pseudopodium
. . . Eddie Campbell

. . .

Reference Work, 3

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.
- Steve Gerber
If I'd wanted to make a comic book that had no connection to anything anyone had ever done before, that didn't utilize existing characters, I likely wouldn't have been talking with Marvel in the first place. 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

The levelling of cultural class distinctions was before anything else a fact of consumption, celebrated by consumers: '60s postmodernists pigged out on several civilizations' worth of colorful munchies, and eventually we reached the boys-must-have-their-toys retail world of Nick Hornby.

Commendably, Chabon and Lethem have kept content-producers in mind and on the page. What impressed me most about Kavalier and Clay's reception wasn't its Pulitzer Prize but its approval by comics professionals. The Fortress of Solitude doesn't just reference soul music and graffiti to gesture at its protagonist's inner life: it includes soul musicians and taggers as characters, and its turn away from them created genuine reader distress a rare formal achievement in the high-mainstream.

Still, even the well-wisher can be blindsided. "It's all folk music," and folk will insist on fussing over their quaint differences.

* * *

Restricted to graphic evidence, a Martian researcher would conclude that cartoonists have bullied high artists pretty much since comics began. For every ambiguously dismissive Roy Lichtenstein or Mike Kelley appropriation, there must be dozens of gag panels about Manet, Renoir, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Moore, Rauschenberg, or, well, Lichtenstein.

So why's so much offense expressed by the aggressors?

Money's the obvious answer. That's supposed to be the reason we do everything, right? We're freakin' on rational gameplay! When Rolling Stones asserted copyright on a cover version or a Beatle repurposed a song structure, it can't be compared to the credits we find on rural blues 78s or to retitled bebop permutations of "I Got Rhythm": raising the stakes changed the game.

But these financial differences seem more justification than explanation. As Lethem's rightly pointed out, most high-mainstream fiction writers aren't awarded MacArthur Fellowships or big Hollywood pay-offs: the midlist's dying everywhere. Most attempters at high art have to live hand to mouth, or on someone else, or by not-so-highly-artistic labor. Similarly, not all SF and fantasy writers or comics professionals can be fully described as class-traitor hacks pumping out propaganda for the Man.

Even if the income discrepency was real, there'd have to be more behind this inter-genre hostility and defensiveness. Otherwise, we'd see the same intransigence within the genre. Instead the temporary setting aside of such distinctions is a characteristic pleasure of any living art: Will Eisner chatting at the convention; F&SF pages shared by Neil Gaiman and a first sale; Ian McKellen drinking with the stunt crew....

Noncombatant Eddie Campbell suggests that the comics world's exaggerated concern over Roy Lichtenstein's "plagiarism" springs from the same source as the high art world's unconvincing defenses of Lichtenstein's "originality":

And that is the problem with art today: the artist believes he must find a style (or a schtick really) and defend it with his life. And if all the schticks are already taken, he must pull one out of his ass. He must find one, invent one, fabricate one, for he can be nothing if he cannot be original. It's what I once saw termed 'the neurosis of innovation'.

But given its studio labor hand-offs, house styles, ghosting, and swipes, the comics world must have appropriated that neurosis from the high art world which seems odd if it's meant to explain hostility towards the high art world.

My guess is that on both sides of the Lichtenstein line, resentment came first as that fine young critic Dennis P. Eichhorn said before he threw up, "This is WRONG!" and was then intensified by embarrassment over the resentment's irrationality.

What is WRONG depends on conflicting unexamined notions of what's right.

The markets for literary fiction, paintings, and sculpture came over time to center on The Artist: the artist is the guarantor of value; value increases with proximity to the artist; the "property" at stake is the individual masterwork and the master's name. Kurt Vonnegut was willing to lend out the "Kilgore Trout" character only until he feared it threatened the more important Kurt Vonnegut franchise. Even if Lethem would be fine with a band naming itself the Subtle Distinctions or Monster Eyes, he might not feel flattered by a political blogger assuming the pseduonym "Jonathan Lethem".

In more openly collaborative arts, the big return came from cross-media cross-laborer merchandising. Whether financial or emotional, the stablest investment was in a recognizable character or setting. No matter who wrote the book, if it's Superman it's DC's. And the self-evidence of "creator's rights" isn't just a side-effect of employee exploitation by particular employers: Vaughn Bodé's lack of full-time legal staff made Ralph Bakshi's Wizards no less vile a theft. If Steve Gerber ran SG Comics, he'd have a staff of artists and writers; if someone lifted a gag or a layout, water off a duck's back. His desire to protect "Omega"-as-name is generically as one with Lethem's desire to re-write "Omega"-as-name.

