Master Of The Obvious: Issue #46

Wed, June 14th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Shock is dead.

[Superman]I just read the recent SUPERMAN arc where Superman's dying of kryptonite poisoning. By the final chapters, Superman's comatose and on his deathbed (I was half-expecting it to be caused by Jimmy Olsen's signal watch), and, regardless of the merits of the art and writing, all I could think was: do they really think anyone's will take this seriously?

Shock, of course, is America's favorite marketing gimmick, and comics - particularly superhero comics - have never been immune to its lure. How many covers have featured blurbs like "READER! YOU WON'T BELIEVE THE SHOCKING CONCLUSION!"? (A marginally less condescending declaration than the Ellery Queen style "Reader! Did you spot the clue The Batman saw?") Once upon a time, shock was taboo in comics, particularly in the 50s when the Comics Code set out to obliterate any content that might conceivably raise a pulse or prop up an eyelid but by the late 60s shock was the currency of culture in general and underground comix transplanted the concept to this medium, using lacing the shock content with massive doses of humor. When the influence of the undergrounds seeped through to mainstream comics, the focus of superhero comics shifted, late as usual. (The comics medium likes to stay years behind social trends, resulting in such curiosities as kung fu comics materializing just as public interest in kung fu movies dies out, and disco heroines appearing to grab a piece of the disco market three years after disco fades. With the relatively short amount of time it takes to create and market a comic book, comics should theoretically be chewing up social trends and spitting them out before the meat gets cold. But no.)

Time was comics were intentionally domesticated. Everything was brought down to good vs. bad. Not even good vs. evil, and most of it was extremely small scale. Green Lantern, possessor of a magic ring that could transform his every whim into reality to the extent of changing the shape of whole solar systems if he chose, spent his time stopping the Tattooed Man from robbing jewelry stores, thus making the world safe for high-ticket items for the ultra-rich and keeping insurance rates down. Sure, it was stealing, the stories made for good object lessons - step out of line and some superhero will kick your ass and drop you off at the police station with a pair of oversized green tongs or leave you dangling in front all wrapped up in sticky webbing - but how domestic can you get? Sure, villains tried to get rid of heroes, but you had to think they weren't very serious about it: get a hero in your clutches, then subject him to a very slow-working Rube Goldberg death trap. (This sort of thing was best summed up by a very bad joke on the BATMAN TV show: Catwoman traps Batman and Robin atop a huge vat of butter where they'll await sunup when the sun's rays will melt the butter and drown them. Robin says: Holy Oleo! Catwoman replies: I didn't know you could yodel.) The main menace of villains like The Mirror Master and Marvel's Sandman was that they threatened the orderly workings of society, and by 1969 nobody gave a flying crap about that anymore. That ship had sailed. Dr. Doom wanted to conquer the world, and we all knew that would be a bad thing, but it was never clear why it would be bad. The only indication was that, under Dr. Doom, Things Would Be Different From What They Are. Even the classic comics supervillains, the ones all other supervillains are mere stand-ins for, the Nazis: if you got your info from comics alone, you'd know Nazis were bad, but you probably wouldn't be very sure why. (Oh, yeah! Because they're Bad, that's why.) Then there were Communists. They all had one thing in common: "they have no regard for human life." With the Vietnam War beaming American led-or-tolerated atrocities into living rooms almost nightly, even that claim lost its sting. If regard for human life was no longer a precondition for being the good guys, lack of it could no longer define bad guys. Unless the good guys were the bad guys, and everything came down to propaganda.

"The main menace of villains like The Mirror Master and Marvel's Sandman was that they threatened the orderly workings of society, and by 1969 nobody gave a flying crap about that anymore."

Matters of life and death didn't used to be very serious matters in comics. Villains might die (evil schemes tend to backfire like that), but supporting characters were rare victims and the heroes never. Under most circumstances, mortal injury to a supporting character propelled the heroic struggle that returned them to life and good health. (How many times did Happy Hogan almost die in IRON MAN, anyway?) It was a world in which certain invariables never changed. It was safe, and, mmm-mmm! so good for you! Change was non-existent, no one was really threatened, and nothing was really a matter of life or death.

60s comics mostly depended on a level of enforced navet, the presumption that young boys who were their target audience really didn't know very much and were in no hurry to grow up. Blame rock'n'roll for killing that one. By the 70s, everyone wanted to grow up fast, and the trend has only accelerated with time. Ignorance (about unnecessary things, like whatever's out) is tolerable, navet unforgivable. It's the gang mentality writ large: no one really counts but members of the gang. (Which isn't particularly surprising, considering that's the main message, when you break it down, of politics, the military and most sub-cultures.) Because the intended audience was already thinking that way - kids who would ten years before have beaten up "artists" now formed bands in their garages in hopes of becoming rock'n'roll stars - comics retaliated with a tentative "adultification."

