Funny how things work out. I did the column MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS for two years, producing an essay every week, and I'm essayed to death. This new column is intended to be more of a mini-magazine, with a variety of features. So, of course, I'm starting off with an essay.
But some things need to be said.
I was in Los Angeles last week when the Trade Towers came down. I woke and switched on the TV shortly after the planes had crashed, before the towers collapsed, and it was like watching one of those made-for-TV "reality" movies of the late 80s and early 90s, where all the fictitious events are told via "round-the-clock news broadcasts" and "footage." The Orson Welles WAR OF THE WORLDS technique. That's what it played like, and it took a few minutes to sink in that it was actually happening – especially since I'd already seen the scenario, on TV, though it was days before I could place where: the series opener to LONE GUNMEN last season, where black ops renegades have a microchip that allows them to take remote control of planes. Their target was the World Trade Center. In the show, the plane missed.
This isn't an indictment of fiction. Fiction has the right to portray anything.
The curious thing about Los Angeles was how convinced everyone there seemed to be that they were next. For a couple hours, that wasn't exactly paranoia – for a little while anything seemed possible – but by noon it was pretty obvious nothing was coming and still they hunkered down like the air raid sirens were roaring.
I don't recall the exact words but an artist that day said something along the lines of "how can I sit here drawing superhero comics when in the real world the bad guys always win?"
But what did they win? Nothing.
Sure, a lot of people died, and the country was in shock for awhile. Who wouldn't be? Those deaths were certainly our loss (amid talk of rebuilding the World Trade Center – but who'd put an office there, after this? – I hope the area is instead converted to a memorial park for those who died, in the buildings and on the planes) but they were no victory for terrorism. There was no panic in the streets, no breakdown of the fabric of American society. In fact, the attack did something we've been trying to do for fifty years with nothing but failure: win the vast majority of the world to the side of the United States Of America.
They won absolutely nothing. They accomplished absolutely nothing, except to kill a lot of people who had no reason to die, and, frankly, that's not that hard to do. Any idiot can do it if he wants to badly enough. In fact, it takes an idiot to want to.
I offended someone last week by likening the attack to a computer virus. Of course, it was far worse than any computer virus, but this is what I meant: all either do is point up security holes. There are systems in place for dealing with that, unfortunately after the fact in most cases, but when a virus attacks computer systems, the holes are quickly discovered and plugged up. This doesn't mean there will never be another computer virus, but it does mean future programmers have to be cleverer and find new security holes to exploit. Same with this: every terrorist attack causes that particular security hole to close up. Which makes the next one that much harder to pull off. I suspect there's a reason why there hasn't been a foreign terror attack on America in roughly eight years. Despite the horror of what they did, you have to give these guys their chops: they were clever, they were very patient, and the result was spectacular. But they were still idiots, and the odds on anyone ever being able to do such a thing again have pretty much dropped to nil.
Which is why, despite a week of pundits and so-called experts scrambling to fill 24 hours a day of commercial free TV on 100 different channels with pronouncements dire enough to keep a shaken audience coming back for more (just how much actual factual information was there in all those thousands of hours of programming, anyway?), I don't believe what we're seeing is a renaissance of terrorism for the 21st century. Not when hijackers are threatening people with box cutters. (Which, in a way, is good news; given what they were trying to accomplish, these terrorists would almost certainly have used nukes or biochemical weapons if they had them.)
What we witnessed was the swan song of international terrorism as we knew it in the 20th century.
I don't mean there will never be another Palestinian car bomb exploding in Israel. That's a conflict that's not going to end anytime soon. But one thing the attack did was sour the world on terrorism. The choice of the World Trade Center, more than simply a symbol of American financial dominance, was a message to the entire world: if we can do it here, we can do it to you too. My best guess is that it took things so over the top nobody's going to want to be remotely connected to supporting terrorism from now on. At least for awhile. Because these terrorists represented no government, no religion, not even a clear faction. They left no message I'm aware of, so it's unclear if they had any religious objective or motivation at all, but it doesn't matter. Whatever the rationale, what they committed was barbarism for the sheer sake of barbarism, and that's my definition of evil: to inflict pain and suffering and death on other creatures simply because you can.
(And if you think idiot fundamentalism is restricted to Moslems, consider Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, perhaps the country's two best known spokesmen for American Protestant Fundamentalism, who ran an edition of the 700 CLUB where they blandly stated the true causes of the attacks were homosexuality and the ACLU undermining the moral strength of America, forcing God to send us a stern warning to get on the stick and wipe these scourges out. Reportedly, the statements have turned off even their followers in droves. Good. Then there's the case of Ariel Sharon, trying to use reaction to the attacks to gain permission from the world to wipe out the PLO. I'm sure there are many decent, heartfelt fundamentalists in religions and politics – there are political fundamentalists too – around the world, but fundamentalism of any stripe makes atrocity too easy to rationalize.)
