Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Myth of Geek Culture Part 3: Numbers from the Golden Age

A continuing examination of the role of Geek Culture within the larger frameworks of capitalism and consumer culture. 

Source: Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images 
The supposed rise of geek culture is often attributed to a number of newly popular genres and mediums.  But even if the argument can be made that the popularity of video games, for example, represents nothing but another aspect of consumer marketing, doesn't that still leave the fact that “geeky” genres like superheroes dominate the landscape?  Doesn't that leave the fact that geeks made good like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates still garner widespread acceptance for their success, regardless of this success’ basis in a capitalist value system?   In actuality, a closer reading of mass culture over a longer span of time reveals previous eras in which certain aspects of supposed “geek culture” occupied a much wider portion of mainstream acceptance.

If you want to go looking for a time in history when superhero consumption was the metric for the acceptance of mainstream culture, you have to go back to the early to mid 1940’s. Between 1941 and 1944, monthly comic book sales doubled from 10 to 20 million units, even in the wake of war time paper shortages.  This was a time when comic were consumed by an estimated 80% of children, 41% of men between the ages of 18 and 30 and 28% of women the same age. 

February, 1942.  
Source unknown

Much of this can be attributed to the reading habits of servicemen, for whom comic book consumption was both a natural remedy for the boredom of their bases and a byproduct of institutional distribution.  Superman was among the eighteen magazines distributed by the War Library Service between 1942 and 1943, and comic magazines accounted for a quarter of soldier’s preferred titles.   

Of course, to the people of the 1940’s, comic books weren't some aspect of geek culture infesting the main stream.  They were the main stream, more ubiquitous then than any single property or cultural figure could be in today’s landscape of multi-channel media.  

In the 1940's, they weren't called geek girls.  They were just girls.Source: Ruth Orkin
The soldiers of World War II saw comics as one of their main links to domestic life, powerful symbols of the shared culture they perceived the war to be in defense of.  And yes, a lot of people went to see Batman punch people in a theater in 2012.  But with film attendance at a twenty year low in the US and the UK, this hardly seems like this so called wide spread acceptance of geek culture we so often hear about.   Even after a sales bump following a slow 2011, the comic book market was lucky to move 7 million copies in any given month of 2012.  The top selling title of the early 1940’s wasn't even Superman, but Fawcett’s Captain Marvel starring Whiz comics, which moved an estimated 1.4 million copies every month.  Today, the top selling titles might be lucky to move 300,000 copies.  

The irony is that the publishers of superhero stories at their true peak were measurably smaller in scale than the multimedia distribution firms who handle the same character today.  Publishers like Timely (the predecessor of Marvel) and National Allied publications (who later changed their name to DC ) had their roots in pulp publishing.  Fawcett Publications had their roots in cheap joke comics and paperback books.  These were cheap products, printed on low quality paper, without a corporate advertisement in sight, and they reached a demographic that any modern media juggernaut like Time Warner or Viacom would kill for.  Comics and superheroes were as main stream as Coca Cola and Hollywood gossip, a cultural occupancy that they held well into the 1960’s.  By the 1980’s, with the beginning of the movement of comics out of grocery stores and into specialty retailers, comics had truly moved away from the mainstream and into a cultural ghetto, beginning a steady sales decline that has continued into the present. 
We observe culture through a narrow view, isolating the examples and outliers that support preexisting narratives about what is popular and what is marginalized.  It is an inherently ludicrous idea that the mainstream accepts outsider culture.  By design, any sub cultures movement into a mainstream light can best hope for co-option.     


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