Oh look! A post about the American demographic designated by the 24th letter of the English alphabet is pissing and moaning about its identity. But first, some comics.
Am I projecting, when I perceive that independent or slightly-rogue comics creators of almost exactly my age had a tough time finding their way? I’m thinking about those who are very firmly understood as later Boomers like Diana Schutz, the Hernandez brothers, Dave Sim, the Pinis, and Matt Howarth (birth years 1950-1959), all of whom were old enough to have active roots in the 1970s underground, all being noted up-and-coming pros by 1980. I’m comparing them with those born ten years later, hitting their mid-20s around 1990, who flailed around from here to there with genuinely grim stretches, or really slogged their way in the independent darkness with little or no cachet or distribution.
Let’s see … to pick a range of “how it all turned out later,” there were Alison Bechdel (b. 1960) who was fringe as hell before 2000, Colin Upton (1960), Jeff Nicholson (1962), Bob Fingerman (1964, just a few days before me), Evan Dorkin (1965), Martin Wagner (1966), Jason Lutes (1967), Alex Robinson (1969), Drew Hayes (1969) … I don’t know Peter Sickman-Garner’s or Joe Michael Linsner’s birthdates but they’re spot on in there. As always, the boundaries vary by region and other details, e.g., Peter Bagge fits, but he was born in 1957, so I’m not all stuck on this or that precise date.
I might be projecting again, to see them grapple with an ongoing lack of generalized fanbase or distributional pull back in the 90s especially, and a tendency to publish among the interstices of the existing companies rather than “with” one or being able to support one. Believe it or not, I think Rob Liefeld (b. 1967) actually fits the pattern in reverse, coming into that position or placed there almost as if by magic, but to fall right out of it too, as if the gears failed to mesh and the piece bounced out. When success is Brownian motion, a particle’s gonna end up that way.
For thoughts on some of the comics, see my posts Justice comes by night, And I’m not the bad guy, I just want to talk to him, The raw and real deal … This is probably the best post to mention the really pissed-off ones I enjoyed, like Sickman-Garner’s Hey Mister and Dorkin’s Hectic Planet and Fun with Milk & Cheese. (Damn it! What was that one about the two really 80s-type druggie guys who conjured up the devil that one time … I swear, I had issues of these, I can see whole pages in my mind and quote them, they were hilarious.)
A contextual tangent: I did buy and read most issues of Strangers in Paradise and Bone, but both titles wore really thin for me, fast. Today, looking back, they seem of a piece with Image Comics at that time – not enough comic for the media presence and hobby position they were suddenly cast in. To a lesser extent I read the suddenly-hot Canadians like Chester Brown, Seth, et al., but the fact is, I didn’t and don’t like them much except for some of the more topical or historical pieces. Fortunately this isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive survey and a review even less so, so like I said, there’s your crossing-vector you can use for context as I continue.
Anyway, thinking over the comics I mentioned and others like them, I connected with them very deeply. They’re generally bleak and full of rather savage humor, including varying degrees of clinical issues, but it was all profoundly not depressed (this is where the Canadians excepting Upton lost me). It was alienated, flat in aspect but deeply engaged in every way. I mean, mentally, emotionally, and physically; e.g., they’re notably un-hung-up about feeling any given emotion, having and using body parts, and anything else that obviously flipped the older creators’ lids even as they drew them. If I were still in California I’d call it Zen in its attention to the moment, no matter how good or bad, always wry and weird.
Douglas Coupland’s book, which coined the term, is one of those novels that everyone references but no one reads, and whose content is “known,” and endlessly repeated and casually refuted, except that what’s actually in the book is something else that no one talks about. I don’t even know if I can recommend it; I have too much experience with heads filled with “what this book says” stuff that blinds the eye. I like it a lot and actually really needed it at the time.
