Friday, November 20, 2009

Johns v Moore, and comfort reading

More than a week ago Scott posted on an Alan Moore quote on Blackest night and the comments just exploded into nearly 100. I said I would respond but thought the best way to do so would be to grab some of the stuff I wanted to respond to, put it here, and make a new post out of it, while also directing people to that huge and great conversation. Here are the key highlights.

Patrick writes

Couldn't you make the same critique of virtually any Alan Moore story? He wrote Watchmen based on some Charlton comic published twenty years earlier, or Lost Girls is just slashfic based on books published a hundred years ago. Because it's high culture stuff Moore's generally riffing on, he gets away with it, but I see a ton of similarities between Johns endlessly referencing the stuff he likes in the DCU in his books and Moore endlessly referencing whatever he likes in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Plok Says

Is Lost Girls really "just slashfic"? Is Watchmen really described at all well just by saying it's "based on" the Charlton comics?

Patrick says
It's not just that, there's other issues in there, but those works are as much based on the existing works that Moore drew on as Johns's Green Lantern stuff is on the comics that Moore wrote. I think it gets down to the difference between high and low culture, that if you copy a foreign film, it's an homage, if you copy a current film, it's stealing. People have different attitudes towards different pieces of culture, so Moore drawing on the power of cultural icons in Lost Girls is treated differently than Johns doing the same in Blackest Night because Peter Pan has a different cultural position than Green Lantern does.

But, looking at where pop culture is now, you could argue that Moore's riffing on obscure Victorian characters is much more insider-y and self indulgent than Johns doing similar things with DC's big characters. Who do more people know, Batman or Allan Quatermain? That's not to say that Johns comics are necessarily more accessible, and by no means better than League, but it's to say that conceptually I think he and Moore are doing the same thing. There's nothing wrong with doing that thing, but it's hypocritical to criticize Johns for doing it when he gets so excited about referencing all these obscure works in League.

Plok says
I think if you want to compare Batman and Allen Quatermain, you should also compare Dr. Jekyll with, say, Hector Hammond...just to keep the scales balanced. But more to the point, I don't think it's enough to say Johns and Moore are doing the same thing in mining old cultural seams for their own purposes, without at least nodding to what those purposes much is Geoff Johns really repurposing what he references? Moore looks at the sublimation of sexuality in children's stories, Johns has Green Lantern fight Sinestro again...I don't think it's crazy to call that a difference of kind, and not degree.

Kenny says
Johns' comics are like warm milk and cookies on a cold day. I don't see anything wrong with that. Sometimes I feel a little out of step with the readers of this blog, because you all really seem to crave the dynamic, interesting, and experimental comics. I think that's cool, and I enjoy them too, but I also don't eschew just straight forward superhero books either. Maybe I'm just a lazy reader, but I don't feel the need to be challenged every time I read. Sometimes I just want to see what's happening with Superman.

Johns gives me those kinds of comics. Pretty damn good ones, at that. They're melodramatic in a more refined Claremont-fashion, and fan-fic-ish, but that's just what I need sometimes.

I do think Johns fails at bringing forth any big ideas, like Moore, Morrison, Miller, or the complexity of an Azzarello, Ennis, or Ellis, but I think he's really great at what he does do -- delivering the pure essence of characters in fun stories.

Christian writes
Geoff Johns writes stuff for the melodrama, the action and the quotable quips. Sadly, he's not the best at it. On a purely idea-based level, they seem primarily based in the mindset of a thirteen year old. The idea for the different emotions and the different lantern corps cemented that for me. His stuff is never really "interesting" in the way that Fraction's or Morrison's work is, and craftwise, he's pretty by-the-numbers. Geoff Johns has never ever surprised me, and because so much of his character-work is based on the reader's previous fondness for the characters (when did Johns actually do some honest to God characterbuilding?), a lot of it rings hollow to me.

