Master Of The Obvious: Issue #21

Wed, December 22nd, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Our century has been a war of dreams.

The 20th Century really began in 1896, when Sigmund Freud coined the term psychoanalysis. The great empires of the previous three centuries were already crumbling, and about to death throe through two world wars, as Freud introduced dream interpretation, formerly the province of fortune telling hucksters, as a roadmap through the psychosexual repression often crippling his patients. (His original theory - probably accurate - that his upper class female patients were sexually repressed because as girls they'd been molested by their well-to-do fathers was so socially repugnant he had to drop it or be drummed out of the business.) But opening the door on the terra incognita of the human psyche inadvertently bared a new land full of riches and ripe for colonization.

Which has been going on ever since.

Western civilization has always had a love-hate affair with imagery, both visual and poetic. Whole cultures have built around suppressing it. Christianity has waffled between condemning imagery and iconography as idolatry and sacrilege, and building elaborate cathedrals and commissioning the ceiling painting of the Sistine chapel. Dreams and dream imagery are nothing new, and weren't remotely new in 1896. What was new was the suggestion this territory could be mapped, catalogued and mined, at a time when technology was becoming the dominant feature of society.

We now live in a world defined by mass media. In THE MATRIX, the Wachowski brothers, frustrated comics creators turned filmmakers, postulate a world wherein "reality" is pumped directly into the brains of unwitting, sedated humans who think they're living in that "reality" when they're nothing more than fodder for a vast, insatiable machine - widely popularizing an idea that's been a strong undercurrent in modern fiction, including Phil Dick's UBIK; Grant Morrison's THE INVISIBLES; and works of William Burroughs. It's the metaphor of the American century.

Europeans have been grousing about "cultural colonialism" at least since the end of World War II, and probably since radio started to wipe out indigenous folk music as a living art in the 30s. To American ears, such claims sound tinny - sour grapes from those who once ruled the world but let it slip from their grasp - but when you think of the universal icons in the world today, you can see their point. Mickey Mouse. Tarzan. Superman. Ronald McDonald. Bugs Bunny. JR Ewing. Baywatch. When you think of the onslaughts of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and Pokemon on American soil, you can feel some of the horror and panic Europe must have felt for the last 80 years in wave after wave of American product flooding their shores, from movies to pop music to TV shows. We haven't exactly been eroding their national characters, but we've - unintentionally, for the most part - forced them, in a sort of cultural cold war, to absorb our influence and retaliate with our own weapons. Chuck Berry is transmuted and regurgitated as The Rolling Stones, HILL STREET BLUES and LEGION OF SUPERHEROES as Alan Moore's TOP TEN.

Not that there isn't a colonization going on, nor does it hold such pissant concerns as geopolitics. It's a marketing thing, built around product placement and brand names. These are the colonists of inner space. In the late 50s, English author J.G. Ballard coined that term to refer to the unknown reaches of the human imagination, but, like the Wild West before it, those reaches have been fenced in and made about as unknown as your average suburb. Freud braved the unconscious as a therapeutic technique, but the "science" of advertising and marketing (not to mention the somewhat more sinister sciences of propaganda and mind control) has attacked the unconscious (with resources that would have had Freud weeping like a baby in envy) for the purpose of figuring out constantly more effective and efficient ways to sell you things.

Mass media daily barrages everyone in western civilization with thousands of images, trying to sell us dreams. To tell us, literally and figuratively, what our dreams should be. Television, able to broadcast the same image worldwide virtually simultaneously, is the key delivery system, but all media, which in practice can be defined as delivery systems for advertising, play a role. To some extent there's such an oversaturation of images that a large part of them cancel each other out. But what they're really selling you, what spreads over most of the images, is an attitude, constantly reinforced, that is so much a part of our environment that we rarely even notice it: a "normalcy" to aspire to, the absence of which creates a tension that only a return to "normalcy" (ie, the purchase of the suggested product) alleviates.

Comic books - rarely much of a place to question consensus reality - are as much a party to this as any other medium, though its outlaw status gives the comics medium a certain leeway. In their nascent days, they were flat out propaganda, carrying little more than simplistic messages to hate Nazis and support the war effort, or that criminals are always caught and punished. The tradition of comics, still strongly in force today though things have gotten more complex, is that stories always return at their climax to a nearly inviolable status quo, much like most (non-soap opera) serial TV shows. With minor variations, virtue triumphs, villainy is punished, and all is once again right with a world where you're free to go out and buy things, and all the popular landmarks like the Daily Bugle are still reassuringly there.

