Say what you will about Valentine’s Day—everyone has their own opinion—but in elementary school, it was kind of nice. Everyone was forced by social convention to do something nice for someone else. Yes, someone always feels left out or sad that someone else got more cards than them, but generally speaking everyone comes out of it feeling a little bit warmer on the inside than when they went in. Even the grossest kid, who has just an unbelievable number of cooties, who picks his nose and eats it—even he or she gets at least one valentine. Even Ralph Wiggum got one. And there is something beautiful about that.
So roughly sixteen years and one week ago today, my fifth grade teacher decided to ruin the beauty of this pageant by turning it into a contest. Whoever decorates the best valentine box—the class would vote on the best and you couldn’t vote for your own—whoever decorates the best one gets a soda from the soda machine. Now, these valentine boxes were usually little more than shoeboxes, crudely covered in red or pink paper, with a few lopsided hearts on them, scribbled in with an almost-empty purple Crayola washable magic marker. They usually looked gross. Occasionally, in the past, someone’s mom had intervened and written their child’s name on the box with a Sharpie, in that fancy, folksy writing where each line segment of each letter has a dot at the end of it, and the capital O inexplicably has one in the middle at the top.
But never before, never in my entire elementary school career, had there been a contest surrounding this tradition. I was excited. I didn’t really even care about the soda: I drank plenty of soda at home and getting one at school felt like totally no big deal. I just wanted to win the contest.
I am going to step away from this narrative for a second to explain something about my childhood self. I won plenty of things. In fact, in my elementary school, outside of gym class, I was the best at most things. I was very smart, and I consistently got the best grades. I had an unparalleled spelling bee winning streak. I once accompanied my music class on the glockenspiel because Mr. Johnston had a feeling I would be good at sight reading (he was right). I won community service awards. And, further down the line, at my high school graduation, I had more neck gear than anyone else—so many cords and ribbons and medals that I now have slight scoliosis (not).
And I’m not telling you this to brag: who cares, right? I don’t, not anymore, anyway. The reason I am telling you this is that there is a flip side, and the flip side is the relevant part to my story. I did not handle rejection or failure very well. When I was in kindergarten, we were supposed to follow oral instructions to color in outlines of our hands on a worksheet. I mixed up my left and my right hand, reversing all of the directions. I received a 50%—an F. I hid the paper from my parents so they wouldn’t see, and didn’t tell them until, wracked with guilt, I brought my flawless report card home. I was ashamed, even at that very young age, when I got something wrong, when I was less than the best.
But there’s more to it than that. I had three older brothers, all of whom are also very smart, and all of whom, my mother admits now, got more attention than me at home. I won’t get into too many details about it, since I want to stay on topic and I don’t want this to be an indictment on the way I was raised (my parents love me, and I love them, and they did a bang-up job as far as I’m concerned). I don’t think I noticed this attention gap growing up, but the reason for it, according to my mother is that my brothers needed more attention: each of them had a more difficult time in school than I did, because of learning disability or social anxiety or ADD or what have you. I didn’t have any problems like that, at least not until college, and so I didn’t need extra help when I was young. And so I responded to this purported difference in attention by over-achieving and whoring myself out for positive attention from teachers and school officials. We all have our coping mechanisms, right?
So that is why it must have been important to me to win this contest. I wanted another medal, more confirmation that I was on the right track, that I was a good kid, that I was doing things right.
So, not surprisingly, when it came time to construct my valentine box, I decided to take it to the next level. Everyone was going to be using shoeboxes, I decided, or possibly even the smaller, slightly sadder boxes that their store-bought Scooby Doo valentines came in. I wanted something a little more permanent, something that made more of a statement.
By the I arrived home the evening of the announcement, I had already formulated a plan. Luckily for me, my house was a veritable arts and crafts factory at the time. My mother was an accomplished folk artist; usually instead of eating at our dining room table, it was covered in slabs of wood, pieces of furniture, antiques, or glass bottles that were being gradually transformed into down-home, country-style bric-a-brac. These items were then sold in boutiques in our town’s historic district for a slim profit, usually just enough to buy more materials and maybe cover a few family meals. Sometimes they were bartered for things, like dental work.
Yes, we were pretty poor.
