[27 February 2013]
PopMatters Comics Editor
There’s maybe nothing like NPR to remind me how much I miss Ali. Not that I can miss him—he’s still around, he’s a private citizen now and not as much in the media spotlight, but he’s still around. And not that I could miss him. I wasn’t around at the time he exploded. But the years of movies and press clippings and reruns of Howard Cosell interviews and ESPN retrospectives and NatGeo documentaries (were there any NatGeo documentaries, or were they just documentaries?) have taught me that in coming to know what I now know about Ali and coming to understand how much broader an impact Ali has had on human culture than simply boxing, that could have come to miss Ali, and easily so. Ali was simply a living, breathing human heritage site.
So maybe I don’t miss Ali as much as a human being and more as an idea. Maybe the person I really miss is Hunter S. Thompson. HST, the Good Doctor, went on to permanently imprint the way nonfiction is handled in English literature. His style of Gonzo Journalism became one of the key arcs in Tom Wolfe’s the New Journalism a kind of founding manifesto for the reassertion of social realism in American literature. And HST is gone these past eight years or so. Finally succumbed (by his own hand) to harsh crash at the end of a long, bad trip, a trip that took from him his ability to write, around the time (ironically) he attempted to but failed to cover Ali’s comeback fight, “The Rumble in the Jungle”.
But beyond the writing and the work and the man’s impact on American literature, what do I know of HST? How could I really miss someone who’s career played out a generation before I was born? To know him enough to miss him, you’d be on much firmer footing asking Hollywood leading man, Johnny Depp. Or HST’s career-long collaborator and author of the memoir of their friendship and creative collaboration the Joke’s Over, the artist Ralph Steadman. So maybe I don’t miss HST that much after all, maybe I can’t miss him in almost exactly the same way I can’t miss Ali. Maybe who I really miss is Andrew Sullivan.
After all, Sullivan’s career played out virtually in real time for me. His carefully thought-through, well-reasoned long form essays blipped at exactly the right time to coincide with major events of recent memory. I’m invested in Sullivan’s writing because I’m invested in reading the world through his lens (inasmuch as his lens would help me grind out my own). And, as the title of a recent Planet Money podcast reminds me, I am consequently invested in Sullivan’s struggles. When Robert Smith and Zoe Chase ask Can Andrew Sullivan Make it on his Own?, it is an invitation. Can I myself, as just a casual reader, become acquainted with inner machineries of transitioning market-share in the attention economy to market-share in the Dollars and cents economy?
From “Meatbag #2” appearing Creator Owned Heroes #8
“Can Andrew Sullivan Make It on His Own?” In terms of cultural vivisection, it’s not a loaded question, but it is one fraught with a great many concerns. First, there is the question of “the classics”—can Sullivan “justifiably” “oust” HST or Ali from the popular imagination? I use the quotes around “justifiably” and “oust” to indicate severe derision. A derision shared by Snowball’s Chance author John Reed at his most political when he writes in the afterword to his Shakespearean re-constructionist play, All the World’s a Grave,
My first love was literature: even the love of loving literature was achingly seductive. Fahrenheit 451: the end-time of a world without books. Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (and derivatives): the heroism of the written act itself… But despite all that love, and the life I’ve given to books, if I could make one enduring contribution, it would be to assist in the end of literature as we know it. The shelf space is hoarded by mediocre classics, and we have hobbled our culture, and our creative culture, with received wisdoms.
Where are today’s Dostoevskys? Where are today’s Virginia Woolfs? T ask is to confess an absence of engagement with contemporary letters. Those books are out there, many of them languishing.
But there’s more at stake with the Planet Money podcast title. Also, the cultural politics of hyperlinking. Reading hypertext isn’t reading text. Reading hypertext is about following through on the hyperlinked connection between one page and the next. Hypertext is also the Renaissance of the Author (in the same sense that Barthes spoke of the Death of the Author)—read plain text and you yourself will decide how much, if any, to research into what has been mentioned. Read hypertext, and you will encounter the Author’s opinion on what things can reasonably be known (elements not hyperlinked to), and what elements reasonably need to explained in greater detail (those elements that are indeed hyperlinked to).
It’s perhaps only when we use hypertext as a metaphor to navigate our daily lives, that we are able to grow more involved in the idea of Andrew Sullivan beyond his journalism. “Can Andrew Sullivan Make it on his Own?” I want to know, because as Andrew Sullivan’s world has grown bigger, so has mine too. Can Sullivan usher in a new kind of business model, one that will sustain him and his eight employees? But as NPR Producer, Robert Smith points out, also at stake if Sullivan is the NY Times of bloggers, is will there be a Baltimore Sun of bloggers? If Sullivan is first in line, what about the person who’s 100th?
The actual issue of breaking new economic ground, of stepping out from behind the walled garden of corporate structures and going it solo saw a watershed moment in the comics industry some 21 years ago. Tired by what they identified as institutional abuse at the hands of major comics publishers, seven star creators simply downed pencils and struck it out alone. These seven, among them Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio and Marc Silvestri, would go on to found Image. And within less than a year, Image would return comics to sales figures in excess of 1,000,000 copies per issue. It seemed like a golden age. And like every actual golden age before it, it didn’t last.
from “Decalogue 5: Thou Shalt Not Kill” in Daredevil #75
The reasons behind this are no doubt multifold, and would require the deep and broad analysis of futurist and business consultant, Rob Salkowitz, similar to the one Salkowitz performs in his 2012 book Comic-Con and the Business of Popular Culture. But the real takeaway from this is that such a series of moves as resulted in the founding of Image could only have been executed through the star system. How best to draw in the crowds? Perhaps through a system of paying for the building of and the hiring of superior talent. In the early to mid-‘80s, when comics shifted from a magazine-style distribution system through newsstands to a direct-marketing distribution system, the overwhelming fear was not dissimilar to those expressed of Andrew Sullivan in the Planet Money podcast. Can comics survive?
