A Wasteland Called Fandom

Of all the subsets of nerd media, the anime industry stands out for the diversity of demographics and tastes it caters to. “Anime fandom” is not so much a united whole as it is a collection of microaudiences whose preferred flavor of entertainment all happen to come from the same place. For the last few years, the anime industry has been in the midst of a glut of content, the result of which have been a flood of shows every season (four seasons a year) catering to all of the different audiences. Shoenen adventure, horror, comedy, romance, fantasy, science fiction, and enough smut and softcore to appeal to just about every fetish there is are dumped out into the marketplace every year even as a previously unimaginable amount of past titles are made available. And anime fans have responded to this glut of content, produced just for them and assembled according to their exhaustive checklists of approved tropes, cliches, and masturbation aides, the only way they know how: with endless whining about how marginalized they are.

Anime fans don’t agree on much, but the one opinion they all seem to share is that it doesn’t matter how much custom-designed content gets shoveled into their gaping consumer holes; as long as anyone else gets the same kind of attention, they will never be happy. More importantly, they will never let anyone else be happy, either. The slapfests and dogpiles the fandom engages in with depressing regularity are a glimpse into a gaping void of narcissism, fragile egos, and inflated self-importance. The same self-appointed experts and petty moral watchdogs who make enemies lists of journalists and critics cataloging every difference of opinion and perceived slight react with shrieking indignation and mawkish self-pity the instant they face any type of scrutiny. Consumer demographics and fandom subsets like scanlator or fujoshi are treated like they were protected political classes that society has a moral obligation not only to serve with an endless supply of validation, but to protect from any entertainment products meant to appeal to someone else and every opinion that doesn’t perfectly reflect their own. It doesn’t matter how many likeminded journalists, critics, bloggers, websites, online sycophants, and bitchy Discord servers they can wrap themselves in. Like infants without the ability to comprehend object permanence, the online anime fan’s entire sense of self is likely to collapse the instant they perceive the universe does not revolve around keeping them placated and celebrating them for being special.

Anime fandom is the natural endpoint of the path where all the pathologies of consumer culture meet, where nerds drowning in content insist they are being unfairly ignored and keep finding new ways to be offended that people with different tastes than theirs are allowed to exist. Anime fans have found themselves in a world where there is an entire industry devoted to serving them and all their specific tastes, where accessing media has never been easier, where the barriers between consumers and content producers have never been thinner, and where it is easier than ever to be heard by industry, press, and other fans. And like all rational, level headed people, they decided that this means the world is out to get them. If you want a vision of the future, imagine randos with anime avatars screaming about how disagreeing with their trivial opinions about cartoons is oppression, forever.

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Down with Keyword Criticism; or, Attack on Interpretation

Yesterday, I crossed a line I’ve set for myself on how I talk about other writers online. After reading the Polygon article, “The fascist subtext of Attack on Titan can’t go overlooked,” I posted a tweet in which I personally insulted the article’s writer, Tom Speelman; to be specific, I called him a “concern trolling moron.” I felt bad about it almost immediately, which means I should have been smart enough not to post it in the first place. It was a cheap shot that needlessly belittled Speelman and wrongly implied the opinions he expressed in his article weren’t genuine. On the small chance that Speelman is one of the approximately seven people who read this blog, I apologize.

Now that that’s out of the way: Tom, there’s some things about your article I want to talk about.

Titan

The subtext that wasn’t

The title of Speelman’s article promises a lot. Which leads us to the article’s first problem: despite its title, nothing that follows discusses the subtext of Attack on Titan in any meaningful way.

Actually, I take that back. The article’s first problem is that it makes a lot (and I mean a lot) of unsubstantiated claims about Attack on Titan‘s importance to the anime industry as a whole, and about the show’s unrivaled power to convert casuals into diehards. The accomplishments the article attributes to Titan (which include, but are not limited to, singlehandedly turning Crunchyroll into a major industry player and empowering Netflix to rescue Neon Genesis Evangelion from license renewal limbo) are all meant to create the impression that Attack on Titan is an overwhelmingly important subject of discussion (and a significant threat, what with its fascist subtext and its ability to recruit unsuspecting casuals en masse). Too bad every single one of these claims is almost certainly not true, or at least a gross exaggeration that would require a lot of evidence to make with any kind of authority. No evidence is provided for any of these claims, and thus the first four paragraphs leave one with an overwhelming feeling of [CITATION NEEDED].

Next there is a warning about Titan‘s resurgent popularity and influence, followed by lots of dry description of the plot. About halfway through the article, we finally get to the point:

“But well-dressed aesthetics and pacing can only do so much before you start to notice the ideas bubbling underneath the surface. Isayama’s work is full of anti-Korean, nationalist, pro-Japan subtext, parallels to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and subtextual references to Nazi Germany.”

Given the statement above, one would expect an interpretation of Attack on Titan that reveals these malignant subtexts to follow. After all, subtext is the product of interpretation, a message the audience finds by interpreting what is in front of them and discovering a non-literal meaning in the specific combination of storytelling elements. Instead, Speelman simply lists plot points, storytelling tropes, and authorial statements he finds problematic, all while stubbornly refusing to commit to any actual interpretation or judgement.

The best way to demonstrate this problem is to take the first sentence of the article’s final paragraph: “Now, no one can clearly say what [Attack on Titan writer/artist Hajime] Isayama’s true intentions are except for him.” The problem is that this sentence comes after paragraphs and paragraphs in which Speelman does just that, using everything from examples from the text (“some Titans have big noses, so they must be antisemetic”), Isayama’s own blog, and who the Prime Minister of Japan was when Titan was written as evidence of the dark intentions the author has hidden behind his “well-dressed aesthetics.” Why the false humility? Why spend thousands of words making explicit accusations, only to balk at the end and hide behind a mask of innocent concern? Pardon my French, but stop pussyfooting around and say what you mean.

Which of course brings us to the question: what does the article actually have to say about Attack on Titan’s subtext? In a word: nothing. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that the examples Speelman offers in support of his case seem to require contradictory outlooks on whether or not Titan‘s alleged subtext(s) are intentional. Is Isayama purposely putting anti-semetic visuals in his character designs, or is making his protagonists an oppressed minority seeking vengeance against their oppressors problematic because some readers might draw parallels to real-life anti-semetic conspiracy theories that don’t reflect the diagesis of the text? If Titan is anti-semetic on purpose, why would Isayama then make his main characters stand-ins for Holocaust-era Jews and tell the story of their fight to liberate themselves from genocidal Nazi analogues from the Eldian/Jewish perspective? One example requires the fictional Eldians and the Titans to be the target of criticism and scorn, while the next claims the author is using them as stealth metaphors for Japan’s glorious military heritage.

This contradiction also serves as a good example of the second reason Speelman’s article fails to make any meaningful observations about Attack on Titan‘s subtext, and that is: all of the observations the article makes are about things happening on the surface. Rather than offering an interpretation about what Attack on Titan is saying subtextually, Speelman simply lists off tropes and factoids that could, theoretically, be individually interpreted as having problematic connotations. He provides plenty of examples, but examples of what, exactly? Speelman seems to have been so busy digging up evidence he forgot to have an argument.

Let’s examine another revealing quote (be sure to note the word I’ve put in bold):

Then there’s the ultimate goal of the Yeagerists (who, incidentally, have a very fascist uniform sensibility) being to reestablish the Eldian Empire and take their bloody revenge on the world.

Never has the word “incidentally” done so much heavy lifting. This, in one sentence, is the fatal flaw with Speelman’s article: he lists off all the things about the show that could potentially be used in problematic ways or imply problematic things, but he never stops to consider what those things mean when considered together as part of an ongoing narrative. Instead of committing to an argument and standing behind his accusations, he couches his criticisms in vague theoreticals and refuses to commit to an actual argument, all while insisting he’s proven his point (which is subject to change paragraph by paragraph).

