The Comedown after the High: Comic Book Millennials From Scott Pilgrim to Bad Gateway

My copy of Simon Hanselmann’s Megahex

I am currently reading Anabel Colazo’s No mires atrás, an adorable Spanish graphic novel that gives off strong Scott Pilgrim vibes. And this is not just due to the similarities between her art style and Brian Lee O’Malley’s (a fusion of manga and Tintin) but also their willingness to become dated, to be a time capsule for a generation. A decade has passed since Scott Pilgrim’s moment in the limelight, punctuated by Edgar Wright’s adaptation starring mumblecore icon Michael Cera, and it’s hard not to notice that the zeitgeist has shifted somewhat.

Video games and rock bands are still there, with just a few new elements present (streaming, creepypasta, to name a few), but on the whole there is a marked change of tone. This shift is especially discernable in No mires atrás. The millennial exuberance and irony that defined Scott Pilgrim has given way to a suffocating melancholy. Colazo’s protagonist is quite literally haunted and can’t shake off her spectral oppressor, an entity whose creepypasta origin belies its ability to breach realities.

A breach has definitely occurred, and it’s a gaping chasm most evident in popular culture. Young millennials and zoomers seem to inhabit a different world compared to the hipsterism of the late aughts. It’s the comedown after the high, the sense of being haunted by failures that haven’t even come to pass, and of opening the door wide open to let the noonday demon in. From fuck yeah to fuck it, all it takes is watching our potential futures crumbling before our eyes — the painfully slow cancellation of the future, as Bifo Berardi put it. As to the new forms of alienation nowadays, being practically always on-line is enough to trigger a neural rewiring. As Mikkel Krause Frantzen made clear in Going Nowhere, Slow,

Unlike the alienation of yesterday, which always implied distance, an abyss between man and machine, between animate subjectivity and sterile temporality, alienation today seems characterized by proximity and immersion. The problem, it appears, is that one has become so integral a part of the (net)work that — the moment it is no longer possible to keep up — one implodes rather than explodes.

It’s this implosive quality that drew me to Simon Hanselmann’s Megg, Mogg and Owl. The man didn’t just take the comic book world by storm — he applied the 5 Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. And while it took me a while to get into his stuff, after feverishly reading all the collected stories I realized that Megg, Mogg and Owl fulfilled the time capsule promise to a tee.

The (non)adventures of a witch (Megg) and her cat (Mogg), two stoners who suffer from debilitating anhedonia and lack of direction in life, subscribe to Frantzen’s version of alienation, defined in its present form by excess “promixity and immersion” to our media devices. What I initially took to be a more sophisticated take on the themes in Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club turned out to be the most engrossing and emotional comic book series I could remember reading. To quote the blurb on the back of Megahex:

You will believe an owl can cry.

What worked here was the same factor that got me hooked on Scott Pilgrim: relatability. I was a Scott Pilgrim fan in my early 20s and here I am now, reading Megg, Mogg and Owl in my late 20s. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s happened before, to me and others my age, with a more famous series. When I started reading the Harry Potter books at 13, I aged along with my favorite characters — a process which greatly aided reader-identification. Same thing when Scott Pilgrim came along. At 20 I was high on life and ready for what the universe threw my way. Ten years later, Megg, Mogg and their deranged entourage reminded me that, just like in the Hobbit meme,

I have never been so wrong in all my life.

The bad vibes are here to stay, all the burnout and meaninglessness compounded even further in the pandemic years. Hanselmann does a brilliant job of aestheticizing the epochal malaise of the late 2010s via a solid cast of witches, warlocks, werewolves and vampires — characters that feel more real than they should, so much so that there is this painful tinge of recognition in some of the longer story arcs. Gary Groth summarizes them best in his interview with Hanselmann in The Comic Journal:

Megg and Mogg share the stage with Hanselmann’s dramatis personae, most prominently among them being Owl, bourgeois, clueless, more conventional than the rest and often indignant at their shenanigans; and Werewolf Jones, a sybaritic beast, literally and figuratively, whose lifestyle revolves around self-inflicted damage and to whom the word excess does not exist. (14)

Those two end up shaping the series in a major way — no wonder they’re fan favorites. Owl and Werewolf Jones are pivotal in some of the darker moments w/r/t privilege, poverty, and toxic attachments. With all these left-field emotional turns, one can understand why Hanselmann is perpetually terrified of jumping the shark, but it might be near-impossible at this point — these darker moments don’t simply happen in a vacuum, but are rather a seamlessly integrated part of the stoner comedy whole. Megg, Mogg and Owl is no Ctrl+Alt+Del.

An oscillation between toilet humor and intense drama might not sound like a recipe for success, but it’s how this cross-section of a generation in despair manages to be so relatable. A crippling addiction to media, binge-watching, endlessly postponing responsibilities, and neglecting your health are really funny until they’re not, but after a while they go back to being funny again.

Compared to previous comic books that painted an unsavory portrait of their peers — think The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (San Francisco in the 1970s), Zanardi (Italy in the 1980s) or Buddy Does Seattle (Seattle in the 1990s) — Megg, Mogg and Owl is not afraid of going into more sincere territory. Raw emotion seeps out, almost uncontrollably so; underneath all the shits and giggles lies real hurt. With its covers referencing Millais’ Ophelia or Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the world of Megg and Mogg brings to mind Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of the noonday demon, when Nietzsche’s “yes to fate” turns into “no thanks”:

This desperate sinking into the abyss that is opened between desire and its unattainable object was fixed by medieval iconography in the type of acedia, represented as a woman who desolately lets her gaze fall to earth and abandons her head to the support of her hand . . . What the mnemo-technical project of the Middle Ages offered here to the edification of the contemplator was not a naturalistic representation of the “guilty sleep” or the lazy person, but the exemplary gesture of allowing the head and glance to decline as an emblem of the desperate paralysis of the soul before its inescapable situation. (7)

It is this “desperate paralysis of the soul” that characterizes a lost generation whose own turn on, tune in, and drop out is the Netflix binge. The situation we are in right now may seem inescapable, sure — it is not a given that galvanization and a new world order swiftly follow global disaster. What seems certain is that the specter of a better world, buried deep under capitalist ruins, is bequeathed to this most progressive of generations. The torch is being passed, and unfortunately it is during a trial by fire. It only looks desperate because we can’t make out the right flames.

Sources

  • Agamben, Giorgio. Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.
  • Frantzen, Mikkel Krause. Going Nowhere, Slow: The Aesthetics of Politics of Depression. Zero Books, 2019. Print.
  • Groth, Gary, editor. The Comics Journal. Fantagraphics Books, Summer-Fall 2019. Print

Ștefan Ionescu Ambrosie: a portfolio. I write about books, movies, comics, music, and Internet culture in general, with just a dash of theory

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