Modernism Vs Post-Modernism – Why Can’t Comics Reviewers Define Terms? (Hyperpost 9)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

T. Rex feels like having a nice conversation about post-modernism.

T. Rex feels like having a nice conversation about post-modernism.

This one’s going to be quite a short one, and more of a rant than a coherent statement.

Put simply, I am sick of comics reviewers referring to Grant Morrison’s work (and various others like him) as being post-modernist in some way. In a way, it’s an understandable claim – Morrison is clearly extremely influenced by Borges, Burroughs and other of the early postmodernists (at least in his early work, especially Doom Patrol). The problem is that in literature the term postmodern has a vastly different meaning – for God knows what reason – than it does in any of the other arts, and much as I don’t like comics aping cinema for popularity, nor do I like them aping literature for critical acceptance.

In most art-forms, postmodernism is a reaction to modernism – a re-appropriation of the styles and techniques of pre-modern art, but used with a more ironic, knowing attitude that comes from seeing the old styles in the light of modernist thought. Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, for example, where he retreated from his earlier advances and those of his contemporaries, was postmodernist music, as was, for example, Frank Zappa’s Cruising With Ruben And The Jets, which was an affectionate but knowing pastiche of doo-wop but using techniques far advanced from the original practicioners and with a subversive lyrical intent.

In literature, on the other hand, postmodernists have tended to be a direct continuation of modernist thought, rather than a reaction to it – Gravity’s Rainbow is very obviously the same kind of thing as Ulysses, rather than something set up in opposition to it, while Burroughs’ cut-up technique is a direct lift from Tzara’s How To Write A Dadaist Poem. In form and technique there is a direct continuation between modernist and postmodernist literature, whereas if you compare a postmodern composer like Philip Glass with a modernist like Edgard Varese, the two are practically working in different media.

And it is that technique – at least in Morrison’s early works (he hasn’t really used those techniques since The Invisibles, after which he stopped being so influenced by fiction writers and became more influenced by TV, video games and non-fiction, by his own account) which people are thinking of as post-modern. But things like The Brotherhood Of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, and the fictional world which becomes real (taken from Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Borges) are all at least as much modernist as postmodernist concepts, while his breaking of the fourth wall and acknowledgement of the work as fiction within the work itself are both things that Brecht played with as often as any postmodernist.

The reason literary postmodernists are lumped with the postmodernists in other arts, rather than with the modernists – their one distinguishing attribute – is that they share the postmodernist worldview. Essentially, postmodernism is a reaction to enlightenment values, claiming that rationality and human progress were illusions, and that they led to the atrocities that made up most of mid-twentieth-century history. While accepting the modernist critique of earlier eras’ irrationality, they claimed, implicitly or explicitly, that the notions of rationality and human perfectibility within a scientific worldview led to Hitler and Stalin (both of whose governments had portrayed themselves as modern and scientific, even as both had a visceral distaste for ‘decadent’ modernist art, and indeed for real science).

Having rejected both God and Man, that left only absurdism – the idea that not only does the world have no meaning, but we cannot even impose one on it, that the only reaction that is possible is to play with symbols, and that nothing will ever get better. (It’s hardly surprising that so many postmodernist writers either committed suicide or effectively killed themselves with addictions – if you’ve given up on the very idea of hope, it seems like a reasonable strategy. It’s a worldview that can lead to great art – much of the ‘serious’ fiction I’ve enjoyed has been by American postmodern writers like Vonnegut, Koszinski, Pynchon and so on – but which is not especially conducive to good mental health).

Now that, of course, is not an attitude Morrison shares – Morrison’s attitude is far closer to that of Nietzsche, that humanity is a bridge between the ape and the superman. A lot of the reason Morrison does so much superhero work is that he considers superheroes to be characters intended as signposts along the way to humanity’s destiny. He *believes* in perfectibility, in the future, in the innate good of humanity, and in all those things which the postmodernists denied.

He’s a modernist – practically the only one in comics.

