Mark’s Remarks – Marvel Age #135 (April 1994)

That’s cool, that sucks – the great dichotomy in the current vernacular of the MTV/Marvel Comics sensations, Beavis and Butt-Head. It’s New Year’s Day as I write this and I’m ruminating on the subject of newness and oldness, hipness and datedness, and how they relate to coolness and suckiness.

Is “new” necessarily “good” or “cool”? Is “old” necessarily “bad” or “sucky”? Is it necessary to embrace the new or can you be cool by remaining iconoclastic and impervious to style? Let’s say I refuse to accept the new year. I mean, what year it is is only an arbitrary label, and 1993 was really cool. Because I haven’t seen much of ’94 I can only assume it’ll suck, so I don’t care that everyone else proclaims it 1994, I’m sticking with good ol’ 1993.

Okay, probably one of my more absurd examples, but there are categories of things that one can refuse to accept – governed by your particular taste rather than societal consensus. I have friends who get stuck on a certain style of clothing, music, and on catch phrases and refuse to update them. Not me, of course, I’m always up to minute. (Ahem.)

So are “cool” and “current” and “trendy” always “cool” while “out of date” and “old fashioned” always suck? This is often what our cultural trend mongers would have us conditioned to think. But isn’t it possible to transcend trendiness – be timeless, classic, and ever-fashionable? There are performers who are the flavor of the month – the hottest thing going for a few meteoric minutes then poof, obscure trivia – and there are performers like the Rolling Stones who manage to stay popular for decades.

How do you achieve coolness with staying power when cool goes out of date so quickly?

Like the current music industry, the comics industry is oriented primarily toward a youthful market. Survival depends on the ability to reach your audience and keep them entertained. Marvel’s editorial management, myself included, got into the business while in our mid-20s and reached our current positions in the organization by dint of experience, among other things. The problem is the older and more experienced we get, the farther away from our target audience we move. We’ve got to make an effort to keep our tastes current.

Gruenwald’s maxim: The amount of effort it takes to stay hip increases in direct proportion to each year one lives past 30. I regularly try to gauge how out of it I am, with what aspect of contemporary pop culture I’m attuned, and with what I’m out of sync.

Which brings us to the current popular culture litmus test: Beavis and Butt-Head. I’ve seen it a few times and I get what it’s about – it’s the latest version the male buddy bonding thing that’s enjoyed a rich tradition in lit and cinema: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, George and Lenny, Abbott and Costello, Tom and Jerry, Wayne and Garth. B&B’s contribution seems to be that they’ve been simplified, distilled, and dumbed-down to the low level our current culture seems to demand. My problem with B&B goes beyond not liking the particular substrata of rock they glorify, and goes past their being such egregious role models. At the risk of sounding hopelessly out of it, I don’t find this dumbed down humor quite as interesting as I would like.

There are a lot of different styles of humor. Some gets its bite from exaggeration for satirical effect, I think the portrayal of the Beavis and Butt-Head is too unexaggerated, too accurate a reflection of a certain segment of disaffected white middle class youth today. Then maybe B&B represents humor derived from keenly observed lifelike characters presented so accurately you get the shock of recognition. Perhaps. But that only works if you find the accurately presented behavior intrinsically amusing. Which in this case I rarely do. There’s also the humor of outrageousness, a category under which B&B definitely qualify, but outrageousness for its own sakes has its limits.

I guess it’s Beavis and Butt-Head’s glorification of dumbness that I find less than sidesplitting. One can make smart comedies about smart people (Woody Allen in Play It Again Sam), smart comedies about dumb people (The Simpsons), dumb comedies about smart people (The Professor on Gilligan’s Island), and finally dumb comedies about dumb people (B&B). This is not to say B&B creator Mike Judge, is not smart – I think it took a lot of smarts to distill white middle class youth into stylized archetypes, and to dumb down everything so thoroughly that they betray not an iota of smartness, But, unlike a previous generation’s Three Stooges, idiots trying to better themselves, B&B enjoy how tasteless and idiotic they are. The Simpsons are ironic about their dumbness, B&B are sincere about it.

As far as comedy is concerned, sincerity sucks. In my opinion.

So if Beavis and Butt-Head are the litmus test of coolness, I’m flunking. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying B&B is without value or represents the fall of western civilization. Far from it. I’m saying that, while I understand B&B, I don’t relate to it any more than I do to Barney the Dinosaur. Every generation needs figures embodying and evoking the values of its audience. B&B seems to have done that. And any show that gets so many establishment types bent out of shape has to have redeeming value.

Wait a minute, I implied there was no irony to Beavis and Butt-Head. Amend that. There is irony, perhaps unintentionally. What B&B find cool are anti-establishment, countercultural, anti-social things (headbanger music, destruction of property, etc.). What they find sucky are popular, mainstream things. The irony is that B&B have become popular and mainstream themselves.

So is something cool because it’s popular, or is something cool because it’s unpopular? The word “cool” originated in the jazz and beat cultures, where certain antisocial tendencies were considered desirable and when “cool” definitely had an anti-popular connotation. When the rock culture co-opted “cool” (“groovy” didn’t have staying power), there was still a countercultural ring to it. There in the ‘70s, rock became big business. But it was still rock, the music of youth, so it was still considered cool,. Thus, “cool” hit the mainstream where it has remained for almost two decades.

Paradoxically, what’s “cool” is what’s “hot” and, in this rapidly transforming culture, things stay hot for ever briefer amounts of time.

When it comes to comic books, the super hero genre comprises at least 80% of what’s being produced. Then super heroes, as the most popular genre must be cool. Obviously some characters are cooler (more popular) than others and the same goes for storytelling styles. Sales figures inform us what are the most popular characters, but they don’t tell us why. When it comes time to add more books to our publishing program, it is hard to predict what is going to catch on.

Newness alone won’t do it. New characters must have that indescribable something that makes them capture the audience imaginations. While there is nothing new under the sun, there are a million different elements available and more than a million different ways to connect them.

As one who has some say in what Marvel publishes, I make an effort to keep my tastes well-sharpened on the lathe of popular culture. But, as my experience with B&B would attest, try as I might, I can’t relate to everything. So should I be put out to pasture and be replaced by someone with hipper tastes? Is it impossible for a forty-year old to know what a fifteen-year-old would find cool? Stan Lee was in his forties when he co-created the then-radical, now-classic characters of the Marvel Universe, and those characters, as hip as super heroes could be, have proven to be of enduring popularity. So, maybe there is hope for someone of my advanced age to remain relevant at least for a few more years. At least I am trying to keep up and, on occasion, I figure I am in tune with popular tastes. Some of my contemporaries (and they know who they are) don’t even make the effort, and that’s worse than trying and falling flat on your pop cultural face.

There is a bewildering plethora of media experience to choose from. You can’t experience everything – no one has the time or financial resources to do that,. You must make choices based on experience and taste. You also can’t like everything that you experience and must make choices by means of your taste biases and your individual entertainment requirements.

Furthermore, if you choose solely on the basis of what’s popular (or “cool”) you are going to find yourself the most average person in the world – there won’t be any quirky individuality to your tastes or to the cultural repository that’s inside you.

So, hey, maybe it’s okay not to love B&B just this once. After all, nothing stays cool forever. Except coolness itself.

–Mark Gruenwald