COMICS AND THE MASS MEDIUM
It occurs to me — as I surf around the fifty some- odd television channels I get — -that television is an infernal device. Literally. Lucifer Morningstar, the Light-Bringer, Satan. Television is, after all is said and done, a little box of coloured lights with sound. Expressed a little differently, television is the sun and movies are the moon — television being a light source and movies being images that reflect a light source (the projector) from a separate surface. Right now I’m in the middle of reading Billy Budd Sailor and Other Stories, Herman Melville’s last work. It’s not exactly tough sledding, apart from the occasional word with which I’m unfamiliar or 19th-cenfury concepts and expressions no longer widely used. It’s a very rewarding book. The closer I pay attention to what I’m reading, the more I get out of it — particularly with a writer like Melville. Many layers of meaning which can be interpreted many different ways. Sill, I find myself drawn back to the television set.
I watch it, primarily, with the sound off. It takes a great 4eat, these days, for me to push the mute button to determine what is going on apart from the visuals. “Visuals.” What a degraded, television-age term. The pictures, the images. All of television is degrading. I find the act of watching television to be ‘degrading. Channel-surfing seems to me to be an act of small integrity — as if, by refusing to watch less than a second here and a few seconds there of Lucifer’s Guided Tour of the various circles of his realm, I am somehow keeping my addiction to the sordid goings-on at a slight remove from myself. The Importance of Being Earnest is what the Light-Bringer is trafficking in these days to an unconscionable degree. Everyone on television is in deadly earnest. Their expressions are earnestly happy, earnestly concerned, earnestly saddened, earnestly outraged. They’re not, of course They are just earnestly whatever-they-are-being-paid-to-be-earnest-about — or earnest about whatever got them into Lucifer’s Realm in the first place if they’re “real” people who are just visiting. I have yet to listen to any part of an episode of Jerry Springer — the one who has taken the Donahue/Winfrey formula and stripped it down to its purest essence — but I have watched a great deal of it. Everyone is earnest on Jerry Springer. Jerry Springer is, the audience members are, the hysterical-verging-on-homicidal victims/objects are. Even with the sound off (perhaps particularly with the sound off) the “game” is given away at least three or four times in each fifteen-minute segment. In the midst of snarling, snapping, weeping, and raging, the victim/objects will smirks self-consciously. Clearly — to them — the point is not what is being discussed. The point is not what a shambles their lives are or the crisis that has brought them to their ruinous and degraded state. No, the point is that their ruinous and degraded state has bought them temporary entrée into Lucifer’s Realm, a Realm which, hitherto, they had only been able to watch like starving urchins with their noses pressed against the bakery shop window. And, clearly, they consider their temporary entry via to be quite an achievement. Quite an achievement. They arc scarcely able to contain their joy at this achievement, and three or four times per fifteen-minute segment they are unable to do so. It is in these moments that the façade of what television portrays itself to be — as opposed to what television is, has been, and always will he — develops wide cracks. The mask of portrayal slips, and the face of television’s reality becomes plainly apparent. And the Light-Bringer trembles apprehensively upon his dark throne.
Rick Veitch, who does not own a television set (blessed and benighted individualist that he is), mentioned to me that the last time he had occasion to watch Lucifer’s Realm in all its inglorious glory, he was struck by the extensive use of print on television as compared to his last visit. He’s exactly right. Since nothing is being discussed on Jerry Springer’s program, it becomes necessary to print an encapsulation of the “topic” in the lower left corner of the screen — “She Thinks She’s So Hot” or “My Daughter-in-Law is a Slut” — the combination of the printed provocation and the depicted verbal mayhem, one supposes, being sufficient to compel the average channel-surfer to pause and hit his or her mute button. Commercials use printed messages even more extensively (having given up the ghost that we surfers can be compelled to hit our mute buttons lest we miss the lies being mouthed at each other by actors and actresses during a commercial interruption). Fifty years into television’s short history, comic books have thus won a philosophical point: words and pictures together are inherently more compelling than sound and pictures together where there is a lack or a nearly total absence of meaningful content. More on this in subsequent installments.
Now, to be fair to the Prince of Lies, Old Nick, to give the Devil his due, there was a time when television was necessary. Television was necessary during the fight for civil rights in the American South. Without the televised pictures of civil rights marchers being attacked by police dogs and assaulted with jets of water from pressurized hoses, it is doubtful that civil rights would have come as far as they did as fast as they did. But, beyond this and a handful of examples — and viewed in the context of television’s complete failure as a medium of communication (again, more on this in later installments) — television (daily and nightly) makes an unpersuasive case for itself.
