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Why is it so hard to forget Comic the Insult-dog, even so long after the character’s heyday on Late Night with Conan O’Brien? Or for that matter, Conan’s deliciously cynical wit? It’s easy to recall snippets from his monologues. His response to a headline that two Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts were wed in a gay marriage ceremony on the internet for example, that this would naturally be the case as gay marriage would be easier than explaining what a girl was to a D&D player. There was an intelligence to Conan’s carefree humor that seems completely irrelevant to our world of ongoing debt crises and rolling economic meltdown. And yet, talking about Conan O’Brien’s late night show as if it were a relic from 80 years ago rather than eight is exactly what lies at the heart of what makes him even more relevant today.
After the debacle of last year’s time-slot war with Jay Leno, his mistreatment at the hands of NBC, his parting of ways with long time collaborator Max Weinberg, and his comeback Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television tour, Conan O’Brien is arguably more interesting than ever before. Not only because events that hold us in their thrall are unfolding in the career of a well-loved entertainer, but also because the texture of Conan’s story is shifting. His story is becoming mythological in the way Bob Dylan’s or Eric Clapton’s or Tom Waits’ have become, and audiences sense that shift.
The grace with which Conan conducted himself on air in the closing episodes of The Tonight Show contrasts sharply with the raw deal dealt him by NBC. When NBC-ban and his comeback tour are added into the mix, Conan’s story begins to feel a lot like the story of the Average Joes caught in the byzantine drama that began with Enron, snaked its way through Madoff and still flies its colors with the direct connection between this year’s debt ceiling crisis and 2008’s TARP.
Bluewater’s Fame: Conan O’Brien, a comics biography of the star released this August, offers none of these connections though. This is bio unfolded through the lavishly nostalgic (and breathtakingly beautiful) whimsy of artist Erick Adrian Marquez’s loose linework. But it is also a bio that focuses on the facts of the events and incidences in Conan’s life. You’ll find no professional observer’s voice in Fame: Conan O’Brien; no mildly hagiographic voice as with the Stephen F. Hayes of Cheney, no stern admiration as with the Robert Draper of Dead Certain, no rambunctious, Wild Man of American Letters as with the Hunter S Thompson of Fear & Loathing on the ‘72 Campaign Trail. Instead, writers CW Cooke and Patrick McCormack deliver a near journalistic account of Conan’s life and his career to date.
Contrasted with the warm palette and the halcyonic style of Marquez’s artwork, and given the timing of this book, Bluewater’s Fame: Conan O’Brien proves to be one of the shrewdest biographies this year. At a time when Archie Comics and BOOM! Studies are gearing up for a concerted focus on iconic characters, when publishers like Radical are throwing themselves onto the cutting edge of transmedia and the Top 2 publishers (DC) are investing a new ground-floor for their ongoing mythologies, it is surprisingly Bluewater who seem to have redefined the comics genre.
Rather than insert the voice of a professional observer to guide audiences through the process of Conan’s life, Bluewater defers to the audience itself. Fame: Conan O’Brien reads like social media; not the kind of Twitter page where stars micro-blog their thoughts, but the kind where Guy Kawasaki tweets links to interesting articles. At the core of this model of news-gathering and news-sharing is the idea that media that finds you (especially the kind that finds you by way of your social network) is more pertinent to you, and therefore more likely to be useful.
In the battle between print and digital, particularly when this battle is localized to the comics industry, many publishers have drawn a line in the sand at the idea of a confluence between print and digital. Many treat print and digital as two separate kingdoms. Yet, as Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater points out (whose time in the music industry during the rise of Napster is brought fully to bear), this kind of static thinking could easily sink the comics industry. What’s called for is new and innovative ways to benefit comics industry by its filiation with digital distribution, Goldwater argues.
It seems that Bluewater has fully embraced this challenge. Rather than taking comics into the digital realm, Bluewater has re-inscribed the comics medium with the ethics of social media. It is a masterstroke. Freed from the critical distance of a professional observer, audiences are easily able to recognize their own stories in Conan’s story. No matter the high-frequency glamour of negotiating multi-year contracts for hosting The Tonight Show, Conan’s story is our story; the story of having not merely survived but of having weathered the storm. And in this recasting of suspended new beginnings, Conan takes on a new role. No longer simply the Harvard-educated late night comedy host, Conan becomes mythology—the touchstone of an entertainer who performs with grace even while hard times loom overhead.
Bluewater offers PopMatters readers a unique first look with this preview of Fame: Conan O’Brien.