Geoff Johns, on the other hand, is a post-modernist. Not in the literary way – he’s not at all interested in form – but in attitude. Johns is, in every way, trying to recreate what he sees as a ‘classic’ period of American comics (roughly, those produced by Marv Wolfman and Roy Thomas ca. 1982, a time which most other people consider one of the most artistically empty of all comics ‘eras’), but he is writing after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns made it impossible to write an innocent superhero story like those – every superhero story since then has had to take their influence into account, even if, like Johns, one is in reaction to it.

Johns is also determinedly anti-rational – scientists in his work are almost universally cast in the ‘meddling with things man was not meant to know’ mould rather than being seekers of knowledge, while many of his stories are based on the ‘logic’ of emotion rather than rationality. He also has a fascination with the surface elements of things – characters are used neither as characters, nor as representatives of ideas, but as toys to play with.

This can be seen in all his work, but the most obvious example is the appearance of Mongul in Infinite Crisis. The character appears in issue 1, does some bad stuff, and then disappears from the story altogether (as far as I can remember, I’ve not read the wretched thing since it came out). The only reason – the only reason – the character appeared was so Johns could have this panel:

Panel from a bad comic

Panel from a bad comic

Which in turn he only wanted to include as a reference to this panel:
Panel from a very good comic

Panel from a very good comic

Not to refer to anything about the panel – which in the original story had a purpose, a reason for being there as part of a coherent narrative – but just to say “look, here’s this thing – do you remember it from another comic? So do I!” Were Johns’ comics not so often so joyless (with rare exceptions like Booster Gold and Up, Up And Away!) they would be ludic – playing with the characters as if they were action figures, making them act out all his favourite bits from all his favourite comics, and not bothering with any kind of meaning to their actions.

The denial of the idea of progress runs very deep in Johns as well (though one suspects for essentially Conservative reasons, rather than the postmodern horror at the Holocaust, the bombing of Dresden and so on). He’s determined to return the status of all the characters in the DC Universe to their early-80s versions, even if this means killing off half of them while returning the other half from the dead. Which of course also robs the concepts of life and death within his stories of meaning quite as efficiently as Vonnegut’s distancing effects do.

So by any reasonable metric, Morrison is a modernist while Johns is a postmodernist.

Of course, I still wonder if it would be possible to have a *good* postmodern superhero comic. I don’t see why it wouldn’t – in fact, Hypertime, if used properly, could be a tool to do just that…

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18 Responses to Modernism Vs Post-Modernism – Why Can’t Comics Reviewers Define Terms? (Hyperpost 9)

  1. Tilt Araiza says:

    Mr. Hickey has insisted I post this in the comments section of this post over from Twitter, even though it’ll make me sound like a great highfalutin ponce.

    1. There’s some other *THING* that’s a reaction to modernism and finds some kind of absurdity in the stuff that men go mad for but is essentially optimistic. That gets a real kick out of the silly. There’s something amazing written on that cigarette paper slipped between Van Dyke Parks & Harry Nilsson.

    2. The examples of Johns you quote in the post make it look more like the modern-shock-become-religious-impulse of a Plane Cargo Cult than actual post-modern denial of God and Man.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No-one’s going to read that post and come away thinking *you’re* the ponce, trust me…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      And of course you’re quite right about both those things, but especially about Johns – I don’t know why I’d never thought of the cargo cult metaphor before… putting Batman, Wonder Woman and Mongul together and thinking magically the story will turn into an Alan Moore one…

      • Tilt Araiza says:

        Thinking on the “constructive postmodernists” thing, how ’bout this? Post-Dogmatists! It’s not belief in God, Man and a dog named Boo that some of these guys rail against, but the stupid things these beliefs make people do. As Joe Adamson says in “Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo”, Harpo and Chico disrupt a bridge game in ‘Animal Crackers’, but these are two guys who in real life loved to play bridge!

        I often see people point to Andy Warhol as some kind of paragon of post-modernism, but Andy Warhol went to mass nearly every day of his adult life and supposedly converted at least one person to Catholicism.

        In All-Star Superman, Morrison mocks the traditional mad-scientist as an Alzheimer’s patient in a giant robot. Superfoes and fighting is what Superman is suppsoed to be all about, but it’s shown up as something pathetic, comforting a suicidal girl is shown as what Superman is *really really* about.

