Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A TASTE FOR SUPERHERO DECADENCE, part 2

In my last essay I called Dirk Deppey's "superhero decadence" blog-essay "laughable," so it behooves me to begin with the aspect I found most laughable-- one of three, as of this writing-- and then work my way down. Thus his concepts of the superhero genre as being "a genre created for children" and his use of the term "decadence" must give way for now to the funniest thing in the blogpost: Dirk Deppey's etiology of the modern superhero comics-fan.

"Readers of modern superhero comics seem to be chasing a cherished moment from childhood without quite understanding that they’re no longer the people capable of enjoying that moment with the same wide-eyed wonder; possessing a more adult outlook, they thus insist on reading modern variants of the superhero comics that they loved as teenagers, but with a point of view more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans wedged in there as well."

In playing armchair psychiatrist to a certain subset of superhero fandom-- apparently a dominant one, since "event crossover" titles do seem to keep selling for the Big Two companies-- Deppey isn't saying anything new. Such psychiatric mumbo-jumbo has been promulgated about popular culture since long before a comics-fandom as such even existed (in the 1950s, that is). I mentioned that such preachments always carry the subtext: "Don't buy what you like; buy what I like," which subtext is demonstrable every time such armchair analyses exclude the possibility that a given fan might move easily between the worlds of "mainstream" and "alternatives" (as comics-fans usually call them). The word "elitism" derives from a root meaning "choice," and so the elitist always implies that the smart audience will choose *only* the thing that elitists validate. In Deppey's post the excuse for non-validation-- again, far from being original with him-- is that of the maturation process. When one is an adult, one must put aside childish things, and read not books about costumed people hitting one another, but rather (for example) books about men who drag gigantic penises around with them but can't seem to get laid (my second and last Ivan Brunetti reference).

Deppey's rhetoric of evanescent childhood wonder and the necessity to put aside the search for it, to "move on," might possess some substance if he or like-minded elitists could demonstrate that comics-fans were in some way unique in this regard, as against other patrons of modern entertainment-media. But while one can always *claim* that there is some great chasm between the mere tens of thousands of adults who patronize comics-shops and the millions (in the US alone) who patronize similar product in current FX-movies (and have done so now for two or three generations since STAR WARS), *claiming* it does not make it accurate.

To a pluralist like me, the continued appeal of the original STAR WARS trilogy for drivers'-license-carrying *adults* is obvious proof that the human desire for wonder, childlike or otherwise, does not die out with puberty, however much maturation modifies the desire. And although the STAR WARS franchise may have successfully camoflagued any "decadent" proclivities it possessed (such as the potential for torture and incest), many other Hollywood FX-films, most of them the spawn of SW's 1977 success, cheerfully display their own "decadent" tastes in forms ranging from ALIEN to THE TERMINATOR to THE DARK KNIGHT.

I would not be at all surprised to hear elitists condemn Hollywood FX-films as being another species of "fandom wankery" (Deppey's recent term for BLACKEST NIGHT). Indeed, elitist aesthetics would demand such a position. But no matter how superficial the elitists might find such films, the economic success of the FX-films shows a paradigm change for the country, if not the world as a whole.

The cultural paradigm today, as I see it, goes:

Adults *should* be able to understand more sophisticated stuff than children can (or should), but adults don't have to "move on" from things they enjoyed as kids or teens.

And anyone who says they do is clearly harried with profound shame issues and a history of poor potty-training. (See, the devil too can play armchair psychiatrist.)

There are legitimate ways to talk about what effect the maturational process has upon the child's sense of wonder, without descending into a reductionist pedagogical paradigm.

I'll address a few of them in part four of this series, but next up is the second most amusing Deppey-assertion, regarding whether superheroes are intrinsically "for children" or not.

2 comments:

Charles R. said...

Superhero fans themselves often bring up the aimed-at-children factor when discussing what they don't like about Johns and others' current explicit-violence version of DC. The same reason was regularly given for not liking IDENTITY CRISIS. That's elitism?

Gene Phillips said...

It depends on exactly what was said.

If a fan says that he doesn't like "explicit violence" in some superhero books but doesn't mind it in others, then he mought be a pluralist, like me. I remember expressing the opinion somewhere, probably Comicon.com, that I didn't think JUSTICE LEAGUE was a very good place for adult-themed stories. Seems like maybe I too was reacting to IDENTITY CRISIS. But as I recall it my point was that the nature of the feature's concept-- legion of really, really powerful superdudes-- practically required that they have adventures in "thematically escapist" worlds that could deal with their potential. Morrison's JLA took this tack, in contrast to IC having a guy like Deathstroke take down, what, four or five superdudes in one short conflict?

HOWEVER--

I have seen superhero-fans who don't want to see ANY superheroes go the gross route for any reason. I can think of one very public fellow who runs a nostalgia site that I like very much, which is why I'm not gonna name him by name.

He wouldn't be an elitist, though, if I've correctly characterized his views. Even though he may feel, as much as Deppey, that superheroes are intrinsically juvenile, he isn't coming at the situation from the POV of an elitist. He's an adult who wants to see superheroes done "clean," which implies that he would buy them if they were. Thus he clearly hasn't "moved on" to other things as Deppey suggests most adult fans should.

He is, however, a populist. He views works as good according to whether they are popular with a wide audience, and his type usually argues that the Main Reason comics-audiences have shrunk so much is because they've broken with the ability to "work clean." He doesn't like superheroes whoring after strange gods of post-modernism and graphic realism, and believes-- as most elitists do not-- that comics might make a comeback with the mass audience if comics went back to working clean.

Thus endeth the distinction-making.