Continuous copyright extension, pushed by corporations but justified by individuals, ratchets mutual befuddlement into pandemonium. The collision of these two contexts bruises feelings, threatens litigation, and brought on much of the shock and/or awe of post-WWII high art.

On the other side of what used to (before the train wreck) be the tracks, studios feel compelled to signal closure ever more vehemently, then to repress the memory. The star system was once a way to let contract players like Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. rise and fall and rise again; "Leon Schlesinger"'s Elmer and Daffy would exit stage up or down, and be back for the next matinee. But with every movie a blockbuster and every director an auteur, the most exploitable "property" becomes the individual work, and contemporary Hollywood prefers remakes to series or reissues. After losing the groove it lost the plot.

Freed of fleshy wear and tear, pledged to continuity, superhero series exhibit the syndrome most starkly: the big narrative statement kills, the trademark resurrects. For the smartest producers, apocalyptic death and painful rebirth convey the horror of our quotidian nightmare: our economic house of bubbles; our self-help books that change lives like socks; our sin-again-born-again spiritual amnesties; our flips from force-fed to famine.... The weaker producers merely participate.

... Next: The Startling Conclusion! ...

. . .

Reference Work, 4

Ah ha, I can hear you saying, well I can tear the heart out of this pretty damned easily, I can smell its derivations from a mile away, in fact I need only open the book at random to find just what I want, just the right food for my article: I do not feel you have made the slightest critical effort to grapple with its form or its intentions. What you have actually succeeded in doing is to injure a fellow who feels himself to be a kindred spirit.
- Malcolm Lowry to Jacques Barzun, May 6, 1947
I have always been grateful to him for the tact he showed in refraining from reviewing any of my novels. We have had many exhilarating talks, have exchanged many frank letters. [...] In the present case, however, things have gone a little too far.
- Vladimir Nabokov to NYRB, August 26, 1965

Readers of our previous episode may have noticed that superhero comics aren't the only serialized genre with a weakness for apocalyptic conclusions.

And also that I never quite settled its central question. After all, my posited clash-of-values clashes high and low alike. Why should the low take special umbrage?

And Mister Wimpy is the referee
Our Hero

The answer's Purloined-Newspaper close at hand. Inveighing much more loudly than society painters or classical musicians, critics and teachers have traditionally raised the hackles who later come home to roost. To quote the powerful formula of the critic's mooching, pretentious, and despised name saint, "Let's you and him fight."

Nor was this the first time I might have found occasion to mention our own dear form. The "downward turn" marks the serious review as well as the serious novel it almost defines the subgenre.

What completely defines the entire genre is our naked dependency on reference. We obtain the product of someone else's hard work, usually for free, and then as our own hard work read, hear, or view it. From such moral low ground it's absurd for a TV critic to insult a novelist's interest in comic books or for a jazz critic to protest 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 Campbell and Lethem reasonably argue that the apparent deadbeat may well be paying dues to a different union. But opinions cost nothing. What respect is due the pure parasite?

Near-universally, the answer is zilch. I could cite Lou Reed on John Rockwell and Robert Christgau, but more subtly Eddie Campbell cites 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....

Clearly there's no place for critics in this practitioners' paradise but I can't help but add 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.

Greatest of sinners, we're distinguished only by the blatancy of our sinning. As Lethem and Campbell say, all art is referential art. Even when aesthetic experience is more "contrast" than "compare", it manifests against a web of associations.

And performing against that web we project similar illusions. Mainstream fiction writers aren't sensitive to every nuance of human nature, mystery writers can't track down criminals, and literary critics don't approach their prey with intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic. When we encounter such misconceptions among our readers we may be taken aback, but they arise naturally from formal demands. Certain narrative effects require trust and so a storyteller doesn't (usually) push against the audience's idea of plausibility. Similarly when our goal is to build a discursive structure we need only evidence enough to fasten the joints, and ignorance itself may find utility as a (hidden) dado.

Some of us exult in fraudulence as a windfall; some accept it as a mutually understood rule of the game, not worth further comment; some blazon our bad conscience on our pennons. "I find myself speaking about my adoption everywhere I go in this world."

* * *

Here we go, then:

I don't read much contemporary mainstream fiction.

Partly that's because I don't like much. Too often it tastes like watered-down soup, promising only an occasional fly. I've always been ungenerous and impatient towards DeLillo, for example, and I've got no interest in Franzen despite his being right about Peanuts.

