Thursday, December 10, 2009

Popular Madness Takes a Breather

Popular Madness is taking a break for the holidays, but will return in the New Year. 
See you again in 2010!  – J.W.E.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

With Buckets of Ice, Fighting Sleep

I think of this mad rush of technological innovation and reapplication we are currently experiencing, this digital cramping in the gut, this redrawing of our world to fit within such tiny, invisible parameters, every day bringing an addition to the addition, each device growing thinner and smaller before our open hands, and I can’t help but relate it to other, more limited moments in our commercial history, those times when a product demanded a momentarily intense turnaround, a frantic dance to keep supply level with demand, changing its face over night, bending to an intangible will, the whims of a commerce-driven zeitgeist – the future always ready to be sold in the morning, the advantage of the new rising with the rooster, sending us forward with its anxious clarion.

The comic book industry was once this way, as unlikely as that might sound.

During what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age, comics were turned out with alarming frequency and number, favorites like Captain Marvel selling millions every month. It’s within the panels of the comics from this era, and the subsequent Silver Age, that I find the mysteries of mass production – those bizarre, almost unconscious images and dialogue that seem to have been born of a fever, running the hot brow of obsessive publishers turning the wheel day and night – of artists sitting at their desks, their feet in buckets of ice, fighting sleep, moving ink onto paper – an endless bailing of line into a sea that devours, but never returns, its intangible tide caressing the shore of an invisible nation.

The lurid charm of these cheaply-printed screams and shouts – socks and pows, biffs and bams, giggles and laughs – it still hangs in the air about us, but is now relegated to media far more integrated into the circuitry of the blinking circus we call civilization – Billy Batson having become a cipher in an overheating video game.
     What was once a furtive escape – adventure rolled into a back pocket, to be savored on a rooftop, or up a tree – is now a system of rote instructions and hand motions requiring achievement, a pyramid scheme of accomplishment and gratification, seeing that we all busy ourselves devouring entertainment, fulfilling our job as consumers, supervised by the unblinking Eye of Providence, God the money counter, lining the back of a dollar bill.

Just as the early comic book industry routinely pillaged the newspaper cartoons for already-existing material to fill its product, so too has the digital demand forced a new industry to assimilate its tangible forbearers, Kindle seeking to close the books on the print-bound publisher, iTunes burying the needle of the record business, EBay silencing the auction house, Expedia grounding the travel agent – all dragging their kill back to the cave, talking it apart to replicate its bones for the generation to come, a people evaporating into themselves – even as they expand the perceived gulf between what is man-made and what is God-given.

As our grandfathers traced traffic, their noses deep in the latest issue of Captain Marvel, so do we tread the ground, our eyes and ears glued to the devices that define the cutting edge of the present, the heralds of tomorrows, the shapes of things to come, gadgets and widgets born at the aching wrists of code-writers and programmers, sitting up late in their screen-illuminated cubicles, drinking Red Bull and Vitaminwater, dreaming of their beds, numb in the cathode light.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Boys in Blue

Somewhere in a world caught between the gelatin folds of my bluey-grey brain, there exists a comic book featuring Batman outfitted with a gun holster, a weapon he uses without pause on every criminal he catches, gunning them to pieces with a vengeance befitting his mad disguise.

This comic, born of a mind succumbing to the sweet poison of sleep, I would title SERVES THEM RIGHT.
     It was most surely printed in 1941, two weeks before America entered the Second World War, the last time a pacifistic citizenry would claim shock at the action of the bullet, wetting their lips on the milk of the honey called Freedom – the carnival prize hung just out of reach by the wrinkled white faces lurking the midway.

As bizarre as it might seem for a character such as Batman to carry a gun, it is hardly a stretch – a pistol being, after all, a far more plausible weapon than the Looney Tune gadgets he carried around with him throughout the 50s and 60s. But Bob Kane’s dark knight, though he affected the tone of hard-boiled crime cartoons like Dick Tracy, was quickly swept into the legion of punching “long johns”, the mimics and imposters born in the wake of Superman’s speeding popularity, agents of justice who might out-race a bullet, or melt shut a gun barrel with their eyes, but would never utilize one – less they become as evil as the villains pitched against truth, justice and the American Way.

This, of course, was a load of rubbish, the stampeding way of America primarily being fueled by the advancement of weaponry manufacture, namely its pivotal part in the innovation of mass production, spurred on by the Springfield Armory during the American Civil War.

