Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I Don't Know If It's Art, But I Like It

According to the BBC, Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry has claimed that the art world is disengaged with the real world, before implying that realness is in some way related to sitting in front of the X-Factor* drinking a beer. Oh, and just to hit a trifecta of Things That Bug Madeley, also implied that the Tate is in some way deficient because they don't display the work of Banksy**, Jack Vettriano, or Beryl Cook.

There's a lot of unpacking to do here. I'm particularly taken by the way Perry pulls off the trick of appearing as both a patronising elitist and anti-intellectual at the same time.

I probably shouldn't be too mean about this. I'm a big fan of the BBC, but I know from experience they're just as likely to twist and edit information for shock value as any other outlet. The soundbites come from a longer talk, so I don't know, maybe context changes things. But there are things touched upon that are worth discussing.

There's this thing people do sometimes, where we imagine there's an Elite Artistic Cabal that has set themselves up as ultimate arbiters of what is GOOD, and are busy sneering down at the rest of us scum. Why, I've even been known to imply such a thing myself! In the second footnote below, no less!

It is rarely a helpful stereotype. It doesn't add anything useful to discussions surrounding art. It's a strawcabal that distracts from some very interesting questions, because it plays on the ever-present inferiority complex of damn near every human being.

Perry manages the impressive feat of siding with two completely separate groups. On one hand, the kind of conservative Daily Mail reader who hates intellectual, craft-less "modern" art, and wishes that artists made Real Art, like the nice painted dancy beaches of Jack Vettriano. On the other, he chucks in a bracing dose of class warfare, conjuring a vision of a ruling elite uninterested in Banksy's urban street troof or Beryl Cook's Real Life working class women.

He's barking up the wrong 'un, for several reasons. But, first! An admission.

I have spent a lot of time in my life wallowing around in the shallows of Low Art. And at the same time, as we discuss frequently, both I and Brother Paul take a dim view of enjoying anything quote-ironically-unquote. If I like something, I like it for reals, and that includes the ridiculous pompous bombast of, for example, Metallica's S&M album (and hellooooo questionable Google searches, but it's not S&M in the way you're thinking).

Mea maxima culpa, however. Music is the one thing where I'm most guilty of getting on my high horse about what constitutes "good" and "bad" art. I'm ashamed to say I've often been the one getting sneery about stuff that other people like, when really I should have kept my gob shut. Which brings us, I suppose, to the X-Factor.

What does Jack Vettriano share with the X-Factor? Why exactly has Perry drawn a parallel there? Because both are well-loved by Perry's Real People in proportion to the amount they're disliked by Perry's, I don't know, Unreal People.

Both are relatively popular in their fields. But both are unbelievably cynical, and both are facile. There is a fair amount of raw talent, and some craft, even an effective formula. But there's very little else. There's nothing to talk about. Pretty posh people dance on pretty beaches. Some people sing, occasionally well. That's really it.

And to be honest, I'm being as diplomatic as I can here, because I fucking loathe everything about the X-Factor right down to my fucking bones. The implication that Real People like it while only an out-of-touch Unreal elite don't spins my nut. Remember, everyone, Alarm Clock Britain loves the X-Factor!

Over on Twitter, while I was having a meltdown about this, Will Entrekin said "I always just think art is art. Some things just don't achieve it." I hope Will doesn't mind me intepreting this as the argument usually posited as "there's no High Art or Low Art, only good and bad." Bob Dylan at his best is Good Art. Soulless***, corporate X-Factor covers are Bad Art. They push the definition of Art to its very breaking point, although I do tend to side with folk like Scott McCloud who define art in about as wide a manner as is possible.

We sail perilously close to the waters of Objectivity and Subjectivity. Let's acknowledge the area's existence, and row off in the opposite direction.

There's something nastier going on here than an attempt to spark warfare beween the highbrow and lowbrow, between elitist and popular. I'm a fan of superhero comics. I've seem damn near every iteration of that particular conflict, from every tired angle. Here's where I set out my stall:

I think that Jack Kirby is one of the greatest, most important artists of the 20th Century. I think few people have shaped popular culture, or the language of its portrayal, as much as him. I think he's the best of all the Pop Artists, and I'm including Warhol in that.

At the same time, I think that Marcel Duchamp is THE most important artist of the 20th Century, and that his Fountain is the Century's greatest work of art.

