Originally printed in Genre, XLII (Fall/Winter 2009): 61-78.
I thank editors Josh Lukin and Joe Moffett for their help.

High, Low & Lethem

Ray Davis

I. Love degrades

In April, 2005, beside a David Levine caricature in The New York Review of Books, the late John Leonard attacked Jonathan Lethem and his peers:

Is it so unreasonable to want to know more of what he thinks about Julio Cortàzar and less of how he feels about Obi-Wan Kenobi? […] Superpowers are not what magic realism was about in Bulgakov, Kobo Abe, Salman Rushdie, or the Latin American flying carpets. That Michael Chabon and Paul Auster have gone graphic, that one Jonathan, Lethem, writes on and on about John Ford, while another Jonathan, Franzen, writes on and on about “Peanuts,” even as Rick Moody confides to the Times Book Review that “comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is,” may just mean that the slick magazines with the scratch and sniff ads for vodka and opium [sic] are willing to pay a bundle for bombast about ephemera. But all of it makes me itch. (“Welcome”)

Is it so unreasonable to judge authors by the canonicity of their references? Well, yes. Would Ulysses have benefitted by more of Lohengrin and less of “The Low-Backed Car”? What other than reassuring exoticism distinguishes Marquez’s imported carpet from Lethem’s magic ring?

At any rate, Leonard’s long-time position as television critic for New York Magazine suggested an allergy not so much to bombast about ephemera 1 as to bombast which crosses genre lines. He considered it the job of NYRB-worthy novelists to rise above or be born out of reach of such matters (and perhaps also to vary their given names).

What unworthy job, then, did Lethem tackle in The Disappointment Artist? Clearly not criticism. His long tribute to The Searchers dismisses a scanty two paragraphs of formal analysis with the sentence, “Snore” (Disappointment Artist 1); his Star Wars piece relegates “The movie itself, right” to section 18 of 21 (Disappointment Artist 39).

The movie itself, “right,” was a means to an end determined by context. In some venues (a science fiction convention, for example), Lethem confessing twenty-one viewings of Lucas’s film would be a fond declaration of community. As published in the New Yorker, it instead sets up a mystery: “What the fuck was I thinking?” He aimed his collection at an audience who might find “Jack Kirby” an intriguing autobiographical hook where “Don DeLillo” or “Julio Cortàzar” would signal only book reviews. With characteristic directness, Lethem himself explained both his tactic and his goal:

The adult life I’ve made getting paid, dear reader, to tell you these things bears a suspicious resemblance to the rooms themselves [“empires” of books and records]. […] My rooms might have been armor, a disguise or beard, but I wanted millions of admirers to peek inside and see me there, and when they did I wished for them to revere and pity me at once. The contradiction in this wish tormented me, so I ignored it. Then I became a writer and it began to sustain me. I may still be trying to make it come true now, by working here to arouse your pity and reverence for the child I was. (Disappointment Artist 147-148)

Here as elsewhere, Leonard’s attack recapitulated Lethem’s self-analysis in a sarcastic tone: O, I say, here’s a fellow says he misses his mother every night before he goes to bed…

Lethem later diagnosed such reactions as “class anxiety” (“Birnbaum”) which seems fair enough. An establishment figure turns fogey; we merely middle-aged declare our populist rectitude; the discursive world goes round.

Yet the exchange of harrumph left me with a lingering aftertaste of unadmitted complicity and unadmitted voices. Before collapsing into sputter against “stoned, horny, ungrateful, and uncomprehending pissants,” Leonard successfully traced a certain habitual tone through Lethem’s work, albeit again one which Lethem himself had already explicitly called out: disappointment.

II. Love is just a lie made to make you blue

Leonard cited Lethem’s summary (“Each of my novels… is fueled by loss”), and then verified it. All well and sad, except that Leonard associated that void with Lethem’s comic book collection as though writing liner notes for Maria Callas reissues would’ve sprung Lethem’s pop music critic from his fortress of solitude; as if we lived in a world where Greil Marcus ached more than Norman Lebrecht, Pete Seeger lacked John Berryman’s inner resources, and Will Eisner’s post-war experimentation failed him where Jackson Pollock’s did not.

