which we begin to become ourselves. It is for this reason that the depressing nature of so much of Marvel’s current output these days turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because it at least restores the possibility of taste—of scanning the grey beach of Marvel for the glint of one of its “minor” but wonderful titles. Remembering this pleasure is of considerable value in a market that is already overstuffed with high quality mainstream books. Yes, now I’m talking about DC. No point in pretending that this is an objective account.

It’s a very good time to be a DC fan. Too good—especially if you’re a mid-thirties overgrown DC fan, because everything—everything—DC makes is being made just for you. All that Dan Didio and Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison and Gail Simone and Bill Willingham and Mark Waid and Greg Rucka think about when they butter their toast or walk their dogs, or kiss their partners as they turn out the lights is your—by which I mean my—pleasure. They must! Because every new title, every assignment of writers and artists, every revival of some obscure but secretly treasured eighties character, everything is calculated to stir some pleasurable memory or to unveil some new zone of delight, a zone that is nonetheless always, always moored to the dock of our adolescent dreaming. It’s glorious, dizzying, wonderful… Too much…

And that’s the problem with pleasure, isn’t it? Because pleasure is not, strictly speaking, a positive quantity, even though it might often appear that way. It emerges always in relation to other things—things that are less pleasurable, less thrilling. You know: boring. Maybe even bad.

So when the comic store—that special corner of the world that’s always been the secret laboratory of your self-invention, the place where you first “chose” your way towards being, where your “taste” was born and perfected—when that place becomes so saturated with products that all lay equal claim to your attention, you’re faced with an entirely perverse catastrophe: your power to choose has been overwhelmed by a veritable embarrassment of riches. You discover, to your horror, that you no longer have any taste. Or rather, that the “taste” you cultivated so carefully for all those years has been rendered obsolete. And banal too, because everyone shares it.

Suddenly, you’re buying more comics than you can read. You’re enjoying them all. You glut yourself. But something terrible is happening. You’ve not only lost the pleasure of choosing—a snob’s nightmare, a narcissist’s crisis—you’ve lost another, profounder pleasure too. I tried to describe that pleasure once; I’m not sure I managed it. It’s the pleasure of self-forgetting. Of an act of reading so consuming that you go…elsewhere. Away. “Into the panels” sounds silly and naïve. But it’s something like that. A child’s pleasure. But not only that. The horizon of pleasure. Barthes called it jouissance. And when it happens, you’re lost, blissfully…

That particular experience of pleasure feels increasingly remote. When you have succumbed entirely (almost entirely) to the engulfing tide of DC’s Brave New World, of its pleasurable Crises, of its Seven Soldiers and Holy Trinity, of its Leagues and Societies, of its seamless colonizing of every Wednesday for 52 weeks—when you have succumbed to all that—you begin, to your dismay and astonishment, to find yourself not engulfed, not overwhelmed, not consumed, but a little aloof, even a little ungrateful. Like any addict worthy of the name, you don’t ever want the high to stop, of course. You would prefer it, in fact, if 52 became Infinity. But you can’t help but notice that when things achieve a pitch this fevered and intense, the pleasures you were seeking begin to feel stretched a little thin. You don’t read with the same eyes you once did. You forget what it’s like to linger. To really lose yourself. You become that most awful thing: a speed reader. You skim.

It’s times like these that I remember the late nineties. The bad old days, when everything was godawful. Or nearly so. That was an era of austere pleasures, when the exercise of “taste” was forced to discover a new suppleness, to invent compromises. Everyone has their own version; for me, it was an era defined by two artifacts: Dan Jurgens’s Teen Titans series (a travesty of the sacred Book of Wolfman-Perez; I’m still not over it) and the emergence of CrossGen, which, although initially off-putting, eventually drew me in and taught me to read in an entirely different way. To slow down, to look—to really look. Almost to fall into those panels again… It was a rediscovery of the power of “archetypes” (though I hate that term) and especially of the magic produced by color in comic art. The evolution of “taste” in a time of drought.

