Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Bookends of History

All year I've been forcing myself not to blog about the election. It's not easy: I've been a passionate election-watcher since 1976, and I've never seen one as weird and gruesomely fascinating as this one. But I have a book to revise, a big book, and my publisher has now set a publication date, in October of next year. Which means I can't take my brain off it unless I want to cause some real trouble.
       I have, though, persuaded myself that I'm allowed to write a little bit about the election when I can put in the framework of my book. In my last post I compared the current lunacy to the election of 1828. This time I thought I should tie that up. Because the election of 1828 was the beginning of a vast narrative arc in American history, and I think now we're arriving at the end of that same arc: the age of the white working class. 
       For the first few decades of our republic, voting rights were restricted nearly everywhere to men with property and money. Then, starting mostly in the 1820s, a wave of democratic sentiment pushed state governments to extend the suffrage to nearly all adult white men. Barely over 100,000 Americans voted for presidential candidates or electors in 1820. About 360,000 voted four years later. Over 1.1 million voted in 1828.  
       That changed everything. An elite electorate had chosen a series of Founding Fathers for president, then the aristocratic son of a Founding Father. The voters of 1828 threw out John Quincy Adams and overwhelmingly chose Andrew Jackson, a war hero, a Westerner, and a populist. Ever since, the most powerful group in every American election has been working-class whites. If either political party could win the hearts of most of those voters, it could dominate the nation.

       "Working class" is a messy and poorly defined term, of course, and making too much of it can distort things. Most political scientists these days base the definition on formal education. Income is an unreliable measure, mostly because of the way issues of age throw it off (an Ivy League law student can earn a lot less than a union industrial worker of his own age), so "high school only" vs. "college educated" becomes the easiest way to attempt to isolate most of the things we mean by "class." Those voters aren't necessary industrial workers; in fact, through most of our history, they were overwhelmingly farmers, and now more of them are in service jobs than industry. A better name might be that phrase common in Jackson's era: the "common man."
       Whatever we call them, before World War II they accounted for about 85% of the American electorate. Over the next few decades, two things changed: first, more white people started attending college, leading to changes in occupations, social allegiances, and political agendas; next, the non-white population soared. The proportion of those "working-class" whites had sunk to 65% of voters by 1980. It plummeted to 48%, no longer a majority, only twelve years later. In 2012, it had slid to 37%.
          The Democratic dominance of American politics from 1932 to 1968 was based on those voters. When the Democrats began to lose that demographic in the wake of the Civil Rights years, the Republicans rose, triumphing with the emergence of the blue-collar "Reagan Democrats." It was Bill Clinton's ability to pull most of them back away from the Republicans that enabled him to win in 1992. When George Bush won them back again, the Republicans took back the White House.
       Then, in 2008, Barack Obama won only 40% of no-college white voters but still easily won the election. Four years later he was reelected with only 36%. He still had to fight for those voters: he would have lost some key states, including Ohio, if he hadn't run much closer to Romney there than he had nationally. Still, for the first time, a candidate could lose that constituency and not lose the election.
       This year, what had formerly been one of a whole constellation of demographic, numerical phenomena has become the center of the narrative. Donald Trump has targeted those voters ("I love the poorly educated!") like no candidate since the Great Depression. He's virtually turned the election into a battle between them and everyone else. And he's succeeding with them, usually polling close to 70%. 
       The kind of dominance Trump has among working-class whites would have brought on a landslide victory in the mid-20th century, and even just a few elections ago would have guaranteed a victory. But now he's decidedly trailing in the polls. It looks as though Hillary Clinton is going to be rejected overwhelmingly by the white "common man," and more narrowly by the white "common woman," and yet still become president. 
       I've seen Trump compared to Andrew Jackson many times this past year. I even did it myself, in my last blog post. I think, though, that they aren't so much parallel as complementary. They're bookends. One stands at the beginning of a story, the other at the end.
        Of course, it's still conceivable that Trump could win. This could turn out to be a late rally by the white working class before the rising generation of non-white Americans swamps them, a demographic Battle of the Bulge. But it's far more likely that we're watching a grand pageant, a sort of vast, improvisational theater production, about the end of an era.
       So right now I'm simultaneously revising a book about the beginning of the long dominance of Jackson's "common people" and watching the end of that arc played out dramatically. The election is still distracting as hell when I'm supposed to be working on the book. But it's interesting and moving to see it as a summation of so much of what I'm writing about. (And, anyway, that makes for a great pretext to write political blogs.)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Has there ever been an election like this before?

