Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

DCnU: End of the Modern Age

Animal Man #5 (March 2012).

DC Comics' deeper descent into anti-heroic darkness is strangely opening moral doors.  DCnU has reinforced some problems that became endemic during Dan Didio's era.  However, the new Animal Man and Swamp Thing series are exceptions, due to the reintegration of Vertigo themes and characters into mainstream DC cape comics.  These two books started by humming along in Hellblazer/Swamp Thing/Sandman/Animal Man mode circa the late '80s and '90s.  I initially greeted the familiar motifs with skepticism, but in January, the nu Swamp Thing and nu Animal Man exploded up to must-read status (see almost-unanimous praise for Animal Man #5, which came out in early January, here, here, here, here, here and here).

Lemire borrows The Walking Dead`s RV for this month's issue; fans have dubbed Socks the talking cat as the hero's Yoda. Animal Man #7 (May 2012).

The two series, Swamp Thing and Animal Man, concern a Millennial fear of environmental dangers, especially a dread of unknown natural disasters to come. In Animal Man, the tone is Clive Barker-meets-David Lynch. The pacing is either simmering full of menace or all-out-run-for-your-lives frantic.  This is Millennial fear viscerally ripped right out of the subconscious and slapped onto your dinner plate.

Animal Man is a real victory for Canadian Gen X writer Jeff Lemire, who is drawing heavily from 30s'-to-50s' pulp terror and classics like Hellraiser.  There's also a nightmarish dreamy mood in the quieter moments, reminiscent of Gaiman's Sandman. Nerdy Nothings says that Animal Man finally presents the superhero all grown up. DC has often been accused of resorting to cheap marketing stunts.  But when the company chooses to rework Old School capes, yikes, it does it with style.  There's not one whiff of lousy Millennial marketing gimmicks here (well, maybe one whiff, sigh).  Also, the art is horrific and apocalyptic, but it amazingly does not involve (a) gratuitous sex or (b) gratuitous violence, particularly featuring, death, torture, maiming or murder of the protagonists; this non-clichéed Survival Horror motif has paid off:
Animal Man is a pretty big success sales-wise and a giant one critically. For a few months I’ve been trying to figure out why that is. I mean, there are self-evident reasons why this book is great, but I haven’t quite been able to determine why it’s topped so many year-end lists (like mine). If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s because Animal Man reads like an indie book but has the might of one of the Big Two publishers behind it. It’s really refreshing to see DC take such a chance on a book that on the surface doesn’t seem to have mass appeal. Costumes are few, flashy displays of power even fewer, and there aren’t really any supervillians to speak of. In their place we get shadowy supernatural threats set against typical family relationships. It would be hard to imagine an ongoing Superman book, say, where half the time was spent focused on a nuanced portrayal of Lois and Clark’s relationship (yes, I know it’s been undone) and the other half showed Clark fighting some undefinable threat you couldn’t make action figures out of, as good as that could be. Might that explain the appeal of Animal Man? Is this book our best example of superheroes grown up? Something to consider.
Another thing that is important in this book, in particular, is that while the hero is threatened and fallible, his moral compromise and self-destruction for the sake of simple shock value are not the sole selling points of his story.  This is not the dismantling of heroism for its own sake. In fact, if Animal Man makes mistakes, it is to reinforce his position as father and family man.  For decades, fans have criticized DC for tearing down heroism.  In this case, the hero may fail, the family may have problems (as is perhaps foreshadowed in Animal Man #6), but whatever the outcome of conflict, Lemire is relentlessly building Buddy Baker, and his entire family, up.  A character who is actually a true hero - while still grappling with flaws?  Walking that tightrope successfully is almost unheard of in the grim dominion of today's comics narratives. 

I09 made a comment at the end of February about the move away from Postmodernist deconstruction in pop culture, especially the space opera genre of sci-fi. Too much gritty realism and deconstruction destroys heroic narratives.  Slowly, there is a move from deconstruction to reconstruction. In the wake of 9/11, it is taking awhile to get around to that shift, since popular cultural deconstruction dragged on past its due date through the 00s, inspired by politicized cultural criticisms of the American government under George W. Bush:
What is realism in space opera, anyway? In a lot of ways, space opera is similar to superhero narratives: too much realism, and the genre dies. For example, I'm not sure mass audiences would want to watch an ongoing space opera narrative without faster-than-light travel. ...

After 9/11, any narratives that questioned themes of heroism and explored flawed heroes, the way BSG did, were automatically subversive. Even though a lot of the space opera of the early 2000s was reacting to pop culture of the 1990s, to audiences it looked like a reaction to the Bush era in American politics. And obviously, BSG took that and ran with it, doing increasingly daring stories in which the "good guys" became suicide bombers and killed their own people. This probably gave more creative juice to shows like BSG, but also ensured that a narrative like that would never appear on a major network, or as a major big-budget movie. Gritty space opera became a form of protest, by default — which is both energizing and marginalizing. ...

You can only deconstruct your roots for so long. At least, that's what comics creators seemed to find. Right around the time that space opera was turning gritty, a lot of superhero creators were going the opposite way. Alan Moore may have done for superheroes what Joss Whedon and Ron Moore did for space heroes, with Watchmen and The Killing Joke — but by the early 2000s, he was doing America's Best Comics, including the bright, heroic Tom Strong. Kurt Busiek was making waves with colorful-but-introspective Astro City. You heard comics buffs saying the age of "deconstruction" had been replaced by "reconstruction." So at some point, gritty space opera was bound to stop being a challenge to the status quo, and just become... the status quo. What's sad is that we haven't seen a wave of "reconstruction" in mass media space opera, outside of J.J. Abrams' Trek and a few other things.
The shift to heroic reconstruction is taking place in Animal Man and a similar move away from the Modern Age of comics is taking place in Swamp Thing, written by Scott Snyder.  Here, Alec Holland struggles against taking on the elemental mantle in order to retain his humanity.  Both Animal Man and Swamp Thing meditate on the nearly impossible effort to protect human relationships as we derive enormous new powers from the environment that redefine our very humanity (read: Biotech, genome research, genetic manipulation of foods, sub-atomic science, cloning, plundering resources, pollution, nanotechnology and so on).  Meanwhile, the environment, the very source of our new knowledge and power, heaves in revolt against human exploitation.  Brightest Day set the stage in 2010-2011 for these series to come forward; it was a crossover in which Geoff Johns ultimately rewrote the Creation Story for the entire DC Universe.  Hence, DC's apocalypse of 2012 starts with the essence of the very planet, and our relationship with it.

Swamp Thing #5 (March 2012).

Despite the horror in these titles, there is a peculiar kernel of hope budding here, which DC is depicting almost in spite of itself. For years, DC worked to kick the stereotype of being the stodgy, 'conservative' comics company, with god-like heroes who wore their underwear on the outside of their pants.  Marvel was typically labeled the gritty 'liberal' company, whose flawed heroes had feet of clay and therefore theoretically mirrored the real world and its true values more closely.  The 2011 reboot involved DC bringing on board a number of Marvel staff who were big in the 1990s.  Fans accuse DC of trying to Marvelize itself, implying that they will make DC's mythical heroes even more grim and compromised.

But really, DC at its best has something unique that cannot be Marvelized and breaks ground in a way Marvel does not: Watchmen, V for Vendetta (current face of the global hacktivist movement), Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come.  Without these series, there would arguably have been no 300, Sin City or 100 Bullets. If Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder prevail with their Vertigo titles reworked in the DC mainstream, they will have established a new Post-(Post)Modern Age standard for the pulp genre.  Saying goodbye to the Modern Age: ah, that would be welcome. 

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