Hardison gets it

When I was a kid, I loved a few things that made me a profound outcast:

  • Comic books
  • Science fiction
  • Star Trek
  • Musicals
  • Animation

I cannot overemphasize just how unpopular and/or denigrated nearly all those things were when I was living my best GenX life. Comic books were particularly looked down upon, but there was plenty of opprobrium left over for Star Trek, science fiction, and what these days they call anime and in my experience was limited to Speed Racer, Astro Boy, and the like. (And yes, I had plenty of love for Warner Brothers, Rankin-Bass, Jay Ward, and others too.)

It was tolerated in children, but you were supposed to grow out of it and start reading, I dunno, Dickens and watching Shakespeare. (I like Shakespeare, too; I was a weird kid.) Comic books were very much “trash culture”, not something you read in any kind of serious way. And watching science fiction on TV? C’mon, man.

(How this attitude squared with grown adults painting their faces green or wearing giant cheese wedges on their head to cheer on men giving each other concussions for their entertainment being acceptable I’ve never fully understood, but let’s just move on.)

Through my childhood, teens, and 20s, I mostly nursed these loves quietly and at the constant risk of disdain. If a girlfriend caught me reading a Heinlein juvenile or, God save us, an X-Men comic book, or waiting on line to go see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, oof, it could bring up issues. It wasn’t manly, that’s for sure.

Luckily, I ended up at UC Santa Cruz, a veritable hothouse of weird, and frankly I fit right in. I found friends who were equally weird, who also enjoyed some or all of these things, with whom I could talk, exchange recommendations, play video games (and foosball), and yes, smoke weed and drink. (Although I was never much of a drinker, truth to tell.)

In the 70s and 80s, there was, to put it mildly, a dearth of science fiction films. Yes, Star Wars—more of a space western, or possibly a space fantasy, than actual science fiction—opened the door. But for every Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Empire Strikes Back, there were 20 films like Saturn 3 or (God save us) Moonraker. Even a wonderful film like Superman (1978) had plenty of camp, harking back to the that classic, the 1960s “Batman” TV show.

Valerie Perrine asking why she “can’t get it on with the good guys.” Seriously.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed it all and was happy to take what I could get. I could even now happily lecture you on why Saturn 3 isn’t nearly as bad as you think (Harvey Keitel!). I won’t go all the way into the tank and say Superman: The Quest for Peace was a good film, but still; when you’re in a cultural-enjoyment minority, you really do eat what’s set before you.

All this generational nostalgia is a long prelude to the main point, to wit: I am absolutely staggered that all of the stuff that I was looked-down upon for when I was younger is now a major part of the culture.

Until 1982, there were three seasons of Star Trek, a one-season run of a cartoon version, and a single, critically-panned film. (“Star Trek: The motionless picture,” Harlan Ellison famously called it.) Now there are nearly 900 episodes of TV shows spanning 44 television seasons. There are five shows in active development. There have been 13 films. One Captain of the Enterprise has received a knighthood, for cryin’ out loud! The theme song is so iconic it only needs to be used sparingly in the various properties to evoke emotion in the massive fanbase. It’s as pervasive to the culture now as Westerns were (so I’m told) in the 50s and 60s.

And of course while science fiction is still often treated as the bastard stepchild of literature (and goodness, what they do say about sub-genres like Steampunk!), there’s simply no question that big budged science fiction films are treated as Serious Art by actual living, breathing critics. Directors like Denis Villenueve, Christopher Nolan, Doug Liman, and Alex Garland have made entire careers by creating high-quality science fiction films that people treat with reverence. Films like Inception, Arrival, Live Die Repeat, and Ex Machina not only receive praise, they show the deep ideas science fiction can address, and are sometimes credited with changing people’s perceptions of what film can do.

This film was a mind-bender, and catnip to a hardcore SF fan

A similar phenomenon has happened with comic books. Frank Miller and Alan Moore pushed the bounds of what could be done with the form. (And of course they built on the work of the people so famous it would almost insult your intelligence to mention them, but I will so as to not let people think I believe comics weren’t invented until 1980 or something: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Steve Ditko, the immortal [and criminally-used] Joe Shuster and Gary Siegel, and many others from the “Golden” and “Silver” ages of comics. Too numerous to list, so I ask forgiveness from fans of, say, Mike Grell, or John Byrne, or whoever.) The outburst of creativity in the 80s was astounding.

Like science fiction, though, this didn’t necessarily lead to a wide acceptance of the medium, but it did help energize creators to take chances on comic book films. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, of course, as well as Sam Raimi’s trilogy of Spider-Man films, as well as the (sometimes messy) early X-Men films. And now of course the massive Marvel Comics Universe and the big-budget DC films, employing prestige directors like Christopher Nolan, Kenneth Branagh, and Ang Lee show that Hollywood, at least, is taking the source material seriously enough to bet millions on it.

(I could make a point at how many of these creators are GenXers, but I’ll let you look up their birthdays on your own.)

So I hope you can understand how the current culture looks to me, a person who furtively read his Spider-man and Legion of Super Hero comics furtively in his bedroom, hiding them under the bed. It’s quite a mind-bender. It truly is the Age of the Geek. And horrible capitalist wealth disparities aside, quite frankly I love it.