AVENGERS ASSEMBLED & JUSTICE LEAGUES
Culture wars and critical thinking in a world of liberal ends achieved by fascist means.
As I started to write this, I realized that for those of you who know me and my work as a comic book man, much of what I indicate below will be either old news, opinions you agree or disagree with, or points of view which you can accommodate or reject out of hand. Do with that what you will.
For those of you who have no fucking clue whatsoever what I do for a living—and, in that regard, thanks for being here and I’d love to know how and why you found me—you may find this subjective take on the nearly invisible sliver of popular culture which has been the hand that fed me while I continued to bite it intriguing.
By the same token your eyes may very well glaze over. We do, for fuck’s sake, live in a world in which we now have a convenient abbreviation to indicate, and sadly justify, short attention span spawned uninterest—TL—DR.
Proceed or don’t…my feeling—I have only one left, but it’s a really good one—won’t be hurt. That said…
…Mainstream comic books, which were once a medium, have now become a genre, this to a certain extent as a result of the financial collapse of the material’s commercial value in its actual form, and what some might describe as the unexpected and duly monstrous explosion of that selfsame subject matter and its billion-dollar value in other media.
So, as mainstream genre comics continue to march toward extinction, one of the very things that contributed to that endgame maintains the tradition of the junk content that infantilized comic books and the audience for the medium over a century ago in the first place.
I mean, let’s face it. Hollywood swarms with just the sort of people who gave us shit for reading comics as kids. These mountebanks now make bank off this stuff. Who says irony is dead, right?
Whereas, in the old days, say at a party, upon hearing how I made my living, a civilian would politely bring up Charles Schulz as an indication of some vague misunderstanding of who I am professionally, today, that same civilian will assume I am all in on, up to the minute on, and just deliriously loving the fuck out of the latest superhero blockbuster movie—and likely nicely profiting from its blockbuster status in some iteration of trickle-down economics.
Stop—you’re both wrong.
In the first place, comic strips and comic books share DNA in somewhat the same manner as Cro-Magnons and Homo Sapiens. These days, barely and rarely is there any serious overlap of audience for either. For the most part, the audience, such as it is, for comic strips, certainly for the past half century, as the newspaper strips have shrunk, is the casual reader—a civilian, much like that strawman I met at the party in the paragraph above.
The mainstream comic book audience, however, is one of fervent, some might say even fervid loyalty to brand—the brand being the “characters,” to an unfortunate and occasionally alarming extent. This has been the case for well over a half century, due to a cultural adjustment made as a direct choice, a deflection in reaction to a craven footnote in postwar hysteria.
As the result of an industry of cowards, self-policing their product in the 1950s in the wake of an overheated attack on the comic book industry, the potential of mainstream comics in the United States was strangled in the cradle by the Comics Code Authority, which drove away readers with an interest in content other than superheroes, funny animals, romance comics, and teenaged bullshit, the latter three summarily mostly murdered in the 1970s by editors of my generation.
These were men and a very few women who represented the tiny first and considerably larger second wave of comics fandom entering the profession, displacing the previous founding generation, those professional men and women with a mostly dispassionate view of the content they made, emotionally and creatively detached from the content, who conveniently dropped dead to make room for those who’d grown up devouring their product as enthusiasts.
This bunch of editorial and writing talent, not quite a dozen ten years my senior and then my contemporaries, with very few exceptions, loved superhero comic books unconditionally. They brought with them this limited interest, which reflected itself in identifying comic books as a delivery system almost exclusively for the costumed nonsense they’d been conditioned to adore since childhood.
This unfortunate reality persists today, as the successive generations of talent, also continually drawn from fandom, referred to without irony as “Creators,” are all too often as entertained by this stuff as is the audience. I’ve said it before. The making of comic books is not so much a profession but a calling. Once bitten by its attractions, you’re stuck. I am deeply dubious of any working professional in comics who indicates this was a second career choice. I love my job—a job I’ve been emotionally committed to since I learned of the existence of comics at the age of four.
