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Snapshot #1 — Politics Whining (oh, wee)

Abhay Khosla

Snapshot #1 by Andy Diggle, Jock, and Clem Robins, published by Image Comics in February 2013 (and in Judge Dredd Megazine, prior thereto, apparently):

I read this immediately after I read Scarlet #6, and a similarity between the two jumped out, an irritant. Scarlet #6 begins with a monologue dismissing Occupy Wall Street:  nothing changed, nobody learned anything, protests are pointless, no one is listening, blah, blah.  That sort of shit. And so, too, Snapshot, opens by immediately dismissing protests:  a guy at a comic shop tells the comic-shop-employee main character that his girlfriend is “dragging” him to a march: “Some big anti-whatever shindig. We’re all marching to put an end to, I dunno, bad stuff… Even as we speak, my apartment’s ripe with the pungent tang of sharpie-wielding hipster.

If this scene is meant as a critique of the Bro talking, that’s not successfully communicated. No, this is early– we’re only just meeting the main characters. We’re again expected to agree with this repulsive crap, I think, expected to identify with this dull cynicism.

What is all this, do you think, this insistence upon surrender? Why, this persistent message that to do anything but surrender to the status quo makes one a figure of mockery? What makes comics so eager to trumpet fake heroics, phony, ersatz heroics, but so dismissive of protest, of an actual examples of courage from the least powerful among us? Is it just the particulars of the “creative community” involved, a community that never fought for each other, that routinely betrays its greatest artists, a community whose heroes suffocated communal effort in their womb? Why would we expect any better…? Or is it more than that? Maybe it’s just young people, just youth itself and youth’s silly hopes and impractical dreams of a better tomorrow, that comics find so laughable. Comic books: middle-aged men, to the rescue!

Later in Snapshot #1, the protestor girlfriend is shown, in only one panel, arms crossed, given no word balloons, rendered mute. We don’t ever get to hang out with her. We’re always stuck with the bros.

Have I ever participated in a protest? No, and perhaps that opens me to attacks for being a “hypocrite” for objecting. But I’m Indian, and non-violent resistance, that’s sort of a thing for us. Plus, I’m an American– protests are a big deal for Americans, too, goddamnit. Diggle’s ancestors were The Bad Guys for both those groups, I guess, but even they have their own history, too, last I checked. This cheerleading for apathy, it is ahistoric and uninspiring and boring.

It’s just a couple panels, and you’re overreacting– maybe it will all be critiqued in a later issue,” you might reasonably say, forgiving person that you are, and probably be right. But here’s what still nags: the comic is in the thriller mode. When you think back on the thrillers you’ve seen in your life, don’t the really great thrillers tend to ask for some kind of transgression– particularly of their main characters? The kink of Hitchcock; the perversions of DePalma; the “Michael Douglas fucked the wrong lady” section on Netflix. But Snapshot? Apathy. Distinterest. Disengagement. Aren’t these the very things a person seeks to escape by their transgressions? The very things that so urgently sends them to all of their sins?

12 Responses to “ Snapshot #1 — Politics Whining (oh, wee) ”

  1. Look, I got rolling in writing this response so it is definitely a little more pointed than I really intended it to be. I think it bears sharing in a forum where the original piece was intended for all and produced for free out of authorial kindness and interest. Also, in light of the “be happier and more upbeat” movement going on over in the Wait, What threads my response might have a little going for it there as well. You don’t need to be “happy” or “upbeat” so much as you need to be consistent and measurable if that is indeed the kind of thing you’re going for in the first place.

    So, anywho…what does this Abhay piece do? What purpose, this?

    I was just listening to a podcast where Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris were discussing Roger Ebert’s critical legacy and one of the many points they put in his favor was that for a large number of film watching North Americans he moved criticism from a “what a movie was about to how a movie went about it,” mindset. It’s very succinct, that line, and it speaks to what I find so frustrating about what Abhay’s written here.

    I think Snapshot does a shit job of being a “thriller” because it’s such a basic story filled with blank characters lacking compelling insight and details. Abhay goes a couple different places with it.

    1) It’s a fine bit of writing about the feckless imbecile who can’t be troubled to care re: anything beyond his four walls. It’s a stereotype so broad I’m surprised he thought it worth so much vitriol.

