Thursday, December 22, 2011

Not Dead Yet

For those of you who don't check my Twitter feed with religious regularity, the dearth of posting lately has been caused by the fact that I spilled a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper on the keyboard of my laptop. The good news is that I was able to salvage the old hard drive with no problems, and currently have it installed in an external drive kit I can plug into any available Mac machine. The bad news is that, yes, I am sans computer, save for Violet's laptop of which she so very graciously allows me the use for basic tasks such as the checking of e-mail and schoolwork. So, all the awesome posting I had planned for Christmas break - ka-blooey!

Anyway, one of the unfortunate effects of the accident is that I have had to put together my year-end top-ten list for the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop as something of an afterthought. Usually in December I have plenty of time to catch up on all the music I missed over the previous eleven months, a process that involves discovering stuff I hadn't known about as well as reconsidering stuff I had dismissed. This year, because I didn't have a computer available for regular use, I had to put this together in a few spare minutes based almost solely on memory, my charts and a quick look over the Pitchfork and SPIN lists to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything obvious. This is hardly the most adventurous list you'll read this year, and it's fairly predictable in many respects, but I've got a deadline and this is what stuck out at me.

I should point out, once I sat down to compose the list my #1 and #2 were obvious, but the rest was a bloodbath.

There's a lot of stuff I haven't heard that could conceivably have made the list but of which I can't in good conscience be any judge: the Field, the Roots, Zomby, Tom Waits, SBTRKT all spring to mind, all albums on my shopping list for the next time I go record shopping. And of course when I have the time, I need to do the usual go-through of all the other year-end lists to see the stuff I didn't know I was missing.

Albums that disappointed: Bon Iver (how the hell is such a mediocre album Pitchfork's #1?), St. Vincent, Hercules & Love Affair, Panda Bear.

Albums that didn't necessarily disappoint but didn't set the world on fire: Stephen Malkmus, REM, GaGa, Wild Flag (I'm as shocked as you), Wilco (better than Sky Blue Sky, some signs of life, but no home run), Mirah & Thao, Nicholas Jaar, Tim Hecker, Tyler the Creator (and wow am I surprised to see this left off so many Best-Of lists - or am I?), .

Albums that were shit: Fleet Foxes, Girls (considering how much I loved his debut it pains me to say that this new albums was a sleeping pill), Fleet Foxes, James Blake (this is supposed to be "good"?), Fleet Foxes. Did I mention Fleet Foxes?

Honorable mention: Boston Spaceships (nice appetizer for new GBV!), Gang Gang Dance (if the whole album had been as good as "Glass Jar" they would have been a shoe-in), Mates of State (don't judge me!), Fucked Up (kind of obvious, but still good), Atlas Sound.
Top Ten of 2011 as of 12/22/12 -

10. Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
9. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
8. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
7. The Rapture - In the Grace of Your Love
6. They Might Be Giants - Join Us
5. Low - C'mon
4. Cut Copy - Zonoscope
3. Yacht - Shangri-La
2. Destroyer - Kaputt
1. tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
If I can find some time over the next couple days I would like to write at least a few words on each of these albums. In the meantime, tell me your ideas of anything you think I missed or underrated.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

He ended up really, really, really sad.


Within the first few seconds of the first song ("Ana Ng") the listener is aware that something is different. Everything that had been present on They Might Be Giants can still be accounted for, but perhaps it would be better to say that everything which was present had been amplified and strengthened. Whereas their first album had been occasionally sparse, intentionally discordant in places, and doggedly lo-fi, everything on Lincoln was arranged with absolute precision. The jagged guitar riff and stomping kick drum that open the album are perfectly compressed for maximum impact: the song hits like a hammer and never lets up for the space of three-and-a-half minutes. To say that "Ana Ng" is one of the duo's best songs is something of an understatement: the development and maturation of their songwriting and recording skills in the two years between their debut and their sophomore album - even 23 years later - is simply astounding.

They had a lot to prove with this record. They were a novelty act who had probably already outlived the most generous career expectations: a song on MTV and heavy rotation on college radio, all riding atop an album of strange synthesizer noises and a few classically formalist pop songs. They obviously had an idea of what kind of sound they wanted to produce but their first album was too scattered to fully realize this ambition. Lincoln was a bolt from the clear blue sky, a mature and disciplined statement dedicated to (seemingly) immature thoughts and random ideas. In the space between their first and second albums, They Might Be Giants discovered focus, and this was the key: you can get away with doing anything you so desire as long as you have the chops and the discipline. Lincoln is a forty-minute long laser beam, 18 songs in 40 minutes, a murderers' row of one catchy, complex, and deceptively melancholy ditty after another, marching in perfect military time. They Might Be Giants were essentially a hardcore group with a drum machine, and song-for-song I'd put Lincoln toe-to-toe with Double Nickles on the Dime any day of the week.

The problem with Lincoln is that all the copious skill on display only made it that much easier to underplay and undersell the actual content of the songs themselves. Because, yeah, the album is partially defined by a handful of purely silly nonsense songs, tracks like "Cowtown" and "Pencil Rain" that resist all but the most annoyingly abstruse allegorical reading. They're goofy songs built around tongue-twisters. If anyone wanted an example of They Might Be Giants as a joke band, a gimmick band of no real consequence who produce stupid ditties for the clever kids in the back of math class, well, those are the tracks to which one would go first.

But if there's one thing about which I am convinced after having lived with this album as a fixture of my life for over twenty years, it's that there's something real and haunting behind the glib facade. If you listen to the album without really listening to the album you might hear a procession of clever tunes built around puns and wry humor. You might think that some of the jokes are corny and some of the jokes are witty, and you might think that some of the attempts at pathos feel strangely hollow. But it would be a terrible mistake to hear the album as anything other than a holistic unit. It hangs together remarkably well as a unit because on Lincoln the Johns mastered the trick that would essentially make their careers: making deceptively happy songs that were, in fact and on closer examination, remarkably sad.

Listen to the album the first time and you might hear a remarkable assortment of tongue-in-cheek ditties, some great sarcastic pastiches and high-energy larks. Listen again in a different frame of mind and the whole thing takes on a decidedly darker pallor that becomes altogether harder to shake. You could dismiss one sad song, you could dismiss two sad songs, but a whole album comprised of (with only a few exceptions) unremittingly depressing, anxious, heartbroken, jaded, exhausted, and downright bleak songs? That's something that not everyone seems to get. There's real panic behind the mania.

Take a look for yourself:
Everything sticks until it goes away /
And the truth is, we don't know anything.

Somebody's reading your mind /
Damned if you know who it is /
they're digging through all of your files /
Stealing back your best ideas.

Should you worry when the skullhead is in front of you /
Or is it worse because it's always waiting where your eyes don't go?

A woman's voice on the radio can convince you you're in love /
A woman's voice on the telephone can convince you you're alone.

I know you deceived me, couldn't sleep last night /
Now my tear stains on the wall reflect an ugly sight.

I'm going to die if you touch me one more time /
Well I guess that I'm going to die no matter what.

It must be raining because a man ain't supposed to cry /
But I look up and I don't see a cloud.

Don't call me at work again no no the boss still hates me /
I'm just tired and I don't love you anymore.

What's the sense in ever thinking about the tomb /
When you're much too busy returning to the womb?

I love the world and if I have to sue for custody /
I will sue for custody.

If it wasn't for disappointment /
I wouldn't have any appointments.

Now you're the only one here who can tell me if it's true /
That you love me and I love me.
The reason Lincoln is their masterpiece, why this is the one They Might Be Giants album more than any other that exemplifies why they are such great and gifted songwriters, is that this is the album on which the line between energy and anxiety was most neatly effaced. They're not singing jerky, fast jingles because they're having a great time: no, they're actually quite miserable, desperately unhappy, and it's only by going so fast that they lose their breath that they can actually begin to express the deep discontent lying underneath the happy exterior.

The last third of the album (from the final breather of "You'll Miss Me") is one long sled ride down the hill from paranoia through despair right on to delusion. The album's climactic track, "Kiss Me, Son of God," is perhaps the single most demented kiss-off ever written by someone who wasn't actually in a padded room. It's They Might Be Giants's version of slamming the mic on the ground and walking offstage after delivering a ferocious "fuck you" to everyone who ever kicked their shins in gym class. The only ways you could possibly follow-up the end of Lincoln would be to hang yourself from the rafters or sign a major-label deal. You know the score, but anyone coming to Lincoln fresh might legitimately worry for the mental health of the men who wrote it.

Some "scamp" took down the album version, so here's an OK live version.

All of which might well be summed up as supremely conceited and self-satisfied . . . and you'd be 100% correct in doing so. That's the point: one of the reasons - perhaps the main reason - why They Might Be Giants took off the way they did was that the spoke to the dramatic self-absorption and feigned martyrdom of the American teenage nerd in a way that no other musical group or cultural phenomenon had ever quite done before. This is something that no one under a certain age - say, 25 at the youngest - can really understand without having to be told: until very recently, nerd media was mass media, and it only stuck with nerds because they were too stupid to realize that sci-fi TV shows and fantasy books were not things that grown men (and women, but let's be frank, the Android's Dungeon was a boys club for decades) should care about. It was all well and good for normal people to love Star Wars, but to keep caring about it long after you left the theater - and to obsess about it long past grade school - that took a special kind of willful suspension of disbelief in the way life was "supposed" to be lived. And the people who went to sci-fi conventions and traded VHS tapes of dubbed anime and played AD&D and listened to Tarkus long after anyone else cared about ELP - they did so because they needed something else to fill the void in their lives, because all the things that "normal" people were supposed to care about in the industrialized west just weren't cutting it.

Is the image of the self-hating nerd a cliche? Is there any truth to the stereotype of the basement-dwelling troll with Cheeto-stained fingers and a soiled "I GROK SPOCK" T-shirt, awkwardly fumbling through gym class and desperately ashamed of the fact that he can't really complete any aspects of the President's Physical Fitness Test to satisfaction? Perhaps in its most extreme forms this is an exaggeration, but there's no doubt whatsoever that until very recently - as in, within the last decade and change - nerds were decidedly off the mainstream. And they - hell, who am I kidding? we - were self-righteous about the fact that we had been excluded from the mainstream. Even if the only people who had excluded us were us. We had our reasons, or at least we believed that we did.

