Thingness

Death of the author, say the students of the Big D, it’s the text, stay with the text … yet in my experience, all too often, the text is abandoned along with the author. Instead, the eager young scholar is distracted by the cultural gestalt, a mélange of multiple derivatives, the shared “is” that “everyone knows.” The sizzle that sold once and can be referenced as having sold, in order to hawk its echo. Worse, instead of critiquing it, they adopt it, so that all the verbiage and Foucaltian Hegelian Derridan whatnot add up to nothing more than its own consumerized and recondite fandom, in which academic employment and careerism have replaced anything resembling inquiry.

Ha! I managed to utilize the characteristic prose of said academic movement and spoof it at the same time. That’s a bucket list moment.

Anyway, I have a thing on my shelves which is perhaps the sole example I can find of pure text, a genuine “thing” which defies all probability in never having been picked up as product, never having achieved cool-points for anyone in fandom, and never being referenced anywhere else in line with either profit or status. I say it’s unlikely, vanishingly so, because of the creators in question are none other than Roger Zelazny and Vaughn Bode, which right there ought to catapult it to the top of SF-comics-pop recognition.

There’s not much to the story: some time Zelazny had a couple of kids’ stories in hand, or maybe some ideas for them, and Bode illustrated them, or began to, in whatever asynchrony or tandem with their final text forms, I dunno. “Kids’ stories! I have’em, you draw’em.” You can read here the bit of information (in Italian) as to why they remained unpublished, except for initial release at a science fiction convention in 1969.

In the early 90s, Bode’s work was resurrected in multiple collections, most of which I have, and I bet I wasn’t alone in my astonishment that any such thing as this collaboration could have remained obscure. And yet, its new release is surprisingly limited and over-precious. It’s not Fantagraphics, it’s some odd little obscure publishing house, and it’s all of one thousand copies, of which mine is #519.

Wait, did you read that correctly? Did I write it correctly? Yes: one thousand copies, that’s it, released, sold, done, nevermore. I mean, as opposed to being in constant print on both SF and kids’ shelves in worldwide distribution, evergreen. Or cited in any mention of either creator, casually dropped as often as “creator of the Amber series” when discussing Zelazny in any unrelated context whatsoever.

Should I try a little more of that Big D Talk for a moment? Consider maybe that both creators’ bodies of work are significantly obscured by their gestalt-type, cultural, “everyone knows” identities in pop culture. Zelazny: Amber, Amber, Amber, so great, wonderful, the best, yes, beyond that, aspiring to the SF fan’s ultimate ideal to be actually cool, to the extent that I can’t even hint at the fact that the first series is only good in spots because it lifts from the much better Lord of Light, and the second series is very bad and obviously fanfic based on playing the role-playing game, lightly converted to prose by someone who might not even be him. Never mind his really good work like Creatures of Light and Darkness, or Doorways in the Sand.

Similarly but opposite: Bode as the linchpin of pop/fun fantasy illustration, obvious inspiration for a whole generation of artists and yet unmentioned and unknown by the next, despite his undeniable presence across thousands of works. Maybe his unseemly death, maybe the mid-70s door-slam between underground and hip, who knows what, but for whatever reason, at a crucial moment when celebrity status in pop fandom actually became a possible career, it was not worth any status points to mention his name. Utter presence and almost complete silence – when I find myself obliged to explain who he was to brilliant artists whose every line sings his influence, and they say “Wizards,” “Elfquest,” “What’s New with Phil & Dixie,” “SnarfQuest.”

That’s weird: two kinds of Telephone game in pop culture, one that creates a false source overlaid on the actual one, and one that renders the source invisible.

So I’m looking at these two nicely-printed, hardbound volumes in their high-end slipcover case, which represent the intersection of real work, itself defying every step in each of those games. It’s the opposite of a stand alone complex, whatever the name for that might be. Thing, perhaps? Actual, real thing?

… which is also a strange opportunity to see if I think some … Thing, Actual Thing … is good, or more casually, whether I like it – completely absent any consequence concerning how cool, how right, how appropriate that viewpoint will be, and most significantly, how it will play in terms of social group and audience.

You should try that. Find a “pop art” Thing which, by variables you care about, has weight and consequence and interest, but which pop culture not only has bypassed, but now lacks the tools or reference points to direct interest toward it.

Do you like it? Why? Can you talk about it on, say, social media which may be dedicated to one or more of the relevant variables? Why or why not? Can you anticipate the automatic phrases that would ensue if you did (“never heard of it” first among them)?

Try it here.

Links: The Comics and Art of James V. West (my pick for today’s heir to Bode)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on August 20, 2018, in Gnawing entrails and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I got some Junkwaffel comics back inna day when I was departing from Marvel/DC and getting into weird comics and wow…

    My “thing” would probably the Andrew Vacchs’ “Burke” series. Incredibly weighty and “important” but nobody’s heard of him and he’ll never be a pop culture darling (the atrocious Dexter novels made it into a series but you’ll never see Burke, Max, Prophet and the Mole on TV…not even on HBO or Netflix).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting point! Especially those first few novels which were so outright defiant toward “Reagan’s new era of greatness” messaging, and before the series became more like an action-squad of cool team members. When Max and the Mole were, themselves, clearly deranged.

