A couple of decades back, there was “Styxmania”. Propelled by the cross-over appeal of Dennis DeYoung’s schmaltzy ballad “Babe”, the already successful quintet from Chicago briefly commanded the kinds of stadium audiences previously only achieved by a handful of acts. They were an outfit of chameleons whose different members tended to craft very different types of tunes for different audiences, which generates tension, both musical and personal. At the height of their powers, they even produced something of a dance number in 1981 with “Too Much Time On My Hands”, an apt song for me in the summer after my first year in college, 31 years ago. It was also (and this is no coincidence, where this post is concerned) one of my brother's fave tracks at the time.
In other words, if you’re under the age of 30, this post is not for you. We don’t have too much in common with you lot on this blog today, and it’s because I’m suffering, for lack of a better phrase, with a (hopefully brief) bout of emotional constipation. It’s not serious, and probably related to that adolescent ennui about the absurdity of the world received by their clueless elders. It has no claim to superior insight, any more than the (equally –risible) Breakfast Club universe, where only sensitive youths really understand what’s really going on, and all adults are idiots. It’s not something I’m proud of, kiddies, but whether you like it not, this is an emotion that cannot be understood by those who haven’t circled the Sun a sufficient number of times. Deal with it.
A person sits at a desk in an empty classroom, one of many scenes of emptiness in which the teacher tries to process the noise and clutter of the day. It is a day like any other in the life of a teacher with multiple periods and multiple preps, a time to gather your resources, to figure out where you’re going with your classes this year. Except, this year is not like the other years for a veteran entering their 14th year as a science teacher: for the first time ever, part of my course load has nothing to do with science education, which was my primary passion when I began this blog. I am even beginning to wonder if I am in danger of becoming “the science teacher who doesn’t teach science.”
Now, this is not a mid-life crisis of purpose, so much as it is a feeling that the amount of time remaining is disproportionate to the task at hand. I really do have too much time on my hands at this moment, and I’m really undecided as to how I feel about it. Part of me wants to think about how things in the past were better than they are now, and part of me wants to believe that the best is still yet to come. Part of me wants to believe that my new work situation will be a case of working smarter, not harder. Part of me fears that I am in danger of losing my identity as a science educator, and all the little parts of me are talking to each other. It’s a case of not being sure what direction I should go, or whether I can “go” at all. Like I said….constipation.
In general, I don’t like to live in the past, but my brother’s recent piece about me actually buries this Caesar in a vault of memory. I remember seeing the phrase “nostalgia-mongering” in an article taking Elton John to task for “Crocodile Rock”, and it resonated with me even while grooving to the record. The tendency to proclaim, “The King is dead, so long live Elvis, and they don’t make them that way anymore” is at its heart not an appreciation, but an ossification of history that all too quickly decays into an undeserved sentimentality about a time that was not really all that golden, nor all that hallowed. That kind of looking back at the past has never moved me, and as a consequence I’ve always tended to resist the idea of “Golden Ages” of any sort. That kind of thinking seems to devolve into a self-serving trap, and I was reminded of this vividly when reading Dr. Chuckle’s latest.
My brother the English prof gives me quite a bit of credit for inspiring his love of comics, and I’m not burdened by any false humility: he’s right, I did inspire him. But I also have to point out that inspiration has its limits. If my brother had really taken me as a slavish example of comics enthusiasm, he would’ve not developed his taste for all things Kirby (which I had “outgrown”), or his knowledge of industry practices, or his enthusiasm for comics as a medium for cultivated, ambitious adults. Here I must defer any honors, because in each case I was either disengaged, ignorant or openly scornful.
When it came to a real appreciation of the potential of comics, my brother left me behind within a few years of graduating from high school, and it took me nearly a decade to get over myself, to begin to appreciate his insights, and to accept the fact that my brother’s interests were not juvenilia or unworthy of an academic career. Yeah, sure, I still loved comics, but I loved the comics of my youth and imagined them to be a “Golden”, or at least a “Silver” Age of my childhood. My devaluing of comics at that stage of my life wasn’t just about imagining that I had put away childish things, but also about reimagining my youth (and the youth culture that helped define it) into some sort of “Wonder Years”.
