I toss the word “fanboy” around a lot and I smile when I do it. Clearly, it has a history as a pejorative, but for me (a comic book collector since I was a kid in the 1970s), the advent of this modern superhero era in Hollywood and the intense success of the gaming and tech culture have made this the Golden Age of Nerds. So why not own the old insult? Not everyone agrees with me. At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this year, I ran into Steven Paul Leiva, who took me to task for embracing the F-word. Leiva has written a guest post for Hero Complex once before, so I invited him to vent on this topic. — Geoff Boucher
I’m not sure I like this term: fanboy.
Every time I hear it, I get a quick mental image of a young lad not destined to experience testosterone, big peacock fan in hand, cooling the brow of some emperor or potentate. Or, more germane to the subject, of a adolescent male who has been bitten by a radioactive bedbug in some seedy San Diego hotel during the International Comic-Con, and now has superpowers best not mentioned, and is on a never-ending quest for Truth, Justice and autographs. Maybe what bothers me about the term is that it seems to be one of those words coined as an insult, but now worn proudly as a badge of honor. Or maybe the truth lies in the fact that I left boyhood behind many years ago, but not my love of superheroes. What does that make me? A fanman? That’s a term I hope never to have to type again, and I sincerely apologize for subjecting the reader to it.
Yes, I know, every one of us, especially men, retain the child inside. But as I spent my childhood desperately wanting to be an adult, I don’t particularly want to turn tail and go back the other way now. And yet, the superheroes that permeated my brain when I was young, much to the dismay of parents and society, have outlived those parents and beaten society to a pulp in the form of multimillion-dollar (in cost and gross revenue) Hollywood movies. Movies that have finally brought the superheroes out into the open in the form they always existed in my head: real and alive and performing stunningly fantastic deeds of daring.
Ah, so maybe what I dislike about the term “fanboy” is that it comes too late for me. Maybe, although nothing can stop me from seeing these movies, I can never experience them with all the pure, giddy joy of seeing dreams come true, as I would have if these movies could have been made when I truly was a boy — and a fan.
For when I was a boy always reading comics full of the colorfully costumed, and always wanting to see them on a bigger “stage” and in the flesh, so to speak, what did Hollywood ever give me? Well, there was the George Reeves “Superman” series, which I loved, especially George, but which, while it delighted, also frustrated. Where were the super-villains? Where were Luthor and Brainiac? Where were the Fortress of Solitude and the bottled city of Kandor? Where were the adventures in time and space? The “Adventures of Superman” they called it. What adventures? He had all these superpowers and basically fought thugs and mugs and schnooks and crooks, all irritatingly mundane.
And where were the other heroes from DC Comics? I had this whole plan figured out for the TV bosses, if I could ever figure out how to get to the TV bosses, which, of course, I never did. In any case, superheroes five days a week, that’s what I wanted. Superman on Monday, Green Lantern on Tuesday, Flash on Wednesday, Batman on Thursday, and to round out the week and give you something wonderful to look forward to, the Justice League of America on Friday. I knew they could do it, if they just had the will, and I was stunned that they weren’t doing it. What could be more natural? Everything was right there in the comics. Just do it — make them alive! I did not think it was too much to ask. And I knew Hollywood had done it before because I had found these neat magazines that covered old movie serials from the long past. (Actually only 20 years past, but to a kid that’s not just ancient history; it’s prehistory, if not a mystic, mythical past beyond history.) There in those magazines I saw stills from serials that projected the exploits of another Superman (played by Kirk Alyn); of Captain America, shield and all; of the Phantom and the Blackhawks (OK, no superpowers, but cool costumes); of a rather baggy Batman; and of a superb looking Captain Marvel, which made one almost giddy to see, because Captain Marvel wasn’t even being exploited in comics at that time. So Superman was not the only comic book character that could be brought to life. So what was stopping them? A conspiracy of the mundane, the same one that kept the caped Reeves fighting two-bit crooks, was the only theory that made sense — the mundane and a total lack of respect for my needs.
And then, in 1966, came “Batman” with Adam West.
