The Lure Of “The Hip Side” (or Step Away From The Yellow Ring Sinestro…)

Those of you who’ve been with me for a while may remember what happened last year, when Disney released “Tron Legacy” and a snarky young writer for NPR spent several paragraphs trashing it while spouting inaccuracies and making it clear that he’d never even seen “Legacy or the original “Tron.” I thought, “Why you little…” and it was on. Guess what kids? Somebody rang that bell again.

In a story posted on NPR.org last week, writer, graphic novelist and (wha-wah-what?) University of Houston creative writing teacher Mat Johnson felt the need to sound the death-knoll for movies based on comic book superheroes, citing – among other things – “lukewarm reactions” to this summer’s bumper crop of super-flicks. And while he was at it, Johnson thought he’d demonstrate his superiority to us plebs who still cheer for superheroes as pedestrian as Superman or Spider-Man by rattling off some reading suggestions that he feels might up our cool factor.

If this couldn't kill the public's love for Superman (and for that matter ALL superheroes), believe me, nothing will. (Superboy, Mr. Mxyzptlk and Lana Lang in a scene from the 1988 - 1992 syndicated series "Superboy")

Holy Faulty Premise Batman! Where do I start? How about with this? Johnson writes, “The words ‘comic books’ and ‘superheroes’ were synonymous at one time in America…” and then goes on to credit the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 graphic novel “Maus” with turning that tide. Really? I think not.

This statement overlooks a huge (and hugely influential and controversial) section of the comic book universe – horror comics. From Avon’s “Eerie Comics” to EC’s “Tales from the Crypt,” horror comics were just as popular throughout the 40s and early 50s as the superhero books – if not more so. In fact, it’s the immense popularity of horror comics (and their partners in – uh, well, crime – crime comics) that most likely resulted in the industry being forced to self-censor for so many years. How could someone like Johnson, who creates graphic novels, not be aware that the reason Congress held hearings about the “dangers” of comic books was not Superman or Captain Marvel, but because people like Dr. Fredric Wertham were blaming horror and crime comics for a rise in “juvenile delinquency”? Other genres were less controversial, but no less popular, with millions of issues sold by romance comics (“Young Romance,” “My Life”) and comics born from newspaper strips and animated cartoons (“Archie,” “Casper,” “Richie Rich”).

A panel from the infamous "Tales from the Crypt" story "Foul Play," which helped prompt a Congressional subcommittee to hold hearings on the "evils"of comic books in 1954.

Next, let’s look at this sentence from a synopsis of Johnson’s story on NPR's FB page: “Moviegoers’ fascination with superheroes may be dying down.” Oh really? And the evidence of this is what? Because by the end of 2011, those moviegoers will have gone to the theatre to see “Thor,” another “X-Men” origin story, “Green Lantern,” “Captain America,” and a reboot of stone age superhero “Conan the Barbarian.” Even in this crappy economy, Americans are still hitting the multiplex at upwards of $10 a pop, pumping millions of dollars into the industry. That doesn’t sound like the Bat-signal’s in danger of going dark to me.

Meanwhile, Hollywood is busy preparing a re-boot of “Ghost Rider” (which personally mystifies me), “The Avengers” (which will bring Marvel heroes Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, The Hulk, Black Widow and Nick Fury together on the big screen), a re-boot of “Spiderman,” a third “Batman: Dark Knight” movie, “Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam” (or as I knew him growing up, Captain Marvel) and a full slate of other superly-abled folks set to fly into theatres in the next two to three years. I'm no expert, like Mr. Johnson apparently is, but I’ve never heard of anyone in Hollywood that likes to throw lots of money away making movies about topics the public is no longer “fascinated with.”

Here's something to ponder: Green Lantern (my favorite superhero, btw) is the gayest superhero - because his power comes from jewelry. Discuss.

So how does Mr. Johnson measure the success of the current crop of super-flicks? What runaway superhero box-office success is the measuring stick for deciding if the public’s reaction is “lukewarm”? “Superman”? Nope. “Batman”? Uh-uh. “Spiderman,” it must be “Spiderman.” Wrong again. He chooses “Mystery Men” as the bar all other superhero flicks must clear. REALLY? “Mystery Men”? Yup.

Johnson writes, “…reactions to some of these films may show that the allure of ‘Mystery Men’ has faded in the public's eyes.” First of all, the wildly uneven 1999 movie version of “Mystery Men” could never be considered a “success,” financially or otherwise, no matter how hard you try to spin it - despite a cast filled with actors (Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens) who were red-hot at the time. Second, the print version of “Mystery Men,” which ran as a serial feature in cartoonist Bob Burden’s surrealist comic book series “Flaming Carrot Comics,” was less than a household name. Before the movie's release, I'll bet a thousand bucks you could have stood on a street corner in any major city in this country for a week before you stopped somebody who could accurately tell you what the hell “Mystery Men" was. Because it was, at best, an underground, cult series, known mostly to the legions of comic store regulars who found its post-post-post-modern spin on the superhero genre hilarious. (In truth, the premise for “Mystery Men” is pretty damned funny – debatably-powered superheroes like The Spleen, whose superpower is flatulence originating from a gypsy curse, and The Shoveler, who expertly wields not a super-powered or alien-created tool, but a plain old garden-variety shovel.)

No, it's not a Village People reunion. It's the members of that not-so-super superhero gang the Mystery Men.

I really shouldn’t have to tell a man who teaches writing (even if it is creative writing) that if you’re going to start from the premise that something is struggling for survival and then dance on its grave after you make a case for your terminal prognosis, you’d better be sure you’re on solid ground. Because no one looks dignified struggling to climb out of a six-foot hole they’ve carelessly fallen into – literally or figuratively.

