(this post by request.)
Look: I like dumb vampire movies and I like dumb stylistic candy and I like dumb genre exercises, so it’s a sucker’s bet thinking that I wouldn’t be all about Joel Schumaker’s The Lost Boys (1987).
From the trailers and online commentary, it was obvious that Lost Boys 2: The Tribe (2008), a direct-to-video sequel, never had a chance of being anything but a travesty. This is not a review. Why bother, what can possibly be said?
Watching the sequel is an exercise in contrast-and-compare fascination. Between rounds of MY EYES MY EYES and GOD HOW COULD THEY DO THIS and MY CHILDHOOD IS BUTCHERED, one catches glimpses of significant differences in the two films’ levels of ethical complexity. The original Lost Boys presents the viewer with an essentially Manichean world of Good Humans and Bad Vampires. Even in its shock twist, what is notable is the lack of grey: Max goes from good to bad in a half-second reveal and there’s never any doubt about which side is Right. While the screenplay makes overtures towards presenting the World of the Vampires as a seductive one, these efforts are weak, at best half-hearted, and, at worst, insincere. After all, this is a narrative in which vampirism involves living in a filthy cave, having terrible breath, hanging out with Kiefer Sutherland and taking orders from a Harry Anderson impersontor. This may be someone’s idea of a good time, but that someone is probably the BTK Killer.
The original film’s loose thematic resonance resides with the idea of Family. The mother and her two children live with Hippie Grandpa in a nasty old house; this is juxtaposed with the rag-tag collection of misfit metal vampires, the Hot Chick and a little kid, all of whom are under the secret sway of the Business Man. Both families are make-do and stripped from the nuclear ideal, but their fundamental difference comes in the glue that binds. In the Mom and Gramps camp, the binding elements are Love and Concern. On the other side, the Vampiric Rogues are tied together by cruelty and mutual need. And, being a motion picture extravaganza based in the Received Wisdoms of Vaudevillian Hollywood, obviously Love Conquers All.
Lost Boys 2 presents a decidedly different outlook. The narrative setup is much the same as the original films: two kids go and live with a distant relation in a town rife with Vampirism. The second film riffs off the much beloved Grandpa of the first, substituting in an Aunt who appears– at first– as another lovable eccentric but, in a shocking divergence, is a cruel and mean-spirited woman. She even charges rent! Rent!
The sequel makes a better effort towards demonstrating the awesomeness of the world of the vampires: they’ve, like, got an X-Box 360, a big ol’ house where they throw shitty parties and generally can do whatever they want. This depiction strikes me as truer to the original concept of J.M. Barrie’s lost boys– if anything can be noted of the Vampires in the first film, it’s that they were a dour mid-80s bunch incapable of fun. Not exactly the path to winning converts.
As the narrative of the sequel plays out, both newly arrived humans are forced to make The Hard Choice: join the vampires, live forever, rock-and-roll all night and party every day, or remain human and experience, uh, whatever it is that humans do. Paying rent, apparently. The complex aspect of Lost Boys 2 is that by its own internal logic, there’s almost no reason as to why the kids shouldn’t become vampires. Unlike the first film, wherein vampirism represented a loss of inherent values, the sequel presents a world in which the protagonists are about as selfish, idiotic, pleasure-driven and thrill-seeking as the vampires. Their aunt’s crazy, they’ve got no money and they have been disappointed by all human agency. Why not join the bite club?
The world of the vampires has its own complexities: the head vampire appears to be from a different film. He’s a surf-rocker with awful hair and a soulful, other-wordly demeanor. His minions, on the other hand, are a Hollywood screenwriter’s idea of ANNOYING YOUNG MEN, even down to one of the vampires consistently videotaping (no doubt for Youtube!) hilarious acts of violence and mayhem. It’s never reconciled why a surf-rocker with his zen vampirism would chill with extras from Jackass 2. But let us not hope against hope! Incoherent garbage will never explicate itself! Rather, let’s have the underlings bring us to the crux of the matter: the slow creep of nouveau cynicism into youth films.
