Wednesday, September 28, 2011
When you're doing the whole "life beyond comics" thing, every little once in a while something pops out of your interactions with other ideas and hits you as something that dialogues with the world of comics. Superhero fans see their icons as avatars of the same forces personified in latter days by gods and demigods, partisans of art-comix draw direct lines from the work of canonical painters to modern-day zine makers, and very much so forth. Well hey guys, I got a new one for ya!
Lately I've been reading some about the sacrifice of living beings (often humans) in ancient societies, and more specifically scapegoating. The modern use of "scapegoat" as a single life representative of all that's wrong with a culture doesn't quite catch the term as it worked back when it was actually a thing. More often than not, the human scapegoats chosen for sacrifice or ritual slaughter weren't the reviled outcasts with nothing of value to contribute. When you kill those guys it's culling, which is a like a grosser version of doing the laundry: not an affirmative community-building exercise so much as just making sure your shit isn't getting all nasty. The sacrifices that were seen as serving a positive function usually centered around the killing of a fully assimilated, respected member of the community, one who embodied its values and morals.
Ritual sacrifice (again, culling is a different thing) is a rare occurrence in societies where subsistence is a difficulty, for obvious reasons. In cultures where waste is more or less acceptable, where a surplus has been built up and excess is considered a force to be reckoned with, it's much more common. The basic idea is to kill someone who represents not something bad, but too much of a good thing -- drawing a line to point out the place where something seen as a positive cultural value becomes a negative. An overzealous warrior, an uncommonly fertile woman, a precocious child... be too much of what you represent to people and you become not just expendable, but an example to be made. Think about the word as it's used outside of killing: giving up something important for the greater good. The ethos of sacrifice remains part and parcel of modern American culture: see everything from a nation of McDonald's eaters' revulsion for the obese to the moral condemnations of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and My Lai, which just killed the enemy way too good to be stood. Hypocrisy or demarcating the boundaries of acceptable behavior? U-Decide!
Can you see where I'm going with this one, or do I need to provide a few Helpful Examples?
If you insist...
That picture up there is "A Man Taken By Surprise", an oil painting done by Bernard Krigstein, the leading artistic light of EC Comics, right around the time the company he worked for was being systematically dismantled by the medium's new self-censorship board. Estes Kefauver's 1954 Senate hearings to determine whether or not comics were the cause of American juvenile delinquency (verdict: unproven) were themselves a form of ritual slaughter, though more of a culling than anything else, assigning all blame for a massively complicated societal problem to a form of artistic expression and attempting to discontinue its practice in order to solve said problem. But what happened in Kefauver's wake was perhaps comics' first, and certainly its most historically significant sacrifice. Rather than submit to government censorship, comics publishers banded together to create a list of regulations that would ensure nothing even remotely objectionable would make it to the pages of a printed comic again.
The new Comics Code included provisions that seemed intended specifically to shut down EC, then far and away the most popular line of books, as well as the closest thing work done in the comic book format had come at the time to legitimate art. In essence, crime and horror comics, EC's bread and butter, were completely illegalized, cutting down one of comics' best ever lines in its prime as well as dealing the idea of comics as art a blow from which it would take well over a decade to recover from. EC was a dangerous company not just for the high murder-and-dismemberment quotient of its most popular titles, but also for its near-monopoly on artistic talent, the freedom it allowed its artists, its tendency to discuss the base, nasty realities of the hard-capitalist comics industry in its letter columns, and the gorgeously illustrated polemics for racial harmony and social change it led a string of Shock SuspenStories issues with. EC was too good for comics: too literate for a pulp medium, too controversial for an economy based entirely on depriving kids of their dimes and nickels, and too powerful for less successful publishers to deal with. Though it personified a massive amount what was good -- and accepted as good -- about comics as an art form, there was a point at which the community at large believed that if EC didn't go, it would be the entire industry. And so it went.
In the comics community's internet age, there's no more reviled cartoonist than Rob Liefeld. Though his comics still tend to sell okay, the drop-off from his heyday at Image Comics has been millions of readers, quite a few of whom seem to truly hate his guts. Of course, the dropoff in readership for comics in general since 1991 or thereabouts also numbers in the millions, thanks to the collapse of the market for speculation on "collector's item" issues and an endless amount of terrible comics pumped out to service said market. There's a desperate current underlying a huge amount of conversation about comics, a hysterical tone that whines where did all the readers go? The reality -- bad comics and worse marketing -- is far too systemic to be changed without getting rid of at least ninety percent of people employed by publishers of sequential art in America, which of course will never happen. So in the blighted field comics has become, it's much more convenient to find a whipping boy, someone who rode the rise to a high enough level that he can be blamed for the fall.