    What I’m trying to say is that nobody is going to hammer Abhay as being “hypocritical” for thinking that guy is a terrible character. That terrible-ness makes his death and contribution to the story yet another deficient element of an already routine narrative. Khosla’s issues with “the why” of his terrible character is kinda outside the point and seems more about what he wants comics to say re: the world than from the character’s functionality in the book. But, at this point, If Abhay set out to look at narrow character portrayals in comics and how they contribute to a bad story then why throw in the bit about transgressive moves and the role they play in thrillers?

    2) Isn’t the transgressive construct that he’s seeking that the other guy picked up the phone and looked at its contents?

    Granted, it’s a weak…WEAK prop in a boring first issue but it’s there and the main character definitely stepped in it. That it doesn’t measure up to some all time classics is a shame but not entirely unexpected, you know?

    Overall, what I’m getting at is that Abhay’s loose goals are conflated. He’s asking, from a construction point of view, “Why is he writing this guy in this way, it frustrates me.” In the same breath he’s also simultaneously asking “Do I like these portrayals and what do they say?” The first of those is one kind of problem and the second a different thing entirely.

    I don’t know what – technically speaking – he’s writing so I don’t know how to respond, necessarily. I’m just trying to understand how a piece specifically about being frustrated with a negative and cynical “whatever” attitude prevalent in comics can be so negative, cynical and “whatever.”

    It’s just really out of focus and it’s not even that I don’t agree with him that Snapshot is thin crap skating by on goodwill and a 68% Jock effort. Actually, it’s that I do agree with him to a point but the critique(?) is going in so many directions that it just comes across as what he feared, whiny.

    It’s funny, if you follow the ouroboros, it’s this kind of whiplash thought, writing, and action (both in the book and in the thoughts on it) that lead people to believe they’re just stuck in a washing machine of culture with no direction and no hope for lasting change. I mean, isn’t that why criticism (when done consistently) is viewed as logical thought? You’re evaluating a specific unit of content against observable criteria and experience. That’s admirable and worth continuing. Everything else is just like / dislike splatter which, of course, has its charms and place in things I suppose.

  2. That’s interesting. I took a turn there in that last paragraph, sure, and I was worried there’d be some whiplash to it, that I didn’t have a smooth enough transition there (I had a nagging feeling I should’ve ended about the bit about the girlfriend). I just saw a logical link between the beginning and the end, though (“here’s why you might care about these couple panels as a person but even if you don’t or don’t share my politics, here’s why you might want to care as a reader”)– you’re describing that as two different questions but I guess I saw a linearity to it. it’s a “But” link, though, so you probably have a point– from a classical thesis-argument sense, I guess that’s not how it’s done. It’s interesting. Thanks.

    “2) Isn’t the transgressive construct that he’s seeking that the other guy picked up the phone and looked at its contents?”

    Eh, that’s just the premise. In Rear Window, say, Jimmy Stewart using binoculars to watch his neighbors because of his injury is the premise. But there’s something more than the premise to the movie, how he’s a voyeur and becomes obsessed with spying on his neighbors. (Doesn’t happen in every Hitchcock movie, of course, not the capers, but…)

  3. “I’m just trying to understand how a piece specifically about being frustrated with a negative and cynical “whatever” attitude prevalent in comics can be so negative, cynical and “whatever.”

    I should add– you might want to jump off now for what I write for the next week or so. I’ve mostly read serialized comics this year, so as a result, I’ve only read, like, two good comics this year so far and they were both issues of Copra. (except stuff I’ve already talked about and continued to like)(Well: I like that Vaughan’s constructed a Shadow Family in Saga, though I can’t tell if he’s realized that he’s set up his good family as a “traditional” family and his antagonist family as a multicultural non-traditional adopted family, but I’m assuming at some point both families will come under attack by non-family force, the robot people or what have you, so I don’t see any reason to mind as of yet…)

    But yeah: I have a few things I want to try to talk about but… They’re because I find those things “interesting.” I just can’t make any promises on tone…

  4. “What is all this, do you think, this insistence upon surrender? Why, this persistent message that to do anything but surrender to the status quo makes one a figure of mockery? What makes comics so eager to trumpet fake heroics, phony, ersatz heroics, but so dismissive of protest, of an actual examples of courage from the least powerful among us?”

