“It’s not the warm, safe happy that is the pure unbridled misery of Tom Waits,” I remember thinking to myself, “but there’s no need to reach for the painkillers or for Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf or for whatever crutch might be nearest at hand. Not yet, anyways.” As the tinny, overwrought “country blues” of Robert Johnson plays through my laptop speakers, as I listen to “Malted Milk” for the first time, I’m drawn in by the strange and cynical paradox that the dust-jacket to the Complete Collection of Robert Johnson’s works draws me into.
Despite my love of blues music, despite my near innate, architected-in appreciation for the soul-drenching plight of the generations of bluesman lost to razor-like vicissitudes of life and violence, Robert Johnson was not an artist I came to by myself. He was an artist I Needed To Find—blame it on Greil Marcus for dedicating an entire chapter to Johnson in the “Ancestors” section of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. Johnson easily makes that Needed To Find list when Marcus lets slip with passages like:
When acceptance and celebration mean the same thing, or when the two words must fill the same space in the mind at once, we can begin to grasp the tension and the passion of Robert Johnson’s music—because when one accepts one’s life by celebrating it, one also asks for something more. In Johnson’s blues the singer’s acceptance is profound, because he knows, and makes us see, that his celebration is also a revolt, and that the revolt will fail, because his images cannot deny the struggles they are meant to master.
It’s something welcoming and wholly democratic about popculture—the shared understanding that it’s only time and work and money and love of and care for that separates even newcomer johnny-come-lately’s from the rich and storied histories held by collectors. The shared understanding that popular culture, by its very nature, overturns the old Indo-European equations of power through ancestral hierarchy and social class. Anyone can be heir to popculture—popculture is the culture that is yours, simply by the act of you seeking it out.
No need to feel second-rate then, listening to the Complete Collection of Johnson’s works on a laptop in early 2009, as the reality of the debt crisis sinks in. Those are not my demons, they belong on the far side of the Atlantic, half a world away. But the act of commercial composition is hard to miss on the double CD’s dust-jacket. The outside cover shows Johnson in his Sunday Best, suit and tie, big smile, hat tilted just so, elegant tie-clip, our focus distracted from his long, skeletal fingers frozen on the guitar strings. It’s a put-up job, Robert Johnson framed. A toothy kid on the cusp of fame, is the image of Robert Johnson that lures us in.
And of course, that’s not Johnson at all. The “real” Robert Johnson, the dangerous Robert Johnson, the Robert Johnson who sleeps with other men’s wives and beats them and then is run out of town, the Robert Johnson who can seem to live up to the mythology of having met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight and bargained his soul away for pure blues genius—that Robert Johnson can be seen on the inside of the double CD’s dust-jacket. Shot from 45º above, this photo makes Johnson appear crouched, ready for anything. This time his long, skeletal fingers can be seen clearly. This time, those fingers are poised on the guitar as if the instrument were a weapon of mass income. This time the look in his eyes conveys how deeply he is a slew of contradictory mode—vulnerable and dangerous and dangerous only because he himself is currently trapped and he himself currently in danger.
And of course, this latter image is as much a “lie” as the earlier one, as finely composed as the former. The images are a form of commercial storytelling, and they tell that story with great care and even greater skill. Robert Johnson, this story seems to tell, is othered from our normative world that’s filled with values and safety—Robert Johnson is dangerous, so we’d have to lure you in with an image of him at his most presentable, but soon after you’ll recognize him for what he truly is. And if the danger gets too much? Well then you can just as quickly close the double CD case and return to the normative world.
This kind of commercial storytelling, that sells us the life and times of Robert Johnson, predicated only upon othering him from us, predicated on painting him as a beast of earth who might at any moment escape his cage, is at odds with the mode of self-inclusionary liberation that popculture represents. It’s an inherent tension between viewing culture as marketable and viewing it as popular. And it’s the same tension that led earlier generations to distrust viewing the world as marketable, and thereby dismiss objects that have been marketed as inauthentic.
But can commercial storytelling homogenized with the more “authentic” modes of storytelling that popular culture seems heir to? This was perhaps the question that Tom Wolfe and others wrestled with at the heart of New Journalism. Ironically, New Journalism wasn’t a response to journalism at all, but to what Wolfe perceived as a fall from grace of American fiction. That fall from grace evidenced itself as the American novel seceding from the social realism that had been its hallmark since the earliest of days. Wolfe’s insight? Why not revitalize American literature by infusing it (by infusing particularly the novel) with writing modes learned from journalism? Journalism’s reportage sensibility working its way through American literature itself—suddenly the story needed to sell a product and the product’s own access to popular imagination were coincided.
Can we reassert the values of authenticity arising from a deep understanding of the popular, values perennially present in (but by the 60s, rapidly fading from) American literature, in the sociocultural machinery of commerce, machinery that was designed for the large-scale shift of ideas and goods and services? This question could perhaps only have been formulated during the 1960s, a time that appears at the crossroads of anti-war protest, the Civil Rights Movement, and a failing Cold War foreign policy that seemed more and more to leave us no escape from insinuating ourselves into civil wars in the Third World.
The struggle for control of the distribution networks and for the ideological affects of the commercial apparatus, as envisioned by the New Journalism project, feels very much like the struggle at the heart of the Cold War—an ideological struggle against the Marxist tendency to shrink from intellectual sophistication and “fix” the commercial apparatus by simply abandoning it. The New Journalism project of attempting to assay, and understand, and contextualize the benefits of both commercial storytelling and popular storytelling reads very much like a call to arms, a commitment to the hard work of balancing things to a finer measure, but one that can only be answered in secret. Are we greater than our current circumstances? Can we be? And if we can, are we equal to the task of repairing the system that has conditioned us all our lives?
In New Avengers series regular writer Jonathan Hickman explores exactly this dilemma. The book is a soft reboot of a much older idea, one that first appeared in the mid-2000s, Brian Michael Bendis-scribed limited series, the Illuminati. The premise of that original limited series was simple, what would happen if the most powerful individuals on the planet banded together in secret to shepherd civilization to greater heights? The formula for each issue was simple, perhaps even simplistic. The heroes would share in an adventure that involved physical conflict that would ultimately end in opening the planet to greater threats rather than greater opportunity. Each time, right out of the gates Marvel’s Illuminati was already defeated, already proven to be a failed concept.
Hickman’s recasting of the team, and its high concept, treats the inherent hubris of the “Illuminati” with greater intellectual honesty. These are the heroes we know and love, Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, Professor X, Captain America, and if they band together in secret, it must be for a greater purpose than to simply assert their will. Rather than base this Avengers book in the action-adventure genre, where cosmic-level threats are tackled, Hickman crafts a deep character drama about the psychological effects of embracing the hubris necessary for such an undertaking. In New Avengers it’s the hubris that draws the team together, but its the same hubris (it’s already apparent) that will tear the team apart. Perhaps even tear them apart, before they’re able to solve the cosmic-level dilemma they’ve banded together to solve.
The pure joy of Avengers-style action and adventure, the kind of pure joy readily available to be seen in the pages of such titles as Secret Avengers and the gold standard Avengers (a book itself written by Hickman), is not present in New Avengers. Instead, what’s on display, on every page, is the pure idealism of being an Avenger, the ideal of banding together, even at great personal cost, to defend something worth having.