I love craftspeople. I love watching someone of talent doing something well, whatever that is. A craftsperson at work can be hypnotic, whether it's sculpture or piano playing or whatever. I rate craft highly, and believe me, there's a big part of me that regrets the loss of craft and precision in 20th Century art. I am never going to like Tracy Emin's work as much as I like [insert famous classical painter's name here]. I rate Da Vinci highest of all classical artists. I love Peter Green's music as I love Joni Mitchell's songwriting, or Hergé's draughtsmanship. But the fact is that as great as these people are at their craft, at their art, none has changed the way we think about their field- or about art itself- in the way Duchamp did. Not even Da Vinci.

"Modern" art asks questions about what art is. It exists on the level of concept. It examines how thoughts and ideas are passed from brain to brain. No, it might not be aesthetically pretty, but it can be conceptually satisfying.

I'm tying myself in knots here, and making the same mistakes that some folk use as sticks to beat MODERN ART with.

Much like Economics, big-A Art is something that people shy away from. At some point, the narrative of our society tagged Economics as something too difficult for average folk to understand. It isn't. Yes, it can go to some complex places. It can't be summed up in its entirety in a tidy, simple manner. And all too often, knobheads like your humble Jedi head off on one with long words of uncertain meaning that, in the end, are neither useful or applicable. What can I say, there's no doubt the world would be better off with a little less jargon in it. But at the heart of things, both Economics and Art are based around some very simple, straightforward concepts that absolutely anyone can understand. We shouldn't be put off by sneery gatekeepers, whether real or imagined. We shouldn't let these things be taken away from us.

Some time ago, I saw a discussion of art in Irregular Webcomic. It's still one of my favourite bits of writing on the internet. It says a lot of things I'm trying to say here in a far more elegant fashion than I ever could. You should all go read it.

Let's back up a bit. If I think Duchamp's Fountain is so important, why do I rate Kirby above Warhol? Jack's good, yeah, but he never seeks to understand society or humanity, or to examine culture itself, in the way Andy does. But this is where it becomes interesting: Kirby's not just a great craftsman. He evokes abstract concepts, from simple things like energy and movement to the complex, unknowable vistas of the cosmos. And, being comics, he ties it to narrative in a way that, for want of a better phrase, Gallery Art has no hope of achieving. And Jack practically invented an entire visual language and context while he was about it.

Bringing this back to where we began, why do watchers of the X-Factor, or EastEnders, or Corrie, or whatever, exist as a shorthand for Real Britain, anyway? How many people watch these shows? Ten million? Twenty million? My point is, when these shows are on, most of the British population are doing something else. The import of the advertiser's darling, the WATER COOLER TELEVISION SHOW, fetishises the lowest common denominator. And the worst thing about it, the very worst thing, is that it's patronising. It's not about what you watch, or your views on Jack Vettriano, or where you think Bob Dylan and the Beatles and Beethoven should come on an absurd list of relative merit. What Perry does, in effect, is assume that most of Britain has neither the interest or ability to understand the Tate's brand of art.

I hate this attitude. I hate it because it assumes that Real People are unintellectual scum who have no capacity to enjoy Proper Art. I don't think I'm going too far in saying that this is the same attitude that drives a Government of ruling class Etonians intent on cutting funding to arts and education. The scum don't need it. Look at them, the scum don't even LIKE it. They can't possibly understand it. Leave them wallow in their X-Factor effluence. It's all they can understand.

Perhaps, once again, I overstate.

Oh, I don't know. I don't fucking know how the Tate chooses who they display. Maybe they do have a giant snooty wankathon where they drip hot liquid sneer all over art they consider Low. But I wouldn't put Jack Vettriano in either. Or Banksy. Or poor old Beryl Cook, and to be honest I think she has been treated badly by The Establishment over the years. But I'm pretty sure I'm not one of Perry's Boring Cool People who swig champagne in contemporary galleries. I don't like the X-Factor, but I do like Batman****, and Predator 2, and I've spent a hell of a lot time on this very blog talking about Megatron.

It's not about High Art or Low Art. It's not even about Good Art or Bad Art. It's about Perry's assumption that Real People have no hope of defining this for themselves. And I think Perry is completely wrong.