Enter Liefeld, who set sales records with hyperkinetic, often logic-free comics whose amplified exteriors belie a deep knowledge of exactly what the commercially lucrative audience of teen and pre-teen boys is looking for. The claim that Liefeld's massively copied but never quite duplicated style is what "ruined comics" is as common as any topic of conversation in comics circles, and blaming the entire economic cycle of boom and bust that accompanied the speculator craze on him is similarly de rigeur. In this, Liefeld is a scapegoat as we use the term today: an individual who, for the community, embodies all that's gone wrong since better times.
What qualifies Liefeld as a sacrifice in the more traditional sense is the substance of the criticism against him, which focuses not on his exploitation of the artificial speculator market, but his style of comics making. Both the vastness and extent of fan hatred for Liefeld come close to paradoxical when one considers how easily the majority of comics being published can be tarred with the same brush that covers Liefeld over daily. Criticism of his furious, line-heavy, anatomy-free art style can be applied to fan darling Jim Lee word for word, and the claim that Liefeld's comics are caffeinated, meaningless exhibitions of yelling an fighting is true of just about everything that comes out from a major publisher today. Strangely enough, Liefeld's purity of commitment to liney art and high-octane actionfest stories is what marks him out for abnegation by the very audience that eats such things up. The fan culture's general hatred toward Liefeld is as potent an example of sacrifice to demarcate cultural boundaries as any. We'll canonize overworked art and harebrained stories, the message goes, but only up to the point represented by the work of this one individual.
If Liefeld's rejection by the same fans that once worshipped him is a continuing ritual to inure mainstream comics against what's seen as the "low", fan culture's recent rejection of its one-time chief deity, Alan Moore, can be seen as a similar action brought on by a fear of the "high". In his mid-1980s commercial prime, Moore mashed up what was and remains the beating heart of American comics, the superhero genre, with virtuosic displays of literary technique and psychological theorizing. What was even more remarkable than the craft value of Moore's comics, however, was fandom's wildly positive response to them. In doing the same thing Liefeld did (albeit in a very different way) and showing up superhero comics for the hollow farces they all too often were and are, Moore struck a nerve, more or less singlehandedly elevating the quality that fans expected from their superhero stories.
In the masterpieces Watchmen and Miracleman, superheroes were painted as decidedly inferior to, and indeed unworkable within, this new intellectualized approach to action comics. This was the part everybody missed, and despite the occasional brilliance of Moore's post-'80s work outside the corporate genre comics, the overwhelming fan support has never followed Moore into alternative comics. In recent years Moore himself has lashed out at the questionable business practices and low quality native to the superhero industry in a sequence of bewildered, frustrated, but generally eloquent and well-reasoned interviews, fan reaction to which has been overwhelmingly negative. Basically, the comics community has turned its back on Alan Moore, with current fan darling Jason Aaron delivering a hilariously childish, generally well-recieved attack on Moore and literary-superhero-writer heir apparent Grant Morrison making reductive comments about his work into a minor cottage industry. The same people that elevated Moore chose to stay behind rather than follow him beyond the small-minded kind of stories he made his name by reconsidering, and in his absence he's become a mockery, an example of the bad things in store for those who question the governing paradigms of comics, both in fandom and industry. Moore was lauded for telling comics to reach higher, but at some point he just went too high for most readers' comfort.
In a sense the ebbs and flows of consumer acceptance and commercial feasibility discussed above are simply native to capitalist industry, which mainstream comics, at least, is very much a part of. (Alternative comics, with its reliance on government grants and emphasis on community support for less-than-stellar work, has its own set of problems.) But the venom with which the comics community greets its scapegoats, and the willingness with which it puts old heroes to the torch, goes beyond simple booms and busts into something more atavistic. We are a sacrificial culture, one that has real trouble burying work that's no longer useful without spitting on its grave, or marking out communal boundaries without unnecessary vehemence. Comics culture's most recent sacrifice, that of Jack Kirby's heirs after they lost the lawsuit by which they hoped to reclaim their father's creations from Marvel Entertainment, may just have been an all-time high in reprehensibility, with fans crawling out of the woodwork to declare allegiance to their spending habits over giving what was due to the man who provided the material for them.
None of this is to say that comics doesn't also practice scapegoating, but that's too big a world for one blog post to even approach. If there's a point to be garnered from shining the spotlight on the sacrifice phenomenon, it certainly isn't anything cheery or positive. Maybe it's just that this is why it's bad when an entire art form can't garner anything but a tiny, fanatical audience: the general shittiness of people living together in a confined space begins to sink in. Or maybe it's that we are such a culture of excess that we are choking ourselves, and really do need sacrifices of some kind, firm boundaries between the comics that are allowed to exist and the ones that have to be done away with, solid statements that there can be and often is too much of a good thing.