Comic Books, Art, and Marcuse
Narrative and Technology
March 20, 2012
In our society, we call a lot of different things art. From paintings, to plays, to graffiti, the “art” label gets slapped on a wide variety of objects and events. However for Marcuse, art is something different. Art is a break with traditional “rational” thought, and this is a good thing. Art refutes what socially has accepted, and “contains the rationality of negation…In its advanced positions, it is the Great Refusal—the protest against that which is” (Marcuse, Chapter 3).
The question to be asked looks at the distinction between art and entertainment. Using Marcuse, we will examine comic books in relation to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan and begin to see the difference between pure entertainment, and Ware’s deeply disturbing graphic novel that pushes past the limit of entertainment, and resides in a realm of “negation”—of art that looks at uncomfortable truths in society.
Many people consider different forms of entertainment art—would you tell the street artist drawing portraits he or she is not an artist? Or how about a dancer in a ballet? However, let’s be clear that art will be examined through Marcuse’s eyes: eyes that view entertainment as entertainment, and art as a separate genre of its own. Marcuse considers entertainment in an advanced society as having motives of maintaining the “rational” thought. “Can one really distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination?” (Marcuse Chapter 1). Through entertainment, people identify with the collective way of thinking: such as products becoming adsorbed into an individual’s identity. To be pithy, entertainment is just another form of social control.
While I would be careful in linking all entertainment to a repressive societal control, I recognize that much of the material found in the entertainment genre is mindless, and certainly adheres to the status quo of rationality. Let’s take, for example, the idea of a standard comic book plot: the hero, born of humble origins, discovers his unique talent, and with a few stumbles on the way, manages to help humanity, get the girl, and is generally looked upon by the population as noble and brave.
This is a rational line of thinking for a comic book. When people read comics, they are looking for ‘ “Stories about people that people’ll want to read. Fantasy stuff—y’know. Pretty girls, cars…” ’(Ware, Intro). And this is rational, because people want to escape their normal, boring, daily lives, and live vicariously through some other form of entertainment. These established story lines are not a protest. They are acceptance of society as it is. The audience reading these comic books knows that their own life will not be different after reading a book. The book is a temporary form of escape that (for some) allows them to be a hero, when they cannot be one in their daily lives. This typical story line is familiar, and soothing. The characters are standard and established.
As Marcuse puts it:
To be sure, these characters have not disappeared from the literature of advanced industrial society… The vamp, the national hero, the beatnik. the neurotic housewife, the gangster, the star, the charismatic tycoon perform a function very different from and even contrary to that of their cultural predecessors. They are no longer images of another way of life but rather freaks or types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than negation of the established order. (Chapter 3)
So, continuing with the comic book example, Marcuse would consider Superman, Batman, Spiderman, or any other storybook hero to be rational, and just an “affirmation” of society’s accepted norm. Everyone knows the story of Spiderman: a teenager, Peter Parker, is raised by his aunt and uncle, and after the murder of his uncle, Peter seeks revenge, learning his strengths and powers along the way. Yet Spiderman is just a story. It is not a protest for social change. It does not defy the status quo. While all comic books have seemingly different plot points, they are all very similar in their basic qualities of secret identities, superpowers, and heroic feats.
What sets Jimmy Corrigan apart from any other standard comic book is the plot. Jimmy Corrigan is not a hero. He does not have superpowers, and he is a pathetic individual meandering his way through life without a greater purpose.
On a basic plot line level, the story involves Jimmy, who has a dead-end job, is socially awkward, gets constantly harassed by his overbearing mother, and on the surface seems to have no unique or interesting qualities about him. After receiving a letter from a father he has never met, Jimmy sets out to meet this mysterious man. In his constant daydreams, Jimmy is the smartest man on earth. But in reality, he is just another timid, middle-aged man hoping to form a bond with a father he has never known before.
Generally, Jimmy is not the character you want to read about to escape your own monotonous daily life. This comic book does not a hero. It has the sad story of a man’s life, not unlike many other lives being lived by similar people. Thus, what makes Chris Ware’s comic book different? What makes this specific comic book art? It is well-drawn, with beautifully ornate graphics and pictures, but any other comic book could be considered art by this standard too. If we are all in agreement that Marcuse would not consider a regular comic book art based on its adherence to an established societal norm or genre, then what makes this comic book special?
Jimmy Corrigan represents the human Eros surfacing despite society’s repression of it. “For Marcuse, it is Eros which first builds culture through its sublimation into art. It is in art, which retains the life instincts and their validity within itself, that ‘truth of the human condition [which] is hidden repressed—not by a conspiracy of some sort, but by the actual course of history ’ ” (Bronner). Comic books are just pure entertainment. Most readers recognize the fact that they will never be a super-hero. They are being entertained with a fictional story, and when they finish, they will go back to their lives, for the most part unchanged.
Revealed in the disturbing story of Jimmy Corrigan are sad truths about society. After reading this book, I am unable to think of individual who would not be changed in some way; who would not question some facet of their life or be intellectually stimulated by the book. Uncomfortable topics such as loneliness, depression, abuse, meanness towards other humans, and social awkwardness are just a brief list that the book touches upon.
This book may be entertaining, but it is not entertainment. It is a reflection about a human, and by this, a reflection on all human society. It is a reflection on those uncomfortable topics, making this book a break from tradional rational thought. “It is in this manner that arts acts, at one and the same time, as the hope and ‘inner truth’ of the civilization—as the ‘second history of man…Art, as the ‘inner truth’ which contradicts the existing society, retains the freedom of shaping reality with regard to its potentialities, through the imagination. Art, then, must embody a certain transcendence…” (Bronner).
True life is not what is portrayed in entertainment. For Marcuse, most comic books are not art because they are not a “Great Refusal.” Most comic books are a Great Acceptance—people want to be transported away from the struggles of their daily lives, and entertained with a story of someone they can never be, but deep down desire to be like.
Jimmy Corrigan refuses to be this type of comic book, or this type of entertainment. Instead, the author paints a grim picture of a man’s life, and his desires to be someone else. The book is depressing, and painful, but also truthful. Readers will be left with this “transcendence” or these “inner truth[s].” This is why Jimmy Corrigan is art. Society has accepted art as often being different forms of entertainment, but not Marcuse. Art is the severance from society’s dictated “rational” thought, and Ware’s novel is a representation of the “Great Refusal.”
Bronner, Stephen Eric. “Art and Utopia: The Marcusean Perspective.
Politics Society. 1973. Web.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.Print.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Pantheon Publishing:
New York, 2000. Print.