Fine. All well and good. But the fact that so much of the talent pool’s tastes overlap with, as opposed to challenge, the audience’s interests and expectations, remains a source of despair for me.
So, today, there are, for better or worse, no numbers of casual readers of mainstream comics to make such numbers worth counting. Casual readers have been weeded out by the material itself, so committed as it is to as obscure and specific a set of narrative rules and visual tropes as say, Kabuki, or trainspotting, or fetish specific porn, for a few equally valid examples of similar specific niche interests.
I find it fascinating, not to say mystifying, that the mass market civilian audience that eats up the blockbuster iterations of what had once been only the province of monthly comic books can get past this arcana in pursuit of pleasure on the big or small screen, never having been an enthusiast for the source material in the first place.
Now, just like the majority of my fellow second fan generation gone pro, I too certainly grew up unconditionally loving the absolute fuck out of all those rules and tropes of superhero comics. To be clear, and to be honest, this stuff is barely more than pilfered and often near plagiarisms of third-rate pulp science fiction dressed up in spandex, protofascist adolescent power fantasies acted out with costumed “characters,” these endowed with all the depth and narrative complexity of WME employees.
Once I became a professional, I realized that, despite my ambitions and to my dismay, I utterly lacked the skillset to recreate imagery anywhere nearly as effective as those that had entranced me in the superhero comic books of my boyhood. It was abundantly clear that I couldn’t compete in that marketplace, and thus was forced to find other narrative tropes that I could draw, and ultimately write, the latter almost entirely out of self-defense.
It’s worth noting in that regard that an alarming number of the comics writers of my generation were failed artists, which failure didn’t seem to me any particularly valid qualification to take them seriously as writing talent. It’s only among the generations that followed that just writing this stuff became an actual ambition among fans—particularly when the material began to evolve into potentially jackpot adjacent IP. This has led us to the current state of affairs, in which, in a visual medium, the writer is the Alpha. Go figure.
That said, once my skillset caught up with my career and my ambitions, after a near decade long autodidactic education, a learning curve made necessary by those early limitations, my taste in narrative had begun to move in a direction counter to what had entertained me as a boy, still genre based, certainly, but away from superheroes and space opera.
I figuratively began my career over, reinventing myself, exploring and producing comics reflecting other genres of masscult narrative, specifically crime, satire, historical fiction, parody and to be sure, pornography. Superhero stuff had come to seem to me at best harmlessly insipid, at worst hyperbolic junk, with very few exceptions.
This is why I laughed at and was all onboard with the director James Grey, who, when asked by his dentist whether he’d seen the latest Avengers movie (a cinematic classic in which everybody dies but not really, of course—it’s comics, right?), replied, “What am I, eleven?” I’ve seen many, but far from most, of these big budget extravaganzas, and I’ve been occasionally entertained, and just as often bored by the bombast. Despite all the hysterical praise and all those minds reportedly blown, the best of this stuff are sturdy time fillers. At best.
Ultimately, that adjustment in my skillsets led me to leave comic books for a few years, at the behest of the then Editor in Chief at one of the two major houses, who I made the classic mistake of despising before everybody else did. Like Republicans, who can only identify problems when they impact on them personally, my colleagues dismissed my distaste until his awfulness caught up with them, too, at which point distaste for this person became universally acceptable.
As ever, ahead of the curve, and not able to profit from it. My lot in life, since I come from a family of Premature Anti-Fascists, too, and knew how this sort of thing played out.
I returned to comics a few years later with AMERICAN FLAGG!, my first comics work worthy of any real sit up and take notice attention. It was published by an independent house with a commitment to genre material that didn’t necessarily cleave to the superhero model.
Lacking as it did the bullet point checklist identifying its value for the well trained and easily manipulated mainstream audience—costume, mask, quippy overwriting, wounded hero, leaden whimsy, the usual stuff that had been codified and yes commodified by Stan Lee and his legion—my efforts on FLAGG! made no real dent in the commercial marketplace.
