Friday, April 11, 2008

Retro-Journal: Freedom in Early 2000

In the relatively quiet first half of 2000:

•January saw the peak of the dot-com-era stock market — and within weeks Wall Street saw trading shut down early by an impromptu concert by leftist band Rage Against the Machine and disrupted weeks later by a non-fatal explosive blast that injured several people.

•Meanwhile, al Qaeda members had begun planning 9/11/01 — and I actually wondered aloud back then why we hadn’t already killed this Bond-villain-like terrorist named Osama bin Laden (I even suggested him and the Taliban as a TV-movie topic idea to a producer friend well before 9/11/01, ending one of my e-mails with the suggestion that the script be left open-ended in case bin Laden “does something wacky”).

•Revered former Black Panther H. Rap Brown was arrested in Georgia after a shoot-out that killed a police officer.

•Federal troops raided the home of Elian Gonzalez’s relatives to ship the boy, whose mother had died getting him to freedom in the U.S., back to totalitarian Cuba.

And still, your average New Yorker saw capitalism and conservatism as the sources of trouble in this world — and would become even more convinced of that during the presidential election in the second half of the year.

Before that, though, in the final months of my twenties, I began to find myself looking at some activities I’d been through in my own youth from the other side, the position of an elder:

•I had performed in Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You (about a non-conformist family who, among other things, don’t pay income taxes) my first semester at Brown and now found myself going to see a real New York production of it.

•At Brown, I’d witnessed left-wing zealots getting the upper hand in campus dialogue, and now I saw Brown’s political correctness become an element of one of my boss John Stossel’s TV specials, You Can’t Say That!

•I’d benefited from seminars about libertarianism conducted by the Institute for Humane Studies and now found myself asked to speak at them about my TV experience, to the new crop of college journalists. At one such event, I learned that one of my fellow speakers, then-editor of Reason, Nick Gillespie, had been Alyssa Milano (or rather, ghost writer of her column for teens, at an early stage of his career — making him a model of career versatility for the young and making him, according to a later survey, the Second Sexiest Woman in Sci-Fi, sort of).

And there were other signs of creeping adulthood all around me: my friends Jacob Levy and Shelley Clark planning to marry in the perfect setting of Chautauqua, NY’s Hall of Philosophy (Chautauqua being an almost utopian resort town for the brainy, full of lecture halls surrounded by trees like an idealized New England in the days of the Transcendentalists), my friend Dave Whitney’s first son being born, the Cure performing at Jones Beach and now seeming like a retro band instead of just a band that’d been around for a long time, once-mighty Thomas Dolby being largely ignored as he walked around a David Bowie concert I went to even though he had co-organized it and had just launched his (very successful) Beatnik music-making site, and so forth.

There were glimpses of things still in their early stages that half-year, though, such as the near-plotless indie movie Timecode, which was, in retrospect, for all its flaws, surely an influence on 24 (which would premiere with perfect timing late the following year) and thus all of 00s television.

I recall the reactions of my co-worker Debbie Colloton and I to the early stages of George Bush’s candidacy for president as well: Seeing him mangle a few words in a speech, we shrugged and sighed, immediately concluding 2000 would see Gore elected president and that the flourishing country would endure nonetheless. Maybe “our side” would make an electoral comeback in 2004 after four years of a Gore presidency.


My own stab at transforming the political culture in 2000, though, was a pitch to DC Comics (for whom I’d already written one story, “Progress!” in the one-shot eighty-pager JLA Showcase featuring Superman, Batman, et al) to bring back the then-largely-unused WWII superhero team the Freedom Fighters, who’d last had their own series in the mid-70s, when I was amazed, at an early age, by an issue in which these obscure yet iconic characters — Human Bomb, Doll Man, Black Condor, Phantom Lady, the Ray, and Uncle Sam himself — fought a deranged elf at a Santa-themed amusement park rigged with booby traps and killer robots, all the while talking about their recent migration to Earth-1 from an alternate universe.

My plan was to make them more overtly political, each representing a different philosophy or political faction without ever getting into too much detail or allegory. They would also (in my mind, though not in the pitch) be part of a larger cosmic war involving Order and Chaos, with ties to the characters Time Trapper, Mister Miracle, and Krona — with the Omega Men perhaps thrown in along the way. I was told to avoid trying to revamp obscure characters — told, in fact, that even Starman, to my mind DC’s biggest artistic success of the 90s, was considered too risky as a model for future character development. Stick to ideas involving the big Justice League characters like Superman and Batman.

Today, eight years later, they’ve given the Freedom Fighters two miniseries, made them more political, linked them to a cosmic war involving Order and Chaos, and in largely unrelated developments brought back Time Trapper, Mister Miracle, and the Omega Men, while making frequent use of numerous other obscure characters. Alas, I was ahead of my time. Would that I — like the Time Trapper — could revise history and alter events. Adding to my pain (though I’d go on to write two more published Justice League stories) was the knowledge that had I written a Freedom Fighters series, it would likely have come out around 9/11, potentially riding a wave of patriotism to extra sales. Not that my real goal would be to exploit tragedy for mere personal financial gain, mind you. My real goal would have been to subtly turn comics readers into libertarians, of course. The aesthetic concerns, though, always have to come first and make their own demands that have a way of pushing ulterior creative motives such as politics to the side — unless you’re Bertolt Brecht…or Rage Against the Machine.

But more about politics a week from today, when I recount late 2000 — including the most entertaining presidential election ever.


Jacob T. Levy said...

appreciate the appearance in the Grand Narrative, but our wedding wasn’t until the second half of 2000.

Todd Seavey said...

Now fixed above.

Laura said...

And you forgot that Andy and I got married in summer 1999 (in the more provincial and bourgeois location of Winnetka, Illinois) and moved back to NYC in spring 2000, thus greatly enriching your social life.

Todd Seavey said...

Well, I devoted the late-1999 entry exclusively to the India trip (and a couple related thoughts), which already made it my longest-ever Retro-Journal entry, I believe.

So many things get glossed over in each of these — but if you and the Pope are both in my neighborhood for Passover weekend (as he apparently intends to be, with all the traffic-blocking implications that brings), that may well warrant an entry. If you talk him into converting to the Humanism underlying your very lovely wedding ceremony, I may even write two entries about it.