Nothing Good Since Doom

Tuesday , 17, February 2015 11 Comments

In the 1950s, Mad Magazine did a fairly gentle parody of Archie Comics (as “Starchie”) which transformed the safe and friendly confines of Riverdale High into a rough urban school as portrayed in the then popular Glenn Ford movie The Blackboard Jungle. It was fairly successful humor because the object of parody had a value (in Mad‘s case, the value of the original was a civilized community), and only something of value can be successfully subverted.

Did you even know that Archie was shot to death in a hate crime as he defended the gay marriage of his U.S. Marine buddy? Grab the gang and we’ll all laugh about it over at the malt shop! [And no, the murder weapon was not a .460 Mr. Weatherby]

In the 1960s, Help! magazine used Archie Comics to subvert the value represented by Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine. The parody showed Riverdale succumbing to the hedonist lifestyle sold by Hugh Hefner, who is portrayed as a soul-purchasing Satan. Archie’s value (of civilized community) is denigrated in the parody to demonstrate the destructive social force threatened by Playboy’s affable hedonism.

In both cases, the subversion attempts work because what they acknowledge is the fragility of civilized values, and demonstrate life in their absence. The schmucks at Mad were looking for laughs – a fantasy pratfall of civilized values – and the heavily-sued artists at Help! were prophets pointing at the chaos that hedonism might have on wholesome America.

But the worst thing about subversion is that it is habit-forming. Once it becomes habitual, it loses any primary or secondary effects it may have once had.

Subversion’s Secret Shame

It is one thing to subvert a value to examine that value, or even ultimately uphold that value. But the dark secret of subversion is that it has its own value, too:

If you haven’t heard, Marvel made Thor a girl again, but this time it is important because…she’s not a nursing school stereotype, or something.

Subversion wants to be first. It fancies itself as originality. It is creation’s impostor.

“How original! How clever! No one has ever thought of that before!” That’s the illusory promise of subversion.

“People are tired of the civilized earnestness of Archie! Let’s shoot him in the intestines instead. He’ll bleed out!”

[An aside on the wholesale demolition of Archie: Archie’s highly protective creator, John L. Goldwater, sued Help! even though their parody ultimately upheld the values of Archie to be superior to the sell-out to Hefnerism. Following his death in 1999, his own company has committed far worse atrocities against his characters than he likely could have imagined.]

Subversion, as a habit, shifts from a deliberate act of protest into something much smaller: the violent tendencies of juvenile vandalism.

Thus, the sex-questioning of The Left Hand of Darkness becomes the dull asexualism of Lock-In. The mankilling “anti-hero” Punisher becomes the sexually irrelevant School Marm Thoughtbubble Lady Thor. The first are mistakenly credited with “breaking new ground”  while the second merely churn the dirt on the original’s grave.

Subversion…Subverted

Of course, there is no new ground to break, and that is the first mistake of subversion. Subversion is entirely dependent on an original target. It is a parasite on a host. If the host is killed in the act of subversion, the subversion dies with it. Subversion only works as a creative contribution when its target remains intact.

Subversion inspired by subversion? Forget about it. It is stillborn.

To put it simply, as creative acts go, subversion is lousy. In 1993, Doom basically moved the first person shooter from an interesting sub-genre to the throne of all video games. For one thing, you could dynamically aim your gun, just like a real gun! You could shoot up an enormous institution full of demonic spawn and nazi-esque monster guys. It was like a junior high school simulator, with much more satisfying results.

But somewhere following Doom, more and more attempts at “improving” the action game to include “more story” has been a form of subversion out-of-control. The once-simple Tomb Raider has now become as nuanced as it is unpopular. The same can be said for the popular freefall of standard comic books and science fiction. If you want to attack an idea and replace it with something new, you must create the “something new.” You can’t simply spoil the fun of the original and leave nothing behind.

Subversion, of course, is not the only, and often not even the best, form of protest to begin with.

It is, however, the most highly addictive.

11 Comments
  • guest says:

    Two words: Brutal DooM

    John Romero himself stated that if they had released this instead of DooM back in 1993, they “would’ve destroyed the game industry”.

    There is even a derivative mod which adds Call of Duty weapons on top!

  • Jill says:

    Parody is what I naturally gravitate toward in protest. It, too, is parasitic, but I wouldn’t call it subversive.

    • Daniel says:

      Also, just because I think they are secondary doesn’t mean I think they should be dismissed. When performing either, one should know one’s place to be most effective, either with subversion or with parody.

  • Daniel says:

    Both fail on their own, I guess, is the point. Subversive art without an original – and respected – object is simply unreadable. Parody without an original and respected object may be readable, but it isn’t funny.

    If you want to attack something on its own, that demands satire, and satire is tough sledding. Right now, it seems as if the subversive junkies have taken over the methadone clinic, so to speak. They would shun the parodist and hang the satirist.

    • Jill says:

      Alright, I’ll go with you on your distinction. Satire is clearly more intelligent than parody. I think parody can work and be funny if it’s short and to the point. The joke’s not belabored, in other words; SNL is famous for belaboring parody by stringing it out for 15 min instead of 30 sec. Full length parody films are a waste of time, IMO. The trailer or poster is all that’s required to get the joke. Likewise, that one image still of Thordis up there is a good parody if left like that…except that I suspect it’s not.

      • Daniel says:

        Thordis was actually a female version of Thor speculated about in an issue of “What if…?” It was kind of funny, because it asked the time-honored question: “What if a woman had been given the powers of Thor?”

        The answer given in the book was…”She would marry Odin.”

        The new lady Thor is not even remotely as provocative as that old one-shot comic.

        Thordis was a sort of parody that was good: it was designed (as all issues of What If…? were) to mess with the universe in a single issue, without having any impact on the actual “normal” line of books.

        Marvel has flipped that all on its head now: changing races and sexes of all its characters, and making those changes canon, when – in the old days – they could throw that junk out in a What If issue and let it play out to its disastrous natural end. Then again, that was back when Marvel was in the comic book selling business.

  • The CronoLink says:

    Excellent article; it really fleshes out Gandalf’s admonishment to Saruman about leaving the path of the wise when breaking things apart.

    This article really hits me specially because I’ve never been able to communicate some of my feelings towards several anime I disliked but never could put finger on the “why”.

  • Boogeyman says:

    This also explains why hipsters and the generation they belong to can no longer tell when they’re being “ironic.” The parasite has killed the host, but they were never taught to think and create for themselves.

    • Daniel says:

      Good point. One of the many reasons (which may also include insanity) I have stepped up my teaching recently is not because I’m a particularly good teacher, but because the need of my younger countrymen is so profound that even I can help them learn something.

  • Viidad says:

    Excellent analysis.

    I used to find parody and subversion amusing. Now I’m sick to death of it. Space Ghost, Coast to Coast and MST3k used to be enjoyable to me. No longer.

    The palpable loss I feel when I see Mike and the Bots skewering the well-dressed gals learning home-ec in an educational film or the sharp-looking boys working in a shop class… well, it just seems like they’re chewing up their betters, as corny as some of those old films were.

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