It’s not accident that so many bad guys speak in formal, precise language.

“Look, buddy, you can’t get away with this,’ says the hero.
“Do you think not?” says the villain, raising an eyebrow. “Do you fancy you can terrify me with your absurd threats?”
“There’s too many people already on to you,” says the hero.
“Do you mean the police? Those pathetic bumblers?”

It isn’t just the villains vanity that makes us dislike him. It’s the fact that he talks in an educated manner, using big words. You can almost hear him dropping r‘s as he speaks. No doubt he attended Harvard– if not Oxford.
This isn’t true in every culture, but certainly the American audience resents any character who is smarter and better educated than other people. Robert Parker can only get away with having his detective, Spencer, quote poetry because he works so hard to establish Spencer as a tough guy. For every line of poetry, Spencer has to work out half an hour in the gym to win our forgiveness for his erudition. We’re afraid of and resentful of people who know more than we do, and when they act as if they think it makes them superior to us, we hate them.
-Orson Scott Card from Characters & Viewpoint

…which made me wonder, “How much is America’s anti-intellectualism a product of our pop culture?”

Any serious discussion of the arts must begin with comic books. Of the four most popular American superheroes; Superman, Batman, Wolverine and Spider-Man. Only Spider-Man regularly uses scientific knowledge to defeat his bad guys.

Wolverine is a adolescent-male power fantasy. An indestructible killer who can’t be beat and solves his problems by cutting them open. For years he was directly opposed to any orders given by Cyclops the tactical brains of the X-Men.

Batman is supposed to be a detective, but his methods usually involves scaring homeless guys until one of them says where the Joker’s been hiding.

And Superman? Take a look at his rouges gallery: Lex Luthor (mad scientist), Toyman (mad inventor), the Ultra-Humanite (Superman’s first arch-enemy. A mind switching Nazi scientist) the alien android Brainiac. Brainiac can that be any more obvious?

The Flash used to be a strong science hero back in the sixties, but when Wally West took up the title that’s not as often the case.

Many team books will have a “science guy” on board. The Avengers have Henry Pym, Legion has Brainiac 5, and The Fantastic Four has Reed Richards. But Pym has a history of beating his wife, Brainiac 5 is a jerk and Reed Richards is good at getting the team into trouble, but it’s usually up to the rest of the team to get them out.

The comic book writers from England are some of the most pro-science. Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitian had some of the best “Hard” science fiction stories I’ve read lately. Alan Moore’s Tom Strong is probably the least apologetic science heroes (Heck Alan came up with the term “science hero” to describe him) and Grant Morrison seeds just about everything he writes with abstract science principles.

But England is also the culture that gave up Judge Dredd, Sherlock Homes (intelligent yes, but also a raging jerk), James Bond (brutal, sexy and cunning, but never really smart), and Harry Potter.

Sure Harry’s a nerd in glasses but does he ever really think his way through a problem? Isn’t it Hermione that hits the books, does the research and finds the solution? [note: I’m probably being unfair since I haven’t read past the first book nor seen past the second movie.]

And this is a genre that was created by and for nerds?

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Comments: (15)

15 Comments »

  1. It’s not just science fiction: I’ve been listening to the debate on how television productions always tend to present villains with English accents for the last 25 years. Sadly, the folks who note that British accents get used for the villains because the audiences might get upset over German or Russian or New Zealand accents may be right.

    Comment by sclerotic_rings — December 6, 2005 @ 4:08 pm

  2. Of course in Star wars the Empire were all British.

    But in the Revenge of the Sith computer game the Sith were all British.

    The real message in Star Wars: Evil == British

    Comment by tone_milazzo — December 6, 2005 @ 4:19 pm

  3. that’s terribly interesting tone!

    /really, not sarcasm/
    /that wasn’t sarcastic either/

    /i give up/

    Comment by animaetrix00 — December 6, 2005 @ 5:14 pm

  4. I agree that the U.S. is overwhelmingly anti-science, but I think what is going on in comic books is something else.

    WARNING! NON-EXPERT ON COMICS VOICING OPINIONS!

    So, if comics are an art form “by and for nerds” it seems like there is some wish fulfillment involved. Nerds are nerds in everyday life. They don’t need an alternate universe to work equations, write programs, run experiments. They do, however, need an alternate universe where they are perceived as powerful and important, a universe where their daily life is packed with real live action sequences rather than hours of staring at a screen or print out. Result: superheroes, those guys who save the world and look really cool while doing it. Ideally this alternate world is also populated with busty, kick-ass type chicks who REALLY dig on superheroes because hey, that ain’t happenin’ in real life either.

