Friday, 20 July 2012

Ant Man rises

As Batman: The Dark Knight Rises busts blocks  in multiplexes everywhere this summer, the Offsping's reception year class have taken "superheroes" as their topic for the last half term of the school year. As you can see, this has involved the Offspring creating his own superhero character, Ant Man, and storyboarding the adventures of Ant Man on the school PC. The basic premise - dragon sets fire to houses, everybody shouts 'help!' then Ant Man saves everybody - is high concept enough to be worth a few million to the canny movie executive who never lost any money underestimating the sophistication of fifteen year old boys, but I think we may have to flesh out the Ant Man character a bit before we can pitch this idea in Hollywood.

I'm thinking Ant Man probably acquires his super powers (lifting many times his own body weight, squirting formic acid, whatever) in the traditional manner (innocent picnic near a nuclear power/bioweapons plant, spoilt by mutant insect bite) but, ants being a social species, he soon discovers that he's not alone. As he becomes aware of his super powers, he also discovers that he belongs to a (telepathic?) swarm of gifted mutants who could use their powers to help and protect humanity, but face prejudice and rejection in "normal" society (and I'm totally not ripping off the X-Men here, because the X-Men can't squirt formic acid). It's blue skies thinking at the moment, but the Ant Man ("A-Men"? "Human Swarm"?) franchise could be massive.

Interestingly, the Offspring's very clear about one thing. He needs no prompting or questioning to declare that superheroes aren't real. Neither are dragons. Which got me thinking about our attitude to escapist fantasy. There's a subculture of people who get a lot of flack for allegedly taking comic books, or sci-fi/fantasy films, TV shows and books way too seriously. Grown men and women who go to conventions called things like Comic Con to buy action figures, or teach-yourself-Klingon DVDs and to dress up as their favourite characters.

Such people are figures of fun in mainstream society, stereotyped as emotionally retarded, socially maladroit geeks with nonexistent interpersonal skills, obsessing about things that "normal" people have grown out of. Like Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons. Or the Daily Mash's idea of the sort of people who are heavily into the "steampunk" fantasy sub genre.

It's probably political kryptonite, too. The revelation that former Labour MP Barbara Follett and her husband, the novelist Ken Follett, were trekkies was inevitably spun to make Babs look like some sort of weird space cadet (I've no idea whether the couple really dressed up in starfleet uniforms, but as the claim appeared in that well known fantasy comic the Sun, I wouldn't vouch for it being literally true, at least in our universe).*

What a bunch of weirdos, huh? Well, yes, but ... I'm also pretty sure that, except in a tiny minority of rather sad cases, the people who are into this stuff are like the Offspring. They know it isn't real. They're just doing what the rest of us do when we go to the pictures, or read a novel - temporarily suspending their disbelief to immerse themselves in a world which they know isn't real, but which entertains them. And by getting together to share and elaborate on the experience with a bunch of other like-minded people, you could argue that they're being a lot more sociable about it than a "normal" person who watches a mainstream TV programme or reads a popular book and doesn't share the experience with other fans.

Which has prompted some people to compare the world of fandom with religion. You've got a bunch of people, some of them in funny clothes, getting together to share a devotion that looks, at best, pretty odd to outsiders.With the important difference that the people at Comic Con, Wonder Con, the Doctor Who Convention and so on, know, like a bright five year old, that some stuff just isn't real. As Bob Seidensticker says:
 Society insulates Christians from reality as if they were Klingons at a convention.  I just wish that, like the Klingons, they realized that it’s all just pretend. 
Score one for fandom, which is well on the way to deserving as much societal respect as any organised religion - perhaps a tad more, since the dudes in the wookie costumes seem to have a rather firmer grasp of the difference between reality and fantasy than  the ones in cassocks and stoles. OK, fan events can be heavily commercialised and branded but, when it comes to the ruthless pursuit of material wealth, the churches have a centuries-long head start on them.

If I wanted to play God's advocate for a moment, there is one thing that organised religions have that gives them an edge over fandom - the collection plate. That is one positive aspect of the faith business - giving to good causes. It might not be the best way of helping others - 'Religion is a very inefficient route to charitable giving (imagine a charity with 90% overhead)' - but I reckon that it's only the lack of a modest bit of social philanthropy that stands in the way of Trekkies and Twilight fans seizing the moral and intellectual high ground from the clerics of various faiths. That and the fact that the fans are probably too busy having their own niche version of a good time to want to lecture everybody else about how to live their lives.

Apparently, if I was up to speed with popular culture, I'd have known that somebody's already bagged the idea of a supehero called Ant Man. Back to the drawing board...

* Even if they did have a pair of starfleet uniforms in their wardrobe, I'd have been relatively cool with that. I'm considerably less cool with the fact that Barbara was found to have overclaimed £42,458 in parliamentary expenses.


Meridian said...

Many years ago Ben Elton pointed out another difference between Trekkies etc and the religious: by and large Trekkies don't kill people in the name of their group.