When plok writes of Johns "how much is Geoff Johns really repurposing what he references?" this to me is the key issue here. What I want to see in creative work is not the old again (Barry Allen and Hal Jordan back in costume) or the radically new (some edgy modern art thing that eschews basic aesthetics altogether) -- what I want to see, basically always, is something new made out of something old in such a way that I can SEE some links between the old thing and the new thing, and contemplate the degree and VALUE of the revision. Because you know if the universe is COMPLETELY EMPTY and you are sailing though it in a flying saucer just for the fun of it how are you supposed to know you are moving at all without something to MOVE AGAINST.
Claremont has been such a great thing to look at on this blog because he is so often shaking up that status quo and using motifs to call readers attention to the difference between where he has been and where he is going -- when he created the ALL NEW ALL DIFFERENT X-Men he really KEPT it ALL NEW AND ALL DIFFERENT over the years almost to a fault -- there was never anywhere to rest, which I really kind of admire. It all just keeps changing and building.

When Moore draws on literary history in League it CAN be empty, just empty reference and game playing (and I felt this for a good deal of Black Dossier, which I do not think I ever did read all the way through) but at the heart of it he is doing something analogous to what a literary critic does when he writes an essay on Victorian Literature -- putting different texts next to each other to tell us what new thing can be learned from the juxtaposition. Sometimes it is going to be nothing, but some times you are going to realize just how much has changed in our categories of high-culture and pop-culture and what is considered what and who comes out of what, and what is the background of what, what leads up to what and what points the way to what. And he has a lot to SAY about these things, though like me blogging there are stretches where he is talking when he maybe should not be.

Patrick says "That's not to say that Johns comics are necessarily more accessible, and by no means better than League, but it's to say that conceptually I think he and Moore are doing the same thing." Conceptually they may be doing the same thing but people saying they are not may just be expressing themselves badly -- the effects, the accomplishment, the aesthetic power is the thing people are reacting to, not the basic concept. They are just looking to justify the aesthetic experience with reference to conceptual categories that are kind of beside the point. As if I were to look at a painting and say "my god Picasso must be a great artist because he had the best PAINT" I am just grasping in the dark to express the thing here. The thought that Picasso is good is right but the justification is off. Moore is a good writer and Johns is not, and the fact that they are engaged in similar artistic modes should not be an issue.

Kenny defends Johns unchallenging writing, and I wrote a whole paragraph about how the aim of art should be to take us from simple pleasure to complex pleasure and Johns keeps us all from growing and how I totally agree with Christian's assessment of Johns. But I deleted it because I just don't know why I find it unacceptable to read Johns when we could be reading Morrison, but I am perfectly happy to veg out watching comfort shows like Frasier when I could be watching the Sopranos. I too sometimes just want my milk and cookies -- but for some reason I get angry at adequate comics while accepting -- and even really liking -- a lot of adequate television. I find it frustrating to end with a kind of "to each his own" mentality, but on this one, it is all I have got. Sometimes I just have no idea why I am doing what I am doing.


neilshyminsky said...

"I too sometimes just want my milk and cookies -- but for some reason I get angry at adequate comics while accepting -- and even really liking -- a lot of adequate television. I find it frustrating to end with a kind of "to each his own" mentality, but on this one, it is all I have got."

But if you're suggesting that Frasier is analogous to Geoff Johns' superhero comics, I think there's room for another degree or kind - a level in between Johns and Moore, as it were, even if it's closer to the former. Because if Frasier and Hal Jordan are both cookies, Frasier is a Dutch butter cookie and Hal belongs to one of those bulk food no-name brands that, once you've finished (if you finish) leave you contemplating whether you should have bothered with the cookie in the first place.

Also, I suspect that having to pay for each individual comic that you specifically choose, as opposed to paying for all your TV at once and so not feeling as if you are actually paying for the trash you might watch, has something to do with resenting a bad comic more than a bad TV show.

plok said...

I think the key thing is that reading and watching TV are two very different activities -- and that you feel comfortable watching some mediocre crap where you wouldn't feel comfortable reading some similarly mediocre crap is one of the ways we can distinguish those activities from one another, and know their difference. So that's not a bug, Geoff -- it's a feature.

I sometimes like milk and cookies too, but usually only after I've had my meat and potatoes...also, following Neil, if the cookies are cardboard and the milk is watered, I'm not so sure I do want them.

deepfix said...

I skimmed over this whole piece cause we were talking about superheroes and it was too long. can someone sum this up for me?

ScottMcDarmont said...
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ScottMcDarmont said...

