Monday, May 31, 2010

A definitive post on comic books

When we last left our hero (hey, that's me!), she was smiling, stepping back, and looking scared on the set of the HBO show "Bored to Death," pretending to be a person pretending to be another person at a pretend comic convention.

Meanwhile, back in her secret hideout, Big Island Rachel discovers that there IS a comic convention in Brooklyn--KingCon Brooklyn, November 4th to the 7th--and offers up her humble resignation as a comic book fan.

*gasp* dun-dun-DUUUNN!

Don't fret, true believers. None of these bad boys are leaving my bookshelf, I've got a great idea for a costume for the three cons I'm going to this autumn, and I still know more about the genre than is acceptable for me to admit in mixed company. I just can't call myself a fan, not after meeting the TRUE comic fans on the "Bored to Death" set. I can call myself a reader, an admirer, or even an appreciator of ze craft, but there's no way my appreciation and enjoyment of comics even approaches the level of fanaticism and obsession of those other dudes. And I don't want to be at that level. I'm tapping out. I'm pau.

See, Catwoman wasn't the only friend I made at the fake comic con. For the many hours that we weren't needed on set, I also hung out with some non-costumed extras by the food station, eating watermelon and talking about comics. Usually, I'm the most comic-knowledgeable person in the room, because my friends and family aren't INSANE (which makes me wonder why they all hang out with me, but that's another post). If you've ever wondered what comic book fans talk about when they gather around the watermelon rinds, let me give you the short version.

"Do you know A Creator?"

"Yeah, I read his B Property, but he was better on C Property."

"Yeah, C Property was okay, but it was way better when B Creator was on it, and then they did that crossover and ruined it."

"No, A Crossover wasn't as bad as B Crossover, when D Artist took over and everyone looked like blowup dolls."

"Not even, D Artist is great, didn't you see his work with E Creator on F Property?"

"E Creator is only good when he's got a good editor telling him that when he's good and when he's shit. Didn't you see his run on G Property? It made no sense!"

"It's M Imprint, none of their titles make sense, E Creator was just writing in their style."

Listen to this for three hours and tell me you don't feel an urgent need to huddle down in your bathtub with a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath" and Beethoven's Ninth. Comic book fans are a lot like sports fans: they compare statistics of this writer and that creator and this team of artists, and only mention the actual story lines and characters in the most cursory manner, really just to confirm that everyone has read the same comics and can stay on topic. And they do this because--here was my big revelation of the day--comics aren't great literature. They're just entertainment. Full stop.

I can hear blood pressures rising all throughout the blogosphere from that statement, and for the people who wrote their college theses on "Watchmen," let me assure you that I'm not calling comics irrelevant or juvenile or unworthy of your time. I love comics. The thought of going to the comic book store gives me excitable butterflies in my tummy. But when it comes to literature, I'm a professional--got me a fancy college degree and ever'thang!--and in my professional opinion, comics can supplement one's literary journey to social, political, and spiritual awareness, but comics are not an acceptable substitute for actual literature. Reading "V for Vendetta" will not provide the same education on the dangers of totalitarianism as "1984" (sorry, Alan Moore). "Preacher" is not equal to "Paradise Lost" (sorry, Garth Ennis). Professor Xavier didn't contribute as much to the civil rights movement as the titular character in "Invisible Man," and X-Men comics aren't a suitable stand-in for Toni Morrison's oeuvre (I won't apologize to Stan Lee. He knows what he did.)

Batman has no literary equivalent I can immediately recall, which is fine, because Batman beats everybody. Even Superman.

Proof of my theory was there in the holding room at the Brooklyn Lyceum. Consider the following exchange:

Guy sitting to my left: "What comics do you like?"

Me: "I read a lot of the Vertigo and Wildstorm titles." [DC properties. Vertigo has a lot of horror and fantasy comics, and Wildstorm is superheroes with ultraviolence.]

Guy: "Oh, so you're into more mature, adult comics."

Me: "I--I guess." Thinking, Wildstorm has guys in tights punching bloody holes in other guys in tights; Vertigo has demons and psychic detectives. How is any of that 'adult'?

The sense that I was having a comic book awakening steadily increased from that point. I spent many hours with the target audience, the experts of comics if you will, and they were not debating the complex moral issues raised by Batman's illegal wiretapping of Gotham City in "The Dark Knight," or discussing gender biases evident in the lack of female artists and writers in mainstream comics. They wanted to see Batman as a pirate and Wonder Woman in her own live-action movie. Which is fine, nobody wants to see Pirate Batman more than I do, but at the end of the day, I'm going to have my giggle, put the comic down, and pick up a real book, because I can't improve my mind through comics.

