Master Of The Obvious: Issue #56

Wed, August 23rd, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

So convention season is over, and we have a wonderful choice of candidates ahead of us.

In order of nomination, there's George Bush Jr., who started off his campaign with a call for a return to "moral values," and sees no problem with leaving industrial polluters to regulate themselves but thinks it's time to force Hollywood to be "responsible." There's Pat Buchanan, who rails frequently against moral decline and is historically filled with nice things to say about patron-of-the-arts Adolf Hitler (though he keeps that to himself these days). There's Al Gore, whose charming wife Tipper linked arms with Republicans in the 80s to squelch rap music (among other things) and whose VP of choice, Joe Lieberman, was originally elected to office by being more right wing than his Republican opposition, who sits on the board of culture watchdog group The PTL, who's being lauded by the press as an exceptionally moral man on the basis that he's proven to go to Temple regularly (no one has provided much further evidence of his moral rectitude) and who basically accepted the VP-nom slot by calling for a moral war on media. Somewhere in there was Ralph Nader, famed anti-corporate crusader and the only one of the bunch I've personally met; his views are at least interesting, as he calls for a war not on media per se but on the corporate culture that views it solely as a delivery system for advertising and soporifics.

What's all that got to do with us?

However the election shakes out (and it's a pretty good bet the next president won't be Nader, since the press has already decided he can't win and is acting as though he isn't running - except when he snipes at Gore) (the flip side is that they're pretty much taking the same tack with Nader's hideous third party evil twin, Pat Buchanan - whose people have already called for Nader to drop out of the race to let a "real" third party candidate have a chance), there's a very good chance we're staring down a new war on popular culture here.

"…there's a very good chance we're staring down a new war on popular culture here."

There are two schools of thought regarding comics in such a climate. The first is that the best hedge against tough times is to make comics as innocuous as possible, basically reducing them to their noble, flag-waving roots. Conveniently forgetting that in their most innocent days, comics detractors were far more disparaging and virulent than those today. But that's all right, because the argument is just a control ploy anyway, an argument for taking what little control talent have over the shape and content of stories away from them completely. The argument's underlying theory is that talent's main function is to express the views and attitudes of others, that they are mere conduits and require "correct" guides in order to do "proper" comics.

In other words, our best defense is to stifle dissidence and lock step with the decency brigades.

Except it won't work. They don't like us. They're never going to like us. Nothing short of cultural neutering is ever really going to satisfy them. All we do by surrendering is give up what little still makes us vital. That way lies death.

The other school of thought - mine - is that these crusades depend on rousing citizens enough to fill coffers, and comic books, regardless of content, just aren't now enough to do that. Going after pissant little pamphlets that don't even have any cultural je ne sais quoi when Eminem's all over the airwaves and Hollywood teens are sticking more than their thumbs in pies in PG-13 movies just ain't sexy enough. Sure, the occasional D.A. pops up to score headlines off some hapless comic book, but those headlines are almost always derisive of the whole endeavor. Given the supposed vulnerability of comics, precious few attacks have been made. We're just not headline-worthy enough. Not yet.

But a full-scale culture war could change that. It's unlikely, but if the moral watchdogs grow frustrated enough making no inroads against Hollywood (as they got their heads handed to them in the infamous "Piss Christ" crusade a couple years ago), they could shift their focus toward what they perceive as a squashable ant - particularly if that ant is seen as a feeder system for The Great Beast. Certainly they could try to raise a ruckus about, oh, 100 BULLETS being inappropriate for gradeschoolers; despite claims of moral integrity, they've consistently shown a flair for convenient distortion. What you have to ask yourself (insert deadpan Clint Eastwood raspy voice here) is whether our cultural marginality grants us a level of immunity, or whether we might be seen as easy pickins to put the fear of god into other media. And whether, in the latter event, we're willing to stand our ground or knuckle under and hope the bombs stop falling soon. We already know what most publishers historically prefer.

I say "fear of god" because that's what they intend. The underpinning of all these "moral crusades" that pock American history is a religious puritanism (regardless of particular religion, fundamentalism is fundamentalism; names and trappings may change, the telltale characteristics don't) that tolerates no variance. To the fundamentalist mind - and I emphasize again I'm talking of all fundamentalists, whether Muslim, Jewish, radical feminist, social Darwinist, Communist, etc., not just Christian fundamentalists - difference is not only evil, it's the telltale Scarlet Letter that identifies evil. On a small scale, it's vestigial tribalism. On a large scale, it becomes totalitarianism. If you think that's hyperbolic, ask an Englishman about Oliver Cromwell. Or an Irishman.

