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July 15, 2004


Matt Maxwell

I can't comment as to the content of ASTRO CITY directly, since I'm not a regular reader of the series. But I can see what you're arguing. It seems as if writers (in superhero fiction, amongst others) go the character-driven/revelatory route because that's what high-art does (or is *supposed* to do), well that or be completely outré and experimental. Experimental is harder to pull off than most folks think, but character-driven isn't as tricky.

I'm kinda wondering why you'd only want to go one route, personally. That's like saying "Well, I don't need this hammer in my toolbox, so I'll just chuck it out." All tools are useful, even the lowly plot-driven-escapade (that can be so much more than what it seems, with just a little thought).


I agree, Matt, especially with your sense that these little-epiphany stories are written out of a sense of obligation to the standards of "real" or "mature" art. I should clarify, though, that I don't have anything against the character-driven story per se. These are both character-driven stories:

A member of the Fantastic Four, depressed over his lack of a normal appearance, wanders off and is captured by a scientist who assumes his place in the FF. The scientist intends to kill Reed Richards in an anti-matter universe, but learns Richards is nobler and braver than he. In the moment of truth, the scientist becomes the hero he has been impersonating, sacrificing himself to save Richards and finally realizing what it means to have a friend.

A member of the First Family, depressed over her lack of a normal childhood, wanders off and joins a school filled with regular children. While her family searches frantically for her, she determines to defeat the schoolyard bully at a game of hopscotch without using her powers. In the moment of truth, she wins the game and reveals her true self to the children, finally realizing what it means to be a normal girl.

I don't want to stack the deck too heavily in favor of the Lee/Kirby story. It sports all the remarkable coincidences, overwrought emotionalism, paper-thin characterization, and just plain odd writing (why does the scientist start thinking in Ben Grimm Brooklynese?) that you would expect of the Marvel Age of Comics. Its florid aspirations mark it as a profoundly adolescent story.

But the "mature" Astro City story fares little better in these regards, and in fact, if it were truly judged by the standards of the fiction it apes, would look just as juvenile by comparison. The imagination of how children actually live, how they fight their miniscule but, to them, vitally important battles for status and identity, seems terribly limited. The moment-of-truth hopscotch game reads more like a narrow and unconvincing transplant of the Western shootout or superhero slugfest than it does an actual childhood victory.

Both stories' reach exceeds their grasp, but, crucially, one embraces the tropes of its genre and one actively rejects them for the tropes of another. One binds its moment of truth in a universal apocalypse while the other is quite self-consciously slumming at a game of hopscotch. Bluntly, one is a pretty good superhero comic and the other is a very bad coming-of-age story in a superhero setting.

Matt Maxwell

I don't have problems with character-driven work, either. What I do have a problem with is how such works are automagically elevated to the status of "art" because of the simple fact that they're character-driven, and therefore must be better than mere "plot-driven" juvenalia. The truth is that they're just as formulaic, for the most part, simply using a different formula...

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby managed to hit on some pretty big themes, and hit the mark squarely with their heart, even if their execution was clumsy or overly-enthusiastic.

Peli Grietzer

While these are all true points, I think a lot can be said for minor, slice-of-life stories when they maintain all the grand weirdness and wonder of the world they are set in.

Maybe it's just the novelty of it, but when you take a diary-modernism story place it in one of 17 android copies of andy warhol living in a magentic field after-life created by an alien race, and manage to make it serious and touching, you get Gaiman's only great work and a pretty lovely story. Maybe it's just the play of ordinary\extraordinary that makes this work as a one-time thing, but I think these kind of stories can be worthy.


Hey, Peli - haven't heard from you in a while.

I would agree that superhero stories can sometimes balance the demands of the mundane and the fantastic to considerable effect. This piece by John Holbo suggests that Kurt Busiek and Alan Moore, in their own respective ways, work by equivocating between the two modes (or between the ironic and the cheerfully absurd). The Junkman story might be Busiek's best in this regard.

Nevertheless, most of the slice-of-life realism stories in superhero comics aren't particularly compelling either as superhero comics or as slice-of-life stories. Your own example, "Notes from the Underground," plays out some interesting ideas on simulacra and reproductions and art - not Gaiman's ideas (I read Miracleman out of order and was disappointed, though not surprised, when I discovered that every single premise of Gaiman's "Golden Age" issues came from Moore's last one) - but doesn't offer any great epiphanies or revelations for Warhol or Gargunza.

Maybe we're being unfair; maybe "Notes from the Underground" wasn't trying to be an epiphanic short story, in which case it's pointless to judge it as one. There certainly isn't much of the quotidian in it, a point that works in its favor (especially in comparison to its cloying and tres epiphanic successor, "Winter's Tale"). But then it also wouldn't make a great case for bringing the modernist short story to the comics.

Peli Grietzer

Nice to know my absence is noticed- I'm spending my time in exam-land, not the most fun place on earth.

But I'm not sure if I agree with the idea that modernist short story= epiphanic:

I try to avoid using the adjective "post-modern" to stand for "contemporary" because it's so loaded with john-barthish conotations, so let's talk about "later" modernist fiction to refer to contemporary literture that maintains the low-key, internalist agenda of modernism. Much the "later" modenist fiction, short stories most of all, is really, almost intentionaly anti-epiphanic, or has only extreamly latent, hidden epiphanys or failed ones. So I feel Andy's "So what, I say, So what" is very much in the spirit of contemporary short fiction.

