Back in 2003, I attended a screening of Santa Sangre at the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival. The film’s director, the great filmmaker and graphic novel author Alejandro Jodorowsky introduced the film, and at one point during the brief pre-screening interview he said, “I’m currently working on a new film, but it’s unlikely that it will screen at the cinema, because it is a film by a poet, and not a robot.”
The robots have completely taken over what passes for popular entertainment and culture, while the poets are increasingly marginalized. As the cost of everything goes up, the situation only gets worse. The robots take approved intellectual property A and match it with approved concept B to create corporate art marketed to fans who will then turn around and prosthyletize on message boards and websites. These products — movies, comic books, video games — are designed to create specific responses in consumers — namely, brand loyalty — so that consumers will continue to buy more products with the intellectual property to which fans respond.
It’s gotten even worse in comic books. In the past, the difficulty in translating comic book characters into believable and popularly-accessible films meant that the characters merely had to entertain readers. Today, when comics-based films can bring in a billion dollars worldwide, the characters are no longer characters. They are corporate assets, to be treated in very specific ways that will not damage their money-making potential. In DC’s “New 52,” writers are complaining about the level of editorial interference in the books. Editors (along with marketing, legal, promotions, and licensing staff) are calling the shots, while the writers and artists act as robots who are plugging in the approved concepts, which have themselves been strip-mined from decades of past continuity. DC’s recent Craftsman tools tie-in, THE TECHNICIAN, is the extreme example — a character that exists in the DC Universe for the sole purpose of reminding readers to buy tools.
“Illusion of change” has transmogrified into “Illusion of story.” Mainstream comics exist not as works of art created by poets, but as commercials created by robots.
Fans have become complicit in this. As “Toy Story 3” illustrated, the owners of intellectual property expect the fans to help them promote their products by spreading the word to others. Fans understand their role not just as consumers but as prosthyletizers; it’s why you see them threatening and insulting critics who challenge a film’s “tomatometer.” There’s a lot invested in the idea that what we’re being fed by the robots is not, in fact, capital-S Shit, but capital-A Art. This is why fans attempt to canonize comic book films within a week of their release — this list of the “Top 10 Comic Book Movies [Updated 2012]” appeared only a week after the release of “The Dark Knight Rises,” and only about a two months after the release of “The Avengers,” and yet both of those films landed in the meaningless “top three.”
The robots who are creating mainstream corporate art are plugged into the emotions of fandom because they share their meager goals. When Kelly Sue DeConnick explained what she hoped to accomplish when she took over as concept-arranging robot for AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, she stated that her goal was to create the mainstream-comics equivalent of money shots:
Singh then followed up by asking DeConnick for a one-word description of the series and she said “AC/DC.” “I pitched it as the short rock, classic Avengers. When I saw the movie, I managed to keep it together until that point when Iron Man flew on the screen with AC/DC playing. Then I started bouncing in my chair clapping, and that’s what I’m writing for. That’s the moment.”
No interest in exploring character, culture, politics. She knows there’s no point, anyway. Even if she weren’t a robot, the owners of The Avengers (Disney, which released “Toy Story 3″) won’t let their intellectual property be used for anything other than selling product, and the fans themselves really only want money shots anyway.
As the “New 52″ and “Marvel Now” demonstrate, mainstream American comics simultaneously try to deny their history, even as they raid that history for old concepts to “reboot” or “reimagine” or “remake.” The robots who are creating modern comic books are simply re-writing stories and re-arranging concepts first told by Siegel and Shuster, Kirby and Simon, Kirby and Lee, Lee and Ditko, Broome, Kaniger, Binder. Whereas these original authors drew upon the larger culture for inspiration — classic myths and literature, even to the point that Lee and Kirby actually stole characters from Norse mythology for major Marvel characters — today’s robots are doing PoMo deconstructions of seventy years of comics. There is no larger context. It’s likely that many of the robots creating comic books today have no understanding of just how unmoored from the larger culture they’ve become. That could be the reason why Brian Michael Bendis, original AVENGERS ASSEMBLE robot (a comic that was, absurdly, allegedly intended to attract new comic book readers who saw the “Avengers” movie) could actually claim, straightfaced, that he’s up against a world full of people that just don’t read anymore:
“Our problem is that people don’t read anything, and kids read less and less,” Bendis says. “That’s my focus even more than the movie people. I want to get everyone on the planet into comics.”
Bear in mind, we live in a world in which Fifty Shades of Grey sells millions of books a week, where The Hunger Games has outsold the Harry Potter series, whose fans, like those of the Twilight series, actually waited in line at bookstores for midnight releases of the latest volumes.
