Manhood for Amateurs: MICHAEL CHABON on Life & Pop Culture

Manhood for Amateurs: MICHAEL CHABON

Michael Chabon is a name well-known in both comics and literary circles. Early in this decade, he helped bring renewed attention to comics as a literary medium with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Since then, Chabon has worked on everything from a line of comics featuring Clay’s Escapist character for Dark Horse to the screenplay to Spider-Man 2 to a controversial keynote address for the 2004 Eisner Awards to numerous essays discussing everything from his love of Howard Chaykin to his crush on Jack Kirby’s Big Barda.

Some of those essays are now collected in his newest book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son. Similar to last year’s collection Maps and Legends, it’s a more personal look at the relationships that have shaped his life, sometimes seen through the prism of such pop-cultural icons as Legos and Doctor Who.

When he came through town on a book tour, we took the opportunity to have a chat with Chabon about comics, popular culture, and some of the essays in his book. The free-flowing discussion included some of his favorite contemporary comics, Doctor Who spin-offs, and whether he still feels that there just aren’t comics for kids.

Newsarama Note: Portions of this interview (http://www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A403966) originally appeared in the Independent Weekly of Durham, NC.)

Newsarama: Michael, what do you feel is the biggest misconception people have about fatherhood, either in general or as perpetuated by such books as Cosby’s Fatherhood?

Michael Chabon: Well, I haven’t read that, so I’m not really sure, and it was a long time ago. But hey, who doesn’t love Bill Cosby?

I guess the biggest misconception, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s somehow easier to be good at it than it is to be good at being a mother. That seems to be kind of the general sense – as I write in the book, I get compliments on the street from total strangers that are based off of nothing – just the fact that I’m walking down the street with my kids, as though that was an example of commendable fathering behavior.

Nrama: Back to the book – I saw on Turner Classic Movies’ website that they’re releasing a compilation of instructional films on DVD called "How to Be a Man." Did you ever see any films like those telling you how to be a man when you were growing up?

Chabon: No, never saw anything like that. Most of the instructional films we saw were about things like drugs and alcohol, or reproduction, or drivers safety or how to say no to peer pressure. I don’t recall any formal teaching on the subject being offered by any teacher.

Nrama: So it was something you had to learn on the streets –

Chabon: Exactly! Or from watching TV or the men around me.

Nrama: Of those men, who would you say had the biggest influence?

Chabon: Well, my father of course – and my grandfather, my mother’s father, was probably second in importance. When I got older and my parents were divorced, there were one or two of my mom’s boyfriends who meant a lot to me in my teenager years, and once I got out into the world over the years, I acquired all kinds of different father figures in different places and contexts.

Nrama: A personal favorite essay of mine in the book is "The Wilderness of Childhood," the new essay. It’s interesting that it should come out now, at the same time as the film of Where the Wild Things Are

Chabon: I’ve seen it! It’s wonderful. It’s very sad, it’s a really sad movie, I thought. It has this really heartbroken quality at its core that is very powerful.

Nrama: I agreed with your point about the problem with many films and pieces of entertainment aimed at children today, but I am curious about what contemporary films, books and comics aimed at children you do enjoy…you had that keynote address at the Eisner Awards a few years ago where you pointed out comic books had basically abandoned children as an audience.

Chabon: Actually, since I gave that talk – entirely coincidentally, I’m sure – tons of cool stuff has emerged. When my kids go to the comic book store – our shop is Comic Relief in Berkley – they find all kinds of cool stuff.

There’s Owly, and even the Big Two (Marvel and DC), seem to be putting out a fairly consistent line of titles aimed at younger readers. And there’s all kinds of cool independent books as well.

I think Spongebob is pretty funny – I always laugh when I sit down and watch it with them. I enjoy the Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes animated shows, though I don’t think they’re making new episodes of those. There’s a new show called The Secret Saturdays that’s pretty fun –

Nrama: Jay Stephens does that show.

Chabon: Yeah, it’s got this kind of retro-Alex Toth/Hanna-Barbera kind of design, but it’s better in terms of storytelling than those shows ever were, because they were pretty abysmal beyond the way they looked.

Nrama: Did you watch Avatar: The Last Airbender?

Animated Shorts: Avatar Ends, More...
Animated Shorts: Avatar Ends, More...
Chabon: Yes! That’s another good one, and it’s very high-quality stuff. My kids loved it, and I didn’t get sucked into it the way they did, but every time I sat down with them to watch it, I was sucked in by the quality of the writing and the design.

