What’s the connection, you may ask?
Well, it’s a little bit Shakespeare, and a little bit Kurosawa…and a little bit of something else too.
Haven’t quite worked it all out yet. But then again that’s what a blog’s for, so…
Pass me that hammer and them tongs, and let’s get to it!
…And begin with Rigoletto, my first opera. Just went to it a couple of months ago, and I have to tell you, it was fantastic.
I know, I know…you see no reason to believe me.
But as long as we’re in the land of not-believing, here’s another thing I could ask you to chew on a bit: which is that opera and comics have an awful lot in common.
No really, they do!
The opera stage is just like a page, you see: people stand around and exposit in song for minutes at a time, perhaps with an arm raised, and it’s often very boring stuff — “oh no, Father, look out behind that tree…!” — but in the context of the artform it’s tremendously meaningful, charged — CHARGED! — with an almost inexplicable sense of dramatic motion. Even though no one is moving. But, well…and we ought to know…
It’s also because no one is moving.
I could tell you a whole lot about my first opera experience, I could tell you a lot about my history with opera as well, but I’ll just tell you this instead: the opera fans love their thing for exactly the same excellences that we comics fans love our thing for…for the genius of the composition that’s truly arresting, that implies so much movement it’d almost be less thrilling to actually see it…that’s peopled with characters so stock and so sloppy that you couldn’t possibly care about them for their own selves, but that for that very reason they can let a virtuoso execution really shine through. Comics. Opera. There’s a relationship there. We’re talking about highly stylized forms; which also means (at least in the popular stuff) very simple forms…and to a degree it’s pretty lowlife stuff.
I mean, take Rigoletto. A hunchback court jester seething with rage at the aristocrats he amuses, who — SPOILERS! — protects his beautiful daughter, that they all think is his lover….and it all comes out as spite, that earns him a terrible curse. And he may be out of Victor Hugo, but he ain’t no Quasimodo…and he may make your skin just crawl slightly, but that doesn’t mean he’s Iago either. And yet what is he, if not a weird and unsettling mixture of those two? And, not just those two. Only in comics could you really get away with something like this: Rigoletto is fifteen different dramatic ingredients thrown into a blender and set on frappe — Rigoletto’s an impossible idea, too unfocussed, spasmic, all over the map, dumb…I mean, he’s gotta be a hunchback too? There’s got to be a curse too? The secret girl has to be his daughter? Oh of course, of course, and yet goddamnit it’s all really too much, and the opera isn’t even that long; I mean how the hell are you going to cram all that shit in there? What’s the point of making it so complicated, eh? Really, it’s TOO MANY NOTES, and what in God’s name is so special about this topic that it needs THAT many notes? They stop short of giving Rigoletto adamantium claws, but that’s about all the restraint you’re going to get…and in a way it really makes you question why. Hey, why no adamantium claws, anyway? Hey, whaddaya some kinda cheapskate?
Away back at the beginning of the Century of Psychology, Freud saw Wagner’s Ring and it stunned him. Later on, when it met Jung, it practically caved in his skull. An unconscious part of the mind, good God, do you think it’s possible there might really be one? Of course the idea goes back a long, long way…at the very least it goes back to Homer, who has Hector address no one in particular, asking:
“But wherefore does my life say this to me?”
But Hector, man, I just can’t answer that one for you. Who knows why the Gods change their minds? Whoever it is who knows that, it sure isn’t us. Though there has by now been a LONG history of people trying to answer your question, we still got nothin’…and we’re probably lucky we’ve even got that much. But one thing we do have, is a lot more ways of posing the question, than we ever did before: and you can thank literature and drama for coming up with the idea, and psychology for figuring out that the idea might have hidden bases, and I guess you can thank the modern mind for choosing to dwell on it to such an unhealthy degree, to the point where it clearly wants to just play and play and play with it, like a kid with a mudpie. Rigoletto himself is a character that’s been done twenty times better…
And yet it’s his very lousiness, it’s the incredibly desultory nature of his “tragedy”…
…That for some reason makes us care?
I’ve said before that pop culture’s chief virtue is its transgressiveness — and make no mistake, the thing called opera buffo is as pop-cultural as any Shakespeare play, which is to say it’s as pop-cultural as anything, anywhere, has ever been. Up to and including comics…
By which I mean: it’s surely right up there with us. Opera and Shakespeare and us: we’re the trinity of Pop. Even music has a tough time matching us.
Because even music has a hard time doing what (say) Artesia does. Oh, Artesia…I think I said this before too, that it is just such a horrifying agglomeration of tips and tricks and cliches that one really couldn’t stand the thing at all, were it not for the fact it’s so obviously made with great passion, as well as with great care. I’d be a mean man indeed to suggest this comic wasn’t loved by its creator; and I’d be a meaner one still to dare to suggest it wasn’t pretty well-lathered with skill. And all for such a silly subject!