More people are reading than at any point in history. And yet, so few people are reading comics, because the comics are created by robots who are recycling old concepts that they loved when they were reading comics, and have been approved by the marketing departments as safe enough to protect the intellectual property, so that it can be exploited in films and television.
All of this is why The Metabarons is such a hard fucking kick to the ovaries. It’s the greatest graphic novel ever published, and its greatness is only intensified by comparison with the cluelessness that’s swimming in the American mainstream. Just as Mark Twain took Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and created a deeper, more resonant and powerful work of Art in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jodorowsky takes a character from his best-known graphic novel, The Incal (illustrated by the late, great Moebius), and uses him as a springboard for a deep meditation on what makes a human being human. It is an endlessly creative masterpiece unencumbered by any ulterior motive to “sell” you a product. Jodorowsky and his illustrator, Juan Gimenez, want to give you an astonishing and deeply personal experience full of dangerous visions unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Jodorowsky begins from the premise that each of us — you, me, your friends, people you hate or fear, people you love — are the product of our own family history. The experiences of our great-great-grandparents might be nothing more than abstract concepts to us today, being completely unmoored from history as we are, but they directly affect who we are as people. We might even attempt to deny that history, but we can’t. We are the people we are, and we do have a history, and all of it, even the stuff we’d like to throw away, is part of us.
The story is framed by two robots, Tonto and Lothar, servants to the last, unnamed Metabaron (the Metabaron of The Incal), describing his family history, an epic space opera full of politics, satire, spirituality, romance, sex, violence, potty humor, and surprise. The progenitor of the Metabarons line is the great-great-grandfather of the current Metabaron, Othon Von Salza. An accident precipitated by Othon’s own arrogance forces his family to reveal the secret of the anti-gravity substance called epiphyte; as a result, a galaxy-spanning war begins. Othon, who had been a space pirate, impresses his father-in-law enough that he transfers to him his spirit, which manifests itself as bird-shaped birthmark on his chest. This birthmark is then transferred to each subsequent Metabaron, who are all forced to endure violent mutilation rituals and replacement of organs and limbs with bionic parts, in order to prove their worthiness.
Jodorowsky is guided strictly by instinct. There is no consideration given to licensing or intellectual property concerns. This is pure storytelling and creativity. Jodorowsky has famously said that “Most directors make films with their eyes; I make films with my testicles,” a sentiment that Jodorowsky and Gimenez visualize when Othon, having lost his groin to a laser rifle blast, attaches his Metacraft’s guidance system directly to his bionic genitals, to guide the ship by his “instinct”:
Jodorowsky has a deep respect for and awareness of history, and the importance of shared cultural heritage. There are echoes of Dune (this series and The Incal grew out of Jodorowsky’s “wonderful failure” of an attempt to adapt that novel as a film), Homer, Arthur Rimbaud, Lord Byron, the Tarot, William Shakespeare, and the Bible. And, yes, Oedipus, when Aghnar’s mother Honorata’s spirit inhabits the body of his wife, Oda, and bears a son, Steelhead. Disgusted by his act of incest, Aghnar destroys the child’s head, which is replaced by a mechanical head designed by Tonto.
Jodorowsky and Gimenez both draw upon human history and classic religious iconography in the unsettling depictions of the Metabarons’ mutilation rites of passage.
Gimenez’s painted artwork is revelatory. His mixture of realism and cartooniness enriches and explicates Jodorowsky’s vision. Great care is taken in the composition of each panel, to enhance the themes of the story. Early on, there’s a remarkably powerful juxtaposition in which we see Aghnar being born while floating in the sky on the top panel of one page, while on the bottom panel of the opposite page we see the legs of another character, who is also seemingly floating:
It’s not until we turn the page that we learn that the legs belong to the corpse of the Othon’s servant, Iku-Tta, who has hung himself rather than live with the shame of his daughters’ betrayal.
And then, on the next page, we learn that the epiphyte bullet that Othon shot into Honorata to save her life after Iku-Tta’s daughters had pushed her off the top of the Metabunker has infected Aghnar’s entire body, and he floats. This seems like a death sentence to Othon, because “His blows will lack the support of the earth…! He will never be able to harness all his power…” The tension between life and death, obligation and death, power and death, is relentlessly examined throughout the story.
Aghnar, by the way, was born to Othon despite the loss of his genitals. His witch wife Honorata uses a drop of Othon’s blood, which “journey(s) through her womb…into a fallopian tube and, transformed by the endorgasmic power of the Shabda-Oud, flung itself fervently, like a meteorite against a planet, against the surface of an ovum.” She then betrays the Shabda-Oud “whore priestesses” who sent her to Othon to bear a perfect androgyne that would rule the universe. (Androgyny is an obsessive theme of Jodorowsky’s, and the perfect blending of the male/female aspect of humanity is the ultimate prize, and yet a source of constant anxiety — the most troubled Metabaron is Aghora, the male brain trapped in the mutilated female body.)
