There have already been five posts about postmodernism on this weblog, so why a sixth one? Linda Hutcheon’s 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction is interesting because it directly engages in a dialogue – or should I say, argument – with previous texts on postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson’s.
Hutcheon defines postmodernism as:
- “fundamentally contradictory”,
- “resolutely historical”, and
- “inescapably political” (p. 4, my emphasis).
This seems to contradict Jameson’s and other authors’ view of postmodernism as ahistorical and depthless. But what exactly does Hutcheon mean by ‘historical’ and ‘political’?
The treatment of the past in postmodern works is indeed different from earlier, modernist works. Postmodernism “suggests no search for transcendent timeless meaning, but rather a re-evaluation of and a dialogue with the past in the light of the present. […] It does not deny the existence of the past; it does question whether we can ever know that past other than through its textualized remains.” (pp. 19-20, emphasis LH).
Likewise, the political nature of postmodernism is a complex one, “a curious mixture of the complicitous and the critical” (p. 201). “The basic postmodernist stance [is] a questioning of authority” (p. 202), but at the same time it is also “suspicious of ‘heroes, crusades, and easy idealism’ […]” (p. 203, quoting Bill Buford). “The postmodern is ironic, distanced” (p. 203).
The contradictory nature of postmodernism, on the other hand, is something everyone can agree on. This characteristic seems to be more of a prerequisite for or superordinate concept of the other two.
Hutcheon’s idea of postmodernism is a relatively narrow one. Although she references many examples of postmodernist works (mainly novels), it becomes clear that those examples represent only a part, and probably not a large one at that, of contemporary cultural production. Which brings us to today’s comic, which is not quite as randomly selected as previous examples in this column: it might fit Hutcheon’s criteria (well, see below), but some other comics that have a more ‘postmodern’ feel to them might not.
Brahm Revel’s Guerillas vol. 1 (Oni Press, 2010) opens with a quotation attributed to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929). The first words of the comic proper are in a caption box that says, “Vietnam, 1970.” For the next 50 pages, the story follows John Francis Clayton, an “FNG” (Fucking New Guy) in a military unit in the Vietnam War. Revel pays a lot of attention to detail, such as military equipment and jargon. There are references to historic figures like Richard Nixon or Jane Goodall. And the depicted events are typical of what is commonly known about the Vietnam War: U.S. soldiers raping native women, torching villages, falling victim to the Viet Cong’s guerilla tactics, etc.
All of this serves to create a sense of historical accuracy. While the story narrated by Clayton can with some certainty be identified as fictional, the events just might have happened as depicted, in Vietnam, in 1970.
Then there’s a rupture around p. 56, at the end of the first chapter, when the chimpanzees are introduced, a rogue squad of trained apes equipped and dressed as U.S. soldiers, who fight against the Viet Cong on their own. Chapter 2 tells their origin as an experiment conducted by scientists (of German descent, of course). The chimpanzees exhibit a mix of human and animal behaviour; they thump their chests but smoke cigarettes.
This appears to be the contradiction that is central to Guerillas: the outlandish, ‘unrealistic’ motif of the scientifically enhanced apes clashes with an historically accurate, ‘realistic’ setting. While the beginning of this comic might be read as Revel’s version of what really happened in Vietnam, the story of the chimpanzees can hardly be interpreted this way: here we’re clearly in the realm of fiction, or entertainment, or fantasy. Of course, earlier fantasy and science fiction stories have used similar setups (e.g. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). However, the main difference is that in those classic stories, the authors went to great lengths to make the improbable seem plausible and fit into the realistic setting, whereas it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief when reading Guerillas (not least because we’re reading it with the experience of many of those older similar stories).
