[27 September 2013]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Over the past few years, we’ve all witnessed an evolution in the zeitgeist of what cartoonist Joe Sacco once satirized as “the Teenage Bore.” In the pages of But I Like It, where Sacco collects his cartoons and posters from his rock odyssey with the Miracle Workers on their European tour, he intros the cartoon as, “She came from nowhere and suddenly she was everywhere! Her face as on the cover of every rock magazine! Everyone talked about her! Everyone wanted to know everything about her, even her shoe size. Don’t ask me why. I think she’s…” And the font size 8 intro leads into the banner headline title for the piece, “A Teenage Bore.”
In the opening panel, Sacco has her spout truisms, but much to the glee of the adoring public. “True love doesn’t exist. Suicide is the only way out. Make-up is really expensive.” to which the crowds reply with “Bravo’s,” and “Such depths.” And in a subsequent panel, Sacco has a beret- sunglasses-, scarf-wearing expert pontificate on her commercial importance, “She is the voice of a frustrated, misunderstood generation of young people who live seemingly pointless lives in suburban nothingness—but who get enough pocket money to shift mega-units in record stores.” This is how Sacco leads us into Lester Bangs country, a place where the commodification of exhaustion is already fait accompli.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen return to popcultural visibility. Maybe the most salacious of these has been Taylor Momsen’s jettisoning of her clean image from Gossip Girl and her rebirth as punk rock, I shudder at the idea of using the word “royalty.” Or maybe even more salacious has been Miley Cyrus’ jettisoning of her clean-girl image that once made Hannah Montana such a sought-after image in the preteen market. Even Rihanna flirted with the cultural mode of boredom on her track “Cheers (Drink to That),” which is less a celebratory experience and more a bubbling up of ennui beneath a thinly-veiled surface. (Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.)
What seems to set these girls apart from early generations of teenage bores however, is not their capacity to leverage exhaustion in confronting the world, but their capacity to weaponize it. Scale changes everything, qualitatively changes everything, Kevin Kelly reminds in Out of Control. And it’s no different here. Lana del Ray’s “Born to Die” or even her far more subtle, for more tortured “Video Games,” convincingly makes the argument that ennui is not only a desirable psychological state, but really the last bastion of the elite. And, although diluted somewhat, the argument is no less piercing in the Pretty Reckless’s “Make Me Wanna Die” (the band for which Momsen fronts), or Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.”
It’s an idea as old as the sonnet form itself—the idea that popcultural products can make social arguments. And it’s enjoyed a kind of renaissance in recent days, in the form of exhausted girls far less boring than Sacco credits them for being. About a generation ago, in one of the landmark books in comics history, Watchmen leveraged this trope of the exhausted girl to incredible effect in the character of the Silk Spectre Laurie Jupiter, daughter of the original Silk Spectre. As with the rest of the cast from the original Watchmen, Silk Spectre was subject to a reimagining during the origin story epic, Before Watchmen. But far more than simply tell the tale of how Laurie became who she would be in the pages of Watchmen, Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre demonstrates how Laurie is herself a bridge between the two generations of the original work, and a unique form of feminism that negotiates tropes of femaleness and masculinities in the superhero genre. Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre is even more poignant in that it begins this interrogation by pointing to Laurie as one of those girls flirting with exhaustion.
When PopMatters spoke to Silk Spectre co-writer and artist Amanda Conner about her collaboration with co-writer Darwyn Cooke on the comic, she spoke about their shared commitment to exploring the geopolitical at least in respect of the popcultural explosion that underpinned much of the 60s when the book is set. “Well, the way we handled it, was on a much smaller scale than what Alan (Moore) and Dave (Gibbons, writer and artist on the original Watchmen) had done. We weren’t even going to attempt that, a girl’s gotta know her limitations.” Amanda chuckles even as she self-effaces, her laughter and bright attitude is infectious. “We did try and make it take,” she corrects her thought mid-sentence, “give references of stuff that happened on a much smaller scale. Especially in San Francisco. Right before the Summer of 67, which was the Summer of Love, things were sort of building up to that crescendo. And we were just sorta thinking, how could we take something that had so much positive connotations, even although a lot of negative stuff came out of it, and sorta turn it sinister. Like the pop and the rock music scene, and the free love movement. So what we did is we took that and gave it a much more sinister, slightly evil twist. And I ended up doing a ton of research on a lot of the people back in 1965 and 66 San Francisco. And what I had tried to do is take a lot of facts and actual events and twist them around. They still happened in our book but they happened on a weirder scale and maybe at different times. But a lot of the stuff that we put into the book actually happened but we sorta twisted it just to make it a little bit weird, and for y’know, lack of a better word slightly more evil.”
