KATE BEATON, GEORGE PEREZ, CRAIG THOMPSON, AND THE TROUBLE WITH FRANK MILLER’S INTENT
“A poem does not come into existence by accident. The words of a poem, as Professor Stoll has remarked, come out of a head, not out of a bat. Yet to insist on the designing intellect as a cause of a poem is not to grant the design or intention as a standard by which the critic is to judge the worth of the poet’s performance.” — Wimsatt, Jr. and Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy.”
No, this week’s column isn’t about poetry, though I have, on more than one occasion, likened comic book narrative to poetry rather than prose. After all, each page has a meter (the number, and placement, of panels) and imagery is its primary mode of communication.
The Wimatt, Jr. and Beardsley quote above — and the others that will follow this week — come from their seminal essay on the problem with criticizing a literary work based on whether or not the work measures to the creator’s own expectations. Does the work, in other words, do what it’s supposed to do? Does it do it well? In “The Intentional Fallacy,” written in the 1940s and revised into the version I’m quoting from in the 1950s, they dismantle that idea and show why that is not only a misguided approach to literary criticism, but why it’s ultimately irrelevant.
I’ve been thinking a lot about intent for the past week, and, as a teacher, I’ve butted heads with it for years. After all, it’s an English teacher contrivance to ask questions like, “Why would Shakespeare include a scene where the passive and melancholy Hamlet all of a sudden gains the fortitude to fend off a pirate attack and escape, and then have all of that stuff happen off-stage?” Or, “What does T. S. Eliot mean when he writes, ‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown?'” When teachers ask those kinds of questions, they aren’t really asking you to read the mind of an author, but are instead asking you to break down the process behind the fictional (or poetic) structure to analyze the writerly decisions that were made to create the effect we, as readers, experience. At least, I hope they aren’t asking you to read the mind of an author, because you’ll never be able to do it. You’ll always be guessing, at best. And criticism isn’t guesswork. It’s analysis and evaluation based on the evidence at hand.
Aristotle bumped up against the problems with the Intentional Fallacy, thousands of years before Wimsatt, Jr. and Beardsley were born. It was customary in ancient Greece for works of drama and poetry to be judged based purely on their moral component. In what was an extremely early precursor to the kind of thinking that ushered in the Comics Code Authority (around the same time Wimsatt, Jr. and Beadsley wrote their essay, in what can’t possibly be a coincidence), the standard method of evaluation in ancient Greece was whether or not the protagonist was sufficiently good. A play deemed “bad” would be a play where there was no appropriate punishment for evil-doers, or where the protagonist made immoral choices. A play deemed “good” would be one where the protagonist did the right thing, and morality and — most importantly — order won out in the end.
Come to think of it, that’s how my dearly departed mother evaluated the quality of films and television, too. I remember how much she hated Robert Altman’s “The Player,” because Griffin Mill got away with murder, but she loved pretty much any movie starring Jimmy Stewart because “he was a good man.” And she grew up in the 1950s, just like the Comics Code, just like the “Intentional Fallacy” essay. Some historian in the audience needs to do a closer comparison between the question of morality in art in the Age of Pericles and Eisenhower’s America. It’s probably already been written about at length. What do I know? I’m just a guy who talk about comics.
Back to Aristotle.
So, developing a more comprehensive critical lens, probably in reaction to the simple moral judgments of his contemporaries, Aristotle identified the following criteria against which a work of tragedy (he was writing specifically about tragedy in his “Poetics”) should be evaluated: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. It’s still a good foundation for a critical perspective, and like Wimsatt Jr. and Beardsley’s piece, it has its application to comic books. We would define plot as “what happens, and how,” character would be “who it happens to, and how believable those people are within the context of the story,” diction would be “what they say, and how they say it,” thought would be “motivation and theme,” spectacle would be “the visual aspects of the story — what images are emphasized,” and song in a silent medium like comics would best be represented in “the style of the visuals themselves — how those images look.”
Notice how Aristotle doesn’t include a standard about “how closely the play lives up to its writer’s expectations.” He knew better, 2500 years ago.
“One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem — for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem. ‘Only one caveat must be borne in mind,’ says an eminent intentionalist in a moment when his theory repudiates itself; ‘the poet’s aim must be judged at the moment of the creative act, that is to say, by the art of the poem itself.'” — Wimsatt, Jr. and Beardsley
I read the collected edition of “Hark! A Vagrant” this week. I could use an @reply on Twitter to try to get Kate Beaton’s attention, and see just what the heck she intended for this series of comic strips. Or I could see what the book actually does — artistically — and then infer the intent from that. It’s not that the author’s intent doesn’t matter at all, it’s that the intent is embodied in the work. A piece of literature — or a comic, of course — is a work of intent from beginning to end. It doesn’t happen accidentally. But if the intent isn’t implicit in the artistic work itself, then what good is knowing the intent?
