Monday, September 04, 2006

Scott McCloud, the creator of one of my favorite late-eighties early-nineties comic books, Zot! (he also produced a superhero parody, DESTROY!, which has my all-time favorite dialogue exchange in it: as two superheroes battle in Manhattan, knocking down landmarks left right and center, the mayor says to one of his lackeys, "We'll have to evacuate New York!" To which the lackey responds, "Okay") has produced two masterpieces of instruction and analysis about his medium, Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. Now he's made it a trilogy with a new how-to book, Making Comics. It's a fascinating excursus on comics technique, which McCloud has elsewhere referred to as "sequential art." But what caught my eye was a discussion toward the end of four "loosely affiliated tribe[s] of like-minded comic artists" that share the same values. These tribes and their values are named and summarized thusly:
The Classicists: Excellence, hard work, mastery of craft, the quest for enduring beauty.
The Animists: Putting content first, creating life through art, trusting one's intuition.
The Formalists: Understanding of, experimentation with, and loyalty to the comics form.
The Iconoclasts: Honesty, vitality, authenticity and unpretentiousness. Putting life first.
You can see why this quadrivium would appeal to my own cataloging sensibilities—on the same page he arranges the four tribes into a quadrant to indicate their parallels and oppositions—and why I'm immediately vampirically inclined to substitute "poetry" for "comics" (though of course McCloud's four tribes seem applicable to most any genre of art). In a back-of-the-book note, McCloud writes:
I actually sat on this idea for over ten years without publishing it, concerned that it might do more harm than good. I'm sympathetic to those who see any such efforts to categorize art as reductive and futile. But then I'd see these rants like:
- "Craft is the enemy of art!"
- "Alternative comics are for people who can't draw."
- "Everyone making mainstream comics is a sell-out."
- "Explaining art ruins it."
- "If it has no new ideas, what good is it?"
And I realized that in a world where so many people reduce art to two sides, maybe reducing it to four would be an improvement.
McCloud goes on to say that "Comics is an ecosystem" and that all four tribes are necessary. And if one embraces that point of view (though can one really be passionate about pluralism?), I think the usefulness of the four tribes model for mapping the poetryverse becomes apparent. It may not be an improvement on the critical work that Kasey does here on deconstructing the infamous "School of Quietude vs. Post-Avant" binary, but it does I think implicitly recognize the intimate connection between aesthetic and social positioning without being as falsely deterministic as SoQ/P-A. Simply by multiplying the number of available vectors it becomes possible to imagine more complex positions in the field (literally two-dimensional rather than one-dimensional) and also helps me to understand perennial alliances and clashes. There are two lines in the quadrant that align the tribes: the horizontal "Tradition/Revolution" line opposes the classicists and animists to the formalists and iconoclasts, while the vertical "Art/Life" line allies the classicists and formalists against the animists and iconoclasts. Diagonals represent more fundamental oppositions: it is difficult to reconcile the spirit of animism (content and story first) with that of formalism (exploring the boundaries of what one's art is capable of), or classicism (striving for perfection within one's tradition of art) with iconoclasm (McCloud puts this best: "The conviction of artists to remain true to themselves while never taking themselves too seriously. To fly no one's flag--not even their own"). McCloud cites various comics artists who unite two tendencies in themselves: Art Spiegelman is his example of a formalist with a strong iconoclastic streak, adventure writer Milton Caniff is an animist-classicist, and Dave McKean (a personal favorite of mine, gorgeous and expressionistic) is a formalist-classicist. People can and do move around among these positions, giving one priority and then another over the course of a career, and arguably "genius" might be defined by the ability to produce work that can make a plausible claim for each category (Shakespeare comes inevitably to mind, since I'm teaching him).

The risk run by using such a quadrant is of a sterile, historyless universalism: McCloud derives the four tribes from Jung's four major thought functions, as made famous by the Meyer-Briggs Personality Test: intuition, thinking, sensation, feeling. Discover your typology and choose your camp! (I generally come up an INFP on the test, but on the cusps, especially thinking/feeling and perceiving/judging.) But I'm convinced that such schema can be useful as a means of provisional orienteering, and anyway I seem to be a categorizing animal. If one can avoid reifying the categories (or worse, reifying particular artists), I think McCloud's four tribes can go some distance toward explaining the positions/arcs of individual poets and movements, as well as contribute to self-understanding.

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