This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Cultural Gutter. Author and game developer Jim Munroe founded The Cultural Gutter and posted his first essay here on May 22, 2003. In 2004, Jim invited comic artist and critic Guy Leshinski to join the Gutter. They created a manifesto eschewing “the shield and shovel of fannish boosterism” in favor of what we now call thoughtful writing about disreputable art. They also created a new format for the site, one where Editors assigned to different generic beats contribute a monthly piece. They invited Science Fiction and Fantasy Editor Emeritus James Schellenberg to join the Gutter and we have had a whole slew of Editors, who you can see listed here, and Guest Stars, whose work you can see here, since then. Jim also started the tradition of the Firsts, posts Editors write about their take on the Gutter. Not every Editor has written one, but I wrote mine when I replaced Comics Editor Leshinski in late 2007. In honor of our 20th anniversary year, I thought I’d revisit my take, “In the Sewer with the Alligators” and see what I thought about it now.
I’m tired of the two-camera, hour-long drama. I’m tired of the Oscar-oriented mainstream film. I’m tired of “literary fiction,” you know, respectable middlebrow art. I don’t enjoy everyday reality heightened with swelling strings. I’m tired of realism’s conventions; so I’ve been turning to comics, pulp fiction, cartoons and genre film.
And increasingly for me, everything is genre. When I was in college, one of my professors discussed the difference between liking a work and thinking it was good. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to like something that is good (Moby Dick, say) or dislike something that is bad (Battlefield Earth). Most of the time it’s an awkward combination. Realism’s conventions aren’t usually to my taste. With realism, the revelation of art’s bones just wrecks everything. But with genre, structure’s all part of the fun.
Besides, what heartfelt kitchen conversation about surviving leukemia or teacher inspiring troubled teens can compete with mutant street beatniks, Sewer Urchin, C.H.U.D.s (“cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers”) or a giant alligator living in Chicago’s sewers? I don’t need to see everyday reality elevated to a riveting world of legal dramas and home décor, unless that decor involves an underground lair or, as the Venture Bros.’ Monarch says, a jet shaped like a skull? (I’d totally live in Dethklok’s house).
I like seeing how artists play with structure and convention within a set discipline. A road, a coyote, a bird. Nothing allows for more possibility of that than generic media—except maybe poetry, which people also hate. One of the best things I’ve ever seen was a wayang kulit play performed by I Wayan Wija. Wayang kulit is Balinese shadowpuppet theater and is what Jim calls in his take, “high art.” In one fight scene, I Wayan Wija referred to John Woo, kung fu and The Matrix. I love that vitality and reusing conventions in new ways or inserting them into different genre. I have a friend who’s worried about the way that pop culture is eating itself. It’s understandable; he’s in the film industry. And, yes, sometimes referentiality can be like sucking a popsicle dry and white. But sometimes, it can become transcendent—mythic even. And, more seriously, a mythic approach or a different form can allow for a whole new way of understanding a subject—Chester Brown’s Louis Riel graphic novel, for example, is way more accessible than dense and vaguely obscurantist Canadian histories on the same topic.
I’m not advocating elevating comics to high art. I’ve been around long enough to know that being canonized isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But I do think that high art has a lot more in common with the gutter than with respectable, middlebrow art. Van Gogh sold one painting in his life and was considered a crappy painter, so crappy he had to take his ass to the sticks. Herman Melville’s novels were such a failure that he quit writing them. Emily Dickinson? Shut-in whose punctuation needed correction. Nijinsky? Booed off the very stage he was humping fifteen minutes into Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” And as with James Tiptree, jr., there’s a passel of English Victorian novelists with male pseudonyms, including all three Brontes. High art is often disdained as something a child could do, as mocking the audience, as degenerate, as gutter trash. I guess that’s part of why the phrase, “gutter culture” makes me a little itchy, even though I know here at the Cultural Gutter we’re reclaiming it.
I don’t like the idea that some work should be rescued before it slips into the sewer while the rest rots like it deserves. I’m not trying to legitimize comics and I’m not trying to salvage anything and, frankly, shocking the citizenry bores me. I am a bad advocate. Luckily, comics, video games, genre films and books are doing fine without me and they’ll keep doing fine. Mostly, I’m looking for some kicks. I get off on the joy of a crazed creation: Madman, Dirty Plotte, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman fighting the Martians, Lobster Johnson. Something so wrong it’s right. Something fun. I do think more people could use more fun. And in the end, books with pictures are fun.
I like fun and thinking about crazy shit. I’m long past caring if someone thinks something I enjoy is “gutter.” I mean that in the nicest way, really. I have nothing to prove, not to the guys at the comic book store and not to acquaintances who judge a work by its genre. You go ahead and like what you like. If you need me, I’ll be down in the sewer with the C.H.U.D.s and the alligators.
