Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Authorial Intent vs. Planet Hulk

Over the past week, ever since the "bad reader" controversy, I've been bouncing from message board to message board, carrying on conversations about what it means to be a bad reader, what should someone reasonably expect from a comic, and does it matter what the author intends? Some of the discusions have been fruitful, while others have drifted away from the original topics, but it's been interesting to see how various comic book readers respond to these concerns, and it's given me a chance to clarify some of my thinking as well. I won't summarize all of the threads on all of the boards, but I've come away from it all with a new appreciation of how difficult it is to quantify the quality of a comic book. Even taking bias and subjectivity into account, whenever you try to set up any kind of somewhat objective standard of what a "good comic book" looks like, you end up either coming up with a list that has a giant disclaimer saying "THESE RULES MAY BE BROKEN AT ANY TIME," or you end up listing your favorite comics and trying to figure out what they all have in common, which in the case of someone with wide and varied tastes (like mine) ends up as a gigantically long list that doesn't help clarify any objective standards, ultimately.

So, what does any of this have to do with Planet Hulk?

Well, since none of us seem capable of coming up with clear-cut objective standards of comic book quality, Planet Hulk is going to be my guinea pig, as I approach it from several critical perspectives, none of which as fully-developed as I would like, but let's see what happens when we put this particular text through a limited and relatively shallow critical gauntlet for this trial run. We'll see if a combination of "objective" standards, applied to a text, gives us a more accurate assessment.

First, a note on the text. I'm referring to the Planet Hulk hardcover here, and my only exposure to the story is in this format. I did not read it during its monthly serialization.

By the way, I'm not going to define these approaches here, but their names should give you a pretty good idea about how each approach differs.

The Visual/Aesthetic Approach: This text holds together nicely. The art complements the bombastic drama when necessary and allows for quiet moments as well. Although several artists worked on Planet Hulk, none of the styles clash with one another, and the entire story flows together smoothly.

The "Expectation of Originality" Approach: Because Planet Hulk is a high-concept "Hulk as John Carter from Mars but with Gladiators" story, it suffers when looked at from this critical perspective. It's not even an original idea to place Hulk in such a foreign context anyway, since he has visited the microverse (the one with Jarella) a number of times in previous issues of The Incredible Hulk. It's at least a break from what's been going on with the Hulk in recent Marvel continuity, but it's somewhat of a rehash when looked at within a larger context. Even some of the story beats seem very familiar, because they are largely derived from the John Carter/Spartacus/Gladiator story archetypes.

The "I Want to See Hulk Smash Stuff" Approach: Hulk does indeed smash a lot of stuff. If that's what you're looking for, you'll get it here.

The Narrative Cohesion Approach: The text fares well if looked at with this approach because it reads as if it were composed as a long, single narrative. Nothing gets in the way of the main plot threads, and everything is resolved by the end of the book. Although the end is problematic, it does resolve the plot threads. Even though the entire story could be read as a kind of prologue for "World War Hulk," the fact that the Hulk is racing back to Earth to smash stuff in the epilogue of Planet Hulk is a type of closure. It's not necessary to actually see how he smashes stuff--just the knowledge that he will is enough to resolve all of the threads of the Planet Hulk narrative.

The Characterization Approach: The text fails on this level, ultimately. The Hulk has never been successfully portrayed with any complexity, and this story makes an effort, but there's just not much to work with. And the supporting characters are given "character moments" but they seem more like obligatory moments to make the characters serve specific roles within the plot. After reading the whole thing I didn't feel like I wanted to see more of any of the supporting cast.

The Authorial Intent Approach: This is where things get really sticky for me, and it's where the text meets its biggest failure. As I've said before, I don't care what the author intended if the effect doesn't show up on the page. But it is sometimes interesting to compare what the author intended with what the author actually accomplished to see if any discrepancy arises. In the case of Planet Hulk there is a HUGE discrepancy that points to the major flaw in the text. In his Afterword, writer Greg Pak says a lot of intelligent things about his concept of the Hulk, but one of the things he says about Planet Hulk is this: "...the terrible beauty of the story -- that kernel of truth that great writers from Stan Lee to Bill Mantlo to Peter David have bequeathed us -- is that rage, no matter how justified, always has a price." That sounds great, and that sounds like a story that I would have enjoyed reading, but that's not the story as presented in Planet Hulk. Pak refers to the end of the story as the proof that Hulk pays a price for his rage, but (and I don't want to spoil the story by explaining exactly what happens) the story does NOT end with a logical consequence of Hulk's own actions. It ends, if anything, with a strange deus ex machina--not even a deus ex machina, really, but whatever the opposite of that would be. Instead of a random force appearing at the end to solve the conflict, a random force appears to... well, you'll have to read it to find out. But the ending does not lead out of the Hulk's rage at all. If anything, the story ends up as a fable about the randomness of life and death. Or about the Hulk just having really crappy luck. But it's definitely not, as Greg Pak hoped it would be, anything about the consequences of rage.