One bit: I can’t help but complain bitterly about the term’s appropriation – evidently everyone “just knows” that Generation X refers to the demographic targeted by marketing for it, born in the mid or later 1970s. The exact point in the book that the next-down-the-way younger characters, the eager Reaganites, were casually and unreflectively becoming a “generation” directly descended from the Boomers, could not be better illustrated by reality. (See, for example, the Generation Jones concept.) Suffice to say that “X” was written to indicate a cipher, an unknown, the invisibles – not as an entity between a preceding W and and a following Y, and as one of the chapter titles indicates, certainly not as a target market.
It’s idiot-proof obvious to me. What actually happened to money and jobs is readily available and widely cited, it’s not some secret or mystery. Keep in mind I had my first job in the summers of 1978 and 1979, graduated from high school in 1983, and from college in 1987. Let’s look at that first phase.
You’ve heard about inflation and gas prices and an oil crisis during the 1970s? Probably as some sort of Vietnam letdown malaise, or some shit like that. It wasn’t magic. The U.S. had bankrupted itself with the Vietnam War; in 1971, it went onto the paper standard, and some interesting institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank reversed the ordinary meaning of “import” in such a way that the word “empire” applied in full, and still does (see Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire). Labor instantly vanished as a political force, not that it had been much since WWII anyway. The so-called oil crisis was nothing of the sort and had nothing to do with Arabs; it was simply nationwide gouging at the local pump because they could.
So that’s what was up for me going into high school. During my second year, Ronald Reagan become president, and look …
Again, no mystery. Given the deregulations during Reagan’s first term, finance became a fake-ass economy and the only thing economists would henceforward talk about, and the opening shot of the airport workers’ strike’s conclusion in 1982 became a real shock of simply lying, looting institutions pretending to be banks.
They called it a recession or an adjustment, but I was staring right into the entry job zone and I knew better – all of a sudden, anyone could get a credit card, no actual salaried jobs were available except for cult membership at Arthur Anderson, and any time you mentioned anything about this, someone was sure to gesture fiercely over-there and fulminate about Japan. Or Russia. Or the communists “destabilizing” poor old South Africa and infesting “South America” (don’t even ask what they were referring to, geographically
This economic double-hit is what made us, entering our teens just after the IMF/WB shift, entering our twenties into Reagan’s criminal-finance reality. Maybe “generation” is the wrong word, I don’t care one way or another. It was a sharply age-defined wave of misfits, dividing at college age into hustlers, suck-ups, and very self-aware drop-outs. The former, especially the first, adopted the Friedman school or rather cult – I was at the U of Chicago and saw it with my own eyes; it was exactly us – and don’t think for a minute they believed it. It was survival; they knew what they faced without it. The second were tragic, the most sincere of us, thinking that if they really tried and if they really believed, and you know, worked hard, it’d be OK, and shocked to learn that by 40, they were being bought-out and out-promoted by everyone ten years younger.
I was the third, while end-running the second via competence. There were a lot of us, but we created no group, no subculture. We weren’t hipsters – but we were what the hipsters made fashionable. I always had a job, always a weird job, invented for me or altered into a new shape once I was in it, often with high responsibility, but never with recognition or socked into an advancement structure. Slovenly, feckless, high-performance, under-employed coffeeshop dwellers – I was grunge as hell in 1986, but no one called it that, and certainly not with any implication of a style or fashion. They had other words for it. Marginalized people adopted me almost on sight. Other people regarded me with sullen anger or with disappointed surprise that I was somehow alive.
There’s also some values or symbolic content to consider. We were the first generation born into the Pill, knowing about it as the New Normal and in no way a change or shock; but we were also the last to get sexually active before AIDS became well-known. That means an almost-wholly unique attitude toward sex, sandwiched between two groups who both sorta really believe in sin. Boomers can’t shut up about casual sex, as if it were some kind of revelation; those younger than us approach it with trepidation and careful definitions and a resurrected sense of how important “commitment” is.