But because of this, I had a lot of raw materials at my disposal, and in my mind I had already decided what I was going to use to construct my valentine box: two heart-shaped pieces of wood that my mother got on a whim at Michael’s and then never used; and tongue depressors, to affix laterally between the two hearts to form a heart-shaped box that would lie on its side. I would then paint the whole thing a glossy red, and write “VALENTINES” on either end, in a fancy script, using pink paint with the same glossy finish.
I spent most of my free time in the next few days working on this, refusing my mother’s expert help (not that she had much time to devote to the project anyway as she was in the middle of painting a giant wedge of a tree from our yard to look like an oversized watermelon slice). I used a hot glue gun, not Elmer’s, and I painted the glossy red coat on the wood with careful, even strokes, using a foam brush. I took extra time to make the word “Valentines” appear in careful, sculpted D’Nealian script on both sides. The finished product? Well, it looked genuinely great, for a fifth grader who wasn’t particularly good at art. I was proud of it.
And suddenly, it was the morning of the big day. Every morning, Erica, who is still my best friend, used to cross our neighbor’s yard, go through the trees, and meet me at my house so we could walk to the bus stop together. That morning, Erica brought her box with her, and when I saw her in the entry hall with it, my actual, non-wood-and-tongue-depressor heart sank.
It. was. magnificent.
She had constructed it by inflating a heart-shaped balloon, covering it with Papier-mâché, and also finishing it in glossy red. Its shape was striking, bold, with clean lines. It was solid, and it stood up on its own so the point was down, instead of having to lie on its side like mine. It was brilliantly thought-up. It was three times as big as my valentine box: not only was she poised to win the contest, but there was also way more room for love in there. My finished product, which had appeared so handsome to me the night before, became straight up dowdy.
I complimented Erica through clenched teeth. On the bus, my hope was revived when Erica told me that her aunt helped her with her project. I decided that, well, there was no way she would win once that came out, because I did mine all by myself, and that should count for something. Right?
Well, yes, of course I was right, but I still lost the contest that afternoon. And I lost hard. And as Erica enjoyed her Cherry Coke, I was nursing the bitter potion of defeat at the hands of your best friend. It was like a classical play, really: the day was ill-fated from the beginning, but we were compelled toward an unhappy destiny by fate alone.
Well, it was a happy destiny for Erica. But still. I was crushed, and slightly embarrassed. I’m sure I got lots of valentines, and plenty of candy, but I don’t remember any of that, I just remember losing.
I had almost forgotten about this episode, actually. Except for the occasional good-natured yearly reminders from Erica (“Hey. Remember when I beat you fourteen years ago? That was awesome.”), it was almost completely out of my mind. But the whole thing came to me in a brainwave the other day. This was actually a really valuable lesson for me to learn, even if I’m really only learning the meaning of it right now, as I write this.
Because you know what? We can’t win everything. I know that now—I’ve certainly lost enough contests in my life to know that. It did me good to lose that time; I won plenty of other things, so it wasn’t like I was going to miss it. But it was also good for me to someone friendly in grade school, because now I know how to get past losing to complete dicks in real life. These are very valuable lessons, if a bit cliché.
But also? And this is maybe cheesy, and maybe even more cliché: sometimes you have to lose to people you love. Sometimes someone else’s heart is three times bigger than yours, no matter how hard you’ve worked on it, because that’s just the way it happens that day, or because they asked for help to get it that way, or because whatever. It doesn’t matter why. But I would happily lose daily if it were like this every time, if it was all life lessons and watching your friend have a hard-earned Cherry Coke, if it were followed up by sixteen years of stalwart friendship. Best loss ever, right?
Love is like that, friendship is like that, family is like that. Sometimes when you lose, you win. So this Valentine’s Day, I am grateful for being like, the world’s biggest loser.
It is probably the new diet I am on, but I have been extraordinarily grumpy lately. Yes, I am on a diet, and this time I actually plan to stick to it. Generally speaking, this isn’t a diet of “don’ts” (and by “don’t” I mean a contraction of “do” and “not” and not a weird but awesome syncope of “donut” which is what I really wish it were). Instead, this is a diet where I am counting the calories I take in, and holding myself accountable if I treat my body like garbage. And I’m trying to limit the amount of sugar I take in for a couple of weeks. Goodbye Ben & Jerry. Goodbye, candy bars from the vending machine. Goodbye, ordering a pizza and eating the whole thing so I don’t have to “deal with” leftovers. It’s been real.