"The tradition of comics, still strongly in force today though things have gotten more complex, is that stories always return at their climax to a nearly inviolable status quo, much like most (non-soap opera) serial TV shows."

In other words, your basic conservative vision, though "image" is a more applicable word than vision.

Even the dystopia supports this. The dystopia is posited on a catastrophic rupture of social or technological norms, resulting in a very bad place, and they were once all but unheard of in comics. It's significant they came into their own during the Thatcher-Reagan regimes. Dystopias suggest that progress must come to a halt, the present is comfort while the future is pain and suffering, and the system we have is far preferable to whatever else might come. It's a philosophy tailored to justify the status quo, and it's amusing that it was often used by writers who viewed themselves as progressive and liberal. Even THE MATRIX follows this pattern, choosing 1999 as the year when everyone was comfortable, happy and fulfilled. Alone among dystopias, only Howard Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG stands out as a future that would be fun to live in despite its downsides.

But while comics are very dedicated now to replaying imagery from familiar television, movie and other comics sources, their "sanctioned" existence is as franchise machines now, to pump out more product that can be turned into bedspreads, underoos, Saturday morning cartoon shows, candy bar sponsors, etc. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, The X-Men and others have been transformed from individualistic creations to products of our shared psyche. That's what the corporations that own them want them to be: icons, imagery that can be recycled over and over to a predictable profit. What new companies we see starting up mostly follow this same pattern. All work is product, and the product that can infiltrate the shared psyche becomes the franchise. Image is everything.

"Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, The X-Men and others have been transformed from individualistic creations to products of our shared psyche."Superman

Has the shared imagery of media eroded the individual psyche? No significant studies have been done, but that's the clear intent. The colonization of inner space, of our dreams, by corporate interests isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's hard to view it as good. Variation is an evolutionary force, and wiping out variations of imagination, response and internal imagery is anti-evolutionary and anti-progress. It supposes a static world where "the good life" - the core dream being sold, even when tarted up in dangerous clothing - can continue on indefinitely if everyone just plays by the rules.

But comics are a special beast, one of the more egalitarian media. They're relatively cheap to produce. Not quite a mass medium, comics have still had their influence. Still somewhat viewed as "outlaw" (meaning not bringing in as much money as other media and restricted to a demographically uncertain spectrum of the population), there's still room in them for subversive visions, true visions. If we're willing to put them under our own microscopes. We can slip through the cracks, at least for a little while, and, more than any other medium, comics still holds the promise of something astonishing and unexpected. Something new. Carl Jung, Freud's dissident student, undertook his own dream studies, immediately writing his dreams in a notebook and analyzing the symbolism both of individual dreams and as a collective. He coined the term archetypes, a concept much abused by fiction and marketing ever since.

"...more than any other medium, comics still holds the promise of something astonishing and unexpected."

What Jung discovered is that the closer you get to your unconscious, the further it recedes from you. As he unraveled dream imagery, it became increasingly complex and inventive, the symbolism increasingly strange and fascinating. But nothing springs from nothing, and what images our minds create are synthesized from the images we put in. As the mass psyche attempts to homogenize and hold static the imagery of our civilization, comics have the odd opportunity to be the spoiler. Comics can be dangerous and unsettling, and they can put forth the now radical concept that other futures, and better, might not only be possible but desirable. Or they can continue to regurgitate "sanctioned" imagery, following the lead of other media instead of carving their own path. In their endless hunt for acceptance, comics have followed the lead of other media, buying into marketed dreams. If I had to predict the future of comics, the smart money is on nothing changing, which is the whole point of colonizing inner space.

But I hope not. There has to be room left in this medium and in our culture for real dreams.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, happy holidays.

And pleasant dreams.

One thing that's always made me uncomfortable is hawking my own wares. Nonetheless, comics companies have made it abundantly clear that if I don't no one will, so:

In March, DC releases LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #28, the first part of the Silver Age team-up that should have been and never was, Green Lantern & The Atom. Silver Age buffs will know that Gil Kane designed and for years drew both characters, and that's why I wrote the story, set in the Silver Age, especially for Gil to draw. Klaus Janson inks the book. It looks terrific. Alex Ross painted the cover. It also continues the "Traitor" Saga from the Abin Sur western Mike Zeck and I did in LODCU #20-21, pitting Traitor against Abin Sur's successor, Hal Jordan. The story concludes in LODCU #29.

Here's where you come in. Because there are so many DC books coming out in March, this will be lost in the crowd - unless you tell your dealer to order it right now. The solicitation process has already begun. Bring it to your dealer's attention right now, please. Thank you. You won't regret it.

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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