        I suppose after a long time of serious classicism and modernism, modernism that’s playful and expresses itself with impish mockery takes some getting used to. The postmodernists gave the impression that they were the first to clown makeup and burlesque schtick as their weapons, but they can be wielded just as effectively by somebody who believes something.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I like David A’s description in the comments below – ‘neo-modernism’, which is apparently how Morrison refers to his own work – along with the description “A modernist who knows he’s living in a postmodern world”.

      • Tilt Araiza says:

        I mean, I bet you can find millions of uses of the term “postmodernist joke”, but how many instances of the term “modernist joke” are there?

  2. Chad Nevett says:

    This has me wondering about the concepts of modernism and postmodernism in superhero comics in a historical sense… Is the Silver Age the postmodern to the Golden Age’s modern? The refocus on science, on reacting to what came before with legacy characters, the return of Golden Age characters in new contexts, even the use of metafictional techniques, and intertexuality as universes are built up. Of course, the major problem here is the same one that literature has: what comes after the postmodern — and where is the shift? In comics, the Bronze Age comes after the Silver Age, so there’s an obvious break, but would we call that the beginning of (for lack of a better term) post-postmodernism in comics? And, if we recognise that, since then, comics have moved into another age, what’s THAT? Or, stylistically, are comics still mired in what’s come before to such an extent that there hasn’t been significant progress?

    As a result, I’m not sure I necessarily agree that Morrison is a modernist and Johns is a postmodernist, only because I think they may be beyond those terms… not necessarily. Of course, this all raises the question, do we need new terms constantly?

    Then again, I’ve always found that the difference between modern and postmodern literature isn’t nearly as large as people liked to think it is. As you said, “Gravity’s Rainbow” isn’t all that different from “Ulysses.” So, calling Morrison a postmodernist doesn’t really bother me, because I’m not entirely convinced the divide is large enough to necessarily warrant a distinction.

  3. I think Morrison once described The Filth as a neo-modernist work, which makes sense to me. Morrison’s stories acknowledge the absurdity of believing in life, art and meaning in the early 21st Century whilst still reaffirming a belief in these things. Morrison’s a modernist who knows he’s living in a postmodern world, which is maybe why I find his work so affecting…

    • Also, from the last issue of The Invisibles:

      It’s ragged at the edges but you can play any of 300 characters, some more involving than others.

      “It’s a thriller, it’s a romance, it’s a tragedy, it’s a porno, it’s neo-modernist kitchen sink science fiction that you catch, like a cold.

      That description might be pretty tongue-in-cheek, but something about the neo-modernist thing sounds right all the same.

      I’ve not read enough Johns to comment on his place in comic book/literary history, and I kinda doubt that that’s going to change anytime soon. Good post though!

    • Without warning — Grant Morrison on The Filth, The Invisibles and neo-modernism:

      A lot of people call the Invisibles post-modern and it definitely arose out of some cultural trends in the ’80s and ’90s but I was really struggling towards a new ‘modernism with that series. It reared up out of the mire of post-modernism and shone the light of its eyes on the Next Way — something I’ve called neo-modernism for want of an official name. I think post-modernism is a misnomer anyway — post-modernism is actually the decadent, recombinant phase of culture which appears prior to modernism in a given cycle. It should properly be called pre-modernism, I reckon.

      The Filth is my first totally deliberate neo-modernist work I think.

  4. I’m behind on your hypertime posts, to the point where I’ll probably read them all through once they’re completed. But this post-modernist thing actually corresponds with a pet peeve of my own, so pardon me blundering in!

    his breaking of the fourth wall and acknowledgement of the work as fiction within the work itself are both things that Brecht played with as often as any postmodernist.

    Very true. A major part of my peeve is where people assume anything metafictional must also be post-modernist. Yet Shakespeare often breaks the fourth wall, let alone Brecht!

    Essentially, postmodernism is a reaction to enlightenment values, claiming that rationality and human progress were illusions, and that they led to the atrocities that made up most of mid-twentieth-century history.

    …but here’s the point where we disagree. I tend to see postmodernism as primarily political, as a reaction against the radical social movements of the Sixties, what sometimes gets called the “68 generation.” It’s scarcely a co-incidence that post-modernist thought really took off at the end of those movements, and even composed many former travellers within them (for example Lyotard). The Enlightenment, meanwhile, was a little before all that.

