Salami Tactics

Greetings, Bloggers. I’ve just been thinking, thanks to Sean, about what I don’t like about Heroes (i.e. that everyone who likes it seems to think it’s “fast-paced”, when to me it seems like televisual fatware), and for some reason it’s forcefully reminded me of some stupid shit I’ve seen on the tube recently. OH NO I DIDN’T! I did NOT just call TV stupid, did I? ZING! Take that, airwaves…

But it’s bigger than that, I think. Because that TV is dumb, well whatever, that battle’s lost, if indeed it was ever fought in the first place…and so what? Who cares?

But “dumb” is not the same thing as “appallingly fucking stupid”, or at least it shouldn’t be. I can accept the salami tactics of TV’s gradual corporate dumbification project; however a thick slice is still a thick slice, and we shouldn’t act dumber than we are. This isn’t supposed to be Idiocracy yet, for God’s sake!

So, why does it look so much like it?

Here’s a couple of things I saw on TV recently. I saw an ad for Lindt chocolate that promised some kind of sensual embrace “for all your five senses”. Which is quite an amazing claim, because: really? Even hearing? I forget who said that all ads for chocolate are just thinly-veiled ads for masturbation (the young wife sneaks away from her football-watching hubby, into the bathroom with the Toblerone…), but wow, this is a step up even from that. You will fucking hear things.

Ah!

But of course, no you won’t.

The next ad up was for Advil. You’re probably familiar with this campaign: “if you think a little thing like a soaring fever or a chest cold will stop me…then you don’t know me.” Oh, hardass credo of the suburban jogger, how I love you! Except, wait, once again it’s just gone one step too far, because the athletic self-betterment activity the woman uttering that remark is engaged in (and yes, of course it’s a woman, isn’t it?) is swimming. Swimming? My God, is there anyone on earth who thinks fucking swimming is a good idea when you’ve got a cold or the flu or something?

And anyway, since when did Advil become anything more than an analgesic? “Damn this persistent cough! Think I’ll take an aspirin and go for a freedive…”

This isn’t just dumb; this is simply vacant of sense. This is false advertising, damn it. And the funny thing is, it’s actually against the law.

Don’t believe me about the falseness? Witness, then, the latest commercial in the ongoing Lysol campaign, that encourages young mothers (always the women, for Christ’s sake!) to spray down their kids’ tricycles and birthday-party balloons in order to rid them of “viruses”…this newest abomination, this newest illegal lie, instructs the clean-limbed American hausfrau to spray Lysol in her bathroom so as to eliminate the “dangerous viruses” that threaten her children. The animation shows virulent-looking words floating in the air: Rotavirus, Rhinovirus. But then along comes the Lysol and dissolves them all, harmlessly.

By the way: Rhinovirus?

That’s the common cold.

And if it were as dangerous as all that, let’s face it, world population would be like a quarter of what it is now. Spraying Lysol in the bathroom, in that case, would be like dumping a pack of Jell-O into the Red River in spring, and expecting it to turn the whole watercourse into a harmlessly tasty dessert, that flood victims could then delightedly nibble their way out of. In other words: this is truly shameful stuff. This is snake oil. They might as well say it’ll grant you immortality; that’d be no more false an assertion. You will live forever! You will never grow old!

Thick slices. Thick. But we shouldn’t be here yet. We should still be getting gradually dumbed-down, still be in the world of the salami tactics. So something’s changed. I’m not going to say what, though. Not yet.

Not yet.

Because this aggressive stupid-headedness isn’t confined to commercials on TV. Oh, no. It’s in the dramatic programming, too. Heroes provides a pretty good example of this assaultive vacancy (although probably Bionic Woman is even better), where all that is unnecessary is painfully spelled out a dozen times an episode, and all that’s needful to know is buried ten miles deep under a basaltic blanket of dense-motherfuckerism. And Jerry Springer can’t touch this; this isn’t simply socially crass, this is intellectually corrosive. Because just as the famous distinction between lies and bullshit goes “liars at least care somewhat, if only negatively, about truth-values…but bullshitters consider the difference absolutely trivial”, so too does the plotline of your average modern television drama adhere only to its bullshit “tension”, gleefully rejecting as worthless any conclusion legitimately capable of paying it off. Real-world sense, even in its (heretofore necessary) manifestation in story-logic or internal consistency, is jettisoned as pure dead weight — because hey, who needs it? Who cares? I’m not even talking about about the “ten percent of our brains” thing…that’s just more dumb, not stick-stone stupid. No, I’m talking about when things just kind of happen. Dialogue just “happens”, action just “happens”, denouements just “happen”, tic-tac-toe it’s a tie, imagine that. Infodumps cease to dump any actual info. Effects are emptied of causes. Connective threads are hyperbolized. Because hey, if you think a little thing like any of this adding up to anything will stop me…well, then…

Hey, you don’t know me.

When the LA riots broke out, we heard a lot of talk about how TV was responsible, and also a lot of talk about how it wasn’t. And I always thought it was, but I didn’t blame it on the inuring effect of the old ultra-violence, you see. I blamed it on Frasier.

But of course when I say I blamed it on Frasier — on Frasier, floating high above the world in his little dream-bubble of romantic farce and perfect wealth and security! My God what a view he’s got, up there! — I’m not really being serious, I’m trying instead to be a little bit satirical. I’m playing the part of a guy who can’t see the absurdum for the reductio, and so I can’t possibly mean it, except I do mean I may not be the only one who’s saying stuff he can’t possibly mean. It decomposes like this, see: Frasier is what they now call in the marketing biz an “aspirational” comedy…but, wait, hey! What happened to all the aspiration that was supposed to be in that aspiration, you know?

And, my very point: after all, once you empty out or otherwise set about beggaring your aspirations, then what’s the point of not smashing everything in sight?

