Master Of The Obvious: Issue #51

Wed, July 19th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

My first awareness of politics was the Johnson-Goldwater campaign. President Johnson I was vaguely aware of because, in the wake of the JFK assassination, newspapers printed pictures of his inauguration. Bored silly from the saturation of weeping about Kennedy on all media - in retrospect I see this was just a rudimentary prototype for the wailing and gnashing over the death of "the world's princess," the appallingly boring Diana - I scrawled glasses and facial hair on the front page photos of LBJ and Lady Byrd as they waved from some balcony somewhere like Texas royalty, sending my mother into fits. I vaguely recall being banished to my room for the rest of the day. (I recall it was a Monday and my father was working but the schools were still closed). My room was my little sanctuary, stuffed with my books and comic books and all the props I used to crawl through my tedious little suburban life, so I never quite understood the logic of banning me there. Real punishment for me was having to sit at the dinner table until my parents were done with their interminable cigarettes and coffee after meals.

Anyway, when LBJ vs. Goldwater rolled around, I became aware of two things: that presidents were voted into office, and that some people think beliefs justify violence. Barry Goldwater, we all knew, intended to start an atomic war when he got into office even though he didn't (I actually saw that LBJ campaign commercial with the sweet little girl and the flower getting obliterated by the mushroom cloud, with the nutso accusations against Goldwater) and there were at least a couple incidents at my grade school of kids being beaten up because they wore "Goldwater in '64" buttons on the playground. LBJ was it on our playground, and no one knew enough about the Nazis then to recognize Nazi tactics when we saw them. (Not, I suspect, that anyone would have cared.)

Sometimes I feel like I've spent my life running up against this mentality.

Back in the drug culture, I quickly learned that people who smoked pot didn't want to be around you if you didn't. Not that I didn't do my share of pot, as well as other select drugs like acid, mescaline and opium, but I found I had a big problem with them: far from being the doorways to experience, they were pretty boring after the first twenty minutes. Unfortunately the effects lasted for hours, and the overall experience was like when my parents would drag me on week long road trips through Minnesota and Iowa: half an hour of new scenery followed by an interminable infinity of crops. Having other people tell me what cool effects I should be getting from acid trips was just like hearing my mother telling me to stop reading all the time and look out the car window once in awhile. (I don't really care if anyone uses drugs or not, but if they really want to keep people off them, just tell the truth: they're boring as sin.) But quitting was like threatening the foundations of their reality: either I had to be a narc or there was the untenable possibility their suppositions might be… gasp… wrong.

They kept trying to justify themselves when no justifications mattered to me. I wasn't telling anyone to stop. I hadn't joined any twelve-step programs, and didn't preach abstinence. But I made my druggie friends nervous. After awhile, it was easier to just not see them much.

Then there was the time everyone was turning to EST. If you don't remember it, it was a b.s. self-help program that made you feel good about yourself at a mere cost of hundreds or thousands of dollars. The upshot of the course is that it was all right to be a jerk, which I guess a lot of people were happy to pay to hear. People kept wanting me to come join, and "deal with my negativity." I remember ending up in an IHOP at 4 AM with a girl who paired off as my drinking buddy and sex fantasy, listening to two of her EST cohorts trying to badger me into feeling bad enough about myself to want to feel good about myself. Too bad for them. Not only was 4 AM my time of day, but negativity (as regular readers of Master Of The Obvious know) is my mtier. Frustrated the living hell out of them as I brushed off their standard material with barely a shrug. One of them got seriously angry at me. As far as he was concerned, I wasn't playing fair; in not accepting his beliefs, he felt I was undermining them. My independence was a threat to his worldview.

Which, of course, is just too damn bad.

I could go on and on with similar stories - don't even get me started on the Reagan years - but we've all been there. You know what I'm talking about. The Group. Doesn't matter what group. The Group is a collective identity that supercedes the individual identity (though most individuals in The Group actively deny this). Membership in The Group, whether there's formal membership or not, is marked by acceptance of whatever basic precepts The Group espouses. The Group is based on binary thinking: there is only one and zero, The Group and "not the group."