It was with the advent of WWII that America’s munitions industry truly went supernational, the first world conflagration in 1914 having been its proving ground.
     After the attack on Pearl Harbor there was no turning back, America spent the next decade on an adventurous game of weaponry hopscotch, leading up to what Dwight D. Eisenhower cautiously dubbed “the military industrial complex“, the furious business model that torpedoed itself around the globe, forever changing the face of war, American weapons and armed bases having been a featured part of practically every national and international fisticuff since – be it covertly, or in blatant defiance of supposed international law.
     Such an infusion of business opportunity, spurred on by tragic circumstance, is what 9/11 theorists latch onto in their illustration of a government complicit in its own injury, seeing the pre-WWII pacifism in direct correlation with the pre-9/11, post-Soviet Union, militaristic ambivalence that permeated American politics – George Herbert Bush’s saber-rattling in the Middle East having whet the appetite of those still lurking in the sticky shadows of the midway.

Such international operations – from Vietnam to Korea to Grenada to Panama to Iraq – have all been sold with the glorified image of the armed benefactor, the soldier, the officer, the angel of justice who has been part of America’s identity from the outset, flint arms and matchlocks carried to the new shores by the Puritan pilgrims in the late 1600s, weapons used to keep wild animals, and native peoples, in their place. Early settlements like Jamestown and Henricus had sheriffs (“shire-revee”, in Old English, from shire, as in county), men who oversaw the implementation of law, a system of governance more often than not enforced with the barrel of a gun.

The emblem of this system, its uniformed, armed herald of order, has been forged right along with the country’s identity – from Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys to Marshall Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, from Capt. James Tiberius Kirk wielding his phaser to the Governor of California sending shotgun shells careening across movie screens. Americans equate a civilized society with the security sitting within the cylinder of a gun – be it a weapon hanging from the belt of the badge-wearing grandfather paying for his coffee, the bored ex-football player standing mutely in the alcove of a shopping mall, or the Gulf War vet greeting you at the entrance to your local Target – irony filling his black leather holster.

Every boy grows up cradling an imaginary pistol in his hand, watching the olives and midnight blues flickering on the television screen, the bullets loaded behind enemy lines and patrol car alike, every police station housing the neighborhood army, those citizens entrusted with the deadly toys of their trade – an officer’s only friend when the chips are down.
     The way in which the gun has defined America’s notion of security goes hand-in-hand with how the country has matured itself, leaving a Glock under Little Nemo’s pillow, a Colt beneath Linus’s blanket – a nation of grown-up children going POW! POW! POW! in the face of a reality indifferent to the trappings of justice, where every designation of who is to be protected, and who is to be served, carries with it a sentence of time – the speed of which travels an oiled barrel of steel.

No matter how noble the impulse, no matter how pure the intent, no matter how firm the nerves, how fair the heart – those who marshal the prescribed order are the Dynamic Duo of justice’s pulpy face, the weapon drawn quickly asserting its senior role in the duo – leaving a costumed boy wonder holding the trigger.

Monday, December 7, 2009

White Flashing Tails

How tiny might life be before we fail to consider it life?

It seems plausible we might reach this conclusion, all evidence to the contrary, through the very vanity we exhibit in the presence of the smallest living things – from the snail to the louse, the book midge to the facial parasite, the microscopic worm, the cell, the sperm – the white flashing tails descending on our creation – Tom Thumb undressing Thumbelina, Rick Moranis shrinking his kids.

We have learned that size determines much accumulation of power, be it true physical stature, Charles Atlas pimping his biceps in comic books, or a persona magnified through illusion and threat, the Wizard of Oz plotting behind his curtain. We have applied this to those that watch us from the dark – the twinkling eyes of the raccoon, the traveling S of the snake – the quickness of their retreat.

With one hand we crush the tiniest, Terminix applying the final solution, while with the other we feed the small that live in our homes, Morris taking his finicky time, all the while throwing nets over the largest, Melville’s whale sliced on a beach, Babar beaten into a boxcar – displaying them as icons of our own great achievement – Adam and Eve dominating Goliath, King Kong beating his chest, chained to a studio door.

We wage war on the invisible and the furtive, the serpents of science and medicine flying on twin flags as antidote and poison charge the door, vanquishing the bacterial hordes salivating outside the walls of our technological castle.

We are so busy conducting this futile campaign, detonating the fruited vaccine of our dreams on the populations we house, that we fail to see our role in the whole, that the vermin feasting on our epidermal desert exist in proportion to the health and abundance of our follicles.
     We provide for them, not they for us.
     We are the cattle in the pasture, the poultry stunted in their boxes, the lamb bludgeoned for her flesh, receiving a smile from Bo Peep as she ties another ribbon to her crook.

