Points of Connection, Part Five: Shadow Kingdoms

“If the Pirates of the Caribbean [ride] breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” –Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park


Many of the narratives discussed so far serve as commentary on the relationship between appearance and actuality: the actors on Galaxy Quest learn to live up to the roles they portray; Squadron Supreme, Watchmen and The Venture Bros. contrast the glamorous and well-intentioned ideal of the superhero with its flawed, sometimes squalid reality; The Adventures of Baron Munchausen plays with the very notion of storytelling’s ability to shape events.  This is directly tied to the revisionary, “postmodern” stance, of which pastiche, parody, and intertextuality are such an important part, as well as making it easier to critique thinly-veiled properties that might otherwise be off-limits due to copyright or marketing needs.

In film and television, the need for doppelganger brands and trademarks goes beyond storytelling requirements and is frequently undertaken as a matter of course: there is a cottage industry of production designers that supplies television and movie studios with fake products (like Heisler Beer) for set dressing.  Although they are sometimes the vehicle for critiques of branding or consumerism, they are usually just part of the background, used in order to avoid litigation or fees that might be demanded if a trademark holder were unhappy with either the portrayal or association of their product with a film or television show.  Similarly, filmmakers may wish to avoid the stigma of paid product placement.  Fictional branding is often just another aspect of crafting a believable setting or extending an aesthetic (such as Community‘s Greendale, where Let’s Potato Chips and Hot & Brown Coffee are popular brands), and some filmmakers have brands that permeate their creations, like J. J. Abrams’ Slusho!  No matter what the motivation, or whether real or fictional brands are used, the implication is clear that brands and logos are now so ubiquitous that realism demands their presence.*

"Pearbook" on iCarly

“Pearbook” on iCarly

"Heisler Gold Ale" produced by Independent Studio Services

“Heisler Gold Ale” prop packaging by Independent Studio Services

Leaving aside cases of paid product placement, critiques are more likely to be effective when brands are named directly instead of implied by doppelgangers (even with paid placement, filmmakers are sometimes able to get the last laugh: witness the future society of Demolition Man, in which “all restaurants are Taco Bell”).  Plenty of fictional products have skewered commercialism in films and television, but they are often deliberately unreal, placing the emphasis on the stupidity or crassness of marketing, making the satire clear but less believable in a fictional context (as an example, see “Mooby,” literally a golden calf, in Kevin Smith’s Dogma).  Films like Fight Club or Idiocracy have more bite in this regard for using real-life brands and making their target perfectly clear (although Idiocracy also included fictional brands: who could forget Brawndo?).  The use of brand names in such critical ways is generally protected by the First Amendment, but film producers aren’t always willing to invest in a court fight against big corporations and choose to play it safe; hence the common blurring of even innocuous background logos in documentaries and the proliferation of fake brands on television.  In general, the bigger the company brand, the bigger the target it makes for satirists and the more aggressive its lawyers are in policing its trademarks.

It doesn’t get much bigger than the Walt Disney Company, which is famously protective of its image and is known to be very litigious when it comes to unauthorized use of its intellectual property.  That made it all the more incredible when Escape from Tomorrow was released in 2013: Escape was largely filmed surreptitiously at Disneyland and Walt Disney World with handheld cameras, the cast and crew posing as tourists.  It caused a sensation at film festivals, not least from the audacity of its production, but whether it would ever be distributed was debatable, based on the presumption that Disney would never allow a film secretly made on their property (and in which EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth is shown blowing up and rolling off its foundation, among other dark images) to be widely seen if they had anything to say about it.  Ultimately, it was released with a prominent disclaimer disavowing any connection with Disney (or the Siemens Corporation, which also figures prominently in one of the film’s most bizarre scenes).

Walt Disney and his company, characters, and theme parks have been fictionalized, parodied, and referenced in ways too numerous to count, but a few examples will suffice.  Mooby, referenced above, is a clear Mickey Mouse analogue.  The Magic Kingdom is recognizable in Walley World, the frustratingly out-of-reach destination in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and in Brisbyland, the home of “Busy Bee” in “The Incredible Mr. Brisby,” an episode of The Venture Bros.  (In both cases, the park founder is still alive and present at his park, and has the first name “Roy,” surely a reference to Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and co-founder of the Walt Disney Company, or Roy E. Disney, Roy O.’s son and a longtime Disney executive.) Disney’s futuristic outlook, epitomized by EPCOT (originally intended to be a self-contained model community) but apparent through his entire career, has been a rich source of inspiration for both fiction and urban legend (for example, although Escape from Tomorrow doesn’t address Walt Disney’s supposed cryogenic preservation, it does include memory manipulation, robots, and other technologies behind the scenes—but how much of this is real is open to interpretation; more on this momentarily).  Finally, Disney is a natural focus for stories targeting whitewashing, controlled environments, prefab narratives, and illusory realities: whether one believes Walt Disney to have been a visionary artist, a commercial hack, something more sinister, or some combination of the three, the impact his company’s work has had on (for example) our understanding of familiar fairy tales, American history, and branding (not to mention our expectations for immersive entertainment: the “theme park” as we know it would be much different without Disney, if it existed at all) are incalculable.  If P. T. Barnum epitomizes nineteenth century show business in all its hucksterism and canny exploitation of the audience’s secret desires, Walt Disney is his technologically-empowered twentieth century heir.  Disney is thus a useful mirror for any artist interested in the contrast between calculated cover stories and messy realities.

Beyond association with Disney specifically, the haunted/abandoned/out-of-control amusement park has a long history, going back to the shady and dangerous “otherness” of the traveling circus (see the dark carnivals and mysterious midways of Ray Bradbury, who made extensive use of this setting)**, and kept alive in the malfunctioning high-tech entertainments of Westworld and Jurassic Park (both from the pen of Michael Crichton). The scary old carnival was something Disney actively tried to move away from: “carnies” with tattoos and facial hair would not be employed at his parks; every detail would be looked after to make sure guests felt safe, welcome, and at home; recreations of “old time” entertainments, such as Paradise Pier, the idealized Boardwalk at Disney California Adventures, are scrubbed clean of anything potentially offensive or threatening.  As for Crichton’s cybernetic system failures, those too drew inspiration from Disney, sensing a fatal hubris in the technophilia and micromanagement of Disney’s parks. The Simpsons knowingly brought things full circle, parodying Disneyland, Westworld, and Jurassic Park in “Itchy & Scratchy Land.”

Escape from Tomorrow thus makes a potent counterexample to the pastiches discussed in this series: it’s unlikely that the same film set in a fictionalized version of the park would make such a splash.  To point out that theme parks conceal things from their guests, or that “it’s all fake,” would be trite; everyone knows this, but like the audience for stage magic, we want to be seduced, to be tricked, at least for the duration of the show.  Escape’s trailer makes this case explicitly, and sells the film, with one line of dialogue: as Alison Lees-Taylor’s jaded ex-princess says, “People come here because they want to feel safe.  Bad things happen everywhere—especially here.”  The specificity of its references play with our familiarity with the urban legends and jokes about Disney—some are referenced directly, and others are left to our imagination.