Which brings us to the question of retaliation.
I'm glad we've been slow to a military response, since there's nowhere to go with it. Calls for a military response have faded fast. I've seen schoolchildren interviewed on TV saying us unleashing airstrikes on innocent civilian populations would be just as much a horror and travesty as what happened here, and it's true. Furthermore, it would piss away the currently blessed status we have on the world scene. It may lack the sheer dazzle of big action, but this isn't a movie, and a slow, surgical approach will serve everyone better in the long run. I'm sure the rest of the world would be much more impressed if the United States were careful and methodical even in the face of overwhelming tragedy.
And there are still things that bother me about the attacks. Like how they could happen in the first place. Facts pile up, and make no sense. Known terrorists were not only in the country for a year, but they took lessons on flying jumbo jets. What? How could the FBI be inept enough to know absolutely nothing about any of them one day, yet capable enough to have full dossiers on all of them, including all their movements for that year, less than 24 hours later, even before bodies had been found, let alone identified?
I was at a friend's home on Wednesday evening, watching a tech channel, when a military guy came on to talk about all the things that would need to be done to prevent a recurrence of the attacks. They all had to do with things the FBI and CIA have been trying to push through for years, starting with a loosening of rules on wiretapping, and providing the government with encryption codes so they can read anyone's e-mail at will, and identity cards, and various other measures that all add up to one thing: great restrictions on American civil liberties, justified by "a time of crisis."
Now I'm prone to the paranoid view, partly because it usually makes sense. And as I was listening to this guy, a thought I didn't want coalesced in my head.
They let it happen.
I don't mean the FBI or CIA facilitated a plot to crash jumbo jet liners into major skyscrapers and landmarks and kill thousands of people while disrupting air travel across the country for days. Both agencies have done some nutty things in their time but it would take a lot of very seriously disturbed people to allow that. I mean they figured on a plane hijacking or two, and they looked the other way, because such a "threat" (and such a tiny, tiny threat such a scenario looks now) would give them the ammo to push a "anti-terrorist, law-enforcement" agenda that they've failed time and time again to get through Congress. It wouldn't be the first time an event was set up to justify a response.
And if it's proven Osama Bin Laden's behind it? (Because right now, despite calls for his head, there's no evidence connecting him to the attacks, though the smart money's on such a connection.) Don't forget: Bin Laden's our man. He was a CIA asset in Afghanistan when they were trying to make life miserable for the Russians there. His family builds embassies for us overseas. There's an old saw that once a CIA agent, always a CIA agent (though Philip Agie and John Stockwell have punched a few holes in that one), and it wouldn't take a great leap of faith or imagination to picture Bin Laden as a sleeper agent, a magnet attracting Moslem radicals so the CIA can identify, place and track them; it wouldn't be the first time that scenario was put into play, and the odd terrorist attack would be allowed just to maintain the front. Everyone loves a man of action. The whole milieu is creepy and discomfiting.
I'm not saying the above is the case. I don't know. Like I said, it's the paranoid viewpoint. I don't have answers. Like most of us all I have is questions, and they're not likely to be answered anytime soon. But to get to the root of what really happened and why, to find who should really be punished, and to truly keep it from ever happening again, the right questions have to be asked and answered, and one question should be: who did win? (Not the terrorists, and not the American people.) Who got what they wanted out of this awful, awful thing?
While I was in Los Angeles, someone slipped me a copy of the SMALLVILLE pilot. For those who don't know, the show, debuting in October on the WB (though I don't know if they'll run the pilot, which has actors who don't reprise their roles in the regular series and an opening where Smallville is decimated, complete with exploding buildings and sudden death, by the meteoric remnants of the planet Krypton, which some Hollywood type might decide – stupidly – is too close to recent events for comfort), is the latest version of Superman as teenager.
It's not bad.
Sort of a cross between DAWSON'S CREEK and EERIE INDIANA, it's got some really entertaining moments for comic book fans – a nine-year old Luthor, scared of his own shadow, scrambling through a cornfield while trying to take a hit off his asthma inhaler was my favorite – but it's really the first post-superhero restructuring of the Superman myth, something DC's been mumming at for years but has never really tried. Here we have Clark Kent and only Clark Kent (no costume; no glasses; no sobriquet; stripped down to the original Superman concept of faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound) behaving more or less naturalistically as a modern teenager, wrestling with doubts and desires and filtering them through the perspective of secretly being superhumanly powerful. Most interesting for Superman fans may be Lex Luthor, portrayed as a lonely teen ostracized by his premature baldness (cleverly connected to Superboy) and his family's fortune, and desperately longing to have Clark as his friend. Of course, we all know how it eventually turns out, but the point is:
It doesn't have to.
