(Note: This is an original post I wrote for a guest gig at Pandagon. It never appeared here. I have some new thoughts on the topic that I’ll be getting to over the next few days, so I thought I’d start by posting this.)
Stan Lee and Gene Roddenberry. I should throw Jack Kirby in there too, since Lee took credit for a lot of Kirby’s work, so they say. What do they have in common?
I first started sparking on this idea while reading the wonderful The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, a chronicle of many things—escape artistry, survivor guilt, the Golem, coming out—among which the birth of superhero comics figured prominently. And clearly these characters were fictionalized Kirbys and Lees, or, going back further, Siegels and Schusters and Kanes and Fingers. And there they were, these guys, these kids, really, a boys club of boy fantasies; hoping and dreaming and basically jerking off, unself-consciously, unanalytically writing and drawing their nerdy fantasies and sharing them with the world.
That’s what makes them so great. These are raw fantasies, innocent, really. Newer comics are self-conscious, post-Modern, post-Freudian, either studiously artistic or cynically pornographic. Either carefully feminist or sadistically anti-feminist. Not these guys. From the 1930s through the mid-1960s, these guys wrote their dorky little dreams and sold them en masse. “I wanna be a boy sidekick,” “I wanna fly,” “I wanna smash the bad guys and get the girl.” Simple, innocent, fiercely, magnificently false-to-reality and true-to-heart.
In 1966, Roddenberry comes along and does the same thing on television. He’s just a big dork. He’s sexist but he doesn’t know it. He’s dreaming of a future better than the one he can actually envision. He wants to fly spaceships. He wants to get the girl. All the girls. Especially the green and blue ones. He wants the logic and the guns and the science and the sex. He wants it so he writes it without ever worrying that maybe showing your naked fantasies on TV is a bit like walking around with your fly open.
Fans eat it up. We love our naked fantasy on toast with mayo on the side. It’s Teh Yum. We take these stories and we write ourselves in. Fandom is born, and with it, fanfic, obsession over detail, and silly fucking costumes.
Then a funny thing happens. Times start changing. People are more cynical. Claremont and Byrne are more sophisticated than Lee and Kirby. Fans are more sophisticated as well, and when Roddenberry introduces a boy sidekick in 1987, fans hate him with a hot, hot, hate. We were now too grown-up for that silly dorky stuff.
I was there. I was a young Trekkie in the 70s (reruns, baby). I lapped up all that silliness like it was the finest of wines, and I was there in the 80s for the shock and horror that was Wesley Crusher, and by the Gods, did we hate him.
But y’know, we missed it. I did. You did. We wanted to be thrilled and amazed. We wanted to put aside our cynicism and get that feeling back; embrace the inner nerd and say “This is cool.” We wanted art that was true to the inner child, but that didn’t make the outer adult embarrassed to be seen with it. Who could provide that art?
The most interesting, sophisticated fun to be had nowadays is fun created by fan-nerds. Yes, gulls and buoys, I mean Joss Whedon and Peter Jackson. Why do fans love and adore Lord of the Rings and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Okay, ’cause they’re great. But really, because they’re created by fans. Because they come from a place that knows exactly what it’s like to want to be satisfied on those levels.
You can’t create fan-friendly material unself-consciously anymore. Too much water under the bridge. So how do you create it uncynically? The same way as Siegel & Schuster; you do it by creating it for yourself. The cynical creation knows there are fans out there and panders to them, or mocks them, or imitates them and hopes they won’t know the difference. Only a fan can create for a fan without hiding something humiliating in the mix. And were there ever two more stereotypical fans than Jackson and Whedon? Chubby, fuzzy, frumpy, barefoot, and oh yeah, brilliant.
See, I’m not just raving about Serenity again (that’s Tom’s job). I’m talking, really, about an emerging sensibility of art-for-fans. And only fan-artists can create it. I think that these guys in particular represent an emerging way of being with “genre” fiction, and I, for one, am excited about it.