Thursday, July 15, 2010

FLASHBACK: Callahan and Wolk on Bendis's "New Avengers"

Here's a flashback for the faithful readers. This was a conversation between Douglas Wolk and me, scheduled to hit the old Sequart website just as Douglas's "Reading Comics" was making its debut in 2007. We focus on a single issue of Bendis's "New Avengers," and without the context of what will end up happening in "Secret Invasion" and beyond, we speculate and ponder. It's time capusule fun for the whole family!

A GeniusboyFiremelon Flashback:

Douglas Wolk: Thanks for inviting me to this little back-and-forth. I should mention for the benefit of our readers, before we get started, that I suggested we should discuss this week's issue of New Avengers--before either of us had actually seen it. And I have no idea if you've been reading New Avengers anyway; I'm curious about your reaction either way.

But--oh, why pretend? Topic A is, of course, the pair of assertions you made in your CBR interview about your Grant Morrison book that have raised the blogosphere's hackles. Here's the first one, for readers who haven't encountered it yet, in a discussion of some of Morrison's intertextual tricks and thematic schema:

I always get really frustrated with people who say "I don't get it" or "it just doesn't make any sense." I just think that people who say that are just bad readers. They just don't know how to read.

And here's the second:

I listened to an interview on Comic Geek Speak with Matt Fraction. It was about how "Casanova" has all this subtext going on but it's also just a really cool spy story, but one of the Comic Geek Speak guys was just talking about how he couldn't read "Casanova;" that he just didn't understand it. He gave it four issues and it was just over his head. And there was this whole debate about whether or not comics have a deeper meaning; whether something like "Casanova" has a deeper meaning, and this guy who hosted the Comic Geek Speak show really believes that there is no deeper meaning. He just says "no."

"No" to "Casanova" in particular?

To any comic books. His defense was, "Well, whenever you guys play up the deeper meaning of anything, I just don't think that stuff's there. I think you're reading too much into it." That's a criticism I hear a lot. "You're reading too much into it. Those meanings aren't there." As a teacher, I face that with students studying literature as well. First of all, I don't understand that philosophy. But my counter argument is, it is there, because I've just shown you it being there. And then their retort is always, "That's not what the author intended." I don't care what the author intended, that's what the effect of the writing is. It doesn't matter if the author intended it if that's what's there.

I'd like to tackle the second one first--and this will eventually get around to New Avengers, I swear. What you're talking about here is what lit-crit types over the last 60 years or so--especially the New Critics, as they had the good sense to call themselves--have usually referred to as "the intentional fallacy." (Only sort of related to the Pathetic Fallacy from Fables.) The short version, in the words of W.K. Wimsatt, is that the "poem" (for which read "work") is "detached from the author at birth"; that once it's in the world, it means whatever it means.

Now, this is a useful critical tactic--and since my first important literature instructor was Helen Vendler, who's more or less the last of the New Critics (Jim Starlin miniseries coming soon!), it's the tradition in which I learned to think about art. There are also some useful modified versions of "it doesn't matter what the author had in mind," including "what the author had in mind matters, but not necessarily more than any other interpretation," and "to the extent that the author doesn't communicate what she had in mind, she's failed." (Which speaks to your first hackle-raiser, I think; unilaterally making readers the "bad" ones in the equation suggests that authors are infallible.) I mean, it is interesting what authors (and other creators) intend; that's why people like to read afterwords and liner notes and such. If something's interesting to me, then it matters to me, Q.E.D.

But, remember, I'm the guy who's got the tattoo of the brick from "Krazy Kat": I think it's a fact of life that the message sent is not necessarily the message received. (And that, right there, is a great example of subtext in comics. The brick Ignatz throws at Krazy is a brick for sure, but it's not just a brick.)