I'm with Neil on this one... I think you're selling Frasier short. Sure, it's a fairly formulaic sit-com that didn't break any new ground in the way that, say, Seinfeld did but it is, as far as the form of the traditional sit-com is concerned pretty top of the line in terms of quality in writing, acting and characters. So I don't really think Frasier is Johns... Frasier is more like, I'm just gonna say, Peter David and Johns would be Everybody Loves Raymond... Or The Big Bang Theory.

I also agree with Plok, I think the fact that comics are read has a lot to do with this as well... Outside of comics, I'm a big fan of fiction and, whenever friends try to reccomend a work of 'popular fiction', usually with the prefix of 'well, you don't have to think about it but it's a good page turner' I find myself getting bored within a couple of chapters. The reason I can't read Stephen King, Grisham or Dan Brown is because, as entertaining as they are to others, they bore me. Also, reading is a more willful activity, you have to make time to do it... however, when it comes to Milk and Cookies television especially, it's usually the result of too much time on your hands... One of my Milk and Cookies shows is CSI reruns on Spike TV and, the best part about that show is, if I miss an episode, it doesn't matter, If I get busy and can't watch it for a while, even so far as having to just shut the TV off mid episode, It's cool and, when I watch an episode, it's only an hour of my time.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is... No, Stephen King, I will not read your 1000 page interpretation of The Simpsons movie because I don't have that much time on my hands.

Anonymous said...
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Geoff Klock said...

I feel a little like I loaded the deck in my favor, because I did not really want to name one of my real guilty pleasures because it is too guilty -- the sitcom Reba.

Marc Burkhardt said...

I don't think there's such a thing as a guilty pleasure. We should accept it where we find it.

Anyway, Reba isn't that bad of a show. If she wasn't a country singer, it probably would have had a better rep.

plok said...

I like Reba more than Frasier!

Geoff Klock said...

PLOK, MARK -- I cannot believe you are validating me on this reba thing. I kind of love it .

neilshyminsky said...

I, for one, am appalled.

Paul said...

Would you pay 4 bucks an episode for Fraser though?

plok said...

Not in a million years...hey, try this on for size, though: I'd flat-out gamble ten bucks on a movie!

Often have, in fact!

Verdancy said...

And you can see why some people treat movies the way Geoff treat comics can't you, given that. But I at least am more tolerant of a bit of fluff in my cinema because of all the social activity that surrounds it, and I think something similar may happen with the comics fans who like Johns.

plok said...

Well, I think Johns' comics do offer a sense of fannish engagement, just like Stan Lee used to promote at Marvel Comics -- wiser heads than mine have suggested this was a major component of the Marvel Mania, and something Stan got very right, that DC took forever to catch up on. It's a little bit like a soap opera fan talking back to the screen: they're not crazy, they're just in pursuit of a particular kind of engagement with "their stories" -- talking back heightens the bogus "face-to-face" relationships that soap operas are so good at providing.

You can tell I wrote a sociology paper on this once, can't you...

So, yeah, I think at the very least it draws on the social...which is a way of saying it's "fan-fic" without the negative connotations, I think. Fan-fic's a positive pleasure for very many people, and in a way I think we're wrong to just turn it into a pejorative...although I also happen to think Johns' books aren't very good! But that doesn't mean I've never talked back to a soap opera myself -- so I don't think there's anything specially abnormal about that behaviour.

Well, hell...I spent my life reading comic books, you know?

So, damn good point.

frank said...

Sorry if this was said but might this be a theory? You're positing Geoff Johns as Frasier and Alan Moore as The Sopranos. I think auteur theory might explain it, and guilt too. I don't watch Sopranos, but I believe there was one guy who ran the thing and wrote the last episode etc. Some guy who benefits from intelligent people watching his show. With crappy sitcoms, we don't have any sense of an auteur(s). They just pump out the stuff for the masses. Meanwhile, with comics, we can say Geoff Johns is a good, yet not transcendent tv writer... But when you read the book and you see his name and you see Frank Miller's name, you kinda wish that Frank Miller were writing this instead of Geoff Johns. Why, you think, am I lining Johns' pockets when I should use my money to make DC pay Frank Miller more money to write this. It goes back to your wish that Fraction's books could be profitable. With sitcoms (I also like Frasier so let's substitute Two and a Half Men) there's a sense that that shit's gonna get pumped out no matter what...