Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Action Philosophers!

Posted by on February 24th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

According to its back cover, The More Than Complete Action Philosophers is out to prove “that philosophy is not just the province of boring tweed-clad college professors.” It does this by handing the subject over to the class cut-ups. Oh, absolute hash is made, but that really shouldn’t overshadow the fact that writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey have been able to carve some entertaining comics out of some of the most profound, vexing and complex thought that humans have come up with yet. That they are able to marry semi-serious intent with brazen, irrepressible glee amounts to winning on style points.

These comics can inform, which speaks directly to the skill of Van Lente and Dunlavey and to their grasp of the subject. Subjects, actually, as the book is a bound and fortified collection of the nine issues of the Action Philosophers series, profiling over 40 notable thinkers through biography and survey of ideas.

However consistent Van Lente and Dunlavey’s approach is in tenor, their success varies relative to content. Those philosophies that can best be paraphrased and winnowed down in the vernacular tend to get the most cogent delivery. Epigrammatic summations and aphoristic distillation definitely help. (“Cogito, ergo sum.”) By comparison, biographical insight comes across with the fundamental certainty of bedrock.

Also crucial is the strategy Van Lente and Dunlavey develop to corner their quarry. On one hand, they have to corral their difficult, often unruly subjects while, on the other, animate frequently ungainly cogitations. In mapping material to template, cramming substance into shtick, Van Lente and Dunlavey prove to be astute, nimble and opportunistic students of the discipline second and relentless instigators and manic innovators first. Where template is inspired, the results are memorable as comics and as philosophic argument: Before the Supreme Court of Truth, Kant, in his role as epistemological attorney, convinces a jury that his client, God, is, in fact, a necessary being by grilling the prosecuting lawyer, Pure Speculative Reasoning. But in following up Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer get a more straightforward treatment, one lacking a corresponding hook; they, and their conceptual advances, suffer in comparison.

Your interest in (or tolerance for) the book as a whole may ultimately rest upon your own background relative to “the queen of sciences” and how much reverence you reserve for her courtiers. To a Philo. 101 survivor of casual scholarly commitment, these comics are better at awakening a distant bell than generating new concepts from a dead stop. As examples of the form, they are ambitious and often clever glosses on their charges. From what I can tell, the comics are faithful to their source material in spirit and diplomatically pragmatic with particularized vocabulary. Well, except that Aristotle uses the word “metaphysics” in front of his student Alexander soon-to-be-the Great while the term was coined only by Aristotle’s “editors” later. And except for Hume who by most accounts was an amicable and agreeable fellow but is presented here as a rampaging Scot (from a comedy routine I don’t know?), hardly defensible by his adherence to philosophical skepticism. There is worse: you cannot give Isaac Luria — initially portrayed as Marvel character Dr. Strange — eight pages no matter how much Madonna dug him and you cannot give Joseph Cornell 10 pages, no matter how much he influenced George Lucas, without throwing a bone to John Locke. And the two pages given over to Bacon — as in “The 6 Degrees of Francis Bacon” — is an affront to human intelligence! Comparatively.

In that it’s easier to make fun than sense, liberties will be taken on their part and indulged on yours according to temperament. Initially, as an ongoing commercial enterprise, the series was never too proud nor too far from stooping to avail itself of marketplace opportunities, as the unfortunate title Action Philosophers attests. When the silly and salacious compete with the substantive, the business model subverts. Take Aristocles. Because of the expanse of his brow or the breadth of his shoulders, he acquired and kept the name Plato, which literally meant “broad.” But because of a possible prior stint as a wrestler, Van Lente and Dunlavey feel free to turn him into something of an Athenian Incredible Hulk complete with ungrammatical speech. As the front cover says, “Plato smash.” In a similar vein, Confucius, known in his region as Kongzi, meaning “Master Kong,” has his beliefs superimposed on visuals mimicking the movie about the giant gorilla for no compelling reason.

Dunlavey’s line is antic and exuberantly expressive, his composition open and breezy. In rendering objects and schematic devices he is fearless and appropriately shameless. His art combines a compelling momentum with an air of insouciance that starkly contrasts with its material. When organizing conceits are elegant and apt, that contrast shines fresh light on its subject. See the strips of “You’re A Good Man, John Stewart Mill.” Or more unforgettably, see the Family Circus treatment for Michel Foucault who, among other things, campaigned to repeal France’s age of sexual consent law. That’s him pictured, smoking a cigarette in full bondage gear, patting the bed and coaxing Billy and the kids to join him.

All just goes to show that there’s a lot to learn in this volume and it’s pretty much a personal matter as to how much of it is worth knowing … which may be a philosophical question in itself.

Next time: Van Lente and Dunlavey on the history of art and industry in Comic Book Comic.

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