Actus Primus: Maybe the Song Really Does Remain the Same…
Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief might prove a good soundtrack for this year-end wrap party. Or even, perhaps, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, because soon enough in this act will wend its way into Tolkien.
Oh, and…If it feels like we’re picking up in the middle, that’s because we do. Trace the conversation threads we’ve already spun by reading the prelude episodes on Graphic Novelties.
@uu3y324rdry: So…I wanna pickup where we left off yesterday…
@uu3y324rdry: Primarily with AVX as a lead-in of sorts to kickstart Re:Evolution and Marvel NOW! We spoke earlier this week about your favorite Marvel NOW! book being All-New X-Men.
@MichaelDStewart: That book has captured a point for me, a point where the past meets the present. A “look how far we’ve come” moment. And from the point of view of the past, the future is not what they had hoped for. That seems to be a statement about much of the Utopian desires of the past—“Yeah we have this wonderful technology that has made things easier, yeah we have grown and become better at certain things, but are we better than what we dreamed or hoped for”? That is an interesting and provocative question. The framing I find grounding, in that it is two versions of one man seeing how far (or how wrong) he’s come.
@uu3y324rdry: Yeah! I very much loved the exploration of that same theme when Warren Ellis worked through it in Doktor Sleepless. All-New X-Men does seem to be an almost unintentional comment on all of Marvel NOW!
@MichaelDStewart: And on comics in general.
@uu3y324rdry: On how we failed our past aspirations…and also, simultaneously evolved them… and definitely all of comics also, yes. I think the new “top” Marvel books all wrestle with that same notion in different ways.
@MichaelDStewart: It’s funny, Marvel and DC seemed to have switched places. DC was always about the legacy, and Marvel was usually more contemporary. Now Marvel is far more about its legacy than DC in the New 52, because DC had to erase its legacy to get to that point. You’re right though, all of the top Marvel books are wrestling with notion.
@uu3y324rdry: [: Yes there does seem to be that…how would you frame it?…“thematic” inversion between the two companies.
For me the pick of Marvel NOW! has got to be Thor: God of Thunder and Avengers.
@MichaelDStewart: I think both of those books invoke their legacies.
@uu3y324rdry: Agreed. And both in their own way lace up their boots and wade into that notion of “this is not my future”.
@MichaelDStewart: Thor is really that book that connects the past with the present.
From Thor: God of Thunder #2, “Blood in the Clouds”
@uu3y324rdry: [: YES! I love the time-jumping in Thor, it’s absolutely integral to the drama of the book. Also Thor itself is an essential sort of story and a deeply meaningful one to be told of comics.
It’s really something we haven’t seen explored but as fans intuited for quite some time—the idea of comics as philology.
@uu3y324rdry: Thor really front-and-centers the idea that the sweeping story of a culture can be excavated from its literary and linguistic artifacts. That’s exactly what Tolkien as an author was saying in Lord of the Rings and as an Oxford professor, what he said in his seminal paper “Beowulf The Monsters & the Critics”.
J.R.R. Tolkien via famous authors (dot) org
And that’s what you get to with Thor in God of Thunder: the story of Thor becoming Thor as we know him today, is simultaneously the story of Thor resisting the inevitability of becoming the defeated Thor of millennia hence.
This grand narrative of rebirthing oneself only to resist invariable decay much later down the line is also the story of comics as a medium, and as a cultural (cultural not only popcultural) artifact. It’s easy enough to claim, and you hear almost every popculture historian make this claim these days, that Shakespeare or Dickens or Dostoyevsky was popculture…That these writers were populist and for the masses…and that’s true…
@MichaelDStewart: Yes, completely built on traditions of literature that we have been honoring for centuries.
@uu3y324rdry: But the real story is how Shakespeare or Poe or Twain or Hemingway managed to “escape beyond” popculture and become canonized. What work was done by unseen cultural forces, and what elements internal to the works themselves have allowed a buy-in from emerging elites?
@MichaelDStewart: The Witches in The Scottish Play (remember the curse for calling the Play by its actual name extends the notion of the Witches) were the quintessential popculture insertions of their day.
@uu3y324rdry: Yes! But 200 years later they’re wholly disengaged from any sense of representing the actual Scotland of the era. And as you note, the curse around naming the play itself protracts the popculture elements, but also sophisticates them. By that time the Witches become a cipher for exactly that kind of thematic e pluribus unum that unites us all with all of human history. I think Thor: God of Thunder more than any mainstream superhero book right now really makes the terms of that debate accessible.
