Master Of The Obvious: Issue #58

Wed, September 6th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

This is how unconsciously steeped in comics culture my life is: I freaked a little when I saw #58 on the column. That number unofficially signaled the death of the so-called Golden Age Of Comics, when ALL-STAR COMICS, which, through #57, carried the adventures of Golden Age flag-bearers The Justice Society Of America, changed with #58 to ALL-STAR WESTERN, with features like The Trigger Twins (twin brothers, a storekeeper who's really the ept one and a sheriff who really isn't, bring justice to the frontier - but the storekeeper's always pretending to be his brother, geddit?) and Indian warrior Strong Bow (not sure what his gig was, never read him). This has personal significance only because the final issue of ALL-STAR WESTERN, #119, some nine years later (by then, Johnny Thunder, who darkened his hair and took off his glasses to bring justice to the frontier, had taken over the book, along with superpowered Indian warrior Super-Chief), was the first comic I owned.

Fact is, the book lasted longer without the JSA than with them, making quite a go of it before it finally passed on. If you go by number of issues. If you go by years lasted, no, but you're counting quarterlies (much of the JSA run) against bi-monthlies. Still, #58: the moment of The Change. That moment past which nothing remains the same. I'm not a big believer in mid-life crisis - you only panic about getting older when you've been living a life you didn't really want all along - but seeing that number sparked a twinge of it. Like something has changed, and I don't know what or how yet.

Then I stumbled across The Oblivious. A band, not a comic book. Haven't heard them yet. I only know two things about them. 1) Daemon Records, a little company out of Georgia, issues their CDs. 2) It's Holly Beth Vincent's new band.

You probably never heard of Holly Beth Vincent, but Holly And The Italians was the best American pop band of the early 80s. Their album - there was only one, THE RIGHT TO BE ITALIAN, on Epic Records, before miserable commercial failure prompted Holly to take a different route - drenched in Angeleno bitterness and reluctant optimism, independence and longing, is one of the best pop records ever. When the band broke up, Vincent made a solo album - also on Epic, and ironically titled HOLLY AND THE ITALIANS - then briefly replaced Patty Donohue in The Waitresses, recorded a remake of Sonny And Cher's flower power kitsch classic "I Got You Babe" with Joey Ramone (if you've never heard of The Ramones, get thee to a listening booth!), and vanished for years until resurfacing in a one-shot duo with Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano, VOWEL MOVEMENT (Mammoth Records, 1995). Just a couple nice girls making spontaneous vicious music together. If you run across it, get it. Meanwhile, hope some smart record company puts together the complete Holly Beth Vincent collection. I was going to say an anthology of her rarities, but everything she did is a rarity now.

The good stuff usually is, for some reason.

[The Oblivious]And now The Oblivious. I guess they've been around awhile because the fine print on the VOWEL MOVEMENT liner notes mentions them. I admit curiosity is killing me. Holly Beth Vincent, back again. This isn't a sex thing, like when Roger Ebert gives some crap film a marginal thumbs up just because he's got a jones for the lead actress, or the way we still cut Chrissie Hynde slack because she had that leather bitch fantasy thing going 20 years ago. I'm not even sure what Vincent looks like. But she proved three times pop music was still capable of something, so she's where my money goes. It's good to see someone who isn't a superstar showing worthwhile longevity in a business that, even more than comics, chews 'em up and spits 'em out. And usually leaves 'em stuck with the check.

Of course, that's not a rarity anywhere in the entertainment industry. TV, film, music, comics, they're all businesses. Their focus isn't on what's good but what makes money. Which isn't to say that which makes money is automatically bad, because it isn't. The good isn't automatically rejected, and anyone who believes this to be the case (like comics fans who complain that cancelled comics they liked were too good for the audience to accept while cancelled comics they don't like get what they deserved) is kidding themselves. Because there remains no real consensus on what constitutes good, and while the more driven of us may be willing to come up with aesthetic rationales for their tastes, it ultimately really does come down to personal taste. And purpose. Products connect not necessarily because they're good or bad or aesthetically justifiable but because they fill, however temporarily, some psychological or emotional void in the recipient. Trash can do it just as well as art, and trash has its appeals: "good" trash is immediate, compelling and disposable. Virtually a definition of pop entertainment. John Woo movies, STAR TREK, Backstreet Boys albums, YOUNGBLOOD. All trash, and that's all right: it's perfectly fine to like trash. That's what it's there for.

