Hal Foster’s (Post)Modern Polemics – in comics?

Most of the texts examined in my “[theory] – in comics” series of blog posts stand well on their own. With Hal Foster, however, I feel that he has more to say about postmodernism than what he does say in “Postmodernism: A Preface”. So I decided to simply introduce another one of his texts here and see how it can be applied to comics: “(Post)Modern Polemics”, an essay contained in Foster’s collection Recodings from 1985.

From a scholarly perspective, “(Post)Modern Polemics” still isn’t the essay one would hope for – Foster conjures his statements out of thin air, rather than grounding them on either theory or proper empirical observations. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting opinion from an art critic who was paying close attention to what was going on in the art scene at the time. In his essay, Foster proposes a dichotomy between two concepts of postmodernism, “neoconservative postmodernism” and “poststructuralist postmodernism”. In this regard, the essay is similar to “Postmodernism: A Preface” in which Foster also proposes a postmodernist dichotomy (‘postmodernism of reaction’ and ‘postmodernism of resistance’). It should be noted, though, that Foster doesn’t claim that all contemporary art falls into one or the other of these two categories. Thus there are four possibilities for any given work of art from the mid-1980s or later: it might be neoconservative postmodernist, poststructuralist postmodernist, some other kind of postmodernist, or not postmodernist at all.

Neoconservative postmodernist art is characterised by “eclectic historicism”, “elitist allusions”, “ahistory” (i.e. it “denies historicity”), an “affirmative” stance, narratives of “masterworks” and “seminal artists”, “fragmentation”/”dampening out of connections”/”entropy”, “patriarchalism” and “phallocentrism”. Poststructuralist postmodernist art, on the other hand, is the opposite. It “questions the truth content of visual representation”, is marked by “deconstruction” and “critique”, and is concerned with “the interconnections of power and knowledge in social representations”.

Can we find some of these characteristics in contemporary comics? For instance, Grant Morrison’s Multiversity is not only one of the outstanding comics of 2014/15, it’s also a comic that looks and feels very “postmodern”, what with breaking the fourth wall and metatextual remarks on comic books. I’m going to look at The Multiversity #1 (pencilled by Ivan Reis, published October 2014) only here.

Several of Foster’s keywords are concerned with history. Although Multiversity is set in the present, with some futuristic elements, there are a few instances of the past – buildings such as the Brooklyn Bridge (p.1) from the 19th century, or the villain “Lord Broken” who looks like a historicist mansion. A Rubik’s Cube, one of the symbols of the 1980s, can be seen on p. 2 and will play a role in a later issue of the series. Then there are historical costumes: Mr. Stubbs, protagonist Nix Uotan’s monkey sidekick, is dressed like a pirate. Most strikingly, the superhero Crusader (modeled after Captain America) wears a medieval scale armour – or rather, one of these superhero costumes that look like a scale armour but appear less encumbering and more tightly fitting than a real scale armour would be. (In the same issue, Aquawoman wears a similar costume.) On his chest he wears a cross symbol similar to a Knights Templar cross. All of these historical elements seem to be instances of “historical eclecticism”: they all appear in the present alongside each other, and we don’t learn anything about the context from which they were taken. That being said, I’m not sure whether this makes the comic as a whole “ahistorical”, as there are only very few of these elements there at all.

panel detail from The Multiversity #1 by Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

What about patriarchalism and “phallocentrism”? Let me put it this way: the first four major characters in this story – Nix Uotan, Thunderer, Earth-23 Superman and Captain Carrot a.k.a. Rodney Rabbit – are all male. Then Harbinger, the artifical intelligence with a female face, briefly appears before letting the men take the stage again. Vice versa, let’s look at the female characters with a talking role, which you can count on the fingers of one hand: the landlady (talking on 3 panels), the President’s secretary (4 panels), Earth-23 Wonder Woman (2 panels), the aforementioned Harbinger (10 panels), and Aquawoman (5 panels) – five characters on 40 pages, and, except for Harbinger, not particularly glamourous ones at that. So Multiversity appears decidedly male-centric. I don’t think Foster means this to be a sufficient condition for neoconservative postmodernism, though.