Nrama: It’s interesting that you have a lot more serialization and plotting in these kinds of shows that wasn’t present a few decades ago – they’re now created by people who grew up familiar with the medium, and are evolving the storytelling a bit.

Chabon: Yeah, though there’s plenty of lousy stuff still out there as well. But there’s also a lot of interesting, good stuff.

I’m sort of a fan-creator myself, or think of myself as a fan-creator, and came of age consuming art that was largely the work of fan-creators – the second generation of rock-and-roll fans who started playing rock-and-roll music; the second generation of auteur directors who grew up being huge movie fans, the Coppolas and Spielbergs and Lucases; and the second and third-generation comic book creators who were the creators of my childhood and youth.

I think all of the popular media I grew up enjoying were sort of mature mediums in the sense that they were being created by people who had grown up loving the stuff to begin with. You know, that can be a blessing and a curse, and some things can get overly fan-ish and vanish up their own…posterior orifices, but it can also be a recipe for really savvy and multi-layered kinds of storytelling.

Nrama: Your work really uses popular culture as a sort of mythological backdrop to your characters’ adventures –

Chabon: Yeah.

Nrama: But one of the criticisms of many pieces of modern-day popular culture is that it relies heavily on references to past popular culture. Brian K. Vaughan even made this point with your characters in The Escapists.

Chabon: Right, it can seem that way sometimes, and you can catch works of art on TV and movies, and listen to them on records, and feel like that’s what going on.

What needs to be done is not simply for the past to be riffed on – well, "riffed" is maybe the wrong word, it should be "invoked and suggested" or "recreated."

What you’re looking for, what you want to see, what’s really interesting, is stuff that takes the received materials and really wrings changes on them, puts them through their paces, that challenges them and confronts them at the same time that it invokes them.

That’s where…there’s some things you watch, and they may be cool, they may be very faithful, they might make you feel kind of happy because stuff you know from some kind of prior era is being brought back and reanimated.

That stuff can be fun, but there’s ultimately something very hollow at the core of something like that, like it’s just an exercise in style more than anything else.

Nrama: Again, funny you mention that, as one of the comics that did a good job of doing that combination of invoking and challenging, Warren Ellis’ Planetary, finally finished recently…

Chabon: Right! I just picked up the last issue. I had no fanfare, I didn’t know it was coming, and it’s been so long since I read the immediate issues that I have go to back and reread everything so I can properly enjoy it.

Nrama: It was an interesting series in the way it could do an issue about, say, old monster movies, and then have the monsters realized in this visually realistic style, as if to say, "Hey, these old films were ridiculous, but there was something really powerful and mythological about these ideas."

Chabon: Yeah, there were definitely issues where it approached that level of critique. Those British comic writers love to create their counter-histories of the 20th century. Alan Moore does it; Grant Morrison does it; Warren Ellis does it very well.

I get a lot of pleasure out of that, and there were certain issues where the characters came forward, and I liked those the best. You can’t be a genius every month; sometimes the fans have to give you a pass.

Nrama: What are some comics you're currently enjoying?

Chabon: I’ve been digging the stunning Wednesday Comics and Strange Tales. I am a devoted reader of Mr. Fraction's work. Brubaker, Vaughan. The Brits--Ellis (Planetary!) Morrison, Moore, Gaiman.

Nrama: What's your favorite oddball comic from growing up -- a strange Silver Age story, or just something that made an impression on you with its sheer offbeat-ness?

Chabon: Might have to go with Kirby's Devil Dinosaur, though OMAC was pretty wiggy, too. There is nothing stranger than strange Kirby. Loved them both.

Nrama: Do you feel there is more of an acceptance of comics as literature than there was a decade ago -- or, for that matter, that "genre" fiction (SF, fantasy, etc.) is receiving a greater evaluation of its literary merit? If so, why?

Chabon: Yes, I do. I attribute this largely to the fact that the last generation of people who would bar the high-cultural gate to comics are now, in the words of Dylan, busy dying.

Those who are coming into control of the levers of mainstream acceptance are much less likely to share in the tired old prejudices against a medium as capable of greatness as any other.

Nrama: Blindingly ridiculous question: It's interesting how three of the leads in the Wonder Boys film went on to major superhero films. (Newsarama Note: Tobey Maguire went on to play Spider-Man, Robert Downey Jr. went on to play Iron Man, and Katie Holmes played Rachel in Batman Begins) What do you make of this, in retrospect?

