a) regular mentions in newspapers and magazines these days - for example, (Entertainment Weekly runs a regular comics section now, which has already generated increased sales and attention for many of the projects mentioned therein, and ¡Journalista! lists a whole bunch of papers that ran stories on DC's forthcoming retread of the Diana Rigg version of Diana Prince in WONDER WOMAN (sorry, Walt; everything old is new again...) - and that hardly constitutes a "lack of respect."
b) it's a funny thing about respect, but the only people who get it are those who don't care whether they get it or not, and it's impossible to respect anyone who makes a big deal out of it.
Fact is, this is America, and in America we have no respect for any kind of culture, and particularly not pop culture, which is intended from the start to be tossed away. That much of it is no longer tossed away - and that some of it even qualifies as art - doesn't undermine the basic cultural assumption. TV doesn't generally fair any better than comics, and do even the Oscars really bring movies any great respect. Even if it did, does the artistry of, oh, THE HOURS force anyone to more respect OLD SCHOOL or THE BANGER SISTERS (a truly hideous film I just saw on DVD)? There's enough talk of graphic novels, and enough growing familiarity with them among the general public I don't think there's any question of respect or lack of it for the form, but the content is all that can really generate (or undermine) respect.
Were comics ever considered cool? Sure. At least five times I can think of, four of those within my lifetime.
1) The early 1940s. Sure, there were already shrinks fretting over the effects of "violence" on the fragile American youth psyche, but comics were selling in the hundreds of millions of copies. Cigarettes and comics were the cultural anchors for a lot of troops - the comforts of home - and both did well on the homefront as well. Not across the board, of course; there were plenty of comics that didn't sell well. There was also a captive audience that was growing up, and, post war, comics had the chance to grow up with them, and there were a couple attempts to. It was at this point that the concept that comics are only for children and imbeciles was imposed on the business, and rather than try to fight that artificial image, the industry bought into it, leading to the stultification of the following decades.
2) Marvel Comics c. 1965-1967. Stan Lee didn't just become a household name. There was a point where Stan - and Marvel, the two being synonymous at the time - was being feted in magazines and newspaper articles, which made great hay about FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN being hot literature on college campuses. Dr. Strange adorned the cover of a Pink Floyd LP, and Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer in particular became trippy emblems of the counterculture. Other Marvel characters were regularly referenced in rock songs. It didn't last long, but Marvel Comics at the time were truly cool, and Stan has been cruising off that ever since. (Bear in mind that, simultaneous to this, DC Comics became the essence of uncool, particularly once the heat of the campy BATMAN TV show, which made comics truly a joke, wore off - but even then DC was canceling titles that fell below sales of 300,000 copies per issue.)
3) Underground comics of the late 60s and early 70s. It's hard now to express just how phenomenally popular underground comics were. In real ways, they were the voice of the 60s counterculture, in many cases so wild and inventive that corporate comics looked pathetically old-fashioned in comparison. I'm pretty sure it was ZAP COMIX and THOSE FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS (in its time, easily the best selling comic in America) that sapped all the cool out of Spider-Man. Underground comix didn't disappear because they stopped selling - their popularity was actually poised to rise - but because a Supreme Court decision on obscenity standards made them a sure target for piles of criminal litigation. (Speaking of underground comix, I notice George Metzger popped into the news lately. I'm probably the world's biggest diehard George Metzger fan, so if anyone knows how to get in touch with him, either let me know or let him know I'm looking, because I'd like permission to run some of his old material here.)
4) The late '80s. This was the "sudden" flowering (it had been coming since the "ground level/independent" comics had started trying to fill the vacuum left by the undergrounds in the '70s) of "mature" comics: DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, WATCHMEN, THE SANDMAN, LOVE AND ROCKETS, etc. Again, comics (certain comics, anyway) became hot on college campuses, with lots of praising write-ups about "the new comics" in magazines and newspapers. Coinciding with, and not coincidentally, the first rise of graphic novels.
5) The speculator 90s. This was partly a continuation of #4, but partly the anti-#4, as publishers shifted from the long-term growth mode of #4 to the short-term cash-in inherent in speculator bubbles. The problem, of course, being bubbles like that always pop (giving us our current market conditions), but there's no denying that comics were fantastically popular (some of them were even read) while it lasted.
In other periods, there was always the odd title or line that got wide attention. Charles Biro's crime comics (CRIME DOES NOT PAY, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, etc.) and EC's horror comics (TALES FROM THE CRYPT, VAULT OF FEAR, etc.) of the '50s were so popular the major publishers in the business had to grind them out for sheer self-defense. Marvel's CONAN THE BARBARIAN (when Barry Windsor-Smith was drawing it) and HOWARD THE DUCK (when Steve Gerber was writing it) were phenomena. Howard Chaykin's milestone AMERICAN FLAGG! and Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL and RONIN drew a lot of attention and opened the door for the onslaught of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, WATCHMEN etc.