So pop, I sincerely hope, goes the balloon. But now back to Heroes, and Studio 60, and Bionic Woman, and oh just anything where the show doesn’t point anything out, but only presses it on you instead, like a bribe. Far, far worse stuff than the likeable Frasier, I assure you. Because plot, like character, isn’t necessary any longer to these shows. They may still cling to it a little bit — cling to the shreds of it — out of habit, but the interplay of plot and character no longer form the key to their appeal. Compliance does; as in “so long as we get to the part you tuned in to see, you damn well will not care about how we got there, you ungrateful swine.” In Studio 60 this was the walkabout Mamet-lite bantering…look, buddy, so long as you get to hear it, you shouldn’t complain about having to listen to it….and in Spider-Man 3 it was the willy-nilly jamming in of recognizable characters and their turnabouts, whether all that added up to a good story or not…look, you wanted to see it, buddy, so now you can just damn well sit there and look at it. In Bionic Woman it’s Smouldering Bionic Action, and never mind whether or not it’s appropriate for Jaime to be trapped in a blender with old pitches for Alias and Nikita…I swear I laugh when I think of how amazingly little she questions whether no-oversight off-the-books covert agencies are really that gee-whiz an idea in 2007, for Christ’s sake James Bond questions the morality of what he’s doing more than she does…

In the remake of Planet Of The Apes, it was “that image” that the director wanted so badly to see, the image of our hero face-to-face with Ape Lincoln…oh, anything for that “image”, my God! Anything!

At DC comics, it’s a dream of saving all established phenomena by creating a Total Universal Order…

At Marvel, it’s the somewhat-complementary dream of obliterating all established phenomena for the purpose of creating a Total Universal Order…

And for Heroes, it’s just…I wanna see superheroes on TV, but I want them to be cool.

But are any of these things worthwhile aspirations, if how you get to have them ceases to matter? Me, I’m thinking of writing the makers of Bionic Woman, and telling them “hey, your excellent chocolate sure tastes delicious, but I’ve got to tell you I didn’t hear jack shit when I ate it, and now I’ve caught pneumonia again. Also when I said I wanted superheroes to be cool, I didn’t mean they should also have to be boring as dirt, so how ’bout a refund?”

Oh…no refund, huh?

Well, damn you to hell, Ape Lincoln. You just went and you blew it all up, didn’t you.

Thick bastard. You’re gonna be yoghurt pretty soon, if you keep on like this.

On the bright side though, Bloggers, I really liked Death Note! Think I might start watching it regularly…

End rant.

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21 responses to “Salami Tactics

  1. Though, for what it’s worth, I do acknowledge that the image of Ape Lincoln was really the only thing worth remaking Planet Of The Apes for. So Tim was right about that…but otherwise so, so wrong…

  2. It never ceases to amaze me how you’re able to seemingly circle around a point with bizarre metaphors and insane tangents and then, just when I think you’ve finally lost it, laser-focus onto your target and blast it to smithereens. Me? All I’ve got is the standard getting from A to D by going through B and C. But being able to go from A to D by going through J, W and Q…? And making it look like that was the more obvious path in the first place? Impressive, sir, as always.

    I can’t really say I agree with you on the current crop of television shows, though, mainly because I’ve all but given up watching TV. (TV the medium, that is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technology.) The only two shows I watch AT ALL these days are both British, so I don’t really have much of a basis for saying how bad it’s gotten. I gave up on it some time ago and only occasionally tune in for things like Alan Moore making a cameo on The Simpsons. I tried, once upon a time, to catch a show just so I wouldn’t be totally lost in conversations around the water cooler, but the volume of banality made me stop doing that too. I’d rather lose the 15 minutes every month or two from zoning out during a conversation about “Dancing With The Stars” than the 40 minutes of having to actually sit through an episode. (What? Like I’m going sit through the commercials as well?)

    And, in some defense of Tim Burton: yes, Apes was a crap movie, but it was absolutely an okay-I’ll-make-this-piece-of-drek-as-long-as-you-also-let-me-make-something-good movie. I don’t think Burton himself ever looked at it as anything more than a paycheck.

  3. I’ve recently started listening to CBC Radio every now and then, and it contrasts interestingly with just about everything else on TV or radio. At least I think it does. I think what I notice is this: CBC Radio is really trying to do stuff that people like or will be interested in or in some way be glad that they heard it. Not everybody, perhaps, but at least somebody. And there’s an effort there to make it good.

    But with everything else I see on TV or hear on the radio, it’s different. It’s like, they’ve got a commercial plan for how they’re going to present us with their sitcoms or music or sports talk or what have you, and that plan will attract x number of listeners/viewers, and that will result in y amount of money from advertising et cetera. Even the stuff I like is like that, even the stuff I think is good. I watch Heroes every week, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon, but it’s nevertheless starting to look more and more like Pressed Televisual Product.

  4. It’s an interesting and very valid analysis. Inherently commercial art operates differently then fine art, which is just another form of commercial art anyway. I love, and am intrigued on many levels by Heroes which I find very canny in the way that it manages to make super hero allegory accessible to a wide swath of the viewing audience. I suppose I don’t quite see how it is the same thing as an Advil commercial, as the only thing it demands from its viewer is time and consideration, making the promise of the program as much the responsibility of the viewer as the makers of the show. But there’s little point in me presenting a defense of Heroes as it all boils down to “to each their own”. I can’t help but be intrigued to see this largely closeted genre emerging into wider popular culture at the same time the comic book medium, for my tastes, seems to be falling apart under the weight of its own ridiculous commercialism masked as storytelling. I’m not a critic, though I crave and seek out competent critical analysis of what many consider junk culture, which is why I find this blog so intriguing. As a hobbyist art analyst I’ve found that unsuspected qualities can be found in works I would otherwise dismiss as inane or crassly commercial. Burton’s Planet of the Apes is a good example, it doesn’t really work when taken at face value, it has to be read as metaphorical, as a dream, and on that level, to me, it’s really quite successful, evocative and wonderfully realized.

