Somehow it makes sense to me that Joey Ramone should die on the same weekend the JOSIE & THE PUSSYCATS movie came out. I know that’s tasteless and macabre (not exactly a MOTO first) but there’s a certain impenetrable cosmic logic to it. If you believe in that sort of thing, which I personally don’t, but sometimes I feel its grip anyway. The hot thing in physics these days is string theory, a reconstruction and unification of physical phenomenon along 11 (mathematical) dimensions. Interestingly, the bowdlerized version is that all existence, matter and energy alike, consists of “strings” that are all identical, with their differences arising from the particular vibrations of the strings, bringing us back to Pythagoras, father of mathematics (at least as far as Western Civilization is concerned) and the concept of “the harmony of the spheres.”
One of the more speculative implications of string theory is that we exist in half of a dual universe, with bits of the two universes fluxing in and out of existence in sync. When I was in college, quantum physics and the New Age were both all the rage, and it was common for “grassroots scientists” to imply quantum physics “proved” Buddhism, since the unreal nature of observed reality at the sub-atomic level, particularly where matter seems to have no existence apart from energy, paralleled Buddha’s caution that the “real world” had no essential reality at all. If string theory takes us back to Pythagorism (like Buddha, Pythagoras had a jones for reincarnation, so if he’s still with us somewhere – Pythagoras claimed he had the gift of recalling all his past lives, so if that still holds, he knows he’s out there – he’s probably getting a big kick out of this reincarnation of his theories), this extrapolation carries us to Zoroastrian dualism and the yin/yang of Taoism.
Yin and yang: light and darkness in flux, each with the other at its core.
Joey Ramone (né Jeffrey Hyman) was, of course, the frontman for The Ramones, the punk band that arose from Forest Hills NY (also the original home to Spider-Man, for those of you mumbling about what any of this has to do with comics) to set the stage for the American punk movement. We had a theory growing up that no song was any good unless it sounded good on a tinny car radio. That’s how you picked a real hit when I was a kid; if it sounded good there, it’d sound good anywhere. (And, as vapid as that critical assessment is, time has borne out the truth of it.) I won’t say nothing ever sounded better than the Ramones, but if you got the joke there wasn’t much that was more satisfying: 60s pop songs filtered down through the New York Dolls and played with three chords at hyperspeed, in lightning doses, drenched in New York neurotic existentialism. Especially with Joey’s “glue-sniffing soul” vocals. (The Ramones all looked on stage like they sniffed glue, except Johnny, who just looked pissed off.) Rock music goes through its own ebb and flow, between colonization by the plastic quasi-crown-pleasing slickness of monied interests and the garage band “rediscovery” of rock as a populist tool of expression. The Ramones erupted in the midst of the so-called progressive rock movement (which was basically rock musicians wanting to be taken seriously as artists), scared the hell out of a lot of music industry types who couldn’t tell if they were tongue-in-cheek, deranged or dangerous. It was the Ramones who made punk synonymous with tight, ragged blue jeans, worn sneakers and black leather biker jackets; Legs McNeil couldn’t have existed without them. (If you don’t know who Legs McNeil is, that’s part of what I’m talking about too.) Theirs was the first punk album released on a major label (THE RAMONES, Sire, 1976) and, though largely ignored by mass audiences, inspired and influenced hundreds of subsequent bands and had their own pretty intense hardcore fandom. I remember standing outside some Chicago club in ’77 with two girls waving their GABBA GABBA HEY Ramones fanzine in my face and waxing on endlessly about how Joey was God.
Did anyone ever do that for Josie & The Pussycats?
(To be fair, I did find one Pussycats fan page on the web when I searched.)
Josie & The Pussycats is a perfect example of publisher-think all the way down the line. There are two variations on the origin of the characters. One is that cartoonist Dan DeCarlo – core Archie Comics artist from the early 50s through his unceremonious disposal last year when he initiated a legal challenge to Archie over the Pussycats – created JOSIE as an unsold newspaper strip in 1957, allegedly named for DeCarlo’s wife. Archie Comics claimed JOSIE, published as a PATSY AND HEDY type girl book by Archie Comics in 1963, was co-created by then-Archie honcho Richard Goldwater. For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter, though I think comparison of the ’57 material with the ’63 material would easily clear that up.
Somewhere in the late 60s, Archie Comics, no doubt buoyed by the success of THE ARCHIES as a cartoon show and a manufactured chart-topping pop group ala The Monkees (or, if you need a more contemporary reference, N’Sync), hooked Josie up with a couple other cartoon girls to form Josie & The Pussycats, which, wonder of wonder, also became a (fairly short-lived) cartoon show. Around this time various companies were watching their youth market eroding as “cool” became all-important. Comics that came across as old hat stopped being cool, and they really haven’t been ever since. Which must’ve caused something resembling panic at Archie Comics, since their numbingly vanilla sanitized teenage hijinks conformity hadn’t changed since Bob Montana – or was that, as in the official Archie Comics’ version, Bob Montana and MGL Comics honcho John Goldwater? (a recurring theme at Archie…) – created ARCHIE in 1942. With pop groups running wild on pop culture, it must’ve seemed like the ultimate solution: numbing vanilla sanitized teenage hijinks conformity with pop groups! DC tried the same thing in ’67 with SCOOTER, who dressed like the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT era Beatles, looked like The Monkees’ Davy Jones on Silly Putty, and rode around on a mod-era mini-scooter (hence the name). He was mod two years after mod lost all meaning. By then hippies, Hendrix and art rockers were all the rage, but DC wouldn’t lionize hippies until 1969, with the advent of BROTHER POWER THE GEEK, if you want to call that lionized, and I don’t know if they’ve ever had a story even mentioning Hendrix. I guess someone at DC caught onto the term “mod,” because The Teen Titans showed their hipness by fighting The Mad Mod as well.