FLAGG was, to be sure, a critical success, however. Ignored by the vast majority of enthusiasts, it served as a huge influence on the incoming generation of industry professionals, many of whom have made careers employing the visual and graphic tropes my colleague Ken Bruzenak and I introduced to comics nearly forty years ago—not to mention opening the door to a new way of thinking about content.
FLAGG! had a satirical point of view, as well as implicit sexual content. Naturally, it was that sexual element that got the attention of the prisses in institutional fandom who bothered to notice the book at all. Male comics enthusiasts love pinups, “good girl” art, and cheesecake, but blanch in discomfort at even the implication of a whiff of human desire.
I suspect it made, and perhaps still makes, the average male comic book enthusiast deeply uncomfortable to even consider the erotic, and yes, homoerotic, nature of all that spandex, all that flexing, posing and fighting. Symbolism, let alone self-analysis and potential self-awareness is for the curious. Such a way of thinking is generally alien to the majority of institutionalized comics enthusiasm.
Much of my output for the rest of the 1980s was transgressive, visually, textually and narratively, work made both for the major companies, as well as for the independent market. This output made me no friends among that institutional mass of comics readers. I ended the decade with the first commercially successful pornographic comic book sold over the counter. Needless to say, that confirmed for the majority of those comics enthusiasts that I had betrayed some sort of trust, and was thus unworthy of anything but derision.
“How dare you?” sums up the general reaction pretty effectively of an audience I had grossly overestimated and had, at best, confused, and at worst, permanently alienated.
I spent the 1990s working on third rate television, shitty shows I’d never watch, in a concerted effort to avoid the likelihood of being a drain on the Social Security system, since comics has no pension plan, and is rife with fools who think the money train is going to last forever. It’s a grasshopper business, with unfortunately very few ants. Having never been on that train in the first place, I had a pretty good idea what lay in store, and took measures to avoid disaster.
When I lost my last shitty job on my last shitty show, I returned in the early 2000s to comics. To be honest, I never regained even what little commercial traction I’d had a decade earlier. It’s a business bereft of curiosity, and short term memory is the best it can offer. I was already a has-been, but didn’t know it yet.
More on that later.
I returned to the same sort of work I’d done before, with an even deeper interest in transliterating my interest in crime and historical fiction to comics—not what anyone in their right mind would call commercial gold, in a mainstream marketplace that had become even more committed to the same superhero shuck and jive—exacerbated by the triumph of this stuff in the blockbuster movie business, suddenly entertaining civilians who had barely any idea that comics, in and of themselves, still existed.
In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to what was looming on the horizon, when a revamp I’d done for one of the major comic book companies of a minor action-adventure franchise that had been dead in the water for an awfully long time was met with little or no attention, short of my being called a “Left Wing Faggot” in one of my first acknowledgments on the internet. At least someone was paying attention.
Things to come, sure, but I didn’t give this much thought at the time.
I continued to work, and was happy with that work, nothing of which was setting the world on commercial fire, and then, with all innocence, I created a project entitled THE DIVIDED STATES OF HYSTERIA. This dystopic fiction was produced at a time when it was clearly understood by any serious adult that Hillary Clinton was certainly going to be the 45th president, an administration that many of us believed would generate violent reaction among the simmering and nascent American Reich which anyone who was paying attention knew was out there, just waiting for the fuse to be lit.
Who knew, right?
The book’s narrative arc detailed the aftermath of the next successful massive terrorist attack on the United States. In short order, I was accused of Islamophobia, racism, and transphobia—this last the most damning, and the most oddly comical—as the trans character in question became the moral center of the narrative, not to mention the romantic interest of the hero of the book.
Of course, this character arc occurred organically and logically over the six issues of the series, but those who wanted my head on a pike didn’t follow this narrative…and many of those never actually read the book at all, simply presuming that just like all comic book characters, there would be no development of character to speak of, or charged me with that modern day classic, that I had no right to include a transgender character in any narrative at all, defined as I was by that cultural damnation, heteronormative cisgender white male.
This was my first experience, but hardly the last, of being threatened with banal condemnation for not staying in my own lane.
