We’re all Geeks Now

June 6, 2008

I’m not sure when it happened but comic books are all the rage. Or, as a friend pointed out to me yesterday, not comic books per se, but comic book-related items. Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer for his graphic novel Maus in 1992 which could be perceived as the beginning of this trend, but I don’t think so. Personally I think it was Michael Chabon winning the Pulitzer in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. While the early 90s had the Batman movies starring Michael Keaton, since 2000 we’ve had a new re-imagining of Batman, we’ve had Superman, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and the Spider-Man movies. And we’ve had, Sin City, Daredevil, Elektra, and of course most recently Iron Man. I’m almost certainly forgetting some.

Umberto Eco’s 2005 The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana heavily features four-color newsprints (real for fake I’m not sure, since I haven’t read it) as integral memories of the protagonist. And, of course, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won this year’s Pulitzer (see recommended reading link in sidebar).

I had the immense pleasure of getting to hear Michael Chabon speak at Purdue University a few months ago. Chabon’s piece was themed around the nature of the adult world and the power it has to confine or expand the realm of a child’s imagination.

While he spoke largely of his own memories as a child, his intent was clearly to use those memories to inform the practice of raising his children. The coda to the piece was a bit on the Clock of the Long Now and how a child’s imagination can be hindered by our pessimistic view of the future–a fate he feels he escaped by living in a more optimistic age but that his children are struggling with right now.

Chabon, for those unfamiliar with his work is a long-time fan and defender of “genre fiction:” detective stories, science fiction, fantasy and the like. More than that, many of his own novels are examples of those styles. Even the book hardest to peg to a specific genre, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is still a paean to the power of superhero comic books–possibly the most genre-y of genres.

Chabon’s most recent book Maps and Legends, from whence much of his lecture was pulled, is reviewed, along with David Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague in the latest Times Literary Supplement. Maps and Legends, a collection of non-fiction essays by Chabon is primarily concerned with the constant tug of war between high and low brow art forms (which seems fitting given Chabon’s own bounding between “literature” and “genre” pieces, although he would deny that there’s a separation between the two). Hajdu’s book documents the dramatic lashing out against comic books that took place in the 1950s. The review author, Michael Saler, uses the common thread between the two books to expound on the nature of the culture wars in general and comes to the conclusion that we are in the midsts of some sort of truce between the two opposing sides.

One comment

  1. High and low culture in literature is a moving target over time. We might say Shakespeare & Dickens were low culture while a lot of high culture lit from their eras is no longer around.

    It doesn’t get much lower than John Reynolds’ The Triumphs of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murder (first edition, 1621), chockful of sex and violence and graphically illustrated with woodcuts. Part of my dissertation dealt with this 17th-century best-seller, which, much to my amazement, is now represented on the Web.

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