And this is what They Might Be Giants got. Being young and brilliant also sometimes means being a self-absorbed asshole. Sometimes, being stuck on a loop in your own head can be a fate worse than death. When I was younger I thought that the best track on Lincoln was "They'll Need A Crane," and while I still think that's a fantastic song, as I get older I see that the album's real masterstroke is "Snowball in Hell." It's a great song about growing up and being desperately unhappy with your life, a sentiment that can best be summed up in the phrase "money's all broke, and food's going hungry." It's a song about unhappy adulthood that somehow sounds wistful without seeming maudlin, and defiantly chipper despite increasingly dire circumstances. It's a better song than it has any right to be, considering just how unlikely They Might Be Giants ever were.

Anyone who cared to pay attention past the goofs and the weirdness was rewarded with a shimmering gem of a pop song: but in order to pay attention you had to have the patience, and in order to have the patience you had to care. Being able to care about something as nerdy and unimportant as a weird indie rock album was definitely a sign of deep commitment, and once They Might Be Giants found a way to broadcast directly to those fans with a heavy investment in being deeply committed . . . well, the rest was history.

(out of five)

Monday, November 21, 2011

When they kick down your front door, how you gonna come? /
With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm poor. Before I went back to school in 2007 I spent much of the previous decade shuffling around a handful of low-paying, dead-end jobs, getting some degree of satisfaction from working part time as a freelance writer but generally dissatisfied with the shape and direction of my life. In hindsight it's obvious that I had no one to blame for this state of affairs but myself - I made a few precipitous decisions in my early twenties that had great, far-reaching unpleasant consequences. Usually this is the part where someone says, "I made some mistakes but I don't regret anything!" That's bullshit: although I have learned to regard my past with something resembling a sanguine wistfulness (for the necessity of my own fragile mental health, if nothing else), that doesn't mean I don't live every day with a sensation of definite regret hovering somewhere in the vicinity of my conscious thoughts.

That's not a bad thing. Regret is a strong motivating force. Everyone makes mistakes: it is how you react to these mistakes that defines your character.

Being poor tends to clarify and focus your thoughts. I actually read a really great article about this recently in the most unlikely of places: posted a funny list earlier this year of the "5 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Poor." Oddly enough for a humor site like, this is actually one of the best, most astute and completely unvarnished examination of working poverty in America that I've ever seen. One of the reasons it's such an effective article is that it doesn't flinch from showing just how "funny" so many of the daily humiliations of the Poverty Grind actually are. Being poor means your life is essentially a long string of ironic Catch-22s, one after another forever and ever. You get some money from a tax refund? Guess what, your car needs a new timing belt. You want to go back to school? Guess what, the only way to qualify for substantive student aid is to live far below the poverty line. Gallows humor comes with the territory.

So you go back to school and work hard. Even though everything else in the world appears to be crumbling, you still wholeheartedly embrace the belief that education and hard work will allow you to rise up from poverty and to enjoy the fruits of a moderate middle-class life - the fruits of which amount, in this case, to simply living a comfortable life that doesn't require the constant counting of pennies in order to be able to eat lunch. Because we all know that there's no such thing as social mobility anymore. If you're born poor you're likely to remain poor, and if you're born rich it is almost impossible to not remain rich. Growing up we were never destitute in terms of complete abject poverty, but I think it's fair to characterize my upbringing as definitively poor, in money if not in spirit. There were fat times and lean times. We never went without essentials and we always had food to eat, but despite what the Heritage Foundation might want you to believe, being poor in America doesn't mean being perpetually hungry (although that can be a part of it - I've been hungry in my time), and it doesn't mean not owning a color TV. It does mean having to constantly scramble, and knowing full well at all moments that if your next paycheck (or pension check or SSI Disability check) doesn't materialize for whatever reason, you are screwed in a very real, concrete, and non-abstract fashion. I always like to say: some days you get the spider, and some days the spider gets you.

As might be expected from the above, being poor also means being frightened all the time. Being poor means that the police aren't your friends. I've often wondered what it must be like to live a life without constant fear of the police as a real and valid threat. I should mention that I'm perhaps the most law abiding person I know. I feel guilty about going even just two or three miles over the speed limit on the freeway - even when everyone around me is going 10-15 miles above - not just because I'm deathly afraid of getting a ticket I can't pay and having my preciously low car insurance rate raised, but because I've been in severe car accidents and I don't want to die behind the wheel of an eight-year-old Subaru station wagon. I don't declare deductions on my taxes above the bare-bones household deduction, in the interest of keeping my tax profile as simple and unobtrusive as possible. I know from firsthand family experience that once you fall under the government's purview, it's almost impossible to extricate yourself without falling into a bureaucratic sinkhole of the kind that the phrase "Kafka-esque" was specifically designed to describe. Being poor means living in constant fear of falling on the wrong side of the government: we don't get to have lawyers on retainer or even lawyers, period.

If the system was working properly, education would be the means by which individuals could lift themselves out of lowered circumstances through hard work and perseverance. As it stands, university education has become the bare-minimum prerequisite for most people to be able to qualify for middle class jobs and incomes, and those very same university educations that are necessary in order to produce an economically productive citizenry carry with them the near-certainty of prohibitive debt. You need to go to school in order to be qualified for the jobs that will enable you to pay off the student loans you accrued in order to pay for school. Setting aside the more intangible cultural consequences of forcing the large majority of college graduates to view university education as glorified job-training, there is the basic fact that any institution responsible for saddling society's most potentially productive demographic with immense debt right out of the starting gate will act as a monstrous drag on economic growth for the foreseeable future.

Spiraling debt is one of the symptoms of a capitalist system in terminal decline. Governments, companies, and people are (often literally) mortgaging present circumstances on future dividends - ignorant or in denial of the fact that the negative effects of debt are compounded with time. If capitalism was able to function the way it "should," the way the economic apologists on the faculties of almost every major public and private university in the United States would have us believe, reasonable debt levels would be easily erased by periodic upturns. In reality, contemporary debt levels across all levels of society are untenable and simply cannot be repaid. As we have seen in Greece (and France and Italy and England, et al.), countrywide austerity programs necessarily inflict unacceptable collateral injuries across society. On the most basic level, governments establish legitimacy through the maintenance of order. As soon as recognized social protections begin to fall away, society erupts from the bottom up. Law enforcement practices become harsher and more repressive as income disparity rises - by necessity, since economic disparity creates unrest. There is no amount of police repression capable of suppressing dissent in a representational democracy. Every attempt to suppress dissent creates an environment of harsher repression which in turns inspires an increasingly vociferous dissent movement. There's no way to stop the cycle without abandoning any pretense of political liberty and instituting a police state - and oops, sometimes that happens anyway when you're not even paying attention.

Most people in the United States (and dare I say the rest of the world) possess an express desire to live quiet lives unaffected by political turmoil. Protest movements are historically unpopular in this country because anything that threatens to overturn social and political stability on the national stage is unavoidably seen as a potential threat to local stability. So there is a very real possibility that the Occupy movement will have a deleterious effect on the short-term prospects of liberal politics on the retail level. That makes perfect sense: the Tea Party, inasmuch as it was a "real" populist protest movement, was still essentially contiguous with the values and goals of the mainstream Republican party. The Occupy movement, however, rejects the Democratic party, and even those Democrats seemingly most amenable to aligning themselves with the goals of the Occupy movement, such as the very liberal Democratic senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, are still essentially corporatist technocrats dedicated to preserving the economic status quo through smarter regulation. The Occupy movement is far beyond the reach of the Democratic party. One of the country's most historically liberal politicians, Jerry Brown, is once again governor of California, and his complete silence in the face of increased radicalization across the University of California system has been deafening. (It is worth noting that our Governor during the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s was Ronald Reagan, and his unambiguously hostile reaction to the protests in Berkeley during that decade was a crucial factor in helping Reagan gain credibility with national conservatives in the years leading up to 1980.) There is no way any politician on the national stage can possibly align themselves with the Occupy movement on anything other than the most vague and equivocal basis, because the whole point of the Occupy movement is that capitalism is failing in stark and unambiguous terms.

I'm not going to bother reiterating the facts regarding skyrocketing tuition - they're on the public record for anyone to see. But I think it is worth looking out for a moment from the specific circumstances of the moment and towards other aspects of the same problem.

If you have not already done so it is worth your attention to set aside the time to read Taylor Branch's recent article, "The Shame of College Sports," published in last month's issue of The Atlantic. It's a long and extremely interesting article, and so any attempt to summarize it would be necessarily reductive. But at the risk of doing violence to Branch's central thesis, the article lays out the case against college athletics and the NCAA in extremely methodical and unmistakeable terms. College athletics - particularly basketball and football - are such a remunerative enterprise that successful athletic programs effectively take over the schools to which they are attached. In the process they commit a variety of tacitly accepted crimes against the players who participate in college ball in the hopes of using it as a means of reaching the brass ring of a fat paycheck with professional sports. The way money circulates in the NCAA system distorts the educational mission of public and private universities to such a degree that any arguments regarding the economic benefits of college athletics are mooted ten times over by the deleterious effect of college sports on the reputation, educational quality, and dignity of the institutions in question. Many are already calling for the NCAA to be either dissolved or cut free entirely from the university system to which it already seems a pressingly terrible fit.

For any proof of the potential negative consequences of college athletics - consequences that go far beyond even vastly important questions concerning the ethical treatment of college athletes and the parasitic relationship between large athletic departments and large research universities - you merely need to look at the crisis at Penn State over the last month after it was discovered that a long-serving assistant coach for Penn State's storied football team had allegedly raped multiple children over the course of many years. The behavior was known and a cover-up of indeterminate dimensions in place for a long time. If you want to understand why and how such behavior could be allowed to continue on any basis, it is best to ask the most basic question: cui bono? Who benefits? Follow the money.

