Fear Itself #3
We were somewhere around Seventh Avenue on the edge of TGI Fridays when the drugs began to take hold. I think there was supposed to be a Flashdancers Gentlemen's Club somewhere on the block, maybe in the same building as the place we were looking for, the greasy armpit of American pop culture detritus headquartered in the heart of the capitol of American business. Right off the Great White Way. Somewhere up and down these savage hallways and corridors there lurked a man, a Superman, shorn of his underwear and given a sharp v-neck turtleneck, as if the year were 1989 and Star Trek was still making nighttime sexy for Patrick Stewart fans everywhere. There's something indefinably rancid in the stew, some kind of mad brew of noxious chemicals piped in from across the channel in Jersey where all the goombas and grisly morons drain their tanning lotion down the sinks and shower drains of a thousand underwater tract homes. We're getting high on failure, the drugs are cheap and plentiful as long as you don't mind the rattle of bones.
There's no money left, no money left anywhere, we're all in debt up to our eysockets and hoping against hope that the credit card companies and the collection agencies deputized to act in their stead don't figure out the new number for at least six months. I don't even use the land line anymore except to call out because the line is always busy, always busy, Unidentified numbers calling in from unfamiliar area codes somewhere near Barstow, one of those punk ass burgs filled with unlicensed backyard wrestling of the kind that puts kids in crutches with sutures across their bulging collarbone. Fat and yet malnourished with an XXL Ke$ha T-shirt, you know the type. I just spent eight dollar American on fifteen minutes worth of reading material, smeary pages on cheap paper, but not cheap enough to make it cost less than lunch. I don't think toilet paper would be cheap enough to pay the rent without lopping off at least a small finger's worth of flesh. They demanded a pound and by gosh they took a pound, and they don't give a flying fuck that the blood is pouring everywhere in rivulets and dried dollops like the skin off a British pudding. That's what two pounds sterling for our friends across the pond? Not that they have any more money than we do, they're rioting in the streets to keep the library doors from swinging shut.
Two cheap floppy pamphlets filled with gibberish, so easy to drop them down a manhole cover somewhere between here and Central Park, it's not exactly art so it's not exactly littering. Let the rats fight it out. But I spent so much money on these things that I am loath to part. Too much money and heart and soul invested in these little bastards, one of which suffers from a lack of soul the other from a lack of heart. I'll leave it to you to decide which is which. Does it even matter?
The overwhelming sensation is sheer desperation: something bad is happening and the folks in charge of minding the lighthouse lost the oil on the stairs, there was a big bottle of lamp oil and it took a plunge somewhere on the fifth floor staircase. They're on their hands and knees trying to sweep up enough oil into their cupped hands in order to keep that lamp burning bright for as long as it takes for - what, to make sure the ship gets safely to shore? Is that even something we can be sure we want? Wouldn't it be easier just to let the whole damn thing crash on the reef and let the cargo holds fill with salt water, drowning the ballast, drowning these books and abjuring any power left in the tainted sigils of our distant childhoods? That's what's going on, only it's not lamp oil, it's shit, it's liquid diarrhea and it keeps dribbling through your fingers in chunky bits. It's what you think you want because you've been doing it for so long that you don't have any other way of making things go forward, but really it all boils down to sticking your hand up against the cow's anus and expecting something besides grassy, oily shit to flop into your hands. It's like maybe one of these days it won't actually be shit, it'll be caramel soft serve or something equally delicious. But until that day you'll keep eating it anyway because real food loses its flavor when you've spent thirty years eating shit.
