Thursday, November 10, 2005

House of Um?

And this is my strange, unexpected, question for the day: Why isn’t there a book out there about being a comic book fan?

Of course, I’m somewhat biased in wanting to read one, but then so is almost everyone else who’ll end up reading these words. We’re all comic book fans, after all, and if countless books can be written about being sports fans or TV show fans or cookery fans, then why don’t we get one? Comic book culture is taking over the world, after all - We’re the people who read X-Men and Spider-Man and Batman before they were hit films, the people who possibly knew about but ignored A History of Violence and Road To Perdition before they were critically-acclaimed films, and who secretly wondered why Frank Miller drew such big hands in Sin City before it was both critically-acclaimed and a hit, filmic speaking. We cared about Superman before his S icon turned up on every second t-shirt I see these days. It’s people from comic book culture who create the TV shows that make the whole world sing, like Lost and The OC and probably Veronica Mars too, if you think about it. So where’s our literary round of applause?

It’s not as if comic fans don’t like writing; I mean, even in Arthur Brown’s Crazy World of Blogosphere, there are talented and funny writers who are up to the task (In my ideal world, for example, I’d be reading David Campbell’s Dave’s Longbox: The Book right now). Are we all still too embarrassed about admitting our geekdom in public, in this world where The 40-Year-Old Virgin was temporarily a smash hit?

All of this springs from my current reading, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes and 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen and the new Tom DeHaven novel, It’s Superman (Ed Cunard once pointed out that I always end up talking about what prose I’m reading in here, so I feel like I’m just continuing a proud tradition right now). The Superman novel perhaps makes most sense, in this context. For those who haven’t heard about it, it’s a novel retelling a version of the Superman story – and the novel itself makes it clear that it’s only a version, both starting and finishing by putting into a context as “our story”, as opposed to “the story” – set in 1930s Depression-hit America. The book doesn’t focus on the spectacular or the traditionally superheroic; by the 200th page of the book, where I currently am, Clark Kent is nowhere near becoming Superman or even considering where his underwear should be worn. Instead, it’s a sprawling mass of emotion and detail and moments that speak to you in amazing clarity even though you’ve never experienced anything like it yourself… Something more akin to, if you will, a “serious novel”.

(Which isn’t to say that it’s not an enjoyable novel, because it is. For those of you who share my love for books like Carter Beats The Devil or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Clay, then it’s so up your alley that it should be renamed The Book That’s Very Up Your Alley, Starring Superman. There’s a humanity to the storytelling, and what it chooses to emphasize about all of the characters, that makes it a joy to read.)

But It’s Superman feels, again, like another crossover between comic book culture and – I don’t even know if it’s really pop culture, really. Are novels really part of pop culture anymore, especially in America? It’s hard to think of that many novels, The DaVinci Code and Harry Potter aside, that really cause any kind of movement within larger culture on a regular basis, so perhaps novels are as niche as comics, but on the other end of the scale. But when Superman gets his own novel, and it’s not something that is constructed purely to cash in on the existing fantasy market (Which, as a complete tangent, is something that I think that Marvel’s “Stephen King is writing The Dark Tower for us, kind of” stunt is – I would’ve been much more interested if he had been writing, or plotting, or whatever it is that he’s doing for Marvel, something that wasn’t so fantasy-orientated as a comic project instead. But then, if I ran the comic industry, everyone would be out of business), that feels like another movement further down the road to comics gaining further artistic legitimacy, or something.

But the Julie and Julia book is what is really sticking in my head. In it, author Julie Powell writes about an obsession that’s very distinct to her – Julia Child’s first cookbook, Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 – in such a way as to not only make you understand its importance to her, but also to make it feel important to you, too, in a way. She makes her love for this somewhat unusual subject into something universal that allows you to sympathize and bring your own personal nerditry along for the ride as well.

(There’s another side to the book – that Powell wrote a blog about her Julia Child-inspired project to make all the recipes in the cookbook in one year, only for the blog to find an audience and introduce her to what she really loves doing, writing – that I gravitate towards, as well, reading too much into it from my Fanboy Rampage!!! experience. So perhaps I’m going overboard in my reaction to the book. Maybe all of you would hate it.)

What Powell does – Making the personal universal, which is really what most good memoir writers do, I guess – is something that I’m still somewhat surprised hasn’t really ever been done for comic fandom, especially as comic fandom has now become such a large part of culture in general. It seems odd, and kind of sad, to me that, while comics are on a road to an acceptance from everyone and their New Yorker reading best friends, comic fans themselves are still somewhat seen as this strange outsider freak figure, lacking in social skills. Shouldn’t that stereotype have died in this world of Chris Ware having a regular strip in the New York Times and Fantastic Four actually being a successful movie? And, as it apparently hasn’t, can’t someone help kill it by writing well about what it means to be a comic book fan, and letting everyone else in on the secret?