Comic Books and Deconstruction

Jasyn Jones, aka DaddyWarpig, has done a fisking of Warren Ellis’ Planetary. I haven’t read Planetary or much Ellis, though I’m interested in doing so. Still, I want to make a few comments contra Jones on the nature of deconstructive works.

Let me first say that I’m by-and-large in his corner. The relentless nihilism and brutality-shock of the media he’s describing is something I heartily reject. That being said, the deconstructionist view of a lot of these works has merit. The merit’s just not in it being edifying fun (and that it’s peddled as such is a problem).

[For some background on what I mean by deconstruction, I recommend looking at the Nerdwriter’s video on Logan and Under the Scope’s video on Deconstruction in Anime.]

Let’s go through a few examples of deconstruction I do know and make some comments. I’m a fan of Moore’s Watchmen. It’s smart, it’s edgy, it offers fantastic food for thought. Moore is at the top of his writing game and Gibbons’ manipulation of nine panels a page still wows me with it’s complexity-in-simplicity.

However, the book is not edifying or fun (or at least it shouldn’t be). Moore’s basic philosophy is trash, the pessimism of power or people doing the right thing. The book is dark and grim and drags you through the worst of human filth. And the way it craps all over the only character willing to do the right thing no matter the cost is just messed up.

If someone like comics and superheroes, I would not recommend Watchmen (and am pained when it always is). It’s not a pure superhero book. It’s an attempt to analyze the worst aspects of power – power being a major theme of the genre – especially in a world where moral absolutes seem to be non-existent (and everyone knows such a world doesn’t exist…).

Now, a good reader-writer can use it like a grinding stone to offer a better look at heroism, offering a response to Moore’s pessimism. Still, that doesn’t make the work edifying. Good food-for-thought, definitely, but not edifying or fun.

There’s something similar to be said for the works of Mark Millar. I really like his Ultimates, mostly as a study on a world where heroes are government agents (the Avengers movies are Ultimates movies really). But there’s a lot messed up in those books’ reworking of the Marvel universe (rehashing the Hank Pym abuse stuff, bringing Cap to a dark place, etc.). I would be less remiss about recommending it, but at the end of the day it’s not really a pure superhero book. It’s attempting to deconstruct the genre to its core, but it doesn’t, by and large, get to that core.

Millar’s Red Son succeeds better. It’s a reimagining of Superman as a Soviet instead of an American hero. Superman is still the paragon of cultural ideals, but they just happen to be “Truth, Justice, and the Communist Way.” You also see a Batman who goes mad trying to dethrone this “benevolent” tyrant, a Wonder Woman devoted to said “benevolent” tyrant, and a Green Lantern whose will is forged in the crucible of a concentration camp. Millar tears these heroes down in smart ways, revealing a lot of profound points.

And he ends Red Son with a reconstruction – Superman recognizes his waywardness, Lex Luthor is able to bring about freedom, and the world becomes a brighter place (we’ll remain silent over Millar’s last page time-travel crap). He successfully strips down the heroes to show them at their heart, but it took some damaging work to get there.

Deconstruction has a point – to better place the tropes of a genre in new light. It should act as a challenge – stripping things down so that the heart of it can be put on a pedestal and cherished for what it is.

All this being said, the real problem isn’t the deconstructions themselves, but that these deconstructions, as deconstruction, are posited as “superheroes grown up.” At best, deconstructions are growing pains – writers trying to stretch the genre into a new level of maturity. Deconstructions are a puberty point for a genre. But puberty is not adulthood.

A lot of writers today fail to see this. There’s a fan-fictionish quality of a lot of writers today. They see the way to tear apart a thing, to paint it with something garrish and wallow in it. But they don’t actually bring this change they brought about to a maturity, a maturity which should reinforce the genre in new and surprising ways. We see the arrested development of the creative.

But the fans are also to blame for just wallowing in this, even praising it, rather than demanding something more edifying and properly fulfilling. I’ll let others talk about the proper divisions of fans, but at least the professional fans (the blogs, media outlets, commentators, gate-keepers, critics) are definitely co-conspirators in this arresting of creative development. They poo-poo the purer stuff which hold the seeds of real maturity and wallow in the fanfictionish-deconstructive stuff which hold back that maturity.

As an aside, I think this may have a lot to do with Alan Moore’s cold-shoulder to comic fans. Yes, the man may have written Watchmen, but he also wrote Tom Strong after. Tom Strong is very much a traditional “science and reason will save the day” hero, even a patriarchal figure in being a buffed up and protective Reed Richards. Perhaps his appraisal of today’s fans as desiring a “a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence” is in their inability to get beyond his juvenile work of deconstruction in favor of the more robust reconstruction he pointed to with Tom Strong. They need to stop stewing in the shock of tearing down and move on to the hard but fulfilling work of building up values and virtues.

My interpretation of Moore is kind of pseudo-psychoanalysis – I don’t think he commits to similar values and virtues to myself – but I find it hard to believe the man who wrote some of the greatest comics in the industry, even helped to bring them into and through the growing pains (others arrested the development), thinks comics are trash. Though he may think the fans are unworthy of what he’s done.

So summing up a response to Jones (you know, how I started this ramble): Maybe Ellis needs to be respected for what he’s doing; a deconstruction. Though prudence should have us see he’s doing nothing more than that, and so shouldn’t be praised beyond that. And maybe we need to take a cold hard look at the kind of things we’re finding “edifying”. There may be something wrong with us.

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About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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3 Responses to Comic Books and Deconstruction

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    I think you bring up an important point, that deconstruction doesn’t have to mean ugly and mean. My Book Of Lost Doors series was a deliberate deconstruction of William Burrough’s Cut-Up Trilogy, and I tried to humanize Burrough’s concepts, to take what I thought was original and admirable in his work

    By the way, did you ever read Alan Moore’s “Miracleman”? (Published as “Marvelman” in the UK) ? I thought that covered a lot of the same ground as “Watchmen”, but more of a superhero story.

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