Master Of The Obvious: Issue #29

Wed, February 16th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I made up a word last week. I used to do it quite a bit when writing rock criticism, because the existing language to express my response to the music was inadequate and at the time innovation was in demand. I don't do it much anymore but last week I was trying to describe the nature of the comics medium and I hit upon a new term: logovisual. Logo (from the Greek logos, word; "In the beginning was the word") + visual, pictures. Words and pictures functioning in unison to create a single idea, but, also, words as pictures, seen not heard, part of the pictures themselves.

Which has nothing to do with anything, really, but I wanted to toss the term out there while I was thinking of it.

I also had an epiphany over the weekend. Epiphanies are hard to come by and only hit when you're not expecting them; that's what makes them epiphanies. This one hit while I was plowing through comics that had piled up.

Life pretty much consists of wallowing in the dirt.

That's not the epiphany, that's the obvious. (Look at the name of the column if you don't believe me.) It's not particularly difficult to make a case for the United States being the greatest nation to ever grace the world. The average American lives far better than kings did 300 years ago, and kings lived far better than the vast majority of the populace at that time. For better or worse, our cultural and commercial influence saturates everything, and is saturated by everything, assimilating potent competitors before they know what hit them. The stated purpose for our existence, at least, is ridiculously benign.

So it's galling that we spend so much of our lives in tedium and fear.

This country is so rich, so capable of innovation, and the best we've been able to come up with so far for the vast majority of citizens is the 8-5 job? The programming is there, all around: get born; go to school; get a job; buy a car; get married; work; have kids; work; buy a house; fill it with lots and lots of stuff; work to pay off the interest on the loan you took to buy the car, the house, and the stuff because you'll never live to pay off the principle; buy more stuff; work; buy more stuff; work; retire; buy more stuff; rot; buy more stuff; die. And pay your taxes. It used to be in school when you were young they'd tease you with the great and wonderful adventure life would be when you grew up, but many schools don't even bother with that anymore. We've created cities everywhere that only the wealthiest sectors of society, and those who prey on them, can afford to live in, and those cities are mostly populated by those who can't afford to live there but have nowhere else to go.

We've managed to build an entire civilization around the concept of buying Stuff. If you don't buy Stuff, you're not doing your part, you're letting down the home team. If you buy Stuff, hey, nobody twisted your arm, pal. I remember when the Batman movie came out in 1989, Capital Comics, then still in the distribution game, made a huge push for Batmerchandise, which did boom business at comics shops. For awhile. Sales prompted a push for bigger and bigger orders to "meet demand," but, as often happens, demand abruptly vanished, leaving dealers stuck with lots of Joker t-shirts and whatnot. It was only then that Capital, in an amazing display of chutzpah, started running lectures on "responsible ordering practices." That sort of thing isn't unique to Capital, it's an American syndrome. And it's not like dealers learned from it because four years later they were doing the same thing again, in spades, and that collapse took a lot of them down.

"We've managed to build an entire civilization around the concept of buying Stuff. If you don't buy Stuff, you're not doing your part, you're letting down the home team."

A notion in political currency is that only sissies and crybabies would even bring up such things, let alone complain about them. It's predicated on the concept that American life today is the natural order of things, and an outcome on the cynicization (Hey! Another new word! I'm on a role!) of America that's been going on for the last 25 years. It used to be anyone who pointed up problems or inequities were chided for being cynical, until a critical mass of the public started agreeing with the "naysayers" (a popular term meaning "people who get in my way"). Now, in lieu of solving recognized problems, it's standard practice to call anyone who makes a fuss "nave." In other words, yes, things stink, but we like it that way, so piss off. That's real cynicism: not the recognition that something is bad, but the bland acceptance that it will never be changed, there's no point in trying, and it's an inconvenience to even have to hear about it.

