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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: October 2020

I had a dream that progressives and conservatives could overcome differences, that we could strip away reductive stereotypes and destructive rhetoric, that a path toward common ground was only a matter of choosing to believe that political opponents are not bad people intent on bad things, but good people disagreeing on how best to achieve good.

I co-founded a local group and Facebook page, Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society, dedicated to those goals, and spent a couple of hours every day talking to people with opposing partisan backgrounds and ideological reflexes. I thought if I worked hard enough, reasoned through each issue, addressed all objections, provided verifiable support for every claim, and, most importantly, built trust and friendship, that we could bridge our local portion of the political divide.

I was wrong.

I blame Ann Coulter.

Not just Ann Coulter, but Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson and all professional political pundits, who most definitely include Ms. Coulter.

I’ve not met her, but I once sat in a gymnasium of folding chairs twenty yards from her podium. James Carville, another for-hire-horseman of the Democracy apocalypse, was slouching at the other podium. I have no idea how much money my university poured on them to perform their political theatre skit, but let’s assume buckets. W&L stages a mock convention every four years. I’d watched a startled Newt Gingrich saunter onto that same stage to the thump of Rocky III’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the thunder of the improbably conservative student body. Bob Dole literally phoned it in, as he and his campaign faded into the static of his departing plane.

The Coulter-Carville show was 2012, within spitting distance of the first primary. Gingrich was duking it out with Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Rick wanted to eliminate the Department of Education. Newt wanted to go to Mars. Coulter, a savvy reader of conservative weather patterns, staked her tent in Romney territory. When asked about Gingrinch’s still-formidable polling, she performed a diplomatic pause and said: “He’s not attracting our more thoughtful voters.” And I thought: “Hey, this woman’s okay.” That was before she said “Chinamen” were taking our jobs, and that the audience of youthfully open-minded undergrads would someday be home-owners and not want certain unspecified kinds of people moving in next door.

That’s Coulter c. 2012. Coulter c. 2020 is a Gingrich groupie who regularly throws Romney under the wheels of her MAGA bus.

How do you explain her change?

You don’t. Because she didn’t. Ann Coulter today is exactly what she was then: a professional commentator paid to say things that appeal to her market audience.

Eight years ago that audience leaned Romney, so Coulter leaned Romney, entertainingly contemptuous of little Newt. Now her audience bleats in harmony with the Trump Twitter account, so Coulter swings hard right, out-Gingriching even Gingrich. So does Hannity and Limbaugh and Carlson and anyone else trying to make a fortune as a conservative pundit.

Despite its appeals to fixed traditions, “conservative” is a fast-moving target. A century ago Coulter and Co. were hocking the anti-American horror of women voting. A half-century ago they were demonizing John Lewis and Martin Luther King as pinko agitators hellbent on desecrating our founding fathers. Today they’re telling their revenue-producing viewers that Marxist pedophiles have infiltrated the Black Lives Matter movement and the Main Stream Media. They’re asking whether Democratic governors’ and mayors’ decision to promote rioting is a smart reelection ploy. If Biden is elected, Antifa will be invited to the White House, all borders will be open, all police departments will be eliminated, and the United States will become a socialist dictatorship. First-term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they tell their thundering audience, commands the entire Democratic party.

There’s a word for all of that.  Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt calls it “bullshit,” describing a “bullshitter” as someone who “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” The pundits’ purpose is to please a conservative audience and so attract advertisers who indirectly pay them salaries. For Carlson that’s $6 million a year, for Hannity $40 million, and Limbaugh $85 million. Coulter isn’t currently holding down a salaried job, but her net worth is $8.5 million.

Do they actually believe Marxist infiltrators are plotting to overthrow America? I don’t know, and I don’t care, because I know they don’t care.

But a lot of people do care. I used to chat with them regularly on the Civil Discourse page. Most still absorb their political content from Fox News. I’ve spent literally years arguing that biased sources are the driving wedge of our two-reality political divide. Every time I criticize Fox News, I include MSNBC in the same damning sentence. I cancelled my internet subscription to the Washington Post and stopped skimming inflammatory headlines at CNN. I balance my daily New York Times reading with my daily Wall Street Journal reading. I study the polling data at both RCP and 538.

The Civil Discourse conservatives continue soaking in the comfort of daily Fox News punditry. As a result, they believe in Revolutionaries, Deep State saboteurs, and Socialist policies designed to eliminate capitalism and America with it. They’re not capitalist Coulters contorting themselves for profit. They’re sincere and sincerely patriotic conservatives incapable of thinking through complex national problems from multiple political angles. Unlike the pundits they parrot, they actually care about and believe in the truth of the bullshit they soak down to their DNA and regurgitate with foot-thumping certainty. 

So after two years of shepherding the politically diverse participants of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society page, I’ve retired. The pundits won. My Facebook corner of the Internet is Coulter Country now, same as the rest.

