The Stressor of Two Knievel’s
To me, he’ll always be Kanyevel.
Sunday morning’s here, but it’s only 3.57. The night you’ve just had? That’s already beginning to feel like Last Night, and you’re still at ten paces to the redemption you know must come with Sunday. Pistols At Dawn, you Kind And Noble Souls. You’re in that middle distance, the guilt will roast you now if you allow it to. For me, that’s when “Kaptain” Robbie Knievel’s toxic honesty in last year’s documentary *Chasing Evel*, becomes the right kind of heartbreaking, like mood music in an airport lounge for the Damned. Robbie, the son of legendary daredevil Evel Knievel, walks on screen out from his motor home and emotions just flood out. He’s drank in his lifetime. More than you and everyone you know combined. His drinking’s hurt him, hurt others around him. He’s obliterated every record his father’s ever held.
For a moment there in the early-mid ’90s, thirty seconds before the permanent midnight of X-Games, he held the world in the palm of his hand, enthralling our distant ancestors stunt jumping motorbikes across the breach of the impossible. Some twenty, thirty years on from when his father did it, some twenty, thirty years on from the last time stunt jumping bikes was relevant. That’s the poison in the Good Kaptain’s honesty, three heartbeats in his company and you see too clearly it was never about the drinking, it was about the daring. That drive to be bigger and better and more imprinted on the cultural DNA of an America that’s already being changed by the very act of being imprinted upon. For both Evel and his son Robbie, one Evel to another, each living in the other’s shadow, it was always daring, not drink, that would prove the stressor event. It’s TFW even the future’s far smaller than the forever you’re creating. And when you get there, that’s when you know what it must feel like to be Kanye.
Kanye’s had his own skirmish with Evel. Was it 2008, 2009? Was it before Taylor Swift? In “Touch the Sky,” Kanye donned the iconic star-spangled white leather jumpsuit, trimmed with red and blue, to become “Kanyevel.” In a parody of Evel’s jump of the Snake River Canyon, he was dating Pamela Anderson, a least in the fictive milieu of the video. He had a broken relationship with Nia Long, who was supported by an aggressively vocal Tracee Ellis Ross. Reality bleeds into the fictions we make for ourselves. But most importantly, and the TV News interviewer calls him on this, he’d made comments about the President, President Nixon in this case (even though Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon rocket jump took place two years after the Nixon impeachment). Comments which America needed him to clarify, perhaps even explain. Kanyevel’s adamant though, he’s doing this interview to promote his jump. It’s less than twenty minutes to go, he’s not going to talk about his comments about the President. Nia interrupts, the station goes to a Please Stand By card as Tracee erupts. Lupe Fiasco performs with the Booker T. Washington High School Marching Band (of Houston, TX).
We’re back to that same toxic honesty, a glint in Kanye’s eye just as it was in Robbie Knievel’s. Freeze frame at just the right moment and you can draw a line back in time, Kanye to Robbie Knievel, Robbie back to Evel. This stressor in this case isn’t the unmolested brio of a Van Gogh or a Hemingway, a life lived larger than its confines because Death Comes For All And What Can Be Done But Resist? It’s something else, darker and far more domesticated. The stressor of two Knievel’s is the daring that’s deeply genetic, and not a response to circumstance or coincidence. I drink because I’m bigger than the whole world, because that inner daring means I’ll bust loose from every system, break every mold. And after the drinking comes the toxic honesty. It’s there in Robbie, just as it was there in Evel. And Kanyevel captures it perfectly. But was it in Kanye when he was making those comments that seemed to be Making America Great Again?
“It Felt Like Never Going Home Again”
A moment like eighty uninterrupted years in print, you’d expected there’d be a prospice/respice dynamic at work in a book like Action Comics #1,000. And you’d be wrong. There’re almost no hints or teaser trailers for going forward, other than, you know, the visionary Brian Michael Bendis’ and Jim Lee story, “The Truth” which sets up The Man Of Steel event for this summer. Instead of that Janus moment of looking forward and looking back, Action Comics #1,000 hits a single perfect note, time and time again; the Celebration story. I tell you no lie when I say, We’ve Been This Thing For Eighty Years is the theme stamped into every story in this beautiful collection of stories. But I’ll also let you in on a secret. Each one of those stories feels like that bittersweet nostalgia of realizing we’ll never revisit these themes and tropes and subgenre again. That this is the very last time Superman stories will be told in this way. You can never go back home, not because there is no home, but because you can never fit back into the life you once had there. Tom King and Clay Mann’s story, “Of Tomorrow,” really is the secret beating heart of the thing, the septum around which all other stories in the anthology book pump.
There’re Eternity stories, every last one of them. Like Lex Luthor and Clark Kent having a secret friendship as kids, in Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque’s “The Fifth Season”, where Lex’s unbridled ego entirely deletes any memory of Clark, reducing him to “some Smallville kid.” Or Paul Levitz and Neal Adams’ “The Game,” where ’70s era Superman and Luthor from his pre-Byrne mad scientist days try to best each other in board games while they trade barbs, or Louise Simonson and Jerry Ordway’s “Five Minutes” where Clark races a deadline but ducks out to do his Superman-ly duty, only to return just in time to finish the piece and realize that doing the business of Superman has now created an even bigger story that needs to be written from scratch. Every story is Welcome To Yesteryear, Enjoy The Ride, But We Won’t Be Coming Back.
