Master Of The Obvious: Issue #14

Wed, November 3rd, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Curious day. A local high school made the national news by virtue of closing today in response to threats made against its teachers on the Internet. Meanwhile, an Egyptian airliner apparently disintegrated off Nantucket yesterday. Beyond that, there's no story yet. We know from previous crashes that it's usually days, sometimes weeks, before they figure out situation and cause, but every major news outlet has a man posted in Rhode Island giving hourly (if not continuous) reports on how no progress has been made.

This is the norm now. A couple years back, we had an earthquake so insignificant that it did little more than rattle teacups at its epicenter, and local stations promptly pre-empted all programming for more than 12 hours for continuous news shows that were little more than "This just in: no further damage reported!" When JFK Jr.'s plane crashed last summer, it was certainly tragic, but ultimately just fodder for a media frenzy desperate to transform Kennedy into the American Princess Di.

It's not enough that every death is a tragedy. Now every death has to be a Greek tragedy. Every threat, no matter how remote, must be a crisis.

We live in a threat culture. We may claim to read books or comics, or go to movies, or watch TV, but threat is our real entertainment. As the magic 000 approaches, the entertainment's getting more apocalyptic - Arnold may be taking on the world-destroying Devil in END OF DAYS, but in "real" life, people are stockpiling against Y2K; militias are arming themselves against the Year 2000 takeover of the United States by the black helicopters of the United Nations; and various Christian cults breathlessly await the second coming, with some reportedly anxious to help things along by creating the predicted chaotic conditions that precede the Savior. But is any of this, aside from the Schwarzenegger movie, true? Or is it embellishm… er… speculation by some journalist who needed a sexier story? It's impossible to tell anymore.

"We live in a threat culture. We may claim to read books or comics, or go to movies, or watch TV, but threat is our real entertainment."

This blending of fact and fic… er… speculation in the news has been with us as long as journalism, and the press has always considered itself as the court of first and last resort, often unimpeded by facts. I'm reminded of Kane's line (supposedly in imitation of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) from CITIZEN KANE: "You supply the pictures, and I'll supply the war." But dependence on innuendo and supposition in the news, prompted by sensational stories and prodded by the glut of TV news magazines all clawing for ratings, has never been so blatant or unapologetic.

This year's centerpiece of crap journalism (and the most current "original" of this morning's local high school shutdown) is the Columbine high school mess, as singularly apocalyptic a moment as 1999 is likely to witness: "deranged" teenagers in a "normal" neighborhood - the serpent nesting in our bosom! - plan and execute a fatal assault on many of their "normal" classmates. "How could it happen?" With no answers re: motive immediately available (the gunmen, the only ones who would know for sure, being dead), the news media, ever ready to feed on itself, trots out the usual clatch of "experts" beating the drum against "violence in media," and a host of Congressmen try to capitalize on "our sick society" by railing against it, conveniently ignoring statistics indicating violence is steadily decreasing in American society despite the continuing popularity of "depraved" "violent" media.

I'm not trying to diminish or dismiss Columbine, but those trying to remold it to their own social or political agendas do exactly that. Does anyone seriously believe Marilyn Manson, Xena, CARMAGEDDON or SCREAM had anything to do with it? (On the other hand, several attempted copycats were certainly influenced by obsessive TV coverage that suggested - correctly - wiping out your graduating class was the quick road to fame.) Any serious questioning was quickly squelched, since it indicated directions no one really wanted to go. Early interviews with some students at Columbine insinuated a culture wherein ruling student cliques were unofficially encouraged to control and/or torment "difficult" students (if nothing else, reported parking lot fights should have raised a flag for the administration and didn't), but a vice-principal chillingly equivocated, "Nothing goes on here that doesn't go on in every high school in America." Were the gunmen crazy, just bad kids run amok? Did they simply hit a breaking point and mainly target their tormentors in their fairly specific rampage? There's no real way to tell, since, whether in deference to the slain or to avoid ugly conclusions, the news media totally closed off that line of enquiry, apparently satisfied with more TV-friendly images of rappers and heroic survivor/victim stories. (Curiously, the late news about today's local high school threat says it was placed on the school's "unofficial" Internet site, which specialized in prompting ruling student cliques to mock less popular and less photogenic students.)

