Here we are, somehow staring down the holiday season again. (Just look in any supermarket.) 2009 gone already, and the annual two month shutdown of editorial offices and production companies on the horizon (three weeks after Thanksgiving to prep for Xmas vacation, two weeks after New Year's to recover from it) as well as Xmas, New Year's, and the inevitable flood of more best of lists.
For some reason it always puts me in a depressive mood. Mainly, I think, because I'm stuck for indefinite periods reading paeans to this and that, usually with not much genuine critical justification beyond (once you've peeled away the sophistry) "I just liked it." This isn't a field where many have learned or even felt any pressure internal or ex- to examine or explain their assessments. I mean, it's just pop culture, right? Don't think about it, you got to feel it!
I have this creeping feeling we're in the disco age of comics.
Despite being fondly remembered now, mostly by people who never lived through it, kind of like the '50s, disco wasn't an especially pleasant fad. Contrary to popular belief, it was never about the music, at least not once it rose from its fairly benign gay subculture roots (where it provided a social outlet and formed the basis for a world apart for that beleaguered group) and mutated in the wild, in the way of viruses. It's true that rock music by the mid-'70s had largely been colonized by pompous overwrought, overproduced and overmarketed gits (though plenty of good, inventive material, mostly not disco, was being recorded for anyone willing to seek it out) and true that disco on some level provided an antidote to that, but in disco music was just one more social lubricant, along with dancing, light shows, alcohol and drugs, especially the new cool drug, cocaine, which had been around forever but was just beginning to show up in convenient mass quantities. Disco wasn't the music but the scene formed around it, specifically invented to sell sex along the lines of how Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire was specifically invented to sell sex, and preferably random and indiscriminate sex. It was the Madison Avenue version of the sexual revolution and the free love movement of the late '60s, with the free part replaced by commands of spend! spend! spend! and consume! consume! consume! The whole point of disco was to not think, and to pump all your resources into not doing it. And to look good not doing it.
As a result, the music, the only part of disco with any semblance of imagination or creativity, was quickly reduced to robotic, programmatic repetition. Just gotta dance!
Not surprisingly, the rise of disco corresponded to, and in some part was responsible for, an era of increasing social rigidity, and a return to status, of having the money to buy the best champagne and the best or the most cocaine, of having the best clothes, of being beautiful or sexy enough to be allowed into the hot spots everyone else wanted to go, as the key signifier of personal identity: a return to the notion of that "cool" was a matter of entitlement, to the quasi-Calvinist notion that if you looked and behaved like one of The Elect you'd pass for one and maybe even be one of The Elect.
It was unbridled consumer culture, intentionally repetitive, redundant and designed to reprogram its, for lack of a better word, victims into compliant consuming machines. It lasted just long enough to drive almost everything interesting in American culture underground.
So what's this got to do with us?
The thrust of disco was the destruction of content; in the absence of content, image becomes everything. Not that disco ever managed to strip itself of content entirely; in its original context, disco content revolved around sexual politics, and even as late as its dying days, disco singers – that was another aspect of disco: rock was a departure from traditional pop in its insistence that singer and band were a cohesive unit, that they should play their own instruments and perform their own music, a fairly radical shift from the pop music that preceded it, though the music press almost always tried, in the tin pan alley tradition, to promote singer as front man as the only important member of a band, and disco eagerly embraced that ethic, in most cases not only rendering the band invisible, interchangeable and eventually totally synthetic, but reducing even the singer to pure image, lipsyncing to prerecorded tracks or someone else's singing – still occasionally liked to sing about something. As far as record companies were concerned, content, then as now as always as far as record companies were concerned, was absolutely irrelevant as long as records were being sold. Naturally, they liked the idea of a robotic customer base blindly shelling out for empty programmatic ephemera, because it made their jobs easy and kept their business profitable, at least until it didn't anymore.