Other than reading the bio on his NPR piece, I didn’t do any research on Mat Johnson. So I have no idea what his background is or how old he is. Judging by his apparent lack of awareness of anything before the 80s, I’d guess he’s younger than 40. Sadly, Johnson is not alone these days in his blissful ignorance of history that pre-dates his birth. (Hey NPR, I’m sensing a pattern in your writers here.) Of course, it’s usually pretty easy to find the person in the room under 40: Just look for someone loudly opining on a topic you can easily tell they have limited knowledge of, making statements like “The Dixie Chicks’ cover of ‘Landslide’ blows. The original version by Smashing Pumpkins is a classic. The Chicks should’ve left it alone.” This is one of the times it’s actually fun to be fast-approaching 50. Because you get to step in and say, “Actually, Skippy, the Pumpkins’ version isn’t the first and it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. ‘Landslide’ is a Stevie Nicks song from her first album with Fleetwood Mac in 1975. It’s also been a fixture for decades on set lists for both Mac tours and Nicks’ solo outings.”

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Wow. Aren’t you being kind of harsh? Anybody can make a mistake, especially if they’re relatively young.” Yes. That’s true – very, very true indeed. But there’s a huge difference between mere oversight caused by youthful exuberance and error-filled essays fueled by the hubris of willful ignorance. In Johnson’s case though, I think his poorly researched post (with a weak premise as a starting point) is the result of being lured over to what I’ve recently started calling “The Hip Side.”

Yo! Lost another one to the darkness, we have.

It seems we’ve gotten to a place in this country where some feel it’s not enough to like something just because you enjoy it and take pleasure in that simple experience – especially if we’re talking about something that’s popular with the masses. As a result, we’ve seen the appearance of a strange type of entertainment that appears to make no sense at all to most of us because it’s completely inaccessible unless you’re somehow lucky (read: young and hip) enough to be in on the joke. In fact, there are times when I suspect the point of some of these often awkward, embarrassing and discomforting works is that there’s absolutely no entertainment value at all. And somehow that fact is what makes them entertaining. (Yeah, I don’t get it either.)

This is particularly the case with music (I won’t name any bands, but let’s just say I’d rather have a lumbar puncture than listen to some of the acts the artsy critics and the hipsters absolutely wet themselves over), as well as comedy, reality-television and variety acts (I’ll cook dinner for a week for the first person who can successfully explain to me why Dane Cook is so popular, why people are fascinated by those wastes of space the Kardashians, why I feel like you’d have to be high to get several shows on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” schedule and what the hell is going on with Criss Angel, who makes my skin crawl – with or without his grand-guignol-meets-Evel-Knievel-meets-a-stripper/hustler-one-of-my-former-male-roommates-dated shtick).

Would you let this man near your daughter, your garage, your baby oil - or your eyeliner? I'm thinking somebody has seen "The Crow" waaaay to many times.

For some, especially those too young or too naïve to see its black, evil heart, “The Hip Side” holds great attraction. In a summer – hell, decade – packed with movies based on superhero comics and graphic novels, you’d expect an apparent comic book aficionado like Johnson to be visibly vibrating with anticipation for the next release. But alas, it looks like “The Hip Side” has claimed another victim. On one hand, it’s kind of sad. Based on his NPR article, superhero movies seem to hold no more appeal for Mat Johnson. On the other hand, good! That means more open seats at “Captain America” for the rest of us. I’ll be there (and at every other upcoming superhero flick) with everyone not cool enough to know (or care) that the genre is “faded,” proudly wearing my fan-boy affection for Batman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and Superman like a cape – and cheering like a proud parent at a little league game when the bad guys lose.

One final thought about superheroes:

Can someone please explain this to me? Hollywood seems to have no problem cranking out endless re-boots of the big guns, including “Superman” and “The Hulk.” Second-string characters like “Daredevil,” “Jonah Hex” and “Ghost Rider” get multi-million dollar big-screen treatments. So why are millions of fans (including me) still waiting for a “Wonder Woman” movie?

“Avengers” director Joss Whedon managed to revive, reinvent and reinvigorate his most famous creation to date, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” after Hollywood execs twisted it into that 1992 big-screen mess starring Kristy Swanson and Rutger Hauer (in his most embarrassing role ever and that’s saying something). But even Whedon couldn’t pull off a “Wonder Woman” movie. Hell, at this point, I’d settle for a TV show even though the prospects for that don’t look good either. A David E. Kelly-helmed series about the world’s favorite Amazon Princess set for NBC’s fall lineup, which I thought held great promise based on Kelly’s previous hits, crashed and burned before the pilot ever aired.

"All the world is waiting for you..." And waiting, and waiting, and waiting...

I really hate to go there, but could this be a case of sexism? Does Wonder Woman keep getting stuck in the gate because blockbuster superhero flicks are a boys club? That’s just really sad if it’s true. Or is this a simple matter of economics? After all, forgettable movies featuring Elektra and Catwoman (I know, technically a super-villain…but still) probably didn’t do much to alleviate Hollywood’s doubts about the box-office potential of female superheroes.

But this is Wonder Woman we’re talking about here. She’s a feminist icon – a superheroine in a class all by herself. She’s fought Nazis; battled immortal beings like Ares, Circe and Medusa; survived attempts during the 70s to radically change her persona; held her own against Superman and Batman as one of the Justice League’s big three and put up with Steve Trevor for decades – and always looked fantastic while doing it. (Well, almost always: I’ll forgive her for temporarily adopting the Emma Peel look and for the hideous white jumpsuit costume – it was the 60s.)

With a resume like that, I think Wonder Woman can keep up with the boys at the box-office too.

"Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world." – Marilyn Monroe

“No capes.” – Edna “E” Mode

Hey, has anybody seen my Invisible Jet? I know I parked it around here somewhere…

Stay cool,

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