If Kate Beaton comes out and says, in an interview published in “The Believer” next week, “I intend my comics to provide an accurate view of historical events. They peel away the lies that we are told in history books and reveal the true nature of what really happened. Also, they are not funny. So don’t ever laugh at them, because I did not intend them to make you laugh,” well, you would have two choices. You could say she’s misreading her own intent, and the work reveals a different implicit intent on every page. Or, you could interpret her interview as one in which she is joking about her intent. She’s being knowingly ironic. Or, I suppose you could reread her comics and try not to laugh at any of them. And believe them all as historical facts.
Either way, it doesn’t change the comics one bit. They are what they are. And if you tried read them as unfunny historical facts, you wouldn’t have much luck. They just don’t work in that capacity.
You could, however, easily evaluate them according to Aristotle’s six criteria — juxtaposing his approach to classical tragedy to contemporary comedy — and it would be a much more effective mode than trying to read Kate Beaton’s mind. Or even worrying about what she says about her own comics in interviews.
Of course, whether you find them funny or not is going to be a much more subjective criteria. Maybe that’s why Aristotle’s book about comedy has been lost to the ages. He burned it when he realized that nobody in town thought the scene where Oedipus poked out his own eyes with his wife/mother’s safety pins was as hilarious as he seemed to find it.
“Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work. It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of an artificer. ‘A poem should not mean but be.’ …Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrevelant has been excluded, like lumps from pudding and ‘bugs’ from machinery.” — Wimsatt, Jr. and Beardsley
I have to respect any literary essay that uses “pudding” as a reference point. It is both a hilarious-sounding word and a delicious treat, and more essays should sprinkle pudding into their argument.
The pudding that is Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s “New Teen Titans: Games” is kind of a smelly old tapioca, one that’s been left out too long, on the porch, in the sun. I read that book this week too, and it’s as good of a repudiation of the value of Authorial Intent as anything else. From the text of the graphic novel itself, and from the Foreword and Afterword written by the co-conspirators, I can only assume that the intent was to finish this albatross of a book that’s been hanging around the deck of the DC ship (if not the necks of the creative team) for at least 23 years. And to make some hip references to video games and role-playing games. You know, what the kids are diggin’ on these days.
Marv Wolfman doesn’t have to tell us that he doesn’t actually know much about role-playing games or video games (though, he does actually tell us that in the text pieces) to know that this book isn’t very good. In Aristotelian lingo, this graphic novel has a clumsy plot, thin characters, goofy diction, an absence of thought, actually pretty nice spectacle and a pleasant enough song. George Perez is off the hook. He does his job. Maybe he should have given Garfield Logan a better haircut before he handed it over to the inkers, and maybe he should have defied Marv Wolfman and used white-out on Danny Chase and replaced him with the less-annoying and less-ridiculous Donatello from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it’s tough to blame Perez for drawing a good version of an oversized George Perez comic.
Marv Wolfman, regardless of his intent, failed to make this sucker worth a dime.
“The meaning of a poem may certainly be a personal one, in the sense that a poem expresses a personality or state of soul rather than a physical object like an apple. But even a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalized). We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker, and if to the author at all, only by an act of biographical inference.” — Wimsatt, Jr. and Beardsley
This is the crux of it all, right here.
What prompted me to reflect on the Intentional Fallacy this week was the reaction I saw to Frank Miller’s “Holy Terror.” I’m not going to rattle off all the links to everything that annoyed me about the internet reaction to Frank Miller’s new book, but I will point out that David Brothers provided the single-best critical response to Miller’s graphic novel partly by avoiding the trap of the Intentional Fallacy and mostly just by taking the book head-on and confronting what as actually written and drawn within its pages, and (prior to reading Brothers’ piece) I wrote about the place of “Holy Terror” within Miller’s career and emphasized what I liked about the art while concluding that I liked this Frank Miller work because it was a Frank Miller work.
Tautological, perhaps, but true.
Yet the reactions from other readers — in posts of their own, on message boards, in comments to my post, on Twitter (and yes, this is a bit of a straw man, but it’s a comprehensive one, so deal with it) — tended to be along these lines: “Frank Miller is racist,” or, “Frank Miller has gone crazy since 9/11,” or, “This is an attack on an ethnic group by an out-of-touch old man.” Brothers, by deconstructing the text of the book, addresses some of these issues, but he does it effectively, by looking at what’s actually on the page and interpreting it outward. He doesn’t ascribe any intent to the book from the outset and push those interpretations onto the text, but finds one implicit inside.