What frustrates Leonard in Franzen’s, Moody’s, and Lethem’s “dorky pathos” is the dorkiness of their references. What frustrates me is the familiarity of their pathos. It isn’t specific to these novelists or their low-culture enthusiasms. Wagnerian opera proved more damaging to Du Bois’s John Jones than hip-hop to Lethem’s Arthur Lomb (Fortress). The same tale’s been told of ballerinas and boxers, twelve-tone composers and blues guitarists: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Such stories take advantage of a formal conflict (or, more sympathetically, resolve an emotional tension) between drives generally abstracted as “lyric” and “narrative,” although they’re more varied than those terms might suggest. Non-narrative forms are frequently spoken of by critics and academicians as if they arrive in immaculately sealed and immortally frozen packages, but a sense of performance is as central to aesthetic experience as a sense of closure. George Herriman’s comic strips, Howard Hawks’s Hollywood films, 2 Richard Pryor’s stand-up, and Al Green’s LPs transfix us not by punch-, plot-, or melody-lines but by their tossed-off (if well-rehearsed) gestures, a groove laid by the eternal-now of characteristics rather than the chronological development of character.

Whether tableaux or marathons, when such temporally escapist influences enter psychologically-driven realism, they can only be given too little weight or too much. The writer may minimize disruption through free indirect discourse or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, quickly cite brand names in passing. More centrally ekphrastic narratives generally tell of loss, as plot tears protagonist, author, and audience alike from lyric’s spell: to return to the groove would be to choose stasis. Transplanted to serious mainstream fiction, Krazy Kat becomes unambiguously female and Ignatz Mouse genuinely destructive (Cantor; Lethem, “Five”), John Wayne plays villain rather than lead (Lethem, Girl), superhuman privileges right no wrongs (Lethem, Fortress, “Super Goat Man”), and auctorial figures themselves shed the solace of siblings and humor (Joyce; Lethem, Fortress). These are generic conventions, loosely associated with the very middlebrow espoused by Leonard. They may be integral elements but when I strike them my stride falters; I slide a bit.

Even across media, a downward turn is taken to indicate depth. Comics creator Chris Ware, like Lethem, attended a high-art institution, revolted against academic pretensions, was attracted by a popular genre, established himself as a star in its most conceptually daring niche, then was welcomed into the market covered by the New York Review of Books with a success that stunned his peer group. Over its long publication history, Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan” serial downshifted from wild genre-play to an extreme naturalism in which, as in The Fortress of Solitude, unreliable superpowers and America’s racial divide serve to emphasize the protagonist’s emotional isolation. Ware followed his breakthrough work with the even more mundane tale of “Rusty Brown” like Lethem’s essay collection, the bildungsroman of a collector. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment, however genuinely felt, was also a vehicle to the mainstream.

Of course, narrative arts support their own varieties of groove and their own extra-temporal structures, and not all careers follow the arc of gravity. 3 Oscar Wilde obediently served vindictive deserts to the wits of “A Woman of No Importance” and The Picture of Dorian Gray but escaped into something like pure music with “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Wilde’s triumph was abysmally short-lived, however, and a survey of award winners from virtually any field will verify that cheerfulness carries a cost. Lethem’s least calculated and most “intuited” story, “Sleepy People,” was, as he ruefully understates, “very quietly received” (“Private Hells”). Although Karen Joy Fowler’s mainstream crossover in some respects anticipated Lethem’s, her love of comedic structures frequently puts her at risk of being reclassified as chick-lit or YA. And the most referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

III. Can’t have love without greed

Two-thirds in, Leonard interrupted his harangue of Lethem to harangue:

readers of Lethem who’d rather he hadn’t entered the mainstream, a peculiar resentment indeed on the part of people who otherwise complain that the mainstream unfairly disdains their populist subversions, their pulp-proud underground, their monastic cells and hermetic texts. About the mainstream: love it or leave it. To want to eat the flowers and sleep in the Hide-a-Bed of the very same rectal-thermometer establishment whose walls you have pledged to “tag” do your graffiti seems to me to be uncool.

Although I’m not sure where rectal thermometers fit, I certainly agree that keeping-it-real rhetoric is not, as the kids say, “fly.” We genre cosmopolitans find dealing with police on both sides of the border a terrible nuisance, and in exasperation I’ve occasionally sworn off vacation spots for years at a time. Expressing similar annoyance, Lethem once imagined a science fiction community generous enough to award a Nebula to Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 (“Close Encounters”).

What makes these people act this way? What the fuck are they thinking?

One clue may be found in “As Others See Us” (Ansible), science fiction fan Dave Langford’s long-running collection of dismissive quotes from outside the field, many by “serious” novelists and movie-makers who’ve taken or re-invented its concepts. Another might be found when “serious” gallery artists describe visual references as if they’ve been lifted from an anonymous zeitgeist rather than from fellow laborers. Such blatant hypocrisy has a way of creating resentment among subalterns.