    I think this touches on something that’s deeply ingrained in mainstream comics (god, I hate the label “mainstream comics,” but I don’t know what else to call “comics published in America that are either superhero comics or are clearly visually and stylistically influenced by superhero comics,” so there you go). I’ve never bought the line that the superhero genre is intrinsically fascistic, but I do think that it’s probably intrinsically authoritarian, which is something very different – it means that even when a story is about desiring radical change, it can only be change that’s delivered from an outside savior imposing that change from above, on behalf of the passive masses. When you aren’t getting the typical story of the superhero who fights to maintain the status quo – and therefore puts himself, at least implicitly, at odds with the rabblerousing protester – you’re getting characters like Miracleman or V or the Golden Age Superman, who change society on behalf of a population that’s just standing around passively in need of saving. I think that’s just built into the formula of the superhero concept: regardless of what political context the genre gets transported to, superheroes still have their roots in a little kid’s power fantasy – the powerful hero rescuing the helpless victim, whether it’s a damsel in distress or the oppressed working class.

    Actual history shows us that social change comes not through a single person or a handful of people imposing their will from above, but from mass protest movements exerting pressure from below – and while these movements have their leaders, the MLKs and Malcolm Xs and Eugene Debses of history are pretty much powerless without millions of people backing them up and, in most cases, pushing them forward. So it’s interesting to see a book like Scarlet, which pretty much explicitly juxtaposes mass movements with solitary vigilantism and says that obviously the way to change the world is to wait for a solitary badass to show up and start killing off the bad dudes one by one – it demonstrates, particularly in the wake of Occupy, just how wildly out of touch the average comic book writer is with the American political consciousness.

    (See also: Bendis’s writing on the X-Men books, which presumes that any mention of “revolution” is terrifying – so terrifying that the concept never has to be explained at any length, because of how obviously terrifying it is! Meanwhile, I can’t drop by my grocery store without half a dozen different companies trying to use the word “revolution” to sell me everything from toothpaste to toilet paper. Buy this toilet paper – it represents a Revolution in the way you wipe your ass!)

  5. “What is all this, do you think, this insistence upon surrender? Why, this persistent message that to do anything but surrender to the status quo makes one a figure of mockery?”

    Do you really think it’s just *comics* that have that attitude, or that these sentiments don’t get expressed in the wild? These attitudes are just the received wisdom of jaded outsiders who’ve watched on as mass protests in the West have been de-fanged and made ineffectual.

    The run-up to the invasion of Iraq was marked by the biggest anti-war protest in history (on 2/15/2013) — which was ignored by major decision makers and greeted with a collective shrug by the mass media. (On the big cable news channels, the divide between left and right was largely represented by a clash of opinions over when and how aggressively we should strike Iraq — not if it should happen in the first place.)

    Occupy was crushed by a combination of draconian force and a campaign of misinformation that painted the underlying critique as immature whining for “free stuff” or pretended that the protests were an inarticulate tantrum. “What do they want, exactly?” flustered newshacks fretted, ignoring the signs in camera-shot that spelled out the protestors’ raison d’etre, often in elegant, poetic statements or pithy bon mots.

    The 2011 Wisconsin sit-in at the State Capitol was mostly ignored by the mainstream media and treated like an irritant or a joke by the majority party. And then there were the crushing stormtrooper tactics unleashed to make protests at the G20 in Pittsburgh basically impossible.

    After a decade of this, even among true believers seeking change, who *WOULDN’T* be cynical and jaded? Why is it a surprise to see that attitude reflected in a traditional “outsider” medium like comics? Not to defend the comics in question, which I find glib and shallow — but the attitude is definitely in the zeitgeist.

  6. “both families will come under attack by non-family force, the robot people or what have you”
    Totally off the subject of this post and thread, but Saga is worthy of the intrusion. The “robot people” are also family-oriented. Remember, the Prince is in a hurry to catch the fugitives because he wants to be home for the birth of his child!
    Had to point that out because I will take any excuse to talk about Saga. Great Book, Saga. Saga, great book. Saga, gooooooooodddddddd……..

  7. Given that even mainstream superhero comics themselves have devoted pretty much the past decade to condemning even the concept of “one good man can make a difference” at the heart of the superhero genre itself, and instead have asserted — even more loudly than they did during the deconstructionist ’80s — that you can’t fight Big Business or Big Government, with the added nasty twist of Marvel flatly asserting that its villains are “superior” as heroes precisely BECAUSE they’re evil and insane, what Abhay sees in Snapshot #1 is what I’ve been seeing from Identity Crisis and Avengers Disassembled on up through Civil War and into Dark Reign and the Nu52 reboot, which is a bunch of sad, angry, impotent middle-aged men who identify more with mass-murdering maniacs than with people who are capable of being motivated by humane consciences, because like the strawman adversaries in any shitty Ayn Rand Objectivist novel (and yes, I realize that’s redundant thrice over), these current comics creators want to tear down what’s great in order to avoid feeling so small themselves.