Fuck that nonsense, of course.
In what may seem to you a curious defense of my detractors, it’s worth repeating that actual character development is, to say the least, pretty damned thin on the ground in mainstream comics. “Characters” don’t evolve, in any real literary or narrative sense. After all, the universal template of mainstream superhero comic book narrative bears an uncanny resemblance to Chuck Jones’ Roadrunner/Coyote cartoons.
Batman chases The Joker. Spider-Man goes up against the Green Goblin. Wonder Woman has no idea what she represents this week. Ad infinitum. No resolution, no closure, no real development. Not even an after-school special’s teachable moment.
The closest mainstream comic books come to the very idea of change, not to say character development, is a new costume for Spider-Man, or Superman losing his shorts, pointless adjustments that themselves are often just temporary sales bait for the credulous. And of course, for me, the absence of this adjustment, of any evolution, is particularly significant in the imposition of “realism” on what are barely more than children’s fantasies of power.
Imagine if you will, as an example, a reboot of CURIOUS GEORGE, in which our monkey hero and the Man in the Yellow Hat return to Africa to fight an outbreak of Ebola, with a side trip to address female circumcision. Trust me when I say that this is no more absurd an idea than those found in the mass majority of mainstream superhero comic book narrative available today.
The infantilized institutional mainstream comics enthusiasts are untrained in the sort of patient curiosity demanded by material that might act itself out in ways unfamiliar and unsettling to the comfort zone of those above-mentioned tropes. Mainstream comic books are at about the level of YA dystopic fiction, HARRY POTTER or FIFTY SHADES OF GREY at best. Soap operas—with Superpowers!
Naturally, this leaves that reader unprepared for a character in a comic book narrative equipped with an arc leading to a different disposition of that character in the conclusion of that narrative—you know, as in mainstream genre fiction and movies, as a perfect example. “Hey!! This just doesn’t happen in the X-Men!”
And so, phrases such as “I’m all for artistic freedom but…” and “I don’t have to read it to know it’s shit” were the order of the day, most hurtfully from fellow professionals. I was dubbed, poetically to be sure, by an outraged no talent apparently desperate for attention, “A demon in a human skin suit.” This on the same day as some rightwing shithead came up with “Neutered butler of the SJWs.”
More on the latter in a moment.
I thus found myself in a position that many others like me already or would soon occupy—an enemy of the people who had come to own, and, through the triple threat of progressive wokeness, performative morality and critical theory, now dictate, administrate and govern that side of the trough which I have long called home.
All this, to be noted, in reaction to a six issue comic book series with a distinctly left wing bent, not to mention as noted above, a trans woman heroine equipped with that modern classic cultural bullet point check mark of “agency,” who finds love with a heteronormative cisgender white male, to coin a phrase.
Entre nous, I was schooled in regard to the concept and value of agency in a spirited discussion pointing to that idea as the defining reason for the superiority of “WAP” to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Give me strength.
All this led to boycotts, censorship and permanent damage to my career, my good name, my reputation and my legacy—much of this spearheaded by progressive woke colleagues, at least one of whom has been identified as a sexual predator, a loathsome, opportunist, morally performative little prick who of course has been driven away into the desert by the denunciation of former friends, anxious to distance themselves from such contagious toxicity.
One more indication that irony had not entirely disappeared from this American life.
For me, the finest of that irony came about when many of the more censorious of those colleagues participated in a variant cover tribute to Banned Books month, bringing opportunism, hypocrisy and performative morality to a new height of gloss in their rush to self-congratulation for the support of artistic freedom, for which, they were, as noted above, “All for…” while they did everything in their power to censor my book.
Again, as noted above, “but…”
Now those of you who don’t live part or for that matter any of your life in the world of comics, this may seem like utter chickenshit, and for the record, considering the actual real-world impact of comics, of course it is. For all those billions being spent to see those superhero blockbusters, mainstream comic books, in their traditional form, are, as noted above, slowly fading from irrelevance to dimly beloved memory, despite the manic enthusiasm of those diehard enthusiasts on both sides of the trough.
