If I were to make a list of my all-time favourite comic panels this one, depicting Bruce Banner caught in the blast of the gamma bomb from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Incredible Hulk #1 would be right up there. It’s got all the dynamism and drama of Kirby’s art at its best – there’s something immediately iconic about the image of Banner with his arms thrown up as the bomb he’s created explodes behind him – but it’s also a reminder not just of the way Cold War anxieties fed into the early Marvel comics, but of the way their imagery and grammar drew upon the legacy of the monster and horror comics of the 1950s.
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Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading (and loving) Joe Hill’s debut collection, 20th Century Ghosts.
I suspect Hill – who also happens to be the son of Stephen and Tabitha King – isn’t likely be familiar to a lot of literary readers, which is a pity, because he’s a seriously good writer. While I’ve only read about half of 20th Century Ghosts, it’s one of those books which fairly hums with energy and intelligence.
If I’m being honest about it part of what I like about 20th Century Ghosts is its subject matter. While I’m not suggesting for a moment there aren’t brilliant literary short stories being written, the literary short story (like the literary novel) feels increasingly mannered to me, a form distinguished by its careful, competent evocation of things we already know rather than the sort of excitement and danger I want writing to be about.
That’s obviously a conversation for another day, not least because at least part of the pleasure of 20th Century Ghosts does actually lie in the sort of subject matter literary stories tend to explore, in particular the awkwardness and loneliness of adolescence. But while that’s sometimes that’s an end in itself – ‘Better Than Home’, for instance focusses on a young boy whose sensitivity to sound underlines the mingled tenderness and neglect that characterise his relationship with his baseball player father – more often that alienation is evoked through the incorporation of elements of the surreal, such as Art, the inflatable boy in the ominously-titled ‘Pop Art’.
But the real joy of 20th Century Ghosts is its playful appropriation and subversion of the tropes of the Horror genre it inhabits, and more particular the pulpy, pop cultural version of it that arose in the 1950s and 1960s.
This is most overtly the case in the collection’s thrillingly clever opening story, ‘Best New Horror’, which manages to work not just as a genuinely chilling horror story, but as a elegant and uncomfortably acute satire of the both the niceties of literary culture (“people … who dreamed heartbreaking dreams about one day selling a poem to The New Yorker“) and the sub-culture that surrounds Horror fiction (“sweaty little grubs who get hard over corpses”).
As genres go, Horror is, of course, one of the more disreputable. Lurid, cannibalistic (in both senses of the word), often just gross, the very nature of its subject matter makes it uncomfortable and unpleasant reading. Yet its capacity to embody not just the deepest, most atavistic elements of the subconscious but also the most deep-seated anxieties of the culture it inhabits also lend it an immediacy and power more elevated forms often lack. Like SF it estranges by making metaphor literal, but unlike SF it also plays overtly upon the elision of the boundaries between life and death, human and inhuman, real and imaginary.
Given the last publishers abandoned the Code earlier this year, The Horror! The Horror! is a historical artefact in more ways than one: not just the anxieties and the culture they were embedded within have long since vanished, but even the moral panic that suppressed them has subsided, if only to be replaced by different fears. Yet it’s also a wonderfully vivid and often marvellously immediate portrait of a cultural form that flowered only briefly before being pushed underground.
For me it’s also an exercise in nostalgia. Although I’m obviously too young to have read any of these comics in their original form, my childhood reading was augmented not just by the black and white reprints of old E.C. comics that could be found in Australian newsagents in the 1970s, but by several fabulous books about the history of comics my parents gave me as a child (the best of which, Les Daniels and John Peck’s Comix: A History of Comics in America is readily available in cheap second-hand editions via Amazon and AbeBooks).
But either way The Horror! The Horror! is a delight. While Trombetta has some acute (if sometimes rather over-theorised) things to say about the social and cultural conditions that gave birth to the horror comics of the 1950s (the idea of the passion for zombies as a response to the Korean War was new to me, for instance) and the campaign to suppress them (Trombetta rightly points out that the same culture which wanted to ban the weird horror of kid’s comics was also explicitly retailing its own officially-sanctioned nightmares about nuclear war and Communist infiltration) he largely lets the comics themselves do the talking, reproducing not just a host of covers but dozens of stories in full.
