How would Walter Benjamin react to entertainment media today? Sheesh. I think it’s safe to say that if you haven’t had an Infinite Crisis of Conscience in regard to the endless cycle of reproduction, reboots, relaunches, remakes, and copies, then you probably aren’t as deeply involved with comic books and comic book media as I am. (Or maybe you’re less jaded.) Corporate Capitalism owns everything we love. Corporate Capitalism sells us our hopes and dreams via the stories we love. And Corporate Capitalism has fleshed these story-worlds into complex narratives, expanded universes, official canons, etc… Should we beware? Are these things already damaged goods? Or are they still enjoyable and fresh, but soon to be soiled just around the bend, come the hundredth issue of the tie-in comic or 16th spin-off movie of the year? Over-saturation is a definite thing, folks. And you know what is even worse? When something you love becomes something you used to love, which then gets over-saturated even more. Disney, Warner Bros, Michael Bay, mega-budget cinematic universes, and network TV shows are all responsible and at the core of what makes rinse-and-repeat entertainment culture so awful. Let’s not even get into big studio rip-offs and remake films.
Over at MindlessOnes.com, the astute Joel (aka “The Doubtful Guest”) and MaybeMazin have been writing a series of articles about this very subject, specifically about their relationship to Brandon Graham’s Prophet, one of their favorite ongoing comics (and one of mine too). Despite their positivity regarding Prophet, the Mindless Ones folks are very uncomfortable with how they feel about it because it hits a bit too close the idea of ongoing serial-narratives that have been endlessly rebooted into soulless cash grabs by big conglomerates, in their eyes possibly appealing too much to the lowest common neoliberal denominator. (Prophet itself is a continuation of an old Rob Liefeld vehicle.) While introspectively examining and reviewing Prophet, Joel’s piece takes on a stream-of-consciousness kind of vibe—quite normal for MindlessOnes—addressing these frustrations by using The Force Awakens and the banal repetition of superhero comics as primary case studies. The article states:
“All of this ‘To Be Continued’ / ‘See Previous Issue’ / ‘Gotta Catch Them All’ etc is not something that comes from artists – it’s something that comes from the market and from (oh boy) capitalism and it’s all just a trick to get us all to buy more stuff. In the same way smoking is frowned upon now – I hope that within my lifetime people start to realise how harmful stories that never end are: and how this ever delayed satisfaction is a spiritual carcinogenic.”
I couldn’t have worded it better. Stories that never end are harmful because they are intrinsically linked to soulless capitalism, rampant consumerism, bastardization, and selling, buying, selling… But before continuing, I should state that I’m not 100% on board with this idea. I think there are long-form (corporate owned) serial stories that do work. Star Wars, in fact, works because Force Awakens, Clone Wars, and Rebels are not reboots. They are parts of a continual story that spans generations. This is the same reason Dragon Ball works or Adventure Time (or even pro wrestling, to a certain extent) works. Characters age, grow, live, then pass the torch onto new characters. In many ways, The Simpsons is more grossly capitalistic than Star Wars—I kid, I kid, but maybe not really? The MindlessOnes article fails to acknowledge (deliberately so), in both Star Wars and Grant Morrison comics (which the article targets specifically), exactly how these things deliberately and smartly play upon cycles of mythology. Maybe it isn’t pure Joseph Campbell and, sure, arcs get repeated and redone, but they get new faces playing the roles. And if done right, then the cycle is refreshing instead of stale and corporatized. Prophet succeeds by continuing its story in a way that barely recognizes the source material, which is a very very good thing. The Force Awakens recognizes its source material, staying so true to the original trilogy that it nearly copies it—but, paradoxically, this is a good thing too!
That being said, I truly understand what Joel is saying, even if it is a bit dogmatic and defeatist. I simply just haven’t reached my threshold yet like he has. Or maybe I’m too stubborn. I desperately want future Star Wars to take bold risks and morph itself and evolve into something new and unrecognizable. For if it does not, then what is the point? So much of serial-media has failed me and left me feeling bummed out. For example, I’ve never liked a superhero movie or TV show in my entire adult life—not one! And I’ve disliked them for all the same reasons addressed above. Plus, I don’t think of superhero comics as storyboards, nor do I think that there has ever been a superhero movie that has been better than its source material. I challenge you on that! Yet, I am highly passionate about Star Wars and superhero comics, especially those written by Grant Morrison. I love ’em! Just find it odd that those two things are targeted specifically in the MindlessOnes article, when I feel like those two things are two of the final bastions of hope in the sea of corporate-run media horse-shit. If those start to get overly-grimy as well, then all hope is truly lost—at least in the corporate realm. But I guess that’s Joel’s point. Maybe those were the last two bastions of hope for him too. And now, in his opinion, they have fallen as well, leaving nothing but gloom and doom. Even though I still have faith, I admit, I do fear for the future of the medium I love so much. It’s hard to picture the same old shit being done for twenty-five more years and beyond. I would hate that. And for many, it’s already happened as far back as the 60s, 70s, or 80s!
I would encourage all comic book fans to speak with the almighty dollar. If capitalism is to blame (and it certainly is), then let’s stop buying in. Of course, America isn’t reading my website or MindlessOnes. America is watching Entertainment Tonight and FoxNews and choosing between the inane dichotomy of Clinton versus Trump, two sides of the same damn coin. We’ve got a long way to go.
My personal anxiety, both as a writer and in direct regard to all of this, is also linked to criticism, which I have a hard time with. There’s analysis and theorizing, and then there’s criticism. The latter is empty, biased, hollow, and unnerving and can very easily hurt people—even more than capitalism sometimes! We live in a society where we are conditioned and brainwashed to question ourselves constantly—are we favoriting the right things, watching the cool shows, reading the right books? We want to fit in, yet we want to stand apart, and we don’t want to be hypocritical. I get it. You get it. Life’s a struggle. When are we allowed to just fall in love with something—no matter where or when or how it comes—with no strings attached? Hard to do these days. Humans have become walking talking profiles, complete with lists of favorite movies, tv, books, and food. We’ve become the sum of our parts. This dark, scary world we live in provides an environment where serial-storytelling itself gets easily bastardized. Serial-storytelling isn’t, at its heart, a bad thing, but we do need to change the way we interact with stories, and we need to lessen our solicitation of bad storytelling from bad corporations.
The Prophet article ends with, “It’s more about supporting original ideas and learning to be happy when a thing is just a thing. We don’t need expanded universes. We need less. … Maybe if we’re lucky – some people will appear who are as good at making films as the Prophet team are at making comics.” I understand his pain. I love expanded universes (I think?) for I am a librarian-at-heart and huge nerd to boot. But, yes, let’s calm down and chill out. We really do need less. Less of everything. This is about restraint. But corporations don’t show restraint and therein lies the problem. I would love it if DC published way fewer books a month. Quality would increase across the board, right? Or would the “good” books just get the axe first? Argh. And I would love if the comic book movie bubble burst today—it’s a nasty cycle, perpetuated by creators, producers, and Hollywood scum that I am either disinterested in or find unsavory. (To each his own. I’m not trying to tell you what’s good or bad from the pedestal of an elitist. Just my personal taste as a comic book scholar and film scholar—I’m tough to please!)
Despite this freeform rant and everything spewed-out above in such haphazard fashion, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled when I saw the trailer for Rogue One. And I’d be lying if DC’s “Rebirth” announcements don’t have me over-the-moon with excitement. Like, I said, for better or worse, I guess I haven’t reached my threshold yet. But even Joel gave a glimmer of hope. Maybe we’ll “get lucky.”