In the weeks leading up to the current campus crises, all graduate students, postdoc researchers and faculty in the UC system received a new patent contract. (I got the same patent contract myself since I'm a graduate student, even though the humanities obviously don't produce much in the way of patents.) Universities count on revenues from industrial patents to produce a surprisingly large percentage of their income. Current patent law apparently was such that existing contracts were not proof against loopholes, so new contracts were drawn up to clarify the University's ownership relation to all intellectual property created under its auspices. For those of you paying attention at home: scientists and engineers working for research universities are employed on a work-for-hire basis. Money gained from research income - be it in the form of patent revenues or industrial grants - is increasingly not funneled back into further research or education. It "disappears" into the administrative budget.

The problem is that there's no quick fix. The problem is that "the problem" is systematic and ultimately points to the most basic questions of how our society functions and how people pay their rent. The problem is that for an increasingly large percentage of the population, society isn't functioning quite so well, and a lot of people are having trouble paying that rent. President Obama was only ever going to be a centrist conservative Democrat: anyone who ever believed differently hadn't done even the most basic research required to read this excoriating New Yorker profile from 2007. There's no hope of redress at the highest levels of government, and so the dissatisfaction will continue to seep outwards and upwards.

It doesn't take a lot to radicalize leftist humanities students at public universities. When you actually get the scientists to pay attention to issues of social justice, you're working overtime to make enemies. There is no good reason why college athletes shouldn't be protesting for the exact same reasons that professors, graduate students (who teach and research) and undergraduates (who pay steep tuition) are: we make a lot of money for this university, cui bono? Why is tuition so high? Why are citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet being asked to pay so much for an education that is an essential prerequisite to being an economically productive citizen? If people stopped sending their kids to college in high enough numbers, the economy would suffer for lack of educated workers to staff non-manual positions.

The only way this situation makes sense in the long term is if you accept that the logic of capitalism is self-defeating: debt begets debt, and a society burdened with debt will collapse because excessive debt makes growth impossible. The moment capitalism stops growing, when economic systems stagnate and contract, it enters a spiral of quickly diminishing returns from which it cannot extricate itself. Government regulation could probably temporarily arrest or slow the decline if the legislative will was present, but no one can acknowledge the existence of the problem, much less propose economic solutions predicated on the understanding that capitalism can't sustain itself indefinitely with a minimum of regulation. Eventually someone, somewhere, will simply stand up and refuse to pay their debts: it's already happening in Greece, and we have seen the consequences of even just one small-ish, relatively unimportant economy refusing to play by the rules. Any larger default would existentially imperil the entire financial system. When that happens, all bets are off, and all of our lives will be immeasurably worse for the duration of the crisis.

All of which brings us back to the photo at the top of the post, of a helmeted police officer hosing down nonviolent protesters with pepper spray. I walk along that pathway every day on my way from the bus stop in the Student Union to my office in Voorhies. I know those people, some of them at least: one of the men in the foreground who I recognize was seated across a conference table from me in class not three hours before the photo in question was taken. I know from class he looked exhausted: he'd been involved in many of the protests both on campus at Davis and ninety minutes away at Berkeley. I went home that afternoon after class and took a nap: it had been a long week with minimal sleep (that's graduate school!) and I knew going into the weekend that the next week, right before the Thanksgiving holiday, was going to be fairly intense. My Chaucer students have a term paper due in twelve days for which I can't help worrying they are woefully unprepared: I'm most concerned right now in being able to plan effective paper-writing workshops in the very busy week after we return from holiday. I slept all afternoon and woke up to find that Something Had Happened.

It's a bit weird to wake up and realize that you've been placed in a fishbowl. Suddenly a campus protest movement which had previously appeared vaguely desultory was the flashpoint for international attention: it hit Reuters, it hit the AP, it hit the BBC. The pictures and video of the pepper spray incident have shot around the world. Why was this such a revelation, when things like this had happened just a few days earlier in Berkeley? And this was happening in Oakland? Why was this happening here, in a college town to which I had moved with the specific understanding that it would be a quiet place to burrow down for a few years of extremely taxing intellectual labor?

I would never describe myself as an active member of the protest community: that would be doing a great disservice to those people who are extremely active and important in the organization and implementation of dissent on campus and in the community. But I'm a member of a Graduate Student Assembly that is responsible for formulating official responses to these events, I'm represented by a union that stands in solidarity with political activism, and I'm an individual surrounded by good friends who are deeply involved on every level of the process. We stand united and we roll deep.

But as an individual I'm frightened, terrified. I look at the pictures and watch the videos and hear the slogans and I know that things have reached a fever pitch: the demonstrations are going to get bigger and the political ramifications, at least for those living under the UC system as it stands now, are potentially massive. It's one thing to see these things played out on a TV screen from hundreds or thousands of miles away, but another thing entirely to see images taken in what is essentially your home being broadcast across the world as symbols of political repression. There's that old creeping fear of law enforcement which my parents instilled in me. My mom worked for the police as an emergency dispatcher and (when she couldn't possibly get out of it) a jail warden. She was exposed to policemen at their best and their worse - as first-responders to accidents and incidents of domestic abuse, as people who worked hard to catch violent criminals and support their community, but also as people who could be bigoted, sexist, violent, and abusive, who exploited the authority of their badge and their position of trust in every conceivable fashion. After working with the police for ten years she told me in no uncertain terms: avoid the police. There are two types of people who become police: good people who want to accomplish the good things associated with police work, and people who become corrupted and compromised by the very real ethical dangers of a career in law enforcement. When you're being pulled over for a busted taillight you can't know which type of cop your getting, or what kind of day that cop had, or any number of other variables.

(An aside: one of the best days of my life was the day a cop actually apologized to me for pulling me over without a reason. He ran my plates on his computer when he was driving behind me on a country road and his computer told him I didn't have a drivers' license. He pulled me over and I showed him my valid license. He looked at it, handed it back and apologized for stopping me.)

I know, I know: I'm not saying anything here that any black or hispanic citizen wouldn't be able to tell you. Here I am, "free, white and twenty-one," whining about the existential threat posed by police violence against middle-class graduate students at a well-esteemed public research university in the richest country in the world. But the fact remains: if you're poor, you know (or should know) that the police can do a lot more than ruin your day. They're dangerous. They represent the potential for unchecked and completely arbitrary exercise of dangerous power. So if they put a handful of police officers on indefinite leave, good for them - that's a start. But (and this shouldn't be taken in any way as an absolution for those individual officers responsible for the event at every step of the chain of command) the problem is not a few bad apples, but a system that has been designed with the express purpose of being abused. Urban police forces across the country have been militarized for decades, as a direct result of the never-ending stream of bad consequences resulting from our ruinous "War on Drugs." Cops dress like Navy Seals to cross the streets: when you give someone an assault rifle and body armor of course they're going to walk the beat like they're grinding a tactical sim on their Playstation.

I'm afraid of the fact that I can't decide to just "opt-out" of capitalism at my convenience, because somewhere on the other end of these decisions is a man with a badge and a gun who has been specifically deputized to protect the rights of private property. I have made decisions in my life with an eye towards monetizing the few skills I have in order to lift myself out of an indefinite future of grinding poverty and towards something resembling a comfortable middle class existence. I'm afraid of losing this chance, and that is exactly what the system takes for granted: when it becomes almost impossible to pick yourself up after falling down, the negative consequences of tripping over your own feet become inconceivably grim. I'm old enough that I'm fully aware of just how much I have to lose. I look at the pictures of my friends being assaulted not fifty yards from the cafeteria where I eat pizza on Thursdays and I can't help thinking of exactly what is at stake: this is a systematic breakdown. This is not an isolated case of police abuse or a small group of disaffected agents provocateurs inciting violence. This specific incident may eventually fade from immediate memory and the specific provocations may be swept under the rug, but the only way for the problem to go away is for the systematic inequalities that form the bedrock of our country's economic system to go away. And that's not going to happen, not without a lot more turmoil and possibly more bloodshed. It's only going to get worse before it gets better, because the problems are only going to keep getting worse for so long as people lack the political will to step up en masse and change the system with their own bare hands.

When you've been poor for a long time you pay a lot of attention to issues of class. You can look around and get a pretty good read for issues of wealth and poverty, just from how people carry themselves, the type of clothes they wear, the attitude they adopt. Poor people know how much money they have in their bank accounts at all time. People who haven't lived like that can't understand just how much energy goes into keeping yourself afloat when you don't have the confidence of being able to fall back on wealthy relations or substantial savings. When you're poor you realize just how much you have to lose because you know exactly how much you have. Those who have the least have paradoxically the most to lose. I feel like I have a lot to lose, and I'm frightened to see the system fraying in front of my eyes. I wish I could say I didn't see it coming, but you don't need to be a Marxist to have seen just how badly things have gotten. (Although, if you've read Capital, you have a pretty good idea of how it happened. More than a few mainstream economists have been circling around Marx's ideas for the last few years, unable to bring themselves to actually utter the name of the man who, whatever some of the specific faults of his analysis might have been, was able to predict many prominent features of our present moment with startling accuracy.) I'm scared for myself but I'm also scared for my parents who are dependent on the government for their retirement income, my friends who receive their paychecks from the government, and anyone who needs to pay bills with money backed by the full faith and trust of the increasingly repressive and completely unresponsive United States government. You know, everyone.

