"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 December 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.



For a form of literature no one reads anymore, the comic book sure seems to be on a lot of people's minds. Audiences are muttering nationwide at director M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, which features as its most important character a comic book fan who moonlights as the world's least efficient job recruitment specialist. Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price was so wounded physically and mentally as a child he identified not with the square-jawed heroes of his ameliorative hobby but with the evil masterminds whose inferior physical conditions were closest to his own. Espousing a belief system that crossbreeds cartoonist Scott McCloud's symbol-heavy comics theories with the larger-than-life speculative pre-history one finds in books like Chariots of the Gods?, Price devotes his life to locating his opposite number: a physically gifted, hard-to-hurt, real-life superhero. Luckily for Price, he lives in the same city as Bruce Willis's David Dunn, who may or may not be the two-dimensional savior whom Price has been seeking. The real don't-tell-anyone secret of Shyamalan's film is that he hides this potentially fascinating portrayal of the pathological dangers that come from believing in junk that makes you feel better within the comparatively dull exercise of watching Bruce Willis become the Incredible Poncho-Man.

The lurid re-imagining of one's own life, that pure faith in pulp, links Shyamalan's Price to the protagonists of admitted superhero fan Michael Chabon's new novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Chabon's Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay are romanticized versions of the men who in a few short years before World War II created the American comic book archetypes so appealing to Elijah Price. Chabon seems particularly fascinated by the dichotomy between inspiration and craft found in the successful creative partnerships responsible for some of the more enduring early comics, like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman) or Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Captain America). Working in a frowned-upon medium being strangled in its own crib by relentless commercial restrictions, Kavalier and Clay manage to infuse their work with touching, inchoate expressions of gut emotion and real-world concerns: the desire to overcome physical limitations, frustration at the growing atrocities in Europe and America's non-involvement, admiration for the contrarian spirit of a new lover, yearning for an absent father or brother. Chabon even allows his characters a measure of artistic self-awareness about the potential of their chosen medium, as commentary on their capacity for adult happiness.

Chabon's and Shyamalan's works not only cover similar emotional territory, but help explain each other. Chabon's evocations of Harry Houdini and Jewish golem-making point out historical supermen in a way that contextualizes the appeal of Shyamalan's subject matter, while the casting of Bruce Willis in Unbreakable is a walking example of Josef Kavalier's faith in genre-correction, subliminally playing the Die Hard card that a cartoonish exercise can somehow be made more relevant by a "realistic" approach to the lead character.

But the more fascinating questions for author and director come not by comparison, but by noting the congruity of their arrival into the marketplace of ideas. Why comic books? And why now? Fifty years since their brief flirtation with becoming a widely-read mass medium, seven years into a sales decline that changed comics' status from a profitable but secondary magazine market to an absolutely marginal feeder industry for television and film, what is so seductive about the comic book that it continues to intrigue so many serious-minded adults and aesthetes?

For precocious children and lonely teens, superhero comic books offer shared universes of plot developments, soap opera-style personal drama and fight scenes — complexity without complication. For those few who stick with the art form, or come to it late, comic books offer high-quality, little-seen work in a variety of forms that mirror popular interests — obscurity without pretentiousness. Comics books have for years offered easy-to-recognize antecedents for any number of pop cultural phenomena not in costume: from Simpsons-style satire (the Harvey Kurtzman-edited Mad Magazine), to Star Wars (Jack Kirby's early '70s cosmic heroes), all the way up to The Matrix (Grant Morrison's The Invisibles) and Harry Potter (Neil Gaiman's The Books of Magic). With a culture getting dumber by the moment, and visual media given over to lighthearted violence, it's hard to find a corner of pop entertainment that fails to look more like a comic book than it did ten years ago. Comic books embrace a populist mindset in which (as in the case of film) what is perceived as the cutting edge isn't an avant-garde so much as authors working comfortably within mainstream literary traditions. These are the "alternative" cartoonists such as Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, whose works are spearheading Pantheon's latest effort to sell comics in bookstores. If there ever was a neglected art form with multiple easy entrance points for essay writers and arts enthusiasts, many of whom may feel a nostalgic pull for the form in the first place, the comic book is it.

Heightening the genre's appeal as the put-upon kid on the American arts block, comic books' business history is one of big, showy lies. The industry was practically built on young artists who sold their characters to big companies, with Superman's sale to DC comics acting as comic books' original sin of economic injustice. The industry's rogues' gallery makes for similarly simple stories. Dr. Frederic Wertham is universally reviled as an anti-Free Speech monster for his role in tying juvenile delinquency to comic book consumption in the late '40s and early '50s and denouncing EC Comics before an Estes Kefauver congressional sub-committee. But the vilification of Wertham has long obscured the fact that the resulting, restrictive "comics code" was self-inflicted by publishers at least partly interested in sticking it to successful crime and horror publisher EC.

As the decades pass, the questions get more difficult, the lies told potentially more insidious. How much did longtime Marvel Comics company man and industry spokesman Stan Lee contribute to characters like Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk, and how much credit is due to the artists with whom he worked, like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby? Just as the empty, brightly-colored suits of comic books' most dominant genre can be filled in with any handy theme that involves changes in identity or outward conflict, so can the empty suits of comics history be animated with romantic notions about misunderstood, abused and exploited artists, nearly all of it drawn from real-life testimony. There is nothing misunderstood artists love more than fighting for other misunderstood artists. Tragedy + not your own = art.

So why not talk about comics? Other dead art forms and niche industries have long fascinated writers and critics. Vaudeville retrospectives tend to stress the few break-out acts over the horrid working conditions and the realities of life on the road — worse, our collective memory is probably more influenced by Fred and Ethel breaking out the costume trunk than by even such lightly informative treatments of the form's history. Popular art forms love to portray less popular ones. Radio drama has been romanticized by Garrison Keillor, George Lucas and American Movie Classics; political theater was saluted in cartoony broad strokes by Tim Robbins as recently as last year. Boogie Nights' release in 1997 brought with it a spate of works extolling, of all the things, the virtues of the pre-video porn era. All of these friendly, well-intentioned kisses on the cheek not only graciously indulge the self-image of each out-of-the-mainstream form, but puts the author or artist in the altogether pleasant role of being someone smart enough to share their secret knowledge with you.

In the end, the positive reception accorded Chabon's novel and the negative drubbing received by Shyamalan's film prove one thing: All things being equal, audiences prefer to see themselves as heroic artists rather than troubled readers. And critics may just live and die by that statement. Choose any hero you like, a superhero if you must, but always, always make a choice.


courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black