“Elitist allusions”? Most of the characters in this comic have previously appeared in some obscure other comics, and it takes an expert on DC comics (and Marvel as well) to recognise them all.

“Masterworks”? Grant Morrison refrains from dropping his own name or otherwise inserting himself as the “master artist” in the story, but the beginning does invoke a kind of masterwork narrative: it is about a “supposedly haunted comic from DC” (Morrison’s own The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1, published a few months later) which Nix Uotan is so excited about that he wants to review it “in the form of a live dissection”.

While there are definitely traces of neoconservative postmodernism in The Multiversity, I’m not so sure about poststructuralist postmodernist elements. Superficially, The Multiversity seems to “question the truth content of visual representation” (I think we can safely extend this to include textual representations) when we read the sequence of caption boxes (pp. 3-5): “Do we have your complete attention yet?” – “Whose voice is this speaking in your head anyway?” – “Yours?” – “Ours?” – “Stop reading.” – “Continue to read.” – “Do as we tell you.” – “The choice is yours.” This is a nice gimmick, but the questioning stops there. The rest of the comic does little to break the fourth wall; it is based on the fiction of visual representation in order to achieve a reading experience that might be engrossing but not actually immersive.

page detail from The Multiversity #1 by Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis

Neither is Multiversity a proper critique of comics or anything. Mr. Stubbs says things like “comic books can damage your health” and “d’ya think it’s normal to be reading the comics at your age, boss?” However, Mr. Stubbs is hardly a voice of authority, being not only a chimpanzee (i.e. not as intelligent as a human – even though he can talk) but also apparently a pirate from the 18th century with accordingly outdated opinions. Thus the reader gets the opposite message: comic books are healthy reading matter for adults.

What about “the interconnections of power and knowledge in social representations”? One thing Foster possibly means by this is that postmodernism dissolves the traditional union of artistic medium and content, i.e. the notion that a certain form of expression should represent only a certain subject matter and vice versa. Does Morrison say anything in The Multiversity that feels out of place, provocative, or outrageous for a superhero comic? You could argue that part of The Multiversity is about daring and relevant issues of race and power, too – a white proprietor collecting rent from a black tenant on one earth, a black man being both Superman and the US president on another – but in essence, it’s still a story about superheroes fighting supervillains. It’s not as if Morrison had hijacked a superhero comic book and turned it into a political pamphlet. The old paradigm of medium-specific decorum remains intact. (For a different take on The Multiversity and race, see “They Make Us Like Them: On Identity and Gentrification” by Kelly Kanayama at Women Write About Comics.)

To conclude, we have to be careful not to confuse “(Post)Modern Polemics” with a methodology that can be readily applied to comics (or any other work of art, for that matter). It’s not some test that tells us whether something is ‘postmodern’ or not. Reading a comic through Foster, however, makes us think about many different issues such as race, gender, power, identity, historicity and representation, and how they are connected to larger postmodernist ideas. Neoconservative or poststucturalist postmodernist ideas are at the bottom of many contemporary works, but rarely visible at the surface. If we have unearthed some neoconservative postmodernist notions that inform The Multiversity, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad comic, or Grant Morrison a bad person. Then again, Foster’s essay is titled “(Post)Modern Polemics” for a reason: perhaps he wants to encourage critics to take up a stance for once.

For some clever observations on The Multiversity #1, particularly regarding its backstory, see “The Multiversity Annotations, Part 1: This Review is in the Form of a Live Dissection” by David Uzumeri at Comics Alliance.

Owens’s postmodernism, Foster’s postmodernism – in comics?