At the most very basic level, we have to ask a simple question: does capitalism work? For a long time capitalism worked well for an impressively large number of people, a large enough number that you could probably ignore the seepage around the edges if you so desired. But it has now ceased to work for an increasingly large number of people. The reflexive response from both sides of the mainstream political dualism has been that localized problems should not be confused with systematic problems: if you fail, it's your fault and not that of the system. The system works. Both major political parties seem to differ only in the degree to which they posit government action as a remedy for the localized shortcomings of capitalism. The American political system as it is presently conceived is simply unable to process the possibility that current problems are not localized, and that they may very well be systematic and progressively degenerative. Right now I believe it is safe to say that, despite whatever economic problems they may be experiencing in their own lives, the mass of middle America has not been sufficiently radicalized to be able to see any continuity between pictures like the one above and the circumstances of not being able to pay their bills and feed their children. People remain isolated and aloof for so long as they feel afraid, and a lot of people feel very afraid right now. They're more afraid, however, of not being able to pay their bills than they are of the government. All that needs to happen in order for that to change is for the government and its representatives to keep on doing what they did last Friday.

I'm saddened and shocked to see these things happening in my own back yard, but it had to start somewhere. Might as well be here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Everything Right Is Wrong Again

They Might Be Giants

Anyone listening to They Might Be Giants' self-titled debut album without any knowledge of the duo's later career may have been justified in the belief that there was no way in hell these guys should ever have been allowed to make a second album. To say that They Might Be Giants is a weird album is an understatement considering how often the word "weird" is abused and misused: there's something downright scary about this album in a way that can't entirely be dismissed by recourse to ironic distance. For all the chirpy energy and mutant power pop songwriting chops on display, this isn't even remotely happy music. These are murder ballads disguised as bubblegum synthpop, telegrams of self-loathing broadcast from the interior of a strange subterranean prison. If this juxtaposition does not perhaps seem quite as strange now as it did in 1986, it is to They Might Be Giants' credit that they have effectively created this subgenre unto themselves.

I am consistently surprised by Robert Christgau's longstanding affection for TMBG: to put it mildly, they don't particularly seem like his type of thing. And yet love them he does. He's actually more kind to their debut album than I am inclined to be:
Two catchy weirdos, eighteen songs, and the hits just keep on coming in an exuberantly annoying show of creative superabundance. Their secret is that as unmediated pop postmodernists they can be themselves stealing from anywhere, modulating without strain or personal commitment from hick to nut to nerd. Like the cross-eyed bear in the regretful but not altogether kind "Hide Away Folk Family," their "shoes are laced with irony," but that doesn't doom them to art-school cleverness or never meaning what they say. Their great subject is the information overload that lends these songs their form. They live in a world where "Everything Right Is Wrong Again" and "Youth Culture Killed My Dog."
Where I think Christgau gets it precisely right is the statement that "their great subject is the information overload that lends these songs their form." At a certain point, after having listened to this album enough times, the sheer profusion of different styles and attitudes threatens to overwhelm the understanding or enjoyment of any individual song. Track for track, this is one of the weakest albums from their early period. But taken as a whole the confusing multiplicity of styles and genres - to say nothing of the anomalous un-musicality of truly bizarre tracks like "Chess Piece Face" and "Boat of Car" - makes the album seem better as a composite whole than as the sum of its parts. Like Marshall McLuhan, They Might Be Giants (unintentionally) foresaw the negative consequences of information overload in a fractured and infinitely refracted society. You're not supposed to be able to focus on any one object: the best way is simply to absorb everything all at once and hope for the best.

The difference between They Might Be Giants and a group like Negativland, however, comes from the Johns' steadfast removal to engage with the world beyond their own horizons. There aren't many overtly political songs in the band's discography; one of them, the weak "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head," is the second song here. They seem more or less constitutionally unable to discuss politics with conviction. (One of the better songs on their next album, "Purple Toupee," addresses this problem in explicit terms.) So immediately we're trapped within the confines of a narrow, hermetically-sealed universe populated by strange characters defined by varying degrees of depression and psychosis. I believe this was actually a brilliant decision on their part: as opposed to someone like "Weird Al" who has alway been tied to explicit parody as his primary subject matter, TMBG don't really engage with the outside world. Devo by their very nature were extremely political: they were (and are, since they're amazingly still a going concern) persistently hyper-critical of contemporary life. They Might Be Giants are certainly persistently critical and overtly parodic, but not of society or or pop culture or other musicians. Their metier, the inescapable target of their relentless criticism, is themselves. There's a reason why mind control, hypnosis, and delusion are the most consistent subject matters in their oeuvre: nothing makes sense for these guys outside the realm of their own heads. For better or for worse, They Might Be Giants are extremely narcissistic songwriters. That does however not mean that they aren't at all times completely willing to abase or humiliate themselves.

To put it another way: They Might Be Giants became successful because they created their own world, and each album was an exercise in fantasy world-building that differed from the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd not in kind but in quality. This wasn't about power fantasy, this was about routine powerlessness inflated to ritual proportions. The trials and tribulations of everyday banality were reflected and distorted to funhouse-mirror proportions: take another look at "Absolutely Bill's Mood" and "Alienation's For the Rich," and you might perhaps be able to discern a spiritual resemblance to the work of Harold Pinter. Some of the best songs from their early albums actually resemble one-act plays or character sketches, brief expository passages intended to illuminate the lives of people trapped by the circumstances of their own misfortune. Even "upbeat" songs like "Everything Right is Wrong Again" and "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes" are, on closer examination, abrasive acts of self-mortification.
All the people are so happy now, their heads are caving in,
I'm glad they are a snowman with protective rubber skin,
But every little thing's a domino that falls on different dots,
And crashes into everything that tries to make it stop.
There's a reason why these guys became so popular with nerds: they appeal to young nerds' inflated sense of self-importance, the irrefutable conviction that everything going on inside their heads is far more important than whatever might be going on outside. Attempts to communicate are most likely doomed by the subject's inability to look beyond the frame of their own neurosis in order to acknowledge another person as more than an appendage ("Don't Let's Start"). The most genuinely affecting song on the album - "She's An Angel" - is less sincere than it might appear on first blush, inasmuch as it is built around the lyrical conceit of taking a commonplace romantic compliment and weaving it into a sci-fi fable. They Might Be Giants would have very little material if it weren't for their nigh-autistic ability to literalize familiar idioms in a clever, albeit occasionally maddening fashion.
When you're following an angel
Does it mean you have to throw your body off a building?
Somewhere they're meeting on a pinhead
Calling you an angel, calling you the nicest things.
I heard they had a space program,
When they sing you can't hear, there's no air.
Sometimes I think I kind of like that and
Other times I think I'm already there.
What saves them from their own worst impulses - and what will alway save them - is their skill as songwriters. This album appears at times to have been conjured up out of thin air: it's lo-fi and doggedly minimal, using energy and enthusiasm to cover the fact that the whole album was recorded with no more instruments than two people could carry on the subway. My patience for odd vignettes like "Chess Piece Face" and "Rabid Child" was never particularly strong, and the many weird interludes that dot this album do not seems to have grown less annoying with age. But at the same time the effect of these interludes is countered by the handful of truly great pop songs that dot the album. They Might Be Giants are and have been almost from their inception gifted songwriters in the great tradition of formalist power pop. There's a reason why "Don't Let's Start" made it onto rotation on MTV despite the fact that it was a terrible video by a no-name indie band with a weird name: it's a catchy song constructed with exacting precision. Everything is exactly where it should be: the intro, the chorus, the middle eight, the way it seems to go a little bit faster for the final chorus - this is how you write a pop song, this is how you build a tiny ladder to transcendence on a 4/4 scaffold. Even when their subject matter betrayed them their skill saw them through. If on their first album this skill is occasionally obscured and diffused by a surfeit of ambition, their second album would see the duo tighten their songwriting focus with the methodical precision of a laser.

(out of five)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Money's All Broke, and Food's Going Hungry

For a long time I had managed to convince myself that I had outgrown They Might Be Giants. There wasn't necessarily a conscious decision on my part to distance myself from the group. It was as simple as noticing that, as I grew older, I wasn't listening to them nearly as often. I never completely abjured them: Lincoln and John Henry, in particular, always managed to sneak back onto the playlist at periodic intervals. But there was a growing recognition on my part of the fact that they just weren't as important to me as they once were.

And then, as they say, a funny thing happened. I moved over the summer, which you might recall me mentioning. Moving is always an ordeal, and never fails to put a person into an odd headspace. This was compounded by the length of the move (3,000 miles), and the fact that there was a new job waiting for me on the other side of the country. After the move was over and I settled into my new situation I became fascinated by a group to which I had never before paid the slightest bit of attention: the Dismemberment Plan, and specifically their 1999 masterpiece Emergency & I.

I listened to that album in near-constant rotation for at least a good month. I never really cared much for post-hardcore - hardcore never appealed to me, so post-hardcore seemed like something best avoided. Of course I mainly based these unformed opinions on bare thumbnail sketches of genre stereotypes, the truth about which I knew nothing and, furthermore, just wasn't that interested in exploring. And yet: long after the age when most people go through their DIschord faze, I found myself really digging Fugazi and poking my toes ever so tentatively into the DC scene. Although it took me a few listens to really get the feel for the album, Emergency & I finally appeared to me as a kind of revelation: here was an album with a depth of field to rival OK Computer or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, a precise and exacting whole that nevertheless managed to seem spontaneous and raw. It's not hard to see how this band and this album in particular have exerted such a massive influence on the later evolution of post-hardcore into poppier forms such as emo in the early 2000s. But then again: there's a cerebral quality that places the group apart from lesser contemporaries and followers, and a mordant sense of truly mature melancholy (not to mention a sense of humor!) that removes them from the immediate company of the more obnoxiously heart-on-hand varieties of post-punk and pop-punk.

But a funny thing happened as I was getting into the Dismemberment Plan. I began to notice something strange. It was subtle, at first, more of a general association than a specific connection. But the more I listened, the more I saw previously-hidden connections. There was something about the precise combination of intense playing and nervous energy, a sense of tweaked urgency that came across like someone having wound the clock too tight. Travis Morrison's vocals in particular seem just slightly too high to be singing the songs he's singing, nervy and anxious and completely emasculated. The band gets pegged as "math rock," and I suppose I can see the connection: the drums are sharp and the rhythms complex, marked by off-beat syncopations and persistent, unexpected lunges in odd directions.