In contrast, the more recent writers targeted by Leonard’s essay strive to keep the human producers and human costs of popular culture in their minds and pages. Lethem has never displayed Kurt Vonnegut’s fear of career contagion, and in The Fortress of Solitude he didn’t use soul music and graffiti solely to gesture at its consumer-hero’s inner life (as such varied authors as Tom Stoppard and Nick Hornby have). Instead, the novel includes musicians and taggers themselves as characters, and its formally-dictated break from those characters created genuine reader distress. 4

Insofar as ghetto defensiveness is a reasonable reaction to abuse, one would expect effect to weaken with cause. And such has been the case. With The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon gained not only a Pulitzer but the approval of comic book professionals, and when Chabon accepted the 2008 Nebula award for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Lethem’s One World dream seemed fulfilled.

Still, misunderstandings can blindside the well-meaning tourist.

Lethem has described at various times his fascination with Steve Gerber’s and Mary Skrenes’s short-lived comic book series, Omega the Unknown. 5 In 2005, offered a chance to write for Marvel Comics, he chose to try to re-imagine the original’s compromised ten-issue run as a cohesive story.

Gerber reacted to this tribute on the “Howard the Duck Club” message board:

I am *not* happy about Marvel’s revival of Omega, and the writer of the book has made an enemy for life by taking the job. According to some people, he actually professes to be a fan of my work. If that’s even minimally true, what he’s done is even more unforgivable (“The Omega Revival.”). 6

Later, Lethem said:

The allure of working with Marvel was to take something that existed and repurpose it, give it a different spin. After all, I work with solitary materials all the time. And it seemed, of course, that Gerber, like so many of the comic book writers that I’d so admired, had himself done so much of this kind of repurposing and knitting in to the collective tapestry. So I couldn’t imagine there being a reason not to do it. I was quite disconcerted when his reaction was so unhappy (“Jonathan Lethem on Omega”).

Indeed, the offense seems difficult to explain. It couldn’t be a question of money, given the series’ nonexistent commercial prospects. Nor was it fear of displacement: Lethem rarely mentioned Omega without praising its original co-writer, and Gerber’s and Skrenes’s issues were brought back into print only after Lethem’s revival was announced. Plagiarism as normally understood by the literary or academic communities was never broached.

This contretemps sprang not from a difference of opinion but from a mistranslation of behavior. As Gerber put it in his first message:

As a rule of thumb, if the creator of a character or series is alive and still active in the industry, another writer or artist’s “revamping” of his work at a publisher’s behest constitutes an expression of contempt, not tribute — and all the more so if the original creator doesn’t even share financially in the enterprise. 7

Gerber’s implication that Marvel Publishing, Inc., had hired an award-winning best-selling literary novelist to revive a stagnant trademark was a simple error, easily cleared up. The knottier issue 8 is woven into the phrase “his work”: authorship and its properties.

Both the sacred name of the Author and the Author’s sacrificial Death are aspects of high-status art, and the connoisseur’s traditional job is to distinguish “school,” “copy,” and “forgery” from the prized hand of the master. In contrast, lower-status rural art was collected from informants but authored by the spirit of the nation or the race. Equally in contrast, low-status urban art was manufactured by hacks but authored by the capitalist hegemony. Celebrations of the vulgar vitality of comic books or science fiction replayed earlier revivals of folk culture; 9 jeremiads against their corrupting influence replayed earlier fears of empowered peasantry or immigrants. In either case, proper names rarely entered artists’ appropriations or intellectuals’ analyses.

When we wish to raise the status of media and genres, even those of us who’ve read Barthes will reach for proper names. From the absurdly expensive collaborations of cinema we pluck an auteur; from the absurdly profitable collaborations of fashion or gadgetry we pluck a designer. Ambiguities persist Lethem has noted the qualitative distance between “a Hawks movie” which stars Cary Grant and “a Hawks movie” which stars James Caan (“Noah Baumbach”) and yet alternative terms seem in themselves demeaning. In a book review, John Banville mocked the idea that “Hitchcock is a major artist”; in a later interview, Lethem protested (correctly) that “These battles were fought and won…. Hitchcock is art.” However, statements such as “The Gaumont British Picture Corporation is a major artist” or “Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock is art” fall bizarrely outside the lines of debate. A victory means among other things burying the bodies.