As you’ve probably guessed from my brief survey of The Metabarons, it’s almost impossible to summarize. Jodorowsky’s story builds and crashes and weaves in ways that test the reader’s ability to keep up. Each page has a new wonder to explore, and Jodorowsky raises new ideas before he’s even halfway finished with the last one, and the layers keep building, threads that seemed to have no connection at all tie neatly together, even as the twists you thought you saw coming turn into something else entirely unexpected. Tonto and Lothar, for instance, turn out to be more than just the story’s chorus, and their narration folds into the story in a twist that’s just as bizarre and touching as anything else in the novel (there is more to these particular robot storytellers than meets the eye; or, more than meets the scar above the final Metabaron’s right eye).
Then there is the dialogue. Jodorowsky’s characters speak in epigrams that totally fit the characters and situations in the novel, yet have resonance beyond the page.
“Just as he who desires nothing never fails, he who wins nothing, loses nothing. By slipping away, a true hero asserts himself.”
“Come, good monsters, and put an end to the family lineage that robbed me of my childhood to make a killer out of me! I will not die fighting! I will die full of love!”
“I feel you in my heart, like a burning poison!”
“”Death is for cowards! The brave will always survive, despite everything!”
Ultimately the story is of humanity rising above its own limitations and bettering itself. The Metabarons are victimized by their own code of “honor,” that includes the aforementioned brutalizations, along with massive amounts of war and blood (entire galaxies are destroyed). It’s not a straightforward metamorphosis. Even Melmoth — the head of the last remaining poet in the universe, Krleza, and the body of the Metabaron Steelhead, shows himself/themselves to be callous in the face of wife Doña Vicenta’s mutilation:
The prized code of honor of the Metabarons is in fact revealed to be a curse to be overcome. Yet the Metabarons themselves are subject to the same gross debasement as the rest of humanity. But it isn’t just through sterilization that the final Metabaron is able to overcome the curse; he must reach a transcendent state of mind to overcome generations of programming.
The entire series was originally printed in France over a period of 11 years, from 1992-2003. Portions of it were published by DC Comics in 2004, and the final volume appeared in English in 2010 from Humanoids. This month, Humanoids is releasing a hardcover collection of the entire series, more than 500 pages. It includes a forward by Matt Fraction, which is kind of like having Stephenie Meyer write an introduction to a Jack Ketchum novel. Actually, some of the blurbs that appeared on the individual DC and Humanoids softcovers reveal a lot about American mainstream comics:
“A full-tilt Space Opera with ideas to burn on every page, this insane epic careens across the story of generation after generation of Intergalactic Superwarriors. This is an all-out, out of control, and completely mental exercise in imagination and lunacy.”
“THE METABARONS… is resolutely Not Normal, as you may expect from a writer who was also the director of cult movies El Topo and Santa Sangre.”
“The Metabarons is the most twisted, unpredictable, and bizarre comic series being published today, and I absolutely love it.”
Note that these appear, superficially, to be praise. But look closer. The exercise of imagination is described as “Not Normal.” The joy of creativity is “insane.” The Metabarons is a novel created by poets, and the robots have a vested interest in maintaining the fiction that that is “twisted.” Don’t expect this kind of shit in America, at least not from the mainstream publishers. This is what we get here:
But there is nothing more hopeful than creativity, which is the secret of The Metabarons‘s power. Steelhead’s steel head is replaced by that of the poet Krleza — robot and poet joined. So too can the endlessly rebooting American comic book robots learn from The Metabarons, if they wanted to. Not merely how to embrace the culture in which these works of art are created, but also in the attitude of the creation.
Imagine that the rebooted “New 52″ characters are the great-grandchildren of the original characters from the 1930s and 40s. The Superman of Siegel and Shuster is the great-grandfather of the Superman of DC/Time Warner. How did it happen that the original, earthy, spontaneous, fearlessly uncontrolled id of 1939 turn into the bloodless, dull, and safe superego of today? Besides the fact that he’s impotent I mean important intellectual property and his portrayal is carefully monitored, I mean. There is so much sadness and hope in the idea: What is the modern Superman burdened with, and can he transcend it? But American mainstream comics have long since given up on creating epic stories, choosing instead to simply “reboot” stories from their own past, full of splash pages, signifying nothing. It’s no accident that in the movie “The Avengers,” when Iron Man asks Jarvis if he’s ever heard the story of Jonah, Jarvis tells him, “I wouldn’t consider him a role model.” No shit. Larger context is worthless, and myth making is for suckers. Or, poets. The robots have toys to sell.