Partly it's lack of urgency. At the moment I have easier access to exorbitantly priced academic publications than I ever expect again. Little magazines, comic books, and pulp fiction instantly drop out of print and out of sight. Whereas, much as I look forward to Chabon's big novels, I know I'll be able to find them later: few public libraries skimp on Pulitzer winners.

And I don't read for the sake of conversation, or at least not that sort of conversation: I care no more about the New York Times bestseller list than I do about the Super Bowl.

Although of course if I had a friend on a Super Bowl team I'd be very pleased for him, and maybe even inquire after the score....

The friend, in this case, being Jonathan Lethem.

We're not especially old or intimate friends no anecdotes of sex behind the drum kit and my position's not unique: Jonathan's at ease in a wide range of social settings, and dozens of people can claim closer acquaintance.

Instead it's been a familiar sort of intellectual friendship "a warm affection sometimes [invigorated] by exasperation." We approach very similar tastes and ideas with very different impulses from very different departure points. In particular, we share (and argue over) a stubborn antagonism to genre boundaries: I first met Jonathan while he was making his name as a writer of sf stories, but I first admired him as the editor of an artsy zine called Idiot Tooth.

As I gave up trying to write fiction and as Jonathan more often performed man-of-letters chores, a greater portion of our conversation took place in public, most concentratedly in what he called our Spy vs. Spy act for the New York Review of Science Fiction. In a way, this continues the act. But in another way....

* * *

In another way, I need to confess one more lie of omission, right at the beginning. It wasn't only the pressure of my day job that kept this essay unfinished in 2005 and 2006 and earlier this year. It was disgust at what the essay promised to become.

I write to gossip about artifacts, not about their authors. I've rarely felt conflicted when mentioning people I know. Just switching from first name to last is enough to do the trick.

Here, though, following Leonard's lead, I'd be dealing with some general issues but restricting specifics to Lethem's career that is, I'd use him as a very convenient whipping boy.

"Now look, Ray, when you found yourself with that book in your hand, what did you think about? Could it have been... 'consumption for use'?"

That's a poor reward for friendship. When Yvor Winters and Allen Tate publicly attacked The Bridge, they don't seem like courageous upholders of poetic standards. They seem like opportunistic back-stabbing creeps.

I can't say I escape a similar charge. But since I found myself unable, finally, to avoid setting up this ambush, I'm glad at least to be caught in the same crossfire. What else are friends for?

Responses

Josh Lukin writes:

"What respect is due the pure parasite?" I'm sorry to bring it up again, but that question reminded me of my feeling that this is somehow the exemplar of its genre (Farber would appreciate it, IMO).

If Ansible only had an "As We See Others" column . . .

"and yet the pot still calls the kettle a minstrel show." -- I know you don't aim for targets this low, but you have inadvertantly devised the perfect put-down for Mister Sasha Frere-Jones.

. . .

The Miracle of the Snooter

Top Shelf did lovely work with the hardcover edition of Alec: "The Years Have Pants"; this may be the first time I've really traded up by replacing slimmer volumes with a big collected.

The one flaw I've encountered's a tear, which I probably contributed myself while swinging the book around to get full benefit from its medicine ball heft. At any rate, so thick's the paper stock that the sheet was not ripped all the way through but only scalloped in the midst of "After the Snooter" and in the form of a curly proboscis!!!

Discos are not my scene.

. . .

A Comic of a Life

Some supplemental notes on the first half of
Alec: "The Years Have Pants" (A Life-Sized Omnibus)
by Eddie Campbell

"To draw comics is not enough if they do not keep the life that has gone. To draw comics may never seem enough when they speak of a life that has gone."
- Rube Goldberg
  1. Not that it's Top Shelf's job to coddle casual reviewers, but casual reviewers might be better off if Top Shelf had packaged "Novels" and "Shorter Works" as separate volumes. Instead, three extended closed works are immediately followed by a roughly equal mass of rambling fix-ups. Since casual reviewers don't research or read notes, and since casual reviewers know that a standalone Work is always more important than decades of Groove, the poor dears may well whip out a readymade critical narrative of artistic decline.

    If, however, our casual reviewer read "Alec" in order of publication (roughly the order in which I first read the series), he would find a few miscellaneous pages, then the first-novelistic The King Canute Crowd, then the bounded jumble of Little Italy and The Dance of Lifey Death, then the novelistic Graffiti Kitchen, followed by the loosely knotted motifs of After the Snooter, then the novelistic How to Be an Artist, then the remainder of the Snooter sprawl; duck out to read the novelistic The Fate of the Artist from First Second, and dash back in time to exit the theater to "The Years Have Pants" medley-march.

    In short, it might become clear that compositional closure is a matter of opportunity rather than age.