By this, I don’t mean to denigrate the justness of our cause. The cult of genius and the intentional fallacy linger because both accurately describe communal aspects of aesthetic experience. Exceptional one-person comic strips like “Little Nemo,” “Krazy Kat,” and “Peanuts” were among the first to be championed as high art partly because standard industry practices such as “ghosting” and assembly-line production obscure idiosyncrasies, freeze evolution, and desiccate scholarly and fannish narratives. Our impulse to uncover a human source to project from reproducible artifact to traceable performer, so that we might begin to speak of cinematographer “John Alton” as we would of “Humphrey Bogart” isn’t just a taxonomic convenience. It also reflects frustrated feelings of gratitude and intimacy, as evidenced by the career of Walt Disney comics artist and writer Carl Barks. Although Barks wrote, drew, and inked his own work for decades, his employer blocked fan mail and withheld contributor credits on the theory that sales would decline if children thought anyone other than Walt Disney was involved in the comic books. As a result, Barks wasn’t successfully contacted by readers until 1960, and his first interview (conducted in 1962) was only allowed publication in 1968 (Barks, Starback). Given no clues other than style, loyal fans identified and collected Barks as “The Duck Artist,” “The Good Duck Artist,” or simply “The Good Artist,” the last eventually inscribed on his gravestone (Balmer).

In turn, this sense of personal obligation to individual artists was ingeniously exploited by the Walt Disney Company, Marvel Comics, and other media monoliths to extend their corporate control of “intellectual property” through some exceptional assumptions: that “the creator” of “a work” can always be determined so as to assign the work’s ownership, that the legal heirs (two or three generations later) of the original “owner” are best placed to personify “the creator’s” intentions, and, indeed, that a single interpretation of a dead “creator’s” intentions should constrain the actions of the living. 10

Distinguishing intention from accident and genius from influence can be difficult even in the paradigmatic cases of a garreted writer or painter, and Steve Gerber belonged to a studio system in which every word of a writer received editing, each pencil stroke of an artist was inked over, and gag recycling and compositional “swipes” were, if not celebrated, certainly no scandal. Setting collaborative ambiguities aside, the equation of “creator” with “owner” remains riddled by loopholes like work-for-hire, transferable rights, and corporate immortality. 11 Formulas such as “culture industry” mean to cut through this fog of corruption and to restore something like Kant’s contrast of “mercenary” art with “free” art. But craftspeople (whether Elizabethan playwrights or Kant’s watchmakers) must retain some freedom of movement and judgment merely to be credited with craft, and the artifacts “freest” from established systems of reward are often those whose treatment as art objects are most ethically troubling. 12 When museums exclude “work-for-hire” visionaries like George Herriman and Charles M. Schulz but include factory-managers like Jeff Koons, generic class distinctions seem painfully arbitrary. 13

In law and in aesthetics, what Authors name (besides one to a hundred or more human beings) are Works. And just as Authority must be redefined at each extension of aesthetic loyalty or copyright protection, so must we redefine the critical and legal derivation of Work from artifacts. 14 When transforming visual ephemera to Masterwork, is the living essence best conveyed by discolored newsprint and halftone dots 15 or by digital retouching and computer coloring? 16 Recent “restorations” of Vertigo and Touch of Evil took editorial liberties comparable to Alexander Pope’s Shakespeare. 17 Intellectual property law stratifies the vagaries of capitalist history, so that pop music lawsuits can be based on expert correlations of sheet music or excavated samples no matter how disjoint the appeal of the recordings involved whereas blatant swipes of performing style are permissible at least unless they cross “celebrity image protection” and “publicity rights” boundaries. Similarly, while it’s generally admitted that the late-twentieth-century outcome of fine art connoisseurship was a gallery economy based on shtick, shtick has proven resistant to legal proprietorship.

Turning to serial narrative arts, the most stable emotional investment is in a recognizable character or setting. Robin Hood and Deacon Jones drew listeners across singers and songs, Falstaff and Justice Shallow were frequently referenced before 1650 but rarely with Shakespeare’s name attached (Monro), we read “Popeye” rather than contemplating a single ineffable panel of “Thimble Theatre,” and Barks was “the Duck Artist” rather than “the Four Color Comics #189 Artist.” Early research on the brilliant achievements of Warner Bros.’ cartoon unit, “Termite Terrace,” bogged down in counter-claims over which supervising director originated which familiar character (Barrier and Gray; Jones; Barrier).

