Archive for November 2011
Sword’s Edge by Sanho Kim (“with” Michael Juliar) was published in the US in 1973, five years before Will Eisner’s A Contract with God.
Kim had been working for Charlton Comics after already having a substantial comics career in his native Korea. His book is an early example of the graphic novel format in this country, yet our histories have unjustly ignored it.
Although Kim did not call his book a graphic novel, a graphic novel it clearly is. It’s clear that he knew that his book was something new and not just another “comic book,” and felt the need to come up with a new term for it. What did he call it? “A montage book.”
Here’s his definition of “montage” from inside the book:
Finally, here’s his introduction in which he states what he set out to do with Sword’s Edge.
Although he uses his term “montage” in this introduction, he still ends up using “comic book” more often. Perhaps he wasn’t entirely happy with the term, which, of course, did not catch on. One has to wonder if sales failed to fulfill Kim’s hopes. Although the final page of the book promises a volume two of Sword’s Edge, another “montage” book never materialized. But that’s no reason to forget Sword’s Edge Part One: The Sword and the Maiden, one of the earliest published graphic novels in the US.
THOUGHTS ON JUDGMENT
1. Is culture merely an attempt to keep us from thinking about our death? That’s the thesis of The Denial of Death, the book that Woody Allen is a big fan of in Manhattan. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the book’s hypothesis: “The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.” Think about it. Aren’t most pop stories, whether told in film, video games, TV, music, about a hero’s fight to survive and overcome forces that want the hero dead? The hero almost always triumphs over death. If there is a death in the story, we only know it because we ourselves have survived to hear it. We survive, they don’t. Stories rarely leave us dwelling on the question of our mortality, wondering what it’s all about. Death in pop stories is usually something that happens to other people.
2. One of the most common things we say about a work of art is something like this: “Boy, is that good,” or conversely, “I can’t believe how bad it is.” Does anyone really know what “good” or “bad” in this context really means? Excellent! Awesome! First-rate! Superlative! etc. What the hell do any of these words really mean? We all know, right? We use them all the time. No one ever asks us, “Good? What does that mean?” Or, if someone did ask, unpleasant thoughts about the person would start swirling about in our heads. Or are we just pretending that we know what they mean? Perhaps this is why we also hear this so often: “I can’t believe you thought that X was good! Your taste is terrible!” Obviously, what Person X’s “good” is not necessarily Person Y’s “good.”
3. Therefore, my proposition is this: Let’s define “good” to mean a work of art, that is, a film, a book, a song, that keeps us from thinking about our death. So, when I say, “That film was excellent,” what I really mean is that while watching it the thought of my mortality did not cross my mind once. Now, no one will need to pretend that the word “good” means the same to everyone because it really will mean the same to everyone. Four stars? Thumbs up? Gotcha! I know exactly what you mean!
4. Of course, there are some who will differentiate between entertainment, which they will agree aims to deny death, and art, which they say falls under a different set of rules. However, there are far more people who do not make this distinction, and boxoffice results, for example, reflect this group’s evenhanded approach to movies. It would appear that my proposal has, in fact, already been adopted by the majority.
Since I have not seen Beginners (directed by Mike Mills, it tied with The Tree of Life for Best Feature at the Gotham Independent Film Awards this year), I did not know that it was filmed in Los Angeles. In fact, somehow I had formed the crazy idea that it was set in England. (Apparently, the reviews I had seen failed to mention its setting.) So I was a bit surprised by the photo above which shows Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor being very happy loading up with books at Counterpoint Records & Books in Los Feliz, part of Los Angeles.
The photo shows the back wall of the store, and my favorite section, where the film books reside, is just starting to sneak in on the right.
It’s no surprise that the Beginners crew used it in their film because Counterpoint’s an essential stop if you like browsing bookstores with character. Just like its name suggests, you’ll mostly find second-hand books and vinyl records, but there are also some DVD’s and CD’s lying around. Prices, for the most part, are very reasonable, but parking, can be a pain in the ass. Even though the problem of parking is legendary in Los Angeles, it’s especially true for this store. (I say this knowing that someone invariably will say they have no problems whatsoever parking in the area.)
Edgar Wright has announced the films that will be shown as part of The Wright Stuff III: Movies Edgar has Never Seen, at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.
