plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Sandman Mystery Theatre #49, Part Two: How Cute, It Thinks It's Better...

One of the things I’ve been coming back to while reading this book again and again is the strange conversation happening between this comic itself and the pulps that serve as a set piece. Now, obviously, plot-wise, pulp magazines figure prominently in this issue. So I think it’s fair to examine a stance that I think this comic takes regarding its relationship to the pulps (which, I think it makes sense to say, were very much the precursor to and inspiration for this series): namely, it thinks it’s better.

In a scene on page 5, Dian and Wesley walk past a newsstand, where Dian looks for a new issue of something called The Black Mask. Wesley’s response is to ask if that’s “one of those silly crime pulps,” prompting Dian to do a defense, of sorts, of the pulp-lit form. Now on the first couple of readings this just struck me as a nod to the history of the Sandman and of the genre, I guess you’d call it “neo-pulp crime fiction” or something, that Sandman Mystery Theatre itself belongs to. After all, Wesley is likely serving in this scene as the smug and snobbish cultured fellow who needs to be educated, and Dian as the intelligent-but-adventurous, open-minded one, showing him the way. Of the pulp mags, she says, “The language is so raw, so vibrant. Some of these stories are brilliant.” Is that all? The language? This was my first clue, really. It just seems like a bone tossed to corny ol’ granpa pulpy. It sends the message, “well, sure they’re dumb, lowest common denominator, unchallenging junk, but the language is great!” And this may or may not be true of the pulps, but it also may or may not be true about this comic (well, part of my problem is that in the comic, the language isn’t that great, and more on that below). Either can certainly be read that way if the reader so chooses.

Where is this raw, vibrant language to be found in the comic itself? Well, there is a bit in printed “excerpts” of the fictional pulp, and it’s played partially for chuckles, I think. Which is a shame, because there’s really something there. For example:

“The Sandman was picking at bones. Chalky white, brittle grinding bones dropped in a trench at the edge of the city. Human bones dyed red with human blood, they bent themselves in wrong directions. Finger bones stretched for the cover that no longer wrapped them in their skintight coffin.”

And this:

“As Stolt continued to struggle, bony fingers tore private pages into kindling. The Ghost forced the tattered remnants up into Stolt’s damp dress shirt, Stolt screaming for any reprieve. Next, cold sloshes of gasoline from a nearby can soaked through Stolt’s clothes in rude splashes.

‘Please! Don’t! I’ll do anything!’

‘You’ll leave me your bloody bones,’ was the whole answer from the Ghost.

But miracles were on tap this evening as a cool cloud of spreading relief, the mystery fog of the masked marvel known only as The Sandman began to spread and fill the Ghost’s secret lair.

‘Fire season is over, Ghost. Now drop the torch, pronto. And not on Mr. Stolt, either, or it’s curtains for you, you cardinal colored ghoul.’”

The language is exaggerated for effect here, but it’s also exaggerated for the purpose of creating a distinction between the pulpiness of old and the neo-pulpiness of the current, or in this issue, real version.

Going back to page 5 for a bit, there’s an exchange between Wes and Dian about—get this—The Sandman pulp magazine. In it, they mock the pulp version of the hero, and all the silly conventions, saying his mask looks like “the grille of a Cadillac,” and when Dian reads an excerpt, Wesley’s reaction is a knowing, “Please! Who makes this stuff up?”

On page 16, when the Sandman visits Hubert Klein, a contact in the morgue, Klein is reading the Sandman pulp. When Klein begins to comment on the difference between how the pulp version makes an appearance and how the real-world version makes an appearance, the Sandman is moved to assert sharply, “That is fiction, I am reality.” Well, as it turns out, there is a murder victim in the morgue who was killed in the same manner as one described in the pulp magazine, so Klein thinks there might be a connection. When Wes later shares that suggestion with Dian, she says, “How silly!” But is it? I mean, even in the real world of this comic, the Sandman deals with strange murders all the time.

And in the end, that’s what strikes me about the issue. While embracing a subject that is not unlike the pulps in any way, its heroes wink and nod and mock them, and the author takes every opportunity to show that this comic, and this version of the character, is not the same thing. It just seems to say, “Look how much better we’re handling it than they did in that old-timey schlock. Our version is all serious and whatnot, our villains are real people with plausible explanations. But, uh…we still think the language in those books is raw and vibrant, even though we eschew its use and make fun of it.” And like I said, the attitude toward the pulp books may or may not be well-founded, but it doesn’t make the comic any more sophisticated than those books. In either case it’s a guy in a suit and mask who is armed with a fog gun, who runs around at night solving grisly murders. It would be nice if the comic could embrace and revel in the elements of its ancestral medium rather than trying to distance itself as though it’s something to be embarrassed about.