What a painful admission, but for my generation nostalgia writ large is often little more than a projection of our own ego upon the cultural landscape. We build narratives that serve our sense of self-importance, but at the price of historical integrity, and what’s really appalling about these stories we tell ourselves is the degree to which we immortalize artifacts of popular culture that, when you get right down to it, usually aren’t that great. Consider comics: the “Golden Age” that so many collectors revere is correctly understood as the birth of a new medium (the American-style ‘comic book’), a development that led to new genre and narrative conventions, innovations that have tremendous influence over the present-day culture.
But most of the “Golden Age” comics weren’t particularly well-executed. Even those that had verve and originality and a lasting influence on the culture were often the product of an “assembly line” whose main interest was selling wood pulp, rather than personal expression. By any reasonable standard, most of the collectables of the present were disposables in the past, rushed jobs that had little to commend them other than the fact that they were big and cheap , all in color for a dime.
Compare that with the present, where mythologies are deliberately crafted like multi-level marketing schemes. In the “Golden Age”, comics were “get-rich-quick” schemes revolving around supplies of paper: volume was everything, and virtually all income was derived from sales at newsstands and drug stores. Today, the actual physical comics of major publishers are but one part (albeit an essential part) of media empires that continually reinvent themselves. Intense competition and technical developments have “raised the bar” tremendously: whether we are talking about drawing, writing or production, the overall values for the comics industry in North America today are unprecedented.
Yes, there are certainly a lot of comics on the market today which are derivative and formulaic, slavish (and therefore enslaved) imitators of genre conventions. In fact, most of the comics in the stores hold little interest for me, but that is not because they lack quality. From a practical point of view, continuity and conventions have a greater hold on their target audience in the past, due to the relative ease with which new comics consumers can develop a taste for those very things.
When I was a kid, I would walk barefooted through blinding snow to reach something called a newsstand, and after braving the elements, I would often find my comics choices to be very limited. Comics shops didn’t exist at that time, and it was actually difficult to find a good assortment of comics in most places forty years ago. Comics circulation was haphazard: titles were simply stocked willy-nilly at various locations, and those titles that depended upon some sort of formal continuity would often be torpedoed by a distribution system that didn’t really care about the individual titles, but merely about the demographics of the distribution center. Unevenness and uncertainty were a fact of life for comics readers in much of North America. So, you might get Avengers #172 in August/September, but a few months would go by and then Avengers #174 would appear out of whole cloth around Christmas, and you would scowl and wonder “What the Felix Frankfurter happened to issue 173?” It’s enough to get your panties in a permanent bunch, True Believer.
Today, I no longer fret about the body blows dealt to favorite series by such shifts. I understand that long runs on strips by the same group of collaborators, year in and year out, is the exception rather than the norm. I’m resigned to these problems as systemic, and yet oddly enough the current crop of comics have made pitfalls that once were glaringly obvious all but invisible. The role of the editor at DC and Marvel has really shifted since my generation. In the past, editors would patrol continuity and make sure the Comics Code wasn’t tweaked too hard, but their main task seemed to be about making sure that the writers and artists met their deadlines. These days, editors spend much of their time as (for lack of a better word) “meta-plotters”, with an eye toward shaping storylines across the collective “universe” of their comics line in such a way as to maximize reader interest, and thus sales. These collective events often feel forced and manipulative, but fans lap them up even when they don’t like what happens to their favorite character: in many cases, the editors have succeeded in turning a liability (ever-shifting continuity) into a positive.
On the other end, it is a rarity these days to see a poorly-drawn or indifferently-printed comic from the major publishers: there are simply too many fans who expect more in the production side, and too many young and hungry artists and writers eager to take their place at the creative helm. Plus, we tend to romanticize past comics and evaluate them by a standard different from the one we apply to present-day titles. There really were a lot of crappy comics in the “Golden Age”, with amateurish drawing and indifferent production, quickly slapped together but rather successful at their main mission, which is to say to leverage supplies of paper and wood pulp in a war economy. The real literary and artistic merit of “Golden Age” collectables probably has less influence on their value than their rarity, and the capacity of these objects to invoke nostalgia, and an alternate history of “the good old days.”