It’s understandable why this lack of sugar and reduced caloric intake would make me a little cranky. I am the kind of person who can eat a pound of jelly beans in twenty minutes, who can put down an entire pie singlehandedly, and whose penchant for pastry is unrivaled. And when I say “I am the kind of person who can eat a pound of jelly beans in twenty minutes,” I mean, “Last week I ate a pound of jelly beans in twenty minutes. Twice.” I have gone through phases where I eat nothing but cake for every meal, for weeks at a time. It’s a marvel I don’t have diabetes, actually.
But (and I’ve done this before, so I know) giving up sugar is only really hard for the first few days. After that, it’s no big deal. Right now, though, I am walking past chocolate at Key Foods and telling it, out loud, to shut the hell up and get out of my face. As a general rule, if you asked me how I was feeling in the past couple of days, I probably said “FUCK EVERYTHING, FUCK ALL OF THE THINGS!” And if I told you that, what I meant was, “I’m pretty good, considering.”
It has been three days. And it’s not going to get better for at least three more still.
Today at work, I was scanning two hundred pages of an invoice I put together, and the copier jammed on the last page. Because having a job where I put two hundred page invoices together is not already insult enough, the copier HAS to jam. Right as it started beeping at me, this guy, who I did not recognize as working for my firm, walked into the copy room and stood a few feet from me, looking at me. Why are you looking at me, I thought. Who the fuck do you think you are, standing there, looking at me, while I am clearly trying to repair a jammed copy machine, you son of a bitch.
“Hi,” I said, tersely. I wanted my tone of voice to convey all of the emotions I was feeling: embarrassment for having jammed a copy machine; anger because I had been working on this invoice for weeks and this was the last step; annoyance for having someone I do not know stare at me while this happens; and gothefuckawayIhateyou because I wanted him to go away because I hated him.
“Hi,” he said. He sounded friendly. Who goes and stands in someone else’s field of vision and stares at them and doesn’t say anything to them while they are fixing a jammed copier, and then sounds friendly and says “Hi?” After a few more minutes, I decided he must have been the copy repair technician.
I didn’t say anything else. I wanted him to go away. After about fifteen seconds of following the unclear instructions the copy machine was giving me, trying to figure out which door needed to be opened and shut so the copier would start working again, I was about to turn on him and say, “CAN I FUCKING HELP YOU,” because he did not move and he wasn’t saying anything or indicating why he was standing so close to me. Before I could do this, however, he started condescendingly telling me how to fix the copier. Note: I used to repair copiers regularly as part of my job, so I know what I am doing when it comes to paper jams.
“You need to open that thing up,” he said. I did it, but only because that is what the copier told me to do three seconds before, and because I knew that is what I needed to do. “Okay, now you need to open that other thing up,” he said. Not only was this an unsolicited and wholly unclear direction, but it was also exactly what the copier had told me to do next, and which I had already started to do by the time he vocalized. Why was he telling me to do the exact thing the instructions were telling me to do? Did he think I was illiterate? Even if he did, there are diagrams, so did he think I was blind? It couldn’t have been that, because this was not a braille copier/scanner/fax combo machine. Why was he talking to me like I am his grandmother and he’s teaching me how to change the password on my hacked Hotmail account?
Normally I have an endless amount of tolerance when it comes to dealing with strangers. That is how I get along in New York: I am friendly to people even when they are complete assholes to me. However, it has been three entire days since I have had any refined sugar. I have had a dream where all I do is walk around eating spumoni cake; I have had another, separate dream, on another night, where all I did was make s’mores and eat Toblerones. My hugely pathetic unconscious dream life was showing up my actual real waking life. My signature patience had worn through.
“Okay,” he continued, “Now once that is open, you just—”
“YES, THANK YOU, I CAN READ THE INSTRUCTIONS ON THE COPIER, THANK YOU.”
“—signal is clear so you can… just… close… um.”
And then I closed the copy machine loudly, finished the scan job, and decided to get the hell out of there before I lost it again. “She’s all yours,” I said by way of goodbye, with a tone of reconciliation that flummoxed even me. I didn’t go back in there until after lunch. Too many feelings.