I have a theory I'll someday write up as a book when I've got the research done called "ritual man." It's a model of cultural evolution based on the premise that rituals are what truly separated early humanity man from the animals. Rituals are the dividing line between instinct and cognition. As a species we're prone to pattern recognition, even where patterns don't exist, as in constellations (we perceive stars in propinquity when billions of miles separate them). Birds don't care when summer and winter are; something just goes of in their DNA and they fly back and forth. We watch the moon pass overhead and the Nile rise and fall, and suddenly there are calendars, clocks, astrological charts. Our ancestors recognized not only the ebb and flow of forces of nature but their variation. A monsoon might feed a field or wipe out a village. The bison might be plentiful one year and next to nonexistent the next. Ritual is an attempt to negotiate with the universe, to establish dependable patterns by which to live. It's the opposite of instinct, which goes with the flow. It demands personification of forces, else what is there to negotiate with? Ritual is the basis of all cultures, and of all religions.

Beyond an early period of development, human history can be viewed as an attempt, in fits and starts and with plenty of backsliding, to escape ritual. Cultural evolution over the millennia has inexorably led away from ritual. You can propose that science is ritual, but it has the same relationship to ritual that ritual has to instinct. Science uncovers patterns and locks them into relative predictability that can be pretty much guaranteed. Drop a rock and it won't fall up. Ritual is bargaining; science is control (within limits). To the extent science replaces ritual (and, trust me, I'm making no claims about the moral superiority of science) it's the enemy of religion. It's no mystery why, in any fundamentalist-controlled society, science comes to a standstill. It's summed up in a story of an Arab general during the initial Moslem conquest of Egypt. When asked what to do about the books in the great library at Alexandria, he ordered them burned, because those that disagree with the Koran are heretical and anathema, and those that agree with the Koran are redundant.

One of the arguments repeated about movies, TV, videogames, etc. is that they somehow distract people from the spiritual, the notion being that before those things existed, people spent more time contemplating the wonders of existence (and, presumably, the glory of God). Hey, I watch OZ and I can still get wowed by a good sunset or the way light hits the mountains I see from my office window. And it's probably true that church attendance was way up before 500 channels of TV appeared, but how did people really spend their evenings before TV? Sex and death, basically. (For the former, check birth statistics; for the latter, I recommend a very good book by Michael Levy, WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, a sprawling compilation of old news clippings about cabin fever-induced murder in 19th century Wisconsin.) Which, curiously, are the main components of most TV programming. For hundreds of years, church was the only entertainment (besides sex and death) most people had, and ritual was still the best shot you had of getting enough food to feed your family every year. But that's just not the case anymore.

I don't deny that many people still have a great urge toward ritual. It's in our programming from way back, like DOS still underlies Windows 98. Ritual may make you feel like part of some cosmic whole, and give you a sense of well-being, but none of that indicates any of it is real. That's both the strength and weakness of ritual: you don't know.

So are we a less moral society than we once were? Sure, if you assume morality is intimately connected to religion. But you can base morality on logic, not religion. A simple tenet: whatever you do to someone else, you justify that as a course of action. Killing someone means you give tacit permission for someone else to kill you. Same with theft, adultery, etc. Drop an atom bomb on Nagasaki, you might as well say it's okay to drop one on Omaha. Invade Grenada, you're inviting the invasion of Catalina. From a truly democratic viewpoint, there are no special cases. Nobody gets a different deal. Which leads to one very simple, very "moral" injunction, a sort of golden rule in reverse: if you don't want something done to you, don't do it to anyone else.

There is, of course, the implicit argument of moral watchdogs that TV, movies, et al, are "being done" to them, and to the American public. Joe Lieberman trots his puritanism out as wanting to "help parents" protect their wee tots from the heinous influence of popular culture. Children are presumed to not have the intelligence to distinguish fiction and reality (perhaps because many politicians seem to have a shaky grasp of the distinction themselves), while in any worst case scenario that doesn't involve brain chemistry they just need to be told once. Liberal puritans (yes, there are liberal as well as conservative puritans, and the liberals are often worse, as in the Red Scare of the 50s, where many of the truly vile punishments for Communists were pitched not by conservatives but by so-called liberals trying to show definitively they too were Red, White and Blue), masquerading as scientists, do endless studies "proving" "violent" input (Bugs Bunny, WWF wrestling, etc.) gets a "violent" response (among responses considered "violent": raised voices and exuberantly bobbing heads) from viewers. That used to be called catharsis. When did catharsis get devalued? The entire history of theater (itself a secular offshoot of religion) is predicated on the concept of catharsis - a vicarious experience that relieves emotions and pressures within us - and all fiction, regardless of medium, is basically just an extension of theater.

