Tuesday, June 13, 2006

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.

17 Comments:

At 11:23 AM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

I look forward to the suggested movies. My wife actually liked X-Men even though she won't watch Star Trek. Maybe your posts will help me to convert her to some culture.

One can only hope.

 
At 12:50 PM, Blogger Jim said...

I confess that I don't own any Spider-Man ties.

Batman ties on the other hand...

I really can't wait to see your comments, since I've made a hobby of reviewing superhero and comic book films. Since my personal favorite TV show is Buffy (a show which you seem to have some affinity for), I'm interested to see where we agree (and disagree).

 
At 2:37 PM, Blogger Rev Sam said...

Glad to find another theologically-educated fan. Question: do you like the more mature stuff. I'm thinking in particular of something like Neil Gaiman's Sandman sequence, which to my mind is saturated with theological implications.

 
At 5:41 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Sam,
I have not read Sandman, although I have heard some good things about it. My tastes have tended more towards the traditional superheroes than to the more mature graphic novels and such, although I have seen some of the movies that have been made from some of the graphic novels, like "Road to Perdition" and "Sin City." Both of these I think have theological implications that are of a very different kind from each other.

 
At 10:45 PM, Anonymous lisa h said...

I will confess that I have close to zero interest in superhero and comic book films. However, thanks for the trip down memory lane... Dipper Dan...thanks to your dad I had a decent job in high school and I was able to sample over 50 flavors of ice cream. The crowning achievement was working out the perfect ratio of Oreo Cookie ice cream, Chocolate Chip ice cream and hot fudge in our Blizzard-wanna-be.

 
At 10:57 PM, Blogger Random Rich said...

Ah, another comic book fan. I collect in spurts, depending on my income at the time. I love Spider-man, Daredevil, Batman and a wide variety of others to a lesser extent. I look forward to your rating of the top 15 superhero movies. What about animated movies and series? There is some good stuff there to talk about as well.

 
At 11:04 PM, Anonymous The Brother said...

I remember that stack of comic books fondly. As a matter of fact I still have some of them. I ran across them a few months ago, no covers and all. Since you know that I like super heros and comic books as much as you, and I am sure your list will be similar to mine, the question arises. Did our love of super heros arise from heredity or environment?

Lisa H - Did you actually work for our Dad or are you speaking metaphorically 'as in people like our Dad who owned ice cream stores.'

 
At 6:14 AM, Blogger Rev Sam said...

You might be interested in a couple of my posts on comic book themes and theology: this one on Sin City, and this one on the Muhammed cartoon controversy, linking it with Garth Ennis' 'Preacher' sequence.

 
At 10:48 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Lisa,
Yes, those are skills we will carry with us through a lifetime. You were a step ahead of Dairy Queen -- if only you'd had the marketing know-how in those days.

 
At 10:50 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Jeff,
I still have some of those comics too. Since Linda and Mike picked up the superhero interest to lesser degrees, I'm going with hereditary.

 
At 12:26 PM, Blogger jledmiston said...

And these Super Heroes also go to church (or synagogue) according to Newsweek.

 
At 1:47 PM, Blogger Greg said...

My friend Phil sent me a link to a website awhile ago that lists the religious afffiliation of all superheroes and supervillains. Here it is:

http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/comic_book_religion.html

 
At 1:48 PM, Blogger Greg said...

That link did not come through quite the way I'd hoped so here goes again.

http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/
comic_book_religion.html

 
At 2:05 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Random Rich,
I thought about including animated movies like The Incredibles but decided to stick with live action. Animated series would be good to do although I haven't kept up as well with those -- except for the Spider-Man ones of course.

 
At 10:41 PM, Anonymous lisa h said...

Jeff - I did actually work for your dad for a couple of years until I went to college. That ranks as one of the top 3 jobs that I ever had.

 
At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Effingham Illinois Dipper Dan?
Owner Jim Stevenson?
A good man.

 
At 9:09 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Anonymous,
Yes on all counts. Are you from the area?

 

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