  2. Reading the first three through-composed books closely together, I began to think of them as a Pronoun Trilogy: first, third-person past-tense; second, first-person present-tense; third, second-person future-tense. (The fourth through-composed "Alec" book, The Fate of the Artist, elides the artist's voice altogether.)

    Admittedly, The King Canute Crowd's captions soon relax into the first-person present-tense mode of barroom narrative, but the tone continues to be third-person-recent-past: the anticipatory nostalgia of youth working something out, in guardedly stiff tableaux which remind me more of Manet than Monet.

  3. Graffiti Kitchen dismissed the guard and delivers the most unified look, the tightest narrative, and the hottest emotional matter of the series. (The most affecting matter, however, remains the illustrated edition of Edward Lear's "The Jumblies" that closes The Dance of Lifey Death.) Those who think post-1970s comics history pivots on a crisis of masculinity (not me) should note that The Kitchen includes even that archetypal 1980s masculine crisis, blue-collar lay-offs.

    Later pages don't lack bad behavior and foul moods, but they're grounded in the tradition of domestic comedy, the young man having outgrown Henry Miller's manufactured crises (as all will, we hope). Later books don't lack form, but the forms are a book's form rather than an experience's, the novelist having learned to live out his daily strip (as all must, should they learn to live).

  4. In these quarters, How to be an Artist seems more of a piece and less of a critical history than I first took it for. It helps that this edition drops the "Chapter Fourteen" which originally ended the book and which included the original book's five weakest pages: a recommended-reading list presented in an Amazonian grid of thumbnail cover images. Freshly clipped and capped, How to be an Artist rests perfectly at ease.

    Yet I find that I miss the last couple of original pages, with their self-mocking dream of future glory and their traditional closing gag the book doesn't miss them, but I do.

    And with the kind permission of The Artist, here they are:

How to be an Artist p. 120
How to be an Artist p. 126 How to be an Artist p. 127

. . .

The Monkey Puzzle by Veronica Hull

I draw most of my reading from a decades-old compost pile of decontextualized recommendations. But shuffle play establishes its own narratives, and somehow Eddie Campbell's lifework was followed with a series of forgotten books by great wasters.

First came Saturnine by Rayner Heppenstall, precious documentation of bad behavior in England's finest hour. Then The Crust on Its Uppers by Derek Raymond (all flash and no trousers), La Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire (sad stuff), An Anecdoted Topography of Chance by Daniel Spoerri (a less plot-driven Robbe-Grillet), and Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler, purportedly a mean-spirited biography of a grotesque old fart once justly loathed by Whitman and Debussy, but more sincerely a shelf of humble-brags honoring the author's parasitism during John Barrymore's and W. C. Fields's terminal declines.

(That last formed a twofer posthumous-character-assassination setlist of its own with Nollekens & his Times by John Thomas "Antiquity" Smith, projected as friendly tribute but executed as vengeance for Nollekens's will.)

Then The Bohemians by Anne-Gédéon Lafitte, Marquis de Pelleport, a 1790 proto-novel formally closer to Thomas Nashe than to Ann Radcliffe. And now The Monkey Puzzle by Veronica Hull a female waster at last!— and, in a way, probably that very way, my favorite of the lot.

* * *

What with The Golden Notebook and The Bell Jar and so on, and between Piper Laurie and Julie Harris and Liza Minnelli and so on, the post-Home-Front pre-feminist era seems like a bloody golden age of feminine breakdowns, bottoming out alongside the post-feminist pre-suffragette era of Alice James and Clover Hooper Adams.

Hull's "Catherine" hits familiar marks, even including an old-school try at governessing: a questing young woman isolated in an aggressively male academic environment (here, the philosophy department of University College London); emotional collapse followed by traumatic institutionalization; substance abuse; joyless sleeping around; unplanned pregnancy; unsupportive marriage; fag-haggery; and a first experience of political demonstrations, teaching her the first lessons taught by all political demonstrations in every time and place:

‘But what I don’t understand,’ said Catherine, rubbing her head and feeling a bit better for the whisky, the crisis extravagance was still on, ‘is why. Why they charged us. What were we doing?’

‘Existing dear,’ said John, ‘if there are too many people existing in the same place at the same time they have to be removed. On a big scale it’s done by war. On a small scale by the police.’ [...]

‘I find it so extraordinary, when all one’s doing is trying to stop war, and people spit at you.’

What distinguishes The Monkey Puzzle from title onwards is its classically waster attitude, as if the whole mess is redeemed by providing so many told-on-oneself bar stories and flaring bar rants. It's the Paula Prentiss of young-woman-goes-insane novels.

