At FogCon I was on a panel about anti-heroes, and the consensus was so uniform, across the panel, that shiny true-blue good-guy heroes were passé that I actually switched sides and was like, “Wait a second? Isn’t there worth in showing that people can actually, like, be good?”
Recently I for some reason found myself reading a few Superman and Superman comics, and I was like, you know what? I actually like Superman. I used to think he was boring, but somehow he’s not. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it’s just the book that I read–Sales’ and Loeb’s A Man For All Seasons, which shows him, in four stories that’re set in four different seasons, trying to figure out his role in the world–but there’s something about Superman that is very charming. In the movies, he often seemed a bit dull-witted, and that aspect was present in the comic, but it was a dull-wittedness that suited him. He’s like Rocky: he’s a simple man who finds himself in extraordinary situations. And because he is so often unequal, intellectually, to the challenges in which he finds himself, he has to fall back on certain basic principles.
In this book, Superman seems continually to be fazed by the darkness of the world, and by how unequal he is to the task of helping everybody in it. He himself isn’t an anti-hero. He never comes close to doing evil. But he has doubt. He struggles with the task he’s taken on. His goodness is challenged by the evil of the world.
This is a story that we don’t think about very often, but I think it’s the most basic story the world has to offer: the struggle to be good even when you don’t have to be. This is a story that the ancient world was better at telling, perhaps, than we are today. The Iliad is nothing more than a chronicle of people trying to act with honor, as they understand the term, in a situation that is fundamentally awful.
In modern superhero or high fantasy stories, we don’t necessarily see this, because, as powerful as the heroes are, the villains are oftentimes even more powerful (or at least seemingly more powerful). The X-Men don’t need to struggle with the consequences of their power, because they are always portrayed as the oppressed rather than the oppressor. Batman, too, despite being a billionaire, is always an underdog in this terrible, crime-ridden city.
But Superman is never the underdog. There is no challenge he cannot eventually defeat. So his elemental struggle is simply the struggle to stay true to himself.
These have been exciting times in my life. And like all the other exciting times that have gone by since I began this blog, I’m not really going to talk about them. Hopefully, though, in a few days, there will be something to say. Anyways, this blog is about books, not coy personal notes.
Right now the primary purpose of this blog is to say that I just read a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel which is one of the best things I have ever read in my life. It’s called Fun Home. It’s a memoir that’s mostly about her closeted gay father (although, as she notes, it’s kind of inappropriate to call someone closeted if they never come out, since you’re usurping their ability to create their own sexual identity and whatever, he’s dead).
I think that I like the graphic novel format because it takes away the parts of books that I am psychologically unable to digest: the descriptions. Unless books write their descriptions in a very specific way (for instance, in the way that Faulkner does, as pictures created with the connotations and denotations of words, rather than pictures created with the mental images attached to words), then visual descriptions mean pretty much nothing to me. This creates problems for me in reading, for instance, Proust.
But in graphic novels there are no visual descriptions. There are both words and pictures. It’s kind of the best of both words, since GNs don’t lose the best part of books, which is the narration. A narrator is a pretty powerful thing to have. All books have them. It’s hard to believe that movies even work, actually. I guess even movies have narrators…they have the camera, anyway, and the things it chooses to show. But that feels very different.
But most graphic novels don’t really hit me where I live, because in order to appreciate them, you need to spend more time looking at the pictures than I am naturally prone to. You need to look at the pictures first, and then back at the text, and then back at the picture, and then maybe at the text again. Actually, it would be really interesting to read some sort of hermaneutic-psychological-neurological study of exactly how people read graphic novels…because I am pretty sure I am doing it wrong. If I read forward, I always feel like I am missing something, but if I slow down, then I start getting bored.
Anyway, that was not a problem with Fun Home. And that’s for two reasons: one) almost none of the action in the book really takes place in scene. As in, the pictures don’t really depict stories, with dialogue and action. They’re more illustrations, of the ongoing narration, which is scrolled across the top of most pictures (between two rows of pictures). And the second) reason is that the writing is really good.
Most times I do not say that the writing is good. It is kind of assumed that the writing is good, right? But that is with novels. I think with graphic novels, the assumption is that the writing is functional. Sometimes the writing is even actually kind of bad. That’s why I am excited to be able to get up on my high horse and be able to say that the writing in this novel is really good. Example:
It’s shot through with that sort of narrative voice, like a really smart adult trying to remember what it was like to be a really smart teenager and not using precisely the right words, but somehow using words that convey the tone of it…what it felt like, from inside. The whole thing is very claustrophobic. You can see the other characters, in images, and you can see little word bubbles sometimes. But you know that they’re marionettes, acting out this story in the stage of someone else’s mind. And that’s fine. It still manages to contain the intense reality of narrative storytelling, because Bechdel is talking about a story that no one really knows. She’s talking about secrets that her dad took to his grave. In order to bring life to him, she has to reanimate him using her memory, other peoples’ remembrances, and a hefty amount of speculation. It is a completely baller performance.
Oh, and there’s also this whole other part of it, which is the books. Each chapter is sort of subtly informed by a book that her dad loved. She tries to use the fictional characters to explain his life. But not in a pedantic way, or as some kind of pyrotechnic narrative trick…it’s more of a scholarly exercise, actually…a bit of bio-crit in reverse, like you can see into someone’s character by the books that they talk about (the reverse image of the notion that you can see into a book by knowing about the person who wrote it).
This technique contains one of the petit pleasures of the book, which is just that of recognizing allusions. It’s fun to actually understand something better because you read some book. Once a friend of mine directed me to a neuroscience blog which talked about the appeal of modernist art, and it talked about how the human mind gets jolted with happyjuices whenever it recognizes a pattern. Hence, something like cubist paintings, which make us work harder to see something in them, give us a consequently greater reward. I think it’s the same with allusion. There’s just alot of fun in recognizing that something is like something else. This book sort of supercharges that fun by walking you through the allusions. It’s hard to describe, but it is very good times.
Oh, and I didn’t even talk about the best part of the book, the whole first section, the section that made me think, “I need to blog this post-haste”. It describes her father’s monomaniacal quest to restore her family’s run-down Victorian mansion to its original condition. It is as beautiful, strange, and evocative an image as I have ever encountered. As a set-piece, it is kind of amazing, and it provides an element of reality to the character of her father that is somehow slowly chipped away at by the uncertainties of the rest of the narrative.
Anyways, so it seems like I am going to be mostly in the mood for lighter reading fare during the next two weeks (except for Don Quixote, which I am still working on), and I was wondering if anyone had any recommendations for graphic novels. I’d prefer not to embark upon any series, unless I can feel okay about just reading the first chapter for now. In the past I’ve really enjoyed Persepolis, Sandman, and Scott Pilgrim.