I’ve got a lot on my plate, a large number of posts & mini-essays & short stories & longer works that I want to finish, but every now & then a big fat one just hangs in the strike zone so perfectly that I can’t help but smack that sucka right out of the ballpark. In this case it was someone bringing to my attention last year’s “Men, Superheroes and Church” post by Don Murrow, which in turn was derived from “The Lure of Comic-Book Culture” by Stan Guthrie from a half year earlier.

Guthrie sneers looks down his nose pooh-poohs dismisses contemporary pop culture, in particular the popularity of the superhero genre, quoting David Gelernter’s "America-Lite":

“In 1960, the whole country knew Robert Frost’s poetry; Leonard Bernstein was reaching large TV audiences for classical music with his Young People’s Concerts on CBS; theater and ballet were thriving, reaching larger audiences all the time; Hemingway was only the most famous of America’s serious novelists; and American avant-garde painting was a topic for Life magazine.”

He then posits these reasons for the rise in popularity of comic book culture, in particular superheroes[1]:

  1. Technology (computers, social media, enhanced graphics software) has made comics easier to produce and share.
  2. The phenomenon of extended adolescence has extended the attractiveness of comics as a pastime among many American adults.
  3. In an increasingly complex, morally confusing world, people are drawn to media that still promote the idea of good vs. evil—a common theme in comics.
  4. People want an escape from the grim and sometimes depressing news and events of the day.
  5. With the dumbing down of the population due to an increasingly ineffective public education system, people today have less ability and desire to read and to think deeply, making the relatively simple themes and plots of comic books that much more attractive.
  6. Despite (and perhaps because of) widespread cynicism in the culture, we still yearn for heroes.

Murrow agrees, claiming “Every one of Guthrie’s observations is true. But there’s a deeper reason men of this generation are so strongly drawn to superheroes:

Every man longs to be a hero himself – but today’s society offers men very few opportunities for heroic behavior.”

sam-jackson-retort-468x350

[brace yourselves; it gets brutal after the jump]

Guthrie point #1: “Technology…has made comics easier to produce and share.”

No duh. Just like Xeroxography made it easier to produce & share comics than a newsprint press, and just like that newsprint press made it easier to share comics than a woodblock print, and just like that woodblock print made it easier to share comics than dragging somebody into the back of the cave to see the neat animal hunt you just painted. The story here is not that technology makes it easier to spread art and culture, even (or perhaps especially) at a popular level, but that we humans seek to make our labors easier and our surplus leisure more available precisely so we can enjoy art and culture and recreation.

Look, if we were all a buncha unimaginative dolts, we wouldn’t mind time consuming processes in our daily lives: They’d give us something to do when we weren’t sleeping/eating/eliminating. The fact that we want to put aside those everyday processes to focus on things we find important should speak volumes: We are being called into realms beyond the mundane, and by this I don’t mean just escapist literature but sports, science, and spiritual pursuits. Technology has made all of these things easier!

Guthrie point #2: “The phenomenon of extended adolescence has extended the attractiveness of comics as a pastime among many American adults.”

Oh, man, do I call shenanigans on that. First off, adolescence is a fairly recent innovation among the human race; most pre-industrial societies have a brief period of infancy where a child is allowed to be totally dependent, followed by an expectation they do something to earn their keep, even if it’s nothing more than fanning the campfire. The whole point of technology is to free more and more people, at older and older ages, from having to engage in drudgery at the expense of their hearts, minds, and souls.

Secondly, this is about as condescending a piece of crap as I have ever had the misfortune of stepping in. I shall let the late great Vaughn Bode’ handle the preliminaries then respond in detail.

bode relativity cropped

Lemme clue ya in, Mr. Guthrie: Comics have always been a universal medium. That’s kinda the whole #%&@in’ point. Boss Tweed’s famous hate-on rant against the cartoonist Thomas Nast in particular as opposed to the entire editorial establishment of the New York press sums it up perfectly: “My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures.” Comics get the point across on a visceral/primal level; there’s a reason somebody spent a lot of time painting bison hunts on cave walls.

