The Communist Bullpen

August 16th, 2011

So, it kind of started like this between he and me, yr ever-lovin’ Botswana Beast, the O-rriginal Eyeball, and there’s more but I’m fuctifano how to get all these trackbacks on the twtr, so look for yourselves, if you really want. Joel (that’s his tumblr) is a pwopa Marxist on the speed-dial and who knows; maybe he can diagnose and cure comics’ endemic corporate thievery better than a ragtag bunch of libertarians? My inclination’s to think this eminently likely.

The Communist Bullpen and the Sociology of Thrill-power

Journey Into Mystery #117 (1965)

First things first: boycott Marvel. While it is only halfway related to what I want to talk about here, the Kirby estate vs Marvel spells out that the historical battles over intellectual property, material and immaterial labour, and the real working conditions of the past are still part of what constitutes the Comics Present. In this post I want to look at the complex moments that make up the circuits of production, consumption, exploitation, and, sometimes, as Bissette rightly says, outright extortion in twentieth-century mass-produced art. If I had the time or space or ability, then I would take a detailed look at these moments from the point of view of each in turn. Instead, we will have to make do with establishing the importance of three concepts in order to reach a startling conclusion: the only thing that will save comics is the communist Bullpen.

1) The Bullpen

What I mean here is the concept of the Bullpen as something that entered the comics imagination with the 1960s Marvel Age, and continues to leave its historical trace in every comics Universe. The truncated history goes that, emerging from the Eisner & Iger independent sweatshop/studio, the Fordist assembly line and the 50s post-Comics Code audience exodus, the Bullpen formation was a way for publishers to ensure greater homogeneity and editorial control over their comics lines. In terms of Marvel’s history, it seems reasonable to suggest that the invocation of the Bullpen in the comics (through Stan’s columns, and the general tone of captions and narrative) as well as the real-life office was an attempt to keep that Stan & Jack/Stan & Steve Marvel Method Magic flowing beyond its original creative flush, and, of course, beyond the departures of the two artists. In actuality, it was also a way to ensure three things: vastly unequal profit shares (through those work-for-hire contracts Bissette mentions), a usually strict division of labour, and Marvel’s good old white male hegemony.

Diagram from Norcliffe and Rendace’s ‘New Geographies of Comic Book Production in North America’ (2003)

In a somewhat comparable situation at Disney Studios in the late 1930s it was said glowingly by historian Robert Field that “one of Walt’s great accomplishments … was to recover that great workshop tradition … in which the artist as worker is dedicated to the fulfilment of a purpose and is satisfied to remain anonymous.” This kind of gloss on artistic labour was an iteration of the Fordist dream, as well as the Modernist response to it—to posit people as machine parts in both work and leisure. By 1941, though, Disney’s cartoonists had gone on strike over low wages and the absence of credit for their work. Early 60s Marvel, while following the Disney/Ford schema as a path to profit, modelled itself knowingly as part of the Pop Art response of fatigue towards Fordist principles, and as such was compelled to represent its own production process in the comics themselves. What this meant at the time was big credits for the writers and artists, an audience who could identify with their roles, and endless jokey nods to the conditions in which they worked—on the cusp of the transition into post-Fordist flexibility, freelancing, and international labour. What it means now is that we might still link the Bullpen with collective effort and collaboration; in fact, Marvel’s thrill-powered output of the 60s and 70s insists that we do so.

2) Thrill-power

A few years ago, Tom Ewing repurposed 2000AD’s buzzword thrill-power to identify a particular intensity present in art forms made under quick-buck conditions in the cultural industries of the twentieth century. Not unreasonably, Ewing is largely interested in identifying which works might be described as thrill-powered, and pinpointing the sensational effects the term acts as an umbrella for. Here, I want to use the term in a sociological sense. I will also take it as a given that Ewing’s subjective take on the term is correct: thrill-power exists; since modernity’s inception it has been out there like dark matter or Kirby Krackle. As I will explain, it is a kind of negative energy that testifies to the conditions under which particular works were made and received. Ewing is helpful enough to list these conditions:

You have a vast demand for material and very little time to produce it. You have a system that rewards speed and quantity over craft and artistic expression. You have output that is being judged entirely on its commercial performance. You have an audience that demands more intense material than you’re actually able to give it. And you have all this market and time pressure being brought to bear on immensely creative, talented individuals, who are too overworked to really be individuals, and who just feed their ideas and talent into the robot bulldozer machine.

I like this understanding of thrill-power, as it seems to account for the ‘moments’, to use Marx’s terminology, of both production and consumption (as well as, of course, a mass distribution network already in place) as a single circuit. Not only are these moments complementary, they share an identity. Consumption produces the need for further production. Production creates the drive and the desire to consume. I want to extend the concept again in order to approach thrill-power from two different angles. Firstly, there is technology: the acceleration of ideas, of sensation and thrills, manic energy above execution, is necessary in a period in which the consumer’s drives and desires are far ahead of the technological capacity for them to be satiated by available products. In this sense, the thrill-powered work is a grotesque, beautiful or charming simulation of the technological not-yet, as we see most clearly in Ewing’s example of the early computer-games market. In terms of Marvel, superhero comics from the 60s onwards could therefore be viewed as the precursor of their final blossoming in terrible CGI-led movies— technology having caught up finally with the audience’s unconscious or inarticulable need would go some way towards explaining those films’ complete absence of thrill-power.