The problem doesn't come from liking trash. It comes from believing trash is good because you like it. Or bad because you don't like it. It comes from insisting that trash is art to justify your interest in it. It comes from making a merit badge out of trash, as if there's something wrong with anyone who doesn't watch THE SOPRANOS or BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. It doesn't matter what trash you like, or dislike: entertainment is trash. And whereas entertainment was once a distraction from the tedium of life, in our culture it is life. In the age of mass media, the function of entertainment isn't to relieve boredom but convince you that boredom is no longer a staple of existence.

"...whereas entertainment was once a distraction from the tedium of life, in our culture it is life."

That's a new thing. Until the rise of mass media in the 20th century, boredom was the one constant of human history, to the point of proverbs extolling it over worse alternatives as if better alternatives didn't exist. Disposable income on a wide scale is also a new concept. The concept of teenagers didn't exist before the 1920s, when average life expectancy (give or take the odd fatal flu epidemic) finally started to extend beyond what we now call middle age, at least in the industrialized West. When all these elements congealed after WWII, and teen culture became a marketable commodity - it's the marketable commodity now; even the existence of any other culture is barely acknowledged these days - everything mutated, and our world was abruptly born.

But entertainment itself generates boredom. Anything repeated often enough, and often as little as twice, becomes boring, and boredom is the only true of the mass media age. Evil itself is nothing but entertainment, as long as it's filtered through media and not directly experienced by the percipient. "Programming" (and, regardless of medium, it's really all programming) can be red hot one week and glaciated the next; musical acts have become especially susceptible to this, and the current pattern finds platinum album acts, particularly alternative bands like Counting Crows, facing only a few thousand sales on follow-up records. While the Backstreet Boys' new recording will probably be hyped into high sales, the band's career already carries the stink of death. Or small cults champion "superior" product, either rationalizing its failure with a popular audience as signs of their own oppressed superiority or, if the product should catch on with a mass audience (cf.: THE X-FILES), either falling away in disgust at the "corruption" of the product or reinventing themselves as 33rd degree freemasons, masters of the esoteric meaning of the product that the exoteric mass audience can't understand. When there is no meaning.

Since boredom is the last taboo, we've generated a culture dedicated to "The Next Big Thing." Originally as much an artistic as commercial concept - remember when you were a kid, looking for that record or book that said what you wanted to say, in a theoretically yet pure and untainted (meaning: you could claim it as your discovery, and either dazzle your friends with your visionary perception or regale in the contempt you felt for the philistine ignorance of those who disagreed with you) - it has come to mean The Thing That Will Stave Off Boredom Longer Than Other Things. It isn't important that the new thing is better or more significant than the old thing, just that it's newer. Even when that newness is just a veneer masking the same old twaddle. Especially, in fact. That's the magic bullet of commercial culture: the familiar new. Cutting edge and challenging but cuddly and non-threatening. Tired of those ODD COUPLE reruns? Hey, we've got WILL AND GRACE for you! It's got gay guys in it! (Yeah, like THE ODD COUPLE didn't.)

There are big costs to thinking this way. Originality is now widely considered the ability to rearrange building blocks, not to generate something genuinely new. Likewise, many consider it impossible to generate anything genuinely new, and rearranging building blocks is our only option. Hollywood pitches - and, increasingly, pitches for new comics - are predicated on this: "It's GILLIGAN'S ISLAND in space! With light sabers!" "It's a western, see, but instead of fighting Indians, they're fighting monsters!" The high concept. Pitches are what sell projects, and the quicker you can concretize the main idea for the backer, the better chance you have of selling. Particularly if there's room for his own agenda. "Think HIGH NOON inside a volcano!" "I love it! Can you add aliens? Aliens in bikinis!"

The longer it takes to conceptualize, the higher the risk of boredom.

Simple/Familiar is good, Complex/Untested is bad: the basic binary of commercial culture. As long as it's not familiar enough to be boring.

"Originality is now widely considered the ability to rearrange building blocks, not to generate something genuinely new. Likewise, many consider it impossible to generate anything genuinely new, and rearranging building blocks is our only option."

But the main cost is the human cost. As dodging boredom has become the main priority of pop culture, it has generated a bewildering corollary: newer talent is better than older talent. Because they have "fresh ideas." Because, being closer in age to the target group, older teenagers with money to spend, they have their finger on that group's commercial pulse and know what they want to buy. Because, particularly in the comics business, younger talent is often considered more editorially pliable. Because - though it's rarely said out loud - they cost less than established talent, and because as talent ages its outlook and interests usually change, and its easier to keep things static, but with a new veneer, by letting eager new talent reinvent the wheel, over and over and over.