Perhaps, then, I have something to learn from my reading practices of the late nineties, for the comics on the shelves today are simply a kind of inverted image of the majority of those books of those bad old days. The conversion, as far as I’m concerned, has been total and symmetrical: by some alchemical process, DC’s writers and artists have turned the array of titles on the comic shelves from lead into gold. The irony, as I’ve been musing on it, is that although this alchemical trick has in a certain quantitative sense produced more “pleasure,” the pleasure it makes possible is of a qualitatively different kind than that of those rare oases of pleasure we were capable of discovering in the nineties. That pleasure was a rediscovery of the inaugural act of choosing (the education and refinement of taste); this pleasure is the totalizing, somewhat exhausting pleasure of a genie’s bottle that gives you everything you want and were afraid to even wish for (too much of a good thing). But the inverted similarity of these two eras carries with it a kind of solution to my gripe: just as it was necessary to discover a subtler form of reading to spin gold out of the dross of nineties comics, so might it be necessary to refine one’s tastes all over again, to separate the still gold-tinged dross from the real gold of the comics of today. Oh curses. That sounds like work. Somewhere along the line, I got lazy about taste. I’ve been forgetting how to be a snob.

Pfft. Comic fans, huh? Hard fucking bunch to please.


Anonymous said...

A fascinating reflection. Does consistent high quality inevitably undermind itself by becoming monotonous and redundant?

I have trouble conceding it philosophically, for a plentitude of goodness or beauty should imply endless variety that is always fresh. So I think you are correct that the problem is the lack of time necessary to appreciate each piece as it deserves.

I think what you are describing is a form of Stendhal Syndrome, basically an overload of artistic stimulation within a small area, named after Stendhal's visit to Florence.

Rather than become dizzy, though, most of us just become desensitized after spending too many hours in the Vatican or the Louvre, where you find yourself wandering around like a zombie at the end of a day, no longer able to attend to the beauty still surrounding you. Feasting (artistic or otherwise) loses its specialness without fasting in between.

With Grant Morrison writing Superman, Batman, 52, and Seven Soldiers simultaneously (not to mention WildCats, etc) it is perhaps a blessing that All Star Superman and Seven Soldiers #1 have been late, for it gives us time to savor and re-read each issue of ASS as they deserve.

It would be vulgar to ask to hear a symphony twice in one night, but DC gives us several every Wednesday.

Jim Roeg said...

Stendhal Syndrome, several symphonies every Wednesday - yes, that's it exactly. And I agree with your first point too, nobody, that "a plentitude of goodness or beauty should imply endless variety that is always fresh." As usual, I'm making a slightly perverse argument to try to get at something specific, and my claims are thus a bit exaggerated. Certainly there is a freshenss and a variety within all those great DC books that is more satisfying than I give it credit for here.

It really is a problem of time. It's a fascinating moment we're in right now, culturally, when seriality has achieved a level of popularity that it becomes actually impossible (or at the very least impractical) to keep up with everything, much less fully appreciate it! And this is true not just in comics, but on TV as well (the prospect of adding another show to my list is exhausting--especially with all the DVD series I'm working on, and of course have no time for!). I even find myself wishing that I could find a few spare hours to re-read the last six issues of whatever, just to get back into the story.

Still, and despite my complaints, too much of a good thing probably is better than the alternative!

Leigh Walton said...

Being a 21-year-old with no nostalgia for DC of any sort, I find it that DC is making it very easy to be a snob.

That is not to say that we're not in the middle of a fucking fantastic creative renaissance of comics. But the number of such books that involve superheroes, I could count on one hand.

YMMV. I guess if you're dead smack in the middle of DC's target demographic, you feel pretty well-served. This must be what it's like to be fourteen years old and visit the Tokyopop web site.

Tom Bondurant said...

Well, I have noticed I've been speed-reading lately, and I'm not sure when it began. It does seem to be a problem, though, and it is getting in the way of me enjoying these good DC books more fully.