Other examples of my mood issues include: when I read an article I didn’t like online today, I looked down to find my fingernails had dug visible, possibly permanent marks into the arms of my office chair; when I almost strangled a baby on the subway for looking at me too much; and when I yelled at that chocolate in the grocery store, which I wish I were making up for comedic effect but am being 100% truthful about.
So yeah, it’s been a rough couple of days. I’m coming to understand that there is a reason that the jolliest person ever, Santa Claus, is also morbidly obese: Papa Christmas needs his sugar, or he will fucking slit your throat. I bet if he were on this diet, if he felt like I do now, but adjusted for body weight, he would fucking shank Rudolph for a Pixie Stick. All I have to say is, I’m glad I am not trying to quit meth—I would be SUPER violent if I were trying to quit meth and sugar at the same time.
Note: I am not on meth, and that was a joke. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go calculate how many calories I burned by typing this. [Author’s note: 29 calories. And 10 more for editing.]
When I moved into my apartment on south Taylor Ave. in St. Louis, I was up against a lot. I had a full-time job, and after getting off at 5:30 every night, I had to go to opera rehearsal. I had a boss who probably hated my guts, and whose guts I certainly hated in return. I had very little money. I had no car; everything was moved by benevolent family members, and I had to be finished in one or two trips. And I knew I was moving into an apartment next to one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in the city. But probably the hardest thing I had to do was move my two cats, Chuck and Moose, from the first apartment to the next.
I am going to say right here, right now, that I was probably a horrible pet owner. I mean, yes, I loved these cats, and I played with them, and I fed them Science Diet, and I made sure their nails were clipped, and I kept their litter box under control. I invested a lot of time in them, and I loved them. One time I even tried to toilet train them (it didn’t work). But you know what? I never took them to the vet, not even once. Mostly this was because I did not have a car, because the car sharing program i was in did not allow for pets in their cars under any circumstances, and because even if it had, I wouldn’t have had the money to pay for regular vet checkups.
As a result, Chuck and Moose never got out of my old apartment, ever, and because it was a high-rise building with no screens, the windows were never open; they never smelled the outside air, heard the rush of cars or the honks of horns, or had a chance to swipe at pigeons. I am pretty sure there was nothing wrong with them, medically; I googled everything and asked for opinions from friends who were biology majors. When Moose jumped from top of the fridge (yes, my cats hung out on top of the refrigerator) and Kerri Strugged his landing, I called the emergency vet line to see if it was serious that he was limping. I cared.
But as much as I cared for them, nothing could prepare them for the trauma of being ripped from that apartment, where they grew up from kittenhood, stuffed unceremoniously into Emily’s cat carriers, dragged to my brother Stu’s SUV, placed gingerly on the floor behind the front seats, and driven across town. Both of them screamed the entire way; just thinking about that awful sound makes my eyes well up and my shoulders tense in sympathy. Chuck vomited. Moose did too, and he lost control of his bladder and his bowels. It was a horrible experience for them and for me.
But I moved them to this new place with me because I thought it would be better for all of us, and it was: they were much happier in the new place, closer to the ground, closer to the birds and the people out the window. They loved to sit on the windowsill and watch, and I like to think the bay window in my bedroom became something of a neighborhood landmark: there was a bus stop right outside, and the walls of my room were lime green, and there were always two cats in the window, taking in the scene. They stopped scratching the furniture, and they started eating more. They used to love chasing each other up and down the hallway between the living room and the bedroom, and sometimes Chuck would hide just on the other side of the doorjamb of my bedroom, next to my dresser, and jump out when Moose would come looking for him. One time this ritual scared Moose so much that he did a backflip.
They didn’t always love it so much. The first night we moved in, after the horrible car trip, was particularly traumatic. The rumble of the cars going by on the street was like thunder to them, the place didn’t smell right at all, and they didn’t have any of the usual comforts. To help them get used to it, I locked them in the bedroom with me, and I stayed in there with them all night, assembling the new bed I had just driven home from the Ikea in Chicago. I played them some Mozart from my laptop and sang to them, hoping that these familiar sounds would calm them down a bit. Nothing seemed to help; they hid behind boxes and underneath scrap cardboard, until, exhausted and feeling beaten, I fell asleep on my new-assembled bed. When I woke the next morning, they were both sleeping, practically on top of one another, right in front of my face, in the nook between my chin and my chest.