Here is the schedule:
Friday, Dec. 9: Rock & Roll All Nite
7:30 PM – The Girl Can’t Help It (suggested by Joe Dante and John Landis)
9:40 PM – Get Crazy (suggested by Quentin Tarantino)
Saturday, Dec. 10: Stone Face vs. Little Tramp vs. Uncle Claude
7:00 PM – Steamboat Bill, Jr. (suggested by Judd Apatow)
8:40 PM – Modern Times (suggested by Bill Hader)
10:40 PM – The Bank Dick (suggested by Judd Apatow)
Sunday, Dec. 11: Far Out & Far East
7:00 PM – The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (suggested by Harry Knowles)
9:00 PM – Kwaidan (suggested by Guillermo Del Toro and John Landis)
Monday, Dec. 12: The New Romantics
7:30 PM – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (suggested by Edgar Wright)
9:30 PM – Chungking Express (suggested by Quentin Tarantino, Bill Hader, Greg Mottola, and Daniel Waters)
Tuesday, Dec. 13: Rise and Fall and Rise and…
7:30 PM – White Heat (suggested by Edgar Wright)
9:55 PM – Throne of Blood (suggested by John Landis)
Wednesday, Dec. 14: Farewell John, Hello Sam
7:30 PM – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (suggested by John Landis)
10:00 PM – Ride the High Country (suggested by Joe Dante)
Thursday, Dec. 15: Hangdog & Underdog
7:30 PM – To Be or Not to Be (suggested by John Landis and Joe Dante)
9:40 PM – The Bad News Bears (suggested by Bill Hader and Doug Benson)
Friday, Dec. 16: Noir is the New Black
7:30 PM – Hickey & Boggs (suggested by Quentin Tarantino and Daniel Waters)
9:50 PM – Cutter’s Way (suggested by Daniel Waters)
For what it’s worth, here are my comments.
1. If the fates were kinder, I’d be in the front row for every program, despite having seen most of the films. It’s a nice list.
2. On his blog, Wright said:
I hope in my time I have never chastised anyone for not seeing a movie. Neither am I a big fan of the phrase “I can’t believe you haven’t seen…” accompanied by an exaggerated expression of surprise… I basically believe that you can’t be late to a party if the party never stops.
I’m sure I’m not the only one whose first thoughts upon seeing the above program is exactly what Wright says he doesn’t take kindly to, that is, I thought, “I can’t believe Wright hasn’t seen…” Wright’s attitude is not unique. In fact, nowadays it seems that most people, instead of being slightly embarrassed, consider it to be more of a badge of honor to be able to say something like, “I’ve never seen Citizen Kane or 2001,” but is it really what we want to hear coming out of the mouth of a film director who is now into his third round of programming for a major film revival theater? Personally, I’d rather see a program of films not seen by someone who has more film buff cred that Wright, for example, someone such as Martin Scorsese or even Tarantino himself, whose name is attached to the only two films on the list I have not seen, Get Crazy and Hickey & Boggs.
3. Does anyone else think that the way this program was put together was a bit unusual? First, Wright announced his intention of putting together a program of films he had not seen, then asked fans to suggest films without knowing what films he had not seen. In any case, the majority of films were suggested by fans. Yet, somewhat mysteriously, or perhaps not so mysteriously, the final program is made up exclusively of films suggested by Mr. insert-famous-person-here. Every film. No exceptions. Perhaps it’s simply that “suggested by fan x” will not sell as many tickets as “suggested by Mr. Famous Person?” (It should be pointed out that the “suggested by” tag does not appear on the New Beverly site’s official calendar.) But then why involve fans in the process at all?
With regard to my second point above, here’s another example of what I mean by ignorance being a kind of badge of honor nowadays:
The above excerpt is from the website Comics and…Other Imaginary Tales, part of its monthly review of comics featured in the Diamond Previews catalog of upcoming comics and related merchandise.
Note what Jim says: “I have no clue about who Chip Kidd is…”
Note what Gwen says: “I’ve never heard of him either *shrug*.”
Chip Kidd may not be known to these nitwits, but he is nevertheless a well known book designer and writer. His work includes books on Peanuts, Plastic Man, Captain Marvel, and Batman. (All books in my library, as they should be in theirs.) You would think that anyone who poses as a comics expert, to the extent that they offer monthly opinions on what’s worth buying, would know who Kidd is, or at least google him. Perhaps you will say that I’m making much ado about nothing. Unfortunately, these comments are not only not unique faux pas for this site, they are representative of an attitude that extends far beyond Comics and…. This is an attitude which leads people to think, “If I don’t know who or what someone or something is, it’s not my fault. If I don’t know, it must not be important. If it was important, I would know.”