The pitfalls of keyword criticism

My initial reaction to Speelman’s article wasn’t caused by anything uniquely wrong with it. My frustration came from the fact it is all too emblematic of a trend of well-meaning but misguided analysis that leads to a lot of vague accusations and messy arguments when it means to offer moral guidance and clarity. Attack on Titan is hardly the first show to attract this kind of criticism, but from the beginning it has attracted a lot of it. There’s very good reasons for that, but much of the critical discussion of the show’s potentially problematic elements has resembled Speelman’s article in that it tends to evade any actual engagement with the text in favor of pointing out tropes and cataloging them according to what they could potentially mean (often in isolation) rather than how the story is actually using them.

Attack on Titan has always indulged in potentially problematic imagery and subject matter, and the introduction of Holocaust imagery to the show’s central metaphor is provocative, to say the least. But it’s hardly the first piece of genre fiction to indulge in the comparison of the tribulations of some fictional minority with the historical suffering of the Jewish people (which begs the question: if portraying Eldians as proxy Jews violently defending themselves makes Attack on Titan dangerous, what does that make the X-Men?). It’s also far from the first piece of fiction written by an author with ignorant opinions about colonialism. One thing naysayers of Attack on Titan are indisputably right about is that Isayama’s past comments about Japanese imperialism are inexcusably ahistorical and racist; what’s less convincing is their seeming conviction that having a nostalgic view of colonialism makes Isayama a dangerous source of corruption and not a straightforward representation of the sympathetic opinion most people living in former imperial powers have about their nations’ global influence. If having lots of flags or portraying military service as building positive character traits makes Attack on Titan fascist, is that because all stories that do so are fascist or is it just the ones from Japan?

What this kind of criticism mistakes for analysis is actually the opposite: at its heart lies a refusal to interpret. Rather than judging whether Titan‘s use of certain imagery is harmful because of how it is used, the critic avoids the burden of analysis by judging Titan according to whether or not the imagery reminds him of things he finds uncomfortable, regardless of what their use in the show is meant to convey. The result of this train of thought isn’t so much thoughtful analysis as it is a criteria for scanning media for keywords and cataloging tropes and factoids according to a personalized system of preference. This kind of criticism tells us a lot about what the critic likes and doesn’t like, but very little about the work they claim to be analyzing.

Review: “The Black Order Brigade”

A small convoy of cars rolls into the isolated Basque village of Nieves. A group of evil old men with guns jumps out of the convoy the instant it rolls to a stop, and by the time they leave everyone in the village is dead. Two days later, a Madrid radio station receives a message from a group calling itself the Black Order Brigade announcing they had “punished” the village for its lack of Christian values and the election of a Leftist mayor in the latest election. More attacks will follow.

Black order Brigade 2

What few people know is that this is not the first time the Black Order Brigade has visited Nieves. Decades before during the fierce partisan fighting of the Spanish Civil War, the Black Order Brigade was one of the most notorious and bloody units fighting on the side of the fascist general Francisco Franco, and the murder of the villagers was an act of revenge against the village for resisting the Falangist forces during the war. By slaughtering the inhabitants of Nieves, the Black Order Brigade announces to the world that it is resuming hostilities in its war against democracy and modern decadence. As the rest of the world shrugs its shoulders, a small clique of men and women who recognize the message for what it is gather to attempt what they failed to do when they were younger: kill the Black Order Brigade.

“The Black Order Brigade” (writing by Pierre Christin and art by Enki Bilal) follows a reunited band of anti-fascist freedom fighters compelled to leave their lives in polite society behind and once again take up arms against a threat the rest of the world doesn’t understand and is mostly content to ignore. Led by Pritchard, a British newspaper editor, the reunited band of international partisans represents the coalition that formed the Spanish anti-fascist forces: Communists, Socialists, Jews, progressive democrats, and all other manner of free thinkers and anti-authoritarians who briefly stood in solidarity against Franco’s forces. Shocked by the Brigade’s return, they abandon their careers and lives as writers, union bosses, politicians, and college professors to track the Brigade across Europe.

As the resurgent Black Order Brigade uses a pan-European network of right wing extremists and sympathetic authorities to carry out more terrorist attacks and evade capture, the pursuers find their quest to end the Brigade’s rampage thwarted not just by their aging bodies, but by the complacency of the public and the institutions of political power that refuse to take the threat of the Brigade seriously. Desperately following the Brigade to Spain then Italy then the Netherlands and beyond, usually to find their nemeses have already struck and moved on (and that police more than willing to open fire on antifascist resistance before they will lift a hand to stop right wing terrorism), the former freedom fighters and their few allies die off or abandon the fight one by one as the rest of the world shuns them rather than defend itself.

By the end of the journey, personal grudges and the shared desire to complete one last task before they die are the only things keeping the hunt for the Brigade going. In one revealing moment, Pritchard remarks, “I wonder if I’m not perhaps dead, too… or perhaps it’s the world that died for me, when I became to old for it.” The rest of the world refuses to recognize Pritchard and his comrades’ fight as a part of a wider struggle, that the war against fascism never really ended and that hostilities have once again resumed. Even after the Brigade is finally killed, Pritchard cannot find satisfaction: “I got my friends killed for a reason that I can’t really remember anymore.”

Black Order Brigade

Both Christen and Bilal display an incredibly amount of skill as storytellers in “The Black Order.” Christen’s scripting gives the individual cast members enough distinguishing personality traits and quirks to make them recognizable among the large cast and swiftly moving plot without ever compromising the brisk pace and sense of regretful foreboding that gives the story most of its tension and drives the plot forward. Bilal’s art portrays scenery and characters with great attention to detail without ever falling into the trap of stiff or gaudy photorealism, and the muted, smudgy color scheme perfectly captures the background of ahistorical complacency and institutional decay against which the story plays out. Despite unfolding over a setting thousands of miles and several country, “The Black Order” never slows down to wallow or overstate its case, and yet it still manages to imbue the fast-paced, chaotic chase with emotional weight and thematic gravitas that makes it feel like much more than a standard revenge fantasy or globe-hopping thriller.

With “The Black Order,” Christen and Bilal make a provocative statement about the specter of fascism that still haunts the world, and the way the fickle and convenient ebbs of cultural memory aid in that haunting and allow the fascist rot to grow while simultaneously disempowering those who recognize it. The Black Order Brigade are supported by an international network of supporters and affiliated militias, and during their travels they teach the next generation of right wing terrorists the things they have learned. The Brigade fights for a side with a mission and a cause. The men and women who hunt the Brigade are ignored and abandoned by the people they are defending; they have no cause to fight for and no army to serve in. Their heroic last stand is transformed into nothing more than an act of petty vengeance, a suicidal rampage in the name of a cause that has been so deeply forgotten it might as well never have happened.

