Tuesday, 28 February 2012
On Seth's "It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken"
Of course, prejudice operates on a level that it's hard for the unwittingly prejudiced mind to monitor. Take It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken. Consciously, I'd no doubt at all that I'd be glad to have read it. But having so enjoyed Seth's "picture-novella", I'm suddenly aware of how completely it contradicted my expectations, which is something of a surprise, because I didn't know that I was carrying those expectations in the first place. Now I can see that I'd unconsciously pigeon-holed it as a potentially elitist, point-scoring celebration of a more supposedly adult and artistic approach to graphic storytelling than that typically found in the common-or-garden action/adventure comic-book. Whatever its more positive qualities were undoubtedly going to be, some fragment of my pathetically wounded inner fanboy had already decided that Seth's work would prove to be at least in part an expression of disdainful snobbery matched with indy-cartoon one-upmanship.
It's not, as anyone who's visited this blog before will know, that I'm a rabid apologist for the superhero book, but I do refuse to damn the sub-genre's worth and potential just because of the poor quality of most of the product inspired by it. Similarly, I cringe at would-be hipsters measuring out their aesthetic distinction over that of the dumb masses in terms of how intellectually Olympian and challenging their preferences in comics are, and yet, there's a clear distinction between the value of a work of art and that of the snobs who associate themselves with it. Why would I pre-judge Seth's books according to the way I've seen them used to sneer as the proles with their super-blokes and wonder-chicks? I've a well-practised, deliberately maintained loathing for anyone's art or criticism which expresses the superiority of one particular medium over another, or of any one genre over all of its competitors, and with such a high-handed neutrality, it seems, has come a temptation to judge work as snotty and self-aggrandising long before the evidence of any hauteur and pseudo-intellectualism is in.
I could, perhaps, squirm out a defence that I spent my youth knowing that the art I most adored was regarded with contempt by the mainstream media and academia alike, or by describing a life in teaching spent forever bumping against the highbrows to whom the bloodless Hampstead novel was the highest expression of creative worth. I could even point to times when the only comics readers I knew were so against the very idea of a panel without a costumed crime-fighter in it that the likes of Jonah Hex and Nick Fury: Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. were regarded as heretically pretentious. (Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, or so I thought.) In short, I admit to being weary of the fact that a great deal of the pop culture I most value has been consistently defined as being either pablum for half-wits or pretentious artistry for the chattering classes. It's always either what Gore Vidal called the P-Novel or the U-Novel, the unashamed and populist or the self-conscious and excluding, and I've never felt comfortable with either front in that particular culture war. In fact, I've always failed to be able to distinguish between the ultimate worth of, say, Ditko's many super-men and the novels of Jane Austen, despite knowing how ridiculous the dilemna will appear, and I rather resent feeling as if I ought to be able to do so. As such, the unexpressed suspicion that Seth's work might read as yet another example of one kind of cartoonist establishing his superiority over less exalted product was enough to keep me unwittingly away from It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken without my ever realising that that was so.
Or, to put it in its least complimentary and most objective way, I'd matched the snobbery I detested so thoroughly that I wasn't even aware of my own mutton-headedness. Worse yet, my prejudices were entirely unfounded, as I'm sure that everyone reading this has long known. It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken couldn't be less of a book designed to show the inherent superiority of a small cadre of art cartoonists and their rarefied, exclusive tastes. In fact, Seth's story is as touchingly critical of any such monominded high-handedness as it's hauntingly moving on the topic of how pop culture obsessions can intensify our alienation from the positive human aspects of the world around us. That Seth has no time for the action/adventure comic book, with its emphasis, as he told the Comics Journal, upon "confrontation", is entirely irrelevant here, for this is a story of how any life-swallowing infatuation can leave its bearer isolated and dysfunctional. That would be as true for the entirely besotted acolyte of widescreen superhero books as for the nostalgically-befuddled lover of fifties New Yorker cartoons and obscure romance titles. Rather than a fetichisation of the exalted taste and fashionable emotional despair of the art-cartoonist, It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken is a smart and compassionate critique of any such a proposition.
It's not just that Seth's work quietly but forcibly woke me up to the shameful presence of my own bias, though for that alone I'd be exceptionally grateful that I'd read his book. For it's such a wonderfully judged examination of a man who's attempting to live his life through his art rather than through his relationships with those around him, and in that, it's a moving wake-up call for all of us who are too busy thinking about anything at all that isn't directly connected with real, solid, dangerously individual human beings. "Pretentious" and "elitist" are the very last words that I'd use to describe this genuinely moving and, at times, disturbingly telling tale, and yet something in me was sure that that's what I'd find.
How more wrong could my lurking suspicions have been? What were they doing lurking there in the first place? Mea culpe.
This week's instalment in The Year In Comics series over at Sequart concerns Seth's It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, which I really have been touched by in a way that I didn't foresee at all. You can visit that piece, and I hope you'll consider doing so, here;