London’s MCM Comic Con is like a Geek mecca for fans of comics, games and pop culture entertainment. It’s not to be missed.
With appearances from Moriarty, Agent Carter, Colossus and an array of colourful cosplayers; it’s hard not be in awe of the Con’s vibrant and infectiously optimistic atmosphere. Far away from the world of contemporary politics, which has come to resemble Kirby’s Fourth World more than Star Trek’s utopian (and possibly communist) future …
One of the most exciting things that has happened during the last decade in the world of geekdom (and I use that as an endearing, positive term) is how its fans have come to exert a greater degree of influence over the corporate, bean-counters that own most of their beloved characters.
In the world of Star Wars, after harsh criticism of Lucas’ more personal prequel trilogy, Disney have now resurrected the franchise and turned it into something of a fan wish list. (Although, maybe, The Last Jedi will break the mould and look to take more auteur-driven risks.)
Over at DC Comics, they faced a similar barrage of criticism for 2011’s New 52 initiative which un-did decades of continuity and essentially rebooted Batman and Superman’s entire, collected universe. As a result of the backlash, last year, the publishing giant re-retconed most of that lost continuity with their hugely successful Rebirth… and, admittedly, a little help from Dr Manhattan.
Even in the world of cinema, although Marvel seems to have the sausage-making formula down, Warner Bros. have responded to the doom and gloom of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman with what appears to be a more fan-friendly, colourful and humorous approach to superhero moviemaking. The Justice League marketing campaign certainly seems to point towards a profound, tonal shift — although the movie has yet to hit theatres.
What unites all of these different instances is the fact that fans — through a mixture of their own passion, campaigning and willingness to speak out — have forced the rich and powerful to make fundamental, creative changes. Often at a structural or institutional level.
And believe me, if you’ve ever heard Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives anecdote, that’s not something which would’ve happened in the 90s.
But how did this happen?
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly: fans were not afraid to speak out via alternative channels.
The team over at Comic Pop, along with the likes of Comics Explained, Caped Joel and Comicstorian, are great examples of this. Producing online content about the world of comics and movies which, although independent from the likes of DC, Marvel and Disney, is just as relevant and WAY more entertaining than your usual PR fluff.
What’s more, rather than speaking out in wholly negative terms, fans found creative and innovative ways to discuss these sorts of properties.
Red Letter Media’s deconstruction of The Phantom Menace for example, is like YouTube’s Citizen Kane. As well as being highly entertaining and watchable, it presented fan feedback in a way that movie execs and producers could understand and respect.
In effect, these fans created their own ‘pop culture’ to influence the existing pop culture. What Antonio Gramsci would call ‘counter hegemony’.
Indeed, much like what is happening now with politics, the so-called ‘alt media‘ was created to counteract the corporate-owned ‘mainstream media’ that rarely deviates from what is considered ‘acceptable’ by its wealthy owners. Hence, the neoliberal hegemony of the last forty years: free markets, privatisation and massive amounts of wealth concentration in the hands of a few.
In the context of pop culture, Comic Pop and Red Letter Media are precisely that. The alt media engaging in a counter, hegemonic war with the dominating, cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie (in this case, the corporates that own these properties).
In addition, fans created a community that was open, receptive to outsiders and built on a shared love of comics and/or movies. In other words, it was a community motivated by the positive — as opposed to just being an angry, hate mob. Cosplaying for instance, is a wonderful expression of this spirit and sense of positive community.
Democracy, it should be noted, is also at the heart of these types of communities.
Building a community is one of the most powerful ways in which a pressure group, or a political ideology, or a collection of people, can put pressure on the top to bring about change. Recently, this has been proved with the movements surrounding Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders — both of whom were political outsiders only a few years ago.
Essentially, these left-wing movements created a sense of grassroots solidarity — bound by a simple, political narrative that differed from the dominating, hegemonic narrative (neoliberalism) — that is now in the process of radically transforming the power structures within both the Labour Party and the Democrats overseas. In essence, democratising them.
But it’s not just angry marches or campaigns that these political movements were and are involved in. Like cosplaying, Momentum’s The World Transformed festival uses art, music, dancing and a good, old-fashioned shindig to forge communal bonds. Once again, to counter the dominating, cultural hegemony that presents politics as sterile to the arts, mostly negative and NEVER fun.
Okay, so what exactly do I mean by hegemony?
Briefly, capitalism maintains its control over the population, not just through violence and coercion, but via a hegemonic culture that propagates its own values and norms so that they become ‘common sense’.
In other words, people in the working class (and other classes) identify their own good with the good of the bourgeoisie (the rich) — and this ultimately maintains the status quo and prevents an uprising.
As Gramsci suggested in his work, for a revolution to ever truly come about one must first counter the cultural hegemony of the bourgeois.
And as the ‘mini revolution’ in comics and pop culture indicates, Gramsci may have indeed been right.