I posted a “Predicting the Next President” round-up analysis of election forecasts on August 31, six weeks ago.

Did anything interesting happen since then?

Ginsburg died on September 18, and McConnell announced his intent to replace her hours later. The White House hosted a celebration for Trump’s pick, Amy Coney Barrett, on September 26, resulting in at least thirty-four CV-19 infections. On September 28, Ginsburg was buried, and The New York Times released Trump’s tax records. Trump debated Biden on September 29, tested positive two days later, and was hospitalized the following day, October 2. He returned to the White House on October 5. A fly landed on Pence’s head during the vice-presidential debate on October 7, and the second presidential debate was cancelled on October 9 after Trump refused to participate in a virtual format. The Senate Judiciary Committee begins Barrett’s nomination hearings today, October 12.

That’s the short version. Normally, an October 2 release of a recording of the First Lady saying, “who gives a fuck about the Christmas stuff and decorations? …I say that I’m working on Christmas and planning for the Christmas and they said, ‘Oh, what about the children that they were separated?’ Give me a fucking break,” would be THE ONLY headline.

On the day of the first debate, Trump was polling six points behind Biden, 43 to 49. Ten days later, he was ten points behind, 42 to 52. It’s hard to diagnose which had the most impact on that four-point leap: Trump getting sick, Trump hosting a superspreader event, Trump paying no income taxes, or Trump delivering the worst presidential debate performance in U.S. history.

The election forecasts were already leaning hard in Biden’s direction in August. None predicted Trump, nine predicted Biden, and three made no prediction due to toss-up states. Biden’s lowest electoral college count estimate was 268, two short of the 270 needed to win. Trump’s highest was 204.

What are those forecasters saying now?

All but one predict Biden. Only Politico remains with Biden at 268, Trump 203, and 67 toss-ups. Six weeks ago, CNN and Crystal Ball placed Biden at 268 too. Now they both say 290, as do NPR, U.S. News, and Cook Political Report.

How, according to half of the forecasters, does Biden get to a minimum of 290?

By winning Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona. None place those four most pivotal states in the toss-up category. And according to the Real Clear Politics conglomerate polls, they’re right. Biden is up seven points in Pennsylvania, six and half in Michigan, five and a half in Wisconsin, and two and a half in Arizona.

Biden is also up three and a half in Florida. A year ago, half of the forecasters had Florida for Trump. Now six place the state with the toss-ups, and four for Biden.

Biden is up one and a half points in North Carolina, a state that all of the forecasts called a toss-up six weeks ago. Now two give it to Biden.

Real Clear Politics doesn’t list them with their “Top Battlegrounds,” but Biden is up by one point in Iowa, Ohio, and Georgia, and Trump’s lead in Texas is down to two. Biden leads by nine in Minnesota, a state one forecaster still placed with the toss-ups six weeks ago.

According to current polls, Biden and Trump are within five points of each other in a total of seven states: Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Iowa, with Biden ahead in all but Texas. Only one of the forecasts considers Texas a toss-up, and the rest predict Trump will win it. Only one considers Arizona a toss-up, and the rest predict Biden. And only one still considers Wisconsin a toss-up, and the rest predict Biden.

Biden can lose either Wisconsin or Arizona and still reach 270. Which of the possible toss-ups states does Trump need to win?

All ten, plus both Pennsylvania and Michigan, states that all of the forecasts predict for Biden.

Can Trump still win?

Yes. But he has only one path: through the courts.

The states and national GOP will fight to disqualify every ballot possible, with mail-in ballots especially vulnerable. Since Democrats are twice as likely to vote absentee, the danger is very real. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last month that mail-in ballots not placed inside “secrecy envelopes” will not be counted. 100,000 votes could be tossed—placing Pennsylvania back in the toss-up category since Trump won it in 2016 by only 44,292 votes.

He won Wisconsin by 22,748, and Michigan by 10,704.

Biden needs big margins of victory to keep his electoral college count safe.

Even then, Trump is guaranteeing November chaos while states count mail-in ballots. Most can’t start counting until election day, a process that can extend to December 9, the day Congress must have a certified count from every state. Since mail-ins are likely to include twice as many Biden votes, early counts and exit polls could favor Trump—fueling baseless claims of fraud when his leads erode over the following days and weeks

The best and probably only way to avoid that is an election night landslide.

Early in-person voting in Virginia started on September 18. The day Ginsburg died.

Have you voted yet?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice, Dies at Age 87 - HISTORY

UPDATE: As of late afternoon October 12, Politico predicted Wisconsin for Biden. That means ALL forecasts predict Biden, regardless of how any of the toss-ups states end up.