Although some people have already proclaimed the death of postmodernism, it is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the term is quite ambiguous. Therefore it makes sense to approach it by reading several texts which reflect different opinions, for instance “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” by Craig Owens alongside “Postmodernism: A Preface” by Hal Foster (the art historian, not the comic artist). Both were published in the early 1980s already – Owens’s in the journal October in 1980, Foster’s as an introduction to a book he edited in 1983 (The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture), and this timeliness might have contributed to the differences between their respective understanding of postmodernism.

Owens lists six artistic strategies which distinguish postmodernist from modernist art: appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, and hybridisation. As with Foucault’s heterotopian principles, these strategies are not necessary characteristics – the artists discussed by Owens employ some of them, but not all six at the same time. In this sense, many comics can be identified as “postmodernist”.

Take, for instance, Shotaro Ishinomori’s マンガ日本経済入門 / Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon (translated as Japan Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics in the English edition), first published in 1986. Sometimes referred to as a non-fictional comic, it actually tells a fictional story of two young managers in a Japanese company, while at the same time introducing the reader to economic facts and theories. However, it’s not the content that makes this comic a postmodernist comic, even though it would have lent itself to a discursive treatment of e.g. economic policy. It is a postmodernist comic in Owens’s sense because it is a hybridised medium (at least in the German edition from 1989 which I’m referring to in the following): apart from the comic panels, Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon consists of three repetitive pictureless elements. There are hand-lettered notes of usually about 3 to 5 lines length at the bottom of approximately every other page, which provide economic background information that may or may not be connected to the events on the same page. Then there are longer, typeset texts on their own pages (pp. 27, 41, 105, 167, 223, 257) in the same vein, and quotations from economists on the chapter title pages (pp. 9, 71, 125, 179, 233, 285). This clash of regular comic layouts and non-comic elements shows that hybridisation is at work here, one of Owens’s six postmodernist strategies. (A similar example of this strategy would be the use of text-only pages in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, of course.)

japan_incWhile Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon and many other comics could be called postmodernist in Owens’s sense, it would be more difficult for them to qualify as postmodernist in Foster’s sense. More precisely, in “Postmodernism: A Preface”, Foster distinguishes two kinds of postmodernism: a “postmodernism of reaction”, and a “postmodernism of resistance”. The difference between the two is that the resistant postmodernism “seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes, to explore rather than conceal social and political affiliations.” For the resistant postmodernism, which Foster clearly champions, the trait which Owens calls discursivity is essential.

Although the cultural codes and social and political affiliations of the business world are extensively featured in Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon, they are never put into question. Economic doctrines are presented as irrevocable truth. One of the protagonists, the young idealistic manager, has his employees’ welfare on his mind and tries to change things for the better, but he does so from within the business system, by playing along with its rules. Neither are paternalistic and sexist tendencies criticised. Because of this lack of discursivity, I doubt that Foster would regard Ishinomori’s comic as (resistant) postmodernist.

The difference between Owens’s and Foster’s definition of postmodernism is symptomatic for the twofold meaning that the term “postmodern” has taken on. On the one hand, it denotes the era after modernity – postmodernity. All art produced in that era is by definition postmodern. On the other hand, it denotes a certain style that some artists choose to employ and others don’t. Around 1980, in a period of transition, this distinction is still blurry, so I wouldn’t equate Owens’s postmodernism with the former meaning and Foster’s with the latter. Yet, both Owens’s postmodernism and the concept of postmodernity as an era are broader definitions than their counterparts – more works of art fit into them than into Foster’s definition and into the concept of postmodernism as a movement.

All of these notions of postmodernism are valid. They unfold their usefulness in different contexts: broader definitions stress the similarities of contemporaneous works, while narrower definitions stress the differences. When we’re talking about “postmodern” art, artists, or comics, we just need make clear which definition we’re referring to.

For a different take on postmodernism and comics, see Noah Berlatsky’s essay on Fredric Jameson at The Hooded Utilitarian.