Godzilla at the End of History

“I guess I’m not understanding what everyone wanted from this film,” pouts Forbes Senior Contributor Paul Tassi in an article titled “The Critics Are Wrong About Godzilla: King Of The Monsters.” Tassi’s article is a typical example of the kind of backlash that happens whenever movie reviewers express an opinion that irks one online fandom or another. The majority of the article is devoted to Tassi’s descriptions of his childhood obsession with movie monsters followed by a description of how plot beats from Godzilla: King of the Monsters reminded him of that obsession, with the occasional break taken to express the appropriate amount of scandalized bewilderment at the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score. He concludes, “I usually find myself on the same side of the majority, but as a Godzilla superfan, I have to say that this is everything I could have wanted from a movie like this,” scolding “the critics” with the familiar faux-populism on which all fandom grievances are based and giving voice to the often unspoken but still all-important central belief sustaining fandom’s hateboner towards critics: by not having the same opinion as the fandom, the critics are attacking them.

godzilla-king-of-the-monsters

The thing about fandom’s eternally wounded hostility toward reviewers is that it has no justification in a pop culture landscape dominated by “Geek Culture” and the attendant content producers and social media commissars devoted to carefully articulating and repeating each and every fandom’s desires and their complaints (especially those). The usual fandom complaint against critics goes: Critics don’t like the same things as me, so it’s rude for them to talk about the things I like because they’ll say something I disagree with. To which the only response (aside from, “walk it off, champ”) is: If you already know they don’t like the same things as you, then why do you care what they think? Again, we can look to Tassi for the answer: despite framing his public display of grievance against “the critics” as a search for the answer to the question, “Why don’t the critics like Godzilla: King of the Monsters?” he never tries to come up with an answer. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to have read any of the reviews he pretends not to understand (what more proof do we need that when Tassi speaks we hear fandom’s words?); if he had, surely he could have spent less time mugging for applause and summarized what some of the negative reviews (or even just one review, any review) actually said.

Tassi is not the only advocate to stand up to the monolithic entity of “the critics” in the name of the fans. The voice of the True Fan can be heard in YouTube videos and user comments across the land, often coming out of right wing weirdos who believe in white genocide or emotionally unstable attention seekers desperate to stay on the good side of their volatile audience (or, with increasing frequency, both at the same time). Those speaking with this voice who, unlike Tassi, attempt to read any of the reviews of Godzilla still usually fail to realize a negative review that convinces you to watch a movie you enjoy did its job, or that many critics with the biggest audiences share many of the same tastes as them and frequently agree with them on the basics of what makes a good movie. Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com and Matthew Rozsa of Salon.com both gave King of the Monsters a score of 3/4 and describe the movie in extremely positive terms: “its imperfections are compensated by magnificence,” writes Zoller Seitz, while Rozsa praise of the movie come from an identical perspective as Tassi’s, writing, “‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ doesn’t need an original story: Like all kaijū movies, it only requires awesome monsters, epic fight scenes and some subtle social commentary.” Over at The Escapist, Bob Chipman was so excited he stopped tweeting about how culling the poor for voting the wrong way isn’t technically eugenics long enough to bang some action figures together in front of a camera. If that’s not a voice that speaks for the people in the comments section, can such a voice even exist?

Tassi

Godzilla

We can similarly disprove the fans’ premise that “the critics” are a collective hive mind trying to suppress free thinking by pointing out a 40% Rotten Tomatoes score is a sign of substantial disagreement about whether or not to recommend the movie (as seen in the 50/50 split among the six “Top Critics” who lead the review portion of the page). But why bother? That a critic, any critic, is allowed to express opinions in conflict with the fandom orthodoxy is all the proof that is needed for fans to declare that critic (or, when necessary, the entire field of criticism) corrupt and outdated whenever it suits them.

At the heart of nerd culture is an anxiety of eternally deferred gratification, the self-martyring ressentiment of the aggrieved consumer always seeking validation through the recognition of self in the consumption of pop culture products (and rejecting the recognition of anyone else with equal intensity). Fandom’s demands are not based on need, but on the expectation it is entitled to whatever it wants. What is “fandom” in 2019 but the presumption that the machinery of culture is obligated to produce and reify a nominally endless supply of consumables, all custom designed to your specifications? If that definition is faulty then it is only because it does not go far enough in describing the totalizing emphasis fandom places on its demands being met and its consumer demographics celebrated as if they were political identities. That nerd properties dominate the cultural sphere in a way never thought possible before can only cause the fans disappointment as long as they know there are still corners of the collective pop culture database not yet fully colonized with their personalized collection of fetishized signifiers. That global civilization devotes billions of dollars every year to keeping “the fans” placated with more movies, comics, YouTube videos, TV shows, conventions, awards, interviews, Funko Pops, thinkpieces, Best Of All Time lists, reboots, streaming services, petitions, revivals, spin offs, hashtags, side stories, crossovers, and sponsored quizzes than one person would ever consume is still not enough to support fandom’s fragile ego as long as people with tastes that run counter to theirs are given the same type of attention.

Godzilla videos

It is not enough that Godzilla: King of Monsters is “everything the fans want,” because what good is getting everything you want if not all of the pop culture commentariat is obliged to celebrate you for your superior tastes and reassure you more of what you want (but even more and even better this time) is always just over the horizon, that constructing an identity entirely from your relationship with pop culture is not only justified but enlightened and virtuous?

Fandom’s antisocial neuroses, petty cruelties, and delusional self-regard are so recognizable they might as well be considered a pathology. Given control of an industry with the resources and technology to do all the innovative and exciting things they always claimed they were capable of, fandom demanded that all of it be used to make the same things over and over and over again and devoted their lives to attacking anyone who suggested something different was possible. Even as their personal values and totems are elevated to global importance, the fans lash out at any remaining indication all of culture has not been repurposed to their exact specifications. Already aware of their inability to imagine a world without capitalism fandom has its eyes pointed toward a future where it will be impossible to imagine a world not under copyright, where there is no more knowledge to discover or innovations to improve upon and the only thing left to achieve is the endless replication and celebration of customized neotenous fantasies and self-indulgent pantomimes of past artistic achievements for the last generation of consumers whose opinions will matter. Asking a fandom to allow people to have opinions without their permission is the greatest betrayal the fans can imagine because it would require them to share their toys and thus ponder the idea that keeping them distracted is not the last and greatest achievement of human civilization.

Tim vs. The Pyramids: A True Story

 Author’s note: The name of the business is fake. The rest is true.

Not many people know this, but there is a frequency that moves the pyramids. I’m one of the few who know about it. I heard it from a guy named Tim. Tim knew all kinds of amazing things, but this particular snippet from the library of esoteric knowledge held within his skull was one he considered to be particularly important. Pinned to the wall of his work cubicle was a piece of paper with a crude digital drawing of an Egyptian pyramid floating over a flat desert. He’d written the message in the white space in the upper left-hand side, next to the pyramid and above the sand: “There is a frequency that moves the pyramids.”

Tim worked at Perfect Positions, an internet marketing agency that sold Google AdWords services to small businesses. Perfect Positions was the kind of place you went if you wanted your paid ad to appear on the first page of a Google search, or if you thought you could convince enough people that was what they wanted to make a living at it. Tim had worked at Perfect Positions for many years, and during that time he had carved out a comfortable place for himself as the company’s top salesperson. When new hires in the sales department were being shown to their desks, they were often taken along a path that passed by Tim’s desk so they could be introduced to the company wunderkind and learn a few of his techniques.

“I can get you on the top of Google,” he would say flatly to every potential customer he called, most of whom were lawyers because legal keywords got a lot of traffic and that meant lawyers had to pay more for their ads to show up on the first page of a Google search. Plastic surgeons were his second favorite type of customer, followed by real estate agents.

“I can get you to the top of Google. I can do that for you.”

He said it with a confidence that dared the person on the other end of the line to challenge his assertion. That was another reason Tim liked to cold call lawyers: they liked to act tough, but their instinct for making deals was usually enough to get them to take the cocky salesman up on his challenge.

*************************************************************************************

“How’s it going today, Timmy Boy!”

Scott, Perfect Position’s Vice President of Sales, would shout this every morning as the telemarketers returned to their desks after the morning meeting that started every workday. Scott’s desk was perched on a raised platform from which he could survey the floor and shout at his underlings. When shouting wasn’t enough, he would bound off the platform in a single leap and rush across the office to wherever he felt he was needed. On days when sales were not coming in fast enough to keep him placated, he would prowl the walkways between the cubicles, huffing and yelling, “WHERE ARE MY SALES? I WANT MY SALES, PEOPLE!”

