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.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.
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:
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.
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.