By Freddie deBoer
(Editor's Note: A few years ago, I remarked to a novelist friend that our particular geeky obsessions no longer seemed special. Everyone knew about them. "Yeah," he replied, "now that HEROES is on TV, the idea that there's any particular cache to obscure geek knowledge has been totally obliterated." It was a funny moment, a recognition that as financial capital accrued to the things we were interested in, the social and cultural capital of those interests was being dilluted into meaninglessness. After all, for something to make money, it has to be popular, and once its popular, one's expertise is no longer cool. Or interesting. Or charming. In this post, Freddie DeBoer-- one of my favorite bloggers-- discusses how the financial triumph of geekdom hasn't erased the victim-culture that forms its ligature.
The beginning of this year’s summer movie season represented, for comic books and superheroes, a truly record-breaking triumph. The Avengers, long billed as the biggest movie of the summer—in a season featuring a new Batman film, no less—confirmed that status by shattering record after record in ticket sales and grosses. By most lights, Marvel’s superteam recently enjoyed the best opening weekend in the history of the movies, both domestic and foreign. Better, this financial success hasn’t come with the typical critical derision that Hollywood tent poles tend to engender; the reviews have been almost uniformly positive, even fawning, with a Rotten Tomatoes score hovering comfortably about 90%. Metrics to measure audience satisfaction, such as Cinemascore, demonstrate a rapturous reception. It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive success in movies, or indeed in any form of arts and media.
The question is whether those who have followed Marvel and the Avengers the longest— comic book, sci-fi, fantasy, and video game fans—will allow themselves to enjoy it.
The success of the Avengers is only a small part of a broader phenomenon: the rise of “geek culture” as the single most powerful force, commercial and cultural, in the art and media landscape. The major genres and media once consigned to the realm of geek or nerd culture, such as science fiction, high fantasy, comic books, and video games now dominate both in terms of commercial success and popular attention. They are simply unavoidable. Year in and year out, the most highly promoted and widest opening blockbuster films come from broader geek culture. Superhero movies have become so ubiquitous that filmmaker demand is outstripping the supply of comic book characters that could plausibly carry a movie. (Jonah Hexx happened for a reason.) Coverage of video games is now prevalent in general-purpose newspapers and magazines. Television shows like Game of Thrones and Grimm bring Dungeons and Dragons-inflected fantasy—once a bridge too far even for many genre fiction fans— to a large audience. Even the traditionally high-brow cultural media, publications like the New York Times and The New Yorker, devote more attention to sci-fi and superheroes than they do to opera, orchestral music, and ballet.
Yet despite this dominance, there remains a remarkable sensitivity towards perceived slights among these genres’ most dedicated fans.
Samuel L. Jackson generated controversy when he responded angrily to what was, on balance, a positive review from AO Scott in the New York Times. On Twitter, Jackson brought heat onto Scott by using the #Avengers hashtag and suggesting that the critic needed to find a new job. I’m not particularly surprised by the defensiveness of a self-interested creator; movies take years to make and months to promote, and The Avengers has been building for decades. I’m more interested in, and a little disturbed by, the fact that Jackson so easily rallied the troops. Tweeters came after Scott in droves, accusing him of grinding an axe, of pretension, and worst, of being a snob. The question is not just why fans of the movie were so aggravated by a generally positive review, but why that reaction came at the moment of such obvious and enormous triumph.
AO Scott was not alone in having Avengers fans after his job. Andrew O’Hehir, film critic for Salon, provoked the usual calls for termination in the comments on his own review. The review was, to be fair, much less kind than Scott’s. Yet I don’t think that the negative reaction was so much a reaction to the negativity. I think it was a reaction to O’Hehir’s brutally cutting take on a phony pretense that attends so much of our discussion of these issues.
for the love of Christ, at what point is the triumph of comic-book culture sufficient? Those one-time comic-book pariahs are now the dominant force in pop-culture entertainment, and their works are deemed to be not just big but also relevant and important…It’s a neat little postmodern trick, actually, to simultaneously position this movie as the most central pop-culture event of 2012 and insist on some kind of edgy, outsider status that renders any and all detractors as pipe-smoking William F. Buckley squares, defending a nonexistent Establishment.