My work on the book this week compels me to write about the presidential election. A national turning point, pitting a steady but boring representative of the dominant elite who liked to talk about economic plans and infrastructures against an unpredictable populist running on his questionable achievements outside politics, dodging clear policy statements and harping on the corruption of the system. The ugliest campaign ever, all about mutual character assassinationone candidate called a secretive quasi-aristocrat with ties to the banks who rose to power through family connections and corrupt bargains, the other a hateful, adulterous sleazeball in it for nothing but personal gloryand almost nothing about the issues. Old sex scandals trotted out by the press. And both sides wailing with apocalyptic predictions of national doom: They're going to keep selling the people out to the international banking establishment until we've lost control of our country! He's going to usher in mob rule, violence, and chaos!
       At least in the election I'm writing about there's no suspense to endurewe've known the ending for a long time. The poor old establishment voters really thought they had a chance to win, convinced that the American people would never be stupid enough to give the country to that hot-headed egomaniac with the big, silly-looking hair. But of course it was the candidate with the huge rallies and insanely enthusiastic followers who won in a landslide, thanks mostly to working-class men who'd never voted before. When the returns came in from Ohio and Pennsylvania, the incumbents knew they were finished.
       Welcome to 1828.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Historian Humor

I found this bouncing around Facebook. Having spent the past three years writing a book on social history in the "Jacksonian Era" (or "Market Revolution Era," depending on your orientation), I found it pretty funny.

Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The First Three Years Are the Hardest

For the last three years I've been involved in the most intense and complicated relationship of my life. My partner is demanding, fragile, inconsistent, often inscrutable, and utterly contrary. But it's all been worth it, because of the passion and joy I feel whenever we're truly in synch, because of how the relationship forces me to grow and change...and because I'm finally beginning to see how beautifully we're coming together. And in the end I believe we'll have created something truly special.
       We're over the hardest part: the rough draft. Now we're in the revisions phase, with the help of a great couple's counselor (although his job title is "editor"). Next comes copyediting, and then, next fall, my beloved and I will finally come out together...from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I never knew a relationship with a book could be this damned hard, but I know that when I get to hold it and gaze at it and kiss it at last, all the tears and yelling will have been worth it. 
       Today I'm celebrating our third anniversary. Oh, we've known each other much longer than that. But three years ago today was when we finally stopped flirting and got serious. It was on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 10th, 2018, that I had the breakthrough that turned a long-frustrating ramble through a wilderness of conflicting ideas into the pursuit of a coherent notion that quickly became the book I'm now revising, Nation of Faith and Flesh. That's when an idea sprang into my head for a sequence that showed me the tone and point of view I should use and effectively opened the door to the whole process of discovering what I should be writing. 
       Here's Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco, noisy, too hip for its own good, but spacious and stimulating, where I was working that day:

       Here's the view I had from my counter in the front window, with the earnestly pondering young folks of Valencia Street and the afternoon sunlight that inspired me:

Here's the very spot on the counter where that breakthrough happened:

       And here's the beginning of what I wrote:

       Those words don't appear in the book. In fact, that character doesn't even appear in the book. I gradually moved the time frame of the book earlier, so it ends right before this passage would have appeared. But following this thread started me on the road that will result, in just about a year, in the publication of this book. Allow me to raise a $4.00 glass of cold-brew coffee in a toast.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Twisted Roots of Comics