@MichaelDStewart: Probably because it is so connected with our poly-theistic past.
@uu3y324rdry: Agreed! A close second really is Geoff Johns’ tackling of “forgotten cultures” in both Aquaman and Justice League. Which means, and this is the big jump-on point for me…comics as a medium…comics as an industry…and comics when married with the superhero genre…becomes what Jefferson wrote of as “the natural aristocracy”. Becomes the idea that a logical endpoint for the evolution of civilization is the kind of meritocracy that democracy engenders. It’s the story of how do we look at the past without getting swept up in Kingship and Monarchy and the like.
Chasing the Cheetah from Justice League #14
@MichaelDStewart: And to some extent it is a reconciling of our past.
@uu3y324rdry: Yes, but also, not buying into fake elitism. Thor: God of Thunder and Aquaman and Justice League really connect with that notion of discriminating between different kinds of social evolution. And these books do this by harnessing the very mechanism of comics.
By harnessing the idea that when you first read a panel you’re lost…but slowly as you read more, you build your courage and your psychological fortitude by growing in the belief that in gathering more information you’ll eventually at some future point be able to understand what’s going on on the page. Every moment in a panel is a fractionated moment. But read enough panels, and you’ll begin to believe you’ll eventually be able to defractionate all those moments and assemble them into a single complex moment in a coherent narrative. And then the magic—read long enough and you eventually will enact that assemblage. That’s the real wonder of comics, and that’s the real magic of Jack Kirby and Wally Wood and Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert.
E pluribus unum.
@MichaelDStewart: Yes, there is this idea that each panel tells part of the story and when seen as a whole, tell the whole story. The best written and produced comics do that.
You get the disconnect when a panel doesn’t contribute to the whole, when it operates as and add-on as opposed to a part.
@uu3y324rdry: Yes exactly right…that’s really what many psychologically-driven manga rely on. I’m thinking of books like 20th Century Boys or Domu or even the manga adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Do you think this idea of “the Long Meanwhile” was captured sufficiently well in the films of 2012?
Actus Secundus: Learning to Love Again
How could we have gotten here? How could we have wound up on the shores of generation after generation of dismantling our own mythologies? Maybe what’s called for right now, is The Boss, Bruce Springsteen himself.
@MichaelDStewart: If we’re talking about transition, which I think we are, then no, I don’t. I don’t think we’ve transitioned at all. I think we’ve come to a point of stalling.
@uu3y324rdry: Yeah I’m with you in Rockland, Carl Solomon. I was really disappointed by Amazing Spider-Man.
“I am with you in Rockland”: Ginsberg reading “Howl” via Green Lantern Press
@MichaelDStewart: You’ve cleared the hurdle? You’re up to date?
@uu3y324rdry: [: Yeah caught up on it just this weekend.
@MichaelDStewart: Then you’ll probably be fascinated by the piece I’m writing (will be done today :) [but you’ve already read Mike’s piece last week], -Ed) were I make comparisons to Amazing Spider-Man and the body-swapping comedies of the late 1980s, particularly honing in on Dream A Little Dream if for only that it represents a wholly incoherent narrative, which Amazing Spider-Man is not, but in the grand scheme of milestone issues it does.
@uu3y324rdry: Yes! I’m actually looking forward to reading your thoughts on this. It’s something you noticed earlier in Amazing Spider-Man, and have been struggling with for some time now in that book—I think around the time of the “Alpha” storyarc…but maybe even before it…with “Ends of the Earth”.
@MichaelDStewart: What I saw with that book in particular was an honest attempt to resonate with the legacy of the title, but the attempt being completely lost in the effort.
Instead we have Dan Slott writing Peter grossed out discovering his Aunt May had sex (or made-out) with Doc Ock. Slott conveniently hides behind readerly interpretations to say that he wasn’t going for low-brow, but no matter the interpretation, he wrote something that distracts from what he trying to say, and then to say it he has to write it in the comic equivalent of big magic markers on wall size dry board.
@MichaelDStewart: I think Amazing Spider-Man suffers from a number of things, particularly this year alone.
@uu3y324rdry: Beautiful framing but yes, that’s exactly it…I think I’m disappointed by the book and disappointed the movie in different ways, and yet both seem to go around legacy.
@MichaelDStewart: First they have lost sight of the Peter Parker character. Next the title has fallen in love with its own history. Next, the title is more interested in the platitude of superheroes than in the drama of life. Last, the twice-monthly publishing schedule and movie that looks wonderful but wholly gets the characteristics wrong, has corrupted one of the more interesting characters in the last 60 years.