I think "modernist" fiction is best defined about internal narratives which only occasiounally fork pathes with the external.

And maybe that's why I think having modernist short stories inside a pulpy universe (And I mean it in the nicest sense) is so great, and like "Notes from the Underground" so much- It's what I now feel like calling the "Millers Crossing Effect". In Millers Crossing you have a great Mob-War narrative, and yet in the you feel there is an unwritten tiny-little very strictly modernist novell microcosm going on in the protagonist's head , intersecting with the Gangster-Film story .

In "Notes form the Undergoun" you actually get to read that little modernist story going inside while at the same time having, if not an external narative, an external sci fi world extravaganza. What makes it so good in my opinion is exactly that the sci-fi aspect of it is so wild and strange, alongside the modernist internal narative being so traditional. Not that it's as good is Miller's Crossing.

It's not that I think that in order to be High Art Genre Fiction needs to include strict internalist modernism, god knows I love Grant Morrison and consider him to be great literture, and with him even the stream of consciousness is written in explosions and kung-fu.
It's just that I love it when to very different and seperate literary traditions are made to work together.

Jess Nevins

"why does the scientist start thinking in Ben Grimm Brooklynese?"

In the MU form dictates function, clearly.


Much of the "later" modernist fiction, short stories most of all, is really, almost intentionaly anti-epiphanic, or has only extremely latent, hidden epiphanies or failed ones.

I would agree - but this seems to be the result of a trend towards building short fiction around only the most minute, internalized (non-)action. All the latent or failed or absent epiphanies are really just successive entries in a competition where the stakes grow ever smaller: the race to build a story around the pettiest epiphany of all. For that reason I'd say the hyperinternalized short story does fall under Chabon's "moment-of-truth story" label. Perhaps you're right that Gaiman's Warhol story does work in that tradition; in any case, I'd still say that it's a good story precisely (only) for the elements that don't fit that tradition.

Good luck with your exams!

Peli Grietzer

Thanks, but You made me wonder- What's your idea of great modern non-genre literture?


"Nongenre" is a tricky term, one I try to use, if at all, in the preceding sneer quotes; as I've said repeatedly here, even the dominant "literary" fiction of the last twenty to twenty-five years is bound in its own generic straitjacket.

If you mean my idea of great contemporary, character-based, plotless literary fiction, I'd have to say I find very little of it particularly great; while I might be able to name a few of its most skilled practitioners (Carver, obviously, for all the ill that has been wrought in his wake) I don't especially enjoy their work, nor do I typically find it interesting for academic purposes.

If you mean my idea of great contemporary literature not written in a fantastic genre, I'd have to say that much of the greatest contemporary literature does employ or border on the fantastic: Borges, Calvino, Angela Carter, Pynchon, etc. (Chabon's list of the past masters of the short story reminds us that this is not some new, postmodern development.) Beyond them, I'd say Don DeLillo, Tom Stoppard, Ishmael Reed, the nonfiction of Joan Didion, the psychogeographies and performances of Alan Moore. I'm not sure I can extract from these names some common principle of what constitutes great literature - well, perhaps I could, but I'm not especially interested in doing so. These are just a few of the people who I think say important things in distinctive, innovative, absolutely assured styles.

Plenty of other writers have attained such mastery over their style (distinctiveness or innovation are, however, other matters); content is often what separates the wheat from the carefully crafted chaff. The literary world's obsessive focus on the internalized has narrowed the range and lowered the ceiling on literature's ability to speak about and to the world outside the solipsistic self. The literature I consider great, whatever its genre, does exactly the opposite.


"Both stories' reach exceeds their grasp, but, crucially, one embraces the tropes of its genre and one actively rejects them for the tropes of another. "

I wonder if we aren't giving Astro City too much credit for ambition or influences. Has Busiek mentioned them? I find the stories entertaining not because they stand up as 'modern fiction' (a categorization I am admittedly ill-equipped to speak to), but because they wed a traditional 4-color universe to a literarily foreign convention. The audacity (or just brain tick) to unite them provided for a fresh view of the genre to those not otherwise exposed. That in and of itself made for an enjoyable read.

Put another way, I think not embracing existing tropes, or substituting new ones, is of itself interesting and worthwhile and doesn't require that the experiment measure up to the new tropes(whatever those merits may be).

Matthew Rossi

Put another way, I think not embracing existing tropes, or substituting new ones, is of itself interesting and worthwhile and doesn't require that the experiment measure up to the new tropes(whatever those merits may be).

See, I agree with the first part of that statement, but disagree with the second. Experimenting with your work is good, but whatever you choose to make use of in it needs to be committed to and embraced... you must measure up to whatever tropes you decide to make use of.


... whatever you choose to make use of in it needs to be committed to and embraced... you must measure up to whatever tropes you decide to make use of.

Ooh! My turn in this Zeno-vian excercise. I agree that full commitment to the infusion is the important step. 'Measuring up' is a more slippery quality-based critereon where my bar is low. I derive great pleasure from the purplest of prose and tritest of storylines if its energy, ambition and/or confident vision are pure.

Which isn't to say I can't see a difference in quality -- just that I'm sufficiently easily amused that I give points for effort.

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