I first went to the San Diego Comics Convention in 1984. I went as a fan, but also to do some interviews and research on a book Will Jacobs and I were writing, a history of modern superhero comics called The Comic Book Heroes. I'd been to comics conventions before, but nothing like this: more than 5,000 people filling two rooms of a decent-sized convention center, and almost all of them talking about comic books. There were already a few people lamenting the early days, when the con had been small and intimate, but for me it was a thrill.
       The next year I went back as the author of a book of comics history about to be published, with copies of the cover in hand. The year after that I went as a somewhat well-known member of the industry's "fan press." In 1987 I went as what we called a "pro" or "creator," specifically as the cowriter of a low-profile comic book called The Trouble with Girls, which made me feel like a member of an exclusive club. The next year I went and discovered I had fans. In 1989 I went as the writer of a DC superhero series, with more projects in the works to brag about, and it was at the con, in the lobby between the two big rooms, that I learned that The Trouble with Girls had been picked up by 20th Century-Fox. I could plausibly pose as a big shot.
       The convention had its own experience with big-shotism in those years. Comics got hip. Dark Knight, Watchmen, Maus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and finally the Tim Burton Batman. Attendance soared suddenly to 11,000. Two years later, the con moved to the colossal new convention center by the harbor, with its interlocking halls and absurdly high ceilings, and the bigger publishers started setting up towering, flashing, booming displays as if they were at a real trade show. The video game business jumped on board, then Hollywood. By its second year at the new location, attendance had broken 20,000, two years later 30,000. The comic book business itself suffered a bubble-popping and cataclysmic decline in the mid-'90s, but by then comics were a small enough part of Comic Con that it was easy not to notice. 
       My own career didn't follow the same upward trajectory. I found myself much in demand, took on too much, burned out, started doing mediocre work, and became pretty negative about the whole industry. In the lean years it took a lot of work just to find work, and I didn't have the stomach for it anymore. By the end of the '90s I was happy to move my career back to nonfiction, where it had started. 
       Still, I kept going to the con. It was getting pretty unpleasant in a many ways by the time attendance broke 50,000 around the turn of the century (and I probably wouldn't have hung in if I hadn't had a good friend in San Diego to stay with and hang around the con with), but I never stopped wanting to go. By then, what kept me most connected to the thing was just what had brought me there in the first place: my love for the medium and its history. I went there to research another book about comics history, Men of Tomorrow, then again to promote it, then again to accept an Eisner Award for it, and several times since to join various esoteric panel discussions of how comics came to be.
              In the past few years, most of my appearances have been about a new book I'm working on with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, the biography of her grandfather, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who pretty much founded the American comics industry as we know it. And so it was this year. About 130,000 people attend that thing every year now. I'd guess that the great majority of them have little or no interest in comic books themselves. Even of the many thousands who do love comics, I'd say that only a few hundred are willing to go out of their way to attend a panel on the early history of the field. But those are the few hundred I want to be among.
       This year, our "Twisted Roots of Comics" panel was subtitled "Pulp Magazines and the Birth of the Modern Comics." I moderated, with my cowriter, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, to one side and three experts in their fields on the other: Nathan Vernon Madison, a historian of the pulps and author of Anti-Foreign Imagery in Pulps and Comic Books 1920-1960, Brad Ricca, author of the superbly researched and written Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Creators of Superman, and Michael Uslan, writer, producer, teacher, and a boy who still loves Batman. Here's the audio. If you get a chance to listen, I hope you enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed doing it (even if it doesn't look like it in the pictures).

Friday, July 1, 2016

Living Silents

One of the highlights of my year, every year, is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It's also about the hardest of the things I love to describe adequately to other people. That the movies are hypnotically beautiful some people will believe, and more of them can understand that the live musical accompaniment is exciting and that the Castro Theatre is a spectacular showcase. What's difficult to convey, though, is that the showcase never feels like a museum. What we're celebrating never feels like a lost art form.
       For one thing, there's a quality of discovery for the vast majority of people in the audience, just because these movies are so rarely screened. I'd seen only two of the sixteen features at this year's festival, and several I'd never heard of. For another, the musicians are brilliant and innovative, entering living collaborations with the images on the screen that give new life even to movies I've seen before. But beyond that, there are new movies. One of the most exciting aspects of following the business of silent-film restoration is the fact that they keep finding films not seen in decades, films long thought lost
       Ever since I was a kid I've known of a Laurel and Hardy short called The Battle of the Century, famous for its monumental pie-fight sequence but surviving only in pieces. It was possible to see clips of it, but not the whole thing. But the pieces have been found in recent years, restored and assembled, and at this year's Silent Film Festival I got to sit there and watch that legendary movie whole for the first time.
       Another film shown this year, Behind the Door, had been known only in very incomplete form for several decades, and another, Mothers of Men, hadn't been shown anywhere in over ninety years. During "Tales from the Archives," the festival's annual presentation on what's up in the world of film restoration, came news of another great project in the world: a new edit of Abel Gance's monumental Napoleon, already restored to great fanfare a few years ago, that promises to bring it back, for the first time since its premier in 1927, to the director's original conception. I already spent a few years waiting for Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Napoleon, which finally arrived and more than pleased me in 2012. Now I get to wait a few more years for this one...and along the way, I know there will be more new discoveries from that extraordinary period of cinematic creativity, miraculously brought back to us from the past.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Happy Fathers' Day

