Midtown Comics Rules

May 12, 2007 at 3:40 am | Posted in comic books, fantasy, pop culture, SCI FI | Leave a comment

yellow-line.jpgThe Reading Interests of Adults course at Rutgers for MLIS librarians-in training ended the semester with a NY field trip. I’ll blog about the bookstore visits in the next few entries. 

Midtown Comics Times Square(Comics, Collectibles, Manga)200 W 40th Street, 7th Ave., New York, NY 10018
Phone: 800-411-3341 or 212-302-8192 
(Mon-Sat: 11AM – 9PM, Sun: 12-7PM) http://www.midtowncomics.com 

Our store tour guide was Jerry, one of the founders of Midtown Comics. Its two locations and website sales have been going strong for over 10 years. Midtown is so well-known and respected that Entertainment Weekly reprints their website’s weekly bestseller lists. Comics and graphic novels are exploding in popularity thanks to movie/video game/comics tie-ins with media events such as Spiderman 3, the death of Captain America and the launch of the last Harry Potter book all in 2007  

Hot Releases New comics are issued every Wednesday. Midtown added a “do not cross” yellow checkered line on the floor to manage the midweek crowds. New issues are shelved by publisher (eg. DC,Marvel…,) with the last 4 weeks of issues on display.  Midtown is a strong supporter of Indie comic presses too manga2.jpg 

Mangadominates left wall space on the main level. Titles are shelved alphabetically but Jerry notes “there’s a raging debate about this”. Some of the staff are lobbying for shelving it by type (eg. shonen jump vs. shojen jump). The hottest trends are manga from China and Korea. Midtown stocks only English-language translations of manga.

Back Issues and CollectiblesMidtown has a Queens warehouse for back issue storage and order shipping. The store’s upper level features comic book, sci fi and fantasy collectibles like action figures. Midtown is proud of the “certificate of authenticity” it offers with its signed copies. Jerry noted that they charge a “fair price” for these, and often see the items resold on EBay at higher prices.   

rare-comics-wall.jpg Age Range Midtown Comics’ customers are “about 98%” adult males in their 20s and 30s although manga is attracting more female buyers. The store enforces comic book codes : M titles can only be purchased by adults with ID. The upper level has an “adult only” titles section. Midtown offers a “Young Readers” section where you’ll find kid-appeal comics like Calvin & Hobbes or Bone. Jerry noted that http://www.tokyopop.com  has a new age/content code for manga as of 2007.

The Enquiring Minds of Tabloid Readers

April 25, 2007 at 12:57 pm | Posted in celebrity, pop culture, romance, tabloids | 1 Comment

180px-sunpict.jpgBird,S. Elizabeth (1992). For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids. Knoxville, TN:University of Tennessee Press.  

Radway, Janice (1984) Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill,N.C.:Univ. of North Carolina Press

 Here’s a front page shocker– Why do more than 50 million weekly readers pay big money ($3.29 + cover)for tabloids, when free online information on everything is available 24/7?

For more than a century, tabloids have been maligned as publishing’s seamy underbelly. They’ve been universally panned as national-examiner.gifjournalistic sleaze–sensational claptrap calculated to pander to our baser instincts. Yet, tabloids are not only holding their own in 2007, but one could argue that their “cult of celebrity” approach has moved from street cred to legitimacy in popular culture. Skeptical? Over the next week, count how many more entertainment than “hard news” stories are served up on the average TV and radio news show. While the CBS News doesn’t share the Enquirer’s obsession with Brangelina, they too have gone over to the dark side-the age of infotainment. 

 As Professor Bird (1992) observed, “The tabloids clearly offer millions of Americans something they don’t find in other media”. Bird explored tabloids’ enduring appeal by interviewing this genre’s readers and writers, as well as analyzing the thematic content of major American tabloids.  

200px-batchild.jpgWhy do people read tabloids ? There are those, like Agent K from Men in Black(1997) who claim they abe-lincoln-world-news.jpgoffer the “best damn investigative reporting on the planet” (especially on celebrity shapeshifters). Despite the quip’s absurdity, it resonates with those who feel disenfranchised and suspicious of social institutions.  For these readers, it is an act of defiance. They affirm their individuality by embracing what the popular culture rejects as trash. For others, it is an act of play, to revel in tabloids’ preposterous excess. The Weekly World News offers the most “amazing oddities” stories of the “Ripley’s Believe or Not” tradition. It is also an acknowledged parody publication (http://www.weeklyworldnews.com/bat_boy/ ).