Which is a fancy way of saying their shock quotient rose.

[Jim Starlin]
Jim Starlin
Jim Starlin wasn't the first mainstream talent to seriously center a story around death, but he was the first I remember to make Death a running character and have a character whose sole motivation was to kill as many people as possible. (Starlin may have patterned his characters after Jack Kirby's NEW GODS, but Kirby pussyfooted around such things with gimmicks like "The Black Racer" and "the anti-life equation," which came off as soft. Starlin got right to the point, and that was the shock appeal of it.) Once death, once a bit player, became a core concept in superhero comics, it was the chic thing to do. Characters had never really died before. It drew attention. It was the real dividing line between pre-70s comics and post-70s comics.

Naturally, it was done to death.

Not that all American pop culture hasn't been through the same thing. If comic books evolved from the pulp and comic strip industries, popular music has never shaken its tin pan alley roots, and TV and movies are still vestigially vaudeville. All carry, in their hearts, a vision of "pure entertainment," a romantic attachment to bland juvenilia calculated to amuse but not challenge, to arouse but not offend. Sometimes it's called "escapism," sometimes "uplifting," but the upshot is: for the moments you hang with us, you don't have to concern yourself with reality. On the other hand, we've created a society rotten with hunger for new kicks, forcing entertainments to present themselves as "edgy," a term suggesting naughty and new instead of (usually more accurately) timid and limp. Aerosmith clones market themselves as "cutting edge" while playing 20 year old bar band riffs, actors prove they're more than just big box office blow-up toys by taking on "edgy" roles, usually involving mild kinky sex with violent overtones.

So we end up with tepid monstrosities like Stanley Kubrick's final bloated vapor, EYES WIDE SHUT, where characters wander through empty sexual landscapes to ultimately vindicate good old-fashioned values. Or Joel Schumacher's 8MM. Or thousands of other films linking sex and death with the underlying implication that anything other than "clean" sex will kill you. 8MM's an interesting case: the plot centers around a crime so hideous, so unthinkable, that it psychologically paralyzes an investigator and sends him careening through a deadly sex crime underground, obsessed with solving it and bringing justice to the victim at any cost.

Except the crime isn't unthinkable. Ugly and disgusting, yes. What's unfathomable is why the investigator goes psycho over it. It's a crime - whether it ever happened or not (there's considerable debate) - we've all heard of. And that's the problem: shock covers only four topics.

Sex, death, bodily functions and atheism.

[Sherman's Lagoon]Of course, everyone talks about sex now. You can't get away from it. There are still a few words you're not supposed to use, but they're used so much in everyday life that media use of them comes off as comic. (See THE SOPRANOS.) You can now hear "piss," "bitch," "pussy" and other formerly taboo words used regularly on early evening sitcoms. Fart, snot, vomit jokes: all are fairly common. Menopause is discussed in daily comic strips. One comic strip, the often gloriously sick SHERMAN'S LAGOON, is about a shark that eats dogs and people. Death still has shock value when it hits close to home (as in crashing airliners or high school spree killers) but otherwise it's now so acceptable, and certainly so commonplace in entertainment, that we've essentially accepted the truism that death, though it happens to everyone, carries no intrinsic meaning. The more media there is out there, the more we burn up the shock value of anything.

So pop culture has been on a collision course with itself the past few decades. On the one hand, the sentimental attachment to "safety." On the other, the recognition that target audiences grow bored quickly, and the easiest way to grab their attention (and, theoretically, their bucks) is shock creates a psychological divide that's hard to reconcile. Shock carries the seeds of its own destruction; it's, simply put, exposure to the unfathomable. But once you get it you get it. It's not unfathomable anymore. Nothing shocks us twice anymore. Once no one would talk about cannibalism. I don't think anyone recommends it, but if you want media centering around cannibalism, it's been plentiful since George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (whose cannibalism was tempered a bit because it was perpetrated by brain-hungry zombies, though the film's real shock value when released came from its relationship between a white girl and a black man, and its portrayal of casual racism). As tastes and tolerances grow increasingly sophisticated, pop culture has a hard time even keeping up. The ability to shock rests on the ability to stay ahead.

"Shock carries the seeds of its own destruction; it's, simply put, exposure to the unfathomable. But once you get it you get it. It's not unfathomable anymore."

