The Multiversity, the most recent experiment by writer Grant Morrison to push the boundaries of mainstream superhero comic books, features a variety of memorable moments that cover the entire spectrum of human emotion.
Of these, quite possibly the most (in)famous occurs in the fourth issue “Pax Americana”. Here, Morrison and artist extraordinnaire Frank Quitely show the increasingly detached Captain Atom use his otherworldly powers to dissect his pet dog in an attempt to locate the source of his affection for the poor animal.
It’s a scene as heartbreaking as it is horrific, as Captain Atom soon tearfully realises that whatever it is that makes him love his now-deceased four legged friend isn’t something that can be found by way of reduction – in matters of the heart, the sum is always greater than the parts.
Ok, so it’s a powerful bit of storytelling, but why am I rambling on about it? Well, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about pop culture analysis lately (as one does), and the subtext of this scene really gets to the core of thoughts I’ve been kicking around.
Y’see, behind all of the window dressing of the scene described above, what Morrison is really driving at is the tendency for fans and critics to endlessly analyse a work of pop culture, whether it be a comic, film or novel, to the point where it loses its original appeal.
As the man himself explains (in an excellent interview he gave over at Comics Alliance):
“I’m one of the people that loves to dissect stuff. I love to get into the meanings. I love breaking it down. But I’m sure you’re like me. We all know those moments when we’re sitting with friends, and we’re really enthusiastic about something we all love, and we keep wanting to talk about it. We keep wanting to get further and deeper, and there comes a moment where you go, all we’re left with is the pieces here [laughs]. It doesn’t seem very palatable anymore. I think there’s an inescapable thing when you do dissect something down, the dissection is always done from a point of enthusiasm and excitement or a need to engage with something a lot more. What you’re doing in a lot of cases is ending up with something dead in your hands.”
And he’s right. As someone who actively pours over the “anatomy” of my favourite works of pop culture, I can say from experience that mining for every hidden symbol and subtextual nuance can start to dampen your emotional connection to the material, which is ironically what made you want to delve deeper in the first place.
Worse still, constantly digging at these stories eventually leads you to unearth their various flaws; technical or creative blemishes that would otherwise have gone unnoticed had you just left well enough alone.
You also tend to find that more than a few tales don’t hide as many layers as you initially supposed, and there’s no greater downer than discovering that what you thought was a deep dissertation on companionship in the digital age really only amounts to little more than a well-told buddy comedy about a man and his robotic horse.
(To any studio executives reading this: if you’re looking for someone to write your next man/robotic horse buddy comedy, I’m your guy)
Of course, a considerable amount of pop culture not only invites analysis, but was designed for it.
Just off the top of my head, I can name Life of Pi, Watchmen, The Sopranos, and anything David Lynch wrote, ever. These and many, many more examples like them were actively created in such a way that only intensive study could fully unlock their mysteries (and delights) fully.
Yet creative intent aside, can even these multi-faceted works stand up to our continual scrutiny without withering? Are we fans and critics like the villains in an Indiana Jones movie: ultimately doomed to be brought undone by our ruthless quest for knowledge (except without, y’know, being Nazis. Or Thuggees. Or Commies).
I’m reminded of Jack Black as Carl Denham in King Kong (a sentence I’ve always wanted to type), who ultimately makes the same mistake as Captain Atom, but for different reasons.
When Denham hauls jumbo-sized ape Kong back to civilisation, he makes good on his promise to bring what remains of the world’s mystery to the masses.
However, there’s a hollowness to it all, a crass commercialness that suggests that by taking something special like Kong and wringing every last dollar out of it, Denham has somehow managed to rob it of its wonder.
As Adrian Brody’s Jack Driscoll observes:
“That’s the thing you come to learn about Carl – his unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.”
They’re two sides of the same coin then, Captain Atom and Carl Denham; one kills what he adores by trying to engage with it further, the other by excessively exploiting it for his own ends.
So in the end, are we all like Captain Atom and his dog? Or Denham and his ape? Regardless of our intentions, by overanalysing pop culture, are we also guilty of destroying the thing we love?
The truth is, I don’t have the answer to this question. Like most pop culture fanatics (including Morrison himself), I can’t see myself ever giving up on pop culture analysis.
Nor do I think I necessarily should; like I said earlier, so much of pop culture encourages – even demands – greater consideration, and the fruits of this sort of labour can be very rewarding.
So having had time to reflect on it, I think the trick might be not to fixate too much on the same old classics, and to constantly expose ourselves to new things. By not obsessing too much over any one movie, comic or film, we free ourselves up to enjoy and examine other stories, spreading the searing focus of our scrutiny across several targets and minimising its impact.
We’re also allowing ourselves the opportunity to re-discover our original favourites later on down the road with fresh eyes, giving us the chance to fall back in love with them all over again as we peel back fresh layers of meaning over the gentle course of decades.
It makes sense to me. But who knows – maybe I’m wrong? Perhaps I’ll think on it awhile…