(Spoilers follow.)  In the film, written and directed by Randy Moore, husband and father Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) is fired from his job (via phone call) on the last morning of his Disneyworld vacation; while attempting to put a good face on it, he is continually distracted in the park by a pair of beguiling French teenagers, whom he clumsily follows around.  Other subplots abound, and the story is largely episodic, broken up by periodic flights of fantasy (reference is made to Jim’s “blackouts”) which provide the more overt horror elements: the characters in the rides suddenly turn into demonic tormentors; Jim finds himself entangled in a high-tech conspiracy; other park visitors, such as a scooter-riding Southerner, take on sinister significance.  In other words, the “Happiest Place on Earth” has its mask ripped away.  As Lees-Taylor’s character says, “You can’t be happy all the time.”

Pastiche is still present in at least one element of Escape from Tomorrow: the music.  Licensing requirements would have made it prohibitive to use the actual songs from Disney’s catalog, so composer Abel Korzeniowski provides convincing and frequently gorgeous backgrounds in the lush, cinematic style associated with Disney’s “golden age,” and sound-alike ditties for the rides.  The film is better for it.  This is especially clear in an early scene set on the “It’s a Small World” ride, in which the song of the same name is suggested–and its cloying, repetitive qualities exaggerated–but not actually used.  The end title song (“Imaginate!”) similarly toys with the optimistic “marching into the future” genre, giving it a vaguely threatening edge: compare it to “Miracles from Molecules,” a song (by Robert and Richard Sherman) heard in Disney’s Tomorrowland, but note that the transformations in “Imaginate!” aren’t in the inanimate materials of chemistry, but in the listener: “Everyone is here, no time to fear / And we will never let you go. . . . Imaginate! What can we do / When tomorrow there’s another you?”

Ultimately, Escape from Tomorrow pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience not unlike Disney’s hard-to-keep promise of happiness: the most surreal and dramatic scenes (like the explosion of Spaceship Earth) are fantasies, whereas the real horrors are those of the mundane world, playing on fears anyone can relate to: unemployment, alcoholism, infidelity, being separated from a child in a crowd, getting sick far from home.***  Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was the third in a loose trilogy (with Time Bandits and Brazil) focused on the importance of escapist dreams.  While Randy Moore’s cinematic language is closer to David Lynch than Gilliam (one of the spookiest scenes involves a slightly out-of-focus balloon, hovering just inside the frame), Jim’s breaks from reality clearly serve the same purpose as Sam Lowry’s in Brazil.  Even the French teenagers, in whom Jim’s interest is primarily sexual, can be seen as emblematic of a tempting other life, the specifics not so important.  It’s surely a commentary on our times that even as frightening, disorienting, and paranoid as Jim’s fantasies are, they’re still preferable to his everyday life.  That’s not to say that “reality” isn’t still a malleable concept: as in Gilliam, the boundaries of dream and waking are permeable.  At Escape‘s denouement, a “fixer” implants a happy memory in Jim’s son’s mind: who’s to say that Moore’s film doesn’t perform a similar alchemy in reverse, supplanting the company’s narrative with its own?

* David Foster Wallace notes the change in attitude toward brand names and other mass media references in literary fiction, and the role television has played in shaping that transition, in “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction,” especially pp. 41-44, included in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

** “Something Wicked This Way Went: Whatever Happened to the Creepy Circus?” by EsoterX has a nice take on the subject.

*** A comparison can be made to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Max Brooks’ World War Z: the political and social ills in both scenarios are plausible enough to be scary by themselves, but presumably wouldn’t draw as much of an audience without the sci-fi “hooks.”

In Defense of Medleys

As a composer and performer, one aspect of musical composition that has always fascinated me is the mysterious alchemy by which two ideas, which may have little in common (at least superficially), can be joined together simply by their presence in the same piece of music.  This may seem trivial, but the question of why some ideas seem to fit together and others remain stubbornly separate is an important one for composers and songwriters, and the performers and conductors who do their best to interpret their ideas.  It’s taken me a few months to come around to this directly, but I wanted to get some entries under my belt before I tackled the subject.

Although I intend to keep blogging about comics, movies, musical instruments, and anything else that catches my fancy, Medleyana takes its name from an oft-maligned genre of music: the humble medley—you know, the sort of piece that delivers the most exciting or recognizable bits of several songs or pieces in a self-contained arrangement.  It’s not hard to see why the medley form is underappreciated, or not even acknowledged as a legitimate form at all.  Anyone who has played an instrument in a school band or orchestra, or had a child who did, has suffered through watered-down arrangements of movie themes or pop tunes that are too difficult for students to perform in their original form, cementing an association between medleys and amateur music-making.  For the same reason, medleys are considered an essentially “commercial” form, trafficking in the ephemera of songs and movies that are omnipresent for a season and then forgotten.  Even those medleys of evergreen favorites like Christmas carols or patriotic songs are subject to the whims of changing fashion or the vagaries of the publishing business.  (Bob Lowden’s Armed Forces Salute, a well-regarded arrangement of the service songs of the five U. S. armed forces, and one I’ve played countless times, including a half dozen in the last year alone, recently went out of print.)  Nostalgia and pedagogy are not usually respected as serious aesthetic motivation: a form that typically combines both is doomed to be overlooked.

Still, the medley has been surprisingly robust as a genre.  Since the middle ages, dance tunes (at least those that were written down) were often strung together to create longer forms, a practice that has more to do with the necessity of providing accompaniment for an evening of dancing than any overarching compositional philosophy.  In the nineteenth century, possibly the golden age of concertizing, virtuoso performers and conductors would program crowd-pleasing medleys of popular operatic arias, often under the moniker of “fantasy” or “potpourri.”  A savvy self-promoter like Franz Liszt would be sure to have prepared a collection of the appropriate national songs of whatever country he was visiting as a sop to the audience, the equivalent of a rock star’s “Hello, Cleveland!” shout-out.  The concert band developed in this milieu, and its literature has always reflected this populist tendency.  And while ambitious composers have largely left Broadway and popular song medleys to pops concerts and school band publishers, most of the early twentieth century British masterworks that are the foundation of serious band literature—Gustav Holst’s Second Suite in F, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Suite, and Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posey—are essentially medleys, albeit with a great deal more craft and passion than was normally lavished on compositions for the medium at the time.

In short, the typical medley form—one idea following another, like beads on a string, until it ends—may be simple, but a form it is, and one with a long pedigree in both “serious” and popular music.  Its continued presence is like the survival of those turtles and crocodilians that have remained largely unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs: they may be more modest than the giants they once walked among, but they are a surviving link to those days and worthy of our attention.

Personally, I have always preferred forms with a great deal of contrast; multi-strain forms like the march or piano rag, programmatic works, theatrical and film music, and the like.  In our current referential, sample-driven “remix culture,” there has been a renewed focus on issues of appropriation, quotation and recontextualization.  In the kind of medleys I mentioned, appropriation is less of an issue: songs under copyright must be licensed when included in a published arrangement, and as such the medley is an auxiliary to the original product, in effect an advertisement for the original.  The line is fuzzier when it comes to quotations so brief or so transformed that they fly under the radar of copyright niceties, or when the original work is in the public domain and safely available for anyone to use as they like.  Would the original composer approve of their tune’s new setting?  Is it necessary to observe original intent when combining or rearranging old chestnuts?  Will the audience even be aware of the borrowing?  Does it matter?  To be sure, “spot the reference” can be fun when dealing with magpie composers like Charles Ives or Danny Elfman, but even when the sources are unfamiliar I get a lot of pleasure from the sensory overload that comes from rapid-fire changes of musical texture, and there have been plenty of pop songs that I first heard as part of a medley, mash-up or mix tape, that captivated me enough to look up the original.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the era of “Hooked on Classics,” what writer Noel Murray calls the “Medley Age.”  Or maybe decades of playing medleys in school and community bands have left me with musical Stockholm Syndrome.  It could just be that I’m a hopeless vulgarian with a short attention span.  In any case, the pleasure of recognition is often only the beginning of what a medley or mash-up has to offer.  Readers of this blog will have noted that I am, at best, ambivalent about totalizing theoretical or aesthetic frameworks, whether in music, literary analysis, or comic book continuity: as seductive as they can be, they can be too constricting when taken as a blueprint for the creative act, and when used as an editor’s guiding principle can cut out much that was fresh and vital in the first place.  In my view, it’s better to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” even knowing that the results may be messy, chaotic, and contradictory.  In that sense, they are much more like life as it is lived than as we would like it to be.

