Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.

2008-07-20

The Real Life League of Real Superhero Stories

It took 70 years, but it seems that pop culture has finally finished digesting the Superhero and begun to regurgitate the idea in the form of stories about how weird the idea is. With this past week's progressive sample release of Dr. Horrible, the Whedon's Supervillian Mad Scientist Musical Laundromat Love Story, the release of Hancock featuring Will Smith as a drunk, disillusioned superhero, and the momentous unveiling of the first trailer for the hotly anticipated film version of breakthrough graphic novel Watchmen, stories that essentially ask "what if superheroes were, like REAL or something?" are bigger than ever.

Watchmen, which follows cataclysmic events in the life of a second generation of superheroes, some of whom inherited their characters from their parents, is very heavy stuff; in addition to giving graphic novels a much needed shot of legitimacy that has yet to wear off, it singlehandedly broke open the world of superheroes by actually exploring how the world might react if people actually dressed up in spandex and fought crime. Now, some people actually do dress up in spandex and fight crime, but we'll get to that later. The idea of Superheroes in a real world, or at least acting something like regular people without all the stilted superfriends-speak and unironic catchprases, keeps coming up again and again, from my favorite show Venture Brothers (which owes much to Ben Edlund's Tick) about the weak, self-absorbed but super-scientist grown son of a seemingly superhuman titan of achievement, to Disney's surprisingly unawful tween-targeted Sky High, about the freshman year (at a floating superhero high school that might as well be called 'Superwarts') of the son of the world's mightiest superheroes, who also happen to be high-powered real estate agents; and of course, The Incredibles, which could somewhat fairly be described as Watchmen recast as a sitcom. All these projects break one of the cardinal laws of Superheroes: no attachments other than a single love interest, and for darn sure NO OFFSPRING. Just crossing the family dynamic with the superhero tropes provides so much wonderful friction that it's certain there are superhero family dramas (and superhero family sitcoms) in development. Seriously, how long can it be before someone decides to remake The Greatest American Hero?

However, as the Incredibles explored a bit, there is enormous potential in the ridiculousness in the world of Superheroes, or, as Warren Ellis and boingboing have redubbed them as a result of DC and Marvel attempting to enforce their recently-renewed 1979 'Superhero' trademark, Underwear Perverts. One of the most inspiring films in this area is the underappreciated Mystery Men, based loosely on a spinoff of misunderstood genius Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot Comics. There's a scene in Mystery Men where the main characters are auditioning potential new members of the team; and the parade of goofballs and their elevator pitches about their superpowers (The Waffler carries Truth Syrup, which is Low Fat) looks to me like a really fun idea for a library program. Have a panel of superhero judges to see superhero auditions, or give kids time to make their own costumes and form their own super squad and shoot a commercial for their services, with awards for awesomeness, ridiculousness, and outlandishness. With the right group, that could be an absolute blast. Maybe you could even get a real costumed hero to come inspire the audience.

Because there are real-life superheroes, of course. You may well have heard of Angle Grinder Man, who freed the booted cars of London, or heard Terrifica on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, a woman who protects the drunk girls of the bars of NYC (and has an arch-nemesis, Fantastico). Mexico has Superbarrio, protector of the weak and organizer of labor rallies, and here in Michigan we have FoxFire (not a web browser), who helps those in need as part of a shadowy organization known only as the "Nameless Few". Some of these people are bringing attention to their cause, others are tongue-in-cheek but not entirely kidding, some are sweetly earnest, and others are downright serious. If you can stand a bit of a web time warp (and a well-intentioned but not very comprehensive resource), you may wish to check out the World Superhero Registry to see if a caped crusader is available in your area.

Regardless of intent, the superhero is here to stay, and these ideas have left their Marvel & DC cradles and made the leap into the real world. They're even spilling out of their rightful place on the Graphic Novel shelf and storming Dewey's fortress of Solitude. In addition to numerous scholarly works about superheroes, a new book coming this october explores the plausibility of Becoming Batman and what it would realistically take to reach Batman's level of martial arts and technological prowess. Next up is a book about parenting twins, and how to activate their wonder twin powers.

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2008-06-11

Wednesday Night Lights: Bad Superhero, Bad!

