Last summer, when I attended the San Diego Comic Con, I was struck by its blankness– there was literally nothing that required photography and nothing, after the cease of the spectacle, that was worth remembering. My sum total of purchases was $3 for a grotty bottle of Vitamin Water.
This year gave me hardcore deja-vu, but I was prepared by the previous engagement– I managed about twenty photographs and achieved the holy grail of commodity fetishism: the acquisition of a relatively unique object in unrepeatable circumstances. Along with my toilet photograph, this triumph indicates, I believe, that I had a good experience– two Unique Moments in what is, after all, an event dedicated to specific conformity of product.
It’s been many moons since I last read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and my memory of it is terrible– but I believe that much of its central conceit revolves around the idea of the mass media providing a perverted mirror of actual human relations which then cheapens and destroys the human relations that it mirrors, thus making its own reflection increasingly perverted.
It’s hard to attend an event dedicated to the replacement of personalities with corporate products and not feel a little bit like a freaked-out Left Bank intellectual. The best way to think about the culture of comics fandom, or any fandom, really– and establishing a way of weeding out enemy from friend– is this: are people reacting to the product as a thing crafted and created by individuals and engaging with the communication implicit within that creation, or is the consumer’s interest in the surface aspects like “plot”, “characters” and “story”?
This is what makes the hoopla-hoo about the recent-released The Dark Knight completely repellent; Heath Ledger’s performance requires that the audience care (or pretend to care) about the Joker, a one-dimensional construct with no implicit or explicit meaning beyond its reflection of pulp tropes from the 1940s and an ability to sell related merchandise for the parent owner, Time Warner.
Ledger’s turn is an empty thing– imagine Popeye learning how to method act and channeling Marlon Brando from One-Eyed Jacks– but it could never be anything else. The Joker, in every incarnation, is what the lowest brow entertainment of its origin period had to tell us about criminality and madness: barely anything at all.
We live in the first society in which media narratives are an embedded industry: sheer statistics demand and enforce a hierarchy of consumption. Just as there will always be a certain number of cars sold each season, so too will there always be certain kinds of films achieving varying levels of success. Some will be blockbusters, some will be sleepers. Others will bomb.
The products themselves, being delivery mechanisms for the intake and release of capital, contain surface level narratives that are essentially meaningless and variations on tired themes: this is why the same people who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer are now watching Battlestar Galactica. The analogue with the auto industry again becomes useful: just as young people buy “edgy” cars and mature individuals buy “solid” cars, reasonably above-average nerds watch “smart” television, but avoid “dumb” shows like Enterprise. It’s an interface of marketing and demographics, and, in the case of Dark Knight, Time Warner’s exceptional good luck that its actor sacrificed himself upon Mammon’s Altar of High Marketing.
The lead-in for 2007′s installment– Transformers– was nostalgia for enormous fucking robots that turned into cars; this year it was the actor who went too far into the Darkness of the Joker and Never Came Back. But, really, let’s be honest: there’s about as much depth and darkness in the Joker as there is in the infinitely repeating cliche of the Hollywood OD. These same empty cultural tropes have been recycled forever; and if you don’t believe me, ask Lupe Velez.
The real purpose of Ledger’s performance appears to be a granting of permission for a certain kind of man to smear his face with makeup. You know these people: they had a real hey-hey-hey-day after 1994′s The Crow, another comics property with a lead actor bearing an oddly similar resemblance to Ledger in Dark Knight, who also died tragically before his film’s release. (Memo to Hollywood males: properly apply your eye and lip liners.)
These people, the cosplayers and the costumed, are the blank ciphers on which the spectacle is writ.
And that brings us right back to the San Diego Comic Con, 2008, ground zero of the masquerade, where the most common costume was the Joker. Cosplay and costuming are pretty abstractly interesting– if you think about them hard enough, you start wondering about the basic nature of free will. Each cosplayer makes a specific choice to dress up as a media property, but what if that’s an inversion of the actuality? What if the media property itself– the platonic form of the commodity– is making that choice on a spectral plane of existence? What if some people are genuinely so blank and empty that their souls and their bodies are nothing more than a canvas on which the idea of the Green Lantern is writing itself? And if that’s the case, then what, really, is the Green Lantern trying to tell those of us that see it?
The masquerade is like everything else at the Comic Con– a practical reassurance for all parties, those in costume and those not, that the Hobbies and Interests of the attendees are safe, unchallenging things. There’s a faux-surprise with each outrageous costume; can you believe that chick is half-naked? Can you believe that the fat dude is dressed as Kazaar? But these are rhetorical questions and the shock is faked, another false emotion amidst five days of lucre hiding behind camaraderie. The freak parade is a giant advertisement disguised as a hug.
