Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Coronation Avenue

The road from the Capitol building in Washington DC to the White House is 1.7 miles long. On the day of the inauguration, the President covers some of that distance by car and some on foot, physically bridging the space that separates the seats of the legislative and executive branches of government in front of they, the people who elected him.

Nowadays the vehicle in which the President travels down Pennsylvania Avenue is a black limousine surrounded by the black SUVs of his security detail. In Lincoln’s day, it was a stately carriage surrounded by a close guard of cavalry. Were it still a carriage, the event would look to us like a coronation. But that’s just what is: a coronation that keeps up with the times. A ritual steeped in tradition yet befitting a modern nation, linking the past with the future in a manner that signifies both continuity and renewal. Nowhere in recent memory was this more apparent than in the coronation of Barack Obama.

We didn’t need to be told what was unusual about this Harvard graduate, this wealthy man, this lawyer, this Democrat. Nearly everything about him was perfectly ordinary and read like the curriculum of every other presidential candidate. But two months earlier the nation had discovered that it was capable of electing somebody who was all of those things and also black. The promise of America, as glossed by the hosts of CNN on the day of the inauguration, found new expression in this moment, transforming the legacy of slavery and segregation into the conditions for historical greatness. ‘Only in America,’ said Gloria Borger, echoed by half a dozen colleagues and guests. ‘This is the world’s inauguration,’ said David Gergen. Together, these two statements invited the rest of us, the non-Americans, to both marvel at the achievement of the world’s leading nation and to share in its pride.

I wondered at the time if it was hypocritical of me to take exception to this. After all I had followed the Democratic primaries and the American election of 2008 more closely than many elections happening in my own two countries. It’s not just that it was great theatre – although it was. It’s also that the alternatives seemed uniquely stark. John Kerry, who voted to support the invasion of Iraq, had relied almost exclusively on his war record in his fight against Bush, to notably grotesque effect at his nominating convention. The great liberal counterfactual of the 2000 election – that if Gore had been in charge at the time of 9/11, Iraq would not have happened – was belied by the Democratic nominee’s enabling role and the platform on which he was seeking election. If Kerry was a lesser evil, he was also an exemplar of the brutally limited capacity or inclination of liberals to conceive of limits to the use of American force abroad. By contrast, Obama, aside from opposing the war in Iraq at a time when his opinion didn’t warrant much scrutiny and planning to withdraw the troops according to a timetable not vastly different from Bush’s own, had campaigned openly against torture and vowed to close Guantanamo. This was not only materially but also rhetorically significant, in that it shifted decisively the terms of the debate on the American imperium. Here was a Democrat unafraid to appear weak on national security. He’d still be a hawk by most nations’ standards, to be sure, but a pacifist could look forward to opposing the war in Afghanistan again. In domestic matters, Obama seemed in command of a different language for discussing the common good than what I had been used to hearing from Democrats in my limited exposure to US politics. Even if you didn’t hold out too much hope that the policies would match the rhetoric in the new administration’s response to the financial crisis, or in the reform of healthcare, or most especially in Obama’s stated goal to ‘change the way Washington works’, at least the new President would have something to fail at, and something of a mass movement to account for those failures to – political assets, both.

Now I couldn’t even begin to count in how many ways I was wrong. Not only is the progressive cause been hurt in equal measure by Obama’s successes as by his failures, but there has been nothing approaching a shift of the consensus following his electoral victory such as might be reasonable to expect in a liberal democracy; on the contrary, the American Right has been both invigorated and radicalised by its defeat. In 2012 the choice is between a homicidal technocrat and a batshit billionaire, which is closer to the long-term trend, and the inauguration of Barack Obama seems an impossibly far event in time, belonging to a parallel reality in which some of those possibilities hadn’t yet been foreclosed, some of those futures selected.

I watched some excerpts at the time, but recorded the whole event with the intention of watching it much later. I was curious as to how it would date, emptied of some of the original expectations and political content, and without those it looks even more like a coronation. It is especially strange for someone not used to these events to see the President’s family play so large a role. Not only Obama’s wife but his two girls were introduced to the million-strong crowd, along with the ex-Presidents and key current office-holders. Aretha Franklin sang. A poet asked plaintively ‘what if the mightiest word is love?’ An old black pastor delivered in a wonderful monotone a benediction full of the slogans of the civil rights movement. The former President was physically removed by means of a military helicopter, instead of being shot out of a cannon. (The King is dead, long live the King.) And then, after a break for a luncheon on the Hill, the First Family drove, and walked, down to their new stately residence. Like in a royal wedding, if your average blue-blooded couple were this handsome.