      Identifying the Burke stories in standard political terms is extremely difficult. They trade on certain brands of paranoia (Satanism, gang violence, a specific sort of child abuse) which were and have been co-opted by rightwing righteousness, and their brand of street justice is pretty close to Golan Glabus levels of vengeful white-man fantasy, yet they never embraced police protection or other forms of establishmentarian solutions, and tended toward contempt for middle-class comfort. I wonder if that contributed toward them remaining influential, but not getting picked up for TV/movies or becoming casual reference points.

      I remember them getting mainstream media play for a while in the late 80s, then the books shifted to getting published more by noir specialty houses instead of the well-known latest-mystery publishers, and no longer getting the “review of the latest” in the newspapers that the latter provided.

      Like

  2. My thing that I love obsessively that I never hear anyone talk about, ever, is Richard Sala’s works. His comics, and crucially, the weird little animated series based on his work, called “Invisible Hands,” which appeared on the MTV animation show “Liquid Television” in 1991, and available absolutely nowhere (though I have cobbled together a potato-quality copy of it out of pirated episodes of the show). That was what got me hooked on him.

    Maybe if I was more plugged into discussion of indie comics of the 80s-90s, I’d hear people talk about it, but I’m not.

    He’s still at it, BTW; his style has changed but the sensibility at its soul hasn’t. I keep buying his books as they come out and reading his tumblr(s).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. oberon the fool

    So I just ordered one of each of these in hardcover for twenty bucks apiece on Amazon. Below them is listed a set of both for nearly $400. I dunno if the regular price ones are reprints or just seriously undervalued, but I clicked the “buy now” button before anyone could figure it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you bought them separately, then it means they were removed from the slipcover and, necessarily, from their collectable condom cover as well. I think the difference in price probably reflects that single difference, in that the top-dollar item is allegedly mint.

      (Old man grumbles about the original terminology, that “mint” was defined as an unreachable condition by which actual-real-usable condition ratings were judged.)

      Like

  4. Santiago Verón

    For archiving purposes, I’d like to drop the link to the “stand alone complex” tag on the Adept Play site, because as I was reading this I wanted to find your previous mention of the concept and it took me a while.

    http://adeptplay.com/tags/stand-alone-complex

    Like

  5. Santiago Verón

    There’s a 16 bit era Pacman themed game which is unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. You’re supposed to help the guy as he goes around town running errands, but you don’t control him. Instead you use a Bart Simpson style weapon… What’s its name, the Y shaped thing you use to shoot pebbles, and with it you hit the environment and Pacman himself in order to manage his attention, options and emotions.

    It’s really good and absolutely forgotten. But it has absolutely no traceable influence over anything that came later. So I guess it doesn’t qualify as a Thing? Or does it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Never heard of it.” [immediately changes subject to his own area of expertise]

      Just kidding of course. You raise an important point, which is to say, whether the Thing might have been expected to be noticed.

      I chose an example for which the creators and obviously-related work are well-known and influential, and thus this thing’s unknown-ness is doubly mysterious. It was a good hook to highlight the basic observation. However, the basic observation matters even if the thing wasn’t produced by Famous Person or even if it didn’t have a diffuse impact on many things.

      My example for that – the unknown thing which sank without trace – would be the customizable card game Wyvern, which I found to be the most enjoyably playable of all those post-Magic games throughout the mid-late 1990s, and believe me, I played them all.

      Sometimes I think its very playability was its cultural flaw, in that you actually had to compete through the whole session to win, i.e., you could build great decks but not killer decks, and you had to be savvy to what the other player just did rather than merely set up your board. It had other commercial flaws too (a single artist, not enough bang in its visual concept), but nothing to do with its game design.

      Like

    • Santiago Verón

      Awesome! I’ll proceed with the rest of the exercise, then.

      1.Do you like it?
      2.Why?
      3. Can you talk about it on, say, social media which may be dedicated to one or more of the relevant variables?
      4. Why or why not?
      5.Can you anticipate the automatic phrases that would ensue if you did (“never heard of it” first among them)?”

      0. I want to add I could find an angle to manifest indignation as to how it remained unknown. “How could this fail if it had a franchise character, and it tapped into one of the big genres in the 90s – the graphic adventure, making it viable in a console?”

      1. I love it.

      2. It’s so fun, so original. It’s got so many little stories and moments. It allows the player to be kind, a prankster or just plain mean and cruel – but it is always cute. It’s got cartoon logic, and it’s also nonverbal – it’s got the charm of old Goofy or Donald Duck cartoons. It’s also good on both puzzles and story.

      3. Yeah, well – it depends. I definitely could talk about it in comics or animation circles, now that I think about it – the previous answer, and the phrasing of this question, gave me the idea. But I would have a harder time approaching the game making crowd – I would tote the original mechanics, but they could answer they’re clunky instead. Plus it’s unashamedly aimed at children – current gaming culture is kinda macho.

      4. It’s mainly hard to convey how the game works. Adding on top of that why it’s fun, it’s – difficult.

      5. “A Pacman game, which by the 90s was a second tier character, that is NOT on the dot-maze genre, nor even on the platform one, that attempts to do graphic adventure IN A CONSOLE of all places, dumbed down so all the puzzles aren’t even challenging, with neither words or inventory management, and you don’t even get to control him, you’re unexplainably shooting pebbles from the fourth wall? And you wonder why it didn’t catch on…”

      Liked by 1 person

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