Most of Bird’s readers don’t literally believe what they see in tabloids.globe-tabloid.jpg They selectively filter content into credible stories (celebrity gossip), inspirational stories (rags to riches, heroic pets..)and fun stories (lose a ton overnight).  

Bird’s tabloid readers enjoy their genre for many of the reasons expressed by romance readers( Radway,1984)  For both, the act of reading was empowering and exhilarating. It was one part of their lives that they could control, and this realization filled them with a guilty pleasure. Tabloids and romances offer the allure of escape–to experience vicariously fame, glamour and an exotic life. They’re both reassuring, but for different reasons. Since 80%+ of tabloid stories stress the downside of celebrity (Bird, 1992), it makes us feel a whole lot better about being anonymous and financially-challenged. For romance the reassurance is that love will find you and conquer all.  

 enqirer-5.jpgBoth genres are populist, upbeat and express traditional, family-centered values. They have strict conventions and a “horizon of expectation” but are not religiously conservative overall. Romance values the monogamous, committed relationship. The role of tabloids is to judge and punish the corrupt (-homewreckers, liars and thieves) by public exposure of their evil. Tabloids have expanded their tolerance for diversity since Bird reported their homophobic, white, lower middle class tendencies in 1992. In April 2007, two cover National Enquirer stories were about a secret gay lover and about a fired black Grey’s Anatomy actor. While tabloids and star.jpgtraditional newspapers are both moving to the popular culture center, tabloids are no impartial forum for political and social commentary. How can they be, as long as they pay informants for exclusives?

Both create an intimacy or rapport with their readers. Tabloids achieve this intimacy through shared secrets interwoven with heart-warming human interest stories. Finally, romance and tabloid reader expressed embarrassment about being seen publicly with their genre.  After all, if what they’re reading is trash, then does that make the readers trash too?

Seagulls and Spirituality

April 16, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Posted in christian fiction, genre fiction, new age, pop culture, sidekick | Leave a comment

bach.jpg

  “Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect”. new-age-heelas.jpg

         “The gull sees farthest who flies highest”.  

Bach, Richard. Photos by Russell Munson (1970). Jonathan Livingston Seagull.New York: Macmillan.

 Heelas, Paul (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity.Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.   

 Richard Bach’s 1970 allegory about the self-actualizing seagull is a spirituality classic of new age fiction. It is a three-part fable about the rare individual/bird that refuses to accept the limits imposed by nature and society. Jonathan Livingston Seagull seeks perfection from within, with da-vinci-flight.jpgultimate mastery of flight as the metaphor for attaining the highest purpose in life.  Whereas, his cohort is preoccupied with basic survival, Jonathan denounces the traditional gull path to explore new ways of flying.

Jonathan’s actions represent the first step to enlightenment presented in most new age works, This element is described by Heelas (1996) as the acceptance that “your lives are not working. You’re brainwashed”. The high-flying Jonathan later discovers from his teachers, Chiang and Sullivan, that each being is born with the innate ability to attain perfection. However, it is up to the individual to find the desire and take the steps to reach it. This message– perfection is the responsibility of the individual, not of an external supreme being–conveys another defining element of the new age philosophy (Heelas, 1996).

Bach’s text embraces the mystical eclecticism of many new age texts, interweaving religious beliefs from the East and West with empowerment messages from popular psychology. Hellas, in The New Age Movement, dubs this “Perennialism”. This theory contends there are unifying truths spanning diverse religions which must be discovered to attain wisdom.  In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, there is the Buddhist concept of reincarnation as our hero awakens at the start of Part 2 in a remote land. The seagull is changed, imbued with new insights and enhanced flying ability.

seagull-flight.jpgOr, you can read the tiny tract as a Christian fable reflecting the life of Jesus. Jonathan is born and lives like any other bird until he accepts his unique gift. Then he’s banished by a mob for being different, ascends to a heaven-like state, forgives his tormentors and returns to help guide the repentant flock. The roles of leader and teacher are accepted reluctantly by Jonathan, who sardonically refers to himself as the “Son of the Great Gull”, to chide his skeptical flock. This strong spiritual leader role is present in most texts and communes following new age principles, despite the theoretical exhortations that “you are your own authority” (Heelas).