And yet, while the fade continues, there’s an ongoing cultural war being fought, between the woke left and reactionary right of comics enthusiasts, over who owns the soul and spirit of comic book superheroes.
In this long infantilized medium, now as noted devolved into a genre, in which the thematic paradigm has always been one of liberal ends achieved by fascist means, grown men and women are engaged in social, moral and to be sure morally performative combat over the implicit meanings and yes, political currency of this stuff.
See what you miss by having real problems?
I have never apologized, or perhaps better to say, never recanted, the points of view expressed in THE DIVIDED STATES OF HYSTERIA, or for the content in any of my work for that matter. Nothing will convince me that being offended by anything grants anyone a seat on any higher moral ground.
And of course, all the criticism was delivered from behind keyboards, occasionally pseudonymously, so the unpersoning tradition of the left and the cancelling hypocrisy of the right had a field day.
No apologies ever came my way, either—despite the fact that a number of those professionals—I shudder and cringe but must call them colleagues— who digitally took my scalp, shared convention appearances with me. These would have been perfect opportunities to elaborate on their distaste, telling me what they thought of me to my face, or perhaps to engage in a spirited discussion, where a common ground might be reached. Who knows? It could happen.
Needless to say, crickets ensued.
And then, about a year after that shitstorm, I was enlisted, to be sure strongly encouraged, by a self-designated spokesperson for the left side of the trough, to denounce a number of professionals who were on my “friends” list, whose politics were to the right. This was, to be clear, my first true awareness of this contretemps between these two camps of comic book enthusiasts.
I did some research on what I soon learned was an ongoing war for the heart and soul of mainstream comics, and yes, these fellows’ political beliefs were extreme, and in some cases verging on the almost comically vile. I unfriended them, and did the same for the fellow who insisted I denounce these people. I leave denunciations to the sort of fair-weather apparatchiks who threw the grooming little creep under the bus a few paragraphs back.
There was a wealth of irony in that the descriptions of these right-wing talent that surfaced to support my requested denunciation were almost verbatim those thrown at me a year earlier. Make of that what you will. I remain bemused, if not amused.
As for denunciation, and the subsequent unfriending of all parties involved, I have no problem arguing with people face to face, but I prefer the social aspect of the social network. What I seek is the atmosphere of a spirited cocktail party, as opposed to a shouting match with people I know barely if at all, achieving nothing but agita. There is little nuance available in the delivery system of social media, in which irony vanishes, facetiousness mistakes itself for wit, and feelings are too often hurt by the choice of the wounded to be offended.
So, I found myself in the grayest of gray areas, caught between the woke left, with its Eloi moral superiority on one side, and the reactionary right, with its Morlock Just Kidding cruelty on the other. Yes, the cultural war taking place in real life was also being fought in proxy in my little corner of the world.
And as in their real-life counterparts, both sides of this chickenshit enterprise were imbued with that one deeply all-American trait that crosses all political boundaries. They share an utterly unjustified overconfidence in the presumptions of their numbers and of their respective values as default definitions of humanity, morality and reality.
Just to be clear—I am not now, nor have I ever been a relativist in the real world. I come from a long line of Democratic Socialists—see above in regard to Premature Anti-Fascism. In that regard, and, or maybe but, for the didactic among you, I am also an iconoclast, with a contrarian aversion to cant and canon, with a suspicion of critical theory and the absurdist overreach of intersectionality in its inhumane misunderstanding of humanity and human nature.
Critical thinking. Try it on your friends!
And of course, there’s the progressive woke conflation of hurt feelings with actual wounds from actual violence. This bullshit is laughable and ridiculous in and of itself, made even more awful by how easily mocked such a stance is in the hands of the shameless reactionary right. Too many yahoos in that crowd conflate masculinity with cruelty, insisting on identifying schoolyard insults as Swiftian satire.