* * *

Veronica Hull's recoverable literary career consists of a few months in 1958, during which she provided four (unsigned) reviews for the TLS:

The publishers have spared no pains to produce a book that is easy on the eye and has every appearance of scholarship. The writing is often good. But it is as if an intelligent, expert artist were commissioned to paint the portrait of an eminent but stupid general. Unable, for fear of hurting his sitter's feelings, to reproduce the complete vacuity of expression, the artist has instead concentrated on other aspects. The portrait that emerges is a curious one. The man has no face; but on his ample chest is a row of medals depicted, down to the last tedious detail, with the utmost care and accuracy.

This association ended around the time Hull's own book was blasted by (unsigned) Peter Myers in a group review:

Mrs. Hull, however, has succeeded only in being cynical in a juvenile way; she is inclined to rely too much on the merely crude (the dust-jacket delicately describes it as 'outrageous') to create an effect, and the reader, having been suitably shocked, as intended, in the first thirty pages or so, will find the repetition wearisome as he works his way towards the end. The story is told jerkily, in one sudden gush of effusiveness, and this style does not make the heroine's chaotic happenings any easier to follow. Characters are unpleasant and unsympathetic (doubtless they are meant to be) while the occasional flashes of mature wit do little to relieve these loosely packed trivia of an unattractive adolescence.

Mr. Richard Charles, in his enchanting novel, A Pride of Relations, has succeeded in full measure. He writes with real humour of three Great-Aunts, Betty, Frances and Jessica, of Grandfather Quincey Charles, and especially of Great-Uncle Justly....

Others provided kinder blurbs: Time and Tide with "the most promising first novel from a new English writer that I have read since the night I stayed up reading Iris Murdoch's Under the Net," Angus Wilson with "remarkably amusing, frightening, and intelligent," and young V. S. Naipaul with "shrewd, barbed, lit up with delicious perceptions" (albeit including reservations about her punctuation).

The book was not reprinted, however, nor published overseas, and its title lived on only among analytic philosophers. With the "rightly confident" blinkeredness so characteristic of the breed, Lord Quinton even declared her "a pseudonym."

It always puzzled Catherine that they should be able to indulge in this mysterious study of the meta without any reference to the science in question. She supposed she would understand one day, in the meantime the whole business seemed unimportant.

The final word I've found on her (or her editor-bookseller husband Tristram) was dropped in a boast by the aforementioned trouserless fellow.

Responses

UPDATE, December 28 2015: Last year I was completely at a loss as to how to find the novel's current rightsholder. Almost exactly one year later, Richard Hull, Veronica Hull's son, sent a very kind email mentioning his hope to find a house who will finally give The Monkey Puzzle the second (and longer-lived) edition it deserves. Go to, publishers!

. . .

And Another "True Life" M. K. Brown Romance

(part 5 of 7)

"The Sad Pony" was the most surprising Stranger than Life exclusion. The saddest was "The Magic Orange," if only because my own copy's so damaged by the years it spent on my wall as a motivational poster.

It motivated as magic's limiting case. Given only a glove and a sphere to exposit, Brown still Chymically Weds giddy enthusiasm to shabby resignation.

The Magic Orange

What I love most about the comics I love most is their sense of a whole world: "Anything which could happen in this world has a place in this world." (A whole world which is theirs, that is, not mine. Mine, by definition, is not whole.)

These worlds I love live in comics I love, not (for the most part) in the touch of the cartoonist. Although I attend the Church of Herriman at least thrice weekly, my rebirth could not have been induced by Baron Bean, the family downstairs from the Family Upstairs, or Tad-along sports spots. I medidade eklusidly upon the Kat Testamint, for the foundational miracle of the Church was Kat's effect on Herriman's art. Shari Flenniken and Vaughn Bodé, Jaime Hernandez, Aline Kominsky, Eddie Campbell, and so on, work upon me with the art of their their stories, certain characteristic stories, not with single panels or interstitials or commercial illustrations or "Batman" one-offs.

Whereas 1970s M. K. Brown delivered a world equally vividly in gag panel, narrative discourse, or execution of another writer's scripts. Her planet-producing-and-devouring virtues inhered in performance, and her characteristic story was one of composition.

Which sounds a lot like how one is supposed to appreciate (and how I did eventually learn to experience) "high art." It's hard to picture Piero della Francesca as a National Lampoon regular, but Philip Guston's not much of a stretch, and I find it very easy to picture "The Magic Orange" on a gallery wall: I'm used to seeing it on walls. Contrary to idiot opinion over the decades, Brown didn't rely on chemical stimulation to draw. But it might assist her audience.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.