Examples of Dead Fandoms, Part Two
Let me reiterate something I said before: I actually don’t want to be right about any of these fandoms being dead. It always makes me sad when people lose passion for something, and something worthwhile goes unread or unseen.
The Pulp Heroes (the Shadow, Doc Savage, etc.)
The Shadow was the first and most famous of the larger than life magazine heroes, mostly published by Street & Smith, who came out during the Great Depression. They weren’t superheroes, exactly…but they were too uncanny, too bigger than life, their adventures too bizarre and fantastical, to be typical adventurers or detective heroes in the usual sense…they were in the same ballpark as Tarzan or Zorro, a kind of “transitional fossil” between grounded detective and adventure characters, and the later far out superheroes.
I realized the reach these novels had in their own time when I heard this amazing story about none other than jazz great Thelonious Monk: he was obsessed with Doc Savage magazine. When he performed, the jazz man sometimes had a Doc Savage magazine rolled up in his coat. I have a hard time imagining that!
The reason the pulp heroes went away and stopped having pop cultural cache is simple: the audience for it went away. You have to remember that pulp hero stories were always a composite genre, meant to appeal to two audiences simultaneously: kids, who loved action and fantasy and heroism, and working class men, who also love action, but who also loved lurid mystery and gore. To appeal to working class men, there were always way more hints of blood, gunplay, dread/terror, and sex, but because kids also read these, it was all very subdued. If you realize that pulp heroes were meant to appeal to these two very different audiences with conflicting desires, the question isn’t why the pulp heroes went away, but rather, why they lasted as long as they did.
What took the kid audience away from the hero pulps could be summarized in two words: superhero comics. Sales on pulps fell every year when they had to compete with comics, and the history of the pulp heroes in the 1940s is defined by their reaction to the challenge of comics, a little like the history of movies when they had to compete with television.
There were three big reactions to comics in the 1940s from the pulp magazines:
- They dissed comics. This reminds me of the 50s movies that called television “the idiot’s lantern.” The best example of this I can find is the Doc Savage mystery, The Whisker of Hercules. By all accounts, Doc Savage author Lester Dent hated, hated, hated comic superheroes, particularly Superman, who exaggerated the traits of his own heroes beyond what he felt an audience would believe. Whisker of Hercules is a novel where Doc finds criminals who who take a potion that turns them into Superman, gives them superstrength, the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and the ability to move at superspeed, but in the end, they are ultimately bested by Doc Savage, who outsmarts them and reveals the Whisker of Hercules ages them to death. Lester Dent, you see, felt superhero comics were a passing fad without staying power.
- They created characters that were both in pulp magazines and in comics as well. An example of this would be Ka-Zar and Sheena, who was in both comics and pulp magazines simultaneously. Today, we’d call them “multimedia properties.”
- They created far-out pulp heroes that were aimed at a kid audience to lure kids back to magazines. The best example of this is Edmond Hamilton’s Captain Future, which was a pulp hero who was extremely kid-friendly, with robot sidekicks and a cute mouse pet, and a base on the Moon.
While the kids who read pulp heroes were lured away by comics, the working class men were pulled away by a new invention: the “men’s adventure” paperback novel, which could have explicit sex and violence. James Bond (Casino Royale was first published in 1954) was more typical of the paperback heroes, as was gun-toting Mack Bolan the Executioner, a special forces guy who came back from Vietnam to find his family killed by the mafia, and who declares war on the mob with his special forces training and arsenal of firearms (he also directly inspired a certain Marvel Comics character you might be familiar with).
Just like almost all pop music is either Beatles or Stones inspired, nearly all men’s adventure heroes are some variation of either James Bond or Mack Bolan. This leads us to today, where men’s adventure novels are either porn, or gun porn. If you’ve read this blog long enough, you can probably guess which one I like better.
Here’s another thing to consider when wondering why the pulp heroes went away. The Shadow, Doc Savage, the Spider, are really only a few years older than the superheroes. They were not separated by a geologic age, the way many histories lead you to believe: they came out in the same decade as each other. Doc Savage came out in 1933, and Superman came out in 1938, which is not really that much time difference at all. The difference may be that there is a publishing company (DC Comics) that views Superman and Batman as essential to their identity and that keeps them alive for that reason, whereas no company does that for the pulp characters. In fact, there was even some dispute early this century as to whether the Street & Smith characters fell into the public domain.