Not that cynicism and politics are strangers, or that Democrats have overall been better, but it's not coincidence that this particular trend corresponds to the Republicanizing of America as well. It's been interesting to watch: a fierce campaign masked by flowery ideals and dedicated to taking as much wealth from any many people as possible and putting it in the hands of as few people as possible. It's been pretty successful. For all the chatter of "traditional values" under the Reagan administration, as speculation and the promise of quick riches were pretty much swapped for anything resembling a work ethic. The rich speculated in the stock market, the poor bought Lotto tickets, which more and more states raced to provide. Not to mention the general looting of public funds in the name of "no big government" (which got smaller when regulating how people loot money and got bigger in regulating how they use their own bedrooms), of S&Ls, of healthy corporations that quickly got unhealthy, of the housing market, of pretty much anything that wasn't nailed down. We now live in a gambling culture, Las Vegas writ large, where people toil not to achieve but to live long enough to strike it rich on that lucky QwikPik. It's a culture where work has no meaning (it's not what you do that counts, it's what you can afford), where it's considered imbecilic to appreciate anything (fine art, comic books, stuffed animals, you name it) on any basis besides monetary value, and where people are heavily rewarded for in fact preying on this.

Nowhere is this cynicism clearer than in our quadrennial cynic's festival, the Presidential election, and this year's race has already reached levels even I didn't anticipate. While all the candidates, Democrat and Republican, have mooned the public in one way or another, the cynicism poster boy has to be George W. Bush Jr. who launched under a now forgotten motto of caring conservatism on a record of skipping gubernatorial oversight on executions and basically punishing people for not having enough money. Having raised $70 million dollars, he slammed any talk of campaign finance reform on the grounds that Republicans couldn't raise any money at all if they had to depend on donations from individuals instead of massive contributions from monster corporations, the ultrawealthy, and political action groups - basically stating flat out that the Republican party is for sale - and then claiming John McCain, who has raked in a ton of grassroots contributions, is in the pocket of special interests and demands McCain release a full list of his contributors (why McCain just doesn't say "I'll show you mine if you show me yours first, George" I don't know) and most recently claiming that he, Bush, is the true campaign reform candidate. He comes from a political dynasty (his grandfather pulled Congressman Richard Nixon's strings, among many others) up to their receding hairlines in the Eastern political establishment and big oil (not to mention the family's involvements in the S&L scandal were quietly ignored during Dad's presidency) and was early on anointed the chosen one by Republican leaders, yet shouts that he, Bush, is the true "outsider candidate." (Not that McCain is an "outsider" either, but at least he can make claim to going against party wishes now and then, and generally not getting along with the Republican status quo much at all.) It's like watching a spoiled little kid insisting that whatever toys someone else is playing with are really his toys, and he was playing with them first. After years of bashing Clinton as the Antichrist for sex and trying pot in college, Republicans now appear to consider a history of adultery, wild behavior and drug consumption youthful indiscretion that doesn't reflect on a candidate's decency and morality. Because they want George in the white house. He's the handpicked man, he'll keep things going as they are (or, worse, return the bleeding, the flow of wealth from the average citizen to the superrich, to Reaganesque proportions, but Clinton hasn't been a slouch in that regard either, which is why Gore is also the handpicked establishment candidate). Like his father, like Bob Dole, Bush projects the image that he wants to be president simply for no other reason than it's his turn. And everyone is supposed to eat it up because he says so.

Now that's cynicism.

So it's been hard to turn away from it recently, because it's everywhere. The news, politics, advertising, everywhere. Comics got cynical as well. As I've mentioned before, I view the occasional cry for a return to "fun" comics as cynical. From the 50s to the 70s were pretty much enforcedly "nice" because most reflections of the real world was forbidden to them. If, by the 80s, there was a movement to make comics more adult and "darker," it was because the audience base was growing up and the 80s saw the entry of the first generation of comics talent who both wanted their comics to reflect more the world they existed in and to keep their own age group reading. If newly opened markets got comics companies' attention by the late 80s, the 90s were cynicism unleashed: comics changing direction regularly on the basis of what was thought to be a hot trend, companies doing whatever they could to bleed their audience as quickly as possible while constantly pronouncing they had the best interests of the audience at heart. Much of the mainstream (not all) dedicated itself to cashing out as many trends as possible, while many alternatives (not all) contented themselves with producing the logovisual equivalent of onanism and grumbling that the audience of philistines weren't interested.

It's not surprising that comics today are mostly on the dingy side, in both story and art. (For some reason, dingy coloring is considered to be sophisticated.) I get piles of comics and I read almost all of them, but it takes work. It sounds like fun on paper, but trust me, it's not a job you want.