And again, finance followed personal attachments and litigation followed the finances: corporations gain their biggest return from cross-media cross-laborer merchandising and licensing, and therefore threw their immortal and unconstrained weight behind the notion of character as threatened Work in need of guardianship. No matter who wrote or published the book, if it’s Superman it’s DC’s (except for any portion belonging to Jerry Siegel’s heirs). 18

Meanwhile non-serial narrative maintains an alternative definition of Work as individual novel, story, poem, play, or movie, and the static visual arts maintain a notion of “masterpiece” somewhat at odds with the valuation of a signature “style.” And the name we follow and guard most intently across such Works is the Author’s rather than the character’s. In literature, Kurt Vonnegut was willing to lend out “Kilgore Trout” until he feared a threat to the more essential “Kurt Vonnegut” franchise (Chapman). And while Lethem would likely be fine with a band naming itself the Subtle Distinctions or Monster Eyes, 19 he might feel less flattered by a political blogger who adopted the pseudonym “Jonathan Lethem.”

Unfortunately for critical and legal arbiters, originally non-serial narrative works can easily enough instigate a series, 20 and incentives are strong. Six sequels to Dune were written after Frank Herbert’s death, but when the sequel-writers announced that they’d found an outline for yet another sequel in Herbert’s own notes, they were rewarded with media attention 21 and better sales. 22 Although Herbert may have left notes behind for other unwritten novels perhaps even a sequel to Hellstrom’s Hive “Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’” proved more lucrative than “Frank Herbert” or “Dune” presented separately.

Clashing ambiguities of “work,” “author,” and “property” powered lucrative Shocks of the New in post-WWII galleries along with catastrophes like the boom-and-bust of graffiti art in the 1980s. On the other side of what used to be the tracks, movie and comic book studios have been caught between allegiances to genre, characters, and performers, and allegiances to the “masterwork” as singular artifact and “auteur” as infallible genius. 23

The job of shifting valuable source material directly from the steady-income low-status groove of the serial to the higher financial and artistic stakes of the blockbuster Work resembles the job of referencing genre material from a mainstream novel, and contemporary movie and comic producers easily fall into the ecstatic-depressive mindset I described in section two of this essay, oscillating between violent closure (Spock Dies!) and vehement regression (Spock Returns!).

Freed of fleshy wear and tear while pledged to continuity, superhero series exhibit the syndrome most starkly. 24 Although popular villains might make improbable returns before the 1980s, heroes were dispatched rarely, and usually out of genuine desire to be rid of a tiresome or unprofitable character. The original “Omega the Unknown,” for example, was simultaneously shot down and canceled. Over the past three decades, however, the comics industry has found fewer commercial outlets for the traditional pamphlet format, lost touch with their original core audience of children, and increasingly relied on long and complex cross-issue “events.” Marvel more or less blundered into fatality with the “Dark Phoenix Saga” of 1980, 25 returning with premeditation in their first “graphic novel,” The Death of Captain Marvel, in 1982. The sales generated by 1992’s “Death of Superman” finalized the formula even as it guaranteed a future of diminishing returns: the big narrative statement kills; the trademark resurrects. 26 Meanwhile, with eyes on the graphic novel market, above-the-title auteurs like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison were granted the freedom to plan and script full runs of a series as more-or-less coherent units.

1976 was a different story. The eccentricities emphasized by those who write about the original Omega the Unknown are at their purest in issue 1 (which Lethem quotes from liberally). By the second issue, Omega was slugging it out with the Incredible Hulk; by issue #4, Omega lost his muteness and gained a tendency to encounter unimpressive supervillains. Issues seven and eight were fill-ins by other writers who concentrated on “trying to put a little more pizzazz into Omega” (“Omega Mail”). In the two issues remaining to them, Gerber and Skrenes set up a crossover event that they promised to finish in Marvel’s (and Gerber’s) more popular Defenders series, but Gerber’s 1978 dispute with Marvel management blocked that plan. In sum, a mess. 27

For Gerber, the name’s guardianship was a matter of veto power and financial security. 28 For Lethem, the name’s attraction was a mystery to be justified in a unified and balanced Work. 29 For aging fans caught between the proffered spirit and crafted letter of copyright law, the name’s originator provides some not-quite-definable authenticity by blood-right. 30 The generic stake stays put while the game changes around it.