(I’d love to revive SCOOTER for Vertigo, as an aging has-been living in some flophouse and getting by on menial jobs and memories, ala Bill Haley in his twilight days, swimming in an alcohol haze and masterminding revival schemes with periodic “return tours” and bar gigs that turn into soulcrushing hells. Stuck in the real world of life after stardom. Making comics fun again.)
But it was all manufactured. You can only manufacture cool if you’re willing to stick a lot of money into telling people it’s cool, and comics don’t’ stick money into anything. JOSIE & THE PUSSYCATS wedged their way into pop consciousness via the cartoon show, and from a comics standpoint are as obscure as, oh, SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH. (For an amusing contrast, compare current Archie honcho Mike Silberkleit’s fury at TV’s Sabrina – Melissa Joan Hart, now a ripe 25 and obviously eyeing a future beyond perky teenhood – posing for innocuous cheesecake shots in MAXIM magazine with his defense of the content of the JOSIE & THE PUSSYCATS movie.)
These things flux in and out, sort of. There has never been a time when someone wasn’t trying to manufacture a dominant cultural mode, never a time when there haven’t been at least a few people working in their own little mode separate from (but, paradoxically, always awash in) the tide of culture. Joey Ramone and Josie & The Pussycats are the yin and the yang, with little bits of each other in them. One of Joey’s big influences was the girl group sound that Josie & The Pussycats cribbed and whitewashed for their cartoon incarnation. The movie JOSIE & THE PUSSYCATS cribs the New Wave girl group sound ala the Go-Gos that evolved from the punk roots Joey helped plant. Bits of one universe come into being, bits of the other vanish. And back and forth.
There are people in comics, professionals and customers, who don’t believe we’re at a crossroads. Maybe they’re right. It depends what you’re looking for, and how you do the math. The last 20 years of comics have seen an ebb and flow between creator-owned projects and company-manufactured, just as the music industry waffles between acts generated from their own need producing their own material and acts manufactured to fit a market with designer music. In both markets, talent-generated material has ebbed as a market force, though in both there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of talents bubbling up under the surface as the Ramones or the Sex Pistols were in 1975, ready to generate a new terra incognita to seize the imaginations of bored consumers and create new worlds for commercial interests to colonize, strip mine and ultimately discard. Because that’s the dirty little secret of the entertainment industry, and they don’t bother to keep it very secret: from the perspective of the moneymen, there’s no palpable difference between creator-generated and company-generated, except insofar as how much of the bottom line goes into the moneymen’s pockets. (In that regard, comics are becoming increasingly like movie companies, somehow never breaking even enough on creator-owned projects to pay the creators on the back end, like Universal syndicated THE ROCKFORD FILES for ten years – in TV production, syndication of a former network show is the golden goal, free money – and still claimed to James Garner the show was operating in the red. I heard just this morning from someone who has done a creator owned project with an upper second tier comics publisher, the book has generated $70,000 worth of business on a $3000 outlay for talent fees, and somehow is still not turning a profit, according to the publisher.)
Welcome to the slaughterhouse. The question you have to ask yourself is: would you rather be Joey Ramone or Josey & The Pussycats? The Ramones had very little in the way of commercial success, but they grabbed a strong faithful audience and they changed the direction of the music industry. What did Josey & The Pussycats ever affect?
Joey Ramone died this past weekend. So did JOSEY & THE PUSSYCATS, if box office reports are believable. The difference is Joey isn’t coming back, and Josey inevitably will, ad nauseum, in whatever permutation something thinks (or, if the past weekend is any evidence, deludes themselves into thinking) will turn a buck. But people will care that Joey is gone – even if you never heard of him before, even if you don’t know it or choose not to recognize it, you’ve lost something that will never exist again – and no matter how many times Josey & The Pussycats come or go, what’s it really going to matter?
Still busy unpacking boxes from my move – I love this place, I can see mountains all around, I can see the Las Vegas Strip at night and the mile-high spotlight from the top of the Luxor – so I don’t really have time for an update, but take a moment to read Larry Young’s LOOSE CANNON and Warren Ellis’s little prose fiction site STRANGE MACHINE. And if you’re looking for a quirky little film to watch, keep your eyes open for a Canadian production called TAIL LIGHTS FADING, starring one of my favorite unsung actors, Brecken Meyer, and a surprisingly effective Jake Busey, in a tale of classic cars, waning love, loyalty, betrayal and pot growing, exec produced by… KEVIN SMITH! (Hey, it worked for GREEN ARROW…) What can I say, I’m a sucker for road movies?
Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: What’s your guiltiest pleasure among your regular comics purchases? (Just to limit discussion, a guilty pleasure is a something you know you shouldn’t like for whatever reason – taste, critical judgment, political correctness, whatever – but you’re irresistibly drawn to it anyway.)
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.
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