Thursday, May 5, 2005

The Boundaries of Geekdom

David Fiore commented that he doesn’t think his favorite super-hero comics to “belong in a group with stuff like Star Wars, Kill Bill, Wu Tang, Lord of the Rings and Sin City...” And responding to Steven Berg, Sean Collins wonders how useful the term “fanboy” can be when it is used pejoratively to refer to everything from Kill Bill to Identity Crisis. I don’t necessarily disagree with them: there are differences between Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man comics and the Star Wars movies, and Kill Bill isn’t exactly the same kind of thing as Identity Crisis.

However, this seems to be a case of missing the forest for the trees. Your ability to differentiate between all these pieces of Geek Culture is directly related to how deeply you’re already into Geek Culture. And from a complete outsider’s point of view, say someone from The New Criterion, all of this Geek Culture stuff looks depressingly similar. Now, I’d never make the argument that Kill Bill is exactly like Identity Crisis, but I have enough sympathy with the outsider’s perspective that I can see their major similarity: they’re targeted at the same audience. It isn’t a coincidence that you can buy action figures of the characters in both Kill Bill and Identity Crisis. This would seem to separate Kill Bill in some way from all those movies that don’t have their own tie-in toys, i.e. the ones not made for fanboys—the ones made for actual grown-ups.

And this is why I don’t really buy David and Sean’s points. David wants to differentiate between certain super-hero comics and stuff like Star Wars because he sees an essential difference between their underlying philosophy and concerns. And Sean doesn’t think lumping this stuff together is very useful because some of it is good and some of it is crap. But I’m more inclined to argue that as an actually existing social and cultural phenomenon Geekdom can be a fairly meaningful, and therefore useful, concept. For example, I think Rosenbaum is right to point out that women’s roles in a lot of these geek movies—aimed at fanboys (i.e., arrested male adolescents)—is different from their roles in more “mainstream” pictures—aimed at men and women who are presumed to have adult sensibilities.

Here’s some relevant and insightful commentary from Steve Sailer, a nerd, in the sense that he seems to get a real kick out of crunching numbers, but not a geek, in the sense that he doesn’t seem to like comics, from his review of the Spider-Man movie (which, incidentally, I like a lot more than he did):

Lots of fellows these days complain about the "feminization of American culture." Perhaps that's actually happening, but movies have become increasingly masculinized, as shown by the enormous anticipation for "Spider-Man."

Compare two recent Angelina Jolie movies: last week's chick flick "Life or Something Like It" and last year's boy toy "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." Being a guy, I certainly wouldn't go see "Life or Something" again, but, as I predicted, the women who saw it rated it warmly. Yet, not many saw it. It grossed less than $7 million in its first week. Because it's a film for females, it lacked buzz.

In contrast, Jolie's video game-based "Tomb Raider" earned almost $48 million during its first weekend, even though it's now widely derided as a dud.

So, which segment of the audience is obsessive enough to get on the Internet and beat the drums for unreleased movies? You guessed it -- the generally shy but extraordinarily opinionated fanboys who love comic book movies. The best known is Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News, the movie preview website that has so much influence over what's thought hot, and, increasingly, what gets made.


Steven Berg said...

Kill Bill has -- toy tie-ins??? I guess that doesn't really surprise me, because it is that sort of movie.

David Fiore said...

well, see, I don't about that... do you have to be a music geek in order to be able to diffentiate between a punk and a metal aesthetic? these things might all sound like noise to the proverbial "outsider", but why grant that outsider any authority? isn't the point of criticism to draw meaningful distinctions? again, the main reason I am interested in drawing this particular distinction is that I think that, where these texts are concerned, there's been entirely too much "lumping together" done already... my ongoing point, I suppose, is that superhero comics (with notable exceptions--i.e. Morrison & Gruenwald especially) have drifted (thanks, in large part, to "geek broadcasting" which reached its apotheosis with the hiring of Raimi to codify the "outsider's spider-man") from something analogous to punk (in the 60's and 70's) toward an "fanboy" aesthetic reminiscent of heavy metal/the WWF (from what I gather when I hear about the Conventions and read message boards!)

one thing I really want to explore (arising from the discussions that Rose Curtin initiated a few weeks ago) sometime soon is the "fanboying" of superhero comics... I'm convinced that it is directly linked to the rise of the direct market...

David Fiore said...

uh, I don't *know* about that...

god, I need sleep!


Jon Hastings said...


I think you're right to draw distinctions, but I think its only fair to recognize the many similarities between these kinds of work. As for the "outsider": well, sometimes it can be good to see fan culture from the outside. It can help to put things in perspective.

More later,

whfropera said...

i tried leaving the following comment at your old blog, with reference to a post about comics and opera - sorry to fill up your comment space with something not relevant to todays post.
As someone who collects comics as well as hosts an opera program, I found your analysis to be relevant as well as fairly accurate, with the following exception:
*quote*If anything, contemporary opera could learn a thing or two from comics, especially of the super-hero variety: make bold, colorful choices and celebrate larger-than-life heroics; take inspiration from the lowest of junk culture as well as the most cutting-edge science and technology (a la Warren Ellis' Planetary, for example); don't try to be taken seriously, in fact, shun any and all attempts at cultural respectability and academic relevance.

Considering that one of the more recent opera premieres was an opera based on the "Jerry Springer Show", I think it is safe to say that the opera world is heeding your call. The cartoon South Park devoted an entire episode to opera, and although opera still has "snob cachet" (which makes me crazy) it is still around, although most people only hear it is television commercials now.

As an aside, I would recommend spending some time on the opera-l newsgroup if you want to see people motivated by nostalgia. There is CONSTANT discussion about the singers today can't measure up to X,Y, and Z from the past...

anyway, great post.