One of my favorite rationales for text-interpretation, actually (New Avengers comin' soon! Not kidding!), is at the beginning of Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin, a fat and fascinating book of extremely close readings of Bob Dylan's lyrics. Dylan may not have intended to build "Not Dark Yet" out of the same set of words as Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," or to paraphrase lines from Mother Goose again and again in the course of his Under the Red Sky album, Ricks says, but the fact is that he did; it's in there, and one of Dylan's enormous strengths as an artist is the fact that he's incredibly well-read and can process all the stuff he's read, consciously or unconsciously, into lyrics that evoke a thousand other things. He's a great transformer, which is one of the most important things that artists do.

This brings us, at last, to the SPOILERY realm of New Avengers (not New Avengers/Transformers, I'm afraid). There's one big logical flaw in this issue, which is that the team concludes on the basis of Elektra's corpse being a Skrull that there's a full-scale Skrull invasion on. And we know from all the "extratextual" stuff going on--on Newsarama and Wizard Universe and so forth--that there actually is a Skrull "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" scenario happening. (That also makes the "thought balloon" trick in Mighty Avengers make a lot of sense; the only way we can know particular characters aren't Skrulls is if we can read their minds, which through the magic of comics we can!) Still, it would've been just as reasonable for the team to conclude that a Skrull had replaced the dead Elektra half an hour before. That would invalidate this whole story's premise, of course...

For that matter, the "we can't go public about the alien invasion because everyone would think it was just a hoax" business doesn't hold water in the Marvel universe, where everybody knows about the Skrulls already and there's an alien ship shaped like a big rock hovering over Manhattan in half the comics published this month. But what Bendis is particularly good at is character work, and there's a lot of it this time. I love Luke and Danny not talking to each other, Peter dealing with his terror by wisecracking and acting on his usual responsibility trip ("I did what I could!"--why having a few pounds of something sticky on the front of the plane would be helpful isn't clear, but hey), Wolverine pointing the finger at himself along with everyone else.

My biggest reservation about this storyline is that it depends on a deep, deep knowledge of Marvel continuity to make sense, despite all the expository dialogue in the first half of this issue. (I am fairly sure that the chatter about Jessica not breastfeeding the Nameless Skrull-Baby is somehow related to the Skrulls/milk calculus in this issue from 1983, which is not exactly playing fair, even though I think it was referenced in this miniseries a mere twelve years ago.) Here's a question for you, though: should it be a baseline assumption that a New Avengers reader should be willing to do some research on the Internet to make sense of the plot of #32--not the subtext, but literally what the characters are talking about? If not, does that make her a "bad reader"?

And here's another question on "bad reading": I kind of don't get what's happening on the last few pages of this issue. From the first-page recap, I get that the EMP from Mighty Avengers knocks out the power on the jet; Dr. Strange casts some kind of a spell that... you know, does a thing. Or doesn't. After the plane crashes (and all the non-invulnerable types appear to be knocked out but conveniently not permanently injured or dead), we see: a pair of reaction shots of Spider-Woman (green eyes? does that mean she's Skrully? she's always had green eyes, I think!), Wolverine eyelessly growling at her and quickly getting beaten in a fight, and then walking off with Skrullectra's corpse, evidently to bring it to Tony. But this issue, and especially the final scene, is absolutely packed with reaction shots, and I have no idea if they're supposed to mean something, and if so what. (Bendis likes to use wordless sequences to communicate stuff with lots of emotional import, and it's easy for even very good artists to screw those up if their drawn "actors" don't get the message across. Remember Black Bolt's impenetrable gestures at the end of the Illuminati special? I loved the parody of that sequence in the Mini-Marvels story in World War Hulk Prologue...)

The upshot is that there's been some kind of breakdown between Bendis's authorial intention and my reading of this issue's final scene. Does that make me a bad reader, Bendis a bad writer, Yu a bad artist, or some combination of those?