The Lost Boys remains well loved because it effectively straddles several genres, allowing it to exist in several places at the same time. One of these is the 80s Teenager/Youth Dramedy. These films, which are loved and loved and loved by my peers and which I mostly loathe and loathe and loathe, were, in retrospect, comparatively three-dimensional in their depiction of the young. Somewhere in the 90s, probably due to that horrendous right wing snoozefest of KIDS (1995), youth films lost any attempts at an honest, or at least human, characters. Everyone under a certain age– 25?– has been conflated into whatever cynical Youth Trends happen to be dominating the late night news in greater Los Angeles County.
So, if you’re a hack screenwriter churning out a direct-to-video sequel about sexy teenage vampires, you just make everyone– and I mean everyone– incredibly stupid. There’s probably a Wikipedia category created just for this purpose. “Sociopathic Trends Amongst Teenagers.” “Youth Oriented Idiocy.” Take your pick.
Let’s be honest: the original Lost Boys isn’t even a good movie, but it’s watchable, well constructed and makes sense. The sequel is an enormous, stupid piece of shit. And yet, for all of its directorial and authorial incompetence, for all of its reliance on tropes that were cliche over ten years ago, it presents the viewer with far greater, and less resolvable, ethical complexities than the original.
This brings us to an interesting observation, and the point: sometimes you can break something badly enough that, in your destruction, you create something almost interesting. Some things, and I guess some people, are so ugly that they achieve a new kind of beauty, or at least a transfixing hideousness. Even Medusa had her admirers.
(this post by request.)
For someone with an interest in the work of writer and artist Steve Ditko, the last year has been a bonanza of material, culminating in Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and a new publication released by the Ditko/Snyder team. Initially, I wasn’t interested in Bell’s book– career retrospectives tend to be good introductions for the general reader and frustrating for the conversant– but having attended Bell’s panel at the San Diego Comic Con, I came away with the feeling that, whatever else, the art in Strange and Stranger had been selected with enormous care and taste, and this alone made the book worth acquiring.
To my surprise, the text, admirably, never transgresses into the tawdry. Speculation about Ditko’s life has been a staple of the comics industry for almost forty years, so Bell should be applauded for keeping out as much as possible. I wouldn’t presume for a moment to know whether or not Ditko himself approves of Bell’s approach, and, really, why should I? Why should anyone presume, before having any direct evidence, that they know or understand what another individual is thinking?
And yet assumptions of this nature abound through nearly all critical writing about Ditko, and, sad to say, when Bell reaches the Randian-influenced period, there is a bit of the same. This is particularly galling when one considers the direct and unabashedly didactic nature of Ditko’s creator-owned work; one of the obvious themes of this material is an insistence by the creator that the work not be read biographically, or as part of a continuum, but rather as individual statements of the same ideas. A = A requires no a priori knowledge. If the reader is incapable of reading the work in a vacuum, after it has become clear that the vacuum itself is part of the work, then I would argue that this is a failure of the reader and not of the artist. For decades, Ditko has been demanding that his work be read ahistorically; isn’t it time to start considering this insistence at face value?
The last chapter of Bell’s book, in particular, left me deeply unhappy. With its dismissals of Ditko’s later Randian-influenced work and questions about the methods employed– the reduction of characters to outlines, the amount of text, the seeming adherence to the superhero story– I was reminded of a passage in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, in which the narrator-artist Gully Jimson, now in his elder years, forges a drawing from his earlier period. In the novel, Jimson has entered a phase not unfamiliar to many, if not most, artists with long careers: his latter work has become something entirely different than the earlier work, and the earlier work is judged superior. The passage in question:
Thank God it wasn’t Sunday. And before four o’clock the next afternoon I had the prettiest early Jimson you ever saw. Sketch for the Bath. Or rather, from the Bath, but bearing on its face all those indubitable marks which as the crickets say, testify to that early freshness of vision and bravura of execution which can never be imitated by a hand which in acquiring a mature decision of purpose, has lost, nevertheless, that je ne sais quoi, without which perhaps no work of art is entitled to the name of genius.