Nowadays, of course, manga are cool. There's no getting around it. But, as I've said before, that doesn't help American comics much.
The problem for comics now is that we're trapped. The American comics business has no real interest in changing. I received an e-mail last week from someone angrily asking whether I honestly don't think there's anything nice to say about the comics business. Of course there is. I think there are a lot of little publishers trying to put out fresh material. But they don't have distribution or attention. And there are big publishers who continue to put out the Same Old Stuff, but tart it up as fresh by co-opting superficial aspects of other material (the recent "manga" versions of various superheroes being done is a good example). But, underneath, it's still SOS. The problem is that we're so unconsciously accepting of the frankly artificial structures we impose on the content - mainly because historically those structures have been imposed - that the bulk of the American comics business is still publishing exactly what it published in 1947. Tarted up, of course, but it's like putting a troglodyte in a tuxedo and trying to pass him off as a British lord. (Hmmm... possibly a bad analogy...) This includes a lot of books I like, because I grew up with those structures too, and I still respond to them whether I want to or not. It's not a question of whether the material is good or bad, it's a question of whether it connects to an audience willing to pay for it. (By the way, before you write asking what those "unconscious structures" are, I spent two years writing about them in MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, and have insufficient space and interest to reiterate them now. If you want to know what they are, either hit the Comic Book Resources Master Of The Obvious Archives or cool your jets until AiT/PlanetLar Books releases the collection this fall.) I remember last summer at San Diego an editor for whom I have the utmost respect (and there ain't many of those) gleefully telling me about how they slipped an implied sex scene (and it was pretty well done) into what was, really, an otherwise fairly standard book. And even that was done in AMERICAN FLAGG! 20 years ago. (Bear in mind that AMERICAN FLAGG! could easily pass for a "mainstream" book these days.) If that's a victory that matters to one of the brightest and most talented editors in the business, it's an indicator of the creative conditions in editorial offices these days. And it's not a good indicator for the business.
And it's no wonder why American comics, as a whole, aren't generating the creativity and energy to convince a wider audience they're cool.
But I don't go out of my way to hunt down crime fiction. I occasionally get recommendations and pursue them. Adi Tantimedh recommended Kent Harrington a couple years back, and three of his four novels are terrific. I was on a panel about crime comics alongside Howard Chaykin at San Diego last summer, and he mentioned in passing another writer who'd been mentioned to me before: George Pelecanos.
So I spent the last few months going through Pelecanos' novels. I'm still not convinced his writing is actually good, but it's pretty entertaining. Pelecanos started out with a straightforward detective character, a Washington DC Greek named Nick Stefanos, for a couple novels. They were okay. But you could feel Pelecanos chomping at the bit to expand his horizons, and he quickly did by veering off from standard crime novel conventions and weaving his novels as a tapestry, not to solve crimes or anything like that, but to weave a social and cultural history of his hometown of Washington DC. (Stephen Hunter has started doing similar things in several of his recent novels.) Aside from one novel, SHOEDOG, that doesn't as far as I recognize connect to anything, his novels, covering 20+ years, have centered around a Greek pot dealer named Dimitri Karras and a black Vietnam vet/entrepreneur named Marcus Clay, and the shapes of their lives as molded by their cultural influences, mostly race and music. Pelecanos focuses strongly on movies and music as cultural support systems, something not very common in fiction, and that's one of his strengths. Nick Stefanos rolls back in at various points, as a teenager and later as an attempted recovering alcoholic, and one novel goes back to post-Korean War 50s to show racial conditions in DC then, against a story involving Karras' dad and Stefanos' namesake grandfather, firming a connection neither Nick nor Dimitri are aware of. More recent novels shifted gears again, to a black ex-cop detective named Derek Strange who coaches a little league team and hooks up with an Irish ex-cop named Terry Quinn. The Strange novels seemed to be disconnected from the rest, though I started noticing minor characters from one series popping up in another.
His latest novel, SOUL CIRCUS (Little Brown & Co.; $24.95), has Strange trying to hunt down witnesses for a drug lord on trial for his life, and the death penalty, modern racial relations, gun laws and antipathy between Congress and the nation's capital. But its main focus is on personal and interpersonal tensions among various players, like Strange and Quinn, and the rival drug gangs they end up in conflict with. It's good. But it's something of a shock to see Nick Stefanos and Elaine Clay (Marcus Clay's wife) waltz briefly into the middle of it.