Needless to say, the event was already seen as history in the making. ‘Elected, not befallen,’ as the New Yorker recently reminisced in its endorsement of Obama. And like history in the making it was narrated by CNN – whose feed I recorded – as if every frame, every moment needed to be close-captioned in order to pass through the screen. Then there was the hyper-representation, for which the network used the kinds of technologies you might expect at the Superbowl. Chief amongst these was ‘the moment’, a multidimensional image of Obama taking the oath of office created by processing thousands of photographs uploaded by CNN viewers who were present at the event. Within this preternaturally detailed picture you could change angle and zoom into any random sections of the crowd. Shifting the viewpoint or the level of magnification would also show you Obama at slightly different times, multiplying the figure of the President.

Less technically elaborate but in some ways equally disorienting was the composite satellite picture of the Washington Mall at the time of the oath, showing the immense crowd concentrating at what I assume must have been large screens set up by the organisers.

These are ironic technologies to deploy, for a society that under Obama would enhance its methods of global surveillance and make of the aerial view its key modality of understanding foreign territories and foreign bodies. The Barack Obama lost and found in the crowd in the image created by Photosynth is every bit as elusive as Obama the President would turn out to be, while the crowd who invested him viewed from outer space would be the perfect control group on which to calibrate the algorithms of a signature strike. How many of those people could pass as statistical enemies? Together the two images achieve a complete loss of perspective, placing us at the same time too close and two far from the scene, which is American politics, therefore world politics, hence a total abstraction. There is no reality, no referent to get at once you have peeled off all of the layers. In one of the pictures Obama smiles a bit more, in the next, a bit less, like in one of those cards that changes depending on how you tilt it. That is as much insight as you could hope to gain into the man’s behaviour or motives.

Politics in the world’s model democracy is this: the unknowable, programmed into the system. For you might have been cynical about Obama, you might not have believed any of his campaign promises, or you might have thought the absolute worst and accurately foretold that he would one day joke about his daughters’ aspiring boyfriends being taken out by predator drones, but either way I’m not impressed because the product – much like one of those financial instruments that sank the global economy – was packaged so that you couldn’t make sense of it. This, even more than the narrow and arbitrary nature of the choice, is what marks the loss of our democracies.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

After the Ball

It is necessary for an annual ball of young conservatives to enlist the services of a professional photographer, as there wouldn’t be much point in attending without a record of your having been there. The ball is really an elaborate preamble to the photo book that will inevitably follow and that thanks to social media can now be produced almost in real time. As well as taking high-quality images, a professional will make sure that nobody misses out on their chance to be snapped mid-social climb.

For anyone but the young conservatives themselves, these documents are a cautionary tale, a ghoulish gallery worthy of Lombroso. These aren’t so much the well-adjusted as the people who will eventually adjust you: probably out of a job, possibly out of social security. Study these people. You are bound to see them again some time sitting across a desk near you.

Everything about the set-up – the empty gilded frame, the unctuous presence of the Prime Minister, the unbroken sea of white faces – is damning in itself, but there is always the odd fellow for whom this isn’t enough. There is always a bloke who thinks my being here, this yellow tie I’m wearing isn’t enough. I am at risk of not being noticed. Wait, I know what I’m going to do. I’ll sit here with my yellow tie and my idiot smile and do a Roman salute.

In the shithead’s defence, he might have fairly assumed that the photographer would set the picture aside and not include it in the public display, since regrettably not everyone outside of the conservative movement gets how hilarious Fascism can be in its proper context. But it was uploaded along with the others, and naturally within minutes everyone posted a link to it everywhere. What happened next is the actual subject of this post: the admins of the Facebook page for the Auckland chapter of the worldwide fraternity of young conservatives took down the photograph, and several people noticed so the word immediately got around – does anyone still have that link open on their browser? – which ensured that the maximum possible number of copies were saved locally on the nation’s computers. It’s highly likely that someone would have saved it anyway, but that attempt to remove it just as everyone was looking at it, that reflexive bit of damage-control, made absolutely sure of it.

(And by the way I am one of those people: I saved the photograph and shared it on Twitter after it was taken down. The image is still on my computer but I’ve chosen not to include it in this post for reasons that I hope will become clear.)