Others, though, are quick to point to Miller’s own increasingly right-wing comments online as an automatic token of intent toward creating an artifact of hate. Even Brothers, in a Twitter comment to me, cited Miller’s own publicity interviews as support for his interpretation of the book, but at least he didn’t rely purely on the notion of outside intent before making his judgments. Others have, though. And that’s where the trouble comes in, because I think the work, as potentially vile as it may be, morally, has a substance that is distinct from any prescribed intent. Miller may, in his own press, talk about “Holy Terror” as a work of propaganda, but it still lives or dies based on what’s in its pages.
I happen to find most of it to be exhilarating, even while rejecting its morality completely. But, once again, Aristotle moved us past the notion of judging a work of art based on a moral compass 2500 years ago, contrary to what my mother would have told you as she watched Tim Robbins on VHS in the early 1990s.
And yet some of these same critics of Frank Miller, the ones who tsk-tsk his exaggerated depiction of jihadists and terror, will cheer at each new issue of “Deadpool MAX,” a comic which features Islamic stereotypes, plenty of offend, and a similar level of atrocity and violence that you might find in “Holy Terror.” But because David Lapham and Kyle Baker are “only joking” and because Frank Miller “believes it,” one is worthy of condemnation, while the other gets gleeful praise.
That’s the Intentional Fallacy, at play on the internet. And it has blinded readers to actually reading Frank Miller’s new book, or placing it in the proper context within his career as a whole. Where was the similar rage, by the way, when Miller eviscerated the Catholic Church and presented equivalent levels of extreme violence in “Sin City”? Was his intent suitably satirical then, but it isn’t any longer?
Sometimes the author’s intent matters and sometimes it doesn’t? Depending on who or what might be offended? That seems to be the game, but it’s a rigged one.
“The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge.” — Wimsatt, Jr. and Beardsley
Finally, we get to “Habibi.”
I have to admit a personal reluctance to even pick up Craig Thompson’s new graphic novel — monstrous in length and, I thought, surely to be full of facile sentiment, the equivalent of an Oprah Book Club selection of the comic book set. It wasn’t so much that I fell victim to the trap of the Intentional Fallacy, but I did almost fall victim to its cousin, the Prejudice of Ignorance.
It’s not that I was ignorant of Thompson’s prior works. I’ve read them all, and though I liked all of them well enough at the time of reading, I don’t ever have the feeling that I need to go back and read them again. They are well-crafted books, all, but they aren’t particularly deep. Or, let’s say they don’t have enough Aristotelian thought to buoy the rest of their noble characteristics.
Plus, there was also this side of things, and it’s not one I’m necessarily proud of, but I need to be honest about it: in my mode of finding what I liked about Frank Miller’s work, I tapped into this latent punk rock sensibility that told me that anything as potentially “safe” and “meaningful” as, hell, even the press release stated, would be the comic book equivalent of khaki Dockers compared to Frank Miller’s leather breeches loaded down with knives and flamethrowers. By the way, the blurb from Pantheon calls says Thomson’s books is, “a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and, most potently, the magic of storytelling.” I mean, I actually like Neil Gaiman comics and that description of “Habibi” sounds like a Newberry Award winner you would force someone to read in 6th grade, not a comic that stood a shot at actually being worthwhile.
But it’s not a book that belongs to the publisher, or, as Wimsatt, Jr. and Beardsley state, to the critic or even the author. Now that “Habibi” is out there in the world, now that it exists as a text, it belongs to the public. And after reading it, I have to admit, it’s a book the public is going to like a lot. It isn’t the comic book equivalent of Dockers or “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Yes, it’s a bit sentimental in the end, but it earns most of its sentimentality, and it has a ragged, rugged view of humanity throughout. It’s a more vicious book than I expected from Thompson, and his mastery over spectacle (and song) provide thrills that have more emotional punch than the hollowed-out, but glorious looking, Frank Miller pages.
“Habibi,” with its layered plot and heart-rending characters, its devotion to language and the impact of knowledge, is book Aristotle might have liked. My mom would have too, in the end. Great books don’t have to be moral to be great, but just because a book is moral doesn’t necessarily mean it’s trite and sentimental either.
But I’ll let the public decide. These books exist in the world. It’s all up to you now.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.