But let's step back a moment, because that's an awfully stupid thing to say. It's not shit, it only looks like shit on certain occasions, say, every alternate Tuesday when you're feeling peculiarly phlegmatic. Because really it's just too easy and too condescending to talk down to superhero comics like they're some sort of blight on the cultural landscape. Let's take a minute and breathe this city air, see if we can get the balance right here right now: somewhere in this city there is a great and terrible beast slouching towards some modern-day Bethlehem waiting to be born, but it's nothing in Los Angeles, sorry Joan, and sorry Hunter, this great virus has infected itself in the heart of American capitalism. It's bigger than that, but there's your artificial dichotomy: here's your approved cultural product and your disapproved cultural product, they all cost the same and they all leave you feeling similarly empty. Emma Goldman's Living My Life costs $16.99 American, and you bet your ass the good folks at Penguin have no interest in examining the irony of that proposition. The truth is that it's all terrible, every single bit of it, every shred of escapism dedicated to distraction and contentment. Crying out low art and high art distinctions doesn't impress anyone anymore, I say to my friend as we slouch across the city street, still keeping our eyes open for the supermen, the true guardians of this loveless isle of Manhattan. I've got a copy of Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word in my jacket pocket and I'm feeling twitchy, so I pull it and see if I can find something interesting in these snot-stained pages:
But wasn't there something just the least bit incestuous about this tendency of contemporary art to use previous styles of art as its point of reference? Early Modernism was a comment on academic realism, and Abstract Expressionism was a comment on early Modernism, and now Pop Art was a comment on Abstract Expressionism - wasn't there something slightly narrow, clubby, ingrown about it?Then there's some bit about Clement Greenberg asserting that art is about art, which I guess makes sense inasmuch as it's something of a tautological assertion of value without basis. More or less the definition of petit bourgeois bullshit, but there was a point there. Something sitting right past the edge of my nose, daring me to pick it up, pluck it out of thin air like a will 'o' the wisp . . .
No, not that jackass.
So these comics, what are they about? I've got both issues wadded in my hand like soiled tissues, leafing through the creased pages . . . all possible criticisms are either cheap or easy. Mouthbreathing morons in their basements, etc etc. You can fill in the same circle-jerk elitist shit you've been sniffing for decades. It's not that criticism of these things on the basis of their idiocy isn't valid, it's that there's really no point in making that argument because it's moot. These aren't really collectibles or pieces of art or anything, they're just stories, bad stories, but on some level an honest attempt on the part of someone to communicate some kind of idea. Cultural product is product yes but the people in the sausage factory can usually be counted on to convince themselves that the sausage they're making is good to eat. Personally, I like sausage, even if I know that most industrially-produced sausage probably contains trace amounts of human and animal fecal matter. It's the price we pay to do business in this man's world, don't you know.
Narrow, clubby, ingrown - this are the watchwords we mutter under our breath. With the industry on a respirator what do we do, what can we do but double down on what we got? I look on the calender and see two giant event comics hitting store shelves the same day, the exact same moment on retailer shelves across the nation, and what I smell is two large sewer rats, giant fuckers plucked out of the sewers under Seventh Avenue and starved for the better part of a week before being locked in a cage with one and the other. It's a struggle to the death, is what it is, the two largest media conglomerates in the world waking up from their long stuporous haze and realizing that they have their very own Southeast Asian country in which to wage their proxy battle for domination of the Twenty-First Century mediascape.
So let's see what we see when we pull the cock out of the condom:
Now that is what I call a goddamn comic book cover.
Let's be frank, now is not the time to mince words, there is no more point in complaining about the scabrous content of American superhero comic books because kids don't read them. They don't. Pointing this out at such a late date is simply an insult to everyone with a pair of functioning eyes. but if you put a dude on the cover getting shocked by an electric chair, what you're really saying is, yeah, this isn't for kids, but really, it is totally for kids, because who the hell else is gonna be turned on by seeing the Flash get fried (and there's a pun too obvious for me, ladies and gentlemen) but a little kid? They've gone from being obviously for kids to being for grown-ups in such a way as to primarily appeal to kids. It would almost be brilliant if it seemed intentional, but I doubt this was the intention. Kids loved and still love gangsta rap because it was dirty and violent in all the ways that they weren't supposed to like, but they loved it anyway and sat around their friend's basements listening to Too $hort rapping about "Blow Job Betty" like it was Little Orphan Annie's secret code phrase waiting to be deciphered. That's something that a lot of people don't seem to get: the best way to appeal to kids is to make it as stupid, violent and inappropriately sexy as possible. In this instance, I have a hard time believing that DC could be doing a better job than having one of their most recognizable superheroes be electrocuted by a demoniacal Batman on the cover of their big crossover. Not that it'll help, of course.
How many middle-aged management types are going to start downloading DC comics to read on their Kindles and iPads on those long flights from Topeka to Seattle? Judging from the type of shit that gets sold in airport kiosks under the names "Brad K. Thor" and "Robert Patterson," I'd say it's a good bet that they might just be able to sell some of these shitty pamphlets to the salarymen, if the advertising works the way it should.