Inside 'Old Growth' by Niv Bavarsky and Michael Olivo — CYA

Sometimes the mark of a good comic is its inability to be summed up in words. Here’s my one-sentence attempt for Old Growth:

“Sentient mushrooms build a city in the forest of an expelled caterpillar who returns as an avenging butterfly tasked by angels to prevent the mushroom people from completing their tower of Babel and invading heaven.”

That plot summary may be engagingly odd, but it’s neither the most engaging or even the oddest thing about Niv Bavarksy and Michael Olivo’s graphic novel. Old Growth is foremost a visual work, and no verbal description will do it justice.

That includes the authors’ own attempts. In a concluding four-page interview, Olivo writes: “The book is largely an exploration of immature and arrogant attainments of power, and the two polarized factions represent the individualistic and collectivist manifestations of that.” Bavarksky wisely adds: “I’m not personally inclined to explain too much. Maybe it’ll become clearer over multiple readings or be interpreted very differently from our personal interpretations and I welcome that.”

I welcome it too. Exploratory interpretation is even built into the DNA of the two artists’ creative process. They began with no story, no character, no situation, just a few panels they passed back and forth by Dropbox (they live on opposite U.S. coasts). Like their later readers, they had to figure out what was going on based on initially ambiguous drawings, before working backwards to build a foundation for the sequence and then forwards as the narrative coalesced panel by panel.

Old Growth - Comics by comiXology

That’s not your typical approach to comics writing. More often a scripter hands a penciler page-by-page descriptions of would-be panel content paired with dialogue and narration. The artist doesn’t start drawing until the writing is over, making most comics just illustrated scripts. The penciler divides up the pre-determined number of images into layouts, sketches them, and then hands the work-in-progress to an inker who finalizes the line art, before handing it off again to a colorist. That’s the conveyer-belt production style of mainstream companies like Marvel and DC.

Olivo and Bavarksy worked nothing like that. They instead drew “completely in tandem,” trading the same panels back and forth, each adding new details, both and neither taking the role of primary artist-writer. Little wonder Old Growth took three years to produce.

Inside 'Old Growth' by Niv Bavarsky and Michael Olivo — CYA

They offset their complex creative process with formal simplicity. Most of the novel’s pages divide into a 2×3 grid of equal squares, providing a comfortingly simple progression through an internally complicated world. The choice of squares isn’t random. Bavarsky and Olivo recount how their first collaboration began when both were separately commissioned to draw an album cover. Instead of competing, they submitted a single, combined work. (They don’t name the album, but I’m guessing it’s “Cartoons” by the Australian band Hollow Everdaze.) Apparently, the shape appealed to them, because Old Growth includes over six hundred more.

Old Growth - Comics by comiXology: Web UK

The only images not co-drawn are the authors’ self-portraits, and there it’s clear that their styles are so merged it would be impossible to identify either’s specific contributions anywhere else in the novel. Their cartoons also evoke a higher level of abstraction than the majority of graphic novels. Sometimes panels seem to be shifting arrangements of flat, single-color shapes more than a storyworld of environments peopled by characters. The caterpillar, for example, is a string of overlapping pink circles with an anthropomorphic eyeball at one end but no other facial features.  The opening full-page image highlights a yellow triangle, which only after rereading with information gleaned from later pages can be deciphered as a heavenly ray of light bursting through darkened clouds.

Inside 'Old Growth' by Niv Bavarsky and Michael Olivo — CYA

Most panels are isolated images, but some pages (usually those depicting underground networks of mushroom roots) are appropriately interconnected, as though the white of the gutters blocks the view of the full picture. The second chapter (which might be an extended dream or prophecy?) breaks form, with squiggly panel edges and an eight-page sequence of full-page images that heighten the authors’ abstract style and push even harder against the novel’s narrative coherence. As a result, it’s one of the most interesting segments in the novel—though I admit I equally enjoyed the visual allusions to 1970s Godzilla movies when the caterpillar suddenly has a death ray emitting from its head. I also suspect the authors have seen a few Harry Potter movies, since the death ray and a mushroom laser tank lock beams like Harry and Voldemort.

Given that level of visual playfulness in both style and content, it may seem odd to interpret the novel as a philosophical struggle between domesticated comfort and antagonistic growth as Olivo suggests. He argues that the key to happiness is the understanding that pain is necessary. I’m guessing it was also Olivo who drew a literal key in the novel—a skeleton key with a skull for a head—that unlocks a heavenly door to the unknown.

I prefer Bavarksy’s description. When you’re taken “out of your comfort zone,” make something positive from the challenge. I suspect Old Growth will take some readers out of their comfort zones too. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a little more happy discomfort and a deeper exploration of heavenly unknowns, but it’s a treat to watch such an unusual collaborative process regardless of what flavor of fruit grows from it.

Niv Bavarsky — Just Six Degrees
Michael Olivo (Person) - Comic Vine

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