I do have to disagree (respectfully, of course) with any blanket dismissal of the late '90s. It was the period of such books as Morrison's JLA, Robinson's Starman (and his JSA, with David Goyer and Geoff Johns), and Waid's Flash. True, there was also Jurgens' Teen Titans, Genesis, and Byrne's Wonder Woman, and the Batman and Superman books seemed mired in malaise. (The late '90s was the period of Electro-Supes, lest we forget.)

Likewise, I'm not quite ready to proclaim a new era of greatness for DC as a whole, at least not in light of the new Flash, which doesn't seem to be trying hard enough; and Hawkgirl, which I think was trying too hard under the Simonson/Chaykin combo.

More to the point, though, I agree that DC has targeted us lifers in our mid-thirties pretty explicitly, and honestly, I'm not sure if I like that. It's flattering, I guess, but I wish DC's horizons were broader.

Still, who else does DC have to target anymore? Are there still older fans who were first-generation Silver Agers? I'm sure there's a slightly younger bunch who probably grew up on Kirby's Fourth World and pre-Implosion DC -- how are their tastes different from our demographic's? Put aside the ever-present question of new readers -- shouldn't DC be doing more to keep a more diverse group of us old guys happy?

I tend to think of this as the "MTV complaint." Of course MTV doesn't play videos anymore, because it has moved past those of us who grew up on an all-video channel. We want MTV to be the same now as it was 25 years ago, but it has long since decided to do something different. By contrast, DC has decided to stick with guys like us, and finally it's figured out how to be good consistently and (mostly) across the board.

I don't begrudge you your happiness at rediscovering good comics -- I'm enjoying a lot of the same ones, obviously -- but I do worry about the implications. Sorry to be a drag....

Anonymous said...

Despite the "variety" within the DCU supposedly highlighted by the OMAC, Vengeance, Villains, and Rann miniseries, they all still belong to the superhero genre.

This generic monotony in American comics dramatically hit me last month when I visited Paris where in the fashionable Latin Quarter there are several comic book shops in expensive corner locations. Not only were the stores (more like art galleries) clean and popular but Francophone BDs -- every thin issue a hardcover -- encompass literally every genre (and superheros are not the American type in tights).

Not only did I feel a whole new world of unknown pleasures suddenly opened to me, but it became almost heartbreaking to think how many years it would take to learn about and sample the hundreds of titles and their histories.

Just when I thought I was finally getting a decent grasp on the "history of comics" my conception of the medium now struck me as quite provincial. Walking across the street into a store specializing in American comics (with copies of the same issues in both English and French editions) I began to marvel at how the art form in North America became so dominated by superheroes.

Admittedly there has been a recent resurgance of Western comics (one of the most popular French genres strangely enough) from every US publisher, and the quality of Vertigo is as strong if not prolific as ever. But it is kind of bizarre that caped heroes are still the dominant subject of American sequential art (in terms of popularity at least).

So though I acknowledge the variety OF superheroes, and a kind of variety within the DCU and Marvelverse, it is still only a variety within a species. But at the same time, I understand that DC and Marvel are businesses whose most regular and big-spending customers are superhero fans first and foremost. And there's nothing that can really change that; history just happened a certain way.

And though I appreciate the abundance of choice in BD culture, I hate to say it but I simply don't have enough free time (or money) to invest in totally new avenues just to discover what I like in the first place. Like a soap opera devotee, I would rather stay with the characters I already know.

Jim Roeg said...

leigh - all my Marvel-loving friends tell me the same thing!

tom - sigh. I know. There are big and potentially quite troubling implications about DC's choices. (And I agree 100% about Flash and Hawkgirl: disasters both.)

Good question about the Silver Agers--I guess that All-Star Superman qualifies as a Silver Age throwback? I might be a bit off on my DC history here, but I was hoping that Mystery in Space with Captain Comet would be more old-school (Silver Age?)than it is. I hate that the Captain has been reborn in a younger body. They'd better leave Jay Garrick alone.

As for the nineties, you've got me there. There were unquestionably some great books in that era, and I am being too flip for sure. (It's the part of me that dreams of being a French poststructuralist--they can get away with the most astonishingly broad pronouncements, just because they're French!)