 Jonathan reminds the flock that they must lead themselves, setting aside any law or ritual which restricts their freedom to become their “true self”. The message that “freedom is valued” is another new age cornerstone (Heelas). This 10,000 word fable presents Hindu, Muslim and Quaker communal messages of pacifism and love as thematic undercurrents at the book’s end. The teacher Sullivan’s last words to Jonathan are to “keep working on love”. The challenge is to see the good in every creature. This sentiment is another of the 7 new age elements outlined by Heelas : the self is intrinsically good.   

Finally, there are those who read Bach’s work more literally as a tale about the rewards of dedication and self-sacrifice. At this level, it is the classic self help message conveyed in “The Little Engine Who Could”: if you believe it, you can do it. “Nothing is impossible”.  

There is a sidekick in Bach’s work, “rough young Fletcher Gull”, an Outcast who becomes Jonathan’s first and best student disciple. Fletcher is 4-gulls.jpgan eager daredevil, who gives voice to the doubts Jonathan battled pre-transcendence. In the group of gulls, Fletcher is the first to conquer barriers of speed and time, yet he does so in a stumbling, dazed way. Fletcher represents the reader, with his challenge to Jonathan: “How do you manage to love a mob of birds that has just tried to kill you?”  Although Fletcher is flawed, he remains loyal to Jonathan when others accuse his teacher of being a demon. 

 I would recommend this book for inclusion in a public library collection of new age works. It offers an excellent introduction to some defining new age concepts, such as Perennialism, self-actualization, brainwashing, and the importance of freedom and individual responsibility. I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time in 2007. I warmed to the book’s gentle simplicity and was impressed by its innocent yet earnest tone. Bach’s work was totally lacking in artifice. In contrast, today’s self help or new age books are so slickly packaged and marketed, I often feel like the author came up with the promotional hook before he or she wrote the first draft.  

Reading the Romance

March 6, 2007 at 4:56 am | Posted in genre fiction, pop culture, romance | Leave a comment

Radway. J. A. (1984). Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill,NC:Univ.of North Carolina Press.

Berger, A.A. (1992) Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts. NY: Sage Press.  

radway_reading.jpgWhy do women read romantic fiction?

How is the romance narrative structure defined ?

What makes a romance a success or a “garbage dump” candidate?flame-and-flower.jpg

Professor Radway (Faculty, UNC and Duke ) explored these questions in a  provocative 1984 field study of reading “motives, habits, rewards”  for 42 Midwestern romance readers. Radway approached the research first as an  ethnography of reading: how different communities interpret text. However, Radway soon realized that it was necessary to examine the text’s meaning within the context of the reader’s response to the event or behavior of reading. Her approach reflects a multi-disciplinary approach combining social science methodology with anthropology as well as literary and sociocultural analysis. Radway’s research attempts to address both feminist and psychoanalytic interpretations of romance’s lure. 

Reader Motives: Most of Radway’s subjects  expended significant energy nurturing their families, receiving minimal appreciation in return.  For these self-sacrificing souls, romance reading provided a critical outlet for escape, relaxation and security (p 60-61). “We read books so we won’t cry” is how one subject explained her habit. These women viewed the solitary, deliberate act of reading as a “declaration of independence” –It is my time. In the context of 1970-90s popular culture, this sentiment is summed up by the bath salts ad: “Calgon take me away!”   

While Radway’s interviewees stressed they were happily married, their comments revealed that romance novels fulfilled needs and desires their bona fide male partner did not. I was fascinated by Radway’s interpretation of romance readers’ drive as an “ongoing search for the mother” as feelings of  love, acceptance and security are vicariously consummated in the man-woman relationship. I remain skeptical concerningRadway’s application of Chodorow’s feminist interpretation (Chapter 3) with her contention that romance novels help women resolve their ambivalence and fear of male/paternal dominance. 

Narrative Structure Radway (p 67) summarizes  reader feedback on the 3 most important ingredients in romance. The narrative begins with tension created of clashing, binary  character traits between the heroine and hero. The classic heroine is virginal, unconcerned/unaware of her beauty, intelligent and yearning for love and commitment. In contrast, the classic romantic hero is sexually experienced, emotionally detached, and aware of his devastating good looks.

Radway’s discussion of binary traits  (p 132) echoes Berger’s (1992) discussion of bipolarity in popular culture genres, such as the battle of “good vs. evil” in Dr. No.  Moreover, Radway employs a variant of Propp’s analytical method by determining that the ideal  romances follows a  13 narrative structure (p 134)  from 1) destruction of heroine’s social identity (loss, poverty, disgrace,,,) through antagonism to physical separation of protagonists to 12) heroine responds  emotionally, physically and 13) heroine’s identity is restored.   

