I was raised on comic books. I never read them, but I did flip through them, since my dad gave me one of those long white boxes full of them. I enjoyed the covers, but the newsprint pages inside never captivated me, except for a few Jack Kirby classics (the first ten X-Men), the first few issues of Spawn, and one or two others.
When I first heard Bill Gates had built the Corbis Film Preservation Facility, a sub-zero storage vault and digitization lab at the bottom of an old limestone mine, I thought of comic book villains. Gates has a massive collection of photographs and art, and owns the digital rights to many masterpieces he doesn’t physically own, such as the works of Ansel Adams. As an extension of his image resource company Corbis, he owns GreenLight, which handles licensing matters for many dead and famous icons, such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, and a few living ones, like Muhammed Ali. The official term for this kind of business is “personality rights management.” In short, if you want to use an image of Steve McQueen on the cover of your new book, The American Badass: A Study in the Evolution of Character, you have to go through Gates. I recently saw a Dow Chemical ad featuring a typical European plaza, with fifteen or twenty people gliding lazily on bicycles, all of them, men and women, dressed in tweed suits, all of them with that trademark shock of Einstein hair, the men with mustachios matching both their light gray hair and their light gray suits. In the lower left-hand corner of the double-page ad, a few 3-point lines of text read something like “Albert Einstein’s image appears courtesy of GreenLight.”
What does this have to do with comic books? I am no conspiracy theorist, but even after researching Gates and Corbis for years, I still occasionally think “What if he were a real life comic book villain? Buying up as many historical photography archives as he can, implanting some master virus in all of his Microsoft systems, in a grand scheme to change–or erase–parts of history?” I can’t help but imagine him being interviewed forty years from now, and the interviewer makes an offhand comment about Ellis Island, and Gates says “Ellis Island????” The commentator then requests a few images of Ellis Island to be displayed on the large screen behind him, and no one can find any on the internet, and all the books in libraries have been digitized, the originals recycled (because we’re so green), while a vast number of original photos of the landmark are locked away in Gates’ subterranean vault.
Being raised on comic books, by a lover of comic books, can instill a healthy paranoia in a child, a critical lens through which to view and understand the world and how it works, from the construction of social difference to institutions of power, from the ethics of biotechnology and war to the nature of evil. In comic books, as well as their cousins, dystopian novels, the evil design that threatens to, or already has, become the normal order of things, always starts with something small. Of course, many small things have already happened that point to the realization of sections of 1984, like George W. Bush’s victory speech delivered years before the war would end (when will it end?), not to mention clones, drones, hyperrealistic video games and an assortment of other elements that recall Brave New World, Oryx and Crake, and other futuristic favorites.
Again, I hate conspiracy theory–it gives us the impression that the evils of the world are attributable to some small group of men who meet once a year and plan the fate of humankind. The reality is much more disturbing, the spread and routinization of evil more mundane, and we all bear some responsibility. Yet, every so often I allow myself to indulge in speculation, because I know, from my comic books, that when the world incrementally flips upside-down and we come to live in the nightmare we once feared, a few will look back through the banned histories smuggled into the present, and see the truth in a few fantastic speculations, the prescience in writings once called paranoid, the prophecy in the ramblings of those once called insane, who were locked away in vaults at the bottom of the world, like millions of old photographs frozen in a cave.