While reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's weblog for yesterday's piece on Spider-Man 2 and genre anxiety, I happened upon this bravura passage from his manifesto "Listen to This":
All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of other genres, I often get a warm sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz, for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed. First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the era of bourgeois grandeur: the high-class swing band parallels the Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image, echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of “The Rite of Spring” into “Salt Peanuts”). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at which the vanguard loses touch with the mass and becomes a self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton Marsalis’s attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular mainstream. Jazz recordings sell about the same as classical recordings, three per cent of the market.
The same progression worms its way through rock and roll. What were my hyper-educated punk-rock friends but Stage 3 high modernists, rebelling against the bloated Romanticism of Stage 2 stadium rock? Right now, there seems to be a lot of Stage 5 classicism going on in what remains of rock and roll. The Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the Stills, the Thrills, and so on hark back to some lost pure moment of the sixties or seventies. Their names are all variations on the Kinks. Many of them use old instruments, old amplifiers, old soundboards. One rocker was recently quoted as saying, “I intentionally won’t use something I haven’t heard before.” Macht Neues, kids!
I hope he doesn't object to the long excerpt, but I think you can see where this is going.
I suspect Ross is able to play this game so adeptly not because all music becomes classical music, but because most genres tend to follow similar patterns of development, alternating between tradition and innovation - and eventually reaching a point where traditionalism appears innovative. Thomas Schatz outlines a comparable progression for films in his book Hollywood Genres; Peter Coogan has adapted Schatz's model to superhero comics, which you can read about here of all places. (You almost have to admire the Quixotic innocence of trying to articulate a rigorous genre framework on a site run by Diamond, which only seems interested in multiplying the number of "Ages" as a ploy to increase collectibility.)
According to Schatz, genres move through a fairly regular and predictable pattern of development: a formative stage of experimentation, followed by a classicist stage of consolidation and refinement of earlier innovations, succeeded by a baroque stage of highly manneristic self-reflection. Coogan adds a final stage of reinvigoration and replenishment, which begins the cycle anew and brings the Schatz model almost perfectly in line with Ross's five stages of musical genres.
But the charm of these models is in their application - so, how useful is Ross's model for describing comics genres? Marvel is pretty easy to map. Stage 1, youth-rebellion: Lee, Kirby, and Ditko invent a new kind of superhero and a new way of building ongoing continuity. Stage 2, bourgeois grandeur: the Marvel house style of the 70s, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and sweeping continuity-custodian epics by good sons like Roy Thomas. Surely the concept albums of the comics world. Stage 3, artistic rebellion: the revolutionaries of the 80s, mostly absent from Marvel save in Daredevil and a few other odd corners, shaking the genre to its foundations. Stage 4, the self-contained avant-garde: everything since, as comics are produced by and for a shrinking, self-referential fanbase, resulting in faux avant-gardisms like widescreen and fascist chic. During this period comics periodically turn to the retrenchment of Stage 5, visible most prominently in the mid-90s retro movement (Marvels) and Marvel's sudden conservative turn today.
This game allows for multiple variations since the scale can be expanded or contracted as we see fit. Within the larger history of superhero comics, Stage 1 Marvel was itself a Stage 3 revolution against the perennially classicist, tradition-minded DC. And within the smaller history of individual titles, Marvel has spawned a couple of subgenres that play out their own genre progression, most notably the X-Men titles. (Was Morrison a Stage 3 rebel against Claremontian classicism, a Stage 4 mannerist avant garde, or a Stage 5 reinvigorator whose work has been overwhelmed by a more conservative strain of nostalgia? I'd argue the lattermost.)
Let's not stop there - the game is only as much fun as its most surprising, arcane, or carefully explicated test case. How do Vertigo and the proto-Vertigo books fit within a generic history of DC? What's Vertigo's own genre history? Play along!