    I’m an editor and the last thing I want to do is go home and read a book about a woman who is a mid-level minion at a publishing company, always forgets to do laundry and needs a hair cut.

    Oh, last thought – most science type stuff doesn’t make for dramatic visuals. Typing, writing, calculating, wiring, cell manipulation, preparing slides and all that is only good for a panel or two. Action is a lot more visually stimulating.

    Comment by mollymillions — December 6, 2005 @ 5:20 pm

  5. In Wolverine’s defense, Cyclops is a jerk. Not so much a brain as a self-righteous jerk who gets off on being in charge. And everybody loves Beast (KELSEY GRAMMAR GETS ME HOT!)

    Harry Potter is more like an anti-hero, in the fact that he is obliviously thrown into the role of the hero, and making it through with the help of friends (JK is a big fan of sticking together and love being the greatest power of them all.)

    Ultimately, despite the author of each having a dream and a vision; everything needs to be watered down and simplified into the kind of action-packed sludge that will delight the lowest common denominator. It’s all about mass appeal, and making the most money you can.

    Comment by hezaakun — December 6, 2005 @ 8:37 pm

  6. You don’t have to patronize me, Carly.

    Comment by tone_milazzo — December 6, 2005 @ 10:07 pm

  7. You have a point there.

    I probably don’t go more than an hour a day without imagining that I’ve got Green Lantern’s ring.

    I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what’s going to be “it” in the new millennium and I’d like to see the Thinking Hero archetype ascend.

    Comment by tone_milazzo — December 6, 2005 @ 10:09 pm

  8. Nobody loves the beast and Kelsey Grammar doesn’t make anybody hot.

    Your opening statement has disqualified anything else you might have written in this post.

    Comment by tone_milazzo — December 6, 2005 @ 10:12 pm

  9. THEN WHY DOES EVERYONE I HAVE ASKED REALLY LIKE BEAST AND IS EXCITED ABOUT KELSEY GRAMMAR!?

    I’M SORRY, I’M FROM AN ALTERNATE REALITY WERE PEOPLE HAVE DIFFERENT TASTES. ROTFLMAOCOPTER!!!!!!

    Comment by hezaakun — December 6, 2005 @ 11:58 pm

  10. No one

    Comment by tone_milazzo — December 7, 2005 @ 10:26 am

  11. OHHHH, PENNY ARCADE IS SOOOOOOO COOL! THANK YOU FOR YOUR QUICK WIT, PACKAGED SO NICELY BY SOMEBODY ELSE.

    Comment by hezaakun — December 7, 2005 @ 3:49 pm

  12. No one.

    Comment by tone_milazzo — December 7, 2005 @ 4:06 pm

  13. Hey I’m all with you on the Thinking Hero wish. I’m just saying they are going to have to work some explosions in with the equations.

    An hour? Wow. I never realized you were that dedicated to THE RING.

    Comment by mollymillions — December 7, 2005 @ 4:32 pm

  14. KEEP REPEATING IT UNTIL IT’S TRUE! THAT’S WHAT I DID FOR GAMBIT’S HETEROSEXUALITY!

    Comment by hezaakun — December 7, 2005 @ 4:36 pm

  15. Playing devil’s advocate here…

    I’m gonna have to disagree with you in part, but not completely. I go along with the fact that there does seems to be quite a bit of anti-intellectualism, but even American mainstream pop culture does have their brainy cool kids.

    Examples:

    -Ferris Bueller (’nuff said on this one)
    -Veronica Mars
    -Fox Mulder and Scully (X-Files)
    -Agent Cooper (Twin Peaks)
    -CSI is the highest rated TV show ever and it’s specifically about science nerds
    -Raistlin (Dragonlance)
    -Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy novels)

    I think the thing is that America can show love for its brainy heroes. I think the thing that turns them off is “stuffiness.” Pomposity and pretentiousness really turns Americans off. It might have been ingrained in the consciousness since the split from Britain (which would go a long ways toward explaining why so many bad guys are British. Also doesn’t help that the Brits have been really big fucking assholes for hundreds of years until post WWII. Hello, can you say Imperialism?).

    As for comics;
    Superman comics back in the day usually involved situations where his powers were negated and he had to think his way out. Batman used a hella lotta forensics during the years before Neal Adams’ run. True Wolverine is written kinda dumb, but remember that Professor X always saved the day back in the early X-Men.

    Just throwing out some opposing examples for the hell of it.

    Comment by e_c_d_u_b — December 13, 2005 @ 9:52 am

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