  5. Have you seen the commercial which emphasizes, with no apparent irony, that using Botox is a new way to “express yourself?” Yikes.

    And “Heroes” — I dunno. If it were a comic book, I’m not sure I’d still be reading it. The pacing this year has been pretty spotty. However, when it’s working — maybe especially when it’s channeling something recognizable, like “Days of Future Past” last year — it’s pretty enjoyable.

    Actually, I never thought it would go full-blown into the “costumed vigilante” area, but it looks like it’s pretty much there with Monica becoming “St. Joan.” All she needs is a mask.

    “Bionic Woman,” though, didn’t hold me past the first 25 minutes or so of the pilot. It tried too hard to distance itself from the perceived cheese of its namesake. I think it was trying to be the new “Galactica 2.0,” which I enjoy for the most part, but which I think tends to get weighed-down by its own sense of importance.

    Anyway, I was wary of “BW” early on, seeing that Laeta Kalogridis was involved. She ran the “Birds Of Prey” TV show, and that was a weird, disjointed mess of a series that actually had some potential. It tried to balance the escapist qualities of a superhero show with an apparent need to be real and edgy, and the result didn’t serve either very well. I guess it never got successful enough to be co-opted by commercialism….

  6. Wow, I’ve got something to say to everybody this time!

    Sean: hey, thanks man! Actually I do it for the practice — occasionally I want to rant about some topic that has a whole lot of feeder-issues that are hard to work in, and keeping my hand in with the (in Harlan Ellison’s phrase) “spit-on-a-griddle” technique makes it easier.

    By the way, there’s a lot of deadpan humour to be mined in the comment “well, I’ve got nothing against the technology…” Yes, it’s perfectly watchable, no problem there…

    For a few years I got my TV off the antenna (still free!), about three channels, and it wasn’t too bad a way to live at all. Especially since I hear they have this new thing called the DVD rental — they’re putting TV shows into video stores as fast as the truck can get there these days, it seems, and it’s actually a better solution. Where I am, the three channels include CBC (a much better station than its given credit for, and by law always the strongest signal in any broadcast area…I believe…and also a station that does a lot of popular American programming. Just enough to know what people are talking about, if you care to sit and absorb everyone’s (even the nightly newsanchors’!) TV-drenched pop-culture commentary. So you can know enough about Survivor and the Sopranos to get by, if you need to…

    By the way, congratulations to you on dumping Marvel before having to waste money on One More Day, Sean! Virtue is its own reward, eh?

    Matthew: yes, back to CBC, especially CBC-AM — it isn’t perfect by any means, and sometimes it tries to chase popularity a bit too much, but when it knows what it’s doing it’s fantastic. I like Ideas, myself, weekdays at 9 p.m., and also we’ve got a couple goddamn funny radio shows on there. And, hey, I like that we can all tune into the same thing, all over the country.

    I just wish they hadn’t killed off their science-fiction radio-play show from a few years back, I thought it was really impressive. The first broadcast featured a play made from The Cold Equations, and it was outstanding. Think what they could’ve done with, I don’t know, a serialization of Foundation, or something! So much material to pick and choose from, I can’t believe it didn’t fly. I met Spider Robinson recently at a party, and just missed buttonholing him about this: “come on, Spider, call CBC up and tell them you’ll host that show! You know you want to!”

    I may still tell him that.

    Also, you’ve listened to the late night news from around the world, I take it? This was a cost-cutting measure that made some sense, basically putting the shortwave on the long-wave, playing other countries’ international services from about midnight to three a.m. Because even the CBC radio news has to channel a lot of American-centric reporting, and that doesn’t leave much room even for things European, let alone Australian or African or Chinese. And it’s all news, of course, only with different filters. Good to fall asleep to.

    And I think you’re so on target with the Pressed Media Product thing: I mean just think about all the commercials you see in a day that have absolutely no connection with your interests at all! That’s kind of staggering, really, at least to me it is. Most of what you’re informed about through the television screen is utter irrelevance as far as you’re concerned, I mean wow. And yet there it sits, taking up space on the retina.

    I guess I’m saying they even make shows that way? “Here’s the demographics we’re trying to hit; let’s make sure we tag every one of them at least twice an episode.” You have to buy the whole farm just to get a glass of milk out of it.

    And hey, forget about Heroes: I watch Beauty and the Geek, damn it, so how pathetic am I?

    Adam: thanks to you too, and I’m really enjoying your insane blog, it’s great. Also you’re speaking my language here with the whole “unsuspected qualities in trash culture” thing — yes, exactly, it’s fascinating stuff. Can’t say I agree with Heroes being particularly “canny” — I think it misses a lot of marks it could easily be hitting, and in particular I don’t think anyone’s coming away from it having been intellectually stimulated, even to the degree they’re intellectually stimulated by the X-Men movies — but yeah, to hear regular people saying, like Tina Fey on 30 Rock, “I like the Japanese dude”…there’s a certain satisfaction in that. And your point’s well-taken that Heroes escapes some of the Big Two’s most irritating current excesses in its little TV rocket ship…however I think it drags too much of the shitty storytelling of the last few years along with it, and not enough of the good stuff. I still can’t watch more than a couple minutes of it, but as you point out, tastes differ, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand the appeal! Meanwhile on the Advil front, while I’ll admit it’s something of a tenuous connection I still think I see a pattern of lowered storytelling expectations there. Even a commercial has a story. And I guess…

    Hmm, well, remember that Tom Hanks/Jackie Gleason movie from the 80s called Nothing In Common? Tom plays an ad-man in this thing, and at a certain point he’s making a commercial about an airline, where the idea is the airline is like a trusted family member, because it’ll pick Grandma up from her lonely house in the middle of a freezing winter, and bring her safely to your place to have a nice warm Thanksgiving (or something), and then take her back afterwards. So. There Tom is on the set of the commercial, and then he suddenly freaks out because someone’s gotten Grandma a cat. Because sweet old lonely Grandmas have cats, and what they’re selling is “sweet old lonely Grandma”, so to make the point, here comes the cat. And Tom hits the roof, because is the idea now that Grandma gets on the plane and leaves the cat behind, and then the cat freezes to death while she’s away? OFF-MESSAGE!