Original Battlestar Galactica
I used to post old cosplay pics, and my gosh, were there ever a lot of OBSG images. The actor who played Boomer was a regular at early science fiction conventions (there was a time when it was considered unusual for celebrities to visit conventions), and when a new BSG show was announced in 2003 (believe it or not, there was once a time that a hard reboot of an old scifi property was rare), it led to one of the all-time biggest nerdrages in nerd history.
I hesitate to say this, but part of the reason that Star Trek and the Next Generation are discovered decades later by new fans is because they really are good shows, and OBSG is…well, it’s a challenge for a new person, with fresh eyes, to see just what got everyone so excited in 1978. The reason why BSG was a big deal is clear: most people who are fans of it are fans because they watched the show when they were children, so it’s imprinted in their minds (rather like 90s kids and “Saved by the Bell” or “Power Rangers”). OSBG fandom isn’t growing for the same reason that “Saved by the Bell” fans aren’t growing: it’s a product of hormones and nostalgia, you “had to be there” to get it.
To me, this explains perfectly why people went ballistic when a BSG reboot was announced back in the stone age, 2002. For one, the concept of a reboot was so new that I remember I heard people wonder if this means their favorite characters from the original were dead now. More importantly, though, this is a fandom with a few core people who remember BSG from when they were kids, and therefore have strong feelings about why it works and doesn’t work.
Here’s a test to determine if a fandom is dead: if a movie adaptation royally screws everything about it up, would people get angry and yelly and passionate? Remember how people got death threats over the M. Knight Shyamalan Last Airbender? Well, in the case of Prince Valiant, I don’t think anybody would actually care. This is surprising, because for years, when people thought of comics, they thought of Prince Valiant: he was emblematic of an entire medium. Years before the prestige of Maus, Persepolis, and the “graphic novel,” it was the one comic that was classy, that adults were alright reading.
Why is it no longer popular? Well, copy and paste everything I said on Dick Tracy about newspaper comics here. But also, if you ever run into someone who really loved Prince Valiant back in the day, ask them why they liked it. The answer should be incredibly telling. Most likely, they’ll tell you they loved the beautiful art, that they loved the great style of Hal Foster’s godlike pen. They loved the sweep of the story and the epic feel.
Here’s what they won’t say if you ask them: they probably won’t say they liked the characters. (I can’t think of one adjective to describe Prince Valiant’s personality - he totally fails the RedLetterMedia test). They won’t remember any moment that made them cry or made them feel a rush of triumph.
I swear, it is not my intention to be a hater and drink some haterade. That’s really not in my nature, because I am a positive person. The whole point of this blog is for me to share cool old stuff I love - negativity has no place here. But there’s a dishonesty, a willful obtuseness, in trying to understand why Prince Valiant stopped being a phenomenon, and not realizing that Prince Valiant is beautiful looking, but it doesn’t give us the things about stories that “stick to our ribs” and make it stand the test of time: great characters and memorable, earned moments. Praising a comic for having beautiful art is like praising a movie for the great special effects. You don’t want the one thing people to remember about your hero to be a haircut.
John Carter of Mars
The fandom for John Carter of Mars is a little like Barsoom itself without the Atmosphere Factory and water pumped from the depths of Omean: dead.
To the modern eye, one of the weirdest parts of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series is the 3 minute digression in the episode on Mars where Sagan starts talking about how he was the hugest John Carter of Mars fanboy ever, and how he dreamed of rescuing beautiful women in gallant swordfights on thoatback, with his fanboy narration intercut with shots of Frazetta and Michael Whelan cover art. This really happened. And this was typical of the kind of passion that John Carter of Mars inspired that you don’t see much of today. It’s so easy to blame the tanking of the movie adaptation, but the movie failing was a symptom, not a cause, of the fact there was no hungry audience to receive it.
Sagan was a huge John Carter fan: his car had a “BARSOOM” vanity license plate, and he wasn’t alone: without hesitation, I would say that Edgar Rice Burroughs was the most important and influential scifi writer of the first few decades of the 20th Century, so important that everyone defined themselves as either Burroughs-like (Leigh Brackett, for instance) or rejected the tropes ERB created (see: Stanley G. Weinbaum). John Carter of Mars didn’t inspire Star Wars. Instead, he inspired the things that inspired Star Wars (e.g. Flash Gordon). Edgar Rice Burroughs, not Faulkner, not Hemmingway, was the best selling novelist of the 1920s.