So I'm digging through the pile the other day, catching up, and I'm reading THE AUTHORITY #11. Nice popcorn movie superheroics. There's a scene where a character called The Engineer races to the Moon, and in the midst of the danger stops and looks around with a big smile on her face. A month ago, I wrote X-MAN #63 off Warren's plot. I won't go into plot details, but somewhere toward the beginning a character takes a moment out to enjoy a view of Manhattan, a place he has finally reached after wanting to for years.

"I get piles of comics and I read almost all of them, but it takes work. It sounds like fun on paper, but trust me, it's not a job you want."

And it suddenly occurs to me that this sort of thing happens over and over and over and over again in Warren's stories. Late last year, Vertigo publish an anthology with a short TRANSMETROPOLITAN story wherein Spider Jerusalem rhapsodizes about the wonder of snow. His HELLBLAZER run frequently had John Constantine simply drinking in the sheer arcane glory of London like a fine old wine. The whole premise of PLANETARY is characters seeking out moments of awe and strangeness, rather than conflict.

Warren is generally considered one of the most vicious and cynical writers in the business today. Very few writers produce more horrific material. Vicious maybe, but I have to question the cynical tag. A real cynic wouldn't write moments like that. The real core of Warren's work isn't cynicism or "darkness," but joy.

Many of his characters experience moments of sheer joy. They're only moments - that's what joy is, a fleeting moment of ineffable peace and wonder - but they're there. It's the sort of thing that, even more than their characters, made the Hernandez Bros. work stand out. I started digging through the comics again, and even more than drab, more than dingy, more than cynical, most of today's comics are simply joyless. You never really know what the characters are working toward or think they're protecting, aside from paper tigers and stock rationales. In Warren's work you do. His characters, even Spider Jerusalem, perhaps the most sick, sickening, depraved hero ever to grace mainstream comics, want those moments of sheer joy. "Want" is too strong a word, really. They don't seek those moments, but, practically alone among comics characters, they're open to them.

"I started digging through the comics again, and even more than drab, more than dingy, more than cynical, most of today's comics are simply joyless."

A lot of Silver Age aficionados will hold this up as a rationale for a return to "nice comics," but it won't work. That was then, this is now. What works has to work for this era. There wasn't much joy in Silver Age comics anyway. They were just nicer.

It doesn't surprise me that the two other writers whose work tapers into expressions of joy most often are Grant Morrison, mostly in THE INVISIBLES, where characters live in a crazed and unpredictable universe of horror and wonder, and Garth Ennis, where it's not unusual for Jesse Custer to do things like breathlessly enjoy a sunset or appreciate a friendship. I have to wonder if this doesn't contribute to their current popularity as much as their talent and the new structural paradigms they've brought to the comics industry.

I don't know if even Warren realizes this is a running theme in his work, but it explains the frequent vehemence and rage against people too stupid or blind or preoccupied or ground down to recognize these moments, and particularly against those who scorn, truncate and censor these moments. His characters exist in a harsh Gnostic world, but their lives are punctuated by fits of joy. (As the Gnostic Gospel Of St. Thomas says, "The kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the Earth, and men do not see it.") The world crushes joy, it places no real value on it because it can't be predicted, quantified or maintained, but joy is what really makes life worth living.

This, then, is my epiphany: comics need more joy, more characters who recognize and appreciate joy. Not prepackaged schmaltz or Pavlovian triggers; real, unexpected feeling. Not stories about joy (and not all stories, certainly) but just fleeting moments - that's all any of us ever get - and reminders that such a thing is not only possible but desirable, reiterating what life is supposed to be all about. At the very least, we could use a lot less joylessness. It'll give people something to read comics for. The world needs to be reminded of the possibility of joy, because joy is an antidote to cynicism.

Thanks to everyone who sent art samples. It's been a very busy work week and I haven't been able to sort through them yet. For those who haven't heard, @VENTURE magazine, publishing prose fiction by comics writers, will be debuting March 15 at www.atventure.com, and we already have stories on hand by David Quinn, Dan Brereton, Mike Baron, Kurt Busiek and Donna Barr (and me, of course) with much more to come.

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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