Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.


Phone Booth Friday: Why Cosplay Is Great for the Economy

Sometimes it’s possible to have an opinion about something based exclusively on external observation, and still be fairly accurate in your assessment. You do not need to be mauled by a bear to understand that it would probably not be a pleasant experience. At other times however, you can roll out your jump-to-conclusions mat and end up using that shiny red Swingline to staple yourself to it in a rather embarrassing way. Such is the case with this ill-informed and ill-advised piece on the pop culture phenomenon of cosplay, and its impact on the U.S. economy.

By no means am I an expert on either economics or, more importantly for the purposes of this post, the world of cosplay. Sure, I put on a Superman suit for Halloween, or to shoot funny photos for use as Twitter AVI’s (profile pictures); I play-act the persona on social media when it suits my purpose, which is usually to make people laugh and to poke fun at myself. However, I’ve never been to any of the conventions or other, similar events held annually around the country by those interested in things like comic books and sci-fi/adventure.

What I can say, based on interacting with a number of cosplayers over the past couple of years, is that they are not what you would expect from reading the article linked to above. They enjoy dressing up as their favorite characters from print or film, and attending conventions or other events with those of like mind. Yet classing these people as unemployed, disillusioned millennial layabouts is either based on faulty reasoning, or the fact that the author didn’t think it worth the bother to actually see whether the category of people he was writing about matched his description of them.

In my travels through social media I’ve come across all sorts of people who enjoy cosplay; as it happens, not a single one of the ones with whom I interact on a regular basis is unemployed, or lives in their parents’ basement. They all have jobs, in many cases they have their own families, and cosplay is just the way they enjoy spending their free time. Many of them, far from being anti-social couch potatoes, exercise and eat well to stay in shape, so that they can look right for the cosplay they intend to do. They also donate their time to charitable causes, whether visiting the sick or participating in fundraising events in full costume, to the delight of those who love having their picture taken with Wonder Woman, Gandalf, or Darth Vader.

In my experience, cosplayers are often entrepreneurially-minded people, who appreciate and encourage creativity in themselves and others. When they come up with an idea for a character they want to play, they research it thoroughly, and either make their own costumes and accessories from scratch – from Batman’s cowl to Captain America’s shield to Thor’s hammer – or they seek out people who are good at making these things, and collaborate with them to achieve the desired effect. They work with everyone from photographers and independent film makers, to makeup artists and lighting designers, to have fun acting out their adventures.

All of this activity touches on a rather salient point, which was apparently lost on the author of this cosplay hit piece: cosplayers and their fans generate a lot of money. You see, those folks in tights and plastic body armor are not only contributing to the economy themselves, in many cases running their own home businesses on the side, but major industries recognize that the cosplay crowd can make or break their business.  The growth of the various conventions from places where a few geeks would gather to talk about vintage comic books, to the massive media events they are now, demonstrates this purchasing power.

For example, the latest installment in the multi-million dollar “Superman” franchise hasn’t even finished filming yet, and won’t be released until 2015. Nevertheless, the director and cast showed up at a comic book convention earlier this summer to meet fans and take their questions, as well as give a sneak peek of a brief clip from the forthcoming film, a bootleg of which went viral and generated millions of hits, posts, and re-tweets. This, for those who do not understand how marketing and advertising work, is called “buzz”, and it can make or break an investment, whether that investment is a movie or just about anything else.

The cultural reasons why people choose to engage in cosplay are for another post, but dressing up in costume is by no means an unprecedented source of revenue in Western history. If cosplay is economically worthless, then I suppose we must also consider not only the Palio di Siena, but the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia to be full of lazy good-for-nothings, whose elaborate expenditures contribute nothing to the economy of their respective cities. The same holds true for Morris Dancers in England, Karnival troupes in Bavaria, Holy Week penitents in Andalusia, Civil War re-enactors around the Mid-Atlantic, and so on. I could say this, except common sense dictates such an argument is rubbish, especially when the hotels are fully booked and the bars and restaurants are jammed.

People who dress up and participate in these kinds of events, cosplayers included, not only enjoy themselves, but they generate significant revenue in the communities where they engage in their activities. Rather than denigrate and dismiss those who choose to pull on the hobbit feet and go tramping about convention centers in San Diego or Baltimore, perhaps something more than a mere cursory consideration of what cosplay is might have generated a better blog post than that linked to above.  For indeed, what the author has no doubt unwittingly done in his piece, is make an argument for the abolition of all professional sporting events, which are based on little more than fantasy.