The only reprieve from the sea of flesh was our attendance of a panel in celebration of Blake Bell’s recently released book on Steve Ditko. Around these quarters, Ditko is a long-term idee fixe– the only comic artist whose work I actively collect. I have my thoughts on the man, some of which are poorly expressed here.
I have a lot of trouble with panels– they conflict with my inability to sit still for more than thirty minutes and my complete unwillingness to shut up– but I always attend at least one of the more obscure. These sequestered, fluorescently lit cells are clusters of ultra-hardcore interests; the panelists and attendees are professionals and specialists in the totally arcane, and generally far removed from creeping product. Last year, I attended one on Disney strike-busting that bored my companion to tears; I was fascinated not only by the topic but by the audience. How was it possible to be in a room of thirty people who cared about attempts to unionize animators in the 1940s? But there it was.
Later, I discovered that the line-up of the Ditko panel as originally announced was Bell, the phenomenal Kim Deitch, Gary Groth, Jim Starlin, Carl Potts and Dean Mullaney. Mullaney– who had published Ditko under the Eclipse Comics banner– did not attend; his replacement was a younger woman Liana K., a Canadian who appears to be “known” for talking to a sock puppet and attending conventions half-naked, but, in the moment, we possessed zero knowledge of her background, nor of Mullaney’s absence, and assumed, in light of the seasoning of the other panelists, that she had been included as a misguided representation of the Female Perspective.
The panel had highlights. Bell projected a nice selection of Ditko art, and Kim Deitch discussed at some length the interest of his brother and collaborator Simon in Ditko; he also dissed on poor John Romita Sr. Sera sera, sez I. But, as all discussions of Ditko must do, the whole thing broke into contention around the topic of the Randian-influenced Objectivist comics, and in particular, Mr. A. (Viewers of the Jonathan Ross documentary might recall Mr. A as the point where Neil Gaiman, a man possessing no small experience with 20th Century American belief systems, started talking about “American barking madness.”)
It was Liana K. who brought the pain– discussing her discomfort with Mr. A and taking, I think, exception to the political didacticism in the work. These concerns fell into a well-honed tradition: most comics cognoscenti lean Left, and Leftism’s enduring problem is its condescension to those of opposing viewpoints. In short, while folks on the Right think that people on the Left are deranged, hell-bound sodomities, folks on the Left appear to believe that people on the Right are stupid.
It seems almost impossible to discuss Ditko’s Mr. A work without giving up a lament that the work “suffered” due to Ditko’s loading it with his politics. The person discussing the work will most often find these politics repellent and thus, indirectly, discuss Ditko as though he were stupid or somehow mistaken. (Not everyone, though: Jim Starlin was just fine.) But what this line of commentary really drives at is the same problem encountered in Ditko’s Hawk and Dove: the rigidity of the superhero genre as a storytelling device, and the limitations of a readership raised on genre expectations.
Ditko’s Mr. A stories only seem like “bad comics” if one expects genre exercises– if, however, one assumes that the works appear as their creator intended, they exist much more comfortably. They’re only “bad” if one’s definition of comics is limited to one genre & its one story, and if one assumes that there is only one potential audience being addressed.
(The strange thing about people constantly trying to wedge the Mr. A comics into the superhero genre is that both Dr. Strange and Spider-Man under Ditko were quite far from the genre; Peter Parker was the perpetually unfulfilled female lead of a Romance Comic, and Dr. Strange touristed through a successive series of monster/horror comics.)
Which is a long-winded way of suggesting that the worst possible place in the world to be raising the most obvious and hackneyed objections to Ditko’s Objectivist work has got to be a panel at the San Diego Comic Con. For the record, I also don’t recommend quoting scripture and verse to Christians.
It was not soon after Liana K. had called Mr. A something like “bad comics,” that a man in the audience called out with the most difficult possible question: “What would you have done differently?”
At the time, what stood out was the unfortunate undertone of (perhaps not so) latent sexism; who was this girl on a panel amongst industry veterans, and why was she prattling on about Ditko in such an ill-informed manner? Clearly, such assertions could not go unchallenged! About five to ten minutes of argument and floundering occurred– all of it painful and disagreeable to the eyewitness.
I was of two minds: I had a partial sympathy, knowing how incredibly awful it must be as a woman amongst nerds, but even without my later acquired knowledge, I couldn’t help wondering why anyone with such a surface level understanding of Ditko would sit on a panel of individuals that had published the man, or had hung out in his studio, or had edited him, or, you know, had written a book on the man’s life and art. We each have our interests, but interest alone does not make us an expert.
