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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On the Comedy and Tragedy of Comic Books

The Mark Harris article that I was reflecting upon in my previous post first came to my attention via Ross Douthat’s op-ed from last Friday’s New York Times. While agreeing with Harris in many respects, Douthat disagrees with Harris’s somewhat fanciful conclusion that Hollywood’s recent storytelling woes can be traced to the success of Top Gun. Here’s what Harris has to say about that movie:

Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-80’s postadolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?   

Here’s Douthat’s rejoinder:

This gets point for creativity, but I’m not sure it’s quite convincing — not least because it skates over the depressing reality that even a shallow, glitzy Bruckheimer vehicle like Top Gun lacks the crucial ingredients that get blockbusters greenlit today. Consider: The tale of Maverick and Goose and Iceman wasn’t based on a comic book, or a video game, or a television show or a children’s fantasy bestseller, which means that it wasn’t pre-sold and branded in the style of nearly every contemporary tentpole picture. Instead it relied on star power (how old-fashioned!) and a storyline that was cliched but also relatively restrained (where was the super-villain? where was the weapon that threaten to DESTROY THE WORLD?). Compared to the umpteenth X-Men prequel and the looming reboot (!) of a Spider-Man franchise that isn’t even a decade old, a movie like Top Gun might as well belong to the golden age of original storytelling. Maybe its success was a gateway drug to our present situation, but I still think that comic-book movies have been the crack cocaine (or “the drug called Charlie Sheen,” if you prefer) of Hollywood’s current mediocrity addiction.

Comic-book movies may well be the most noticeable symptom of Hollywood’s storytelling malaise, but the cause, as I argued in my last post, is Hollywood’s principle of trying to please as many people as possible with the majority of its products (understanding that it’s always easier to please the young and undiscerning).  

But staying for a moment with the question of comic-book movies, what is the nature of their appeal? The obvious answer is that comic books are what Hollywood’s target audience—young men under 25—are reading. No doubt this is largely true. But still I wonder. In early May Paramount will release the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor, based on the Marvel comic book. Now I have dim memories of Thor from my comic book-reading days in the 70’s—what I really remember is Thor being teamed with other Marvel superheroes in The Avengers series—and perhaps it’s just my ignorance of youth culture talking, but I have to ask whether today’s teenage boys and twentysomethings are really that into Thor. He seems kind of an old school comic-book hero. One of the responses to Douthat’s post in the Times made the point that the comic-book movie craze is due not so much to those whose aesthetic was shaped in the 80’s or even the 70’s, but to the babyboomers, whose aesthetic was shaped in the 60’s (Thor, interestingly, debuted in a Marvel comic book called Journey into Mystery in 1962). However, even if it is babyboomer execs with their old school pop culture tastes who can’t stop greenlighting comic-book movies, the fact remains that, translated to the screen, this 60’s aesthetic is enormously appealing to today’s male youth. Witness the success of film franchises based on such 60’s heroes as Spider-Man (who first appeared in the Marvel comic Amazing Fantasy in 1962) and Iron Man (who debuted in the Marvel comic Tales of Suspense in 1963). The question recurs: what is the nature of this perennial appeal? Is it something about the spirit of the 60s? Maybe. But that wouldn’t explain the success of the, still growing, Batman film franchise(s), based on a comic-book hero who dates from the late 1930s.

Perhaps the mystery of the perennial appeal of comic-book heroes and comic-book movies has to do with our natural fascination with hero-based “high concept” fiction. When I launched this blog back in October of last year, I took as a kind of rallying cry the following observation of G.K. Chesterton: “One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar.”

Chesterton made this comment in a marvelous little essay entitled “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls,” published in his book, The Defendant, back in 1901. What are penny dreadfuls? Pulp fiction, cheap fiction, cheap in more than one sense, no doubt. But not in every sense. Chesterton’s essay focuses on the boys’ book—i.e., the story of pirates or outlaws, of Robin Hood and Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine—stories light on literary merit but heavy on excitement. He asks whether boys should be kept away from such fiction. His answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “no.”

The “boy’s novelette,” Chesterton argues, “may be ignorant in a literary sense…but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.”

Our culture is saturated with high concept fiction of all kinds—not least in comic-book movies. It is tempting to consign all of it to the cultural dustbin. So much of it is vulgar, puerile, cheap. And a lot of it should be kept from the attention of young boys—and old men.

But Chesterton urges us not to discount the importance of high concept fiction for culture. “But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important.” 

Why is the need for what Chesterton calls the “true romantic trash” infinitely deeper and more important than the rules of good art? “Literature is a luxury,” Chesterton affirms, “fiction is a necessity.” Is this because the need to be amused or distracted is deeper than the need to be intellectually stimulated? Or does it have more to do with the wonder provoked by the high concept—especially when this wonder centers on a hero valiantly taking up arms against an evil menace?

“Ordinary men,” says Chesterton, “will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new way of expressing them. These common and current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilization is built; for it is clear that unless civilization is built on truisms, it is not built at all.”
Chesterton thus offers the most positive take on the relevance of the comic-book movie for culture. Our eagerness for such movies is an expression of our natural desire for the “heroic truisms on which civilization is built.”

Good. Call this the “comic” take on comic books. But let’s get back to the Douthat piece with which we began. As final proof of Hollywood’s ossifying imagination, Douthat refers to a New Yorker profile on the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth fame. (Warning: del Toro’s language in this interview can get a little saucy). The article recounts del Toro’s epic failures in getting two fantasy movies greenlit: a two-movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (now being directed by Peter Jackson), and an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft sci-fi horror novella, At the Mountains of Madness. Douthat sees del Toro’s struggles as the worst sort of fallout from Hollywood’s addiction to the branded and pre-sold (though after Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trifecta, how can The Hobbit be considered as un-branded?).

But what struck me in this lengthy profile of del Toro is how he explains his attraction to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness: “The book essentially says how scary it is to realize that we are a cosmic joke.”

Whether in saying this del Toro is reflecting Lovecraft’s original vision I cannot say—though I doubt it. But I bring this up to draw attention to the modern counterpart of Chesterton’s comic understanding of high concept fiction. What del Toro is pursuing is a “tragic” vision of the high concept, in which the focus is not on the heroic but the horrible, and the horrible understood as an image of the metaphysical black hole in the postmodern cosmos. Our culture is still healthy enough to prefer high concept fiction of the more-or-less “comic” kind. But as our culture declines, stay tuned for more movies that eschew the comic outlook for the tragic one—the comic book for the cosmic joke.    

1 comment:

  1. Hello Dr. McInerny,

    del Toro's take on Lovecraft seems accurate. Lovecraft was an atheist who liked to write supernatural horror stories. That we are a meaningless cosmic joke is pretty much what Lovecraft believed--on the surface anyway.

    But Lovecraft was a closet romantic. I think there was a log of cognitive dissonance going on between his stated nihilism and his romantic spirit that you can sometimes glimpse in his poetry and stories. How can you have supernatural horror without supernatural hope?

    I used to like reading Lovecraft. The attraction was not his nihilism, but the enchantment his stories generated, the enchantment with things ancient that came through all this stories set in New England. As Tolkien noted in his essay "On Faery Stories", the wonder of things old is one of the many spells created by good fantasy (no doubt our longing for the perfection of a time closer to God). That's exactly why I liked Lovecraft. He was an atheist who wrote dark horror that nevertheless still had the elements of faerie and wonder in it.

    Brian Killian