May 8, 2015

The Arguments part 3 of 3: On "The Amazing Life of Onion Jack" by Joel Priddy



I could sometimes be accused of arguing that if there were only ever one superhero story that I think should be a required piece of reading for anyone interested in comics studies in the least, it would be "Onion Jack." This story took me completely by surprise when I read in on Free Comic Book Day 2005. I sat quietly for a moment as I let the wonderfulness (that's a technical term) of what I'd just read wash over me. This was the first of "The Arguments" that I wrote, so probably the least self-assured.
On “The Amazing Life of Onion Jack” by Joel Priddy
First appears in “Superior Showcase” #0, given away for Free Comic Book Day 2005.
Anthologized in the 2006 America’s Best Comics anthology.
Formally, we have a very simple style.  Four by four panel layout that is only broken twice in the whole 10 pages.  Characters are little more than stick figures, though Priddy’s genius with them is to give them personality through both bodily and facial expression.  This links to McCloud’s ideas of iconic abstraction, though not simply with facial feature.  We recognize, though it is enhanced by the dialogue, the reactions of various characters as being ways we ourselves react.  Given to the experienced reader or to the novice, this comic would make perfect sense.  It reduces the conventions not only of the form, but of the particular genre into abstractions that are understandable.  The regular panel structure also lends to the readability, but from a more experienced point of view demonstrates the sort of storytelling that is possible using a very formal method (à la the sonnet in poetry).  The fifth page, a full-page shot of a Nazi robot, utilizes a collage technique for the giant robot.  We could perhaps link this to Jack Kirby, who got his start in comics around the time of the second World War, and who had a growing predilection for collage throughout his career.
Content-wise, this comic draws on almost every trope of superhero history of the last 70 years.  It links explicitly with the formation of superheroes with Onion Jack’s first five panels, a faithful retelling of the origin of Superman.  We also see resonances of the origins of Spider-Man, Green Lantern, Thor, and The Flash, interspersed with what appear to be amusing anecdotes about Jack becoming a chef (Priddy, “Onion Jack” n.p.).  Interestingly, Jack’s superheroing career begins pre-Superman, in 1934, perhaps recalling us to pre-superheroes such as Doc Savage and The Phantom.  The scene set in 1938 has Jack attempting to fly, but deciding against it.  This is contrary to many of the superheroes who appeared in Superman’s wake, who were really just thinly-veiled versions of the Man of Steel.  The Forties depict, as was the case with DC comics, the formation of a superhero group to combat the Nazis.  The wedding scene is also indicative of the kinds of stories that begun to be told in superhero comics after the second World War, ones that re-inscribed the “traditional” values of mid-century American life.

The sections starting with 1969, and ending with 2005, offer commentary on one of the great criticisms of the superhero comic, and character: the inability for growth in the genre.  Priddy takes the opposite tack and allows his character to age, in some ways offering a portrayal of not simply the superhero comics, but their fans as well.  Justice’s pronouncement “I hate these new super-heroes” (Priddy, “Onion Jack” n.p.) could very well have issued from the lips of fans of the earlier thirties heroes who were hitting their forties by 1969.  Northrop Frye comments on this in Anatomy of Criticism when he describes the “comic strips, where the central characters persist for years in a state of refrigerated deathlessness” (Frye 186).  The final three pages chronicle Onion Jack’s eventual retirement and death, inserting, or re-inserting what was earlier presumed a joke about being a chef.  The fact that, upon his death, this becomes the central defining characteristic of his life asks us to question the superhero comic, where every issue, month after month, depicts a character who puts on a costume and battles foes mundane and extraordinary.  Again, this appears to be asking of fans why there is only interest in a single facet of the lives of character upon whom so much importance is placed, and why there is such desire for unending stories.
Priddy’s “Onion Jack” tells an epic superhero story in 10 pages, eschewing the flashy art (imagine this tale told by Alex Ross), and placing the genre into the context of a story, an artistic structure with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  He manages to give us as diverse a universe and as humorous and touching a story as many mainstream superhero comics, if not more so than the vast majority.  Coming in the early 2000s, this tale has had time to digest the tropes of the genre and offer a critique and celebration of superheroes all in the space of one short story.  It questions not only the genre, but the fan-culture around the genre, and takes to task the notion of the two-dimensional character that is unfortunately prevalent in superhero comics.  More broadly, it also asks us to question the roles into which we are forced by circumstance and socialization, rather than those that we might choose for ourselves, thus breaking from McCloud’s oft-quoted “crude, poorly-drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare” (McCloud 3), and into a more thoughtful, more literary realm.
What we must bear in mind is both the fact of this strip being published in a small-press comic, and Priddy’s position as a professor (though I am unable to determine where exactly he teaches) (Priddy “About Me”).  We must question then whether this problematizes the inclusion of “Onion Jack” on any kind of canon or reading list, as it seems to fall in line with Bourdieu’s thoughts on the cyclical nature of literary production, by the “power [of academia] to define its own criteria for the production and evaluation of its products” (Bourdieu 115).  Though Bourdieu himself does not level a value judgment against this process, simply noting it as a process, it is incumbent upon us, as representatives of academia, to question whether such a process is the best way of disseminating and evaluating what is “the best which has been thought and said” (Arnold viii).
Bibliography and Works Cited
Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Authorama. N.p. Sept. 2003. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. Ed. Randall Johnson. Columbia UP, 1993.Print.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: DC Comics, 2000. Print.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.
Priddy, Joel. “About Me.” Beeswax. Blogger. Nov. 2005. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.
---. “The Amazing Life of Onion Jack.” Superior Showcase 0 (2005), Adhouse Books. Print.

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