"Children are presumed to not have the intelligence to distinguish fiction and reality (perhaps because many politicians seem to have a shaky grasp of the distinction themselves)…"

Under all this is the notion that media is a carrier of fantasies, that people "infected" with fantasies are driven to carry them out (like children incapable of telling the difference between cartoons and reality). But do many people really want to live out fantasies? Fantasies are clean, reality is messy. Living out fantasies makes them messy, too. It corrodes their main attraction. We might fantasize hitting the winning home run in the World Series, for instance, but, if we were given the opportunity to walk to the plate and take a swing, you and I both know odds are very good we'd never be able to make that hit. In our fantasies we always hit it. Fantasies allow us, briefly, to be other than ourselves. Why on earth would we want to incorporate them, and turn them as mundane as everything else in real life? The proper place for fantasies is inside our heads, and I think, like most children know cartoons aren't reality, most of us know that.

As I've mentioned in other columns, crusades for morality are just political camouflage. "Defending against Hollywood" gives politicos snappy headlines, and proffers a gloss of populist activism on politicians, with the side benefit of being able to tar anyone who questions the need for the crusade: if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Leading politicians like Dan Quayle to say stupid things (would we expect less of Dan?) like prosperity without morality is meaningless. Who undermined morality more in the 80s: HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE or Michael Milken and Jim Bakker? Who did more actual harm: Ice Cube singing about shooting cops or Skip Bush, the candidate's brother and the ex-President's forgotten son, who, with his cronies, strip-mined savings-and-loans deregulated by Congress, bilking American citizens out of billions, and whose father in the White House more or less ensured taxpayers would pay off the mess.

Who undermined morality more in the 80s: HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE or Michael Milken and Jim Bakker?

In his THREEPENNY OPERA, Bertold Brecht wrote:

You gentlemen who think you have a mission to purge us of the seven deadly sins should first sort out the basic food positions then start your preaching. That's where it all begins.

You who preach restraint should watch your waists as well and learn for once just how the world is run however much you twist or whatever lies you tell food is the first thing, morals follow on.

which should be stamped on the forehead of every politician. Let them deal with real problems - poverty, starvation, illiteracy, child abuse, domestic violence, all those things that have real repercussions on children, adults, and society - and when those are all fixed, then they can worry about whether playing CARMAGEDDON turns Johnny into a homicidal car thief. The fact is that the things politicians always rattle sabers toward shutting down or "getting under control" are the same things the American public puts their money behind. If it weren't selling, it wouldn't get made. And despite all the claims made during Monicagate and all the candidates now running against the Clinton legacy, most Americans don't really hold what could charitably called moral lapses against Bill Clinton, even though all the candidates now seem to be running against him on that basis. If Clinton could run for re-election, my guess is he'd win. The Clinton presidency was fun and prosperous times, morals be damned.

In his fabulous ODD BODKINS, cartoonist Dan O'Neill once put forth the notion that voting was a sin, because there are a lot of people out there who believe that any government is better than no government at all, and your vote only encourages them. So now we have Al Gore/Joe Lieberman and George Bush/Dick Cheney to choose from. Some choice. Recent events have had Bush try to play the morality card against Gore with little success, and Lieberman already slipping into the background, so maybe they won't be able to make a campaign issue of America's morals - and the media - after all. But it will still simmer on certain agendas, regardless of what the public wants, so whoever gets elected, fasten your seat belts, boys and girls. The next four years are liable to be a very bumpy ride.

A brief apology: last week I stated I'd been talking to an Internet startup and, as with most others I've dealt with, the conversation ended with them wanting franchises, not stories. Except, I must add, in this most recent instant where, after I explained my point of view, they relented. So that wasn't the end of that particular conversation. Sorry about that.

At @VENTURE this week we're happy to begin serializing a new horror novel by renowned comics writer Jan Strnad. Jan's behind lots of 80s fan favorites like DALGODA and SWORD OF THE ATOM, and the new novel veers way into Stephen King territory. We've also got a short story by Christopher Mills, as well as more HODAG by Mike Baron and another chapter of my novel TEQUILA. (I'm currently finishing a short story called "What We Really Want" that should be up by next week.) Jan's novel can also be sampled at his own website, ATOMBRAIN.

I've also started actually writing the new WHISPER graphic novel. More details in coming weeks, but you can hear them first by clicking here to get put on the WHISPER BUREAU OF PROPAGANDA newsletter, which will start appearing via e-mail only very shortly.

This week's Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: how actively do you seek out new comics (by which I mean titles you hadn't previously read or heard of, not the latest issue of your favorite comics) you might enjoy? If you don't, what sort of inducement would you need to actively investigate them?

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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