I don't know and can't say whether or not the Dismemberment Plan were consciously influenced by They Might Be Giants, but listening to the former I was struck by their incredible similarity to the latter. Lyrically, the D-Plan seem to share a preoccupation with tongue-twisters and speculative fiction metaphors as a means of moving past bathetic cliche. TMBG play with the kind of exacting precision that could only come from spending the first decade of your career playing catch-up to drum machines and pre-programmed synthesizer tracks. The D-Plan take the energy and propulsion of punk and filter it through a sparse, disciplined asceticism that owes as much to Television as anything else in the punk canon. If they weren't specifically influenced by TMBG, they were playing within a certain segment of the rock vocabulary that simply hadn't existed before TMBG.

Listening to the Dismemberment Plan awakened a sudden, fresh desire to revisit some old friends. By chance, this coincided with the release of the Johns' latest album, Join Us. One of the reasons why I had moved away from the group was the fact that they released a couple not-so-good albums in the first part of the last decade. Mink Car and especially The Spine seemed to be thin on my first exposure and have not grown in succeeding years. The Else was stronger and it sounded good thanks to the participation of the Dust Brothers, but it never quite made it into my permanent shuffle. Unfortunately, considering how much I loved the group in years past, They Might Be Giants had dropped off my radar entirely. I've never felt so much as the slightest interest in their kids albums: although I can't begrudge their success, it always seemed to me to be the exact wrong move for the group to make, a doubling-down of precisely those traits that I found least endearing in their sound as I grew older. They were always silly, but their best moments (to my mind) came when they could work through silly and wacky towards something more authentically anxious on the other side. Much of their catalog, at least their older material, is actually quite dark. Of their classic period, Flood has always been my least favorite album, while I cling to the profoundly misanthropic and dyspeptic John Henry as the underrated masterpiece of their oeuvre. There didn't seem to be a lot in their kids' records to hold my interest.

Given my ambivalence towards their last decade's worth of output, imagine my surprise to fine in Join Us that rarest of rarities: a true, honest-to-God return to classic form from a band who I had written off years ago. None of these songs would have seemed out of place on any of their Elektra records. And so after a few a listens to Join Us I felt a sudden, familiar urge: let's listen to They Might Be Giants. Let's really listen, closely, for the first time in a long time. What I found was that, after having been away for many years, coming back to records with which I once had such an intimate familiarity elicited a strange but not unpleasant sensation. At the risk of sliding into the realm of pure nostalgia, it felt like coming home.

Monday, November 07, 2011

I See Smoke Signals Coming From Them

On 4 November 1986, They Might Be Giants released their eponymous full-length debut studio album. Although I didn't buy the album on its release, I do remember seeing the video of "Don't Let's Start" a few times on MTV. It wasn't until a few years later that I actually purchased my first TMBG album - still, by the time their mainstream breakthrough Flood was released in January of 1990, their discography already numbered two full-length albums and another album of B-sides and rarities.

They Might Be Giants occupy a unique position in rock music history. They are simultaneously one of the last true "college rock" bands to emerge out of the underground independent music scene of the early and mid 1980s, as well as one of the first true "alternative" bands to rise to prominence at the outset of the 1990s. Their career trajectory was almost a textbook example of how rock & roll careerism worked in the years between R.E.M. and Nirvana respectively broke: a hard-working and fiercely talented group rises up from years of steady gigging in a supportive local music scene (in their case, Brooklyn, NY), builds a national presence on the underground level through relentless touring and a commitment to proactive DIY promotion, before finally "graduating" to a recording contract at a major label.

The only difference between TMBG and the aforementioned R.E.M. - not to mention the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, et al - is that TMBG were and remain doggedly strange in a way that never quite mapped onto existing notions of rock's stylistic hierarchy. Even a band like the Flaming Lips - perhaps their closest analogue, even down to the fact that both bands were signed to appendages of Warner Music - still at least somewhat corresponded to preexisting ideas of what rock music was "supposed" to sounds like. The Lips, especially back in 1990 at the time of the release of In A Priest Driven Ambulance, were very weird but they were weird in a recognizable fashion: noise-rocking acid casualties who were cool because they didn't give a shit. TMBG was two nervous-looking vaguely Judaic white guys who wore button-down shirts and played the accordion over breakneck drum machine loops. They weren't "through being cool," they had never been cool, and proud of it. While there are certainly stylistic forebears - you can see bits and bobs of "nerd rock" predecessors such as the Feelies, the B52s, Devo and a few British synth-rock acts - TMBG were unique, a cult act that should never have been able to achieve three top-twenty hits on the US Modern Rock chart, let alone a Platinum plaque and a handful of Grammys.

It might be difficult to explain, at this late date, the ubiquitous significance of TMBG to nerds and recovering nerds of a certain age. One of the problems is that, in the 25 years since the band began their recording career, what we consider "nerd culture" has changed drastically. When They Might Be Giants and Lincoln hit, nerds were still nerds in the most pejorative sense possible. Comic book stores, gaming groups, and sci-fi conventions were still fringe activities, and the collective force of societal disapprobation that accompanied these phenomena was significant enough to imbue a monstrously strong sense of entitled defensiveness on multiple generations of kids who grew up ostracized and isolated. The reasons for this ostracism were many and varied, but there is truth in the notion that whatever problems a kid growing up in the United States may have had - precocious intellect, acne, obesity, social incompetence, poverty, disability, mental illness - burgeoning nerd culture represented a welcome and essential respite from the problems of the "real" world. They Might Be Giants was for decades the house band at the Android's Dungeon, and perhaps the purest example of nerd-culture F.U.B.U. - For Us, By Us, outsiders need not apply.

But that's not the world we live in anymore, or at least, not entirely. I see sorority sisters with their Greek-branded pink sweatshirts and Ugg boots reading George R. R. Martin paperbacks on the bus. It's long become cultural conventional wisdom that for all the trials of youth and public schooling, people who look like They Might Be Giants often end up running the show when they grow up. Porn stars play AD&D. All of this is not to say that suddenly high-school bullying is over and social misfits slide through life with the greatest of ease. The continuing success of a show like Glee attests to the universality of social ostracism in primary and secondary school - despite the fact that only in Hollywood would these people not be considered immensely attractive and successful individuals.

The point, however, remains: it doesn't mean the same thing to be a nerd in 2011 as it did in 1986 or even 1996. Now almost all of the most remunerative entertainment franchises in the world are essentially nerd properties. J.R.R. Tolkien no longer belongs to nerds. Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men no longer belong to the nerds. Harry Potter never belonged to the nerds. The biggest comic book conventions belong to Hollywood. People who actually play sports and date real girls continue to play video games after middle school - which is something that I still can't wrap my head around. A man who became famous from publishing a black & white independent comic book about zombies appeared on an American talk show with Barbara Walters and Elisabeth Hasselback. Even good old "Weird Al" Yankovic is still going strong. It's a strange world for anyone who grew up having to hide comic books from their friends or was socially shunned for reading sci-fi paperbacks on the school bus. The underlying conditions remain - weird kids still get picked on and seek out divergent subcultures in order to find places they can "fit in" - but the collective nerd media apparatus has evolved to the point where it no longer really belongs to us anymore. In many crucial ways, nerd media is the media.

Where exactly do They Might Be Giants fit into this brave new world? What does Dr. Spock's Backup Band do when Dr. Spock is a sex symbol? That's a good question.

Monday, October 31, 2011


DC Universe Presents: Deadman #2

I am very much sensitive to possible accusations of needless cynicism and negativity. That the large majority of the Nu52 books are either deeply mediocre or reprehensible, and that they almost all represent precisely calculated attempts to pander to set demographic niches should, at this late date, go without saying. But that is not to say that there are not a handful of good books in the lot. It's even probable, if we're simply speaking in terms of raw percentage, the proportion of good titles produced under the auspices of the new regime may well surpass that of the decent titles produced under the old remit. This should not pass without some acknowledgement from those of us who respect and admire well-crafted serial escapism, and all the moreso considering its relative rarity.

Case in point: Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang's Deadman serial currently running in DC Universe Presents. (I have no idea whether or not he is intended to be the full-time feature or, pending the book's survival past half a year, whether other characters might potentially appear in the lead slot.) This isn't a book that I've seen anyone talking about in any sustained fashion. The second issue successfully builds upon the positive impression of the first to such a degree that I am tempted to say it may just be the best book of the bunch that no one has yet noticed. That means that it will probably be canceled before it has the chance to make good on its potential.

But for now it is enough to mention that Deadman has, from almost the moment of his conception, been a character defined by nothing so much as perpetually untapped potential. In theory, Deadman's premise is almost completely open - but in practice, the character hasn't been able to sustain an ongoing series since the 1960s, and has depended on the kindness of sympathetic creators who have kept him from ever fading into obscurity. More than any other superhero character, he has counter-intuitively thrived as a result of appearing almost exclusively in cameo and guest-starring roles throughout the last four decades. People like it when he shows up in Batman, but no one ever bothers to show up when the periodic attempt it made to transfer his recognizability into headline status.

Given his prominence through the Blackest Night / Brightest Day crossover cycle, it's not surprising that DC would see this as a perfect opportunity to give Deadman another attempt at solo success. Surprisingly, this new serial does not seem to be picking up any loose threads from those stories. (Although, it should be noted that Deadman is also appearing as a supporting cast member of the new Hawk & Dove series, picking up the subplot of Deadman and Dove's love affair from Brightest Day.) But this is good: the series picks up almost from the begin, offering another version of Deadman's origin that is premised on the idea of exploring discrepancies between Boston Brand's post-life experiences and Rama Kushna's stated goals in having consigned him to an eternal half-life as an ostensibly benevolent revenant spirit. This is not virgin territory: problematic questions concerning Deadman's origin have been fair-game almost since the character's creation. But as with most things involving superhero comics, what matters most is execution. What sets this apart from most of its peers in the Nu52 is that this is simply a well-built, sturdy and very attractive comic book on every level.

