They Stole What I Didn’t Own: Comics Storm the Mainstream, I Deal with It
If I could hop in a time machine and visit my twelve-year-old self, I’d want to wow him with revelations from the future. But I wouldn’t show off the iPhone, or try to explain Netflix, or trick him into believing that we finally accepted the electric car as the new standard for transportation. I’d cut right to the thing that’d really blow his mind, the seismic cultural shift that as a boy, I had assumed was all but impossible.
“Superheroes are gonna be huge in the future.”
“No way! Does Green Lantern finally get a movie?
“Oh, you sweet child. Y—yes. Yes, he does. God, you’re so innocent.”
“Okay…? Are there more Spider-Man movies?”
“Hell yeah. Tobey Maguire stays on until the third one, then they do some animated stuff, then they have more Spider-Man movies a few years later. Those ones aren’t great. But yeah, pretty much everybody gets a movie. Through a minor miracle of licensing, they even pull off an Avengers movie.”
“Shut up. Is it good?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty damn fun. The crazy thing, though, is that it makes buttloads of money. It’s everywhere. Teenage girls go rabid for Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America like they’re in the Backstreet Boys. I’m telling you, comic-book stuff is gonna be gigantic.”
“I can’t wait for the future, that sounds awesome.”
“Honestly? You’re kinda gonna hate it. It gets old real fast.”
“Huh. I sound lame in the future.”
“Hey! Fuck you, man.”
And I’d hop back in my time machine, leaving him mouth agape, stricken with befuddlement.# My boyhood self, dizzy from the heady scent of fresh comic-book paper, would find a future of “hero fatigue” unthinkable. I spent my younger years on the hunt for someone who would geek out over Black Bolt and Shazam and M.O.D.O.K. with me, so if I’m living in a world where everyone’s gotten on my wavelength, then I should have no reason to be anything but elated. Instead, the mainstream’s assimilation of comic-books has left me colder than a (newly plausible) gay sex scene between Iceman and Mr. Freeze.
Even though my passion for the tights-and-capes set felt like a point of alienation for me as a kid, it served a vital purpose. For a middle-schooler with a small circle of friends and little marketable appeal to a wider demographic, comics nerdhood was a beacon to kindred spirits. Quoting “The Killing Joke,” Alan Moore’s legendary limited-series run with Batman, was a Bat-Signal of my own. My Magneto t-shirt tacitly beckoned like-minded weirdoes, other kids who could tap into my frequency, who would be down to hash out the finer points of Jean Grey’s third death and resurrection as opposed to the fourth one.# When this fringe subculture had a smaller number of members, at its essence, it was a way people could connect to one another and, subsequently, feel less alone in this cold, dark world.
Now that comics have permeated the mainstream, they no longer symbolize nerd lifestyle and the attendant personality type. Gone are the days when superheroes were the exclusive province of the physically unimposing, socially uneasy, and the pop-culturally obsessive. A scant ten years ago, a conversation about Spider-Man would naturally segue into meditations on retconned deaths, Watchmen, whether Greedo shot first, the merits of the studio cut vs. the director’s cut of Blade Runner, and not seeing the appeal of pick-up football. It was a cliché, but most clichés don’t come from nowhere. Now, though, it doesn’t create bonds with the immediacy that it used to. Liking Spider-Man is like being into the Beatles or having a Thai food addiction. It’s for everybody.
And to those of us who grew up accepting the mild ostracizing that accompanied passion for an outwardly uncool thing, this is frustrating. # It’s a thing that used to be ours, that used to be kind of special to us. Imagine that suddenly one day you can’t leave the house without hearing your favorite song blaring out of every radio and TV. You pass people on the sidewalk, and everyone’s humming it slightly out of tune. They keep getting the words wrong, too. It’s not just the mere ubiquity of Avengers-related materials that’s drained them of their pleasure, something that I formerly believed only I and people similar to me had the right to enjoy has been appropriated by the very same mainstream culture that it was conceived as an alternative to.
The really difficult part, of course, is that I have no right to deny anyone else this pleasure. Peter Parker’s no brother of mine; I bought the comic books, but I never owned them. I might like to get pissy and hold up my love for comics as somehow more pure than Joe and Jane Schmo’s, but there’s really no wrong way to engage with pop culture. I have no basis with which to claim it as my own, just because I know which X-Men were introduced in 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1. If a guy who snorted and called you ‘fag’ in high school wants to jump in line to see Chris Evans smack a robot in the face with a shield, who can blame him? Sure, that guy still sucks, but it’s not because he’s stealing a thing that was mine and no one else’s. There are no tablets chiseled with commandments dictating proper and improper ways to enjoy a movie, and rightfully so. Juvenile backlash at the phenomenon discussed here, slathered with a thick glaze of institutionalized misogyny, is where the thoroughly bullshitty “fake geek” epithet comes from.
There’s a great interview with LCD Soundsystem bandleader James Murphy, where he expands on the thematic underpinnings of his epochal single “Losing My Edge”:
When I was DJing, playing Can, Liquid Liquid, ESG, all that kind of stuff, I became kind of cool for a moment, which was a total anomaly. And when I heard other DJs playing similar music, I was like, ‘Fuck! I’m out of a job! Those are my records!’ But it was like someone had crept into my brain and said all these words that I hate. Did I make the records? Did I, fuck! I started becoming horrified by my own attitude.
When a person structures his identity around movies, music, or even comics to which the general populace has easy access, that’s not an identity at all. Or if it is, it can be corrupted with the slightest shift in the pop-cultural breeze.
When we dig into comics or movies or music or what have you with that rare strain of true-blue obsessive devotion, we invest a small part of ourselves in the text. Readers see a bit of themselves in the characters, projecting their own humdrum everyday struggles onto the titanic good-vs-evil struggles of the spandex-clad crimefighters on the page. They establish a relationship with the media that can feel as real and precious as any with a fellow human being, but it’s not. Seeing a thick-necked dude going as Captain America for Halloween is not tantamount to seeing that same dude on a date with your lover. No one’s beloved childhood memories should be precarious enough that enjoyment from the “wrong sort” corrupts it.
So I can choose to pout about how all the poseurs have hopped on the bandwagon, or I can be a grown-ass man, let everyone have their fun in peace, and find some other bit of obscure detritus to use as a divining rod at crowded house parties. Or maybe I could even talk to somebody without scrambling to find solid common ground through referential secret handshakes and passwords.
Life’s too damn short to get incensed over popular tastes catching up with your own.
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