And they kept pushing disco, on radio and through distribution chains, long after public interest in disco had evaporated. Because it was the golden goose record companies didn't want to let go of. Punk, rising up under disco in the mid-70s, was largely ignored by record companies as unsophisticated and, probably more importantly, uncontrollable until it had done its damage and burned out, leaving what was originally known as power pop in its wake. That record companies tentatively embraced as new wave, only embracing it fully when they realized it could be remolded, via judicious signings and promotion, into Disco Jr. A lot of new wave bands embraced the synthesizer and electronic sounds that had made disco so easily replicable, and by '81 or so (I was interviewing professionally by then and spoke with a lot of these bands directly) there was an obsession in the air with creating dance music with content, something that moves people's bodies as well as their heads. I don't know how many times a band told me that. (Never mind that crowds danced wildly to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, whose music was about as far removed from disco as anything in the realm of pop music could be.) Turned out the record companies were down with that as well, as long as you eliminated that content part.
The elimination of content from pop music was fairly easy. Traditionally, it never needed a lot to begin with. But this is also the traditional path of mainstream media culture: latch onto whatever undercurrent significantly bubbles up, denature it into synthesizable, easily replicable elements, then sell it and sell it. Ignore whatever undercurrents you don't think are significant, or easily denatured. Disco was just the most successful run at this in pop culture history, at least until the boy bands and Britneypop of the late '90s, and that was little more than another New Disco, only aimed at 14 year olds instead of 23 year olds.
There shouldn't be any need to elaborate on parallels with modern superhero comics, as they've always sort of fallen into that well anyway. Other things are bothering me this week, partly prompted by a press release that S.E. Hinton (THE OUTSIDERS) is "penning" new graphic novels for Bluewater Comics. I don't have any problem with Bluewater publishing Hinton material, it's the "penning" part that bugs me. Is she? There's nothing in the press release that suggests she'll do any actual writing on any of the material, though she's supposedly creating a series for them. But, again, is she? It throws me back to the Tekno Comics days, when the company brought in Top Name Authors to Create Comics, but it was shlubs like me who did the creating. (Though reportedly Leonard Nimoy was more hands on than most; on my book, I-BOTS, "creator" Isaac Asimov, who was dead a couple years by the time the project began, so at least he has some excuse, didn't even come up with the name, only the thinnest of concepts that, according to legend, was written on a cocktail napkin: robots as superheroes. I don't know how much someone like Neil Gaiman had to do with the several comics there that bore his name.) But Bluewater's only on a bandwagon that has been rumbling across the field for several years now: the denigration, obscuring and subordination of comics talent, the reaffirmation of comics not as creative vehicles but as marketing entities, on a mass scale.
Of course there are exception, tiny oases providing drops of moisture in a barren desert, but these are mostly ignored. The expansion of book publishers into the graphic novel field would theoretically give some solace, but my views on that waffle daily: aside from companies like WW Norton, much in the sphere of Fantagraphics Books, a company with its own notable biases but at least a strong grounding in comics history and aesthetics, it's hard to swallow that book publishers know what they're doing. I receive tons of comp "graphic novels" these days, and what are passed off as "graphic novels" are increasingly lightly illustrated prose fiction, twaddle vignettes, anthologies with elliptically shallow but "sensitive" ephemera, far too frequently drawn in a vague style one of my old friends would probably call catatonic expressionism (and in many cases catatonic impressionism), very loosely wrapped around some equally ephemeral toping masquerading as a unifying theme. Oh, and there are the new breed of "learn to draw comics" books, same as the old breed, of no help to anyone who doesn't know how to draw and no use to anyone who does.
Now you can say all this too shall vanish, and that's probably true, but what Real Publishers publish, that's what's coming out in hardcover, much of it these days. That's what's going to end up on library shelves, because of the ways libraries make their purchasing decisions. Those are the books that will get reviewed in the right journals and squeeze other books off bookstore shelves because of the way Big Publishers market their books; if there's anything Random House has going for them, it's a hell of a lot of pull in the bookstore market. Even Norton's making big missteps, as with what I presume will be a big Xmas push, BOB DYLAN REVISITED. It's practically the definition of ephemera, song lyrics from Dylan songs, and not many of his more interesting ones, "interpreted" in comics form. I love much of Dylan's music, always have, and I like quite a few of these illustrators, but this is crap. It's pretty to look at. But the visualizations are all either obscurist or prosaic (or, as with Alfred's "interpretation" of "Like A Rolling Stone," having not a thing to do with the song) and bring nothing to our understanding or appreciation of the source material. Much of it doesn't even seem inspired by Dylan. Meaning, aside from its prettiness – it is pretty – and the placement of Dylan as nostalgia act, it doesn't have any point.
