The Conquest of Earth Prime

Two recent blog entries by bloggers I enjoy got me thinking.

First, Johanna Draper Carlson makes an odd declaration in the course of panning the Batman Begins DVD.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a *bad* movie… It’s very faithful to the comics (the good ones). It just doesn’t have much heart. It’s great for the fans, not so much for a general audience. If you don’t know the comics, the character types can seem pretty two-dimensional.

My emphasis. Johanna’s a seasoned critic with informed tastes who need apologize to no one for liking what she likes and disliking what she doesn’t. But while Johanna is much less enthusiastic about American superhero comics than, say, I am, she is nevertheless a fandom lifer, who goes to cons, married a fan and former pro (KC Carlson, who co-reviews the new animated-Batman DVD in another entry), and reads more comics of all kinds in a week than I do in a month. Neither she nor I constitute the “general audience,” so we’re not well-qualified to declare whether a given genre product is going to resonate with that audience.

Better to simply say, “I like this because” or “I don’t like this because” rather than attempting to do what the Co-Dependency Movement calls “guessing at normal.”

In this particular case, as Johanna herself points out, Batman Begins has been around for three years. In those three years it’s been a blockbuster movie, a bestselling DVD and a popular on-demand video rental. Its sequel is in the middle of what may be the biggest opening weekend in the history of movies. It simply is a smash-hit general-audience movie. I actually married outside the Faith – my wife reads Jonah Hex and (when it was being published) Queen & Country, but has spent most of her life comics-free. She’s watched Batman Begins more than I have. Not as many times as she’s watched the remake of The Italian Job, but an awful lot. Because fan culture has had a long tendency toward self-hatred or factional contempt, we sometimes assume that if fans like it, “regular people” won’t. As Johanna notes, Batman Begins replicated a number of visuals from Dave Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One art. There’s a certain fannish pleasure to be had in recognizing them for what they are – or, in a different mood, there’s a certain fannish embarrassment. We can think that because we recognize them as nods to Batman: Year One, they can have no pleasure for people who don’t.

But they are great visuals. Mazzuchelli didn’t just produce some artwork fans like. He produced powerfully appealing images that fans happened to discover first.

Meanwhile, the Mighty God King has a funny, cruel dialog on the Watchmen trailer. Best part:

ME: All right, I guess – NO! NOT CGI PADDY HAT SOLDIER!
FLAPJACKS: He had four CGI kids and a fifth one being rendered!
ME: What will we tell his wife?
FLAPJACKS: Something in binary. Do you speak binary?
ME: Fuck no.
FLAPJACKS: Well, let’s not tell her anything then.

Good stuff. Meanwhile, since the trailer debuted the other day, packaged with the theatrical release of The Dark Knight, Watchmen has jumped to Amazon’s Number Four overall seller. That’s not a fandom thing: fandom already has its copies. That’s the vox pop sitting through the opening showings of Dark Knight, because the vox pop is totally jazzed about Dark Knight, and seeing this Watchmen trailer that declares it’s based on “The Most Celebrated Graphic Novel of All Time” and saying to itself, “Vox Pop,I gota get me that thing. That looks cool.”

I noticed that the 20-screen theater where I saw Dark Knight is currently showing five different superhero movies. (They just closed Iron Man.) Just as Tom Disch informed us back at the turn of the millennium that science fiction had conquered the culture while we weren’t looking, what’s clear in 2008 is that the superhero story is a mainstream enthusiasm. Let’s type that again:

The superhero story is a mainstream enthusiasm.

That’s to the extent that anything constitutes “mainstream entertainment” in the era of niche culture. It sits alongside of and overlaps the audience for adventure fiction, SF, video games, thrillers. In a country where reading for pleasure itself is a niche pursuit, three-dollar superhero comics are not going to sell in the millions. But via books, television, game consoles and movies, a very general audience is not just willing to engage superhero stories, it is avid for them. A few years ago, it was just possible to imagine that the economic problems of the American comic business stemmed from the fact that it concentrated on punch-filled stories of men and women in tights, and that this was what consigned periodical comics to the fringes of publishing. Now we know that a mass market loves punch-filled stories of men and women in tights – it was just the the 32-page monthly graphic pamphlet they were rejecting. We’ll come back to the question of whether you, dear reader of, should do the like.


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