Jenkins' writing has become increasingly spotty over the last few years, with a few terrible, jumbled projects appearing for every interesting idea. This series would seem to be playing to his strengths: a strongly defined central character put through the paces of an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances while remaining grounded in a keen understanding of actual lived emotions. (Cf. his Hellblazer and Hulk.) He understands Boston Brand very well: Deadman is a formerly callow and selfish person who has learned over the course of a long afterlife to be good, and to devote himself completely to selfless acts of benevolent intervention. His mission is to help people. The question presented by Jenkins of whether or not his beneficence has been guided by not-so-pure motivations is well framed, and the gradual unfolding of these ethical conflicts holds the potential to be very interesting.

I've always been a fan of Bernard Chang and am delighted to see (after a career largely defined by a few somewhat questionable choices) that he finally appears to be working on material more appropriate for his talents. He's got an incredibly smooth line and smart sense of page design, and the (sadly rare) ability to excel at drawing more than one face and body type. I could, in a word, read this book from this creative team for many years: meanwhile, we're left hoping (against hope?) that it makes it past six months.

Batman #2

Giving a strong recommendation to a Batman comic book seems almost like raving about a new McDonalds burger: how good can it really be, especially since everyone reading this has most likely read more Batman comic books than they can count? How many issues of Batman does anyone really need to read in order to have lived a sufficiently happy life?

I am still not entirely convinced that Scott Snyder's scripts would be anything special without Greg Capullo's pencils, but the fact is that the result is strong enough to make me not care.

Could there be a more bog-standard sequence in the history of comics than Commissioner Gordon talking to a medical examiner over a cold corpse? And yet just take a second to look at exactly how much loving detail has been paid to every component of the scene. The first panel, a particularly gruesome outward shot from the perspective of the corpse's gaping chest wound, looks out on Gordon and the examiner. The second panel reverses the perspective 180 degrees by showing the reader the opposite image: looking backwards towards the corpse and over Gordon's head. Look at how precisely the gimmick is executed. Gordon, the examiner and the ceiling lamp remain in precisely the same relation with one another from both perspectives. Capullo put a lot of thought into exactly what the dimensions of this crowded room actually were and how the shape of the room (claustrophobic, dark) would dictate the way the scene was told.

Then look at this page from later on in the issue, featuring a strange encounter between Bruce Wayne and Lincoln March, a candidate for Mayor of Gotham (who probably has something dastardly up his sleeve, which is how these things work):

This sequence lasts three entire pages but it doesn't get boring. Capullo knows how to make a conversation between two powerful men look exciting. He frames the conversation almost as a seduction, with March appealing to Wayne on the basis of similarly traumatic childhood experiences that both shaped their commitment to philanthropy. There are a number of subtle threads throughout the sequence: for one, March is clearly one or two inches taller than Wayne, someone who we (the readers) know is already an imposing figure. Look at how March is slumping in that first panel, before very slightly straightening his posture to loom over Wayne in an attitude of - what? A threat? a come-on? Both? Why do we linger on the way March touches Wayne's shoulder like that? The use of medium-distance top-down shots almost renders the reader into a kind of voyeur, peeking in on a scene to which he or she should not be privy.

You could certainly accuse Snyder's plot of a lack of imagination, if you so desired. There's a new ancient conspiracy in Gotham targeting the sons of wealth and privilege - etc etc. I don't particularly care for this iteration of Batman, either: it's very much the movie-indebted (and Frank Miller influenced) paramilitary Batman, a violent, hulking figure in cumbersome body armor. This isn't a graceful creature of the night nor a spry, athletic swashbuckler - but then, both of those interpretations have been on the wane for a long time now. This is very much Batman in his "where does he got those wonderful toys?" mode, flitting around with the most fanciful gadgetry - again, not particularly my favorite mode of Batman comics. So, yeah, not perfect by any stretch, and hardly something destined to become a classic of contemporary graphic fiction, but without a doubt the best Batman comic I've read in years. Take of that what you will.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Random Notes

This isn't an essay as much as a series of accumulated observations on the subject of music criticism. Many of these statements are offered as unsubstantiated assertions, and can be easily disputed / disregarded as you desire.

The bulk of rock music criticism is defined by the unproductive conflict of two diametrically opposed schools of thought. On the one hand, we inherit the prejudices of an imposing generation of critics who came of age at the dawn of the rock era (>cough< Greil Marcus >cough<) and who exercise a strict definition of rock music that excludes anything recorded after approximately 1972 from the canon. Under this model, every subsequent development is dismissed as errata or apocrypha, the musical equivalent of fan fiction. Additionally, most rock music can be judged on its relationship to a very parochial idea of American roots music, or the very early British interpolation thereof.

On the other, we have the current bleeding-edge model of music as fashion, a mode that persists in the process of constantly colonizing new sounds and leaving behind each successive development before they can be allowed to reach maturation. Bands are allowed perhaps ten minutes in which to appear, crystallize, and whither into dust.

Both of these generalizations are essentially unfalsifiable stereotypes, but few people would dispute the existence of these types in some iteration.

No art form is more defined by its relation to affect and emotional response than pop music. Even professional music criticism as often as not falls back on symptomatic descriptions of emotional response.

The alternative to this brand of affective reaction is to regard music almost exclusively through the dimension of performance, a model that necessarily underemphasizes the formal aspects of music. This does not necessarily have to exist in opposition to affective readings, and indeed, in practice this type of performative rhetoric often depends on an active engagement with the affective vocabulary as well.

Most - but not all - pop music criticism operates from a position of almost no familiarity with conventional music theory. Pop music criticism that does incorporate theory seems oppressively wonky in a way that technical critiques of classical or jazz usually do not.

It is very likely that we will live to see the death of rock music as a popular genre. This does not mean that rock & roll will die, but that it will undergo the same transformation that jazz experienced during the early years of rock. It will become the province of older, mostly white, mostly well-off aesthetes who have the time and inclination to keep a boutique genre alive through active curatorial interest.

I am not convinced that this is a bad idea. It has already begun, for the most part: widely popular rock bands are increasingly rare, and most of the movement in interesting and critically-acclaimed rock music already occurs at a significant remove from the pop market. Aficionados of "good" rock music are already likely as not to be economically well-off and educated: when music becomes fashion, only the fashionable will be inclined to follow.

The embrace of rock music as an affection of hipster culture has done as much as anything to drive the music away from popular audiences. The success of the Strokes in the early years of the preceding decade was the first concrete indication that music culture was changing: the widespread popularity of a group seemingly custom-designed to be appreciated exclusively either by educated rock critics or fashion-forward twenty-somethings was a harbinger of the decadence that defined the decade's music culture.

The decadent movement of the aughts reiterated the sincerity of previous forms of pop expression through a lens of ironic distance. Irony as an adjective is often misused and even more often misunderstood. It is not necessary that irony be smirking or satirical, merely reflexively self-referential. The prophylactic distance implied by irony does not necessarily imply a pejorative value judgment, and is often unintentional. It is simply a function of a musical culture built almost entirely on appropriation. Rock is built on theft, and the earliest rock & rollers all understood the irony of their positions. It was only after the sixties that irony was lost, however temporarily, eventually to be reconquered by the punks.

Hip-hop is built atop successive layers of irony in the same way a brick building is built on layers of masonry.

The color-line tension that engulfed blues and jazz as these forms made the transition from popular art forms to curatorial art forms seems to be replicating itself in contemporary rock as well, albeit in a strangely mutated form. The further removed from the mass audience rock recedes, the more anxiety surfaces over the genre's ambiguous relationship to contemporary black culture. (See: any piece of writing by Sasha Frere-Jones.)

Eventually, when rock enters its terminal decline as a popular form and begins its afterlife as a curatorial genre, the form will have to recreate its own theoretical discourse. Again, as with blues and jazz, the decline of popularity will bring with it inversely proportional attention from predominantly white academics and historians.

There is always the possibility that rock will rejuvenate itself and become once again a popular art form. I do not necessarily believe that this is unlikely, but for the moment it does not appear as if it will happen anytime soon.

Will rock have to die before an intelligent critical culture arises around the genre? An examination of the field shows that it is only in the last fifteen or so years that academics have begun to write about rock in any significant numbers. The field is growing, but as with comic studies the field has yet to cohere in any meaningfully centralized fashion beyond a number of very enthusiastic, decentralized writers working in a scattershot fashion.

The way I listen to music has become increasingly curatorial. I notice in my listening habits an increased tendency - or at least a strong desire - to undermine or deemphasize emotional experience in music in favor of formal novelty and historical significance. I am frustrated, perhaps unjustifiably, with the shape of popular music criticism, which is largely defined by fashion and fannish enthusiasm. But even just vocalizing this complaint seems bizarre and the articulation thereof reflects an attitude towards music that is probably diametrically opposed to the way most people experience the medium.

There is a tendency within me to pull in the direction of Clement Greenberg in my tastes. There's something about minimalism that seems to be - for me - the consequence of the natural progression of aesthetics. A truly minimal sound is the apotheosis of sound. The problem is that, of course, once you achieve minimalism there's nowhere to go but up.

Minimalism as a genre in visual art eventually destabilized itself, sprouting tendrils before tentatively returning to representation in the fifties and then transforming into full-blown pop by the sixties. Minimalism in music led to some very nice work being done on the Kompakt label and a few other affiliated movements but really, where do you go from there? At some point in the last few years I realized that Richie Hawtin had already pushed the envelope of minimalism as far as it can go with DE9 / Transitions - which was released six years ago. It is possible to still be minimal, and good work is still done with less, but over the last few years much of the movement in techno has been a push backwards from sparseness and into a new engagement with illustrative sound. I think the Field is probably the paradigmatic artist of the last five years as far as that movement is concerned, and I look forward to his new album with great interest.

