COMICS AND THE MASS MEDIUM
Comic books were popular culture only in their infancy and their adolescence. Well positioned in the early ‘50s (garish and lewd to rock’n’roll’s loud and lewd) to survive and flourish against the encroachment of Television, they were undone by the Kefauver investigations into the causes of juvenile delinquency. I would maintain that the Kefauver Hearings were less important for their U.S. Senate origins than for the fact that they were Televised. Television found intolerable any Visual Appeal that lay outside of Its own jurisdiction and limits. By compelling comic books — salacious, vivid, gore- spattered, and near-blinding in their colourfulness — to conform to its own mundane, lowest-common- denominator limits of portrayal, Television effectively clipped the caged bird’s wings and assured that its only significant rival in Visual Appeal (the complete absorption of Movies having already been set in motion) was destined for a position of obscurity and marginalization in popular art and entertainment culture.
It is time — long past time — to admit that our medium was beaten and beaten cleanly by an unworthy juggernaut of an adversary in Television. The debate over the origins of the Comics Code Authority — the hairsplitting difference between Steve Bissette’s assertion that comic books were nor given a clean bill of health at the conclusion of the Kefauver Hearings and Frank Miller’s insistence that they were — misses, to me, the larger point. Our predecessors. (publishers, of course, not creators) caved in, in the face of Televised hearings. All impulses today to institute a movie-style ratings system should be recognized for what they are: a retrogressive urge to cave in still further — evidence of the widespread belief that a Pop Culture Utopia can be achieved by comic books through the further laundering of our efforts and that we can achieve Television-style preeminence through the imitation of Television’s rules of conduct. This is the Stockholm Syndrome writ large, whereby we become hostages adjusting to. our captivity and powerlessness by identifying with our captors.
This failure of will, this self-loathing (this cowardice, as Frank Miller puts it in his way of calling a spade a spade) is the source of the misapprehension that there exists a back-door access to Pop Culture Status and Acceptance. By the blurring of distinctions between Television icons and the medium of comic books (so the misapprehension goes) we appoint ourselves included in Popular Culture. Television, comic books, Beatles gum cards, Marilyn Monroe calendars, action figures, computer games, I-Files (how degraded the environment has become that it feels a proprietary interest and stake in the letter “X” as in “X-Men” even where that is the only point of commonality), video games, Manga, etc., etc., ad nauseam. If the Previews catalogue features them all in one inglorious lump and Comics Retailer follows suit and Wizard stuffs its glossy pages full of these too-slender-to-be-called-tenuous connections and if Overstreet ‘s Fan dutifully imitates Wizard, then surely it is just a matter of time before the great mass of humanity shares the hallucination, yes?
No. We dealt away our trump card — our luridness and our colourfulness — at the only time in human history when either would have any meaning: the 1950s. To try to find, at this late date, a point of intersection — let alone of connection — with Television and Pop Culture is the equivalent of gangs of neo-Nazis in the United German Republic petitioning the U.N. to let them refight the battle of Stalingrad.
It is my view that the unconscious mind of the comic-book environment has begun to absorb the lesson that the conscious mind of the comic-book “industry” still refuses to accept: that, far from assisting in the achievement of Pop Culture Status and Acceptance, Television sorbs, withers, and destroys all that it touches.
The conscious mind of the comic-book “industry” — from the fabled towers of Rockefeller Plaza down to the smallest comic-book store in North America, including all peat and near-great and small presences in the distribution chain and catalogue and glossy magazine staffs (in short, all who lay claim to the “comic-book professional” identity) — clings tirelessly (and now not so tirelessly) to the vain hope that the comic-book field will soon be grafted onto Television and be nourished by It even as it nourishes It in turn. Roused to near-climax by anticipation ‘again and again and still again — Superman movie, Supergirl movie, Batman movie, Batman Forever (forever a Television entity being the obvious, yet overlooked, subtext) — senses heightened, hanging on by its metaphorical fingernails in anticipation of the day, or rather, The- Day when the World will see that Comic Books and Movies and Television are now fully joined in the bonds of Holy Matrimony — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, The Mask movie, The Crow movie, Barb Wire movie — when will it finally happen? WHEN?!? — The Tick on Television, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs on Television, X-Men on Television, Iron Man on Television, Spider-Man on Television.
Even as the conscious mind of the comic-book “industry” clings to this faint hope (which is no hope whatsoever), the unconscious mind of the comic-book environment — which believes so wholeheartedly in homogenization and the blurring of distinctions — is coming to resemble in its dawning awareness nothing so much as Marilyn Monroe: dragged, kicking and screaming, to the inescapable truth that Jackie is not going to be displaced as the First Lady of the Land, that one is not even The mistress but merely A piece of ass. At the greatest point of reduction one isn’t even to be allowed, the consolation-prize beau in the form of the Attorney-General, and the Justice Department and the White House are both now closed-off, walled-off, inaccessible, and off-limits even by telephone.