True. Brutally true, and deeply challenging to a fanbase that has made victimization an inextricable part of its ethos.
I wrote, recently, that fans of geek culture have become like the Tea Party. This is, I’ll admit, deliberately provoking. But I mean it in a simple sense: both are so invested in certain grievances, and have so integrating airing those them into their culture, that they seem completely incapable of judging whether those grievances are rational. The Tea Party, representing an overwhelmingly white, Christian, straight, rural base, has spun out a narrative of overt political oppression and marginalization, despite the fact that the country’s most powerful political bloc has always been white, Christian, straight, and rural. Our legistlative system significantly overrepresents their desires, by awarding equal representation in the Senate to low-population, rural states—overwhelmingly populated by people of the aforementioned demographics—as to high population states like New York and California, which have significantly higher minority populations. Comic books and sci-fi, meanwhile, are endlessly appealing to major studios because they have preexisting fanbases to spread the word and create buzz, as well as ample, lucrative merchandising opportunities. In both cases, what we have is the rage of the enfranchised: an implacable hunger for more recognition for a group that could scarcely be more recognized. And in both cases, feelings of exclusion and marginalization have become so deeply ingrained into the character of the movement that grievance threatens to overwhelm everything else, to define them entirely.
Geek fandom, at least, can plausibly point to a period of disenfranchisement in the recent past. It’s true, although typically exaggerated, that science fiction and fantasy were often regarded as fundamentally unserious genres, and that comic books and video games were marginalized as serious mediums. I am not comfortable using the term “bias” to describe this dynamic, as there is no meaningful place where personal tastes end and where bias begins. But there’s no question that judging genres and mediums in broad strokes is a critical failure, and those cultural arbiters that worked against these genres and mediums did neither themselves nor the general audience for media any favors. With graphic novels, sci-fi, and assorted other aspects of geek culture, our culture is more varied, more creative, and more fun. If the question is simply whether geek media should be given equal critical evaluation and the presumptive respect of any other artwork, the answer is emphatically yes. Aside from the occasional Roger Ebert-style holdout, it’s hard to name prominent people who disagree.
Yet a visit to prominent geek culture websites like io9.com or the SyFy sites or various blogs at Wired and an endless number of special-interest blogs and forums reveals a geek fanbase that is convinced its cherished properties are terribly oppressed. Typically, there is no attempt to contextualize or qualify these claims whatsoever. The holdouts, like Ebert, are represented as speaking to the culture at large, when in fact their resistance represents the last gasps of a hugely unpopular position. (I’m also presumptuous enough to accuse some of these holdouts in engaging in contrarianism and trolling for traffic.) The ratios are overwhelming. The most cursory reality check should disabuse anyone of the notion that these people represent anything like a significant minority. But, yeah, okay: there are some people who still speak of geek culture as unworthy of being taken seriously. Since these holdouts are evidently completely incapable of damaging the commercial dominance of genre fiction, who cares? Do geeks really require literal unanimity in the critical appraisal of their favorites? It’s an indicator of considerable weakness, the inability to accept that not everyone has your tastes or holds your treasured cultural goods in equal esteem.
Context is everything. When I argue with people who continue to bear this grudge, I am often most confused by their references to some such thing as “high society,” to the idea that there is some kind of cultural elite that continues to disparage pop culture despite its total cultural and economic dominance. Here, too, are resonances with revanchist American conservatism: the vague feeling that, somewhere, shadowy elites are mocking you. I think part of this has to be a function of the fact that, for many young adult geeks, the notion of their marginalization is entirely secondhand; they grew up into a cultural world that genuflects to them, but have been told that being a part of geek culture means shaking an angry fist at the squares who sneer at them. Not seeing any squares present, they have to assume some sort of shadowy cabal that huddles in secret enclaves and lobs hand grenades of snobbery their way.