* I'm going to take a wild punt and assume Perry's not talking about the Marvel comic.(^)

** Now, if you know me out in meat space then you know I'm no follower of The Football. Even so, I once got a hilariously stinking look from an artsy-fartsy type back when I worked in a bookshop because she asked for a book on Banksy, and I thought she was after the autobiography of English international goalie Gordon Banks.(^)

*** I have a theory about Good and Bad music. I think we all kind of know what I meant when I used "soulless" up there, but "soul" has, of course, another meaning in pop music terminology. I think that "life" is a better word for it. When Nobody McPointless off of X-Factor covered Biffy Clyro's "Many of Horror", an utterly lifeless recording was created. Meanwhile, the Manic Street Preachers' Holy Bible is alive in a way few other albums are, even though every single track deals with death and sickness.(^)

**** In fact, BAT FANS, there's a hidden BAT REFERENCE in this very post! Can you find it?(^)

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Gotham, Bless My Aim

I had no intention of buying Batgirl, digitally or otherwise. I've got no interest in the character, whether the Barbara Gordon version or any other. I've never read an issue of Birds of Prey that I can recall, or anything where Gordon was protagonist. As a kid, I remember her from the occasional appearance on the 60s Batman show, but that's really it. I am about the last person that this title is aimed at.

Gordon'd been Killing Joked into Oracle by the time I was reading the UK Batman reprints, and my main feeling about her was annoyance. Oracle was a shortcut for lazy writers. Batman has a puzzle? Phone up Oracle, she'll have the answer. Now, Oracle as a concept is great: an information broker for the superhero set. Just as inspired was Brad Meltzer's reinvention of the Calculator as her villain counterpart, one of the few good things to emerge from the Identity Crisis series. But in the Bat-books she becomes a way for the writers to avoid having to write Batman doing detective work. I can't particularly blame them. Writing good detective fiction is hard. But if you find yourself writing a title called Detective Comics, maybe you should put the fucking hours in.

Batman-as-Detective is a trope that hasn't really filtered through into the various movie-verse Batman films, and it's a shame. I've been known to posit a convoluted argument that the Nolan movies show him doing detective work as a modern real-word detective understands it- electronic surveillance, interrogation, CSI-type methods- and I was interested to note Tony Daniel intending to use the same approach in his upcoming Detective Comics run. It's mirrored in the development of crime fiction over the decades, too, beginning with Holmesian cerebral types working through mysteries intellectually, through to modern fiction in the Inspector Rebus mould, where investigators rely on footwork, guesswork and informants to break their cases. But I don't really think this was deliberate choice on the film-makers' parts. People just don't tend to think of Batman as being a detective anymore.

But I like the stories that revolve around mysteries (or Riddler-puzzles), that show Batman using his intellect like a superpower. Oh, my kingdom for a bird-themed Penguin heist. Paul Dini was particularly good at this, as was Alan Grant during his classic Detective / Shadow of the Bat run with artist Norm Breyfogle. Writers like Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench, unfortunately, were not. These writers have their fans, but I've never been keen myself. Perhaps I'm remembering wrong, and maybe my recollection is distorting the issue, but I always think of them as the worst offenders when it came to casting Oracle in an expository role.

I was never that enthused by the Bat-family anyway. I'm a fair bit happier these days, maybe because writers I like have been handling the characters. But pre-Grant Morrison it seemed like every other Batman title had Nightwing or Spoiler or (worst of all) the bloody Huntress co-starring in it. I got sick of the hangers-on, and subscribed whole-heartedly to the Batman-as-loner approach.

Problem is, the grim night-stalking loner take tends to tempt writers towards a complete fruit-loop portrayal, much like the one Christian Bale is currently rocking. It's fine for the relatively brief run-time of a movie, but becomes unrelentingly grim to read month after month. I always thought a good balance would have been having Batman solo in his own title, and with Robin in Detective. Or, these days, in the Batman and Robin title itself.

At the other end of the scale, in the hands of bad writers the Bat-family become one-note caricatures, with Batman as grim moody patriarch and Nightwing as prodigal son. I've always seen Nightwing himself as a lightweight Batman, only for the character to come into focus for me in the Happy Batman role pre-Return of Bruce Wayne, to the extent that for the better part of two years my favourite comic was, in essence, Nightwing and the Little Psycho. In fact, Morrison, Snyder and even Winick have written such a good Dick Grayson that Nightwing itself is a title I'm looking forward to, and if you'd told me that in the 90s I would've looked at you funny.

