Monday, January 21, 2013


The last two reviews I’ve done for Thor’s Comics Column (The End Times of Bram and Ben and Todd, the Ugliest Kid in the World ) have inadvertently been thematically linked. Both of these books are deliberately, gleefully offensive, something that’s become a time-honoured tradition in the medium of comics since at least the era of “Tales From the Crypt”…and really, it goes back to at least the days of 18th-century political cartoons. Or hell, dirty paintings on cave walls. Comics seem more inclined to this kind of assault on good taste than most other media, something I accredit partly to how few overseers the standard comic has in the production phase, and partly to how far beneath the radar the average indie comic is able to fly. But even without those aspects I feel like there’s something in the medium itself that lends itself to assaulting people’s delicate social mores—a certain underlying anarchy implicit in portraying reality in stylized form. (Animation has something similar going on, from the classic Loony Tunes to the modern slew of R-rated cartoon shows.)

As you might be able to tell, I’m generally in favour of pushing boundaries, but that doesn’t mean I automatically salute comics creators who publish whatever juvenile, offensive nonsense they can get away with. As I said in the reviews linked above, I think taking a scattergun to good taste can be a positive thing…if done in an intelligent context. The more over-the-top your shock value, the more carefully it has to be deployed, and there’s no quicker way to get on my bad side than being shocking for the sake of being shocking. Perhaps more importantly, if you’re going to talk the talk, I expect you to walk the walk.

I’ve been to the San Diego Comic-Con a few times, thanks largely to friend and collaborator Chuck Whelon. My first time there, in 2004, was juuuuust before the huge crowds of non-nerds caught on that this was a chance to catch a glimpse of big movies and their stars and directors before they were released, and it was still possible to get in to see them without spending most of the convention waiting in line. In later visits I tended to skip the madness of Hall H and focus on the actual comics, but that first trip was spent planted in the big lecture halls watching advance clips of The Incredibles and listening to the creators of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (it was a pretty good year for neat geek projects, in retrospect).

One of the presentations I saw that year was for Team America: World Police. I knew Trey Parker and Matt Stone were working on an all-puppet action movie that would lampoon the war on terror in the style of the Thunderbirds, and while I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of the duo, I thought the combination of the uniqueness of the medium and the subject matter made it sound like an exciting flick. What I saw on the stage, though, turned me against Parker and Stone for life. I understand that they were in the late stages of finishing the movie and were rather exhausted, but the hour-long presentation consisted of nothing but whining from the duo—whining about how much they hated actors, whining about how much harder it was to work with puppets, whining about how much hard work this all had been. When you factor in the incredibly simplistic, half-assed animation of South Park, it became clear to me that these were a pair of over-privileged jerks who thought it was the height of hilarity to mock everyone else but whose own inconvenience warranted a jeremiad. This was emphasized when the movie came out and large chunks of it were devoted to repetitive, tiresome “takedowns” of everyone in Hollywood Parker and Stone personally disliked, including a nonsensical plotline springing from their personal vendetta against Michael Moore.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “He’s only saying that because his political beliefs are being tweaked.” But actually it’s just the opposite. I’m a hardcore leftie, but I’d LOVE it if someone delivered a smart, incisive takedown of Michael Moore. That’s not what Parker and Stone did, though. The Michael Moore segments of the movie are simply Parker and Stone taking revenge on a guy who done them wrong (Parker and Stone were featured in Bowling for Columbine but refused to make an animated segment for the movie; Moore proceeded to make one in the style of South Park and place it right after the Parker and Stone segment, which the duo felt mislead people into thinking they’d been active participants in the movie rather than interview subjects). There’s no real criticism of Moore’s beliefs other than linking him to the movie’s half-baked “liberals are terrorists” theme, which isn’t any more well-thought-out than the kinds of idiocies that right-wing talking heads were spewing during the Bush years. What’s almost worse is that Parker and Stone present this whole thing as surrounded by ironic quote marks, dramatizing right-wing talking points with a veneer of ridiculousness so that if called on it they can say they’re satirizing it. It’s the ultimate in having their cake and eating it too.

For the record, I have enjoyed South Park in the past, and I’m not trying to argue that Parker and Stone are are right-wing lunatics. Actually that’s almost the problem: I don’t think they actually believe in anything, and are simply taking an aggressively contrarian stand to get noticed. Which wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself, but combined with the aforementioned sense of privilege and whininess, it becomes excruciating. (A gay acquaintance of mine was extremely angry at the episode that called for people to ease off on criticism of “the f word”: “So, these privileged heterosexual Republican-voters are going to lecture me on being offended by a slur aimed specifically at people like me?” was the thrust of his complaint.) Apparently a recent South Park episode featured metacommentary on Parker and Stone’s growing displeasure at their need to be relentlessly cynical and negative towards everything, to which I can only quote Porky Pig: “You b-b-b-b-buttered your bread, now you can lie in it.”

Another guy about whom I have similarly mixed feelings is Garth Ennis. Unlike Parker and Stone, I don’t think Ennis is a nihilist, and in fact, I think he can be a really excellent writer. But as anyone who’s read a lot of his work knows, he can very definitely fall into the same adolescent contrarian stance. There’s his incredibly, often pointlessly graphic violence, his depiction of superheroes as out-of-control, amoral hedonists in The Boys, and his juvenile mockery of religion in Preacher. I’ve actually read Preacher multiple times and own the entire series; it’s unquestionably an engaging, entertaining story, but I’m consistently disappointed by how Ennis keeps trying to pretend he has something to say, about religion or America or anything else, when it’s pretty clear he doesn’t. Christianity only exists in Preacher as something he can bring up for a cheap, shocking gag once in a while; the only people who are going to be offended by it are the kind of fundamentalists who wouldn’t be reading the comic in the first place. It’s a nonstop parade of “Hey, you hold this stuff sacred? Well, fuck you, I’mma smear shit all over it! Ha ha!” Ennis never even really gets around to explaining WHY religion is bad; he just takes it as self-evident. He’s shooting fish in a barrel. (And no, I’m not religious. If I’m offended by any of this jive it’s not the subject matter but how much contempt Ennis has for his readers.) 

After all that, I probably come off as a hopeless prude, but I reiterate my original point: I’m a strong supporter of thinkers and storytellers who attempt to push boundaries. My issue is with people who take “causing offense” as a starting point. To stay on the religion thing, Charles Darwin didn’t sit down and attempt to destroy the bible by writing The Origin of Species (regardless of what certain fundamentalists seem to think); he simply followed his thoughts to their rational conclusion, and came back with a book that shocked half the world. The same is true of Alfred Kinsey or Friedrich Nietzsche. This may seem like a somewhat lopsided argument, that I’m holding up an impossible standard to pop culture storytellers, but you see my point—nothing is ever more shocking than ideas. An obvious provocation can garner attention in the short term, but all you’re doing is shoving something into the muck. Muck washes off. Exposing an existing rot within your chosen subject—that’s far more dangerous, and it’s what art should be doing.

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