Well 1 out of 5 ain’t bad, I guess. And I was young enough to be a fan — the show was very colorful, especially Robin‘s costume — although I itched to dislike it because of the “camp” attitude the makers gave it. It was intentional camp supposedly because the creators were trying re-create the feel of the old movie serials which, viewed in that enlightened age, were considered unintentional camp. Except they weren’t — except for those that were. And they were the bad ones. But the good ones had a charming sense of serious intent about them, all of which I didn’t discover until years later when the serials showed up on videotape. No, the real reason Batman was camp, I’ve always maintained, is how else could the creators — sophisticates all, I’m sure — show themselves at Hollywood cocktail parties unless they could say, “Yes, I’m doing a comic book show — but it’s camp!” Still, this show had real super-villains, camp-ish though they were, and gadgets and cameo guest stars. But more important, it was a surprise hit, and gave me hope that others would follow. Only the Green Hornet did, but he was more a radio and pulp hero, and he lasted only one season. And “Batman” turned out to be not so much a hit as a fad, and a quickly fading one at that.
Thank goodness there were spies on TV for a bit of adventure. But none of them wore a colorful costume.
It was back to the inky adventures of superheroes, yearning to see them in flesh and blood incarnations.
Then came “Superman: The Movie.” The Movie. Get it? As opposed to the comic book and, heavens forbid, the creaky old TV series. The Movie. Talk about serious intent. But I
was an adult now; I didn’t know if I could believe a man could fly. But I did. The movie was great. Except for turning Krypton into an ice cube in space, and following suit with a frozen Fortress of Solitude built by a crystal with overactive glands. Where was the homey get-away-place Superman in the comics had created for himself, full of trophies from his adventures, and statues of those near and dear to him: Jimmy, Perry and, of course, Lois? And where the hell was Kandor?! But I did believe a man could fly — and the scenes of him doing so, especially with Lois, raised my blood and made me lightheaded. And even before he flew, the mythic childhood scenes were golden with serious intent. And when Clark got to Metropolis — which really looked like the New York it was modeled on, and not Los Angeles, various cheap Hollywood back lots and the most boring out-of-the-city locations Los Angeles had to offer — he was perfectly bungling as he should be. But then Lex Luthor showed up — with hair! And suddenly we were back in the “Batman” TV series; the film went all silly and camp. Somebody must have had a cocktail party to go to.
“Superman II” was better. There were real, serious super-villains. Luthor was tolerable, if still wearing his rug. But then came III. We won’t even mention IV.
But, more tragic, there was not an outbreak of superhero films. Where was Green Lantern? Where was the Martian Manhunter? Where were my inky dreams made flesh and blood? Adult though I now was, I still had my cravings.
Then Tim Burton got his hands on Batman. And he seemed to be the first filmmaker truly inspired by the actual comics. Of course it was Frank Miller’s take on the comics. No more camp — serious intent abounded. Black — the Batman’s costume was black? You can’t have a colorful costume if it’s black — especially with a fake, albeit manly, chest. Still, I went, I enjoyed, but did I have fanboy (a term yet to be coined, I believe) joy? I’m not sure.
Sequels were made, but, again there were no plethora of other heroes jumping onto the screen — and I was getting older, not surprisingly, by the minute.
Then we leapt into the 21st century, which I’m old enough to still call “the future” — something that was always exciting in the comic books, something a bit less exciting in reality, there being no personal rocket cars and jet packs, as everyone of my generation seems to complain about. But almost as if to make up for those deficits, we did get fantastic computer-generated special effects for film and television, which could now transform my inky dreams into flesh and blood, digitally conceived though they may be.
The floodgates opened and superhero movies now dominate — the X-Men, two different Hulks, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four — what Marvels they are! But do they dominate my heart? I go to them. Some I enjoy, some I don’t. But the yearning I had when I truly was a fanboy, the yearning to see my heroes, not only alive, but rendered in atmosphere, accouterments and action as they were in ink, with all their powers on display, their abilities well-used, their stories told as I remember them — is that yearning even still there to be satisfied? Or do I just see these movies as movies, as stories of very much larger-than-life heroes and villains who stand as metaphors for Good and Evil, whether pure or conflicted? Are they now just characters in stories, like hundreds of other characters in hundreds of other stories, even if they are in colorful costumes?
Well, I’m not willing to return to my adolescence to find out. So I’ll just take these wonderfully rendered “flesh and blood” manifestations for what they are. But if you happen to be sitting next to me in a movie theater during the screening of one of these films, and I disturb you as I look for and try to feel a faded thrill deep inside me that I can only hope is still there, please accept my apologies in advance.
— Steve Leiva
Photo credits: All Comic-Con International fan photos by Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times. Christopher Reeve photo from the Los Angeles Times archives.