It's possible SMALLVILLE will be a hit. It's got the potential. The pilot had a bit of a struggle balancing the normal kids routine with the superhuman bit but hopefully future episodes will relax into it. The show needs a little more humor; it pleasantly takes the Superboy concept seriously but plays it just a little too straightlaced. The WB is obviously looking at SMALLVILLE as a replacement for the departed BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, but it needs to lighten up to hold onto that crowd. I'll watch at least a couple more episodes to see how it plays out. It ain't OZ, but it's got potential.
SMALLVILLE is, to some extent, the answer to what the industry's been muttering about for several years: how to attract an audience outside the 30,000 diehard rank and file superhero comics fans. If SMALLVILLE becomes a hit, and every publication I've seen has it on their "new shows to watch" list, it's not inconceivable a whole new audience could be generated, at least for a SMALLVILLE comic.
And there isn't one. To the best of my knowledge, there isn't going to be one. Anyone coming from SMALLVILLE to comics will find only SUPERBOY, which bears no relation to anything in the TV show. SUPERBOY is so mired in the DC Universe syndrome, I can't imagine it would do anything but drive them screaming from the room. And the medium.
If anyone wonders about inherent weaknesses of thinking in terms of "universes," there's one right there. DC can't suddenly change the origin of Superboy to update him to SMALLVILLE standards (modern day, no costume, etc.) because it would create a black hole in this shabby tower of babble they've spent years building up. How could SMALLVILLE's Superboy coexist contemporaneously with the adult Superman of the comic books? What happens to the existing Superboy (who himself seems to exist only to support a trademark, if SUPERBOY sales indicate anything) and wouldn't replacing him upset his fans? A comics line too rigid to react to market changes is a line driving itself to extinction. The fact is that DC has been given a great opportunity here, one they're uniquely placed to cash in on, and, like Marvel with BLADE and X-MEN, they're not doing a thing. At the very least, there should be a SMALLVILLE comic published and distributed. Given the structure of the market now, it would be no trick to concoct and publish a SMALLVILLE mini-series, then immediately collect it into trade paperback. If nothing else, they'd end up with a trade paperback whose name would instantly be recognized, even if the show goes away.
So I don't get DC's thinking here. Do they think the show will go away? Are they waiting for it to become a hit before they try to capitalize on it? Are they worried they might confuse the market if they have Superman and SMALLVILLE books going simultaneously? Are they worried the market might prefer the new take? Have they just not thought about it at all? Or – if this is the case, I give up on comics publishers altogether – do they not have the license?
Of course, if they're worried about market confusion, there's a simple solution for that.
Let Wildstorm publish SMALLVILLE. Someone ought to be making some money off it.
From Joseph Venanzi, Kurt Kusenko and Sean McNelis comes "The Hep Squad," currently running in Antarctic Press' MANGA EX, and featuring Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr stand-ins as secret agents against an acronym sporting group bent on world domination. The writers have a light touch and the Bigfoot art is pleasingly loose and open, but the material was done to death 30 years ago in GET SMART (not to mention Martin's MATT HELM movies, which were inadvertently satirical). I'd like to see this team apply themselves to something not quite so steeped in passé 60s iconography.
ANOMALY #3 (Brass Ring Productions, 1152 W 24th St #1, San Pedro CA 90731; $2.50) anthologizes stories from more than a dozen budding talents. This serves the function fanzines used to serve: a place for people to work out their interests and styles. Though some of the material falls into the "hey, everyone's got to start somewhere" column, the work is generally fairly clever, and one artist, Richard Garcia, isn't far removed from breakout status. Worth a look.
Peter Conrad (Box 64522, Sunnyvale CA 94088-4522) has been around awhile. ATTEMPTED NOT KNOWN #6 ($1.00) is sort of a big mini-comic, a collection of work done over the years with influences ranging from Gilbert Shelton to Harvey Pekar. His sense of humor's a bit on the dry side, but he packs a lot of material into a handful of pages.
Arguably most interesting this week is Debbie Vasquez's COOKIE (Box 813, San Luis AZ 85349; $2@), a mini-comic that's either autobiography or psychodrama, and I hope for Debbie's sake it's the latter, without the self-consciousness and self-indulgence this particular genre is prone to. The books (she sent five of them) are expressive and poetic in ways no other medium could manage – there are emotions here few other comics don't even dare admit exist – and I really have to recommend them. I don't know if COOKIE is great art, but, as with great art, you walk away from the comic feeling a little different about the world. Amazing stuff.
You can leave feedback for discussion on the Permanent Damage message board. Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter can click here. As you might have noticed, I'll be reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version.
As old MOTO readers know, if you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions, and you can also e-mail me, though, while I read all the mail, the odds on getting a reply depend on my workload at the time, and it's usually pretty heavy. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE.
See you next week, for something a little different.