In the real world in which I live, I reserve my true loathing for the right and all it stands for. This claque is the clear and present danger to everything I hold dear. I despise its sexism, its racism, its homophobia, its selfishness, its nationalism, its xenophobia, its armed violence, its willful ignorance, its rejection of democracy at the cost of its own well-being, that last just as long as those they’ve been trained to hate and fear by their masters don’t get anything, either.
And rest assured, when these people talk about a White America, I and my fellow Members of the Tribe aren’t part of that game plan. These self-designated followers of a savior whose teachings they ignore as needed are a menace to the lives of Americans, and I fear will ultimately succeed in instigating a race and class war which will do no one any good.
But again, that’s the real world. In my professional life as a comic book man, a veteran of a dying business, there is plenty to be relativist about, with, at least from my perspective, no fear of false equivalencies.
In comics, my profession for a half century, I have been effectively rejected wholeheartedly by the woke left. The most profoundly ignorant and of course incurious of this swarm actually and seriously presume I’m a right-wing nut case, this because of the zero-sum nature of modern progressive politics as it’s applied to culture.
By the quasi-religious terms of this messianic sect, one must either accept, embrace and engage in every way with the program, or you’re an outcast, an exile, a dead man walking. Nuance, let alone critical thinking, are apparently holdovers from a patriarchy worth crushing.
By way of willful misrepresentation, willful misinterpretation, and willful misunderstanding, my fifty years of work are now held in no particular regard by institutional comics fandom, which is, to a profound degree, morally performative in its presentation of itself as inclusive, albeit in a very selective, not to say pandering and patronizing, take on diversity. And that side of the audience is all in for the self-congratulation that is the reward of being on the receiving end of successful condescension.
It’s worth noting, as per my overview of my career choices above, that none of this surprises me. To paraquote the all-wise Super Chicken, “I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.” The approval of so credulous a crowd as this has no traction in regard to my self-worth. I’ll get by.
I lack the consistency of the mediocre, which seems a pretty solid guarantor of attention and affection in comics. I’ve been good, I’ve been awful, but I’ve rarely been anywhere near anodyne. I neither insult nor flatter easily, certainly not in reaction to the affection of or rejection by a crowd so easily bamboozled by the presentation of performative nice in lieu of actual good.
To my surprise, the reactionary right in the comic book world, however, despite loathing my clearly stated leftwing politics, apparently regards iconoclasts as potential allies, if only the light can be finally seen by us, poor benighted halfway there souls as we are. Since it’s likely that few of these trogs have a fucking clue as to who Whittaker Chambers was, perhaps it’s built into the rightwing way of thinking that rejection under any circumstances, hurt feelings, as noted above, must in turn lead naturally to political apostasy.
This was acted out for me at a dinner sometime before the current lockdown disaster, during which I was strongly and passionately solicited by a casual acquaintance of mine to produce work for a friend of his, a fellow who had been one of the instigators of what has come to be known, typically with no imagination whatsoever, as Comicsgate.
This Comicsgate capo had already talked shit about me on various social media venues, but I had managed, through no effort of my own, to be excluded from these miscreants’ Enemies List. In retrospect, perhaps the assumption was that there was hope for me. incidentally, there were a number of people on that list I loathe, a perfect confirmation that, at least for me, the enemy of my enemy isn’t necessarily any friend of mine.
As we ate, I made it abundantly clear that I had no desire whatsoever to be associated with this person, or his published product, which, to be kind, looked and read uncannily like what might have happened had Jack Chick forsworn his own psychotic brand of Christian love and opted instead to work for Larry Flynt.
For those of you who aren’t hip to comics, Googling “Jack Chick” will likely be a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Larry Flynt, I will assume you are all too aware of.
The guy doing the soliciting pressed on, insisting that this publisher was “hilarious,” and would be a great fit for my way of thinking, whatever his presumption of my way of thinking might have been. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. I continued to demur, finally saying that I had no intention of granting this guy any imprimatur by association with me, or anything I’d write and draw.
Despite my lack of a commercial footprint, not to mention the suspicion, distaste and indifference with which I am regarded by the majority of enthusiasts, I still have realistic self-awareness, healthy self-esteem, not to forget personal dignity. I wasn’t going to piss any of that away by association with this clown comitatus.
