Friday, August 6, 2010
Bronze Age Borderland
(This'll be about D&D, and comics--promise--but I have to ramble first...)
If you are a good person, you, too, hate the following thing:
There's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland or At The Mountains of Madness or some other piece of inspired mania. And then there's some fuck. This fuck is an academic--and the fuck takes it and explains what it is about and that it is not really about shrinking mushrooms or secrets beyond human ken buried in the Antarctic but is actually about sexism, racism, classism, where the author's mom touched him/her, the political situation in the english-speaking world when the thing was written, et cetera.
Now readers of this blog will know I have no problem with a little deconstruction here and there between friends--what I mean here is the wholesale reduction of everything in the work to just a mask for some other and more easily understood drama that sets what one of my teachers used to call the "demon of allegory" loose to drain it all of its enigma and poetry and lunatic majesty.
Easiest example is the Bible. Taken on its own, it's a delicious treasure trove anthology of terrifying primitive psychedelic madness. Taken after Sunday School, it's just a set of mnemonic devices for life lessons any illiterate 5-year could've easily grasped without the fucking book.
The Arcaneness of D&D
Other than reasons which we all spend a lot of time on gameblogs identifying--it's fun to roll dice and smack lizardpeople around and watch your friends pretend to be knights and shit--there has always been--for me--a very difficult-to-put-my-finger-on quality to the early D&D products specifically which I've always found intriguing. Like, on an artistic-aesthetic mood level.
Since I make art for a living, I tend to want to actually put my finger on whatever this thing is so I can distill it and use it when I'm actually making art.
The first word that comes to me is it's a quality of "arcaneness". And what's that? It combines the ideas of:
-something whose mystery is deep (like how a hieroglyph is a signal of an entire culture you know nothing about)
Of course--aside from maybe "complex"--D&D isn't really any of those things: thanks to all those blogs on the far right column of this page I know--or know that I can find out whenever I want--where every single thing in D&D comes from. Which is: mostly from wargames and old pulp novels as filtered and distilled through the mind of a bearded midwestern insurance adjuster. Far from arcane.
The idea became slightly less confusing when I realized that I got the same feeling off certain old comic books--not all of them, just old superhero comics produced around the same era as the old D&D stuff: Crisis on Infinite Earths, premodern Avengers and Defenders and Legion, the Hulk when he fought things like the Bi-Beast, early Alpha Flight, Super-Villain Team-up. What era? Roughly 1971-1985--what comic people call The Bronze Age.
In my mind, the quintessential bronze age cover features a primary-clad superhero struggling awkwardly with a tornado of bright green or luminous pink tentacles against a background of stars next to a spiky balloon promising Star-Shattering Revelations from Beyond while the eerily placid face of Infinity or The Living Tribunal or some other guy representing a universal concept looks on from just beneath the curved and yellow-piped logo and the comics-code stamp of approval.
I should say here I don't love all these comics--these aren't even my favorite comics--I like slick postmoderns like Bisley and Morrison as much as anybody. The thing is, something about these comics and their characters fascinate me. And it isn't nostalgia.
So I went about trying to put my finger on what that is. If you read that Bronze Age wikipedia article I hyperlinked to up there you'll get a list of all the standard features of the Bronze Age. These features are, basically, the slow emergence, into comics, of all the things that weren't in Silver Age comics but are in Modern Comics, like drugs and black people.
This, per se, isn't quite it. I don't read that and go "Well, of course, that's what's so fascinating!" And it begs the question of why I wouldn't find modern comics even more interesting since they have even more of all that reality and adultness.
This quote gets me a bit closer to the mark...(from Trout in the Milk, courtesy of Jeff:)
Of course it’s not much thought-of these days, but in the Seventies the comics-publishing world came with a lot of funny strictures (and perhaps today we would even consider them quaint), that artists and writers regularly had to work around, if not exactly with. This was a whole other country, then, from the one we live in now. And I’m not talking about the Comics Code Authority. I’m talking about the genre of superhero comics being actually very much more closely identifiable, at that time, with the medium of comics itself. Not that you didn’t have Tintins and Freak Brothers, or even Peanuts and Broom Hildas and Mads — even Heavy Metals — because you did. Don’t get me wrong. And not even that people just mistakenly lumped the idea of “comics” together with the idea of “superheroes”, because they did that too…but the funny difference in those days, as I understand it, is that certain types of serialized comic-book narratives, that we can now easily and comfortably set off from “superheroes” in our minds, were functionally incapable of being separated in the slightest degree from the superhero books and the superhero publishers. All the stuff that you, perhaps, as a young writer, can today see yourself writing for Vertigo and possibly selling to goth girls in college…that stuff would all have had to be crammed into a Spider-Man comic, once upon a time. You would’ve had to make it about Spider-Man, to make it at all. You would have needed four pages of fight. Sure, maybe in the Vertigo story of your imagination, you wouldn’t need to harp on superpowers as such, or costumes as such, or on superpowers or costumes at all, instead being able to drill down immediately to the symbolic stratum hidden underneath the layers of supervillainy and long underwear…
...ok, but why is that interesting? Why is that a good thing? Why is the veiled face more interesting than the raw skin available to the modern reader?
