Spectacle is Content
Travis Hedge Coke
I don’t value narrative that highly. Many people do. We’re often encouraged to it, I think, as children, because children primarily don’t care and culturally that’s seen as problematic, especially in an industrial society. Other people are all about character, characterization or attachment to fictional people, their veracity. Which, is nice, for them, and I enjoy good character work, too, but it’s not the sell for me. It’s not what I am primarily after in entertainment. Complexity, simplicity, stacks of meaning or depths are all good when they suit you. I want sensorial indulgence.
I’m more for experience, than anything. I don’t care if it’s foreshadowed or likely, so long as it kicks ass. I don’t mind how it’ll affect things in another comic three years down the line, but how it feels when I read it. I don’t listen to a Cee Lo Green song or Transplants or something and ask, “Yes, but how plausible is that?” It’s rare that I watch a movie (that isn’t The Graduate), thinking “Can’t they just talk this out?” And, no, I’ve never seen Superman catch a plan and wondered why his hands don’t simply tear through it. I don’t worry about the biology of the Beagle Boys or Denver, the Last Dinosaur.
I’m not buying the reality of these moments, but the emotion of them, the proxy physicality. I like a good narrative, but I want the sensual and sensorial value. Talking about whom can beat up who isn’t stupid when you’re specifically addressing characters designed to beat up on each other. Embarrassing as conversations about who the sexiest DC villain can get, or how many sexual conduct regulations General Halftrack is breaking or pressing against, panting and deluded, they are not inherently useless or over the line. If you’re not getting a sexy vibe from a sexed up comic, it’s not doing its job right. Note that I’m not saying it’s done it’s job wrong if you’re not turned on, different tastes, not everyone’s the same, to each her own, and so on. But if a comic is trying to be sexy and you can’t tell, if a comic is trying to be scary and you can’t tell, if a comic is trying to be sad and you do not notice, it’s failing (or your reading comprehension sucks; I’m assuming your comprehension skills are razor sharp and full tilt aces).
“There’s nothing there but sex and violence” ignores that sex and violence are massive complexes of ideas and practices, history and power. “There’s nothing there but cartoon horses and talking puppets” belies how much cartoon horses and talking puppets have to affect you before you get worked up enough you have to turn that into a criticism. I recently criticized Secret Invasion as being The Kree/Skrull War with nothing but narrative, and I stick by that – it has none of the characterization, layout, or pacing, scene arrangements, or poetic techniques in force that The Kree/Skrull War rocks – but I meant it as if Secret Invasion, being driven by narrative, being a stack of events, had nothing, no content, and that’s untrue. It was unfair of me. Narrative isn’t my favorite form of content, but it, too is content.
We have to stop thinking of making allowances for what entertains others as “making allowances.” Theirs is as valid as ours. It’s as true.
I just read a review copy of Grant Morrison and Darrick Robertson’s Happy! and I like that it never attempts to justify or grit up imagination, imaginary things, or hope. The story of murderers, rapists, and violent child porn interrupted by imaginary friends, it doesn’t moralize on entertainment, but on reality. No telling you to stop enjoying crime comics, no attempt to make you ashamed for reading a story about a talking blue horse and show you how he’d really be if he was real. The imaginary blue horse would be how he is, because that’s how he is.
Happy! does not try to buy hope with a price tag, with sacrifice, to convince you hope is worth the cost. There are costs, sure, for the characters, for the audience, but none of the brutality or shittiness in the comic is treated as necessary, it’s not beneficial, except as fiction, and there, it’s beneficial to its degree, the visceral nature of the action, the tragedy of betrayals, the trauma of prolonged pain, but those are vehicles in Happy! for something else, for hope, for a little blue talking horse whose name and nature is happy, a word that starts to look weird the more times you put it in a paragraph. Happy: look at it. The more you lay it down, the more unnatural it seems. Happy. ‘S’weird. Uncomfortable to our adult sensibilities, but also comforting, reassuring and disturbing. And the comic banks on that; we’re trained to swerve off the road to happy. We’re taught, from childhood that prolonged happiness with no price tag is immature.
Morrison has been introducing or reintroducing imaginary friends in comics for a long time. He did it in Animal Man. He did it in The Invisibles. It’s a good enough argument for Chubby da Choona as any. Brought back Batmite (as Batmight), to the dismay of many a “Batman is realistic! Psychopathic clowns and immortal eco-terrorists! Realistic!” fans. When Happy, the horse, is criticized as imaginary, his response is to laugh it off with “Duh. Imaginary friend.” And, indeed, everything else in the comic is just as imaginary; it is all fictional, all the time, in all ways imaginary.
And, that’s a thing with pop art that a lot of people want to ignore, often even as we enjoy it, we want to ignore it: Pop art, at its best, is about the love of these things. It’s about pleasure and comfort. Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Superman. Those Superman pieces are “fuck yeah, Superman!” and Mike Kelley’s Kandor is a “hells yes, Kandor!” I tend to criticize Lichenstein for hiding behind pseudo-irony or sarcastic appreciation, with his deliberately poor tracings of comics panels, but even Lichenstein said that, while he liked to sometimes pretend his art was impersonal, to make it feel impersonal, it wasn’t, and he truly loved everything he copied from. Lichtenstein confessed, at times, to being afraid to admit that, but we all are at times. We’re trained to be.
Look at animal sidekicks. Putting a mask on a dog and calling him Bat-hound does not devalue Batman or make the dog less special, it makes the dog awesomer, and I’ll go right on the line and say that the more negatively you react to Ace, the Bat-hound, to a dog in a bat-mask hanging around Batman and Robin, the more dramatically you react against that or anything goofy, the more obvious it is you’re actually afraid of it and perhaps the pleasure it does give you.
I remember Kathy Acker, at some point, talking about genital piercings, and how we spend a good amount of our day ignoring, semi-cognizant, that we’ve got genitals, because you shouldn’t pay attention that in public, but the piercings, the jewelry, draws your attention when you’re sitting in a chair, when you’re in a car or on a motorcycle, when you’re walking, in different ways than your clothes do. You’ve trained yourself to ignore the feel of your slacks or underwear, the same way you don’t much notice the feeling of your socks as you walk around. Sensorial pleasure is immature in the way smart jokes, mature jokes, are those that cue you to their funniness, but don’t actually make you laugh uncontrollably. And we have the same inclination, often, with comics. They shouldn’t stimulate us in our genitals or soles. They shouldn’t make us laugh our drink out our nostrils or want to shout at the page in excitation. Those are immature responses.
We shouldn’t want to sit in bed all day and read comics that make us wide-eyed, smiley, or over-excited and caught up. We shouldn’t want that with any entertainment. It’s immature. It’s a kid’s thing. It’s immature the way we’re taught spending all day in bed having sex is immature. But, you know what? You can’t do that when you’re a kid. People are in charge of you. As an adult, you can spend all day in bed having sex or watching movies or reading comics. You can bring chocolate chip cookies or loud music into the mix, to enhance the situation, if you want. That’s what being an adult is. As long as the bills get paid and responsibilities are fulfilled, your funtime is yours. Your indulgences are yours. Entertainment does not have to be educational, doesn’t have to be defensible as constantly uplifting and intellectually defensible. You can read Donald Duck comics until you pass out because you are an adult and everything they make you feel, anything they make you think, everything you recognize or realize is true, real feelings, true thoughts, genuine cognizance.