plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

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.

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