For the answer, you have to look at what ended the Bronze Age, which was--mostly--Watchmen. Watchmen, with its obsessive symmetries and symbols, was arguably many things, but what it definitely was was a very self-conscious superhero comic. It was a superhero comic that knew it was a superhero comic, knew where on the literary chain-of-being that placed it and knew that it wanted to talk about the idea of superheroes. Every page was not just about somebody trying to find out who killed somebody but about what superheroes could possibly mean. To some degree (and I love Alan Moore, don't get me wrong) the academic who analyzed the story was also writing the story.
Simultaneously, you had Crisis on Infinite Earths at DC which was DC Comics making a story that explicitly and openly acknowledged its goal of cleaning up DC continuity for all time and which tried to comprehend, in its scope, all of DC comics history to that point. PLUS both Marvel and DC were publishing encyclopedias of all their characters AND comic series about the histories of their own universes, which was all very self-conscious.
PLUS "Maus" was a best-seller. So it basically sat on the shelf saying: "Hey, if you want to write a comic NOT about superheroes, go ahead. You might not starve."
So what I'm saying is, around 1985 superhero comics became self-conscious about the fact that they were kind of ridiculous, and it was decided that this was ok. Many many writers seemed to act like, if they were writing a superhero comic it had to be because:
1-you were too dumb to do any other kind of comic,
2-you had Something To Say about that superhero as a character or symbol, or
3-you were cynically taking the job to pay the bills.
Now since nobody wants to admit to being Guy #1 or Guy #3, most talented intelligent comic book writers began to take the position that they were Guy #2. Aside from throwback exceptions like Peter David and Keith Giffen, the most talented comics writers began to act like, in every issue, they had to Make Sense of It All--whether in a highbrow, arch way (Neil Gaiman), or a fannish, what-the-Justice-League-means-to-me way (Kurt Busiek) or in a Hey-Know-I-Am-A-Clever-Guy-But-I'm-Also-A-Fanboy-At-Heart-So-This'll-Be-A-Little-From-Column-A-And-A-Little-From-Column-B (Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith).
(It should be said that this self-referentiality was also tied to the comic audience aging--and so it was already present in other media which were aimed at older readers. Jack Vance's heroes and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser always had a sort of smirky self-awareness in their tone.)
Whether or not this quality of self-referentiality is, in itself, good or bad or clever or irritating isn't the point, the point is what other quality you lose when this happens. For, in art, to gain one kind of characteristic is always to lose another. When you're more epic, you're less intimate, when you're more realistic you're less expressionistic, when you're more blue, you're less orange, etc. etc.
So, when you're self-aware, you lose innocence. We know what innocent comics look like: Smack! Bam! I Fought Groob, The Thing That Would Not Die! But the Bronze Age Comics weren't like that--they weren't wide-eyed and quaint. What were they? And what did D&D--produced at the same time--share with them?
They had what Alice's Adventures In Wonderland had. On the sunward surface these things are a kind of fantastic fun for children and the childlike part of adults, but they also have, somewhere on their far side, a shadow cast by the fact that they were created by intelligent and strange grown-ups with intelligent and strange grown-up concerns. And, most importantly--absolutely vitally--there's a twilight middleworld where it was impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins.
The simplest example of this twilight is dreams. After waking up from an episode where we model a hat made of strawberries and fish which is then snatched away by our sister and sold to our mother for an exploitive price, we've all wondered: How much of that meant anything? Where does the part that is that way because it tells us something about how we feel about our family end and where does the part that is just insane because it's a fucking dream and dreams are always insane begin?
In a modern superhero comic, the line's easy to find: the insane part is Superman in his skintight blue costume from the '30s and Lois and Jimmy Olsen and anything else that was there before the writer showed up--and the meaningful part is everything else in the comic. In old Golden or Silver Age comics, the line wasn't there: The insane part was all of it (except in Ditko--weird herald of the Bronze Age).