I may revisit this relationship again in a future post in terms of the real/hyperreal relationship created by having a character who is, within the story, at once real and fictional, but I believe that part three will deal with Dian and the phenomenon of SGS: Superhero’s Girlfriend Syndrome (which is not always as unhealthy as it sounds…).

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Sandman Mystery Theatre #49, Part One: The Meaningless Distinction Between the Leisurely and the Worthwhile

How are we to rank the activities of our lives in terms of importance, relevance? Well, hold on. Must we? Perhaps, in terms of setting priorities, we must. However, do the low-priority endeavors define who we are any less than those of higher priority? Can they be dismissed, and is diversion truly dispensable? These are the questions that Matt Wagner and Steven Seagle ask us to grapple with in Sandman Mystery Theatre issue 49.

After opening with an excerpt of flowering faux-pulp prose, we are presented immediately in the first panel with a tone-setting string of dialogue balloons.

Colm Petty: “…would again come face to skull with the Scarlet Ghost.” That’s a good one, ain’t it there, Petey? “Face to skull.”

Petey Petty: Jump ahead to the good parts. Ain’t there some skull crushin’ this month, Colm?

Woman Passing: Come along, Wilbur. You don’t need to be listening to this trashy talk.

Wilbur: Aw, gee, Ma.

These two exchanges encapsulate one of the primary themes of the issue. Where Colm is taking the time to revel in the descriptive language of the pulp rag that he’s reading, Petey wishes things to move along to the action, the “good parts.” The passing woman dismisses talk of the story as “trashy,” insisting that her son doesn’t need to be listening to it, though judging by his response he would like to. So there is on the one hand a sense of wanting to linger over things of beauty (in a sense), things that are diversionary, that seem to serve no utilitarian purpose (seem being an important term here, I think), and on the other hand the desire to stress purpose, function, usefulness above all things. But during the course of the issue (and perhaps the whole story arc, though I haven’t read it—maybe they’ll get traded someday) this split is shown to be meaningless, or perhaps slightly meaningful but unnecessary, or perhaps slightly necessary but misleading if applied as a hard and fast rule.

On page eleven, we are treated to the following captioned monologue:

“There are few burning issues in the lives of men. Certainly there are many
things that divert our attention—ways we find to fill our time—essentially
meaningless pursuits that we accept as meaning—vocations that serve to either
provide for our basic needs—or as some philanthropic contribution to the society
we choose to perpetuate. We fill our days, then, distracting ourselves from the
burning issues—with the smoldering embers of existence—the attractive, but
ultimately hollow rewards of hobby—pausing only occasionally to take stock of
our true needs and concerns—the matters that deserve our closest
attention—happiness—satisfaction—love—and family. The rest of life’s trappings
and constructs, no matter how seemingly important they may be, are in
actuality—misguided folly.”

This monologue is delivered over a montage of Wesley working on his Sandman mask and gun, as well as Dian reading, attempting to write, taking pills, and sleeping. What is most interesting is that the caption about vocations and the caption about hobbies are both contained in panels with Wesley working on his Sandman equipment. This suggests that being the Sandman may be interpreted, in one way, as being a hobby, an escape, a diversion. In another way it can be seen as his job, his primary constructive contribution to society. Rhetorically, in the above passage, work and hobby are treated as being equal to each other, in that they are equally meaningless. Kind of bleak, but it provides a counterpoint to the split between the leisurely and the worthwhile asserted in the first panel on page 1.

The character of Mike Petty, the young comic book artist, is also an embodiment of the meaninglessness of the distinction between the worthwhile and the diversionary. He earns his living by illustrating the trash entertainment that distracts others from their worthier pursuits. Both must be present in equal measure in order for his character to even exist. In his case, there is no division between the serious and the trivial.

The final scene, on pages 22 and 23, has the Sandman and Mike Petty meeting. The following passage is contained in various captions on the two pages:

“Our follies are what make us attractive to ourselves—as well as of interest to
others. The man who spends his entire life lost in the great pursuits, with no
time for the lesser—is the man who would go through life enlightened—but

A succession of character interactions, monologue captions, and even a couple of characters in themselves attempt to assert the common importance of the diversionary and the worthwhile as defining elements of personality and as ways of spending time. Thus, even as they are going about their murderous business, the Petty boys are quoting their favorite pulp magazine—and can’t wait to get home to finish up the story. Dian seeks to invigorate her literary career by writing for the pulps—even as she laments not being able to do anything about the war in Europe. But rather than creating a push-pull situation on the lives of the characters, these ostensibly competing concerns blend into each other, pressing the point that distinguishing between them is unnecessary.

With any luck I’ll be able to get part two up next week.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Rare Political Post--On Voting

It's like being in a long play in which you only have one line and it's close to the end. So you have to be there through the whole thing, and when you're done, you still have to hang around through curtain. But it's still nice to be involved.

So get to those polls and vote. And just this once, whether you vote or not, feel free to complain. That's my gift to you.