There’s an old saw that goes: there are no atheists in foxholes. The idea is that when you’re down there nuzzling mud as the rockets red glare and bombs burst in the air all around you and other people’s body parts and blood are spattering your hair and clothes that about all the human mind can manage to do under those conditions is pray to whatever gods exist to make the carnage and horror go away. It makes a certain amount of sense, if you don’t carry it very far. You can possibly assume there are no atheists in foxholes in very short battles. In very short wars.
I can’t imagine extended battles in extended wars would do much else than create atheists. Pleading to God second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour with not a shred of reply save the laughing specter of death, and even when it all stops and you look at clear blue skies again you still know it’s just a tease, a lull, a moment that could be shattered at any second, with your life, by a sniper’s shot, how much faith would it take to keep you from questioning the reality of a divine being, particularly a divine being looking out for your welfare?
Or maybe they mean the only way anyone can keep going under those conditions is to convince themselves they’re fighting on God’s behalf. Suffering horror, risking life and limb, for all that’s right and good. What’s the point of fighting if you’re not fighting the good fight? Problem is: everyone’s fighting the good fight. Comic books, Hollywood and Shakespeare aside, there aren’t many people out there (certainly not armies of them) who inflict evil for the sake of inflicting evil. They have their reasons. We can talk evil empires all we want, but if it isn’t evil when we do it, why is it evil when they do it?
Because, if you follow the logic, God told us to, and God could never have told them to. I once had a discussion with an Orthodox Jew about atrocities in the Old Testament. His idea of an atrocity was the slavery of Israel in Egypt. I was speaking of the Battle Of Jericho, where God ordered that none in the city, not even children or animals, should be allowed to live, that the Israelites should sweep the place clean. It’s hard to comprehend a place so befouled that even the farm animals are tainted beyond use or redemption. By any standard of human decency, the Battle of Jericho was an atrocity. My friend’s argument was that it wasn’t an atrocity because God ordered it, God is infallible and unquestionable, and God can’t be held to standards of human decency. Which also makes sense if you buy into the logic. If God by his very nature is good, then whatever God wills is good (we’ll leave that whole torment of Job thing aside, okay?) and the only true evil is rejecting God’s will. I’m not trying to pick on Jews. It’s just most religions didn’t go around writing down their atrocities (many of which have featured Jews on the unwarranted receiving end). Christianity stopped codifying its history well before it became powerful enough for, oh, let’s say the Inquisition. I wrote a Black Knight story set in the Crusades for Marvel where the Black Knight ran as an emissary between Richard Lionheart, leader of the Crusaders, and the Moslem Emperor Saladin, to negotiate terms surrounding the Christians’ capture of a Palestinian city. When the Black Knight doesn’t return by Richard’s deadline (he’s delayed by the series’ villain) Richard orders the city gates barred and the city and all its inhabitants burned to the ground.
I didn’t make this story up.
One thing’s for sure: there are no civilians in foxholes. Bullets and bombs don’t care whether you’re wearing a uniform. The incendiaries dropped on Dresden, the nukes dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t care who was in the military. The gasoline-and-fertilizer bomb that ripped apart the Oklahoma City federal office building didn’t care who worked for BATF. It’s part of the job of fiction to personalize villainy, but how do you personalize the deeply, preternaturally impersonal? Galactus, who can be reasoned with and diverted? A ten-mile wide asteroid hurtling toward Earth on an extinction course by no will other than the immutable laws of physics? A gang member shooting a victim at random just to qualify for the gang?
This is perhaps not a question a medium that has dedicated itself over 60 years to battles of good and evil with unambiguously delineated sides and clear cut (even if only eventually) triumphs of justice should be trying to answer. Face it, it’s a lot more comfortable to call The Great Evil Indians or Spaniards or Mexicans or Tories or Russians or Iranians or Iraqis (since many Iranians want to be our friends now) or Germans or terrorists or conservatives or liberals or Hydra or Luthor, etc. and cop to Manifest Destiny or God’s grace to get us over the hump than to face the fact that the greatest terror in human existence is the simple vagary of existence. Whatever else Thomas Pynchon has achieved in his fiction, his laurels can rest on his insight that the V-2 rocket destroyed our concept of the world by reversing cause and effect (since the German V-2 traveled faster than sound, you could only hear it coming after it had already hit) and nothing has yet filled in the void.
