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CRUEL…

…BUT FAIR


I’ve long lost count of the number of times I’ve seen A CHORUS LINE, at one time the longest running show on Broadway.  As a serial monogamist, in the company of a number of girlfriends and a number of wives, I saw the original cast, several replacement casts, and the last revival, too, on Broadway, and the touring company of that revival as well.

The civilians among you, if you know anything about the show, are hip to that top-hatted and tailed, glittered and mirrored finale, harking back with a nod, a wink and a high kicked five, six, seven, eight to a Broadway that disappeared eighty years ago, or maybe never was.

But the rest of the show, the most of A CHORUS LINE, is the statement, the restatement, the overstatement of desire, need and want by its cast, anecdotal narrative culled from interviews with dancers, some of whom were in that original cast—and who might have had good reason to resent the fortunes made on their confessions.

The show is short—under two hours, with no plot other than those anecdotal self revelations of its cast—nor intermission, which might very well have allowed the audience time to consider, and perhaps judge, the cast and its ambitions, perhaps a bit more harshly than might be considered socially acceptable in our sensitive society even in those long ago and benighted times.

To provide some cultural understanding of a paradigm shift, when the show first opened, a standing ovation was considered  a very special thing, reserved for genuine transcendence.

By the time we saw the revival, every performance—to be clear, everything, every fucking thing—was granted a standing O, diminishing the value of what had once been an acknowledgment of electrifying excellence.

Just to overstate the obvious, transcendence had been supplanted by showing up.

This all came to mind in the recent reports of the broken hearts, diminished souls and shattered dreams of comics careers never materialized, brought to public attention by a comic book journalist whose last cleverness was the naming of his column, and who has made a name for himself by reviving that time honored entry from the now mostly forgotten Eric Berne’s mostly forgotten bestseller, “GAMES PEOPLE PLAY,” namely “Let’s you and him fight.”

The litany of disappointments with which this mook provocateur has provided us are intended to point out the cruelty of the comic book business—as if what is comic books today warrants the name of “business,”for fuck’s sake.  To the surprise of no one, they reveal a great deal about the guileless self- regard, not to mention, but mention I will, the utterly unwarranted expectations of those contributing to this list of personalized professional discontent.

Anecdotally, when I sought my first job in comics more than a half century ago, as an assistant to a legend in the field, a man whose work I had worshiped for a decade, I described my samples to him as “…mediocre.”  Without hesitation, he disabused me of this notion, describing them, and rightfully so, as “…worthless shit.”

He hired me anyway, because he needed a body—to erase pages, fill in blacks, and generally gofer for him—everything short of delivering work to publishers, because my shoulder length hair and faux proletarian clothing might have misrepresented him to his clients. Things were different back then, but would soon change, for good or evil, depending on your point of view.

I did scut work for him for a year, watching him draw for eight hours a day, listening to his endless monologue, and learned a priceless lesson, to whit—comics are pointless and frivolous entertainments which are difficult to do well.

It took me a good decade to learn how to do just that, and I have spent the rest of my life honing my craft in the service of this pointless stuff, to my lifelong pleasure and discomfort, in equal measure.

Some years ago, I found myself in a similar situation to that now long dead man who’d set me straight.  I hired an assistant, whose work was certainly as awful as mine had been. But like that mentor of mine, I needed a body, too—erasing, blacks, errands.

It was clear that he had been misinformed about the value and merit of his work, and assumed we were professional equals—destined to be partners in short order.  I helped him to a big bite of the reality sandwich, and to his credit he finally settled down.

A month later, we were all working in the studio, the stereo in full swing, when out of nowhere, this young fellow said, and I quote, “Fuck–this shit is hard.”

Needless to say, I laughed out loud.  Because yes.  It certainly is.

A lesson learned, and learned well.  That assistant has moved on, and today, while his drawing still needs a lot of work, he can now put together a coherent page, having actually committed himself to learning craft—and is doing so in a self-published comic book.

More recently, I read a piece in the New York Times by a fellow who described himself as a music critic, whatever such a title may mean in our era of the democratization of excellence and the rejection of actual expertise.

The NYT piece, accompanied by a page of his “artwork,” told us, if not in so many words, but in sum, that he had awakened one day and decided to be, you should pardon the expression, a “Graphic Novelist.”

Decided.  Just like that.

And just to be clear, the artwork accompanying the article was on a par with what anyone doodles while pretending to listen to the other side of a telephone conversation. Nothing resembling skill, let alone talent, was in any way evident therein.

The implication of this, the unspoken disdain for and dismissal of effort, of of craft and experience, absolutely staggered me.  Somehow, this person, and to a discomfiting degree more than a few of those contributing to that above mentioned litany, seemed to regard making comics as some sort of natural act.

Maybe it was that nickname packed, “We’re all just a wild and crazy bunch of comic book loving guys and gals” bullshit from the ungrateful windbag that made it all look so easy, so accessible.  “If these assholes can do it, why can’t I?”

Like so many of those trophy wives of studio executives who wake up the day after the honeymoon to discover they’ve suddenly become expert interior decorators, or world class jewelry designers, or honored avatars of haute couture, there seems to be a swarm of people out there in comic book land who earnestly believe they are entitled to get what they want by the simple dint of wanting.

And, true to form, these expectations turn out to be resentments in training.

The litany was topped by a much-repeated illustration of Jack Kirby, and his equally much repeated “Comics will break your heart, kid,” line.

Art by Dylan Horrocks

Sorry to burst any bubbles—or, rather balloons–but everything we love has the potential of breaking every heart.  It’s how one deals with this that counts.

To be sure, comics is not a meritocracy.  Much of what is held in high regard is inexplicable, certainly once one gets past the aspirational nature of so much of that fan regard.  And perhaps it’s that aspirational stuff that leads so many to actually take Robert Crumb’s wise guy grumble about comics, “It’s just lines on paper,” at face value.

(This seems perfectly likely, since a discomfiting part of the audience can’t seem to understand that Crumb was and remains a frequently cruel satirist, and take his work as a statement of his own personal beliefs, as opposed to scathing observational material.  Not that he gives a fuck, to my delight.)

I suppose I shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised, in a culture that dismisses expertise and excellence out of hand, that the amateur’s assumption that anybody can do this, that comics are a natural act demanding no more than desire, that making this work requires barely more than the effort required to dress oneself, has taken hold.

And of course, engulfed and buffered by such guileless self-regard and unjustified self-confidence, any failure must be the fault of others, of the very culture itself.

That mentor I mention above once paraphrased Nietzsche in his dismissal of a popular talent, several generations removed from his own, with the sniffy “Talent is conviction.”  To an odd extent, talent has evolved into an indictment, by those who seem to assume they have been denied access to success by some sinister unseen force, as opposed to any number of actual explanations, running from ineptitude, to bad timing, to the simple unfortunate Darwinism of reality, among so many others.

So, just as in A CHORUS LINE, despite the heartbreak of those stories, ripping their hearts out on that bare stage, the fact remains one has to do more than simply show up.

You’ve got to deliver the goods in order to be chosen for that line for that gleaming finale—and even then, there are no guarantees you’ll make the chorus.

As Super Chicken always said to Fred, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin—a Prince—Good, but not necessarily the nice kind.

 

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