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My Minor Faith in Metaphor

No Animal Man tonight, but I am quoting David Fiore, which is practically the same thing, right? At any rate, David was talking about the barrenness of the superhero-as-myth theory and goes into another digression about a thread he began at the Ninth Art forum. Now that I’ve read it, it reminds me again that David should stick to blogging and stay off the boards! Part of the reason I haven’t been on message boards as much for the last two years or so is that I can’t handle the hysterical tone that gets going sometimes, and I would have utterly lost my mind were I a regular member following that thread and not being able to stop the carnage that follows David wherever he goes. I prefer to be slow and thoughtful and considerate whenever possible, but apparently a lot of people find that dull, and perhaps they’re right.

However, David quotes Alasdair Watson, which is what spurred me to write in the first place:

I am not covinced that the a serious dissection of nature of faith, to use my earlier example, is going to be well served when the protagonists must dress in spandex and fire lightning out of various orfices. I’m sure it’s not impossible to do, but I think it’d either come across as a bit of a joke - (see Chuck Austen’s recent religion-based storylines for examples), or kill the franchise, because lets face it, people come to the X-men for costumes and ass-kicking, not existential crises. Which is my point about not being allowed to do certain things with a given franchise.

I think my disagreement with this statement is probably not the same as David’s, though I’ve sort of forgtten the specifics of his response by now anyway. First I’d say that there has to be some combination of ass-kicking and existential crisis to interest most superhero readers, I think, to make things more interesting than a video game. The frighteningly deep emotional attachments don’t just come from being impressed at how much a favorite hero can benchpress.

I realize that my tastes run heavily to the existential crisis side of things, so I don’t read too many mainstream superhero books and read other things instead. And I’m not sure religion was a good example here, because, as with much existential crisis, I wouldn’t blame the editors or the audience but I’ll gladly say that many comics writers, mainstream or independent, aren’t smart or sophisticated to pull it off in a way I’d find satisfying. Subtle writing is a lot more difficult than just beating up various characters, but a good superhero writer probably has to do both.

And that brings me back to my real question, just what was the pejorative uniform term before spandex was a widespread fabric? Ok, not that at all. What I was actually thinking about was Marc Singer’s denunciation of metaphor. As I said in his comments, I think I use “metaphor” the way he uses “metonymy,” but I’m not sure. If a good writer wanted to dissect the nature of faith, what’s the best way to do it in an X-Men book? We’re talking fiction, so straight theology/philosophy wouldn’t be the way to go, and making Mystique disguise herself as an aardvark dreaming about the Pentateuch seems somehow cliched. If you’re writing a corporate property, making up a universe to fit your goals and needs like C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman did doesn’t seem to be an option. So you deal with what I’d call metaphor. You’ve got Nightcrawler, who I believe is now a Roman Catholic priest, already at your disposal. And Kitty Pryde is Jewish. And if you were a writer after my heart you could somehow remove Dust, the Afghan mutant who somehow wears chador instead of a burqa and exists only to make me afraid of what offensive or exploitative thing Marvel writers might do to her next. So you can deal with real-life religion and how it impacts the lives of the X-Men, tying it up in a story. Or you could make the religion more tangential, or make the faith in the story not have to do with religion at all.

When I talk about metaphor I mean that the stories have resonance with various real-life issues in my life or in the larger world. If I were this writer, I don’t think I’d have trouble talking about the nature of faith among the X-Men because they’re a community of idealists. They exist and justify themselves because of the good they think they’re doing. So I’d write about what it means to have a crisis of faith about being in the X-Men. How do you know whether you’re just believing what you’re told? Who decides what’s right and what punishments wrongdoers receive? How right can it be to do painful, destructive things in the pursuit of righteousness? Grant Morrison was getting at a lot of this with his work on New X-Men, and I was annoyed that he didn’t follow it farther. The foundations of the mutant dream were shaking and crumbling, and perhaps it didn’t need to be more explicit, but I thought there were many loose ends. But getting back to my own hypothetical story, I think if I wrote that I’d be talking about a crisis of faith on mutant terms, an existential crisis in spandex. And I’ll never get to write it because I don’t want to and because I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to stage the ass-kicking, but I hope it could be a more sophisticated dissection of religious thought than Chuck Austen’s “Catholics are evil because I misunderstand them” religious comics.

And I’d call it a metaphor because it is its own part of the story on its own terms but I can read it as being about religion or politics or about how my mother and I just can’t come to ultimate agreement about my role in life because our priorities and orientations are too different. I’m not sure if this would qualify for metonym status under Marc’s criteria, but it seemed like a good chance to explain my mindset. “Metaphor” works for me, but I understand the urge to pin things down and to make the connections more literal. Literalism has its weaknesses, but Marc explicitly rejects the sort that equates American military might with a big lunk punching out Bin Laden, as he should. I think he just wants people to be more willing to pin themselves down in doing comics criticism, which I’m afraid I’m not. This is the best I can do for now.


  1. Marc says:


    I suppose I did go a bit far in renouncing all metaphor, but that is the nature of these things. Clearly many comics have used it well, and it remains a valid tool for imparting meaning through genre.

    The problem is that too many comics pundits see it as the only tool available, and reduce everything else to metaphor. This actually plays into the hands of pseudointellectuals like the Ninth Art crowd, who take great pleasure in playing up the resulting contrast between tenor (serious) and vehicle (presumably ridiculous) that would result.
    (That Watson quote really is a tremendously stupid observation - people have been coming to the X-Men for existential crises since 1975, just not ones that are metaphoric for faith or politics or anything other than the adolescent weltanschauung they so potently represent. But how easy it would be to change those terms!)