“I’m calling more lawyers today,” Tim would respond with a smile. Where Scott was short and wiry like a coiled spring, Tim was tall and lanky and walked with the slow confidence of someone who knew his place in life was secure and that he had the knowledge to keep it that way. Tim had every reason to be confident: his ability to make high dollar sales week after week guaranteed him the freedom to disregard most of Perfect Position’s policies regarding employee behavior without finding himself on the wrong end of one of Scott’s rages.

“That’s my boy!” Scott would shout and clap his hands. “Tim knows how things work!”

Scott often forced his telemarketers to rotate desks on a semi-regular basis, lest they became too friendly and give into the distraction of human interaction that did not take place through a headset. As was often the case Tim was exempted from this rule. The one time Scott insisted he comply with the policy and change desks, Tim had been so disturbed by the idea of taking the pyramid drawing with its cryptic message down he refused to go back to work until Scott relented. Scott was not usually one to back down in a fight, especially not where his employees could see him, but this time he didn’t even raise his voice.

“This is what you want?” Scott asked. His voice was calm and inquisitive.

Tim nodded. He was slouching in his chair, a fedora covering his face and his legs sticking out into the walkway.

“Ok. Go back to work.”

Tim pulled himself up in his chair and reached for the phone on his desk in one smooth motion. He was dialing before Scott had finished storming out of the building.

*************************************************************************************

“I can get you on the top of Google. People will click on your site more than anyone else’s.”

Tim wasn’t supposed to say that. The cold machine will of Google’s algorithm meant there was no way to guarantee a permanent spot on the top of any page, and there was no way to see how many people were clicking on someone else’s site. Whenever any of the other telemarketers at Perfect Positions tried to get away with telling a customer something different, Scott and his assistant manager, Allen, would descend upon them and castigate them in front of their coworkers. When it came to Tim’s flexible understanding of Perfect Position’s abilities, however, Scott and Allen took a much different approach. As Tim regaled his targets with promises of glory and infinite clicks, Scott and Allen would creep around his desk with greedy eyes.

“I can get you on the top of Google.”

“That’s it, Timmy Boy! Get ‘em!” Scott would shout, pumping his fist.

“Yeah, buddy!” Allen would agree, grinning as Scott looked to him for confirmation.

Once Tim had convinced a skeptical minnow he really believed he could do what he said, other questions would follow. Tim did not know the answers to these questions, and he did not pretend to know them. Despite working at Perfect Positions for many years, he knew very little about how the services he sold work, or even what those services were. The things he did know were far more important than that. He knew he could double your sales. In a month. You’ll get twice as many clients as you had before. Three times more. He can do that. He’s done it for all his clients. Yes, all of them. The only reason his clients cancel is because they have more customers than they can handle. No one has ever cancelled because they are unhappy. They call him all the time to tell him how happy they are. Yes, all of them. He spoke with one of them yesterday. He’s a lawyer in Los Angeles, and we talked about the shapeshifting lizardmen who control the government. Yes, the ones who used to live on the moon.

Scott knew about the lizardmen, just like he knew about the frequency that moves the pyramids. He had been one of the first people Tim told about these things, and from that moment Scott had taken it upon himself to guard the sacred knowledge stored in his top salesman’s head as jealously as possible, no matter how eager Tim was to share. This was one of the reasons he would stalk Tim’s desk whenever he had someone on the line, ready to throw himself between his employee and his future customers the instant Tim’s blazing mind could no longer contain the secrets within. Scott didn’t want his customers to hear about the lizardmen, and he definitely didn’t want them getting any ideas about calling Tim’s former clients.

Once Scott had snatched the phone, Tim would stand next to his cubicle while his boss sat in his chair and sealed the deal by explaining which of the things his best salesman had just promised were true. Twirling his fedora, Tim would bask in the adulation of his coworkers.

“Great job, Tim,” a tired-sounding female voice would say with little enthusiasm.

“Wow, another one,” a male voice whose distinct note of sarcasm always earned a disapproving glare from Allen would follow.

“What can I say?” Tim would beam. “I’m just that good. Right, Allen?”

“Yeah, buddy!” Allen would say, the dull halogen lights reflecting off his toothy grin and blank eyes.

*************************************************************************************

In addition to being an expert salesman, Tim was also an amateur archaeologist. He approached his hobby with the same confidence he used to charm divorce lawyers and plastic surgeons, and his hunger for the hidden relics of the world’s secret history was so great he would bring new finds into the office almost every day. Of all his discoveries, it was his collection of fossils he was most proud of.

“They’re not rocks,” he said, pointing to the collection of ovular stones piling up on his desk. “People say they look like rocks, but they’re not.”

Tim was more than a mere collector. He understood the value of his discoveries, even if other people didn’t.

“I’m going to talk to a different guy this time,” he assured the disinterested coworkers he was sharing the small outdoor gazebo set aside for smoke breaks with. “Not like that guy at Humboldt State. He didn’t know what he was talking about. This guy is in Fresno. I told him all about my fossils. He’s really excited.”

When Tim wasn’t at his desk, he could be found at the gazebo. Unlike the regular salespeople or the assistants and technicians who were tasked with making Tim’s impossible promises to his clients come true, Tim was allowed to slip out whenever wanted. Sometimes he did not even wait for Scott to finish closing one of his sales before heading out for a victory cigarette. He would wait under the gazebo, twirling his fedora and waiting for his coworkers to pass by.

“Got another one!” he would shout to any coworkers passing by or using their break to talk to their families on the phone. “Scott’s closing it for me right now.” Even sitting, his stance was triumphant.

Making a sale had a way of putting Tim in the mood for talking. This was when he was most likely to share the things he knew, usually while pacing around the office and distracting the assistants and technicians. If Tim made too many sales in a single day he usually had to be sent home before his enthusiasm for enlightening his coworkers about the things he’d learned overwhelmed the office.

It was during one of these moods Tim decided to tell me more about the frequency that moves the pyramids. He was pacing the gazebo, waiting for someone to come by and give him a cigarette, when he decided to enlighten me as to what that enigmatic phrase meant.

“There’s a frequency that moves the pyramids. That’s how they were moved to where they are now.”

Once he’d managed to get a second cigarette off me, he opened up even more.

“My neighbor knows about my fossils.”

He leaned in close, like what he was about to share would unlock the puzzle of his success.

“He knows about my fossils. That’s why I nailed all of my windows shut.”

Counting to 9: The Synthetic Virtues of Tom King’s “The Vision”

“Nora worked in HR at a K Street law firm. She read more than anyone she knew, but she only read digitally.”

“Christopher Taylor and Darrell Campbell were modern kids in a modern world. They thought they knew all the words.”

“It’s a math problem or a computer science problem. Or perhaps it is a reality problem. But then again, aren’t they all?”

These three passages are taken from 2015-2016’s The Vision, written by Tom King and drawn by Gabriel Hernández Walta and winner of the 2017 Eisner Award (i.e. Comics Oscar) for best Limited Series. They are typical of the style of narration found throughout, where an omniscient and talkative narrator interjects over every scene with overcooked anecdotes and other florid writerly business. These passages are also typical because even the smallest bit of scrutiny reveals them to be instances of a writer using lots of words to say very little.

