Imashi, imashi. Asha pangacunata charin mana yura can, shimita mana harin rimanlla huillanlla, lumutapish charin mana uihua can, imashi.
Chaimi can libru
What could it be? What could it be? It has many leaves but is not a tree, it has no mouth but it warns; it has a spine but is not an animal. What could it be? That is the book
— (Andean riddle)
This essay is concerned with exploring the sensual attributes of paraliterature: the possibility, often declined by detractors of this cultural manifestation, that it may harbor a genuinely material relationship to its consumers. In addition, I hope to advance the parallel and complementary notion that paraliterary consumption takes place within the recognizable confines of ludic activity, and in a specific didactic logic I call the puzzleform.
As these arguments unravel, I hope to keep fresh the link between the specificity of modern consumption and the incommensurability of cultural artifacts. I feel this link to be a neglected matter in academic inquiry, and it may possibly be a significant element in the complexity of cultural discourses that struggle with the rebelliousness of paraliterary expression. In this context, an academic foundationalism appears intent on emerging from a history of resistance to “low” cultural forms and from the uncritical academic expansion that seeks new territories to occupy. Any incursion into this ideologically unstable ground, between the academic imperialism of an icy Scylla and the reactionary “fan” tendencies of a fiery Caribdis, comes perilously close to being engulfed by this polarization (which is also a pollination) of interpretive possibility. This essay hopes to draw attention to its own peculiar vulnerability, poised as it is, on the brink (or abyss if you prefer) of enunciation.
And so it is with this conjuncture in mind that I invoke the negative authority of a riddle. Uttered from the pre-modern coordinates of a rural Andean space, it beautifully captures the mystery and problematicity of that most familiar of object-forms: the book. Caught somewhere in between the organic security of premodernity and the ventriloquy of nameless forms, the book, and in this particular case the comic book, becomes an acute reminder of the stark and inescapable worldliness of our relation to things.
Panel Assembly Line
The advent of Fordism in the first few decades of the century became a development that interfaced with the modernist project; Taylorism, and later Fordism, the mass production of standardized objects, implied not only a new form of organizing production but potentially of redefining social relations. The assembly line process, in its rigorous efficiency, became a symbol for the stringent rationality that began to characterize the process of production as well as the alienation of the worker from the fruits of his/her labor. Walter Benjamin describes the close relationship that exists between the urban experience and the position of the worker in the following terms: “The shock experience that the passerby has in the crowd corresponds to what the worker ‘experiences’ at his machine ”( “On some motifs on Baudelaire ”179). Benjamin argued that the disorienting quality of modern existence required an adjustment of the human apparatus of perception, confronted as it was, with a multitude of new demands; he argued that the new technologies of representation (particularly film) instilled in the masses new modes of filtering their sensations, of preparing their cognitive faculties for the repeated shocks of a historical period that represented a turning point in history. In this manner, the assembly line may be seen as an epistemological conduit for “processing” experience, as the linear compositional practice of integrating modern experience. To extend this analogy further it is possible to see the spatial configuration of the comic strip (that “new” mass audience representational form born of the Hearst-Pulitzer newspaper wars at the turn of the century) as a conveyor belt of images, accompanied by textual instructions for the recomposition of public space. Modernism as a project, according to Bradbury and McFarlane, is “the art consequent on the dis-establishing of communal reality and conventional notions of causality, on the destruction of traditional notions of the wholeness of individual character, on the linguistic chaos that ensues when public notions of language have been discredited and when all realities have become subjective fictions” (27 in Felski).
As these authors hold, modernism attempts to integrate these disparate fragments of experience into an artistic “whole,” to fashion a template for the transformation of a chaotic social sphere into a coherent, self-reflexive, aesthetic field. Modernism as a set of principles is separate, then, from the textual “instructions” embedded as a recognizable byproduct of Fordism, into the very texture of the comics medium; if the former constitutes an erudite detachment whose objective is to reposition the privilege and uniqueness of art as the last remaining possibility of intelligibility for the modern, the latter is a blueprint in which modern subjects are able to reassemble their individual perceptions (and newfound power as consumers) around the progressive commodification of reality.1
If newspaper comics constituted something like the bustling, commercial strips characteristic of most urban settings, if the comics were then a sort of imaginary respite from the grim deluge of newstext (or conversely, of urban landscape), the visual shock they provided, the “distraction” they afforded served as much its intended purpose (an increase in the circulation of papers) as the unforeseen objective of mapping social reality.
If the comic strip can be seen as a conveyor belt for the images and forms of modernity it may also be conceived as the patient, static, unfolding of a film reel, as frame to frame stills that enable the reader to have an unimaginable degree of scrutiny over the dizzying speed of modern life. If comic strips “slow down ”the flurry of impressions that constitute the experience of modernity, then their attractiveness for the disoriented consumer would lie in the restitution of his/her command over an elapsed temporality.
In any case, by the 20s, the comic strip form began to experience formal changes. Collections of strips were recycled in black and white form, according to Robert C. Harvey:
Initially, comic books merely reprinted newspaper strips, cutting them up and rearranging them in page format. Comic books of this sort appeared on the newsstands shortly after newspapers began publishing comic strips in the last decade of the nineteenth century.(16)
This recycling practice was continued for almost four decades until, in 1935, comic books whose stories had been created expressly for this new medium were sold independently.
