The Motivations and Problems Behind Geek-Media Activism

March 23rd, 2008

You might recall that I wrote a recent post about the oft-heard question of whether geeky media, like comics and video games, would ever “grow up.” In it, I suggested that video games and comics can be promoted as “adult” (or at least “not juvenile”) through concerted creative and marketing efforts. Matt S. has an interesting post up in response which asks a fair question: Why bother? Geek-friendly media clearly have relevance for geeks, and trying to make these products palatable to “high-culture” interests runs the risk of ruining what actually works about them. I started writing a comment for his blog, but it got so long that I figured I should just put it here as another post. (And I might be delayed in replying to comments, as I was delayed in posting this, due to traveling.)

Ultimately, I think we might agree more than we disagree. As I said in the original post, I don’t think all our media has to have high-brow pretensions, and I do think that adults are entitled to media that seek to do no more than to entertain (even in ways that seem juvenile to some). But it is still interesting to discuss whether the motivation to be seen as “legitimate” is even worth it.

I think there are three motivations behind the drive to make a medium seem “legitimate,” at least two of which Matt specifically notes:

  1. The cultural reason, to borrow the wording from Matt’s post, is that people (especially artists/content creators) want the medium to be seen as capable of high-brow material.
  2. The economic reason, which Matt also points out, is that certain industries may need to reach into broader markets to maintain financial viability.
  3. And the personal reason (just to throw out one more term) is that people don’t want to have to feel embarrassed about admitting to liking things they really care about.

These motivation for trying to promote a medium as “legitimate” often overlap in people’s minds and in their means of promotion. Art Spiegelman, for example, has vocally tried to promote comics in institutions that recognize “high art,” though largely out of economic concerns; getting comics into these “game preserves” of culture makes sure that the medium survives financial ruin, even as superhero publishers seemed unwilling or unable to reach out to broader markets in the ’80s and ’90s in particular. Meanwhile, at one panel I attended at Comic Con, a panelist explained that fans like himself promote the medium because it would just be nice to not feel the need to hide that interest outside of cons like that one. (If you’re interested in this kind of thing, let me know; I’m presenting a related paper at the International Communication Association conference this May.)

So, getting back to Matt’s critique, certain questions remain: Do we really need this kind of promotion, and couldn’t efforts to legitimize a medium actually hurt it? Well, I think that the comics industry has done well to have been subtly promoted in some ways, though certain aggressive kinds of promotion are probably more harmful than helpful. Working to promote a medium for any of the above reasons can potentially backfire, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily always the case.

Promoting a medium for personal reasons isn’t wrong in itself, I think, but it’s probably pretty easy to imagine backfiring. Nothing says “weird” more than fervently trying to convince others that you’re not weird. I think I’ve been guilty of this myself, actually. I was big into “comics activism” as a college student, and some of my efforts probably came off better than others. Founding a grant-funded student comics anthology is all well and good, and handing out “comics you would like” flyers in the campus center was actually better received than I would’ve expected. By the same token, the latter sort of effort might have just creeped some people out, though—why are all these comics geeks trying so hard to convince me I’d like to read comics too? When your motivation is obviously the desire to seem more socially acceptable, that can come across as desperate to outsiders. That’s not good PR for anybody involved.

Promoting a medium for economic concerns may seem more defensible, though there are ways this could backfire as well. Some degree to adult acceptability is necessary to get grant funding for interesting experimental projects, to attract investors who could fund mainstream projects, and, perhaps most importantly, to tap into multiple consumer markets. For a medium like comics, where the collapse of a single major publisher could have conceivably toppled the entire specialty market, fiscal motivations are nothing to sneeze at. Trying too hard to capture an “adult” demographic can lead to formulaic approaches, however, such as when the American comics market became flooded with titles that unfortunately assumed Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were successful because they were disturbing and violent.