Ridiculous gods and maps and names — Artesia puts the ridiculousness right out there and up in your face. But then again they do say that good artists imitate, but great artists steal — heck, until my friend Tyche shoved it in my face I had no IDEA how much Bob Dylan just flat-out stole, for example…and, yeah, it’s very much our matter, I think. The recurrent matter of modernity — I mean we forgive Homer and we forgive Shakespeare and we forgive Victor Hugo, but that’s only because we’ve got much bigger problems now, to wit: what the fuck are WE gonna make, and how can we justify it? Great artists steal; artists working from 1985-2009 try to make stealing extra-nice…
Which is probably a mistake, and notably not one that passionate, competent Artesia (I mean ARTESIA, that’s the NAME, for heaven’s sake WHAT?!) even seems to think of. But then again maybe that passes for a species of genius, in these crazy days…
…Of modernity, I keep saying that…
But, what the hell is modernity?
It’s a slippery term. You could argue Hector possesses a modern mind, and indeed many stalwarts of the Century of Psychology have done just that; modernity was certainly, inarguably on the go during the Enlightenment; and then there’s bloody Shakespeare, and we’re still only talking about the Western Canon. Look, Bloggers, “modernity”: better give it up as a hope of something definite, you know what I mean? I can think of sixteen definitions off the top of my head, that conservatively fit; there are hundreds more slapdash and off-the-cuff ones that have almost no truth to them at all, except they have a little truth that every other definition lacks…and so I tellya, we’ll be figuring this out ’til the day we die, if that’s what we want to do. Because it’s bloody complicated…
…From a certain perspective.
I mean, look at Watchmen. Now there’s a perspective, eh? Voltaire said that one must be absolutely modern, and that’s exactly what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s work is…it’s about as modern as you can get. It is obsessed with modernity, in fact; all the flaws and contradictions, all the little stupid truths and stupid habitual excisions of truth that are SO EMBARRASSING to those of us who are not superheroes…yes. And the thing is, none of us are.
And another thing is: the superheroes aren’t, either.
Now there’s your “absolutely modern” — the characters themselves are all but nullities. Why should we care about them? An angry girl in a yellow nightie who knows tae-kwon-do. A rich idiot in an animal costume, with dangerous gadgets, who feels unfulfilled. A brutal madman in a mask who lives out of an alleyway, eating garbage. There’s nothing to any of them, and oh God if there really were…
Well who could stand it?
Being a real superhero…
It sounds awful.
“Artesia” wrestles with it, in her way — enmeshed in a million silly and mystifying details, but she’s enmeshed in them. And so are we, as ridiculous as that sounds. All trapped in a million cliches, stranded on a million fantasy-maps. Artesia‘s strength is that it’s just this, yes it really is, and now what kind of story can you tell with it? Watchmen‘s no different, in fact that’s (pretty inarguably, I take it) the point of Watchmen: these stylized representations are rather ostentatiously ridiculous, self-cancelling even, as far as fantasies go…but we didn’t make them up, and guess what they do appear to be good for something. Good at cracking the shell, and getting to the meat inside. And this manner of feeding isn’t so nice, maybe; but it’s what we’ve got, and without it there may be no sustenance at all. Modernity goes back as far as Homer, because Homer is as far back as we can remember: stories of gods transplanted into tales of human anguish, with God-principles abstracted from them and controlling them, and making a bloody mess that we can’t help but search for some coagulant purpose. Achilles and Ajax and Demetrious and Nestor: none of it is original, but then that’s the problem that justifies the story. Rigoletto is like the freakin’ scrapple of tragedies: it’s all the leftover bits from everybody else’s story pressed into a loaf, but that doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it a thing you have to eat with the most delicious kind of sauce you can figure out. In this case: music, and virtuosity. Assured performance. Wonderful execution. Inspired mise-en-scene. Without these it is literally nothing; might as well be a crap Wolverine story. I mean who cares? Nothing is so ridiculous as this, after all. Nothing else carries with it so very little reason to care.
And yet we do care; and here’s the thing.
Here’s the thing, O Modern Ones, you many Hectors wondering what the hell’s going on!
The transgressive world may be a silly one, but it induces a lot of non-silly feelings that are hard to achieve elsewhere. We manage to care for Rigoletto, and this is impossible, or at least it ought to be; it’s like caring for Iago, the one who does ill for ill’s sake because he likes it. We manage to worry about Artesia, even though — give me a break! — the D&D memory-quilt world she lives in is one where the worst thing that can happen is that she wins. God knows what we’re supposed to feel at the end of Watchmen, though the superheroic ending is planted right in our laps as plain as day. Happy for Dan and Laurie? Well, sure, but not because they’re good characters: only because they’re sung so well.
And at the end, it’s as though Rorschach gets up and sings a final aria…
And the audience is suitably purged of pity and fear, but it’s not too plain whether or not the good guys have won…if indeed there are any good guys.
Quick lesson in opera to go out on: the opera we know today is opera buffo, the silly opera: the common people’s opera. Where meanings are mixed; where social conformity isn’t reinforced. And the “high” opera died the day that opera buffo was born: prescriptive entertainment, that told you what you should feel, and couched it all in Biblical terms so you couldn’t argue with it.
You see, you’re not supposed to like the “lower” form of this kind of theatre.
But you do, don’t you?
You do care, I think.
This post I had planned for several months; and the way I had it planned, it was going to be really good.
Oh, well…that didn’t happen, I guess.
Still I hope you may not have thought it a complete waste of time. And if you did…well, bub…