According to Hutcheon, such a treatment of the past tells us something about the present, and this is also where the political nature of the work comes from. It is unreasonable to assume that the depiction of the grimness of the Vietnam War is a protest against, reassessment of, or coming-to-terms with it, given that the comic was made over 30 years after the end of the war. The ostensible reason for the Vietnam setting is that it makes more sense to deploy chimpanzee soldiers in the Vietnamese jungle than e.g. in the desert of the Gulf Wars, or in WWII in which the U.S. experience of the tropical regions was dominated by naval and aerial warfare (The Thin Red Line perhaps being the exception that proves the rule). But maybe Guerillas isn’t so time-specific after all. One of its themes is that a man learns from animals what humanity truly is, and this is a message that is relevant regardless of time and place: not unlike Pride of Baghdad by Vaughan and Henrichon, Guerillas can also be read as a commentary on the dehumanising effects of the war in Iraq, and by extension also Afghanistan and any other armed conflict.
But wouldn’t this – i.e. extrapolating from the specific to the universal – be a rather modernist reading? Indeed, Guerillas doesn’t seem to be the ideal example of Hutcheon’s postmodernism, but then again, few comics would meet her criteria without reservation. Still, Guerillas comes close. One can easily imagine how it might have qualified if Revel had made some different choices, e.g. if the protagonist would have been made identifiable as a real person (thus creating a contradiction between the genres of biography and fiction, cf. Hutcheon p. 9), or if the chimpanzee experiment would have been based on more advanced science and technology (thus creating a contradiction between different time layers, cf. Hutcheon p. 5). The resulting work would have been postmodern in Hutcheon’s sense, but whether it would have been a better comic is another question.
Arjun Appadurai’s book Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization was published in 1996 but is based on texts written around 1990. Its core is the chapter, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” (27-47), first published as a journal article in 1990. Thus it can still be seen as a continuation of the discourse on postmodernism/postmodernity from the 1980s (as reflected on this weblog by the series of posts on texts from 1980 to 1985).
The new element that Appadurai brings to the postmodernist discussion is globalisation: his aim is “to construct what John Hinkson calls a ‘social theory of postmodernity’ that is adequately global” (47), although Appadurai usually speaks more often of “modern” when he means the present day. The important point, though, is the rupture or paradigm shift that he suggests to have occurred around 1970: “it is only in the past two decades or so that media and migration have become so massively globalized, that is to say, active across large and irregular transnational terrains” (9).
This leads to the present-day “new global cultural economy” (32) that needs to be analysed by a framework of five “dimensions of global cultural flows” (33):
- ethnoscapes, i.e. the flow of people,
- mediascapes, i.e. mass media and the images and information they convey,
- technoscapes, i.e. the distribution of high-tech knowledge, machinery, and skills,
- financescapes, i.e. “the disposition of global capital” (34), and
- ideoscapes, i.e. “meaning-streams” in “the discourse of democracy” (37) and other ideologies and concepts.
It would be easy to apply this framework to comics as commodities, i.e. comic books, TPBs, tankobon etc., the production and reception of which are nowadays almost always transnational processes. But are these global cultural flows also reflected in the content of comic stories? While this is not meant by Appadurai as a characteristic of postmodern cultural works, it is not far-fetched to expect that postmodern works are more likely to reflect a global cultural economy than previous ones.
This also gives me the opportunity to write about a comic that more should be written about (though it surely will be included in many end-of-year lists for 2016) because of its outstanding quality: The Vision (I keep seeing the title given simply as Vision, but on the covers it clearly says The Vision) by writer Tom King, artist Gabriel Hernández Walta and colourist Jordie Bellaire. Across the 12 issues, I found the following traces of Appadurai’s landscapes:
- ethnoscape: the series is about the ‘synthezoid’ Vision having created an artificial family – wife, daughter and son – and moving into a house in Arlington, Virginia. This, and their difficulties of settling in among humans, are of course metaphors for transnational migration and xenophobia. But there is also proper migration represented or at least implied in The Vision: in #4, the children, Vin and Viv, play with a football that has “Fighting Redskins” and a caricature of a Native American printed on it. It’s the mascot of their high school, they explain to Vision, and only recently has it been changed to the “Fighting Patriot”, a politically correct “colorful bull in a three-corner hat”. This little episode brings to mind that naturally, there are only few Americans whose ancestors were not transnational migrants.