    Which is kind of where I draw the line, too, between the woman taking the Advil (“But it’s just for headaches!” “Shut up, it’s “medicine”) before going running, and her taking it before going swimming. This is the point at which the cat freezes.

    But our expectations of sense-making today are perhaps lower than they were when Nothing In Common was filmed, don’t you think? Myself, I’ve got no problem believing that if this airline commercial were made in real life in 2007, they’d get around the Cat Implication by showing Granny in her seat in the plane with the cat on her lap. Maybe a stewardess would even pet the cat, or something.

    And that’s the bad stuff right there, because it’d be just CRAZY to show the little old lady taking her cat on the plane with her, because you can’t do that, that’s totally impossible. And yet the pieces all fit, and therefore it’d be a solution of sorts. I’m imagining now a whole protracted cat scene with the cat nibbling contentedly at Grandma’s Kosher meal or something. And then the pilot comes on the PA and promises the passengers immortality.

    This stuff is coming at us all the time, I believe: I mean people see the Lysol woman spraying down the birthday balloons at the party all the time, and no one says a peep about it. When my mother saw that Lysol commercial she was thunderstruck by the stupidity of it, but to us that kind of aggresive dumbassery just flies serenely under the radar by now. But it shouldn’t! So why does it?

    Because it’s a kind of propaganda, is all I can think: you will comply with the implicit suggestion that what you’re seeing makes good enough sense to not care about it being wrong. Danny and Jordan can’t get cell phone reception in the middle of Los Angeles because that’s the sense we’ve decided to make, and it’s not worth you complaining about it…

    That’s where the link between the commercials and the dramas comes in, I think. Forgive me for not supplying an actual Heroes example of the sense being a slave to the set-piece of “Gramndmas have cats”, but of course there are many, I’m just dashing this out as fast as I can, that’s all…

    Also, hah, fine art as a subset of commercial art…if this were a different corner of the Internet, this thread would now go to 100 posts, probably!

    As for Burton’s PotA as a dream…well, as I said (or implied at least, I hope), I didn’t like it, but…hey, did you by chance listen to Tim’s director’s commentary on the DVD? That’s what I’m picking the “that image” stuff out of, and it’s actually kind of interesting; he sounds apologetic as hell, like he realizes it’s just all gone terribly wrong, and keeps coming back to his wish to capture the Ape Lincoln thing almost as an excuse. It’s as though he’s saying “look, all I wanted was to get there, it’s a natural PotA thing, any fan would agree…I never cared about the stupid movie…” And I don’t blame him for this at all: the stubborn desire to achieve Ape Lincoln, regardless of the cost to the cobbled-together crap surrounding it, shows a good sense of what’s important and unimportant. I’m sure Tarantino, another fan who actually knows what he likes and why, would’ve done the same thing in his position. Both these directors bore the hell out of me far too often these days, but that doesn’t affect my opinion of their considerable virtues…which I guess is my roundabout way of saying Go Team Ape Lincoln! Everything not dreamlike in Burton’s PotA isn’t worth the film it’s been captured on, and probably never would’ve been…so it isn’t a masterpiece, and in fact I didn’t even like it, but at least Honest Ape wasn’t sacrificed to the fact that he doesn’t make a lick of sense in context with all the forgettable boilerplate around him. I think it would’ve been horrible to make that sacrifice go the other way around.

    Finally, Tom: ha! Maybe it is Idiocracy by now, after all! Yeah, I’ll cast a vote for “channelling the recognizable”, and maybe that’s why costume-getting could even work. Bionic Woman is clearly made to <look and therefore feel like Galactica, with the content of the show’s details being absolutely secondary to that look and feel…it doesn’t make sense, because at heart it doesn’t want to, doesn’t see the need to. On the other hand I did like Birds Of Prey, God help me, because I liked that it was trying to make sense in a non- “channelling the recognizable” way, saying to the audience “look! See! These chicks are superheroes, too! Isn’t that weird?” But pulling off that sort of thing is more challenging than just saying “update of Bionic Woman…looks sexygritty like Galactica…toss in a little Alias…she dates this guy who works for a rival agency…has, um, a kid sister she can’t reveal her bionic-ness to…they fight terrorists…OKAY! Good to go.” That recipe starts out with “fold one cup of unsalted commercialism into nothing, bring to a boil or something like that, da da da, dee dee dee, whatever the hell else you want to throw in there…”

    By the way, I’m going to do something to riff on your last Grumpy Old Fan, Tom…

    Oh dear, I’ve gone crazy with the length of this comment, haven’t I?