IV. And these things never cease their continuous exchange of position, at one time all coming together into one through Love, at another again being borne away from each other by Strife’s repulsion

An affective imbalance remains in my accounting. Since a clash of values is certain to clash both sides, why is so much more resentment expressed by one? Why don’t mainstream readers complain about the deceitful appearance of almost entirely mundane stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction? For every ambiguously condescending painting by Roy Lichtenstein or Mike Kelley, there must be dozens of cartoon panels mocking Manet, Renoir, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Rauschenberg, and, well, Lichtenstein. Why should cartoonists consider themselves the underdogs in this contest?

Money’s a typical answer, but the mid-list’s dying everywhere, and most practitioners of high art live hand to mouth, on someone else, or by not-so-artistic labor. And in the USA at least, gallery art and high-mainstream literature are more than a little suspect as “cultural capital.” American presidents’ favorite fiction authors have ranged from F.D.R.’s Dorothy L. Sayers through J.F.K.’s Ian Fleming and Nixon’s Herman Wouk to Bill Clinton’s Walter Mosley, and anecdotal evidence suggests that contemporary C.E.O.s don’t sport higher brows.

The answer’s Purloined-Newspaper close at hand. As Dave Langford writes, novelists like Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut have had good reason to deny their connections to non-mainstream genres:

You begin to see why Atwood wants to keep SF at arm’s length when you read the snobby reviewers who didn’t like Oryx and Crake and used its genre as a rude epithet. Sven Birkerts of the New York Times opened his negative review with an enthusiastic display of prejudice: “I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L’…” The same paper’s Michiko Kakutani went further and called it a “lame piece of sci-fi humbug.” Oh dear! And Lorrie Moore of The New Yorker began her review on a note of lamentation for authors who stray into the SF slums: “The novelist Margaret Atwood has wandered off from us before…” (“Bits”)

To quote the critic’s mooching, pretentious, and despised name saint, J. Wellington Wimpy, “Let’s you and him fight.” 31 The stings which lodged in ambitious cartoonists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes were delivered by their college professors. 32 Inveighing more loudly and continuously than society painters, classical musicians, business executives, or politicians, “snobby reviewers” and hostile teachers have been responsible for raising hackles to a healthy long-lived maturity.

Nor is this the first time I might have found cause to mention our own forms. A downward turn marks the serious review and serious scholarship as much as the serious novel: we must express reservations or risk our own claim to seriousness.

What most marks us, of course, is our naked dependency on reference. We obtain the product of someone else’s labor, usually for free, and then we read, hear, or watch it. From such moral low ground it’s absurd for a glossy magazine’s television critic to denigrate a novelist’s interest in comic books or for a weekly newspaper’s jazz critic to protest a professional musician’s “cultural appropriation.” And yet the pot still calls the kettle a minstrel show.

Working artists may feel ripped off by extra-generic not-quite-peers who haven’t paid their dues, and peacemakers like Lethem and cartoonist Eddie Campbell may argue that those apparent deadbeats pay dues to a different union. But what respect is due the pure parasite?

Near-universally, the answer is zilch. We generate complaints, dismissals, and satires; most cuttingly, we may be excluded from consideration altogether, as when Campbell defends Lichtenstein’s visual quotes by quoting R. G. Collingwood:

Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other’s work like men. Let each borrow his friends’ best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B’s poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y’s this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it… (qtd. in Campbell, “Fate”)

Clearly there’s no place for mere critics in this practitioners’ paradise. But Collingwood appears not to realize that philosophers would be banished as well: If R G C doesn’t believe professional photographer N should protect all possible sources of income and credit, let him stop advising it from the pages of a book; let him open a studio and lead by example. A few pages later, in a passage left relatively uncited, Collingwood advises the painter and the poet to “walk as the spokesman of his audience” and, like T. S. Eliot, take as theme “a subject that interests everyone” (Collingwood 333). To which I expect most painters or poets of the common folk would respond, “Who axed you?”

It’s hardly a shocking paradox that reference is built into discourse and that aseptic attempts to bar improper referentiality might therefore stick to the prosecutors’ hands. Class anxiety is plain enough when Leonard claims that “Bible stories, Greek myths, Grimm fairy tales, Romantic poetry, grand opera, anthropology, psychoanalysis” are all in themselves less “obvious, blatant, standardized” than movies, comics, and popular music. But in Leonard’s claim, I also hear a superstitious attempt to fend off contagion by Lethem’s malaise and a keen desire for professional self-justification: these are the concerns which did not waste his life.

