Pop Art vs. High Art — A Look at the Neverending Struggle

First of all, let me make one thing clear: I was perfectly happy with this year’s Oscars. All the awards went to top-notch projects and deserving artists. I might’ve chosen differently here or there, but there was no decision on that Sunday night that baffled me. What did baffle me were the unnecessary digs at superheros and other genre movies. During the ceremony’s musical opening number, Jack Black proclaimed:

Opening with lots of zeroes,
All we get is superheroes,
Superman, Spider-Man, Batman,
Jedi-Man, sequel man, prequel man, formulaic scripts
And after Fifty Shades of Grey they’ll all have leather whips 1

Yes, I realize it’s a joke. I laughed too. I mean, let’s face it, the idea of DC’s Justice League receiving a fetish make-over to draw in the Fifty Shades crowd is pretty funny. Black’s critique isn’t entirely unwarranted either — I myself have done my fair share of eye-rolling over the flood of remakes, prequels and sequels that Hollywood has been churning out for the past few years. The jab at an entire genre, just hours after a similiar comment by director Dan Gilroy, still felt out of place.
Oscars-Fastlane-SimulcastMe, I’m a guy of many interests. I read both  comic books and Dave Eggers; I listen to musicals and rap, and I enjoy a quality wrestling show just as much as a quality movie. Hell, I set up two monitors and two feeds so I could watch the 2015 Oscars and the WWE Fastlane event simultaneously. Both has become an accepted option next to either or, but it wasn’t always like that. Back in high school, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Spider-Man shirt (which probably says as much about my self-confidence at the time as it does about the culture, but you get my drift). It was virtually impossible to get a self-respecting adult to pick up a comic book, much less admit to it. Comics weren’t considered art; they were treated as junk entertainment for kids and adults who, well, weren’t all that bright. Then superheroes started making millions of dollars at the box office and the tune began to change, but many people’s opinions didn’t.

A good friend of mine won’t read comics to this day. I’ve recommended several to him over the years, stuff I know would be right up his alley thematically, but he flat-out refuses. He doesn’t refuse individual stories or characters or creators — he refuses the medium as a whole, because he „doesn’t do“ comics. Fair enough. That’s his prerogative, of course, but I find myself shaking my head at the implications. Have you ever heard an otherwise artistically inclined person say they „don’t do“ books, or movies, or theater? Sounds rather close-minded, doesn’t it? Eccentric at the very least. And yet, media like comics, video games, animation, even eBooks to an extent, are often dismissed out of hand. They are still considered less — less worthy of attention, less interesting, less serious, less everything. It’s the kind of stigma that nearly drives former superhero actor Riggan Thomsen (Michael Keaton) insane in Birdman. Unfortunately, his fictional story is all too believable. Responding to the Oscar jabs, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn said:James Gunn

[… T]here are plenty of people everywhere making movies for a buck or to feed their own vanity. And then there are people who do what they do because they love story-telling, they love cinema, and they want to add back to the world some of the same magic they’ve taken from the works of others. […] If you think people who make superhero movies are dumb, come out and say we’re dumb. But if you, as […] a “serious” filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken. 2

Why is a story about a Holocaust survivor or an Alzheimer’s patient inherently more valuable or more interesting than a story about a man who can fly? I don’t get it. I’ve never gotten it, and no one has been able to explain to my satisfaction. It can’t be because one is more realistic than the other — both are still fiction at the end of the day. You might argue that one treats its themes and issues more directly than the other, but a direct approach does not necessarily make a story better. Where „serious“ fiction examines a world designed to feel like our own, genre fiction deals in images and metaphors. If you look at superhero stories and see only masks and capes and fist fights, you might want to take a closer look. Superman is, at its heart, the story of a god among men (Sound familiar?). Batman is about overcoming tragedy. Spider-Man is the story of an otherwise ordinary man juggling great power and great responsibility. Says Dr. Stephanie R. deLusé:

For us mortals, our lives may not be so much about dealing with the dire and dramatic, but our modern stresses can compare to the […] rogue’s gallery of any superhero. [… O]ften what we admire in superheroes is their sense of purpose, […] passion or clear mission. 3

The struggles of superheroes are heightened but familiar, and in their worlds of primary colors, absolutes and living ideas, they can actually deal with things more directly than we could ever hope to. Every fear can be a given a face, every possibility can be played out. Genre fiction opens up creative avenues that are closed off everywhere else.

It’s that lack of realism and groundedness that allows certain stories to provide hope where reality has little to offer. You might call that blatant escapism, and you’d be right — but what’s so bad about that? While it may not be beneficial to live in imaginary worlds for extended periods of time, they can provide relief and open up new perspectives. Maybe there is a reason people are so drawn to the much-maligned superhero figures right about now. Just ask superstar author (and my own personal messiah) Grant Morrison, who grew up in the middle of a Cold War that felt ready to heat up at any moment. Regarding the role that fictional heroes played in his life, he says

I just lived daily with the fact that my parents were fighting against The Bomb; the minute this thing happend we’d be obliterated forever. And for me the big thing was discovering superhero comics, because suddenly, […] here were people who could stop the bomb, you know? Superman could take an atom bomb hit on the chest and just smile and shake it off. 4

Realistic and genre fiction share the same set of goals – they both mean to entertain or to illuminate. They simply employ different tools in pursuit of these goals. And yet there is this pointless divide between ‚pop culture‘ and ‚high culture‘. People will never cheer your stuff the way they cheer ours, creators of popular fare proclaim. That’s all well and good, the cultural elite replies, but we’re never letting you into the club house.

It’s a wholly unnecessary spat that’s not going to do either side any favors — because there are no sides. There’s no difference between popular culture and high culture. There are just different sensibilities, different points and view, and different stories for different moments. So, if you „don’t do“ comics (or videogames, or animation, or eBooks) — that’s fine. Just realize that popularity and acclaim don’t necessarily correlate to quality or meaning.

  1. Moving Pictures‘ 2015 Oscars Opening
  2. ‚Guardians‘ Director James Gunn Defends Superhero Movies After Oscars Diss
  3. deLusé, Stephanie R. (2008). Coping with Stress… the Superhero Way in: Canzoneri, Jennifer; Rosenberg, Robin S (2008). The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration. Kindle Edition, pos. 3223-3230. Benbella Books
  4.  Talking With Gods, Halo-8 Entertainment, 2010

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