What you’re actually saying is that because you think of comics as a lesser, childish medium that anyone who enjoys them must be a lesser, childish person. That’s a pretty ugly thing to say, particularly when you fail to acknowledge the unique socio-economic history of comics (and other media, notably films) in the 20th century, a history that at one crucial point found a way of keeping print shops open during an economic depression and in the aftermath of the failure of prohibition.[2] It’s especially ugly coming from someone who is supposedly in solid with the guy who taught “judge not lest ye be judged.”

Gutherie point #3: “In an increasingly complex, morally confusing world, people are drawn to media that still promote the idea of good vs. evil—a common theme in comics.”

Seriously? Seriously?!?!? Have you even been inside a comic book shop or perused the manga section of your local surviving bookstore? I will grant you there’s good vs. evil aplenty, but that ain’t where the action is. What people are reading are increasingly complex and nuanced stories that examine moral and ethical topics in an extremely sophisticated fashion.[3]

Yeah, you will find simplistic stories, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Even the cheeriest & most upbeat superhero stories (try The Adventures Of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks; highly recommended!) use their genre tropes to the deconstruct the puzzling complexities of modern life.

Guthrie point #4: “People want an escape from the grim and sometimes depressing news and events of the day.”

Yeah? So? I got a bus fulla atheists parked outside who would be happy to make that argument against our favorite religion. What did people do before comic books when they wanted escapist entertainment? Surely you aren’t implying they didn’t sing, dance, tell stories, fall in love, get drunk?

Guthrie point #5: “With the dumbing down of the population due to an increasingly ineffective public education system, people today have less ability and desire to read and to think deeply, making the relatively simple themes and plots of comic books that much more attractive.”

This time I’ll let the lads from Dragon Ball handle the preliminaries. Kindly play “Kids” from Bye-Bye, Birdie on your mental soundtrack.

animated super saien b-slap

When I read something like this, I can’t help but wonder if maybe comic books weren’t too much for the writer in their own youth, that the star-spanning, dimension-hopping, time-traveling tales came across as so much word salad in their minds.[4]

I don’t know of a single scientist or engineer who didn’t enjoy at least some exposure to comics and/or sci-fi when they were kids. “That crazy Buck Rogers stuff” is what gave this country several generations of creative thinkers who could tackle challenges like moon launches and global communications with aplomb. The present we are living in today looks like Star Trek of the 1960s because a few thousand really bright young minds saw communicators and tricorders and scanning devices and said, yeah, why not?

I know comics & other media professionals employed by the government to help frame the way we look at key national & international issues, because the type of thinking that goes into crafting a good comic book story (or movie, or TV show, or video game) is the type of thinking that gets out ahead of problems, that looks at them from heretofore unexplored angles, that uncovers possibilities more conventionally trained minds overlook.

Dull minded people do not gravitate towards comic books. Yeah, I know that’s the popular misconception among a certain segment of the populace, but it’s just a variant on the mindset that feels smug & superior to all them fan-cee ed-yu-kated collich perfessers wid that thar book larnin’.[5]

Guthrie point #6: “Despite (and perhaps because of) widespread cynicism in the culture, we still yearn for heroes.”

Well, some of us do, and some of us don’t, but more on that in a bit. Comics no more exist just to tell heroic stories than hardware stores exist just to sell screwdrivers.

Don

you didn’t think I forgot, did you?

oh, no, no, no

“Every one of Guthrie’s observations is true”?

Hey, that’s a gimme. Everybody’s entitled to a little bit of hyperbole now & then.

“[T]here’s a deeper reason men of this generation are so strongly drawn to superheroes…”

Okay, let’s stop this train wreck before it even pulls out of the station. There are a lot of reasons audiences are drawn to superheroes.

There is one factor that drives modern media more than anything else, and that factor is merchandising.

Even before Star Wars, the goal of every comic book company, every comic strip artist was to have a hit that could be used to sell crap to people.

