The Audacity of Hope, Geek Culture, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Part 1

When Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” she clearly didn’t anticipate geek culture.  For despite popular stereotypes, one of the most dominant characteristics of many in the geek community is a deep and abiding sense of hopefulness.

Now I’m willing to bet that if we took a poll of the most popular adjectives applied to the fans of comic books, movies, science fiction, fantasy, et al, hopefulness wouldn’t crack the top 10.  In fact, before planning this column, I would’ve probably rattled off terms like hostile, cynical, intolerant, reactionary, self-absorbed, cranky, self-righteous, angry, myopic, and petty.  Not a nice list.  But we’re all familiar with the stereotype:  the kind of person who sees Star Wars for the first time and can only complain, “A parsec measures distance, not time”; or the kind of person who reads Watchmen only to gripe about how it misrepresents the Charlton superheroes.  That’s the popular image of many of us in the geek community, right?

Well I’d like to offer a corrective of sorts.  While it may seem paradoxical, there is another side to the stereotypical pop culture geek that isn’t full of rage or snark.  Instead, it’s full of hope.

From Sandman #4 by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg

I’ll use myself as an example.  Last year I went to see The Lone Ranger.  I should’ve known better.  The last two attempts to make a Lone Ranger movie had been pretty miserable, and this new film had been plagued with troublesome production delays, negative buzz, a poor trailer, and bad reviews.  And yet, when it opened, there I was, sitting in the sweet spot of a mostly empty movie theater, sipping my coffee and crossing my fingers that I was about to see a combination of Shane and The Wild Bunch.  Why would I set myself up for such a disappointment?

Simple.  I hoped it would be good.

I don’t normally think of myself as a particularly hopeful person, but sometimes I find myself inexplicably acting on what can only be described as sloppy, unwarranted, naïve, foolish, innocent, childlike hope.  And I don’t think I’m alone.  Let me ask you—how many times have you watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture?  I’ve seen it over a dozen times.  But you know what’s weird?  I don’t like it very much.  So why do I keep going back?

Simple.  I keep hoping it will get better.

Crazy right?  You know the old cliché that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result?  That’s essentially what I’m doing.  Oh, I could rationalize it and say I’m studying or appreciating it, but that’s not true.  No, every time I go back to it, I do so with the hope that if I can just find the right way to watch it, if I just get in the right mindset, I’ll finally enjoy it.  Because I so want to love that movie.  But alas, like the proverbial bad girlfriend or boyfriend, V’ger always lets me down.

That’s the thing about hope.  It’s an incredibly powerful force.  In Sandman #4, Dream journeys into Hell to retrieve his helm and has a word contest with one of the demons.  “Hope” is the word he uses to win.  It seems nothing trumps hope—not reason, not experience, not even will.  Perhaps that’s where so much of the hostility in the geek community comes from.  If hope is the alpha dog in our chemical makeup, then its power over us makes us vulnerable and puts us in perpetual risk of looking foolish.  That leads to resentment and self-loathing, driving many to lash out at anything handy.

Or maybe that’s all just so much psychobabble.

But I’ve been thinking all summer about this relationship between pop culture consumption and hope.  It started when I heard there was going to be a film adaptation of the ‘60s spy show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I had seen a couple of episodes of that show, but not enough to have a feel for it.  So I started watching the series from the beginning.  As of this writing, I’m halfway through the second season.  Unfortunately, of all those many hours, only about a dozen have been what I would consider good.  The rest have ranged from average to annoying.

And still I watch.  I know from what I’ve read that I’ve already seen the best the show has to offer.  But as with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I keep watching, keep hoping for a viewing strategy that will allow me to lose myself in the show.  Like a method actor, I’ve considered burying myself in mid-‘60s pop culture, listening to A Hard Day’s Night and reading some old Lee and Kirby comics.  I’ve also tried donning my intellectual glasses and viewing the show through a kind of Andy Warhol-pop-art-ironic-Postmodern mindset.  But mostly I just keep watching.

It’s a strange compulsion.  I feel like an underage kid standing outside a club with a fake ID, hoping to bluff my way past the bouncer.  Normally, I’m not in this position.  With comic books, I’m always telling people to follow the creators not the characters.  But there’s clearly something about the concept of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that makes me want to root for it.

For the uninitiated, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was arguably the most famous product of the television spy boom of the ‘60s.  Danger Man and The Avengers may have beaten it to the punch, but when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. debuted in 1964, it became the face of the spy genre on television.  So indelible was the show that it became the principal inspiration for the Buck Henry and Mel Brooks spoof, Get Smart, as well as Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.

Unlike some of its rival shows like Danger Man and I Spy, both of which offered more realistic espionage cases, U.N.C.L.E. was far more elaborate.  The show focuses on the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, or “U.N.C.L.E.” for short, an international organization comprised of agents from every continent.  The multinational approach allows the show to escape the kind of petty nationalism that can sometimes plague spy fiction.  Remarkably, the show pairs an American agent, Napoleon Solo, with a Russian, Illya Kuryakin, who work in tandem against T.H.R.U.S.H., a criminal organization with interests all over the globe.

Although his name was removed from the credits for legal reasons, one of the original contributors to the show’s creation was Ian Fleming, and it’s easy to see the Bond influence.  Napoleon Solo is a glib agent with a hyperactive social life who has “that elegant air of decadence” as he tells Kuryakin in one episode.  Kuryakin is cool, efficient, and business-like.  Combined, they play most of the notes we’ve come to expect from all the many variations of James Bond.  And T.H.R.U.S.H. provides essentially the same form of corporate villainy as SPECTRE in the later Bond novels and films.

Next week, I’ll take a closer look at the show and try to figure out the source of its appeal—especially given that its sum seems far greater than its parts.  And I’m quite sure that in a couple of weeks when the new Guy Ritchie film is released, I will be sitting in the sweet spot of a mostly empty theater, sipping my coffee and crossing my fingers in hopes of seeing a combination of From Russia with Love and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

What could go wrong?

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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