Comic archetypes

Back in what seem like the mists of time, but in fact just the early 90′s, I was fortunate enough to have a well-paid job and practically no responsibilities, allowing me to take numerous extended vacations, several of which I spent touring around the US. I tended to travel quickly, too quickly in retrospect, which allowed me to cover a lot of ground (I think I managed 28 of the contiguous states, plus DC), but not really get to know anywhere well. I found myself in a near-continuous state of dislocation, and consequently latched on to anything that could give me some sense of stability. In every new city I would purchase a newspaper and turn to the comics page, one thing I could depend on to be more or less constant no matter where I went.

There isn’t really a tradition of serial comic strips in the serious papers here, so I thought no more of these stories until a couple of years ago, when I began following them again, courtesy of the excellent online comic page at the Houston Chronicle. I’ll admit that my original motivation for this was to be able to better enjoy the snarky (and very funny) commentary over at The Comics Curmudgeon, but as time has passed I have come to appreciate the qualities of a good serial narrative in their own right. I particularly like the slow pace of the comics page, where the events of one afternoon can be spun out over months of three-panel strips, providing a calming antidote to the frenetic tempo of modern culture. Of course the politics, particularly on gender issues, of most of the strips seems to have been frozen around 1952, but I guess that just contributes to the ironic charm.

Conservative they may be, but the traditional serials can still serve up surprises. Just this week, for example, we discovered that Mary Worth is a Jungian. I can’t say that I saw that coming.

Resident value

When I left on holiday last month I was half-expecting Second Life to have vanished into the ether by the time I returned. That may not have happened (yet), but there are still plenty of reasons to be gloomy about the future.

Predictably enough, Mark Kingdon was forced to fall on his sword in the wake of the Lab’s severe downsizing, a pretty clear sign that the company’s investors had lost faith in in the management. (This event prompted an amusing post by Hamlet Au, in which he solemnly informed us that he had known all along that the Lab was on the wrong track with its enterprise strategy, though, rather like the financial experts who claimed to have seen the crash coming, he didn’t explain why he hadn’t told us about this before). Philip Rosedale is back in charge, and talking about a “back to basics” strategy, but it may be too little, too late.

Much has always been made of Linden Lab’s solid revenue stream and profitability, but there is more to business than profitability; profitable businesses are shut down every day. What’s more relevant to Second Life is the question of the rate of return on capital, and the company’s position in the investment cycle. The venture capitalists who have their money tied up in the Lab are not in for the long haul; they will be looking for a liquidity event at some point in the not too distant future. An IPO would seem to be out of the question in the current financial climate, which leaves two options – further private equity, or sale to a bigger company. Attracting the former would depend on convincing investors that the Second Life business has enough growth potential to underwrite a decent return on their capital when they cash out in a few years, which would be no mean task.

So that would seem to leave a sale as the only way forward. The Lab has two main assets: its technology and its customer base. The former, for all its faults, may be ahead of the field; the problem is that no one wants to be in that race any more. The future doesn’t lie in a big downloadable client that needs a high-end machine to run on; what people want now an experience they can access through their browsers and on their smartphones, and Second Life isn’t that world.

So the only thing that Linden Lab has that is worth a damn is us, the residents. They have worked out how to monetise us, through subscriptions, tier fees and Lindex commission, but if they are going to market us as a saleable asset they will have to figure out how to securitise us too. The only way I can see of doing that it to follow the social-media model.

Philip may be promising a return to the old Second Life, but the reality of the situation may force him to continue with Mark’s plan to turn SL into a 3D Facebook, though obviously that hasn’t worked out too well so far. Like I said, the virtual future looks bleak.

On the unreliability of memory

There is a lot to be said for the traditional summer break of the professional middle classes; decamping from the hot, busy city to a quiet rural retreat, there to enjoy the simple peasant lifestyle. Of course I am referring to that fantasy peasant lifestyle that involves loafing around, consuming copious quantities of artisanal foodstuff and quaffing the local intoxicant, rather than any actual peasant lifestyle of unremitting toil, but it’s nice to imagine that one is getting back in touch with the slower pace of life enjoyed by our forefathers.