Let’s start with Nora the HR worker, she who only reads digitally. What, exactly, is this meant to tell us? What is the purpose of taking up the audience’s time with a detail as banal as a woman in the 21st century reading the news on her cell phone? If Nora’s relationship with her tablet is meant to reveal something about her relationship with the android Vision and his synthetic family, it’s a rather trite and pointless observation when the rest of the story labors so hard to convince the audience the Vision family are symbols of an oppressed minority and not a sign of wider technological change. Besides, the dialogue and the art already deal with how Nora feels about the Vision; four pages of the first issue are devoted to showing Nora and her husband interact with and react to the Visions as the narrator prattles on the whole time. That a woman only reads on digital devices — especially a woman who will stop mattering to the story entirely the instant the scene is over —  hardly seems like a detail worth recording, let alone one a writer asks an audience to treat as a meaningful observation deserving of consideration.

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The next passage provides another example of the type of laborious repetition seen in Nora who works on K street and only reads digitally. “They were modern kids raised in a modern world” is a laughably obvious phrase on its own, the kind that would get you eliminated from an amateur novel writing contest. How much worse is it, then, when repeated in a visual medium, when the modern kids raised in the modern world in the modern setting of the story are right in front of the audience’s eyes? As for the words these children know, this only becomes clear after another full page of incessant over-explaining that is hardly worth sitting through to get to a limp punchline about teenagers not knowing what slur to spray paint on a synthezoid’s house.

The last example passage is the worst of all, and perhaps the apex of The Vision‘s delusions of literary adequacy. “It’s a math problem or maybe a computer science problem. Or maybe it is a reality problem. But then again, aren’t they all?” Is there any problem a human being has ever been aware of that could be accurately described with this string of nonsense? Does it even matter what concept the writer of such pungent word salad intended his words to represent?

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Aside from being a prime example of The Vision‘s flailing attempts to imitate literary techniques, it’s also the most egregious example of Tom King’s reliance on American comics’ most overused method of signifying importance and depth: shamelessly imitating the writing of Alan Moore. Continuing a proud comic book tradition of ruthlessly squeezing out every bit of vitality and credibility still left in Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen, King (co-winner of the Best Writer at the 2018 Eisner Awards) shamelessly pilfers as much of Moore’s swagger as he can, slathering his writing in a web of easily identifiable signifiers and references meant to remind the audience that Moore wrote a comic more than 30 years ago that had the depth and storytelling sophistication King couldn’t achieve on his own. In this way, we can see King’s technique as a more serious continuation of the style pioneered by auteur TV writer/actor/producer Seth McFarlane: if you copy someone else’s work, a lot of people will be gullible enough to give you the credit.

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And give King credit they do. Read a few articles or reviews about King’s work, and you will notice there is a feature of his writing that comic book reviewers cannot help but mention: the nine panel grid. The nine panel grid has a proud artistic tradition in comic books and using it requires a technique only the greatest masters of the medium possess, by which I mean it’s the page layout used in Watchmen and has thus become a way for lesser writers to signal their work has weight and value. King has made such liberal use of the nine panel grid in his writing it has now become a part of his brand, and thus something comics journalist feels obligated to mention whenever they write about him. It’s even mentioned on his Wikipedia page, next to a note about how well received this act of mindless repetition has been by the comics press.

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“Nine panels are, after all, a whole lot,” noted Chris Sims in an article on the now defunct Comics Alliance. This stunning observation provides the the basic thesis for the piece, which is devoted entirely to describing what a comic page with nine panels looks like and insisting the number of boxes drawn on the page is the most interesting thing about King’s writing on Omega Men. Sims is in such awe of “The Grid,” as he dubs it, he proposes King belongs in a genealogy of comics legends that includes not only the creators of Watchmen but Spider-Man co-creator and eccentric shut-in Steve Ditko (now that King is writing the Jack Kirby character Mr. Miracle, we can expect similarly breathless comparisons of King to the only creator screwed by the comics industry harder than Alan Moore). In a similar display of transference, Caitlin Rosberg of the A.V. club also credits the nine panel grid’s storytelling dimensions directly to King in her review of the last issue of his Heroes in Crisisin which she laments the series fails to achieve the quality and depth that were promised by its nine panel grid and “repetition of words and imagery.”

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Why do these writers insist that repetition of form is a sign of meaning in itself? “The thing about the Grid is it allows you to put a lot of information in a single issue,” says Sims as a prelude to multiple breakdowns of King’s storytelling prowess. In reference to King’s work on Omega Men, Sims describes the “dense storytelling” and “rigid system of columns and tiers that still allows for a surprisingly adaptive arrangement,” then goes on to praise the writing according to the principle that nine panel pages mean more than other kinds because nine is a big number. “It’s a dense story, full of world building that has managed to introduce an entirely new alien society and the two competing religions that drive it, and still have room for big action sequences.” An alien world and action sequences? Certainly this virtuoso balancing act is unique in all of science fiction.

What Sims describes when he talks about the “density” of King’s writing has nothing to do with depth and everything to do with volume. “[The Grid] allows for a huge number of distinct moments on every page,” Sims asserts in a block of text positioned right above an image of a nine panel, backgroundless fight scene between two characters who have already been introduced and that does not advance the story or characterizations. If we take Sims at his word that the quality of King’s writing is evident in its “density” and the “adaptive arrangement” of his script layout (Sims makes a convincing case in his breakdown of the page featuring Green Lantern, if nowhere else), we must notice that most positive descriptions of King’s work avoid explaining how taking nine panels to portray something makes it better or deeper or more impressive compared to, say, a six panel page that does the same things. The “density” Sims praises does not refer to the usual criteria one applies to fiction of meaning or depth or entertainment value, but to the observation a story used a lot of panels to say something it could have said with less. From this point of view, that a page with four panels, or three, or two, can also meet Sims’ criteria of formalistic transcendence — a “rigid” grid layout that is “adaptive” and tells a story using pictures — is irrelevant.

Pray for the minds of the poor comics press should King ever learn to count on his toes.

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This same insistence that the value of a story can be measured in panels underlies the praise of King’s repetitive use of the nine panel grid in many of his comics. When the comics press references this part of King’s writing, it is happy to ignore the question of whether King uses the nine panel grid well. The nine panel grid is evoked as an end in itself with meaning in itself, and the only criteria by which King’s use of it should be judged is how often he repeats it. Like the belief that using more panels to show something is always better than using less, this stance conveniently avoids the need to judge King’s work on its merits by declaring his imitation of a great writer makes King a great writer himself. The worst example of this complete abandonment of critical faculties comes in a Comic Book Resources article about, appropriately enough, King’s referencing of one of the most famous lines of dialogue from Watchmen during the DC event comic Heroes in Crisis. After taking several paragraphs to explain how references work, the writer flippantly asserts that because an editorially mandated mashup of Identity Crisis and A Very Special Episode about Our Wounded Supertroops was designed to remind people of Watchmen, readers should prepare for Heroes in Crisis to end up being just as important.

As one of the many gratuitous anecdotes sprinkled throughout The Vision helpfully points out: “Pattern recognition. The lowest form of cognition.”

Tom King 1

What we can see in this type of praise for King’s work is that his entire reputation relies on a kind of meaning-by-association that can only support itself as long as one doesn’t ask for anything more than to be reminded of other, better works that have meaning and value (pray King never finds out about Shelley’s “Ozymandias”). When reviewers praise King’s “repetition of words and imagery,” they mean it literally: the repetition is what matters, and the words and images only matter insomuch as they are seen to be repeated. That the words in The Vision‘s caption boxes are often trite, redundant, or nonsensical doesn’t matter, they simply need to exist so the captive readers can say to themselves, “Good writers use words to describe things, and The Vision has lots of words.” It’s not embarrassing that King devotes five pages to battering the audience over the head with his obvious metaphor about intolerance toward robots with lasers in their foreheads by replicating Shylock’s “Does a Jew not bleed?” monologue from The Merchant of Venice in its entirety, only to then devote another full page to explaining how it applies to the story. The Vision quotes Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is meaningful. The performative reassurance to the audience that the Vision would not claim to have saved the world exactly thirty-seven times without the writer providing exactly thirty-seven chronologically ordered examples sourced from continuity is yet another example of The Vision‘s overabundance of meaning: thirty-seven is more references than one, which means The Vision is exactly thirty-seven times more meaningful.