But in the here and now the fleshbags responsible for making these stories are charged with the solemn responsibility of making these business decisions somehow translate into four-color stories. As far as these things go, it could be worse: nerds love alternate-reality stories because then they get to play put the puzzle together only some of the pieces are missing or colored differently or mad rapists or whatever. It's hard to fuck one of these up, but by the same token it's kind of easy. I'm certain the people who made this book had a good time making it because, yeah, it's kind of fun. But cheap all the same. Which is not to say it's not worth doing, but don't say we didn't warn you when you're bending over with the tiny comb trying to find all the little crablouses in your crotch. There's a reason she's got a t-shirt with bicycle handlebars where her tits go.
But enough about your sister.
I'm sick of inhaling truck fumes but there's not a lot else to get high on in New York City here and now. Oh, I'm sure there's real drugs somewhere but I lost my case in security and my friend - my associate - my business partner - my platonic lover - he's not that picky. He'll take just about anything, really. Things are getting desperate in these parts. He's a sexy man with a sexy plan, and it doesn't necessarily include reading these silly little comic books, but that doesn't mean he's not open to the possibility. He speaks in grunts and riddles, spends his spare time down at the Brozone jacking off the Shake Weight because that's the only way he can get off these days. I pass the copy of Fear Itself under his nose and he snorts like an animal who just smelled one of its own dead and upwind. He lets slip a mournful moan, because in the moment he smells that sucker he can see his tribemate dead on the side of the road, a large black bulk hit by a car and dead before the body hit the ground. What is this? It's dead, it's inert. It's got Nazis attacking the American capitol in giant robot suits with machine guns, and wow that's pretty much the laziest kind of nightmare we can imagine in the year 2011, isn't it just?
If comic books had a Daily Recommended Minimum, it would be Fear Itself. It represents starvation rations from a group of men so emaciated of imagination that even their most fantastic daydreams appear to be cribbed from unproduced Law & Order spec scripts. Here's the one where Briscoe finds the ancient Norse warhammer and turns into a giant monster in downtown Manhattan. Of course this is a problem because he starts making mistakes and crooks start walking on technicalities and then Sam Waterston looks grim and resolved, or is it pensive and angry, I can't tell because seriously the man has one single facial expression with which to express the enormous range of human emotion. Seriously, these fuckers are so damaged they can't even imagine what a fantasy story looks like that does not in some fashion involve paramilitary law enforcement people sitting around a room with giant television screens and deliberating their course of action. This is what all these stupid stories are about: who gets to sit in the control room telling heroes what to do. This is such a massively boring and inescapable preoccupation on the part of men entrusted with our societal dreaming that it amounts to nothing less than a complete dereliction of duty. If you sit down and read fifty issues of The Avengers and think that what it most needs is to resemble a police procedural, then you're just bleeding frothy pink shit out of your ears.
(A digression on the matter of fecal metaphors: people use shit because it's an effective way of expressing disgust in an appropriately transgressive manner without resorting to the kind of crude sexual imagery that brings immediate censure. For instance, I could say that Fear Itself resembled nothing so much as getting raped in the mouth by an eight-hundred pound gorilla, but then someone would raise their hand in the back row and say, "I . . . I was raped by a circus gorilla. His name was Bobo and he was not a gentle lover. It took me years before I could leave the house without checking the bushes outside my doorway for banana peels . . . >choke< . . . how dare you?" while fighting back hot tears of rage. So, that's why we go back to shit so often. We're not Tyler, the Creator, people.)
My friend points to one strange bit of serendipity: both issues end with a central character at or near death, broken and burned across his body. (SPOILER!) How interesting that both comics did the same thing on the same day. It's almost like they're really in cahoots, sitting in a freezer box at the base of the Triboro Bridge with red spray paint coating their lips like glam strawberry jelly as they pass the paper bag back and forth. With the cars whizzing by and my friend mooning disconsolate against the red afternoon sun I realize with a sudden flash of clarity that it's all over, every single bit of it, it's all done and gone, we're just now hearing the echoes from the last fading sonic boom of fading glasnost. The Cold War is over, things are boiling hot, the rockets have flown, these are the End Times, everything is over except the screaming. There's nothing left but to crack the glass on the bell jar and see if maybe, just maybe, Sylvia Plath will crawl out of the seam and help us all put our heads in the oven.