Then there are characters in this comic who represent, through their name and/or appearance, more recent immigration waves than the Mayflower – Leon Kinzky, the Asian-looking Matt Lin, and Marianella Mancha. Her son Victor Mancha even draws a connection between himself and the Spaniard Don Quijote de la Mancha on the sole basis of their names (in #8).
Finally, there is a long quote from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice about being Jewish.
- mediascape: specifically, Appadurai means electronic media such as television (3, 35), so the play The Merchant of Venice first shown as a hardcopy book in #5, though written in England, doesn’t count. Although there is some talk of “downloading” and “uploading” things and some smartphones are shown, there are few instances of content being electronically mediated across national boundaries. One example is Vin “downloading Bach’s cello concerto” in #3 – while we are not told where the recording was made, at least the composer is German.
- technoscape: a series with androids as protagonists is bound to feature lots of high-tech machinery, but the sources of all these gadgets are Ultron, Vision and Tony Stark – so I think it’s all ‘made in USA’. No transnational flow here.
- financescape: in the beginning of the comic, Vision mentions his difficulties in getting a steady income, and Tony Stark, the embodiment of wealth in the Marvel universe, appears a few times. Apart from that, financial matters don’t play any role in The Vision, let alone transnational financial flows.
- ideoscape: The Vision is quite a cerebral comic, but few ideas that can be traced back to outside the US are mentioned. In #9, however, Victor Mancha says: “Vin’s reading this book [The Merchant of Venice] over and over. Like he’s obsessed with mercy and justice.” So some ideas have travelled from England to America after all.
To sum up, applying Appadurai’s framework to the content of a (supposedly postmodern) comic doesn’t yield as many representations of global cultural flows as I had expected. But, again, that’s not what it was intended for. Applying this framework to the para- and extratextual information pertaining to a comic, however, would surely reveal it as a product of Appadurai’s global cultural economy.
In the history of postmodernism theory, Fredric Jameson might be a more influential figure than both Hal Foster and Craig Owens – unless you look at it from a strictly art historical perspective: art critics Foster and Owens are concerned first and foremost with contemporary visual art, whereas Jameson’s objects are drawn from various artistic genres or media such as literature, architecture, music, and film. Jameson’s famous essay “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, with which this blogpost is concerned, was first published in the New Left Review in 1984 and later expanded into a book of the same title.
A major difference between Jameson’s “Postmodernism” and the texts by Foster and Owens is that for Jameson, postmodernism is an era, not a “style or movement among others”. On the other hand, Jameson is “very far from feeling that all cultural production today is ‘postmodern'”. Instead, postmodernism is the current “cultural dominant”, the “new systemic cultural norm”.
Jameson identifies four “constitutive features of the postmodern”:
- “a new depthlessness”,
- “a consequent weakening of historicity”,
- “a whole new type of emotional ground tone”, and
- “the deep constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology”.
Some other interesting aspects are discussed in the text, but let’s focus on these four constitutive features. Can we find them in comics? Recently there was a thread on the comix-scholars mailing list about comics “beyond postmodernism”, and some list members wondered whether Joe Sacco’s comics might be considered “as aiming to move beyond postmodernism”. How much of Jameson’s postmodernism is (still) there e.g. in Sacco’s Palestine?
- depthlessness: Jameson understands this term both metaphorical and literal, as an obfuscation of volume: “a surface which seems to be unsupported by any volume, or whose putative volume […] is ocularly quite undecidable”, he says about a postmodern building.
Sacco however, virtuoso draughtsman that he is, effortlessly switches from depthless, abstract black or white backgrounds to vistas that extend far into the landscape. He also draws his objects from a vast variety of perspectives, so that their depth becomes palpable.
- weakening of historicity: Jameson says about the historical novel, it “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’).”
