I’m tired of the two-camera, hour-long drama. I’m tired of the Oscar-oriented mainstream film. I’m tired of “literary fiction,” you know, respectable middlebrow art. I don’t enjoy everyday reality heightened with swelling strings. I’m tired of realism’s conventions; so I’ve been turning to comics, pulp fiction, cartoons and genre film.
And increasingly for me, everything is genre. When I was in college, one of my professors discussed the difference between liking a work and thinking it was good. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to like something that is good (Moby Dick, say) or dislike something that is bad (Battlefield Earth). Most of the time it’s an awkward combination. Realism’s conventions aren’t usually to my taste. With realism, the revelation of art’s bones just wrecks everything. But with genre, structure’s all part of the fun.
Besides, what heartfelt kitchen conversation about surviving leukemia or teacher inspiring troubled teens can compete with mutant street beatniks, Sewer Urchin, C.H.U.D.s (“cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers”) or a giant alligator living in Chicago’s sewers? I don’t need to see everyday reality elevated to a riveting world of legal dramas and home décor, unless that decor involves an underground lair or, as the Venture Bros.’ Monarch says, a jet shaped like a skull? (I’d totally live in Dethklok’s house).
I like seeing how artists play with structure and convention within a set discipline. A road, a coyote, a bird. Nothing allows for more possibility of that than generic media—except maybe poetry, which people also hate. One of the best things I’ve ever seen was a wayang kulit play performed by I Wayan Wija. Wayang kulit is Balinese shadowpuppet theater and is what Jim calls in his take, “high art.” In one fight scene, I Wayan Wija referred to John Woo, kung fu and The Matrix. I love that vitality and reusing conventions in new ways or inserting them into different genre. I have a friend who’s worried about the way that pop culture is eating itself. It’s understandable; he’s in the film industry. And, yes, sometimes referentiality can be like sucking a popsicle dry and white. But sometimes, it can become transcendent—mythic even. And, more seriously, a mythic approach or a different form can allow for a whole new way of understanding a subject—Chester Brown’s Louis Riel graphic novel, for example, is way more accessible than dense and vaguely obscurantist Canadian histories on the same topic.
I’m not advocating elevating comics to high art. I’ve been around long enough to know that being canonized isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But I do think that high art has a lot more in common with the gutter than with respectable, middlebrow art. Van Gogh sold one painting in his life and was considered a crappy painter, so crappy he had to take his ass to the sticks. Herman Melville’s novels were such a failure that he quit writing them. Emily Dickinson? Shut-in whose punctuation needed correction. Nijinsky? Booed off the very stage he was humping fifteen minutes into Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” And as with James Tiptree, jr., there’s a passel of English Victorian novelists with male pseudonyms, including all three Brontes. High art is often disdained as something a child could do, as mocking the audience, as degenerate, as gutter trash. I guess that’s part of why the phrase, “gutter culture” makes me a little itchy, even though I know here at the Cultural Gutter we’re reclaiming it.
I don’t like the idea that some work should be rescued before it slips into the sewer while the rest rots like it deserves. I’m not trying to legitimize comics and I’m not trying to salvage anything and, frankly, shocking the citizenry bores me. I am a bad advocate. Luckily, comics, video games, genre films and books are doing fine without me and they’ll keep doing fine. Mostly, I’m looking for some kicks. I get off on the joy of a crazed creation: Madman, Dirty Plotte, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman fighting the Martians, Lobster Johnson. Something so wrong it’s right. Something fun. I do think more people could use more fun. And in the end, books with pictures are fun.
I like fun and thinking about crazy shit. I’m long past caring if someone thinks something I enjoy is “gutter.” I mean that in the nicest way, really. I have nothing to prove, not to the guys at the comic book store and not to acquaintances who judge a work by its genre. You go ahead and like what you like. If you need me, I’ll be down in the sewer with the C.H.U.D.s and the alligators.