Friday, May 29, 2015


Convergence #8

To begin, if we can be said to begin, we must ask the question, what is the superhero?

If, as perhaps we are likely to conclude, the superhero is a figure, a human figure, clad in brightly colored clothes and set loose upon a Manichean universe in order to impose an understanding of justice outside the boundaries of law, through the exercise of force - is there any more apt figure to illustrate our idea of justice? In order to enforce justice we must create an collective imaginary in which justice actually exists, and can furthermore be grasped, fondled, manipulated by creatures whose ethical advancement lends them the appropriate authority to do so.

So before we begin, before we can even ask the question of what the superhero is, who he is, what he is (is it a he?), we must establish the means by which the superhero can exist. The premises we must accept are simple, in fact, they number only one: that a man can be right. Every other consideration pales before this assertion. If, as we might posit, a man could ever for a single instant consider himself right, then the laws of nature themselves would bow before him, would prostrate themselves. So impossible is the premise of a tangible eruption of justice in the world, even a momentary glimpse of such an ideal, that it is nothing less than the perfect fantasy. Of course, if we could know the form and figure of justice, we would not balk at a man flying, or a man carrying an automobile over his shoulders. Such feats would simply take their place in a long line of miraculous eruptions - but if we lived in this world of miracles, the extraordinary would itself long since have become surpassingly quotidian.

So then the superhero himself, does he have a name? A face? A story? Or is he merely a shifting locus of ideas, attributes, impulses, and abrogations? Because they do not exist we can posit any manner of virtues they might possess, if they did, in the same manner as we can imagine so many dispositions for celestial beings, safe in the knowledge that we will never be disproven. But any virtues aside from that singular, spectacular rightness are secondary.

Because there are no superheroes we can imagine as many as we like, with as much overwhelming variety as we can conjure. Therefore we come into intimate contact with the immateriality of our own imaginations. There is an ideal. We can measure the means by which various characters rate in accordance to this ideal - how they fall short, how they struggle, how they wince in the sunlight of their imperfections. How do we define this ideal? This ideal cannot exist, and yet persists, une certaine connaissance of an object that exists nowhere else but in our minds. Superheroes, like justice itself, exist as a singular ideal refracted through a multitude of lenses, a lens for each spectator. We refer to the idea of "the superhero" and expect that our singular impulse towards ideality is shared by our audience, are certain that the form we envision is coeval with those of so many others. But there is no universal justice.

There is only one superhero. When we refer to multiple figures, we define these phantoms by their distance from the ideal, the central image we project from the mechanism of our own inadequacies. We place a label on this one superhero: the Superman. It is he who holds pride of place, he from whom all others are derived, he whose primary-colored costume serves as a model for so many others. This division of red, blue, and yellow, clean and precise, enacts a fable of impermeability. It is the painter's palette at its most basic, unadulterated. The Batman by comparison is a mere shadow, a grey and black blur ensconced in the cracks between certainty and frailty. The painter has mixed his colors into a desultory mush, and if we see ourselves reflected in this imprecision it is on account of our own failure to attain the impossible.

But this superhero, this Super-man, does not exist. There are many - hundreds - thousands - of incarnations of the Superman. Different interpretations. Different shades of red and blue and yellow. The original, imaginary Superman is undiluted by the myriad shades. The original, imaginary Superman that we envision never appears, and so is never supplanted. If we must put a name to this Superman, the invisible ideal that is always already present but never arriving, perhaps we can say that this originary figure is the Supurman. Phonetically, there is no difference in the pronunciation. But to speak Supurman is to trace the ghostly demarcation of the idea as distinct from the reality (or "reality"). Here there is graphological evidence of the undetectable originary: the replacement of the er with ur recalls the Germanic ur, the primitive, the original. Supurman exists prior to our conscious understanding of Superman: from the first, he is the theory of rightness that we cherish, even as we grow to acknowledge the impossibility of justice. The primary colors never blur or smudge in our minds.

Supurman is constructed from fragments and shards of stories, a grab-bag of moments and memories, isolated scenes from motion pictures and cartoons, single panels of dialogue or discrete action sequences. The Supermen who appear in the pages of comic books may at times approximate this image, but only briefly. The very instant of specification, when the idealized form of Supurman becomes embodied in the figure of a fleeting Superman, he begins to die.