My son is coming to spend the night, talking about taking me to a movie and dinner tomorrow. I’m guessing his girlfriend reminded him that it was Fathers’ Day, because it’s not the kind of thing he remembers on his own. Which is fine. I usually forgot to do anything for my own dad on Fathers’ Day unless my mom or my girlfriend reminded me. Half the time I forgot my parents’ birthdays when I was younger. For that matter, they forgot mine a couple of times. We’ve never been much for dates.
       When my dad was old, though, and I was middle aged, I remembered his birthday and Fathers’ Day every year. It wasn’t just that I’d grown more responsible or learned how to use a calendar, it was also that I knew the years I had with him were getting scarce. When he turned eighty I wrote him a long letter thanking him for being my father. It was an emotional time. His wife, my mother, was dying of cancer. A vast depression was closing in on him, and he was showing the first signs of dementia. I wanted to say everything I had thought about but never said while he could still hear it.
       He didn’t say much about the letter. That had always been his way: the more he felt, the less he said. For a while he said nothing at all about it, but finally he said one thing: “I’m glad you feel I was a good father to you. I never knew how to be a father. I didn’t have one, you know.” It was the first time I’d ever heard him speak of the early loss of his own father as anything other than a piece of biographical information, the first time I’d heard him acknowledge it as a loss. And although I’d often thought how his dad’s death must have shaped him, I’d never thought to apply it to his own role as my father. When my brother was born, he’d had to make it up as he went along, go with his gut, think about what he wished he’d had and try to be that himself. By the time I came along he’d had some practice, but I was such a different kid from my brother that a lot of it he had to make up all over again.
       Early in my life I thought he was a great father, and then there came some years when I thought more about how he’d fallen short than how he’d succeeded, and then I started to accept that he’d done okay after all. But it wasn’t until then that I realized what a miracle he’d pulled off. He’d had no father after the age of two—just a loveless, mentally unstable mother—and yet he had somehow shown up for me, year after year, challenge after challenge, with a steadiness I could count on and a love I never doubted.
       A few months ago I found myself at dinner with my son, one of the few times in the last couple of years it’s been just the two of us sitting across a table talking, with neither my significant other nor his in attendance, and I talked to him about some things I felt I’d gotten wrong as his father. He thanked me for it. Some of what I’d apologized for were things that had actually bothered him, and he appreciated the acknowledgement. Others were things he’d completely forgotten about or never even noticed. Over all, though, he said, he thought I’d done a really good job as a father. He said it simply and matter-of-factly. Nothing effusive. And it was neither my birthday nor Fathers’ Day. I could tell he was leveling with me.
       I was luckier than my own dad. I’ve had to make up a lot as I went along too. Sometimes I think it was only through a miracle that I got anything right. But I had a father to show me how to be one. I wish my dad had had the same, for his sake. But I’m awestruck and grateful at what he did without that.
       All right. My kid just walked in. Time to show up for him while he shows up for me. And in doing that, I can show up for my own dad too.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

In 1941, Ruth Atwood, a 16 year old in Rawlins, Wyoming, fell in love with a boy named Bobby Benson. The next year, he joined the Navy and was sent to the South Pacific. On board the USS Astoria, he made friends with a young Marine named Russell Jones. The Astoria went down in the Battle of Savo that August. Russell Jones survived. Bobby Benson didn’t.
       A few months later, Ruth Atwood went to stay with Bobby’s parents in Los Angeles, where they’d moved after their son had enlisted. Russell Jones, then stationed in San Diego, drove up to visit them and offer his condolences. He met Ruth there. They were drawn together by a shared grief, but as they spent time together other emotions grew.
       They were married in 1944. Thirteen years later, they wanted to name their second child after the young man whose death had brought them together. The family was already full of Bobbys and Bobs and Roberts, so they decided to give their new baby Bobbys middle name.
       I’m thinking today about Petty Officer Robert Gerard Benson, who died for his country and made my life possible.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

RIP Darwyn Cooke

One of the nicest moments of my post-comics years came when Darwyn Cooke hollered my name and chased me down at a Toronto convention to let me know that Martian Manhunter: American Secrets, a mini-series I’d done with Eduardo Barreto and Brian Augustyn, had been one of his inspirations in creating his splendid DC: The New Frontier. It was my only direct contact with Darwyn, but it meant a lot to me.
       He was a brilliant cartoonist, a fine writer, and a good guy. He’ll be missed.