The comic book constitutes a distinctly new textual form, its emerging characteristics, fortuitously found in the circuit of consumption—seriality, disposability, mobility—were enough to ensure a relative autonomy for the product and to divorce it from its status as a simple purveyor of meaning or vehicle for larger commercial appetites. The early comic production “shops” or specialized workshops seemed to initiate or to facilitate the appearance of formulaic plots that were unobtrusive to the production schedules and to the commercial feasibility of this experimental commercial form.2
Despite these somewhat lengthy speculations on the appearance of comic books, the greatest contribution of the comic book medium, it seems to me, appears at the level of a consumer who uses the fantastic pages of this unique object as a way to negotiate his/her expendability in a newly contrived social order, who utilizes the fictions of comic books as indicators of the commodity relations that exist between subjects and objects by recognizing the same vulnerability in him/herself as a social product, and the same propensity to vanish (as holding a similarly precarious niche in an economy of [social, commercial] forms), as the comic book
The comic book artifact, a distinct, modern invention, then provides a fundamentally different experience of social reality for its readers, an analytic position based on ownership and tactility in which subjects temporarily divorce themselves from the onslaught of images and expectations, indeed from their own condition as consumers and from the rapidity of social and commercial relations in order to inhabit a space of reconstitution of the material at hand.
As Benjamin observed, the entire quality of modern life is imprinted on the “copy “; rather than the fixed contemplation that the solitary, original image requires, the fundamental distinction of the copy is that it is always close, it can be handled, touched and manipulated. This “yielding” of the comic book to sensual experience (which includes the experience of juvenile purchasing power in the form of nickel and dime plunking on counters and the anticipation of reading pleasure that follows snatching the copy from the stand, opening the pages for the first time and taking in that unique comic booksmell) implies a paradoxical understanding of privilege; the reader reenacts his/her reaction to a character, plot or theme with every comic book issue, what I have elsewhere called “revirginization,”3 in order to re-experience his/her entry into the marketplace and private control over the flow of temporality.
The relationship of this mode of consumption to the modernist project, or at least to the aesthetic goals of Imagism are evident, but misleading. Pound presented these in the following manner in “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste ”(1913).
An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. . . It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.(121)
Pound is here speaking of a detachment from the concrete historical conditions of the booming growth of industrial capitalism, including the expansion of an internal market that had seen the creations of a comics industry. The “sense of freedom ”he describes is closely aligned with the condemnation of mass culture and crass commercialism; it is the very possibility of inhabiting an uncontaminated sphere of contemplation that revolves around timeless artistic objects. The comic text offers superficial similarities to this image/text, for one: it too opens up a pocket of reflection on a given “complex, ”yet it also redirects its readers to their specific status as consumers. One is tempted to say that where modernist critics seek a managerial relationship with society, early comics consumers sought to “rent” a space of intelligibility and availability (and gratification) from within the sphere of commodity circulation in order to reconstitute their status as consumers of modernity. This mode of consumption provides a similar “distraction” to what Jameson assigns to the detective story, a diversion from the defense mechanisms that hold off the “unmediated, unfiltered experience of the daily life of capitalism ”(152), staged in order to permit the intolerable spectacle of the city to enter the eye.
One particular instance in which the modernist project finds support in the comics form, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, seems to grasp intuitively the cognitive withdrawal offered by this new medium. He remarks about this “comics-strip novel”:
As subtitle: ‘A novel in the form of a comic strip’. The chapters to be squares in which many things happen through one action. The speeches contained in the conventional balloons. I abandoned this idea, but retained some of the comic strip technique: Each chapter instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up and down in space like a picture. (cited in Strychacz 176)
The abandonment of the pretense of verisimilitude seems at once to be an operative part of the comic reassembly produced by modernity even while its particular figural distribution (the balloon captions), a sign of its uncomfortable (or unwieldy) commodity status for West, seems too radical a departure from the mostly pejorative modernist flirting with mass culture. The paradox here is that while the “habitable worlds ”of popular fiction represented in comics are evidently escapist entertainment, their initial consumptive context, their inoculatory function under Benjamin’s lineaments, stressed rather than dismissed commodification; the problematic physical status of comics texts—problematic because uncomfortable reminders of the mediocrity and conformity “apocalyptic” intellectuals in Umberto Eco’s terms assigned to them and, specifically, their ephemerality—offered a latent template for the perception of modern life within a congruent commercial framework of subject-object relations.
The appearance of comic books is, as I attempted to show above, part of a larger framework of newly emerging horizons for the apprehension of modernity. It may be seen, together with the appearance of other forms of popular fiction, as a provisional mode of expression (perhaps even a transitory stage) able to carve out a niche in the increasingly complex market environment of the beginning of the century. The continuity that these fictions provide, in my estimation, has to do with their use-value, a category that has been traditionally denied “pulps” and comics mainly, but not only, because of their perishable nature. I would suggest that the popularity of these cultural products resides in their dual capacity both to provide a stratagem for “processing” reality and to grasp, within the margins of its material presentation, the precariousness of modern experience. If, in one sense, I am pointing to the cultural appropriateness of these objects as “cognitive maps. ”I also wish to turn from the specificity of that referent as constitutive of a particular historical restoration that involves the concretization of social/spatial relationships in terms of social mobility. In a sense, a cartographic rendering of reality is the spatial delineation of the possibilities of movement within that plane, the imaginative positioning of an active subjectivity able to decide. The rise of cartography with the imperial expansion of the West in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at the same time as it became a utilitarian knowledge, provided an ideological counterpoint to the static class structure of European society, a textual/graphic rejoinder, in a sense, to the burgeoning utopian impulse that began to be felt as the bourgeoisie struggled for power. By contrast, I would like to move in the direction of the more historically specific trope (for the first few decades of the century) for the reordering of experience suggested by the modern (jigsaw) puzzle. Indeed the particularly modern nature of the machinery that mass-produced these ludic tools of cognition already implies a technological and historical difference in the ideological spectrum that recognizes its potential for psychosocial reintegration. The jigsaw puzzle is, then, the ideologically appropriate correlate for the organization of a paradigmatically egalitarian social order in the US; it provides a model for self-recognition in praxis in which the only direction available to participants is that of recomposition; the tracing of previously delineated modes of behavior, the pleasure of finding sameness reconstructed as opposed to that of finding (in maps) a latent (in)difference.4
The modern origins of the jigsaw puzzle are traced by some back to 1760 when an Englishman named John Spilsbury began to market his “dissected maps” as educational tools “to facilitate the teaching of Geography.” Early puzzles, according to Anne Williams, were luxury products for “upper class parents concerned with the intellectual progress of their progeny” (4). By the nineteenth century, changes in the production process brought down the price of puzzles and made them more accessible to consumers, and by the beginning of this century they emerged commercially as a popular pastime for adults.