Creators may try to approach the Supurman, but in doing so they reveal the impossibility of his incarnation. A text such as All-Star Superman strives to iterate the most universal notion of the Supurman, but fails. It does not fail for lack of effort, it fails because the very attempt to animate the character's most iconic tendencies instead results in tragic exsanguination. An icon is an image, a still image, a symbol that carries far more weight than any individual specimen. It is a static image. The comic book can capture the infinitesimal duration of a single moment as an illustration, and in that instant the icon is revealed in its resplendence.

But one image gives way to a succession of images, to compose a sequence and then, out of multiple sequences, a narrative. In order to become a dynamic force in a living story, a Superman must move. The act of movement rends the illusion of iconicity, and so even if we may have believed for a moment to have captured, finally, a glimpse of the Supurman, he is gone before we have registered his presence. Perhaps in the single still image, the pin-up or the cover, we can come closest to imaging the ideal of Supurman: one picture, shorn of context, containing all the infinite potential of the fantastic, suspended in a moment just prior to actual engagement. In that isolated moment justice shimmers tentatively, still defiantly un-impossible. Through this brief intimation of justice we can imagine the Supurman as a true contingency in our own lives.

And so we must be unsatisfied. All the many, many Supermen who exist are merely shadows. As the genre continues its march towards senescence, it is common to see multiple Supermen appear side by side, multiple reflections. For all the Superman who exist, there can never be a definitive interpretation, because the orignary idea exists beyond the realm of interpretation. The Supurman exists in a state of permanent abeyance, his place filled by a succession of stand-ins and substitutes. If you dislike one, wait a moment and another will appear. Attachment to any one Superman is revealed to be a perverse adherence. You can have 10 Supermen in a single book, 100 Supermen, an infinite number of Supermen, all unique and yet all derivations, and still be no closer to the unconcealment of the one, true Supurman, who exists only at the border of our peripheral vision, locked in the Phantom Zone of our Ideal-ich, inaccessible save through intimation.

Not so with the Batman, Superman's eternal shade. There is no ur-Batman. There are many Batmen, each equally entitled to represent the idea of Batman. The Batman is changeable, perhaps, because he does not represent the ideal of justice as Superman does - rather, the Batman is premised on an engagement with the actual, the impossibility of justice; he represents the necessity of accommodation (an ontological necessity observed by Batman mostly in the breach). The child-like Bruce Wayne's desire to impose order on an inherently chaotic world emphasizes the impossibility of such an act, whereas Supurman is a liminal figure, existing in the perpetual potential of order to assert itself, for the world to be remade as utopia through the exercise of ethical force. The Supurman is revolution.

It does not matter what form these characters may take, what specific incarnation may survive or perish in the duration. Every Batman remains equally solid, and every Superman remains equally ephemeral. We are all of us in the shadow of Supurman, whose perfection - contra Anselm of Canterbury - is predicated on his nonexistence, a necessary condition of his absence. He remains the first and only superhero, the absent father whose prophesied arrival still carries the promise of peace.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Top Ten Things I Learned from David Letterman

10. The Best Things in Life are Worth Staying Up For

David Letterman has been at CBS since 1993. Even back in the 90s when the so-called "Late Night Wars" were at their peak, there was a sense that late night TV was a dying enterprise. When Johnny Carson retired, it was clear that he could never be replaced, and not simply because of his talent or personality. The culture was already moving past the idea of three-network dominance, appointment viewing, late-night button-down white guys sitting behind a desk telling jokes. It wasn't just Arsenio Hall, and it wasn't just cable, but those were big parts of it. The idea of a monolithic American culture apparatus (if such a thing ever existed outside of the idea itself) was already splintering, and would not leave the decade intact.

In that sense, at least, David Letterman was a perfect fit for the times. He wasn't Carson, and would never have the ability to reach across demographics the way Carson had done. He was rough, with too many sharp edges, and - fatally - without the ability to reassure his audience that they were always in on the jokes. He was cool in a way that appealed to college kids and city dwellers. He took risks to be funny, and part of those risks was alienating people who weren't willing to meet him halfway.