And that’s when my dinner companion inadvertently handed me my way out. This acquaintance of mine said I wouldn’t have to worry about scripts—I’d be providing artwork for one of this hilarious—which, having read some of this Comicsgate guy’s work, was apparently just another word for “sexist,” “misogynist,” and downright “troglodytic”—publishers’ scripts.
I made it politely but abundantly clear that this was a nonstarter, that at this late stage in my career I wasn’t going to work with another writer, let alone this idiotic talent free amateur undeserving of time or attention, mine or anyone else’s.
Apropos of nothing, or maybe something, my dinner date that evening was Sabrina Pandora, a trans woman I’ve known for nearly four decades, who bears much of the responsibility in getting me off my ass to tell the story of this dinner experience. She was an enormous help in regard to the refinement and definition of Chrissie Silver, the trans heroine of THE DIVIDED STATES OF HYSTERIA, for which I can never thank her enough.
Sorry for burying the lede, dahlink. I got carried away.
And that was the end of my brief solicitation on the part of the right-wing echelon of comic books. I mean, any reading of my work will give you a pretty clear idea of where I stand. Of course, that’s a mistake I often make—that the work is actually read, and thus offers up a conclusion to be drawn, as opposed to the all too prevalent reality of a superficial self-justifying conclusion first reached, after which the work is cherry picked to support the conclusion, skipping over the bothersome contradictions that get in the way of feelings over facts.
I was at first, to be sure, flabbergasted by the idea of anyone thinking I would ever entertain partnering up in any way with this bunch. And then, as I will, I began to chew over the whole experience. And I recalled all those progressives who, based on whatever presumptions and sensibilities supported their own assumptions, regarded me as a right-wing nutcase.
For this self-designated progressive crowd, anyone who didn’t, and in my case categorically refused to enthusiastically embrace all aspects of woke secular theology in lieu of critical thinking was by definition, a right-wing nutcase.
It would seem their opposite numbers on the other side of the trough believed this, too.
As noted above, I’m not in any way a relativist in the real world, where such nonsense is all too often just the rampant bullshit of false equivalencies deployed by treacherous and traitorous assholes.
But in comics…
…It’s awfully clear that it’s an almost absurd absolutism and moral clarity, however amoral that moral clarity might be, conclusions imposed on as opposed to arrived at by investigation, and a flabbergasting overconfidence in their righteousness and their numbers, that are among the unifying traits of these two opposing sides.
And as lousy, as banal as the work coming out of this He Man Women Haters Club is, much of the work done on the other side matches it, if not in lameness of execution than in its pandering fatuousness, resonant with the modern-day iteration of the sad and pathetically obvious gaming of “relevance” back in my day of comic book fandom, by guys twenty years my senior growing sideburns and hair over their collars to be, like, hep.
And speaking of gaming, while the fatuous left seems to embrace and fall for the corporate bullshit mummery of diversity—Thor is a woman! Batman has a dick!—the credulous right seems willing to throw money better spent on health insurance at right wing comic book talent’s crowdsourcing, for projects many of which never seem to materialize.
Both sides, of course, like their counterparts in the alternate universe that is the real world, are awash in their own brand of identity politics. And because we are talking here about mainstream superhero comic books, any actual analysis of depth, of nuance, of considering an alternative point of view, let alone the very idea that just because something makes you a bit uncomfortable doesn’t mean that that something has to be disintegrated, is invisible. These are people, after all, who are utterly enthralled by and live in a fantasy world of self-described heroes and villains, and damn nuance and complexity, for fuck’s sake.
This is toxic fandom at its lamest and worst, the sort of dismally uberserious reaction to barely middling popular culture akin to religious delight. And it’s proprietary fandom, too, where affection and engagement with these selfsame products of corporate popular culture is mistaken for the responsibility of governance of what is no more than disposable junk held a tad too dear than might be healthy.