We were also the single curiously non-militarized group, not all anti-military by any means, but certainly the only demographic I know of for whom this outlook is regarded as among the normal, without special need to justify it or explain why you’re off-message like that. Then there’s the whole Bomb thing, about which, well, considering that stupid idiots apparently did hit the nuke’em “go” button on a couple of occasions, thwarted only by ethical people at the silos, never mind. I could go on – the last age-group without the internet, but the first to see it happen and to adapt before the familiar Windows-style platform kicked in; the first students to get computer training in high school but specifically to learn BASIC and PASCAL, not animation graphics or web design.
We didn’t believe in a damned thing, still don’t. We were the first young teens to encounter the role-playing hobby and watched the Satanic Panic rip into and redefine the hobby, such that the next round grew up flinching from it and resentfully defying it, whereas we had stared in quizzical contempt. We saw Reagan fulminate in fire and brimstone against the Rooshans and then embrace Gorby at summit after summit, while the same people cheered either way. “Say no to drugs” meant nothing to us; we ripped our brains for fun, not rebellion or mysticism. As with sex, the older group thought drugs were way more important than they are, and the younger one thought they were flirting with hellfire. Meet an American in his or her 50s who looks like they buy into anything, and they’re lying. They did it to keep their job or equivalent ticket into a life-style; at most, they’ve merely forgotten how to stop.
To bore you with one more claim, we experienced an utter and quite painful break with the elders – almost a conspiracy of silence from the parents, and almost a dedicated exclusion by the older siblings. This was and is a very alone group of people. You saw Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Hilarious, right? Not to us; we knew those kids, pretty much were them, and knew when the movie stopped being itself and went for easy endings. You saw River’s Edge? It’s not satire or exaggeration; I knew every one of those kids, meaning, their equivalents. We knew they were us unless we stepped a bit more … cautiously? No, with more cunning? At the very least, more quietly.
Thus Jeff Nicholson’s Through the Habitrails, first published in the Taboo anthology series, and most appropriately so. It’s one of those stories whose surreal and horror elements are practically a relief from the stunning, outright perfect portrayal of modern work. And I cannot explain why the protagonist is so damned sympathetic, with his stunned impassivity, his acquiescence to piled-on outrage, and his increasingly weird urges. But he is, in exactly the same way as the proto sort-of-not hipsters in the comics I talked about above. He’s not devoid of feeling at all, and he can do “I have no mouth but I must scream” – until he can’t.
It perfectly captures the jobbed among us – invaluable expertise, lateral thinkers, all badly paid, then bought-out and betrayed. The first age group that had no idea what the word “pension” means; the first one for whom “two weeks paid vacation” disappeared about when they thought they’d start getting one.
You saw Office Space, right? Thought it was a wacky comedy that sort of went off the rails? Not to those of us who knew exactly those guys, including Lawrence, and who consider the movie to be its weakest precisely when it went for comedy.
Due to my scholarships for both high school and college, I also got a good look at the affluent among us, many of whom became alienated from their family networks in late high school and college, and had to carve a new place in them or elsewhere, often overtaken by younger less-reflective siblings.
For lots of us, academia was the only way, and that turned out to be my way; its meritocratic aspect worked for a while until you hit the early Masters or late Ph.D. stage. I’ll save the third, super-nasty hit of the late 1990s in that sphere, again exquisitely timed, for some other time.
Characteristically, I have no nugget, no zinger, no insight. Some of us ended real good, sooner or later; some of us find their way through the interstices like I hope I can do. Most of us are a loser sector of a loser demographic, who made the mistake of being too smart to believe in your job, but too dumb to suck-up to the egregious liberal-left or hard-right, or to seize upon some rhetoric associated with a lever of power.
This post was surprisingly difficult to write.
Next: Not sure, actually! I’m working on something, hence the slowdown. I might stick to fun little posts for a bit. Check out the Patreon if you wanna know.
Posted on October 24, 2017, in The 90s me and tagged Alison Bechdel, Bob Fingerman, Colin Upton, Douglas Coupland, Drew Hayes, Evan Dorkin, Generation X, Hey Mister, Jason Lutes, Jeff Nicholson, Martin Wagner, Peter Bagge, Peter Sickman-Garner, Taboo, Through the Habitrails. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.