It's odd to think of it, now - he had a nightly talk show on NBC for over a decade, but the media landscape was such that he could still be considered a cult proposition. Your dad or grandpa turned the TV off when Carson was over, and that was when the kids turned in to Letterman. It wasn't quite like that in my household. My parents were always fairly agnostic on Carson (they are both - from my perspective - remarkably anti-nostalgic in regards to the pop culture of their youths), but they were Late Night fans from very early on, and they passed that on to me. So this was the game: Friday nights, holidays, and Summer vacation, it was time to stay up and watch Letterman. Maybe if I was lucky I could make it through the monologue, the Top Ten list, and the first guest. I figured out how to use the VCR (which wasn't that easy) so that I could record the show when I wanted, when the TV Guide said there was a good musical guest. There's a chance that old VHS tapes containing episodes of Letterman with They Might Be Giants and Richard Thompson as musical guests still remain hidden somewhere in my parents' house.

And this was what the cool kids did in the 1980s. And if that sounds facetious, it wasn't, not at all. Irony had not yet conquered the world, but Letterman was the prophet.

9. It's OK to be the Smartest Guy in the Room

Letterman didn't give a fuck what you thought about him. That, especially, is hard to discern now: it's not like his attitude has appreciably changed, but he's become an elder statesman by default, avuncular and deeply respect and beloved even by the kinds of people who slept through his 80s heyday. But if you go to YouTube and watch any of the old episodes of Late Night archived there, you immediately see the difference.

He was born in Indiana but every bit the New Yorker. He spoke fast and thought faster. He wasn't afraid to filet any guest who dared cross him. Of course that would have rankled people. If you were used to Carson's kind patience with guests of all stripes, from the A-list to 15-minute-famous civilians, the idea that a talk-show host might bite back must have seemed not simply strange, but utterly mean-spirited.

But the rules were simple: if you came to play, Dave was more than happy to play. If you weren't on board with that, you might be in trouble. Tony Randall was one of Letterman's greatest guests, and not just because he happened to live in the neighborhood and could always be counted on to fill-in for a last-minute cancellation. Randall liked to play, and Dave liked having someone on board with whom he could spar for fifteen minutes. It was unpredictable and sometimes disastrous, but when it worked it was sublime. Guests who would have been completely DOA on another format - folks like Andy Kaufman, Harvey Pekar, and Crispin Glover - were welcome to be as cranky or unpleasant as they could be, because the understanding was that a disastrous interview was more memorable and enjoyable than a mediocre chat. Even late into his CBS run he was able to conjure up magical moments like Joaquin Phoenix's dada interview, humiliating on the face of it but riveting for the obvious relish Letterman still enjoyed at being able to sharpen his wit against a moving target - who had, regardless of his motivations, obviously come to play.

He nourished long-term public feuds with the likes of Cher because it was funny, and the rough-edges were part of the appeal. If Letterman hadn't existed, it would have been necessary for Madonna to invent him - the perfect rascally foil, unwilling to play the same old celebrity game with someone so obviously adept at playing that game to their own advantage. His later attempts to manufacture a spat with Oprah, while less engaging, were still funny because they proved he was still adept at leveraging other celebrities' supposed strengths into surprising vulnerabilities. For Letterman, there was and remains nothing more absurd than the idea of being a celebrity, and if you didn't get that, you weren't going to get on well with Dave.

8. It's OK to be a Smartass

Letterman is an intelligent man and the impatience with which he sometimes confronted his guests was matched by the impatience he approached much of the rest of the world. The banality of stupidity has always been one of the major motors of his comedy. That's one reason why even his most absurd bits carried a bite. The world is a pretty silly place, and sometimes the only rational response to this kind of silliness is to become silly yourself.

This is the worldview of the smartass, the guy cracking wise in the back of the classroom because his mind is working twice as fast as everyone around him and he just can't be bothered to slow down or pretend not to care. It's a form of cynicism, sure. But cynicism has a bad rap. No one wants to be called a cynic, but there's nothing dishonorable in holding fast to the belief that humans are often motivated by greed, ignorance, or self-regard. That observation is central to most forms of comedy, certainly most memorable comedy, from Aristophanes through to Richard Pryor. So while Letterman has often been criticized for being a prime contributor to the rise of irony in the 90s, and the corollary culture of cynicism pilloried by conservative and centrist ideologues for the past few decades, any critique that focuses on the negative effects of cynicism ignores the root cause of such cynicism - that is, the deep gulf between ideal and reality, and the corrosive effect of hypocrisy. Don't blame Letterman for ushering in an age of ironic disconnection (as per David Foster Wallace), blame the age which mandated the use of irony as a necessary survival mechanism.