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It’s unfair to condemn a comic because of its writer without talking about the other artists who worked on it. Gabriel Hernández Walta (and his fill-in replacement for issue #7, Michael Walsh) is a confident artist who is more than capable of portraying the suburban family melodrama and the less frequent spurts of superheroic violence in an appropriately realistic style that emphasizes body language and facial expression in the domestic scenes, while taking on more fragmented and stylized approach that compliments and differentiates the intrusions of superheroic life into Vision’s crumbling suburban oasis. Hernández Walta and colorist Jordie Bellaire makes good use of lighting and blocking to bring King’s burdensome scripts to life on the page, and while the art is enough to make the story more pleasant to read than it would be otherwise it is unfortunately not enough to save it.

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Even as reviewers gush about how The Vision is “unlike any superhero comic [they]’ve ever read” and claim that calling it “the best comic going right now” isn’t high enough praise, their evidence in support of their case consists of nothing but lists of settings and ideas that are familiar cliches in pop culture at large and in the sub-history of superhero comics. “It takes place in the suburbs.” So imaginative. “Vision is a robot, but he wants to be human.” You don’t say. “It’s not just about superhero fights, it’s about wanting to fit in.” Truly a surprising spin on the superhero archetype only seen previously in thousands upon thousands of issues of Fantastic Four, Spider-ManX-Men, and their thousands upon thousands of imitators and followers, not to mention several dozen Hollywood movies. “It has foreshadowing.” “Characters die.” “There’s a murder mystery that reveals hidden family secrets.” If a description of the most intelligent and exciting American comic on the stands sounds like a third-tier imitation of Peak TV tropes that would have been tired years ago, why are we supposed to feel admiration for King and not concern for the comics industry as a whole?

Vision review edited

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When people talk about the “creativity” of The Vision‘s writing, they mean it in the same way movie reviewers do when they gush about how creatively J.J. Abrams has found even more ways to copy George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Apparently the most creative thing to do in the eyes of the comics industry is make less good versions of stories we already have. As if we didn’t know that already.

 

Ikuhara the Auteur

Despite its reputation as a stuffy old theory of use only to academics and poseurs, the principles of auteur theory have continued to thrive. With the mainstreaming of nerd culture and the popularization of cinematic universes and the miniature canon (the original auteurists’ vision of a universal artistic canon being long dead, replaced by the personalized canons constructed by fandom) came the need for a vocabulary to express nerds’ priorities for judging the cultural products around which their communities formed. They found a perfect partner in auteur theory’s search for themes and style across a body of work and its focus on collected ouvre over individual pieces of art, and thus was born our current age of novel-length wiki pages, deluded theorists, and trope-chopping criticism.

Just as pop culture has embraced an updated version of auteur theory’s view of art (or, in the modern parlance, content), it has also inherited all of its flaws. The most damning feature of auteur theory was always its skewed priorities: its insistence on minimizing the need to examine pieces of art individually, its elevation of creators above their own works, and its mistaken belief the repetition of themes and tropes across multiple pieces is inherently indicative of artistic depth and value. Auteur theorists and online nerds agree: a movie isn’t good because it does new things, it’s good because it does the same things even more.

Sarazanmai 1

The current modes of production of mainstream entertainment products have largely displaced the director, the writer, and other traditionally central creative roles from the seat of auteurial power, but popular criticism has been more than happy to keep the traditions of auteur theory alive, both as a tool for casting blame (whenever things don’t turn out the way they want, fandom will always deduce an interpretation informing them exactly which member of the production team is at fault) and as a way to deify favored creators the fandom has judged worthy of being elevated in their perception above the role of anonymous technician. The auteur theorists’ valorization of consistent meaning or style across a body of work has become the online commentator’s chief defense of cultural homogenization, mindless repetition, and the insatiable need to catalog and debate the importance of a work’s most trivial features.

Even knowing the pitfalls of auteur theory some creators’ works make the temptation too hard to resist. Most anime directors never manage to rise above the level of anonymous craftsman and gain recognition as an auteur, especially not on a wide enough basis their works’ distinct characteristics are recognized across the fractious micro-audiences that make up the fandom as a whole. One of those rare creative voices is Kunihiko Ikuhara (director of the currently airing Sarazanmai as well as Revolutionary Girl Utena, Penguindrum, and Yuri Bear Storm), whose collected work is an auteur theorist’s dream of shared visual motifs, unified themes, and a consistent “voice” identifying the auteur’s involvement.

Sarazanmai 3

In many ways, Ikuhara’s individual works invite the interpretation they are just one piece of a larger whole thanks to the use of recurring symbolism and stylized cross-media references; by repeating Penguindrum‘s aquatic-themed flashbacks, adopted families, and distinct visual stylizations, Sarazanmai calls attention to its relationship to its predecessor the same way Yuri Bear Storm’s deconstructive lesbian picture book echoes Utena‘s deconstructive lesbian fairy tale. That they all share similar themes about the oppressive nature of cultural binaries (man/woman, familial love/romantic love, etc.) and celebrating societal outcasts makes the temptation even harder to ignore.

The challenge then becomes how to recognize this intertextuality without overstating its importance. The mistake at the heart of auteur theory is not its recognition of the importance a work’s creator has in its development, but its belief art only has meaning in reference to its creator(s). If the only meaning of the repetition across Ikuhara’s work is that the repetition exists, is that really an achievement worth celebrating? Does Sarazanmai exists merely to reiterate and reinforce what was said before, or does it have its own being worth examining and interrogating beyond how it exemplifies reified trends across a creator’s body of work? If you’re asking me to peer down a giant ghost’s anus every week, surely there’s more to see than that?

The Magneto Guide to Building a Personal Brand

Let’s say you’re an aging demagogue who’s concerned his public image isn’t what it used to be. After decades of sowing division and recruiting the alienated and embittered outcasts of society into your personal army, you find you’re having trouble getting people to listen to your message of how you come from a race of genetically superior beings  destined rule the Earth. As anyone who’s worked to build and maintain a personal brand knows, you have to keep your brand relevant to the times. In a world where people are exposed to so much information and messaging every day, it’s important to find new and exciting ways to keep your image updated and encourage audience engagement. While there’s no one right way to manage your brand, it’s always a good idea to look to strategies that have worked in the past when planning your own brand revitalization effort. Which brings us to today’s lesson: how to indoctrinate disaffected and isolated teenagers into becoming a gang of fascist misanthropes you can unleash to terrorize your enemies.

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“Planet X” is the penultimate story arc to writer Grant Morrison’s time on New X-Men (2001-2004), but in many ways it is the conclusion to the overarching story the writer was telling. Given a mission brief to revitalize the sclerotic and moribund X-books, Morrison and the team of artists he worked with (including Phil Jimenez, Andy Lanning, and the other artists who worked on “Planet X”) largely swept away the past continuity and decades-long story lines that made reading the X-Men comics of the mid-to-late 90s an unbearable chore but all for the most dedicated fans. Old villains were killed off or sidelined, long-simmering subplots were quickly resolved, and a whole slew of new characters were introduced to avoid rehashing old plot lines or abusing an already overburdened fictional continuity.