After a few days, after they had a bit of time, they gradually expanded their comfort zone to include not just my bedroom and its alcove office, but the entire rest of the apartment. And the entryway, whenever the pizza man would come—they both used to dart into the entryway until I figured out a special system of answering the door and holding them both back simultaneously with my foot.
I empathize with them so much. I used to tell my friends that they were representative of the two different parts of my personality. Chuck was gregarious, friendly, chatty, and funny, and he always wanted to be close to me and to company, as close to the center of attention as possible. If he had lips, they would have been fixed permanently into a warm smile. Moose was high-strung, nervous, squeaky, and introverted. He would come to greet company for a bit, but always retire to the bedroom after about twenty minutes. But when he accepted attention from me or from my friends, he seemed to relish it much more than Chuck ever did; and even though he didn’t necessarily always want to be held or touched, he was always in the same room with me, following me at a discrete distance if I moved from my desk to the living room or back.
But now, thinking about that first night in my apartment on Taylor, I feel another special sort of understanding for their animal perception of that big move. When I first moved to New York, I was as terrified as they were. I sought comfort and familiarity wherever I could find it: the first week I was here, I think I ate exclusively at restaurants I already knew. I met up with some guys from high school that I hadn’t spoken to in probably six or seven years. I needed company almost wherever I went. I never strayed very far from the path to the subway, the subway itself, or familiar places—especially not in Crown Heights, where my first apartment was. When my first apartment fell through and I moved close to Atlantic Terminal, I shopped almost exclusively at Target; even though that Target is a complete plane crash of a retail experience, something about the environment calmed me down. It took me months before I was really comfortable shopping at bodegas. I did not order my first bagel from a corner deli until October 2010, a full year after I had been here, because I, and it is with pain that I admit this on the internet, did not know how delis worked (for those non-New-Yorkers out there, it is easy: you go up to the counter, you tell them what you want, they make it for you, you pay, and then you leave. It is hard to explain why it seems like it wouldn’t work like that, but now it seems painfully obvious.).
Tonight, on a whim, because the weather was a little warmer and because the waist-high drifts of snow have started to melt a bit, I decided to walk from work, in the financial district, to Chelsea, where I planned to go eat dinner and see Brett’s show. I had never done this before, but it sounded like a fun chance to stretch my legs. I left work and walked, unconsciously trusting my sense of direction, without once consulting Google maps, for the forty minutes or so between the office and the Chipotle where I planned to eat (folks: if you haven’t been to the Chipotle on 8th Avenue and 16th Street, they have brown rice and a chicken-like vegetarian protein option, which only one other Chipotle in the world has. Do yourself a favor and try both.). I had no one to talk to, no one to hold my hand, no one to play Mozart on their laptop or sing to me. Although I could have played myself some Mozart on my iPod and sung along—I guess I just wasn’t in the mood.
It struck me when I hit Canal street that I hadn’t consulted a map or asked for directions or anything, and that I had never been to this exact part of town before, and that I still knew exactly where I was going. This is a marked change in myself; a year ago, maybe even less time than that, I probably would have balked at an unaccompanied, improvised walk through an unfamiliar part of town. But I’m tougher now; I have cursed out an old lady, I have made rude hand gestures at a cab that almost hit me in a crosswalk when I clearly had the walk signal. I’m a little bit closer to being a New Yorker, and as such, my comfort zone has broadened considerably since when I first arrived.
When I was in seventh grade, I wanted desperately to be a zoologist. I forced my parents to allow me to subscribe to the Wildlife Fact File program, which provided you with a special two-ring binder, dividers for each family in the animal kingdom, and each month they would send me fold-out cards that had full-color pictures of animals and tons of information about each one: scientific names, world maps to show where their habitats were, environmental threats, mating habits, eating patterns, the whole nine yards. Unsurprisingly, my favorite cards were the big cats: to this day I still know the difference between a Siberian tiger and a Bengal tiger (the Bengal tiger is smaller, for one thing, with a more vivid orange coat. And then there’s the difference between Siberia and Bengal, which I will not explain to you.).
