Alexander Hellene

Gravitas Fails

I have not undertaken a comprehensive survey of the old pulp masters of sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, or whatever genre label you insist on slapping on it. I have, however, read novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A.E. van Vogt, H. Beam Piper, Jack Vance, and Robert E. Howard, and there are several things I can tell you about the old, maligned tales these men wrote.

First, the plots are just as complex and sophisticated as anything we’re told modern audience crave now that they could neither find nor be capable of understanding back in the dark ages. The themes are deep and resonant; a far cry from the insult that the pulps were Saturday morning cartoon-style fare for adult males. In fact, Space Viking and The Cosmic Computer by Piper have enough political intrigue, interpersonal struggle, and shifting conspiratorial alliances in between the action—yet with actual payoff to the set-up—that puts a lot of stuff you could read or watch now to shame.

Second, the language is fantastic. This is not  the “bad, clunky prose” we’re told typify the pulps. I like to think I have an above-average vocabulary, and I’m finding words in these books left and right I’ve never even heard of. What’s more, they don’t stand out as a pretentious attempt to sound intellectual, but fit in the flow of the narrative.

The sentence structure is also great. Some of these writers are more lushly evocative than others—Howard comes to mind—but they all create compelling worlds of imagination that are flat-out interesting and unique. I have to call out Vance and Burroughs specifically for this. Also, Piper writes some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read.

So these stories are serious works. Why are they derided? The answer is obvious: far from being wish-fulfillment fantasies for men, the pulps I’ve read have a clear and unambiguous moral thread running through them from start to finish. Good is real and worth protecting. Evil is real and must be opposed. The weak should be defended, and those who commit wicked deeds must be punished. Whether it’s the pagan nobility of Conan or John Carter’s sense of Christian chivalry, the morality is clear. No wishy-washy equivalence or navel-gazing anti-heroes here. Even Lucas Trask, the protagonist of Space Viking, while contemplative, doesn’t devolve into solipsistic inaction.

The pulps were serious, well-written works. And popular. While some may be humorous at times, there is no mid-tier TV sitcom-level snark or smirking irony to be found.

You know what else you also didn’t see back in the days of old, when pulps were king and the American males conscripted to fight in World War II faced danger every single day?

Other adult males constantly comparing what was going on in the fight against Germany and Japan (and Italy, I guess) to plots and characters from those pulps.

*     *     *

“. . . breaking news for you, right now. Apologies for interrupting your regularly scheduled Today, it is my solemn duty to report that Japanese bombers launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Reports are coming in of hundreds of deaths. A truly tragic scene, and a dire violation of international norms. Now, I know there is a strong isolationist bent in this country, and far be it for me to editorialize on behalf of my station, but if you don’t support American entry into the conflict, you are on the side of Ming the Merciless. It is truly that simple. You are Ming. And you know what happens to Ming every time: Flash Gordon punches him in the face. So take that, you Jap-supporting Mings. Or should I call you Mongoloids, since Mongo is the planet you clearly support. However, all of you brave American patriots, you Flashes, you Supermans, you brave Batmen . . . you have what it takes to destroy Ming and his dastardly alliance. Why, this is just like the time John Sunlight tried to attack Doc Savage by . . .

*     *     *

I’m not going to take sides or offer hot takes on the Russia-Ukraine war, since all that I know about the conflict is that both are countries that straddle Asia and Europe, no one is really sure if they’re “European” or not, and both were part of the former U.S.S.R. Other than that, you’ll find no political commentary about it on this blog.

But what I notice is that adult Americans’ response to this is to post memes—which, albeit funny, don’t really offer any serious informational content—and make the absolute most embarrassing pop culture analogies to what is happening on the other side of the world. I understand that memes and humor are a way of coping with stressful and confusing situations. And yet, they provide such a superficial level of analysis beyond a few laughs, a detached and disconnected way to feign being part of some larger culture that doesn’t really exist.

Who are we going to rally around in this conflict? Why do we feel the need to rally around sides in a conflict this country is not directly involved in? Why do we not feel the need to worry about the problems closer to home that have more of a direct effect on our lives? Why is international war treated with such scrutiny and fervor—offering commentary and narcissistically making what’s going on over there about us, instead of trying to meet our neighbors and make friends and build connections? When life is treated like social media, the trivial and the remote takes primacy over the urgent and immediate.

Enjoy looking through the spyglass in reverse, but don’t be surprised when conflict hits close to home.