By 1908 the wooden adult puzzle known as the “Whatami,” had become a full-blown craze, spreading to other major eastern cities and replacing diabolo as the amusement of the day. (11)
Even then, because of cost, interest in puzzles “was concentrated among the middle and upper classes.” During this time, established toy manufacturers in the US like Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley entered into this mainly local, small scale form of production with great success. Williams cites toy industry trade magazines that feel secure in the growth of demand and express themselves in the following manner: “one great attraction about these puzzles is that once solved its owner yearns for another one to conquer” (12). The economic depression of the 30s ushered in a puzzle craze that came about with the introduction of mass produced die-cut cardboard techniques. The massification of puzzle consumption parallels the rise of the comic book remarkably: both appeared as “experimental” marketing procedures in which they were freely distributed for promotional purposes.5 As Williams says,
Lithographers and other businesses then started to produce puzzles for sale, seizing the opportunity to revive their faltering businesses. Within a few months, cardboard puzzles were selling nationally at newsstands for only 25 cents each . . . By early 1933 it was reported that Enison-Freeman had hired over 400 new employees to produce three million puzzles per week. And in April the S.M. News Co., which distributed the Jig of the Week nationally, estimated that newsstands were selling six million puzzles weekly.(14)
The particular cognitive “fit” of puzzle solving as the historically appropriate operation for the modulation of modern subjectivity is partially observed in the depression era “boom” of the puzzle industry. In the United States, between the years of 1932 and 1933, the purchase of these objects became (together with the Horatio Alger stories) a massive and popular form of entertainment. The history of jigsaw puzzles in the United States reached a zenith in those years; their demand became incredibly high (especially once the industry abandoned the elaborate hand carved wooden prototypes and entered into a carton cut, assembly line system). There is even a specific convergence of puzzles with comic strips as the perpetual movement of these commodities in search of the “new” eventually sought to depict comic strip characters.
I am speaking, then, of a particular set of cultural practices inscribed in the very materiality of the puzzle; a grouping of intellectual operations essentially designed to replicate not only the integrity of the graphic cipher but the serial homogeneity (the homogenous seriality) of modern production. In this process, what is experienced is both the formidable fragmentation of experience that exists in capitalist society and the successful reconstitution of that same order in the assembly process. This “active” subjectivity, this gratification by means of recomposition would seem to define for me a specific, “popular” mode of consumption, a way of occupying the particularities of modernity by recourse to what Darko Suvin calls “a psychic common denominator in the new type of human experience . . . a customer experience” (13). By this I would posit that there is an existent complex of reception, linked to the commodity form, in which specific fictional artifacts serve as both conduits for the replication of existing social relations and as “instruments of sensation ” in Benjamin’s terms, capable of recalling (by means of the material qualities of these publications but mainly by means of their disposable nature) the intense (and this is one of the adjectives that has become closely associated with the term graphic such that the use of one term invokes the other) awareness of moving within a world of subjectified commodities. As Marx and Engels write in the German Ideology: “If it is evident that externally production supplies the object of consumption, it is equally evident that consumption posits the object of production as a concept, an internal image, a need, a motive, a purpose ”(136).
That is, consumption, as the conceptual task of reintegration of a lost congruence replicates not only the object of production but provides the internal image, trope and direction (the puzzleform in the case at hand) for the conceptualization of the object as an unconstituted (but realizable) totality. As Marx and Engels go on to say: “Production thus produces not only the object of consumption but also the mode of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively ”(134 emphasis mine).
This mode of consumption would account for the politically inert character of most forms of popular fiction. Its operative framework would 1) strip texts of any allegorical referentiality able to provoke crises. Due to its “performative” nature, its principal interest (which may surface as a type of deluded critique) is to weld any rift in the textual or social edifice; this may involve a functionalist or teleological methodology, but it will, in any case, work in a way that estranges the commonplace (spatially) but only in order to restore it; 2) derail any attempt to break the fetish bond between consumer and product since its supply of a modular touchstone for self-recognition as commodity (the comic book) enables subjects to (temporarily) extract themselves from the sphere of circulation even as they plunge headfirst into it with the fierceness of an unacknowledged disavowal. Another way to conceive of this relationship is by means of claiming use-value (the potential utilization of the comic book module among other forms as an offer for cancelinganomie) for the field of para-literature.