What fascinated me the most about them is that they were strictly territorial animals. They would mark their territory, and they would live and hunt in the territory they marked. I used to wonder how exactly that worked. Was their territory a kind of polygon, whose vertices were the trees on which these cats peed? Did the territories start small when they were young and out on their own, and then gradually expand as they grew older? What did it feel like to them if they stepped outside of their territory—was it terrifying, liberating, or was everything finally in technicolor, like Oz?
Maybe I was overthinking it—that wouldn’t surprise me, even for seventh grade me. I guess what I’m getting at here is that if that is how territory works, I’m a lot like a big cat, except without the public urination. I have a definite and relatively narrow comfort zone. But slowly, surely, I am coming out from beneath the boxes strewn haphazardly around the bedroom, forging my way outward, down the hall, past the bathroom, and finally into the living room. After all of that, who knows, maybe out the back door, down the street, to the park. I’m growing, I’m learning—that’s what I’m saying. It’s just that it takes me longer to say it, because I’m slow and verbose.
I read an article online today, courtesy of Brett, about how comic book sales declined sharply in January. More sharply than ever: they were down something like 24% from December. The author of the article, who I do not know, and whose expertise in the field of comic books and/or sales I am not in any way in a position to judge, essentially warned the reader to gird his or her (but, let’s face it, probably “his”) loins, because the end is nigh.
I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on this one right now.
Now, I should state for the record that I do not know anything about comic books. My brothers had some when I was growing up; they got two copies of the Death of Superman issue, convinced it was a sound investment, and promptly stored them in Rubbermaid tubs in the basement. But I do not know anything about comics. I regularly refer to Professor X as “Wheels” and Wolverine as “Fork Hands.” I do not know, even after having Brett explain it to me three times, the difference between Captain Marvel and Captain America, or the differences among Marvel Girl and Jean Grey and Phoenix. All I know is what I saw in the X-Men cartoon when I was a kid, what I saw in various Batman television shows and movies, and from the general sort of knowledge that one absorbs when one is dating another one whose passion for comic books borders on, well, clinical.
With that caveat, I am going to go on record as saying comic books are not dying. Comic books are not even close to dead. I defy anyone: show me proof that they are dead and I will gladly stop writing this right now. But a month’s decline of sales? Not proof. Six months’ decline? Nope. Five years’ decline? Don’t make me laugh.
The thing I realized today is that comic books show a shocking number of parallels to classical music, specifically to opera. The similarities are striking. For the purpose of this discussion, let me just talk about comic books versus opera, since I think the analogy is more apt: both are forms of art that are currently troubled, both appeal to a particular set of the population, both sets of the population are arguably perceived as snobbish and/or elitist, the houses that produce both are currently treading water financially, both rely on talented freelancers to come together and create a finished product, both have far-reaching implications for pop culture, and both have had a heyday or two that is now arguably past. I could go on. But let me change tacks slightly: all of these comparisons are of the actual characteristics of opera and of comic books in their modern context. But I am going to go so far as to say that I think the forms of art themselves share a lot of similarities. That’s right, I said comic books and opera are similar as art forms. And I’m not even the first person to say this: see? [ETA: you really should click there, it’s very interesting.]
First of all, both of them explore pre-existing myths (Thor has been a comic book for ages, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle: both are classic examples of epic Norse mythology retold in new media), or create entirely new myths, or are resettings of classic works of literature. But for comparison’s sake, let’s look at the myths (old Greek ones as well as new superhero ones). In both cases, these old or new myths are illustrative of the human experience on some higher level. Yes yes, the comic books on the surface are about a bunch of grown adults running around in spandex-looking body suits saving the world from other spandex-clad people who for whatever reason are evil. They are superhuman. They are uncanny. But ultimately, their stories are not about saving the planet, at least not from what I have seen and what I understand. Their stories are about people who exist outside of our culture, not by choice; people who desperately seek, and fight for, love and acceptance, in whatever form it takes. And this saving the world business is simply a way of steeping tension and drama into these very regular stories, which otherwise might resemble the more prosaic ramblings from a high school kid’s journal. If you strip them to their bare bones, if you take away their supernatural elements, the stories are classic. Classical. Like opera. And many comic books and graphic novels, as well as operas, do not even have the supernatural elements to begin with: Persepolis was popular enough to be turned into a movie, for example, and the preponderance of operatic settings of Romeo and Juliette clearly indicate that two schlubs in love with each other is enough for a successful show.
