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Frank Miller, Politics, and Entertainment

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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.

UPDATE (11/18/15):

In a recent interview Frank Miller confirms that he is a libertarian:

People often think it’s a conservative screed. But Ronald Reagan is literally a villain in the story! That interpretation has never made sense to me.
Especially since I’m not a conservative. I’m a libertarian.

The Role of the Dole in the British Invasion

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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.

The evidence?

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 [1984],… 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?

UPDATE 8/12/12

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?

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

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.

Written by David Kilmer

November 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm

The Liquidator Vs. Hydro-Man

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My FOOM contest entry, The Liquidator. (Kinda short for a villain, isn’t he?)

In 1972, Marvel Comics launched a new fan club called FOOM (Friends of Ol’Marvel). The goodies that members received included a subscription to FOOM Magazine which was edited by by Jim Steranko for the first year.

The editorial of the first issue included a contest announcement:

Marvel announces a character contest in FOOM #1. Note the “All entries become the property of Marvel Comics Group” at the end.

I entered the contest with a villain called The Liquidator:

Contest entrants, including me  (enlarge the picture and you’ll see my name in the left column, row 18), were listed in FOOM #2

I neither won nor received one of the many honorable mentions:

Kirby-esque contest winner Humus Sapiens in FOOM #3

However, a few years ago I was amused to discover Hydro-Man, a villain introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man #212:

This villain possessed several of the powers that I had given The Liquidator. According to Wikipedia:

Hydro-Man is able to bodily transform himself into a watery liquid substance; he can access secure areas and small openings with relative ease; when his bodily mass is dispersed in this form it simply reforms, albeit slowly depending on how far apart the mass was. All of Hydro-Man’s cells remain fully under his control when he is in his liquid state. Hydro-Man can also merge with and manipulate larger bodies of water when he is in his water form. He can increase his mass and cause tidal waves. He can turn parts of his body to liquid while retaining the rest of his human form, allowing him to slip from a foe’s grasp or have projectiles like bullets harmlessly pass through him. Through great mental exertion, Hydro-Man can also turn to ice and steam. Other examples of manipulating his watery form include firing off small streams such as a fire hose, shaping parts of his body into ‘solid-water’, constructs, and mixing himself with other compounds for different effects.

Postscript

The contest winner’s character was supposed to have guest starred in a Marvel comic. According to Wikipedia (again), Humus Sapiens did appear in a Marvel comic, but it was one that was published 28 years later in Thunderbolts #55 (Sept. 2001)!

UPDATE: November 10, 2011

Bleeding Cool Comics put up a post in which it’s pointed out that the current co-publisher of DC Comics, Dan DiDio, was one of the entrants, as “Danny Didio, ” although I was actually more interested to see James (The Crow) O’Barr’s name near the middle of the last column on the right.

Here’s the list of entrants from FOOM #4 (which does not repeat entrants already published in #2):

FOOM #4

My Favorite Comic Books

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My list of top ten comics was rejected by The Hooded Utilitarian for their recent poll of comics creators and critics, asking them to list their top ten favorite comics. Their poll result is here, but my list is below. Despite being rejected, it’s interesting to me to see how many of my faves were mentioned by those who were invited to participate. I also thought it interesting that even the top vote getter, Peanuts, received only 24% of the vote (50/211). Is that enough to claim that there is a consensus for this list of best comics? I don’t think so. All that you can say is that the largest minority grouping thinks Peanuts is tops. But the much larger majority (76% of the vote) disagrees. The headline should refer not to Peanuts being number one, but to the fact that there was no agreement about which title should occupy the number one slot.

Anyway, here’s my list. The one I submitted was limited to ten titles, but I’m not bothering to meet that limit here.

There are always more comics to add to my library. My want list is here.

Lorenzo Mattotti on Monsters

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Art by Lorenzo Mattotti from The Raven

In this excerpt from an interview with Lorenzo Mattotti, one of my favorite comic book artists, Mattotti gives Guillermo Del Toro a run for his money in the Cool Quotes About Monsters Department. The interview was posted on the Fantagraphics Books blog site in conjunction with Fantagraphic’s release of The Raven by Lou Reed and Mattotti, a book that adapts works by Edgar Allan Poe.

Eric Buckler: The book is full of creatures. Can you talk about where some of these come from, how you craft those creatures?

Lorenzo Mattotti: Creatures are always our insides. It’s part of a long work that I have always done in my sketchbooks. I think in 30 years, I’ll continue to make drawings like that in my sketchbook. They are always drawings about my insides, so they are metaphor, they are symbols, symbols of our natural inside. So, I don’t think they are different creatures from us, they are not animals, they are us. They are our brains, they are our ideas. The drawing gives us the possibility to change the form to make signs that interpret the reality. They are the concretization of our imagination. So, maybe sometimes they explain much better than a realistic image would. So, the creature from inside you. You may think that they are creatures of another world but they are creatures of our world; the spider, the monster, the stranger, the character. The distortion is the distortion of our brain.