It achieves something even record companies never pulled off: it reduces Dylan to disco, almost entirely devoid of context and content.
Maybe I'm just not seeing the right books, though once in awhile something great like R. Crumb's THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED will slip through, but increasingly I get the sense this is the direction Book Publishers as a whole are headed, while everyone else wants their name associated with Graphic Novels. (Even PLAYBOY recently cover-promo'd a six page Quentin Tarantino comic strip, a standalone vignette drawn (literally!) from his latest film, as a "graphic novel" to play it as a much bigger deal than it was.) More and more I get the sense of things in all directions going more and more exclusionary, commercial and absent of content, while everything tries to feed off everything else for their own gain and the benefit of nothing in particular.
All around me these days I see Morlocks and Eloi, and I can't make up my mind which is which...
The past couple weeks have really been putting our presence in Afghanistan into perspective. Funny how stuff like this works: a small flood of irate newspaper articles, not much public discussion or even enough attention paid to generate outrage, and subsequent official dismissal of the information as rumor and "conspiracy theory." Rinse and repeat.
In recent weeks, Afghanistan has become a huge bone of contention, as the O-Ring has recognized it for the huge booby trap it is, as every outsider from Alexander The Great through Mikhail Gorbachev eventually figured out as well. Of course, 9-11 got us in there, to rout then leaders, 12th century throwbacks and al-Qaeda backers the Taliban, though I don't recall whether it was firmly established the Taliban actively supported al-Qaeda or just tolerated their presence. (It is established, however, that our cohorts the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA, the ISI, actively supported Taliban rule, and may be supporting the Taliban's current re-emergence in Afghanistan.) All but forgotten (aside from the canonization of football star Pat Tillman for his death under fire while serving there, at least until it came out it was friendly fire and the Pentagon used his death to stage manage a propaganda moment – which, perhaps not coincidentally, Tillman had predicted would happen) during our invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, also ostensibly for (among other things) the suppression of forces allegedly sympathetic to al-Qaeda (though that allegation was subsequently disproved, and al-Qaeda infiltration of Iraq was only made possible by our elimination of Saddam Hussein), the resident American force in Afghanistan has become a thorny issue: do we reinforce them with more troops, a lot more, or do we learn the historical lesson of Afghanistan and pull them out before futility and exhaustion force them out?
It's pretty obvious from pundit patter than the Republican rewrite of the situation is that Obama got us into Afghanistan and the responsibility all falls on him. But should he send volumes of reinforcements, odds are pretty good Afghanistan will just swallow them up and spit them out, as it did all the Russian soldiers who passed that way in the '80s. If he pulls our soldiers out, it paints him as weak on defense and willing to allow a safe haven for Osama bin Laden to exist. (Never mind that Saudi money had a much more beneficial effect on al-Qaeda operations than Afghan shelter ever had. Then there's the CIA's transfer of bin Laden to Afghanistan, and its arming of his forces, in the '80s to aid the Afghan rebellion against the Soviet occupiers, giving bin Laden the connections and some of the resources he eventually turned our way.)
Against this backdrop – a short period of military success, in collaboration with a number of other countries, and deposing of Taliban reign in Afghanistan, followed by a cluster**** of an occupation that resulted, as most occupations there do, in a lot of dead Afghans, plus a lot of blown up weddings and other celebrations mistaken for Taliban conspiracies, and a lot of bad will toward their former "liberators," not to mention children being grabbed and packed off to Gitmo for interrogation because they happened to be standing on the wrong road in their own country – recent stories coming out of Afghanistan are an embarrassment to the USA, and a reminder of numerous post-war invasions, occupations and police actions. In terms of American public perception – the message of Pat Tillman's death being long forgotten – the recent sickening wave began with revelations that Afghan president Hamid Karzai's most recent re-election was in fact the rigged fraud critics said it was, forcing a new, "honest" election (that Karzai's opponent, said to have legitimately won a pre-ballot stuffing plurality in the first, disqualified election, has just dropped out of, so make what you want of that) to be held imminently. In any case, Karzai can hardly be said to control much beyond the capital city of Kabul, though two recent reports outline what has long been an open secret officially dismissed as scurrilous rumor: that his family controls the Afghan poppy/heroin trade, and Karzai's brother is controls a private army bankrolled by the CIA. (Karzai's other brother is said to be in control of virtually all legitimate business in Afghanistan, which again is mainly limited to Kabul, though less as a co-owner and more as head of a protection racket, though I haven't seen any "official" stories confirming that yet.)
