Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Giving the Virgin Finger (or, Douche ex Machina)

(Note: this blog takes place after the events of Ex Machina Special #4--Jerk-off Jimmy)

Brian K. Vaughan is one of the finest writers in comics today, and the guy I often point to when asserting that this most current generation of comic book creators is the best yet. Taking a large cue from the likes of Alan Moore, Vaughan is able to deftly and seamlessly weave all manner of symbolism and synecdoche into his stories, with sub-plots running perfectly parallel until just the right moment of reveal, while the overall work most often parallels itself with the world as we know it. His dialogue is cuttingly clever without ever being cute. The characters are always multi-dimensional, and his cliffhangers no less than nail-biting.

But above all this, the one thing about Vaughan's writing that I've especially come to appreciate is the sort of backwards route he sets for himself in his story-telling, literally so in his issue of Midnighter a couple of years ago. It's often very much as if Vaughan starts at the end of the story and then works backwards, allowing himself a different insight into the characters and their actions. But in his mode of story-telling, he also leaves landmines behind him, inherent gnarls in the weaving that he can't ignore or jump over. Vaughan forces himself to not only take on tough stories, but with such an engaging style, he forces his readers to come along with him.

Take for instance Ex Machina (quick recap: Ex Machina is the story of civil engineer Mitchell Hundred, who gains the power to communicate with machinery. Naturally, he becomes a superhero, and not long after saving one of the two towers during 9/11, he successfully runs for mayor of New York City). In an editorial Vaughan wrote a while back (I tried to dig it up, but no soap), he talks about how a lot of interviewers have asked him if Ex Machina is a love letter to New York City. And he began just saying yes because it was easier than explaining that the book is more like hate mail, that even though he loves the city dearly, there remain many and varied issues which need to be addressed critically. So again, we see the seemingly contradictory style of Brian K. Vaughan: let's take something beloved, let's explore its seamy underbelly, and therefore we can make it more beloved.

Ex Machina Special #4 is hate mail to comic book nerds.

The plot of this issue revolves around the Gardener, a nutcase who thinks he can talk to plants. The plants tell him to kill Eddy Romans, newspaper publisher and one of Mayor Hundred's most vocal critics. The Gardener believes he's gained his Floronic Man powers from close interaction with Hundred, and is therefore acting on the Mayor's orders to kill Romans. It's not implausible within this universe, and Hundred is a little worried. But as it turns out, the guy is just a looney tune. And the Hundred mayoralty lives to fight another day.

It's a hell of a good story, in more ways than one. There are a few times where Vaughan seems to be critical of both the comic book industry and collectors. And again, my hat is off, not just at the balls one needs to take a crack at something like that, but being able to pull it off as well, even if part of me was more than a little offended.

If I sound a bit divided, there's good reason. Since reading this issue, I've had quite the internal struggle between my personal awe at Vaughan's ultimate point and my personal awe at the path he took to get there. I've been trying to somehow conciliate these two attitudes, and I'll tell ya, I'm having a bitch of a time.

In these following first two examples, I'm being made uncomfortable, and that's just fine. If any kind of literature doesn't jar you at least a little bit, then it really should make no claim to being literature. Early on in the book, Hundred takes a crack at the intelligence of Romans' readers, and Romans responds with "Coming from a man who was weaned on comic books?" Now, you know and I know and Vaughan knows that readers of comics are not stupid, at least not because they read comic books. This is an old attitude, ingrained in a lot of writers, especially journalists. My hackles sit up here a bit, but that's it.

Later, Romans tells his girlfriend that he actually genuinely likes Hundred, but what pisses him off is that Hundred is "a nerd. He's constantly trying to...to impose order on an inherently chaotic world, like the asexual fanboys who obsess about continuity mistakes in bad sci-fi shows." Okay, again, fair enough. This hits a little bit closer to home, but Romans is not the most reliable narrator, the most informed critic of such things. People like Romans seem to define nerds as those clinging to an ideal of perfection that is impossible in the real world, and must sublimate that in their chosen realms of fantasy and science fiction. This is a sign of weakness to Romans and his ilk because nerds don't have the strength to deal with reality head on.