It occurred to me then that Pelecanos is doing something people in comics always try to do. He's universe building. He's doing four things differently than comics usually does them. He's creating a "world" that's, for lack of a better term, the "real" world; something immediately identifiable and connectable. He's doing it with characters who are heartbreakingly fathomable and fallible - decent spirits who prefer to do good but usually can't - and that type of character is way easier to identify with than "the noble hero." He's doing it slowly, layer by layer, taking his time and making it feel organic rather than forced, like the story is the thing and the universe just happens to be there; the stories aren't about his universe, they just take place in it.
And he's doing it right.
Pretty good. Very entertaining. Go read him, and learn something.
Meanwhile, the stock market rallied giddily at the thought of war on Friday only to plunge on Monday after the weekend's events, while the President's own top advisor on the War On Terror, the NSC's Rand Beers, quit to protest the war. Not because we have no right to invade Iraq, but because the Iraqi expedition is a diversion from the War On Terror, not the adjunct to it the White House has claimed since Donald Rumsfeld decided, almost the instant planes crashed into the World Trade Center, that the 9/11 attacks could be used to justify invading Iraq, and that it will stir up even more terrorism against the United States (something that, fortunately, hasn't yet been the case, knock wood). It must be disheartening to those who've insisted all along that this isn't a war for oil and we have no interest in Iraqi oil that pretty much our first military objective on invading was to secure the southern Iraqi oil fields. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld (when he's not doing his Tokyo Rose impression) starts harping about how it's a war crime for Iraqis to photograph American POWs at the same time we were trotting Iraqi POWs before the cameras. (Of course, Rumsfeld is an expert on violations of prisoner rights, having practiced many at the Guantanamo prison camps.) Arch right-wing pundit Bob Novak, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, warns of meetings between the Iranians and the Turks to divvy up Northern (Kurdish) Iraq (and it's major oil fields) between them, something that theoretically goes against out interests there and would lead to a protracted war in the region. This morning the President gave a speech, symbolically at the Pentagon, asking for billions and billions more in military spending at the exact same moment he's asking to slash the taxes needed to pay for it; does anyone up there actually listen to themselves when they talk? And it's all-war news all the time on many TV and cable stations, leading to the sort of confusing blather I stumbled across on Fox News yesterday, where some pundit was noting, after being questioned about our failed intent to knock out all communications in Baghdad at the onset of war, that we intentionally allowed Saddam Hussein to broadcast to the Iraqi people because his confident, virtually jokey demeanor would offend normal Iraqi citizens who were being pummeled by American barrages and cause them to rise up against a leader so obviously out of touch with their reality. Which is an idea so damn stupid that if it's really American strategy rather than that clown talking off the top of his head, I don't know whether to be awed or shocked.
(Not that I haven't been having fun with the war. At a buffet over the weekend, I entertained the troops in the serving line with snide references to the "Freedom toast" and "Freedom onion soup" the place was serving under more Gallic names. Always good for a cheap laugh.)
Of course, now that we're in there, we pretty much can't back out until Saddam, at least, is gone. So I hope whoever's really running this war finally figures out it's not just a photo-op and gets the job done so most of our soldiers can get the hell out of there. I know war is messy, but there's messes and there's messes. One's expectable, the other's inexcusable.
The real link to Helen Caldicott's rejected 411 piece, blended into a whacko speech (in case you get here before we finally corrected last week's link).
Succinctly, why our current invasion of Iraq is wrong (and why it has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein or weapons on mass destruction).
Finally, while it's now a truism on chat sites and online discussion groups that whoever mentions Hitler first loses, several people have sent me this site, which outlines the major events in the development of Third Reich and parallels them to the development of the Hand Puppet's administration and the War On Terror. While I think it places a little too fine a point on it, there are some eerie similarities (too many, actually), and it's worth checking out as a cautionary tale, if nothing else.
One of my favorite films last summer, THE BOURNE IDENTITY, was released a few weeks ago on DVD by Universal, and I'd been dying to hear the commentary by director Doug Liman, whose DVD commentary for his rave thriller comedy GO (one of my favorite films of the last five years) was the best I've ever heard. Liman started in independent film with GO and SWINGERS, and THE BOURNE IDENTITY was his first big budget work. Happily, it hasn't changed his attitude toward filmmaking any, and the BOURNE DVD commentary, like GO's, is filled with fascinating tales of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, from how to focus a script by paring away the source material to fit a specific interpretation of character to tales of riding in a sidecar through mountains at 50 mph in 50 below weather while trying to work cameras that keep freezing up. Liman also reveals interesting personal facts, like his father being the lead investigator in Iran-Contra and the man who interrogated Oliver North, and how all that plays into Liman's portrayal of clandestine government agencies in the film. That Liman's a great raconteur is great; that he's a damn good director and storyteller makes his commentary an absolute must for anyone interested in either craft, and a real education. Don't miss it.
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