So, by this last approach, Planet Hulk is a failure, and it points to the weakness of Act III.

Everything leading up to it was well-executed and logical, even if it wasn't shockingly original in any way. But that resolution so absolutely undermines everything that has gone before, that I can't help but feel that Planet Hulk is a failure. And that's why authorial intent doesn't matter in interpretation. Pak intended to convey a theme, and on the page that theme is not present. The text fails because the ending does not satisfy the thematic expectations established by the first 3/4ths of the story.

Pak doesn't get points for his intentions. He only gets points for the results.


Anonymous said...

I've not read Planet Hulk, and to be honest probably never will, so I'll keep my comments general.

As regards Authorial Intent your critique reads like an argument for authors not writing anything extra for the trade. Get your mate to do it, you're better off.

Also, to what extent can you use a blurb or an afterword as a guide for Authorial Intent? These can be editorial obligations, half-arsed rush jobs, particularly in comic compilations. Granted, the blurb, afterword, appendix etc can be metatextual in many novels (Scottish writer Alisdair Grey writes almost exclusively this way) and some comics, but not exclusively so. Or, in other words: What is the Intent of the Authorial Intent?

Yet again, I've not read any of the text you're discussing, but the rage quote sounds particularly rushed and clich├ęd. Surely the intent can be discerned from the comic itself? Does Planet Hulk set itself up as a dramatisation on the consequences of rage? Does it 'fail' because of a discrepancy between the ideas suggested by the dialogue and the conclusions to be drawn from the narrative?

For example 'Apocalypse Now' can be watched in terms of Authorial Intent as a film version of 'Heart Of Darkness' set during the Vietnam conflict. You don't need any background other that a familiarity with Conrad's novel to see this. You can even judge the film a failure on those terms, Brando's mumbling performance quoting a couple of lines but completely failing to convey Kurtz' definition of Horror. But this reading does little justice to the film, as wonderful a record of the insanity of filmmaking as was ever put on celluloid.

My point here is that the intent should surely be discerned from the text itself, rather than any blurb or interview. As you point out in your CBR interview, Grant Morrison did not consciously intend to make him Doom Patrol analogous to The Wizard Of Oz, but it's there, so it's (unconscious) Authorial Intent. Can we make allowances in the other direction? If it's not actually part of the text, then it's not intent.

Timothy Callahan said...

Intent can only be gleaned from a writer speaking about his our her intentions. Anything gleaned from inside the text isn't intent--it's content.

Planet Hulk does fail because of Act III either way, though. Since everything Pak sets up is removed by the denoument, and a new theme takes over. And, yeah, I don't think it's worth reading.

Anonymous said...

"Intent can only be gleaned from a writer speaking about his or her intentions"

Doesn't hat seems a little sweeping?

If you're simply defining terms, fair enough, but I would be concerned about such a concrete definition for reasons I've gone into above.

All I'm suggesting is that it might be useful to dismiss some authorial comments, particularly when they contradict or at least fail to match the content. This is a blurb for Planet Hulk after all, not the collected letters of Proust.

Likewise is seems a little limiting to separate content from intent. Are you saying an author's intent cannot be betrayed by the content of their work?

Anonymous said...

We can't know intent; we can only decipher content. How then do we judge "unity of effect"?

First by determining the "dramatic premise" embodied in the work itself and then by examining how that single premise is worked out through the machinery of story. This is where, I believe, serious critics can be most helpful to readers.

It's important to separate "premise" from "theme" and "concept". Both theme and concept are external to a work -- ideas imposed on a work by a reader through extrapolation and invention -- whereas the premise is internal and integral to a story.

A reader can ascribe to a story a limitless number of themes -- I identified about two hundred incipient themes in the first chapter of Planet Hulk alone -- since identifying themes is merely the process of naming different aspects of abstraction that emerge from the experience of reading. Theme is a useful tool to the reader, but it is of little to no use to the writer or artist in the heat of the creative process.

During an interview, a writer might say in retrospect, "I was writing about the inevitable degradation of love in the modern world," but that writer is acting as just another reader at that moment (contextualizing his or her own work after the fact and playing the role of critic), and this act is quite separate from the initial creative one.

Related to theme, "concept" generally takes two forms:

1. The Analogy
e.g., Apocalypse Now is Heart of Darkness set in the later 20th century; Planet Hulk is Frankenstein meets Gladiator

2. The Teaser Question
e.g., What if all males on earth, save two, were to die in a plague? (Y: The Last Man)

A writer might begin with such a question or analogy, but it is a beginning only. A story is not its concept, its basic scenario, its frame -- but it can seem so when we're in a particularly reductive mindset. And that's what makes it so useful to marketers and authors pitching their own work. We pose the question, make the comparison, and set up a pattern of expectation that can only be satisfied by the story itself.

