When I was a kid I loved comics – I started off loving Archie, moved on to loving Spider-man and the Silver Surfer, and finally migrated to Hellblazer and Sandman. These were my escapist fantasies: Archie was full of dorky characters who nevertheless had friends and – quite often – girlfriends; Spider-man was the ultimate nerd who beat up the bullies and got the cute girl, while the Silver Surfer was not trapped on this “planet full of madmen” but could roam the galaxies on a cool surfboard; Hellblazer and Sandman were more complex stories, but still offered the dream that life wasn’t as fixed and staid as everyone kept insisting it was. Of course the characters were powerful and beautiful and had proportions that never exist in the human species, but no-one really expected an accurate anatomy lesson*.
My sister and mother had different escapist stories, Mills & Boon and Harlequin books where men were always impossibly handsome and brooding and just couldn’t resist the protagonist, who was normally strong and independent yet desperate to be swept off her feet. Or there were other books, Pride and Prejudice clones, where the normal-looking woman attracted the attention of the most sought-after rich, handsome and unattainable man, aloof and yet unable to maintain his display of disinterest around the protagonist.
Some stories we shared, such as Piers Anthony novels, TV sitcoms and the like.
That was when I was a kid. Now, superheroes are mainstream culture. They’re no longer nerd escapism, they’re intended to be entertainment for everyone, and as such they have to appeal to everyone, which means jettisoning a lot of the wish-fulfillment parts that attracted nerds in the first place. This has happened with a lot of “nerd culture” that I enjoyed growing up, to the point where there isn’t really a nerd culture anymore. This means a lot of people feel not only that their escapism stories are under attack, but that they personally are under attack. If the situation was reversed, and millions of men had started reading Mills & Boon novels, the same type of outcry would be underway but with different segments of the population.
So, the traditional nerd culture that I grew up with has been co-opted, has sold out to the lowest common denominator. And who is to blame for this? I’ll give you a hint: Nerds. I’m not talking about growing up and getting good jobs and suddenly having a lot of purchasing power and so on; I’m talking about the way we took it all too seriously.
Nerds forgot that what they were enjoying was escapism, and started treating it as high art. Batman was an exploration of the psychological damage trauma could cause, Superman a biting commentary on the burdens placed on those with the power to save the world, X-Men an intelligent discourse on the problems faced by the different and dispossessed… We punished cookie-cutter scripts and tepid art and lauded Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Todd McFarlane and Sam Keith, which would have been all to the good if we didn’t also loudly and persistently try to convince everyone else that comics were a valid form of literature that everyone should read, lending copies of Alan Moore and Will Eisner willy-nilly, pushing books by Frank Miller and Jeff Smith onto all and sundry. Of course they all liked it, of course comics became popular, and of course the big entertainment industry began making blockbuster movies about them (something everyone had clamoured for) and of course those movies were targeted to a general audience. What did we expect?
This will never return to the escapist fantasies of old, and we wouldn’t be happy if it did. Underlying a lot of the you’re-not-a-real-nerd rage is the fear that once “nerd culture” falls out of fashion we will again be mocked for liking it, and further mocked for trying but failing to be cool by liking something that’s gone out of fashion. We can form enclaves where we can enjoy superheroes in our traditional nerdy ways, but whenever they get good they’ll just be invaded again. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for the mainstream superhero appreciation – the escapist comics would work better as b-grade movie schlock rather than Hollywood blockbusters anyway, and there’s a lot of great shows on TV plus the cosplayers at cons are really cool.
Nothing is meant to last forever, and I think this is hopefully also true of the need for escapist fantasies. It’s time we remembered that nerd culture, like any subculture, is just that: A subculture. It’s not mainstream, it’s on the fringes, it’s small groups of people enjoying what they like together rather than desperately flooding friends and family (and social media) with it in the hopes that people will belatedly realise how cool it is, and therefore how cool we are for doing it.
So, I think we should just enjoy the new versions for what they are, ret-cons and inclusiveness and all, and focus on following our passions irrespective of what society is up to – just like we’ve always done. It’s back to the indies for us, the self-published section on Amazon**, the band putting up their songs on YouTube, the pub or cafe meetings to argue about the finer points of radiation protection in space. Stop bitching about people not really understanding what we like, and just concentrate on liking it. The Mills & Boon crowd have done it – just look at the romance section in online bookstores, there’s everything from monster porn to romances that cleverly satirise international politics being published. As far as I can tell they’re just ignoring the bitching about Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey and getting on with enjoying what they like.
* That being said, comic book art did later morph into the realm of ridiculousness.
** I know, this could seem self-serving, but I’ve always waded in the indie section.
When nerds fight amongst themselves.