Not that I mentioned any of this to my fellow extras. Comic fans tend to get defensive when you suggest that comics aren't real literature. It's a weird reverse elitism: Comic book fans ridicule the snobbish literati who regard comic books as shallow and juvenile, but they won't admit that they like comic books without trying to prove that comic books are worthy of literati approval. The fundamental truth about comics is they provide escapist storytelling in an medium accessible to anyone with a fourth grade education, but the fans insist that comics are a mature, thoughtful, and nuanced form of art. This might seem like a reasonable attitude--accessibility and artistic value are not mutually exclusive--but if you stick around after the comic book naysayers have left and listen to the fans' conversation, the hypocrisy really starts to shine through. They don't talk about the mature and nuanced aspects of comics. They talk about which artist is drawing which character, and how long this character will stay dead before the editors resurrect him. For people who claim comics are serious, fans don't take comics very seriously.

But they could. I don't look down my nose at anyone who actually wrote a thesis on "Watchmen." A lot of comics out there are thoughtful and socially relevant, presenting dilemmas that don't have perfect solutions and characters that are well-rounded and morally conflicted. In fact, MOST comics out there fit this description. Batman and Superman pre-date World War II for heaven's sake, if they hadn't evolved and matured, they would have lost their audience three generations ago. And considering that most comic book readers are white males, the demographic most likely to be college educated, it's not like the genre is being kept afloat by and for stupid people.

So what happens to subvert all this? Why do intelligent people discussing intelligent work end up talking about such stupid things?

I tend to think that comics are a victim of their own success. Even a title that has a definite, deliberate beginning, middle, and end has an enormous amount of material for readers to digest. "Sandman" ran for ten years and over two THOUSAND pages, and it ended with all of the loose ends tied up. Batman is at 700 issues and counting, with no end in sight. How do you even begin to discuss something of that magnitude? Every theme and story line connects and intersects with dozens of others across the work, creating a complex knot of data that you have to untangle before you can even strike at the artistic heart of what makes a comic great. And that's all before you can even take a step back to view the comic within the context of its publishing universe. How can you even get the joke of Apollo and the Midnighter's relationship in "The Authority" if you don't recognize their resemblance to Superman and Batman from the larger DC universe, AND know something about the history of homophobia and homosexual overtones in comics publishing? (Ha! I love slapping that picture up here. Wakes the readers up.) The sheer amount of information needed to have even a superficial knowledge of comic books is enough to forestall deep, comprehensive discourse among fans. The discussion establishing everyone's basic comic literacy takes up the whole conversation!

"Fan" is an abbreviation of the word "fanatic," defined by Merriam-Webster as "marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion," from the Latin fanaticus, meaning "inspired by a deity, frenzied." I can't call myself a comic book fan because my enthusiasm and devotion to comic books is anything BUT uncritical. Obviously. That said, please prove me wrong about comic book fans. Post a comment about family dynamics and the treatment of mental illness present in the Sandman story line "Brief Lives." Tell me if you think Ozymandias was justified in destroying New York at the end of "Watchmen." Why have no women superheroes had their own movies yet? Are you offended by the casting of all-white actors to play the Asian characters in "Avatar: The Last Airbender"? Moral responsibility in "Spiderman." Fear of the known and unknown in "Batman." Destiny and free will in "Preacher." The disintegration of truth in the media in "Transmetropolitan."

That's like three doctorates right there. Off you go, true believers. See you at the con.

Friday, May 28, 2010

On the set of "Bored to Death"

Big Island Rachel--writer, office babe, Street Teamster, and now, television extra.

Yesterday, I shucked my big boots on and ambled down to the Brooklyn Lyceum to be an extra on the HBO show "Bored to Death." Since I don't have television, I've never seen it, but in case you're interested, it stars Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson, and this coming season they all go to Brooklyn Comic Con 2010. If you decide to watch it when it airs, look for me--I'm the convention attendee getting my comic book autographed by Zach Galifianakis just before Jason Schwartzman saves his life (sort of). This meant that for seven hours, I got to smile at Zach Galifianakis, take three steps back, and look scared.

Seven hours: smile, step back, look scared. And that was only the first part of the day. They must have liked my look. I was there for fifteen hours, and never again will I take a television show or movie for granted, because dude, if you've never been on a set, let me tell you, that sh*t takes some EFFORT. Before they can even yell "Action!" fifteen times for a single five second shot, they have to futz about with the lighting and the camera angles and all the finicky little details like getting someone's hat to fly off when they're punched, and make sure it flies off at the exact same angle and lands in the exact same spot for every take. There's people running around with combs and hairspray and blank comics and lasers and half-eaten sandwiches, and you think they know what they're doing, but I suspect they don't.