And I'm going to have to go ahead and concede this, at least partially. His implied judgement that nerds are foolish or pitiful for engaging such behavior can most certainly be debated. But it has been my experience that a lot of us so-called nerds are more than a little obsessive-compulsive and have a hard time living happily in what can be a cruel and harsh world.

But then the Gardener, Romans' supposed antithesis, chimes in. After murdering Romans, he explains to Hundred that Romans was debilitating the planet with his newspaper, and that the comic book industry was next on the Gardener's hit-list: "They're the worst offenders of them all. At least newspapers are eventually recycled. But comics are virgin paper going into virgin hands that tuck them away into poisonous plastic. Forever."

I admit here to my utter chagrin that the effects of comic book collecting on the environment was an issue I had never given any thought. And even for a fairly socially unaware guy, I think this is something that should have occurred to me before, just as an intelligent(-ish) person. But really, since I do tuck my books into plastic in order to keep the environment from destroying them, it does seem anathema for me to be especially considerate of the environment. Since Hundred ends up pretty much agreeing with this diamond of logic in the Gardener's rough, I think it can be inferred that Vaughan does as well. Therefore, he remains critical of the industry he loves and has made such spectacular use of. Further, even though I think it's safe to say that Vaughan doesn't believe that comic book collectors are, to a one, sexually frustrated social retards, it is also safe to say that he's not totally off the mark as regards our lifestyle and its (certainly, in my case) heretofore ignored detriments upon this island Earth. So he remains critical of his industry and his public. To take such a stance, which may be considered "biting the hand," takes sheer guts, and I heartily commend Brian K. Vaughan for doing so, all the while delivering a hell of a good read.

That being said.

I honestly do my best in every day of my life to remain logical and rational. And every day of my life, I fail spectacularly. As I hope I've illustrated above, I am capable of coolly analyzing a work, remaining as objective as is humanly possible, and thereby reaching a conclusion based solely on the merits of that work and not just my personal gut reactions to it. But I still have personal gut reactions, and I'd only be hurrying the approach of my impending ulcer if I tried to tamp those reactions down.

So here goes:

Hey, man, I ain't been a fucking virgin for years now.

Calling comic book nerds on the carpet for a socially irresponsible lifestyle must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But here's something you may not have thought of: what do a buncha asexual fanboys give a shit if the world blows up tomorrow? Sure, no more new comic book day. But if it also means that every jock meathead, every numb cunt, every smarmy hipper-than-thou douchebag in the world writhing in pain and agony? Count me the fuck in.

I didn't get into this shit to make any friends, chief. I fucking hate people. I truly, truly do. People as a species are miserable, loud, brutal and stupid. And cries of "Save the planet!" are just thinly disguised pleas of "Save the people!" Fuck the people. The earth can save itself, man, it's not going anywhere. If the environment is altered to where we as a species can no longer live in it, I dunno, sounds like problem solved to me.

I've got no use for your society, your reality. Am I trying to impose order on an inherently chaotic world? Why would I bother? I already have the Marvel Universe. I know a lot of nerds want to champion the ideals of their funny-book heroes, want to move those ideals into the real world. And yeah, I'd say that's pretty stupid. I'm not interested in attaining ideals of perfection in this, the "real" world. I get to work Saturdays in a comic book store, e.g. perfection attained. Everything else can take a flying fuck at the moon.

You want comics on recycled paper? I can get behind that, sure. But taking a dig at my lifestyle, ostensibly to shame me into it? That's like me calling the gay community a bunch of faggots for letting the state of California tell them who they can and can't marry. It's not the name-calling I find offensive; it's the very idea that I'm gonna be stupid enough to fall for such a bullshit argument. That's the kind of "logic" gym teachers and drill sergeants use, and it's just that sort of asshole behavior that led me to withdraw so completely from society-at-large. Get this straight, motherfucker: I love comic books more than people. You wanna improve life on this planet for everybody? Hey, I won't stand in your way. But if you're gonna be a fuckin' dick about it, you can just cram your social awareness up your ass sideways, pal, because the sooner the human race dies out, the better off the human race is.

Get bent.