The internet says: you will be publicly embarrassed. It’s bound to happen at some point, and when it happens you’d better not dare to remove the cause of your embarrassment or we’ll make ten copies of it and share it with one hundred friends. It doesn’t matter whether you deserve it or not, or what the nature of the embarrassment was. What matters is that the internet doesn’t forget. This is ensured no longer by the impersonal algorithms of Google’s cache, but by a much more effective and responsive social mechanism. Web 2.0 has an even greater fear of forgetting than web 1.0. It must control and retain all information, but most especially the information that is of a personal nature. The users themselves will police this.

Now suppose you did a Roman salute at a public function when you were at varsity and later in life Dad’s connections fail to come through and you apply for a job at a firm that might not see the funny side of that little episode. (In this hypothetical scenario you are not an heir to the British throne.) If they Google you – and they will – the picture is going to come up, and since many people linked to it, chances are it will be one of the top results. There is no actual solution to this. There is no authority, no jurisdiction, no pockets so deep that will buy you the right to remove all or even some of the copies of that photograph from the internet. All you can do is hire a reputation management company with a name like Defendmyname, Reputation Champ or – my favourite – Propadoo. They will attempt to push that link to the third or fourth page of Google results by creating thousands of spurious links to more neutral or positive information about you. If you ruled the internet for a day, this might turn out to be prohibitively expensive or even impossible, but it’s your only remedy. Of course a prospective employer or other interested party that is savvy enough might just take a peek at the third or fourth page of results. Furthermore, nothing says that down the line Google and the other search engines won’t get better at weeding out the fake links, causing the photograph to percolate back up to the top page.

This is the inside of the Google data centre in Douglas County, Georgia. Facilities such as these used to be shrouded in secrecy but now the company allows you to take a virtual tour. The caption for this area explains that
the colorful pipes send and receive water for cooling our facility. Also pictured is a G-Bike, the vehicle of choice for team members to get around outside our data centers.
The stock image for the memory of computer networks used to be, incongruously, the microchip. We should update it to this: a colourful maze of cooling pipes; a little colourful bike for getting around. Technology with a human face, like the social web itself. The purpose of this place is to secure your information and the information about you. There are thirteen such facilities around the world, with enough redundancy to ensure that a catastrophic mishap at any one of the data centres wouldn’t entail actual loss of data across the Google network.

If I had to settle for pursuing a single question on this blog it would be this: how do you repress a digital memory? And if I look at those pipes and think back on the thing last week with the bloke at the ball who probably isn’t even a fascist, and my own role in preserving the integrity of the data, I think I know the answer: you don’t. You just can’t. You can only feed the network with yet more personal information, yet more memory, in an almost certainly futile attempt to overwhelm not the system itself (the internet doesn’t forget) but people’s capacity to extract meaning from it, including your own.

So I opted not to include the photograph of the young man with his arm raised and the idiot smile, for whom I have no sympathy. Just some of the others. Photographs of people who want to be seen and remembered like that.

It was an empty gesture.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

'I don't have to do this anymore'

Richie McCaw has made a career out of his lack of wit. He’s a genius at doing what is ordinary. At applying himself. At getting stuck in. He has grown into a rugby superstar by being stronger, working harder and enduring more pain than anybody else in the field, and he’s been doing it for thirteen years. When you look at him you might fool yourself into thinking that anybody could do what he does – so long as they were as strong and could take as much pain and work as hard as he. It’s not remotely that simple, of course: McCaw plays the game with all the intelligence and guile that the role of open side flanker demands. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to him. In all his post-game speeches and press conferences McCaw is softly spoken, unassuming and candid. The title of his newly published autobiography, The Open Side, banks on this lack of artifice, promising nothing less than absolute transparency.

The publishers were kind enough to release two different extracts to Fairfax and APN, so they could both claim exclusive rights. The pieces themselves are interchangeable: each will give you the distinct flavour of the book and a window onto a prose that barely qualifies as prose. Dan Carter gets crocked. Richie’s foot goes clunk. Mils Muliaina cracks his shoulder blade and doesn't come out for the second half. ‘Jesus, what else?’ It’s a litany of bangs, bruises and worries, studiously written the way McCaw speaks. The one piece of insight to be gleaned from the two extracts, totalling nearly five thousand words in length, is that the captain played throughout the last World Cup with a very sore foot, which is of course something we had been told at the time in almost equally painful detail. But really, it was very sore. ‘I’m sick of the bloody foot,’ says/writes McCaw four thousand words into the combined excerpt, by which stage the reader knows exactly how he feels.