After all, when you consider how much time and money is spent in this country on athletes, stadiums, tickets, “Fantasy” football and “March Madness” picks, clothing emblazoned with logos of teams which fans will never be members of, or for that matter the names of individual athletes whom they will never get the chance to meet, are these two segments of the economy really all that different?

View of just part of the New York City annual ComiCon

View of part of the New York City annual Comic Con

“The American Catholic Almanac”: Four Centuries of Incredible Stories

I’m honored to be the next stop on the blog tour for the new book, “The American Catholic Almanac” by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson, which was just published by Image.  If you’re a Catholic interested in learning about the contributions of your brothers and sisters in the Faith to the building up of this country, you need a copy of this book.  If you’re not a Catholic, but appreciate the huge sweep of American history and cultural life, you also need a copy of this book.  For Catholics, as it turns out, have had a far earlier, deeper, and more lasting impact on this country than many of us were taught in school.

Given that I live in Washington, DC and often write about architecture and design on this blog, I wanted to take one example from the “Almanac” as an example of the wealth of fascinating material in this book.  The name James Hoban may be known to you from pub quiz trivia – or indeed, from the pub named after him in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the Nation’s Capital – as the architect who designed the White House.  What may not be known to you is the fact that Hoban was a devout Catholic.

In the “Almanac” the authors detail how Hoban, the son of a poor tenant farmer in Ireland, managed through talent, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time to land what even today would still be considered the most prestigious of all home design competitions in America.  His chance meeting with George Washington in South Carolina led to a prosperous career, where Hoban not only built the White House, but was one of the principal architects working on the Capitol, as well as designing homes, churches, banks, and hotels around DC and for other parts of the young country.

Perhaps Hoban’s most famous commission apart from the White House was the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, which was burned to the ground by Sherman during the Civil War.  Fortunately, his elegant County Court House in Charleston still stands.  That said, even the White House did not escape the meddling of others, for Thomas Jefferson, who had himself entered the competition to design the President’s House and lost to Hoban, modified a number of Hoban’s designs when he moved into the Executive Mansion. Ironically, as the authors point out in the “Almanac”, Hoban later had a second crack at the White House, which is why their entry about him appears on August 24th.

During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington and burned the Capitol, the White House, and many other buildings on August 24, 1814,  When reconstruction began, then-President James Madison approached the now 64-year-old Hoban and asked if he would supervise the residence’s rebuilding and restoration.  “Proving himself a more gracious loser than Jefferson,” the authors write, “Hoban replicated the third president’s modifications in his restoration.”  Given Jefferson’s tendency toward the experimental, which was not always successful, this was a true mark of respect, indeed.

For Catholics across the Capital City, Hoban’s efforts remain a visible reminder of his legacy to this city and the country, even when the buildings themselves were later replaced.  From Georgetown University to St. Patrick’s in the heart of downtown to St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, the communities that still support these institutions owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Hoban for helping to make the Catholic presence in Washington a visible and lasting one.  He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery here in DC, overlooking the city which he helped turn from a dream of the Founding Fathers into a reality.

The entry on James Hoban is just one of the stories contained in the “Almanac”, one for every day of the year.  There is such a wealth of material, that it is hard to imagine the sheer amount of work that went into this volume.  Spanning over 400 years of history, the “Almanac” provides daily reading on the lives of Catholic men and women, both Americans and those with an important tie to America, as well as non-Catholics who made an impact on the lives of American Catholics.  Often, the stories contained in these pages may come as a complete surprise to the reader.

For example, the original Mary “Mother” Jones, after whom the famous left-wing magazine is named, was a devout, pro-life Catholic, who thought mothers ought to stay at home and raise their children rather than work.  Joseph Warren Revere, the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere and himself a celebrated hero of the Civil War, converted to Catholicism as an adult, much to the surprise of his New England family.  So too did Fanny Allen, daughter of the very anti-clerical Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen; she actually went one step further and became a nun.

Athletes, criminals, entertainers, politicians, writers, and yes, clergy and religious fill the pages of the “Almanac”.  Some of these individuals were pious believers, and some of them were absolute scoundrels. And yet we would not have the America we know today without them.

Catholics have been part of the story of America from the very beginning.  This book is not only proof of that fact, but provides that proof in an engaging, well-researched, but never heavy style, making it easy to read cover to cover, or to pick up and put down as the mood takes you.  It will also provide, particularly for educators, writers, and politicos, a picture of just how significant the Catholic contribution to this country has been in the past, and will continue to be into the future.

Whether for those new to American history, or for those who think they already know it well, there is much to savor and enjoy here, at any level: in fact, I already know which college professor friend I’m giving a copy to for Christmas.

American Catholic Almanac