An essay about the responsibilities inherent in fandom.
In season eight, episode fourteen of The Simpsons, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” after Homer gets a job voicing wildly unpopular new character, Poochie, he accompanies the usual cast of the show to a Q&A at The Android’s Dungeon and Baseball Card Shop. A fan asks him, “In episode 2F09 when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we, to believe that this is some sort of a, a magic xylophone or something? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.” Homer puts the fan in his place, and he withdraws his question. I was thinking about that moment last night, and how it is absolutely impossible for it to happen today.
The final scores are in, and the geeks have inherited the Earth. The nerds got revenge, and they have made the pop culture landscape over in their image. Monster movies are winning Oscars, the richest men alive no longer played football in college, and being “such a nerd” has gone from pejorative to a backhanded insult, usually only self-applied. This is why, when I descended upon the Director’s Guild Theater on the same weekend as the Sundance Film Festival, for a straight-to-DVD Superman movie, the stars still came out. Jerry O’Connell and Rebecca Romijn are nerd icons at this point, so when the former showed up in a blue Superman-logo suit, I was not surprised. But Patrick Fabian was there, and that guy’s on Better Call Saul.
The line between fan and journalist has been dwindling for a while now, almost to the point of nonexistence. This is true pretty much across the board. Most online contributors are doing it for the love of their beats rather than for any sort of financial security. This was a trend pioneered by geek media. Rather than having its birth in the newsrooms of New York City or Washington DC, it began on LiveJournals and Geocities pages, growing as geek culture did to become nothing less than ubiquitous. The twenty-four-hour news cycle has nothing on the geeks tracking even the barest scraps of information from Marvel’s latest film releases.
GI Joe once said that “knowing is half the battle.” This was also in my head when I reached the line of interviews on the Reign of the Supermen red carpet. I couldn’t shake the quote, echoing in my head, that night because the look I saw on most of these stars’ faces was fear. The fear that they will be found out as fake geeks, or else insufficient ones, and will be flamed and trolled on Twitter, never to collect such a sweet paycheck again. There’s no doubt some of these actors (especially the ones who grew up on superhero comics and cartoons) have a genuine affection for the source material, but the sheer amount of preempting possible pedantry with their own was staggering. I wanted to tell them that you are not their enemy, but there’s only so much time and only so much anyone can do.
There’s this idea that when something is small enough, critics should follow a rule we learned in our childhood, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all”. This is to protect weakened and fledgling industries from undue negative attention. If no one buys books about the Civil War anymore, your pan of one, if you like Civil War books, can only hurt the niche, not help it. The problem is that geek media is not niche anymore. It’s not the counter-culture, it is the culture. If geek media wants to remain the cultural hegemon, it’s going to have to learn to take some criticism.
Geek media has a scaling problem. It’s fine when your club only has a dozen members if they’re all men or white or both, but when you are the largest media conglomerates on Earth, the less reflective you are of the population, the worse it looks. I mention this because after the film, I stayed for the audience Q&A, and a teenager got up to the mic. She complained that she saw twelve men on the dais, but only one woman, and her character didn’t have any superpowers.
She made a compelling point, and she made it calmly and articulately, but the moderator and some of the interviewees did everything they could to diffuse her comments as quickly as possible without engaging with them. She also did not receive a DVD for asking her question like the other five audience members, though I am not sure she would have wanted one.
There has long been a détente between geek celebrities and the media that covers them. Geek celebrities, despite our modern obsession with geek ephemera, are not full-fledged A-listers. They are involved in geek media for a paycheck, or for the legions of obsessive fans, or by chance. That’s why people who have never heard of some of the obscure DC characters in Reign of the Supermen voiced them. They’re actors doing a job. This job, however, comes with some pretty big strings. Nerds ask a lot of their heroes, and in return give them their undying loyalty. This goes back as far as Star Trek conventions, and it’s basically the reason that people like William Shatner, Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, and the like have careers in the first place.
The studios know this, and they cater, then, to their whims. It’s why Death of Superman has been done in Superman: Doomsday, on Justice League, in Batman V Superman before Reign of the Supermen’s prequel film. It’s the only reason that Warner Bros. has an animation studio that does, by their own admission, only adaptations of DC’s classic stories. Stray too far from the chosen path, and you get The Last Jedi backlash or Ghostbusters hate. This edict has made it all the way from the fans to the studios, and down into the actors. They don’t want to step out of line, because I’m like their boss. You, reading this essay, are like their boss.
To some degree, this is just how entertainment works. You give your disposable income to one company or another, and they’re going to do whatever it is you want. This is a good way to make money, but it’s not a good way to make art. Through speaking to the filmmakers, they revealed that they felt some pressure (whether this is from the studio or their own internalized edicts, is unclear) to include the Justice League in the film. They manage to do so, for about one scene, and then a boom tube literally falls on them, and they’re kicked out of the movie. It’s artless, but when you have to cram eleven superfluous characters into a film with a runtime of fewer than eighty minutes, I can hardly blame them.
This confluence, of overly market-driven solutions and a lack of diversity, are not solely the fault of the fans. In fact, most of the most hateful, alt-right adjacent nerds are an extremely small (though extremely vocal) minority. To some degree, DC comics is going to adapt their most popular comic book stories based on their sales figures that have been piling up for decades, but things don’t have to be like this.
Comics, while a dwindling medium more and more relying on celebrity writers to push sales, are still a wonderful laboratory for new ideas, and plenty of really new and exciting things are happening there, especially as the industry makes an (admittedly moderate) push to include marginalized voices. The comics of today are the movies of tomorrow, so we need to support cool new ideas there first. We also need to be mindful of actors portraying our favorite costumed crusaders. They are just actors who may not be geeks themselves, but we do a terrible job of convincing them they should be when we shut them down for single mistakes, and create a culture of fear where they feel overly-scrutinized.
Geek media is the flavor of the month, but as we begin to realize that tech may not have the answers to all of our problems, that doesn’t have to be true. Facebook selling our data to the Russians, Theranos’ scam devices, and Elon Musk’s labor practices have shown us one thing: geeks need to care about people if they really want to change the world. This extends all the way down to creating an inclusive environment in our screening houses and our recording booths too. Otherwise, geek culture is sure to destroy itself.