Points of Connection, Part Four: Mirror Universes

One of my favorite scenes involving the Squadron Supreme is in Mark Gruenwald’s follow-up to the SS miniseries, the graphic novel Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe.  In Death, a mysterious growing blot threatens to erase the entire universe, a danger that brings former enemies together for the sake of survival.  Dr. Emil Burbank, alias “Master Menace,” who has been established as the Lex Luthor to Hyperion’s Superman (although his armor makes him look more like Dr. Doom—this is still a Marvel book, after all) volunteers to travel forward in time in order to develop a solution using the future era’s advanced technology.  (It’s one of many possible futures; as one character points out, the universe they’re in may not have a future.)  Nearly an hour after his departure, his time machine returns.  Burbank steps out, an old man: he has spent fifteen years of intense labor in the future perfecting his device.  Hyperion is shocked at the sacrifice his old enemy has made.  “At last he treats me with the respect one of my stature is entitled to!” thinks Burbank.

From Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe, art by Paul Ryan and Al Williamson.  Source: Comic Book Resources.  Brian Cronin was struck by the same scene as myself.

From Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe, art by Paul Ryan and Al Williamson. Source: Comic Book Resources. Brian Cronin was obviously struck by the same scene as myself.

It’s a little too on-the-nose, but it’s of a piece with Gruenwald’s interest in illuminating the relationships between comic book archetypes.  It’s also, in a way, a rare moment of understanding between two antagonists; comic book narratives depend on direct conflict, and have historically placed emphasis on action, not détente.  It’s clear that Master Menace is acting from self-interest as usual, but he also seems intrigued by the possibility of playing hero, if just this once.  If we accept the notion that villains are most compelling when they reveal something about the hero*, it suggests that what Hyperion and Master Menace share is both a higher purpose and a natural superiority to others (why deny it?), but in Burbank’s eyes only Hyperion has received the acclaim he deserves.  Burbank has had to work for his success, and has seen his ambitious visions thwarted (usually by Hyperion, obviously), but all Hyperion has to do is flex his muscles and punch a few bad guys and he is universally beloved.  What Master Menace really wants is to be seen as a worthy opponent instead of just another criminal, to have his greatness recognized.  I’m probably reading some of the shared history of Lex Luthor and Clark Kent into this scene, but isn’t that the point? (For a similar take from the villain’s point of view, see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.)

Although they aren’t cast as hero/villain, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) and Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) have a similar dynamic in the 1999 film Galaxy Quest.  Bound together by their roles on the long-cancelled television series of the same name, as “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart” and “Dr. Lazarus” respectively, Nesmith relishes the adulation of fans and the chance to relive his glory days as the boyish, heroic starship captain, while Dane mourns that a classically-trained Shakespearean such as himself has become trapped in a one-dimensional, prosthetic-forehead-wearing role defined by a single catchphrase: “By Grabthar’s Hammer. . . .”  To Dane, Nesmith is a hammy showboat; to Nesmith, Dane is a snob who needs to lighten up.


Of course, it’s immediately obvious that “Nesmith/Taggart” is William Shatner playing James T. Kirk, and “Dane/Lazarus” is Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, and indeed the entire setup, from the canceled cult TV show to the easily mocked conventions, is a pastiche of Star Trek and its real-life fandom.  An early moment in the film, when Nesmith lashes out at his fans, snarling “It’s just a television show,” is undoubtedly inspired by the well-known Saturday Night Live sketch in which William Shatner tells his fans to “get a life;” Dane’s self-loathing is a comic exaggeration of Nimoy, who was so famously ambivalent about his best-known role that he published two autobiographies, one called I Am Not Spock and, twenty years later, I Am Spock. Galaxy Quest gets a lot of story across in a short amount of time because we already know its premise and characters in broad outline, and the casting adds more layers to the joke. Rickman surely knew a thing or two about lending his theatrical gravitas to B-movie genre roles; Gwen DeMarco (the eye-candy communications officer Tawny Madison, whose job is to repeat everything the computer says) is played by Sigourney Weaver, Ellen Ripley herself; Sam Rockwell plays Guy, the unnamed crew member terrified he’ll be as expendable as Star Trek’s “red shirts;” my favorite is Fred Kwan (Tech Sergeant Chen), who admits Kwan isn’t even his real name, played by the Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub (himself frequently cast in Italian, Arab, or Russian “ethnic” roles).

It’s a testament to the strength of the performances and the attention to detail that the pastiche works as a commentary on Star Trek without descending into simple parody.  As the story unfolds, with the cast of the TV show mistaken for actual space explorers and drafted into an alien war**, there are stakes, and there is character growth; there are jabs at cheap sets, formulaic writing, and rubber masks, but they are, in a sense, coming from inside knowledge, an elbow nudge from one fan to another.  The writers and director clearly have an affection for the subject, and like fans everywhere have earned the right to point out the more risible aspects of the show without giving up the reasons they fell in love with it in the first place.

It’s also hilarious.  Based on the films that have already been made, it would seem to be difficult to make a humorous science fiction film, at least one in which the comedy and science fiction elements are given equal footing.  Sure, humorous elements have been present in written science fiction almost since the beginning, Fredric Brown being an early practitioner, but when it comes to putting fantastic visions on celluloid, there has historically been a divide between the self-seriousness of sci fi and the tendency of TV and movie comedians to deflate, to tear down artifice (or at least there was through much of the twentieth century; a balanced combination of comedy and genre elements isn’t quite the rarity it was in 1999).  Galaxy Quest finds a lot of its humor in the backstage bickering and self-delusion of actors, as well as lazy writing that amps up tension at the expense of believability (like the self-destruct timer that only stops at 0:01, or ridiculous obstacle courses that would be safety hazards in a supposedly utilitarian spaceship***).  The phoniness on display is that of show business in general, not science fiction specifically.  When the film finally turns its attention to cheesy special effects, usually the lowest hanging fruit for satire, it’s the deepest moment of pathos, a point of complete disillusionment.

