10.01.2010

THE BRIAN WOOD PROJECT (Part 9)


In case you missed it;

DEFENDING THE NEW POSITION

There’s an idea that I kept feeling in my gut. It went far beyond Brian Wood’s fascination with identity as a unifying theme. It was a visceral emotional response that went something like this: “Brian Wood is one of the defining writers of my generation.” What did that even mean? Up until this point, I hadn’t dissected it. There seemed to be two ideas embedded in the statement that needed further clarification. One, in the broadest terms, I would need to define “my generation.” Two, an effort would need to be made to explore why his body of work is quintessential to understanding the identity of that generation. So let’s take a musical cue from The Who and talk about My Generation…

In the most generalizing demographic classification, I belong to something known as “Generation X.” No, this is not the Marvel Comics series that Brian Wood wrote for a short span early in his career (though, interesting coincidence that), but a cultural distinction that separates my age group from say, The Greatest Generation, The Baby Boomers, [insert Generation X here], and Generation Y, in that sequential order.

Drilling down to some more specific demographics, at the time of this writing I’m 36 years old. I have immigrant grandparents, making me a second generation American. I’m a Californian. I live in San Diego. I’ve travelled. I’m married. I have two children. I have a college degree. I have a professional career. I own a home. On paper, I’m a pretty typical middle class individual and none of that information has any obvious relevance to a generation discussion except my age, because of what can be extrapolated from that age bracket. My age group puts me in a window in which I have grandparents who came out of The Great Depression. My grandfather served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and was stationed in England. He’s part of what Tom Brokaw popularized as The Greatest Generation, and fits the typical mold as it’s defined extremely well. One of the defining characteristics of this generation was that they helped to solidify the notion of hopeful optimism in this country. The idea that, with an ounce of American ingenuity, a dash of bravery, and a heaping dose of selfless sacrifice and hard work, nearly anything was possible. It helped make attainable the hope and promise in the national ethos concerning The American Dream.

Those in The Greatest Generation were the parents of The Baby Boomers, of my parents’ generation. Merely 20 years later, society witnessed the pendulum swing violently in the other direction. The Boomers eschewed and redefined the traditional values of the prior era. They questioned rhetoric, were mindful of perception, and facilitated rapid social change. It wasn’t just fun times with The Beatles and sexual liberation; it was a rapid erosion of faith in institutions and growing disillusionment with the establishment. It was the stereotypical portrayals we see so frequently of life in the 1960’s. It was the Vietnam War, Civil Rights coming to a head, rioting in the streets, the shift in the power of music, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X all being assassinated, followed by San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk a few years later (which is noticeably more a part of the collective consciousness of those of us from the San Francisco Bay Area), and it seemed to culminate with Watergate and Nixon a few years after that. I’m painting broad brushstrokes here, assuming that a fairly educated audience knows most of this and doesn’t need a crash course history lesson, but simply wanted to add some historical context. In short, The Baby Boomers learned of the fallibility of government, of any socialized system, and even began questioning the collapsing American Dream. If The Greatest Generation was met by an idealized vision of The American Dream, then The Baby Boomers woke up to a fractured and broken vision of The American Dream. The pendulum had swung almost completely in the other direction in the span of just one generation.

By the mid-70’s, The Baby Boomers were scattered and disenfranchised, my own parents went a sort of semi-hippie route and lived on a walnut farm, they started buying and selling antiques as a hobby that quickly turned into a profitable business. The Baby Boomers started having kids; I was born in 1974. There was an oil crisis. I remember living in the shadow of The Iran-Contra Affair and seeing Oliver North testify before Congress, but not being old enough to grasp the importance of What It All Meant. I remember the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation being discussed openly in my grade school after we watched The Day After in the classroom. I remember the Soviets being in Afghanistan and my dad telling me that it was “like their Vietnam.” I can’t resist the interesting aside that during this period the US backed the Afghan Mujahideen Rebels with money, arms, and training against the Soviets, because, you know, the Mujahideen did become The Taliban and all. I remember something called The Cold War ending and Ronald Reagan saying “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” As I grew older, I had wars too, though they didn’t seem quite as noble as fighting the Nazis or prompting an end to the Iron Curtain. I watched Iraq War: Part One on TV, which played like a movie on CNN, starring cool characters like Wolf Blitzer, “Stormin’ Norman,” and the camera-enabled “Smart Bomb.” What was the defining catch phrase for my generation? What was our legacy to be? Who were we? What was our identity? I think we’ve struggled with identity to some degree; the term Generation X has been used with varying degrees of traction by authors and the media to describe this “generation of teenagers who sleep together before they are married, were not taught to believe in God as much… and don't respect parents." So basically… we’re atheistic motherfuckers? That’s it? With a couple clicks of the mouse, you can find many events associated with Gen X, yet information is pretty thin regarding any intrinsic characteristics. Yes, we witnessed everything from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, to the rise of MTV, to the dot-com bubble and burst, to 9/11, and Iraq War: Part Deux: Mission Accomplished, but who are we?