Perhaps the most significant change Morrison made during his time on New X-Men was how he chose to deal with the book’s central metaphor, the relationship between mutants and normal humans. Rather than trying to wrangle stories about people who shoot laser beams out of their eyes into one-to-one allegories about what it’s like to be a minority, New X-Men portrays the conflict between the fearful human population and the superpowered X-men as a conflict between the present and the future, with the weird and wondrous mutants standing in for the next generation. Rather than hoping no one reading notices characters with uncontrollable and destructive powers are, in fact, dangerous and potentially harmful to be around in ways that gay and black people are not, Morrison’s New X-Men embraces the danger and uncertainty inherent in the concept of mutants and makes it a core of their being: whether they’re ready for it or not, mutants are the future. And just to drive the point home even further, Morrison introduces a new element to the mutant-human relationship: the discovery of an “extinction gene” in the human genome that will lead to the extinction of the non-mutant human race within the next few generations. Rather than just being genetic curiosities that have to integrate into society, mutants now find themselves poised to inherit the Earth, whether they want it or not. For the progressive and peace-minded Professor X, this turn of events signals that it is time for mutantkind to come out of the shadows and take a more active role in shaping society and fostering understanding. For others, however, the impending extinction of the human race is a signal that their lifelong dream of leading an apocalyptic race war is about to come true.

Which brings us to Magneto.

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Despite being the most recognizable X-Men villain, Magneto only appears in New X-Men once it reaches its conclusion. To be more precise, he only appears as himself once Morrison’s story approaches its end. Even when he doesn’t appear on the page, Magneto’s presence is one that can still be felt throughout (in more ways than one). After (supposedly, of course) dying in a brutal attack on the mutant nation of Genosha, Magneto’s image becomes a pop culture icon, a Che Guevara head for edgy mutant teenagers. Much to Professor X’s dismay, his arch-rival’s untimely death has elevated him into a symbol of mutant pride and a statement of discontent with the current state of the world, including how ol’ Charles Xavier thinks the next generation of mutants should behave. All of which sets the stage for the final twist: Magneto has infiltrated Xavier’s school and is radicalizing the students right under his nose.

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Thanks to the cultural machinery of pop culture and its ability to trivialize anything, everything is set for an aging terrorist leader to stage a comeback as a beloved public figure, a voice for the alienated that people have conveniently forgotten used to call for global war and the subjugation of the genetically inferior. While Professor X cheerfully tries to integrate himself into existing society with his “X-Corporations” and tut-tuts his skeptical students with platitudes about politeness and the patience, his ideological opposite promises the world on a silver platter and whispers poison in the ears of restless and confused teenagers who have already been desensitized to his rhetoric.

If you’ve been online any time in the last few years, you already know where this is going.

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Earlier story arcs of New X-Men showed the main characters struggling to articulate a worthwhile vision of the future and take the first hard-won steps toward making it real. What makes “Planet X” feel so much more cynical than what came before, even more than the scale of the violence Magneto leaves behind him, is how quickly it shows all of that progress falling apart at the hands of a violent past that refuses to die without taking as many people as it can with it. With their rivals for leadership of the mutants of the world dispatched, the X-Men naively assumed old ideas of domination, vengeance, and genetic superiority had lost their power and appeal, and that the dissatisfied mutants of the world would accept Xavier’s middle of the road, gladhanding vision of progress simply because there was nothing else left to believe in. As any reader who is familiar with GamerGate, the Alt-Right, and Trumpism already knows, proclamations of a new world order built on polite liberalism and managed by enlightened technocrats were somewhat premature.

Unfortunately for Magneto’s new followers, it turns out bitter old men who recruit children to be their personal army of nihilists and bullies don’t make for good leadership material, no matter how much they say the things you’re thinking but would get in trouble for saying out loud. Having been built up in the public imagination as an almighty savior, old man Magneto gleefully steps into the role of domineering Übermensch his followers have imagined for him, expecting all the work of building a cult of personality has been finished and his image as the undisputed leader and champion of mutantkind will last forever. You can imagine his surprise, then, when he discovers bombastic speeches and random acts of violence alone aren’t enough to keep an angry mob’s attention, or its loyalty.

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In the final pages of “Planet X,” Professor X delivers one of the best burns in the 3,000 year history of literature: “You have nothing this new generation wants, except for your face on a t-shirt.” After Magneto’s triumphant defiance of death and obsolescence turns out to be nothing more than the last desperate temper tantrum of a sad old man who can’t accept his time in the spotlight is over, “Planet X” ends the only way it could: with the hatemongering demagogue who set the world on fire for his own amusement self-destructing in a suicidal rampage as his disillusioned followers abandon him. Once he discovers the next generation isn’t as ready to accept him as their megalomaniacal messiah as he would like, and only after he has made sure any positive influence he might have had on the world has been thoroughly overtaken by the damage he’s caused, Magneto comes to the only conclusion someone in his position can arrive at: the world doesn’t deserve him. “I will not be judged by children. Give me death. Make me immortal.”

It’s hard to imagine how Magneto’s image could be redeemed after one story so thoroughly stripped away the romantic pretenses that had built up around the character over decades of being portrayed as a noble antihero played by cuddly grandpa Ian McKellan and angsty DILF Michael Fassbender. Which is why Marvel was in such a hurry to make sure everyone forgot about it as soon as possible. Before Morrison’s final X-Men comics were even released, other comics in the line revealed Magneto was not really Magneto after all, but an impostor who pretended to be Magneto for, um, reasons. These emergency brand revitalization efforts were largely supported by the fans, who questioned why Morrison would portray a beloved character in such a fashion. Why would he think they want Magneto the aging demagogue, when all they really want is his face on a t-shirt?

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What We Yell About When We Yell About Game of Thrones

People have a lot of opinions about Game of Thrones. Good opinions, bad opinions. Big opinions, small opinions. Soft opinions, very very loud opinions. So many opinions about one show, and yet there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: Game of Thrones, a show about dragons and magic, is not here to entertain you.

There’s not a lot the various partisan factions that have embedded themselves throughout the civilian population of the shows’ fanbase agree on, aside from a shared belief that there is nothing about Game of Thrones you should find entertaining. But instead of serving as a source of inter-community solidarity, it is their shared belief in Game of Thrones’ innate unentertainingness that drives the warring tribes apart. Like a religion in the midst of a political schism, the feuding camps have seized upon this particular ideological tenant and elevated it to a core pillar of their beliefs, with each side competing to make their respective stance the cultural orthodoxy by which dissenters can be isolated and excluded.

While it is always reductive to describe the beliefs of a living and thriving culture in binary terms, the schism can be described as a conflict between two opposing tendencies within the fandom. The first of these identifies the show’s quality as the source of its lack of entertainment value. In the eyes of this element of the fandom, being entertained by Game of Thrones is a sign of disrespect, as being entertained requires one to view the show with something less than the awe and reverence it deserves. To those on this side of the Thrones divide, to even suggest Game of Thrones can be described in terms of entertainment value is regarded as behavior little better than snoring in church.

The fans on the opposing side, however, refuse to be entertained by Game of Thrones for reasons very different than those described above. For them, a television show is only valuable as long as it provides its viewers with a comprehensive code of ethics by which they can live their lives in meaningful and successful ways. The more episodes that have been released of Game of Thrones, a show about zombies and titties and disemboweling people with swords, the more followers of this strand have expressed their outrage at the showrunners for seeming less and less interested in the puritanical reinforcement of wholesome moral values and providing positive role models with each passing episode about people getting crucified and having their testicles chopped off.

