Having a Point Other Than Narrative
by Travis Hedge Coke
There is someone in comics who had another, different job, that is an ugly job. It reflects on moral character. I asked a good man, a lifelong comics fan, how so many readers and professionals could let that go or make like or heroic of it. He said, “They want to be him.”
The problem with serial comics is that if you never get around to the point, what was the point? The journey, itself, has to have a point. Otherwise, it is only narrative, and raw narrative with little to nothing supporting it is good to keep you distracted on a long flight or the transient nostalgia for better, earlier works. That’s it. There is only so long without having a recognizable reason, some strong node of purpose, before serialized narrative loses steam. The nostalgia shot gets cut more and more with laxative or whatever and what you were addicted to has faded into something that feels like it should save you, but isn’t even killing you with the facade of saving, it’s just wet in your veins.
Long term serialization, serialization without culmination, dilutes our imperative for moral or philosophical realization. For moral cognizance.
Imagine if Andy Capp was Andy Capp every day. If Flo’s life was an Andy Capp strip, every day. Andy Capp is not a causal serial, but a sitcom. It is the pure form of situation comedy: there is a situation and you milk it for the funny. No strip causally follows another, and so we never deal with a cumulative three hundred or two thousand days of Flo strangling Andy into attending a church service that week and him spending 72 hours of the weekend abusing her trust and bilking friends for beer money. None of it adds up.
Mad Magazine was making fun of this more than sixty years ago, by turning on the real time to spousal abuse/distrust strips of the sort Andy Capp came to signify, giving characters realer injuries resultant from cartooned violence, and then realer reactions, or at least, in this satiric sense, more hopeful reactions; that violence might beget something more than laughs: a response.
This is not an indictment of (serial) comics, of comics readers or the makers or purveyors of comics. Music and television do similar unjustness, in their own ways. The obfuscation of singers behind the lyrics of their songs, as if all songs are autobiographical to the person singing. The idea of the singer as a frontman, the lead singer of a band, comes out of a musicians strike in the early days of the recording industry, and essentially mob-abetted scabs. “Oh, you can’t have the quality trombone player anymore? Well, hey, we have a kid who can sing. Advertise that as the sexy new thing!” And, they did.
Life, and markets, play you. Entertainers are liars by profession, with a social grace.
But, if this does not have a tipping point, what are we?
On the smaller scale, a single serial narrative, how long it goes without saying something that at least feels definitive, feels truly meant, does seem to depend on how much care we bring in for the serialized characters, from earlier stories. Even that cannot hold forever.
I am not asking for cardboard flat ethics, a this bad and this good ethical dichotomy. Moral relativism is not really about excusing all, but acknowledging, as Grant Morrison wrote in The Multiversity, “There’s a sliding scale to what civilization will tolerate at any given time.” And, that, even acknowledging that, the entire cumulative cache of culture and society as experienced and understood by you, boils down, rises up into a crema of allowable and not. (Crema for the pretense. Calling it cream is gauche.)
The 1978, Archie’s Family Album – I love Al Hartley, the comic is gorgeously arranged, both visually and narratively, and I may be the only non-Christian who enjoys his work or Kathleen Webb’s when they really get on the Jesus – Archie’s Family Album is what happens when you become too used to violence without consequence, be that physical or emotional violence. Archie’s Family Album relies on truisms going unchecked, which is endemic in feel-good and scare-mongering works and cultures, like the Comics Code Authority-controlled comics market and the stepping-up church market that would result in the 1980s satanic panic. Not necessarily “bad people” or bad intentions, there is a deliberate, if subconscious refusal to pursue a projection out into real, or even likely consequences, that allows something like this to encourage further and further shortsightedness until someone drives into a wall.
The average Batman or X-Men comic of the past two years is Archie’s Family Album with superheroes. In Family Album, we see characters’ personal photo albums, including Archie keeping a lot of pictures of times friend’s beat him at sports or other things, Betty’s focus on positivity, Archie’s parents apparently delighting in every bruise, black eye, or busted knuckle he achieved in early childhood. We are actively discouraged from examining why these characters keep such photos, beyond an initial feeling of inclusiveness.
It is explained to us that family albums are more true, more real, than television, than newspapers, with a sequence of truisms about sitcoms only showing family violence (while simultaneously trying to get us to laugh at, again, a preteen Archie being hurt all the time) or crime and horror (while trying to scare us off newspapers). Truisms do not allow progress away from the truism. Truisms require a permanent and perpetuating state.
“A perpetuating state,” is in large, the superhero model, and the serial comics model in America, since, honestly, before there were superheroes. A perpetuating state, in this sense, the consequence-lacking, short-term recognition only, status, is brutal and unkind and feels so darn good.
If an artist’s only explanation is that something looks cool or, it is their “style,” these are not damnable things, but they are dishonest. Why does it look cool and to who? Style or not, it denotes and it connotes. And, in the realm of line art, applied colors, and all shapes being equally drawn or manufactured, it may denote more than one thing at the same time, in the same lines.
If a writer or editor cannot directly, and easily address even the emotions we should be feeling, as an audience, be suspicious. Agitating is no more heroic or admirable than comforting. To agitate or pacify with no other goal you can admit to, is to hide goals, and this is suspect.
There is someone in comics who had another, different job, that is an ugly job. It reflects on moral character. I asked a good man, a lifelong comics fan, how so many readers and professionals could let that go or make like or heroic of it. He said, “They want to be him.” My friend did not say, they want to do what he has done – they may despise what he has done – but, they want to be the person who has done it.
Having a Point Other Than Narrative
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