    However, I would agree there’s a moment of truth to your argument. Those radical movements had largely been concerned with updating and putting a libertarian context to earlier radical movements such as Marxism. Postmodernists argued that such attempts had been a failure, and that Marx, Kropotkin et al were themselves fundamentally rooted in old ‘Enlightenment’ values. In short, these radical movements had never really broken from the ‘bourgeois’ society they professed to despise, and the whole experiment was deemed not just a failure but an inherent impossibility.

    Post-modernists then twisted this apparent defeat to make it appear a victory. Instead of decrying capitalism they celebrated it, claiming that it had overcome its contradictions and that we now lived in a world of signs rather than meanings. “There is no there there” became a po-mo battlecry. It was the concept of ‘clothes maketh man’ taken to the most literal degree possible. You could be whoever you wanted, just by consuming what he would consume.

    The notion that the world is now just composed of signs and symbols, and the way to buy into them is to consume them on the open market… the appeal to artists of all that is far too obvious to need spelling out. You make a good point with the Geoff Johns panel. The Comics Journal used to run a ‘swipe file’, blowing the lid on artists who had lifted compositions from earlier comics. But while covert pastiche is a crime, knowing pastiche is supposed to be an artistic statement. It’s similar to the way shoplifters can claim the more brazen their actions, the more likely they are to get away with it. But for all that, I’m not sure the origins of post-modernism were with artists.

    The reason literary postmodernists are lumped with the postmodernists in other arts, rather than with the modernists – their one distinguishing attribute – is that they share the postmodernist worldview

    It’s far less clear to me than you whether Morrison is a post-modernist or not. Take for example the character Mason from The Invisibles, forever saying things like “I live in a world where the symbol is more important than the reality, where the menu tastes better than the meal.”

    I find this all to be common for people who came of age around punk (something Morrison has said he was “utterly transformed” by). Punk came along with an intent to reinvigorate and re-radicalise music, yet at the same time at a point when post-modernism was at the height of its fashionability. Furthermore while post-modernism had turned against the political commitment of modernism, it had (as said) also attempted to disguise that retreat as a further radical step. While few radicals from the Sixties were fooled by this, many of the punk generation lacked the context to know better. Hence such contradictions lie alongside each other as Mason supposedly being the member of an anarchist gang!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Good points all (though I don’t think the Mason stuff holds as much weight as you think – Mason was primarily in the Invisibles to be a Bruce Wayne manque, so Morrison could have greater parallelism between the Invisibles and his contemporary writing on JLA).

      And punk as postmodernism makes a lot of sense – you’ve got the attempt to go back to an earlier style (the three-minute three-chord pop song) after the ‘decadence’ of prog, the influence of glam (and the influence from there of pop art) and the denial of the possibility of progress (“There’s no future in England’s dreaming”), the reappropriation of symbols with no regard for their meaning (Siouxie wearing swastika armbands)…

      But for all his claims of punk influence (which I suspect was as much as anything else to distinguish himself from the ‘hippie’ Moore), Morrison is far more rooted in the 60s than the 70s – he’s ‘mod’, if not exactly modernist. His aesthetic is really rooted in 1966 – jangly pop music, the Avengers, Thunderbirds, SIlver Age comics – and the point where Mod was *just about* to turn into hippie. His politics, on the other hand, seem to be a confused pro-direct-action left-anarchism rooted more in visceral emotional responses from his upbringing than anything else (see him getting *FURIOUS* at the convention questioner who talked about there being ‘four white men’ writing 52 – “I’m not white! I’m Scottish!”).