Viewed collectively it’s difficult not to be struck by the sheer energy and delight of the work on display. Partly that’s about the fact many of the artists and writers are ones who would go on to make their name as the architects of the Silver Age comics on the 1960s (the book’s magnificent cover is by the young Steve Ditko, who would go on to create Spiderman and Doctor Strange (who’s apparently getting a movie soon) with Stan Lee). But it’s also about the form itself, its fertility and openness to the charge of the forbidden and unsettling, and – something its detractors were right about – its explicit sexual overtones. Like the pulp fiction of the pre-war era the very nature of the industry, its speed, its dependence upon formula, allow the best of the work produced to mainline the deepest anxieties and fantasies of the culture it inhabited.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying it’s a book that’s very worth tracking down (the edition I have comes with a DVD of Paul Coates’ famous 1955 report on the industry, though that report is also available online and is embedded below). If you’d like to know more about it you might also want to read Graphic Novel Reporter’s interview with Trombetta, or you can feast your eyes on the images in the promotional video below.
Lost returns to Australian television tonight, several weeks after it resumed in the US and in the rather unfriendly timeslot of 10:30pm.
Presumably the tardy return and crappy timeslot are a reflection of the show’s waning ratings, at least here in Australia. While the loss of viewers to downloads has forced Australian networks to release popular shows in a more timely manner than they have traditionally deigned to (SciFi on Foxtel are to be commended for their decision to screen the final season of Battlestar Galactica only hours after it goes to air in the US) old habits die hard, and as soon as a show begins to fail in the ratings it’s a fair bet the commercial networks will be treating viewers with the dizzying disrespect they always have by screening them long after primetime, delaying episodes and altering their schedules without warning (a disaster for anyone trying to record programs).
It’s a pity, in many ways, because as anyone who has stuck around through the longueurs of the second and third seasons knows, Lost went from strength to strength across its increasingly wild fourth season, and reviews from overseas suggest the fifth is even better. As Season Three ended, several of the survivors (Jack, Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Sun and Claire’s son, Aaron) are off the island, a turn of events a series of flash-forwards (mirroring the device of the flashbacks in the first few seasons) have revealed to have caused any number of problems of its own. Jack is a drunken wreck, his relationship with Kate has come unravelled, Hurley is in an asylum and talking to dead people, Sayid is an assassin employed by the perfidious Charles Widmore, Sun has taken over her father’s criminal and business empire and Locke, last seen trying to save the island, is in a coffin on the mainland. The fate of many of those back on the island, in particular Jin, is unclear, but the island itself seems to have teleported away not just through space but through time. And Ben has arrived to tell Jack and the other members of the Oceanic Six that if they want to save themselves and the other survivors they have to go back to the island.
It’s exactly as mad as it sounds, of course, and almost as incomprehensible. Like many shows which rely upon the unravelling of intricate plots, it’s almost impossible to keep track of precisely what’s going on, and indeed in many ways, keeping track of what’s going on is almost beside the point. What matters is the almost visceral thrill of the show’s twists and turns, and the sense that some new craziness lies just around the corner.
Last week I published a piece in The Australian Literary Review about the rise of what I called the new television. In it I argued that shows such as The Sopranos represent a mode of television drama unlike any we have seen before, filmic in their exploration of the medium’s visual and aural possibilities and novelistic in their preparedness to reject the generic conventions of series television and embrace the complexity and ambiguity of our inner lives.
One of the more striking aspects of this new television is the way it has been made possible by changes in television’s economic model, and by the rise of cable networks less reliant upon advertising and the growing popularity of alternative distribution models such as DVD and downloads, legal or otherwise. This shift away from reliance upon advertisers has allowed the cable networks to make more courageous choices about content and style, and to rely upon greater loyalty from their audiences over time, allowing longer and more complex storylines to be developed and explored.
Lost and The Sopranos are quite different phenomena of course. If The Sopranos can be understood as the early 21st century’s answer to Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy, Lost’s antecedents are to be found in the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s, and more particularly, the Silver Age comics of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others. Certainly Lost, like other, more obviously derivative shows such as Heroes, owes more than just its subject matter to the pulpy, four-colour world of the comic strip. Its structure, with the movement back and forwards in time from an essentially static present is reminiscent of the comic, as is its dependence upon the show’s complex and intertwined mythology. But in many ways it is its dependence upon the piecing together of the puzzles it presents, rather than the transformation of character through action and circumstance to generate narrative excitement and interest that ties it most closely to the comic. For all the intensity and vividness with which characters like Jack are drawn, it’s not their personal and existential travails we’re interested in, merely the part they play in a much larger picture, just as with Spiderman it’s the thrill of recognition we feel in discovering the is Harry Osborn’s father that keeps us reading.