A tell-all book with nothing to say: this is how one could characterise The Open Side, if the sample is representative. However it seems unlikely to me that the sport is so uncomplicated, and one of its major personalities so two-dimensional. I suspect that McCaw can count among the very many pressures that he has been under since at least 2005 that of embodying the model All Black captain, hence of being as stoic and laconic off the field as he is ruthless and cynical on it. That, even more than the legendary flair of the Dan Carters or the Tana Umagas, is the true essence of the team’s brand: a combination of honesty, strength and will to succeed.

Meanwhile, insurance behemoth AIG is rebranding itself. Once the sponsor of Manchester United, the company had its logo replaced with that of competitor AON in 2010, following its bailout. Now the $182 billion debt has been repaid and CEO Robert Benmosche has decided it’s time to restore the company’s good name. If you think that it sounds a little bit like the redemption that the All Blacks sought at the last World Cup, it shows you’ve been paying attention.

The information page on the All Blacks' website concerning the new sponsorship deal characterises the relationship as follows:
This is a company that has been through tough times, repaid its debt to American taxpayers and is on the comeback trail. They look at the All Blacks as a team of character that has bounced back from adversity, and a team that remains the most successful rugby side in the world, one that prides itself on winning, like all our national teams. AIG also wants to be the best in the world at what it does.
Concerning the issue of the prominence of the AIG logo, which is quite unprecedented for an All Blacks team, the document goes on to explain that
AIG greatly respects the rich and proud heritage of the All Blacks jersey. This is why the logo is also just under one third the size of the maximum allowed under IRB regulations. The logo is significantly smaller than those appearing on the jerseys of many other international teams and smaller than those on Investec Super Rugby and provincial team jerseys. The logo on the All Blacks shorts is also less than two thirds the maximum permitted.
This is what honesty, strength and a will to succeed get you: a better deal, and a less invasive logo on your hallowed shirt. I find the negotiation itself fascinating and wonder what price was put on each of those precious millimetres. How much each side had to give before a deal was struck. How much like a war it was.

There is no more literal image of the bankable value of that piece of cloth than this MasterCard ad circulating in the lead-up to the last World Cup.

However the branding of rugby by corporate interests is only half of the story. The other half is the colonisation of the whole of culture, society and politics by sports.

When New Zealand hosted the World Cup we were asked to become a nation about rugby. Martin Snedden’s favourite slogan – a stadium of four million – captured the entire narrative quite beautifully. The state had made a massive financial investment but it had to be matched by an athlete-like commitment on the part of each of us. I was in Italy during the 1990 Soccer World Cup, but had never experienced anything like this. It was not only accepted as inevitable that the Cup should dominate public life for months on end (even the school calendar was amended to accommodate it), but it was actually welcomed. This culminated in the renaming of entire towns. Benneydale became Rugbydale. Te Kuiti, grotesquely, became Meadsville.

What was most disconcerting and frustrating is that you couldn’t critique any of this. As the Meadsville poster exemplifies, the narrative of total commitment to the Cup contained its own ironic inversion, so if you had a problem with any of it, it meant that you didn’t get the joke. (And there are few things more disqualifying in our culture than not getting a joke.) The military-themed ad campaign for Sky’s television coverage set the standard for this unique brand of totalitarianism with humour.

In spite of all of this, I was quite prepared to enjoy the rugby once the tournament got underway, and for a while I did. I don’t pretend to see the logic of it. Allegiances to sports in general or one sport over the other, including my own allegiances, have always struck me as arbitrary affairs, governed by mood and accident. This is not to deny that rugby is a genuine part of my adoptive culture, but to acknowledge it is not sufficient. There still needs to be a spark, something that will make you believe in the spectacle. (After all each individual sport, unless you’re a player yourself, is like a string of endless reruns. Why would anyone bother?) Sports marketers must be keenly aware of these alchemies, as well as of the perils of corporatising a sport’s most cherished symbols, which is no doubt why they negotiate for every millimetre of non-sponsored space on those jerseys. Push things too far and something might snap. But there are other reasons, as well as non-reasons, the arguments we make up to rationalise what can’t be readily explained.

