Last year, I had walked by the many vendors at the Indianapolis Comic Con and wondered, “What is all of this?”. It was hard for me to comprehend how a whole media world of comic books alongside hit movies and television shows such as; Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, Star Wars and Game of Thrones, all came under one convention center to be celebrated year-after-year. To better understand what makes this all so appealing to devote fans, I tracked down Michal Hughes, English Lecturer at IUPUI, who teaches courses in comics, fantasy, and science fiction.
J: What made you start looking at science fiction as a field of academic study?
MH: I’ve always liked science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and supernatural stories. I was reading that stuff in fifth or sixth grade and kept reading it. I was watching the movies. There was a show, Sammy Terry Theater on Channel 4, and the guy had a creature double feature with The Invisible Man (1933)and the Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958) and The Deadly Mantis (1957); the usual stuff of the 50s.
“In the 50’s, they were worried about people who look like we do, talk like we do, turned out like one of us.” -Michal Hughes
MH: All these movies are remade. One of my friends just got me to read The Martian by Andy Weir. Nice book. It’s “RobinsonCrusoe in Space”. At one time, they actually did a movie called Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The action-adventure, stranded-like movie, Cast Away(2000) with Tom Hanks, where you are in a horrendous environment. “How do you make it”, “What do you got to do?”; The kind of sequence of adventure, surviving, being tough. And that is one aspect of this genre, recreated almost every generation depending on whatever worries and fears that are going on within that generation.
MH: In the 50’s, they were worried about people who look like we do, talk like we do, turned out like one of us. You have Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).These things that look like us, take over our bodies and are sneaking around. That was all about ‘self’. We’re still playing with some of these notions. For example, in the 1998 movie called The Faculty, where these things start taking over people; cheesy, beautiful horror. There were always these alien invasions that coincided with the communist scare. Who knows what kind of craziness is going on now.
MH: You had asked about vampires in your email? Those guys get a makeover, continually. You have two types – science fiction vampires and fantasy vampires. I am Legend by Richard Matheson had vampires that were created from a virus. The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan; using science as an explanation for the vampires. Then you get the usual Dracula “I-have-sold-my-soul” kind of thing. The biggest thing about vampires is they look like us but they’re not, and they’re eating us. Bram Stoker, creator of the original, fictional Dracula, was doing this stuff a lot. That was fear of the eastern Europeans who were coming. But are we still afraid of eastern Europeans in London? I don’t know, I doubt it.
A lot of people are afraid that the world they know is ending and that it’s going to be much worse.
J: Why are there all these stories in movies? What are we afraid of? Of what looks like us? Is it Communism? Is it Donald Trump’s hair?
MH: What are we afraid of? What is driving us? There’s this huge unrest in this country. You can tell by just the political stuff, but fear, it’s been out there for a while. So much of the stuff that’s coming out in film that has been post-apocalyptic and dystopian. A lot of people are afraid that the world they know is ending and that it’s going to be much worse. I think some of them are reading this stuff. Maybe, not so much reading into it just for solace. They are thinking there’s some glimmer of hope. Although, if you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,there’s not a lot of hope in that. What’s for dinner? Maybe, my own child?
J: What about the romance vampires like those featured in The Twilight Saga?
MH: I’ll be honest. I can read some really bad stuff. I couldn’t get through the first chapter. That is probably just a matter of taste for me. Twilight didn’t really quite get the danger of vampires; of wanting to suck a person dry. You get that in a number of these vampire romance things, talking about living the bad boy life.
In advance, I am going to blame Joss Whedon for some of that, going back to the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You know, she isn’t hanging out with Angel, then hanging out with Spike. And Spike said at one time, “The truth is, I like this world. You’ve got… dog racing, Manchester United, and you’ve got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs.”. That’s the guy you want to date. He’s dead and that is the worst part about vampires.
MH: The only one I could think of offhand, who really developed a more realistic vision of what a real modern Dracula vampire, would be the author Jeff Rice. He wrote two poor quality novels back in the 1970’s that were made into the TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. First vampire story he did was about a vampire who had moved to Las Vegas. Which, if you’re a vampire and you can’t go out by day, where are you going to find food? 24-7, right there, all those little meals walking around. But what was interesting was, he focused on something that a lot of storytellers don’t.
A vampire is dead –going to stink, really bad breath. I don’t care any way you look at it, it’s going to be awful. This guy’s going into pharmacies and buying Listerine and breath mints, just trying to mask his smell. I don’t think Buffy would have been swapping lovers with something that had that much stench. Vampires are not looking at us as if we’re like them. We’re meals. And in some way, just maybe vampires are like serial murders. You know they look like us but they are not.
J: You have a class on Comic Books in American Culture. May I ask what comic books were like before the 2000’s? When the superhero movie genre exploded?
MH: When teaching comic books in our culture, I start off with backdrop talks about fear comics in the 1950’s, the McCarthy-era. And also, teach a little bit of history of Superman and Batman. During the 1980’s, there was this postmodern approach to comics such as the Alan Moore comic book Watchmen (1986), Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986).
They were much darker, much more adult. Moore and Miller started taking a real look at hero worship; asked, “Can we trust them and can they really be good?”. They tried to do these superhero movies. And when The Dark Knight came out with a Trilogy and became popular, Warner Brothers, who said, “Oh man, we have got to do this, cause this is a goldmine, a financial goldmine.”. Marvel hit gold when they finally did the first Iron Man(2008).