If this world of cultural elites exists, you’d think that they could do a better job at supporting “high culture.” As dissatisfied as fans of comic books and sci-fi may remain at the perceived value of their cultural commitments, surely they can recognize that it’s better than nonexistence. And this is the stark reality for much traditional high art, like ballet, theater, opera, and orchestral music: what is threatened is not just their place in some nebulous hierarchy of tastes but their continued survival. The diminishing prominence of these traditions, no doubt hastened along by the insatiable appetite for analysis and criticism about pop culture, comes along with the collapse of funding for the arts during an economic malaise. You might speak to a fan of avant garde theater and count your blessings; better to be able to get the media you want and be unhappy with its critical reception than to not be able to get your hands on it at all. There is absolutely no chance that superhero movies and analysis of same will disappear in the short term. That is the very bleak possibility for much of traditional high culture, at least as professional enterprises.
Take it from a fan of experimental fiction, a dicey commercial prospect in the best of times: it’s better to be sold than to be told. Ephemeral notions of artistic superiority are no comfort when you simply can’t purchase the media you love anymore, or find much analysis of it in any mainstream publication.
I want to return to Andrew O’Hehir’s question: at what point is the triumph of comic-book culture sufficient? I don’t ask this rhetorically. Grievance, even imagined or exaggerated grievance, deserves to be redressed. But to be redressed there has to be some definition of what success could mean materially. My frustration and my confusion stem from a genuine inability to divine what, exactly, could constitute success, what could convince these fans to drop their long-cultivated ethos of victimization. I’ve asked that question many times and in many contexts, and have never received a satisfactory answer.
Commercial dominance, at this point, is a given. What critical arbiters would you like? Is it a Best Picture Oscar for one of their movies? Can’t be. Return of the King won it in 2003. (And ten other Academy Awards. And four Golden Globes. And every other major award imaginable.) Recognition from the “literary establishment?” Again, I don’t know what that term could refer to; there are publishers and there are academics and there are book reviewers, but there is no such thing as a literary establishment. Even a cursory look at individual actors dedicated to literature will reveal that glory for sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels has already arrived. Turn of the century “best book” lists made ample room for J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others. Serious book critics fall all over themselves to praise the graphic novels of Allison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman. Respect in the world of contemporary fiction? Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and other “literary fantasists” have earned rapturous reviews from the stuffiest critics. Penetration into university culture and academic literary analysis? English departments are choked with classes on sci-fi and genre fiction, in an effort to attract students. Popular academic conferences are held not just on fantasy or graphic novels but specifically on Joss Whedon and Batman. Peer-reviewed journals host special issues on cyberpunk and video game theory.
To the geeks, I promise: I’m not insulting you. I’m conceding the point that you have worked for so long to prove. Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished. It’s time to enjoy it, a little; to turn the critical facility away from the outside world and towards political and artistic problems within the world of geek culture; and if possible, maybe to defend and protect those endangered elements of high culture. They could use the help. It’s time for solidarity.
I don’t doubt that many will resist this message, or that some will insist that I am simply looking for a way to insult fans of these genres and mediums. Self-conceptions of victimhood are not easily rejected. What I want is not any worse or less for geeks, only true equity on the plane of ideas and aesthetics. And true equity means that you don’t get people constantly kissing your ass or bowing down before the supposed superiority of your commitment to the art you treasure. Nobody gets that, and nobody should; it’s a juvenile vision of art, and ultimately a self-contradictory one, as it asks people to take art seriously and then punishes them when they do so by engaging critically.
I think these fans are looking to the stars, for some sort of recognition or respect that simply doesn’t exist, for any of us. That’s a recipe for continued unhappiness, and a petty kind, at that. The doors have been flung upon. There’s no glory in staying in a cramped room. It’s warm and sunny outside.