Amanda’s framing of her wrestling with one of the central modes of storytelling in the antecedent to Before Watchmen—the idea of a parallel, but somehow broken history—points to the care and dedication both she and Darwyn Cooke took in not only crafting the world of the Silk Spectre in Before, but also curating a world of the character that is worthy of Watchmen. It’s the story of the rise of the Silk Spectre not only in a world that didn’t match her expectations (that pretty much happens to everyone), be her rise in a world where the mechanism of expectation is itself somehow broken. When we encounter Laurie in the pages of Watchmen she’s not only every bit as exhausted as Miley’s or Taylor’s or Lana’s characters in their respective music videos, but she’s very much on the cusp of becoming the moral center of the book (which she eventually does). It’s this tension between optimism and ennui that’s painted in a full psychological portrait in Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre. And in turn, this psychological portrait is connected with geopolitical murmurings in popular culture.
Earlier in the interview Amanda speaks about the psychological states Laurie transitions between in the opening chapter of the book. It’s a moment right at the end of “Mean Goodbye,” when Laurie’s world pops with color as she leaves her banal home behind and ventures onto San Francisco aboard a flower-child detailed van. “I was almost thinking about the Wizard of Oz when we made that transition,” Amanda half-confesses, “I’d asked my colorist Paul (Mounts) who’s just phenomenal, he’s just so amazing. To take the first issue and just tone the colors down, and it was so hard for him because he’s got such an amazing range of color choices that he can work with. When most people use those it ends up looking really garish, but he knows how to use them. And he’s always wanting to push the envelope, and I really had to reel him in and say ‘Make the entire first issue, make the colors look bland like old photographs from the 1950s and 60s.’ They’re colorful, but they’re a little washed out, and I told him to go for that. And once the van arrives, everything just turns into the land of Oz.”
As Amanda indicated in that response, much of Silk Spectre has been about confronting the mythic. And there is perhaps no more mythic moment than one written into the closing stages of Silk Spectre than the moment where the Comedian picks up a yellow smiley button lying idly on Laurie’s nightstand. It’s a casual, throwaway moment, Laurie’s away and the Comedian is surveilling her apartment in a misguided attempt to protect his daughter. He picks up the bright yellow smiley button that he’ll eventually be wearing when Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, hurls him from his NY penthouse apartment and kickstarts Watchmen. It’s that button that will become one of the strongest visual themes in the entire work.
“We were really excited to do that. Darwyn came up with that scenario and I was like, ‘That’s genius let’s do it!’ And it was really clever because we weren’t certain if according to copyright law—well in the mid-80s it was much more relaxed than it is now. So we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to use the happy face. And we were really, really happy when we found out we could. And it’s actually better that we weren’t sure about the copyright situation until we actually got into it, because we would have used it haphazardly. But instead we used it at that really precise moment. So it really worked well for the story.”
In distinction to simply telling the story of another exhausted girl leveraging her exhaustion at the world as Quixote might a lance at a windmill, Amanda Conner has worked with her collaborators to produce a psychologically gripping tale of the utmost social complexity. Not only does Silk Spectre attempt and admirably succeed at the vivisection of the recurring popcultural of the “teenage bore,” but the book also shows how that trope is deeply imbricated in the shifting times beyond mere economic responses to marketable culture. If Silk Spectre succeeds, it not only succeeds as a story, but as a project in that it firmly suggests the kind of storytelling inherent in perpetual fiction as a strong philosophical alternative to singular masterpieces by tortured genius.