Nowadays, ignorance is not just bliss. It’s hip!
UPDATE: April 25, 2012
“Gwen” is still out there:
Gwen says, “I’m not even sure who Wally Wood is.”
I say, I’m trying really hard to believe that she’s not representative of all people out there in internet land.
The other night the family and I strolled down to Cinefamily to see Harlan Ellison. Despite being a fan since seeing the “Demon with a Glass Hand” episode of The Outer Limits as a kid, and living in Los Angeles since before the SF bookstore Dangerous Visions (named after one of Ellison’s books) closed shop, the nearest I had gotten to seeing Ellison in person was to have picked up a signed copy of Mefisto in Onyx at The Mysterious Bookshop many years ago, just missing Ellison due to work commitments.
The video excerpt below captures Ellison near the end of the evening by which time Tuesday night had morphed into Wednesday morning. I’ve been to a decent number of author and artist events, but truly cannot recall someone who was as enthusiastic as Ellison was throughout the entire evening, being especially true at the end when meeting his fans. When watching the video, keep in mind that Ellison is 77 and that after the event Ellison still did not call it a night, but headed over to Pink’s for hotdogs with some other enthusiasts. If everyone in the world exhibited this level of enthusiasm, we would no longer be asking, “Whatever became of the world of tomorrow?” because the world of tomorrow would be the world today. The energy on display belies the rumors of his imminent demise. Let us hope that he will live with as much enthusiasm for many more years.
Note: please link to this page for the video rather than the Youtube page. The link is also on the Youtube page because it’s my Youtube channel.
When we went to the event, we had no expectations of a signing, so it was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves in line waiting to meet Ellison face to face. Ellison was candid about the reason for doing it: he needs dough. (You can order books from him here.)
At least one member of the audience appears to have converted the experience into a paycheck. You can read his account of the entire evening here. (You can read another, more sympathetic account of the event here.) I say “entire” because the writer appears to have been present for the exchange between our son, Tristan, and Ellison, which came near the very end of the evening. And I say “his account” because he screws it up in such a way that his reporting can be used to illustrate how unreliable reporting can be. Thanks to this reporter, the evening turned into a lesson for our son on how the media can screw things up.
Here’s how the reporter describes it:
One awkward young fan could barely speak in his presence. Ellison, without missing a beat, “Do they screw with you at school?” The answer was obvious. “Let me show you something…come here…” And Ellison taught the youngster a painful retaliatory handshake for his tormentors. Again, Ellison knows what it is to be fucked with so well, he can read it on a sympathetic soul — even if he plays a batshit lunatic in public. And occasionally casually wields a knife.
Here’s our version. Our son had been complaining that he was tired and had to get up early for school. It’s true. Our fourteen year old’s energy was flagging whereas Ellison, the 77 year old, seemed to be just getting warmed up. Our son is not unfamiliar with Ellison’s TV work, but as for being a fan of Ellison’s writing, no one should be surprised that he’s perfectly in sync with his generation in finding many other activities more exciting than reading. In short, he wanted to leave and didn’t care about getting the book signed. We are the villains of the piece because we put him in situations such as this hoping that they will have a positive affect on him.
This night, Tristan’s complaints had no power over his evil parents, and eventually he was face-to-face with Ellison. When Ellison saw Tristan’s Thundercats T-Shirt, he took the opportunity to display the Blackhawk emblem on the back of his jacket. This led to an exchange with some of the other fans about Blackhawk comics and after signing Tristan’s book, Ellison said, “Good luck with your cats.” This got some laughs. While thinking that we had gotten through the signing without anything unexpected happening, we thanked Ellison and started walking away.
Of course, these thoughts were premature for when we were already more than half way down the aisle to the exit, Ellison yelled out to Tristan, “Hey, kid! What’s your name?”
“Do the kids at school fuck with you?”
Tristan says he said no, but we heard him say, “Sometimes.”
Ellison said, “Do you want to learn some moves on how to take care of that?,” and asked Tristan to come back.
“Shake my hand.”
Tristan grabbed his hand.
Tristan squeezed tighter.
With a “helluva grip,” according to Tristan, Ellison showed him how to pin an opponent’s thumb down, thus rendering him helpless. It was like the handshake version of Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch. Is there any kid on this planet, “fucked with” (as the LA Weekly reporter put it) or not, who would not be impressed by that? You might say that the answer is “painfully obvious.”
Ellison then said that if Tristan came to his house, “after 2, I’ll show you some more moves.”