Palestine is the opposite of that: by conveying what he saw and heard in Palestine, Sacco challenges stereotypes about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the last chapter, in the section ‘Through Other Eyes’, an Israeli asks Sacco, “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story, too?”, to which Sacco replies in a caption with “I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most all my life”.
Some references to historical characters and events are made in Palestine, but never in an offhand way that would require much previous knowledge from the reader.
- new type of emotional ground tone: “This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling,” says Jameson, “but rather that such feelings […] are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria” – “the high, the intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.”
Palestine isn’t devoid of feelings either – particularly Sacco’s own are clearly conveyed in his first-person narrative – but euphoria is hardly the emotional ground tone here. A more prevalent emotion is fear; e.g. in chapter five, section ‘Ramallah’: “shaking like a leaf… […] Okay, I’ve had it… I want out before the soldiers check this side of the street… Like a leaf, I tell you, the whole fucking time…”
- new technology: by that Jameson means “narratives which are about the processes of reproduction, and include movie cameras, video, tape recorders, the whole technology of the production and reproduction of the simulacrum.”
This is the only feature that does apply to Palestine without reserve: it is basically a comic about making a comic. From the beginning, Sacco makes clear that the purpose of his journey to Palestine and everything he does there is to gather material for a comic. Frequently, the tools and processes of reproduction are prominently featured in the comic: Sacco’s camera, his friend Saburo’s camera, pen and notebook, the interpreted interviews with Palestinians.
All in all, only one of Jameson’s four “constitutive features of the postmodern” holds true for Palestine, so is it a comic “beyond postmodernism”? Then again, the unsystematic way in which these features are discussed in “Postmodernism” makes them hard to operationalise. The multitude of examples doesn’t help when they only serve to illustrate one single aspect. Where is the technology in Bob Perelman’s poem China? What is the emotional ground tone of E. L. Doctorow’s historical novels? In what way is Brian De Palma’s film Blow Out depthless? Ultimately, whether a contemporary work of art fulfils the four criteria or not doesn’t matter anyway: as I have mentioned earlier, Jameson allows for cultural objects made in the postmodern era that are not postmodern. Therefore, an un-postmodern object from the postmodern era wouldn’t prove Jameson wrong. How can Jameson’s “periodizing hypothesis” of postmodernism be considered falsifiable at all then?
After lumping Craig Owens and Hal Foster together in a blogpost on postmodernism and then writing an entire post on Foster alone, it seems only fair to return to Owens, too. Apart from “The Allegorical Impulse”, one of Owens’s texts stands out as particularly influential: “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism”, published in the collected volume The Anti-Aesthetic edited by Foster in 1983. In this essay, a connection between postmodernism and feminism is made on the basis of their critique of (visual) representation. Postmodernism questions the authority on which the modernist consensus of what can be represented and in which form has been reached: “postmodernists […] expose the tyranny of the signifier“.
Feminism, on the other hand, criticises visual perception altogether as patriarchal. This identification stands on somewhat shaky ground, at least as far as it is presented by Owens: not only is vision linked to the Freudian “discovery of castration”, i.e. the “sight of phallic absence in the mother”, but also to objectification and domination, which in a patriarchal society have become male privileges. (Interestingly, Owens doesn’t mention Laura Mulvey and her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, as far as I can see.)
Considering these points, is postmodernist and/or feminist visual art conceivable at all? Yes, says Owens, and points out some examples of postmodernist/feminist artistic strategies:
- refusal of mastery (e.g. Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems)
- denial of visual pleasure (e.g. Louise Lawler’s “movie without picture”)
- reflecting back at the (male) viewer his own desire (e.g. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills)
- demonstrating that masculine and feminine are not stable identities (e.g. Barbara Kruger’s Your gaze hits the side of my face)
However, Owens also points out the possibility of adopting contrary contemporary artistic practices that attempt to “recover some sense of mastery via the resurrection of heroic large-scale easel painting and monumental cast-bronze sculpture”. In other words, it’s up to the artist whether or not to use the previously mentioned postmodernist/feminist strategies.