Spidey from Amazing Spider-Man #698
I’ve enjoyed Peter having some success, joining the Avengers, getting a real job, being acknowledged for being the hero he is, but there is this fundamental idea of hubris (you are so right on with that idea in your “Iconographies” about the movie) that has been dismissed. Or rather, the essential hubris has been confused with a litany of other personality characteristics.
@MichaelDStewart: The wisecracks and witty banter are a result of the hubris, not a cause of.
@uu3y324rdry: There’s nothing wrong with a “all-growed-up” version of Spidey and that taking-things-seriously was done really well, but…
But that hubris is key to unlocking what makes Spidey so vital 40, 50, 60 and more years on.
@MichaelDStewart: But there is a point that Peter is in a perpetual arrested development because of Spider-Man.
There’s a really beautiful line from Crossfire a noir movie that I kinda fell into re-watching just before I saw Spider-Man. Crossfire is a deeply moving film. Actually it deals with the same thing Hunter Thompson deals with in his first piece for Rolling Stone (“Freak Power in the Rockies”)—the power that comes from a mix of American values and popculture that can resist anti-semitism.
Crossfire is really phenomenal because it traces that same ground way back in 1947.
The actual line is “The whole war we just got into the habit of hating things, maybe now that the war’s over, we can begin to learn how to like things again”. Or something to that effect.
Promo poster for Crossfire (detail) via movie poster shop (dot) com
That’s an amazing line for 1947. And still amazing, even today.
For me, in a very real sense Spider-Man as a hero marks that stage of the American zeitgeist. That moment of “learning to like things again”.
It’s the idea that there’s all this fear & loathing happening prior to and during the war and that philologically, that fear & loathing is denoted by the flourishing of the noir genre. Then you’ve got the backlash—you get the “make-it-safe” industry of Senate Hearings and eventual self-censorship of the 50s. But Spidey represents something entirely new and completely hopeful.
@MichaelDStewart: The backlash being the clean nuclear family of the 50s.
@uu3y324rdry: Yes precisely. And Spidey…as a philological study…demonstrates that you can break free from that past fear & loathing, without resorting to its direct and inane opposite.
@MichaelDStewart: And Spider-Man represented in a way the move from innocence of the early 60s to the social “terror” as it were of the later half of the decade.
@uu3y324rdry: Yes! And there’s no way you can get to that “new dawn” of the early days of the Boomer generation without that hubris getting upfronted in the story.
@MichaelDStewart: Peter is, for lack of a better protagonist, Holden Caulfield. In that he confronts the very themes of the book: confusion, angst, alienation, and rebellion.
@MichaelDStewart: It is the idea of the anti-hero, which most Marvel characters are except Thor and Cap. That they are deeply troubled individuals thrust into the spotlight by gifts of astonishing nature. Are they better at it than anyone else would be?, no. But they are there, in the situation, and must confront their past and present to be something better for their world.
This is the idea of comics in character form. This idea of being more when all you want to do is blast the bad guy with cosmic beam.
@uu3y324rdry: Yes! That’s the emotional core of the Silver Age!
@MichaelDStewart: It’s the emotional core of every age, no matter how much we try to deny it or wrap it up in angst and extreme.
It’s probably why comics are having such a hard time now, finding the beat, they are more concerned with their own gadgets and gimmicks and excesses than they are with their cores.
Actus Tertius: “You are Dearer to Me than Myself, as You Yourself Will See”
Maybe the real story for The Biz in 2012, is the same story Bob Dylan weaves in Modern Times, Especially that lyric from “Workingman’s Blues #2” that finds its way into the title of this Third Act. Can we effect grand heroic actions without being heroes? “To be great heroes”, Oliver Wendell Holmes suggests, “We must also think great thoughts”. More than anything else, that does seem to be the fitting coda for comics as an idea, that carries us onward into a time the Maya couldn’t imagine.
Bob Dylan, later on via the av club (dot) com
@uu3y324rdry: Precisely so. That idea of comics in character form…the mishandling of that is what really disappointed me in the Dark Knight Rises. And, strangely, what really worked well with the MAD 60th anniversary book.
Rises really just completely negated the absolute best part of The Dark Knight. That concluding montage in Dark Knight…“sometimes people deserve more than the truth…sometimes they deserve to have their faith rewarded”. And on to “He’s got to run because we have to chase him”.