My reply (which I'll translate into html before posting--after giving you a chance to respond) (oh, and by the way, like most Wednesday addicts, I pretty much read everything, so yeah, I'm familiar with Bendis and New Avengers):

Timothy Callahan: That's a lot to think about, but before I get into my reading of New Avengers #32 (which I do, in fact, read regularly, along with almost everything on the comic shop wall), I'll address my grand (and potentially controversial) claims about "bad readers." As a once-upon-a-time Philosophy major (before turning to the MUCH more profitable English academic track), I have a tendency to posit a philosophical stance and see how substantial the counter argument becomes. It's a technique as old as Socrates. Remember the time he debated Euthyphro about whether or not piety should be based on a literal reading of the myths? That was the good old days. Socrates, by the way, was against a literal interpretation, while Euthyphro was in favor of it. Ah, the old metaphorical vs. literal debate, whatever happened to that? Oh, wait, that's what WE'RE doing. (By the way, if Socrates had grown up in the 1980s, like I did, he would have known that the best way to settle this age-old debate is by having a breakdance battle, so what do you say, Douglas?)

If I were to elaborate on my definition of what makes a bad reader, I would say a bad reader meets at least one of the following conditions:

(1) He or she is unable or unwilling to understand the literal meaning of the words or images in a text.
(2) He or she is unable or unwilling to understand the connections between words and images in a text.
(3) He or she is unable or unwilling to recognize figurative language in a text.
(4) He or she is unable or unwilling to recognize irony in a text.

I base these conditions on the way language is acquired and the development of the skill of reading. Children, learning to read more proficiently throughout school, get better at these four conditions of readership as they become more experienced (try using irony with pre-schoolers!), and the same thing is true for second language learners (try listening to a joke told in Spanish if you've never made it past Spanish II in high school--you probably won't "get it.")

Given a complete text (whether it be a poem, novel, film, or comic book), a good reader should be able to be able to meet at least the four conditions given above. The problem rests in the case of incomplete texts, and that's what New Avengers #32 is. And it's not just incomplete because it's the thirty-second chapter of an episodic, open-ended series. It's an incomplete text because it's part of the much-larger Marvel Universe story, which has been going on for decades.

A quick note here: In his book, Reading Comics, Douglas refers to the Marvel and DC comics as part of two "grand corporate narratives." The implication being that even if you read every Spider-Man comic ever published, it's still an incomplete text, because it's just one chapter in the larger, Grand Marvel Narrative. Douglas doesn't say in his book that incomplete texts (like a given writer's run on title) cannot be read and analyzed, but I'm saying that it's problematic because an incomplete text relies far more heavily on outside knowledge for basic understanding than a complete text would.

So, let's look closely at New Avengers #32 (and your questions about the issue) with the knowledge that we're dealing with one tiny part of one tiny chapter in the Grand Marvel Narrative that has been in existence since before we were born.

Like you, I have significant problems interpreting the conclusion of the story, but, as if we're reading a fragment of Hamlet, Act II (why is that kid so bitchy?!?), we're dealing with incomplete information. I presume Spider-Woman's motivation will become clear in a future issue, but for now, we're left with the information on the page, and here's what makes interpretation so difficult:

Leinil Yu, as stylish as he is, doesn't convey literal information very clearly. Take page one: The inset image of Peter Parker saying "So no one is going to talk?" doesn't look much like other versions of Peter Parker presented in the Grand Marvel Narrative, and because we only see a slight portion of his costume in an earlier panel, it's difficult to discern, even if you are familiar with Spider-Man, who this character is supposed to be. To test this theory, I asked my wife, who knows her super-heroes but doesn't necessarily read comic books very often, to read the first few pages of New Avengers #32, and tell me who says, "So no one is going to talk?" She said: I don't know. I don't recognize him. When I pointed out that it was Peter Parker, she said, "it doesn't look like him." It's no big deal to figure out who's talking if you are a regular New Avengers reader, but this is just the first example of this incomplete text relying on significant outside knowledge (that Spider-Man has a new costume, that Yu draws people with a lot of lines on their face, etc).