Look how Disney puts the damn mouse on everything.

Look how before even Disney, Edgar Rice Burroughs trademarked the image of Tarzan, so even though the novels are slipping into the public domain, no one can make a movie or a video game or a novelty key ring with Tarzan’s image on it unless they cut a deal with ERB Inc.

In the 1970s, DC’s accountants crunched the numbers and realized that not only were they losing money, they could see no way of turning things around (this was just around the time the direct market was starting to take over from newsstand sales). They recommended to their corporate bosses that DC call it a day & close up shop.

The order came winging back at near light speed: Do NOT stop publishing comic books! We’re making a fortune off the Superman chewable vitamin license alone.

It’s all about the Benjamins.

I was part of several enormously successful animated series in the 1980s: Thundarr The Barbarian. Dungeons & Dragons. Transformers. G.I. Joe. My Little Pony. Jem.

(You haven’t heard of Jem? Hang on; you will.)

Transformers and G.I. Joe and My Little Pony and Jem were all owned by a big successful corporation, Hasbro toy company.

Dungeons & Dragons was owned by a medium size successful publishing company.

Thundarr was owned by Ruby-Spears, the studio that produced it.

All were big rating hits when they were broadcast.

All are fondly remembered by fans to this day.

Only one never had a live action movie or a theatrically released animated feature.

Only one never had any significant mass market merchandising.

Did you guess Jem?

Guess again: Jem is coming back as a feature film. The toy line -- which flopped when it was originally launched -- will be re-introduced.   See, despite the toy failing, the show we did was so successful that Hasbro kept it on the air even though they had no toys to sell, simply because they could sell advertising and recoup their costs and turn a tidy profit.

They’ll re-design the toy, but no matter; the live action movie characters will be plastered on every kind of apparel, accessory, and accouterment you can imagine.

There’s a buck to be made in it.

There’s no bucks to be made with Thundarr.

Yeah, there’s the obligatory bargain basement DVD/Blu-Ray release, and every now and then some small company makes an action figure or other item of the niche collectors market, but…

No big push.

Because nobody will profit easily off it.

You’d have to track down the rights, see which division in Time-Warner’s empire controls them, figure out a way of convincing them there’s money to be made bringing Thundarr out of retirement…

…and all you’d get is a blank stare and a question: “Why should we go to all that trouble to revive and sell Thundarr when we already have people lined up to buy the embossed toilet paper rights to Teen Titans?”

Good question, indeed.

It’s all about the Benjamins.

“Every man longs to be a hero himself – but today’s society offers men very few opportunities for heroic behavior.”

You mean like this?

sexy jesus

‘Cuz I’m gonna be frank with you: As a lifelong reader and fan of pop culture, as a guy who growing up had a stack of Superboy comics and a stack of monster magazines and a stack of Doc Savage novels and a stack of James Bond novels, I don’t see nearly enough heroes, much less heroic action in modern media (and by modern media I mean from the late 19th century forward).

I see a lot of characters willing to justify their use of violence against other characters who conveniently instigate even worse violence against innocent third parties, but I don’t see a lot of people behaving the way I think Christ wanted us to behave towards one another.

I’m a member of the Christian Comic Arts Society, a group of Christian pros and fans in the comics industry, working in both the secular and Christian publishing fields. We’ve had a lot of internal discussion over what exactly constitutes a “Christian comic.”

I can’t and won’t speak for anyone other than myself. I know many CCAS members have no problem balancing the superhero genre with the Good News.

As for myself, I can’t find a way of reconciling the two other than possibly in the realm of parody.

I mean seriously, modern superheroes are brightly colored naked people who fly & fight each other.

Nothing is ever resolved.

It’s futile.

It bores me.

They’re not about characters I can identify with.

They’re about product that is being pushed on consumers.

They’re going to kill Wolverine. Again.

And then they’re going to bring him back. Again.

Superheroes are just one mass media genre out of many, all designed to do the same thing: Find a weakness in a particular audience and exploit the mutha-luvin’ s4!t ouyta it.

Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing as Christians?

“I can’t help but wonder why it’s so wrong to make a few bucks from exploiting the repressed homosexual urges and castration fears of undeveloped adolescent minds.”

-- Doctor Infinity in Pussey! by Daniel Clowes

Frankly, I don’t see much difference between corporations exploiting the weaknesses of their victims customers and a philosophy that opines:

“[I]n the past 150 years the role of protector has gradually been taken away from common men…The average American male will go his entire life without using a weapon to physically protect his family or property. In some nations it’s illegal to own a gun for self-protection. Battle is becoming rare even among professional soldiers...

“Furthermore, men just aren’t as necessary to society as they once were. Muscle power is out – brainpower is in. Male unemployment is at its highest levels since the Great Depression. Four-fifths of the job losses during the Great Recession fell upon men. With the expansion of the social safety net, modern women can rely on the government instead of a man to provide and protect them. As divorce laws have loosened, women have become much less dependent on men, initiating 70% of all split-ups. Children of divorce often absorb the message that men are troublesome, dangerous and an impediment to happiness. Young men who grow up fatherless learn to despise the masculinity within themselves.

“You would think church would be the perfect venue for men to engage in heroic acts. But unfortunately church is one of the places men feel particularly unneeded. It’s an institution dominated by women and their values…our core message has shifted in the past fifty years. In the church I grew up in, the Gospel was a life-and-death proposition. Satan was a real adversary – more murderous and deranged than the Joker. Jesus was a hero who came to vanquish this enemy and save the world from hell.

“But today’s gospel is no longer described as a heroic mission to save the world – it’s a personal relationship with a man who loves you. Men feel like they’ve wandered into a showing of Sleepless in Seattle.

“Today’s gospel is no longer a story of good vs. evil; it’s a formula for getting your life together and having healthy relationships. No wonder the church has become utterly boring to men.”

If you want a textbook example of why people are abandoning the church in droves, it’s harder to come up with anything more succinct than this. Every single specific cited above is in direct contradiction to the actual teachings of Christ. The quote cited embraces all the elements that traditionally have lead to the very problems around us: Violence, pride, arrogance, lack of love, mercy, and compassion, a desire to be a winner instead of a servant as Christ specifically calls us to be!

We are supposed to be better than that.

We are supposed to be different.

What I see here is one blind canine leading another blind canine in a tail chewing circle.

Too many vocal Christians do not understand the very culture they inhabit.

Too many vocal Christians do not even understand the gospel of Christ.

People look at the incoherence of their message and dismiss it without a backward glance.

Christ told his disciples that if any village rejected the word, they were to shake the dust of the village off their feet and move on.

You won’t get that chance.

The village is shaking you off.

.

.

.

[1] Which, like most people who appear to have absolutely no #%&@in’ clue what they’re talking about when it comes to comics, is their sole angle of entry. When I use the short hand “comics” or “comic book” I am really referring to not just to storytelling through sequential graphic images but a whole host of allied media and off-shoots, both in pop culture and so-called high culture.

[2] You wanna argue comics are the sleaziest industry on earth, hey, no disagreement from me. Bootleggers built vast nationwide distribution chains to get booze into so-called respectable establishments like cigar stores and candy shops during prohibition; with prohibition gone they needed something cheap to make money. Comics books and pulp magazines paid for themselves with their advertising, so the dimes and quarters they raked in were nothing but pure gravy. Read Gerald Jones’ Men Of Tomorrow for the full scoop.

[3] They may not be any damn good but that’s the fault of the execution.

[4] Especially if Jack Kirby was involved.

[5] I get to say that because I grew up in Appalachia. But it raises another point I want to address: When I see phrases like “the dumbing down of the population due to an increasingly ineffective public education system” I get real, real nervous, because far too often those kinds of phrases are used by bigots & demagogues to further their ambitions at the expense of people not like them. I truly do not believe this was your intent, but you may want to find a more precise way of expressing yourself on this issue in the future.

 

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