From a comics perspective, a grotesquely amusing bit of Columbine fallout: as Congress threatened an inquiry into "violent" media - movies, music, TV and videogames - a top comics website bemoaned the absence of comics from the usual suspects.

Not surprising, as the comics industry has spent the better part of a decade struggling to make itself insignificant. Which is good, in this case. If history teaches us anything, it's that most publishers will capitulate at the drop of a hat. (Even with no direct fallout on comics, I know of two projects dropped in the wake of Columbine simply because their protagonists wore black trenchcoats, and one company, previously urging "kids in jeopardy" stories because they'd detected a sales trend, abruptly dropped the push.) In the Reagan era, when comics were finally opening up, publishers and distributors - facing no external pressure at all! - briefly conspired to impose a ratings system on all comics until they were pushed back by a spirited public debate. So I don't really want to know what might have happened had comics been accused of "violence," given that the industry basically exists these days to publish fight scenes.

"... the comics industry has spent the better part of a decade struggling to make itself insignificant."

But, aside from the odd local prosecution, comics have been protected from witch hunts by their relative insignificance, and the 90s are littered with ministers and DAs who started crusades against comic books only to drop them after finding their constituents embarrassed by how low they set their sights, and unsupportive. The public just can't take comics seriously enough to get behind persecuting them.

Of course, "violence in media" is a myth anyway. There is no violence in media. If I hit you with a rock, that's violence. If I draw a picture of hitting you with a rock, or write a story about hitting you with a rock, or even make a movie where an actor playing me "hits" an actor playing you with a rock, it's not violence. If you believe it is, you might as well believe rubbing the right crystal on your stomach then dissolving the crystal in vinegar will cure stomach cancer, because it's all sympathetic magic. In the real world, a representation of something does not become that thing. What you see or read might repel (or excite or entice you, depending on your tastes), but it isn't violence. Only violence is violence.

Particularly disturbing is the constant and utterly unproven assertion that "children" (the range goes from 0 years - 16 years, depending on the "expert") are incapable of differentiating between media and the real world, between human beings and cartoons. Anyone who ever spent time watching cartoons with kids knows that isn't true; sociopaths are made from abuse, neglect and abandonment, not from media. But it makes great fodder for censors-in-waiting who want to push the infantilization of media for their own purposes. But behind all their arguments, regardless of their political or moral persuasion, lies a fear of children, a fear that kids might think for themselves, that they might choose something other than what adults would choose for them. Not that there isn't a basis for that fear, but it's an argument for education, not repression. "Violence in media" is just another scapegoat, and scapegoating is just low level mind control.

In drama, violence has traditionally been considered cathartic; the play enables the viewer to vicariously release repressed emotions. Pandering to the basest elements of human nature, in other words. But drama panders to the noblest elements of human nature in the same breath. All drama swings between those poles, including comics.

But, unlike other media, comics are exempt from the new war on popular culture. Which is interesting, as movies, television and even videogames are too expensive for the average misfit to produce, but with paper, a pencil and access to a photocopier, anyone can do comics. The form is less daunting to many than prose, because they don't take it as seriously; a stick figure, a word balloon with an expletive, and bang: self-expression. After the Marvel fiasco, big money - busy homogenizing other media as well as most news outlets into plastic sameness- is pretty much done with comics for the time being, so comics may yet end up as the medium of last resort for misfit expression.

"... unlike other media, comics are exempt from the new war on popular culture."

Which is pretty much how it's always been (though publishers have commonly sought to channel such expression into more acceptable forms, like superhero stories) and it's not encouraged enough. Forget about making comics socially acceptable, or taking our much-deserved place alongside cinema and television; we don't need it. Though most distributors and publishers flinch at the idea, we need to be as open to as many voices as possible. Media has always been perceived as dangerous, for that reason: "unsanctioned" voices might get out and be heard. Comics should have at least the veneer of danger to them; threat, as TV news has discovered, focuses an audience's attention, it brings them to life. It's exhilarating. It's what draws people to horror movies and shoot-'em-up videogames. Our society has to learn to embrace threat, particularly in art (after all, media's only the delivery system for art among other things), and let it ride. If the "unsanctioned" don't have a means to express themselves, and cathartic outlets for their aggressions and frustrations, they'll express themselves with bullets.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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