One thing Galaxy Quest doesn’t do is so much as whisper the names Star Trek, Kirk, Spock, Enterprise, Klingons, or anything else that would tip us off; you either get it or you don’t.  Doing so wouldn’t just throw the pastiche into relief as a copycat (who would ask for Brand X when they could have the real thing?), it would rob it of the superlative element that, as I’ve said, is an important element of this kind of storytelling.  It’s one thing, for example, to create a fictional Senator, astronaut, car company, or NFL team, and have them mingle with real-life figures: in that case, they are part of a class, and adding one more doesn’t change things too much.  Cultural objects like television shows or books, however, are trickier: they generally occupy niches from which they must be displaced, not simply added to.  One would think this is obvious, but it happens all the time: Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes look at a distinctly Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, had a lot of problems, but an easily avoided one was constant mentions of Saturday Night Live. If, in the show, Studio 60 was such a groundbreaking program, what was SNL?  In Mike Carey’s ongoing comic book series The Unwritten, Tom Taylor is the unwitting star of a series of fantasy novels clearly based on the Harry Potter series, the success of which is an obvious point of inspiration.  The originality and influence attributed to the Tommy Taylor series is undercut, however, by references to Harry Potter and its author, J. K. Rowling.  It comes down to the old problem of a work-within-a-work having to live up to the claims characters in the story make for it: it’s easier to suspend disbelief if we can imagine the work standing in for something we already know to be successful, but if we’re confronted with both the original and the pastiche existing within the fiction, how can the pastiche not seem like a pale imitation?


Finally, Galaxy Quest connects to Star Trek through the moral division of its characters: Star Trek confronted this literally with the Mirror Universe (“Mirror, Mirror”), a parallel world full of evil versions of the Enterprise crew, very much in the spirit of the Crime Syndicate of America or Squadron Sinister.  In Galaxy Quest, the division is internal: the actors aren’t evil, but fallible, and the doubles they must face are the heroic characters they play and for whom they are mistaken.  Nesmith, who loves playing the hero, is forced to bear the burdens of leadership and consequences that real leaders face, and is forced by circumstance to admit that it’s all fake; Dane, who already feels like a fraud playing the one-dimensional Dr. Lazarus, comes to realize how much he has meant to his fans, and embraces his role.  Interestingly, it is the villain, General Sarris, who articulates the themes of theatricality most clearly: despite his reptilian appearance, he is more human in temperament than the literal-minded Thermians.  It is Sarris who immediately grasps that Nesmith and his crew are actors, and forces him to explain it to the Thermian leader “as you would a child.” The final role-reversal occurs when Sarris accuses the actors of “playing war,” and Nesmith, fully embracing the role of Commander, tells him “It doesn’t take a great actor to recognize a bad one.”  Ultimately, Galaxy Quest redeems its characters by showing that, as ridiculous as they may be, audiences believe in them, perhaps not literally like the naïve Thermians, but as ideals.  It’s that optimistic spirit that most closely unites Galaxy Quest to its model.

* Batman is generally thought to have the best rogue’s gallery because the villains mirror Bruce Wayne/Batman’s qualities in distorted ways: the Joker reflects Batman’s psychosis, and his reaction to tragedy is to use violence and pranks to unravel the social order Batman strives to uphold; the Riddler mocks Batman’s pretensions as the Great Detective; the Penguin is the plutocratic face of Bruce Wayne’s inherited wealth; Two-Face is as divided as Wayne/Batman, but in an unmistakably public and troubled way, and so forth. (These observations are indebted to Richard Reynolds’ Superheroes: A Modern Mythology and Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.)

** The element of mistaken identity in Galaxy Quest is a standard comic trope, of course, and the specific element of actors mistaken for the roles they play is as old in film as To Be or Not to Be. Galaxy Quest’s basic plot had already been used in Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life, but recognizing the similarity doesn’t ruin the enjoyment.  As with all the pastiches I’ve discussed (or Campbell’s monomyth, or any analytic framework that reduces works to an underlying recurrent pattern), the pleasure is in how the story unfolds rather than recognition of the universal pattern: we first attend to the surface, the specificity of this story, and can then proceed to the middle ground, where comparisons can be made between competing realizations of the underlying myth.

*** A trope still in use, by the way: “chompers,” or some variation, show up in the Star Wars prequels and in the revived Doctor Who series, to cite examples off the top of my head.

Points of Connection, Part Three: Invasion of the TV Doppelgangers

Of course, sometimes less is more: a few carefully selected details can tell us everything we need to know about a character, especially in the visual media of comics or film.  At the very least, putting a familiar character in a new uniform with a new name can work wonders, creating a “reskinned” version of the known character, to borrow a metaphor from video games.  The Justice League are suggested visually in Planetary and The Authority; numerous pulp and comics figures are recognizable in Planetary, and entire worlds where costumed heroes are the norm are presented in works such as Astro City, Top 10, and The Venture Bros.: our escapist fantasy is their day-to-day, and naturally there are connections to familiar characters, sometimes played straight and sometimes distorted like the reflections in a funhouse mirror.

Unnamed Justice League doubles, from Planetary No. 1; art by John Cassaday

Unnamed Justice League doubles, from Planetary No. 1; art by John Cassaday

It can be most fascinating when only a hint is given: Berthold, Albrecht, Adolphus, and Gustavus, the companions of Baron Munchausen (themselves a sort of 18th century superhero team) have little backstory or individuality beyond their extraordinary abilities, but I was captivated by them after seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film. Berthold is the fastest man alive (literally faster than a speeding bullet), to the point that he is shackled to a pair of iron balls to keep him in place; Albrecht is a gentle giant, possessed of great strength; Adolphus is the hawkeyed marksman; Gustavus has incredible hearing and can exhale gale-force winds (two abilities that don’t appear related on the surface, but there is a poetic rightness to their pairing). The simplicity of their characterization is tied into their superlative abilities: comic book and fairy tale narratives alike depend on simple, clearly defined characters, who are often boiled down to the pure essence of whatever they are.  Being well-rounded isn’t required, particularly for those in supporting roles.  Munchausen’s companions compare well to Doc Savage’s team of experts or any other team where diverse abilities and personalities are subordinated to a strong leader who can bind them together.

The best example of the power of suggestion is probably the bounty hunter Boba Fett, a “gadget antihero,” whose cool uniform and badass swagger (as has been pointed out many times before, his bona fides were instantly established with two words from Darth Vader: “No disintegrations”) sparked the imagination of Star Wars fans everywhere when he appeared in The Empire Strikes Back.  Even his ironic, thoroughly non-badass fall into the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi took little shine off his reputation.  Sadly, his origin, as established in the prequel trilogy, has only served to deflate his mythic status (along with everything else in the Star Wars universe).  Sometimes it is really better not to reveal too much.

I mean, just look at him.

I mean, just look at him.

Television has developed its own conventions for doubles, for reasons unique to the medium.  It’s very common for procedurals like Law & Order and political dramas like The West Wing to fictionalize real-life individuals, with L & O especially prone to using cases that are “ripped from the headlines.”  In addition to the changes of names and inessential details involved, the casting of actors signals the added layer of unreality to the audience: like the use of superhero pastiches, it allows the writer the freedom to embroider or change facts (especially important considering the need to wrap up a criminal case every week, as opposed to the sometimes murky and prolonged real-life cases they’re based on).  Indeed, it’s only one step removed from casting a role in a biopic or docudrama, or impersonating a public figure on Saturday Night Live.  In an era where celebrities, politicians, and other public figures are familiar to audiences through their television appearances, the replacement of one heavily mediated figure with another can be accepted without batting an eye.