I thought that working on the newspaper was hectic. I knew nothing about hectic.

I did get to hang out with other comic book geeks for the entire day, though. That was pretty awesome. The high point was when the director called out for "Ted and Wonder Woman," and Ted Danson giggled and made him say it again. "Ted and Wonder Woman." Also, I made friends with a woman who made her own Catwoman costume that was exactly the same as Julie Newmar's Catwoman costume from the Adam West "Batman" TV show. I mean EXACTLY the same. She found the same kind of fabric used in Julie Newmar's costume, the same belt, she MADE a replica of the medallion, and even had the golden kitty pistol. She was quite the seamstress--she showed me pictures of all of her Star Wars cosplay outfits, and pictures of her cats. Good times.

I don't have any pictures, because that was against the rules, and that bums me out. There were lots of great costumes and the set looked fantastic. Catwoman told me that it was a lot like the original Big Apple Comic Con. Unfortunately, there is no Brooklyn Comic Con, though I imagine if there was, I'd see many of the same people there.

Here's a mind frag. I went to a fake comic convention, which means, and see if you can follow me:

I spent fourteen hours pretending to be a person pretending to be at an event where people pretend to be other people.

On my next post, I'll tell you what I learned from my first extended conversation about comic books with other comic book fans.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Isn't that the guy from Depeche Mode?

There are generally two ways an evening of Voice Street Teamstering can go. The first is in the manner of the Knitting Factory gigs, where we show up just after the sound check and sit patiently in the corner for the entire performance, grabbing people between sets and forcibly extracting their personal information with our throbbing, gargantuan brain powers.

The second is less common. We brandish our clipboards while hanging upside down from the ceiling for a few hours before a show, and as soon as the music starts, bolt off into the night sky. I prefer the bolt to the extract--less strain on my brainness and my valuable sitting-around time.

Monday night was an extract. I worked the after party of the Off Broadway Awards--the Obies--hanging around the lobby of Webster Hall with struggling actors and musicians and former Voice employees who were very eager to tell me how glad they were to be on the other side of the swag table. While Antibalas played the main room upstairs, I got to witness the exodus of award winners (and losers, I assume, but it was harder to pick them out, maybe they slunk out through the staff exit) in their East Village formal wear, which is similar to Oscar fashion but more fabulous. I wish I had more to add, but what can I say? It was a party, and parties is parties is parties, in my experience. Just a lot of people getting together and going "peoplepeoplepeoplepeople." Sort of like an elephant migration on the savannah, except nobody's naked.

I didn't leave Webster Hall until after midnight, which meant the MTA was doing their late night subway repairs on the F line. Riding the subway at one in the morning on a weekday is a weird experience. There's about as many people and as much activity as you'll see at one in the afternoon, but everything moves at a much dreamier pace, like the entire subway system just took a massive hit off the bong. New York may never sleep, but that was definitely the calmest I've ever seen it. But I digress.

This week was a double-dip Teamster week for me. Last night, I went crosstown to the West Village--seen at night, in the rain, as usual--to take my turn at the Street Team's new regular, Le Poisson Rouge. I can't tell you how badly I wanted that to translate as "The Red Poison," but sadly, it means, "The Red Fish." Le sigh. Le Poisson Rouge is a nightclub. It took me about an hour and a half to figure that out. I thought it was a concert space and couldn't figure out what the hell was going on in that enormous underground room. "Are they all just going to stand there?" I wondered. "Is a band going to get up on that stage or what? Why isn't anything happening?!"

Once I figured out that yes, they were all just going to stand there and mill about, I started to play a little game called "Spot the Euro." I think Le Poisson Rouge must appear in guidebooks somewhere as a--let me see if I can get the tone right--"trendy West Village hang out, a place to see and be seen with New York's hippest night owls." Lots of tight black clothes and asymmetrical haircuts and flat-chested Nordic beauties who were strangely willing to sign up for Voice email alerts, which means there's either a large population of these freakishly good-looking Euros in New York City, or Europeans are a lot less discriminate than Americans about who they give their personal information to.

I hung out for about three hours, reassuring my breasts that even if they weren't as cherry as European breasts, they were still beautiful in their own way. Just as I was getting ready to bolt, my exit was blocked by the guy from Depeche Mode. You know the one. I don't know where he came from or what he was doing there, but my mind instantly went to The Venture Bros. "Sweetie, isn't that the guy from Depeche Mode?"

So I guess that sometimes a party isn't just a party. Sometimes it's a bizarre, real-lifey version of a subversive cartoon.

And in my opinion, that's just super.