    I’m rethinking my metaphor/metonymy distinction, and will probably end up writing about it at length at some point, but for now I’ll just say that continuity makes a better form of metonymy than I’d previously realized. Any story of, say, religious faith in the X-Men that draws upon its own already-established religious elements is probably operating through that, not metaphor. I tend to view metaphor as being more narrowly analogical - that is, it’s only a metaphor if the tenor, the thing represented, isn’t concretely realized in the story. Perhaps that’s too narrow a definition, but that’s how I discriminate it from the assumption that comics can only represent serious topics by doing Very Special Issues - those are of course the least metaphoric of all.

    And while literalism too may have its drawbacks, I wonder if American Power was trying to build that metaphoric association into its cover, and if that’s why the damned thing is so embarrassing.

    — 27 April 2004 at 5:57 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:


    I’ll comment more on this when (and right now it feels more like if I get home from work, but I think I may just need to rethink metonymy. I’m not familiar with Hayden White’s works and haven’t read enough Zizek, partly because it’s so demoralizing to contantly be out-pop-cultured by a Slovenian. Your divisons based on degree of conreteness seem to work, and I think I’ll be won over eventually, but I’m still trying to figure out the terms that work for me. We’ve got symbols, metaphors and metonyms going, and I’m just working to differentiate it. I look forward to any further writing you do on the subject.

    And I think I need to go to the OED for metonymy. Meta is one of those great Greek adjectives that can mean basically anything and you just have to make it up in the context, so I want to find out when it came into use as a critical terms (under the Romans, perhaps? It doesn’t seem to be a very Greek concept.) even though this will add nothing to the discussion.

    As for American Power, I think it was just drawing on Marvel’s success with shock sales. And they have the weaselly intertextual excuse of saying, “Well, it’s no worse than Captain America socking Hitler!” to which my only response is, “Right, and I would be offended to want to pay for that, too.” I don’t know quite which cover metaphors you’re suggesting it might exemplify, that Americans are a bunch of large, ugly sex fiends who fantasize about punching out wicked guys who don’t play fair even with guns pointed at their heads, with a glorious sunset in the background?

    — 27 April 2004 at 7:19 pm (Permalink)

  3. Marc says:

    Metonymy is literally the substitution of an attribute of a thing for its name, or of one related attribute for another (i.e., when we say “the crown” instead of the king, “Hitchcock” when we mean The Birds or vice versa). Its broadening from a simple figurative device into a full-blown mode of consciousness seems to begin (so White tells me) with post-Renaissance rhetorical theory, particularly Vico, which arranges figuration into the “master tropes” of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. White casts these tropes as models for different modes of consciousness. There’s a rather dense Fredric Jameson response to White that I’ve got to reread that throws doubt upon all of this.

    Then there’s the linguistic definition, in which Roman Jakobson divides language into “vertical” (metaphorical, associative) and “horizontal” (metonymic, syntactical) components, i.e. the metonymy is the relation of one part of a sentence or speech act or novel to another. I don’t like this simplistic and meaningless spatialization (“horizontal”? what?), but the association of metonymy with syntax seems to be a perfect tool for explaining how meaning accretes in serial continuity… from Dickens to Claremont, it’s the relation of one installment to another that gives the whole depth and meaning.

    And then there’s psychoanalysis, particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis, which gives us a completely different set of connotations for “symbolic” (symbolic reasoning, i.e. all language) and yet which, through Zizek, leads back to that perfect Birds without birds analogy and so has also somehow got to be reconciled within this morass…

    Ultimately, though, I think we need to chart this territory (he said, resorting to metaphor) because right now too much discussion of genre comics assumes that meaning inheres either at the metaphorical level, or not at all.

    When I do put this down, it’ll probably be about Rick Moody vs. Ang Lee, and maybe not even about comics at all, because Moody understands so well that it’s the metonymic/syntactical/continuity-bound aspects of certain narratives (Bronze Age comics) that lend them weight, not the metaphoric… there’s a passage where Paul Hood tries to metaphorically graph his family onto the Fantastic Four and it doesn’t work because the metaphors keep slipping. (Too many Bens and not enough Reeds… which perhaps is the problem with his family.)

    — 28 April 2004 at 12:01 am (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    Well, now you’re talking about the side of things I know! OK, not the post-Renaissance stuff, which I’ll bet is interesting, but I hadn’t thought about Jakobson in a long time, and perhaps his approach will help me the most. I’ve been using “metaphor” to cover the horizontal AND vertical planes, which is probably the core of my difficulty with this. I’m still not happy using “metonymy” the way he wants me to, but it’s been clear for some time that “metaphor” doesn’t suffice.

    I’ve always liked Jakobson’s insistence that all communication is translation and that language never means what we think it means, and also enjoyed Lacan and moreso those who followed him. I just feel I’ve let myself get awfully flabby in the intellect department lately, and I should probably do some more reading before I get back into this. It’s just depressing to think how long it’s been since I’ve read any literary theory.

    I don’t think at all that meaning adheres only at the metaphorical level, and the comics that have had the most powerful impact on me have always been idiosyncratically metonymic. I think meaning adheres all over the place, both metaphorically and not, and that’s what makes reading fun. I do hope you’ll do some heavy lifting eventually, and I’ll keep thinking here. I’m not sure I should even hope to get through to people who say superhero comics are not worthy of analysis, since I haven’t so far, but it would help those of us analyzing comics to have some sort of shared vocabulary.

    I remember A. Dave Lewis wrote a theory of comic book criticism for Ninth Art a year or so ago and that I didn’t really agree with it, but I’ll have to go back and look at it to get to the details.

    — 28 April 2004 at 12:23 am (Permalink)