The Horse’s Mouth is copyright 1944. Let’s compare and contrast with the final paragraph of Bell’s book:
Ditko failed to acknowledge that while many of his fans may not have appreciated being force-fed right from wrong, almost all of them recognized the decline his increasingly didactic material had wrought on his storytelling and art. Had Ditko been able to maintain the same approach to graphic narrative that informs his best work, his status as a true visionary in the art of visual storytelling would be afforded its due, confirming his place alongside the medium’s serious practitioners who are leading the charge into the new millennium.
(Let me note: I am not likening Ditko to Jimson. Merely pointing out an echo.)
The frustration elicited by Bell’s final chapter is a familiar one. I’ve been feeling it from the first days of my interest in Ditko’s work, dating back to about 1999. I have become royally tired of hearing the Randian-influenced work dismissed and I am royally tired of hearing Ditko discussed as though he were an idiot savant who had a few good years and then disappeared in a fog of reactionary thinking. Thus I am now going to science and knowledge out my thoughts on this matter and be done with it.
No One has ever been Ripped Off
as badly by the Comics Industry as Steve Ditko
Not Siegel and Shuster. Not Jack Kirby. No one.
How badly has the comics industry ripped off Steve Ditko? Last year, Spider-Man 3, a property which Ditko co-created and on which he was promised a royalty share that never materialized, grossed about $900M globally. This year, Iron Man, featuring a visual look based on Ditko’s redesign of the character, has grossed about $560M. Next year, Watchmen is on track to earn at least $300M domestically. (This is a deeply conservative estimate.) The trailer of the film has been well received enough that DC has printed about a million copies of the graphic novel, a work so indebted to Ditko that he might as well have been listed as a co-creator. (This is not to take away anything from either Alan Moore or, especially, Dave Gibbons or John Higgins. But I was looking at Ditko’s issues of Blue Beetle and it hit me. They are Watchmen. Beyond inspiration. It’s all there.)
After 2009, there will have been three solid years of major, headline grabbing films that are by-products of Ditko’s creative work. As much as Kirby was the King of Komics, it’s been Ditko’s aesthetic, primarily, that has translated outside of the medium. This makes a certain amount of sense: although at the center of the Silver Age, Ditko was somehow on its periphery. The easy translation of his aesthetic to a billion dollar industry– and the relative failure of Kirby’s (c.f. Fantastic Four films)– is perfectly logical if you consider that the received wisdom of what makes “good” superhero art is utterly disconnected from the visual values of the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, Ditko’s reward has been scraps from the tables of companies that he personally enriched and forty years of incessant second-guessing by his so-called fans, by other professionals, by his editors and by his critics. How could he leave Spider-man? Why are these new comics so preachy? Why doesn’t he sell his original artwork? Why doesn’t he want to meet his public?
And that last question contains a barb of its own: no comics professional in the 1950s could have envisioned that the industry would spawn a knock-off showbiz stuffed with quasi-celebrity. Creators from later eras who’ve been cagey on the point of their own weak fame should be considered, at best, disingenuous. No one who entered the industry after, say, 1980 can reasonably or honestly say that they didn’t expect what they got. But with Ditko’s generation, and generations previous, this sentiment is completely true. Most of these men viewed themselves, I’m sure, as artists or at least artisans, but none signed a Faustian bargain with the American fame machine.
We should be ashamed that it is considered, amongst some, legitimate to criticize Ditko’s reluctance to engage with his quote-fans-unquote. In an era where celebrity has become a coin as common as pennies, only a depraved jackal would want to see Ditko transformed into another drooling mummy wrapped in wisps of pseudo-celebrity and wheeled out beneath the fluorescent lighting of the Jarvis Center.
The comics industry has always acted as a mortar-and-pestle towards creators who deviate from its central value of lucre acquired regardless of spiritual or intellectual cost. Nothing confuses most mainstream comics creators, or their fans, more than one of the Brethren opting out of easy money. Thus, there is something right and fitting about the current round of disrespect over Alan Moore’s handling of the Watchmen adaptation. You wanted to play with Ditko’s toys, Mister Big Hairy Magician Man, well, watch out, you’ve now become indistinguishable from Mr. A, only another uncompromising creator suffering Ditko’s fate, and washed over by the rage and disgust of sports fans towards a player who refuses the rules of the game.
