Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Everybody Be Cool: Brand Cool

In the final part of his journey into cool, Kieron Gillen looks at how some comic fans really are cool - though others really aren't - and how being cool isn't necessarily a good thing for comics.
27 January 2003

I know something you don't know. This makes me cooler than you.

Don't blame me. It's just the way it works.

No-one likes feeling stupid, and meeting someone who knows more than you prompts - depending on your nature - either jealousy, anger or admiration. Or, more commonly, a potent cocktail of all three. Don't forget that there's a demographic who twitch-splutters, "They think they're so cool" when confronted by someone who - more often than not - actually is cool.

(As I've said before the "If you have to try, you'll never be cool" dogma is plainly wrong. Cool is a product of mid-twentieth century consumerism. That is, a manufactured product, like cling film or toothpaste. There's nothing natural about it at all. Cool is as toxic and immortal as polystyrene. After a nuclear war, all that will remain is cockroaches wearing sunglasses listening to the Velvet Underground while reading THE INVISIBLES).

The problem with expressing an inclination towards anything is that no matter what you say, someone will eventually hold an opinion against it and condemn you as uncool. It's the reason why the majority of people, upon being asked what music they like, will answer, "A little bit of everything". It's not that they want to express their cosmopolitan nature. It's because they're scared of what they may turn into in the eye of the observer.

Back in the day when I was a hormonally over-dosing zine-kid, I wrote a sprawling comedy tract about this, which suggested two routes to maintain your cool. The latter was simply to make stuff up no-one's ever heard of: random generation tables for bands, albums and genres sprawled across pages, allowing you to spontaneously express your love for the Epidural Colonic Brigade with their unique brand of chainsaw pop-reggae. The former method was, simply, to know about stuff before everyone else.

And one way of knowing about stuff before everyone else is simply to throw yourself into a form which mainstream culture has virtually forgot.

If you can't be bothered with poetry, there's comics.

The right comics.

CAPTAIN MARVEL may be an excellent, entertaining work but I'm never going to read it, as I'd rather spend my cash on something chic from Oni that I can extrapolate at length about to friends and attractive strangers and raise my social standing.

Yes, this is critical snobbishness, disingenuous and fairly reprehensible.

So what, punk? That's cool all over. Nice guys finish last, wearing corduroy and smelling of tramp piss.

Put simply, there's far more kicks in the world than you can ever possibly experience. Yes, the 'ninety-five percent of everything is rubbish' rule still holds, but with the mass-production of information and entertainment that our age have provoked, the amount of things to choose from has expanded. If I wanted to, and was smart enough, I could never experience anything rubbish - or at least uncool - again. So, since the basic pleasure principle would make all these cool things equivalent, what makes it so bad to choose things on secondary considerations like, for example, "Will liking this ever assist me in getting laid?"

So the cool comic consumer, as well as picking up whatever cultural detritus from other forms that catches their eye, can simply pick what fits best from comics, whatever acts as a mirror or Dorian Gray-esque portrait of themselves, before moving on. Whenever they choose, they can reveal their knowledge and dazzle. When you're talking about comics to a stranger, and you play it right, it's a whole world that you're engaged in about which they know nothing. That can be highly cool.

The trick is not to be defensive in the slightest. In other words, if you're extremely cool, reading comics is just a well-chosen tool to help reiterate your position. If you're not, they're a screaming red brand to show the opposite. Either of the peripheries are just as much a societal outsider as the other - even those in the heart are outsiders in their own twisted little way.

And we find ourselves lead in a round-about way back to Morrison's extreme dichotomy which opened this series of columns: "I've come to the conclusion that only the very cool and the very uncool will really care about comics in any significant way in the future."

I've noticed in all the areas where comics are cool as objects in themselves, it's in terms of what they can deal with, how they can deal with it, their visual poetry and so on. But that's answering a different question - why are comics cool. What's buried within Morrison's quote is the question, "Why do very cool people like comics"?

Try this:

There's a standard argument that a huge cross-section of comic book fans want comics to stay down in the dark, serving their niche. But for comics to continue to be of use to very cool people in the manner described, they also need it be obscure and obscured. After all, in the dark can mean the corner of a sweaty night club, exchanging bodily fluids, just as much as it can mean a sweaty bedroom with bodily fluids pooling around a LADY DEATH left-nipple collectable.

In the end, Morrison's observation is really a description of the symptoms of comics' problems - it's a medium populated with people only comfortable in a niche, and those who take the greatest joy in locating them. Tiny introverted pygmies living in a deserted volcano with thirty different words for "spandex", and colonial explorers taking native trinkets back to civilisation for their acclaim.

Very cool people like comics obscure, as obscurity is cool in and of itself - and for this to remain true, comics must remain a tiny, vestigial, culturally distant thing. What use is the Amazon to an adventurer when there's package holidays there for the commoners?

Don't trust very cool people.

They're a bunch of toe-rags.

Kieron Gillen is an award-winning videogames journalist.

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