As we walked away, this time for good, Ellison offered Tristan one last bit of advice: “Get rid of the shorts.”
It was a night that none of us, especially Tristan, will forget.
There’s a lot more that can be said regarding the question of whether the LA Weekly writer captured the truth of the event or whether the love he obviously has of his own words won out over the mission to tell the truth, to the extent that some of his descriptions make me feel I was on another planet Tuesday night than the one occupied by the writer. But what’s the point? However, I must register my objection to the image of Ellison’s fans that the writer paints in this passage:
Against the type of his prickly public persona, Ellison is fiercely protective of his fans. Guys in sweatpants, appliqué man-vests, and all manner of unhip, uncool, and unwashed ubernerds waited post-show to glean some autographs and wisdom from him, while he in turn, took careful, personal time with each and every one of them.
Here’s a moment from the scene described above. Would you let this LA Weekly guy write captions for your photos?
One of Ellison’s fans asked him, “So what does it all mean? What is the meaning of life?” Of course, Ellison doesn’t know the answer to that anymore than anyone else. However, given that most of us spend most of our time trying to avoid such questions, it’s a tribute to Ellison that such a question, although perhaps not an uncommon one asked by fans of people that they admire, did not seem out of place this evening.
This one falls in the perennial question, “Where do you get your ideas?” department.
One of the clips shown featured Buster Keaton as a guest star on an episode of Burke’s Law, the 1964 episode, “Who Killed 1/2 of Glory Lee?” Ellison was still excited by the simple fact that he got to write a routine for Buster Keaton. The routine had Keaton acting out in pantomime, in the manner of a game of charades, the answer to Gene Barry’s questions, on the pretext that Keaton’s character had laryngitis. However, the routine seemed more appropriate to Harpo Marx than the characters that Keaton was famous for playing. There’s also a very similar scene played by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the Frank Tashlin directed Artists and Models. Was Ellison inspired by something like this? Who would dare ask Ellison?
Affection for the detritus of the media takes many forms. After watching too many campus simpletons (both students and profs) laugh mockingly at Fritz Lang and John Woo movies, I’m opposed to condescension. I suspect Camp in its disdainful form. I don’t like people demonstrating their sense of superiority to the trash their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Knowingness leaves you with nothing. –David Bordwell
I couldn’t agree more with David Bordwell (I wrote about some of my own encounters with unappreciative audiences here, although you probably should not read it if you fall into that category.)
A lot of us possess a need to feel superior to somebody else, and some of us need to feel superior to everyone else. Much of our humor comes down to us laughing at someone else because we feel superior to them. Currently popular, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is based on the idea that some people are just better than others. The need to be superior even finds expression in The Incredibles: “When everyone is special, no one is special.”
This is humor at the service of the status quo, but it’s nothing new. It’s easy to imagine aristocrats assembled in the salon laughing till it hurts as they tell jokes at the expense of their servants. It works the other way as well, with servants telling each other jokes in which their masters appear foolish and stupid. Some of the most popular comedies in ancient Roman were about slaves who bested their masters. These jokes tell us that despite actual circumstances, we are the superior ones.
So it’s no surprise when many of us, most of whom have not even attempted to make a film, find it so easy to laugh at certain kinds of movies, that which we call “bad.” Of course, we don’t always all agree on whether a movie is bad. I remember watching the Douglas Sirk directed version of Magnificent Obsession at MOMA during a Sirk retrospective. Half the audience was laughing, but the other half was yelling at them, through their tears, to shut up. This half of the audience took the film 100% seriously, seeing nothing funny about it.
But what exactly are we laughing at when we laugh at a film that was not made for our laughter? A post on She Blogged by Night about, what else?, Plan Nine from Outer Space, provides some examples. The blogger asks what can be done to “fix” the movie, for it definitely needs fixing, as we all know. What, exactly, needs fixing? Here’s her list:
- Casting: Lugosi’s double doesn’t even look like him.
- Set dressing: That shower curtain in the cockpit? Belongs in a shower!
- Writing: Needed an editor to cut, cut cut.
- Editing: Was there any?
- Special effects: Hubcaps as UFO’s. Gimme a break!
- Acting: Don’t get me started!
- Etc. Let’s just leave it at that and go back to laughing at poor, inept Ed Wood, Jr.