And this is where premise enters the mix.

The dramatic premise is, at least in part, the "answer" to the teaser question. It is a simple, single statement of cause-and-effect -- of dramatic action and not theme -- that includes the story's inciting incident (the introduction of the primary conflict) and the crux of its crisis-climax-resolution sequence.

The premise is, at its essence, an expression of the pivotal change the protagonist brings about through the crisis decision and climactic action. And everything else in the story (characterization, setting, plot, mood, etc.) either introduces or develops (i.e., promotes and/or complicates) the materials needed for that change to occur. The premise must encompass the total story (or individual arc of an epic story) and must satisfy, and not merely set up, a pattern of expectation and closure.

Here's an example of a popular and successful premise, for the first arc (the origin story) of Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko: When young Peter Parker's beloved uncle is killed by a crook whom Peter could have stopped but chose to let go, Peter vows to fight crime and protect the innocent as Spider-Man.

Notice there's no mention of "with great power comes great responsibility"; assuaging guilt; coming to grips with adult identity; or other thematic baggage that is left for the reader to select and consider. All that's in the premise is the visible action -- the dramatic change -- that can be shown on the page.

I've learned that writers rarely "know" a story's premise until very late in the creative process, and it often means a lot of retroactive reconstruction (analogous to finding your ending so that you can go back and rewrite your opening). That isn't to say a writer must be able to articulate the premise, but it does mean that the premise must be there, driving every element of the story like an underground engine, for a determined reader to dig up and examine.

When we talk about a writer being "in control" of her material, I think it's more about how well she set up and followed through with the premise than it is about style or vision or voice.

Planet Hulk is weak not because it doesn't satisfy Greg Pak's desired concept for it (I believe the story he described in the commentary is the story he hoped to tell), which is really irrelevant, but because, as Tim has stated in slightly different terms, the premise breaks down when the resolution of the third act becomes disconnected from the expectation set up in the first two acts.

How exactly does this disconnection occur -- and what does it alll mean? Well, that's where the critics step in and exercise the tools of theory.

And that's where I'll leave the discussion for now.

Steven Withrow

Timothy Callahan said...

Andy, I think Steven makes some of the same points I would make, but the simple answer to you last question--and I'm not going to go into this in detail because I've talked about it in a million places over the past week--is that you can't call it intent unless you can read the author's mind or have the author verify the intent in an interview or something.

What was Shakespeare's intent in Hamlet? We can't know--we can only speculate.

See the wikipedia entry on the "intentional fallacy."

ATOM-HOTEP said...

I think something better suited to this kind of scrutiny is Spiderman: Reign, which is at least an ambitious failure.

Timothy Callahan said...

I didn't pick Planet Hulk because it was suited or not suited to any type of strategy. I wrote about it because I just read it and I wanted to look at it from multiple perspectives.

Interesting point about "Reign," though. It's clearly a DKR pastiche, but I would still avoid saying something like "Andrews intends 'Reign' as a DKR pastiche,' even though evidence indicates that statement is probably true. I'd still just show how those DKR elements resonate within the text itself, rather than in the mind of the creator.

"Reign" is a case where intent is transparent, though. Good call on that one.

Speaking of Kaare Andrews, I bought "Wolverine Origins Annual #1" this week simply for his astonishing artwork and I wasn't disappointed. That dude can draw the heck out of a comic book page.

Anonymous said...

"As I've said before, I don't care what the author intended if the effect doesn't show up on the page. But it is sometimes interesting to compare what the author intended with what the author actually accomplished to see if any discrepancy arises. In the case of Planet Hulk there is a HUGE discrepancy that points to the major flaw in the text."

or a major flaw in the writing of the authorial intent, perhaps?

If you're set on qualifying authorial intent as outside the text, then why consider it at all in the context of Planet Hulk? If it neither improves or enhances the reading, why mention it?

Timothy Callahan said...

Why mention it? Because that was the whole point of the "authorial intent approach"!!! To play by those rules. Did you not read the post?

Anonymous said...

I apologise Tim.

Based on your post (which I did read), I got the impression you were applying several different critical approaches to Planet Hulk.

When you came to section on Authorial Intent (which I gave greater credence to than the others due to it being the post title as well) I felt troubled by your description the piece having "failed" to meet those standards. Not for any reason related to the text, as I made clear I hadn't read and had no desire to, but because of your use of the blurb information contained within the Planet Hulk Trade.