Whatever side one finds oneself on the Game of Thrones debate, it is hard not to be persuaded by the dedicated efforts of so many people to make sure no one finds anything about it entertaining, because if you don’t they’ll keep yelling about it anyway. As the final episodes air and the show’s jumble of plot lines and characters all smash into each other with the grace of drunken mules, the need to stamp out any feelings of being entertained in the show’s audience has become more urgent than ever. People who once proclaimed how offended they were that the show would even include a white savior imperialist like Daenerys are now frantically proclaiming their loyalty to the Khaleesi, just in time to take offense that the show is portraying her as a conqueror with a messianic belief in her own right to dominate all around her. Some were so eager to condemn the show for suggesting Sansa Stark’s experiences with exploitation and brutalization had made her harder and wiser, they forgot that’s what they’d spent the last seven years demanding the show give them. So shocking were the cynical violence and brutal deaths of the penultimate episode, even those who just two weeks before complained the show wasn’t killing enough characters for their viewing pleasure now wailed in anguish that the show would dare to take their precious babies from them.

Given the sheer tonnage of words produced in the name of explaining, fixing, condemning, celebrating, deifying, cancelling, and getting angry about Game of Thrones, it’s tempting to believe that those who took part must have learned a lesson of some kind. This assumption, however, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Game of Thrones discourse culture and makes the mistake of believing Game of Thrones is a television show created to entertain people. Unlike lesser, “entertaining” shows about mystical prophecies being fulfilled in ways that are literally true but also have ironic and tragic consequences, one must approach each new episode of Game of Thrones with the mind cleansed of impure thoughts about how maybe the show just isn’t to your taste or that a consumable entertainment product not perfectly reflecting your values isn’t actually proof its creators are personally attacking you. Rather than an hour long piece of serialized fiction that can go up or down in quality for any number of reasons, a new episode is the source of ecstatic visions and divine revelations of great importance, even more important than last week’s. In such an environment, there is little room for defeatist attitudes like, “the show hasn’t been good for years now so it’s really not that shocking you found an episode disappointing,” let alone heretical stances like, “maybe the way that character gets visibly angry every time she’s told she can’t burn people alive just for displeasing her should tell me something about her as a person.” To claim, “there wasn’t anything new to get angry about this week,” is to declare oneself a coward and a moral cretin.

No one knows what shocking twists will come in the last episode, and thus the audience waits, anxious to behold what final form the hyperbolic reaction that is completely out of proportion to the show’s quality or importance as a cultural product will take. Some are predicting a torrent of “I am shocked and scandalized a story mainly inspired by The War of the Roses and bloody historical tragedies like Titus Andronicus didn’t have a happy ending,” while others fear a “HIRE👏MORE👏WOMEN👏FEUDAL👏OVERLORDS👏” response and the equally brutal “the titties and dragons show is very feminist, actually” reaction such a take would inspire. So much uncertainty, so much division, and yet there are still two core beliefs that unites the fans of all parties and persuasions. The first: to log off is to admit defeat. The second: whatever happens on Game of Thrones, no one will be entertained.

You Cannot Lie To James Cameron

In the world of otaku, the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami is a controversial figure. His signature art style, Superflat, borrows heavily from the visual language of anime, manga, and other objects of Japanese commercial culture aimed at an otaku audience. The ideology behind Superflat is to remove the “look” and “feel” of otaku culture from its original context as the signifiers of a niche commercial product and its audience, and examine them in the setting of the art gallery to reveal the imagery of otaku culture’s place in the broader culture and various traditions of Japanese art. Like all encounters between fandom and the outside world, the popularity of Superflat resulted in a backlash. According to cultural theorist Hiroki Azuma, Murakami’s works are, “a great attempt to sublimate the oddities of the otaku simulacra into works of art, but the otaku do not speak highly of them. On the contrary, Murakami’s ventures have been criticized even by the otaku who have collaborated in his works.” He then goes on to identify the source of otaku’s resentment of Murakami as the perception that he, “lacks the otaku gene,” and thus “the ability to intuitively grasp various characteristics that make otaku works ‘otaku-like,’ i.e., the ability to grasp moe-elements” (1).

Takashi Murakami Flowers Blooming
Flowers Blooming by Takashi Murakami

 

James Cameron’s Avatar movies (though the “series” as yet only includes one movie, the knowledge that the others will soon exist in the material realm casts a heavy shadow) can be seen as something of the inverse of the work of Murakami and other Superflat artists. Where Superflat separated the peculiar visual language of anime and the fetishes of its audience from the processes of cultural production that create and propagate them, Avatar strips away everything but the processes of cultural production laboring to sustain the current Hollywood zeitgeist. Cameron’s opus-to-be has none of the pretensions of adding or exposing new depth to pre-established characters and fictional worlds, and leaves its audience without the moe safety blankets of nostalgia and the Pavlovian stimuli of familiar trademarked images. As one should expect from a craftsman who has had a decades-long career of grabbing the movie-going public by the horns and riding it to unparalleled commercial success, James Cameron understands the cultural technology he has to work with and is using it to produce exactly what it was designed to create, without all the decorations and polite indulgences: pure, uncut cinematic universe.

Much as otaku reacted with confusion and anger to seeing the visual signifiers of their preferred cultural products displayed in a way that was not meant to flatter their particular tastes, any news of the upcoming Avatar sequels is received with the appropriate performative disgust. This A.V. Club article, which declared the rumored titles for the Avatar sequels to be “fucking embarrassing” and suggested they should only be used for such unworthy fare as the made-for-TV Ewok movies of the 80s and not the respectable art of Hollywood-produced franchise cinema, is the perfect encapsulation of the popular reaction. First, because it so clearly displays the contempt with which any news about Avatar is received. Second, because it touches on many of the individual components that make up the totality of this Avatar resentment. Third, because it has the misguided confidence to suggest that the announcement of Ewok Adventure: The Quest For Eywa would be met with the same kind of bile.

In his video essay on the gaming Webcomic Ctrl+Alt+Delete, YouTuber Hbomberguy observes that the hatred directed at the comic exists not because of its (extremely low) quality, but because of the way its flaws accurately reflected the flaws of its entire genre and the culture that produced it (emphasis mine):

[People don’t hate Ctrl+Alt+Del] because it’s bad. Bad things come and go all day, every day. [Ctrl+Alt+Del] is such a source of focus and aggression, with millions and millions of words written about how awful it and its creator is, because it’s an embarrassment… because it managed to be honest, so people have to try as hard as they can to project these things away from them (2).

The hostility displayed toward Avatar is not based in any perceptions of its quality or lack thereof. Like a billion dollar adaptation of Loss.jpg, Avatar rouses the anger of the spectator because to engage with it and examine it in the context it came from would force her to make an honest appraisal of the processes that created it. Such an examination would reveal what everyone already knows, but fears to admit: Avatar is not the product of one demented director’s chuunibyo vision, but the apotheosis of the chuunibyo-ification of popular culture already underway by popular consent.

Why are there going to be four more Avatar movies? Because that is what the cultural technology in place to create the current iteration of blockbuster movies was created to make: the faux-mythological “sagas” of toyetic digital cartoons spread across decades worth of entertainment product. In an era where consumption is based as much on characters’ worthiness for use as masturbation material and the raw stuff from which ships are constructed, James Cameron is at work carefully sculpting hentai-haired fetish aliens who fuck in IMAX for your viewing pleasure. In the midst of the hyperbolic reification of the Marvel cinematic universe for reaching 22 films in length (plus T.V. shows!), is it really possible to take the offended posturing over the possibility of just five Avatar movies seriously? James Cameron knows what the public wants, and it’s ponderous, 3-hour epics set in fantasy worlds assembled from comfortable cliches and unobjectionable morals with subtitles like “The Seed Bearer.” Lie to yourself all you want; James Cameron sees through your lies.

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(1) Hiroki Azuma. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

(2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TebCHHCw9rY