Monthly Archives: October 2018

“There’s no important human information being imparted…”

If you’re a Batman fan, you probably know that Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the definitive works in the canon.  (And if you’re not a Batman fan, I just told you.)

Via ign.com

Surprisingly, Moore himself isn’t a fan of TKJ.  Here’s what he told one interviewer (from The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, p. 123):

The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted….It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.

And from another interview, in which Moore compared TKJ unfavorably to some of his other work:

But at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker – and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they’re just two comic book characters.

So Moore’s issue is that Watchmen and V for Vendetta touch on deeper themes and speak to the human condition, whereas The Killing Joke isn’t “about” anything except Batman and the Joker.  I’m not sure I agree with thatI think TKJ raises some interesting and provocative questions about madness and depravity, grappling with the senselessness of the world, and that old saying whereby those who fight monsters risk becoming monsters themselves.

But The Killing Joke‘s profundity or lack thereof is a topic for another time.  What struck me about Moore’s comments is the implication that a work’s quality depends on it being “about” something deeper than its ostensible, immediate subject matter.

Maybe TKJ is “just” a Batman and Joker story, but it’s a superb Batman and Joker story, and one that’s had a lasting impact on the characters.  Isn’t it enough that for what it is, it’s one of the best?

I bring this up here on the blog because I think it bears on how we evaluate works of scholarly history.  Some monographs are “about” more than what their Library of Congress sub-headings would indicate.

Take Ron Eller’s excellent book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, for example.  As its subtitle indicates, it’s partly a regional history of the postwar era.

Via kentuckypress.com

But it’s also a critique of the ways we think about progress and development. We tend to associate these ideals with economic growth. We assume that “development” itself is an intrinsic good. We trust that it’s a remedy for poverty. We don’t stop to consider whether poverty might be rooted in structures that benefit some people rather than others, whether the remedies we propose will reinforce these structures, or whether the end goal of “development” is even desirable for the targets of our good intentions. We don’t question our assumptions about what “progress” means.

Eller’s work has implications that are relevant to much more than Appalachian history. It’s applicable to much of the recent past beyond Appalachia or America, and raises important questions for the present and future, too.

Stephen King has said that when you’re writing a novel, story comes before theme.  You tell the story first, and then later you can go back and figure out what the implications are and whether you need to tease them out more. I suspect something along those lines is true for most historians whose projects take on big thematic implications.  You start out with an interest in a particular topic, you investigate it, and only then do you figure out what the broader implications are.

I’m still trying to work through whether my current project will have implications for anything besides the American Revolution or the early frontier. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. For now, at least, I’ll be satisfied if I just end up saying something worthwhile about the topic at hand.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, Research and Writing

The new Tennessee State Museum opens this week

Here’s the schedule for the grand opening, for you lucky dogs making the trip to Nashville.

And here’s a breakdown of the permanent exhibits:

  • Tennessee Time Tunnel, which seems to be a sort of port of entry to the other galleries, sort of like Main Street at the Magic Kingdom.
  • Natural History
  • First Peoples, from the end of the last Ice Age to 1760
  • Forging a Nation, from 1760 to 1860
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Change and Challenge, from 1870 through World War II
  • Tennessee Transforms, 1945 to the present

If it seems odd that the Civil War and Reconstruction get a whole gallery to themselves, bear in mind that the TSM’s Civil War collection is huge. And the old building’s exhibits didn’t include anything at all on much of the twentieth century, so it looks like we’ll be getting a much broader, fuller examination of the state’s history in this new setup.

Still, the prospect of covering the whole century between the Anglo-Cherokee War and Lincoln’s election as a single unit seems like quite an undertaking.  Of course, I’m partial to the period between the late 1760s and the collapse of the State of Franklin, so I wouldn’t want to see it get short shrift.  One thing I adored about the old TSM was its extensive treatment of the frontier.  The “Forging a Nation” gallery includes a Rev War exhibit, and I hope that means all those wonderful King’s Mountain relics are still on display.  Anyway, I can’t wait to get over there and see the new place for myself.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History