On the other hand, how large can life be? How can it ever be measured?
Just as the nesting eggs of cellular division can never been exhausted, neither will the vast galaxies ever find their fingertips, their span the very measure of continuance – one hand stretching forward, the other reaching back, a breathless H.G. Wells playing his own time machine.

We seek to embody this impossible duration in our gods and goddesses, in the men and women we deify by the prints they leave in the sands of time, Jesus of Nazareth staining his shroud, Neil Armstrong scraping his boot on the moon. We construct giants, monuments who put us in the middle of our perceived lot, seeing ourselves the good-hearted pilot of universal change, the instructor of wisdom – all the while being nothing more than the farmer of self-satisfaction plowing his fallow field.

But just try telling a man this is so.

All you’ve receive is an eyebrow rising – a bomb dropping – the horizon aflame.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Graceful Existence

We know this is a bi-polar world, two sides living within a one-sided argument, Harvey Dent cursing The Batman’s name, humanity progressing towards its own demise, each conquest over what it calls nature a step up the stairs to its final evening, a sad and lonely room waiting, where a sick son named Norman dusts the corpse of his mother, neon flickering through thin curtains, signaling the Hitchcockian end.

Like a hermit crab making its way through Costco, we have encumbered ourselves with so much artifice that we can no longer move, our lives divided by and immersed within the invented particulars of the static of reason, the dizzying whirlpool of action and correction we call civilization, our part in the charade of society, the tempest of culture and war, class and crushing despair.

We first embraced the cool stranger in the red shadows of our birth, wailing at such a God’s fury, a creator so demented as to make us arrive unfulfilled, our tiny bodies craving sustenance, demanding survival, building the platform for greed, the very basis of man’s haphazard pirouette across time’s fleeting stage, the epileptic ecstasy of Martha Graham.
     We are brutes, pure and simple, monsters growing terrified of our own hair, the remnant pelt of our ancestral primitivism, Lon Chaney Jr. baying at the moon. We are a creature who has absorbed his artificial world, sending it through his very blood, shitting it out in a vicious stream, his splayed legs like the posts of a gate blown open by insanity’s fetid breath.

We, thus portioned, tormented, cannot but see the world lying about us in halves, in this and that, in them and us, in good and evil, his and hers, Fiddle and Faddle, Tom and Jerry, Turner and Hooch. We project our sickness on the morning and the night, on land and sea, on father and mother, on daughter and son. Half of us dream of bringing the parts together in harmonious joy, progressive Bambis grazing the liberal fields of the modern Democratic Party, the other half plotting to keep it apart, Rush Limbaugh barking at the microphone, Dick Cheney moving things in his basement bunker, everyone frothing at the mouth in their episcopalian hubris, waves of drool clashing as words are exchanged, grievances aired, desires made known, enemies so born, armies thus made, the toys broken before the dawn.

How I wonder what we would have become, had we never picked at the peace of the moment, had we never squinted into the light, seeing two suns, closing the book on a graceful existence.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tethered To the Soil by Their Drinking Veins

There was a time when we worshipped trees.

I’m not talking about some pious reverence, some devout bending of the knee, I am talking of recognizing the forest’s role in our lives, in the natural play of our days. The wooded glen standing in the mist, its outline chattering with mad birds, it is the lung of existence. We take in the air scented by its limb and leaf, filtered by its effervescent rustling display.
     We know all too well that it is the tree, the big plant, the weed gargantuan that cleans our air, that absorbs the soot and the smoke, the oil and the mercurial rain. They are the thirsty totem of the world’s degenerating scalp, the ringed straws reaching to the heavens, the wooden rocket ships tethered to soil by thirsting veins.

The tree has two heads, one at each end of its existence, a match for any Doolittle. One is ravished by the wind, showing the sun its thousand forked tongues, the other buried in silt, chasing moisture as it races ever downward, losing itself in every direction. It speaks with both, sucking in the mysteries the Earth leaves behind, as it struggles to survive the vermin running its troubled hide.

How mighty are the trees that still scrape at our skies? Are they truly the lords of the vegetative nation, or is their size deceptive? Are they rather tumors in a field of tulips, the cancerous growths of a host losing its hair, tickets to Disneyland for those willing to believe?

We transform them with a deafening rapidity, turning natural tower to plank and bow, to bat and beam, chopstick and toothpick, rocking chair and oar. We harness their blood, the sweet syrup of their hardened skin, we mutilate and set fire to their limbs to warm our homes, we decapitate them when they peer through our lines of communication, when they dare intervene in the conversation of civilization’s giants, T-Mobile, Verizon, Comcast, the humming sentinels leaving headless cripples in their wake, standing like H.G Well’s Martians on metal legs.