I do not wish to suggest by these remarks that the content of these texts is incidental in providing the specific elements required for this particular “use” of literature; I believe that content is a fundamental mediation although, ultimately, the material that shapes these forms (and by this I most definitely mean the paper and in this, its texture and associations) and the material forms themselves (and here, I refer above all to the modular panelization that requires reassembly, the puzzleform) shape our reading practices in a very specific fashion. What I find most interesting is how a certain structure of latent ingenuity is woven into the different paraliterary mediums, a “plan” that absorbs and disperses critical energies or that subsumes them into, at best, the discovery of formal properties in the field and at worst, the formation of new taxonomies. This can be seen to a certain degree in the efforts of most comics theory, with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics at the forefront, which struggles mightily at once to popularize and to appropriate the critical instruments and insights developed in the wake of modernism without acknowledging the fundamentally different relationship, at a material level of literature and paraliterature to “high culture. ”In this way, the “closure” that McCloud develops conceptually as the critical cognitive operation by which comics attain their particular status becomes not only an image of the desire for completion (and restitution) that characterizes modernist experimentation but also an admission of the incapacity or unwillingness of comics theorists to fully commit into the terrain of “high theory ”and “art. ” This strict tendency to remain within purely formal analysis and to delve into a historiography devoid of critical acumen while eliding the economic and material circumstances that shape the medium appears to reflect both the deep investment into the field of paraliterature at the level of fetish (in which I find myself included and against which I had to move in order to produce this essay) as well as the reluctance, at a theoretical level, to move against (or to redefine) the very conceptual categories made available to us by means of an academic space that marginalizes a priori the position, aims and workings of paraliterary expression. This dual context—that of fetishistic investment (and I would include Marx and Freud as viable models in defining the fetish in this context) and of modernist privilege has shaped the field of comics criticism in the US, and this debate— I believe, has been replicated in another area of interest to comics scholars, that of childhood. Indeed, it is impossible to escape as the bounded horizon in which these lines are inscribed and as the hushed whisperings of an insistent scolding.
The equation between comics and childhood was not always unmistakable. The use of children in the early comic strips may have been a way to partially defuse, by means of a certain displacement, the massive distribution, in graphic form, of political commentary. Nevertheless, the primacy of the turn towards the superhero genre in the late thirties and forties seems to have left an indelible impression on the heels of massive distribution and sales in the minds of many critics.6 The Wertham affair partly serves to consolidate the position of an infantile vulnerable population, but it resurfaces periodically, even from wildly divergent ideological positions, such as Dorfman and Mattelart’s work on Disney. One of the things that this focus fails to bring into play is the tenuous subtext of “high” and “low” forms of culture as they clash in an asynchronic fashion, and in the contested space of “development” (aesthetic, infantile, political and economic) of the comics field. It’s as if there is a residue of the traditional underestimation of plebeian expression that blocks the medium from becoming part of a system of aesthetic objects (or of objects with aesthetic pretensions at the very least) that may only be put into circulation by means of a modern(ist) project. The aesthetic development of comics can then be seen as arrested (by means of critical authority) in a pre-literary stage. “Pre-literary ” is a polyvalent term here, it is para-literary as well as oral. The predominance of the graphic component of comic books, its visual space, in this context becomes the primary signifier of a preliterate symbolic universe; this facilitates in turn both the primacy of a certain kind of narrative in the West as a means to establish and hold authority, one that would subordinate and marginalize others (graphic narrative), and the depiction of an unsophisticated and technologically deprived subject with no access to the “higher” conceptual tools of inscription. This prelitera(te)ry space also seems to invoke the oral stage of development as described by Freud. The development of a theoretical approach may be in fact detained because the pleasure derived by consumers savoring their own power to reconstitute, their own capacity to recompose commodified social experience is so central that it may in fact work consciously to thwart its theoretical interpolation.7 The exploration of these issues would help to illuminate the specific configuration of “fandom” as a particular paraliterary function of accretion.
Diagnostic modernism is what most comics critics are concerned with performing; the efforts to bring comics work into academic legitimacy continually fall prey to this retroactive self-fulfilling practice of identifying texts that meet the requirements of a modernist institutional critique. Regardless of this, the forms of consumption of these popular fictions deserve closer scrutiny, if not to confirm what is already expected of them at least to provide further insight into the structure of academic consolidation.
The paradox advanced in this paper is significant in any attempt to consider the centrality of modernism as a privileged discourse, an artistic and critical project whose exclusionary effect validates at the same time as it rejects the possibility of paraliterary legitimacy. By dwelling in this contradiction I hope to illuminate to a certain degree the complicity of academic discourse with a particular kind of “product, ”a product best suited to accommodate the authority of the professional critic and the appetites of modernism.
The allure for working out an accommodation between the comics field and the institutional space of academia seems, today, to mirror the legitimizing campaign waged a half century ago by prominent modernists.8 I do not seek here to make an “apologia” for comics and other forms as a neglected and valid sphere for intellectual inquiry nor to recuperate texts in terms of their specific merits as cultural artifacts; comics are a medium with its own internal dynamic, which is not that of “high” culture but which, as Jameson would say of Science Fiction, “stands in a complementary and dialectical relationship to high culture and modernism as such “(149).
An Uncanny Technique
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy” William Shakespeare Hamlet
“In the conditions of any underdeveloped civilization, the deployment of any higher form of technology will invariably appear as magic”(?)