Yu also violates some basic rules of visual storytelling. Take page 3, for example. The transition from panel 5 to panel 6 breaks the 180 degree rule. The "camera" jumps from in front of Spider-Girl to behind her, making the conversation unnecessarily disorienting. It doesn't help the sake of clarity that, in the very next panel, the emphasis of the panel and the context of the previous panels, indicates that Spider-Woman is saying the lines which apparently (given the later context) belong to Wolverine. And that's just one page of awkward storytelling.

So, to recap: we're dealing with an incomplete text with unclear visual storytelling, which RELIES on visual storytelling in the last few pages of the issue to convey important information. You are definitely NOT a bad reader if you're confused by New Avengers #32.

Thus, we are left to interpret meaning. And, once again, I don't care what Bendis "intended" to convey in the sequence at the end. Although I might be curious to know what he had it mind so I could compare it to the sequence as executed, I firmly believe that the intention is irrelevant if it's not conveyed in the text itself. Bendis might clarify some of the things muddled by poor storytelling choices, but if he said "Spider-Woman is revealed to be a Skrull agent at the end," I would reply, "no, she isn't!" It's unclear. She might, in fact, turn out to be a Skrull. Sure. But at the end of New Avengers #32, all we're left with is a very suspicious Spider-Woman who steals the other Skrull body and lays a breakdance-battle-caliber smackdown on the apparently rabid Wolverine.

I think Yu's storytelling is excessively unclear and Bendis's reliance on prior knowledge, assumptions, and Yu's artwork makes for a bit of a mess. But because, once again, it's an incomplete text, I wouldn't say Bendis is a bad writer because of this one issue. Nor would I say Yu is a bad artist, even with his panel-to-panel continuity problems in this particular issue. Because it's a fragment. The stuff that's unclear will most likely become clear given enough time (and enough mega-crossover issues, which will almost certainly cause their own type of unclarity).

As another thought, the Grand Marvel Narrative relies on extensive contextual knowledge, and this issue is no exception, but it also relies on that knowledge to be imperfect. For example, some of the very same characters on the New Avengers team have been, in past issues of other comics, replaced by Skrulls at one time or another. Iron Fist once turned out to be the Super-Skrull in disguise! None of this information is referred to in New Avengers #32, and the characters behave as if this whole any-of-us-might-be-a-skrull routine is something new and dangerous.

In many ways, to be an ideal reader of a Marvel comic book is to be totally aware of every comic book story ever, while simultaneously being able to forget about any individual issue that doesn't correspond to the current direction of the Grand Marvel Narrative. What a weird way to tell a story!

To be a good reader, however, you just have to be willing to read and put forth (at least in your mind) an interpretation of the text, with the knowledge that it's an incomplete part of a much larger whole. You might even recognize the paranoia-in-an-enclosed-space allusion to The Thing from Another World or the subtext of mistructs which stems from Spider-Woman's history of duplicity. But what a good reader should never do is say, "I don't get it" and leave it at that.

Douglas Wolk: Interesting take on the "bad readers" issue, but I'd like to rise to your bait, and counter it by inverting your conditions. (And, of course, you know as well as I do how loaded "bad" is. But we're stuck with it for the purposes of this discussion; let's just imagine however many sets of quotation marks you like around it.) I do think the way you're framing the issue puts the entire burden of understanding a text on the reader, and as you note, New Avengers #32 is kind of a mess as texts go. So let's think for a moment about how those conditions might shift all the blame to the creator. A bad cartoonist, let's say:

1) Is unable to create words or images that can be understood easily with their intended literal meaning. (Yes, I think intention is important here. "Unwilling" doesn't apply, though: I can imagine cartoonists who _deliberately_ obscure their work's literal meaning--the first example that jumps into my head is Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden's Thriller...)
2) Is unable to create comprehensible connections between words and images in a text.
3) Is unable to make potentially figurative language in a text function in a figurative way.
...And I don't know how to make the "irony" term fit this one. I considered something about being unable to create texts that resonate beyond their literal meaning, but I think I'd rather award extra credit for that ability than take points away for lacking it...