Gen X is considered a post-modern generation in that demographically it’s comprised of a more heterogeneous cross-section, exhibiting diversity in race, class, religion, ethnicity, socio-economic composition, and sexual orientation. Before I digress too far, I’m spending all of this time defining my generation because it is Brian Wood’s generation as well. We’re roughly the same age (he’s two years older than me) and superficially at similar places in life. Married. Kids. Educated. Live in metropolitan areas. Worked professionally in another field before getting into comics in the capacity we are now. Artistically and pop culturally inclined. Astrologically both Aquarius (if you’re into that). We both lean politically more toward Blue State than Red State, me from the Liberal Left Coast, he from the Liberal Northeast, but probably agree with Barack that we shouldn’t be strictly divided into Red and Blue States, just The United States. I don’t know Brian extremely well personally, but it’s important, and I think safe to say, that you can digest everything I just explained and be assured it applies culturally to him as well. If there is a mindset produced by the progression of The Greatest Generation to The Baby Boomers to Generation X, then we share it, whatever it is.

And that’s the point. “It,” the quintessential generational legacy of Gen X, has not been written. I postulate that Brian Wood is attempting to write it through his work. He himself is seeking, consciously or otherwise, to clarify the identity and subsequent legacy of his own generation, using his characters as ciphers who navigate their own identity, existence, and ultimate place in the world, determining what their imprint will be on the generations that follow. It’s a response to the pendulum swing from The Greatest Generation to The Baby Boomers, as Gen X settles somewhere in the ideological middle. We can look back at the polar opposites of the two prior generations and see that our collective mindset doesn't mirror either completely. We can already look forward to the so-called “Millennials” of Gen Y and differentiate ourselves quickly by recognizing that we didn’t grow up with the intense technology permeation and that we also lack their sense of entitlement. We’re stuck in the middle, in a generational territory that isn’t fully defined, the identity of which is not yet solidified in history. I think deep down we crave the optimism and brotherhood of The Greatest Generation, but it’s certainly not with a sense of blind naiveté. From our Baby Boomer parents, we learned self-reliance, we learned that dissent is patriotic, and that while you should respect authority, the respect must be earned – not demanded, and you certainly have the right to demand transparency and even question authority when appropriate. We have the hope, but we also have the skepticism. From optimists, to idealists and pessimists, perhaps we are settling more toward realists. Perhaps we are refusing the false dichotomy and mutual exclusivity of the two prior generations. Wood is helping forge a social mindset that combines the hope of The Greatest Generation and the responsibility of the 1960’s counterculture movement. As reflected in the titular Parco Delgado arc in DMZ, perhaps he’s after our hearts and our minds.

When President Obama was elected, I remember feeling like there was a passing of the torch from generation to generation. For the first time in my lifetime, I am closer to POTUS in age than my father is. In terms of simple age and basic generational experience, I identify with Obama more than my father identifies with Obama, though as a lifelong Democrat and former political activist, the significance of the moment wasn’t lost on him. That election was our inheritance from The Baby Boomers. As we watched together on election night, as President-Elect Barack Obama took the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park, I had my daughter on my lap, and my dad turned to me and simply said “this is why we were marching in the streets in the 60’s.” It’s almost as if there was something tangible in the historical zeitgeist.