I always come back from my summer holiday determined to escape the rat race by finally getting down to writing the classic novel that I am convinced dwells within me. For a couple of weeks I spend my lunchtimes in the coffee shop tapping at my laptop, then life starts to intrude, and my grand projects fade away for another year.

In some ways it’s reassuring that my life is interesting enough that I don’t really have time to devote to literary endeavour, but it’s also a little frustrating to think that with some more application I could produce something a bit more impressive than this blog.

A few times in the last year, most recently just a couple of months ago, I’ve resolved to post less about Second Life, and more about interesting things, like politics, or literature, or music, but every time I seem to have found myself coming back to commenting about the virtual world. I think there’s some avoidance going on on my part; it’s easier to recycle the same old stuff about SL than take a chance on trying something new.

I spent several evenings last week reading my old copies of American Splendor, and thinking that, if Harvey Pekar could get it together to present slices of his life experience to the world back in the 70′s, when self-publishing was a real challenge, I should be able to do something more productive with this space, with which, in theory at least, I could reach a worldwide audience of millions with a couple of clicks of a mouse.

I have over the years posted a few vaguely Pekaresque pieces (mostly tagged “Nostalgia”), but I find it hard to be completely accurate in my recollection. It’s not that I actively make stuff up – the basic facts are all there – but when I try to reconstruct the subjective elements, like the emotions and motivations that were associated with these past events, I can’t help but be aware that my memories will have been extensively edited by my unconscious in the light of my subsequent life experience. I can’t put myself back into the mind of my past self, only the mind of my present self thinking about the past, and I know that means that what seem like solid memories are really projections of my current preoccupations woven out of carefully selected snippets of history.

The drive is to create a narrative, to give meaning to what, on more objective analysis, I would have to admit was an essentially random existence. Like an author foreshadowing significant events in a story, I give weight to certain memories, while suppressing others, to convince myself that my current situation is a point on a consciously planned journey, rather than the culmination of a series of individually insignificant choices that have gradually limited my options in ways I can only vaguely grasp.

Does it matter that my thoughts about the past may not entirely correspond with reality? Human memory is not a simple recording device; it is a dynamic psychological tool that allows us to adapt to the present and anticipate the future by utilising our processed experience. Excessive verisimilitude in our recollections can get in the way of efficient functioning, and a little mnemonic creativity is essential to our continued sanity.

One way to conceptualise the self is to see it as, at any given moment, the sum of the biographical memories that seem relevant to our present circumstances, the story we tell ourselves about who we are. We take the continuity of our self as a given, but our memory of who we were yesterday is under the control of our present selves, and we may distort it to preserve the illusion of stable identity. Of course we can observe that other people seem more or less the same from day to day, which may reassure us that we don’t change much either, but there is always the suspicion that the unconscious is our own personal Ministry of Truth.

Anyway, the conclusion that I draw from all this is that the past is gone and probably wasn’t how I remembered it anyhow, the future is uncertain and will take care of itself, and the best thing to do is just live in the now. I guess that’s why I never manage to get anything done. Maybe I should give up on the literary pretensions, and start writing self-help books instead.

World Cup predictions revisited

Well now I’m back I guess I should catch up with what’s been going on…

Let’s see, what were my tips for the World Cup again?

  1. Brazil
  2. Germany
  3. Argentina
  4. Italy

And what was the result?

  1. Spain
  2. Netherlands
  3. Germany
  4. Uruguay

I should perhaps cross “professional sports gambler” off my list of alternative careers. I’ll admit that I was too quick to dismiss Spain’s chances after their opening defeat, but in my defence I’ll point out that no side had previously won the cup after losing their first game, and that Spain have a history of underperforming in big tournaments (apart of course from the last European Championship). I still can’t quite believe that Holland beat Brazil, and I suspect that the Brazilians feel likewise. At least I spotted that the Germans would do well.

