Too Much of a Good Thing: Pleasure and Its Discontents

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2006 at 9:15 pm

It’s times like these that I look back to the days of drought with a pang of longing. You remember the nineties, right?

Everything today is just…too good. And there’s too damn much of it. I’m not talking about Marvel, of course: there, at least, you can still experience that quickening of the heart that once attended the discovery of a sand dollar or a shell or a starfish on a grey and empty beach. When confronted with a wall of Marvel monthlies, it’s still possible to remember what it truly was to “collect.” Not simply to accumulate or even to read, but to choose. To exercise what was once called, without even a hint of embarrassment, “taste.” Everyone knows that that is the earliest and still most basic act that we perform as comic fans—the exercise of taste, the perfection of a certain style of choosing through which we begin to become ourselves. It is for this reason that the depressing nature of so much of Marvel’s current output these days turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because it at least restores the possibility of taste—of scanning the grey beach of Marvel for the glint of one of its “minor” but wonderful titles. Remembering this pleasure is of considerable value in a market that is already overstuffed with high quality mainstream books. Yes, now I’m talking about DC. No point in pretending that this is an objective account.

It’s a very good time to be a DC fan. Too good—especially if you’re a mid-thirties overgrown DC fan, because everything—everything—DC makes is being made just for you. All that Dan Didio and Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison and Gail Simone and Bill Willingham and Mark Waid and Greg Rucka think about when they butter their toast or walk their dogs, or kiss their partners as they turn out the lights is your—by which I mean my—pleasure. They must! Because every new title, every assignment of writers and artists, every revival of some obscure but secretly treasured eighties character, everything is calculated to stir some pleasurable memory or to unveil some new zone of delight, a zone that is nonetheless always, always moored to the dock of our adolescent dreaming. It’s glorious, dizzying, wonderful… Too much…

And that’s the problem with pleasure, isn’t it? Because pleasure is not, strictly speaking, a positive quantity, even though it might often appear that way. It emerges always in relation to other things—things that are less pleasurable, less thrilling. You know: boring. Maybe even bad.

So when the comic store—that special corner of the world that’s always been the secret laboratory of your self-invention, the place where you first “chose” your way towards being, where your “taste” was born and perfected—when that place becomes so saturated with products that all lay equal claim to your attention, you’re faced with an entirely perverse catastrophe: your power to choose has been overwhelmed by a veritable embarrassment of riches. You discover, to your horror, that you no longer have any taste. Or rather, that the “taste” you cultivated so carefully for all those years has been rendered obsolete. And banal too, because everyone shares it.

Suddenly, you’re buying more comics than you can read. You’re enjoying them all. You glut yourself. But something terrible is happening. You’ve not only lost the pleasure of choosing—a snob’s nightmare, a narcissist’s crisis—you’ve lost another, profounder pleasure too. I tried to describe that pleasure once; I’m not sure I managed it. It’s the pleasure of self-forgetting. Of an act of reading so consuming that you go…elsewhere. Away. “Into the panels” sounds silly and naïve. But it’s something like that. A child’s pleasure. But not only that. The horizon of pleasure. Barthes called it jouissance. And when it happens, you’re lost, blissfully…

That particular experience of pleasure feels increasingly remote. When you have succumbed entirely (almost entirely) to the engulfing tide of DC’s Brave New World, of its pleasurable Crises, of its Seven Soldiers and Holy Trinity, of its Leagues and Societies, of its seamless colonizing of every Wednesday for 52 weeks—when you have succumbed to all that—you begin, to your dismay and astonishment, to find yourself not engulfed, not overwhelmed, not consumed, but a little aloof, even a little ungrateful. Like any addict worthy of the name, you don’t ever want the high to stop, of course. You would prefer it, in fact, if 52 became Infinity. But you can’t help but notice that when things achieve a pitch this fevered and intense, the pleasures you were seeking begin to feel stretched a little thin. You don’t read with the same eyes you once did. You forget what it’s like to linger. To really lose yourself. You become that most awful thing: a speed reader. You skim.

It’s times like these that I remember the late nineties. The bad old days, when everything was godawful. Or nearly so. That was an era of austere pleasures, when the exercise of “taste” was forced to discover a new suppleness, to invent compromises. Everyone has their own version; for me, it was an era defined by two artifacts: Dan Jurgens’s Teen Titans series (a travesty of the sacred Book of Wolfman-Perez; I’m still not over it) and the emergence of CrossGen, which, although initially off-putting, eventually drew me in and taught me to read in an entirely different way. To slow down, to look—to really look. Almost to fall into those panels again… It was a rediscovery of the power of “archetypes” (though I hate that term) and especially of the magic produced by color in comic art. The evolution of “taste” in a time of drought.

Perhaps, then, I have something to learn from my reading practices of the late nineties, for the comics on the shelves today are simply a kind of inverted image of the majority of those books of those bad old days. The conversion, as far as I’m concerned, has been total and symmetrical: by some alchemical process, DC’s writers and artists have turned the array of titles on the comic shelves from lead into gold. The irony, as I’ve been musing on it, is that although this alchemical trick has in a certain quantitative sense produced more “pleasure,” the pleasure it makes possible is of a qualitatively different kind than that of those rare oases of pleasure we were capable of discovering in the nineties. That pleasure was a rediscovery of the inaugural act of choosing (the education and refinement of taste); this pleasure is the totalizing, somewhat exhausting pleasure of a genie’s bottle that gives you everything you want and were afraid to even wish for (too much of a good thing). But the inverted similarity of these two eras carries with it a kind of solution to my gripe: just as it was necessary to discover a subtler form of reading to spin gold out of the dross of nineties comics, so might it be necessary to refine one’s tastes all over again, to separate the still gold-tinged dross from the real gold of the comics of today. Oh curses. That sounds like work. Somewhere along the line, I got lazy about taste. I’ve been forgetting how to be a snob.

Pfft. Comic fans, huh? Hard fucking bunch to please.

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