The return of Barbara Gordon (I almost typed "the original Batgirl" there, bat-fans, which isn't quite true) as Batgirl is not without controversy. In a typically tone-deaf manner, DC have removed one of the few extant heroes who live with a disability. And not only is this not the first time, it's not the first time with this title, having previously replaced an Asian Batgirl (and only member of the Bat-family from a minority background) with a white one (and turning her into a villain, to boot), not all that long ago.

With all of this in mind, of all the DCnU titles I was intending to pick up, Batgirl wasn't one of them. Because of issues with the Comixology service which I'll likely go into in a future post, it ended up being the second digital title I bought after Justice League #1. And it's superb. Imagine my surprise.

Gail Simone is a talented, well-respected writer who, with the exception of a brief Deadpool run some time ago that I really dug, tends to work on characters I don't give a crap about. On the strength of this issue, I'm tempted to go looking for the other stuff I've missed.

The stand-out revelation, however, is Ardian Syaf's art. It's gorgeous. It reminds me of Scott Kolins at his best, but a lot more physical, in keeping with the acrobatic style of the protagonist. And, joy of joys, the women are all drawn in decent proportion, meaning the title isn't a complete fucking embarrassment to read (DC can feel free to use that quote in advertising, should they wish). There's a lot of go to the issue, a lot of action. I even like the busy, armour-esque quality of the new costume, the first of the DCnU redesigns that fit into the artist's style, and world. Syaf seems at ease with the new look in a way that even Jim Lee has trouble selling (and Lee did the damn redesigns).

Classic adventure comics, really, but modern in style rather than regressively retro. And a lot happens, too. You learn everything you need to know about Gordon, a bit of necessary backstory, a bit about her personality (and it's good to see a writer not dismissing the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress), plus you get a new villain and two fight scenes. Awesome fight scenes. It has all the wit, personality, density and kineticism that Justice League #1 was completely devoid of, making the latter seem even less substantial and more patronising that it did initially. This is how superhero action comics should be done.

But the best part, without doubt, is the single caption-box line used as the title of this post. It demonstrates the kind of subtle touch the great writers have when it comes to characterisation. It tells us that Gordon is a woman with faith in something greater (and as a trauma-survivor who regained the ability to walk, I imagine she would be), but also distinguishes her from Batman. I'm not sure if Batman really has that much faith in Gotham- and why would he? He thinks he has to wage a non-stop war himself because he doesn't trust the populace to deal with the monsters of Gotham. But Batgirl does have faith in her mother-city despite everything she's seen and has been through, faith that echoes in her interactions with the police officers and her father (himself a senior official of the city.) Unsurprisingly given the family connection, she believes in the police force in a way that Wayne, the orphan of murder victims, clearly would not. And it's another subtle hint, in line with recent explorations of Gotham's history in the Gates mini-series and in the upcoming Western DCnU title, plus a continuity of architectural design as seen in the JL#1 art, that Gotham herself may be a character of hidden significance in the rebooted universe.

You can read a lot into that single line, and not just because it's bad-ass. The mark of a great story-teller, and a great story.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Houses of Horror

I've been a fan of horror fiction ever since Dracula scared me stupid when I was a kid. These days, with Cthulhu on every other t-shirt for sale on the internet, it's easy to get your fix. Back then, I had to read about Lovecraft in Stephen King's Danse Macabre and then order the only Mythos anthology available in the Rhymney Valley library system. And even then, the only story by Lovecraft in that was The Call of Cthulhu, the others being by Lovecraft's extended web of acquaintances.

I think that true horror lives in single moments of realisation. That's why the twist ending is so prevalent in horror works, second only to the surprise reveal in crime fiction. Even a cheap twist can horrify- Bruce Willis was dead all along! The Blair Witch has put her in the corner! The call is coming from inside the house!

At its best, horror fiction can conceal something quite profound in these moments. As with all the pulp fictions, horror is often dismissed as having no real merit, and it gets a far rougher ride than its brothers and sisters. Science fiction works are acceptable as long as the author insists they're not really science fiction, fantasy becomes magical realism, and crime fiction has long been a cinematic critical darling. Apart from the odd positive evaluation of Stephen King, horror rarely gets the credit it's due. And even King still gets some stick, with his non-horror work (such as Shawshank, or Stand by Me/The Body) receiving most of the praise.