Coming home and discovering that the individual in question’s major credentials appear to be squeezing into a Batgirl costume and conversing with a sock puppet only made me wonder what in god’s name panel organizer Blake Bell was thinking; why would you ever invite this person? Isn’t it bad enough that the Comic Con is one enormous headsqueeze– must I witness parochial sexism against the ill-informed and often half-clothed?
With the distance of a few days, I have begun to see this moment as emblematic of the entire Comic Con; a collision between the cosplaying media personality, an almost living avatar of the convention’s current direction, and the ultra-nerd contingent, the kind of obsessive old school freak that was once its heart-and-soul.
Much as my basic sympathies fall with the latter camp, it’s also clear that these people are dinosaurs– the comics industry has become raw meat for the grinder of film & television, and there’s an awful day of reckoning not far from now, when the vast majority of youngish comic book fans have come up reading their funnybooks from right to left. Even the outcasts and the arty will be pushing books based on conventions and ideas that have no connection whatsoever– none at all– to that great mass of readers. And then, kids, it’s done.
Jason Tallon. Apparently offsprung from the chance union of a Riverboat Confidence Man and a methfreak from Warhol’s Factory.
What a thing to find upon opening one’s computer: SF author Thomas M. Disch has committed suicide. I hardly know the man’s work– I only own his The Prisoner novelizations– but, at one point, we lived in the same building. Ages ago. Very occasionally, I’d see Disch in the elevator, but a more frequent sight was that of his mail laying about the lobby, and on those moments when I’d sneak to the upper floors with various accomplices, gathered in piles and piles before his apartment. I never spoke with Disch, because, well, what would we talk about, really?
But I always found it enormously comforting that a genre writer could be living at the top of Union Square– and I have thought of it often in the years that have passed. His presence in the building was one of the very things that alerted me to the potential of life in New York. How sad that the apartment itself appears to be one of the contributors to his suicide.
1-3. Angels Flight. World’s shortest railway. Maybe.
4. Hotel Clark.
5. 5601 Hollywood Blvd. Next door to an empty lot with an invisible palace that can be seen only when the liquor store across the street extinguishes its lights.
6. Freeway. Celebrity Center of Scientology in upper left. Don’t forget the Guy Fawkes mask.
7-8. One of any number of pre-50s phallic buildings. Earthquake regulations. It’s on Hollywood Blvd.
My entire adult life has been spent as an unrepentant fan of Glenn Danzig’s musical ventures, providing no end of amusement for my chums and pals; after all, Danzig is a patently ludicrous figure– the so-called “Evil Elvis,” a five-foot-four New Jersey cockrocker with a propensity for losing fights and keeping bricks on his front lawn. I’ve never denied that Danzig has made an endless series of questionable choices which only reinforce his perceived status as a goon: the last time that I saw him live was in 1999, at Lupo’s in Providence with my pal Dave Asselin, and a good deal of the set was performed whilst Danzig modeled a vinyl battle-vest.
There are two dominant cultural narratives of Danzig; the first is of the dumb rocker guy who sang “Mother,” a song that now resonates at sporting events coast-to-coast. The other, amongst those who care about such things, is that of the Punker Who Fell from Grace; the dude who wrote all of the Misfits’ music, invented at least two sub-genres and was the backbone of one of the most influential bands of the last 30 years (and now, given the prevalence of AFI and My Chemical Romance, might we not argue that Samhain has become as influential, if not more so, as the Misfits?) and then threw it all away to disappear in a haze of testosterone and strippers dressed like cats.
The curious thing is not the wrongness of these narratives. The curious thing is that they exist.
Pop quiz: name one American punk figure other than Henry Rollins who has immediate name recognition in the mass culture. A variation: name one post-1986 Metal Figure (and I do mean metal– no Axl, no Slash, no Marilyn) with an immediate brand recognition. Another pop quiz: when was the last time that you were able to leave the god damned house without seeing the Crimson Ghost on someone’s chest? Now, contrast and compare: how often do you see the Dead Kennedys logo, arguably the second most iconic image of American punk? Final question: how many people maintain a career in music for three years, let alone thirty?
These rhetorical questions hint at what has been a slowly dawning idea: that Danzig is best understood as a unique figure in American culture, with a remarkable persistence of musical prescence, and that, furthermore, his impact as a graphic designer and visual artist has been both considerable and virtually ignored. And it’s important, too, to realize that unlike Rollins (from the punk world) or even Ozzy (from the Grog Hall of Darkest Metal) Danzig’s recognition was achieved without ever transcending the various musical ghettos in which he dwells. There have been no spoken word tours and no shows on MTV or IFC.
