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.
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On Steve Ditko
From Sunset Blvd
Welcome to Kurdistan