What’s that? You haven’t noticed that it already has?

*     *     *

There are so few adults offering serious commentary. There are a lot of middle-aged children trapped in a world of comic-book fantasy and lightsaber pew-pew using those stories to explain what is going on. I mean, I’m as guilty of referencing The Lord of the Rings as the next traditionalist, but at least those are serious works created by a serious man using serious language and discussing serious themes. It’s not like I’m talking about how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whomever would hand Putin’s ass to him.

Stories are how we make sense of the world. The Iliad was, no doubt, used to inspire young men who sought glory for their people on the battlefield. But those young men were fighting and dying, sword-to-sword, face-to-face, with their enemies. Antiquity was brutal. The stories reflected the brutality of the world with stunning depictions of violence, but also violent depictions of the stunning beauty this world had to offer.

Stories matter, and stories endure. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t read stories, I wouldn’t write stories, and I wouldn’t talk about stories on this blog. The most influential man in human history used stories to instruct His disciples. I get it.

But some stories are more serious than others. Some stories have more gravitas. When someone is explaining complex matters, stories are often a great way to illustrate the point in an easy-to-understand manner. Making the complex simple is a wonderful skill we should all strive to acquire.

Yet some things are too important to rely on pop culture cliché. Perhaps I’m just being a cranky old man here, but a regional conflict with the potential to erupt into full-blown world war is a little too serious for comic book references and other bizarre wish-fulfillment like Captain America snapping some Russkies’ spines. I’d prefer an analysis that relies more upon, I don’t know, classical mythology, or other analogous historical events besides World War II.

Thor isn’t coming to save you. Wakanda isn’t real. There is no Harry Potter or Hogwarts. Jedi is a fake religion from a made-up movie. Captain America never actually punched Hitler. Your sassy tweets will not end this war. Grow up.

This is why I harp on the importance of stories and culture. Churches don’t have the influence that they used to anymore. If anything, pop culture can get people to go back to church, or to church in the first place . . . or to dissuade them from religion entirely. You might not like this, but as far as I can see, it’s true. Those of us of a certain bent have sat out of the culture game for far too long. What we’re seeing now, this unseriousness, this infantilization, is but one result of our ceding ground without a fight.

I suppose in the absence of any high culture, historical literacy, and knowledge of the Bible, pop culture is, unfortunately, all we got. Still, I long for the day when were can have our ostensible thought leaders talk about meaningful world events without throwing in some goddamn Spider-Man references.

– Alexander

14 thoughts on “Gravitas Fails”

    1. J.D.
      Gotta work with what we have.
      Alexander,

      The iron poisoned snark popular culture has malformed people’s understanding of reality. It’s all fantastic superhero deus ex machine thinking. No appreciation for the tragedy, joy, frustration and worthiness of life and society. No nuance or perspective. Peurile adults pontificating childishly about serious matter they have no moral legitimacy to opine on. It’s not the lack of gravitas but the lack of any life experiences. They haven’t gone out enough but arrogate being greybeards Gandalf they ain’t.

      xavier

      1. Xavier,

        Yes. And not only that, it’s turned these serious events into a live-action fanfic, or a video game, or something like that. The news coverage doesn’t help, turning this into a movie complete with bad-ass headlines and cool new characters popping up, and plot twists, and all of that. Infantile, intelelctually devoid discussions for a dumbed-down, infantile people. The war is happenign to people over there, in an area we know nothing about, but whatever! Pop off and opine and make movie references because if I was in charge, this would be just like Black Panther/The Avengers/the Rebellion fighting Darth Hitler . . . I mean, even World War II has been turned into a bit of simplistic pop culture.

        I will stop now before my rant goes on for 5,000 words.

  1. The main difference lies in the fact that, at the time of WW2 and the pulps, the Western world had not yet been degraded to self-parody. As American and European existance is now a perennial circus, one’s place is either among the clowns or the spectators. The latter can shook their heads or laugh at the absurdity of the show; both know that what they see should be serious, and not a parody. Being the spectators, we can’t do much but prepare for the time we can call the end of the clown show. Until then we have to suffer the clowns.

    1. Alric,

      You make a great point. The Western world wasn’t yet a bunch of childish buffoons bleating about “THE OUR DEMOCRACY!” and beating its chest about things it knew nothign about, so the pulps were properly relegated to the realm of entertainment when serious stuff was going on. Now, so-called thought-leaders analogize everything to Star Wars. Pathetic.

