The geeks have inherited the Earth—or at least the entertainment business. More than a 100,000 fans, celebrities and industry players will descend on San Diego this week for Comic-Con; Marvel’s The Avengers is on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie ever; and traditionally cult genres like science fiction, fantasy and the supernatural now rule the ratings and the bestseller lists.
Cult is the new mainstream. Now, pop culture is nerd culture.
Check out the Book Smugglers top Sci-Fi and Fantasy titles so far in 2012...
This ought to be a sweet moment—a demographic long ignored and ridiculed finds itself with an unprecedented cultural clout. The question is: What will they do with it?
Sixty-five years ago, the burgeoning geek culture determined to harness its power for the public good. In Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan—published late last year—journalist Rick Bowers tells the story of a 1946 campaign by the creators of the Superman radio show to discredit the infamous white supremacist group and help to nip its national resurgence in the bud.
It’s significant that Superman’s origins trace back to the earliest stirrings of what we would now identify as “fan culture.” For a generation of fans, the postal service was a sort of slow-motion Internet—a way for like-minded individuals to connect, despite their geographical isolation. Co-creator Jerry Siegel was an early science-fiction fan, and his first writings were in mimeographed ’zines distributed to a network of correspondents he’d cultivated via notices printed in the back pages of the pulps.
Bowers splits his narrative track between the trajectory of Superman’s first decade—from his origin in Siegel’s attic studio to his mass-media ubiquity—and a potted history of the Ku Klux Klan in its various incarnations. Founded in 1866 as an apolitical fraternal organization (with, although Bowers doesn’t draw the connection, a fannish bent of its own: the dress-up pageantry and the elaborate mythology made the first Klansmen something of proto-cosplayers), the Klan was soon reinvented an anti-Reconstruction terrorist group.
Flaming out in the 1880s, the Klan was revived for the 20th century as a national organization, pushing a new anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic agenda—while spinning cash for its top leaders, in the form of membership dues and merchandising. And all of it was tax-free, since the new Klan was incorporated, rather improbably, as a charitable organization. Before a string of scandals brought the organization down, the Klan had made huge inroads nationwide, even in such unlikely places as New Jersey, Connecticut and especially Indiana, where membership topped out at nearly half a million.
The KKK made another bid for national prominence in the 1940s, and that’s where Bowers brings in the third strand of his narrative—the exploits of a crusading journalist named Stetson Kennedy, a native Southerner who made it his mission to take the Klan down. Kennedy, who died last year at the age of 94, was a problematic figure. While he undoubtedly did much to expose and discredit the white supremacist movement—in the 1940s he infiltrated several Klan-affiliated groups under an assumed identity, risking his life many times—he was also a shameless self-promoter, often taking credit for the work of others and exaggerating his own role in events.
This causes some trouble in integrating his story into the other narrative threads. While everyone agrees that the producers of the Superman radio show consulted with Kennedy before creating their 16-part serial “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” reports vary as to how much he actually contributed to the program. In Kennedy’s own account, it was he who pitched the idea to them, even contributing a draft of the script; but everybody else seems to agree that the notion actually came from Superman’s corporate sponsor, Kellogg’s.
Stetson Kennedy’s story is a fascinating one, with all its contradictions, and he deserves a mention in any book about the fight against hate. But he’s a tangential figure in the story, and his disproportionate role in the book is one of the many distracting and awkward things about it. Bowers is ostensibly writing for a teenaged audience, but he never quite settles on an appropriate tone, graphically describing violence or sex scandals on one page, playing coy on the next. The prose style can charitably be described as “clunky,” clogged with extraneous adjectives. And while the Klan material is right in his wheelhouse—Bowers is a nationally recognized scholar of the civil rights movement—his grasp on the history of comics and science-fiction fandom is shaky and riddled with basic factual errors.
Still, Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan is an important book, shedding light on a time when the creators of popular culture treated success as a public trust, optimistically believing that they had both the means and the obligation to create a finer world. It’s surely no coincidence that Siegel and his partner Joe Shuster, like most of the key players in the burgeoning comics industry, were also Jewish—as were the men instrumental in bringing Superman to radio. They knew firsthand the experience of being part of an undervalued and little-loved minority, and in the wake of the Holocaust they felt the moral obligation to use their newfound voices to promote tolerance.
With the new ascendancy of geek culture, though, has come an angry sense of entitlement. Fanboys increasingly will brook no dissent. When critic Jim Emerson had the temerity to point out the essential narrative shoddiness and incoherence of The Dark Knight, his website was overrun by angry Bat-fans accusing him of “hating fun.” Success invalidates criticism, might makes right. Even professionals have gotten in on the bullying. Earlier this year, Samuel L. Jackson caused a stir when he called for a New York Times film critic to be fired for panning The Avengers.
Years ago, the science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison wrote a harrowing essay entitled “Xenogenesis,” recounting a series of horrible true stories of fans turning on the very creators who had inspired them. At the time, these fans were regarded as outliers. But after years of being pandered to, the sense of privilege has become ingrained, and a mean-spirited triumphalism, exemplified by the quashing of dissent, has become the hallmark of the Alpha Nerd. Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan is a sobering reminder of the progressive ideals for which fan culture once stood—ideals betrayed as enthusiasm curdles into fanaticism, and aggrieved privilege festers into censorious ugliness.
Strange visitor from another planet, Jack Feerick—disguised as mild-mannered Critic-at-Large for Popdose—fights a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and a decent Reuben sandwich.