Groups don't have to be big. They can be tiny, but in many cases blind acceptance of GroupThink is presented as true independence from the rigid overmind. Most cults are built on this. I'm reading a book now - I won't torment you with the name or author, since it's rank (if amusing) garbage - that cobbles together a fantastic "true" secret history of the world built on "evidence" from an anachronistic and culturally bereft reading of mythology combined with pretty much every crackpot fringe political and scientific theory of the past 20 decades or so. The writing screams of feverish earnestness, I have no real doubt of the writer's sincerity. I think the guy believes what he's writing. That doesn't mean it's worth paying attention to. But from the very first paragraph, he beats the drum that the masters of tomorrow, those of us who "wake up" (and don't we all want to wake up, after all?) will listen carefully to everything he has to say, while the "sheep" will dismiss and ridicule him. Truly independent thought, in other words, can only be demonstrated by blindly ignoring that his "history" is gibberish. It's a con game that plays to self-esteem, and it's played over and over and over. Every religion, every political movement resorts to it sooner or later, usually sooner. It's like the whole political correctness/incorrectness scam the likes of Rush Limbaugh tried to pull for years, where agreeing that certain liberal obsessions had gone overboard - an easy enough premise to accept - meant automatic agreement with the other (that is to say, arch-conservative) side of the playing field and acceptance of whatever irritating unreconstructed fratboy nonsense they felt like pawning off as a political philosophy. "You only have to wake up to the truth."

It's all con games.

Particularly in the media, which is what this has to do with us.

There are a lot of theories about the purpose of mass media. Is it supposed to educate us? Entertain us? Inform us? Sell us things?

The real purpose of mass media is to make us feel lonely.

Our culture doesn't trust loners. We're not supposed to be happy and content by ourselves. Lone wolf. Lone gunman. Lone nut. To not be accepted and admired by a group, to not at the very least be the object of true love, to not share your life with somebody, regardless of other accomplishments, is the definition of hell. We end up with people who refuse to leave abusive, even dangerously abusive, relationships because the alternative is being alone, or people furiously ignoring the belief contradictions of groups and organizations because questioning means ouster, and ouster means being on your own. (The Catholic church, for instance, still maintains excommunication as the ultimate tool against members who ask too many questions, and this remains the model for most organizations.) Alone is a terrible thing to be, a defeat. We know this because TV shows tell us so. Movies tell us so. Popular music tells us so. Oh life means nothing 'cause my baby left me, doo wah wah.

Comics tell us this as well. Sure, we have a plethora of loner characters, but they either "sacrifice" companionship for the sake of their mission (the Batman syndrome) or wail and gnash about their lack of social success (Spider-Man or a pretty much the entire host of quasi-Harvey Pekar "autobiographical" characters populating what passes for alternative comics) or they're just plain psychotic (The Punisher, Lobo). The concept that someone could be perfectly happy and fulfilled on their own remains culturally taboo.

It wasn't always this way. Jules Feiffer, in THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, names Superman's relative asexuality (in the original version, he masochistically wanted Lois Lane to be attracted to his false persona, Clark Kent, but in his true persona as Superman he considered her a nuisance who barely deserved the time of day) as emblematic of societal machismo: "the opposite of the guy who could get girls was never the guy who couldn't, but the guy who could if he wanted to but didn't want to." He might have been a jerk but at least he was secure about it. Cool in the 50s meant you didn't play the game, you followed your own path and if that meant being alone, that was cool: the new asceticism. Now "cool" denotes The Latest Thang, the latest chance to surrender to herd mentality and ostracize anyone who doesn't share it.

The real threat of the loner, the outsider who's proud of it, is commercial: it's hard to convince anyone who does their own thinking that they need what they don't need, and our civilization is now economically predicated on people spending money they don't need to spend on products it never occurred to them to want. Enough of that gets around, and businesses fail and stocks plummet and all hell breaks loose. Our culture thrives on junk, and depends on an audience willing to accept junk as essential.

