Monday, August 29, 2016
Book 64:I can haz book.
(Writer Ted Sturgeon said that 90% of everything is crap; Rudyard Kipling felt it was only about 80% of things that were awful.)
Blogs follow that same rule: most of them are awful, but they are awful in two different ways. I realized a long time ago that there are two kinds of writing that prevail on the Internet. They are Hey It's That Thing writing, and Here's What I Think About That writing.
Hey It's That Thing writing is essentially reporting on things that do not need reporting: it's Buzzfeed and 90% of the pop-culture blogs out there. Essentially, these writers exist simply to gather pageviews and sell ads and remind you that, yes, things existed and you felt ways about those things. They don't really do much. They're the fruit roll-ups of writing: amalgamations of other, better things that don't seem to need to exist and yet there they are, in my cupboard. (In the case of the actual fruit roll-ups that are in our cupboard right now, they are there because Mr Bunches helps with grocery shopping, and he is susceptible to advertising in a way that Madison Avenue can only dream of.) I'm not a big fan of Hey Its That Thing writing -- as you might guess from someone whose review of comic books trails off into discussions of Bush era politics.
Here's What I Think About That writing has a much better chance of rising above the clutter and being interesting, because it leads to discussions and analysis. Instead of saying here's 12 Great Rock N Roll Songs, writers of this sort try to say Here are 12 Great Songs And Why I Think They're Great. It doesn't have to be personal. They don't have to say these are great because I danced to them at my prom. They can dissect the music, the history, the singer, whatever. It doesn't even matter if you disagree with them, and sometimes that makes it better. They are provocative, in the best sens of the word: they provoke thought.
That's not to say that simply telling what you think about something makes it any better or worse than any other writing. It's just that if I had to guess which would be more interesting, the one that actually discusses the thing at hand, and how it factored into someone's world, has a better shot at being worth its existence.
The League Of Regrettable Superheroes is more of the Hey It's That Thing kind of writing. The author is an artist and writer of his own, and runs a blog called "Gone & Forgotten," writing about superheroes who are gone & forgotten. I don't know if this book was culled directly from the blog or was simply an offshoot of it containing additional information that hadn't appeared on the blog, but it seems a lot more like the former, and smacks of the era when every blog in sight was becoming a book, which is kind of an interesting way that people reacted to the Internet.
The Internet might be the most disruptive force ever go come along in pop culture, and how people have reacted to it mostly is to try bending the internet back into something resembling pop culture before the Internet. As efforts go, it's a lot like trying to retwist a paperclip, but that hasn't stopped people from trying, for the better part of 20 years, to make "the Internet" stop being that and start being TV, or books, or CDs, or ... you get it. Youtube, which made itself a big site by letting people post whatever they wanted, is trying to create Channels, because Youtube wants the Internet to look like cable TV. I remember, incidentally, when we first got cable back in the 1980s. One of the channels was "Video Comics." A person focused a camera on a comic book, and read it to the camera. Then they'd turn the page. So when Cable TV started, at least one comic publisher or seller tried to make cable TV into comic books. The same thing is still going on now, which is why people take a popular blog and turn it into a book you can buy, if you can find a bookstore to buy the book at. (It seems a cruel irony that booksellers must pillage the Internet for blogs to create books out of, only to then have to sell those books on the Internet.)
Blogs-into-books feel for the most part like old folks trying to take back fire. While you could argue that taking a blog and turning it into book is a good way of reaching people who don't read the blog, and thereby expanding the sales of that thing, I think that such an expansion is far more rare than people think. I can think of a few examples -- 50 Shades Of Grey being one -- but I imagine that most blog-books end up squarely targeting the kind of people who read that blog in the first place. Or worse: such books likely end up being purchased primarily as gifts for people who liked the blog, as a friend or relative will think Hmmm Mary's always talking about that Cheeseburger Cat thing, she'll like this book! It's a theory, not one I could easily prove, but a theory that I feel has some traction.