But as I say this I also realize that my own personal listening habits are nowhere near as Apollonian as I would like to believe, or that I would like others to believe. We're all guilty of nostalgia and we're all guilty of lapsing into purely habituated affective response. Otherwise, how else would I explain something like driving around in my car all summer listening to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" on repeat? There's a hypocrisy implicit in any kind of proscriptive aesthetic program, especially in reference to music. The emotional immediacy of music is a phenomena that often exists beyond the realm of consciousness. Sometimes we are moved despite ourselves by frankly inferior examples of form.

The strength of great pop music lies in its ability to traverse the space between formal ingenuity and emotional novelty. Pop music is an extremely regimented genre, built almost wholly on the interplay of a relatively small number of melodic, harmonic, and lyrical effects welded to the grid-like precision of the 4/4 backbeat. The ability of musicians to consistently transcend this essential limitation of form is endlessly fascinating.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Superman Nobody Knows

The post-Flashpoint DC Universe has already made many of the same mistakes that dogged the post-Crisis DC Universe. Just as in 1986, the company based their reboot around a completely new start for the flagship Superman, starting over a "new" timeline built around amorphously undefined yet far reaching continuity changes that somehow managed to keep the ongoing continuities of Batman and Green Lantern intact while restarting other characters at arbitrarily different points. If you remember your history, you'll know that Steve Englehart and Joe Staton's popular run on Green Lantern ran right through the Crisis and that the title maintained a steady status quo throughout the crossover. Batman continued through the crisis as well, and it was only afterwards that the post-Crisis changes were dribbled out in fits and starts, in the pages of Frank Miller's Year One and then under the short-lived Batman: The New Adventures banner. Meanwhile, characters who retained full memory of their pre-Crisis adventures freely interacted with characters whose pre-Crisis adventures had been wiped completely clean. Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen still remembered and referenced their "Hard Traveling Heroes" era while Superman never met the Legion of Superheroes until 1987. These problems only mattered as long as the long-term benefits of the housecleaning outweighed the intermittent continuity bumps. The problem is that in a few cases these "bumps" metastasized into full blown meltdowns, and concepts such as the Legion and Hawkman were eventually permanently crippled.

The difference between 1986 and 2011 is that the rationale between the reboot is entirely different. The original Crisis was an obvious labor of love, an incredibly complicated and forbiddingly dense work produced by a small group of creators and researchers with an encyclopedic knowledge of DC history, and intended (at least in theory) to open up a wide array of new storytelling avenues. To a degree they succeeded. Flashpoint, however, was put together on the cheap and seemingly at the last minute, a ex post facto attempt to provide an in-story explanation for sweeping business decisions made far above the level of editorial. The post-Flashpoint DC Universe was created as a means of streamlining the company's staggeringly diverse array of IP into forms more easily amenable to bookstore channels and especially digital distribution services. The goal - successfully achieved so far - has been to make DC resemble something less than an eclectically diverse publishing line and something more along the lines of a streamlined television network.

Given that, its not hard to see that many of the more controversial creative decisions have been made with an eye towards developing a ruthlessly efficient commercial applicability. Hence the explicit T&A books, hence the multiple attempts to ape existing popular Young Adult book franchises (you should be able to spot them yourself with no trouble), hence the multiple attempts to reframe existing properties as potential basic cable drama programming. The goal is to create stories that can be easily packaged and sold by genre to casual readers using digital devices whose size and visual capabilities have now synched up almost completely with the technical demands of displaying comic books.

With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that the company appears uninterested in elaborating the status of certain characters' continuity. My personal guess is that the Flash may well become the Hawkman of the post-Flashpoint universe: the character's history is so completely defined by the existence of multiple iterations that it is almost impossible to imagine what might "count" in the new universe. The Flash wasn't just a legacy character, he was the first legacy character, the first multi-generational franchise, and (I believe?) the first married character. If you wipe all this away, what remains? If the new Green Lantern is the old Green Lantern, and selectively remembers portions of the preFlashpoint and (assumedly) pre-Crisis universes, but the new Flash has no Jay Garrick and no Wally West or Bart Allen, then what?

But no character is more crucial to the new universe than Superman. DC knows that Superman is the lynchpin around which everything else revolves. So we get, once again, a new Superman for a new universe, with a new coat of paint (and now an awful new costume) thrown over the existing franchise in order to "update" the character for an anticipated new wave of fans. The responsibility of defining the new Superman has fallen, once again, to a fan-favorite yet slightly controversial creator who has made a number of significant changes to a seemingly inviolate origin sequence. And, as in 1986, these changes will be the source of a few years' worth of stories before eventually fading into the background as the franchise inevitably, inexorably reasserts its default and realigns itself according to the model of the accepted Silver-Bronze age template.

It is somewhat interesting that such a doggedly non-political creator as Grant Morrison has seen fit to restore Superman's almost forgotten status as a populist rabble rouser. It can't be denied that a return to Siegel and Shuster's original formula seems an especially apt maneuver for our current cultural moment, but by that same token it seems all the more likely that when Superman's Silver Age temperament reasserts itself the change will be notably jarring. Make no mistake: whatever shape they bend Superman might serve as a nice change of pace, but the character will eventually revert to type. No one understands this better than Morrison, whose All-Star Superman was perhaps the best illustration of exactly why the character's reflexively mythic nature prevents any such short-term changes from producing more than superficial alterations to the status quo.

In the meantime, however, we're left with a rather unpleasant reality: a nasty, brutish Superman with an attitude and an ugly costume. Our "introduction" to Superman in the first two issues of the new Justice League series has been an embarrassing extended misunderstanding / battle / meet cute / team-up of the kind that Marvel had already made cliche during the Johnson administration. Superman comes on like a bully, tearing into Green Lantern, Batman, and the Flash without any attempt to communicate or negotiate beyond the basic de rigeur tough guy platitudes.

Along the same lines, Morrison's new Action Comics gives us yet another variation on the same long-standing and frankly exhausting "Superman vs. the Government" storyline that appears to have been the defining aspect of the Superman mythos for at least fifteen years. The idea of placing Superman in a position of antagonism with the government has never been interesting because it has always been predicated on a severe misunderstanding of the character's strengths. Superman works because Superman is good: he is the ultimate incorruptible and uncorrupted samaritan. Frank Miller's horrendous misreading of the character places him in the position of a government stooge unable to perceive the differences between law and justice, and placing Superman into overt conflict with the government is a similar kind of error. Superman isn't apolitical, he isn't an apologist for the government, and he's no-one's patsy: what he is is someone who never bows to any authority he doesn't respect, and who stands for moral justice even against the greatest possible opposition. Placing him in opposition to the government doesn't work because there's nowhere that storyline can go except around and around a circle: we know Superman is right because he's Superman, but we also know that for that very reason Superman can't very well decapitate the US government and exile the Secretary of Defense to the Phantom Zone. Playing up this antagonism as a source of perpetual conflict turns Superman into just another iteration of the Hulk, smashing up billions of dollars of military hardware every other issue because he's "misunderstood." Superman should be someone who the President can call at a moment's notice when the safety of the world is at risk, but he should also be someone whose moral authority surpasses any single President.

That's the point: Superman's virtue, his exceptional nature as a character, comes simply from the fact that he's good. He is allowed an absolute purity of intention that simply could not work for any other superhero, and could only work for the world's greatest superhero. He's one of those few strange creatures in the history of literature who can be successfully defined by a single central characteristic without distortion or simplification. Trying to change the character in order to make him more marketable to different demographics misses the point entirely. He's good: everything else that gets heaped around that - and this includes every periodic attempt to make him a thuggish "badass" - is just bullshit.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How We Will Read Cerebus - Part II

It is highly probable that in terms of its current fanbase and critical esteem Cerebus the book will end - like Cerebus the aardvark - alone and unloved. Whereas twenty years ago awareness of Cerebus among the comics-literate was almost ubiquitous - with Sim himself as one of the most vocal figures in the English-language comics community - the series has almost entirely faded from discussion. The recent occurrence of two relatively exhaustive critical exhumations has only underscored an unavoidable fact: no one reads Cerebus anymore, and the reappraisal was necessary in order to begin the process of deciding whether or not further generations would ever need to return to Cerebus in any capacity. Oh, some people still read it, but relative to comics' expanding audience, it will remain a decidedly cult proposition for the foreseeable future. A whole generation of comics readers has come up in the world since Cerebus was relevant, and it's conceivable that many people who seriously engage with comics now can't even remember first-hand a time when Cerebus was a monthly presence on North American comic stands. The final issue of Cerebus hit stands a long time ago, and in the space of just the last seven years the industry and art form have changed significantly.

If you were to ask me point-blank whether or not you should read Cerebus, my honest answer at this late date would be a slightly reluctant, albeit very firm no. Many, if not most comics readers who haven't already encountered the series at this late date will probably never encounter it in any significant fashion. The books will stay in print for so long as Sim lives, and will probably always retain some small position of honor in many well-stocked comic book stores, in the same manner that a contemporary psychologist might keep a bust of Freud on the shelf, out of a sense of duty already tinged with anachronistic irony. People who come to the book in the future will come upon it as if it were already a relic, a text of primarily archaeological interest that maddeningly alternates between a brilliant explication of the comics form and an impenetrable hate-screed. The parodies, many already dated, will only become increasingly opaque as the years progress.

For all the good in Cerebus - and we wouldn't be talking about it at all if there wasn't still a considerable degree of good in the book to balance the incontrovertible horror - the price for being able to sift through the rubble of the bad in search of the good is simply more than most people should ever want to pay. As much as I wish I could simply recommend that people read "the good half" or "the good third," the fact is that there is no way in which a selective reading program of Cerebus could convey the work's depth, breadth or significance. For better or for worse, the questions asked in the first 150 issues of Cerebus are only answered in the final 150 issues. That the answers turned out to be so painfully, ruthlessly strange remains a singular disappointment.

But the end of Cerebus does not necessarily mean the end of Cerebus.