Comics did survive, even mainstream superhero comics survived, but not without undergoing changes. Comics giant Joe Kubert best sums up the kinds of cultural shifts that came with the direct marketing distribution system in a 1982 interview, conducted by fellow comics legend Will Eisner, with Eisner’s magazine Shop Talk. Kubert offers, “Well, I believe the biggest change to take place in the past two or three years is our audience. Our reader of 30 or 40 years ago was a cross section of the general population. That is, most of our material was sold at newsstands and most people had access to those newsstands or candy stores. The kind of material we were doing was of a general nature to satisfy and be of interest to that kind of audience. As you well know, our audience today is heavily fan-oriented. Not too long ago—within the last ten years—if you got a very vociferous letter from a fan and followed his suggestions, you knew that sales were going to drop; the fans were in the minority. So whether fans liked or disliked material bore very little relationship to what a general audience would accept.”
Despite sales figures that ran in excess of 1,000,000 units per issue in the early to mid-‘90s, a counter-narrative can already begin to be discerned as early the mid-‘80s. Star creators sell comics, but the stars themselves are stars to a far smaller audience than that of generations before. The savage and hard-earned victory of stewardship that was marked by the rise of comics becoming “heavily fan-oriented,” seemed to be underwritten by new and secret age of hvshmoney—the acceptance of a willing secession from the mainstream of popculture, and the equal embrace on the part of creators of a greater share of fans’ attentions, but one pursued through the machineries of microcelebrity.
From “The Death of Magic pt. 1: Up is Down” in Justice League Dark #15
Hvshmoney signed with a vee. A vee as a signifier for the more jaded that some kind of victory has been enacted. But also a vee as a cipher to connect the idea of secession from the popcultural mainstream and self-embrace of microcelebrity with the first age of print, when typesetters and font-graphers struggled with the same politics of representation—when Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Marlowe’s Faustus summed earlier folktales but printers couldn’t pin down the plays’ exact texts.
If microcelebrity seems at first gasp like a good idea, it’s only because of the long and unfortunate struggle that needed to be undertaken to become “heavily fan-oriented”. Maybe the first generation of comics creators, the Jerry Siegels and Joe Shusters of Superman and the Bob Kanes and William Moulton Marstons of Batman and Wonder Woman, could not even conceive of the perpetual fictions they were creating. And perhaps neither could the good company-men who staffed the publishing houses of National (later DC) and Timely (later Marvel). Could you imagine a single, enduring idea that could capture the imagination of an entire generation? And then go on to morph itself to remain relevant to each successive generation? If you could you could imagine comics and the heroes that graced their pages. And if you could imagine that, you were at once a fan, and a steward of such perpetual fictions.
But microcelebrity and self-secession is the worst deal of all. It’s the guarantor of self-marginalization. And we don’t need a mind the caliber of Greil Marcus to remind us that (as he does so elegantly in Mystery Train),
When it is alive to its greatest possibilities—to disturb, provoke, and divide an entire society, this exciting and changing a big part of society—pop says that the game of a limited audience is not really worth playing. It is as contradictory as and as American as a politician who can’t stand dissent, who gets and keeps his power by dividing the country and turning the country against itself, and then wants everyone to love him.
If there’s an ethical core to what Marcus offers (and there is, one well beyond the grasp cheapened, instant fandom that seems to cling like a bad smell to the entire practice of social media-driven celebrity), it lies rooted in Marcus own appraisals earlier in the same Randy Newman chapter of Mystery Train where Marcus writes,
There have been great American artists who have worked beyond the public’s ability to understand them easily, but none who have condescended to the public—none who have not hoped, no matter how secretly, that their work would lift America to heaven, or drive a stake through its heart. This is a democratic desire (not completely unrelated to the all-time number one democratic desire for endless wealth and fame), and at its best it is an impulse to wholeness, an attempt not to deny diversity, or to hide from it, but to discover what diverse people can authentically share. It is a desire of the artist to remake America on his or her own terms.
20 years after, and the lessons of the past have seemingly been taken onboard. DC particularly seems to be infused with a new sense of corporate responsibility, one much more in line with the fan-based stewardship of old. Since their continuity-wide reboot in September 2011, the company has made a bold statement about its belief in its intellectual properties. “We believe in these characters,” DC seem to be saying, “We believe deeply in the fact that they’ve won you over and kept you in their thrall for generations. And now, we’re ready to start from scratch, and prove to you once again, why they’ve achieved that position.” But if that’s the banner headline, then the practical mechanics speak to the more fuller story. It’s the ease with which an ever-increasing number of comicbook titles have been soft-rebooted by swapping out old creative teams for newer ones, that demonstrates how DC’s began manipulating the star system to its own ends.
In the past, star creators would linger on books as long as they could. The Bendis/Maleev run on Daredevil, say, that lasted from 2001 through until 2006. Geoff Johns on Green Lantern from 2004 right through until 2013. Mark Waid on the Flash from 1993 until 2000. Swapping out star creators with greater regularity belies a commitment to finding a greater diversity in creative visions and perhaps an attempt “to discover what diverse people can authentically share.”
Image themselves have not stepped down from the intellectual challenge of attempting to assert a post-microcelebrity economy. With moves like the Shadowline publications and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Creator-Owned Heroes (a cultural magazine as much as a monthly double-bill comicbook), Image’s focus seems to be on providing the cultural mainstream with access to their publications and the culture that fuels them.
So what about Andrew Sullivan. “Can Andrew Sullivan Make It on His Own?” Only time can really tell, but I know I want him to. If for no other reason than, “more powerful than any army marching under flags, is an idea whose time has come.”