Matt’s concern, though, was specifically about promoting a medium for cultural concerns, trying to get it regarded as high art. The example he offers for this comes from jazz—a cautionary tale about how trying too hard to characterize something as “Art” can ultimately make it inaccessible to the popular audiences it once entertained so well. It’s a valid concern, like the other examples of backfired promotional efforts suggested above. That said, I think it’s the least problematic of the concerns noted here, at least when applied to traditionally geeky popular media like comics and games.

When you consider jazz in context of its entire medium—music—you see that that medium already offers well-known precedents for high art (e.g., classical, opera). Perhaps the aggressive attempt to legitimize a popular genre doomed it, so to speak, to move into that “high art” category of music completely. Most geeky media, however, don’t have that category at all, at least as far as the general populace is aware of. The specific works that do get elevated to “high” art tend to be considered as separate from their genre, rather than elevating the entire genre. (Consider that 1984 and 2001: A Space Odyssey tend not to get shelved in the Science-Fiction section of chain book stores, and recall the famous proclamation by one critic that “Maus is not a comic book.”)

In other words, losing a geeky medium or genre entirely to the “Art world” is still at least two steps away; most don’t even have a foot in the door yet. Until geeky media do seem in greater danger of being equated entirely with “high” art, promoting such media as having artistic pretensions is unlikely to do little more than gently nudge public perception here and there (and may even help produce the occasional grant-funded video game).

Now, all of that said, consider too that promoting a medium as “artsy” is just one of several possible techniques of promotion. As media, comics and (narrative) games are generally dominated by a few genres with niche appeal and juvenile stereotypes. Promoting such media as “legitimate” for adult use is sometimes just a matter of popularizing the notion they are capable of more variety—and thus reaching more audiences—than what the general populace expects.

Some people are still surprised to hear that there are comic books without funny animals or superheroes, but the rise of the “graphic novel” has helped alleviate this. Similarly, if narrative games could offer plots that don’t lean on shooting people, aliens, and/or monsters, this would help encourage the notion that the medium and its industry have more than one audience in mind.

Again, I totally agree that geeky media have great use and purpose for the geeks who are already enjoying them. I don’t think you or I or anybody else should have to give up Halo 3 and Mass Effect just because killing aliens to protect the galaxy has been done before. I don’t think, though, that making material that appeals to other audiences would really threaten the production of such material. Consider that there’s no dearth of geeky, big-budget sci-fi among Hollywood’s contemporary output, even though there’s plenty of variety in film—including a category for “artsy” material. On the contrary, the artsy stuff often brings a new sensibility to the blockbuster stuff, such as when you get indie film geeks working on the mainstream properties (Raimi on Spider-man, Jackson on Lord of the Rings, Favreau on Iron Man, etc.).

Of course, as consumers, it’s not really our job to promote our favorite media to new audiences and in new ways; someone else is getting paid to do that. Still, I can’t help but think out loud about how things could be, perhaps should be, because I feel invested in the products of the geeky media industries. So I guess that suggests a fourth reason one might want to promote a medium: hoping that more variety eventually results in a more enjoyable product even for the geeks.

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7 Responses to “The Motivations and Problems Behind Geek-Media Activism”

  1. Church Says:

    “Of course, as consumers, it’s not really our job to promote our favorite media to new audiences…”

    Actually, that’s kind of the definition of fandom. Or at least, a serious side-effect.

  2. Matt S Says:

    Several good nuggets here that I really need to chew on. I really liked your 3/4 motivations for legitimacy. I think number 3 is a central point that I’m driving at.

    I will acknowledge that my argument is very much an issue of arguing over semantics and syntax. After writing my response I really wished I’d actually gotten around to reading people like Foucault and other post-structuralist stuff, as opposed to just picking things up from reading Peter Lamborn Wilson/Hakim Bey. Unfortunately, while I enjoy talking philosophy, I hate reading it.

    Expect a long winded reply at Headphone Sacrament at some point in the future. Exactly when depends on how this week goes.

    One thing I did want to point out. While I’m no expert on the history of Jazz, I don’t believe there was anyone who was trying to actively push it into high art areas. What I was getting at was that the genre largely lost sight of its populace roots. And that when that happened it started to loose its relevancy with a lot of its former fans. It was not intended as a cautionary tale specifically about legitimacy. Instead it was simply a more general tale about loosing sight of the roots of something. Reminding me that Jazz is a genre, not a medium, though is one of the things I need to chew on.