As for the incompleteness of New Avengers #32, though--well, there are different kinds of incompleteness. The "incomplete" exception you suggest gives any Marvel or DC superhero comic an out for both bad readers and bad cartoonists, since no author or reader can have read the entire Grand Marvel Narrative or Grand DC Narrative. (Insert Mark Waid joke here.)

Yes, this issue of New Avengers isn't a complete story. But it's a complete commercial unit of a piece of entertainment--I paid my $2.99, and that's what I got--and so I think it has the obligation to be comprehensible. I don't ask it to be dramatically complete, I'm just asking it to make sense. That's not a complaint of not making sense in the way that people complained that Seven Soldiers #1 didn't make sense (it did, actually--every bit of it was there for a reason, and I will personally explain any sequence of it to anyone who posts a bit that confused them and explains what didn't make sense to them about it). But I am as close to an ideal reader as Brian Michael Bendis and Leinil Yu could reasonably ask for right now, and with all the good will I can muster and a fairly strong working knowledge of Marvel continuity (including every issue of both New Avengers and Mighty Avengers), I simply couldn't parse significant chunks of this story.

Now, it's true that Yu isn't so hot at making a lot of the characters look like themselves (pg. 4, panel 1: the dialogue is the only cue I had that that was Hawkeye), but I didn't have a problem with the page 3, panels 5-6 transition--the "camera" is actually only swinging 120 degrees, and we get two good cues as to what's going one: we see Spider-Woman turning her head, and the dialogue is consistent with everyone's speech patterns. (Peter's just made one wisecrack, and he follows Spider-Woman's jab with another one; Wolverine is continuing his monologue from two panels earlier, with the "and if any of that is true" bit.) I also think it's possible to break the 180-degree rule in comics and get away with it if you do it in a smart enough way--there's actually an example of it that I reproduced in the Jaime Hernandez chapter of "Reading Comics," where Hernandez handles it so smoothly that it took me years to notice that it was a little raspberry at the 180-degree principle. (You can see it here.)

The bit of visual storytelling in that scene that raised my eyebrows, actually, is page 4, panel 4. Echo's got a mean expression on her face, but where exactly is she sitting in the plane? From going back and looking at pg. 2, it looks like she's sitting opposite Spider-Woman, to the right of Dr. Strange; nobody's sitting in the seat opposite Wolverine, to the right of Spider-Man. But Echo is deaf--she reads lips. Can she see Wolverine's face? And noticing that reminded me of some earlier issue of New Avengers--I don't remember which, and I'm a few thousand miles away from my longboxes--in which Echo-as-Ronin responds immediately to something Iron Man says, despite the fact that she can't see his face. Is that a clue? Or is it just sloppiness? If you're planting clues, you cannot afford sloppiness.

In any case, I can't agree that Bendis's intention is irrelevant, because whatever Bendis's intention was here is going to become Marvel canon; it'll be the extratextual information we'll need to understand future stories. We're going to find out what it was, one way or another; where it really should have been made clear, though, was here.

Timothy Callahan: I do place the onus of interpretation fully on the shoulders of the reader. A text has no responsibility to "be" anything. It doesn't have to be entertaining, or suspenseful, or funny, or even clear. It simply has to exist. Then it's up to the reader to figure it out. But, I think the reader should be expected to read the complete work before making a critical interpretation (as it's unfair to the work, for example, to interpret the entire text on the basis of a paragraph alone). As you point out, since nobody has read the entire Grand Marvel Narrative (although Peter Sanderson would probably be more likely to have done so than Mark Waid), no reader can ever make a fully-informed interpretation of any Marvel comic book, which absolutely lets the creators off the hook.

