Jul 20 2008 4:01am

The Conquest of Earth Prime

DarkseidTwo 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.

Avram Grumer
1. avram
Oooh, just realized: Sometime next year, there will probably exist in the real world Ozymandias action figures.

Also: Now I'm trying to imagine Zack Snyder's Maus.
Alison Scott
2. AlisonScott
Oh yes, there are going to be action figures and I suspect they'll be much cooler than the ones in the comic. Me I want to buy Bubastis. But prediction -- Nite Owl with the various different terrain suits.
3. Johanna
Either you're misinterpreting me or I didn't explain myself well -- probably the latter. :) I'm not speaking as a non-fan; as you point out, I stopped being able to do that a long time ago.

What I'm saying is that, with Iron Man, for example, I would (and did) recommend to non-superhero fans that they see it, because I thought it had plenty to offer, regardless of genre interest (like interplay that was entertaining regardless of whether you already knew the characters). I wouldn't do that with Batman Begins (unless the person was particularly a fan of special effects/action movie staging) for the reasons I give.

Thanks for the link and the feedback!
Jim Henley
4. Supplanter
Hi Johanna! Thanks for stopping by the new digs. Maybe I'm the one who explained myself poorly. I get that you're not trying to speak as a non-fan. But as you say here, you wouldn't recommend Batman Begins to non-fans. But non-fans made BB one of the most popular movies of the decade, in every format in which it's appeared. In fact, the worst criticisms I've seen of BB have come from fans rather than mundanes: you and Sean are harder on the movie than any review I read in the general press, for instance.

So I honestly think you're guessing wrong about "non-fan" tastes. I would too! I mean, hell, the live-action version of "God Loves, Man Kills" is America's favorite movie one year? Who saw THAT coming?
5. rogerothornhill
You know, normally, one posts a comment when one has something to add, but here I would simply like to say: Yes.
Kevin Maroney
6. womzilla
My Friendly Neighborhood Comics Shop (which is, not completely coincidentally, the FNCS nearest to Tor Books) reported that they sold 17 copies of Watchmen this Wednesday. The owner said he had never seen significant splashover sales from a comics movie before--none. And this was just from a trailer.

Jumpin' jeezus.
Jim Henley
7. Supplanter
Hey Kevin: Of course, the pattern with Alan Moore books is that the movie release itself kills sales, so Moore and Gibbons and DC should enjoy the money while they can . . . ;)
8. David Fiore

I think you're right about the superhero story's current (and erstwhile?) "mainstreamness." It's one of the things I lament, because the genre loses most of its special qualities in making the transition to blockbuster action territory... In some ways, being delivered by a dorky back-waterish medium was its salvation, as food for thought.

Strangely enough, I find myself agreeing with Johanna hierchization of the films, although certainly not with her reasoning--I don't have any interest in parsing out what's interesting to initiates and non-initiates)--i.e. Iron Man is a much smarter, better (point final) movie than either of the Bat-things...

Jim Henley
9. Supplanter
Hey Dave! You always did have a weakness for fetishizing putative marginality ;)

That said, your take on Spider-Man 2 was so smart - the way you situated it in the romantic comedy tradition of the 1930s had a lasting effect on my understanding of the movie - that I am happy to have your take on any genre thing, even if I disagree.

Nevertheless: I like Iron Man better than either Nolan/Bale Batfilm too, BUT, the relative quality of the films wasn't my beef with what Johanna wrote.
10. David Fiore
re: Spider-Man 2--thanks Jim, it's a quirk of mine, I suppose, to hope for superhero films that steer as clear of the action/thriller formula (and especially the "gritty" action/thriller formula) as possible, so it was natural for me to key in on the elements of the Raimi film that drew upon a completely different tradition

and if we must have grit (and I like grit, in its proper place), I'd prefer to see it applied to the gritty-as-hell realm of international intrigue/geopolitics (as in Iron Man--which didn't satisfy me on that level, but at least rose to the challenge), rather than in an urban context (where superheroic activities just about always help to promote a reactionary political agenda)

the Nolan Batman stuff, unfortunately, goes about as far as you can you can go (which is a distinction of sorts--hence the cheers from its proponents) in the worst possible (for me) direction...

and, for sure, I see that your quibble with Johanna centered upon the question of where genre niches and widespread popularity bleed into each other, but, generally in discussions of this sort, the person (Johanna, in this case) claiming that a certain work will only appeal to fans is also arguing that the work with broader appeal is qualitatively superior...

I actually feel that the opposite is true--because the text that posits an audience of subcultural initiates will usually make far more complex demands upon that reader/viewership...

isn't it nice though, that we all agree that Iron Man is better? (the big bad world seems to disagree!)


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