7. Tradition is Important, Except When it Isn't

As much of an iconoclast as Letterman has always been, he is also a sincere traditionalist. He was Johnny Carson's anointed heir, after all. For over thirty years he used his shows as a venue to introduce new talent, both comedic and musical, in much the same way as Carson had done for him. He deeply respected longtime broadcast fixtures like Regis Philbin and Jack Hanna. He never missed an opportunity to spotlight older comedians who had influenced him. He loved nothing more than spotlighting older artists who had perhaps been left behind, figures such as Warren Zevon and Darlene Love. Even though he was an Indiana Presbyterian, he maintained a vital connection to the tradition of New York Jewish comedians of the kind who rose to prominence in Vaudeville and the resorts of the Borscht Belt. He was careful with those jokes, because they were antiques.

But his respect for these traditions was matched by his willingness to warp and break convention when necessary. Although he worshiped at the alter of Carson, his show was largely defined by the conscious attempt to break away from Carson's mold, a necessity bred by the network's insistence that Letterman avoid simply replicating Carson's formula an hour later. Late Night, especially in the early years, was defined by an enthusiastic desire to break from formula, to take conceptual risks, to potentially alienate anyone who wandered in simply because they didn't feel like turning off the television after the credits rolled on The Tonight Show.

6. Humility First, Last and Everything in Between

Letterman has never been shy about broadcasting his anxieties and insecurities regarding his own abilities. He's a notorious grump, a tendency born from an oft-repeated conviction of his own shortcomings.

With this in mind, Letterman's most endearing trait is his willingness to lean into his own imperfections. He gets a lot of mileage out of his face, not conventionally handsome by any standard, gap-toothed and curly haired, a face made for radio if ever there was. Gaffes and bloopers, both his and others, became one of the show's most enduring preoccupations. Even after he had moved to CBS and the show became a much slicker, far less (intentionally) ramshackle affair, he still maintained a looseness that belied the slick craftsmanship required to produce a nightly talk show. This was a stroke of genius, as it allowed him the freedom to embrace accidents when they occurred. Even through to the very end, Letterman maintained an air of wry dissatisfaction, a faux-ironic exasperation that you might associate with a man who long ago made peace with his status as an imperfect creature in an imperfect universe - "trapped in a world he never made."

5. Living Well is the Best Revenge

The Late Night Wars seem in retrospect like the silliest pop culture phenomena conceivable. Two larger-than-life TV comedians fought a brutal dynastic struggle over possession of The Tonight Show. NBC gave the spot to Jay Leno, despite Letterman's success in the 12:30 AM spot, and regardless of Carson's own probable preferences.

As awful as it might have seemed, NBC made the logical choice. Letterman wasn't quite ready for prime time, certainly not in a way that would ensure a smooth continuity between Carson's tenure and that of his successor. Jay Leno was at one point a very funny man, highly respected by his fellow comedians. But when he accepted the job as Carson's replacement the understanding was that he would continue to steer the ship with the same kind of centrist mass appeal that had made Carson such a beloved figure. And he did. Sometimes he was even still funny.

The problems for Leno were twofold. The first obstacle was that, despite his success as a host and brand caretaker, he accepted the job as a kind of poisoned chalice. For most of his tenure he maintained a respectable lead on Letterman, capturing the larger part of the mythical "middle American" viewer who simply disliked Letterman on principle. But for critics and fans of comedy, he was forever branded, uncool at best and a betrayer at worst. He may have been consistently more popular than Letterman, but he could never close the "cool" gap.