Animation is fertile ground for the kind of doubling seen in the comics: it is a visual medium limited only by the imagination of the artists, and most animated shows draw on genres and conventions related to the comics: superheroes, fantasy/science fiction, adventure, and humor, all of which benefit from bold designs and clear characterization based on stock types—in other words, the domain of the archetype and the doppelganger.  Animation does add a layer unavailable to the comic book, however: voice acting.  Just as in the thinly fictionalized cases of L & O, the presence of a familiar actor (even if in voice only) can cue the audience to similarities between characters.  For example, TV’s longtime Batman Adam West lent his voice to the Squadron Supreme’s Nighthawk on an episode of Super Hero Squad Show (“Whom Continuity Would Destroy!”), a not-so-subtle nod to Nighthawk’s model (and one in a long string of self-deprecating turns by West).  Likewise, Kevin Conroy (the voice of the title character on Batman: The Animated Series) appeared as  Captain Sunshine (a character superficially resembling Superman, but whose mansion and relationship with his “ward,” Wonder Boy, clearly parodies the homoerotic subtext often attributed to Batman’s relationship with Robin, the “Boy Wonder”) on The Venture Bros. (“Handsome Ransom”).


Comedies, however, have really taken the doppelganger concept and run with it in the last decade: it fits perfectly with the self-referential, metatextual idiom that took hold in the 1990s with The Simpsons and Seinfeld, and came to fruition with programs such as Spaced, Arrested Development, and CommunityThe Simpsons had its Shelbyville, a mirror version of hometown Springfield, complete with doppelgangers of the main cast (in the episode “Lemon of Troy”).  On Seinfeld, when Elaine started hanging out with Kevin, referred to as “Bizarro Jerry” in the episode of the same name (a reference, of course, borrowed from Superman’s mythos), she found herself at a different coffee shop and with a group that resembled Jerry, George, and Kramer.  (The fact that Bizarro Jerry and his friends were generous and considerate, of course, ultimately excluded Elaine from their company: she didn’t fit in with them.)  Since then, there is hardly a single TV comedy from the last ten years that hasn’t played with the idea of a character or group that mirrors one or more of the main characters.


A theme that runs through many of the examples I’ve cited is one of maturity, even senescence, looking back and reevaluating the follies of youth (the youth of a medium, its characters, or its audience, it makes no difference), what Geoff Klock calls the revisionary narrative. In Gilliam’s film, Baron Munchausen revisits the scenes of his youthful adventures, getting his servants together and confronting the results of his earlier decisions.  The screwed-up lives of professional adventurers and the way their dysfunction is passed from generation to generation is a primary theme of The Venture Bros. (In Gilliam’s film, Berthold was stranded in a cage on the Moon for twenty years after being abandoned by the Baron; Dr. Jonas Venture similarly left trusted companions, experimental subjects, and dangerous inventions behind in the Venture Compound, messes his son Rusty has had to deal with throughout the series.)  And of course, the characters in Watchmen are dominated by the past, ruminating on it, trying to get past it or relive it, digging up skeletons that are better left buried.  Nostalgia, regret, and loss of potency figure in all three narratives.  (Still, I don’t want to overlook the enormous pleasure I get from these stories: even Watchmen, which I wouldn’t exactly describe as “fun,” is exhilarating on account of its ambition and technical achievement.  It has the uplifting quality of a great tragedy instead of just being a giant bummer.)

Special thanks to Matthew Grenier and Adam Byers for helping me sharpen some of my arguments and pointing me toward some examples I hadn’t thought of.  Of course, my wrong-headed conclusions are all my own, and the only blame they deserve is for encouraging me.

Next, I’ll examine pastiche writ large, and a counterexample: Galaxy Quest and Escape From Tomorrow.

Points of Connection, Part Two: A is A . . . or is it?

What can one say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said?  Since its initial publication in 1986-87, more ink has been spilled about the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons than probably any other modern comic book narrative. It’s been named as one of the greatest (defined as most artistically accomplished, most influential, or most successful—take your pick) comic book projects in history, and even one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Novels, period.  Since the release of Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation and DC’s decision to publish the Before Watchmen prequel books in 2012, there has been even more commentary and debate. I don’t intend to add more to the pile of Watchmen verbiage outside of the narrow scope I established in my last Medleyana post: the use of doppelganger characters.* Alan Moore’s influence on the mainstream has lessened as his projects have become increasingly idiosyncratic in recent years, but it is impossible to discuss the reworking of characters and the exploration of archetypes without bringing him up.

Watchmen is probably the best-known use of pastiche on a grand scale in comics. Originally, Moore meant to write his story about characters from the Charlton publishing company, which had been acquired by DC; after DC decided those characters could be profitably relaunched within DC’s established continuity, they were off the table, and Moore chose to create new characters along similar lines: the Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, and so forth.

Here’s where it gets interesting: as established previously, an intertextual double (a misprision, in poetic terms) follows the same broad outlines as the original, but is a character in itself, independent of its source.  Points of connection between the two are also points of departure: in other words, the double is only beholden to the original up to the threshold of reader recognition (for purposes of commentary) or satisfying the needs of a given character type (for narrative purposes); after that, they are effectively a blank slate, just like any other original character.  The difference between an effective analogue and a ripoff, then, has nothing to do with “originality” (a much overestimated quality, and especially meaningless in such a codified genre as the superhero), and everything to do with the creator’s success in infusing him or her with convincing motives and actions.  If a character would live, it must have the spark of life: nothing else matters.  (I’ve alluded to the writer’s role in crafting a convincing character, and that is just as true for “original” characters as doppelgangers, of course.)  For Moore, whose entire purpose was to establish a psychological realism to a degree that had only been spottily attempted in the superhero narrative previously, the inner life was a given, but for the achievement to have impact, the characters would also have to resonate as plausible superheroes.**  The Charlton stable were important models, but Moore and Gibbons also drew on the broader common property of superhero archetypes and the visual tropes of costume, accessories, and even the illustration styles of pulp novels, comic books, and advertising art in order to create a convincing, lifelike world, divergent from ours but believable nonetheless.

To cite an example from Watchmen, I had little familiarity with Steve Ditko’s severely moralistic vigilante the Question, or his follow-up character, the even more stringent Mr. A (whose uncompromising slogan, “A is A!” was taken directly from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), when I first read the graphic novel.  Still, Rorschach is a clear enough character type: a vigilante with a moral code so strict that no one can live up to it, with equal contempt for criminals, their victims, and even other heroes if they aren’t willing to go as far as him.  The details that Moore invents for Walter Kovacs, Rorschach’s alter ego, speak to Watchmen’s interest in both the social problems and individual psychoses involved with superheroics: childhood sexual trauma, a connection to the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, and of course the horrific crimes that sped along Kovacs’ psychotic break.  One doesn’t need to know Ditko’s original characters to appreciate the drama, but it adds some intertextual depth (if anything, reading some of Mr. A’s cases show how little Moore had to exaggerate Rorschach’s ruthlessness and black-and-white morality).

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

Origin of Rorschach's mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Origin of Rorschach’s mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Likewise, I was familiar with the Blue Beetle from his introduction into DC continuity rather than his original Charlton adventures, but I didn’t immediately connect him to Nite Owl when reading Watchmen: he too is a familiar type, a “gadget hero” like Batman (or, to a lesser degree, Iron Man).  Within the narrative, Dan Dreiberg is actually the second Nite Owl, borrowing his name and persona from a Golden Age model, Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl, representing both the ideals and the institutional memory of the original costumed heroes).  This pattern was true of the Blue Beetle, but also of characters such as Green Lantern and Hawkman who had very different Golden and Silver Age incarnations.

