Pop Culture

By | Monday, January 31, 2011 Leave a Comment
There are any number of different definitions of the word "culture" out there. It tends to vary a bit depending on context, but when used in conjunction with or in reference to comics, I think most people take it to mean something like, "shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a group." So what we might call "comics culture" would be those traits generally shared among people who like comics. This was the primary focus of my book.

But I've got this notion of pop culture rolling around in my head today. Just so we're clear, the "pop" in pop culture refers to "popular." It's a phrase that I find a little misleading actually. I couldn't tell you anything about either Snooki or Kim Kardashian. Why they're famous, what they can/can't do or, for that matter, what they even look like. And I dare say that, while I'm probably in the extreme on this, a lot of people couldn't tell you much about them either. But they're ever-present enough in our culture that they have a popularity that has at least brought their names to my attention. I don't know how much people actually LIKE either of them, but they've permeated our culture sufficiently that they're widely known. That is, they're popular in terms of a wide, mainstream consciousness, not necessarily their personal popularity and/or favorability.

I think that's a distinction that's not readily thought about. Not consciously at any rate. Popular is a loaded word and naturally predisposes people to think in terms of that widespread favorability. Andy Warhol, in that sense, didn't help by creating "pop art" -- a term referring to his subjects which were often both widely known and widely liked.

It's an interesting discussion point, I think, because that point often gets glossed over. For as much as fans bandy about the idea that their favorite comic/TV show/movie/book/video game/whatever is a part of pop culture, many of them aren't aren't actually popular in the common sense of the word. Superman has a great fan base. He's often cited as one of the most widely-recognized characters in the world. He S-shield is so iconic that it can flipped around, squished, mis-colored and just plain poorly drawn but it STILL remains recognizable. But how many people actually LIKE Superman? How many people read his comics on a regular basis? Or see his cartoons? Or play his video games? How many people pay attention to him when he's NOT the subject of a summer blockbuster? I don't hold it against anyone who might be called a "fair weather Superman fan" but is he really popular?

I met with The Comic Book Club of Ithaca when I last visited there in 2009. One of the open-ended discussion points of that particular meeting was, "What characters became more popular in comics than their original media format?" We bandied about different characters than generated cross-over appeal at various points -- Doc Savage, Bob Hope, Buffy, etc. -- but a thought occurred to me after I left. Namely, that a character's popularity waxes and waned over the years and it would be really impossible to nail down a character who was ALWAYS more popular in one format over another. Tarzan, for example, was a prominent movie figure when Johnny Weissmuller portrayed the character but in the 1970s, Joe Kubert's comic book version was more well-known. Years later, Disney revived the character as an animated movie with all the mass-media hype that entails, largely overshadowing Weissmuller and Kubert proponents.

Which is to say that you can cite specific, fairly short-term examples of when Superman (or any other intellectual property or personality) was being read/heard/viewed by a large percentage of the overall population, but their relative popularity is only notable to a comparatively small subsection of that group. Even that horde of teenage girls screaming for The Beatles? How many of them had two parents who both thought those mop-haired whipper snappers were just making a lot of noise?

Popular, by way of wide attention, versus Popular, by way of gaining wide-spread love and acceptance.

Just something to keep in mind when you're not within that group who shares your thinking about a subject. Not everyone knows who Wedge Antilles is. Not everyone knows about pon farr. Not everyone can sing the songs of Tom Bombadil. Not everyone can recite the Lantern's oath. My point is that however important, or even life-changing, something is for you and regardless of how recognizable that person or character might be, the part of their existence that helps designate them as within the oeuvre of pop culture does not mean that anyone else actually likes them. I don't mean to dismiss the importance of heroes and/or stories to an individual; I'm just saying that sometimes you just need to keep in mind that there are usually other opinions out there besides yours.
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