The second problem was a media landscape teetering on the brink of seismic change. The age of monolithic consensus figures in American broadcasting was coming to a close. Johnny didn't need to be "cool" and he never suffered from being "uncool" - he simply was, in the same manner as Walter Cronkite. (I'd argue that the closest we still have to such a figure, oddly, is Alex Trebek - his eventual departure from Jeopardy will represent almost as significant a shift as Letterman's goodbye.) But suddenly there were choices, and in a world of choices the very idea of centralized media landmarks became laughable. Jay Leno was no Johnny Carson. The culture no longer needed Johnny Carson.

Fast forward to 2010. Regardless of his success, Leno's broadcast career shuddered to a close in the most dismal manner possible. Despite a well-intentioned attempt to avoid the same rancor that had marked Leno's ascension to the post, his retirement from The Tonight Show proved even more contentious than Carson's. Leno publicly named Conan O'Brien as his successor. He left amicably and O'Brien took over. The problem was that O'Brien was even more of a niche figure than Letterman had been, and ratings fell accordingly. NBC tried to stem the bleeding by giving Leno a new slot at 10:00 PM, essentially an opportunity to do The Tonight Show an hour earlier, to appease affiliates desperate for a stronger local news lead-in. The attempt failed. O'Brien was fired. Leno returned to The Tonight Show for another four years, before retiring again in 2014, his reputation obliterated.

Because Letterman was widely perceived as having been betrayed by NBC in 1992, he had the moral high ground throughout the decades of his competition with Leno. He grew in stature while Leno shrank. He leaves The Late Show universally adored and respected, a towering figure in American broadcasting history. Leno leaves no legacy, save as a cautionary tale.

4. Don't be a Creeper

Unfortunately, Letterman fell victim to his own vices. If he had more professional integrity than Leno, he occasionally overstepped the bounds of personal propriety. He has an uncomfortable history in regards to his treatment of attractive female guests. Sometimes it was all fun and games, and sometimes he veered into shady territory - as a respected male authority figure, sitting across the desk from some of Hollywood's most attractive starlets, crossing boundaries in a manner that seems more regrettable with every passing year.

Of course, some of his strongest bonds were forged with female guests with whom he shared a sincere affection, and even attraction - stalwart friends such as Teri Garr, Julia Roberts, and even Blake Lively. But sometimes his randy old man schtick became too much, and because of his authority the behavior passed mostly unremarked.

3. When You Do Wrong, Fess Up

It seems perverse to praise a man simply for apologizing when caught in the act of wrongdoing, but that's the world we live in. Considering the degree to which almost every celebrity or political scandal is met with evasion, obfuscation, lies, or legal action, the spectacle of a famous man - one of the most famous men - stepping in front of the scandal and admitting his mistakes in the most candid manner possible was remarkable. It remains remarkable. What should be regarded as the rock bottom of human decency - the willingness to admit wrongdoing and meaningfully apologize - is so rare that Letterman's principled admission immediately became the gold standard for public accountability and integrity. It could even be argued that the novelty of his admission deflected a great deal of legitimate criticism that might otherwise have further corroded his public image.

But whatever else can be said about him, Letterman abhors hypocrisy. He couldn't stand the idea of being a hypocrite himself, so much so that when cornered by the evidence of his own malfeasance he faced the consequences as boldly as possible. He hurt a lot of people and acted terribly, but rather than compounding the problem by prolonging the conflict he simply admitted his liability and expressed his contrition. It's not our responsibility to forgive him, but his actions in the years since the scandal reveal a chastened man, deeply dedicated to his family and conscious of the ways in which his abusive behavior nearly cost him everything. Better men have lost their careers for less, but his unexpected apology saved him. He'll always have that asterisk on his legacy, but it will be paired with another enduring lesson: the virtue of a man lies not in perfection, but his confrontation with imperfection.

2. Even Pioneers are Forgotten

Last week I was having a drink with friends and mentioned that, since learning that Letterman was leaving, I had set a recording on my DVR and was watching every show leading up to the finale. The folks I was out with were just a few years younger than me - but just a few years was enough. No one at the table understood why Letterman was a big deal, had been one of the most influential personalities in the history of TV. Wasn't he just another old white guy behind a desk?