    Sorry about that, Chief…

  7. Enjoying my insane blog, well that made my day, thanks for that. I believe it was in the documentary The Corporation where I heard about the concept of “mind share”. The advertisers tactic is to demand your attention and as a result take possession of a portion of the viewer’s mind (or minding, memory or however you like to model it). So McDonald’s owns a part of my brain that I can never take back. It is rather a disturbing concept, the corporate entity as an abstract parasite. And what can I say, I like trash, and kid’s stuff, and bubble gum, and culture in general, and I’m afraid it’s getting worse as I grow older. And I suppose I’ve developed something of a “found object” collage type attitude to the media in general. Not that I think Heroes is trash at all, I suppose I’m just withering in the face of your canniness. And then I do have my fanboy moments where I gnash my teeth over cinema adaptations of super hero comic books. For some reason I seem the only person to find organic web production powers kind of gross for a super hero, though I suppose it’s very Freudian. But mostly I enjoy everything, and I think it’s a kind of disease, the insanity you referenced perhaps.

    So what I’m wondering is why Canadian comic book readers seem to be so smart. Perhaps I’m getting a skewed exposure via the blogosphere, or maybe it has something to do with the CBC and that mesmeric, hypno-logo they used to have in the 70s and early 80s. I was lucky enough for an American to live an hour south of Montreal, and the CBC was by far the clearest channels on our antenna. CJOH was pretty crisp too. So I got to see new DeGrassi episodes months ahead of the kids watching it on PBS, shows like Seeing Things and the Beach Comers, nudity every once in awhile, and Fraggle Rock without cable.

  8. Those Lysol commercials drive my wife nuts. One time she saw the commercial where the woman was spritzing Lysol all over her kid’s bedroom, and said, “Jesus! Doesn’t she have any sarin?!”

    Fine art as a subset of commercial art: I think a better take on this is the one Neal Stephenson supplied in his interview on Slashdot, when he distinguished between Dante art and Beowulf art. It’s a great interview.

  9. “Jesus! Doesn’t she have any sarin?!

    Okay, that made me laugh out loud, and I’m totally stealing it. Hey, looks like it’s not just Canadian comics bloggers, but their wives too…!

    Adam, they still have that logo, and I can’t believe you mentioned Seeing Things! Also the corporate mind-parasite thing sounds like it’s straight out of The Invisibles…although following that similarity I think we might say we lease parts of our attention out to corporate entities on purpose…in Psych One-Oh-Somethingorother way back when, I was told you can think of attention as a pool of available resources…maybe we modern folks tend to shy away from the idea of being left with unallocated attention on our hands? Because then we’d have to think about things that make us uncomfortable…

    Sorry, too many ellipses. On with it: when I was only a little younger than I am now, I still had this horribly conflicted feeling about loving trash culture, you know…but then I read some Chandler and it solved the problem. For prose fiction, anyway. Comics were a bit tougher, seeing as how I found it awfully tough to refute the comprehensive dismissals of superheroes on offer in The Comics Journal…and of course they were totally right, and that was what made it so hard. But now I feel much better about it, much; now I think of trash like compost, or like the super-saturated bits at the bottom of the salad bowl. And pretending there isn’t some zesty stuff down there doesn’t seem supportable to me anymore, even if “zesty” sometimes means “more chaotic” or “less well-balanced” or even “technically not as good”. Well, I like chocolate chip cookies with the chocolate chips taken out of them, too! So for me I’ve decided the “found object” style of reading is one of the more important ones…although I envy your ability to “like everything”, I’ve managed to get myself into the place where I can especially enjoy the guiltiness of my guilty pleasures, and it’s been a good strategy, I think. Because on the whole I find it easier to study comparative mythology than to practise any religion, if you see what I mean…

    Sorry, a trifle incoherent, I have a bit of caffeine imbalance at the moment.

    As to Spider-Man’s organic webbing, I think it’s hilarious to have him leaving several times his weight in bio-guck lying around all over town. David Cronenberg would run away with this into the sunset, I think. And possibly even funnier to me is the idea that Spidey keeps a secret identity while spraying his DNA all over NYC every day, on every available object; boy, if everyone in the movies except Jonah didn’t already know he was Spider-Man, it’d be some kinda dumb idea, to do that.

  10. […] Go Team Ape Lincoln! Everything not dreamlike in Burton’s PotA isn’t worth the film it’s been captured on, and probably never would’ve been…so it isn’t a masterpiece, and in fact I didn’t even like it, but at least Honest Ape wasn’t sacrificed to the fact that he doesn’t make a lick of sense in context with all the forgettable boilerplate around him. I think it would’ve been horrible to make that sacrifice go the other way around.

    Oh Transilvane, my Transilvane …

    Back on the Chesterton-Kirby-Gaiman thread, there was an exchange among RAB, Sean and Plok about the unseemliness in the eyes of Kirby fans of Gaiman recreating the Eternals. A thought experiment occurred to me, but I couldn’t draw any worthwhile conclusions from it. Now the discussion’s just run straight past it, and I’m moved to hitch a ride.

    Fix the image of the Ape Lincon Monument in your mind … and now bring up the image of a blond kid paddling a rubber raft on choppy seas, denim shorts and sneakers, and in the background soars the Statue of Liberty, listing fifteen degrees off plumb and up to her waist in the Atlantic.

    I’m going to stipulate that every one of Kirby’s images and conceptions was an absolute. Right there for you, blatantly present, wholly self-sufficient. Not depending for its meaning on any exchange of meanings with external texts. Not begging the reader to eke out its imperfections with her background knowledge. And acknowledging no commitment to world-building whatsoever.

    In world-building terms, Kirby jumps the shark every time. It’s what we pay him for. If the shark chases him out of the tank in Boston, that’s fine, he’s playing in Baton Rouge next week, and they’ve got gators! But makes it hard for other writers to follow his stuff up, since world-building, character-building and allusion are their stock in trade, maybe all they have to offer.

