The Michael Ellis Post

By | Tuesday, December 04, 2007 2 comments
You like comic books, right? Sure, you do. Otherwise you wouldn't be here. (Well, probably not universally true given the title of this post, but you'll just have to excuse my cross-cultural references today.) So you like comic books.

Why?

What makes you spend money on comics that might otherwise go towards movies or video games or even something substantial like food or shelter? Why is it that you visit Metropolis or Astro City or wherever on a regular basis, fully aware in the knowledge that no matter who much you study the place, you will never be able to experience first-hand? Why is that learn about Spider-Man or The Phantom or whomever, knowing you have precisely zero chance of actually meeting them?

Let me back up a bit as those questions point to a more extreme end of comic book hobbyists.

The term "hobby" first appeared in relation to the "hobby horse" -- an artificial horse used originally in a specific type of dance. By the 1500s, the term broadened a bit to include any sort of mock horse and it was frequently used to speak of a child's toy (as children were the ones who had the most use of fake horses). It about a century for the word "hobby" to stand on it's own and carry the meaning we generally associate with it today, with the original tie being that, like a hobby horse, one's hobbies don't really go anywhere.

(Yes, while there are a number of comic book collectors who do turn into professionals of some sort, there are many, many more who do not. Their comic book hobby, from a functional/practical point of view, leads nowhere and those people need to earn a living in some other manner.)

The reason, of course, that a term like hobby was needed was because people began to develop technology enough that they weren't required to focus on their survival every waking moment. While there was entertainment earlier than the sixteenth century certainly, there was still a great deal of time spent in making it to the next day. What free time one might have had could be spent in hobby-like pursuits, but not in sufficient quantity to really need a name for it. One could hardly say they played cards as a hobby if they only played once in a while.

Well, technology continued to improve and provide people with more free time. So towards the end of the nineteenth century, we see the rise of the term "fan." People not only had enough time to pursue an outside interest, but they could afford to pursue it often enough and with enough intensity that something stronger than "hobby" was needed. Sure, it may have been a hobby to play the violin, but Conan-Doyle's work had people excited enough to talk about it around the 1890's equivalent of the water cooler the day after his latest installment was released.

(What, exactly, would have been the 1890's equivalent of the water cooler anyway? A rusty pail and ladle filled with dirty water and backwash?)

Alright, so going back to that original question: why put some of your hard-earned money towards comics? The answer is Michael Ellis.

For those unfamiliar with the reference, there was Monty Python episode in which the unassuming protagonist, Chris Quinn, is mistaken for a man named Michael Ellis. Chris' interest in this stranger is piqued, naturally, and his life for the next half hour is riddled with obscure references to the elusive Ellis. But, by the show's end, Chris has not only been unable to find Mr. Ellis, he has no more information about the man than he did at the start of the show.

Although the show was really nothing more than absurdist humor, one can read a great deal into it. Quinn of course represents an average man in contemporary society. He shops at department stores, he watches TV, he waits in queues... Absolutely nothing special about him whatsoever. But, by whatever metaphysic intervention, he is suddenly and inexplicably dealt a string of coincidences involving Michael Ellis. Quinn, being an average man, largely ignores the coincidences except when they're directly in front of him. His interest in who Ellis is wanes quickly as the shop attendants distract him with foolishness, or as soon as the television is turned off.

So, who or what does Michael Ellis represent here?

How well do you remember The Muppet Show or Seasame Street? The classic ones, mind you, when Jim Henson was still around. The stuff that's most memorable, for many people, are the bits that revolve around chaos theory. All the best routines start off as more-or-less straightforward skits, but each error, miscommunication or lapse in judgement flows directly to another problem, each one expounding upon the next until the scene is one of havoc. (That's kind of a misleading example of chaos theory, but I think it'll suffice for it's common, albiet inaccurate, usage.) My friends in college and I used to claim that it wasn't a good Muppet skit until you had chickens running rampant on the stage.

But the theme of the shows were generally that you had a small band of friends trying to accomplish a goal and whether or not they successfully achieved it was immaterial since they were attempting it together. It was the friendship of Bert and Ernie that was important, not that Ernie had to rip off Bert's nose to finish his bust. It was that Kermit and Fozzie were signing together in a Studabaker that was important, not that they got to meet Orson Wells. The chaos that inevitably ensued in any Muppet venture was ultimately irrelevant, because that end result wasn't the point. It was the journey that mattered.

Eastern philosophy via felt and ping pong balls.

("Where the hell is Sean going with this?!?")

The thing of it is that we, as humans, are going through Life, not knowing what we're doing. No one can really answer the meaning of Life in any definitive manner, so each of us has to come to our own understanding of the universe and the nature of existence and try to act accordingly. And, in a world where mere survival is no longer the only concern, we look to external sources for whatever insights and guidance they might be able to provide, however nominal. That's why people still perform Lysistrata. That's why people study Shakespeare. That's why we read comic books.

Yeah, a lot of comics have guys and gals in spandex beating the snot out of one another. And there are a lot whose primary intention seemingly is to provide titillation to (emotionally) adolescent males. And there are folks who look down on the dominant superhero genre, or argue that comics are an art form or are literature.

But at the end of the day, every person who reads a comic is looking to understand their life a little more. They're looking to understand how the sum total of their actions have led them to where they're at today. Why are they socially inept? What are the arguments for and against starting an unprovoked war? Does it make sense for me to elect a businessman to run the country? What are the possible results of my actions? They're using chaos theory to define their current situation and probably futures.

But no one has a universal grasp on chaos theory. The guys and gals writing those comic book stories really don't know any more than you or I certainly. They're guessing as much as we are. And that's why we keep reading. We never get the answers. Not really. It turns into a hobby when we keep looking in the same types of places over and over again. We turn into fans when we start to get enjoyment out that continual search for meaning that is always just beyond out grasp. We are Chris Quinn perpetually a few steps behind Michael Ellis.

Back to the original question again: why do you like comics?

You're looking for answers, the same as everybody else. Your mind, unlike everybody else's, is keyed to the visual language of comic books. In reading comics, you see Michael Ellis a little more often. Oh, he's still not identifiable on sight, but you know he's there, wedged between the sunset and the happy ending. Somewhere between the hero's victory on the last page and the never-ending battle. You know as well as I do that you're not going to get the answers anywhere, but you enjoy the journey a little more when it's through the pages of a comic.
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2 comments:

plok said...

Hey, you're infringing on my trademark tangent stuff, Sean! The derivation of "hobby" from dancing, Muppet chickens, Monty Python, chaos theory, and comic books?

LOVE IT!

A to J to Q to X to B, indeed!

I'd be happy to read another "Michael Ellis post" from you, anytime. Damn good name for it, in fact. Bravo!

I've been caught! Yup, I shamelessly admit that The Michael Ellis Post was a deliberate attempt to see if I could pull off your bizarre tangents riff. (FWIW, I actually started with the title, having absolutely no clue where I was going with it.)

Having done that once, though, I am definitely not planning on attempting that again any time soon. Took me a better part of the day to write that as it is, and I still didn't really get more than one or two half-decent decent metaphors in there.

I think I'll stick with with my boring ol' A-to-B-to-C-to-D style, and let you Kerouac-types go off on your fancy digressions. :)