Buckler: So, you lent the creature inside of yourself to this work to help translate it?

Mattotti: To what?

Buckler: You said that the creatures were a concretization of the creature inside of you?

Mattotti: They are a concretization of ideas, of sensations, of emotions. I don’t have an animal in my brain, I have emotion, contradiction, tension, pieces of sensation and emotion. And when I draw, my creatures are the concretization of emotions. I do not know before I draw what will happen on the paper, they go out in a very natural way. They are the symbol of sensations that I have inside.

For What It’s Worth Department:

My USC Film School adaptation of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” can can be viewed here.

Written by David Kilmer

August 16, 2011 at 8:36 am

Every One of Us is Jack Kirby

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With apologies to Spartacus

Everyone is linking to Stephen Bissette today. Why? Because Bissette, like many of us, is upset by the Kirby vs Marvel decision (in which Marvel won and the Kirby heirs lost) and is calling for a boycott of everything from Marvel that is derived from characters or stories created by Jack Kirby. Bissette wants to make noise during Comic-Con next year at the Marvel related panels. (Do Marvel executives even do panels?)

It sounds nice and all that, but ultimately, I think, it will not change what needs to be changed.

Why?

1. Jack Kirby is dead. The court decision changes nothing. The status quo prevails. If Bissette is upset with the court’s decision, then he should boycott the judge. If he hasn’t been boycotting Marvel all these years, why is he so eager to start now? This decision has changed nothing and if he has been angered by Marvel making money from the creations of Jack Kirby without Kirby having received proper recognition or compensation years ago, then he should have been boycotting Marvel starting all those years ago.

2. Jack Kirby is still dead. His heirs did not create the Marvel characters; he did. Giving them money is not going to help Kirby now or redress the injustice Kirby experienced. (It wouldn’t hurt to give him proper credit, though. Even Brad Bird did not acknowledge Kirby, or Stan Lee, when he did The Incredibles.)

3. I sure wish we could get someone such as Karl Marx, who would surely be on our side, to say something about this and similar matters regarding comic book creators. Perhaps Grant Morrison or Alan Moore can conjure him up with their magick. Marx might explain how artists and creative types are not the only ones who are exploited in our society. Practically everyone is exploited. Most of us, not just Jack Kirby, make others rich through our work for them. Since we cannot survive without the job that someone else usually provides, we have little choice about it. This is why Jack Kirby apparently signed away the rights to his work, but, as I see it, this happens to most of us. Boycotting Marvel is not going to help workers throughout the world live better. It may help Kirby’s heirs live better, but are they really in need more than the homeless people I could not help but notice this year during Comic-Con?

4. What about the fans, the “early adopters” of the Sixties, who bought Kirby comics and provided feedback in the fan mail columns, etc.? Kirby did not create in a vacuum and I’m sure that fan mail helped inspire him. Without fans there would have been no Kirby (or Marvel or Stan Lee). If fans had not responded to Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the rest, Kirby may have been drawing Fin Fang Foom-type comics for the rest of his career. This year at Comic-Con, I heard a lot of lip service paid to fans. As my grandfather would say, if I had a nickle for every time I heard someone say, “We wouldn’t be up here without you fans,” I’d be as rich as Rockefeller. If only they’d back those words up with real action! Marvel is what it is, not just thanks to the work Kirby did, but thanks to fans with pocket change who bought and continue to buy Kirby or Kirby-derived work.

5. Boycotting Marvel is not going to change the system that each of us must deal with every day. The system simply cannot survive without the kind of exploitation that Kirby, as well as each of us puts up with every day. Each of us is born into this world that we never made, but if we don’t like it, why don’t we really do something about it? You may say that a Marvel boycott is one small step on a very long journey, but that’s all it is, one very small step. There have been many boycotts throughout the years, but here we are, and the game has not changed much, if at all. Let’s not lose sight of the larger picture, our world, where billions of Jack Kirby’s are toiling away in obscurity at this very moment without proper credit or compensation.

6. The Kirby case is seen by most as a creator’s rights issue, but if we look at it as a worker’s rights issue, we will see that we are all creators in one way or another and we are all exploited by our employers. Employers hire us because they can exploit us. Of course, this is perfectly legal. It’s the basis of our system. But just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s just.

Every one of us is Jack Kirby.

Related posts:

Marvel’s The Avengers: Some thoughts

Written by David Kilmer

August 1, 2011 at 5:08 pm