Nonfiction: “Bossypants” and “Super Gods”

08/15/2011 § Leave a comment

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever write a pseudo-memoir nor a biography, but I couldn’t help but wonder, while reading Grant Morrison’s history of comics, Super Gods, and Tina Fey’s collection of essays on (“female”) comedy, Bossypants, what sort of techniques I might use to do so. This thought sore-thumbed its way through my brain mostly on account of the way in which each succeeded where the other failed, with Morrison growing more cryptic in his discussion of the evolution of the postmodern comic as he began to describe his own entrance onto the scene, and Fey becoming ever more lucid and hysterical as she stayed away from the wry, observational humor of the Sedaris family, and focused more on her involvement with Second City, SNL, and 30 Rock. The difference (or similarity), I finally realized, had to do with both authors’ attempts to cross from one style of nonfictional narrative to another.

In Bossypants, Fey spends the first sixty or so pages mocking the sort of humor that is expected of female “comediennes,” writing comic beauty tips and “secrets” to success with a subversive, snark-filled voice. If you’ve ever watched 30 Rock (and you really should), you’re already familiar with the Liz Lemon method of self-deprecation, so just imagine the sort of lessons she’d provide to eager readers who want to remain virgins. It’s fine stuff, really, but it suffers from comparison to Fey’s later material (just as Fey’s own appearances — Weekend Update aside — pale in comparison to her Sarah Palin), which is not only funny, but is making actual points about sexism, feminism, and other important issues in the male-dominated comedy industry. Her humor is more toothsome (and has more of a bite) when she’s standing for something, like the absurdity of Chris Kattan being chosen over Amy Poehler . . . to play a female part, or the frequent warnings from teachers who claimed that audiences wouldn’t pay to watch two women in an improvisational scene. To go from that to the more mundane tribulations of “to breastfeed, or not to breastfeed” feels like an evolutionary step backward, even if I acknowledge that Fey’s making the point that female comedians shouldn’t be any more limited in their topics than, say, Louie C. K., who talks about masturbating almost as much as he claims to actually do so.

On the other hand, Morrison provides some much needed perspective to the developing art and writing of comic books as he works his way from the Golden Age Superman to the joke-y Batman, to the revamped post-Nazi Silver Age heroes (and the DC Multiverse), to the darker modern age (of the ’80s, though Lobo and Guy Gardener aren’t mentioned) and then the postmodern explorations that have placed heroes in a world more like ours, one that’s suffered through 9/11 and its own breed of paranoia. At least, he manages to do this — though there are some odd omissions, particularly when it comes to writer/artists like Sam Keith and David Mack — right up until his own emergence onto the scene, at which point the framing shifts too much to Morrison’s own thought process, with facts replaced by suppositions, and analysis of creativity thrown overboard in favor of attempts at demonstrating his own cleverness (in the form of a few of his quotable anti- or post-hero comics). Whereas Fey begins to stand for something, and thereby provides her comedy with a spine, Morrison loses sight of the whole in favor of the slight, and strips his comic history of its backbone. Considering how much both writers tend to ramble (given the depth of their field, and their own creative talents), this makes all the more of a case for a strong structure to any work of nonfiction — consider, for instance, how thrilling Ben Mezrich’s reconstructions are.

Another selling point, in my mind, of nonfiction — at least the sort that I’d want to write — is that it directly teaches you something. Morrison, at his best, explains just what was so great about Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson, helps you to understand just how edgy some of the original comic book artists (and writers) were, and picks some terrific examples — like the message-driven Green Lantern/Green Arrow series — to prove a point. We understand the techniques behind plotting both story lines and nine-panel layouts; we better understand just how much went into a single page of Moore’s seminal Watchmen (and why the movie could never do that justice — the 2D universe, forever folding in on itself, was too powerful to mimic). Likewise, Fey’s strongest pieces give context to the Fey we know — not the scarred teenager, the theater camp survivor, or even the Second City tourer, but the John Stewart-rivaling, fake-newscaster with that palpable air of incredulity, the perfect foil to Fallon’s insouciance. We’re learning specifics, not just getting jokes, just as with Morrison, we’re getting to the heart of myths, not just adding to them.

For both cases, the best sections — even given that these are first-person narrated works of nonfiction — are the ones in which the author gets lost in their own descriptions of their respective fields, when we can vicariously feel the love they have of their craft and their art. That we can learn and laugh at the same time speaks to the strength of their writing, and that connection is what I’m looking for as a reader, be it fiction or non-. For me, the strongest section of Bossypants comes when Fey lashes out at some of her anonymous, trollish commentators, who, post-Palin, attempt to bring her down in the credible comment sections of, say, TMZ. We’ve all wanted to respond to our critics before, and there’s a thrill not just in watching Tina do it, but in understanding why she’s reached that flipping point, and how it’s ultimately a hollow or at best Pyrrhic victory, in that dignifying these people with a response only adds fuel to the fire. At the same time, the weakest ones, in Super Gods, are when Morrison pauses from marveling at all the hard work his peers and predecessors have performed and begins to take unearned potshots at people like Brian Michael Bendis, or to claim credit for some of Mark Millar’s work. It’s bad enough that he’s cherry picking at this point, but it also makes him look foolish, especially in light of some of his own omitted credits, like his work on relaunching the porn-y Vampirella.

So that’s nonfiction for me, then: love from the writer, learning from the reader, and some real semblance of life between those two covers. It’s not all that different from my expectations from fiction, is it?

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