The last half decade has devastated the ranks of older writers in comics. To some extent, they've done it to themselves, either by being unwilling to adjust to changing times or by being too eager, too willing to throw away what makes their work unique in attempts to keep up with the newest styles. Cynicism is a widespread disease: an acceptance of the immutability of the comics business, a belief that established form and content is the only possibility the powers that be will allow, and a surrender to that belief that strips work of passion and credibility.

But the patron system has also worked against them. Most comics writers develop relationships with specific editors. Editors used to be mainstays at comics companies - Julie Schwartz was a working editor at DC Comics for something like 40 years - but in the '90s it became as transient a job as exists in comics. Massive firings at Marvel, various departures from DC, endless peregrinations among other companies: maintaining long term business relations with an editor has become close to impossible. It has become SOP among new editors to sweep with a new broom, bringing in their own preferred people rather than create new relations with older talent. Suddenly you have writers like Mike Baron, a mainstay of the 80s and 90s (his NEXUS retains its cult status, many still hold his work on THE FLASH in high regard, and, while I'm often associated with THE PUNISHER, Mike wrote the monthly book for years and had far more influence on the character than I ever did), who has virtually vanished from the scene because his patron editors, Mike Gold at DC and Carl Potts at Marvel, left their jobs. While Mike had his share of failed projects - who among us hasn't? - he's still one of the most passionate, inventive writers I know, and it's ridiculous that he isn't getting work. And he's only one of many. Many artists too have been cut out because their work has been tagged as too "old school" or "too idiosyncratic."

John Calvin, one of the stars of the Protestant Revolution, concocted a worldview that divided humanity into three groups: The Elect, the tiny segment of the population whom God had blessed and who were going to Heaven regardless, and who could prove they were elect because God had blessed them on Earth with riches and power; the Reprobate, wicked criminals going straight to hell; and the Preterite, meaning "those who are passed over." In other words, the rest of us. That's how it is from the beginning of time to the end and nothing can change your station in life. Life that's static beyond boredom, to the point of cruelty. Calvin's blithe comment was "The Reprobate are damned because they were always meant to be damned, and the Preterite are not saved because they were never meant to be saved."

In this business, most of us start as elect but most of us end as preterite. But we should be going for idiosyncratic. This notion of a business predicated on endless variations on one theme has got to stop. I believe many of the writers, in particular, who have been thrown away or who have thrown themselves away in a desperate bid for commercialization, are still capable of surprise. They've written the wheel already. They don't need to reinvent it. Many that I've spoken with have visions beyond the wheel but have been blocked by one aspect of the business or another from getting there. There's no good reason for throwing away the people best equipped to carve out something genuinely new, or for driving them to other venues when the comics industry desperately needs them. What they need is somewhere to finally cut loose and show their true stuff. The newer writers need it too, because the day's not far off when a new editor shows up who has his own ideas and all those scripts doing SUPERMAN or FANTASTIC FOUR in a style no longer desired won't be much of a calling card. We let the business do this to us because it's what we expect of the business when we come in and when the work is there we're too eager to pursue someone else's goals instead of our own, and too eager to adjust our thinking so that their goals become ours. And when, in the end, we are not saved, when as writers our work is considered outdated and as an industry our product is thought boring and overly familiar, far too often it's our own damned fault.

Over the years, companies have sent me tons of copies of things I've written, and they've all gone into boxes which have gone into the closet, but now it's time to clear things out. Lots of people have e-mailed me over the months asking where they can find comics I've done, and the answer is now: right here. I'm selling everything for $1 a copy or varying bargain set prices plus shipping - all autographed if you like - while supplies last. There's The Punisher, Grifter, Wetworks, Vampirella, Challengers Of The Unknown, Legends of The Dark Knight, Deathstroke The Terminator, Alien3, X, Manhunter, Fate, Spectacular Spider-Man, I-Bots, Robocop and on and on, covering the last eight years or so. If you're interested, send me an e-mail, I'll send you a list of what's available.

Due to personal interruptions (like having to paint my house) I still haven't been able to finish either TEQUILA Chapter 4 or my short story "What We Really Want," but both will be up fairly soon at @VENTURE, so keep checking. Also not quite ready yet is the first communiqu from the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: As you all know by now, Bob Harras was abruptly dismissed as editor-in-chief at Marvel last week (and we wish Bob all the best and hope his unexpected vacation ends on an up note) and replaced by Marvel Knights impresario Joe Quesada (and we wish Joe all the best as well, 'cause he's landed one tough job). But let's say this is a parallel world where Bob was sent packing but Joe opted to stay in his cushy MK bunker instead of traipsing out into the mine field. With the job open, who would you like to see become the new editor-in-chief of this parallel world Marvel, and why? (The why is the really important part, so please tell us. Thanks.)

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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