It’s an entirely different kind of daring, one that doesn’t end in a toxic honesty, and one that’s psychically more resistant to the Gospel of Self-Annihilation. Call it, a daring of longevity, the idea that instead of breaking the mold, you can become the mold. That you can predict the shape of world for decades even centuries to come. This is where Tom King comes in. “Of Tomorrow” is set five billion years into the future. Superman’s still around. As are Lois and their son Jon, thanks to the Eternity Formula (which tastes like grape). Human life has spread throughout the cosmos (or maybe just a substantial part of the galaxy). Superman returns to Earth one last time before it’s consumed by our sun that’s now become a red giant. It’s the day before the supernova. And it feels like Oasis’s debut album should be playing on loop.
When Chris Nolan got Batman to Begin, back in 2005, micropolitics were entirely different, maybe even the exact opposite. “There’s no going back,” Gary Oldman said playing a demure Jim Gordon, a Lieutenant long before he became Commissioner. But he meant the opposite of what we see in Action Comics #1,000, he meant that the appearance of the Batman has irrevocably changed things on the streets of Gotham. And after this, there’s no return to what was once the status quo. Superman’s different. “For Tomorrow,” is different; what if there’s no going back because you get to a point where human history just runs out?
Yet ultimately, Action Comics #1,000 returns us to the same place Kanyevel does; how could these stories, these magnificent works of throwaway popculture have lasted for so long, have kept us in their thrall for so long? How did we come to think these thoughts, not our own, as if they were our own? And by what strange alchemy did they eventually become our own? Maybe the answer lies in equal parts in Roland Barthes and Kim Kardashian West.
Drawn Out Dharma, or, Teasing Out The Comic/Strip
The late, great Joan Rivers once joked that for us to see Kim Kardashian as we’ve never seen her before, as KimK’s Instagram teased, KimK would have to swallow a PillCam. It’s no exaggeration, or at least, only a very little one. By the time Joan had made those comments, KimK had already waged her own semiotic war against the iCloud hack that had served up so many nude selfies of so many famous actors. KimK defanged the hack by posting her own nude selfies, and Joan was warning that for any kind of relevance to be maintained, it was time to be moving on. Beyond the Oh-No-She-Didn’t, behind the It’s-On of their “beef” (the animosity of which was no doubt very real), the two really were tango partners, one generation of provocateur passing the baton to another, both caught in self-fulfilling lockstep.
In his 1953 essay “Operation Margarine,” French semiotician Roland Barthes describes how the “Established Order” has always made use of Kardashian’s own tactics. His essay appearing in his collection, Mythologies, he writes, “To instil into the Established Order the complacent portrayal of its drawbacks has nowadays become a paradoxical but incontrovertible means of exalting it.”
“One can trace in advertising a narrative pattern which clearly shows the working of this new vaccine. It is found in the publicity for Astra margarine. The episode always begins with a cry of indignation against margarine: ‘A mousse? Made with margarine? Unthinkable!’ ‘Margarine? Your uncle will be furious!’ And then one’s eyes are opened, one’s conscience becomes more pliable, and margarine is a delicious food, tasty, digestible, economical, useful in all circumstances. The moral at the end is well known: ‘Here you are, rid of a prejudice which cost you dearly!’
Second order signification, Barthes will go on to call it. Once images are decontextualized, they become reappropriated by the “Established Order” and repurposed as systems of control. Demonstrating the propensity for ideological retrofitting of signs, he writes earlier in “Operation Margarine”,
“It is a kind of homeopathy: one cures doubts about the Church or the Army by the very ills of the Church and the Army. One inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an essential one. To rebel against the inhumanity of the Established Order and its values, according to this way of thinking, is an illness which is common, natural, forgivable; one must not collide with it head-on, but rather exorcize it like a possession: the patient is made to give a representation of his illness, he is made familiar with the very appearance of his revolt, and this revolt disappears all the more surely since, once at a distance and the object of a gaze, the Established Order is no longer anything but a Manichaean compound and therefore inevitable, one which wins on both counts, and is therefore beneficial.”
Is this what will lead poststructuralist thinker Jacques Derrida to eventually claim, “There is nothing outside of the Text?”
But understanding the mechanism that Kardashian employs is one thing, evolving it, as Rivers suggests, is entirely another. What would nextgen striptease look like? Keeping intact the semioideological reengineering and retrofitting of Kardashian’s campaign, what would next level nude selfies look like? Maybe they’d look like leveraging culture to manipulate our neuroplasticity. Maybe they’d look like thinking thoughts not entirely our own, thoughts that arrive like a Strange Visitor From Another Planet. Like Kanyevel, like Making America Kanye Again, Superman’s ongoing sartorial romance (his cape being his baby blanket, the S diamond shield on his being his family crest, originally sewn on by his Earthling foster mother), and Action Comics #1,000 echoing this even at the meta level (in the Geoff Johns and Dick Donner written “The Car,” Butch mentioning “a guy in red underpants,” Brian Michael Bendis having Laura and her unnamed, ethnicity-switching friend comment on Superman’s “red shorts” in “The Truth,” Peter Tomasi, Marv Wolfman, Curt Swan, Levitz and Adams wearing iconic Superman tropes as clothes).
Just as KimK sheds her outer garments, Superman regains his, and the effect is no different. No different than Kanye holding forth on #MAGA, at the exact same moment Action Comics #1,000 celebrates eighty years of iconic comicbook history by creating in its readers the sense that that history is now closed and can never be returned to again. Like the “Established Order” of comics “innoculates” us against notions of Grand Historical Narratives with a format of episodic monthly adventures, only to return us to the idea of Continuity.
What’s next for social media, next level for the nude selfie? Maybe it’s shedding not your clothes but your very thoughts so that others may pick them up and think them as their own.