    If you claim to harbor lefty-progressive politics, as most current comics creators do, and you’re condemning protestors for objecting to the state of the real world, then you’re basically admitting that you know you haven’t done a damned thing to make the world better yourself, which is why you feel the need to slag off on those who are at least TRYING to do so.

    It’s PREFERENTIAL nihilism; these are people who WANT the world to be irredeemably bad, because that neatly saves them the time or moral obligation to try and FIX any of it.

  8. I think it’s a mistake to position mass protests, and Occupy in particular, as the only alternative to the sort of apathy and disengagement that Abhay decries. Mass protests can be romantic and attractive, but if they’re done wrong and they accomplish nothing they can actually contribute to the disengagement.

    To try to keep this on comics, sort of – I’ve been reading Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, the book Joe Sacco did with Chris Hedges, and the chapter on Occupy is one of the most frustrating parts of a frequently frustrating book, not in the least because Hedges in particular completely buys into the protestors’ self-image.

    He and Sacco quote one Occupier who says “I have no interest in participating in the traditional political process.” Well, I guess that explains why there were a couple dozen Tea Partiers in Congress and not one member of Occupy. The Occupiers were so busy removing themselves from “status and power, certification and legitimacy, institutional validation” that in the end, they exerted almost no leverage over those institutions. I credit Occupy with briefly (all too briefly) changing the national political debate from austerity to economic inequality, but their influence never extended beyond the territory they temporarily held. When they got cleared out they had no levers left to pull. Worse, they seemed to have no interest in pulling levers to begin with.

    Successful mass protest movements have always had economic and legislative strategies. Unsuccessful ones focus on street theater and spend too much of their time and energy inventing new, self-contained political structures instead of using tried and true methods that work. Frankly, they are often more concerned with building up the protesters’ ethos as open, inclusive, antihierarchical people of good will than they are with pursuing and achieving their goals. Read a few pages of Occupiers describing their committee structures and work groups and “the pungent tang of sharpie-wielding hipster” will sound mean and petty, but not wrong.

    I’ve been trying to think of other ways of representing politics and activism in narratives that extend beyond the cliches of street theater, of works that actually show politics as process and not just performance. The first two that come to mind are Lincoln and Milk, one which is all about the compromises that go into making the legislative sausage, the other about the sheer repetitive grind of working for political change in election after election after election. (I love that Milk doesn’t gloss over all of Harvey Milk’s losses and doesn’t end with his first win.) I appreciate these movies because they show me that Andy Diggle’s forced cynicism and Chris Hedges’s fawning romanticism are a false choice. We have other options.

    But I suspect we probably won’t see them in a mainstream superhero comic any time soon, because superheroes are all about dynamic individuals who change the world (or, more often, keep the world exactly the way it is) through their individual power and virtue. Viewed that way, it’s a profoundly anti-political genre, notwithstanding its proud tradition of B-list heroes who hit the road on a journey to find themselves and meet thinly-veiled stand-ins for Nixon. Even those works were about withdrawal and self-discovery, not engagement.

    This isn’t to say that I think it would be impossible to do a mainstream comic about politics, just that it would have to be done outside the major publishers, outside the standard genre conventions, and by creators whose sense of politics extends outside the equally self-involved binaries of apathy and street theater.

  9. Thanks for this, Marc.

  10. I don’t think the example of Occupy demonstrates what Marc think it demonstrates at all. Occupy was the first mass social movement in the United States in decades – it arose following thirty-five years of sustained assault on the working class – an assault which didn’t just increase income inequality and erode standards of living, but battered most of the institutions the working class has traditionally relied upon for support, from trade unions to public education to public space.