Watchmen also benefits from an important opportunity afforded by pastiche: the ability to replace the ad hoc jumble of origins and histories typical of established continuity with a streamlined history that both gives all the characters a common point of reference and allows for meaningful points of connection between them that goes beyond the simple “team-up.”  Although, as Geoff Klock points out, Moore has in many cases deliberately introduced the kind of contradictory history that plagues long-running comic book series into his original stories, in Watchmen he plays it straight, with his “real-life” costumed heroes taking inspiration from fictional comic book characters, and eventually supplanting them.  As for points of contact, in addition to the obvious shared history between them, there are subtle connections: the shape-shifting cloth which Rorschach wears as a mask, and from which he takes his name, is referred to as a spin-off of technologies introduced by Dr. Manhattan, the only truly superhuman character in the novel; other technologies and businesses mentioned are part of the empire of Adrian Veidt, the “self-made” superhero Ozymandias (and a major driver of the plot).

Film adaptations of superheroes often make connections where none exist in the comics in order to tighten up the plot, as for example the Joker/Jack Napier being identified as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman, or Ra’s al Ghul serving as both Wayne’s mentor and eventual antagonist in Batman Begins. Such circularity is more dramatically satisfying, and easier to establish, in a two-hour film or self-contained novel, although asserting such symmetries can be one function of rebooting or “retconning” an established series.  As an example from another narrative, when J. Michael Straczynski rebooted the Squadron Supreme for his 2003 series Supreme Power, he started from the ground up, effectively creating a “trope of a trope:” in Straczynski’s version, the escape pod that brought “Mark Milton” (Hyperion) to earth as an infant was part of an alien battle, the shrapnel from which also gave powers to the Blur (a trope of the Flash, replacing the original Squadron Supreme’s Whizzer, because really: the Whizzer?) and provided the “Power Prism” to Doctor Spectrum (a trope of Green Lantern, here reconceived as a special ops pilot nicknamed “Doctor” because of the surgical precision with which he executes his missions); some of the villains Hyperion faced were created through government experimentation with his own DNA.***  The reboot/misprision allowed Straczynski to focus on the elements that most concerned him: instead of the Squadron imposing its rule in the name of the greater good, as in Mark Gruenwald’s narrative, the Squadron are tools of a shadowy, not always benevolent government that doesn’t reveal its purposes to its super-military (as exemplified by Mark Milton’s upbringing by government operatives instead of Ma and Pa Kent), the expression of a twenty-first century anxiety that remains as relevant as ever.

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

Next time, I’ll examine a few examples from movies and television.

* But for the record, I liked Moore’s original “space squid” ending, and I think it could have worked on film if it had been reconceived in cinematic terms by a director more concerned with duplicating the feel than the look of the book.  How terrifying—and believable—could Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi have made that ending?

** Interestingly, Moore and Gibbons have stated that Mad‘s parody “Superduperman” was an influence on their approach, revealing depravity and greed beneath the slick costumes.  It’s not uncommon for transgressions that are comical to one generation to be taken seriously and developed in earnest by the next.

*** Marvel attempted something similar with its “New Universe” line in 1986, sort of the flip side of DC’s unification of its universe, and showing that it isn’t easy to build a compelling narrative world from scratch.

Points of Connection, Part One: the Many Children of Krypton

Hyperion.  Supreme.  The Sentry.  What do these characters have in common?  All are doppelgängers, or doubles, of Superman, and not just in the sense that all costumed heroes descend from the Big S, or in the debt they all owe to Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, nor even in their monomythic relation to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Rather, they are thinly veiled copies, different enough in detail to escape litigation (or avoid confusing readers) but readily recognized by key elements of their persona, history, and/or supporting cast.

The double, or pastiche, is a powerful fictional technique, in which an established character is effectively remade (and frequently repurposed); it’s especially common in comic books, where “copycatting” is an established (if not especially reputable) practice.  As an example, the core members of DC’s Justice League of America—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al—have been copied numerous times, individually and as a team.  It should be noted that I’m not speaking so much of identical twins or copies of the same characters inhabiting parallel universes, although those are equally common story-telling tropes. The doubling to which I refer is almost always intertextual, allowing a writer to tell a story including (a version of) a character owned by another publisher, or including story elements that would be unacceptable for a well-established (and ongoing) character.

Adhering to genre conventions is not enough: recall that National (DC’s parent company) sued Fawcett over alleged similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel, yet the elements the two characters have in common—super strength and other powers, colorful costumes, secret identities, and an ethos of doing good—are practically universal among Golden Age heroes, and in other specifics the characters are quite different.  Superman, orphaned son of the doomed planet Krypton, doesn’t have much in common with Billy Batson, who is given his powers by the wizard Shazam.  It is precisely those details that a writer can exploit, filling in the pastiche character’s backstory with variations that are functionally the same; sometimes it is as simple as changing a few names (Superman’s Krypton becomes Hyperion’s Argon), at other times a more thorough reworking is undertaken, but the connections are still apparent because of the overall dynamic of the story.  This goes beyond parody, although the line can be fuzzy: Mad’s “Superduperman” and “Captain Marbles” are clearly a joke, but one intended to reveal, among other things, the venality and absurdity hidden beneath the costumed hero’s civic-minded facade (“Once a creep, always a creep!”). Hyperion (from Marvel’s Squadron Supreme) and Alan Moore’s take on Marvelman/Miracleman (instantly recognizable as Superman and Captain Marvel, respectively) are largely dramatic in their treatment, but just as flawed.

The value of the double is summed up by Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, a study that looks at the evolution of superhero narratives through the lens of Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence:

The current character, though obviously in debt to its source, can often act as a powerful misprision [a reflection, or reinterpretation] of that original character, while the fact that it is not actually the original frees the writer from the constraints of copyright and continuity.

For example, earlier in his book, Klock argues that “Warren Ellis’s Four Voyagers [from the pages of Planetary] are a trope of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, which is to say that while the Four Voyagers are characters in themselves, they are also an interpretation/metaphor of characters that have come before” (emphasis added).

Such misprision is most useful when the writer has something to say beyond aping an already successful character: in Klock’s scheme, informed by Bloom’s statement that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem,” well-known characters stand in for their creators, so that one generation of writers can exorcise or assimilate the influence of the preceding generation.  (And obviously, the technique of parody allows the writer to zero in on whatever element of the original character they wish to critique, exaggerating it, sometimes to the point of absurdity–see above.)  One doesn’t have to agree with all of Klock’s conclusions to see the value of this dialectic approach, and in fact the finest realization of a pastiche character isn’t always written by the person who first created it.  Alan Moore took over Supreme, a character created by Rob Liefeld, and transformed him into a meditation on Superman; the resemblance was already present, but Moore brought it into focus.  As another example, Mark Gruenwald used the Squadron Supreme, Marvel’s trope of the JLA (originally introduced by Roy Thomas), to examine the relationships of the characters to each other, bringing out unspoken subtext or real-world concerns (such as the tendency toward paternalistic fascism inherent in the concept of super-protectors; the alienation of super-beings’ human friends and family; and the finality of death, as opposed to comic book characters’ typical return from the grave for shock value, marketing purposes, or narrative convenience) that would halt an ongoing series in its tracks if acknowledged. (Another version of the Squadron, effectively a trope of a trope, was launched in 2003; more about that later.)