    You can do an intelligent extrapolation of such dramatic and structural elements as you can find in Kirby. That gives us Peter Gillis’ well-crafted Eternals series. You can shuffle the pieces until you’ve made room for something of your own with equivalent scope and power; Simonson’s Thor for example. You can even, Promethea help you, repeat Jack’s method faithfully. Fans will remember Roy Thomas’s FF story with the alternate world where everything was ’50s movies – The Wild One Meets Plan Sputnik 9 From Beyond the Iron Curtain, right? Oh, Transilvane! Oh, the embarrassment!

    All of them were honourable homages to Kirby’s works, but thereby, they all played under his ascendency. It’s another thing to want to match the King on his own terms – and certainly you should be meaning to do that, if you’re meaning to supplant the King’s works in canon or in the popular consensus (i.e what people mean when they say “The Eternals” and expect people to know what they mean).

    If you want to get out from under the ascendancy, first find your own damn shark. Thomas almost got it right – pull something out of pop cult left field and play it straight. If his story is forgotten, it’s because he was too cosy in the pop cult world, didn’t feel the vertigo of what lay still further out, didn’t see that Kirby was only doodling with Dracula and the Wolf Man until he happened on his own thing, the one sublime two-page spread of the horned planet floating in the cave.

    (I am finished with damning Roy Thomas with faint praise. Never again. His ambitions, little though he was able to fulfill them, were indispensable to the second-phase Bullpen writers who might otherwise have wondered what the heck they were supposed to do now? Thomas sanctioned their efforts by his example. The man was a veritable Paladin of that Ethos of Potential which Plok was lately lamenting.)

    I know only one person who beat Kirby in terms of visual invention, and that’s Jim Steranko. I know a handful who have beaten him in terms of originality and conceptual impact. Neil Gaiman is one of them: and this brings me to The Dream of a Thousand Cats.

    Diamond-pure concept. Owes nothing to anyone ever. Embodying three distinct stories: the main story that we see, the legend told within that story, and the barely-glimpsed story of which kittens dream. Conveyed with a focused power of language that Jack Kirby could not even approach. Blessed with the perfect artist, whoever that was, praise be. Scary as hell.

    An absolute conception. Not requiring to be integrated or continued, because it answers all its own important questions. That’s how to beat the King.

    Now.

    Suppose DC’s editors approach Gaiman and say, We want to do a revival of Kamandi. But our sense is that Kirby’s concept is about played out with the readers. We need a new approach, which gets Kamandi thematically right, but it has to be conceptually fresh. Oh, and it has to be something other writers can pick up where you leave it off. And Neil says, Subject to those conditions, but otherwise I have a free hand? And they say, Sure.

    And then Neil takes the same blond kid, tabula rasa, and plunks him down in the middle of his own Cats’ Dreaming. Played straight and, save for a reasonable restraint on explicit gore, without mercy.

    I know I’d pay for it! I’d be helpless. It would have humankind reduced to tooth and claw. It would have bloody huge carnivores stalking about, talking smooth, cruel and lazy, with a lordly contempt for little humans and their little toolmaking fads. (Until the last moment … The great tom’s eyes glisten in the firelight! His sharp teeth part in a scream of rage as he realizes, too late ..!) It would have Dream War, whatever animistic craziness you want to make of that. And it would still be very much Kamandi, in his rubber raft or whatever reifies the thrilling danger of solitary exploration.

    You might say this is unfair to Neil’s original story, which we remember and love as a standalone thing. As an absolute. Well, if that’s what we think, then don’t mess with it. Think up somewhere else for Kamandi to be, please Neil. Don’t perjure your best work.

    But then mightn’t we say the same thing about Kamandi itself? That it’s a succession of absolute images, some of them perfect. Whatever you’re thinking of, DC guys, it will dilute the original story.

    And you weren’t going to say that Jack Kirby’s works are a nice little pop-cult earner, just needing a conceptual retread every ten years or so for a new generation – but Gaiman’s story is Art. Were you now.

    There the thought experiment rests. There’s no deciding principle. Both parties have a case for the sanction of their original absolute concept, against any compromise with (inevitably compromised) world-building, and certainly against any inferior image that’s offered in exchange.

    For my money, Gaiman’s Eternals were not worth the exchange. They were too much under the shadow of Kirby’s example, and too much of an exercise in Gaiman’s well-trodden contemplations of the Gods among us, ironically commenting on how much we still pay them tribute, and the like. And Romita’s art has too much invested in the personal, too little in commanding scope, to lift it into the realm of the amazing. But it could have worked – say if Gaiman had let his thoughts work on the Dances Macabres of the pre-Classical civilizations, Assyrian bull-kherubs, Aztec pyramids, etc. Or if he’d gone through the record of what Marvel writers have been doing with the Celestials since Kirby, and then asked, What if human beings, just past the Ice Age, had encountered these vast agents of the cosmic? Jungian traumas! Fervid cargo cults that brought whole civilizations into being! He could have brought it off, but to do that, he would have had to find a shark of his own, out past the pop culture edge.

    Back to your theme now, Plok. Kirby was stupid, in just the way you’re very properly griping about: no discipline, no commitment to consistency, and expects us to swallow it all without a murmur. It was a deliberate method: it let him access absolute images that no careful, proportionate world-building could reach. That doesn’t mean that everybody gets a licence to be stupid, however. I haven’t seen Heroes, but if they’re basing the show on the gradual revelation of a mystery, or the exploration of its consequences, then they’re in the territory where world-building is the main value, and we’re paying for structures which gain their meaning from our accumulation of background knowledge.

    Sadly, commercials have always been the drive-by shootings of the arts, and there is no way they will ever compromise their allegiance to the instant impact. The only hope is that in public chatter, sometimes enough people will say, But that’s instantly stupid! that eventually marketing teams will be confessing, It seems your product is now primarily associated with stupidity. Uh, sorry about that.