Getting back on track here, it seems to me that as his characters seek to understand what informs their identity, Brian Wood seeks to understand what defines his generation in parallel. It’s fairly easy to see with repeated readings that the theme of identity is a strong constant in the body of his work. However, I’ve learned that’s only one layer of how the works operate as a whole. His legacy as a writer is not as simple as just using the theme of character identity. There are actually three intertwined layers at work, which operate from the most basic and the most precise thematic consistency, to the secondary characteristics in the work that revolve largely around generational tension, to more complex ideas possessing larger social implications. It culminates with my visceral experience about Wood’s voice being representative of a larger social group, to which I belong. If you’ll allow me to condense this integrated creative system as much as possible, the three tier formula would look something like this;

1) Protagonist Identity Exploration As Theme = Drives Character Development
2) Generational/Social Tension As Storytelling Engine = Drives Narrative
3) Exploring Generational Identity & Capturing Voice = Drives Creator

If Generation X seems to struggle with their cultural identity and ultimate legacy, clues to its composition may be found within the protagonist quests reflected in the large tapestry of Brian Wood’s projects. Embedded in the work is the true nature of this generation; it revolves around the aspirational attainment of an intellectually honest, informed, engaged, and progressive class of social beings. It requires an agile sense of independent thought and adaptability. Government. Law. Crime. Politics. War. Technology. Science. Education. Civil Rights. Environment. Economy. Race. Class. Ethnicity. Gender. Sexuality. Religion. Family. Ethics. Morality. Culture. Identity. Regardless of the social principle the ideas are rooted in, this generation’s legacy must drive a philosophical movement that shifts the social paradigm to a tolerant meritocracy that finds sensibility in a more pluralistic viewpoint. In order to propel our children’s generation forward to thrive and not just survive their existence, Generation X must possess the ability to process multiple points of view that are constantly evolving, without strict adherence to any static dogma, doctrine, or ideology.

From an artistic perspective, Brian Wood has employed a determined sense of reflection for his creations, and by extension, for himself and his generation. He’s worked under an indie umbrella of near total rejection of the medium’s most stereotypical genre, except when sublimating it and questioning its very identity. From a social relevance perspective, he’s operated with the promise inherited from The Greatest Generation and tempered it with a countercultural sense of insurgency that allows transformation of the generational narrative from within. If you buy at least half of the old adage that art can imitate life, then Brian Wood’s work is a responsorial hymn about capturing the values present in the cultural outlook of Generation X.

If the identity of Generation X is the question, then the Brian Wood library is the answer.

Brian Wood is the voice of our generation.

6 Comments:

At 1:21 PM, Blogger Matt C said...

You saved the best until last. Absolutely superb. Hats off to you, Justin, a thoroughly engrossing treatise, and one that has inspired me to look again at DMZ (I think I only picked up the debut issue previously).

A killer pay-off line too!

As an aside, based on a couple of things you said here, I'm guessing we were born within the same four week period. So you could say that your project, particularly this final part, resonated with me quite a bit!

Bravo!

 
At 8:19 PM, Blogger Justin said...

Thanks for the feedback, Matt. Glad it struck a chord. Definitely pick up DMZ and let me know how it reads. It's certainly in my Top 3 BW books, along with Local and DV8.

 
At 1:45 AM, Blogger Tom P said...

Great stuff Justin, reading this on my lunch breaks made them all the more enjoyable. You have definitely added some titles to my must read list.

Cheers.

 
At 10:35 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Thanks Tom!

 
At 9:21 PM, Blogger Ryan Claytor said...

*applause*

Damn. Helluvan ending to a helluva project. Nice work with this. I'd be curious to hear what Brian Wood has to say about your essays. Regardless of whether or not we get his reaction, it must feel good to have this out in the open and receive such positive responses. I know how hard it can be to sit on a project in creative isolation, but also how great it feels once the work is complete. Congratulations on a job well done!

Sincerely,

Ryan Claytor
Elephant Eater Comics
www.ElephantEater.com

 
At 12:00 PM, Blogger Justin said...

Thanks Ryan! Not to jump the gun and steal my own thunder, but I'm fairly positive we haven't heard the last from BW on this project. I'm hoping to have an additional surprise coming soon! ;-)

 

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