So that’s She Blogged By Night’s take on Plan 9. What’s the common element of these all too familiar complaints? Judging the film according to the standards of Hollywood film studio verisimilitude. If a set is supposed to be a cockpit, it damn well better look like the real thing. If a hubcap is supposed to be a UFO, we better not see the string it’s dangling from. It’s not enough that we know what it’s supposed to represent. It’s necessary that it look the part 100%. It should look so real that we are not reminded that we’re actually watching a film until the credits roll. It’s hard to believe that in Japan a form of puppet theater developed in which no attempt is made to hide the people manipulating the puppets, let alone make everything look real. In fact, according to Noël Burch in To the Distant Observer (download the book in pdf form here), even Japanese film has a tradition in which the filmmakers do not aim for maximum realism or naturalism. But that’s Japan. Hollywood’s where the real filmmaking action is, right?
So, who benefits from this approach. Certainly not the guy down the street who dreams of being a filmmaker. If an audience expects the film to look “real,” it’s going to cost more. Heaven forbid that you do what Ed Wood did and skimp on production value. Therefore, you’d better have money, lots of money. In fact, you’d better have even more than lots. In short, it’s this attitude, of constantly demanding greater and greater verisimilitude, that makes it next to impossible to compete with companies that do have lots of money, namely the Hollywood film studios.
Meanwhile, the ones who are truly laughing are the people who are lucky enough to run the Hollywood studios. They are laughing all the way to the bank. Sure, they have to spend more, a lot more, but they’ve killed off their most of their competition. They have long since conditioned most of their audiences to laugh at movies that don’t have Hollywood’s kind of verisimilitude. But it was not always this way. People did not always laugh at Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession the way I saw them do at MOMA. The fact that the standards of Hollywood verisimilitude are always changing means that future audiences will never be able to look back at the films of yesteryear with the same eyes as those films’ contemporary audiences.
Many of the earliest films used painted sets and no one thought to apologize for it, and audiences did not think to laugh at it. For example, the original audiences for Georges Méliès’ Voyage À Travers L’Imposible did not rush to the boxoffice to demand their money back after watching this train wreck:
My suggestion for anyone who feels that Plan Nine from Outer Space needs to be “fixed” is this: the easiest way to fix this film, or any other film that does not measure up to the standards of Hollywood verisimilitude, is to imagine that the film begins with a message similar to this:
Remember when you were kids and you would make-believe that you were cowboys and robbers? You used nothing but sticks for horses. Filmmaking is only make-believe, folks. What difference does it make if you spend a million dollars or one dollar, as long as you get that it’s supposed to be a friggin’ plane cockpit?
We had a ton of fun making this film and I hope you have fun watching it.
Whatever happened to our sense of play?
Everyone’s talking about what Frank Miller has to say about the Occupy Movement. If you don’t know what he said, read about it here.
Here are some of my thoughts:
1. How likely is it that Miller’s screed is not an honest, authentic op-ed, but instead a bit of PR? That is, he did it to bring attention to himself and his new book. If so, mission accomplished!
2. Miller was and still is a Libertarian. Some people seem to be shocked by his “turn to the right.” But he hasn’t made any turn because he’s been traveling the same road for a long time.
3. Libertarianism is the philosophy of the 1%, just as Ayn Rand is the philosopher of the 1%. Miller identifies with the 1%. In fact, technically, he probably is a one percenter.
4. Here’s what Grant Morrison says in Supergods about The Dark Knight Returns:
Frank Miller brought the Dark Age style into line with a newly confident right-leaning America. His monumental Batman was no bleeding-heart liberal but a rugged libertarian. (Supergods p. 190) (I wrote more about Morrison’s book here.)
The casualness with which Morrison locates Miller’s work on the ideological spectrum contrasts with the apolitical attitude of many, if not most, Americans. For example, here’s what Tom Spurgeon says, in his post about Miller’s rant:
I am more grateful than usual this morning to have grown up reading comics without ever having to be exposed to, say, Don McGregor’s rants against Gerald Ford signing the Helsinki Accords. Or whatever, I mean, come on. Yuck.” (Source.)
Does Spurgeon sound like a Yahoo, or is it just me? However, the point is that his attitude is typical.
5. Learning how to see the political messages in all works of entertainment is a form of empowerment. It’s like waking up with Superman’s X-ray vision, or finding the glasses used by the heroes of John Carpenter’s They Live. A book that will help you acquire this super power is Peter Biskind’s Seeing is Believing. Here’s how Biskind describes it on his site:
Samuel Goldwyn is usually credited with the phrase, “If you have a message, call Western Union,” which was gospel in Hollywood for decades. But there are messages and there are messages. It is the contention of this book that all films carry messages, overtly or not. Seeing Is Believing examines Hollywood films of the 1950s that everybody saw but nobody really looked at, classics such as Giant, On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Blackboard Jungle, and so on, and shows how movies that appear to be politically innocent—westerns, weepies, science fiction movies—in fact bear an ideological burden.