This, of course, is business as usual; our clandestine foreign policy since the end of WWII has been to put controllable leaders in power via election or coup and co-opt the drug trade. (Basically adopting British and French colonial technique.) Turkish/Marsaille heroin postwar (in the hands of Lucky Luciano, sent to Italy as an American representative during WWII), South American cocaine during the anti-Castro '60s, Golden Triangle heroin during Vietnam, etc. Volumes have been written about this. Study the Nicaraguan Contra wars of the '80s and our interaction with them, and drugs are all over them, despite continued official denial. Volumes have been written about that too.
So what's the value of Afghanistan? Strategic? Not likely. It's one of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth; no one's going to cut through it to anywhere else. It has but one crop: poppies. It has but one real item to trade in any volume: heroin. Here's where things get really murky. There's no question the Taliban are insane. Yet these insane guys made it a point during their reign to squash the heroin trade, to the chagrin of Mujahadeen tribesmen – the "freedom fighters" Iran-Contra was concocted to support, who the CIA backed with weapons, funding and training – whose livelihoods depended on the stuff. One of the arguments for invading Afghanistan after 9/11 was the claim that the Taliban's "control" of the poppy trade was a threat to American security, but under the Taliban there was little poppy trade at all. We go in, and now, eight years later, the poppy trade, and Afghan heroin production and exports are approaching all time highs.
Reports now state the biggest poppy growing regions in Afghanistan are under control of NATO forces, and soldiers, including American soldiers, are reaping the crops and pushing production to the straining point, and our armies are reaping the profits.
This is what warhawks are demanding we throw more manpower and money at. Isn't it time some administration just cut this crap out? Now, at least, we know why Afghanistan stayed a "forgotten" war for so long.
Notes from under the floorboards:
Got invited to contribute to this week's Racism-In-Comics roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian, so bop on over there for a look at that, and the accompanying pieces by writers like Noah Berlatsky and Ng Suat Tong. Should be up now.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I didn't have time to post any auctions on eBay this past weekend. But since I'm not going to The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District's Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival this year, I should have plenty of time for it this weekend. But that's no reason you shouldn't go, if you're in the area. In fact, I recommend it. (It's free, by the way.)
For those in the New York area, Craig Yoe (SECRET IDENTITY: THE FETISH ART OF SUPERMAN'S CO-CREATOR JOE SHUSTER) and Dr. Sketchy are conducting a live drawing (with models!)/music listening/slideshow/book signing session at the Slipper Room (167 Orchard, Manhattan) at 4PM on Saturday Nov. 7. I guess New York must be the place to be again.
Told the Rio festival is Carnaval (Portuguese spelling) or Carnival. Mea culpa.
Seems Kellogg's, a company specializing for decades in shoveling massive amounts of sugar, corn, rice stripped of nutrients and obscure additives down children's throats every morning under the guise of a "nutritious breakfast" (I like corn, but let's face it: nutritionally it's crap) has now adopted a pro-health stance. At least in their marketing. Seems they're now promoting Cocoa Krispies as a means to boost your child's immune system! You heard it: Cocoa Krispies. According to the new box art, they've ground up a quarter of a daily multivitamin into the mix of every serving, and that whopping dose will make your system stronger. Apparently it didn't occur to them that less sugar would make its customers healthier too. Kellogg's insists the new promotion has nothing to do with swine flu paranoia...
Turns out Goldman-Sachs not only foresaw last year's market collapse under the weight of high-risk mortgages, they were banking on it. Good thing they're too big to let fail, huh?
Congratulations to Frank Krulicki, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "prime numbers." (1, by the way, is apparently not officially considered a prime number, which is defined as an integer only divisible by 1 and itself. I say 1 can only be divided by 1 and itself, it's just that they're the same number. Though I guess that's the same thing as saying it's indivisible. Out of mathematics and on to metaphysics.) Frank wishes to point your attention to famed comics review site The Savage Critic. But you should be catching their shrewd reviews regularly anyway...
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column. (C'mon, would I pull your leg?) Good luck.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.