Something snapped for me last year, and I think it was during the second half of the grand final, when François Trinh-Duc went to take a crucial penalty and I realised I didn’t really care whether or not he was going to score. It was nothing like that famous kick by John Eales. I had lost faith that something real was happening. I couldn’t honestly tell you why, although I could make up a plausible enough reason. All I know is that in the end I couldn’t quite make the total commitment that was asked of me. I have barely watched a game of rugby since.

When the final whistle of the World Cup Final blew, Richie McCaw sank to one knee. His initial emotion, he tells us in the book, was more relief than joy.
It's finished. I can stop. I don't have to do this any more.
I find this such an arresting line. It captures with brilliant concision the physical and psychological strain that McCaw had to overcome to get to that point in his life and career, as well as the singular paradox of how joyless even your favourite sport can become when it is invested with far greater meanings than the act of running around on grass could possibly express. As soon as I read it I thought of those famous lines at the end of Foreskin’s Lament.
Can’t play the game.
Can’t play the game
Or anymore wear the one-dimensional mask
For the morons’ Mardi Gras
Where they ask you whaddarya
But really, really don’t want to know.
Letting myself get carried away, I thought of McCaw delivering those lines, the entire monologue, ending in that heart-stopping string of whaddaryas?, as if to say, you can take your stadium of four million and fuck right off. None of this matters, none of this is real. But that would be reading far too much into that single line. It doesn’t matter that it’s Greg McGee himself who helped McCaw write his book. People move on. McGee has moved on. So has Richie McCaw, who after another very successful season is about to take nine months off with a view to prolong his career. So has Martin Snedden, who as the CEO of the Tourism Industry Association will now be working on our transformation into a Shire of four million. Something else for us to be, another communal effort with no trade-offs and untold benefits for years to come. So long as we never ask – what are we?

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Avengers

The inception of the Avengers is not one of those original, creative moments. DC Comics had been having success for over three years with its band of heroes – the Justice League of America – and so it made good business sense for Marvel to come up with its own version. The characters selected for this had all appeared in earlier stories. As of issue one of The Avengers, published in September of 1963, they were Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp. Having come together in rather accidental fashion to fight Thor’s nefarious brother Loki,

the group resolved to form a permanent alliance in time for the last panel.

The plot of that inaugural issue bears a very vague resemblance to that of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers – in that it also involves Loki, and an attempt to turn the Hulk against the rest of the team – but notice, more importantly, how the meta-reference to the Marvel Galaxy of Heroes in the epilogue matches the careful inter-weaving of the Marvel Studios films, which set the expectations of what’s to come in the next instalment as well as making explicit the relationship of the individual films to the larger narrative.

Thus the current wave of films inspired by the Marvel superheroes is faithful, and deftly so, to the overt commercial drive of the original series, the explicit calls to read the next issue or witness the birth of a new hero or villain. However the key concept is the Marvel universe, that is to say the idea of a unified, coherent set of stories with its own aesthetic and narrative tropes.

This universe was still more or less recognisable when I started reading superhero comics, in the mid- to late Seventies. It had also matured from the era of that original Avengers story, for the peculiarity of these titles is that they developed along with their readership, becoming progressively more sophisticated and grown-up. Reading those early stories now, it’s hard not to be struck by how infantile they are, how naïve and exclusively pitched at pre-teen males. The Marvel Universe had very few women in those days and they were heavily stereotyped, like the insufferable Wasp, a character whose powers were becoming quite small, having the hots for Thor and adhering to a ten year old boy’s ideas of what a grown woman who wasn’t his mother might be like.

From issue #4
Then there was Captain America’s creepy serial attachment to various teenage sidekicks.

The Avengers #9
Plus lots of general silliness, including, but not limited to, a character who could shrink to the size of an ant and grow to the size of a giant by taking a pill whose effects were so instantaneous he sometimes used it to dodge an incoming blow or missile.

The Avengers #2
And the rather wonderful and ornate descriptions of what was happening while it was happening that our heroes were able to engage with in remarkable unison.

A unique and exciting literary device: the collective action monologue (#8)
There was, nonetheless, more than a little artistry in these stories. The proof isn’t strictly in the fact that they have now become the subject of vastly more successful entertainment products – I personally regard this as something of a cultural historical accident, as I will argue later – but rather in their sometimes genuinely ingenious dramatic structure, and most of all in Jack Kirby’s very accomplished artwork, which made the characters seem dynamic no matter how clunky Stan Lee’s writing would sometimes become.

