Sunday, 24 April 2016

30 Blogs of Night: The Great Geek Swindle

Or if you prefer, the Misappropriation of Geek.

Day 23 - yes this is yesterday's post, honest really guv'nor.

In the past couple of decades, something has happened to the status of geek culture. It's been shuffled out of the shadows and onto centre stage. While not held up as great literature, comic book characters are far more accepted and to an extent the idea that 'they're for children' has vanished as TV shows and movies based on these characters become ever more common. On TV it feels as if Fantasy and SF shows are more hotly pursued, with showrunners and executives all looking for the next Game of Thrones or Agents of SHIELD (or whatever). Not being a TV watcher it's hard for me to judge the content of these and there's always an element of 'more power to your elbow' if the current crop of shows are what you're after. I'm sure they're no worse than the likes of Firefly or Farscape, etc, from the later part of the last century and the early part of this one.

But.

But.

 I look at them and I wonder if this is truly doing us any good; as people, as geeks, as a community. It seems like nirvana but at the same time, I'm unconvinced that this boom of interest and products is actually beneficial. It feels as if it's far more about exploiting us in the pursuit of pure profit, than giving us anything that has true worth. I've become extremely glad I grew up in the period where American comics weren't celebrated, and where for all their garish colours and silly plotlines (because let's be honest, most comics writing is about as far from Shakespeare as you could hope to be - which isn't to say that Shakespeare didn't produce some very silly stuff) they were pretty free of observation from the outside world. That meant they were less self-consciously a product, that they could get on with storytelling and character development; something that feels rare now, especially at the 'Big Two', Marvel and D.C. where books are bound to the next crossover and everything gets rebooted every couple of years. It's only in the independent sector that the comics I remember growing up with, the ones which go for the long haul, exist, and I find that sad. This was noble storytelling tradition and it's being thrown away for shiny pebbles. The only advantage I can see is that you can jump ship as soon as the book stops being interesting, which I suppose saves you some grief. After all, if everything's going to change or be set back to point zero, what's the point of hanging around?

I'd make a similar point about all those television programmes, with the added caveat of 'how new are they'? Are they genuinely bringing us anything new, or are we just suffering from our own version of  Cop Show Syndrome? You know, being served the same stories but this time, the lead's a tough black woman with an aging father and a quirky nerd sidekick while the last show was basically the same plots but the investigator was an autistic genius with a quirky woman who was looking after hm. I fear that they do much the same things, and the differences are fleeting.

In the same way, my favourite Marvel films are the Captain America ones, simply because most of the others feel like they're composed of someone smashing action figures together, with some daddy issues thrown in for good measure. Only slightly more depressing is the idea that someone has looked at all this stuff and decided that because the protagonists have XY chromosomes women are somehow getting shafted. Honestly, I don't see how that can be, outside of pay packets and what happens with actual actresses, because at the end of the day superheroes, much as I love them, are shallow, silly roles with little meat to them. They no more tell me or any other man about what it's like to be a man in today's world than a kitten meme tells you how to look after your cat (and now someone will post a cat meme that does exactly that). Watching something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or High Rise seems to convey more about the human condition than a thousand superhero films.

The internet hasn't helped with this, if anything it's made things worse. Now, there's no escape from all these things, and as the early days of the 'net become nothing more than a memory we can see how fully it is being used to reinforce capitalist ideals. Facebook, at times, resembles nothing so much as a schoolyard where the most popular things must be liked by everyone; while sites like Buzzfeed seem intent on not only appealing to younger users but actively stopping them from growing up. Do we need more stuff about Harry Potter, unless it's to talk about the new book? Do we need Sorting Hat quizzes and constant Tumblrs about life lessons from an admittedly well observed series of children's fiction? Similarly, can we accept that Dan Radcliffe has grown up, and gone onto other roles? He was great in Horns and has proved that he is far more than just a one trick pony. I'm sure he's grateful for the overwhelming success of the Harry Potter franchise but come on let him be an actor, let him grow and change. Tying him to that bespectacled little boy is doing him a disservice.

I'm unconvinced that any of this is actually good for the things that we claim to love, in the same way that I'm unconvinced that Waterstones selling the Game of Thrones books cheap does anything to increase the sales of any other fantasy series. Not a problem for them, or for Mr Martin*, of course and hats off to both of them for that; but a pain for anyone who actually wants to see the genre flourish and be diverse (are we going to go through a long winter of 'Martin's Shadow' now, where only'real politick' fantasy gets published?) Do we know if the Harry Potter and Twilight fans actually moved onto other books, or did they just stick to the shallows, clinging to the series they knew? There's some suggestion that they did read other things, especially among female readers but I know that the comics industry's attempts to push their products after every film and every TV series normally meet with failure. This report from the New York Times suggests that Harry Potter, despite its much vaunted effect on reading, proved to be a white elephant .

D.C. are rebranding their universe and bringing it closer to the other media, but I fear they're missing the point. People don't want to buy comics, not even if they can find them online because comics are still for children in the minds of a great many people and somehow while they can justify turning on the box or going to the cinema to watch grown men in pervert suits kick the crap out of each other, the idea of buying a graphic novel simply doesn't compute. Then too there's the fact that the serial nature of the medium works against it; the only product that increased its sales after the film came out to my knowledge was Watchmen - and that was just one book. Perhaps other standalone books have done similar things; I don't know.

'We're all geeks now', is a common cry, but I remain unconvinced. That's not meant in a snobby fashion, or to declare I'm somehow geekier than thou - to be honest, I barely recognise myself as a geek; a decade ago I wouldn't have been typing this post. And I'm not having a go at you if you are a  geek, or if your main way of exploring that is through television, despite what I say below. I'm just sick of things being bundled up, diluted to the point  where nothing fucking matters apart from how many pieces of crap get sold.

Like subculture or feminism, or a thousand other things it feels as if now it's simply too easy. You want to be a geek? Just slob in front of your telly at prime time and say you're a nerd because you liked an episode of Arrow. Buy a fucking tee shirt and wear someone's corporate branding. Be a living billboard and tell people they'll love the show. Don't think about why they'll like it, just push it incessantly. That seems to be what geekdom has become. It's changed from a place where people sorted through things and found fiction that spoke to them, that explained their lives, to the new hotness which we must all like or somehow we're letting the side down. I'd compare it to the Great Rock and Roll Swindle except it doesn't even have the decency to pretend to be rebellion. It's just become the very thing it was trying to be an alternative to, and with 360 degree marketing, has become even worse.

\Nothing is allowed to stand alone now if it breaches the market, nothing can simply be the one thing that exists. I get that TV and films are increasingly expensive to make, what with CGI and stuff, but the cost, the true cost, has been creativity, storytelling, and identity. These things have become a cargo cult, the film or TV series are just a way to sell you crap you don't need (and none of us are exactly immune to that myself included**): shiny beads washed up on the shore. It saddens me, it enrages me, because I care about these things and while some people are making things because they really care about them, most of the stuff out there comes from just one thing; the desire to part you from your cash, and to make you think you're somehow weird or edgy for it.

*By the way do read Fevre Dream if you like his stuff, it's an excellent historical novel about a Mississippi paddle steamer that just happens to have vampires in.
** As anyone who's seen my Funko Pop collection would tell you.