Tuesday, July 06, 2004


A month ago I posted a long rant on the first half of Daredevil #56 (scroll down to June 7 if permalinks don't work), and promised to "try to reply to all intelligent comments." The piece garnered a far greater response than I had anticipated (scroll up to June 17 for a survey of reactions), and I started on the promised reply; but another writing project intervened, and only in the past week have I been able to get back to my reply. This is unfortunate, not just because everyone has probably lost interest, but because I myself don't care that much anymore. Oh, I still think DD #56 is a bad comic; but I'm just not as worked up about it. I certainly wouldn't write seven single-spaced pages on it if I had to do it now. I just have a hard time maintaining that level of indignation about a single thing for long.

Still, I'll keep my promise. I'm going to do this in two parts (or possibly more), for the sake both of readability and of putting something up without further delay.

To my surprise, the aspect of my critique that was most frequently objected to was my assertion that DD #56 presented itself as realistic. Because this had seemed obvious to me, I hadn't said much to justify it, so I'll try to do so now. Of course, no superhero comic is entirely realistic; but this doesn't mean that all superhero comics are completely unrealistic. The O'Neil/Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, and the "Speedy the junkie" story, to give just two examples, clearly sought to say something about the real world; and it's perfectly legitimate to judge them, in part, upon how accurately they portrayed the real-world issues they dealt with.

Taking a more theoretical approach, Dave Fiore argued that "superhero comics are the heirs to the Romance tradition (a dense form of storytelling which seeks to envelop the reader in its own narrative strategies, which survived into the twentieth century in uncharacteristically metaphysical pulp like Hammet [sic], Chandler, and Hemingway's 'romances-in-naturalistic clothing')"; that "Whatever Bendis thinks he's doing--he's clearly working in a tradition that is the furthest thing from mimetic"; and hence "applying naturalistic standards in a critique of his work just doesn't make any sense!" Though cast in more sophisticated terms, Fiore's argument relies upon the same all-or-nothing fallacy as the preceding argument: either a work is realistic through-and-through, or it has no connection to the real world at all. In actuality, though, Hammett, Chandler, Hemingway and Bendis all combine stylized and "romance" aspects with mimetic aspects. If Fiore wants to ignore these latter aspects, that's his right; but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

To be sure, this merely shows that DD #56 might be trying to say something about the real world, not that it actually is. But when Bendis has Urich deliver a disquisition of how Prohibition created large-scale organized crime which is based upon real history, he's implicitly claiming that his story is connected to the real world, and has something to say about it. Ditto when he has Murdock "save" Hell's Kitchen through realistic means (i. e. urban renewal).

While agreeing with me on the whole, Marc Singer objected to one specific aspect of my realism argument, taking aim at the following quote:

"The fundamental dishonesty is that the story presents itself as gritty and realistic, and yet supposes that a single man using only his fists could eliminate crime from a crime-ridden urban neighborhood in which most of the criminals have guns. This might get by in an early sixties Batman comic, where criminals who captured Batman always placed him in elaborate deathtraps from which he could escape, and when readers asked why nobody ever just shot Batman, the editors replied that it was because criminals were all insane. But in a comic that claims to be saying something about the real world, it's ridiculous."

Singer's response is: "Daredevil is, for all its trappings, still a superhero comic, and this is the fundamental suspension of disbelief required of every superhero comic. Even a realistic superhero story is still going to buy into certain basic premises, one of them being that the guys in costumes don't get randomly gunned down because they're just better than their enemies. Even Watchmen follows this convention with all but a few minor characters. Nor is following a genre convention and asking for suspension of disbelief necessarily mutually exclusive with delivering commentary about the real world, as Watchmen again demonstrates. "Realism" doesn't demand a harsh documentary fidelity to the real, simply a different set of stylistic conventions."

While calling it "the fundamental dishonesty" may have gone a little too far, I still think my criticism on this point was justified. Yes, it requires a suspension of disbelief that Batman or Daredevil, without invulnerability or any superhuman offensive powers, could fight crime for as long as they have without being killed or put permanently out of commission. But this suspension of disbelief is only necessary when considering their careers as a whole: in any single adventure, it can be made plausible that Batman or Daredevil could defeat a criminal with a gun (which is not to say it always is made plausible). But in Daredevil #56, we have a career's worth of implausibility compressed into a single story, so to speak.

In any case, my main point was not that Daredevil would have been killed, but that given his powers, he could not have done what Bendis has him doing. (My reference to people with guns, and to 60s Batman stories, may have muddied the waters.) As "Bill" put it: "this guy has certain superpowers, but basically he solves things by punching people out. Can he drive all crime out of an area with a one-two punch? No. No he cannot."

On similar grounds, objections were raised to my complaint that Bendis's dialogue did not sound like real speech. (Here there seems to have been a bit of confusion. Some people have apparently thought I was criticizing the snappy, Mamet-like dialogue which is said to be Bendis's trademark. Whatever is true of his other works, there is nothing the least bit snappy or Mamet-like about the first half of DD #56.) Marc Singer and Dave Intermittent argued that no dialogue is completely naturalistic, in the sense of transcribing everything said in speech, including all the uhs and ahs. But again, this sets up a false all-or-nothing dichotomy. One needn't insist that comic-book dialogue must be an exact transcription of real-life conversation to argue that it should have some connection to how people actually talk: it's one thing to leave out the uhs and ahs, and another to represent people as saying in conversation sentences like "Six straight weeks of terror and violence against the underworld that the city has never seen before or since." (And my objection is not that this isn't a grammatical sentence.)

Dave Fiore made the more sweeping claim that comic-book dialogue need have no relationship to real-life speech at all, supporting his position by asserting that "no one talks in poetic circularities the way [Hammett's, Chandler's, and Hemingway's] characters do!" But these authors used stylized dialogue to get at aspects of real speech which the fiction of the time ignored. The lack of realism of Bendis's dialogue in DD #56 has no such rationale. To be sure, there is also dialogue which is stylized for purely aesthetic purposes, as Marc Singer also points out; but Bendis's dialogue in DD #56 has no aesthetic value either.

In part II I'll discuss the objections to more specific points I made.

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