Monday, June 7, 2010

DP02-02 Showcase #95(10-11/77)[b]

.....[This is a supplement to the review that appears in the previous post.]

.....I once worked in the periodicals department of a college library (which should come as no surprise to anybody who has read the earliest posts on this blog). This was in the days of card catalogues and ID's with photos rather than barcodes. In addition to the racks of current magazines and newspapers, we had an archive in the basement with microfilm and bound volumes. One night I was retrieving bound volumes of Life and other photo-oriented titles from the fifties for a faculty member from the drama department. Even then I considered myself a student of pop culture in addition to my 'legitimate' studies, so when he seemed frustrated after flipping through page after page of what must have been his fifth volume, I asked if there was anything I could help him find. He explained that he was staging a production of the musical "Grease" and wanted to find full-length body shots of the sort of clothing called for in the script. He was surprised that after searching through issue after issue of a magazine that is justifiably considered the leading visual document of America in that era he couldn't find a single example of a duck-tailed, leather-jacketed street tough. I knew immediately what the problem was, but explaining anything to a baby-boomer, especially their own history, is always a particularly delicate matter. I can't remember my exact words, of course, but I said something like, "Finding poodle skirts shouldn't be too hard, but I doubt you're going to find anything that looks like Fonzie in there. Things like 'Grease' and the band Sha-Na-Na are products of the 1960's. Just like 'Happy Days' is a product of the 1970's and 'Porky's' is a product of the 1980's. None of these things are historically accurate. Everything you see is how someone wishes things were. There were really guys running around in their older brother's or uncle's service gear back in the 1950's, but they weren't anybody's heroes. They would have been considered the nation's losers and criminals back then. Nobody looked up to them. Certainly not the editors of Life. They would have thought the magazine's space would be better devoted to something indicative of America. And at the time, those guys in the leather jackets were not considered to be a part of their own country."

.....Well, not surprisingly, he wasn't happy with my explanation. He kept looking through a few more volumes and eventually left empty-handed. He didn't really want authentic period costumes, after all. He wanted to reinforce his preconceived beliefs and passed over mountains of genuine research into the period because none of it did just that. The old magazines weren't the real cause of his frustrations; his own self-importance was. He should have been able to realize that if the things he was looking for weren't in the magazines then that did not necessarily prove that they hadn't existed, but it did necessarily prove that there was a reason for them not being there. He didn't want to hear that, so he kept wasting valuable time looking for something that wasn't there while his production's deadlines got closer. And just what does this have to do with the Doom Patrol? Glad you asked.

.....The popular narrative is that the 1960's was a time of political protest and civil rights activism, mostly because that's what shows up in the news film footage. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that 'news' is not a word used to describe everyday mundane events. Most people did not initially oppose the Viet Nam "police action", they became opposed to it when reality did not meet their expectations. When the conflicts started it was still squarely in the middle of the cold war and aggressive communist expansions had already occurred elsewhere; if authorities said there had been another one, most people didn't have a reason to doubt it. Opposition swelled as young men came home with dramatically different accounts of events (or not at all, for many families).

.....Likewise, the 1970's are remembered as freewheeling and frivolous, despite starting out with the Kent State shootings and ending with the Iranian hostage situation. In between we lost a congressman in Jonestown, saw athletes murdered at the Olympics, Manson Family members shooting at Ford, some guy trying to crash a plane into Nixon, gas lines, MOVE, the Baader-Meinhoff, Nazis in Skokie, the murders of Moscone and Milk, the Son of Sam, the Three Mile Island and Love Canal incidents and a much younger Donald Rumsfeld actually trying to start nuclear war with the USSR by telling some real whoppers about the capabilities of their subs.

.....Comics became commensurately political in their topics and perspectives. What was vague in the 1960's (J.J. Jameson hiring Joe Robertson, the Justice League dealing with pollution) becomes specific in the 1970's. There's the famous "Hard Travelin' Heroes" issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow and the anti-drug issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Man-Thing battled an industrialist actually named "F.A. Schist", while Swamp Thing forever stumbled across monsters resulting from secret government experiments. The Nelson Rockefeller of Counter-Earth lusted after the Serpent Crown while back on Marvel Earth Howard the Duck ran for president. Killraven, Kamandi and OMAC all used the perspective of the future to satirize the present. Captain America confronted his 1950's counterpart and found the Secret Empire beneath the White House. And Henry Kissinger was everywhere, palling around with both Dr. Doom (in Super-Villain Team-Up) and the Challengers Of The Unknown (in Super-Team Family).

.....As mentioned in the previous post, Billboard's singles chart was getting extremely sluggish in terms of turnover. Titles hovered around, but for the most part you saw largely the same songs in a different order from week to week. And bear in mind that this was at a time when the music industry was releasing about ten times the product to retail locations that they release now. Considering what was available, there should have been a wide variety of material in the charts. Preventing that from happening was the business model adopted by the music industry since the mid-1960's. It was much simpler in the 1940's and 1950's. Then, if you wanted people to buy your record, you made sure that they heard it on the radio. You made sure they heard it on the radio by paying off the programmer or the disc jockey. Problems arose when racist power brokers and politicians engineered the persecution of rock disc jockey Alan Freed (who was responsible for many white teenagers listening and dancing to black musicians). Freed was repeatedly arrested on frivolous charges and eventually blackballed out of any lucrative market, the final damning accusation being that pay-offs in the radio business were all his idea and largely his practice alone. And the world became safe for Ray Conniff. The practice of 'payola' didn't stop, of course, just as it was never really as universal as its practitioners believed it to be. It changed names, became more clandestine. A large corporation would buy both a record label and a network. 'Payola' was now your paycheck. The smaller labels could no longer play after the rules (and the scale) were changed.