So pop culture is torn between infantilization and adultification. Comics, long struggling to overcome their infantile image, have it particularly rough. Returning to the subject of death, for every writer who killed a character, you've had another writer bringing that character back. Though there are inevitable fan cries of "How dare you kill so-and-so?" every time someone's bumped off, resurrection is such a staple of the material now that death shocks virtually no one anymore. Remember when they killed Superman? And yet here he is, still supporting an entire franchise on his back. Same Superman. Yet every once in awhile they seem compelled to trot out a "Superman dies" storyline like, yeah, it's actually going to happen. And Batman broke his back. Spider-Man's his own clone. I'm having trouble keeping my eyes open just writing all this. Likewise, sexual content still raises a few eyebrows but it really all comes down to tits. The problem with sex is that, unless you're doing it, it's just plain boring. (You can test this yourself. Rent 5 porn films at random and see if you can stand to view them all in one sitting. Then get someone you find really attractive into bed and see how long you're willing to keep that up.) I recall the panic about the Marquis de Sade material in Grant Morrison's INVISIBLES, but looking at it now it's hard to figure out what the fuss was about. Looking at pretty much anything from the past, from the film BABY DOLL (condemned by the Catholic Church for indecency) to Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik's VOID INDIGO to the oh-so-cuddly bigots of Norman Lear's ALL IN THE FAMILY to the notorious art exhibit "Piss Christ" to Debussy's AFTERNOON OF A FAUN, it's difficult to figure out why any of them ever raised an eyebrow.

Twenty years ago I predicted "event publishing" was the future of the comics industry. I've been largely proven right, at least from a marketing standpoint. While still published, the long-running monthly comic book has shifted from a staple of the business to virtually an oddity, with mini-series, trade paperbacks and graphic novels being increasingly the norm. More than regular comics, "events" since 1990 get the attention and the dealer bucks. I thought this would lead to better overall work in the field. I didn't predict it would lead to a rising tide of shock value, as everyone scrambled to find some new hook for every single "event" in order to prove the worth of the project. I expected "event publishing" would lead to greater variety and increased creator ingenuity. I didn't predict companies would obsessively try to generate events by committee. I thought "event publishing" would lead to unique, self-contained works. I didn't envision wholesale carpet bombing of characterizations and continuities in the name of novelty and shock value.

"Twenty years ago I predicted "event publishing" was the future of the comics industry. I've been largely proven right…"

But once you've killed, resurrected, crippled, healed, depowered, repowered, replaced, restored, disgraced, redeemed, transformed, recostumed and betrayed all your characters; once you've destroyed not just a city, not just a world, not just a solar system, not just a galaxy, not just a universe, but infinities of universes; once you've collapsed all time and started over again; once you've incorporated murder and rape into your catalog of sins; once you've create and collapsed horrifying dystopic alternate worlds; once you've brutalized all your creations with the tug-of-war between adultification and infantilization, obsessively yo-yoing back and forth between radical violent change and a comforting status quo; what exactly is there left to shock an audience with? Shock needs to be convincing to work. Overkill has cost us our ability to convince.

Shock is dead. As a creative tool, as a marketing tool. It only works if you can maintain an audience sufficiently infantilized to forget what they've already been exposed to, and no audience has been that infantilized since LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY went off the air. What's needed now in comics is intelligence, which might be enough of a kick in itself that people will be willing to come back for more.

Dept. of Corrections: Last week I somehow managed to rename Warren Ellis' COME IN ALONE column "Come In Again." Sorry about that. I hope some of you took the misnomer as an invitation to reread them.

Question of the week: what one comic book - and I don't mean a series, I mean one single issue of a comic book - would you give to someone who doesn't read comics to get them excited about the medium? Discuss it on the Master Of The Obvious Message Board.

I see Grant Morrison and Joe Casey are the latest comics writers to come online calling for The New in comics. That makes, what? 14000 or so? Close enough that it's starting to qualify as a creative consensus. Now what we need is a reasonably well-financed publisher willing to commit to the future. Any takers?

Didn't think so.

Hit parade report: a couple of months ago, I suggested that if enough people clicked onto our columns, Warren and I would end up with enough money to publish the comics we'd really like to do. All it required was that everyone reading the page get someone else to click on it as well, and get them to get someone else to click on it. While we're still a long way from the goal, readership (or, rather, clickship) is up about another 7% this month, so the plan is working. Slowly, together, we will chip away the rotting substructure of the running dog monoliths. Keep up the good work. Viva la resistance!

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. The site address will be changing soon, and I'll post the new address here when I know what it is. 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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