Of course, in the heat of the moment you can never find the words to marshal the perfect rebuttal. I stuttered out something bland about being "influential." Nothing particularly convincing. But in that instant it clicked for me that in order to understand why David Letterman was important, you needed to have been alive and paying attention during a surprisingly narrow window of time. Letterman made his name in the 1980s, and although he's been consistent and consistently good for most of his career since, the reason people who know speak with such reverence is that they remember when there was nothing at all like him on the television. Now, everybody is like him, in some way or another. No one with an ounce of conviction wants to be Jay Leno.

His medium was transient. He never had a string of best-selling comedy records that new generations can rediscover for years to come. He never did movies. He hasn't done stand-up in decades. The innovations he introduced over the course of many years have been so subsumed into the television landscape that simply just explaining that he was the first to do or say or be something or other isn't enough - there's no existing context for how strange it was, at the time, to put a TV camera on the back of a monkey, or get into shouting matches with belligerent guests, or pay a weird old man with coke-bottle glasses to stand there and scream at the camera. There was no such thing as viral video back then, so if you saw something truly special on Late Night the best you could do was hope to pick it up on summer reruns, or find a friend who just happened to have been recording the show on their VCR. Because that's something we did back then.

But that's OK. Even if talk shows are the most ephemeral of all television programs he'll be remembered for a while to come, even if the specifics of his career and influence eventually fade. For historians and scholars, he'll remain important. The people who were inspired by him will, in turn, inspire others, and so on for the foreseeable future. Those of us who remember his prime will cherish the memories for as long as we're around, but our children will cherish other memories, and that's OK, too.

1. The Only Safe Target is Yourself

It's been remarked so often that it threatens to become a cliche: comedians should always punch up, never down. Letterman, in his decades-long crusade against hypocrisy, did a good job of observing this rule. Sure, there were jokes at the expense of small-town yokels and clueless tourists, the usual late-night fare. But he always reserved the larger part of his scorn for politicians, corporations, ignorant celebrities, and other men and women of influence. If you were famous, if you took yourself too seriously, you were fair game.

But the biggest target was always himself. His insecurity, his anxiety, his goofy looks, his shortcomings as a comedian and a host, his moral and ethical lapses - the cruelest wounds were self-inflicted. And this is vital, if you appreciate Letterman for no other reason, you must remember that as scathing and cynical as he could be, he was never more critical of anything or anyone than of himself. That imprinted on me at a very young age. You can't be critical of others if you can't be critical of yourself. Honesty in regards to your own faults is disarming. Self-critique can also become a means of protection. If you broadcast your faults with honesty, you're cutting your critics off at the knees.

Making fun of yourself is endearing because so few people do it effectively, and it can also make people uncomfortable when wielded strategically. Maintaining control of a situation while acknowledging the element of unpredictability is one of the most valuable skills a person can have. Loyalty matters. Acknowledge your elders before rejecting them. Make time to thank everyone. Enjoy every sandwich.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


It's a familiar story. I'll bet you've heard it before.

It was the late fifties. The comic industry was still in a state of suspended animation following the dramatic events of the anti-comics backlash of the Wertham era. Atlas was a small outfit whose greatest asset in a rapidly shrinking marketplace was the business acumen of its publisher, Martin Goodman. Atlas' in-house distribution company had been shuttered due to lack of volume. Their second distributor, American News, collapsed in short order. Goodman made a deal with National's distributor, Independent News, to piggyback on the company's newsstand access.

But Atlas was still dying. Almost the entire staff had been laid off following the discovery that the company had enough unpublished inventory to run for the better part of the year. Even that wasn't enough to keep the doors open. And so, the story goes, a man named Jack Kirby walked through the doors. He had just split with his longtime partner Joe Simon, after their publishing company had collapsed. (1954 was not the most auspicious year to start a comic book company.) He couldn't find work at National (later DC) on account of a failed lawsuit. Kirby and Atlas were both grasping at straws in an industry that, aside from major publishers such as National, Dell, and Archie who emerged from the Wertham era relatively unscathed, was circling the drain.
I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! ... Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn't know what to do, he's sitting on a chair crying — he was still just out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says, "Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I'll see that the books make money".(*)
Or so the story goes. Kirby later on had reason to emphasize his significance alongside Lee's impotence, just as Lee had his motivations for denying Kirby's dramatized version of events. Lee was also 35 when Kirby returned.