      If you look at Morrison’s work, he’s far more likely to reference bands like The Jam, who were firmly rooted in the Mod aesthetic, than, say, the Clash or the Sex Pistols. I get the impression (though I could very well be wrong) that for him ‘punk’ would be far more likely to mean Elvis Costello, XTC and The Jam than The Ramones, X-Ray Spex or Siouxsie & The Banshees…

  5. I don’t think the Mason stuff holds as much weight as you think…

    Mason was just one example, if a particularly egregious one. (You could also argue he’s there as a foil to King Mob.) Take for example St. Swithin’s Day, where the concept of assassinating Thatcher is as important as the action. Of course this is complicated by the fact that art by necessity always deals in concepts. If she had been shot in the comic, of course she wouldn’t have dropped dead in real life,

    (Disclaimer: I am not advocating the shooting of Margaret Thatcher here. Now, that David Cameron on the other hand…)

    But for all his claims of punk influence (which I suspect was as much as anything else to distinguish himself from the ‘hippie’ Moore), Morrison is far more rooted in the 60s than the 70s – he’s ‘mod’, if not exactly modernist. His aesthetic is really rooted in 1966.

    This is true, of course. And I think you may very well be right that Morrison was one of those who saw in punk a return to the Sixties.

    But my point is that he is punk generation and would have looked back on the Sixties through re-runs of The Avengers and The Prisoner – I think that’s an important distinction. His aesthetic may well have been 1966, but his cultural steeping would by necessity have been contemporary. That would make Morrison part of the same trajectory as punk, reaching adulthood when the militant optimism of the Sixties had soured. By that point postmodernism had been injected into the bloodstream and was hard to remove.

    Different punk bands responded to this in different ways. By desperately but hopelessly trying to ignore it (the Clash), by copying the trajectory from radical agit-prop to po-mo (Scritti Politti) or just incorporating the two into a general mish-mash (Psychedelic Furs). I see Morrison as part of the last camp, but it doesn’t necessarily follow he got that from the Furs or any other group – he may well have just duplicated the process.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      “Disclaimer: I am not advocating the shooting of Margaret Thatcher here”

      Bloody moderates…

      I’m not actually all that familar with St Swithin’s Day (I only have it as a cbr file, so have read it once or twice only…) but your points are well-taken. I think though that Morrison is very deliberately reacting against postmodernism, even though he has undoubtedly incorporated something of its world view into his own (as indeed have I – like I say, I *love* Vonnegut and his peers). Which is why I like Tilt’s quote above, or David’s point about neo-modernism…

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  7. Sam Smith says:

    Hmmm. Interesting take on pomo in Lit. I think I might rebut a little by arguing that in Lit, a lot of the high Modernism (and here think of people like Eliot and Yeats and even Pound and Stevens and Wallace) seemed, despite the formal character of what they were about, to be in the service of the grand metanarrative. That is, their work was very conservative and tended to reinforce the primacy of the “big stories” of modern culture and of the institutions that embodied those stories.

    Pomo comes along thoroughly committed to dynamiting both institution and metanarrative in every way imaginable.

    I need to think more about your analysis and see how it all fits together for me. Thought-provoking, to say the least….

  8. In history postmodern means something different again (and therefore isn’t very relevant to what you’re saying, but anyway). Postmodern history advocated by the likes of Keith Jenkins is heavily influenced by Nietzsche, genuinely radical and emancipatory, very rational, and ultimately optimistic rather than leading to absurdism, despair and suicide. It doesn’t have to be anti-science either. Lyotard was very interested in science and technology, and some of the things he said in 1979 are now being said by digital historians who don’t see themselves as postmodern at all and don’t know that Lyotard said it first! I tend to think that science sometimes agrees with postmodern/post-structuralist theory more than it agrees with traditional “empirical” history, although I also think that traditional history made false claims to be empirical and scientific which can be challenged by genuine science as well as by postmodern theory.

    Also I think it’s important to make a distinction between rationalism and empiricism. They’re not the same thing, don’t always go together and sometimes conflict with each other. Enlightenment rationalism could sometimes involve reaching bizarre and wrong conclusions by making perfectly logical deductions from bizarre and wrong premises. For example, Leibniz’s neo-platonist ideas about plenitude and the chain of being were perfectly rational but empirically wrong, as proved by Darwin, whose theory of evolution was based on thorough examination of empirical evidence rather than deduced from things that everyone “knew”.

    These days pretty much all historians, whether postmodernists, feminists, conservative revisionists or anything else, are hostile to grand/master/meta narratives of progress, but for very different reasons.

  9. Sam Smith says:

    Of course, the question at this stage of our history is whether postmodernism has now given way to the next era, whatever we choose to call it.

    For instance:

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