And when, some pages ago, I affirmed the eternal now of the finished lyric and the extended groove, wasn’t I simply trying to extend Leonard’s hopeful delusion across the breadth of references I myself happen to cling to and posture beneath? If I suggest that Leonard punished Lethem partly for daring to anticipate (and then discard) the critic’s job, can’t I in turn be attacked for reducing both their achievements to my hobby-horse’s hitching post?

If so, I welcome the slap of the common brush. I could use the company, and tar has at least the virtue of bringing and binding people together.

1 “I once predicated her as the glorious embodiment of Buckminster Fuller’s mantra disclaiming categories and nouns… Transitive, active, reciprocal, irregular, she was verb perfect, poetry in motion and doggerel too.” (Leonard, “Carol Burnett”)

2 “I also decided that audiences were getting tired of plots…. Well, sometimes it takes you a little while to realize what you did unconsciously, but then you can begin to do it purposely and it makes working much simpler. And a little harder in a way, because it isn’t very hard to simply follow a plot, but without one it’s not so easy to tell a story” (Hawks 356-357).

3 Nor do all critics. Noisy calls for revaluation go back at least to Nietzsche: “Yesterday I heard — would you believe it? — Bizet’s masterpiece, for the twentieth time…. This music seems perfect to me. It approaches lightly, supplely, politely” (157). And assurances that we can ignore such calls go forward at least to Lesley Chamberlain: “… he loved Bizet the same way as Wittgenstein loved cinema Westerns…. here in both cases was a simple, active, temporary way out of the self for the highly strung modern genius obsessed with the problem of expression” (77).

4 “One of the models for the structure of the book as a whole was a boxed set of a great soul group, whose voices are unified in the first part of their career, in this beautiful harmony, and then the last disk shows the solo careers, which are, of course, inevitably bitter and disappointing” (“Q & A: Out of Brooklyn”).

5 “Top Five Depressed Superheroes,” “Who’s Afraid of Doctor Strange?”, Fortress 82, and Disappointment Artist 71.

6 The fullest treatment of the story’s first phase is Johnston’s.

7 Or, as he rephrased it after an email exchange with Lethem and an “accommodation” with Marvel: “It used to be just kind of standard practice in the industry that if Creator A wanted to use Creator B’s character — even a character that Creator B didn’t create, but was working on regularly — A gave B a call and just… asked. If I wanted to use Captain America in The Defenders, and Steve Englehart was writing Cap’s own book at the time, for example, I’d pick up the damn phone and call. It was very simple, very casual. It was a simple courtesy” (“Steve Gerber: Man of ‘Mystery’”).

8 “I misjudged him, and I offer my sincerest apologies. That doesn’t change my mind about the OMEGA revival itself, however…. Jonathan, if you’re reading this — rather than ask you to back out of a business commitment, rather than deprive the fans of what will probably be an excellent story, I propose that you simply retitle the story and rename the characters. ‘OMEGA THE UNKNOWN’ has little or no commercial cachet, so call the book something else. Call the kid something other than James-Michael Starling. Make the book your own, and I’ll have nothing to complain about” (Gerber, “Omega & Jonathan Lethem”). In the published series, Lethem called the kid Titus Alexander Island.

9 Contemporary science fiction’s locus classicus may be the speech delivered by Leslie Fiedler during the 1972 Nebula awards banquet and later addressed by Samuel R. Delany (“Letter to a Critic”).

10 Consider the posthumous publication histories of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Jack Spicer.

11 One of the co-writers of Action Comics #1, Joe Shuster, has no heirs and has thereby effectively vanished from “Superman” copyright battles, whereas “National Allied Publications” lives on as DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Entertainment, a fully-owned subsidiary of Time Warner.

12 The overturning of Kafka’s explicit instructions again come to mind, along with the decontextualization of “primitive” or “sacred” objects and the commercial exploitation of “outsider” artists.

13 Appropriately enough, when Koons was successfully sued for rebranding a comics character, the plaintiff was a corporation and the intellectual property was from “Garfield,” produced by a studio with over fifty employees. Nevertheless the court explicitly called out the strip’s signature “author” as the injured party. “Koons did not remember where he got the Odie image, but he admitted providing a two-dimensional clipping of Odie to the Italian artisans, along with instructions to copy it as closely as possible” (Kattwinkel). “The court found that ‘the creator of the Garfield comic strip, James Davis, is an accomplished artist and may, at some point, decide to create artistic sculptures of his characters for commercial sale’” (Inde).