The important facts are this: Atlas had been a company named Timely. The company had been founded by Goodman, primarily a publisher's of men's magazines and pulp adventure books. Stan Lee was Goodman's cousin by marriage. He joined the company at its start, working as an assistant at age 16, and editor by 19. Aside from a stretch in the army during the war, Stan Lee never worked for another company besides Marvel. It was the family business. Imagine his chagrin when, years later, in the flush of over a decade's worth of sustained success, people began asserting that his company's success was due to Kirby, alongside Steve Ditko and others. How galling. Lee had been there from the beginning.

Marvel Comics is the offspring of Stan Lee's perpetual frustration. For all the dispute over credit that has dogged Lee and his company for over fifty years (even further if you consider Simon & Kirby's unhappiness regarding Captain America), the character of Marvel Comics was all Stan. This was the myth you bought into when you became immersed in the books. They were hip, they were happening, they were cooler than Brand X. Marvel was what cool college kids read - literally, your older brothers' comic books, not like those staid Superman magazines you read as a child. Marvel Comics was on the verge of world domination, and Stan was the man with the plan.

It was an attractive myth because everyone but young children knew it was just that - a myth. Marvel was cool and the books were better than National - and all their later imitators - and all that was true, at least for a while. But they remained stuck playing the role of perpetual underdogs even after the reality had shifted. Even into the 1970s, long after Marvel had escaped their distribution deal with National and become the dominant force in the marketplace, they still nourished the illusion of outsider status. It was a great thing to become a Marvel fan: it was like becoming a member of a secret club, and long after you should have known better, the identification somehow stuck. DC, for their part, (somewhat unwittingly) embraced their status as the Evil Empire: DC was a place where men wore suits and ties to work, with offices staffed by old pros who consistently dismissed their upstart competitor until it was too late to reverse the damage. Marvel was the place where a few crazy middle-aged men had accidentally created a counter-culture incubator, as the company became increasingly dominated by younger men (and even a few women) who had grown up reading the books and very much wanted to be a part of the clubhouse Stan had built. The company depended on the perpetuation of these myths to maintain forward momentum.

As successful as Marvel became, the company never outgrew Lee's frustration. There was a ceiling to the company's relevance. DC was bought by Warner Brothers, and Warner Brothers in turn produced a few successful (and not so successful) movies based on DC's IP. Lee spent many years after leaving day-to-day operations of the company trying and failing to sell Marvel's IP to Hollywood, with very little success. A handful of cartoons. A few live-action TV shows, only one of which ever amounted to anything. One big-budget debacle that ruined the company's name in Hollywood for years after. But above all else, the main product of these years of mostly wasted effort was dozens and dozens of hints and half-promises made in the pages of Stan's Soapbox over the course of decades. James Cameron was going to direct a Spider-Man film for something like a decade. Lee first announced the development of an Ant-Man film in 1990. That never happened, obviously.

The history of Marvel in Hollywood is a history of near-misses and missed opportunities. Lee never gave up hope. Even after he ceded control of his own company, even after the company changed hands, even after a lifetime of creative controversies began to take a serious toll on his public image, he persisted as "Mr. Marvel." And to a degree, at least, he personally remained something of an underdog: the man who had co-created the Marvel Universe, the guy whose uncle had founded the company, adrift in a larger, indifferent world. He never got around to writing the Great American Novel, and he never made a movie with Alan Resnais, and he never got out of Marvel's shadow. Why would you want to? He was The Man.

At their creative pinnacle in the mid 1960s, Marvel succeeded creatively by being both more primitive and more sophisticated than their rivals. But in terms of their business, Marvel succeeded the same way they always succeeded: they flooded the market and undercut the competition. As soon as Marvel regained distribution capabilities in 1968, they expanded precipitously. In 1971 they tricked DC into shooting itself in the foot by faking out the competition with a (seeming) line-wide price hike from 15 to 25 cents. DC responded by doing the same. Marvel's price hike lasted one month, after which they reduced prices to 20 cents, but DC was stuck with the 25 cent experiment for months afterwards. In the time it took DC to course-correct, they permanently lost market share. Marvel began to franchise their most popular characters into multiple books. By the late 80s, soon after Jim Shooter left the company, Marvel set out to flood the market in earnest. This was the beginning of another disastrous boom/bust cycle - a boom made even worse by subsequent mistreatment of prominent talent, who left the company to form a third major publisher, Image. (The books continued to sell after the talent left, once again reinforcing the idea that the Marvel brand would always be bigger than any individual creator.) There were a number of factors involved in the mid-90s industry breakdown, but Marvel made the worst mistakes, and the mistakes were big enough that they barely survived.

