[3 November 2011]
It’s a throwaway line from a long time ago, but it’s also a wake-up call from the collective unconscious. It’s telling us it’s time to face the facts, things cannot go on this way.
The line in question is from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. It goes almost unnoticed at the time. “Another Christmas in the trenches”, Macaulay Culkin says. There’s a strange brio in his voice. Almost unrecognizable, at first. This is his second time facing off against the bandit-pair of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. He’s had to contend with them breaking into homes in his neighborhood two Christmases ago. And now, by quirk of plot, he’s trapped in New York, and his old adversaries have surfaced once again. They’re about to steal from FAO Schwarz’s donation to hundreds of orphanages across the city. They’re about to steal Christmas. And it’s up to Macaulay Culkin to stop them, using the skills he developed in the original movie. He needs a starting pistol to draw NYPD’s attention. A brick through a storefront window will do. With a slight worm’s eye on him, Macaulay looks to the right and sighs just a little. “Another Christmas in the trenches”.
And it’s absolutely the perfect movie. Home Alone 2 really becomes the parable for the post-Enron condition. The canary in the coal mine that warned us about the pending economic collapse. Separated from his parents at the outset of the movie, Culkin finds himself in New York, but rather than live like a pauper he maxes out his dad’s Amex card and gets a suite at the Hilton.
And that line is just perfect, too. “Another Christmas in the trenches”. “I’ve been here before”, he’s saying to us. “I’ve been here before, and this still isn’t right. There ought to be a time when Christmas can be Christmas again”. It’s that sense of “ought to be” that is so heartrendingly powerful. We can all understand Christmas. We all know how it should be. The drama Macaulay taps is the powerful narrative of the workaday life that interrupts the universal bliss that bookends our lives as childhood and retirement. This is the mythology of the Boomers, writ large.
And if there’s sufficient genius in Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s Spaceman to see the book added to the list of all-time classics (and there is), it’s because Azzarello articulates the precise way in which Boomer culture is facing its death throes. This really is the end, and Brian will be your Shakespeare for the evening.
Spaceman is the story of Orson, a genetically-engineered astronaut that never left the Earth. Genetically-engineered because we don’t have the right kind of bodies to survive the trip to Mars. The arrogance of Cold War ambition-science extends into the early twenty first century and the solution to the problem becomes simple—build a human that can withstand the pressures of the trip.
But Orson never made the trip, Orson got stuck that increased in social complexity so rapidly that no one person can fully comprehend its entire working any longer. This is the real heart of dystopian fiction, not cities sunk under waves, not viruses unleashed turning humans into zombies or vampires. Macaulay articulates this beautiful romance where everyone understands the Important Things. Christmas ought to be special. Childhood is magical, retirement is a well-deserved break. Working life is hell. Brian Azzarello’s mastery of dystopian fiction lies in that fact that he is able to deconstruct these happy romances we’ve come to accept as universal truths.
In Home Alone 2 there’s a normal to get back to. Brian’s Spaceman reminds us that we’re living through an era when the very concept of normal is changing. Thrown into the mix of dull-witted Orson making his way through the world (why would NASA engineer a physically superior human and also endow a superior intellect?), is a world in which the Brangelina of the day host a reality TV show to adopt a third-world orphan. And the story of a cop who cannot interrogate suspects without herself being fingerprinted and background checked.
I talk with Brian over the phone, courtesy of his publisher, DC, and across timezones. Central, by way of Eastern Standard, and then on to me. But I shouldn’t. I should be talking with him in one of the great historical settings, but just off to the side. Boston near the harbor, having a coffee the morning after the Tea Party. The last night of the Fire of London, on a pub crawl with Isaac Newton. Downtown Chicago at the building that would eventually become Chess Records’ studios, on the morning Lincoln read the Proclamation of Emancipation.
Brian’s got a way of circling around he. Like his writing in 100 Bullets he’s points are deeply incisive, deeply compassionate, but never about what you think you’re supposed to be thinking about. Imagine having a conversation Raymond Chandler after having the mind-altering experience of having traveled from the distant future. A conversation with Brian Azzarello is even cooler than that. Cool to the point where he begins engaging me directly, and outside of the scope of just fiction. Interviewer becoming interviewed.
“I can’t say I didn’t see it coming”, I reply when asked about Kim Kardashian’s announcement of her divorce. “Exactly”, Brian exclaims. Something deep is stirring, an excitement in his usually evenly-modulated tone. “Why should you have seen it coming”, he continues, “Why should you even know who she is?”. There’s a fervored crescendo as I realize I’ve hit upon the cusp of something. This is what Spaceman is really about. About the breakdown of society, that comes from its extension. This isn’t Escape From New York where loss of technology will see us backslide into barbarism. This is far worse. In Spaceman society doesn’t breakdown because it fails. Society breaks down because it succeeds.
Paper-thin and weighing less than a deck of cards, Spaceman feels solid in my hands. This is the weight of substance. Of meaning, of value. Azzarello doesn’t simply communicate a unique creative vision, he retools the entire genre of science fiction to achieve this end. Just twenty-two pages in and I’m already deeply involved the drama of Spaceman. Deeply involved and I don’t want to leave. It’s visiting a distant soil, only to realize this was the home you never thought you could deserve. Spaceman so extraordinarily surpasses other works of science fiction that I’m locked into a spiral of regret in having read those books to be able to form a context for this one. The bad books I can’t recall. But also, the greats like The Man in the High Castle and Dune.
Commercially though, I should say, if you like Hugh Laurie’s House, you’ll love Brian Azzarello’s Spaceman. But you’d need to like House for the right reasons. Not because he’s acerbic and cantankerous and always seems to win. But because he’s Eric Cartman, or Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven, or Dostoyevsky’s Prince Lev from The Idiot or Marshall Mathers’ Eminem. He’s the perfect foil to a world gone crazy. The character that reminds us that breakdown isn’t always decay, and that control is more often than not, an illusion.
Spaceman is an entire world. Beautifully rendered, lovingly realized. It simply deserves to be owned. And with the hardcopy selling for $1, and the digital (it’s the first time DC’s done original content as a digital release) for just 99c, go ahead and spoil yourself.
The full interview with Brian Azzarello appears as next week’s Iconographies.