Ice Cream, Wet Sheets, and the Anxiety of Respectability

Under discussion: “Setting Course: A Low Art Takes the High Road” from Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud; Logan directed by James Mangold. 

There’s an amazing moment in Logan where Hugh Jackman’s James Howlett is shouting at someone for believing X-Men comic books (which are in an X-Men universe movie, I know, it’s confusing) to be anything more than nonsense fairy tales, the absolute worst kind of vicarious wish fulfillment. “Ice cream for bedwetters,” he memorably calls them, a line that  explodes off the screen, ricocheting off of the snapback brims of every superhero-loving nerd sitting through a mainstream R-rated superhero movie. It’s a line that is meant to freeze you in your seat, make you at least very slightly aware of–and possibly reconsider–what it is you are doing.

Scene from LOGAN, 20th Century Fox, James Mangold dir.

But the line and the plot end up making a backdoor argument for the urgent relevance of (some) comic book movies for comic books themselves. There can be something so important captured in the pages of a glossy-paged comic filled with tights-wearing weirdos that it can—here the movie’s plot is speaking again—it can save lives.

I’ll just note that this is 2017, and superhero movies are still apologizing. There was an episode of Super Skull Podcast from either earlier this year or late last year in which Curtis Sullivan, the owner of the two-store comic chain Vault of Midnight, talked about how he wished that people thought of comics as more than just superhero stuff, which is a related argument to whatever is happening in Logan, right? Scott McCloud makes basically the same argument in Reinventing Comics (from 2000) and in Understanding Comics (from 1993). McCloud also points out in the second chapter of Reinventing Comics that Will Eisner made this point about comics in an interview, that they are capable of being more than just throwaway entertainment for very little kids, way back in 1940.

Which is to say, we’ve been carrying this rock for a long time.

When Will Eisner tells his idea to Rube Goldberg, Goldberg (pictured here) disagreed. Panel from McCloud’s REINVENTING COMICS.

If there is something to be usefully gleaned from this anxiety about seriousness and comics it is the tensions resulting from the facts that 1) comics are an incredibly intimate (and therefore highly approachable) art form and that 2) comics are an incredibly labor-intensive art form. Comics creator Jessica Abel recently guessed, during an interview on MSU’s Comic Art and Graphic Novel podcast, that making a single comic page requires four times as much, uh, time and labor as is required to create a page of prose. So you’re spending a multiplier more’s worth of time crafting something that literally anyone feels comfortable picking up and reading, flipping through and judging, putting down and dismissing. (Books of poetry and literary fiction don’t have this problem, as their force fields of pretentious twaddle keep literally anyone but the authors’ mothers from picking them up for any reason.)

One understands how all of that could be disheartening. One understands how one could get defensive suffering through all this, could grow to feel insecure. We get it. We get it we get it we get it.

But maybe fighting through the false starts and shaking of the low expectations (so very many false starts! such ridiculously low expectations!) makes the final object more precious. Aren’t McCloud’s The Sculptor and Abel’s La Perdida are imbued with at least some of that weird energy of their obsessive creators? Isn’t that Herculean labor–all of those millions of hours at the drafting table and tablet–what is singing out to us as we walk down the aisles of our local comic shop?  Isn’t it worth sitting through The Last Stand (and Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Superman III and Howard the Duck) if it means that we get something as moving and weird as Logan? I don’t think it’s too much to say that the intimacy of the medium is what was exploited by the Big 2 for decades as they built their fan bases, and now those communities are changing the global entertainment industry. Which means they’re changing the world.

So maybe it’s time to put that rock down.