Tuesday, July 20, 2010

You take the High Brow, I'll take the Low Brow..

.. and we'll both meet in the Blazing World, I think.

Much of the criticism I have been reading on Shakespeare and Comics dwells on the debate over whether Shakespearean comics are "high brow" or "low brow." Does the presence of Shakespeare in a comic elevate the comic into a higher literary quanta, or does it diminish Shakespeare to be rubbing elbows with Superman? Now, the smarter critics don't try to participate in this debate so much as illustrate how the debate is going on within popular culture. That is, rather than try to take a side, they just point to this argument, rub their collective chins, and say, "Isn't that interesting?" And it is. Shakespeare's such a great target for appropriation because if you can take over and do a drive-by Borg assimilation of Shakespeare, well, you've cornered the biggest mark in the playground. Everything else is small fry and falls by implication. I'm convinced that's why Eisner picks Shakespeare to re-write in "Hamlet on a Rooftop." Shakespeare is the Mount Everest of appropriation. Everyone wants to do him.

Since I've been thinking a lot about Moore, I naturally begin to ask myself, "What is Moore doing when he uses Shakespeare?" Is he taking a side in this debate? Is he trying to show his dominance over Shakespeare, ala Eisner? Is he using Shakespeare to elevate his comic into a higher literary sphere, as I think Gaiman is doing? Or is he bringing down Shakespeare, and making him more of a common man, like what we see Mike Baron do in his wonderful single issue of Badger in which a telephone repairman who "always thought he could have made it as an actor," fights off a demonic invasion using nothing other than perfect command of Shakespeare?

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in all its various incarnations, certainly wallows in its pop-ness. Many of its characters are from "genre fiction" that has never enjoyed the glow of academic respect. Indeed, Moore seems to take pleasure in using these characters (I am thinking at this moment of the rascist caricature airship captain who appears at the end of Black Dossier, but I would need Jess Nevins' invaluable annotations to come up with a complete list of obscure Victorian and pulp characters consigned to the literary dustbin which Moore and O'Neil breathe new life upon, like Aslan with whooping cough) and "refurbishing" them, giving them new life and new direction, often through their interaction with their fellow pastiche-victims.

But, at the same time, there is no shortage of characters in League who are academic and literary mavens. Orlando and Prospero are probably the two most obvious examples. But it seems that the largest share of characters in this "high/low" divide actually come from pop culture characters who, because of their historical pedigree, have achieved some kind of higher status. I'm thinking specifically of people like Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Quatermain and Griffin, not to mention John Carter, Dr. Moreau and Sherlock Holmes. These were popular literature characters at the time, but time has made them into literary icons. Very few people read Jules Verne anymore, but he's perfectly acceptable in the Academy and the same goes for Wells, Stoker, and Doyle. There are examples of this from Black Dossier and later works too, but there has been less chance for time to work; we revere 1984 as a literary masterpiece, but I don't know where the Bond novels sit on that fence. I expect that, purely because Bond is more of a film hero than a literary one, that he'd still be considered pop culture by most academics.

Moore doesn't seem to really care what is "high art" and what is "low." His view of comics as a unique and uniquely powerful art form means that it is, to him, powerful, and that's more important than high or low. Moore works in comics because it can do things no other art form can do. And he doesn't shy away from big questions or big answers. Like Morrison, he wants to use comics to change the way people think, or at least give the reader an opportunity to change the way he thinks, if he wants to accept the offer. That's "high art," right there, if the difference between "high art" and "low art" is that the former asks deep questions while the latter seeks solely to entertain. If that's your dividing line -- and it seems a pretty bankable one for me at first blush -- then Moore's object seems to be to, in the immortal words of Joey Tribiani, "put your hands together." Which of course makes me think of Prospero's final lines when he asks everyone to free him "though your good hands." Hm, I think I see the final joke of my chapter forming up there.

But this is not a new thesis for us; Spenser does the same thing in Faerie Queene (Gloriana! How could I forget to mention another example of Moore tapping the vein of high culture, before he turns that same Faerie Queene into a hermaphrodite) when he lays out his two goals: to educate and to entertain at the same time, because no one likes to be preached at and when you're busy enjoying a good story sometimes you never notice you're learning something. See Sidney's "Defense of Poetry," where the same idea is laid out. \

So, looking back, it seems that Spenser, Sidney, and Moore are all sort of waving aside this high-low culture debate and saying the best way to achieve the goal of high culture is to couch it in the terms of the low. Recognize the strengths of each approach and put your hands together. Prospero's appearance in Black Dossier is a logos-based virus, a vector that allows Moore to talk about high-brow concepts in a low-brow venue. In fact, when Prospero shows up at the end, it might be Moore tipping his hand. I mean, you can pretend your book isn't high brow when the only people on the page are pulp adventurers who only enjoy literary status because they've outlived all their rivals. But the moment Shakespeare shows up, you're claiming high culture status, right? OK, Baron doesn't. Baron's Shakespeare is clearly a working man's, blue collar, Shakespeare. Same with Flaming Carrot. But Moore's Prospero speaks in free verse, for crying out loud, even as he's got you putting on 3-D glasses to read it easier. (3-D glasses! Talk about pop culture.) I think when Prospero comes on, for his epilogue in which he looks out of the page at us and explains the way the Blazing World works and what it is for, that's Moore pulling back the curtain on his larger methods and goals. That's when he admits that, yes, I'm using "disposable art" to talk about "immortal questions."

Note: There is a value system evident in League, I think. The better characters, the characters from the better books, they get more prominent roles. They get more things to do and they are more inclined to prosper. It is the characters from the "also-rans," from the dustbin of literature, who are condemned to cameos, to defeat, and to one-panel gags so obscure that no one without the patience of Jess Nevins can get them.

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