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.