Comics Cause Cultural Catastrophe – CRISIS!

Amazing Alliteration Adored by All. 😉

Simon Pegg was interviewed by the Radio Times recently -an interview in which he discussed his concern about the infantilisation of culture caused, or reflected, by the popularity of American superhero films.

[…]part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

“It is a kind of dumbing down because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys. Now we’re really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.” (The Independent)

Now; whilst I do believe that we are seeing an increasing infantilisation of culture, at least in the anglophone world, I think that this has more to do with the steady creep of a trend with American culture which has been seeping outwards thanks to the internet and the dominance of the American cultural voice in that medium -exploring that isn’t the purpose of this post though. What Pegg seems to be saying here is that it is the practice of the culture that has formed around the comic book/superhero genre which is causing the infantilisation of culture. I really don’t think that this is the case; I think that Pegg is here putting the cart before the horse -the popularity of superhero films and comics I think reflects the way in which cultural production -in Hollywood at least, churns out lightweight escapist material at times of great social tension or unease. Of the top ten grossing films in the US during the 1980s, another time of heightened social tension, nine are fantastical and the tenth, Beverly Hills Cop, is a comedy (LINK). In fact if we look at the charts reported then we see that films incorporating the fantastic show up repeatedly in every decade’s top grossing films -right back to Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ in the 1920s. Which isn’t really that surprising given that crisis is the permanent state in which we, in late capitalism, find ourselves as capital seeks to adjust to technological and social developments.

I think that I understand however where Pegg has gotten this impression. Science Fiction fandom is experiencing something of a shock as it has found itself, more so than ever before, dragged into the mainstream. For those of us who have had an attachment to all things geeky that stretches back before this new surge in popularity it may seem as if literally *everyone* is getting hooked on all things SF. I don’t really believe that this is the case. The Avengers and Avatar may be the biggest grossing films in recent history but that doesn’t mean that this interest necessarily transfers into a desire to explore other manifestations of SF/F for most people.When my Mam, or the guys at work, start talking about the latest Avengers film as something other than a film to take the kids to I may reconsider this position. An SF or Fantasy film is almost always going to be a visually spectacular treat for movie goers -even the bad ones like Transformers or Prometheus are visually stunning- and so are going to have a wide general appeal for some of the same reasons that action films do -they are spectacles. We find ourselves in a situation where we have the circuses but not the bread.

Pegg’s view is one that seems to be shared by the great Alan Moore who told the Guardian in 2013:

I hate superheroes. I think they’re abominations. They don’t mean what they used to mean. They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it’s nothing to do with them. It’s an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men. Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal. (The Guardian)

Moore’s criticism here though seems more directed at the world of the superhero comic itself rather than at any wider social trends and with this I agree -though my knowledge of comic book, and especially superhero comic book, fandom is extremely limited as they are something that has never appealed to me, even as a youngster. Moore expanded on this in an interview last year, 2014, where he said something that I think is a lot more relevant to teasing something out of Pegg’s position:

I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times. (Slovo Books)

This, I feel, is a much more incisive critique of not only the current plethora of superhero films but also of the preponderance of reboots and ‘re-imaginings’ that we have had over the last five years or so. I don’t, necessarily, have an issue with the concept of the reboot/re-imagining -the reuse and remixing of older stories is the bedrock from which 4,000 years of human literature has grown after all- but this current glut does seem to be as though a previous generation is, consciously or not, trying to indelibly imprint the present day with the semiotic signs of its youth.  This isn’t the infantilisation of culture but the cultural manifestation of the mid-life crisis of a generation of, mostly, American, mostly, men -some of whom have found themselves in the position of powerful cultural producers. In this way the recent spate of reboots and superhero films are culturally reactionary in that they serve to displace and subdue new forms of cultural expression that need to arise to address the situation in which we find ourselves today.

That’s not to say that people who enjoy superhero films, or reboots and rehashes of films gone by, are swivel eyed conservatives -far from it, I really quite enjoy the Marvel films and TV Shows, but the effect they have on new forms of culture is, I feel, undeniable. This collective mid-life crisis, coupled with massively increasing social stratification and hardship, has defined the form that the circuses with which we are amused have taken: Superheroes and attempts to recreate the youth of a generation of American men. Which is probably a bit healthier than throwing religious minorities into pits full of dangerous animals to be sure. I have little doubt though that there are those amongst us who seek to have a reboot (or would it be a re-imagining?) of that old tradition….


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