Marvel was smart enough in Joss Whedon to do that Avengers series, Whedon is absolutely awesome when it comes to ensemble casts and he’s always been that way. Because, if you look back at Buffy, Whedon surrounds himself with other people like himself who are geeks. They clearly have a background in playing things like Dungeons and Dragons. And he’s got a real concept of “not-everyone-is-going-to-get-along”. They all have different philosophies; they all have different skills. But if they work together, they can overcome whatever dragon or bad guys they are up against. I am going to guess somebody in the DC Comics Inc., Warner Brothers, or Universal Studios are actually kicking themselves for not letting him do whatever he wanted to do with Wonder Woman.
The assumption that all these comics are kid friendly is not always right. And some of these franchises are not kid friendly.
MH: I worry about the kids forcing their parents to take them to the movies. Parents sometimes don’t understand what they’re taking their children to. The opening night of Watchmen (2009) at IMAX, I am sitting in there with some friends of mine and seeing people bringing in their children. It’s like, do you not know this movie has nudity, violence, and you’re bringing in a 10-year-old kid into this? There is Dr. Manhattan with a 9-foot long blue penis swinging around like an elephant trunk and some kid in the back of the theater asking, “Daddy, daddy what’s that?”. The assumption that all these comics are kid friendly is not always right. And some of these franchises are not kid friendly. They may have to make them kid friendly like the superheroes. They probably will.
MH: It is going to come as a serious shock to people with Captain America: Civil War (2016). That is going to be upsetting to little kids, I’ll bet ya. When I read that thing years, years ago, it was about something that was actually going on in our country about civil liberties. “How much freedom were you willing to give up for peace and safety?” “Do you want to be safe from the bad people or do you want to be registered?”
J: It seems that the idea of Good VS Evil in fiction is redefining itself?
MH: That is the big thing; moral ambiguity, complex characters. We are starting to grow up, and starting to realize that the idea of good and bad may be a matter of interpretation. One of my favorite smart aleck lines is villain always sees himself or herself as the hero. The hero may be very well be seen by everybody else as the villain. Brain Azzarello did this with Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. In the comic Lex’s view is that “I am the only human that is standing between my species and one god-like extra-terrestrial that might impose his will on us.”. As far as Lex is concerned, he is the good guy and I think that is probably true in any conflict.
J: There are science fiction shows that are about something horrible, but turn into something funny like, the NBC show You, Me, and the Apocalypse.
MH: People who enjoy science fiction also enjoy the satire. For somebody who likes The Walking Dead, who likes Zombieland (2009) and Fido (2006), which is about having a zombie pet dog in your backyard. People are afraid of zombies because they represent political, philosophical, social, or religious movements. I can see why people are afraid, but to be running in fear is crazy.
Well, they need to take a deep breath and step back and say, “maybe, not as bad as it seems”. You get to that point when people start making romantic zombie films, shows such as I-zombie and Life after Beth (2014). Fear that whole civilization is going to end is crazy, Canada will still be there.
J: In 2007, you met George R.R. Martin at a science fiction and fantasy convention. What was he like?
MH: Martin is a really nice guy. Game of Thrones is so hideously evil, and your favorite character dies, that he must be like Stephen King. The problem is that Stephen King and George Martin are nice guys. I was sitting next to him in conjunction or talking like everyday people about things that we like. He’s genuine and he’s real. He’s just a regular person. He’s not going to let any of that stuff go to his head, never has. And his material, the works are genuinely awesome.
MH: When he writes he puts things together. He does extrapolation and he asks questions like, “what will the world be like if you know simple extrapolation?”. But he really branches it out. What made Game of Thrones work is combining history and fantasy to create a realistic fantasy. George Martin has characters you may not like but that doesn’t mean they’re not complicated and that they’re a jerk or an idiot. With realistic fantasy, if you go into combat, can you lose an arm or a leg? Yes. You can lose an eye. Can you die? Sure can. Martin is using history as a framework.
J: The Wars of the Roses?
MH: Yeah. The folks back then were sneaky and conniving. If you watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards, man, those guys are conniving. Back then, right now, and if you put it into fantasy it the same way. He is doing the same way Robert Graves did with Claudius in Claudius, the God going behind the curtain and showing you these politicians and the way they work. Graves is doing this with historical fiction and Martin is doing it with fantasy. When people saw that first episode, Jaime had pushed a little boy out the window. You know this is not going to be a show for those looking for unicorns.
J: Do you think they will put unicorns in there?
MH: No, I doubt it, seriously. If they would, it would be zombie unicorns trying to kill people.
And the reason why science fiction is romantic is because it romanticizes the belief that the future will be a better place.
J: What aspect of science fiction do you think looks into the Future?
MH: There is the genre called ‘future history’. And the reason why science fiction is romantic is because it romanticizes the belief that the future will be a better place. There are two strands of this – dirty space opera where everything is not clean like Firefly. Then, there is clean, septic and kind of utopian like Star Trek. One who best projected the future was Olaf Stapledon, a British philosopher who phenomenally wrote in the 1930’s. In his book Last and First Men, he describes the geopolitics of his day and sees a rivalry between America and China. So you get a group of writers who are looking tens of thousand of years into the future.
MH: Then you have cyberpunk people asking what the future will be like in 50 years. That came up during the 1980’s from Alice Sheldon, Samuel Delany and William Gibson. Gibson starts the idea of growing body parts in petri dishes, and a person is not using a machine but being a part of the machine which as a civilization are pretty close to that now. Ted Chiang had written about people who are so interfaced with machines that humans can’t understand their scientific papers. There would be a need for special people to translate what post-humans are trying to say.
J: Any recommendations you want to share with our readers?
MH: Read. There are so many people who know science fiction from movies, TV and don’t know that there is a vast library of science fiction.
For Hughes’s suggested list of readings, be sure to click here.
A version of this article was originally featured at Omnibus Journal, Feb. 22, 2016.
Featured image credit: http://tastelink.com