Under the conditions of any industrialized civilization, the deployment of any observable transfiguration will invariably appear as technology. (A possible riposte)
This reversal of one of the central ideological tenets of positivist science fiction reveals some of the same general gestures made by academic criticism into the structure of the uncanny. The interpolation of the first citation “there are more things” interacts with the unimaginable in a way in which the second does not. “Hard” science fiction projects the limits of what can be thought as the “inner” workings of applied science, as an (for now) unfathomable functional relation between subject and object, while the Shakespearean quote invokes the uncanny as the (irrecuperable) my(a)stery of imaginary loci. The structuralist project very much provides a continuity with the logic of positive advancement, as do some of the varieties of post-structuralism.9 My primary observation regarding these developments is to remark on the appetite for explanations of a technical nature that academic postmodern criticism brings to bear on its object of inquiry. This urge to dissect is something which most academic incursions into paraliterary expression champion and something which fetishized texts (and fans) seriously question. Ultimately, it is a desire to incorporate the field into a larger, better mapped and less embarrassing horizon, yet it risks depriving this particular cultural manifestation of its specificity. This is one of the key issues in which the opposing forces of the popular and of art clash in fiery and many times primary forms. And this is where I feel that the category of “genre” falls by the wayside in that it attempts to apprehend the formal/semiological features of paraliterature in the absence of its particular mode of consumption and of its formal/sensual characteristics. At best, it succeeds, as in the case of the work of Mark Rose, in providing no more than the conditions of possibility for a generic form, or in describing, as in the case of Darko Suvin, the epistemic technologies necessary for its distinctness; at worst it attaches itself parasitically to existing genres or submerges itself under subheadings of larger legitimate forms. The generic order is a product of social hierarchy and of the inertia of prior aesthetic systems concerned with legislating artistic production; its critical utility lies in its pedagogic use as paradigmatic example of the contingency of forms, but any contemporary attempt to reactivate its normative properties proves useless in an era of expanding textualities. The concern with legitimation evidenced by paraliterauteurs and their disciples is thus either the acceptance of a bequeathed (and desired)subordination or the problematic site in which both fields (the para and the literary) collide.
If comic books (and paraliterature as a coherent field) serve as schemas able to contain (and channel) the efforts of individual readers to successfully recompose (from a position of relative temporal dominion) social relations, we would have to demonstrate to a certain degree the specific characteristics that make of the medium a type of cognitive “puzzle. ”Let us cite Will Eisner with this purpose in mind, in his Comics and Sequential Art, in the section titled “Application (The Use of Sequential Art)”:
In general terms we can divide the functions of Sequential Art into two broad applications; instruction and entertainment. Periodical comics, graphic novels instructional manuals and storyboards are the most familiar vehicles. In the main, periodical comics and graphic novels are devoted to entertainment while manuals and storyboards are used to instruct or sell. But there is an overlap because art in sequence tends to be expository[. . .] In a work of comic art intended purely for entertainment, some technical exposition of a precise nature often occurs[. . .] This technical passage is actually a set of images with an instructional message embedded in an “entertaining” story. (136 emphasis is mine)
Eisner is one of the few critics who have remarked on the didactic force of this medium and on the proximity of its instructional and diversionary functions. What I find most significant in the previous passage is the suggestion that these functions are invariably linked through the very properties of the medium. In other words, there is a previously existing template of reception for comic expression. This “technical” manual for reading presupposes 1) a “modern” sensibility and disposition towards new technologies and 2) the implementation of these semiologic devices towards either assembly or repair. If the reconfiguration of experience that occurs at the beginning of the century must accommodate urban and mass-produced lives and commodities together with the emergence of a “cultural industry, ”then comic book production and consumption might provide a site of temporary resolution for the anxieties and pressures of increasingly commodified subjects.10 The reading of these “fictions” would then reconstruct the fragmented experience of individuals, reinvigorate those same fictions as allegories of personal/social control (mainly in the figure of the superhero), universalize (through mass dissemination) the class vulnerability of readers by means of an identification with the textual object (the perishable “pulp” quality of the publication), and provide a “technical” (almost vocational) relationship towards social dynamics (they could be reassembled successfully, and at worst, “repaired “). This is where the ideological fortification that surrounds most critical approaches to paraliterature and comics in particular comes into play. The “puzzle” represented by social relations is not a puzzle in the sense that its final result is always already present in its perennial reenactment; but the illusion that there is a full agency involved in coaxing out the “mystery, ” problematics or “suspense, ”the sense of participating fully in the process of construction (even while disavowing the re) is what ultimately sustains the vitality of paraliterary expression (even while a material fixation is taking place).11 It is a similar narrative/ideological direction as that followed by literary histories but whereas these are concerned with normalizing and homogenizing the past for present purposes, paraliterature is deploying similar operations in the present, for its stabilization and endless renewal. The puzzling aspect of paraliterature is not (as academic critics would have it) why it resists canonization so tenaciously but that its paraliterariness would be so closely tied to its o/abject existence as cultural artifact.
There is a distinct and multiple pleasure, then, in the progressive confirmation of reader’s protagonism in the task of restoring a recognizable narrative order and a familiar but more manageable social space. The gratification granted by means of the restoration of the known extends into the paradoxical renovation of the novelty or newness of commodities. Paraliterary consumption thus becomes an activity that begins each time anew, from zero, yet remains a permanent variation of the same. The promise of further pleasure thus fuels the cycle in the same way that the rapid obsolescence of the commodity serves as a guarantee for its replacement and proliferation.12 This “infinite repetition” of the new as a precondition for the vitality of the medium requires periodic adjustment. As Darko Suvin remarks in a similar vein: “only permanently renewed excitement guarantees the restless audience’s interest”(13). This would account for the cyclical “formulas” that, once proven successful, have historically been taken up, for example, by mainstream comics publishers until exhaustion.13 There is a sense then in which the new obtains a clear proximity to catastrophe, a remarkable sensitivity and need for renewal in the form of disaster.14 As Benjamin observes in a similar light: “For men as they are today, there exists only one radical novelty—one that is always the same: death” (cited in Suvin 10).15
Having hypothesized some of the perceptual qualities of the comics medium in the time of their appearance, I now wish to address the issue of the historically dominant mode of discourse within the comic book field: the superhero genre. I wish to attempt a reading of Superman that may aid in reclaiming the visibility of the cognitive matrix that, in my hypothesis, served as the historical/instrumental model for the paraliterary consumption of comics in the 40s. I am speaking of the reconstructive epistemology provided by the puzzleform and its implementation within the Superman mythos. I seek to do this, not in order to extoll the virtues of an underestimated cultural artifact nor to champion the cause of the popular as an utopic front from which to do battle with “high” cultural forms but rather to point to the degree of homogenization to which the comic book medium has been subjected, by a recurring ahistoricism and an endemic formalism on the part of academic camps and intellectual positions that see in this particular cultural manifestation the opportunity to confirm the essentially conservative nature of the form.
