Archive for November, 2013

Dallas 1963, New York 1980, Washington 1981

Zapruder film, frame 312

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I happen to be staying at the Washington Hilton — the hotel in front of which President Reagan was not assassinated 32 and a half years ago.

Don DeLillo called the Kennedy assassination, “The seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.” But I had not yet been born on November 22, 1963.

Newsweek: attempted assassination of the Pope, 1981The murders and attempted murders that color my childhood are John Lennon (killed December 1980), Reagan (shot in March 1981), the Pope (shot in May 1981), and Anwar Sadat (killed October 1981). I saved the issues of Newsweek magazine that covered each event. The cover for the Pope issue featured a black-and-white photo, moments after the assassination attempt.  The caption, in bright letters, was: “Again.”

Kennedy’s assassination reached me via popular culture, in collections of Life magazine photographs, or the Kinks’ “Give the People What They Want” (1981), which includes the line: “When Oswald shot Kennedy, he was insane / But still we watch the re-runs again and again. / We all sit there glued while the killer takes aim…. / ‘Hey, mom! There goes a piece of the president’s brain!’”

That last line neatly encapsulates my 11-year-old self’s experience of the Reagan assassination attempt. Television news played the clip so frequently that it began playing on an endless loop in my head, too. My friends and I began re-enacting the event on the playground. The person playing Reagan would wave, and then duck into an imaginary car, pushed by the person portraying a Secret Service agent. The person acting the role of Press Secretary James Brady (shot in the head), would fall to the ground. The person playing DC policeman Thomas Delahanty (shot in the neck) would fall forward.

The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981

Yes, we were aware on some level that our recess re-enactments of the Reagan assassination attempt were not “appropriate.” These were real people, wounded by real bullets. It was not something that we should be play-acting for fun.

So, why did we do it? Play is a way of understanding the world. Though horrific, the event was also so unreal (televised, rewound, repeated) that our improvised absurdist performances helped us make it real for ourselves. We were not merely making light of the darkness (though we were doing that, too); rather, our silliness was a way of understanding the seriousness.

Newsweek: John Lennon (1940-1980)My reaction to the murder of John Lennon was, I think, much closer to how people responded to President Kennedy’s murder. Neither of these were televised murders. (Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald happened on live TV, but the Zapruder film was not broadcast until the 1970s. While Lennon’s and Kennedy’s murder were both covered on TV, there was at the time no footage of the murders themselves.) The absence of the televisual made me feel Lennon’s murder more personally, more deeply — as did the fact that I was a fan of the Beatles. That was truly sad. The Reagan assassination attempt felt more surreal.

The highly mediated world in which we now live affords us little time to actually feel the pain, much less think about it. In public places (at a school, in a movie theatre, in a store), the gunman — it is nearly always a man — fires. People flee, get maimed, die of their injuries. Survivors tell their stories to the media. Our legislators assure us that these murders are a byproduct of living in a free society; regulating guns would somehow make us (well, those of us not murdered by guns) less free. The sad inevitability of gun violence, offered up for our infotainment, impedes our ability to make sense of it.

But it’s not just media. Experience also dulls the senses. I felt more acutely Lennon’s murder precisely because I had no memory of the murders of Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its newness made its impact sharper.

Perhaps, then, that is one legacy of the Kennedy assassination. There were political murders before November 22 1963 (Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were all assassinated), but in the years since that afternoon in Dallas, they seem to have become commonplace. And, as DeLillo has observed, “Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened.”

Above: Steinski’s “The Motorcade Sped On” (1986); video by Coldcut (2008).

Images: Zapruder film from Fans in a Flashbulb; Reagan assassination attempt from L.A. TimesNewsweek cover of Pope from eBayNewsweek cover of John Lennon from The Pop History Dig.

Comments (4)

Fantagraphics and Kickstarter Capitalism

Fantagraphics' logoThis past week, Fantagraphics launched a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund its Spring 2014 season. The sudden death, in June, of co-founder Kim Thompson had an economic impact on the independent publisher: 13 books he was to translate or edit had to be postponed or delayed, creating a drain on the company’s cash flow. The great news is that, only five days later, the Kickstarter has raised over $130,000 from 2,000 different backers.

The less great news is that, here and there, some people are wondering aloud why the greatest comics publisher out there should need to turn to Kickstarter. Hasn’t publishing the Complete Peanuts, or getting a distribution deal with Norton made Fantagraphics sufficiently flush?  How is the company being managed that it should need to launch a Kickstarter campaign?

While it’s wise to ask about management (there are better and worse ways for a publisher to manage risk), I worry that these questions reinforce the false assumption that capitalism rewards every well-managed company and punishes the poorly managed ones. Good management definitely improves a publisher’s odds for success, but all business ventures (and especially ones, like Fantagraphics, that lack a parent corporation) are susceptible to the whims of the marketplace: you have flush years, and lean ones, and you hope that the flush years will allow you to weather the lean ones.

Markets reward the popular, not the virtuous (unless it happens also to be popular). A business can carefully manage its finances and aggressively promote a book, yet still find itself with a product that doesn’t sell. Just as commercial success does not confer moral worth, nor does commercial failure denote moral shortcomings.

I must disclose here that I am a Fantagraphics editor — co-editor, really. Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds and I are co-editing the five-volume series of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby.  So, I can’t claim impartiality.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (Fantagraphics, 2013): front cover

But I can claim experience. I’m author or co-editor of eight books, and have worked with both academic and commercial publishers. I have also written nearly as many failed book proposals as I have successful ones. Hard work and careful planning sometimes yield rewards, and sometimes does not. Because I am an academic, I (fortunately!) do no have to make a living off of the books I write or edit. But publishers like Fantagraphics do have to turn a profit.

And they are a great publisher to work with. Their attention to design is phenomenal. To echo book design of the 1940s, Dan Clowes hand-drew the eight boxes on the back cover of Barnaby Volume One. Today, design software would make these boxes look perfect; in the ’40s (when Johnson was writing Barnaby), hand-ruled lines made them look just slightly imperfect. Details like this, or setting the text in Futura (the typeface Johnson used for Barnaby), give the book its Crockett-Johnson-in-the-1940s aesthetic.  And that’s just one example of the kind of attention Fantagraphics lavishes on its projects.  They make beautiful books because they care deeply about making beautiful books, and they have nearly 40 years of experience doing it.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume One: 1942-1943 (Fantagraphics, 2013): back cover

If any publisher deserves to be rewarded with commercial success, it’s Fantagraphics. However, since capitalism is an economic system and not a moral one, there’s Kickstarter. While it’s not the solution to all of publishing’s challenges, Kickstarter does allow a publisher’s supporters to make moral decisions with their capital. Those who have funds to donate can vote their conscience, sustaining the health of a publisher committed to the art of comics.

Unless we as a society decide (for example) that public funding for the arts should be a priority, Kickstarter is one way we can help support worthy artistic ventures. Crowdsourcing is not a necessary evil. It’s a necessary good.

Comments (1)