Thanks for commenting, Tom. You're keeping me honest here!

Tom Bondurant said...

I guess All-Star Superman is a Silver Age throwback, at least for now. Isn't Steve Lombard in it, or at least he's supposed to be?

Really, the more I think about it, All-Star Superman sounds like the kind of comic that would keep everybody happy, with riffs on every "era" of Superman. If Morrison intends to do the same with his Batman stories, and especially if he brings back some of the silly '50s stuff, and if that proves successful, well then, who knows?

Anonymous said...

You know, though, Jim, I think the abundance of good (or at least reasonable) comics can still work to the benefit of the reading audience, regardless of their history with comics.

If a reader (long-term, short-term, whatver...) is faced with an entire wall of good comics, there's still a factor of choice and limitation involved, as most of us don't have the money to afford everything. We have to limit what books we purchase if for no other reason than finances. Even if the consumer purchases nothing by high-quality comics, there's still going to be varying degrees of quality and they'll make a determination that Comic X is better than Comic Y. The bar gets set higher, and what would've been considered a great comic in 1993 may now only be considered average.

Next, the volume of good mainstream comics generally helps to draw in more customers to a shop. More customers usually means more revenue for the retailers. More revenue means they can spend more on titles beyond DC and Marvel. Maybe I happen to be very fortuitous in my comic shop visits, but I generally have little trouble finding even relatively small, independant books. Books with print runs in the couple thousand range! And if those books are available to shops, the guy who maybe only came in to look at 52 or Civil War might pick them up. Or someone like me, who might get tired of superhero fare, might pick them up.

So, now that I have almost too many options, I simply switch the criteria I use to decide which books to purchase. I could buy everything DC or Marvel have to offer, or I could look at my pull list rationally and say, "Do I really need another book filled with men who set impossible standards for physiques and women with gravity-defying breasts? Wouldn't my palette be enhanced if I looked at a book that might be technically inferior, but more creative? Or more unusual? Or more... different?"

Part of the purchasing process, for me, examing each book on its own merits month after month. Almost half of my purchases any more go to smaller press books, precisely because of the inundantion of quality superhero books. I don't need to read THAT many iterations of essentially the same thing. Yes, they're done well, but I'm going to pick the 10 or 12 that stand out the most to me, and use the rest of my hard-earned cash to examine what other delicacies I might put on my plate.

Anonymous said...

I know this point has already been made indirectly, but while reading this post, my first thought was that Flash is a major exception to your assessment of both eras.

The new Flash book is unreadable, and Volume 2 was remarkably consistent from beginning to end. Waid's work on it in the 90s is some of the best stuff ever done with the character.

Jim Roeg said...

Sorry for the delay in replying to all these great comments and reflections, folks. Swallowed by responsibilities at work again...

nobody – I know what you mean about that feeling of heartbreak that descends when you’re confronted with all that you’re not able to read due to lack of time and energy. This is such a puzzling, fascinating issue; it seems to get at some dim awareness of time and mortality that pricks us when confronted by some potential reserve of pleasure from which we are perversely barred. (It isn’t even that it is forcibly denied; we’re just not up for the work, because there isn’t time…)

You’ve also got me thinking about the current diversification of the superhero within the DCU (i.e. not just the reinvigoration of Westerns [yay!] but the reinvigoration of subgenres within the superhero world, most notably the science fiction heroes that are finally coming back). I haven’t spent enough time with European comics to really feel the pang you describe, but I’m sure I would if a took the overseas jaunt. One day!

tom – agreed!

sean – I really enjoyed this counterpoint, and I certainly hope you're right about the potential increase in comic store traffic. (Though, despite my personal delight in the current trend, I share Tom's worry that the continuity-heavy--or perhaps "easter-egg" heavy--nature of DC's current books may have the opposite effect.)