  11. Now I know for a fact that I’ve sort-of-defended Heroes to you(or maybe not so much defended it as poo-pooed what I perceived as overreaction when I thought you were getting too carried away with the ranty temper bit), and I am certain that I never once described it as “fast-paced”, so I don’t know where you’re getting the “everyone” from. I acknowledged that it could get pretty glacially paced for someone familiar with the standard super-tropes, and recommended that you do what I do: half-read something while watching so you don’t really have to sit through the dull or repetitive bits. After all, it’s just TV, and hardly demands full focus to know what’s going on. When it’s commanded my attention and interest, I’ve quite enjoyed it as a straightforward adaptation of all the fun old superhero cliches to a serial TV format; when it hasn’t, I’ve enjoyed my book and not been bothered by the shows’ “paced for the comic-impaired” pace and had to play the straight man in that old Bob and Ray slow-talker bit.

    While you’re talking latter day crappy Planet of the Apes, I’ll throw in something that’s always slightly bugged me: remember the minor controversy over how they had planned a kiss between Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham-Carter’s chimp character? It always seemed inconsistent that they cut that to avoid creepy intimations of interspecies sex but had a pair of supporting characters who were a chimp and an orangutan married to each other. It seems to me that in a situation where all species involved are talking and sentient, human and chimp is no more messed up than orangutan and chimp. Or rather, to avoid seeming like some kind of bestiality advocate, in a situation where all species are talking and sentient, orangutan and chimp is just as messed up as human and chimp.

  12. You know…there’s a lot to think about in there, and I’m going to come back at it in greater detail, but for right now just let me briefly say yes to the absolute image that has no commitment to world-building at all. I think you’re standing right on top of it, Jonathan: and dovetailing nicely with my old comments about how new Kirby creations at Marvel (e.g. the Eternals) were like so many rocks lobbed into a house through plate-glass windows. If it’d been FF #69, no problem, but ten years later on Marvel couldn’t really stand up to the insistent energy of its creator’s return. It was all just short of being King Lear, really…

    Also, on Roy The Boy: yes indeed, I completely agree with all points! Nicely put.

    And with that I’m off, but I’ll be back before long…

    (By the way, I dropped your “Eliza Doolittle: Secret Agent” idea on the Keeper’s blog in re: that new Joss Whedon show…)

  13. Sorry, the above comment was directed at Jonathan, not Ed.

    Ed, I’m so calling you out on your bestiality fetish! That is not cool how you say you’re all into it and that you support it and you wish they’d make more movies about it!

    Heh…

    On the Heroes thing, the “everybody” I’m talking about are the TV reviewers both in print and online, and not you. Like I’d listen to what a dirty chimp-lover had to say about it anyway.

    Oh…gonna pay for putting the words “dirty chimp-lover” on my blog…ON MY OWN BLOG, DAMN IT…!

    Me, I take the book thing a step further, and just catch up on plot spoilers once a month on TVP. For me, that’s good enough — leaves more time for Beauty and the Geek.

  14. Jonathan, it blows my mind (in a good way!) to hear you reiterate, if in a much more articulate fashion, my old Crisis On Infinite Roys thoughts…suddenly I feel much less crazy. Unfortunately once again I am just about to cook some kinda loopy food for myself, and so won’t reply at great length just now…

    But a couple of things: I personally feel Gaiman’s Etenals were…well, worth the exchange? There is of course no “exchange”: no one will ever say “The Eternals” and mean anything but Kirby…

    But I felt, and do feel, they were worth the gamble. As diehard Fourth World fans thought Seven Soldiers #1 needlessly and destructively compressed the New Gods with the Eternals, so I think Gaiman’s Eternals fruitfully compressed Kirby’s Eternals and his 2001, at least the themes of the latter. Which aren’t excessively peculiar themes for a superhero comic anyway, but…gosh, it may be old hat in the world of the fantasy novel, but when did you ever see an amnesiac god handled so sweetly in the comic-book world? Ten years ago this would’ve burnt up the charts, and inspired commentary on how some fantasy novels only ape the potentialities of the superhero world properly understood, and if we have the great talent in the world of capes, then what do we need the Tolkien- or Heinlein-ripoff people for, to give it to us through bungled interpretation?

    Most importantly for me, Gaiman’s Eternals seems to reinvigorate the Marvel Universe to some degree, by giving it genuine heroes in the mythological vein…heroes above the petty squabbles of Iron Man and Spider-Man and Dr. Doom, heroes of the entire human race, heroes millions of years old and royal, and properly cursed. This is Marvel’s Nine Princes In Amber, this is the Eternals becoming hyperpowered Marvel Universe substructure in a way they never were before.

    I don’t know; I just like it.

    Though not as much as the REAL Eternals, with the cosmic-powered Hulk…!

  15. Worth the gamble – absolutely. Gaiman has brought so much new stuff under the aegis of fantasy, milieux, characters, language; he’s part of why comics are a hot property in cinema right now. What wouldn’t you trust him with?

    Guilty confession – I haven’t completely read his Eternals; more skimmed them guiltily at the shop. But I think I skimmed enough to conclude that the journey was the goal with this one, the way he saw it. The slow revelation, the intrigue – Gaiman’s proven skills. It was the story about whether you can handle it that the world is as much legend as ordinary (sure you can) and whether you dare to live that way (sure). Which was familiar enough from Neverwhere, American Gods and A Game of You.

    So here was Eternals paced rather like American Gods. I don’t necessarily mind that it takes a long while to get to the payoff; but in most of Neil’s fantasies there’s a striking indication early on of what payoff he wants himself and is offering. And in his fantasies the payoffs are remarkable. But this time, I don’t know if he knew himself what he wanted the Eternals to be for. (The nice comparison with Nines in Amber notwithstanding.)