Which is why the X-Men are the poster children of our civilization. It's no surprise that, though created in the '60s, they only crashed mass consciousness in the '80s. Not only were they moody outsiders, they were a whole gang of moody outsiders. Unlike earlier massive superteams like the Justice League Of America or the Legion Of Super-Heroes, bound by moral codes and noble aspirations, the only thing the X-Men had in common was that they all felt persecuted. What A.E. Van Vogt's SLAN did for science fiction fandom in the 30s (with their battle cry "Fans are Slans!"), the X-Men did for comics fandom. The X-Men were persecuted because they were superior (hell, it was right there in their classification, homo superior). They co-opted lonerism at the same time they unleash rampant assimilation on the comics market (abruptly every other book was a variant team book about gangs of persecuted loners), and you either read X-Men or you no longer felt comfortable calling yourself a true comics fan. Or you didn't read X-Men and declared that only your kind were true comics fans. Either way, while it benefited Marvel enormously, it was divisive to comics fandom in general. Which still breaks down along lines of whether you read X-Men or not.

The concept is a bit fuzzy today. Humans barely exist in X-comics anymore: who's doing the persecuting now? Doesn't it seem strange that they're still behaving the same as they did 20 years ago though Marvel Earth is now a place where mutants (or, at the very least, superpowered people) seem to outnumber homo sapiens by about 10:1?

The clannishness inherent in the X-Men has also been a marketing strategy for two decades now, and it's time to put it aside. The 80s, with the growth of comics, was dedicated to the concept of turning casual readers (the bread and butter of the business before 1980 or so) into hardcore fans: play along or we don't need you seemed to be the philosophy of comics companies. The 90s pushed it to the breaking point, with ever increasingly imponderable, self-referential (and self-reverential) storylines, like arcane texts only the high priests could read: comics fandom as secret society. It broke. The question is now whether gently deflating and rerouting the fan base is possible at a time when expanding a readership base is essential, or whether any attempt at such will gut the fan base altogether. And whether that would be a good or bad thing. How do you tell the high priests they have to sit in the pews with the congregation now, especially when you're not sure a congregation will even show up?

Thanks to the movie, the X-Men are now undergoing at least a momentary renaissance. Whether it translates to a growing audience for the comic books remains to be seen. If it does, it will be on a different basis from their popularity in the 80s and 90s, which depended on adherents and acolytes poring over minutiae and trying to recruit new Slans. Because comics aren't a mass medium anymore. They can't play the cons movies, TV and music can. (When was the last time comics manufactured a mass phenomenon? They do it in other media all the time.) To pull that off, you have to convince people you can alleviate the loneliness you're telling them they feel; you have to produce a product they can believe in enough to stop thinking.

I received a correction on my last column from David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for the San Diego Comic-Con (or, uh, Comic-Con International, as they've taken to calling it): "Last year's attendance was in excess of 45,000 people. This number is a total number and includes attendees, exhibitors and professionals. We have been lucky enough to see an increase in our attendance each year of about 3%… In regard to the counting of attendees, we try to be very clear about this. We count each badge, NOT each attendee. For example: if one person buys a four day membership and one person buys a one day membership, this is counted by us as two people. Even though the person holding the four day membership comes to the event each day… We know some other events count a daily attendance and then compile that to come to the greater total, but that is NOT how we calculate our numbers. There is nothing wrong in this calculation, it's just not how we count… In fact, we ran an informal test last year wherein we calculated four people per each four day pass, etc., and the number was quite astronomical."

So now we know.

I'll be in San Diego from Thursday afternoon on. I have no scheduled appearances but one never knows, do one? Next week's column will also be written on the fly there, to celebrate our one year anniversary.

X-MAN #67 should be out this week. Buy it. (He is a loner who's thrilled to be one, by the way.) That is all.

This week's snotty question, answerable at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what one person - writer, artist, editor, whoever (besides me, of course) - would you most like to see leave the comics field forever, and why?

For those following the hit campaign, things have slowed down some (it's summer, y'know?) but keep up the good work. We're counting on you.

See you in San Diego.

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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