The unfortunately named Topless Robot recently posted a list of the worst superheroes to ever appear on television. Like my previous posts, here is the list:

10. Birds of Prey (a Batman spin-off)
9. Once a Hero
8. Exo Man
7. KISS meets Phantom of the Park (we LOVED this in grade school)
6. Thor (my best friend and I were so excited that Thor was getting his own show, even at that age we knew it stunk)
5. My Secret Identity
4. Captain America
3. Legends of the Superheroes
2. Wonder Woman (pre-Linda Carter pilot)
1. Justice League

The great thing is when you click-through to the site, they have clips of these shows so you can see how truly awful they were.

I'm surprised M.A.N.T.I.S. didn't make the cut. I guess it wasn't awful through and through; it had an interesting premise and was pretty well-written (about what you'd expect from Sam Hamm) but the effects were...let's say less than stellar. Wow, I just noticed, M.A.N.T.I.S. is from 1994? Sheesh, that makes me feel old.

I have to say, while I cut my teeth on superhero comic books and television as a child, my love affair with the genre died quickly in the 1990s. I do not look forward to superhero television or movies. While most everyone I knew was thrilled to death about the Spider-man movie a half-dozen years ago, I could not have cared less about seeing the film. There was an initial thrill about the idea of the movie--probably some leftover emotions of my comic-book youth--but as the opening drew nearer, my interest waned. I think partly this was due to the innundation of coverage about the film.

This trend continues to today. EVery time a superhero movie is announced, I feel a little thrill about it. I see some stills and I think, that could be great. And then comes the commercials, the interviews, the magazine articles, the online advertising, and on and on and on. I am so sick of the movie by the time it comes out.

Take Iron Man for example. It's filled with actors I enjoy. I recently watched A Scanner Darkly with Robert Downey, Jr.. Man I thought he was great in that movie. I really enjoyed that film and its sense of frowing paranoia and confusion. So when I saw him as Tony Stark I thought, that might work. And then Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges . . . this was a quality cast (all four have been nominated for acting Oscars, and Gwyneth has won one if you've been under a rock). I was getting excited about this movie. The trailers looked great. The initials reviews were positive. But, by the time the film came out in theaters, I was over it.

It's in my Netflix queue. I'm sure I'll see it some day. And I'm sure I should see it on the big screen to get the full experience, but that won't happen. The last superhero movie I watched was Batman Begins, IMO one of the most awful pieces of dreck I've watched in recent history. It had the misfortune of getting incredible hype from people whose opinion I trust*, so I think the movie had an unreal set of expectations going in. On top of that, I think I'm beginning to learn that I don't care for Christian Bale as an actor*. I thought his performance was terrible, and all the build up of creating/showing the story of how Batman gained his abilities bored me to tears. I didn't even finish watching the film.

And of course, despite everything, I find myself excited about The Dark Knight; it being one of Heath Ledger's (another actor I'm not sure that I like as much as I think I do) final performances owing more than its fair share of blame. For now, I just love the look of Ledger's Joker. In the end, it'll be another superhero film, and I won't like it.

And I'm terrified about The Watchmen. I hope it never gets finished****.
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* In the past this happened with The Predator, and Speed, two films that are ok, but if you listened to my friends, you would think you'd be getting ready to see one of the BEST. MOVIES. EVER. I try to not listen to people talking about films these days. Another film that I hated that my friends that was the bee's knees was Donnie Darko. Worst film ever? Discuss.

** I actually enjoyed the ridiculous Reign of Fire*** which featured Bale and Matthew McConaughey trying to out-cheese each other. This was I think the opposite effect of the note above. It was panned so badly by my friends that no movie could possibly be that bad.

*** This is part of a weird collection of films I enjoyed watching late at night on movie channels with the sound off so I didn't wake my wife. These films are: Reign of Fire, Ghosts of Mars, Resident Evil, The Transporter, and Dawn of the Dead (the remake). With the sound off, they're fun action movies. I've tried watching them with the sound on, and I can't make it two minutes.

**** If they ever wanted to make a Marshal Law movie, I'd totally be in line for that. To quote from the Wikipedia article: "The series is characterised by its extreme graphic violence and nudity, and Mills' merciless savaging of superhero conventions and US government policy and society."

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