About the perpetual refinement of taste: you're right, certainly: finances do force one to make some hard choices—though having finally landed an actual job I am still reveling in that dangerous moment of not being as choosy as I should be. This situation is replete with perils, not the least of which is overestimating one's net worth, as my credit card statements keep confirming. Still, I take your point and I think that my difficulty in making the criteria-switch you describe is due precisely my dogged attachment to superheroes. I often think that I should expand my palette, but it’s precisely the “should” aspect of that sentence that creates a sort of resistance. It isn’t that I haven’t enjoyed the kinds of alternative and independent kinds of books you’re referring to—indeed, many are favorites. But when I hear a phrase like, “I don’t need to read THAT many iterations of essentially the same thing,” a little voice sounds in my head: “Yes, Jim. You REALLY do.” :) Sad but true! Part of this seeking after large numbers of the same thing, though, isn't just about repetition but about the pleasure that comes from the sheer vastness of the interconnections. I suspect that that this is analagous to the pleasure that another type of reader might receive from reading a Victorian novel with its vast social canvass (plok?).

anthonyf – for inexplicable reasons, I haven’t read Waid’s Flash run, but agree about the new series. I hope they fix it.

Jim Roeg said...

Beautiful! Don't you dare retract it, plok! Thank you for this generous and insightful post. (This could become the basis for an entire new year's worth of babble from me...)

You're exactly right when you say that "the dearth of good stuff as you got farther and farther from the Golden Age may (perversely) have helped to prolong your engagement with your own long-ago-chosen taste?" And also when you say that being forced to creatively choose anew is "potentially a great, and even a wonderful problem." And, of course, I'm fooling around with one of my "voices" when I whine about my "discontent" with this sort of exceptional "problem." (Complaint is an underappreciated art form.)

And there's no question that SSoV is where this new choosing is "at," so to speak. But in another way, SSoV isn't a "choice" at all, any more than say All-Star Superman is a "choice." Morrison's glorious and expansive vision has become a kind of Absolute Horizon of sophisticated fanboy ecstasy. Do I exaggerate? I don't think so! (And I'm right there in the pack too, "sophisticated" or not!)

And because Grant Morrison and his accomplices really have come to define exactly this sweet-spot of old/new pleasure, the challenge (if you're really perverse, I mean--and of course, I am) becomes detecting even more subtle forms of this or some other new kind of delight within either more apparently banal or watered down forms of the same thing (the Morrison-inflected new DCU) or in some other location.

I guess you could say that my tastes and reading strategies, such as they are, really have become inseparable from the periods of drought where the pleasure came from reading against the grain of the dominant trend, or of finding weird pockets of satisfaction within what was otherwise terrible. (For some readers, this will easily account for how I can defend things like Infinite Crisis, or what have you--i.e. only via a private and nontransferable mode of perverse misreading.) I still find myself wanting to do that, which is probably why I'm attracted not simply to the mainstream titles that "give me what I want" in a skillful Morrisonian way, but also to obviously "second-rate" titles (and even these are, for the most, part excellent) that create new possibilities for forms of "creative choosing" that might not be merely nostalgic or even Morrisonian.

My point, I guess, is that the "nineties" (my caricature of them) did involve exactly what you say (a preservation of those earlier tastes) yet they also instantiated something else: a form of choosing that was not perhaps only motivated by nostalgia. I'm thinking now of all the new things I really did try for the first time in the ninties. That is something I will return to in some future post!

For now I'll simply say that, for me, the issue of choosing can never really operate only on the "macro" level of story (where SSoV is "not like the others") because I always feel my desire sliding back down to the "micro" level (the sublimity of some panel, some weird artist-character conjunction in some less sophisticated title, etc.).

Alas, I'm too pressed for time today to make this response coherent, and there's more that I want to say about golden ages and their unrepeatability, but that's all going to have to wait. Thanks, as always, for the wise and thoughtful comments!

Jim Roeg said...

I know I can pore over old Tintin or Asterix (just for example) for hours, without ever getting tangled in nostalgia! So what's up with that?

plok - So much to say, so little time! I will have to revisit some of these remarks later, but what can I say? About the trick? Magic. Even a little uncanny (literally!).