What I hope to suggest is that the “continuity” of a comic book of the duration and resilience of Superman is predicated on a periodic refurbishing of the character and that these formal changes have been glossed over by cultural critics for instrumental purposes. The initial “instability” of the superhero formula and the first few years of consolidation of the Superman Mythos seem an especially useful place in which to locate the narrative in(de)cision that (eventually but not initially) harnessed the superhero fantasy in the service of capital accumulation and social conservatism. This task of re-membering the, so to speak, historical body of Superman is theoretically problematic for several reasons. First of all because it comes dangerously close to “recuperating” the complexity of this particular discursive form for purposes of extending the primacy of an academic practice (criticism) whose ostensible, self-validating aims are to uphold the same criteria of value that modernism as a whole developed. In other words, the same criteria of worth that literary studies have, since their inception, validated— difficulty, complexity and hermeticism, in opposition to the popular— seem a priori the same categories (and the only ones) able to “elevate” Superman comics into the hospitable conditions of literariness. As Paul Dawson says of a similar quandary:
We have hardly begun to sketch out an aesthetic appropriate to the [comics] form, and it is inevitable that our understanding of it will continue for some time to rest on the transference of concepts and assumptions from other, more familiar forms . . . the assimilation of comics to the novel is tempting, because it offers a way to domesticate a form which we are still struggling to understand adequately. (quoted in Sabin 247)
Second, there is the retrospective uniformity that any attempt at literary history brings into the fore. Even a primary periodization of the superhero genre risks the summary canonic gesture of withholding or allotting a degree of permanence to aspects and elements of relevance while consigning others to oblivion. Above all, a literary history of the genre, even one as partial as what I propose must provide a narrative of rise and decline, and in a hugely paradoxical position, a hero as well.16 According to David Perkins,
The possible plots of narrative literary history can be reduced to three: rise, decline and rise and decline. The reason for this is that the hero of a narrative literary history is a logical subject—a genre, a style, the reputation of an author—and the plots are limited to what actions or transitions can be predicated of such heroes. (39)
Yet several of these histories have been written, and continue to be written, in a sustained effort to validate the field.17
I wish to proceed, then, while acknowledging that the success or failure of this very partial attempt to test the validity of my claims can be no more than a preliminary approximation to a phenomenon whose full workings I neither grasp nor am able to ignore and for whose theoretical subjection I feel no particular inclination.
The comic I am going to read is Superman number 17, printed in 1942. It tells the story of the intense anti-sabotage efforts of Superman as he discovers and then sets out to frustrate the attempts of “Napkan” saboteurs to first sink a newly christened battleship, then to destabilize and overthrow the Southamerican nation of Equaru in order to set off a domino effect of anti-American sentiment, and finally, to blow up a key site for American military efforts: the Panama Canal. During the course of the book, Superman successfully foils the plans of the Napkan conspirators even while exposing these events in his guise as reporter Clark Kent. Kent is eventually kidnapped and “eliminated” by Napkan agents who are oblivious to his double identity; by the end of the story everything is restored to its proper order, and Superman is credited as the presence behind these fortunate reversals.
The story is unremarkable in many respects; it reworks the familiar subject matter in comics of the times, of depicting a German-Japanese threat to American national security and enlisting the aid of Superheroes willing and able to combat the enemy. The page layouts are also conventional; with the exception of the opening splash page and inset, the rest of the book consists of seven through nine panel pages, many of them laden with great quantities of text. One can observe the initial struggle of the comics medium to adopt recognizable conventions and to develop tropes that would later become identifiable features of a readerly “pact” with consumers. The establishment of this “language” at the moment of printing of this particular comic was still in the distance, and it is possible to locate instances of narrative indecision which may be as much products of rhetorical oversight as operative sites for the activation of an “integrative” (puzzleform) reading. I would rather name these zones as t(r)opic opportunities for the imagination of a certain readerly privilege and order. If paraliterary space is constituted by constructing consumer protagonism out of the powerlessness of commodity relations by re-imag(in)ing their relative importance to the system (by reversing the causal relationships of consumption and production and by extracting themselves from the process of circulation), then Superman becomes a central figure for enacting the fictional recovery of initiative that characterizes paraliterary immersion. Superman’s dual identity (and that of all such superheroes) opens up the integrative dynamics of the puzzle form if only because the hero is himself the repository of various identities and guises that can be reassembled within an ideograph. The change from Kent to Superman becomes then an image of the periodic suppression of the helplessness (embodied in the Harold Lloydian aspect of Kent) of the individual consumer in favor of its opposite, the hypertrophied (but unidirectional) agency of the social producer (of order). The restoration of the order of production in comics (and of consumption by fiat) is crucial because on it rests the agency of paraliterary consumers. Additionally, the restoration of order in Metropolis becomes inseparable from the acknowledgment of the power of the consumer, at once able to recognize himself as dispensable and necessary.