So, the audience on both sides of the trough, the prog and the trog, are willing conspirators in the machinations of opportunism run on them by the talent representing those two cadres. That’s right. In order to support and justify their fandom, grown men and women are fighting for the soul of children’s material that has been slathered with the sullen edginess of phony gravitas, that solemn self-seriousness mistaken by the credulous for depth and complexity.
Both armies of this conflict, all too many fans and unfortunately too many professionals alike, are made up of what should be self-respecting adults, all caught in a whirlpool of overpraising junk in an endorsement of their own tastes and interests.
And of course, what is mostly absent, virtually nonexistent, is transcendence, excellence, strangeness, surprise. When granted a creative opportunity by success, commercial or critical, all too often the time-honored response is to create pastiches of what made for that success in the first place. It would seem the world can’t do without another, and another, and another, version of the X-Men. All this just makes blatantly clear that “With great power comes great responsibility” has always been just patronizing bullshit.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that when ideology, whether of the left or the right, is the first consideration of the value in any creative enterprise, replacing standards of, you know, quality and professionalism, even in the tiny niche of mainstream comic books, thus playing to whichever base you might identify as your own is your default, the results are rarely going to be anything special.
Kurt Vonnegut nailed this in 1961 with HARRISON BERGERON, a satirical narrative about a dystopia in which anodyne mediocrity was maintained by federal diktat. Comically, or maybe tragicomically, the story was embraced as a talking point and rallying point by both the left and the right back in those dim dead days, when the story was taken to be an attack on conformity. Much like Richard Condon, a social realist too often mistaken for a social satirist, Vonnegut nailed the future we live in.
I’ve pointed out that mainstream comics, even as IP, are marching toward irrelevance. The same, of course, goes for me. My career, for what it’s worth, is functionally over. Oh, I’m working, and will continue to work as long as my skill set doesn’t embarrass me. But that work has no real footprint commercially, beyond a loyal and beloved core of readers who share at least some of my sensibilities.
As indicated above, I’ve been a has-been for quite a while.
That said, I’m well into my seventy first year, and there are very few other comics contemporaries of mine who are still active, and of those, I’m among the very few who isn’t out there creating pastiches, let alone unintentional parodies, of what might have passed for past glories. Comics is a kid’s business, or at least a business best served by arrested adolescents with eventual expiration dates which arrive sooner than anticipated, if anticipated at all, to rounds of shock and dismay.
So, all the bridge burning above can be dismissed or easily ignored. You’re welcome to sneer at it as just one more bilious screed from one more heteronormative cisgender White male. You’re welcome to regard me as a gender neutral channeler of my inner Norma Desmond, for all I give a damn.
And yes, all this is completely subjective. That’s one of the aspects of having an informed opinion. Do with this what you will.
And yes, there are exceptions to the generalities stated above. But with a tip of the Chaykin chapeau to Paul Anka, too few to mention.
And yes, occasionally, when summoned, I will do the best I can in service to work on mainstream superhero comic books. It may be a career, but it’s also a job.
And yes, before you go all gotcha on me, there’s a certain degree of bitterness underpinning all this. That bitterness however, is tempered by earned and learned acceptance, and by a clear understanding that I got here by choices that I have made with my eyes open, and that I have precisely the career I deserve.
A career, I hasten to confirm, for which I am forever grateful.
I used to flatter myself that I’d get a Wednesday, quarter page obituary in the New York Times. This seems less likely now, not that it’ll matter to anyone other than my survivors. I’ve made my peace with marginality, with the understanding of the truth that irrelevance can be liberating. Trust me on this.
I’ve now lived, and worked as a comics man, long enough to be called a legend and a has-been, this on the same day, for fuck’s sake. And, as the architect of my own adversity, I’m all too willing to acknowledge my responsibility for both of those pole positions.
To my surprise, delight, and yes, contentment in a business where today’s top dog is just this week’s World’s Tallest Midget, in a creative enterprise with a narrative traditionally overflowing with alter egos, there’s a certain comfort in those dual identities.
As ever, I remain,
Howard Victor Chaykin…a Prince, a Legend, and a Has-been, too.Go know