Maybe the way into this mess is through a throwaway line from an oldtimey movie. “I will be remembered as a man who opened a door,” Leonardo Da Vinci intones as he rescues a would-be princess from a locked room by undoing the door hinges rather than the bolt on the door’s lock. The power in this line lies in the figure of Leonardo himself, even in the fictionalization of Leonardo. It is impossible to resist interpreting that line as metaphorical. Because what else could Leonardo have been, what else could he possibly have been, other than a man who opened a door for us all?
The mess that this moment seems so evocative of, the “mess” of this last summer in comics is the messy business of transition and of transformation. It’s just two years back now, that DC and Marvel, the powerhouses of mainstream superhero publishing, began concluding their summer megaevents of Flashpoint and Fear Itself respectively. It’s just two years back now, but these megaevents seem tantalizingly out of reach.
Reading Justice League #23, the conclusion to “Trinity War” (in many senses, this grand crossover itself only a prelude to Forever Evil) and reading Infinity #1, it’s hard not to be drawn into a comparison with Flashpoint and Fear Itself. Just two years ago, the comics industry, as marked by its publication calendar and release schedule, seemed a safe and warm and fuzzy haven for nostalgia. It began in the ’90s, but every summer since, you could count on seeing a megaevent from either DC or Marvel or both. (Sidebar: to be fair, if not punctilious, the trend probably began in the ’80s, but it was in the ’90s that things were formalized on a grander scale, if not codified). Now just two years gone, we’re already at the point where that model is so dated it’s beginning to feel culturally inaccessible.
And it’s at this point where that scene with Leonardo becomes a viable and a meaningful metaphor for the situation as a whole. Study the recalcitrant, study the imponderable and you’ll often find, with the right kind of lateral thinking, the imponderable leads to new kinds of freedom. All of which can be beautifully summed up in, “I will be remembered as the man who opened a door.” The poignancy of that moment is writ large in the realization that centuries after the actual Leonardo, a fictive Leonardo metaphorically speaks to a rescue of the level of thinking of our species as a whole, that has already been effected. Only after we’ve escaped it, do we recognize the danger we were in.
In an entirely different arena, the poet Adrienne Rich deals with the same set of conflicts in “Towards the Solstice.” Can you imagine a kind of a place that holds nothing but happy memories? The kinds of memories produced by the warm and loving interactions between family and with friends? What if somehow, decades later, the family has moved on, and friends have moved on, and summer itself has moved on? What if a place of great happiness is now perfectly empty, and only the happy memories of times past can animate that emptiness? What would be the psychic price paid to remain in such a place, under such conditions? I’m sure it would be steep.
For his sins, Mike Shinoda, working with Fort Minor, explores exactly the same nexus of conflicts on the track “Where’d You Go?” It’s a song about the story of now-empty places, formerly brightly lit by shared happiness. What’s illustrative in the example of “Where’d You Go,” despite the track itself being more specifically located in history (with its references to vets of the Iraq War) than Rich’s more universalized Americana, is how easily this theme of now-empty-spaces-formerly-enriched-by-shared-joy transitions between high- and popculture. There’s something recursive about these now-empty-spaces, something that needs to be confronted culturally time and again, with whatever tools we have in hand. And this confrontation conspires around a question that, while it is simple, isn’t easy; how do we arrest our curation of past joy from decimating our capacity to experience joy.
For some, the question might not seem a pressing one at all. In the first instance, what’s really at stake here, what’s changed? The calendar seems to have shifted slightly, megaevents now run in the fall, synced up with the new seasons of television shows. There’s a neat kind of vertical integration here. But let me assure you, the changes are structural, and they are pervasive. They affect, even without you noticing, the kinds of stories that can be told. The entire “Black Mirror” run of stories that Scott Snyder wrote for Detective (just before Bruce Wayne officially returned as Batman) may perhaps never be repeated. Can you imagine a single story that is the confluence of the back-up story and the main? Can you imagine it in the current publishing milieu? Or what about a project like Hawkeye, a project with a quirky, indie feel to them? Hawkeye seems to have found its own quiet niche, but on the cusp of the ’80s/’90s Justice League International, a project not at all dissimilar in scope to Hawkeye, came to dominate the company’s publication schedule. With it’s focus movie juggernauts like the Avengers and Captain America and Iron Man and Thor (and the coming juggernaut of Guardians of the Galaxy) it seems unlikely that Hawkeye might come to dominate the zeitgeist the way JLI once did.
That’s the one sense of it. But in a deeper sense, the question might be one of merit. Why hold comics accountable in this way? After all, comics isn’t art, is it? Well no, comics isn’t art, nor is it literature. It’s something far more important. It’s popculture, readily accessible, readily available, easily read. It’s something that should be there for us all, whoever we are. Something we can all share in. Nulla vestigia retrorsum, we’ve already made it this far. It’s this deeper objection that really cuts to the bone in the matter. It’s this objection that forces us into a decision. Will we go along with the new way of things, or surrender to the role of curators? This is the Robert Frost of it all, the Adrienne Rich, the Mike Shinoda. But maybe none of those are the right rune, the right soundtrack. Maybe the real question here is how much we can change ourselves, to find the new modes of popculture more habitable. Maybe it’s no longer a question of what to do now that those spaces are empty, maybe it’s a question of how we can leave.
In this regard, maybe there’s a lesson to be found in last year’s Skyfall where everything new is old again. The entire movie returns Bond to where he was at the beginning, the reliance on gadgets, the relationship with Q, Moneypenny, M as male and a retired soldier. But in this return, we are lionized for having been enthralled by Bond for so long, even through the silliness. “We shall not cease from exploration,” writes TS Eliot, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Words that read very much like the crib-notes of Walt Whitman’s “Standing on California’s Shore looking Westwards.” And yet, these words still seem slightly more apposite here than having to curate now-empty-spaces.
Everything that’s happened these two summers gone now, the New 52, Marvel NOW!, the Avengers, the rise of digital distribution, it’s not a brave new world. It is exactly what popculture is, and should always be. An expression of who we are now.
Enjoy your Labor Day, one and all.