My attempt to reconfigure the context of consumption, as I said earlier, rests on the identification of particular narrative sites of disjuncture, places where conventional reading strategies flounder because of unusual or remarkable proceedings. In the present issue, there are three particular panels that emerge with the previous qualifications, three sites where there is no clear ground in which to mobilize rhetorical procedures, inundated, as early comics readers were, by the sheer modernity of the form. These are, respectively the third (inset) panel of the first page, the second panel of the second page, and the seventh panel of the eighth page. In each of these there is an attempt to represent, in a visual form, the inner thought processes of Superman (in the form of Clark Kent). The curious aspect of these efforts is that the linguistic indicators of this operation are far more than redundant. There are four levels of bracketing of the inner dialogue of Superman. Let me reproduce these sections here.
In the first, Clark and Lois, after being assigned to cover the launching of a new battleship, are witnessing the ceremony. Clark answers Lois’ remark on the progress of the US defense program with an expression of support and then reflects (to himself) on the irregularity of the proceedings:
In the second relevant panel, Clark has managed to slip away from Lois; he has noticed a loose plate at the battleship’s bottom and, in order to avert potential damage to the vessel, he is about to transform into Superman. In this specific panel we can again “read” his inner thoughts:
In the last example, Kent is kidnapped by Napkan agents who believe that, due to his inside knowledge of their designs, he is a menace to their plans “for world expansion.” Consequently, two agents are sent to assassinate him. They first drug his sleeping form and then make off with him in order to dispose of his body in a mountainous area. As the automobile speeds away from Clarks’ apartment, we are given a glimpse of both his apparently unconscious form and his inner thoughts as follows:
Some remarks on these panels are in order. First of all, the texts transcribed here are framed by the specifics of the thought balloon bubble; that is, they are already visually determined as belonging to the unarticulated musings of the person to whom they are connected. In other words there is a primary acknowledgment, in the idiom of comic book conventions, of the cognitive level of subjectivity to which we should assign these texts.
These particular panels are interesting in that they signal a different textual configuration than others previously seen and thus require that we identify their point of emission as well as their function. In any case, they spell a set of procedures, “instructions” so to speak, for their simultaneous reading. The problem is not each individual sign but rather the cumulative effect that they produce and the successive hermeneutical shifts that arise as a result of their novelty. In my reading, the separation that exists in comics of thought bubbles and dialogue balloons mimics the distance between direct and indirect forms of discourse; the distance between these expressive possibilities is further increased with the addition of the parenthetical mark, a sign of yet another remove from “social” reality. The overall effect of both bubbles and parentheses points to a kind of semantic “burial,” or at least a singular preoccupation with secrecy. It’s as if the story’s own concern with sabotage saturates its own narrative procedures and enacts a kind of rhetorical flight into parasyntactic codes capable of contextualizing language in a different interpretive environment. The quotation marks that follow the progressive withdrawal of discourse into “code” (by means of the bubble plus the parenthesis) insert a new interpretive disjuncture, either what we read is to be held as ironic assertion (contrary to fact) or it represents the contours of a compositional logic asserting itself through layers of syntactic annotation. I favor the latter interpretation.
Finally, the line breaks that lie closest to the actual texts seem to indicate the presence of an incidental utterance, of a marginal note in an otherwise intelligible context. In effect, these texts could very well be suppressed, and their absence would in no way be detrimental to the story line; yet they are there, and they are framed as the uninformative complement of a syntactic web of stealth in which the structure of address is deeply problematic. In other words, we are alerted to the importance of what is being said (by means of bubbles and parentheses) even while what is uttered is suspect (the quotation marks) and even while it is incidental (the line marks) to the action. As readers, we are at once discouraged from and propelled towards these three utterances in ways in which the rest of the book does not engage us. Our progression in the task of deciphering these marks is as follows: we are alerted of the potential importance of this information, then waver before its indeterminacy before being confronted with its marginality. We then turn back (in the closing of the marks) to the initial bubble of secrecy. There are echoes here of paraliterary immersion: first, the sensual (and unspoken) pleasures of the dispensable pulp paper, a kind of o/abject catharsis, then the encounter with a latent diagram, a system of instructions, a didactic plane of recomposition, a cognitive blueprint, the puzzleform, in which the imaginary restitution of both the assembly line (perversely synchronized to consumer rhythms) and commodity relations are fantastically reinitialized. The parallel with the curious syntactic structure (“- -“) lies in the superfluous but central role played by the paraliterary artifact, superfluous because one can do without it and central because its materiality constitutes a model for recreating the illusion of (in)dispensable commodities.
Another way to say this is that the verbal utterances in our three examples are (un)necessary articulations of the process of paraliterary consumption. In a paratactical sequence, then, the first utterance: “there’s something radically wrong here” can be construed as a recognition of the fundamental alienation that exists within an increasingly commodified modern society. Kent “sees” beyond appearance, not the “invisible” labor erased in the production of wartime engines but rather the imminent danger of a paralyzing alienation. This is what prompts both him and the larger mass of consumers to panic: “`I’ve got to get away.’” Finally, there is a “break” in which the puzzle of modernity attains a partial resolution in consumption. “`Since they’ve come to me,’” Clark thinks to himself, and in one sense he is referring no more to Napkans than to the fragmented experience of capital relations and or to the very panels that settle on the page. “`That saves me the trouble of going to them.’” Clark and consumers here are the object of a curious inversion in which the predictability of their acts is overturned even as Clark is hurled down the cliff and sprayed with bullets, a scene that echoes Clark’s previous representational experience (in the redundancy of thought balloon and parenthesis) with a kind of syntactic “overkill”; he returns as the great integrator of the puzzleform. Superman indeed seems to physically push the panels outward, past the strict limitations of the comic book and into a larger scheme of social (re)production. In this process, readers are (literally) drawn into the story line; graphic inhabitants of a superspace where urban anonymity fades in the glow of potentialities, they enter the centripetal vortex of restoration that is the puzzleform.