No matter what the undergraduate philosopher might tell you, every falling tree makes a sound, for sound exists without an ear, just as signals exist without a radio, Chuck Berry without an audience. The tree felled by lightning, its brittle trunk devoured by beetle, visited by invisible blight, bursting great galls in frenzied smatterings, it passes through the nightly news, lining Tom Brokaw’s golden throat, the cellular chat, the murmur of a planet’s misbehaving child, it cuts right through it, on its way to the cradle from which it has sprung, never leaving the care of the nursery, the warm milk of a replenishing lap of birth and death, of bud and decay, the glory of a swelling mushroom building up from the rotting of the composting wood.

The tree strikes a balance between terra and strata, between gravity’s bed and its gulf of absence, the vast arena through which the seed drops, twirling in life’s spinning design, borne by whispered breeze and the gust of a hurried beast, riding a shield of quills to neighboring pastures, foreign groves and burgeoning orchards. The tree is a thermometer, wilting in the heat, an icy pillar in the cold. It is a needle, searching an entrance to the planet’s vascular parade, Sid scratching at Nancy’s flaccid white arm.

The tree welcomes calamity from above, just as it witnesses calamity below.

From the tree we hang and climb, lynch and love. We leave our marks across its weathered suit of armor, carving our hearts to its breastplate – before toppling it to the ground to warm our toes.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Open Arms

Have you ever stopped to consider just how disembodied is our perception of war, those of us who have never known its stink and terror?

We think of the pomposity of its delivery – of the Hollywood travails that make or break the boys, the popular young actors lining the trenches, a baby-faced Michael J. Fox eating his dinner from a rusty can – and we place it safely in a corner of our conscience, where we hug at the lusty bravado of Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen, the gilded sleeves and metal-strewn chests, the tall tales of beachfront heroics and jungle deliverance – grandfather’s medals sleeping in a glass case.
     But what do we know of its day to day passing, of what becomes of the mind in those circumstances?

Of course, the human mind, shined like its shoes, arrives pre-conditioned for the battle, the boot marks of disciplinary rape lining its shattered young face, every G.I. Joe tagged for the return trip, ready to slip into his plastic sleeve.
     But that is only the first step of the dance into madness we call armed conflict, the unchecked theater born of national adversity.
     There is somewhere they go, these men and women, those enlisted and shanghaied, those who march with brave and stupid faces into war’s cacophony, convinced they have been prepared to trample strangers into the mud, conscript and civilian alike, separating flesh from bone, bone from body, body from soul, soul from any further consideration – the helpless crushed by war’s cascading rush across resplendent horizons.
     Surely they must disappear into the sound of their own hearts, the tender timepieces pounding in their ivory cages. One minute they are frozen, the heat of battle slamming them to the ground, the next they are rising on mechanical legs, their brain having reminded itself that it is a weapon, letting reason marry murder to mayhem, misery to multiplication, menace to metal, mud to meat.

The vets, they will return, many in pieces, many like teabags, pouches of departed humanity waiting to be stewed in patriotism. Many more will appear seemingly unscathed, grinning with shining lapels, monsters lingering inside their skulls, Nosferatu scraping at the window of recall and recoil, Vincent Price lending his baritone to the blunderbuss flashing through the night, the blackness at the window reflecting only the face of a suppressed fear.
     There is nothing that can be done about this, though were it not so I believe none would raise a fuss, for who really wants to watch the broken fall apart?
     I cannot believe a single soul has ever returned from the fury of war untouched, their daily thoughts not filtered through the blazing memories of the field of death. It may rise in unexpected places, like some dark daffodil in the shadow of a lonely curb, or it may lie across the canvas of the decorated veteran’s facade, defining his mood and mode, a cold gripping hand taken in by the puppet’s hollow body, giving life to that which begs only for release from its daily travail.

I cannot know how weak my imagination might be in this regard, I can only pursue it to whichever conclusion satisfies it, its terrible need to know the fullness of my civilization’s intolerable sickness, the aching weakness of the heart taught to destroy, to meet white eyes with its open arms, its bombs bursting in air, Tom Cruise winking woodenly at the setting sun.

War is hell, so they say, but I can only see in it a tragic painting of Heaven, men spreading their wings, Gabriel taking the hand of Icarus, droning in legion from the sky, puncturing the clouds, dropping their sanctified messages onto rooftop and hillock, child and lamb, each assured their soul has a place in the downy folds of their Father’s sanctified lap.