« Maka on Memes | Main | They Keep Pulling Me Back In »

April 08, 2004


Bruce Baugh

Hmm. You've goaded me into writing a piece for my own weblog about this. (I mostly agree, by the way, and was just thinking about the metaphor thing last night.)



As a very guilty party in the pro-superhero pro-metaphor camp, I don't disagree with what you're saying. I've always had trouble with separating metaphor from metonymy, though it's a personal failing; I just use metaphor as a more expansive term than general use warrants. Still, I think it's useful enough for what I was arguing about superheroes, because what was annoying me was the people who read and enjoy superhero comics and were willing to state publicly that almost none are worthy of critical analysis, and that seemed like nonsense. So I don't take back my comments about the use of metaphor and identification and idealization in superhero comics, but I don't think they had any effect either, and I'm glad you've supplanted and enhanced things.


Wait... you're not avoiding it because it was written by Steven T. Seagle? Because that's all they needed to do to get me to avoid it, man.

I don't write much about comics, because, well, I don't read them much anymore. But while I don't disagree with you here, I do think that there is a level that doesn't get pointed out much: comic books served a purpose as morality play and wish fulfillment. During the Weisinger period, he would go and ask kids what they wanted to see Superman do, and even if it made no sense, he would give it to them. Superman wasn't a metaphor... he was a stand in for every reader who wanted to be able to just solve their problems with a strong right hand and a determined jaw. Imagine a writer today doing a Superman comic where he flew overseas and grabbed bin Laden and Kim Jong Il? That was the standard for the Siegel and Shuster Superman... they did it so many times that the damn SS felt like they had counter it in their newspaper. ( http://www.onceinoticediwasonfireidecidedtorelaxandenjoythefall.org/merkabah/archives/000673.html if you're interested in the details.)

Superheroic relevance used to come from the fact that they either did the things we couldnt or showed us simple, easily digested moral lessons. While I certainly am glad that comic books have gained complexity since then, there's room for morality tales and wish fulfillment in comics, and that might be the only way to combat the shrinking reader base.

Dave Van Domelen

Bravo! I find superhero stuff tends to work best when you concentrate on doing "cool stuff" and let the literary aspects take care of themselves. For instance, in the recent issue of Planetary, the idea of a spaceship that runs by eating information is just cool. The fact that the description of its workings can be taken as a metaphor (or metynomy?) for comics themselves is just gravy. Albeit pretty cool gravy.


Matt sez: "Imagine a writer today doing a Superman comic where he flew overseas and grabbed bin Laden and Kim Jong Il?"

Remember, folks, Matt doesn't read comics anymore, so he has no idea he's just described American Power...

Dave Van Domelen

Which has been pulled from the schedule, apparently. Not that I expect Crossgen to survive long enough to publish it if it hasn't. Death spiral....


Nope, hadn't heard of American Power. But I still think there's a difference between some other comic books doing it, and Superman doing it.

Also, i'm not necessarily saying it would make for good comics, either.


Here, however, is an interesting thing: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG02/yeung/actioncomics/cover.html

Action Comics # 1 online.


this reminds me of a section of nietzche's "birth of tragedy" (and i hope you'll forgive my lack of particular insight, i just read it about fifteen minutes ago, and my presumption of assuming you're familiar with the work since i can barely think about it cogently). he's talking about tragedy being rooted in the chorus (as opposed to the stage and presumably a number of other distasteful theories) and the path of the chorus from active participant to observer (through the mitigating influence of apollonian traditions or... well shit, i'll let him say it, translated: "the stage with its action was originally conceived as pure vision and that the only reality was the chorus, who created that vision out of itself and proclaimed it through the medium of dance, music, and spoken word." at this point, nietzsche is pissed off at people who proclaim "naturalism" the best measure of value in theatre and he furiously references schiller: "while the day of the stage was conceded to be artificial, the architecture of the set symbolic, the metrical discourse stylized..." well, apparently people chalked these things up to poetic license instead of acknowledging it as VERY ESSENCE OF POETRY.)

um...god, i'm having trouble thinking right now, but here's what made me think of this discussion:
"...we may recognize a drastic stylist opposition: language, color, pace, dynamics of speech are polarized into the dionysiac poetry of the chorus, on he one hand, and the apollonian dream world of the scene on the other. the result is two completely separate spheres of expression. the apollonian embodiments in which dionysos assumes objective shape are very different from the continual interplay of shifting forces in the music of the chorus, from those powers deeply felt by the enthusiast, but which he is incapable of condensing into a clear image. the adept no longer obscurely senses the approach of the god: the god now speaks to him from the proscenium with the clarity and firmness of epic, as an epic hero, almost in the language of homer.

Jon Silpayamanant

This was a very nice read. Sorry I hadn't commented on it when I first read it a couple of months ago. This might interest you, or not:

The Dark Knight as Japanese proto-types

I had already been thinking about movement (as in non-western theatre) as being more metonymic than metaphoric (w/r/t transmission of aesthetic codes) and the copy/contact idea behind sympathetic magic in anthropology lends some weight to the idea of performance being more metonymic, so what better way to discuss movement than in a genre that re-presents a type of movement?

I personally think that the metonymic depth of DKR far superceeds the metaphorically "flat" narrative...


While we're apologizing for belated responses, I wanted to tell Alex that I think Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy (which I wasn't familiar with) fits this discussion perfectly, and I notice that White tries to integrate it into his tropological master plan. And of course, Jakobson and Halle cite Frazer on sympathetic magic in their attempt to sell their (I think overly reductive) paradigmatic/syntagmatic binary; I'm starting to see a point where all these different theories of grammar, art, and tropology converge.

Unfortunately, that convergence invalidates or complicates some of what I wrote two months ago, particularly the parts where I associated metonymy (a figurative trope) with the pre-symbolic "real" of psychoanalysis. In falling into the Jakobsonian trap of using "metonymy" to denote everything that's not metaphor, I confused a linguistic, symbolic construct with the a- or pre-symbolic. (In fact, as Fredric Jameson noted in a 1976 review of White's Metahistory, under White's system metaphor appears to be "the moment of literality in speech," the moment of mimesis when a word directly names its object.)

But while the terminology needs some clarification, I think the basic point stands: comics don't operate on the purely symbolic registers that so many of their literary interlocutors assign them. Nor do I find the concept of metaphor any more apt than before; too few superheroes have that fixed relation to an absent referent - when the referents are there, they're too present, leaving no figurative distance between vehicle and tenor (see Thanos again). However, one particular aspect of comics is absolutely metonymical, defined by its relation of one part to another of equivalent figurative weight: continuity. This is what Rick Moody understands that so many of his peers miss.

Still a lot to sort out on this, but all the thoughtful responses (here and elsewhere) are noted and appreciated.

Jon Silpayamanant

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts about this point of convergence you're seeing.

And I very much have to agree with:

"comics don't operate on the purely symbolic registers that so many of their literary interlocutors assign them."

Bringing up Nietzsche is ironic, given some of the Super-Heroes=Fascism discussion...but that's probably best left for elsewhere.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 03/2004