.....Predictably, with the entry by larger players into the market it was only a matter of time before IBM-style efficiency principles were applied. The two ways to make profit were to make more (which the consumer ultimately controls) or spend less (which you control). Since spending money is unavoidable, the IBM method was to minimize waste, or ideally to eliminate it completely. At smaller labels it had been historically difficult to quantify what was waste and what wasn't. You often wore many hats in a small company and didn't have time to sit down and parse numbers; by the time you did the information would no longer be relevant. Public tastes change, acts split up or move on, venues for promotion open and close... and having a fistful of numbers told you nothing about who your competition was this week. The new post-war, space race, best-and-brightest business models required stability and predictability. This was attempted through the consolidation of ownership of both manufacturers and venues (meaning retail, radio and live performance). It also meant simplification of formats, standardized price points and a cookie-cutter approach to radio programming. By the time the Doom Patrol were revived in Showcase #94 (08-09/77), it was already becoming accepted practice for radio stations to subscribe to satellite programming, hiring a modicum of local DJ's to prerecord local station I.D.'s, sponsorship and news to be inserted at the proper times during the feed, initially by anonymous engineers and eventually by full automation. Stations could operate this way for years without local listeners being aware that their local station was identical to 'local' stations in hundreds of towns across the country. Regional accents began homogenizing. The term 'regional hit' became an anachronism. The unintended side effect of this was that it became increasingly difficult to find new talent that had already proven themselves as commercially viable in a smaller market because the industry had worked so hard to absorb the smaller markets, destroying their identity in the process. "New" artists in the 1970's were usually old artists from established groups doing solo albums. The Beatles formed a label (Apple) and split up, becoming four acts releasing records instead of one. The Moody Blues form a label (Threshhold) and don't split up-- but they all issue solo albums anyway. Kiss doesn't form a label or split up-- but they release four solo albums simultaneously. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young all came from established groups in the 1960's, all did solo albums and recorded in varying combinations. We also saw a return of teen idols not seen since before the Beatles, with an unusual twist. Andy Gibb, Shaun Cassidy, and Jimmy Osmond were famous mostly for being the younger brothers of proven artists, just as Debbie Boone was the daughter of one. Whereas the appeal of their Kennedy-era counterparts (Fabian, Frankie Avalon, etc.) was to be something fresh and new that young girls could claim as their own while their aunts were listening to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, the 1970's teen idols were the more easily digested versions of whatever their older sisters listened to last year. For the first time since World War II, American youth culture was becoming increasingly conservative. The most famous venue at the time was Studio 54, and that was unquestionably because of its policy of exclusivity, the polar opposite of the Woodstock era. Even the drugs were becoming less social: marijuana could be passed around and one was often advised never to take LSD without someone remaining sober to talk you through it; cocaine was commonly snorted from a mirror and generally made the users paranoid and egomaniacal. Finally, look at the popular magazines of the 20th century as we head towards the 1980's:
  • NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC- Founded in 1888
  • READER'S DIGEST- Founded in 1922
  • TIME- Founded in 1923
  • NEWSWEEK- Founded in 1933
  • LIFE- Reconfigured in 1936 (predecessor dates to 1800's), suspended in 1972
.....Notice how, before the war, America's favorite magazines were named for the biggest, broadest, most general topics. The first of this group to cease regular publication and lapse into occasional specials was LIFE. Look at what replaced LIFE:
  • PEOPLE- began in 1974; People are a part of life, sure, but only the part that we're already familiar with.
  • US WEEKLY- began in 1977; "Us" are also people, but that doesn't even include all people. It doesn't even include most people. How could we get any more narrow minded and provincial--
  • SELF- began in 1979; ...ah, yes.
.....You can blame the late 70's comics crash on many things: rising prices, shrinking page counts, video games gobbling quarters, the return of science fiction to the movie theaters, the Blizzard of '78 and more. However, even if there had been no such crash (or 'Implosion' to DC fans) The Doom Patrol would have had a hard time of it. Freaky and quirky were not good selling points. When Russia and China were assembling tanks on each other's borders, you couldn't even rely on cold-war stereotypes of communists conspiring to undo the West. (Doonesbury's infamous Uncle Duke, Gary Trudeau's stand-in for Hunter S. Thompson, had been appointed ambassador to China before that nerve-wracking event, making it a windfall of sorts for the comic. In one strip a panicky Duke calls the US State Department from his office in China, screaming "You idiots had better do something quick, or this country could be overrun with communists! Hello?") People were clamoring for comfort, familiarity and reliability. Yet, contrary to the popular myth that Hollywood is a bastion of liberalism trying to brainwash a generally conservative public, network television in the late 1970's was like a fountain of very right-wing shows that the public simply refused to watch: "Hizzoner", "Grandpa Goes To Washington", "Salvage 1" and others lost out in the ratings to increasingly creaky Norman Lear and MTM shows. Ironically, this demonstrates the distinction between 'conservative' and the political right that network news would spend the next decade aggressively blurring. People continued to turn to the familiar and the comfortable, i.e., they were conservative in the true, dictionary sense of the word. It was the instinct to exploit that tendency that led to the success of supermarkets, department stores and McDonald's, which necessarily led to the elimination of small family owned businesses, variety, inconsistency and individualism. A comic book like Doom Patrol that asks the readers to root for a group scarred by life and unsure of each other didn't really stand a chance in that atmosphere.

.....In the next post, I review the last issue of the arc. The post following that look at contemporary comics from that time just as this supplement post looked at other contemporary media. Hopefully that won't take a month to finish. Sorry for the wait.