I only wished to question the validity of treating it as authorial intent when it wildly differs from the outcome. You say in your post that sometimes its fun to apply. I didn’t find it fun; I found it a little unfair. Particularly as you describe Pak as the author when, (s you are well aware) he’s only one of a team of authors. To what extent did the necessary conclusion to Planet Hulk (to feed into World War Hulk) hamper Pak’ desire to tell a story of the price of rage or whatever? Is that Authorial Intent or Editorial Intent? And does editorial intent count as authorial intent in the output of DC and Marvel where writers and artists have to fit their stories into the grand narratives of Bendis or Paul Dini?

I was also humbly suggesting that in these modern times when we are tripping over evidence of authorial intent, if we are to consider it relevant to the text, it could at least be with the proviso that we take into account the source. And making reference to the text can clue us in to the relevance of intent. I appreciate that describing this as reading the intent from the text bothers you, but that’s what it sound like to me. Vive la difference.

I’m afraid I have you at a disadvantage. I can clearly see from your blog details your background and interests. Unfortunately I currently only have access to the computer at work, and no time to produce a blog. Otherwise you might have refrained from suggesting I look up "intentional fallacy” on wikipedia. I seem to recall dealing with that when I got my degree in English and Media Studies ten years ago.

One of my biggest concerns with recent noble moves by yourself and others to produce a solid academic approach (or approaches if you prefer) to reading and understanding comics is the transfer of critical theory wholesale from other media. Film studies obviously got bogged down for years with that, and the best stuff I’ve read on comics tends to deal with writer artists like Speigelman or Dan Clowes rather than tackling the more collaborative stuff that defines the vast majority of Superhero comics. In no way do I think you’re guilty of this generally, and you’ve chosen to write about Grant Morrison, which gives great scope for discussing DC or Marvel’s output as the creation of a sentient being which is fascinating stuff as far as I’m concerned. I just thought your use of the word “failure” in terms of Geg Pak’s authorial intent on Planet Hulk was a little unfair, like criticising a Mini Metro because it’s not a good Tractor.

I hope this makes my position clearer. I would only ask that if this comment inspires you to be as short as you were previously, that you don’t respond. I’ll take the hint that way and won’t bother you again.

Timothy Callahan said...

Sorry about the sarcasm, Andy. I knew you read the post based on your comments. And I'm glad to discover that you do, in fact, know what you're talking about. I've discussed the intentional fallacy with dozens of people over the past two weeks, and most have no context in lit theory at all, so I'm afraid I have to assume that nothing should be taken for granted.

And I do genuinely think it's fun to apply these various approaches to the study of comics. If it's not fun, why would I write about it for free?

I don't think it's unfair to the text (or Greg Pak) at all to say he's the "author" of "Planet Hulk." Even though it may be a corporate comic book, he's still listed as the writer in the credits. I assume the same Greg Pak who wrote the comic also wrote the Afterword, so his comments are more than fair game.

But the problem with my post was I wanted to wrap it up quickly at the end and so I jumped from "failure of intent" to "failure of the text" without really explaining that my conclusion isn't that the comic fails BECAUSE Pak's intent wasn't followed through, but that the comic fails because the ending doesn't resonate with what came before. Pak's comments highlight that flaw, but even without his comments or his presumed "intent," the narrative doesn't hold together in Act III.

You know what, though? I would MUCH rather have this kind of discussion about a book you've actually read. Then we would actually have something to discuss instead of just general theories. So--what have you read lately? Let's do an e-mail debate and I'll post the results here. Yes?

Anonymous said...

Apology gladly accepted.

I always liked Italo Calvino's approach, where suggests traeting the hypothetical reader of his work as if they were better educated and much smarter than he was. Which takes some doing.

It sounds great in theory but I appreciate the cynicism that grows like mould when you're wading through the murky swamps of the blogoshere.

Thanks for the offer. What have I read recently? Avoiding the obvious Grant Morrison stuff, Lets see....

Brubaker's Criminal and/or Daredevil


Busiek and Panchero's Superman run

Meltzer's Justice League of America

Geoff Johns' Green Lantern run

whichever Avengers Bandis and Cho are doing.

the latest incarnation of the Legion of Superheroes (although you're probably sick of writing about them).

I've not read any 'serious' comix I've liked in a while, but if you want to go old skool and write about anything by Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, the Hernandez Bros, Chris Ware, Charles Burns or Joe Sacco I'd happily read it.

Timothy Callahan said...

Yeah--let's do Meltzer's JLA! Everyone seems to hate it, but I think he does some interesting stuff there. But, looking back on it, it does feel like a complete mess. I'll reread it for a discussion and come up with some more talking points.

E-mail me with your opening comments on his run. You can find my e-mail address under my "complete profile" thing if you don't already have it.