A thrill-powered Herb Trimpe-drawn Hulk #168, in which the cops trample on some flowers

Secondly, and most importantly, thrill-power is an aesthetic by-product of collectivity. Note that in Ewing’s list there is no way to isolate a specific individual as the single locus of thrill-power; while clearly we can look at a page of Kirby/Lee’s Fantastic Four and assign credit to Kirby for his astounding range of techniques, Herb Trimpe generated thrill-powered moments too, even Don Heck did! Furthermore, we can’t even limit thrill-power to a ‘Marvel’ or a ‘2000AD’, because, as Ewing makes clear, they found their meaning and their charge (and the present way they are regarded) only through the demand and the reflexive participation of their weekly/monthly mass audience as it gained greater sophistication. This is not to romanticize the consumer, or present a defence of ‘fan communities’—precisely the opposite in fact, since this is why thrill-power is negative energy, generated through the exploitation of the entire production-consumption circuit. It’s not just the artists’ creativity and time being fed into the “robot bulldozer machine,” but the audience’s attention too, performing their own kind of labour, both sides dependent on the unfreedom of the other. On this basis, thrill-power is the ghostly recognition of this state of affairs, when the demands culture-worker and audience make on each other exceed the usual limits and form the Sue Storm-like outline of an invisible collective, one that continues to leave its imprint in the historical charge of the material.

A general decline in levels of thrill-power is easily explained by the profoundly non-collective, non-social methods and organization of work in the contemporary comics industry. Furthermore, despite relying on the talents of craftspeople and technicians, thrill-power is unavailable to the individual artist, or indeed anyone, as Ewing says, whose creativity is attenuated solely towards artistic fulfilment. If we take a look at the work of someone like Paul Pope, for instance, it seems his style is a compound of various circuitous thrill-powered moments in the comics industries of Japan, Europe and North America—the echo of these moments filtered through the aesthetics of the talented and yet resolutely non-thrill-powered individual.

3) The Collective

You might reasonably link this notion of group creative activity and its mass audience to one of the great narratives of modern popular criticism: the like-being-a-member-of-the-coolest-gang-around tale, in which highly mediated membership of a band or group or scene alloys the insecure young person to a lifetime of pop-cult thrills, in the process concretizing their personal identity. Here, the gang is a multiform extension of everyone’s favourite construct: the hyper-talented individual, possessed by genius. However—beyond the fact that there was thankfully never anything cool about any comics creator at any time—it is necessary to create a distinction between the non-thrill-powered gang and the potentially-thrill-powered collective. The gang, as a unit of analysis in pop culture and criticism, is viewed as forming specifically in order to play. Whether this is waged or unwaged activity, the gang is usually identified (and identified with) on the basis that play and leisure can, for the lucky few, form the central activity in a person’s life. Like Dave Rowntree out of Blur or whoever, you too might be paid to live the dream of permanent leisure. Even as most of us give up the possibility of this dream for ourselves, it remains in our cultural field of vision as the standard of a life creatively rich because of its divorce from hard labour.

(Should be noted here that the pop culture version of the gang plays on its negative real-life counterpart: historically when working-class people form a group to ‘play’ it is because of an exclusion from work/school and thus remains a provocative act.)

The impeccably thrill-powered Hookjaw from ACTION (1976)

The gang comes together for the sake of leisure. The collective, on the other hand, comes together to work. While it may indeed have been someone’s dream to work there, no one ever confused the activities of the Marvel Bullpen with mere play, even during Assistant Editor’s Month. In Will Eisner’s autobiographical sweatshop lament The Dreamer, what is dreamed of is essentially the possibility of an unalienated life through the circuit of mass culture, a reunification of financial security with creativity, craft, and the warmth of family life. But by the 1960s, this unity was barely even part of the social imaginary; instead, it was expelled into the nascent post-industrialization of everyday life, far away from work. The end of the dream hardly means, though, that creativity (productivity) declines or falters; as Ewing makes clear, the idea-factory intensifies, as concepts must be exploited and turned over in a forever speeded-up timeframe. The hustle-ish, huckster-ish enthusiasm of Stan’s Marvel, his Bullpen Bulletins as well as the editorial voice in the comics themselves derive their peculiar jovial tone precisely from this contradiction: the Bullpen may be a place where creativity rattles along like one of Gene Colan’s suspension-defying car chases, but it is simultaneously built on the deprecating awareness that no one is living any kind of dream, not even Stan himself. As John Buscema, ultimate company man, says in a talk given to the Bullpen staff during the 1980s, “don’t feel like you’re cheating! You’re not—you’re earning a living!”

The Marvel Bullpen, from way back when

Social acknowledgement of one’s utopian daydreams is usually only granted to those in power; just look at Steve Hilton’s degenerate imaginings for a good example. The point is that someone’s utopia is busy being articulated, and this is surely partly what China Mieville means when he says there is always some connection between dreams and life.” The gang, as outlined above, is one of late capital’s own daydreams, a micro-formation that never quite spills over into solidarity. The thrill-powered collective, comprising both culture-workers and audience, is no less utopian an idea. But crucially it is the thrill-powered work’s recognition of mutual labouring that admits the possibility that things could be different; work could be different. The tragedy of the Bullpen is that it existed as both the locus of vast exploitation and also the necessary engine-room of thrill-powered work full of utopian possibility. It’s like Ewing says: “no doubt it’s a bloody horrible way to make a living– but what it can produce is magnificent.”

My argument is that the work’s magnificence—and I do predictably love much of both 60s and 70s Marvel and 70s and 80s 2000AD—is based on its collective production, the very Fordist division of labour instituted in the 1930s sweatshops. The only way to tease out thrill-power now is therefore to rescue the Bullpen from both its association with capitalist exploitation and the sad-solo-genius-guy-makes-sad-solo-comics paradigm that often appears as its opposite. The solution, then, is a communist Bullpen, a co-operative where the work of craftsmen and women, technicians and artists as a collective is not exploited; where a Herb Trimpe and a Marie Severin are as valued as anyone; where a Jack Kirby is, among others, the owner of the means of production. Boycott Marvel!

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