Monday, December 28, 2015

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane
from my DVD collection

They say you can't take it with you - when you die, that is (whoever "they" are; there's always some "they" saying something) - and that's one cliche that happens to be true. Ours is a materialistic culture. We like having things and we like ascribing a value to them, whether real or imagined. Sometimes, though, we get carried away with them. Sometimes things matter more than they should.

You all know I come from a background in comics, not just as a collector and a creator but as a journalist. I first became a comics columnist in 2000, and acquiring comics, particularly self-published and other independent ones, was important to me, not only for personal enjoyment, but also so I could write about them. One never knows where the next Walking Dead or Fun Home will come from, after all.

At some point along the way, though, I think I may have gotten my priorities screwed up.

Going to comics conventions became more about looking for a book which could become the Next Big Thing. I would order graphic novels by prominent creators expecting them to automatically be good sight unseen, so I could praise them in my column and perhaps include them in my year-end top ten list and thus prove my good taste and critical expertise to my readers. 

Sometimes, I'd genuinely like them, but other times, my reaction was more along the lines of "meh." It's the chance you take with any work of art, but I was motivated more by establishing my credibility as a notable critic than in simply buying a book I'd enjoy. I didn't do this sort of thing often, but I did it often enough, and afterwards, I'd be stuck with these books that I might appreciate, but didn't re-read often and didn't mean much to me. They would take up space on my shelves and in my long boxes.

The worst part of it was, I was never that prominent a comics journalist at all. Yeah, I interviewed a few well-known indie creators and hobnobbed with them occasionally at cons - and to be fair, I wrote some columns that I'm genuinely proud of - but somewhere along the way, I fancied who I was and what I did as being bigger than reality. I don't think I ever got a big head, at least I hope not, but I can think of a time or two when I blew off a friend in favor of going after a story. I regret that now.

My main point, though, is that acquiring comics became less about enjoyment of them and more about a means to enhance my rep online, such as it was. Recently, I took a good long look at my collection and saw a number of books I hadn't re-read in years and wondered why I still possessed them. I thought about what they'd mean to me as I got older, and how badly I really wanted to continue holding on to them.

So earlier this year, I did a major purge. No longer caring whether a certain comic would be worth something someday, I got rid of maybe 10-15% of my collection, which may not sound like a lot, but my collection is fairly big. I packed them up in boxes and chucked them and I can't say I regret the act. I've still got plenty of comics left (so my purge may not be over), but at least now I've whittled it down to a number closer to the ones that mean something to me beyond monetary worth or potential for future stardom: the Watchmen copy signed by Dave Gibbons at a con minutes before he left for the day (he even did a Rorschach sketch!); the complete run of a beloved sci-fi series that was cut short when the publisher went out of business; the self-published graphic novels by a husband and wife duo whom I've known and been friends with for years, whose work I've proudly supported. Stuff like that.

I doubt I could've done this ten years ago, at least not to the same degree. Now, though, as I've gotten older and the thought of mortality has begun to mean a little more to me, it has become easier than I thought - and this doesn't only apply to my comics. I'm treating my prose books the same, too. I certainly can't afford to throw money away on comics I don't re-read (or even read in some cases) anymore. That helps, in a way, because if I were to buy a comic now, chances are I'll value it more in the long run because I wouldn't do it to impress or influence anyone.

I've toyed with the thought of donating my collection to the library of my alma mater, the School of Visual Arts, when I die. It would make for a good home: SVA has a cartooning department, and many influential creators have taught and lectured there over the years. That's far in the future, though (knock on wood), so there's no rush.

And as for my current pastime, the movies, I try to avoid making the same mistakes. I've made a conscious attempt in recent years to not see a movie simply because it's "Oscar bait" or because it's popular (despite what I said about the new Star Wars movie). It's not always easy.

All of this leads, in my usual roundabout way, to Citizen Kane, a movie about a guy who spent his life acquiring things, only to find in the end that they weren't enough to fulfill him. Much has been said and written about this remarkable film, and since next year will mark its 75th anniversary, I imagine there will be much more to come. For instance, did you know that late in life, Orson Welles wanted to make what amounted to a thematic sequel but couldn't get the funding?

Of all the things about Kane that stuck with me as I watched it for the first time in many years last week, the theme of materialism stood out the most. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was a result of having a new perspective with age. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon whose life inspired Kane, built this abnormally huge mansion that he didn't even finish in his lifetime, and he filled it with all manner of things - and for what? So that one day it could be a tourist attraction? In a time where class differences in America have become more pronounced, it strikes me as obscene that one man could be so self-indulgent with his fortune.

Is Kane the greatest movie of all time? The British Film Institute no longer thinks so, for what that's worth, and at any rate, while there are as many opinions on that as there are to what the worst movie of all time is, there's probably as close to a public consensus on Kane as you'll find anywhere. It has become a shorthand metaphor for film excellence, even to people who have never seen it. Say the word "rosebud" and the average person is more likely to think of the movie than anything else. That's an outstanding accomplishment for a film that almost didn't see the light of day.

I think it's unfortunate, to say the least, that the rest of Welles' career never lived up to the promise of his debut. To be proclaimed a creative genius at such a young age, even before he came to Hollywood to make Kane, may have been more than any one person could hope to handle, although these days, such instant celebrity, thrust on young people, seems more common. I can certainly understand why there's such a fascination with Welles among cinephiles. The industry never seemed to give him a break as a filmmaker, but at the same time, he was his own worst enemy, too.

It's probably safe to say we'll never see another filmmaker like Welles, nor another film like Kane. Three quarters of a century later, it still looks modern, it still looks ahead of its time, and it still speaks eloquently to us about ourselves and the society in which we live. Any way you slice it, that's one hell of a legacy.


  1. Congrats on 1000 posts! What better way to celebrate than to write about Kane? Fantastic. Also, I've really enjoyed this year of classics. Looking forward to all that comes next.

  2. Thanks. That means a lot.

    KANE was not my original choice for the 1000th post, but the futzing of my computer, plus coming under the weather recently, necessitated a change or two in the program. I think I prefer this choice.


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