    I could be misjudging his story on insufficient evidence. But I think the problem may be that Gaimain likes literature and loves mythology – but doesn’t read a lot of science fiction. And if you’re going to redevelop a story that basically started out as Chariots of the Gods?, then you need a gut feel for both real science fiction and pulp.

    Now, a little voice has been saying to me, Jonno be fair, does anybody know what the Eternals are for? Did Kirby himself? Can anybody, when the Celestials are ineluctably mysterious and it would spoil everything if their Plan were revealed?

    So I just had to think about it all. And I think I’ve got something. It’s very new, and might or might not be compatible with the Marvel Universe. But here’s how I think it could be done.

    First let me introduce Lynn Margulis, one of the begetters of the “Gaia Hypothesis”
    (strictly not a single hypothesis), whose slogan is, Symbiosis on all levels, and whose serious work is on the theory that the eukaryote cell began as a symbiosis or parasitism between two prokaryotes or bacteria. Don’t need to read the article, just remember that slogan.

    Next, let’s consider space. Frightful place. You need monster boosters to get up there, there’s nothing to breathe, it’s either too hot or too cold, you’re riddled by radiation and your bones disintegrate, the nearest planet is months away, the nearest star centuries. The harder you look at the problem, the more machinery you need to surround the astronauts with, until you’re thinking in terms of little artificial worlds.

    What you’d like is, levitation – ability to withstand intense acceleration – ability to live directly off cosmic or solar radiation – purposeful metamorphosis – immortality – ideally, total control over your atomic structure.

    You could have all these abilities, and breed yourselves all over space. Or you could just be big machines. But in either case what you’d have is a monoculture, and monocultures stagnate and are ultimately vulnerable. Diverse ecologies are what you want for the long haul … the very long haul, like trillions of years. Symbiosis …

    So you look around for life-bearing planets, with species that could become naturally spaceworthy, or at least start building the right machines. The odds are way against you, of course. Evolution isn’t aimed that way. But here’s something to try on a promising species:

    You think of the planet as a cell, and you introduce a symbiote. It looks just like the native species, only better. Sexually attractive, commanding, an ideal of health and vitality – and it has all the spaceworthy abilities. It is a showcase of those abilities. Everyone who sees them goes wow, even to imitate them scores you points in the mating and dominance games. Everyone marvels at the special abilities, tells stories about them (superhero stories by heaven – the key to evolution revealed at last!), and starts to wonder how the hell they do it?

    You give the symbiotes some dos and don’ts: protect the status quo, defend the naturals from major catastrophes, don’t all take off for the stars at once, maybe give the naturals some tips along the lines of writing, architecture, astronomy and so forth; and once they start thinking for themselves, retreat into seclusion. You’ll get your rewards for service in the end.

    It’s all very 2001; except that instead of giving the naturals a jolt to the brain every now and then, you’re giving them myths and legends, exercising their imaginations, rehearsing them in the idea of spaceflight. Every ten thousand years you come and see how it’s all doing; if it’s really gone sour, you just Ragnarok the symbiotes and start again. With any luck, in a million years or less you’ll find a new spacefaring species all over the near stellar systems.

    Oh, the Deviants? Can you guess?

    It can be helpful to give the natural species some challenges, maybe cull them if they overpopulate to the detriment of the habitat. But that’s not the real reason.

    The long haul … symbiosis on all levels …

    The Deviants are so that the naturals will have some folk experience in coping with aliens. All shapes and sizes, some cooperative, some competitive.

    Now you have a nice little three-way balance. It probably won’t be instant harmony, but you don’t want harmony so much as evolution. Sometimes you’ll turn up for an inspection and the Deviants will sting you or some such, but be patient, you have plenty of time.

    Have I covered most of the bases? I don’t think there’s anything too un-Marvel in it, or too VonDanikenishly insulting to human attainments. It allows for most of the fun and games in Kirby’s original. (I can do without the cosmic-powered Hulk, but I insist on Karkas and the Reject!)

    If so, then I reckon I have the outline of a fair dinkum outer space mythology, which is what Stan and Jack wanted all along.

  16. Well, that’s…

    That’s perfect!

    Right away you get about five different possibilities for what the Dreaming Celestial’s disagreement with his colleagues really was, too…but you don’t have to be tied down to any of them overmuch…

    Ooooh, I LIKE it! After all, that the Eternals are made for living in space, and that the Celestials are interested in evolution, we already knew…and all you’ve really done is say so in so many words.

    Marvellous. This fits. This even makes my Karnak script make more sense, for God’s sake!

    Bravo, Jonathan!

  17. Thanks ever so!

    Blue Shadows, oh yeah. Militarize this, mon general!

    Had another read through your Crisis on Infinite Roys pieces. Yes I sort of agree with the point about Kirby putting bricks through the windows. There was something odd and unpleasant about Marvel’s corporate reception of Kirby in that period, like he was a venerable but senile uncle come home to visit. Probably had to do with title to artwork and all. Despite that, the current writers seemed to welcome his new conceptions happily, going out of their way to reference the Celestials, make room for Cap’s Madbomb War and whatnot.

    I’ll think about this some more, but not buried in this thread. See you back up front. All the best.

  18. Okay!

    Man, I love Kirby’s Cap. Figure this: at the time, I hated it, because it wasn’t Englehart/Buscema, and for God’s sake it wasn’t even Fantastic Four.

    But I BOUGHT it!

    Man, did it GRAB me!

    On Blue Shadows: hey, remember when I have Mentor say “these Inhumans, they’re like us, escapees from the plan of the Celestials…!

    “Oh, except…maybe we haven’t escaped, at that. Who knows? Anyway go check it out, Bertie…”

    That works much better now. Eternals vs. Titans. I understand what they’re fighting for, now.

    Okay, see you up top, Jonathan.

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