Sam Sattin wonders, how do we tell the difference between the revolutionary and the trivial?
HAVE YOU EVER read an old comic book?
By old, I mean from the 1940s and 50s, the genre’s Golden Age, when Superman,Batman, and Wonder Woman were just being scribbled to life. Since I was weaned on comics from the 80s and 90s, titles like Sandman, Swamp Thing, X-Men, Hellboy, all of which were captivating, literary, and—to those willing to overlook popular stigmas—sophisticated, it was difficult for me to access early Superman archives in any genuine emotional sense. Though I ended up reading them through, I found the content, while left-leaning and vivid, very much a product of its time, sometimes gruff, sometimes macho, and, as far as current standards go, predictable. The main interest I took was historical, anyway, a glimpse into wartime and American identity as portrayed by Jewish immigrants, with identities of their own. But being brought up around the onset of the millennium I often felt as though I was being asked to marvel at the genius of a fort composed from twigs and mud, knowing all too well that the museum housing it had walls concealing reinforced titanium.
I would even go so far as say that most early comics from Batman to Captain America are fairly basic according to modern narrative standards, that they were almost libidinal expressions of their creators—all of whom were unable to do anything else, being that the medium was in itself libidinal. Though alter ego Clark Kent could be a little softer, more of a kind chump than not, early Superman was kind of like someone’s asshole father who pumped barbells in his basement. He possessed an austere American jingoism that, in the decades since, has been tempered considerably.
Good and evil he tended to cut clean, with all villains being referred to as either ‘vandals’ or ‘rascals.’ Examples of this phenomenon can be found throughout the hero’s early run. When being shot at by a firing squad in an one of the very first comics, for instance, a cocky Superman gloats, “Ho-Hum! This is beginning to bore me!” And when one lower-level mob henchman has a heart attack from one of Superman’s anti-gravity interrogations a couple issues later, the Man of Steel takes a hearty swipe at his downfall, quipping, “Dead…Heart-failure! The excitement was too much for him!” Sure, the son of Krypton loves the law, and the planet earth, but he also loves the fact that he’s fucking Superman. In 1954 you can see how his early character was appropriated in emerging comics such as Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. Though written by Otto Binder, in issue #30 of the comic Superman psychologically abuses the shit out of Jimmy Olsen while acting as his adopted father in order to teach him one goddamned depraved life lesson. At one point, when he suspects Jimmy of going inside his ‘Secret Room,’ he tells him, “If I catch you in here again, I’ll go hard with you.” This before humiliating his self-esteem, and burning the Father’s Day present he got him with his x-ray vision.
It’s not what Superman used to be, however, but what he has become over the last fifty years, from the Silver Age on, that is truly remarkable. The concept of this indestructible man, this forced exile from a foreign land where his loved ones had been destroyed, played into the American narrative superbly enough to incur a lasting cultural reaction. The idea had frightening impetus, and even if in the beginning it was executed crudely, once the seed was planted, it began to grow.
In the years to come, Christopher Reeve would grapple to be portrayed as Superman on the silver screen, being turned out at first due to the fact that the hero’s classical image didn’t line up with Reeve’s soft 1970’s masculinity. But eventually, after frequent try-outs and an evolving society willing to take a chance, he would get the role, modeling his portrayal of Clark Kent on Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby. Soon after, he would come to reverse the flow of time (literally), and comic writers, as their medium matured as well, would give us classics such as Jeph Loeb’s Superman For All Seasons, Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, and a whole array of spin-offs and interpretations that, if poor Jerry Siegel was still alive, would likely cause him to soil himself. It’s why Superman, though somewhat cloddish in his early form, has become one of my favorite superheroes. Not necessarily because I like everything about his character, but because his presence is linked to fabric of American culture, and acts as litmus for artistic evolution in all forms.
In some way or another, all forms of groundbreaking art tend to spread out from the fringes of popularity. Comic books, especially, have always struggled to be taken seriously. But now that they’re gaining traction, publishers and producers are constantly seeking the next new thing, swabbing their tongues for a taste of that dusty elixir, of something truly original. The science of prediction is a complex tool, however, drawing upon the present to extrapolate the future. Though Nate Silver predicted near flawlessly Obama’s victory over Romney by treating national polls like baseball stats in Moneyball, Karl Rove, along with many others, fell mortally short of actuality.
Personality and intention play a massive role in the study of outcomes. Think about the amount of applications we now have to effectively divine our futures, from Yelp to Rotten Tomatoes. Each one is meant to decide how we should, as a society, pick and choose our modes of consumption. They try to keep us from lapsing into bad manners, imbibing tried and tested commodities so that we won’t end up enjoying the ‘wrong’ thing. But what they might not understand about the nature of discovery is that mistakes, the detritus of risk itself, might be the key to the breakthroughs we search for.