The AV Club had a list all the way back in 2008 of 27 books based on blogs, and a skim through them is like reading my Internet history from 10 years ago -- and a reminder of the fact that much humor on the Internet (like humor everywhere) tends to be perishable. Most of the books on the list are forgettable, if not already forgotten. (Again, not necessarily a knock on blogs-to-books, as that's true of most books, period.) Of the few blogs-into-books that became bestsellers, most tend to be self-help or business advice, or about blogging.
Really, what blogs-into-books are is simply a cash grab via merchandise: they are the book equivalent of a Happy Meal toy: Oh, lots of people like this thing? Maybe they will buy this thing that it is related to. As such, writers should probably decry most blogs-into-books for taking up shelf space, editorial and other resources, and payments from books that deserve to exist.
Back to Regrettable Heroes. There's nothing wrong with the book, really. It's a collection of exactly what it says: various superheroes throughout the comics era that were silly, or weird, or both. The book puts them in no particular order -- or at least no order I could discern -- beyond breaking them into Golden Age, Silver Age, and Modern times, and even those categories overlap a bit. Each hero gets about 1 page -- about a blog post -- to encapsulate that particular person, with a couple of snide remarks or silly jokes.
There's really no discussion of the more interesting aspects. The man who created "Fantomah," for instance, shows up once or twice, and there's a mention made of Fantomah and how weird she was -- a blond woman who becomes a flaming skull and has a penchant for unusually twisted punishments -- as well as a throwaway reference to the creator possibly being troubled. A more in-depth look at the character, the creator, and how such weird comics even got published in that era would have been welcome.
There's also an only very loose categorization: some of "superheroes" are just people, without any sort of powers or gadgets or anything of the sort.
Regrettable Heroes does do one interesting thing: in its existence, and in its listing of superheroes who were rushed into comic books only to then fall away from knowledge, both Regrettable Heroes and its subjects prove several themes: First, that 90% of everything is crap: while we know about the Avengers and Superman and Batman, it's pretty clear that the superheroes who have made any impact on society are a tiny fraction of the total that have ever had a comic book about them. And second, that publishing (like all media) has always jumped all over whatever it conceives of as popular in hopes of stealing some of that entertainment money. In the 1940s, again in the 1960s, and to a lesser extent today, superheroes were it: there was a time when scientists with exoskeletons and radioactive strongment were the 100,000+ hit pop culture sites of the day, and not only did merchandising jump all over them, but publishers fell atop each other to find someone, anyone, who would come up with a superhero. (The book itself mentions some of the lesser-known creations of the two guys who invented Superman, as they tried to catch lightning in a bottle again.)
Publishers of comics acted in the 1940s especially a lot like publishers of blogs-to-books act now: jump on a trend, pour some junk into the market, then move on to the next thing. An examination of that might have been a lot more interesting than this book was; as it is, Regrettable Heroes is something you would just page through here and there. While I read it cover-to-cover, it wasn't with any great enthusiasm -- I mostly read it when I was too tired to read one of the other books I'm working on. So in that respect, Regrettable Heroes operated exactly like the Internet.
The AV Club hit on exactly what makes blogs so popular and what makes books based on those blogs so unpopular, or unnecessary: blogs are ideal for a quick 5-minutes of time-wasting (other than maybe my own blog, where you're always in for a long haul of time-wasting), with a bit of a laugh or shake of the head, and then back to work or whatever. We consume the Internet differently than we consume books. There are blogs and sites I check out every day, for a few minutes, or a couple times a week, but I never sit and read anything on the Internet for an hour or two or three. The Internet is meant for use during commercial breaks from our real life.
Books work, though, by engaging: the greatest books are those that pull you in, make you want to read them, make you want to think about them. So taking a bunch of blog posts and putting them into a book is like trying to turn marshmallows into a feast: even if you come up with some reasonable facsimile of the goal, ultimately it's still marshmallows.
I'd say skip this book and check out the guy's blog. You can only eat so many marshmallows, and even then 90% of them are crap.