Why not read the book and become a superhero today?
If you are too busy to read the book, Jim Hoberman, film critic for the Village Voice, covers some of the same ground in “The Fascist Guns in the West” in Radical America Vol. 19 No. 6, p. 53. Download it here.
The current issue of Cinema Retro (Vol. 7: Issue #21) includes some news of interest to fans of Stanley Kubrick. At the end of the article by Raymond Benson about A Clockwork Orange, which begins on page 12, there are these news tidbits:
1. Jan Harlan (brother-in-law and assistant to Kubrick): “I am currently working with the publishers Taschen on further projects.” He provides no further information.
2. The Stanley Kubrick exhibition, which was a big success at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris earlier this year, will come to Los Angeles–its first appearance in the U.S.–in 2012. More information about the Paris exhibit can be found here and here, and you can view a short video of it here. Further research reveals that the exhibit is going to be at LACMA next Fall, but an official announcement from the museum apparently has yet to be made. Apparently, the Tim Burton exhibit at MOMA was the museum’s most popular exhibit ever. I doubt the Kubrick exhibit will challenge Burton’s popularity, but I do expect that it will be more interesting. In any case, hopefully these exhibits are a sign of things to come, that is, more film related exhibitions at our museums. Film is, after all, the seventh art.
3. Harlan was also asked about the the newly discovered footage that Kubrick cut from 2001 shortly after its premiere. He said that he had not yet seen it. Is it too much of a pipedream to hope that this footage finds its way into the LACMA exhibit?
The exhibit opens October 28, 2012.
Two recent books, Alan Moore: Storyteller (which my wife was lucky enough to win from this site) and Grant Morrison’s Supergods, have re-sparked a question I’ve had regarding the connection between England’s social welfare system and the Eighties invasion of American comics by British writers and artists. There’s no doubt there were several factors, with perhaps the emergence, in the late Seventies, of comics magazines such as 2000 A.D., Warrior, the Marvel U.K. line being especially important. But the most intriguing factor? The dole.
So what is my hypothesis? That comic book artists such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison would not exist without having had the benefit of being supported for several years by the British unemployment benefits system, otherwise known as “the dole,” thus giving them time to develop their skills such that they could survive without the dole.
Alan Moore: Storyteller:
Moore left the financial security of the office job [in 1977] and signed on at the Department of Health and Social Security for unemployment benefits. (p. 44)
Grant Morrison’s Supergods:
Perhaps at last, this [ie, superhero comics as represented especially by Alan Moore's version of Marvelman, which first appeared in 1982] could be a way of making enough money to quit the dole and get noticed doing something I loved. (p. 186)
At twenty-four ,… I was still on the dole and living at home… (p. 208)
I do not know if Morrison and Moore are typical or exceptions, but I’m leaning towards their being representative of the writers and artists who constituted the British Invasion of American comics in the Eighties. The unemployment system in the USA in the Eighties did not allow anyone to continue collecting benefits for several years and, unlike Alan Moore’s case, it was not possible to obtain benefits after quitting or refusing a job. Another requirement was to have worked (on the books) for a certain number of weeks during the previous x number of months. In other words, to qualify for unemployment benefits in the USA, you had to have been employed a minimum amount of time, laid off (not fired), provide proof every other week of looking for work during the previous two weeks, and, even if you could not find a job, after a period of about six months the benefits would cease. The British system appears to have been very different.
Imagine an Earth-2 where Great Britain had no unemployment benefits. Would Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have been able to become Alan Moore and Grant Morrison without the benefit of the dole?
Most of the innovations in British popular music which happened between the 60s and the 90s would have been unthinkable without the indirect funding provided by social housing, unemployment benefit and student grants.
Above is from “Time-Wars” by Mark Fisher. If what he says is true for British music, why not comics?