Breaking-Up With Graphics
What follows is an attempt to address the field of relations that is summoned by the intersection of the referents “graphic” and “novel “; as such, I will not dwell only in the proper development of a particular type of commodity (the so-called “graphic novel comics format “) but rather with the complex interaction of two semantic fields that have attained a certain contemporary visibility when placed together in the marketplace. The Graphic Novel, as a new packaging procedure, a new marketing deployment designed to refurbish the commodity with a new narrative sheen seems, in my estimation, to provide for its consumers a wholly different model of consumption and, as a result, a different way to experience its sensual qualities and pleasures.
This alternative formulation of the marked tension that exists between “para” and literary forms serves precisely to illustrate the problematic relationship that exists between these fields, a mutually constitutive relationship in which one of the terms dominates and defines the other as well as delimiting the boundaries of their relations. This unease was mentioned earlier in terms of the problematics of paraliterary scholarship, an endeavor marked by the self-perpetuating dynamics of academic criticism and the fetishistic zealousness of “fans” (a debate that sometimes takes on the confrontational perspective of social class) both concerned with the implementation of different forms of ideological containment.
The condition of postcoloniality may also be a factor in the degree to which an artistic form (such as the novel) acquires the necessary cultural weight to tolerate significant deviation from established norms. American literary production (as that of all the colonies of the Americas) evidenced a profound reliance on traditional artistic forms and a deep reluctance to move away from established normative procedures. The perception of a “lag” in the legitimation of artistic forms, the desire to attain full artistic as well as political autonomy while attracting a certain metropolitan approval is a well-established fact of post-independence American literary historiography. In such a context, it became necessary to wed literary production to the aims and objectives of an aesthetic criterion that at least up to the 19th century was synonymous with the ideological and political preferences of the official ruling or upper class and, in this context, any acclaim given to formally daring attempts at expression came dangerously close to identifying with oral, plebeian or vulgar narrative discourse and hence with illegitimate cultural products. This difference in susceptibility to “contamination” by the popular may partly explain the European tendency to insert comics production within the framework of an “auteur system” (potentially able to “elevate” the medium from economic servitude) as opposed to an American propensity towards anonymous production and, currently, a “star system” approach within the mainstream comics sectors.
It is well known that the novel came to achieve canonical status by the rise of the social group that was the ideal and real reader of that form; that trajectory was accompanied by the continued cultural prestige allotted to the book as artifact, and the greater estimation of a given text was followed by progressively richer editions. The acceptance of the novel is thus underscored by its sensual qualities, its authoritative discourse was (is) mirrored by means of an authoritative presentation and a propertied sense of cultural accumulation. The perennial character of literary value is underpinned by the permanence of the arti(stic)fact; the transcendental nature of the signifier is brought together with the solidity of the signified; textual force is coupled with the force of texture in the book-as-novel.18
By contrast, the paraliterary object reverts this effect of preciosity and imposes a paradigmatic ephemerality upon its offerings that bleeds into its very context of perception. In a sense, the reading experience of paraliterary materials is qualitatively different not because (or only because) of its subject matter but because its material context of consumption already provides a blueprint of signification. I believe there is an epistemic break in American comics production, located towards the end of the 80s, in which the change of paper signaled a fundamental shift in the consumptive relationship of comics consumers.19 Comics, due to a rearrangement of the process of production but fundamentally as result of new modes of circulation and distribution, particularly the growth of specialty stores, began to be considered within a different cultural horizon. In the words of Roger Sabin, “This co-option was the final stage in the transition of part of the comics industry from a `comics culture’ to a `book culture.’ In short, it served to remake comics in prose literature’s image” (246). This material break with the past, a move that had been made earlier in Europe through the distribution of hard-bound albums and that has not followed suit in the Third World points to a realignment of the comic medium to its readers and to the newly emerging conditions of late capitalism.20 Graphic novels are then a bold incursion into “book culture” in the sense that they abandon, utterly, at the level of promotional discourse, any uncomfortable reminder of their fetishistic investment (they have been touted, for example, on the strength of their writing as opposed to the more sensually inflected, undomesticated and fan-based, properties of the visual image) and move confidently into the well-tilled terrain of modernist (i.e, academic) expectations. The promotional discourse for the graphic novel “resolved” symbolically the high-low culture split in favor of the former by situating the antinomy in a narrative of evolution by which, it was claimed, “comics had developed from cheap throwaway children’s fare to expensive album-form ‘novels’ for adults to keep in bookshelves” (Sabin 235). At the same time, graphic novels suggest an entryway into a stark, violent reality and in that sense hold fast (there is that lag once again) to the dictates of conventional realism; that they thus fall into a mimetic form of representation is arguable, but it is undeniable that their direct appeal to the artistic plane is deeply mediated by recourse to an aesthetics of violence. The futurism of the graphic novel, its celebration of the expressive triumph of new technologies of expression, and its eager anticipation for a “new,” postliterate public, is another qualifying mark of this cultural proposal halfway between sales pitch and utopian longing; in any case, the graphic novel is part of a greater project, symptom of a “new” foundationalism which these lines necessarily advance.
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