Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Comics for big boys (and girls?).

Correct me if I’m wrong. These days, the syndicated comics strips in your daily and Sunday newspapers (Calvin and Hobbes, Dennis the Menace, Peanuts, Dilbert, Garfield, for instance), so full of irony, angst and other trendy stuff reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall days, are strictly not for kids. That goes for many of the full-length animated cartoon feature films showing your local multiplex like Shrek and Ice Age.

Some of the contemporary comic book superheroes from the Marvel Comics family, to wit: Thor, Xena, Valkyrie, Elektra, Hellboy and X-Men's Jean Gray, are known to have Wagnerian antecedents ─ in many cases in the Asgardian universe ─ and operatic connections too. They are most likely to appeal to grown-up sensibilities, agreed?

A question for culture vultures: Are many adult readers of comic books in the US opera aficionados?

Forgive me but I, as is not unusual for a recently arrived stranger, don’t really know the answer.

I googled for comic reader demographics surveys, though.

Among those I found on the first page of my search results, a 1995 DC Comics survey described them in the following terms: 92% male; 80% ages 18-39 (median age: 29); a little over 70% attended college; 60% single (never married); 37 spending $100 or more in a month on comics (on an average 50 comics bough every month).

Another one ─ circa 2007 or thereabouts probably but hotly disputed ─ portrayed the average mainstream (superhero) comic book reader as ‘Male, 20-25, video-game player, disposable income, “techie”, single‘. More than 90% of the readers, it said, were male. There was some debate here on whether it was due to the predominance of T&A content. (Sidebar queries: Don’t you see a lot of it in the Marvel and Japanese Manga Comics? Doesn’t it suggest a preference for soft porn [Girls Gone Wild anyone?] ─ presumably an important cultural cue?)

However, whatever may be the exact nature of the latter-day US comics reader constituency, the most demography-sensitive marketer, Hollywood, has acknowledged its importance and significance as a body of consumers worth its focused and undivided attention. In the recent past, many of the successful movie franchises (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, X-Men, Daredevil), television series (Smallville, Witchblade) and video games (Spider-Man) have had their roots in comicsdom or graphicnovelville. As a matter of fact, Hollywood has been the saviour-in-chief of the comics book industry after the lean times it went through in the 1990s. In a late 2002 article (“Comic Books: Bang! Wham! Pow!”), Bill Jemas, President, Marvel Enterprises, was quoted as describing comic book reader as ‘bell cows’ — opinion leaders and adding that they “may not be socialites, but they're certainly affluent and influential and ... they’re enthusiastic about the things that they love." They are consumers of “… other entertainment media, especially music, movies, TV, and video games … and packaged snack foods, candy, and cereals”, according to David Ward, the columnist who wrote the cited article.

While I still do not know the answer to the riddle, what I see in LA book shops and libraries and read in the LA Times nudges me to wonder if superheroes and fantasy are very much a sine qua non of the contemporary American psyche or not. To continue in the belief that you’re the leader of the world, you cannot have anyone less than superheroes for icons. The more, the merrier.

That Middle America gets near-orgasmic pleasure from mere hints of the likelihood of American culture spreading especially among people in the Third World whom they believe the US was appointed to “save” from fates as varied as Communism earlier and Islamic terrorism now is fairly evident when you read rave reviews like this Bahman Ghobadi’s Farsi feature film about how rock and roll gets dispersed in the Iranian youth underground, No One Knows about Persian Cats, was shot “on the run in just 17 days and without a government permit” (as film critic Betsy Sharkey gleefully reports) and became “a favorite on the festival circuit after winning Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009”. All these frills add extra value to its provenance and gravitas in American eyes ─ a bit, I suppose, like converting films shot originally in the 2-D format to 3-D in post-production (Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, to cite two recent examples) in order to be able to justify $3 extra slapped on to the movie ticket price.

In my youth, during the post-World War II decades when the US was taking over the mantle from the UK, France and other lapsed Imperialists and those posted on US Government duty abroad to handle this newly acquired “white man’s burden” were vilified by the much shunned Ugly American nomenclature chiefly thanks to their insensitive and heavy-handed treatment of their charges, the symbols of American culture for me ─ not necessarily in chronological order of appearance on my mental landscape ─ were Coca Cola, comic books, denim jeans, Hollywood, hot dogs and rock and roll (kicked off by Bill Haley and the Comets in Rock Around the Clock I watched in the Strand Cinema in South Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood in the early 1950s). Those were the six principal conduits through which I remember distance-learning ─ and imbibing ─ American culture from across the oceans. These were, again for me at least, gradually reinforced over time by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Eartha Kitt, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Jim Morrison, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Presley, Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Answered Prayers), Woody Allen (and Annie Hall), The Groucho Letters, Erica Jong, Kurt Vonegut, Andy Warhol, John Updike, John Irving, Mad Magazine, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, even Ellery Queen ─ and, last but not the least, by those dishy 1950s black and white sci-fi movies in which men in crumpled white lab coats kept muttering to one another: “There’s no hope. We’re doomed, Professor!” as well as by the equally scrumptious pulp fiction from those great times that are gone forever.

"Life is full of loneliness, misery, suffering, and unhappiness ─ and it's all over much too quickly," is what Woody Allen’s middle-brow Jewish comedian Alvy Singer confides in us somewhere at the beginning of Annie Hall. What better way to drown the resultant post-modern angst than slumming with the ever pumped-up-for-action superheroes in fantasyland, pray tell?