Simon Pegg’s comments about SF and comic fans are actually right

Simon Pegg had an interview in the Radio Times that the American site IO9 picked up that led to this quite extraordinary piece by one of IO9‘s bloggers Katherine Trendacosta in it’s knee jerk defensiveness that proves Pegg has a point about how some ‘geeks’ (a term I despise) have a lack of self-awareness about how actually childish some genre material actually is.

For example, this:

Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie And Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed … I don’t know if that is a good thing.

… Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.

It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.

Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.

Is entirely correct. For Trendacosta and the majority on IO9 it isn’t as she says:

It’s internally inconsistent to say that adults are taking “childish” things seriously, and say that this is making us dumber.

Something instantly contradicted by the next point:

  • It’s clearly not impossible to have a film with the Hulk fighting a robot and come out not thinking about real-world issues, or emotional journeys. If nothing else, the strong polarized reaction to Black Widow in Age of Ultron proves that.

The Hulk hitting Iron Man in the latest Avengers film isn’t going to make anyone think of real world issues unless their perception of that world has been so infanitlised and dumbed down to the point where a fight scene speaks about the world. The reaction to Black Widow is interesting but it’s not because of any deliberate or unintended message the film wanted to make, but instead is a reaction of the endless echo chamber politics that is genre fandom and Twitter.

That isn’t to say a piece of genre fiction can’t hide or discuss serious issues. It can and the likes of  Star Trek or Quatermass did this often on television, while something like Planet of the Apes is a fantastic allegory not to mention a fine work of satire, but the Hulk fighting Iron Man is really only the Hulk fighting Iron Man. Nothing especially wrong with that but it’s not exactly Dennis Potter or Jimmy McGovern using the medium to tell us something about us. It’s fun and that’s good, fun is good but we can’t live on that alone or we do end up seeing the world through different eyes ending up in a situation where people seriously think the world can be seen as well through genre fiction as more obviously serious material.

The next point is bizarre:

The whole history of film before Star Wars did not consist of “gritty, amoral art movies.” Let’s put aside that it’s completely bizarre to call The Godfather an “art movie”

No it isn’t. It’s considered one of the finest films not just of it’s decade, but ever. It is essentially an art film played as a blockbuster, and remember the idea of a blockbuster in the 1970’s before Star Wars is entirely different to that of today. Even today The Godfather stands as a superb work of art that does speak of evil and power, and how that power corrupts but suggesting it’s ‘bizarre’ to call it an ‘art movie’ shows a bit of ignorance of film history but a narrow point of view.

This is compounded with the next point:

  • Is Simon Pegg taking the side that Star Wars was the turning point for the dumbing down of movies? That simultaneously gives George Lucas too much and too little credit.

To an extent he is, and he’s sort of right as most critics and historians will point at Star Wars for creating the turning point, but the real culprit lies with Spielberg’s Jaws. That film redefined the idea of a ‘blockbuster’ from something like The French Connection, or All the President’s Men (films steeped in reality) to Jaws and Star Wars (films steeped in fantasy). so the focus moved from the real to the fantastic and again, there’s nothing wrong with that in doses small enough that you’re not swamped in robots smashing the fuck out of cities in every other film at your local multiplex.

Moving to the last point worth dealing with is entering a world of brain damage:

  • He’s also acting like comics and science fiction haven’t always dealt with very serious issues. X-Men is pretty famously in that category. And so was, oh, what was the name of that TV series? The one Pegg’s writing the next movie script for? Oh, right, Star Trek.

First of all, yes, the X-Men has dealt with serious issues. On rare occasions the comic has done it well, the God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel for example,

xmengodlovesmankills

On the whole the X-Men, and most superhero comics, are glorified soap operas with fight scenes. You’re not going to find out the realities of life in Middlesbrough or Cleveland or anywhere by seeing Wolverine fighting ninjas, or Cyclops moping around for the 400th time.

It’s the defensiveness of the entire IO9 piece that’s extraordinary as not for one sentence does it even remotely think that perhaps Pegg just has a point, partly because I assume the writer and staff are too closely connected to the material they clearly love so they see Pegg’s comments as an ‘attack’ on them themselves rather than a general discussion of genre culture and of course, Pegg’s career.

And here’s the thing, Pegg has taken crap in his career before. I remember Pegg as he started out in comedy as one of many accused of following in Steve Coogan’s shadow, but it wasn’t Spaced that showed Pegg’s real talent (as good as that series is) it was his work in the superb Big Train that sealed the deal for me in regards Pegg’s clear comedic talent.

Not to mention his often forgotten about part in the Paedogeddon episode of Brass Eye.

Pegg’s career before being known as a ‘geek’ icon is steeped in the world of comedy, and his work with Chris Morris shows he’s not scared of getting involved with something that was comedy, but dealing with serious issues as the media’s handling of paedophilia was. Obviously that’s not as serious as Iron Man fighting the Hulk, but there you go…

This article prompted Pegg to reply in a thoughtful way. It’s clear he does love things like Star Trek but like most people, he realises that isn’t, nor should it be the only thing they take in, and here’s the point in all of this. The fact is that for Pegg having to explain himself fuller shows that ultimately he’s right. People are dumbed down and they are hiding behind The Avengers or Harry Potter or anything popular that doesn’t set out to do anything but primarily entertain, but the moment when your primary view into the world is defined by Iron Man then perhaps you have made yourself infantile. Perhaps you have succumbed to the commercialisation of genre fiction which is ‘geek’ culture, an example of how consumerism eats everything and spits it back at you.

Now I’ve spent large chunks of my life working in comics be it retail or publishing. I still enjoy reading the works of Jack Kirby as much as the works of Charles Burns, but as a quick shufty through my blogs will show I don’t talk endlessly about comics unlike some fans now that do only speak about the comic, telly or films they endlessly consume, and in doing so, have allowed these things to completely define them which has sucked the sheer fun from it because it’s become them.

Conventions now look less than the often shambolic events of old as seen in this rather glorious old BBC programme about the 1979 Worldcon in Brighton.

Now conventions are less about fans making it for themselves in an almost punk/DIY ethic to one where their entire identity is defined by the things they buy and the endless state of nostalgia this form of consumerism brings. The point is that Pegg is right. People have been dumbed down because they’ve lost perspective and don’t have the mixture of backgrounds that Pegg had as he was starting his career. People now choose a tribe, and defend it to the bitter death even if that means that often smart people end up proving the point they’re fighting against.

So don’t just see the world through the latest Avengers film or an X-Men comic, but have something else to your diet apart from endless sugar. Have some serious substance and challenge your own worldview because otherwise you’ll be one of these fans that comments from people like Pegg as a personal insult when they’re not. The moment you see comments like that as insulting to you and the stuff you like then it’s time to step back, go outside and understand the world through your own eyes, not that of Iron Man or Black Widow.

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