Horror films often offer huge returns on low budgets. The problem is that any merits are then easily overlooked in the wash of gore and torture. Take Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. These are two of the finest British films ever made, but they're rarely acknowledged as such outside of cult movie circles, the latter in particular renowned for its twist ending. But the twist is anything but cheap, changing the way the whole of the story that precedes it is viewed. It's a rare example of a perfect climax, one that's both unexpected and yet inevitable. Well, it's unexpected if you've been living in a box all your life- imagine going to see the film when it first came out, and knowing nothing about it.

This moment of realisation doesn't have to be part of the climax, either. It doesn't even have to be the "scare" moment, when something unspeakable jumps out at the audience. I've only recently watched the BBC's Being Human (I know, I know, talk about late to the party), and I think it's one of the finest examples of true horror I've ever seen. One line of dialogue, in particular, from the pilot and then later repeated in the full series. Two of the main characters have died, and seen what happens on the other side before coming back. Annie, a ghost, is asked by the third character (George, a werewolf, and the only one of the three friends who isn't undead) about the afterlife, and she replies that it's fine.

But it isn't. She and the vampire Mitchell know that when you die, you're met by the men with sticks and rope.

That's all that's mentioned. Men with sticks and rope. That chilled my blood the first time I heard it. A true moment of visceral horror. It doesn't matter who they are, or what they do, as the unsaid suggestion is horrible enough. One of the worst things is the implication that it doesn't matter whether you're good or evil- the same terrible fate awaits all of us. Few things can tap into this part of our minds like horror fiction can.

Horror helps us confront unpleasant realities. Both Alien and Aliens deal with a hostile, unforgiving, deadly universe. Aliens in particular posits that not even advanced military supremacy can protect us, attacking one of the foundational assumptions of Western culture. It's actually a pretty subversive film in some ways. Can you imagine a major mainstream film these days showing a crack all-American special forces unit proving to be utterly ineffective in a combat setting?

I have a pet theory (not an original one) that all superheroes can be matched up with one of the pulpish genres. While Batman has spanned pretty much all of them over the decades, his main controlling genre is crime fiction. Superman and Iron Man are science fiction. Thor and Wonder Woman, to one extent or another, are epic fantasy. Few Golden or Silver Age heroes are horror. I'd argue that Robin is one of them.

Like a fairy tale, Robin is the child orphaned, lost in the night, surrounded by monsters. But unlike a fairy tale, Robin joins with and becomes one of the creatures of darkness. There is no redemption for him, no happily-ever-after; his parents are not coming back. Whatever incarnation, he will be fighting the monsters for the remainder of his existence. His home is a haunted house, his territory the dank caves beneath it and the Gothic spires of the city.

And it's not just Dick Grayson, the original Robin, who follows this pattern. Jason Todd shares an origin with Killer Croc, one of the most overtly horrific of Batman's A-list villains. Todd's most notable addition to the Batman story was being beaten to death by the Joker, only to return from the dead as a psychopathic murderer. Tim Drake's mother was murdered and his father crippled by a voodoo priest. Stephanie Brown was tortured and (apparently) killed by a black-skulled man with a drill. The latter, of course, has quite rightly been the source of controversy. The scene's sexually suggestive, exploitative, mysogynistic nature parallels the superficiality of post-Saw horror cinema. And let's not forget Damien Wayne, the vat-grown child assassin and most recent addition to the Bat-family. Even his name is deliberately suggestive of The Omen (or possibly Only Fools and Horses. I'm not joking. Grant Morrison's been known to reference stranger things.)

So what's the purpose of horror fiction? I tend to think of it as the flip side of the coin to fantasy fiction. G.K. Chesterton's famous quote is "…fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Horror fiction tells us that sometimes no matter what we do, the dragon's going to do for us, and fuck us up while he/she/it goes about it. It's not a nice lesson, maybe, but it's undoubtably a true one.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Your Friday Five: Five Faces of Megatron

You'll note the title isn't The Five Faces of Megatron, because the fucker has dozens of them. And that's without including Galvatron. Why has he so many faces? To sell toys. That's why.

It's said that the best villains are the ones that have believable motives, and exist in stories that obey the rules that every character is the hero of their own story, and that none believe themselves to be evil.

Megatron ignores these rules. He's the uncompromising representation of grim, relentless villainy, evil because that's just how he rolls. Oh, sometimes you see his past as a Cybertronian gladiator stapled on as motive, but is that really why he does what he does? Of course not.