And The Bronze Age?
Who the hell knows?
Let's have another example:
Here's a quintessential Silver Age creation: The Silver Surfer.
Why is he silver? Why does he surf? No fucking reason. He's an alien from a planet where surfing doesn't even exist. WTF, Silver Age?
He is what he is so that, as a character, he'll work--he looks like he could fly free and fast through space on a board with no need for oxygen and that's all he needs to do.
Now consider an eerily similar Bronze Age creation from the same artist, harbinger of death, The Black Racer:
Why is he black? Why does he race? Well, he is a harbinger of death. That might be why he's black. Really, dude? Wait is he Black because he's like gloomy like death or are you just saying, y'know, he's black. Hard to tell. And skiing? This is somehow a million times weirder and more culturally specific than surfing. He has sticks. And a knight's visor. Why? And skiing is a sport not particularly associated with the african american experience. Is this relevant? Ummm... And he's a paralyzed Vietnam vet. Is that why he's got a visor? Is he like a soldier? Ummmm.... Plus he's a New God. And a god means things, right? Is a guy skiing supposed to be up on an archetypal level with, like, Zeus in his chariot? Let me know when I can stop here, Kirby...
Now let's look at a Modern Age personification of Death:
Oh, look, it's Neil Gaiman's Death. Does anyone not know why she's a goth chick? Do I really have to spell it out? No. It's real clear. Because it's The Modern Age. Comics mean things. Definitely.
Kirby's Silver Surfer is like some crazy wacky fun. Gaiman's Death is an anthropomorphized concept used to make philosophical or poetic points, via the medium of sequential art, about actual death. And the Black Racer is....
...crazy wacky fun, just on skis?
...the kind of throwaway idiocy that a genius is gonna produce as a side effect now and then?
...a combination of drug abuse and deadline pressure?
...an anthropomorphized concept used to make philosophical or poetical points, via the medium of sequential art, about death, only in some crazy Kirby Kode we do not yet have access to?
...the kind of representation of a concept that's more honest about its superhero roots than Gaiman's Death is and is therefore better positioned to explain what the point of having a person representing an idea in a comic book might be than Gaiman's characters who are, despite their protestations, still more like superheroes than characters in any kind of traditional highbrow literature?
...all of the above?
In the Bronze Age, the line was blurry.
From a kid's perspective, the thing was still definitely aimed at you. I could read AD&D, I could read Marvel Two-In-One. I understood the text from beginning to end. Good guy, bad guy, fight, win, end. But there were all these other things going on--like whispers from the adults' end of the table. Or were they?
In one of the first comics I had there was a pink alien with a ray gun saying, to Wonder Woman "The future burns around you, Amazon!". To this day I have no idea what that was all about.
In AD&D the monsters seemed so shadowy in their scratchy black-and-white--scarier, or at least uglier--than the equivalent trolls in fairybooks. The AD&D DMG had those tables with schizophrenia and dipsomania and nymphomania but no clear explanation of why any of these would actually come up in a game. Forms of government, unexplained subtle gradations in classifications of wenches. I kept asking: was this book meant for me?
Deities and Demigods had this quality in spades: was it really true that the only thing I had to know about this ancient Assyrian god was that he had 239 hit points and 16 levels in Bard or was I missing something? Why is Issek of the Jug so creepy? If Elric is a 'hero' why is he Chaotic Evil?
When were the adults trying to tell you something and when were they just making in-jokes between themselves and when were they just being craftsmen--spinning wild tales of wacky drama because they wanted to entertain you. In the Bronze Age you never knew.
Pop psychologists will identify this with the feeling of growing up--slowly being introduced to corrupt things, complexities--adulterations. But I feel like it goes deeper than that.
As a grown up, this quality is still there. Because you still can look at these artifacts and ideas in the game and wonder how they got there, and you can wonder where they're going to go. There's this wonderful ambiguity, because you never know whether a thing will be lightly passed over: ("The Orc has the same tattoo as your sister" "Oh yeah? Woody Woodpecker with a cigar?") or whether it will open a rabbit hole that just keeps going: ("The Orc has the same tattoo as your sister""Holy shit, we'd better bring this body to her and see what she says". "Maybe the Orc IS your sister!") Is it deep, is it shallow? Does it mean something? Is it just crazy? Is it both? Is it always both? The sense of Wonder in Wonderland comes from Wondering.