“I feel passed around,” Ms. Monroe is reputed to have said at the nadir of events. It is unchivalrous, but accurate, to point out that if one passes oneself around, one is likely, indeed, to feel “passed around.”
As each successive defeat is felt by the unconscious mind of the comic-book environment, as each sacrificial offering is placed upon Television’s crimson altar (achieving a Television presence somewhere in the declension of Realms from Pay-per-View to Direct-to- Video), as the sacrificial object enters a steep decline in its presence in the comic-book environment, as the theaters (alas, woe is us) fail once more to empty their patrons in furious stampede to the neighbouring comic-book store in search of the original comic-book form of the entertainment just viewed or the comic-book adaptation of same (it is only the “industry” mind that sees the remotest chance of this; how much more likely— if even the most obsessive “industry” mind gave it a passing thought — that a Barb Wire enthusiast would hurry home to catch a Baywatch rerun2), the unconscious comic-book mind detects what the conscious comic-book “industry” mind denies and refuses to accept: the participants are beginning to feel “passed around.” The “passed around” super-heroes and their “industry” acolytes and priests (high and low), distraught and perplexed that each Television success serves only to shrink still further their already shriveled environment, resemble enthusiastic blood donors hitting the Red Cross clinic three times a month and wondering why they’re feeling a little listless and run-down these days.
Am I unkind here? Yes, a little. I would maintain however, that the extent of the readers’ woundedness at the preceding paragraphs will vary in direct proportion to the extent they deceive themselves about Television and its inescapable nature. Let me (more kindly) point out that those fans and retailers who ask me at signings and comic-book conventions, “So, when is the Cerebus movie coming out?” often, to me, have much in common with the archetype! immigrant parent, unwise in the ways of the world but sincerely and simply wanting all of its riches and glories for his offspring (Cerebus, without question, being among the first-born of the direct market). At one level or another those fans are not ignorant of the fact that such a course would carry Cerebus away from them, into W.H. Smith and Waldenbooks and large chain stores. There is a genuinely touching (and I’m speaking here as someone who prides himself on remaining largely untouched) selflessness represented in the question, essentially wishing me well — VERY well — in my transmigration into Lucifer’s Realm.
For others, “When is the Cerebus movie coming out?” constitutes the naming of a large fear etched with defeatism and a preparation for a disappointment they see as inevitable anyway: “You’ll leave us. Everyone leaves us. Hell, I’d leave if I had the chance.”
Fear and Self-Loathing would be an apt title for a Television documentary on the comic-book field. It is this self-loathing that mirrors itself in the Comics Buyer’s Guide letters page “Oh, So?”: super-hero comic-book stores in disarray, unkempt, their proprietors, managers, and clerks absorbed in desultory and sullen conversation with each other, pulling subscription copies randomly and haphazardly (if at all), eyeing the theater patrons departing from Barb Wire who spare not a glance at the window display with the movie poster as its centerpiece and the comic-book incarnations sprawled beneath it. “Industry” comic-book minds are in denial, attempting to chart illusory and fleeting trends in lock step with their competitors blocks away while biding their time until the breakthrough Comic-Book/Television event the “industry’s” sad variation on Waiting for Godot. Have Magic cards lost their magic? Now about Bad Girl Art? Is it time to stock up in anticipation of the Spawn movie? Will the Superman animated cartoon make the Man of Steel a hot comic-book property on the heels of Lois & Clark’s failure to do so? Clearly, these are weighty concerns. No time to waste seeing if all the volumes of Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s From Hell are in stock, or where to locate the Hate #18 missing from that “weird, independent guy’s” subscription file.
No, let’s leave that for part four.
Batman readies himself for his fourth film even as the sales of his various comic books find new lows in his nearly sixty-year history. To the Legion of Television Junkies (maintaining their state of denial) the 1989 film was confirmation of one of their central articles of faith: if Batman could just be done Right — stripped of Zap! Bam! Pow! and its 1960s camp/Warhol/Lichtenstein trappings — it would be a great success. Overlooked (and, again, only the “industry” mind is capable of overlooking it) is the inescapable fact that Batman was a success — that Batman even got made at ALL — because Jack Nicholson agreed to play The- Joker, because Tim Burton had had enough of a success with Beetlejuice to warrant a studio’s investment, and because the star of Burton’s previous success, Michael Keaton, agreed to play the title character. The rest was merely expensive special effects, expensive hardware, and expensive sets. They probably spent more on Nicholson’s trailer on the set than they did on the script. Nicholson, Burton, and Keaton had a great success. The Mask was successful because it was Jim Carrey’s next film after Ace Ventura. The movie did well, and Jim Carrey became a bigger and higher-paid success. Like everything else attached to Television it is a hit-and-miss proposition: witness Sylvester Stallone and Judge Dredd. Hmm. Oh, well — maybe it’s time to do another Rocky film.