  2. Dowd and his fellows are intellectual cripples. It’s like they are a different species entirely — Eloi or Morlock.

    This is why what Indie, PulpRev, Superversive, and adjacent writers like you, are doing is so important. Keep creating and keep writing, young man! Build it up for the next 50 years of people who can actually think, dream, and create.

  3. Hardwicke Benthow

    I understand that memes and humor are a way of coping with stressful and confusing situations. And yet, they provide such a superficial level of analysis beyond a few laughs, a detached and disconnected way to feign being part of some larger culture that doesn’t really exist.

    I wonder if political memes are sort of the 21st-century replacement for political cartoons? Political cartoons still exist, but don’t hold sway to the same degree that they did when almost everyone read the newspaper on a regular basis.

    Back in the WWII era, humor focused on the war often came in the form of cartoons like this:

    https://www.nationalww2museum.org/sites/default/files/styles/wide_medium/public/2020-10/20-0353-12-17-dr.seuss-political-cartoons-blog-post-header-970×600-r1.jpg

    …and this:

    https://s3.amazonaws.com/html5.powershow.com/7745183/data/img2.png

    Some even featured pop culture references, such as this one which references the song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”:

    https://hti.osu.edu/sites/default/files/styles/100/public/WW_6.jpg

    …or this one, which references Popeye:

    https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0784/0993/products/24_KGrHqVHJBMFB_MVF2VVBRqPKCDwTg_60_1_1024x1024.jpg

    And of course, there was this unforgettable 1942 hit song:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZlFBSRrSR0

    Beyond that, there was Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, the Three Stooges short “You Nazty Spy!”, and various other cinematic lampoonings of the Nazis.

    Of course, the difference back then was that humor and serious coverage of the war were kept strictly segregated. Cartoonists, filmmakers, singers, and entertainers of all stripes handled the comedic treatment of the subject, while journalists and politicians were deadly serious in their coverage. Matthew Dowd, whose tweet you quoted above, is a political pundit by trade, and would almost certainly have left pop culture references out of his news coverage if he had lived in the WWII era.

    Yet some things are too important to rely on pop culture cliché. Perhaps I’m just being a cranky old man here, but a regional conflict with the potential to erupt into full-blown world war is a little too serious for comic book references and other bizarre wish-fulfillment like Captain America snapping some Russkies’ spines.

    Interestingly, Captain America started off as a cross between wish-fulfillment and pro-war propaganda. The first Captain America comic book was published in March of 1941, nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’ entrance into WWII.

    Captain America’s creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, were in favor of America joining the war, a viewpoint that was still controversial at the time. Joe Simon later recalled:

    Hitler was a marvelous foil; a ranting maniac. It was difficult to place him in the standard story line of the cunning, reasoning villains who invariably outfoxed the heroes throughout the entire story before being ultimately defeated at the very end. No matter how hard we tried to make him a threatening force, Adolph invariably wound up as a buffoon – a clown. Evidently, this infuriated a lot of Nazi sympathizers.

    There was a substantial population of anti-war activists in the country. “American Firsters” and other non-interventionist groups were well-organized. Then there was the German American Bund. They were all over the place, heavily financed and effective in spewing their propaganda of hate; a fifth column of Americans following the Third Reich party line. They organized pseudo-military training camps such as ‘Camp Siegried’ in Yaphank, Long Island and held huge rallies in such places as Madison Square Garden in New York. Our irreverent treatment of their Feuhrer infuriated them. We were inundated with a torrent of raging hate mail and vicious, obscene telephone calls. The theme was “death to the Jews.” 

    At first we were inclined to laugh off their threats, but then, people in the office reported seeing menacing-looking groups of strange men in front of the building on Forty Second Street and some of the employees were fearful of leaving the office for lunch. Finally, we reported the threats to the police department. The result was a police guard on regular shifts patrolling the halls and office. No sooner than the men in blue arrived than the woman at the telephone switchboard signaled me excitedly. ‘There’s a man on the phone says he’s Mayor LaGuardia,’ she stammered, ‘He wants to speak to the editor of Captain America Comics.’ I was incredulous as I picked up the phone, but there was no mistaking the shrill voice. ‘You boys over there are doing a good job, ‘ the voice squeaked, ‘The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you.’I thanked him. Fiorello LaGuardia, ‘The Little Flower,’ was known as an avid reader of comics who dramatized the comic strips on radio during the newspaper strikes so that the kids could keep up-to-date on their favorite characters.