It’s a mode of storytelling Lost’s creator, J.J. Abrams has spent much of the last decade perfecting. First in Alias (a show I never warmed to), and more recently in the drearily derivative Fringe, as well as in films like Sean Williams, for one sees Lost, with its teleportation and time travel plots, as a trojan horse designed to smuggle science fictional tropes into the mainstream, and in many ways the same could be said of all of Abrams’ work to date.and the upcoming Star Trek reboot, Abrams has demonstrated an remarkable capacity to marry a purely pop, MTV aesthetic to narrative elements which rarely find their way into mainstream television.
Part of the Abrams mystique is the illusion that everything in shows such as Lost and Fringe is part of some intricate plan worked out in advance. Like many other television shows, Lost assumes many of its viewers will watch (and indeed rewatch) episodes on Tivo and DVD, allowing them to pause and rewind, and as a result every second frame has some secret unlikely to reveal itself on a casual viewing hidden in it. If a television is on during a flashback in Lost you can assume whatever’s on will pertain to the plot, if a document is glimpsed on a table it will matter, if a logo appears on a coffee cup it will be part of the larger picture.
Obviously this increasingly complex web of associations in Lost and other shows like it depends upon exactly the same transformation in delivery technologies that underpins the rise of the new television more generally. Yet they are supplemented, in Lost’s case, by the very intelligent and deliberate use of the internet. Google Lost, and you will find endless discussions and spoilers, attempts to unravel the show’s mysteries and general speculation about what every detail might mean. And it’s not idle chatter either: I suspect for many viewers this second life (if you’ll pardon the pun) is as much a part of their enjoyment of the show as its more immediate pleasures.
The illusion it’s all planned is, of course, just that. One only has to look at the description of the original pilot (which was meant to star Michael Keaton as Jack, and have him die at the end of the first episode) to be reminded of the organic manner in which any television show, even one as intricate as Lost, evolves. Perhaps to his credit Abrams seems happy to give away the sort of fascistic control over every aspect of his shows’ creation that David Chase clearly exerted over The Sopranos or Matthew Weiner now exerts over Mad Men (there’s a fascinating if appalling depiction of Weiner at work in this excellent New York Times feature about life on the Mad Men set)
It’s also interesting to contrast Abrams’ manipulation of the illusion of control with the cheerful and slightly dismaying preparedness of Ronald D. Moore, co-creator of Battlestar Galactica, another show whose success depends at least in part on the complexity of its overarching narrative, to admit how many of the crucial decisions about Battlestar Galactica are made in the most casual fashion (“Who shall we make the last of the Final Five? Adama? The President? Ellen?????”).
Given this careful calibrated interplay between the collaborative technologies of the internet (an interplay shows like Battlestar Galactica also build on through the release of mini webisodes between seasons) it would be tempting to see Lost and shows like it as the first wave of a new, viewer-driven mode of television, a wikivision if you like, but they’re not, or not really. The shows are still driven from the top down, even if they aren’t mapped out by their creators in quite the detail they pretend they are. And it is worth asking whether viewer-driven television would be attractive anyway. In the days of yore, when Xena was one of the hottest shows on tv, its writers checked out the newsgroups, and discovered, somewhat to their dismay, that its fans were enraged by many aspects of the current season. Pleased to have an insight into what viewers did and didn’t like, they began to change storylines and finesse characters to meet the wishes of their fans. The strategy worked. Within a few episodes the chat on the newsgroups grew far more positive. But simultaneously, ratings began to slide. Pleasing the diehard fans, it turned out, was not the same as pleasing viewers more generally.
Yet there’s little doubt Lost and its relatives are part of a broader transformation of television drama, a transformation driven by related, forces to those which have allowed shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Big Love to flourish. And, like those shows, they represent a flowering of televison drama which speaks to its vitality as a form. Whether this renaissance can survive the next wave of changes to the media landscape is an interesting question, but for now, I’m just happy to have Lost back.