Let me add — with great kindness, again — that the comic-book field is not the first to suffer from the delusion that Television’s “exposure” to millions upon millions of the great unwashed constitutes a resource for anything or anyone but itself — that Television/movie/Hollywood can assist in garnering popularity for ex-a-Television efforts.
Word association test:
East of Eden.
James Dean, right?
James Dean in a cowboy hat.
James Dean covered in oil.
Uh. Rock Hudson, right? Elizabeth Taylor (was Taylor in that one?).
How long do you suppose it took John Steinbeck to write East of Eden? It’s one of his larger works by a wide margin. A year? Two years? Beginning with his scattered notes. developing his characters, researching wealthy oil families and oil communities, researching the oil-drilling operation itself, evolving his text and his subtexts, revising and adding to his manuscript. Was there a showdown with his editor or publisher over a too-salacious passage? What were the reviews like? How many copies sold in hardcover? How much did Hollywood pay him? How long a period of uninterrupted work did the amount represent to him? Did the money, in fact, last that long?
Say, was Steinbeck even alive at that time?
I don’t know. I’ve only read The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and Cannery Row, and nothing about Steinbeck himself. Did he get the money o was it his widow? An ex-wife? Several ex-wives? Interesting questions.
Assuming he was alive, was he living well, was he just getting by, or was he hopelessly in debt? Was he healthy or ill? Did he write another book with the time his East of Eden movie money bought him? Would you or I recognize the name of it? Was it made into a movie? Have I seen it on Television?
East of Eden.
Now, granting all benefit of the doubt that comic- book creators who take their creations to movies or Television REALLY believe that what they are doing is nobly expanding the presence of comic books in the Real World, that they TRULY believe that throngs upon throngs of movie patrons will be jammed elbow-to-elbow into comic-book stores, a surging, money-throwing mass of humanity desperate to buy the original comic-book incarnation of the movie they just saw.., even granting all benefit of the doubt that these creators’ self-interest (an airplane hangar filled with vintage sports cars, a mansion in Bel Air, entree into the Academy Awards, first-class air travel, limousines, the long-desired and lusted-after bitter envy of their enemies since grade school, and the likewise long-desired and lusted-after admiration and deference of friends and relatives, leggy supermodels by the score clamoring for their smallest attentions, jewels and designer clothes for the wife, boarding school and an Ivy League university for their offspring) is a mere afterthought to their noble and selfless dedication to gaining Real World Acceptance and Status for the comic book in general. ..I mean, I don’t believe it for a minute... but even granting all benefit of the doubt that these selfless individuals truly believe that they will bestow their bounty upon us as altruistic alumni, doing it all for their beloved alma mater, Comic-Book U...
It doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. There is not the least scrap of evidence that a movie or a Television show based on a comic book will provide any obvious or even hidden benefit for the comic book upon which it is based, and still less evidence (if such a thing can be imagined) that it will benefit comic books in general. In fact, month by month, year by year, movie by movie, Television show by Television show, the evidence mounts on the opposite side of the ledger — that each movie, each Television show leeches still more of the life’s blood of the environment, leaving it smaller and smaller and smaller. Pollination it is, but not cross pollination. Comic-book pollen (where it is chosen for “elevation”) is borne aloft to enrich Television’s poisonous and crimson flower, while the comic-book “industry” is left to wither on the vine.
If I sound rather disinterested and unconcerned about all this, it is because.. .I am disinterested and unconcerned. Truth be known — from the vantage point of a comic-book creator who wants to make a living from his efforts and be able to create without meaningless distractions — I am as exhilarated as I have ever been. Having in no way offered up Cerebus as a sacrifice on Television’s crimson altar, and with the machinations of the past two years initiated by Marvel now at an end — with Diamond Comic Distributors as the clear and undisputed winner, Capital City as the most unfortunate casualty, and Marvel as the most appropriate casualty, a previously unimaginable calm has descended over the entirety of the comic-book world. The phone simply doesn’t ring anymore. There’s nothing left to be said. Hallelujah. To me, a comic-book purist, the first real Golden Age in comics history is now very possible. Not assured by any means, but nearer to hand than at any previous time in its sixty- some-odd-year history. I think my arguments against Television being perceived as any kind of asset to the comic-book environment are pretty close to irrefutable — at the very least constituting a more workable “model” on which to move forward than is the “Television = Wider Exposure = Higher Profits ‘model” which simply doesn’t have any evidence to support it.
Next issue, part four will conclude “Comics and the Mass Medium,” focusing on the two halves of the equation for success that have remained central to the direct market since its inception: creators and retailers. In both cases, I want to focus on the opportunities being presented by the newly configured direct market, as well as present an equation that, in my view, makes sense in a way that “Television = Wider Exposure = Higher Profits” simply doesn’t (and, on the retail end of things, with a working model to prove it).
I’ve found myself led to the inescapable conclusion that there are now two comic-book fields — one centered around Television and one centered around (oddly enough) comic books — drifting away from each other.
Which way the latter field is drifting — where it is going and why it is going there — in part four of “Comics & the Mass Medium.”