It’s just about storytelling, people. That’s all it’s about—any genius can take any boring topic and turn it into a masterpiece. Recent history, for example, is considered by most people I went to high school with to be a total snoozefest: but John Adams has written two significant operas in the past 30 years (Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China) and Art Spiegelman has done the same thing in comic books (Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers). There are probably more apt analogies for comic books (Brett, please chime in if you can think of them) but you see my point: even with topics that elicit eyerolls from my peers, smart people can make smart products that appeal to broad audiences.
Well, sort of broad. You hadn’t heard of John Adams until this piece, probably, and I didn’t know who Art Spiegelman was until Brett told me about him (I had to re-google him just now, too. Again, my specialty is the music half of this.).
But the point I’m getting at is that, despite people predicting the end of both comic books and of classical music as we know them, I think both of them will endure.
Well, why does any form of art endure? Photography should have rendered painting obsolete, right? But it didn’t. Look who was painting after photography strolled onto the block: Picasso, Dali, Pollock, and Warhol, to name a few; it’s just that people aren’t having their portraits painted and hung on their mantle anymore. Similarly, jazz and rock and roll have not completely upended classical music and opera, it’s just that maybe people are playing Lady Gaga and grinding instead of playing Mozart and minuetting. But people are still looking at and studying Da Vinci, and in 200 years I bet you Stan Lee is going to be regarded as a cultural juggernaut, as a kind of inventor of the cultural landscape of the last half of the 20th Century, by scholars. Because he is one.
Opera is much further removed from our popular consciousness than the œuvre of Stan Lee. But when I drop a reference to the plot of La Bohème in conversation, or if I sing part of “La donna è mobile” in the shower, these things are instantly familiar to you: even if you only saw the movie version of Rent or recently ate at an Olive Garden, you know these stories, this music. Anyone who grew up with Bugs Bunny, or the Muppet Babies, or the Animaniacs, or Spongebob Squarepants, or something that kids are watching right now that I would probably find horrifying, anyone has heard this music. These things have eked their way into our popular consciousness despite opera having been given a death sentence, the same way comic books have. And classical music and opera have endured close to a century more of doomsday predictions: first player pianos, then the phonograph, then jazz, then rock and roll, then whatever it is that is making people pronounce it DOA now.
So my argument is that even if the landscape of the comic book industry is shifting rapidly away from printed comics, which were once its mainstay, that does not mean the stories are going to die, or that the characters are going to be forgotten. Once something becomes as recognizable as Superman, it’s not going anywhere.
I’m not saying comic books themselves are going to be an enduring part of our popular culture indefinitely—lord knows that didn’t happen with opera, and maybe that’s already happening with comic books—but think about the way we collectively know these things. The X-Men were invented in the mid-20th century, were turned into a gripping Saturday morning cartoon in the late 20th century, of which even someone who is admittedly ignorant of pop culture has vivid memories. Any asshole on the street can hear a snippet of an aria and go “What is that, opera or something?” and, likewise, can probably recognize a superhero when he sees one. And, generally speaking, it is known that we owe the existence of the superhero to comic books, which, like classical music, will be totally ignored by 90% of the people in any given Borders or Barnes & Noble. But please note that Barnes & Noble still sells music that was written hundreds of years ago. It will still be selling comic books long after the author of that article is gone.
Comic books are not dying. They are just slowly becoming a form of high culture. Yes. Comic book culture is slowly becoming a form of intellectualism. And I think we should all be okay with that. Comic books were bound to grow up sometime, right? After all, Shakespeare was once maligned as unimportant and uneducated pop culture figure. Now he’s a genius. Maybe low- and middle-income white males ages 18-30 generally do not care about him, which is apparently the standard by which we are measuring the worth of anything these days, but that doesn’t mean he’s dead. And in 300 years, people will still be talking about him, and I bet you one doomsday device that no one will remember Snooki. If people still remember Snooki in 300 years, please use the doomsday device you win from our bet, so that we can just restart humanity from the beginning.