The Power of Cultural Artifacts, or Why Comic Books are Awesome

When critiquing or analyzing a work of art – paintings, films, literature, whatever – there are almost limitless angles to take. I learned as much during my college classes on literary critical theories. Formalist, structuralist, deconstructionist, multiculturalist, feminist, marxist, mythic/archetypical…it was like a bizarre alternate universe where religion took the form of literary criticism.

Not that I’m really disparaging it, of course. I found it quite useful to examine works through different lenses, as long as there was moderation rather than fanatically touting the One True Way of Critical Theory. Yet as varied as the theories are, they do contain a sort of unifying aim – to determine whether a piece of art is worthy. Worthy is a vague concept, but it generally has to do with what theme or feeling the product conveys, along with a judgement of the quality of that portrayal. What does it do, and does it do it well? For example, in feminist criticism, this could be specified as how women and gender relationships are portrayed, and how effectively. It plays out in various ways, but there’s usually that underlying sense of judgment.

That’s a nice template for approaching analysis of something. However, there’s another way of approaching it that sets aside all judgments, all notions of quality. It doesn’t seek to answer the question of whether the art should have been made, or whether it was made well or poorly. There is the art; it was made. Now let’s study it purely as a cultural artifact.

This viewpoint works best for old things. How do we study Beowulf? As a masterpiece of Old English literature? Well…kind of. We study it at least partly because there’s very little else to study from that era. We don’t worry about whether it was “good” or “well-written” or other subjective concerns; we just want to know what it tells us about Anglo-Saxon poetry as well as their language, customs and culture. It probably was at least more popular than other epic poems, explaining why it was preserved better than others, and that’s really the only consideration that matters after all these centuries. Why was it popular? Why did it resonate so well with its listeners? What was its original presentation like, chanted with accompanying harp thrums by a scop in a mead-hall?

I’ve been thinking of this lately because my husband and I are watching a documentary about comic books, and it largely uses this cultural-artifact viewpoint. Sure, some would argue that comics are cheap, pulpy, low-quality entertainment, something children should grow out of in favor of more high-minded adult art; not worth serious consideration. Regardless, their popularity cannot be denied; their influence from and on pop culture is undeniable. So instead of turning up our noses at it, why not examine it? Why not look at how pre-war American children found something so thrilling about an all-powerful do-gooder like Superman? At how World War II inspired the creation of Captain America, how the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s brought about weird loner heroes like geeky Peter Parker and the Hulk and the X-Men? It’s fascinating stuff, a history lesson reflected in the technicolor pages of comic books.

I’ve seen fretful essays on the recent popularity of comic book movies that basically call them a portentous sign of the downfall of intelligent society. What could it mean that we’re so obsessed with these childish stories, they moan, while touting cerebral art-house pictures that no one’s ever heard of. Popularity is by no means a guarantee of quality (though, to outright dismiss something that’s popular on the assumption that the masses lack the discernment to ever like something good, is the height of snobbery). But whether something is well-made or not, it’s worth examining, as a product of its time if nothing else. Do I think comic book movies are flawless cinema? Far from it. Much of their content is absurd fantasy, with many an unnecessary crowd-pleasing explosion. But I enjoy them, and I’m clearly not the only one. Why is that? The possible answers are fascinating.

We’ve always enjoyed stories of gods and heroes. Sometimes they’re fueled by magic and mythos. Sometimes they’re fueled by nuclear radiation, or genetic mutation, or some alien power. They take different forms, but they always say something important about the time they came from as well as timeless human qualities. Maybe there were Anglo-Saxon intellectuals who thought Beowulf was childish nonsense. Would they cringe to see the poem included in practically every English literature course’s curriculum? The thought makes me ridiculously happy, as does the idea that a thousand years from now, The Amazing Spiderman might be a staple among courses on 20th century American literature.

This applies to things I don’t care for as well. I couldn’t stomach an analysis of Twilight as high-quality literature, but I can certainly examine it as an artifact of literature trends among teenaged girls (and some middle-aged women) in the early 21st century. What was the context of the culture in which it was written, in which it became popular, and jump-started the sub-genre of YA paranormal romance? All of these are questions you can ask without worrying whether something is “good” or not, either the book itself or the tastes of its audience. Do we bash Anglo-Saxons for liking Beowulf? Well, maybe, if we’re really bored in English class and groan, “Whoever liked this stupid stuff!?”  But generally, it doesn’t matter. It was created, it had an audience, and thanks to that, we can learn a lot about that audience and their culture and history.

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