Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Pack your bags and take a trip to the eighties

For better or for worse the eighties were one hell of a decade. Think about this for a second. Michael Jackson was a black guy making funky songs and mini zombie movies, Madonna was getting banned and berated for singing about being a virgin, we had ET and Return of the Jedi in the cinemas and comics gave us Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. It seems to me that this is the era where we see the beginnings of uber-pop. Music was becoming more about spectacle and making record amounts of money. Same with movies. Now, I know that things have gone beyond then but that's really when it started.

It was in the eighties that McLuhan's theories really took hold and in the last twenty years they've really taken off. Then, spectacle was new now it's expected. We're now living in a time of simulacra (look at the title on the book Neo gets the disk from in The Matrix) which is simulations of simulations. We're not tapping into something new anymore but representations of what came before which were in themselves representations. I think the big hits of the eighties earned a place in our consciousness not simply because they were big and flashy but they still maintained something in their core. There was still meaning in all of that glam and flash. Now the image has replaced the actual content.

For the decade that first gave us pop entertainment in its purest form with a large budget - greed was good remember - it also gave us comics that just don't seem to exist anymore. The seventies started it in the Green Lantern comics but in the eighties it reached unparalleled heights. It was a height that really hasn't been reached again. The stories I'm reading from the eighties all seem to be topical, clever and jammed full of content. For a medium that was on the verge of its own death throes comics really were kicking ass and taking names.

Yes, this is the roots of dark anti-heroes but it was also the end of an era. Basically the nineties came in and simply replaced content with flash and glam like these other mediums, but I don't see the actual connection or evolution in comics. In movies, and pop-music it's pretty obvious but in comics it seems like a drastic swerve. Maybe it's because I wasn't there and I'm looking at it from the outside and through the benefit of experience and history. I guess in part it was the fact that the stories I've praised above were released as 12 issue miniseries that has caused every single title (except Jonah Hex) to think it too can release long winded story arcs. They took the form but ignored the content. Again, image over substance.

So why am I suddenly pro-eighties. In part, coincidence - I've just read the Alan Moore DC Universe omnibus as well as various other trades from the eighties. Yes, there are continuing stories but even so you get enough content per issue to make it feel like a tome compared to the current single issues of an arc. These stories don't pander to the audience but they still have a sense of humour and wonder. I do actually like dark stories but when there is only darkness you simply don't notice it anymore and it's dull. I appreciate that there are stories directed at me, the mature reader, but I also appreciate writers who are enjoying the process. Write Hulk-speak, I won't hate you or laugh at you. Use thought balloons if you want to, I really don't think it'll take away from your ouevre. Put Robin in pixie-boots and let Superman shave by reflecting his heat vision from a mirror. It's okay to have fun, it makes the darkness hit harder if that's what you're going for.

I guess I noticed this stuff in the first story of the Alan Moore collection. It deals with current political situations while not beating us over the head with it. Superman's father is attaching himself to the religious right of Krypton in order to get political power. The story isn't just a "what if?" Superman story. It's also examining the current political climate of the world. Whereas the Green Lantern stories of the seventies managed to talk about current issues it also dates the stories because they are so obviously of that time. It's not a bad thing. It had to happen that they addressed the world as the creators saw it. It was the first time such a popular and previously disposable form of childrens entertainment asked questions about the state of the world in a blatantly obvious manner. Then it matured into the stories of the eighties that are still addressing current events but in a more timeless manner. They're dealing a lot more with ideas than actual circumstances.

Then something happened and all this addressing of current events seems to have left comics all together. When it does show up, it's more of the sensational variety - child abuse, rape, or some other horrible atrocity. So it's a bastardized version of what was happening in the seventies GL stories whenever something appears that is anywhere near current. I think Batman: A Death in the Family may have something to do with this. It exists in a specific time and addressed some of the world stage politics but was geared almost completely towards sensation. The Killing Joke on the other hand managed to be sensational but forced everyone to adjust to the change in a major character. They didn't simply take the easy route of killing off Bat-girl and replacing her. Yes there's a new Bat-girl, until March I think, but Barbara Gordon became one hell of a character because they managed to tell a good story while being sensational.

Hell, if you want the greatest version of comic simulacra it has got to be Infinite Crisis. It is basically a comic about the state of comics and the retelling of a, guess what, twenty year old story. Now, I like it because it is aware of what it is and I can appreciate that. Hell, Animal Man pushed the limits of playing with the medium this is slightly different. It's an event about a previous event. It's a new simulated reality dealing with a previous simulated reality.

I'm not sure if this makes sense to anyone but me, I'm sort of just writing it as I go but I find it strange that for such a frivolous decade it managed to be so influencial in comics. I guess when things are on the cusp of change we manage to see some of the greatest accomplishments. Is it because there was simply nothing left to lose? Comics weren't mainstream, were probably on the verge of crashing (when aren't they?) so everyone thought, fuck it, have fun. Go for broke. Whereas now it's simply how much money can we make? No, don't take a risk that could insult anyone anywhere because it could lose us money. Well, except women because they don't read comics (that's sarcasm, I know it's hard to write sarcasm so I'm pointing it out before the comments start - see I'm doing it too).

Oh yeah, spoilers. Ah hell, if I ruined a twenty year old story for you, deal with it you big baby.

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