Such concerns, when addressed at all, used to be the domain of the parallel universe or “imaginary story:” What if the Justice League used their power to oppress humanity instead of protecting it?  One answer was Earth-3’s Crime Syndicate of America; another was the Squadron Sinister, created as part of an unofficial “Avengers vs. JLA” crossover (since by Comic Book Law, when two characters meet for the first time, they must test their powers against each other in battle; the Squadron Sinister later, of course, became the Squadron Supreme). Later, such projects as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier would address many of these subjects using flagship characters in speculative settings outside regular continuity, but Squadron Supreme (1985) predates the more critical approach to characterization kicked off by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and by Miller himself, and the aforementioned projects benefited from the more fluid approach to continuity that became fashionable after the high water mark of Crisis on Infinite Earths’ obsessive attempt to keep things in fixed positions.

Time is short tonight, so I’ll save a discussion of Watchmen, one of the most prominent and influential reinventions of this type, for next time.

Am I the only one who goes back to read my old comments on online forums?

I’ve been active to varying degrees on a few different websites over the years (no, I’m not saying which ones—those things are pseudonymous for a reason!), and most commenting systems have the option to look at all of the comments made by an account at once.  A few years ago, I mentioned to a colleague that while commenting online includes being part of a conversation, it is also something like a mirror.  It was difficult to explain what I meant by that, but I think I had the review function in mind: going back (sometimes years, in the case of a few websites I’ve spent way too much time on), I can see a clear picture of who I was, what I was doing, and what my thoughts were.

As I mentioned before, I was once a regular journal-keeper and diarist, recording my thoughts for posterity.  Part of the appeal of journaling is the idea that someone in the future might want to read your writing, perhaps because your thought process and opinions would be worth knowing, or at least because your observations are clear enough to give an accurate picture of the world you live in, for history’s sake.  In that sense it’s just a few drafts away from being a memoir, composed one day at a time.  There’s also the more immediate pleasure of revisiting your own thoughts: very often I’ll encounter a detail in my writing that I had completely forgotten, and the written word will cause a flood of memories.

Reading my comments online can be like that, but very often it’s less like a diary and more like the conversation books left by Beethoven’s visitors late in his life: because of the composer’s deafness, visitors had to write their side of the conversation for him to read, leaving a record of only half the discussion.  It’s one thing to reread a comment that contains a fully-formed opinion and think, “Ah! Yes, that sums it up!” or “I remember that!”  It’s quite another to look at a comment reading “I agree!” (or, God forbid, “LOL”) and not remember what it was in response to, or read a comment that was obviously a real zinger in context, knowing it was part of a very funny comment thread, but falls flat or simply makes no sense in isolation.  Online interactions may be saved on servers forever, but not all exchanges were meant to be timeless: sometimes you just had to be there.

Taking part in online conversations has also helped me to sharpen and clarify my opinions: one can hardly write anything on the internet without facing disagreement, so writing (and defending) opinions, and accepting that others will see things differently, is an excellent spine-strengthening exercise.  I’ve seen more than one forum poster claim that taking part in the forum helped them to become a better writer, and to the extent that participating helped them solidify their point of view and express it clearly, I believe it.

Of course, all of this assumes a certain level of civility, not always easy to come by online.  I’m not sure the internet has truly lowered the level of discourse, as is sometimes claimed, or if it just allows us to see more of it than we would normally encounter without the flood of information coming to us through Facebook, Twitter, et al.  (And of course, even traditional media outlets now expect that their audience will want to talk back, a development that is mostly positive but which is also an open invitation to kooks everywhere.)  I avoid the comments sections of news sites like I would avoid bad neighborhoods; I resist the quixotic urge to correct every misinformed thinker I encounter online.  In retrospect, there are a few occasions I wish I had spoken up, but mostly I just get worked up and agitated arguing with people I don’t even know, and the well of ignorance sometimes seems bottomless: arguing with people could be a full-time job, and for some people it apparently is. I’ve come to believe that strong moderators are essential for preserving lively discussion without descending into flaming and abuse, especially in the early going; after a forum has been around a while, with a number of regular posters, a tone is established, in general set by the content of the site and the guidelines set by the moderators.  To state the obvious, speech online isn’t that different from everyday speech: you aren’t free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  The website isn’t “censoring” anyone: as a private enterprise, it is free to set its own standards of conduct.

I’m not as active in forums as I once was, and for some of the same reasons I don’t journal: I don’t have the time, and If I’m going to spend time writing I’d rather put the energy into something more permanent.  Being able to comment online is like having a bar or coffee shop in your home, open twenty-four hours a day, where you can always get into a conversation (or pick a fight).  That’s a strong temptation, and for most websites it comes hand in hand with a continuous flow of new content to spark discussion.  In that sense it’s not that different from the way I used to watch television, but it can feed into the feeling that I need to be entertained every moment, that I can never be alone with my thoughts.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way (witness the productivity programs whose selling point is the ability to lock you out of your email and social media so you can get some work done); it’s a battle I keep waging, even if I know I’ll be more successful some days than others.

Everybody’s Looking for Some Action

There were big tables covered with comics standing upright in long rows.  A sign hanging from the ceiling said All Comics 5¢.  We began to flip through the comics.  Alan had a list with the titles and numbers of the comics he wanted.  It was slow work.  The only comic he found that was on his list of wants was a copy of Action Comics Number 1—but he didn’t buy it because there was a corner torn off the cover.  He said he only bought comics that were perfect.

That throwaway line, from Daniel Pinkwater’s young adult fantasy Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, is played for irony, of course: even in 1979, when Alan Mendelsohn was first published, a copy of the first issue of Action Comics—the comic book in which Superman made his first appearance—was something the average collector could only dream of finding, in any condition.  It also establishes Mendelsohn’s character: exacting to the point of eccentricity, and confident enough to pass up the find of a lifetime because it’s not exactly what he’s looking for.  Later, Mendelsohn sells his comic book collection to finance the greater adventure he and Leonard (the narrator) are on: Mendelsohn remains cool while his buyer goes increasingly crazy for the rare finds Mendelsohn has.  By the end, Mendelsohn has the buyer eating out of his hand, and he and Leonard get the money they need, and then some:

 “The difference between that man and me,” Alan Mendelsohn said, “is that I am a connoisseur, and he is a fanatic.”

Both scenes play into powerful fantasies for young collectors: finding a holy grail—there have been more expensive comic books, but few that are as recognizable as Action Comics No. 1—and being able to leverage our finds down the road, using our connoisseurship to get one over on the drooling fanatics who’ll pay any price for what we have.


Sadly, for most collectors, the fantasies remain just that.  For the past few days, the comics blogosphere has been chewing over an article in Businessweek pointing out that you’re probably not going to be able to retire on the proceeds from your comic book collection.  As an example, columnist Frank Santoro offers an anecdote that stands in for the general trend:

He recently had to break the bad news to a friend’s uncle, who was convinced his comic collection—about 3,000 books—was worth at least $23,000. “I told him it was probably more like $500,” Santoro says. “And a comic book store would probably only offer him $200.”

