WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew messes with controller schematics for X-Com 2 while Dan freaks himself out as he delves into Syfy’s Channel Zero and the HBO documentary, Beware the Slenderman.
THE DOCTOR NO MORE: As Peter Capaldi announces his departure from the role of The Doctor in Doctor Who, speculation begins as to who will take his place in Series 11 which brings with it a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall.
EVEN STRANGER: With the only time we’ll mention the Super Bowl on the podcast, Netflix’s Stranger Things debuted its second season teaser trailer during the big game and Andrew and Dan dive into their expectations.
While not about a particular aspect of nerd culture, Frankenfield’s article finds a thread strung through most aspects of geekdom: a legitimate choice between independent and “mainstream” products. In most nerdy and geeky venues, these exist side-by-side––I think of the gaming scene (specifically video gaming; Andrew will have to answer for the tabletop angle) where venues as amalgamated as Steam as well as the more hierarchical PSN or XBox Live give independent products prime real estate in an effort to get both triple-A and the snarkily titled “triple-I” titles on players’ screens. For all the drama that has surrounded video games press in the last few years, it has acted to level the playing field, not through any particular agenda as much as finding good indie games and wanting to share. For all nerdy avenues, Kickstarter and other crowd-sourced funding platforms have been key in getting independent products more mainstream attention, even if it never officially achieves that status.
More than ever, the line between “independent” and “mainstream” is blurring, and I think it’s a good time to ask some simple, problem-posing questions: how and why? I think the second question is easier to answer than the first. The divide is closing because traditional “mainstream” products have become less satisfying over time. Perhaps that’s the wrong word; mainstream products have become predictable and staid even though they still rake in profit. But we see this most popularly, I think, with television (though an argument could be made for any nerd media right now). Even though the major networks are still the ratings kings and producing the most popular content, the revered content is made outside of those avenues, the top producers of which are probably HBO and AMC, currently. It was them, and networks like them, that pioneered the “new golden age of television” in which we now find ourselves. NBC, CBS, and ABC are not the trailblazers here, even if they are the “winners” using outdated metrics.
As for the “how”, that is an answer that produces the most consternation and danger as this movement progresses. The nice thing about the mainstream system is that it provides traditional and, for the most part, proven processes for bringing projects to life. The problem is that, over time, the process became corrupted by brown-nosing who-you-knows with impenetrable baselines for entry. The rise of the independents, as Frankenfield illustrates, took advantage of new media and presented new content on its own terms, letting the audience find it, even if that audience was niche. The problem with this is––and I saw this all the time in webcomics––that, arguably, the independent road to success can only be travelled once. Again, with webcomics, the success of strips like Penny Arcade or PvP or Axe Cop led to unwarranted (and unproven) codification of paths to success and many eager creators became wrapped in false righteousness when their duplication of Penny Arcade‘s arc didn’t provide the same results for them.
With new media––specifically, internet-based media––it seems that roads to success are made out of sand and are erased as soon as they are coursed. It makes “success” a much more malleable phrase for independents than a mainstream product ever could find. It’s why maintaining a self-sufficient comic through ads, Kickstarter campaigns, and regular Patreon contributions could be seen as more of a success than the new Ghostbusters, even though its gross revenue is approaching $220 million dollars (I’m this fully cognizant of the fact that those returns are less than the production budget and marketing budget combined, but there was also Zoolander 2; check those numbers). Whether it’s in the black or not, people still paid $220 million dollars to go see it, which is impressive from an indie standpoint, but to many it’s a mainstream failure, whereas in the context of self-sustaining webcomics we could mean an amount that simply covers hosting costs. If anything, its this relative definition of success that’s going to be making the biggest marks on pop culture in the future, and Frankenfield points to specific examples of this––Louis C.K. and Chance the Rapper––to get this point across.
It’s no secret that I hold Marvel’s persecuted mutants close to my heart, and to that extent, I cherish the filmic versions a bit more dear than many MCU properties if only because of my nostalgic tie to them (while wholly acknowledging that Marvel makes better movies, on the whole). That being said, I have long felt that it would be a mistake for the X-Men and their associated titles to move from Fox to Marvel Studios. To be frank, I was hoping to write an article about it, but Kyle Anderson at Nerdist hit that nail before I did.
I echo Anderson’s point wholeheartedly that the X-Men work best when mutants are the only super-powered people on the planet. I realize this only really exists in the context of the movies as they have been wholly integrated into the Marvel Comics universe since their inception, but as an easily digestible metaphor that can make the largest impact, it’s a context that is much more effective than if they had to interact with super-soldiers and aliens (though X-Men: Apocalypse got a bit close to that mark and, according to Bryan Singer, is a direction he wants to go in the future).