1. Is there any significance to Morrison mistakenly calling the Quay Brothers English (they’re American):
I had a lot to prove, and I wanted to make my mark. Arkham Asylum would be dense, symbolic, interior–a deliberate response to the prevailing current of Hollywood realism. Instead of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Roeg, we’d be influenced by Crowley, Jung, Artaud and Marat/Sade, by the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, and by his English disciples, the Brothers Quay. (Supergods p. 225)
2. I don’t have much love for Morrison’s post-Doom Patrol work, feeling it works on a lower level, so I was interested to learn how he re-created himself after his run on that title ended:
I’d already made my mind up to accept complete surrender to a process of transformation, an ego-dissolving ordeal that I felt sure would give me new things to write about, new things to say, and a new way to see the world. (Supergods p. 253)
As I brought Doom Patrol to a close after four years of monthly surrealist folderol, Lonely Planet guides were being spread on the carpet to help map out a year away from comics and routine.
I plotted an immense path around the world via India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Java, Bali, Australia, Fiji, Los Angeles, and New Mexico before coming home, I hoped, transformed. (Supergods p. 254)
On my first night in the dull hotel near the airport, I celebrated this personal rebirth by taking an electric razor to hair that was undeniably thinning. (Supergods p. 254)
Back home, I felt reborn, more confident, creative, and alive than ever before. (Supergods p. 255)
In other words, after reading the above passages, I learned that there is a good reason for my feeling that Morrison’s post-Doom Patrol work does not seem to be by the same person.
3. There have been some who have taken issue with a statement Morrison made while promoting the book which suggests that he had little sympathy with Siegel & Shuster as creators who were ripped off by DC:
From Siegel and Shuster through later chapters on Kirby or Jim Starlin, you cover a lot of the creative life of the people behind comics and how one informs the other, and you make some particular observations about Siegel and Shuster’s desires as artists as well as professionals. There’s so much chatter over the lawsuits over Superman and what not, but for you, did you feel like the characters transcend some of those debates on their own terms, or is that creative personality something that informs how our whole industry works even to today?
Well, to me it’s never been honestly what’s interesting about this stuff. I think the stories outlast all of those complications. You look at the people who created those characters, and they’re all dead. But the characters will still be around in 50 years probably – at least the best of them will. So I try not to concern myself with that. These are deals made in times before I was even born. I can say from experience that young creative people tend to sell rights to things because they want to get noticed. They want to sell their work and to be commercial. Then when they grow up and get a bit smarter, they suddenly realize it maybe wasn’t so good and that the adults have it real nice. [Laughs] But still, it’s kind of the world. I wouldn’t want to comment on that because it was something I wasn’t around for. I can’t tell why they decided to do what they did. Obviously Bob Kane came in at the same age and got a very different deal and profited hugely from Batman’s success. So who knows? They were boys of the same age, but maybe some of them were more keen to sell the rights than others. It all just takes a different business head.
However, there are passages in Supergods that makes it clear that Morrison views the relationship of comic book company and creators, of yesterday as well as today, as being one of exploitation:
The parasitic relationship of universe to creator that saw the rebellions of people like Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby had become a little more symbiotic; following changes in the business in the eighties, creative people adding to the DC or Marvel universe would be ripped off with a little more reward on the back end. (Supergods p. 118)
And many pages later:
Superhero stories are sweated out at the imagined lowest levels of our culture, but like that shard off a hologram, they contain at their hearts all the dreams and fears of generations in vivid miniature. Created by a workforce that has in its time been marginalized, mocked, scapegoated, and exploited, they never failed to offer a direct line to the cultural subconscious and its convulsions. (Supergods p. 416
Note the words: “parasitic,” “ripped off,” “exploited.” He’s saying that the comic book companies are parasites who not only ripped off Siegel & Shuster years ago, but are still ripping off comic book creators today.
So why didn’t Morrison say this in the interview? Perhaps because he works for DC and is smart enough to know what he should say and not say when the subject of the current Superman lawsuit comes up. Do you really think these companies would continue to employ him if he said what they consider to be the wrong thing? No wonder he says: “So I try not to concern myself with that.” Is Morrison the only one who realizes that if we want to make a lot of money, it’s best not to bite the hand that feeds us?
UPDATE APRIL 23, 2012
An example of what happens when you speak out and “bite the hand that feeds you” came up recently when writer Chris Roberson publicly criticized DC Comics:
What did he say? Pretty much what people accused Morrison of not saying.
As I said, Morrison (as well as many others) have been “smart” enough not to say what they really think because they want to keep their gigs. (If you think that you don’t do similar things, you must live in a far better world than I.)
4. But Morrison is not without contradictions:
I stopped piling up rationalizations and instead dealt with what could be proven about this event, which was its undeniably positive effect on my life. Kathmandu fundamentally reprogrammed me and left me with a certainty stronger than faith that everything, even that which was sad and painful, was happening exactly the way it was supposed to.
