The Golden Age of the Superhero
I owe my fascination with comic books to ice cream. My father owned the Dipper Dan ice cream shop (a playful nod to the Dapper Dan hair treatment that is the pride and joy of Everettt McGill -- a connection I never made until a recent viewing of O Brother, Where Art Thou) in our local mall. One evening when I was twelve, he was leaving the mall after work and stopped by the dumpster. The book store owner had thrown away a huge trash bag full of comic books -- rather than returning entire unsold comic books to the distributor, the practice was to rip off the cover and return that for a refund. So my father brought the bag of cover-less comics home and my brother and I had a fun week pouring through all of them.
Of all the different super-heroes I read about, the one that most captured my imagination was Spider-Man. I began collecting every Spider-Man comic book I could get my hands on and have continued that habit to this day. Of course, it made it a whole lot easier when my mother bought the book store that was across the hall from Dipper Dan. Those were the days -- sitting in our book store reading comic books and then taking a break to walk across the hall and get free ice cream.
I have no patience for high-culture snobs (Is that transition rough enough?). The distinction between high culture and popular culture (often termed "low culture") is rather artificial. Popular culture has the ability to move, engage, and challenge its audience in ways that sometimes transcend that of the designated high culture. A concert of classical music no doubt connects with its audience in a profound way, but even that pales in comparison to U2's ability to spark something akin to a revival among an audience that is singing along to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." When Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) holds weekly Shakespeare readings at his home for the cast of his show or when a show like the Gilmore Girls can mix knowing references to Marcel Proust and Xuxa without catching a breath, the veil between high and low culture becomes awfully transparent. I believe in the transparency of that veil. It is one of the reasons why I choose to teach readings in ancient Greek literature while wearing my Spider-Man ties. (Unless, of course, it is approaching the Super Bowl at which time I wear my Steelers tie -- or if its finals week in December when my Grinch ties seem more appropriate).
This post began as my attempt to provide a lame academic commentary on X-Men 3. We were going to discuss metaphor and the cultural role of tolerance. Yet it appears that my train of thought has taken me somewhere else. In the last two decades we have seen the rise of a new genre of film - the superhero movie. Some of these are far better films than just about anything you will find languishing under the gaze of the high culture snobs (the foreign and independent films). Others, alas, not so much. So I think for my next few posts, I am going to rate in installments of 5 (with brief comment) what I consider to be the fifteen best superhero movies. I hope you will be interested in checking some of them out - just don't forget to bring the ice cream.