There is a wonderful book Steve Bissette gave me called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. It’s the most wonderful, pointless book I’ve ever read. Pointless, because you could no more eliminate television than you could eliminate prostitution, gambling, recreational drugs, or any other powerful human addiction. I would contend that television is the worst of the human addictions for these reasons: a) its addiction base is nearly universal and b) it is consequently not perceived as an addiction by those addicted to it. Everyone watches television ergo television is not addictive. It’s just something that everyone does. It’s not only something everyone does, it’s something everyone does and lies about. “Social” drinkers hate to be reminded of that six-hour binge last Sunday (hey, that was football — and, oh yeah, 60 Minutes, but 60 Minutes is educational. I learned all about that whatsiseame guy in the Middle East and that wattayacall organization of his and I forget what the other two segments were about, but they were educational too. Oh, wait — one was on Madonna, but it was still interesting), Yes, but you said that you only watch four or five hours a week (I DON’T WATCH AS MUCH TELEVISION AS SOME PEOPLE). What are you getting so angry about? Often a newspaper columnist of one kind or another will share with us the ordeal of how he or she and his or her family went without television for two weeks or a month or three months. Usually on a bet or to prove a point. The withdrawal symptoms are described graphically as are illicit visits to neighbours or friends to get a “fix.” The article concludes with platitudinous observations about the improved family relations that were experienced, the diversity of interests pursued, etc., etc., even as the closing paragraph metaphorically presents the family decamped in the living room wrapping elastic bands around their biceps, plumping up their veins, and reaching for the cooking spoon and the matches and the syringe.
Picture the collective reaction if you substitute “prostitution” or “gambling” or “recreational drugs” in the above: “How My Family Gave Up Crack Cocaine For a Month” by Betty Hausfrau (Betty Hausfrau’s columns appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in the Gazette).
All protest against the analogy makes me snicker, you know? I mean, I am an addict. I’m a cigarette smoker. I’m a drinker. I know all of the rationalizations an addict uses; I know the paralogic inside and out It’s not hurting me (perhaps not, but is it doing you any good?), I work hard, I’m entitled to a few little vices (when did vice become an entitlement?), I enjoy it, all right? (isn’t there a world lull of better things to enjoy?), I DON’T WATCH AS MUCH TELEVISION AS SOME PEOPLE (what are you getting so angry about?).
Anyway, this is just preamble to my initial point — the foundation for this series of essays: There is only one mass medium: television. Beside it, newspapers, novels, comic books, movies, etc., etc. are of a size comparable to...oh...Cold Cut Distributors as compared to Diamond Comic Distributors, various breeds of house pets — big dogs and small dogs — standing around an elephant, tax revenues in any industrialized country placed next to that country’s accumulated deficit (deficits — talk about coloured lights and sound).
People in the comic-book field who are obsessed with making comic books more acceptable to The Mass Audience, to me, are overlooking the only salient fact which applies to the discussion. The Mass Audience has found its drug of choice. They’re all mainlining heroin (We’re all mainlining heroin), and we — comic-book people — wonder why they — non-comic-book people — don’t want any of this ginseng tea we’re offering. It gives you a pleasant mild euphoria, and we drink a LOT of it over here. What’s wrong with everyone else (we ask ourselves, hunkered down in our living rooms, tying off our biceps with an elastic band, plumping up our veins, etc., etc.)?
What do most people watch on television? They watch the television that everyone else watches: the Most Popular Show on Television as the Purest Expression of Democracy in Action. Is it Seinfeld or ER’? Roseanne or Friends? It used to be hard to tell, but now you can just watch Entertainment Tonight or the Hollywood Minute on CNN. We’re such total junkies We’ve gotten really curious about how and where they make the stuff. We’re even interested in what the people who make the stuff do when they’re not making the stuff. Answer? They’re shooting up too! Wow, I wonder what stuff the guy that makes wry favourite stuff shoots up when he shoots up! What’s Jerry Seinfeld’s favourite TV show? I read in the paper that he’s going to answer the question on 20/20 tonight. That’s on at 9, isn’t it?
Entertainment Tonight, the Hollywood Minute, 20/20, and suchlike bring the insurmountable problem into even sharper focus. The audience for a television show about television shows still dwarfs the audience for anything else by a very wide margin.
So, that is the foundation for this series of essays: television is the only mass medium. In part two, I’ll explain why I’ve lumped movies in with comic books, novels, newspapers, etc. If there’s space, I’ll explain Way rock’n’roll was a good rear-guard action which failed to stem television’s overthrow of human awareness, before moving on to the actual relationship between comic books and The Mass Medium.
But first, why television – the sun – and movies – the moon – are reaching towards a “size” ratio comparable to their Solar System counterparts.