14 On the fruitful muddle of “author,” “text,” and “work,” see Wilson.

15 As in Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz (Pantheon, 2001) and Jack Cole and Plastic Man (Chronicle Books, 2001), both designed by Chip Kidd.

16 As in the DC Archive Editions and Marvel Masterworks series.

17 For Vertigo, see Davis; for Touch of Evil, see Axmaker. Those directly responsible for the Touch of Evil edition prefer that it be called a “reconstruction” or “re-edit” instead of a “restoration,” “preservation,” or “director’s cut,” but seem reconciled to misleading publicity (Schmidlin; Rosenbaum).

18 For example, the novel It’s Superman! was written by Tom De Haven, published by Chronicle Books, but “Copyright 2005 by DC Comics.”

19 From The Fortress of Solitude and You Don’t Love Me Yet, respectively.

20 Even the seemingly definitive closure of Grahame Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man managed to spawn fifty-two radio episodes from “The Lives of Harry Lime.”

21 “I’ll still read that book when it arrives, if only out of a sense of obligation, and you probably will, too” (Itzkoff).

22 As tracked by the writers’ own website. “HUNTERS OF DUNE has been more successful than any of our previous seven Dune novels” (Anderson). “SANDWORMS just debuted at #4 on the New York Times bestseller list, and the publisher says the sales show a 22% increase over last year’s HUNTERS…which in turn was Brian and Kevin’s best ever” (DuneNovels.com Site Admin).

23 Starting from a different point and using only French examples, Molly Nesbit reaches a similar configuration of authorship, generic class distinctions, and copyright law.

24 Cartoonist Eddie Campbell recently made the same point. “It’s ironic that in the comic book medium terminality has come to be seen as a holy grail, the notion of a thing being complete in itself (as in a ‘novel’), when the true essence of the comic strip is the very opposite, the concept of the eternal present. The greatest daily comic strips had no end…. Given the dumbassed nature of comic books, the highest measure of commitment to quality, or terminality, that a writer can have is the determination to show characters being killed” (interview by Tom Spurgeon).

25 Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter had approved an X-Men storyline which would end in the rogue Phoenix losing her powers. During production, artist (and co-writer) John Byrne upped the drama of Phoenix’s galactic rampage by wiping out an inhabited planet. Shooter responded by pronouncing the death penalty. “I want to make it clear that it was less my moral problem with a character who was a mass murderer than it was a problem from a story sense” (Shooter).

26 At time of writing, Batman has just “died” again, as part of an unconvincingly titled “Final Crisis.” It’s expected that he’ll return more quickly than Spider-Man’s Aunt May, who earned only three years of rest after thirty-three years of graphic decrepitude.

27 “Omega was, then, a massive artistic failure and too small a financial success” (Gerber, “The Steve Gerber Interview”).

28 Gerber’s long battle for creator’s rights to Howard the Duck ended in a closed settlement which left him “no longer angry,” and his later complaint about Omega the Unknown ended in a “very reasonable” “arrangement.”

29 Lethem’s completed series, particularly its final, nearly wordless, issue, received wide praise both within and outside the industry in 2008.

30 “Geez, is it just me, or is October slated to be ‘Piss on Steve Gerber month’ at Marvel? Marvel Previews solicits no fewer than three new books featuring characters created by the veteran comics scribe, not one of which he is writing. I’ve talked about Howard the Duck before, and mentioned how no other writers can quite capture the character’s unique voice, and you could say the same for Omega the Unknown and Foolkiller, as well. The new Omega was commissioned some time ago, and Foolkiller is to be a MAX series, so I doubt there’s any sort of conspiracy, but it sure looks tacky all in one month like that” (Hughes).

31 Eddie Campbell has also remarked on the resemblance (Alec: How to Be an Artist 58).

32 “In art school, I was frequently criticized because many of my instructors simply didn’t understand why I was drawing comics. It was hard to explain that no one was telling me to do it, that I wasn’t fulfilling any editorial requirement, and that I wasn’t doing it as a commercial ‘gig’ (as one of them implied)” (Ware). “Mr. Clowes… wrote the ‘Art School Confidential’ screenplay after his comic of the same name, both of which were based on his undergraduate days in the early 1980’s at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn…. ‘Here I am spending hundreds of hours creating a narrative with words, while someone else puts a tampon in a teacup and calls it art, and all they can do is give me a lot of blank stares,’ he remembered. ‘The students were not interested, and my teachers were actively discouraging’” (Finkel).

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