@MichaelDStewart: Well, I think it opened up the one deep flaw with the entire trilogy. The inevitable conclusion of inspiring people, of being a symbol rather than a man.
@MichaelDStewart: Bruce Wayne may say that he must become a symbol, but deep down he is lying to himself. He’s not a trustworthy narrator is a sense. What the Nolan films did get at is that Bruce is very much in denial about much of what he does.
@uu3y324rdry: Exactly, exactly!
@MichaelDStewart: But they didn’t explore it. Well explore it enough. And rather rewarded the man who believed he could inspire others.
@uu3y324rdry: So Nolan’s really turned Bruce Wayne into Lenny from Memento. But at the same time didn’t give audiences the tools to explore the full implications of that characterization.
The Dark Knight Rises promotional poster
@MichaelDStewart: The point is Bruce could get into it and justify it by saying he’ll be a symbol, it’s all false window dressing, but he can do it. And the point becomes that once he’s in, he must at some point realize this is him taking control, making up for the lack of control he had when his parents were murdered.
I do agree with the audience not having the tools to explore the implications. Or given the wrong tools.
@uu3y324rdry: Ah I see we’re you’re getting to…Bruce Wayne reconsidered as emo…Yes, I think that’s absolutely right…
@MichaelDStewart: Well, more in the sense that the tragic hero doesn’t get rewarded with the happily ever after. He gets death (which can be a reward for that type of character) or he gets the perpetual rerun of what he does.
@uu3y324rdry: Right, yes!
That’s really why Scott Snyder’s vision of the Batman is at once mythic and singular, and, at the same time, deeply perpetual and primed for continuity publication.
@MichaelDStewart: The vision does have its faults, but yea, that is it. It’s an idea, and Miller went into this with Dark Knight Returns, that what happens to a man who can’t give it up but must for various reasons. He will find a way back that justifies it, that allows him to say I’m doing it for the right reasons no matter the consequences.
He has to find a way, a justification, that allows his mind to be at ease with his thirst for constant vengeance. Bruce Wayne/Batman is a tragedy. Always will be, no matter what happens, he will forever be a tragedy, to the point where he may not actually be a hero though he is heroic.
@uu3y324rdry: [: Yes, exactly so…
@MichaelDStewart: And that’s where we are today. We struggle with heroes who are not heroes but act heroically. This struggle has disenfranchised us from arguably the greatest product of popculture, Superman. It has corrupted our understanding of many of the protagonists we have loved for the last number of decades, it has made us fallen in love with the excesses and self-referential to the gimmicks of yesterday.
@MichaelDStewart: We are a boat that has become a cruise ship set adrift on a sea of culture with ports of call that try to strip us and rob us of everything we hold dear.
@uu3y324rdry: Y’know, I think you’re right about that… and that’s why really the one comicbook that stands out for me more than others this year isn’t a comicbook at all…
@MichaelDStewart: Then there’s the Li’l Depressed Boy, just trying to win at life.
@uu3y324rdry: [= LDB…what a book! [:
@MichaelDStewart: Or LDB is trying to have a winning season, not necessarily make the playoffs or get the highest score, just trying to be on the positive points side.
That Kiss!, from Li’l Depressed Boy #13
@uu3y324rdry: sinks his head into his hands
@uu3y324rdry: Let’s not talk of love or chains or things we can’t untie, as Leonard Cohen put it, and really, let’s not talk of the Dodgers…
I think the book I keep coming back to this year…the non-comics comicbook is Totally MAD 60 the anniversary book…it animates so vividly all the concerns we’ve referenced over these discussions…issues around legacy, around necessary hubris, around heroic actions by the non-heroic, the idea of a kind of gathering together that makes comics an ideological roadmap for the idea of e pluribus unum.
And on the surface of it, Totally MAD 60 looks like nothing at all. Yet, just beneath the surface you’re confronted with the careful and diligent work done by MAD editor John Ficarra and MAD Art Director Sam Viviano. Anything that casual is almost always deeply constructed.
I think the redeeming virtue in MAD for me is something you identified in American Vampire…the idea of perpetuation, of a kind of ongoingness of a kind of thorough and continual self-evaluation, of an internal audit of the psyche and the road it’s traveled…
And that really for me is a viable method to break free from the self-referential.
@MichaelDStewart: That, and to build-up heroes as opposed to constantly taking them down.
@uu3y324rdry: [: “And build-up heroes rather than take them down”, yes, because that’s the great challenge of our generation in relation to the mythologies we inherited, and will eventually bequeath.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.