Isaac and I had coffee earlier in the week and got to talking about the problem with the aesthetics of exclusion, or, more accurately and less pretentiously, the problem of fanservice.
I'm not talking about the gratuitous panty-shot variety of fanservice. I'm talking about the impenetrable, continuity-heavy storytelling-fanservice that plauges mainstream superhero comics -- the barrage of needlessly insular and obscure references that make it impossible for the average reader to pick up an issue of a big-label comic book and have the slightest fucking clue what is going on. This kind of incomprehensibility isn't just a side-effect of long-form serial storytelling. It is deliberate -- a conscious strategy to reward hardcore comics readers who come to the table with an encyclopedic knowledge of the last 20 years of comics continuity, and to drive away everyone else.
Let's say you are a smart, sophisticated, cultured person who nonetheless enjoys a well-crafted bit of pop culture entertainment, like, say, the Iron Man movie. And let's say you happen to be walking by Rocketship and think, "You know, that movie was really cool -- I don't normally read comics, but what the heck, why don't I just step in here and pick up a comic that has Iron Man in it?" In all likelihood, you will quickly regret your decision, because mainstream comic books are, by and large, not set up to reward people who like exciting, tight narratives and vivid characterization and witty banter and engaging visuals and all the other things you'd normally want from your slice of pop culture entertainment. They are set up for one thing and one thing only: fanservice. Mainstream superhero comics are a closed loop, catering only to the specific nostalgia needs of longtime fans, and everyone else can go screw.
Of course, smart comics fans who would actually appreciate the opportunity to read some superhero comic books featuring exciting, tight narratives for a change are as pissed off as anyone at the way blatant fanservice drives away any potential new readers, and has almost completely supplanted actual craft.
What does this have to do with music? Well, nobody except the most hopeless, pathetic mouth-breather actually thinks the preponderance of fanservice in superhero comics is respectable or defensible. But when the exact same variety of insular, exclusionary, pointless pandering to the the in-crowd goes on in our favorite music (jazz, improv, new music, indie rock, hiphop, whatever), the people being pandered to -- that would be you know, us -- tend to get their backs up whenever anyone suggests that there might be something unsavory about circling the aesthetic wagons, or wondering whether practices that are deliberately designed to alienate intelligent, sophisticated, open-minded listeners from outside your little scene are really such a good idea.
I got a most peculiar sensation reading the Epiphany column at the back of the latest (June) issue of The Wire--an account of a life-changing gig written by improvising cellist Mark Wastell--which was I went to this show, didn't I? In fact it's a gig the whereabouts and whenabouts of which I've been trying to remember for a while now. Now I know precisely: March 12th, 1989, the Royalty Theatre, Holborn, London; Evan Parker as support act to the headlining trio of Anthony Braxton, Adelhard Roidinger, and Tony Oxley.
Reading the column, the mirroring effect was quite uncanny: Wastell's reactions to the performances correlated bizarrely with my own (but how he reacted to those reactions ultimately being totally different). An unusual venue, never been to before, never been to since? CHECK! Slightly aghast at the audience, an all-male miasma of thick sweaters, brown cardigans, bad hair, face foliage? CHECK! Bemused bothered and bored witless as Parker's fingers run rapidly up and down, up and down his soprano saxophone for approx 40 minutes, the resulting shrill, gratingly sibilant patterns repetitious in the extreme yet never falling into anything that resembles groove or melody? CHECK! Very very slightly more taken by the abstrusities of the headliners (at least there's three levels of incomprehensibility going on at once) but literally pained by Oxley's compulsion to swipe his drumstick against his cowbell every few minutes, producing a really nasty metallic scraping sound? CHECK!
Where Wastell rose to the challenge, I sank from it, shrank from it. The show was an anti-Epiphany, a Turning-Off Point. Well, not quite as dramatic as that, but certainly it helped to cap and confirm a mounting feeling of being not-attracted/not-convinced by that whole area of music (which I'd dutifully checked out, as you do--a Company recording here, an Incus release there--because some smart people with otherwise sharp taste are really into this shit). The gig at the Royalty Theatre contributed to the turn-off partly for sociological reasons (having had a good up-close sniff of the audience, would I really want to be the kind of person into this thing? Or even stand in the same room as them on a regular basis?), but mostly for musical ones: I honestly could not hear the music in it.
I'm sure Reynolds's post will make a lot of readers of this blog furious, but he is no slouch and much of what he says is worthy of serious consideration -- you should read the whole thing, of course -- as well as Phil Freeman's response -- but I was especially struck by this bit:
My interest was actually piqued by a piece in another issue of The Wire, a few months back, the March cover story on John Butcher. I really warmed to the opening quote from Butcher:"This music is here in opposition to other music. It doesn't all co-exist together nicely. The fact that I have chosen to do this implies that I don't value what you're doing over there. My activity calls into questions the value of your activity. This is what informs our musical thinking and decision making."
Interestingly, given his earlier comments, Reynolds actually likes this oppositional, exclusionary attitude. I think it's completely appalling. It reeks of the worst kind of fanservice.
UPDATE: Here is an excellent example of the not-atypical reactions of someone jumping back into superhero comics after a long absence:
Up until about ten years ago, if DC Comics published something with Batman in the title, I bought it. It was about this time, a decade ago, that I well and truly left comics behind, seemingly forever. Things change.
Except for some of the early issues of Superman/Batman, I’d not bought a Batman comics in ten years when I bought Batman #676, the first chapter of “Batman, R.I.P.”
So, naturally, I was confused out of my skull.
I’m sure something happened in this issue, but I’m not sure what. There’s a moody introduction with a secret society. There’s a car chase with the latest incarnation of the Batmobile. There’s Tim Drake asking Alfred if Bruce is completely mental. There’s Bruce Wayne’s new girlfriend (whose name isn’t given for several pages, so if you didn’t know who she was, the first page with her is going to be confusing as hell). There’s a scene of Bruce and his girlfriend at the Wayne family cemetary plot. And then there’s a sequence with the Joker, which I’m not entirely sure was a dream or reality. I’m thinking dream.
It sounds like a lot, and I suppose it is. It’s all set-up.
For a first issue of a storyline, questions are raised and none are answered. For a new reader, there’s a lot here that’s impenetrable; there are undoubtedly things that I’ve completely missed.
And this is an issue written by Grant Morrison, who is usually one of the better comics writers around.
Whether we are talking about comics or music or any other artform, taking pride in creating work that goes out of its way to be deliberately impenetrable to the non-initiate is perverse.