    “but if you don’t support American entry into the conflict, you are on the side of Ming the Merciless. It is truly that simple. You are Ming. And you know what happens to Ming every time: Flash Gordon punches him in the face.”

    Although no serious journalist of the era would have made such a comparison, the third Flash Gordon serial (“Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe”) somewhat did. Released in 1940, a year before America’s entry into the war, it gave Ming a makeover clearly meant to invite comparisons to Hitler. The costume department gave him a spiffy new outfit that was designed to look like that of a European military dictator (previously, he always wore vaguely Oriental-looking garb), and he was referred to as a “dictator” a few times by some of the characters (unlike in the two previous serials).

    1. Hardwicke,

      You always raise the level of discourse on this blog with your comments. Great examples. Those political cartoons absolutely used pop culture references to commonly known touchstones to make serious points.

      This point is especially relevant:

      Of course, the difference back then was that humor and serious coverage of the war were kept strictly segregated. Cartoonists, filmmakers, singers, and entertainers of all stripes handled the comedic treatment of the subject, while journalists and politicians were deadly serious in their coverage. Matthew Dowd, whose tweet you quoted above, is a political pundit by trade, and would almost certainly have left pop culture references out of his news coverage if he had lived in the WWII era.

      Exactly! Even given the distance of time, it does not appear that the line between reality and fantasy was blurred back then as much as it is now. I cannot help but think of Redditors actually going to Ukraine to fight for a country they have nothing to do with and know nothing about and getting utterly obliterated because they thought war was something like a Marvel movie and they’d go “kick some Russkie ass!” or whatever. People weren’t even this delusional during the actual Cold War.

      Although no serious journalist of the era would have made such a comparison, the third Flash Gordon serial (“Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe”) somewhat did. Released in 1940, a year before America’s entry into the war, it gave Ming a makeover clearly meant to invite comparisons to Hitler. The costume department gave him a spiffy new outfit that was designed to look like that of a European military dictator (previously, he always wore vaguely Oriental-looking garb), and he was referred to as a “dictator” a few times by some of the characters (unlike in the two previous serials).

      Propaganda is as American as apple pie, after all.

      1. Hardwicke Benthow

        Even given the distance of time, it does not appear that the line between reality and fantasy was blurred back then as much as it is now. I cannot help but think of Redditors actually going to Ukraine to fight for a country they have nothing to do with and know nothing about and getting utterly obliterated because they thought war was something like a Marvel movie and they’d go “kick some Russkie ass!” or whatever. People weren’t even this delusional during the actual Cold War.

        I’m not sure that this is entirely new. There was a similar occurrence during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Thousands of volunteers from various countries (including America) went to Spain and joined the war to fight against Franco, thinking that they would be the ones to put an end to fascism. Instead, they got badly defeated.

        George Orwell was one of these volunteers (his adventure ended when he got shot in the throat and barely survived). He later wrote about how, during the Spanish Civil War, left-wing publications that had previously been staunchly anti-war suddenly started waxing poetic about the glories of war and promoting volunteering to fight Franco.

        The essential horror of army life (whoever has been a soldier will know what I mean by the essential horror of army life) is barely affected by the nature of the war you happen to be fighting in. Discipline, for instance, is ultimately the same in all armies. Orders have to be obeyed and enforced by punishment if necessary, the relationship of officer and man has to be the relationship of superior and inferior. The picture of war set forth in books like All Quiet on the Western Front is substantially true. Bullets hurt, corpses stink, men under fire are often so frightened that they wet their trousers. It is true that the social background from which an army springs will colour its training, tactics and general efficiency, and also that the consciousness of being in the right can bolster up morale, though this affects the civilian population more than the troops. (People forget that a soldier anywhere near the front line is usually too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war.) But the laws of nature are not suspended for a ‘red’ army any more than for a ‘white’ one. A louse is a louse and a bomb is a bomb, even though the cause you are fighting for happens to be just.

