Comics Ate My Brain

February 27, 2006

There’s A Land That Is Fairer Than Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 2:50 am
As many of you know, yesterday Don Knotts died. That saddens me on a few levels, even though my relationship was more properly with Barney Fife. I suppose I am sad mostly because the death of Don Knotts removes the town of Mayberry a little further from our reality.

At various points in its existence, Mayberry has become synonymous for both the good and bad elements of small-town life. Today I want to focus on Mayberry as a constant — not quite a place, not quite a state of mind.

Last night the Best Wife Ever and I watched Finding Neverland, the fictionalized account of the creation of Peter Pan. Throughout the movie, “Neverland” is used as a metaphor for creativity, imagination, and even an afterlife, with the constant theme being that in Neverland, one never grows old. Implicit in that theme is not just immortality, but a lack of progression from one state to the next. Not a lack of change, mind you, and maybe even allowing for superhero comics’ “illusion of change.”

The appeal of Mayberry has a lot to do with that kind of stasis, and even with fans’ approach to “The Andy Griffith Show.” After Don Knotts left, the show continued without him for a few more seasons, but it was never the same. Ironically, Barney was often the shrill voice of progress, always demanding unsuccessfully that Andy bring a more modern sensibility to the sheriff’s office. “The Andy Griffith Show” doesn’t lend itself readily to deconstruction, or at least the sort of gentle deconstruction that subverts the milieu without destroying its charm — but in their buffoonish futility, Barney’s challenges allowed the show to address various deconstructionist impulses. Put another way, his constant comparing of Andy’s stewardship with the “real world’s” ways was the show’s method of commenting on itself. Thus, without him, the show lost both its main antagonist and its main source of metacommentary, and had to settle for just being heartwarming.

Finding Neverland is a bit treacly too, staying just on the good side of the standard Hollywood believe-in-yourself message, but its heart is in the right place and I found myself genuinely affected.

Fantasy of any kind creates its own eternal now, and with it a self-preserving conservatism that frowns upon change of any kind. However, the corresponding notion that every generation rediscovers the heroes of childhood is, almost by definition, predicated on the fact that children do grow up, at some point shelving the fantasies of youth. In Finding Neverland, playwright J.M. Barrie (or at least Johnny Depp’s Barrie) is anomalous in British society for precisely this reason: he presents a children’s fantasy to a largely adult audience, and (at least in the movie) insists that children be present at the premiere. He figures they would respond more appropriately to the fantasy than the ordinary audience of snobbish adults would. (Perhaps debunking this, one of the DVD’s featurettes suggests that the first Peter Pan audience was entirely made of adults, who still enthusiastically clapped Tink back to life.)

The picture of adults needing children to appreciate a fantasy may be especially resonant with today’s superhero fans, whose long-term fidelity to their favorite comics has forced the comics themselves to “grow up” alongside the audience. Today’s DC and Marvel readers struggle with how “realistic” their favorite titles should be, and how much whimsy can be tolerated.

Paradoxically, then, the immortality of a Mayberry, a Metropolis, or a Marvelized New York may depend on the ability of us tourists to give up going there, or at least to stop corrupting those places with our demands. In fact, the movie Pleasantville had Don Knotts go against Barney Fife’s standard role. There he played the guardian of a world based on 1950s sitcoms and compelled to mature by a couple of “real-world” visitors. They deconstructed “Pleasantville” in just about every sense of the word, bringing social change and a more progressive sensibility to a realm that had become too perfect. While the movie was a metaphor for the kind of societal change necessary to keep a community vibrant and equitable, it also lamented the loss of innocence that such change brought. (Sounds like a typical “Star Trek” episode too, now that I think of it.)

I should probably put Pleasantville on the Netflix list. I remember it as somewhat heavy-handed and obvious, but with enough redeeming qualities to make it rewatchable.

Anyway, you see my point. On some level we expect our fantastic places to be eternal, and part of that means they are unchanging, but at some point our influence may well make them grow up whether we like it or not. Perhaps we older readers have clung to Marvel’s and DC’s output for so long out of fear that we have become the guardians of those fantastic places, and without our attention they will wither and die forever. It is much easier to give something up if you know it will be safe. I honestly don’t know whether I’m ready to do that yet, or at what point I will be.

I do know that a good ending can provide both the means to make a work eternal and the closure necessary to move on. I hear “second star to the right … and straight on ’til morning!” and I don’t picture a green-clad boy — I see a 60-year-old James T. Kirk with a twinkle in his eye, giving the order to steer his Enterprise into history. I see old black-and-white footage of a rail-thin Don Knotts in a khaki deputy’s uniform, and it represents a bucolic village of happy people, forever untouched by anything that would disturb them for more than 20-odd minutes a week.

Now, that may only be a story I tell myself, but it gives me comfort and peace. Like the man said, it’s an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?

1 Comment »

  1. Deconstructing Mayberry…the Modern American Smalltown Myth and RealityYou should pitch it to PBS.Mark “Puff” Anderson

    Comment by Mark "Puff" Anderson — February 27, 2006 @ 3:47 am

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