    Also, you keep mentioning the graphic novel as an example of how comics have started to find legitimacy. I’d broaden that more and throw out the entire indie comics scene. They are the main proponents of the graphic novel as an alternative to single issues. More importantly though, they are the main force behind pushing the medium into new areas. Maus is great (though I admit to never reading it), but a single story is an exception if it isn’t followed up with work in a similar vein.

    Speaking of which, you should give some thought to hitting the Small Press Expo outside DC this fall. A “comic book convention” for indie comics only could provide some interesting perspective on your research. It is definitely a different take on the comic book world. Probably the most overt mixing of hipster and geek cultures. Plus, it is a good way to blow a couple hundred dollars (oh how I wish that was a joke.)

  3. Jordan Says:

    the latter sort of effort might have just creeped some people out, though… When your motivation is obviously the desire to seem more socially acceptable, that can come across as desperate to outsiders.

    But this can come off as desperate from activity groups in any sector, right? Most times I walk into the school store I’m accosted by a number of student groups, and only one of them is the anime club. So while I agree that handing out fliers, or shoving fliers down peoples’ throats, can seem desperate, I think that’s just a part of PR for up-and-coming groups (“no press is bad press”). Furthermore, being comfortable doing this sort of advertising despite what someone may think is an important facet of the “personal reason” for making a medium feel more legit.


  4. Dan Says:

    Re: Jordan above, I think there’s a good point there (which isn’t excluded by Jason’s point). Proselytizing—especially of the overager variety—is usually off-putting to those outside the choir. I wouldn’t say that trying to get people to read comic books is more or less creepy than trying to convert people to your religion, but rather that fervent attempts at conversion are not appealing to most people period. But that’s something that people who are firmly convinced of the rightness of their beliefs may have a hard time seeing.

    Then again, maybe this is a topic for one of your other blogs. ;)

  5. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks all for the clarifications and points of further consideration. I have a couple follow-up thoughts based on all this:

    I knew I was going against the grain of fandom as I wrote that it’s not our responsibility to promote our favorite media. I think there’s a difference between eagerly embracing that task and telling ourselves that it is our solemn duty. My hope is that the former mindset encourages content industries to see fans as willful collaborators in promotion rather than as resources to be exploited.

    I should’ve reread your post before putting mine up! That’s what I get for starting a reply, going away for a conference, and then getting back to it. As for indie comics: I agree. The paper alluded to in the above post basically argues that a lot of voices in the indie comics scene have been actively trying to make comics break stereotypes in their content so as to reach new audiences. The “graphic novel” phrase wouldn’t have worked if there weren’t some actual different sort of work to back up the claim that “this isn’t what you think of as ‘comics'” (though that buzz phrase was the missing step to get comics into mainstream bookstores).

    Also, I had meant to hit SPX for the dissertation, but never did find the time. I’d be interested, though, if I’m still living around the area at that time.

    What Dan said.

    And furthermore:
    I’m starting to think that maybe reason #1 (and implied reason #4, at the very end) might be best collapsed into a rephrased reason why someone might try to promote a medium to new audiences: the “creative” reason, by which audiences try hope to indirectly influence a medium’s creative output (whether for “high” or “pop” culture) by influencing the demographics it reaches. Maybe it’s erroneous to lump together Fantagraphics readers’ push for artsy content with Green Lantern readers’ petitions to bring back Hal Jordan, but I guess I’m seeing both as examples of trying to broaden the market offerings based on one’s own preferences.

  6. Matt S Says:

    My response,

    I’ve taken some liberties with the direction of the discussion, but this struck me as the more important question in all of this.

  7. CTW Says:

    Read this post but thought of something kinda off topic. You ever hear that the simpsons originally focused on Bart and now it focus’ on homer because he is more like the audience… Definitely a cartoon that cateered to its audience’s changing demographic.