But, referring to what guest Elijah Kaine said during our Shortcast, there currently is room in popular culture for more than one continuity. Naturally, we all assumed it would be a stark line between Marvel and DC because that’s how it exists in the print world. However, we aren’t seeing an effort really coagulating on the DC/Warner Bros. side of things despite their best efforts and it’s also smart to think of things existing more broadly. We have the MCU, we have the Arrow-verse, and we have the X-Men continuity, among others. It’s a much more nuanced and multi-faceted world we live in than, perhaps, we want, but I think, overall, it is better for it.
NOTE: Kyle Anderson is the co-host of a podcast I’ve talked about before––Doctor Who: The Writer’s Room––in which he and Erik Stadnik talk about the writers from classic Doctor Who (1963-1989). They provide incredibly in-depth critical analysis of scripts and their writers that, I would argue, makes it essential listening if you are a fan. This may also make me a bit biased toward Kyle Anderson’s argument, though I didn’t realize he was the author until after I had read the piece.
and, in a slightly different interpretation of the column’s title, here is a video that is “Worth a Look”:
Andrew and I do our best to steer away from politics or politically-charged issues if only because those topics––no matter the side you stand for––can be frustrating discourse. Of all comic book figures used to translate the world of political friction, the X-Men seem most ripe for such utility if only because they were born from it.
I’m not going to speak to the thesis of this article, though it is well-written and cogent, but it shows a technique that I appreciated and of which I would like to see more. Comic books––well, comic book characters, at least––have jumped the divide between niche and the mainstream. If we want the source material to make that same leap, I think using these properties as lenses through which we can explain and analyze the crazy world around us––like we do with literature and movies at this point––should be done more. Whether you agree with Jon Barr’s article or not, take note of what it’s doing and you’ll see the sketch of an important step to improving the cultural validity of comic books.
The incredible point the article makes has to do with a dangerous side-effect of using fiction as allegory or critical lens:
The biggest disparity between the X-Men universe and the gun control debate is this concept of a ‘good guy.’ The world of the X-Men have those heroes to rally behind as an example of how powers should be used.
For the sake of storytelling, clear lines sometimes need to be drawn between things like “good” and “bad,” even when those distinctions are either blurry or rare in real life. The growling of political discourse has done a lot of vilification of the “other” side when, if we were all at a barbecue together, we would all probably have more in common than not. Though there may be more “good guys” than “bad guys” on either side of any debate, it is nice to use popular culture as an avenue for intellectual investigation. As the article admits, using the X-Men as spokespeople for only one side is not only irresponsible, but the X-Men themselves have been figuratively on both sides of what is arguably the same issue as gun control. But I like that possibility. If the X-Men are about anything, it’s giving anybody who feels on the outside a place to belong.
As I progress further and further into nerd culture commentary, a major thesis that continues to bubble to the surface is my strange and possibly nebulous feelings about nostalgia. Specifically, I am kind of appalled at the persistence of the idea that hardcore fans of a property deserve even a modicum of ownership over its evolving direction in popular culture. Respect and rightful say are two very different things.
I want to say this basically started with the spark of superhero cinema––with things like the first few X-Men movies and their proud abandon (at the time) of the technicolor, exaggerated costumes of the comics in favor of matching padded leather or, more specifically, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005 which really spearheaded the movement toward “gritty” and “grounded” nerd cinema. You could even argue that it started with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, but it didn’t hit a fever pitch until the turn of the century.
Since then, we have also seen reboots of properties from the 1980s that received similar “mature” treatment with efforts like the 2011 Cartoon Network Thundercats show that added liberal dashes of The Lord of the Rings to the popular ’80s toyline. Similarly, G.I. Joe made the tonal shift in 2009 with an animated series, G.I. Joe: Resolute, which pushed the beloved and silly franchise into serialized storytelling more commonly found in prime time drama, and did so to much acclaim. Similarly, the Arkham series of Batman games not only revolutionary gameplay but showed the players an even darker world than what we saw in the Nolan films with Gotham being a true den of sin and the rogue’s gallery being more grotesque and twisted than we’ve seen since the Burton films. Arguably, this is also what happened with Casino Royale which killed what little was left of the classic camp during Pierce Brosnan’s tenure. While these examples are the more well-regarded ones, the dark side of the trend has been things like the Michael Bay Transformers series and their dudebro Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cousins.
Benjamin Bailey’s Nerdist article confronts an idea I’ve longed wanted to approach, but couldn’t really find my thesis without sounding petty and bitter (when I didn’t want to––I do love nostalgia trips). The idea that the franchises of our youth are nigh required to meet our adult sensibilities as they met the sensibilities of our youth is a strange request from rebooted or extended franchises. These properties spoke to us because they tapped into a piece of the zeitgeist that others couldn’t find or hold onto. Why should we expect or want anything different when reexamined for modern audiences thirty years later?