MARTHA THOMASES: Wild in the Streets
Maybe it’s because this presidential campaign is lasting more than two years, but lately, I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan their feelings of helplessness. The system is unchangeable, they’ve decided, and there’s nothing they can do.
When I was a teenager, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, we thought we could fix everything. War, poverty, pollution, inequality – it didn’t matter what the problem was. All we needed was ourselves, our energy and resolve (music and drugs were optional, but helpful).
Today, not so much.
I don’t know precisely how, but our cool rebellion and anti-materialist hedonism got co-opted by the very corporations we despised. The very culture we created sold us out. Maybe it was the 1970s, when the music business got huge, segmented radio and split us apart in order to sell to us more efficiently. Punk started in protest to this, but was co-opted even more quickly. MTV turned rock’n’roll into long-form commercials. By the time grunge was hip, Calvin Klein already had Time Square billboards with underwear models looking strung-out in Seattle.
Movies didn’t do much better. The rebellious, independent filmmakers who gave us Taxi Driver, M*A*S*H, Easy Rider and others were rejecting Hollywood’s glamour, glitz and phoniness. Somehow, they and their rebellious stars were absorbed into the studio machine even more quickly that the rockers. Maybe Jane Fonda wasn’t the deepest political thinker, but she looks like Noam Chomsky compared to Lindsay Lohan.
So, comics? They fall somewhere in the middle, and off to the side, as they do in so many conversations about media. Originally reprints of newspaper strips, comic books were seen as disposable, cheap fun, so anything could happen. There’s amazing, subversive energy is Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, just to pick one example. When comics became popular, the people in power objected, and put through the Comics Code to keep the kids in place. Hippies re-discovered comics, and started to make their own. From these underground comics came new distribution, then the direct market, and now, with the exception of a few political titles like World War 3, independents have replaced undergrounds..
Where does this (vastly over-simplified) history get us? Today, we have a popular culture that largely supports the status quo. Stories are mostly about straight white men, even if the story is about Africa (e.g. Blood Diamond), and tough, liberated women still want men (e.g. Charlie’s Angels I and II). Independent films are more likely to be identified by their budgets than their studio affiliations, as the major studios acquire Miramax, Fine Line, Focus and others.
The media has a reputation for being “liberal,” but, in fact, the media is corporate. Corporations, for the most part, tend to be not so much political entities, endorsing a specific point of view, but rather opportunistic, looking for the market conditions which allow them to flourish. The news media wraps up the world’s problems in thirty minutes, usually with a heartwarming two-minute story at the end. Nothing riles up the audience enough to distract them from the advertisements for Viagra and Tums. Movies and entertainment television are there to sell popcorn, Coke, and whatever else promoters have paid for. Rock concerts are sponsored by car companies, banks, even the Army.
No wonder the most common complaint I hear from people, whatever their political passions, is helplessness. “Things are so bad, and there’s nothing we can do,” they say. “The deck is stacked against us.” This is very convenient for the people in power.
We can’t look to corporations to lead us to change. Art and entertainment come from the people, and the corporations have only been, at best, the means of distribution, and, at worst, screeners of material they find threatening. With the Internet, distribution is much easier. So is political organizing. You can find like-minded people who will work with you on whatever cause is most important to you, whether it’s saving the environment, re-building New Orleans, countering military recruitment at high schools and colleges, or something else.
The enemy of change is sloth. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what we used to call The Establishment. Those in power rely on these feelings to stay in power. Instead, find one or two things you can do, and do them. It doesn’t have to be political. Read to someone in the hospital. Pick up some garbage in the park. Every little bit counts. What matters is that you do it, instead of waiting to be told.
I, myself, find that when trying to stop a war in the Southeast Asia, or the Middle East, a few minutes off to read comics is a good way to recharge.
Martha Thomases is the Media Godess of ComicMix.