One of the most heartening trends of the last ten-to-fifteen years of comics criticism has been the very gradual assimilation of comics content into academia. We're still in the very early days of this trend, and part of the reason for this is that despite the enthusiastic early adoption of the medium by academics across the English-speaking world, there is not as of yet sufficient institutional consensus as to where exactly comics belong, and how best to incorporate them into existing disciplinary divisions. The profusion of extremely popular first-person narrative memoirs such as Persepolis, Fun Home and American Born Chinese has borne concrete results in terms of providing introductory-level comics texts that can be placed into a wide variety of contexts and find application to a number of different disciplines. But most of these books can be explained and discussed without significant recourse to medium-specific historical context. They work supremely well as pedagogical tools precisely because of their unchallenging approach to their chosen medium. They have, in other words, been adopted so enthusiastically by academia not because of their daring use of form but on account of the alacrity with which they communicate embedded ideas independent of form. While it is not unusual to see more formally daring texts such as Watchmen and Jimmy Corrigan on college syllabi, the utilization of these texts in a primarily literary context lessons the degree of medium-specific critique immanent in their pedagogical use.

We don't yet have the kind of institutional support in academia to be able to create a common critical language for texts as far ranging as Maggots, Terry and the Pirates and The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck - let alone simply to acknowledge the commonality of these three texts on any existing generic continuum. The discipline of comics studies, whatever it will eventually be called, is still so far in its infancy as to remain barely perceptible. My gut feeling is that this kind of conversation would be best served in the field of Comparative Literature - a portmanteau discipline whose polyglot nature would ostensibly allow for the kind of cross-disciplinary pollination necessary for a field that rightly encompasses parts of Literature, Art History and Cultural Studies while belonging precisely to none. While I have certainly seen a few comics courses taught in the context of Comparative Literature, I am wary as to whether or not the ongoing (and potentially existential) disciplinary roil in that field will allow for the kind of sustained focus necessary to stake sufficient claim to such a seemingly protean field as comics.

Regardless, the current academic climate indicates that sometime within the next 15 to 20 years we will see the formulation of something resembling a more coherent field of "comics studies" within some corner of the humanities. Already you can discern the faint outlines of such trend, with many young hires in English and Comp Lit departments listing "Graphic Novels" somewhere on their CVs. We haven't yet achieved the kind of critical mass that would lead to the splintering of a distinctive discipline, in the same way that Film Studies formed in the mid-century. At this point, however, and despite these obstacles, I would argue that the preponderance of evidence points to this formation as less a possibility than an inevitability. Arguably, the one factor standing in the way of any generic coalescence is the relative paucity of theoretical models within the field - and no, Understanding Comics doesn't really count, although that will probably remain popular for a long time to come. (I would argue that the greatest current obstacle to this type of theorization is the reliance among comics critics on models of close reading that depend on narrative-and-text based models of reading - i.e., the way that literature PhDs are taught to read texts, as opposed to the way Art Historians are taught to interpret visual culture. Comics will remain partially opaque to theoreticians unless and until they can discover a cross-disciplinary model that successfully hybridizes these approaches.) When we begin to see strong theoretical readings of the medium in significant numbers in the academic press, half the work of disciplinary formation will have been done: from that point, it's only a matter of waiting until the scattering of proto-"Comics Studies" academics organize themselves around these models.

Once this occurs, the first business of the academics will be to historicize comics history into coherent genealogies. This will require the formulation of more holistic historical narratives to describe the medium's aesthetic and economic origins. The dominant narrative among fans of "serious" comics in the English-speaking world for the past two or three decades has been the gradual evolution of form away from the stultifying constraints of (extremely familiar) traditional generic restriction - in other words, the emancipation of medium from the shackles of genre. This has been a great narrative by which to understand the formation of a contemporary class of "graphic novelists" who exist separately and independently from the realms of "mainstream" adventure comics and newspaper strips, and who have escaped the inexorable illogic of the direct market as a primary means of comics distribution. This is at least partially the catalyst for the pervasive "Team Comics" rhetoric that engulfed the field in the late nineties and early aughts: a bunker mentality born out of a shared experience of communal solidarity in the face of economic retrenchment and stultifying generic hegemony. It was common to define comics as the province of a small but tightly-knit community that had weathered decades of the worst conceivable circumstances and survived to see cartooning gain culture-wide traction as an increasingly legitimate medium.

Anyone who comes to comics from this point forward will have to do the hard work of reconstructing the medium's historical trajectory. What this means in practice is that all of the particulars of economic production and distribution in the medium will have to be exhumed and reexamined. Any history of Crumb will require an explanation of what, exactly, the transgressive artists of the late sixties were rebelling against - not merely the cultural politics of the sixties but the shape of comics as a mass media. Any close reading of Love & Rockets will have to in some fashion acknowledge that the series was originally serialized in magazine form primarily through a distribution channel known as the direct market, and the same goes for other already-canonized artists such as Clowes, Ware, Burns, Seth, and Brown. (And, of course, there will be alternate narratives written for every alternate distribution channel.) It will be necessary when discussing comics history at the end of the twentieth century to acknowledge the dominance of super-hero books, and the ways in which the emergence of alternative genres and economic models were always conceptualized through the formation of rhetorical distance from the supposed "mainstream" of corporate-owned superhero properties. Just the term "mainstream," with all its strange and historically-specific connotations, will have to be unpacked for future readers who will come to comics without any prior knowledge of just how this generic opposition shaped comics discourse for multiple generations of readers.

Imagine, then, a series that ran from the late seventies through to the early twenty-first century, shipping monthly and taking as its explicit subject-matter the evolution and transformation of the medium in this unique transitional period.

Imagine a series whose defining relationship to its historical moment is that of parody, and which provides through this parody an incessant commentary on the hoariest and most inane indulgences of surrounding comics culture. It is just this generic contextualization that future critics will regard as an invaluable record of the most changeable and disposable aspects of an unimaginably strange commercial culture, an often embarrassing commercial culture that will need to be reconstructed at least in part as a predicate for any comprehensive historiography of comics.*

Imagine a series constructed along the lines of an eclectic personal journal, providing not merely an extended comics narrative but - in the form of copious backmatter - an ongoing critical engagement with itself as well as the larger realities of economic and ethical considerations within the quickly changing medium.

Imagine one step further, that this series also represents one of the most sustained autobiographical statements thus far produced in the medium's history, the record not merely of one man's Zelig-like ability to appear and reappear throughout some of the medium's most contentious and crucial intersections, but of his gradual estrangement and painful separation from the very same independent comics culture that he, in part, helped to create. With a few decades' perspective, the sheer horror of the series' final years will come to be seen less as the gradual derangement of a single individual than as symptomatic of the final stage of the medium's painful and protracted adolescence.

For better and for worse, Cerebus is the grand narrative of comics throughout our lifetime. Dave Sim began as just another amateur zine publisher, became a firebrand and a rallying point for the absolute moral rights of creators, before descending into painful self-parody and obsolescence. The series will fade from memory perhaps within our own lifetime - we already see this process in effect today, the inevitable and justifiable reaction to Sim's willful abjuration of modernity. But it will be rediscovered, and it will in time come to be seen as one of the most crucial primary documents of these, our strangest and most interesting of times.

* There is one specific point about parody in reference to Cerebus that I have been trying to fit in for a while but which just never seemed to fit into the main body of any article. There is an assumption that the parodies featured in Cerebus will only hurt the work's long-term reputation because most of the books being parodied are simply not worth remembering in any form and will only serve as embarrassing obstacles for any potential future readers. R. Fiore, in the online comments for an excerpt of Tim Kreider's Journal article, arguses this position in as succinct a fashion as possible when he states that: "If parody is going to endure then it has to parody subjects that are going to endure." With all due respect to someone who was written about comics in a far more intelligent fashion and for much longer than myself, I have to say that this statement could not be more wrong. Not only is it factually wrong, but it would be far easier to argue the opposite point: parody often endures because, not despite, of the transience of its subject.

For proof of this I would point to some of the founding books of modern European literature: The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Candide. All of them are in some fashion parodies of other books, general literary trends, philosophical schools, or political ideologies. Don Quixote survives despite the fact that the vast corpus of popular chivalric literature against which Cervantes inveighed has almost entirely disappeared into the dire realms of graduate school and post-doc research. Most of the genres that Chaucer utilized in the Tales were vastly popular for hundreds of years across Europe, and yet I can say with absolutely no fear of contradiction that (for instance) the only penitence manual still in general circulation in 2011 remains "The Parson's Tale." (Of course, I would argue that "The Parson's Tale" isn't quite a parody in the same fashion as "The Knight's Tale." It's complicated position within the Tales hinges in part on its status as a rebuttal to the preceding satire. But it remains a kind of parody because it utilizes the form of the penitence manual to achieve a literary effect beyond merely the salvation of individual souls.)

Far, far more people have read and will continue to read Candide than have ever read Leibniz, and although Leibniz retains a fairly high reputation among historians of philosophy far more people know the man's ideas through Voltaire's satirical mirror than will ever go further beyond the footnotes in the Penguin Classic paperback. In all cases there are a number of reasons why the original genres and ideas pilloried in these texts have faded from view, but there remains one overriding, inescapable fact that frames our understanding of these books: people over the course of many centuries have decided in no uncertain fashion that the parody is far more interesting than the object of parody. Hell, it's even possible that more people read Shamela than Pamela, and many people still read Pamela. (OK, many college students, but I would argue that they're people too.)

Cerebus is, obviously, a lesser work than Don Quixote or The Canterbury Tales (I shouldn't need to say that), but for future scholars looking to reconstruct the shape of comics culture and the interplay between popular and independent publishing modes, Cerebus will serve a similar function in helping to contextualize our strange era. Spawn will almost certainly not survive to become an object of serious critical investigation, but Spawn will retain its significance as a historical artifact for anyone wishing to understand comics in these last few decades. If my assessment is correct and Cerebus finds a fertile afterlife as a subject of great scholarly interest, one of the most important aspects of the work for future scholars will be precisely that aspect that seems least interesting to current readers, with their first-hand knowledge of the historical conditions of the comics marketplace: the constant riffing on and vivisection of disposable bits of comics ephemera.