Lately—perhaps in line with Hanukkah coming to an end, or perhaps because Superman, or as he’s also known, Kal-El, has a Hebraic flavor I’m attached to personally—I’ve been thinking of the tale of Judah and the Maccabees. Non-Members-of-the-Tribe might not know this, but Hanukkah, in general, is a fairly unimportant Jewish holiday, emboldened in the American context only by its proximity to Christmas. In comparison to its spiritually weighty compatriots Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover, Hanukkah is the easiest, prettiest, and most marketable celebration in the Hebrew portfolio, and thus the most digestible in the public sphere.
The real story of Judah and Maccabees, however, is an unusual one in terms of the Jewish canon. Though the songs I sang in my Debbie Friedman-inspired reformed synagogue in Denver anesthetized the past with happy tunes about potato pancakes, history tells a grueling tale, involving a small group of monotheist zealots struggling guerilla-style against imperialism. Without going into too much detail, the story behind the Festival of Lights is essentially this: Hellenized Jews and Greeks of the Seleucid empire attempted to discourage monotheistic Jews from circumcising their male children in order to weaken their belief-system. But when the Jews refused, and the Greeks criminalized Jewish traditions, placing a statue of Zeus upon the temple alter, a wide-eyed zealot named Judah Maccabee led a violent revolt that kicked the Seleucid empire out of Judea, and ensured what would become the turbulent survival of his people’s nationhood. Judah was not a forgiving man, and ruthlessly claimed victory with tooth and nail. He’d probably have scared the damn shit out of me, thinking himself an emissary of God, but still, here I am because of him.
I often think upon how odd it is that the Jews of ancient Judea ended up bequeathing to the world prodigious, if not invaluable talents such as Will Eisner, Barbara Streisand, Amy Winehouse, Ruth Ginsburg, John Stewart, and the Beastie Boys, to name just a few. Nobel Peace Prize winners, famous scientists, writers and artist, summed up nicely in words of The Big Lebowski‘s Walter Sobchak, “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax.”
Now, I’m not listing these names to belabor the breadth of Jewish achievement. Rather, I’m interested in the evolution of ideas, and how the Jews of today may have had seeds of endurance planted in their cultural memory at the time of the Maccabeean revolt. I’m interested in the possibility that all groundbreaking cultural trends, all of what Lev Grossman refers to as “Disruptive Technology,” are birthed from stubborn backwardness, from a basal, perhaps even primitive ideological movement that refuses to die, and that taps into something bigger than itself without being at all conscious of it.
In the American entertainment context, larger industries, from big publishing houses to Hollywood, look to market experts to forecast the future of enjoyment, deciding what it is we as a society will come to obsess over. This is how piffle like 50 Shades of Grey becomes an instant bestseller, because it exploits a cultural niche. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, it just adjudicates itself according to what is known, marketed by measuring the pulse of popular culture. Though frustrating for those trying to break current molds, the art industrial complex does, in fact, appear to believe in the importance of a robust creative culture, doing what it can to keep things fresh, whether or not that freshness smells of daisies, dog shit, or an uncomfortable combination of the two. But how many times, in an effort to appease the consumer, have we pushed out something no one, absolutely no one, ends up giving a shit about, because of a well-tested, evidence-supported sales’ projection cooked up by some back office cronies? Is it really possible to predict something monumental in art? How can we discover the undiscoverable? Though our tools for spotting talent have surely improved, a truly groundbreaking idea is no less random than the piece of mold that led to discovering penicillin.
As the Maccabees presaged the modern state of Jewish history, so do I wonder if unwitting artists are currently doing the same thing with emerging forms of expression? Who are the people that, with their imbalance and recklessness, are currently developing the next great advent in entertainment? Is it possible that video games, for instance, are lurking in the same sphere that comics inhabited twenty years ago, and, soon enough, they too will meet a level of appreciation associated with the aesthetic elite? What about bio-technology? Or interactive computer animation? The truth is that truly incredible art can, and should, at some point, be primitive. The biological wonders of our world came from primordial soup, anyway. It’s why Edgar Rice Boroughs, whose writing is just awful, paved the way for Star Wars, and why Bob Kane created a rendition of Batman that would make Christopher Nolan fans cry their eyes out. It’s why both books and films were once considered trash, and why scores of amazing artists have died before their fame was realized.
Some forms of emerging expression—perhaps even most of them—will also fade into obscurity, mostly because they weren’t interesting to begin with. Just as history is populated with undiscovered genius, it is also populated with terrible ideas. Terrible ideas that, if put into practice, can lead to terrible outcomes. So how do we tell the difference between the revolutionary and the trivial? Like the ancient Maccabees, my forebears, fanatical men with a fervent desire to carry their medieval dogma into the future, so must there be people out there championing some pile of insanity that, while laughed at today, will one day be looked upon as the beginning of a new era. It’s difficult to predict who these lunatics are. One day, however, their ancestors will look back and marvel upon the brilliance that impelled them to endure.
Originally appeared at The Weeklings