Megatron is notable in every incarnation as a cold, calculating, ruthless tyrant with a line in completely arse-backwards plans that can't possibly work. And not just in the 80s Generation One cartoon. Right up to date, in the latest round of spectacular cinematic Bayhem, he spends unbelievable eons of time on several plans, all riddled with faults. And then flushes it right down the pan after a thirty second conversation with a woman whose only distinction is in making Megan Fox's acting seem positively Olivier-esque by comparison.

But he comes across as such a competent guy. He rules the Decepticons with an iron fist and a glowing morning star. He maintains his leadership of bloodthirsty beings who transform into fighter jets, tanks, implausible dinosaurs and giant robots made out of lots of other giant robots despite his own alternate mode being an antique Nazi firearm upgraded in an absurd 60s spy show. He's obviously an old school political brawler of the most sadistic kind. Perhaps he has knowledge of compromising pictures that Shockwave tweeted of his single-eyed purple head.

And yet, and yet, despite his status as an unstoppable force of mechanised domination, the kind of plans he could really get behind include, but are not limited to:

-Building numerous Doomsday Weapons before abandoning them after a single Autobot-related setback and never trying to rebuild them, regardless of the initial success of the scheme;

-Finding numerous new sources of energy before abandoning attempts to harness them after a single Autobot-related setback and never trying to harness them again, regardless of the initial success of the scheme;

-Thinking the best way of protecting himself from Optimus Prime was to climb aboard the Space Bridge and blow it up;

-Despite having won the war for Cybertron, having driven the last Autobots off-world, he throws it all away in an ill-advised all-out attack on Autobot City that leaves his troops decimated and himself most of the way dead, the temporary demise of his oldest enemy small consolation to him as he's dumped out of Astrotrain like a flushed log freshly minted by a cosmic commuter;

-Not shooting known coward and usurper Starscream. Repeatedly. In the face;

-Resurrecting known coward and usurper Starscream. More than once.

One wonders what the rest of the Decepticons make of this. It must be like being employed in senior management to a brutal, efficient media mogul, who's spent decades building a ruthless corporate empire only to decide that the key to future growth in the face of rising internet usage is to include samples of his own widdle in a bag with every newspaper as a free gift.

Then again, look at the alternatives. Ratbat's masterplan was to hypnotise humans in order to siphon petrol from their cars. He's the alien death-bot equivalent of a smackhead with some tubing and a bucket. Thunderwing aimed high by attempting to (and succeeding in!) stealing the Autobot Creation Matrix, but was, unfortunately, a complete fruit loop even by this faction's undemanding standards. And Galvatron's just Megatron rebooted with the voice of the artist behind the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.

In the end, the unthinkable truth must be that however inept a commander Megatron is, his continued existence is a damning indictment of the Optimus Prime administration.

(Pictures up top ganked from the informative and hilarious TFWiki. Except for the toy picture. That one's mine.)

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Centre Is Perfectly Capable Of Hold, Thank You Very Much

Some time ago, my vague, irritated antagonism toward W. B. Yeats' work in general and The Second Coming in particular boiled over into the kind of impotent rage usually displayed online when DC Comics change the design of Superman's boots. Now, apart from the odd ill-tempered tweet, I don't like to hop on the internet and have a scream about what a monolithic corporate entity has done to a fictional character I have, in an embarrassing display of misplaced, short-circuiting human empathy, some affection for. I'm not knocking anyone else who wants to spend their energy that way, but half the time snarking leaves me with a vague feeling that, in protest against said monolith's actions, I've taken to punching myself in the cock.

But the most famous work of a long-dead poet? Oh, I am going to fucking do for you, sunshine.

Although, straight out of the gate, it's not Yeats that's the problem, though the pompous old bastard is there with his arms wrapped around the root of the matter, sneering at all of us plebs drowning in the horrible eschatological effluence of democracy's endgame. Much like Nietzsche's void, I am going to sneer right back at him, and probably flip him the vicky while I'm doing it.

That's the thing about Yeats. He thought the idea of people from the lower classes having influence over those who govern was apocalyptically abhorrent. Back when he wrote The Second Coming, he was predicting the end of the world, and the end of the world was triggered by revolution, unrest, and overthrow of hereditary monarchy in Europe. What's slouching towards Bethlehem? The concept of self-determination of the working class, and it's slouching with intent to shove democracy up your arse, William Butler!