All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. (Supergods p. 278)
Unfortunately, this is the kind of thinking that has been favored by the powers that be throughout history because it can be used to justify any atrocity. If Batman or Superman thought like this, why would they bother with anything that The Joker or Lex Luthor did?
5. Near the end of the section in which Morrison recounts his encounter with a Superman cosplayer at San Diego Comic-Con late one night in 1999, he says:
By choosing to frame my encounter as a pop-shamanic vision quest yielding pure contact with embodied archetypal forces, I got much more out of it than if I’d simply sat there with Dan sniggering at the delusional fool in tights. By telling myself a very specific story about what was occurring, I was able to benefit artistically, financially, and I like to think spiritually, in a way that perhaps might not have been possible had I simply assumed that our Superman was a convention “cosplayer.” (Supergods p. 404)
Morrison is not unique in this by a longshot, but the idea of looking at everything in terms of how it can be converted into a paycheck is more than a little off-putting. If Morrison was exploited, it seems he did his own bit of exploitation. The above passage is just one of several in the book in which Morrison talks about how he could exploit his experiences for financial gain. A big one is his Kathmandu experience:
The next day, Ulric and I flew home via Frankfurt, where I locked myself n an airport hotel room to fill dozens of journal pages with my attempts to describe what had just happened to me in Nepal. If nothing else, I was left with enough ideas for comic books to keep me working for another fifty years. (Supergods p. 274; my emphasis)
In an imagination economy, where ideas, trademarks, and intellectual property held incalculable value, the coruscating quarry face of the interior world was the place to be. There was gold in them thar ghost mines. (Supergods p. 280)
The second passage above comes after several paragraphs in which he describes the Kathmandu experience as a mystical experience, so it’s a bit jarring when he comes back to Earth thinking of how it will affect his bank account. Throughout the book, he comes back to money again and again in this way. Perhaps it’s part of a conscious strategy by Morrison to contrast the sacred with the profane aspects of human life, but it makes Morrison appear to be interested foremost in whether his experiences will convert to money in the comic book marketplace. It’s ultimately a vision of life in which humans are constantly interacting with the world and each other foremost with an eye towards financial exploitation. Perhaps this is the curse of the commercial artist in our society, but it nevertheless places Morrison closer to Supervillains than Supergods.
6. I’ve heard Morrison tell his Kathmandu story in person. The version in the book comes across differently. Besides being more detailed and without the benefit of his Scottish accent, there are two big differences. First, the written version lacks the humor Morrison brings to it when presenting it to a room full of his admirers. Second, the book lacks a story that Morrison appears to use for dramatic contrast. After he tells the Kathmandu story, he tells how he accidentally swallowed a ring and ends up going through his bowel movement in a sink to retrieve it. On the one hand, you have the story of the sacred in Kathmandu; on the other hand, you have a story of the profane which takes place in the W.C. That is, he tells two stories which represent the two aspects of being human. He uses this method in the book when he follows up the story about the Superman cosplayer with one about a Bizarro cosplayer, but not for the Kathmandu story. Why?
7. My favorite line in Supergods? This:
The San Diego Comic-Con is an event that everyone should experience at least once. It’s a big rehearsal for tomorrow, where Second Life becomes real. (Supergods p 373; my emphasis.)
”It’s a big rehearsal for tomorrow.” I nominate that for the Con slogan.
The most interesting thing about the TV show Terra Nova may be that it implies that certain circumstances justify a military dictatorship.
Having made a mistake in banishing an innocent man, does the colony repudiate the dictatorship? Does the dictator admit a mistake? Nope. The episode ends with the banishment of someone else who the dictator “knows” is the true murderer, and it takes place outside of the colony, more or less in secret, thus hiding the initial mistake from the other colony members. Of course, the first man banished, the one they find out was innocent, will soon be seen moving about in Terra Nova, but the reactions of the others to this error in justice will not be seen by us. The show seems to be going out of its way to protect the dictatorship from criticism and resistance from those living under the dictatorship. It seems unlikely that the producers are setting up an opposition to the dictatorship from within the colony because this character, and the actor playing him, is the best part of the show. He is the only one with the charisma necessary to carry a show like this. How likely is it that they would kill him off? It’s equally unlikely that his character would survive a change in the form of government. Therefore, it seems likely that the implicit justification and sympathy the show gives military dictatorships will continue.