The work itself (by which I mean: 85% of the Misfits catalog, Samhain and Danzig 1, 2, half of 3, 4p, Circle of Snakes and much of Lost Tracks) presents a surface level difficulty– the persistence of vision has revolved around a relatively simplistic musical approach (how many times can one man rewrite “Twist of Cain” and how many Misfits songs are reducible to Whoa-Oh-Whoah-Oh-Oh?) with an exceptionally thin lyrical palette. Put it this way: there are roughly 250 songs in total and 98% of them are about skulls, fire, demons, death and wicked, anthropomorphic she-beasts. Danzig’s easily dismissed personal appearance and choices only complicate matters. The dude who wrote “Attitude” was always going to be his own worst enemy, but something about the move to Los Angeles bloated his ego, and the New York/New Jersey visual edge of the Misfits/Samhain period became this:
In short: the man went Hollywood, and going Hollywood has always meant too much money.
The Misfits and Samhain were homegrown affairs, with Danzig designing the materials himself and never having the cash to afford a video, let alone one with a reasonably sized production budget. And thank God for that kindness, as we’ve seen exactly what we would have gotten: four dudes in black jeans invading Jumbo’s Clown Room and a red-headed ass show intercut with tight close-ups of Danzig’s own undulating face. (Note that he bears a odd resemblance to Paul Giamatti sporting the same haircut as one of my ex-girlfriends on her MySpace profile in 2006.)
By contrast, here are a few of the Misfits/Samhain fliers:
The last image– from the Die, Die, My Darling EP– is a less famous example of Danzig’s approach from the New York days, which revolved around a near-obsessive sampling of pulp media. The song is titled after the US release of a 1965 Hammer film; the band’s name comes from Monroe’s last film, and the EP features the best known Misfits logo– the letters of which were taken from Forest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland. The central image of the cover was copied from Harvey Comics’ Chamber of Chills #19, which bears the not insignificant copy: “Here’s Looking at You Darling… On Our Happy Anniversary!”
Many will disagree, but I find no enormous disparity between the sound of the Misfits period and the early Danzig albums; there’s a certain amount of growth and slowing down, and The Voice becomes hugely apparent, but lyrically and musically the sound is not particularly changed. (Samhain is often considered the bridge between the two, but the issue of where Samhain ended and Danzig began is a non-starter. The final Samhain lineup was identical to the lineup of the first five Danzig releases. Different names, same band.)
I would argue that the perceived change had nothing to do with the music and everything to do with visual aesthetics; here are the original covers of the first four Danzig releases:
Let’s linger over the self-titled first release. Here’s the original gatefold LP all opened up:
Okay, so: this is a great piece of design, and it demonstrates just how completely bizarre Danzig was; 1988 may be known for many things, but two-tone minimalist cover art is not amongst them. This is, sadly, one of the last gasps of Danzig’s New York design sense; immediately after we move into (more!) weird close-ups and when your record label is giving you enough money to license the artwork of H.R. Giger for your third album, you know it’s gone to shit and then you’re getting Simon Bisley to draw big evil demons and there’s no point of return. (Except there was, sort of: Danzig 4p, the fifth release, had artwork designed by Danzig. It’s great but afterwards everything immediately goes to shit and never comes back.)
The lettering for the Danzig logo on this cover comes from another pulp source– the film poster for The Giant Gila Monster– and the Skull, also used for Samhain, and which seems so prototypically metal, was stolen from the most ridiculous source of all Danzig’s sampling: Michael Golden’s cover to an obscure Marvel comic called Crystar.
It’s the same damn thing. Musically, visually; it’s all the same until money corrupts the enterprise and gives the dude too many cameras and lick-whipping strippers. (The two most recent Danzig offerings– Circle of Snakes and Lost Tracks– were self-released. Both, musically anyway, are vastly superior to the previous 10 years of crap. It’s all come full circle.)
The “Evil Elvis” moniker becomes an enormously useful metric. While I’m in no way arguing that Danzig’s cultural position is any way commensurate with that of Presley in terms of influence or importance, it bears remembering that Presley was a major artist and musical force whose late career choices effectively destroyed his achievements.
Some of the best Presley songs were recorded in the early-to-mid 70s period, but they remain hard to hear. The visuals of the period– the sequins and the jumpsuits and the fat– are overpowering. By the end of the 70s, Elvis’s aesthetic choices had done enough damage that Greil Marcus had to write Mystery Train to remind people of the revolutionary music from the 50s and 60s.
Presley was and continues to be discussed like an idiot, as if the multi-decade career was a mistake into which a country bumpkin had wandered; replace Memphis with Lodi, New Jersey and you’ll see the same kind of dismissal of Danzig. But if the 20th Century taught us anything, it’s this: anyone can get a record deal, but the only people who survived were the ones that knew what they wanted and understood what they were doing.
Drudge in Hollywood
On Steve Ditko
From Sunset Blvd
Welcome to Kurdistan