Perhaps I overstate.

Anyway, I hate this attitude, one that's prevelant amongst a certain type of media and a certain kind of person, and it is not restricted to either end of the political spectrum. It's claimed we're living at the shitty end of civilisation, and that it's all going to collapse around our ears. Which is ridiculous. It's absolutely laughable, particularly here in the developed world. We've never had it so good. Our lives are amazing. Yet some people- the Yeatses of the world, the Statlers and Waldorfs of existence that fear their children, that fear the future, that hate, hate, hate, hate- would have us believe that we live in a time of ashes and decay and that things just used to be better.


How long have we had democracy? Do we count forward from universal sufferage? What about all the dirty tricks used to disenfranchise people at different points in recent history? Could we argue that refusing to allow prisoners the vote means we only have a pseudo-democracy? How about that fact that only a minority of eligible people actually vote? How about that fact that only a minority of people on planet Earth live in a society that could even reasonably be classified as democratic?

However we choose our definition, all of this can only be encouraging. However bloody the 20th century was, however much our leaders have chosen to repeat horrific mistakes in the first decade of the 21st, for millennia the major powers of Europe have been in constant warfare, right up until 66 or so years ago. 66 years is nothing on the scale of history, even human history. That's within the memory of a single generation. But look how far we have come.

Is it perfect? Hell no. We aren't far enough. We need to be further. We need to move faster. The fact that so much casual injustice remains in our society is damning, a terrible indication of how far we have to go. But look. How far. We've come. I flat out refuse to believe that Yeats was right, that his argument has any objective merit.

And it drives me round the fucking bend that science fiction and comic book writers throw his quotes round just to add a bit of ominous weight to their facile stories, to borrow imagery they barely understand above the most superficial level because they are incapable of generating any atmosphere of their own. That's the real problem, not Mussolini-admirin', Ezra Pound-befriendin', Blueshirt-supportin' W. B. Yeats (and what is it, by the way, with Fascists and their colour-coded wardrobes?)

I don't know, maybe Kevin Smith was perfectly aware of the authoritarian subtext of the work when he referenced it in Batman: The Widening Gyre, and fully intended to use metatextual nuance to comment on Bruce Wayne's fascistic overtones in the storyline warmly remembered today as the one where Batman piddled himself just a little bit. Smith's certainly not the only offender, if offender he is, but his miniseries was the place where I finally lost my rag with all of it. And he's in good company. Even The West Wing named an episode "Things Fall Apart" in reference to the poem.

So yeah. Poetry, man.

Someone remind me to do a post sometime on why R.S. Thomas would have beaten Dylan Bloody Thomas in a poetical fist-fight.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Look. Up In The Sky.

I'll start with Superman. Everything else did.

One of my earliest memories is watching the first Superman film with Dad. Superman freaked me out in a way that Batman and Spider-Man didn't. Superman was something alien, and even when I was a kid the terrible loneliness of Krypton's destruction had an effect on me. To this day, I get a bit wobbly watching the first hour of the Donner movie.

Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope. Superman's secret origin has an emotional weight that an origin like Batman's has lost over time. For kids, the loss of their parents is perhaps their greatest fear; hence all the orphaned superheroes, I suppose. Maybe these days I identify more with Jor-El. Maybe at some point Superman's origin stops being about making your own way, alone in a hostile world, and starts being about how far you would go to protect your family.

The comic character came later for me. I was reading the crazy old 60s comics at the same time as post-Crisis Byrne/Stern/Jurgens UK reprints. And I liked them, but not as much as other things. Not as much as the Exploits of Spider-Man (a Marvel UK anthology title, great fun until 90s overindulgence set in), or Simon Furman's Transformers. Certainly not as much as Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle's Batman stories, to my mind the best run of that period.

I don't remember the first Siegel and Shuster story I read. At a guess, I'd say it must have been in Brother Paul's copy of the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told. I'd be lying if I said that everything changed instantly for me, but that version of Superman- the original, Golden Age version- lurked in my brain for a long time, much like the early, Gothic Golden Age Batman stuff did, informing everything I understood about the character.

And Golden Age Superman is Superman to me. There's compassion, righteousness, and energy in the stories. And anger, too. The anger of two kids who'd grown up through the Great Depression, when corruption and the evil deeds of the rich and powerful had forced destitution on the people, when Fascism had begun its march across Europe, when hope took the form of people banding together for the common good, of the strong choosing to help the weak instead of exploiting them.

