I haven’t been as observant of Aesthetics Week as I should have been.
Comic book culture tends to be over-analyzed, because it’s become so dominant just in terms of public attention, and because of all the successful adaptations to the big screen.
This was all presaged by a concerted effort by the New York literati to make comic books ‘respectable,’ to seem academically and intellectually worthy of appreciation and study. The more intellectual ‘graphic novels’ did wind up somewhat successful — especially compared to a lot of other material that comes out of the MFA mills — but none became as successful as the movie adaptations of long-running strips like Spider-Man and Batman.
Michael Chabon and Robert Crumb — both entirely forgettable — succeeded in becoming respectable while being totally unworthy of respect, along with figures like Charles Klosterman, who made being a permanent child the cool thing to be. Characters like these set the tone for the 2000s.
In the early 20th century, comic books were often geared to recent immigrants. With coarse, proletarian plot lines which usually dwelled upon lurid graphics, they spoke to the new European masses in a tone that they could understand. A higher culture requires a lot of references and refined language that people completely new to a country aren’t likely to be able to comprehend. Dumbed-down cultural products have a wider appeal — but because of that, they’re less capable of going farther.
Today’s comic culture serves most of the same functions as the old one. Comics were a progressive medium in the early 20th century, and they’re still highly progressive. Even ‘right-wing’ comics tend to express the right side of the left.
Contemporary comic book movies are popular because they’re well-adapted to America’s lowered, shallow culture, which turns over so frequently that these characters, most of which are less than a century old, have come to supplant some of the slightly older literary traditions in the US. These cultural products are the way that Americans coordinate their values, to the extent that there are any — most of the movies have little in the way of meaning beyond the stimulation that they provide.
It’s also a bit telling that the most common blockbuster plot in America over recent decades has to do with the obliteration of American cities. People will happily part with money and hours of time to watch American cities be destroyed by aliens or monsters or what have you. There might be a lesson there.