In the time since I wrote all that and now, not much has changed in my attitude towards art, but the landscape of art has changed a lot. Since the Gutter’s founding, Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings and Game Of Thrones, comics adaptations in film and television, and shambling zombie hordes including The Walking Dead and The Last Of Us are widely popular, appreciated and profitable. The Gutter started before Iron Man (2008) was released and made superhero movies if not “reputable,” more widely popular; when the Star Wars prequels had few defenders; before Christopher Eccleston became the Ninth Doctor; when J.K. Rowling was still only a beloved YA author; and before Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy concluded. What “gutter culture” and “disreputable art” were appeared more obvious then. It could be defined along genre and medium lines. Since then geeks have won a kind of cultural hegemony and media companies are happy to push it along–seeing the opportunity to use genre IP franchises to create a creeping monoculture with ever expanding growth and profits.*
“In the Sewer with the Alligators” holds up for me, though I have been writing more about movies and games than comics lately. I am still down here with the alligators, Morlocks, occasional swamp monster, ancient chthonic deities, and C.H.U.Ds. It’s just that some of the subterranean cultural world’s denizens have changed. Some have become respectable and moved out. I am less tired of two camera, one hour dramas, but it turns out I don’t enjoy “realism” any more when it’s sprinkled on superhero and space opera stories. Where mixing superheroes and melodrama with fancy actors (à la Hong Kong wuxia back in the day) felt fresh and new when I first joined the Gutter, it now feels predictable and repetitive. It’s understandable for corporations to do this to try to reduce risk and increase profits. And I get why fans love it. People like a product of predictable quality to spend their time and money on. But I am nothing if not deeply perverse. Too much of any one kind of thing makes me long for something different and I will tire of even things I like. I am looking for art outside the totalizing, monocultural theme parks, both literal and virtual, that entertainment conglomerates invite us into entering and remaining inside with the promise that we don’t need anything else. But I do need something else.
I still like fun, abstraction, style. I still like comics, space opera, giallo, wuxia and kung fu movies, barbarians, weirdo superheroes, monsters and all kinds of ungodly things. I am still looking for wonders and joy and sometimes something harrowing. I am seeking out art and artists that try something, even if it is flawed, even if it fails to accomplish what it sets out to do. This is the reason I love filmmakers like Albert Pyun and Sisworo Gautama Putra. They tried, whether they could fully accomplish their vision or not. It’s why I love films like Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020) and One Cut of the Dead (2017), both of which accomplish what they set out to do. They try something. They try their best with what they have and that is a beautiful thing.
I still like exploring and seeking out wonders beyond petty concerns of good and bad. I’m looking for art that requires and even provokes thought–more critical thought than assertions that it’s bad because the soon-to-be-dated effects are bad or it doesn’t fit within the now familiar constraints of “realism.” Conversations about whether a given work of art is good or bad are among the least interesting conversations about art to me. And liking or disliking something is different from whether art is good or bad. I’m looking for art that is new-to-me and art that is worth pondering. Art that provokes delight, amazement, wonder and even incredulity. I am looking for art that is created in enthusiasm and joy. Give me some color. Give me something in black and white. Give me something ridiculousness. Give me something daring, even if it fails. Try another aesthetic school for Crom’s sake!
While some once disreputable art has shifted into mainstream acceptance, I also think about art that would have been, no so long ago, reputable that has been dismissed and ignored. Mid- and low-budget pictures that are often sent straight to streaming services now. And I end up back at the intersection of high and gutter art, in an open culvert of discarded, ignored once reputable art beneath the highway of the middle brow and commercially successful. I still think the gutter and “high” art have more in common with each other than they do with the competently middle brow. It’s one of the reasons I loved a movie like A Wounded Fawn (2022)–a film that successfully combines the art world and Classical Greek tragedy with the slasher. And in a weirdly resonant, vaguely unpleasant portent as I’ve been writing this piece, I’ve been seeing a meme that dismisses Barnett Newman’s 1950-1951 color field painting,“Vir Heroicus Sublimus,” as “red.” Like it’s a joke or a waste of time or pointless. Like “realism” provides all the necessary tools to look at and understand a work of art recreated on a digital screen. Like it’s a trick played on a gullible public. All accusations that gutter culture faces as well.**
I don’t know what this means going forward at the Gutter or how I’ll define what I write about here. Maybe it’s the struggle that is profitable rather than a clear definition of what “disreputable” or “gutter culture” means now. Art changes. We change. I have some nebulous, not quite articulable thoughts and I expect much of my next span at the Gutter will be figuring out exactly what they are. I guess I’ll find out as I go deeper into the Gutter.
*The Mouse is the Monsanto of entertainment, for good and ill.
**Both genres built around eliciting particular emotional responses, and boy do people not consider emotions respectable.
***I”m not going to get into “degenerate art” and Fascism, but it’s right there. And you can see it happening around us in online discussions of “traditional” Western art if you look.
Carol Borden once again rises up and sounds the fearsome battle cry, “Let high and low art joining together against the true enemy, the competently middle brow!”
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