    Under such conditions, no one could expect the first working-class uprising in the United States to accomplish miracles and wonders – that would be romanticism. What Occupy accomplished was a major ideological victory: reinjecting the language of class warfare back into American politics in a way that was unthinkable beforehand, and making the politics and tactics of mass protest viable again, after decades in which strategies of resistance have largely been defined by, and limited to, groups of professional lobbyists working for issue-specific liberal NGOs which spend their time courting the favor of an increasingly right-wing Democratic Party. Occupy represented a welcome break from that ossified, discredited approach – an approach that has won us three decades of retreat and failure on everything from the environment to civil rights to women’s liberation – and showed that it’s possible for activists to actually act, rather than campaign for politicians.

    Those last thirty years were also marked by an all-consuming preoccupation with electoralism, in which those lobbying-oriented groups increasingly put their efforts into electing individual politicians who would go on to betray them, knowing full well that they would have no other option but to vote for them anyway in the next election cycle. In this context, it seems bizarre to complain that Occupy activists were less than enthusiastic about running for office. What would they have run as, anyway? Would they have run as Democrats – the party whose mayors were shutting down their encampments and having them beaten on the street? Should they run as independents? And then what – if elected, they would either have to caucus with the Democrats, and in effect become Democrats, or they would be marginalized and powerless. Even the nominally “socialist” Bernie Sanders of Vermont sells out his liberal base on a routine basis, tied as he is to the Democratic Party. (And the comparison with the Tea Party hardly helps Marc’s point, given that the Tea Party was effectively dissolved into the GOP after the 2010 midterms, and at this point represents little more than a right fringe of the Republican Party.)

    Look at the actual history of social movements in the US. The civil rights movement didn’t pour all its efforts into electing friendly legislators; the environmental movement of the 60s and 70s wasn’t based on an “inside strategy” – hell, all of the most important environmental reforms were signed into law by Richard Nixon, at the same time he was poisoning and defoliating the jungles of Vietnam. Real social change comes from building real social movements – which isn’t romantic work; it’s slow, hard, frustrating work. But it’s also the only work that’s worth doing.

  11. Coming back to this late after a weekend out of town.

    I agree that Occupy was incredibly successful in putting the language of class stratification and class warfare back into American politics, and in temporarily countering the elites’ mania for austerity. But that ideological victory proved highly transient since Occupy didn’t leave itself any means of influencing the public debate, let alone actual policy, once it dropped from the headlines. I don’t think it did make the politics and tactics of mass protest viable again; on the contrary, it showed their limitations when they aren’t attached to any kind of economic or political pressure.

    You say the Tea Party comparison doesn’t help my point, but consider this: three years after they peaked, with most of the country holding a strongly negative view of them and most of the Tea Party Caucus retired or defeated, nearly every Republican politician is still afraid to vote against the Tea Party agenda, particularly on taxes. That’s precisely because the Tea Party dissolved into the GOP base (I would argue they always were the GOP base with a clever branding strategy, but that’s another issue) and represents the right fringe of the party – the part that’s most likely to vote in primaries, and kick any apostates out of office.

    What politician was/is afraid to defy the Occupy movement? The mayors are a great example: why should Michael Bloomberg or Jean Quan worry about facing electoral retribution from a movement that’s too pure to sully itself with politics? You complain that Democratic politicians routinely betray their base, but that’s because so many people whose views should place them in the liberal/progressive base have opted out of politics entirely while their ultraconservative counterparts are busy voting for candidates if not running for office themselves. You ask if Occupy should have joined the Democratic party; I would say they should have taken it over. That’s how the conservative movement got as far as it has since Goldwater.

    By all means, we should look at the history of social movements in the US. The successful ones didn’t separate themselves from political, legal, and economic institutions, they sought internal and external pressure over them. Mass protests were used to galvanize supporters and promote the message, but there were always political and economic counterparts. If the civil rights movement acted like Occupy they would have skipped all those boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins and Supreme Court cases and never left the Lincoln Memorial.

    I agree that real change comes from building real social movements, and that it’s hard, unglamorous (but eminently rewarding) work. But that work has to involve more than just street theater or the kind of ethical preening that leads so many anti-establishment groups to spend all their time constructing new forms of self-governance instead of pursuing the causes that put them on the street in the first place. It has to include the kind of political and institutional work that Occupy, thus far, has been unwilling to do. And it will require shedding the romantic, ultimately self-destructive attachment to existing wholly outside the institutions that Occupy wants to change.

  12. Just want to say, thanks for this post and thanks for the comments. Good stuff all around. And Marc, you kind of flagged something that had been bugging me about Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it yet.

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