Marvel 2015 is still fundamentally the same company it was back in the mid-50s, when Martin Goodman found a cabinet full of inventory and used it as a pretense to fire everybody for six months. For all the criticism aimed at Isaac Perlmutter, he's still playing from the Goodman / Lee handbook: flood the market, undercut creators, and pray you survive the next bust. With Disney at their back they no longer need to fear the bust, and have proceeded accordingly.

Left unchecked, the company has recreated the entertainment industry in its own image. The occasion of Avengers 2 has provided movie critics and industry observers another opportunity to bemoan Marvel's success, and its not hard to see why they'd be so resentful. As bad an industry as Hollywood has always been, Marvel is worse in almost every way. Instead of franchises taking two-or-three years between installments, Marvel has figured out a way to keep successful franchises in theaters twice a year. They've proven so successful that every other entertainment conglomerate is changing their business model to compete - even Disney itself is looking to Marvel as a model for its resuscitation of the Star Wars franchise. Right now Marvel Entertainment has a hold on the popular imagination, and the imagination of the industry, that simply defies comparison: there's never been anything like it before. Even if the superhero bubble burst tomorrow, the structure of the entertainment industry will already have been permanently altered.

And it's no accident. They got to where they are today by importing Lee's playbook intact from the company's heyday. Marvel isn't a company, it's an experience. If you buy a ticket for a Marvel movie, you're buying into the experience of being part of something larger than a single movie. Everyone loves Marvel, and if you love Marvel too, you're part of a special club. People cheer when the red Marvel logo comes onscreen, and they get excited about recognizing obscure plot points from comic books they've never read, but have read about.

People have been predicting the end of the superhero movie boom for almost fifteen years - as long as there have been superhero movies, basically. The gloomiest predictions always seem to come from comics fans themselves, who recognize in themselves an incipient exhaustion with the genre that simply has not yet manifested in the general public. There are decades worth of stories left to strip-mine for basic parts. If Marvel keeps a tight ship they'll be in a good position to ride the bubble in perpetuity. If they (and Disney) are smart they'll be able to pivot when the market goes south, leaving their competitors holding the bag, selling the equivalent of 25 cent comics in a 20 cent market.

But what about Stan?

Stan lived to see his company take over the world. After decades of trying and failing to expert Marvel, it finally happened after he was no longer directly involved. He's still the figurehead, naturally, and for so long as he lives he will continue to receive his rote cameo in every Marvel movie and TV show. The problem is that the ideology Lee cultivated in the 1960s, when Marvel was a legitimate underdog in an industry that had spent the past decade trying to run his family company out of business, doesn't carry the same meaning. Marvel isn't the dark horse anymore, they're the heavy favorite. They are owned by the largest entertainment company on the planet, and they are possibly the most valuable arm of that conglomerate. The grasping ambition that Lee once cultivated was charming, in its day, part and parcel of a fantasy where Marvel was in a state of constant siege. They were self-effacing and ironic, and it was them (and you, True Believer!) against the world. The problems began when Lee started to believe his own press, and were compounded when his personal insecurities were inflated into a corporate ethos. This is the world he and his uncle made, whether or not they foresaw the consequences.

Marvel Entertainment are not nice people. They like having an avuncular mascot to trot out and reassure people that these entertainment products are made by the same kind of people who hand-crafted the original comics, but that's a lie. It's not about people at all. It's about a company with a seventy-five year track record of scorched-earth business tactics doing everything they can to maximize their leverage on largest scale possible, the kind of scale not even Lee himself could ever have imagined.

You can't root for Marvel anymore. It's like rooting for McDonalds. Once upon a time Stan Lee believed himself to be Ray Kroc, but for a while now he's been Ronald McDonald.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #56

And remember, you can always listen to this and lots of past mixes by clicking the link in the sidebar!

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #56 by Timoneil5000 on Mixcloud