        Why is it worth while to point out anything so obvious? Because the bulk of the British and American intelligentsia were manifestly unaware of it then, and are now. Our memories are short nowadays, but look back a bit, dig out the files of New Masses or the Daily Worker, and just have a look at the romantic warmongering muck that our left-wingers were spilling at that time. All the stale old phrases! And the unimaginative callousness of it! The sang-froid with which London faced the bombing of Madrid! Here I am not bothering about the counter-propagandists of the Right, the Lunns, Garvins et hoc genus; they go without saying. But here were the very people who for twenty years had hooted and jeered at the ‘glory’ of war, at atrocity stories, at patriotism, even at physical courage, coming out with stuff that with the alteration of a few names would have fitted into the Daily Mail of 1918. If there was one thing that the British intelligentsia were committed to, it was the debunking version of war, the theory that war is all corpses and latrines and never leads to any good result. Well, the same people who in 1933 sniggered pityingly if you said that in certain circumstances you would fight for your country, in 1937 were denouncing you as a Trotsky-Fascist if you suggested that the stories in New Masses about freshly wounded men clamouring to get back into the fighting might be exaggerated. And the Left intelligentsia made their swing-over from ‘War is hell’ to ‘War is glorious’ not only with no sense of incongruity but almost without any intervening stage. Later the bulk of them were to make other transitions equally violent. There must be a quite large number of people, a sort of central core of the intelligentsia, who approved the ‘King and Country’ declaration in 1935, shouted for a ‘firm line’ against Germany in 1937, supported the People’s Convention in 1940, and are demanding a Second Front now.

        As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they result rather from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds. When they enthused over the Spanish war they knew, of course, that people were being killed and that to be killed is unpleasant, but they did feel that for a soldier in the Spanish Republican army the experience of war was somehow not degrading. Somehow the latrines stank less, discipline was less irksome. You have only to glance at the New Statesman to see that they believed that; exactly similar blah is being written about the Red Army at this moment. We have become too civilized to grasp the obvious. For the truth is very simple. To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases. The fact that such a platitude is worth writing down shows what the years of rentier capitalism have done to us.

        Those volunteers probably had a better idea of what they were getting into than today’s Reddit Brigade (WWI having been within recent memory), but many of them were nonetheless naive and easily duped by the left-wing media of their day into joining a foreign war in which they had no stake.

  4. Hardwicke Benthow

    I just remembered something else that I forgot to put in my first comment on this post. The tweet that you quoted by someone named Louis about how the Avengers would react to the Ukraine invasion reminded me of it.

    In 1940, Look magazine commissioned a two-page comic spread by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, depicting how Superman would end the war. It depicted Superman swooping into Hitler’s headquarters, then Stalin’s (this was when Hitler and Stalin were still allies rather than enemies), and hauling them both off to face justice at the League of Nations. At one point, Superman says to Hitler, “I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw! But there’s no time for that!”

    Here’s a link to a page that contains scans of the story:

    http://teddyandtheyeti.blogspot.com/2018/01/look-magazine-february-1940-how.html

    The most interesting development regarding this incident, however, is that a writer for Das Schwarze Korps (the weekly newspaper of the SS) reviewed the Look Superman story (unsurprisingly, it was not a positive review). Here’s a link to an English translation of the review:

    https://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/superman.htm

    1. Hardwicke,

      Great find! Wow, Superman even took out Stalin. It’s amazing how things change–the United States went from being anti-commie to loving, and even aiding and abetting, Uncle Joe, in no time flat. That is understandable, given the realities of the war at the time and the fact that it was the Soviets who largely spent tons of men and equipment and money to halt the Nazis in the east, but damn, did the U.S. have to be so conciliatory towards them after the war?\

      Anyway, I’m getting off topic. This is great stuff. Pop culture has long been used to further political aims. I don’t know, though . . . it just seems so much more frivolous nowadays than it did back then.

      1. Hardwicke Benthow

        Wow, Superman even took out Stalin.

        There are many incidents in which fictional heroes in comics and the like intersected with real-world villainy in those days. Probably the most interesting is when Superman helped lower Ku Klux Klan recruitment – in real life.

        In the 1940s, human rights activist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the KKK and learned many of its secrets. He found that it had strong government and law enforcement ties, so he couldn’t go to the authorities for help in combating it. So he contacted the producers of the Superman radio show and convinced them to make a storyline in which Superman fights the Klan. They agreed and created a storyline featuring a Klan-like group of villains called the Clan of the Fiery Cross who used actual secret KKK rituals and codewords provided to them by Stetson.

        Reportedly, KKK recruitment dropped significantly, due to the show’s negative portrayal and the way that it stripped away much of the Klan’s mystique by openly revealing many of its rituals and codewords. The Klan promoted a boycott of Kellogg’s (the sponsor of the show), but Kellogg’s held firm and continued to sponsor it.

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