Halloween After the Rain: The Ghost of the Promise of Comics, Circa 1992
It's four in the morning on Halloween night, and it's a time to begin rebuilding as much the comics industry as the devastation left in the wake of Sandy.
Even though it feels like it shouldn't have, my Halloween ended in much the same way most of my recent Halloweens did; with the clock steadily counting down to the existentially terminal deadline of 4AM, my legs raised in mock-comfort on a nearby coffee table, and my eyes transfixed on Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. Hamlet, specifically Branagh's Hamlet has become something of a Halloween ritual for me in recent years, something to round out the night reenter into the daylight, and into a new year. Tonight, and not to be pedantic but even though it's long after midnight, it really still is Halloween, tonight… Tonight I'm treating myself to the commentary, where Branagh discusses scenes and shooting and pacing with Russell Jacobs, on-set Shakespearean consultant at the time of shooting, and before during preproduction and after during post.
Halloween's just perfect, it's the tiny pocket-universe of crazy before the full-bore of holiday crazy sets its wolves upon us. From Thanksgiving until New Year's almost always feels like just one day. Especially so with the onset of Black Friday in the popular imagination -- where the day before is Thanksgiving, and the very next day is Xmas. My mind and yours have already gotten hacked by a calendar that smudges one festive moment into the next with little concern for the characteristic traditions of any one of those holidays in particular. Halloween's what happens just before all that year-end downhill rush that is simultaneously exuberance and exhilaration and white-knuckle thrill-ride into the new. And Hamlet, a play that leaves everyone of any interest dead in the end, in a very kind of Halloween-y twist, seems somehow to express something quintessential about the holiday preseason.
Maybe that, maybe something deeper. It's a beautiful play that starts with a weird kind of narrative trick. "Who's there?!" is the play's opening line. It's spoken against the night, into the dark, by a palace guard increasingly convinced that he's not as alone as he may seem, especially now, with the Witching Hour approaching. And within a second, we discover that he's not. But it turns out to be not so scary at all. It's just another guard, older and more wizened, but fretting at the same inner turmoils. And there in the dark, on the edge of Midnight, the two find community.
There's a strange happy ending right there at the beginning of the play. A School of Scooby-Doo kind of happy ending, where the things that go bump in the night aren't monsters at all, just other human beings, wearing masks. And it gives you this sense that ultimately, despite the snow and the cold and the interminable unknown out there in the dark, we could be safe and warm and happy, here at the beginning of Hamlet. Then of course, the Ghost appears, and the play proper starts.
Shakespeare shows us a legitimately spooked-out soldier being startled by what he believes to be the supernatural only to calm us down by showing us that it's only another soldier. And as the two become ever more human there in the dark and the cold, Shakespeare then scares us outright with an actual ghost. Shakespeare startles us to calm us down only to scare us outright. That's the hand of a master storyteller, reaching out from 400 years back in time.
But if Hamlet's a good framing device for the preseason holiday craziness, for its idea of something about the past reaching back, for its idea of opening with human beings facing off against the encroaching dark, then its only a good framing device insofar as it centralizes the idea of human action. Hamlet himself is important not because he fails to take action, but because his action is largely intellectual, focused on pondering the restructuring of a political system that allowed for the supernatural to manifest in the first place.
The year 1992, or thereabouts, saw a kind of rejuvenation of the comics industry not at all unlike the one Hamlet contemplated after the ghost of his father roused him into action. It wouldn't be unfair to say that by 1990, the industry had gotten mired in issues surrounding creative rights. Would the original creators get the recognition (both in terms of credit for their ideas, and financial reward for their creations' ongoing publication), would the current creators be similarly recognized? Or more still, would they be able to invent characters and settings that expanded on those original characters? Not "be able" to in any kind of creative sense of the phrase, but would the political economy of the comics industry see newer creations enjoy the same privilege (if not status) as older characters and settings?
The year 1992 or thereabouts, marks a number of experiments that revitalized the commercial aspects of the trade. By 1992 we had Dark Horse, DC/Vertigo and Image. And just yesterday, although none of these institutions had gone anywhere, all three put out Halloween books. Variously, Vertigo's Ghosts, Dark Horse's Drawing on your Nightmares and Image's publication of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's 2012 Annual.
The solutions each company evolved for creative ownership of the various intellectual properties they brought to market were radically different, but the network of the three companies was something to behold. And now, just yesterday, there's something of Halloween Bat-Signal, a call from the collective unconscious. The idea that through dedicated and focused action, we can restructure an industry and allow for genuine human interaction. Maybe this is what Joss Whedon was getting at with his Zomney viral video.
It's 4 AM pretty much, and as James Urbaniak reminds us in the first episode of Getting On, (the deliciously titled "The Wolf in the Kitchen") 3AM is already a different country. I'm far gone here, strung out but not-quite-yet, from watching Hamlet. And I shouldn't be. Not with Sandy have simply deleted entire parts of Jersey and the East Coast. I should be watching CNN or NBC or getting on a plane. But I don't. I'm just immobilized by the sheer scale of the devastation. Instead I cling to the belief that the rebuilding can begin now.