The Avengers #4
Even the best critiques of Joss Whedon’s adaptation, by contrast, seem to me to have missed the main point, which is this: it is an astonishingly, almost unaccountably boring film. It takes no creative risk. It has no artistry, no genuine invention. It gives you nothing to marvel at. It just fills the time, albeit in admirably efficient fashion, deploying all of the tricks and the requisite whizzbangery. But of course the problem, or at least one of the problems, is that as soon as Iron Man takes off or Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk the films morphs into one of those animated sequences of a videogame that you soon learn to skip by pressing ESC. Except this time you can’t. (I confess here that I got so fidgety during the middle hour of the screening that I took out my wallet and compiled a shopping list. I wouldn’t have, had there been anybody else in that afternoon session at the Embassy Theatre, but still, that’s how bad things got.)

You couldn’t accuse Stan Lee of this. Of being boring, or lifeless. His genius perhaps was to live at a time when the cultural conditions were in place for him to invent a super-hero universe. He wasn’t a pioneer in this respect either, but he applied himself, he made full use of the creative freedom that is afforded most easily within the confines of genre. A boy is bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires the proportionate strength and dexterity of an arachnid. Four astronauts return from space with four different sets of powers as a result of being bombarded with gamma rays. An evil robot creates another robot that can fly and walk through walls but then he – the creature – develops a conscience and renounces evil.

The Avengers #57
This is no longer Stan Lee, actually. By 1968 the task of writing The Avengers had fallen Roy Thomas. Lee was the editor, John Buscema the artist. We must have lagged behind by a few years in Italy because that story is one of the first I remember, and the Vision grew to become my favourite character. By this stage the stories had become more sophisticated. They were growing along with the audience. Some attempts were made to write complex female characters and grapple with psychological and even existential/philosophical issues. Not always successfully, mind. Or subtly.

The Avengers #58
However the period I remember best is when Jim Shooter was in charge as editor and writer, thus the stretch in the late Seventies (or early Eighties by the time the stories were translated into Italian) that culminated with the Korvac saga. The stories had this point were firmly pitched at young adults, and included the timid exploration of the characters’ sexuality. Also: so much cleavage. I can't remember what the story with Moondragon was exactly, but one of her ancillary powers must have been related to ensuring that the dress didn’t slip off in battle.

The Avengers #176
I recently tried to read some of these more mature stories again but frankly they haven’t aged so well. Unlike the very early issues, they are not good in places and so bad they are good in others, just uniformly overwrought. And this is pretty much were I left the world of Marvel superheroes, other than following Walter Simonson’s brilliant reinvention of Thor for a few issues, when they became available locally in English. Now I see that the Marvel universe has split into several alternative continuities, some pitched at the younger readers, some at adults. There seem to be for instance five or six titles featuring Spider-Man at any one time.

This is partly to say that it wasn’t cinema that invented the remake and constant recycling of these characters and stories. They happened in the native medium first, with each major franchise going through at least one radical reinvention and several minor ones. Just today I took a peak issue #528.1 of The Avengers. I’m not even sure what the .1 in the numbering means. We’re using decimals now? The premise in this one is that Vision, who was killed years ago, has been repaired and brought back ‘to a brand-new world’. The group includes familiar characters alongside two who are overtly derivative of classic ones (Spider-Woman and the Red Hulk). Meanwhile Captain America, even discounting the fifteen years he spent frozen in a block of arctic ice, must be well over 80 years old. But I’m sure there’s an explanation for that as well. The artwork is so much more contemporary, darker, sometimes slipping in an almost tortured realism. Look at us. See how we have grown.

And yet the time for invention is over. It’s not that Stan Lee was a visionary, it’s that he lived at a time when you were allowed to make up stories – stories that would later be recycled into modern myths to be sold not to children but to life-long adolescents, that is to say the public for top-end global entertainment that cinema has cultivated so successfully since at least the time of Star Wars. They – we – are only too happy to trade in these myths, in spite of the fact that we would likely deride the originals if they were served to us instead. Yet those stories form the necessary background, allowing us to create endless variation on a theme that is already familiar.

The first incarnation of the Avengers lasted a little over a year. Kirby stopped drawing the stories after issue #8, Thor started chasing other adventures and a peculiar ennui took over the rest of the original cast, who finally decided to leave in issue #16.

That’s how little it took for the formula, for the characters themselves to become tired, and for a sense of weariness to creep into Stan Lee’s writing. It was less than four years since the creation of Spider-Man, less than five since Lee had taken over the lead writer role at Marvel. Golden ages are never as long as you remember them.