When I read this, my first reaction was: “Well, duh.”  While auction prices for “key” Golden Age issues have continued to rise, it should be obvious that there is a big difference between Action Comics No. 1 and Secret Wars II No. 1, and the collections owned by the forty-something men in the article are likely to be more laden with the latter than the former.  I know, because I’m one myself, with a collection of bagged and boarded comics in the basement, and I doubt I’ll ever get much out of it in monetary terms.  Sure, it was disillusioning the first time I realized I wouldn’t get what I thought something was worth out of it, but I’m willing to settle on a realistic price for anything; it’s just that “realistic” can look very different depending on whether one is buying or selling. I’ve encountered my share of junk shops, garage sales and Craigslist ads run by deluded souls convinced that they’re sitting on a gold mine.  I’ve seen scratched-up Beatles albums for $40 or $50 (and not the rare ones) and highly-promoted but far from rare comics from the ‘90s with high price tags.  Anyone who has collected anything, or even tried to buy a used car or piece of furniture, could tell similar stories.

The seller may have an inflated idea of the scarcity of their item, or they may have been swept up in the hype of ever-rising prices for collectibles in general; they may even have a price guide to back them up, which only proves that someone was willing to pay a premium for the item (in mint condition, which is usually not the case) at one time.  Still, something is really only “worth” what someone else is willing to pay for it, so I imagine those albums and comics are still sitting on the shelf, or were marked down or put into storage—or found a buyer as gullible as the seller (leading to the description of the back issue market as a “Ponzi scheme” in the Businessweek article).

But clearly, the idea that your old comic book collection would put your kids through college is an old one, an article of faith (or folklore) that predates the speculation boom of the 1990s.  As Alan Mendelsohn shows, it was already alive and well in the 1980s, when I was collecting, and it didn’t only come from the publishers and retailers who had a vested interest in promoting “collectability.”  The belief among collectors that we were stockpiling a monetary investment for the future had a “revenge of the nerds” quality, like the stories we told ourselves that we would all become successful inventors or entrepreneurs, getting the last laugh on the jocks, the bullies, the “normals” who got in our way.  I guess it worked out that way for a few people, but for the majority it was a self-serving myth (and for the record, Alan Mendelsohn got a hundred and eighty-five dollars and a brass potato for his collection; he didn’t become a millionaire).

As an extreme example, consider “Gather Ye Acorns,” a 1986 episode of the anthology series Amazing Stories.  In it, Mark Hamill (in one of his few post-Luke Skywalker, pre-voice acting roles) plays Jonathan Quick, a dreamy young man growing up during the 1930s, obsessed with comic books, pulp magazines and toys.  Pushed by his parents, who urge him to “grow up” and cast off his childish belongings, Jonathan is approached by a mysterious, gnome-like figure, a folkloric wild man (played by David Rappaport), who encourages him to keep the things he loves, to hold onto the magic of childhood.  What the world needs, the troll tells him, “is a few more dreamers.”  Over the years, Jonathan turns down the prospect of a normal life, descending into poverty and eventually living in a pitiful shack with his shabby old car and all his old junk; just when he has lost faith, he encounters (at the “Last Chance” gas station!) a knowledgeable (and wealthy) collector.  It turns out that the world has come around, and his belongings, which for so long were precious only to him, are now highly collectible.  The owner of a comic book shop is shown going through his treasures in disbelief: why, that’s Action No. 1, the first appearance of Superman!  The episode ends with an auction of Jonathan Quick’s collection; now wealthy, he encounters the troll one last time, and while trying to thank him, makes the acquaintance of an attractive lady.  Perhaps it’s time for Jonathan Quick to finally settle down.

In the broadest sense, that of allegory, “Gather Ye Acorns” is a story of holding on to the magic of childhood, of not letting others define you or devalue your passions. But I doubt I was the only viewer who took the story’s moral literally, as a vindication of the collecting lifestyle: “See?  All that stuff had value, and he ended up rich!”  It’s probably also a middle finger to the parents of Baby Boomers (like Steven Spielberg, who produced the series, and whose story Stu Krieger’s teleplay is based upon) who threw out all their kids’ baseball cards and comic books, and who, like the overbearing parents in “Gather Ye Acorns,” probably never saw that junk as anything but a waste of money in the first place.

Looking back at actual history, however, there was more than just the ever-present Generation Gap at work: the social upheaval and increased mobility of the Depression and World War II made the maintenance of big collections an unlikely prospect, even for those who might have been so inclined.  It’s hard for us nowadays to imagine how few possessions most families had compared to the present (and forget about renting extra storage space, as so many of us do now!).  Remembering the adage “every move is like a fire,” it’s also likely that in the migrations of the war years (from the Dust Bowl to the West; from the deep South to the factories of the North; from rural areas to cities, and from cities to the suburbs), preserving ephemera like comics was simply not a high priority for most people.  Finally, the war effort included paper and shellac drives that undoubtedly consumed thousands of comics, magazines, and records.

It’s for all the above reasons that the “key” issues from the Golden Age command such high prices, and why, barring a similar national upheaval, later issues probably never will.  Even as a kid, it was obvious to me that if everyone was saving their comics (and baseball cards, and whatever else), they would never become as scarce as material from the 1930s and ‘40s (or ‘50s, when a great number of comics were destroyed as part of the moral panic that led to the creation of the Comics Code).  In some cases, it was now parents who enabled the preservationist instinct, Baby Boomers themselves who didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of their own parents.  And of course, scarcity is only part of the equation: it has to be something people want in the first place, or low supply will do nothing to drive up demand.  Even if all those variant-cover comics from the ‘90s disappeared, it’s unlikely they would ever be as sought-after as historically important issues like the first appearances of Superman or Batman.

Since we don’t know what will be scarce and desirable in the future, should we save everything, just in case? Interestingly, at the midpoint of “Gather Ye Acorns,” when Jonathan Quick is squatting in a shack in the desert, he resembles a figure that has become much more visible since this episode was broadcast: the hoarder.  His anger at the troll, his disgust with the “treasures” he’s spent his life hanging onto, and above all his despair—“I have nothing!” he howls—are the flip side of the usual narrative, and are a frighteningly real moment in a story that otherwise has the broad outlines of a fable.  Even with the happy ending, the story seems to stretch things when it suggests that his years of struggle were worth it, because he lived life on his own terms; this comes awfully close to romanticizing poverty, as if there were no middle ground between his parents’ rigid standards and life as a “bum.”  As writer Noel Murray asked when examining two current portraits of Americans’ relationship with our possessions, the TV shows American Pickers and Hoarders, “So which is it? Are we supposed to hang on to all of our old crap just in case it turns out to be valuable, or is that kind of packrattery the sign of a disordered mind?”

Mark Hamill as you, the reader

Mark Hamill as you, the reader, on Amazing Stories

Of course, you could still read your comics.  When I was a kid, I had a friend, Jason, who often came around to trade comics.  On the one hand, he was always interesting to talk to, and had a knack for digging up unusual books I’d never seen; on the other hand, he’d drive me crazy by going through my stacks, getting things out of order, and wanting to trade for issues that would break up continuous runs.  Condition didn’t matter much to him; it was the stories that were important.  Jason was a throwback, the kind of comic book reader who had supposedly disappeared with Leave it to Beaver: he didn’t bag his comics—he’d even roll them up to stick in his backpack, to my horror.  (In retrospect, I wasn’t much more careful, but I could be an awful snob.)

Despite my efforts to preserve my comics like a good investor, my best memories of being a comics reader in the 1980s are of getting together with friends to read and discuss comics, and even those marathon trading sessions that left me cleaning up and reordering my collection for the rest of the afternoon.  Similarly, some of the comics I most fondly remember finding at garage sales were reprints, some with the covers missing, of no monetary value at all.  I tried valiantly to be a connoisseur, but I guess I was really a fanatic all along.