Comics Ate My Brain

December 4, 2004

Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 3:41 pm
We’ve all heard the imperative “move out of your parents’ basement.” Now noted comics writer and commentator Steven Grant compares comics geeks to ancient monks:

Comics geeks are a special breed, the ones so obsessed with the product […] that the real world becomes a nuisance and a bother for them, to the extent they acknowledge it at all. Where the world clashes with their obsessions, the world is where the fault lies. It’s not surprising that they tend to be so focused and picayune, but that they’re all so completely convinced that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. I mean, sure, we all feel like that some of the time, but the geek reverses the norm.

According to Grant, these geeks (he uses the term technically) are like the 4th-century monks who did all manner of demeaning things to themselves in the interest of communing with God. He then theorizes that the Church survived for so long because it was the only form of entertainment, and even today it looks suspiciously at other forms of entertainment which might give it some competition. To support this point, he notes that “cult” now describes both fringe religions and niche entertainment like Star Trek.

A sense of personal identity is tied into all these [cultish hobby] things, the way it used to be more strongly tied into where you lived or what church you attended. […] But, returning to the 4th c. monks, these were men […] who were sure leaving wounds and sores (AKA “gifts from God”) untreated and unhealed was the path to God the way some comics geeks are sure Hal Jordan is the only true Green Lantern. These things are all used to elevate the believer and dismiss the unbeliever, and if the comics geek seems more out of the social mainstream than the 4th century solitary monk, remember that the Church didn’t like them and in the 4th century, following Constantine’s monkeying about, the Church pretty much was the social mainstream of the west, and they held the monks in grave suspicion. It’s a difference of degree, not intent. Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to read TOMORROW STORIES…

This is a connection I have long considered, but never could quite encapsulate. Mr. Grant is talking about an exclusionary aspect of religion, which says to outsiders/unbelievers that “I/we” have access to something special, something which “you/they” cannot immediately access until you/they have taken the necessary steps. In the most extreme examples, like the ones Grant describes, those steps may well be tasks the unbeliever wouldn’t want to undertake, no matter how great the reward.

Similarly, modern superhero comics continue to require a learning curve. In the past 20 years, just about every major superhero has undergone some kind of radical change from the individual static “states of nature” in which the general public expects them perpetually to exist. Clark Kent married Lois Lane, and Peter Parker married Mary Jane Watson. Batman is now wanted by the Gotham police. There have been three Robins since the original grew up. Wonder Woman is blind and Aquaman has lost a hand.

Organized religion may set up exclusionary barriers, but at least the stories are always the same. Nobody walks into a church on Christmas Eve to hear how the nativity story has been updated and simplified to appeal to “modern audiences.”

Still, like Grant says, the barriers elevate, and therefore benefit, the believer. Implicit in that statement is the notion that the believer needs something to feel elevated above those in the mainstream, be it his unique communion with God or his knowledge of comics lore. It is a treasure which he may either hold secret (like Clark Kent hiding his powers) or flaunt openly. The point is, this something makes him special, if only in his own eyes; and while it serves to separate him from the rest of the world, in a very real sense that’s the point. The world doesn’t understand the geek, and the geek responds by not needing the world.

To me, that’s one side of the monk/comics geek connection. The other side is the sublime joy one can take in the minutiae of one’s chosen obsession. For me (and I can only speak to my own experience) this is not the same kind of self-satisfaction Grant alludes to when he talks about “elevating,” because I don’t feel like I’m excluding anyone; just enjoying myself. The minutiae also don’t separate me from the rest of the world, although they’re by definition not easily understood.

Put another way, the charge I get from hearing the familiar “Faster than a speeding bullet!” or “Space, the final frontier…” litany is a close cousin to how I feel singing ancient hymns on Sunday morning, or simply heading over to the Cyber Hymnal and listening to old-timey-sounding midi files. (Midi files, mind you.) Even the old Ted Knight “Super Friends” narration (“In the great hall of the Justice League there are assembled the world’s four greatest heroes…”) is stirring to me in its own way. I experience what are all objectively bits of ephemera and they transport me; and I step back and think “I’ve wasted my life,” and then I realize even that is a “Simpsons” reference and it traps me in a vicious cycle….

Tying all this together is the realization that only years of involvement has given me the love of subject that requires so little to trigger these emotions. I did go through a more actively geeky phase, alternately concealing and flaunting my love of comics — but in hindsight I see it was just a phase, not a lifestyle.

As much as I love the little things, I have to be careful not to get wrapped up in my own rituals, like the boastful Pharisee does in Luke 18:9-14.* The flip side of that is not to humble yourself so stringently — emulating Luke‘s tax collector to the extreme, for example — that you take yourself out of society. It’s not what you do to get closer to God, but what that closeness produces: “by their fruit you will recognize them.”** Similarly, it’s not what you read or how vast is your knowledge of comics, but what “fruit” your devotion produces.

Obviously there’s a lot more to say about comics, or any hobby, as a sort of religion, if only in the sense that it fills some need in one’s life. I have neither the education nor the vocabulary to do that justice. I’m just saying that sometimes joy can come from a very simple source, and not through an elaborate belief structure which sets you apart. We religious folk of all stripes should focus on the inclusive.

* Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

** Matthew 7:15-20: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

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