Saturday, February 26, 2011

The American Dream

There's a gent that lives not far from me by the name of Jim Bonaminio. I've never met him, but he's something of a minor celebrity. He's appeared on Good Morning America and NPR and all sorts of outlets. He's certainly a celebrity in the local market, and gets mentioned pretty regularly on the local news.

Back in the early 1970s, he sold produce out of the back of his pick-up truck in an empty parking lot. He did well enough that, after several years, he was able to buy a small plot of land and erect a more permanent structure. By which I mean some two-by-fours supporting a plastic corrugated roof. After several years of doing that, he built an actual building. That expanded and got added on to. By the time I first heard about and walked through in the late 1990s, the store interior was about 3 acres. Now, it's about 6 and 1/2 acres. Inside.

He sells much more than produce these days. In fact, it's by far the largest grocery store I've ever seen. He has whole sections devoted to different countries, importing foodstuffs from Mexico, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, China, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and a host of other countries. The last time I was there, I bought spicy Indian ketchup, frozen Filipino lumpias, a Japanese coconut drink and several bottles of root beer from different American microbreweries I had never heard of. The guy stocks just about everything edible that can legally be bought/sold in the U.S.

And, if that weren't enough, the store is also peppered with animatronic figures. Mostly bought from a Chuck E. Cheese that went under, but he's also got several General Mills cereal mascots, an anthropomorphic can of Campbell's soup and some less animated, but still quite chatty, Robin Hood characters.

I've taken out-of-town guests there on occasion and we always spend 3-4 hours in the store. It's just really frickin' huge with lots and lots to see. And believe me when I say that I'm seriously under-playing things here. There's no way I could really give you a true sense of what you're getting into when you walk into this place.

But that's WHY he's a celebrity. Here's a guy who started in the back of a pick-up truck and now has what has to be one of, if not the most successful independent grocery store in America. That's the American DreamTM in action. Dude worked hard and honestly, and became very successful as a result. He has enough money that he can afford to buy a monorail and just park it in his lot for a decade. (Which he actually did.)

Here's the thing, though. He's celebrated as one of the folks who "made it." That's great that he did, but the reason we continue to celebrate him is because THERE IS NO ONE ELSE. That American Dream of becoming a great success through hard work and determination is largely a myth. Comicdom is rife with examples.

There are, of course, the notable examples of older creators getting screwed out their due. Siegel and Shuster, Bill Finger, Marty Nodell, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, the list goes on and on. Even those who didn't get completely shafted -- guys like Bob Kane and Will Eisner -- weren't leading exorbitant or lavish lifestyles. They made a living, but not a whole lot more. Stan Lee is probably the only one who might be able to make a claim success along those lines.

More recent creators that might be considered successful aren't exactly rolling in dough, either. Robert Crumb lives a pretty modest life in France and Jeff Smith remains near his childhood home in Ohio. Wendy and Richard Pini always seem to be doing well, but again, we're not talking vast commercial empire here either. Todd McFarlane is about the only other comic creator I can think of that can claim the kind of success that's idealized in the "American Dream."

That's nothing to say for the thousands of professional comic creators who worked incessantly on their projects, did excellent work on them, only to be largely ignored. Now, granted, the crop of 20-something folks out there now really haven't had a chance to become wildly successful, and you could make the same argument about many 30-somethings as well. But in the past several decades since comics as we know them were invented, and the thousands and thousands of people who worked on them during that time, that we might only point to two individuals who were able to turn comics into the "American Dream" says to me that it's not very rooted in reality. It says to me that there's either something inherently wrong with that ideal and/or that we live in a society that, contrary to popular belief, does not support true entrepreneurialism. Which is not to say that you can't start your own business; just that your new start-up has a great many barriers placed in front of it to prevent it from becoming "American Dream" level successful.

It's worth celebrating those individuals, like Bonaminio and McFarlane, who are able to somehow sneak through the cracks and become successes despite themselves. (And in both those cases, I really do mean despite themselves. Listen to them speak, and you'll wonder how they were able to keep their checkbooks balanced before they were able to pay someone to do it.) But it's also necessary to recognize that their successes are exceptionally, exceptionally rare, patriotic dogma to the contrary.

3 comments:

Matt K said...

I've heard of this place more than once, "Jungle Jim's" or something like that, isn't it? I know it was in the "Weird Ohio" book.

Anyway, many commendable observations here. It's particularly funny that you point to Todd McFarlane, not only because 1) he's actually Canadian but 2) statistically speaking, a Canuck would actually have better odds of upward social mobility staying north of the border these days.

Fact is, one doesn't need to be a "decline and fall" pessimist to think that the "rags to riches" or even "rags to comfortably middle class" dream has been getting more dreamy and less real in America. It has, going back quite some time before the recession.

But apparently this is an unpleasant and uncomfortable subject for most. So the Panglossian bromide that the free market gives everyone exactly what he or she deserves hangs around instead. Yep yep.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Jungle Jim's is correct. Didn't realize I hadn't actually mentioned it by name.

Actually, McFarlane being Canadian only heightens his example with regard to the myth. The story being that even an immigrant coming to this country has a shot at the big time. Plays into the "tired, huddled masses" bit even more.

And, dude, MAJOR points for "Panglossian bromide." I'll admit to having to consult a dictionary for that, but it's a brilliant phrase with some impressively nuanced implied meanings. Love it!

Matt K said...

Cheers, here to help. I rail about this kind of thing enough, I suppose, that I feel obligated to come up with some expressive phrasing for oft-referenced concepts. :-)