It is Saturday., there is not supposed to be any news, but we are confronted with a lot. Therefore, before I get to what I wanted to write about I must make mention of a couple of stories.
First, the passing of George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States. I never met the man, I was only ever in a room with him (and Barbara) once, subsequently there is little I can say about him personally. I think in these modern and vitriolic times he is thought of as too moderate, and given his one-term of service, too weak. I think he is thought of, generally, as riding Reagan’s coattails. I think history has and will prove this general conception as way too limited. Yes, it was Reagan’s policies that set in motion the end of the Soviet Empire, but it Was George H.W. Bush that presided over its demise – and that was a most daunting task. I was in the Soviet Union for the beginning of the end (the failed coup attempt). I do not think people here, and especially these many years later, understand just how tenuous a time that was. That the world survived it more-or-less intact is testament to President Bush’s (41) skill, diplomacy and leadership.
George H.W. Bush – Well done good and faithful servant. (And this just makes me cry)
The other news story that requires comment is the Alaska Earthquake. This one was a humdinger. No Alaska is not as populous or as important economically as California and its wildfires or the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Seaboard with their hurricanes – but anybody that has visited Alaska, as I have, loves it. Further these are real people living real lives and they have been severely and dangerously interrupted. One more reason to hit the host’s red kettle. Faithful listeners to the show know that, atypically, the host and FMH this year, because of the great need, revealed their personal donation in a effort to spur participation. My wife and I shall follow suit. We dropped $1040.00 in the kettle on Giving Tuesday. Please give generously.
And now, finally, on to what I sat down to write about. Over the prolonged Thanksgiving weekend, Joseph Bottum wrote a review of the first installment of the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic book series. I will not pretend to know anything near as much as Bottum knows about literature, not even close. But comic books? Oh those I know almost too well. Bottum argues in his piece that the epic poem reached a pinnacle in its Greco-Roman expression, but did not pass as an art form until Dante. Further he argues that it was supplanted by the novel as the preeminent literary artform. Finally, he argues that with Gaiman, and Frank Miller and Alan Moore, the comic book form could well be supplanting the novel in that preeminent spot. I cannot disagree, but I think Bottum is missing something rather vital about the comic book medium.
There was indeed a revolution in the medium in the 1980’s, and Gaiman was the most literary and avant garde of that change. But Miller and Moore both sold a whole lot more comic books. Further, as the imitators, as are necessary in a medium that puts out as much product as comics do, have lined up they have imitated Miller and Moore far more than Gaiman. The reason is simple, Miller and Moore made the revolution within the bounds of the superhero genre while Gaiman pretty much left it behind. Yes, Gaiman’s characters are super-powered and fight evil on some level, but that is about as far as it goes. Bottum is dismissive of the super-hero genre generally, and embraces Gaiman as a leading literary light precisely because he blew the doors off the genre.
There is a tendency amongst professional critics to overlook the popular and well known. Praise of the artistically obscure is a sign of how broad is their knowledge and wide is their expertise. But it is the well known and oft-sold that really moves cultures. Shakespeare was, after all, the pop art of his day – as was Homer.
I would argue that the super-hero comic, in all its four-color, pulp paper glory, was a return to the epic. Certainly it was not poetic, but the visual art replaced the poetry in elevating the work. Unquestionably for each work of art there was a mountain of drivel. My private collection numbers between seven and eight thousand. Of that number, less than one hundred are significant and of great value – oh but they are gems indeed. Most importantly, these visual epics, as I quoted Kevin Smith in my memorial to Stan Lee:
…instilled in me a moral barometer, teaching me right from wrong and showing me it’s always better to be a hero instead of a villain.
The super-hero comic was the art form that codified, reinforced and passed on, as did the epic poems of Homer and Virgil and Dante, the prevailing moral substance of the society that produced them. Miller and Moore reflected and intensified the moral shifts that have marked our culture in recent decades. But Gaiman defied pretty much all cultural norms. That seems to be a mark of “artistic integrity” in this day and age. But it is also culturally corrosive.
Neil Gaiman’s writing and especially his writing of comic books, is remarkable. It is worth praising, but not without cautionary notes.