Yet there’s a literature out waiting to be written that won’t dodge the void, as we fill ourselves up with distraction after distraction to keep up from looking in that direction, but will address it and bring it into focus. Whatever serves that function will become the dominant literature of this century, and in some ways, the comics medium – suspended in the interstice between literature and art, film and still life – is perfectly suited to the task. If we can bring ourselves to abandon “content” that’s dedicated to nothing but accruing detail after detail as if enough of it, a mountain of it, a universe of it, a multiverse of it, will be large enough to stuff up that void so we don’t have to think about it. But our survival as a medium depends on finding a need that nothing else can fill, and reshaping ourselves to fill it. And the need to abandon the past and come to grips with the uncertainties of new world extends far beyond comics.
Nothingness has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s becoming clearer, daily, that in comics we’re clinging to a world that has already passed on. Despite public pronouncements that happy days are here again, behind the scenes the mood parallels the last days of the Weimar Republic. Most at issue is what’s being called “the pamphlet.” The core economic unit of the comics business in this country. I’ve discussed it before. It’s beyond discussion now. It’s dead. Marv Wolfman told me the other day that he’s heard from several different publishers that alternative distribution points that were doing very well for them – Tower Books, Spencer Gifts, etc. – have all decided to drop comics. The traditional package just isn’t profitable enough for them. We talk about finding new distribution points for comics beyond the comics shops (and the savvier comics shops, the ones claiming increases in profits in these dismal times, have all been veering from “the pamphlet” as economic base) but there’s no way to make it economically viable anymore (aside from generating another fad, but if that were easy to do someone would’ve done it by now). Publishers know this. More small publishers are following Larry Young’s lead and going directly to graphic novels, or following Shannon Wheeler’s move to magazine format, so the work can be distributed on newsstands again. One major publisher recently told me “the direct market is crashing but we’re preparing to survive it.” Marvel has put out the call for mini-series specifically done to be collected in trade paperback – which not only suggests the phasing out of the standard comic book as the basic unit of economy there (beginning the reduction of “the pamphlet” to what I said years ago it was destined to become – nothing more than a loss leader for eventual trade paperback publication, little more than a publicity tool, basically ashcans) but also suggests major structural changes in the content: an abandonment of the “endless continuum” storytelling Marvel pioneered and beat to death and acceptance of a more novelistic approach. (None of which is bad – DC has been quietly moving in this direction for years – but it does invoke memories of the last time Marvel flooded and drowned the graphic novel market almost out of existence.)
Which means what has been traditionally considered the core audience of comics – the people who live for that “pure universe” level of unbroken continuity, the ones who must see their favorite character month in and month out, the ones who always want to know why comics can’t be published weekly instead of monthly, the ones who have managed to keep the superhero afloat all these years, the ones already dwindling in numbers toward nothingness themselves – are no longer on the edge of the abyss staring down. They’re in free fall. We’re in free fall. The unanswered question of the comics business is whether these will fall into step and march through the gates of the Brave New Marvel (not just Marvel; you can pretty much pencil in the name of any traditional publisher) or whether, already balking at paying $2.50-$3.00 for a comic, they’ll break ranks in the face of $9.95 or $19.95 or $29.95 books and run, and panic will ensue among publishers who’ll trample each other to return to the dead pamphlet to get that respective handful of customers back because all the while they were preparing to jettison that market they never made a serious effort to find or create a different one. When casual readers fail to materialize because format is only one of dozens of questions that have yet to be addressed by the business before casual readers have a chance even if they want to read comics, which is far from a given, what altars will publishers (and talent; let’s never forget the ability of talent to shift into reverse at overdrive at the first sign of adversity) rush to worship at, and what will they be willing to sacrifice?
We are at a moment when everyone seizes on every patch of blue in the sky as a sign the fighting might be over, and we can leave the trenches and forget the dead. A sign of our divine right to continue. I’m sure pulp magazines felt that way once, and underground comics. But we only ignore the presence of the dead – no one has yet carted the bodies, or what’s left of them, away – and we have only grown used to the smell, while the world we’re fighting to hold onto has already vanished. Believe what you want.
I started out writing something else and somehow turned down this street instead. No idea how or why. Sometimes you just have to go where the work takes you.
Finally getting settled. The furniture is in place, my old computer is rebuilt, time to kick into high gear. Details to come. Meanwhile, speaking of rockets red glare, Frank Miller lobbed a couple grenades of his own in his Harvey Awards keynote address this week, so if you haven’t read them, there’s a transcript online at Splash that’s must reading. And if you haven’t gotten out to buy X-MEN UNLIMITED #31, go now. In addition to the final X-Man story, by me and Charlie Aldred, it’s got stories by Michael Golden and Brian Stelfreeze. Miss it now and you’ll kick yourself later. Trust me.
Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: where, besides comics shops, would you most like to see comics made available? In what format? What’s your argument for convincing whoever owns the venue to carry comics?
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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