We need to have a conversation about geek culture. Sorry to put it that way, but I’m sure many would agree that modern geek culture has reached new heights of mainstream popularity, and we need to explore what effect that’s had on the culture itself. This is a big topic, one that will require many articles to fully explore, so let’s start small, with a look at the AMC series Comic Book Men.
Comic Book Men is the most successful of several attempts to draw back the curtain on comic book shops and the people who run them. It works, ironically, because the guys who work in the shop have lots of interests and talents beyond comics and collectibles.
The roots of the show are way back in the release of Kevin Smith’s 1994 film Clerks. Smith and his close friends Bryan Johnson and Walter Flanagan had created, between themselves and with the help of their young “ward” Jason Mewes, the culture, the attitude and the distinct patois of Smiths’ “New Jersey” films such as Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, which has now evolved into its purest form, Smith’s podcast network “Smodco”, which features him on several podcasts and his friends on others. After Clerks was picked up by Miramax films for a six-figure sum, one of Smith’s first actions was to buy a local comic shop and install Flanagan as the co-owner and manager. Called “Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash”, it became the focal point for Smith’s activity on the east coast, and provided a place for Smith and his friends to hang out, sort of a replacement for the community recreation centre that played that role in an earlier era. Bryan Johnson, the witty, cynical proto-Randal, became a fixture between his own artistic projects like the film Vulgar. Ming Chen was hired very early on, first as a web master for Smith’s pioneering use of message boards and early social media, and Mike Zapzic was also an early hire at “The Stash”.
When, in the mid-2000s, when Smith was losing interest in his film career after the lack of success of Zack and Miri Make a Porno and the ill-fated but earnest Jersey Girl, podcasts became an important part of what he did as an artist. His own “Smodcast” featured a laid-back, free-flowing conversation between him and his longtime producer, Scott Mosier, and became the cornerstone of the network. In close second, though, was “Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave”, featuring the crew from the Secret Stash, along with other participants, led mostly by Johnson, in a darker, snarkier, more cynical and profane version of a smodco podcast. It works surprisingly well, with Johnson’s intelligence and lack of patience for foolishness setting the tone, and the guys exploring all topics, mostly questions of morality, and rarely discussing comics, even though the show is recorded right there in the shop. (In several episodes you can hear the shop’s front door opening and closing as various people drift in and out of the conversation.) Possibly their most ambitious and most effective episode is “Makin’ Hay”, where they visit the local flea market with an audio recorder and try, in their haphazard and improvised way, to produce a radio documentary on the flea market and its participants. Instead, they replay clips from their location recording back at the shop and laugh and comment on themselves and others they met at the show, going on for three very entertaining hours. “Tell “Em Steve-Dave” makes no attempt to be politically correct or easy to digest: it simply is the way it is, capturing real conversations between real people. Profanity, wit, and a large dose of what the guys in Jersey call “ball busting” is the order of the day.
Kevin Smith’s renewed popularity as a podcaster and, now, as a filmmaker again led AMC, in its search for new reality shows (pardon me: “unscripted” shows), explored doing a TV version of smodcast with Smith before abandoning it for his friends. The idea of making “Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave” into a TV show is rather shocking for anyone who has listened to the podcast, so several changes were made. The show would be specifically about the Secret Stash and its customers. The show would be less profane – preferably a lot less – than the podcast. Walter, normally a very introverted, quiet, almost sullen guy, agreed to adopt a more energetic persona (Smith calls it “TV Walt” and the “best performance on AMC”). Brian Quinn, the “Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave” co-host, would not appear, as he was developing and appearing on competing shows. But other than that, the tone remained more or less the same. Ball-busting, particularly making fun of Ming, remained as virulent as ever and the guys slipped into the roles of Walt as ring-leader, Mike as earnest straight-man, Ming as enthusiastic and slightly naive junior division and Bryan as the distanced dispenser of cynicism and snark. Smith himself took a small role in the show, agreeing to appear at “round table” segments at the beginning and end of each episode, offering reflections and enthusiastic observations about that week’s program, but he himself doesn’t consider his contribution to be significant. It’s “Bryan and Walt’s” show, in his estimation.
Despite being broadcast late on Sunday night, after The Walking Dead and The Talking Dead, the show nevertheless has earned very strong ratings, and is now in its fourth season, something no one associated with it in the early days would have predicted. So, it is a significant contributor to the public perception of comics and the people who read them.
And there’s the problem. I spent so much time setting up the history and evolution of this show to demonstrate that the people making it aren’t narrow-minded superhero-obsessed generic comic fanboys. But you would never know that from watching the show itself. Episodes usually start off with Walt posing some sort of question along the lines of “What’s the best superhero fight?” or “What super power would you have?” Interesting questions for a 14-year-old, but somewhat beneath the dignity of a 44-year-old. It gets worse from there. Whole episodes go by in which comics themselves play a small supporting role (for a show called COMIC BOOK Men, that should be surprising), focusing instead on toys, collectibles and gen-X nostalgia. The “meat” of a typical episode is the negotiation between those looking to sell a toy and some member of the staff seeking to buy it. Sometimes this negotiation is over a comic, but not usually. (When a key comic is featured, it is invariably a superhero comic, usually one for which there’s a convenient movie tie-in.)
To be fair, Bryan is still Bryan on the show and does toss out some cynicism to counter the wide-eyed fandom and adolescent nostalgia for superhero comics. Sometimes pop culture historian Rob Bruce appears to offer educated insight into collectibles that is fascinating from an historical and cultural perspective.
What all this has to do with comic books escapes me.
The show is fine: it’s obviously a success and I’m glad to see another example of nerds making it big. Moreover, I’m proud that one of my favourite podcasts has found a way to TV, and I’m pleased to report that for all the polishing and artificiality of the show, the podcast remains as low-tech and vulgar as ever. But in today’s world, with the cultural eyes square on anything to do with geek culture, we should be vigilant about the face that we’re turning to the world.
I struggle, as do many who study comics, with the impression in the general population that it’s 100% about superheroes and movie tie-ins, or building massive and complex worlds that require years of reading to fully comprehend. The fact that general public is now so aware of this small slice of the comic pie is real progress over the years where we were ignored and dismissed as silly children’s literature, this can’t be denied. But shows like Comic Book Men, which take intelligent and perceptive popular culture figures and turn them into superhero comic fanboys, is not necessarily doing our community a great service. The people who watch, and especially the people who come into the store on the show, are subjected to a very primitive version of the comics world, almost a 1988 comic shop and 1988 comic culture. After four seasons of this, it’s getting to be a problem.
I would suggest that either they change the title of the show to Superhero Comic Book Men or let the boys off the leash a little more, and let them explore some rarer titles. On this week’s episode, Kevin rhapsodizes about his love for Swamp Thing, but this is as far as the conversation is usually taken. Then it’s right back to negotiating over Star Wars toys or rare Japanese action figures. Ironically, having listened to the podcast for so long, I know that we are seeing about 20% of what these guys are capable of delivering on TV. Imagine if they had episodes about Harvey Pekar, or EC Comics, or underground comix, or comics by female creators, or digital comics… Then they will have earned the right to call themselves “Comic Book Men”.