What I would have liked very much to see in Bell’s book is an analysis of how the comics industry itself may have played a heavy role in shaping Ditko’s beliefs about both business and money. I’ve read enough of Rand’s writing to have a sense of the Objectivist worldview, and while it is one for which I have a certain amount of abstract sympathy, I find that in many ways it engages in a series of self-supporting rhetorical fallacies with little connection to my day-to-day existence. There’s a very distinct reason for this: I haven’t spent my entire life being screwed over by the people for whom I’ve worked.
The comics industy of the 1940s, 50s and 60s– and to a certain extent, as demonstrated by Moore’s endless issues with DC, continuing into the present day– must be one of the very few places in which Randian principles are demonstrably, and consistently, present. Comics were, and are, ground zero for unethical and unconscionable business practices designed to strip Producers of their rewards. Superman’s acquisition by National may have been the industry’s original sin, but it was, and remains, the working template for the intake of intellectual properties.
As the most talented creator of the Silver Age, Ditko suffered its worst indignities. I can only imagine– and this may be wrong– that seeing his work harvested amidst endless broken promises, did to the man what life does to us all: left him in search of an ethical system of thought that could explain his experiences. It’s inconceivable that any individual with a working knowledge of the last seventy years of broken promises, lies and outright theft should then blanch at a creator rejecting the cores values of the companies that produced these abuses.
The recycled canard offered in defense of the Big Two is thus: the creators signed the contracts. This has been demolished a million times over, but I think it’s unnecessary in the case of Ditko, who did what the Apologists are always suggesting was an alternative: he walked away. And was promptly second-guessed for the next four decades.
One of the strengths of Strange and Stranger is in documenting Ditko’s mistreatment not only at the hands of the Big Boys, but also the fan press and some of the smaller companies. This is, unfortunately, off-set by too much hand-wringing about Missed Opportunities in the later years. I understand the impulse to bemoan choices that appear Questionable, but in light of Ditko’s consistent mistreatment by everyone other than Charlton, it isn’t clear that anyone should sit in judgment on which subsequent choices were or were not appropriate.
Bell’s final chapter proceeds from the assumption that because Ditko’s techniques no longer adhere to the standards of the mainstream comics industry, they are somehow lesser or less-skilled than the previous decades of work. This is true only if one presumes that Ditko in any way cares about the collective assumptions about what does and does not make a “good” comic. This presumption is an historical bias based on Ditko’s earlier work and the audience’s unwillingness to allow an artist’s development off established paths. With any creative mind, some of these paths will be terrible and some will be good, but most will be ignored by the Afficinado, who craves nostalgic reminders of Earlier Days like a three-toothed junky longs for her junk. My guess would be that if Ditko’s creator-owned work were being judged independent of What Came Before, it wouldn’t be spoken of as a Decline, but rather in the same way that we have begun to discuss an outsider artist like Rory Hayes. (Note: not likening Ditko’s work to that of Hayes.)
Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person alive of whom this is true, but I enjoy, genuinely, the didactic Randian-influenced work. I’ve own copies of nearly all the Snyder/Ditko publications, and I plan to acquire the new one. I like their look, and I like the direction in which Ditko has gone. I don’t agree with their philosophical underpinnings, but that’s okay. I’m not interested in being reassured of my own rightness, nor am I affronted by the expression of a political and ethical system that is not my own. I’m an adult.
UPDATE, LATER: Steven Grant attacks this piece.
As we are wont to do, me and Andy Harrison got together and opted to journey towards one of the increasingly rare instances of Weird Garbage in Rhode Island which neither of us had previously visited; this turned out to be Hanton City in Smithfield. Directions from the Internet were awful and seemingly authored by drunken half-wits and cut-rate Englishmen, but we managed a sense of our intended destination.
The above map shows our point of entry: Lydia Ann Road off Douglas Pike, Route 7, in Smithfield. The thick red transparent line denotes the main route traveling through the woods; it quickly turns dirt. According to Topographical Maps and Internet Gossip, at some point it becomes Hanton City Trail. This is not to be mistaken with the other Hanton City Trail, an actual paved road that leads to nothing except Historical Cemetery 62 and ugly houses; there has been some confusion between Cemetery 62 and Cemetery 8, which I’ve put on the map. They’re different places. Same family name, though.