Still, if football was predictable it wouldn’t be half as much fun to follow. It’s interesting that in the US high-scoring games, where the better teams almost always win, are popular, while most of the rest of the world favours low-scoring football, where the plucky underdog is always in with a chance (in one-off games at least; the cream does usually rise to the top over the course of a league season). I suppose that this reflects American political hegemony, and an underlying cultural preference for the maintenance of predictable power relations. Or maybe US sports fans are just too sensible to waste their time watching dull 90-minute 0-0 draws.

Bastille Day 1989

I’ve been in Paris on Bastille Day on exactly one occasion, but it was a good one, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. I had read about the lavish festivities planned for the capital and had jumped on a bus more or less on a whim, with just a small bag and not much cash.

I ended up spending four nights sleeping rough on the streets, which was not as bad as it sounds, since the city was awash with young tourists too cheap to spring for accommodation, and the Gare du Nord in particular resembled a huge public dormitory. Not that I actually slept much, since it was pretty much a constant party, and every street urchin in the city seemed to have been issued with an unlimited supply of fireworks, which they gleefully discharged at all hours and locations.

The weather was fine, the crowds were good-humoured and the cops were (mostly) relaxed, so a good time was had by all. I watched the traditional military parade, and later saw President Mitterrand arrive to open the brand-new Opéra Bastille. While the great and good enjoyed the music inside, the sans-culottes partied outside until dawn. I fell asleep on the steps of the opera house, and was rudely awakened by the outbreak of a mini-riot, complete with bottle-throwing punks, volleys of tear-gas and a climatic charge by baton-wielding riot police which convinced me that discretion was the better part of valour.

The highlight of the celebrations was a grand parade on the Champs-Élysées, but the crowds were so dense that I couldn’t get closer than two blocks away, though I was able to watch it all on a giant TV screen (which was quite a novelty in those days). I wasn’t caring much by that point, as three days and nights of nearly ceaseless movement and intoxication had drained even my youthful energy, and by the next morning I was ready to collapse onto the bus for the long ride home.

I’ve been back to Paris numerous times since, and always had a great time, but I’ve never felt the city as energised as it was that week. If I’m still around in 2039 I’ll go back for the 250th anniversary. I may even stay up all night, just for old times’ sake.

From Off the Streets of Cleveland

I’m just back from holiday, and I was going to leave it a while before I started blogging again, but I have been moved to action by the sad news of the passing of a true hero of the counter-culture, Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame.

I’m not usually one for vicarious grief, but I have been feeling genuinely cut-up since I heard that Harvey was dead. His work was personal and honest, sometimes painfully so, never glossing over his own character flaws, and it was hard to read it without getting to feel that you really knew the guy. Long before anyone had even dreamed of blogs, Harvey was there, documenting the daily grind of a lowly wage-slave, creating poetry from the rhythms of his blue-collar existence.

If you’re not familiar with American Splendor then visit your local comic-book store and pick up an anthology – the best one to start with is probably American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar which collects up the best of the early issues; also worth reading is Our Cancer Year, which chronicles Harvey’s experience of lymphoma – it is quite grim in parts, but ultimately positive. More recent comics can be found online at The Pekar Project. The 2003 biopic American Splendor was justly lauded by the critics, and Harvey also features in a segment of the 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential (which was where I first came across his work). He appeared several times on the Letterman show in the late 80′s, until he fell out with the host after criticising NBC’s owners General Electric on air. He also recorded a series of opinion pieces for radio station WKSU, which can be listened to at their website.

Harvey’s work was based on the idea that the lives and experiences of ordinary people, living through good times and bad with their family, friends and community, were worth recording, and would tell the story of our times more accurately than more conventional histories. As he said, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”, and few have captured it better than he did in the pages of American Splendor.

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