So, let's revise that standard of "complete work," for the sake of the practicality. Let's say the "complete work," in the case of a serialized Marvel comic, is a sequence of issues in which a main plot goes through a beginning, middle, and end. That is a much more reasonable expectation for the reader, but it still leaves us with an incomplete text in New Avengers #32, and thus, an incomplete interpretation. So I still have problems with jumping to conclusions about narrative issues which might be resolved more clearly when read in a larger, more complete context.

You say that a comic book which you purchased for $2.99 has "the obligation to be comprehensible." I don't know that it does. Why do you expect it to be comprehensible simply because you paid for it? I go back to my earlier point: a text has no responsibility to "be" anything.

But Tim, you would surely say, this is a piece of commercial entertainment, and thus the reader should be able to expect entertainment, and unclear, nonsensical storytelling is not entertaining in the case of New Avengers #32. I'm not sure I agree that it's not entertaining because it's unclear, but I do agree that it is quite unclear (with the reservation, once again, that it might be more clear in a slightly larger context).

So let's jump right out and assume it's unclear, but not intentionally. For the sake of argument, we'll say that Bendis and Yu are attempting to be a bit subtle (in the sense that this isn't a Silver Age comic book in which every line ends with an exclaimation point. She's a Skrull!!! I'm a Skrull, too!!! etc.), but overall they are trying to give us the information we need to fully understand the story.

I agree with you that they have failed by those standards, even though I can still comprehend the basic plot of the story which runs something like this: they are all paranoid that the rest of them are Skrulls, they crash, Spider-Woman zaps Wolverine and walks off with Elektra-Skrull's body.

It's not a non-sensical series of words and images, so it doesn't fail in that most basic regard, but it fails to fully justify the Spider-Woman turn-of-events at the end. It doesn't just ignore the "why is she doing this question?" which is a fair mystery to leave hanging, but it ignores the "what exactly is she doing and what do her facial expressions mean on that page when Wolverine growls at her?"

The most obvious interpretation, that she is a Skrull herself, is based on the visual emphasis on her green eyes on that page. Jessica Jones's baby had green eyes in the previous issue, and that was supposed to be a clue of some sort, though that was just as vague in its implication. But did Spider-Woman, as you point out, NOT have green eyes before? isn't that her natural eye color? (It is her eye color throughout the issue.) And if it's not her natural eye color, how is a reader, even a pretty-close-to-ideal reader like you or me supposed to know the green eye thing is important?

So that is an example of sloppy storytelling, especially considering how supposedly dramatic the final few pages seemed to be. It felt like watching the climax of a whodunit, except all of a sudden the audio went out.

The other thing that complicates interpretation of New Avengers #32 is that Bendis has a history, as you point out, of sloppiness with regard to bits of potential storytelling information. If you continually have to play the game of "is it a clue or a mistake?" then your interpretation is always going to be suspect (at least in your own mind). Then again, if you COMPLETELY ignore authorial intent: "was it a clue or a mistake? It doesn't matter!," then you can just interpret the text incorporating even the mistakes into a theory of meaning. It's actually exactly what Marvel used to encourage with the No-Prize. Interpret our mistakes as canon and win an imaginary prize!

I don't mind giving Bendis the freedom to be vague at the end of the issue, personally, as long as the Spider-Woman sequence is explained in the next issue. So, in that case, I require something from a text. I guess I don't require a complete story that makes sense just because I paid $2.99, but I require something from a text if it is part of a larger, unfinished narrative: I require it to complete the story eventually. Perhaps even that is an inappropriate expectation in the Grand Marvel Narrative (which will never, presumably, end).


Timothy Callahan said...

I like how quaint this stuff is, a few years later. Especially the part where I talk about a Bendis comic selling for $2.99.

Jason Faris said...

Also the part where New Avengers used to be called New Avengers.

Timothy Callahan said...

Huh? New Avengers is still called New Avengers.

Justin B said...

So what was the final verdict--bad writing, bad art, or bad reader?