Thursday, May 22, 2008

Special Comment for Countdown: In Defense of "Comic Book Guys"

Mr. Olbermann, on Wednesday night's Countdown, in finishing off your "World's Worst" segment you set out to discredit your critics, Fox News's Hugh Hewitt and White House counselor Ed Gillespie, who referred to you as a "sports guy," by dismissing them as "comic book guys."

Citing idle dialogue between the two conservatives about Bizarro Superman comic books in the late 1950s, under the pretense of self-defense, you suggested in no uncertainty that somehow a love of comic books is an indicator of inferiority, of ignorance:

"I'm getting called out by a comic book guy!" you exclaimed. "NBC's getting called out by two comic book guys! Hugh 'Oooh-the-new-Betty-and-Veronica-comes-out-next-Tuesday' Hewitt, the worst person in the world."

Run the clip:
Sir, with all due respect, you are one of the great anchors of news history. From the very moment of your first "Special Comment" in August 2006, you made history. You stood up, changed the course that so many would like us to "stay," and you've been on fire ever since, with your biting wit, your alliterated eloquence, your skits and sketches to prod the absurdity of politics.

Do not be mistaken: you're not perfect by far. Your leading questions meander far too long; your history asides are evenly split between being confusing in their seeming irrelevance and being poetic in their utter aptness.

Let us look at the Bizarro Superman Comics for which you hold such disdain:

The series' writer Otto Binder began his publishing career with a short story in a 1930 issue of Amazing Stories, with his brother Earl, under the pen name Eando Binder. E and O: Earl and Otto. Binder went on to edit Space World magazine, a magazine about the space race. He was editor when Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American in space. He was editor when President John F. Kennedy promised America that we would put a man on the moon. He was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2004.

Less is known about Bizarro Superman artist George Papp, one of the genre's earliest comic book artists, except for this: He only left the profession twice, first to fight in World War II and second, when DC fired him after he stood beside his fellow illustrators and demanded health benefits.

Your comments were not only an insult to Binder and Papp, but to all comic book artists and their fans. It was an insult to both Tom Tomorrow, the only commentator to nail Fox News as hard as you, week to week to week, and to Art Spiegelman, who wrote one of the most intimate, inspiring and innovative examinations of the Holocaust and was one of the first artists to breach the topic of the cultural significance of fall of the World Trade Center.

How dare you, sir? You, a scholar of history, can't recognize the importance of the graphic art form, from the imperial manga of Meiji-era Japan to the treatment of the Bosnian conflict in Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde.

Is R. Crumb not as prolific a figure as O. Henry?

Who is more beloved in American culture, Stan Lee's Batman or Orson Welles' Othello?

Who rebelled harder against censorship than the authors, artists and publishers who distributed the so-called "Tijuana Bibles" in the 1920s, layering farce and obscenity on celebrity and politics through pornography?

Perhaps, sir, you've never heard of the Eisner Awards or the IGN Awards or even noticed that Watchmen, Alan Moore's postmodern treatment of the superhero genre, made Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. But, if you do not recognize comics as a legitimate art form, surely you must agree that film is indeed a valued medium for expression and cultural criticism. In that case, you have failed to note that comic books have provided the inspiration for many of the greatest examples of cinematic expression over the last decade, in part because the cell-by-cell form provides a blueprint for filmmaking that puts Alfred Hitchcock's storyboards to shame.

Here is a brief list:

Persepolis, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes. Based on a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi.

Road to Perdition, winner of a BAFTA Film Award and an Oscar for Best Cinematography. Based on a comic book by Max Collins.

Ghost World, winner of PEN Center USA West Literary Award and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. (Director Terry Zwigoff also won 12 other awards for his documentary on comic book legend R. Crumb).

Sin City, nominated for Cannes Palm d'Or prize. Based on a comic series by Frank Miller.

American Splendor, winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. Based on a comic series by Harvey Pekar.

And in the next few years, moviegoers will also benefit from monumental efforts by director Zack Snyder to adapt Watchmen and from Alexandre Aja to adapt Charles Burns' Black Hole.

You, sir, advertise your own ignorance and hypocrisy with your remarks. As charming as your historical asides may be, they are nothing less than nerdy. You, sir, are a history geek. There is nothing wrong with this. An obsession with history is just as frivolous as an obsession with comics. But an interest in comics is also as valid as an interest in history to understanding the world.

And today, there is no conclusion to make other than you are not only as misguided and misinformed about comic books as John McCain is about the difference between Iran's President and Iran's Supreme Leader. One could hardly argue that Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon's graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Commission Report was light reading.

You do not owe us "comic book guys" an apology. You owe us a thank you for our commitment to free expression and you owe me a thank you for the history lesson, geek.

Crossposted at Swing State of Mind