ONE 6 • Shall the Geek Inherit the Earth?

Shall the Geek Inherit the Earth?

In his recent book, Point to Point Navigation, Gore Vidal asserts: “Today, where literature was, movies are… there can be no other reality for us since reality does not begin to mean until it is made art of. For the Agora, Art is now sight and sound; and the books are shut.” Or are they? Peter Simpson offers a possible new angle to the conversation.

Strike up a conversation with someone about literature, with a capital “L” that is, and you might create a scene of hearty laughter, witty Wilde anecdotes and a sense that someone, somewhere, is smoking a pipe and nodding along. Start a conversation with someone about the place of comic-books within the hallowed literary pantheon and the response is often one of bemusement followed by the faint sound of tobacco hitting the floor. Long seen as the poor relation in the literary world, the comic-book has been derided as simplistic, and generally cast out of the conversation altogether. Of late, however, comics have begun kicking back hard, and currently some of the biggest and best films at the cinema are based on the much maligned genre.

The Dark Knight, a film in which a vigilante dressed as a bat chases a man in clown makeup around Chicago for 3 hours, has grossed over $450m in the USA alone so far, and garnered enough review stars to garner its own small galaxy. In another case, Iron Man, a movie about a weapons manufacturer who builds himself a metal suit and fights crime, saw similar success. Along these lines new release slates are now bursting with comic-book adaptations, and suddenly the people who’ve historically mocked the art form aren’t laughing quite as loudly.

Of late, traditional literature has, to a large extent, been pushed closer to the fringes of Hollywood by the young upstart comic-book. While there are adaptations of works by Evelyn Waugh and Arthur Conan Doyle on the horizon, they are very much islands in a sea of contemporary pop culture. Upon reflection, there is a very good reason for this. While classic authors such as Dickens and Chaucer are widely read and name-checked by anyone grasping for something clever to say, their work remains classics.

After all, when was the last time that you heard a group of excitable young people eagerly discussing that hip new writer named Jane Austen? On the other hand, comic-books are going strong within generation Y. Successful new series are launching all the time to critical and commercial fanfare. The comic’s becoming a periscope for an entire readership underneath the literary surface, and a lightning rod for a shared consciousness among its readers.

“They are saying a lot of 14-year olds have the reading age of 10-year olds. So how can you get teenage boys to read? I used to read The Hotspur, Victor and later 2000AD. It’s a great way to get people to read. The problem is that there just aren’t enough comics out there anymore.”

—Ian Rankin

Comics are the basis for an entire subculture, and as with any distinctive social group, spawn a definite sense of camaraderie amongst followers. The collective experience of humans engaging in an art form that is often pushed to the margins should not be underestimated, and the episodic nature of comic publishing furthers this sense of community. A comic consciousness has developed amongst the cartoon fraternity for all to see in a vast array of blogs, websites and podcasts, and now successful comic-book movies. Underscoring one key fact: great comic-books make great films.

The massive self-perpetuating hype machine surrounding the latest comic craze is a marketing man’s dream, and created the momentum for The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Film studios now recognise comic-book fan as a vital target market, and offer them plenty of opportunities to peruse early material from the latest productions — and nowhere is this more pronounced than at the annual Comic-Con convention in San Diego.

Over the past five years, what began as a simple meet-up for the comic fans of the world has blossomed alongside the growth of the comic community overall. Through broadband and blogging, the event is now packed with previews of the next year’s releases from all of the major film studios who know that: If you don’t send someone to Comic-Con, you may as well not bother releasing the film.

While the masters of the written word can conjure up an image in your head, and certainly fill it with beautiful colours and glorious set pieces, the comic has an advantage of actually depicting the entirety before the reader. The very best comic-books use this to great effect. Frank Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns combines action and introspection in the space of the same frame, a trick that is very in keeping with the cinematic grammar of picture and narration, complementing and contrasting to create more than the sum of their parts. Watchmen, the Alan Moore comic whose adaptation hits cinemas next year, made Time magazine’s list of 100 best English-language novels in 2005, placing it alongside such classic silver-screen titans as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath.

The cinema will continue to play a vital role in the ascent of the comic-book into respected literary circles, and as long as their cinematic counterparts maintain their recent high quality, the comic is set for things greater still. Some day soon, you might even strike up a conversation with someone, and be exchanging Frank Miller anecdotes, while someone, somewhere is dressed as a tiger, smoking a pipe, and nodding along. – PS