That's the myth, anyway, but what is Superman if not a myth? The Golden Age Superman provides the soul that is sometimes missing from the later eras. Golden Age Superman wasn't the conservative, avuncular figure of the 50s and 60s, who wasted his days in a spiteful passive-aggressive cycle of deceit and practical jokery with Lois Lane. Neither was he Earth-Two Kal-L, the parallel world stand-in created in the 70s, recently beaten to death by a whinging strawman with severe entitlement issues (You know, I actually like a lot of Geoff Johns' writing. But his interpretation of Superboy Prime as the kind of fanboy he doesn't like was cringeworthy for the most part.)

Golden Age Superman is absolutely not a procrastinating self-doubter who weeps at the drop of a hat. I'm not saying a man shouldn't have a damn good cry every now and then, but if I never see a drawing with Superman in floods again, it'll be too soon.

The main offender here is George Perez's cover to Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, one that always ranks highly in polls of the greatest covers. I loathe it. It encapsulates several things I dislike in modern superhero comics: a pointless death, faux-classical pretention, and an ineffective Superman. Why on Earth do writers want to cut Superman's legs out from under him? Superman always finds a way. That is the point of Superman. I don't want grim, depressing, tortured, self-loathing quotation-marks-realism-end-quotation-marks in my Superman comics. That's what Daredevil's for.

Golden Age Superman is none of these things. He acts, unafraid of consequence. An embodiment of Roosevelt-era politics, a proletarian activist reversing the disparity of power. Scary, even, because the only thing keeping him in check is his own sense of morality, regardless of whether or not that means chucking a copper out of a window.

It lends the early comics a zeal and motion that's impossible not to get swept up in. I've seen it described (somewhere, I forget where) as almost outsider art, naïve even by the standards of the time. Remember, this was long after McCay's Little Nemo, and a contemporary of Dick Tracy and Hergé's Tintin. Outside of the rushed demands of periodical publishing, there's no real excuse for the crudity of the art. Bob Kane (or his ghost artists) were doing much better work for the same company at the same time. But it doesn't matter, because in this case enthusiasm trumps talent by a huge margin.

Odd to think that so often it's argued that Superman should be neutral as regards politics. Take the recent kerfuffle about Superman renouncing his American citizenship in a rubbish story. It was such an obvious provocation to people of a certain political mindset that, had it been me, I'd have been embarrassed getting angry.

My problem with it, curiously, had nothing to do with Superman as much as it has to do with the unquestioned assumption that everything would be better if we didn't have countries and we were all one big united planet. When unexamined it sounds great, but I can't help but feel what is really being argued is that we should all be one big homogenous society, implicitly white, Western and capitalist. I don't know. I like my culture, I like my flag, and I don't like the way we have surrendered identity issues to reactionaries and bigots. To see Superman do so is unpleasant, and plays to the idea that only right-wingers are true Americans because look how fast the bleeding hearts turn their backs on their country. One thing I'm certain of is that I'm not going to renounce the Fair Country just because some Welsh folk do something I don't like.

I think it's a fair argument that in representing an American ideal, in his opposition to divisiveness, Superman should be portrayed as aloof from politics, that in character terms he would want to represent every American regardless of affiliation. Fair enough. But there's no way Clark Kent votes Republican, any more than Bruce Wayne votes Democrat. Ok, maybe his Midwestern upbringing counts against this interpretation. I mean, no pro-union socialist or liberal activist ever came from Kansas now, did they?

This is the long way round of saying, I am really looking forward to Grant Morrison's upcoming run on the rebooted Action Comics. I don't care about Superman's status quo, or whether he's married or not, or who amongst his supporting cast has bought the (Kent) farm, or what number they're going to stick on the cover. I don't care whether comment sections and message boards and The Twitter fill up with denunciations of a direction that isn't due to be published for months.

I don't care because with All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison was responsible for writing the greatest Superman story ever told. I don't care because Morrison is quoted in the New York Post as saying "We felt it was time for the big adventures of a 21st-century Paul Bunyan who fights for the weak and downtrodden against bullies of all kinds, from robot invaders and crime lords to corrupt city officials." I don't care because if Morrison fulfills the promise of that quote, then for the first time in seventy odd years, the original Superman gets to fly again.