Remember the last time I did this, and I was sincerely baffled why the Tripods novels have not had a revival? Well, when I got to John Carter of Mars, the answer came to me: the reason is that this work was so influential, so ubiquitous, that it has been strip-mined of creative power by imitators to the point that very little about it seems original anymore. Tripods, if it came out now, would just look like a Hunger Games rip-off despite the fact that if anything, it’s the other way around. The problem with John Carter of Mars is exactly the same: remember how the response to the trailer to the film adaptation was that this was Avatar Goes to Attack of the Clones? When, actually, Avatar and others got a lot from the Barsoom books. In other words, because John Carter was influential enough to create cliches, paradoxically, it is now seen as cliche.
The Ghostbusters reboot had a big, big problem: it’s a remake of a movie that’s an untouchable classic, like Back to the Future. Any remake would inevitably be compared to the original and suffer in the comparison. Well, here’s one movie you could probably remake with a gender swap hero: Highlander. It’s not Back to the Future, Jaws, or Terminator; this isn’t a movie people can quote every line from. People know of Highlander, sure…people know things like the Queen song, “there can be only one,” electric swordfighting, etc, but people don’t actually care that much. People won’t go ballistic. Highlander is a remaker’s dream: it has enough name recognition to get sold and made, but it doesn’t have a legion of nitpicking nerd fans to second guess everything and treat the original like gospel.
Highlander used to be kind of a big deal: it had not one but two tv shows, and it had three movie sequels. Just like “Wild Wild West” was steampunk a couple decades before that term existed, Highlander was “urban fantasy” before that term existed. Because of the themes of urban fantasy and tragic romance, it always had a strong female fandom, and there’s no understanding Highlander without understanding that it was kind of the Supernatural of its day: theoretically, with its swordfighting and cool powers, it was trying to appeal to boys…but ended up building up a way bigger female audience instead.
Posterity is really never kind to any fantasy property who’s audience is primarily women. Who, today, talks a lot about Gargoyles or Beauty and the Beast, for example, to pick two properties that used to have a strong fandom? The last one (B&B) is pretty amazing because it was created by two people immensely relevant to the zeitgeist of today: Ron Perlman (the Beast himself), and the show’s head writer and producer, a fellow by the name of George R.R. Martin. It could be just plain chauvinism over a “girl thing.” I don’t deny that plays a role, more likely, it could just be that scifi fans are immensely nerdy in a way fantasy fans aren’t, so they keep alive their favorite scifi artifacts. That, I think, is why we’re still talking about Terminator and not Highlander: Tolkien fans who write in Dwarf runes are a freakish exception. In general, fantasy fans are way less hardcore than scifi fans.
Magnus, Robot Fighter
Ever talk to any old gay nerds? They will usually tell you they realized they were hella gay because of three men: Robert Conrad in “Wild Wild West,” Ultra Boy from Legion of Super-Heroes, and Magnus, Robot Fighter.
Russ Manning’s Magnus, Robot Fighter may be one of the great subterranean sources of pop culture. Matt Groening admits that the aesthetics of this comic inspired a lot of Futurama. Magnus, Robot Fighter was such a nostalgia totem in the minds of the Baby Boom generation, on the level of the Mars Attacks! cards, that George Lucas, who was always very hands-off with supplementary material, personally requested Russ Manning come out of retirement to do the Star Wars daily comics.
Magnus, Robot Fighter is an interesting example of how comics only have cache and longevity long-term if they can successfully convert into other media formats. Comics are important, but comics are ephemeral. Superman is the king of comic characters, sure, but most people know about him because he made the leap from comics to radio, screen, and television.
Magnus is all the more heartbreaking because he almost made the jump to a medium with durability - video games. Under circumstances too complex to relate here, Acclaim bought out all the Gold Key comic characters, and Magnus was generally considered to be the crown jewel of the lot. Because Magnus was too important an IP to screw up, and the development team was so inexperienced, Acclaim instead decided to make their first Gold Key game adaptation one of the minor guys, so if they blew it, no biggie: Turok, Dinosaur Hunter.
The rest is history: Acclaim was so busy making sequels to the surprise hit Turok, Dinosaur Hunter they never got around to giving Magnus, Robot Fighter a game.
Part three is coming, so stay tuned. Believe it or not, I actually have a fandom from the past ten years on here! Can you think of any dead fandoms?