30 years later, where do comics stand? Let’s look at The Multiversity #1 once more. Which strategies do Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis employ?
Mastery is not refused, but downright celebrated in this comic book. Ivan Reis’s art (not to forget Joe Prado’s inking and Nei Ruffino’s colouring) isn’t just “good” in the sense that he depicts characters in an anatomically correct way – he goes out of his way to show them in a vast variety of poses and perspectives. It truly takes a master draughtsman to produce this kind of artwork. Likewise, Grant Morrison’s writing – plot, dialogue, breakdown (cf. Morrison’s script in The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 – Director’s Cut) – is impeccable.
There’s plenty of visual pleasure here, if by visual pleasure we mean “good girl art”. Particularly the appearances of Earth-8 Ladybug, Earth-11 Aquawoman, and Earth-23 Wonder Woman have no other purpose. (An exception to this rule is Harbinger, the artificial intelligence with a female holographic appearance, whose body is not shown here.) Thus the male viewer’s desire is never reflected.
Masculine and feminine identities are firmly in place: as I have said in my previous Multiversity blogpost, this is a story in which men act and women don’t have much to say (except for Harbinger, the femininity of which is a matter of debate). The plot is driven by the triumvirate of Nix Uotan, Thunderer and Earth-23 Superman. The brief appearance of a gay superhero couple does little to change this overall tone.
If we look at The Multiversity #1 from this perspective, it appears to be a far cry from a postmodernist and/or feminist comic.
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.
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.
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.
Last month, the 9th annual conference of the German Society for Comics Studies (ComFor) took place in Berlin. Unfortunately I missed half of it, so instead of a proper conference report (not that my previous ComFor conference posts – 2012, 2013 – were proper reports), I thought I’d just point out my favourite talk out of the ones I have heard:
Julia Ingold (Kiel University) presented an allegorical reading of Markus Färber‘s comic Reprobus. Reprobus seems to be Färber’s first standalone comic, and was published only two years ago. In this comic, Färber re-tells the legend of Saint Christopher (who was called Reprobus before he met Jesus), albeit with some twists. Reprobus is a beautifully drawn comic, and its non-linear story is cleverly written. But that’s beside the point.
In her talk, Julia Ingold referenced Craig Owens’s text “The Allegorical Impulse” (which I have discussed on this weblog last year), and placed Reprobus in a postmodern context. That latter statement was more of an incidental remark, if I remember correctly, as her main point was the reading of Reprobus as allegory through Owens. Therefore I won’t hold it against her that she didn’t take the time to expand on what’s postmodern(ist) about Reprobus.
It’s easy enough to recognise Reprobus in “The Allegorical Impulse”, or vice versa: Reprobus is a typical example of a “palimpsest”, of “reading one text through another”, of the artistic strategy of “appropriation”, in that Reprobus “confiscates” the legend of Saint Christopher (all quotations from Owens). The problematic point is that for Owens, this allegorical impulse is already the characteristic that distinguishes postmodernist from modernist art. Nowadays, as I have tried to show in the aforementioned blog post on Owens, Foster and Ishinomori, Owens’s view of postmodernism is only one of many.
Hal Foster, on the other hand, emphasises (in “Postmodernism: A Preface”) the challenging stance of postmodernism towards the social context of objects.* I find it hard to see such a thrust in Reprobus. The “realm of myths and legends” is “sinking into oblivion”? The people in the big city “have almost forgotten” about Jesus? If this story was really intended as a critique of contemporary society, it’s about 100 years late. This comic combines rather old-fashioned aspects with some undeniably timely traits – which isn’t a bad thing, but makes me reluctant to classify it as entirely postmodernist.
The papers of the ComFor conference aren’t published yet, but an earlier article by Julia Ingold on Reprobus can be read in the latest issue of the journal helden. heroes. héros. (PDF, German).
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.)
While 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.