As of this writing, the satellite image on Google Maps is older than that of Live Maps. Thus, it lacks any trace of the dominant feature of my helpful illustration: the enormous new road and construction that has been driven straight through the woods. It is quite possible that this has eliminated much of Hanton City. The construction is visible here, sort of, but what we found was far more advanced and complete.
Our first mistake was in ever being born. Our second was in visiting the area on the hottest day of Summer. We’re talking about 99 to 101 degrees and me and Harrison wandering around in the woods, looking for a Spook City that may not even exist; it’s unclear if we found anything. There were a few walls and apparent foundations, but they were so covered in debris and tree branches that it’s difficult to ascertain if they represented the real Hanton City, or were just old stone fences left over from Halcyon Dayes of Yore. The low point of this sweating exhaustathon was, as may be inferred from my illustration, when I got the car stuck; we’re talking full on stuck, with me revving the engine and Harrison pushing the stupid thing and the wheels not getting traction on the gravel. There was a snow shovel in the trunk, so we managed to dig our way out of the predicament; again, this was in 100 degree heat. Madness set in and we wandered around for another two or so hours, finding little but trash.
The function of this post is twofold: to provide a better reference for people seeking out Spook City, and to reflect on how incredibly strange Rhode Island remains, even after decades of being in its thrall. It’s hard to imagine a place outside of early 80s computer RPGs where a person can hunt for a ruined city hidden in the woods while being three minutes away from relatively populated civilization and about ten from the state capital. Though some unsatisfactory attempts have been made, the remains an amazing book to be written (by someone other than me) that is a Weird New Jersey-esque tour up and down the Ocean State’s weird places and marvels. So. Get popping, someone.
“Welcome to my book collection.”
Horace McCoy is my favorite writer of the early 20th Century; his first book, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is the single best novel of the Depression– a bleak, short dose of hell centered on a Dance-a-thon– and his last proper novel, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is equally remarkable, though less compact, and achieves the kind of dense Freudian tapestry that (our hero) Dashiell Hammett aimed for in The Glass Key. The other books are variable, but I’m particularly fond of I Should Have Stayed Home, a slight, pre-Day of the Locusts look at life as a Hollywood loser; if nothing else, it has the most applicable title of any book ever written about this here city of Los Angalayze.
I’ve never been comfortable with McCoy’s classification as “hard boiled”; he certainly wrote for the same pulps as the originators and best known practitioners of the style, but I’m partial to the idea that “hard boiled” has connotations as an off-shoot of the mystery genre. Throughout all of McCoy’s work, the only mystery is this: “Why are people so awful?”
In my mind, his work fits more clearly into a tradition of near-hallucinatory, vaguely inchoate narratives of indirect, brutish emotion being kept at bay through force of will and repression.
It is a sub-literature, adapting the developments of genre and modernism to describe the basic inability of the lower class American male to express his desires, and more truly, his pain. When bored, I often taunt women by accusing them– facetiously– of never being able to understand the “awful pain of being a man.” Novels within this school are quite serious about the idea; the shame and the misery of frustrated masculinity are their building-blocks.
The staccato rhythm of the 1920s and 1930s is employed as a distancing mechanism– a way of keeping the male narrator from revealing himself; this mirrors the sexual inadequacy of the protagonist, which is, of course, the source of his many shames. The only question is climax; and when it comes, the novel ends, usual in bloodshed and tears.
Fun fact: of this tradition, one of the most interesting books is You Play The Black and The Red Comes Up, by Eric Knight, the man who went on to create Lassie.
McCoy is an interesting case; clearly his genre designation only came with time, after the failure of his work to catch fire within the mainstream. Below is a collection of varying cover art– arranged by novel and vaguely chronologically– where one can see the passage from novelist to crime writer.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1935)
KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE (1948)
CORRUPTION CITY (1959)
Drudge in Hollywood
On Steve Ditko
From Sunset Blvd
Welcome to Kurdistan