This is not just a problem for comics collectors of a certain age. Why, another “Age” was Gilded, and another decade (the 20’s) Roared: so what? Each period had its eulogists, but it would be a very peculiar person who would trade enormous gains in life expectancy , opportunity and mobility for steam locomotives, or for speakeasies. You saw Jimi at Woodstock? Nifty, but isn’t it a bit much to imagine that no one has ever played the guitar at least as well as Hendrix? My word, is there anything more tiresome than the aging flower children of the generation that preceded mine, extolling the 60’s, as if the Age of Aquarius was the peak of human civilization, rather than a blip of unwarranted enthusiasm for the politics of hedonism?
Each period no doubt had its charms and its glories, which today we romanticize for effect. Armchair history can be fun, but if you really lived it, you would experience death and suffering on a grand scale, and for most of us, the further back you go the more unpleasant it would be with comparison to the present. In general, the past sucks. The greatest virtue of our personal past, is that youth is more forgiving of bumps and bruises. Call it innocence, or call it ignorance, but for most of us our youth is that time of our life when our greatest mistakes are in front of us, the time when we are least likely to remember that we are mortal.
I’ve often told anyone who cares to listen that “the good old days are now”, and in general, I still feel that way. There’s a tendency to get so wrapped up in our own personal narratives that we forget to live. We can’t help but draw on the past, and attempt to take lessons from our own survival and try to write them as large as we can. We want our lives to have meaning, and the longer we are spared crossing our own river Styx, the more we tend to invest the past with significance, and compare it favorably with the present. It’s an understandable tendency, but when we indulge it, we make it more difficult for us to engage with the present. I never want to be that person who forgets that the “now” is the only place I really inhabit, and that the “present” is really a gift.
When I think about those who live in the “now”, even those folk who are further on in years than myself, I see that there is no Age which is truly Golden unless it is arrayed with the precious jewels of the present. One of the great thrills of my last ten years was in meeting the great comics creator Will Eisner, who died in 2005, but even in his golden years remained marvelously engaged with the present, in stark contrast to many retired pros who cut their teeth in the “Golden Age” of comics.
Eisner, for whom the comic industry’s Eisner Awards were named, was one of the talents who crafted the best comics of those times, but he could’ve been excused for having little interest in contemporary comics. He had not worked for a major comics publisher since well before I was born, and had done much freelance illustration work outside of the comics field, and enjoyed great financial and personal success doing so. As an ‘elder statesman’, he had nothing to prove.
Yet Eisner continued to not only create new comics in his golden years as a means of self-expression, but to actively tout the medium’s potential for artistic and literary expression to anyone who would take it as seriously as he did. He wrote one of the first books to ask how comics actually worked, how words and pictures in comics came together to tell stories. And, (unlike a lot of industry professionals) Eisner enthusiastically encouraged academics like my brother, who approach the business of comics from the ivory tower, rather than from the inside.
When my brother introduced this industry legend to me, the first thing he told me was how lucky I was to have a smart guy like Chuck as my brother, and how highly he regarded my brother’s first book on alternative comics.
Wow. By that point (the summer of 2002), I had already come to realize just how little I understood or appreciated my brother or his interests, and had already come to terms with the fact that I had failed to give him his due, and honor his scholarship and passion, and treat him like the man he was. I was a citizen of Nazareth who had not recognized the prophet in my own country. But, with a few gracious and insightful words, Will Eisner not only reaffirmed my new understanding of comics, but validated the reawakening of my conscience, of my love of comics, and an abiding pride in my brother’s character and accomplishments. It was a quiet moment that completed a process of transformation that even now, a decade gone by, is deeply meaningful.
A few months ago, my brother’s second book earned him an Eisner Award. It was a great moment for him, and for our family, but it was also a validation of the enduring power of the comics medium itself, and the growing community of fans who see the medium not as a repository of cultural artifacts, but as an active, expanding means of literary and artistic expression. At the ceremony, my brother hoisted his Eisner high and proclaimed, “Kirby lives!”. A journalist seized upon that moment as emblematic not only of the enduring appeal of creators like Kirby and Eisner, but as a legitimization of comics academics in general, and wrote it up as such. I am glad to see that I am not the last person to come to the party on that point, and I hope that in the future that more people will share the same appreciation, especially in this country. For comics, “the good old days” are now, and no one shared that belief with greater conviction than Will Eisner. I can only hope that I will show the same passion and willingness to engage “the now” when I stumble through my golden age.
As for my brother? Chuck, this post is for you, and not just because you’re over the age of 30, but because you inspire me.
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