Ideal vs Failed Romance A true romance focuses on the one man-one woman relationship. If there is a rape scene, it arises from the hero’s misunderstanding about the heroine’s past and results in aggrieved repentance and hero reformation. There must be a happy ending, culminating in a committed relationship if not a marriage.  

Once these narrative guidelines were revealed in reader responses, one can readily discern the “failed romances”. Readers rejected romances that emphasized sex and physical attraction divorced from love (p 74). Equally unacceptable were novels with promiscuious heroines juggling more than one love interest or narratives containing physical violence and brutality against the main characters. While many of the failures proferred a “happy ending”, readers felt the ending lacked credibility because no true resolution and character bonding had occurred prior to the afterthought ending.

Blog Post about Sidekicks

January 30, 2007 at 6:36 am | Posted in Lipstick Chronicles, pop culture, sidekicks | 1 Comment

nancy-drew.jpgMy first online search for information on literary sidekicks led me to a January 5, 2007 blog post and lively discussion (120+ comments) on the Lipstick Chronicles Blog. 

The originator of the post, Rebecca the Bookseller, reflects that sidekicks fulfill an important literary function as the reader’s proxy. The sidekick can be counted upon to pose “the bumbling questions that need to be asked” for the reader to solve a murder mystery. In chick lit novels, you expect the sassy girlfriend to serve alternately as a confidante and as a humorous foil to the heroine’s emotional upheavals. Rebecca poses an intriguing question in her blog: Why are there so few female sidekicks? I did a mental rundown of some female sidekicks from mysteries:  

         Detective               “Sidekick”_____

  • Nancy Drew           Bess and George
  • Stephanie Plum       Lula 
  • Inspector Lynley      Barbara  Havers 

Based on the above, I would agree that these supporting female characters  are better described as partners, or part of an ensemble. I will revisit this  question as I read across genres to confirm whether my first intuition holds up.  It may be that the “sidekick as clueless tagalong” is endearing when it’s a guy, but not so much if it’s a female chum who’s the comic foil.  

What also impressed me, in perusing the blog comments, was how quickly the exchange moved from literary to pop culture sidekicks. When asked to propose favorite sidekicks, there was a flurry of posts once the possibility of listing TV and cartoon sidekicks was floated.  You could feel the energy –the delight–of recounting classic pop culture match-ups like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, or Andy Griffith and Barney Fife.  

From these blog suggestions, I’ve assembled a preliminary list of mystery sidekicks and sci fi/fantasy sidekicks. It appears that finding sidekicks in horror and the other genres will be more challenging.

What is popular culture?

January 25, 2007 at 11:40 am | Posted in celebrity, John Storey, pop culture, social networking | 2 Comments

pop.jpgJohn Storey, in his 1998 critical treatise, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, presents six definitions of popular culture. Storey’s definitions span the landscape of philosophical concepts from structuralism to hegemony to mass appeal.          

 My “pop culture” definition includes objects, persons ,events and practices  with commercial appeal and broad visibility among “the masses”. It is culture which is light, transient, disposable. In contrast, “high culture” is intellectually challenging and therefore exclusive. Storey suggests that pop culture should be viewed in context, as residual or other culture: what’s left after legitimate culture stakes the high ground. I disagree. With contemporary American culture’s focus on sound bites and “dumbing down” information , it is “high culture” that is becoming the marginalized,other culture.     

The hectic pace of life today blurs distinctions between home and work, community and individual to cope with information overload. This tendency to synthesize and simplify has made “pop culture”  more important to everyday life in my opinion. Pop culture offers a touchstone–a communication shorthand– for connecting with others. Take a quick look at the postings on  social networking sites like Myspace. How often do members define their identity in terms of their pop culture likes and dislikes?

In this era of infotainment, popular culture has expanded to include these areas:

  • Entertainment (movies, music, TV/cable shows, art),
  • Information (TV news, books, magazines, newspapers)
  • Advertising
  • Celebrity  (who’s hot/not)
  • Personal Technology (internet, videogames, cell phones)
  • Appearance (Beauty, fashion and décor)
  • Leisure/ Lifestyle (sports and hobbies)
  • Celebrations and social practices (holidays, traditions)    

   While pop culture, by its frothy nature, is apolitical, it can embrace normative social views. Two examples which spring to mind are the “reduce/reuse/recycle” mantra and the pressure for “politically correct” language and behavior.  What should we conclude about American society today that equates popular culture with trivia and game show savvy?

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