Bonus: What superhero do you think Michael Douglas could play, either in his younger years or today?

Chabon: I'm not sure what to make of it. Had never noticed that. I could see MD as Kyle Richmond in the awesome Nighthawk movie.

Nrama: Your version of Spider-Man 2 has gotten great feedback from fans, as did your X-Men and FF treatments. Are there any other classic superhero characters you would like to work on, and what have been your favorite films based on comic books, superheroic or not?

Chabon: I would love to do Doctor Strange. Also love to take a crack at Warlock. And then there's Kamandi.

My personal favorite comic book film is probably Ghost World. But I am fond of Iron Man, the Tim Burton Batman movies, and I love Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. Also, speaking of Sam Raimi, I think Darkmanis a great comic book movie, even though it wasn't based on a comic book. And maybe you could squeeze Buckaroo Banzai in under the same dispensation.

Nrama: Many works of older comics material -- from classic comic strips to older comic storylines to obscure works by Kirby, Ditko and more -- have come back into print. Aside from American Flagg obviously (Newsarama note: Chabon did the forward to the recent collection), is there any material you're particularly glad to see back in print, and any new treasures you've unearthed?

Chabon: Yes, all that swell Kirby stuff, for sure. Still waiting for the deluxe Starlin Warlock reprint.

Nrama: Well, there’s a Marvel Masterworks supposedly coming out…

Going back to works aimed at children, some feel that the success of books and films ostensibly aimed at children is their ability to appeal to adult yearnings as well, with the Pixar films being a major example. But do you feel that going for that adult audience can sometimes limit their appeal to children?

Chabon: You know, children are humans too, you know? They’re just little human beings, and the things that appeal to little human beings are not always that different from the things that appeal to big human beings.

I think it is possible to create works of art that grab and appeal to the reader or viewer or whatever it might be, regardless of the person’s age. Pixar is definitely an example of this; I would say my favorite of their movies are Brad Bird’s films (Ratatouille and The Incredibles)…and WALL-E…and the Toy Story movies are great too. It’s hard to choose.

But another example, a really powerful personal experience for me, would be the new Doctor Who from the BBC.

Nrama: Yeah, it was fun to read about how much your family enjoys it in the book.

Chabon: My six-year-old loves it, my eight-year-old loves it, my 12-year-old loves it, my 15-year-old loves it, my wife loves it, I love it…everybody loves it!

It’s not necessarily a case where we all find the same things about it appealing, though the wit, the brio, the sly humor, the kind of carefree way that the absurdities of the plot are handled with the often-quite-serious emotional themes that are layered in…it just makes it, at my house at least, a universally-appealing show.

It’s not like there’s some kind of Chinese Wall between children and adults – what will please one will not please the other and vice-versa. I don’t think that’s the case at all. And that’s kind of a dangerous assumption to be making if you’re hoping to score any kind of a significant success.

Nrama: Which is interesting, because there’ve been two spin-offs from Doctor Who, one of which, Torchwood, is explicitly aimed at adults, and the other, The Sarah Jane Adventures, is aimed primarily at children.

Chabon: Oh yes, and I don’t feel comfortable letting even my older children watch Torchwood. It’s too gross. I actually think it’s kind of awful.

And Sarah Jane Adventures, because she’s Earthbound, it kind of doesn’t have the same appeal for me. She can’t range freely over all space and time the way the Doctor can. Ultimately, I find it kind of dissatisfying for that reason.

Nrama: I like John Barrowman more when he’s on Doctor Who than on Torchwood.

Chabon: Me too. I know the show’s popular and people like it, but in a way, it kind of proves what I’m talking about. People are so often mistaken in this idea that if something’s for "Adults," it has to be sexual and violent, and the things I like the least about this show is when it’s violent or sexual, though it seems they often do both those things at once.

To me, Doctor Who is the ideal. It satisfies everybody without pandering in either direction.

Nrama: It has that reputation as a children’s show, but your essay inspired me to re-watch some old Tom Baker serials, stuff like "Genesis of the Daleks," and it seemed even darker and more serious than the modern version – dealing with fascism, genocide, eugenics…

Chabon: Yeah! Apparently, it got quite scary. I’ve seen some of the Tom Baker ones recently, and the show was famous for being frightening, and being watched from behind the sofa, and they got into trouble for that.

My kids are really good about it, though. If they’re scared, they’ll say they don’t want to watch something. That’s all I need to hear, and we’ll turn it off.

Nrama: That complaint extends to a lot of current books for children, which seems to be one of the few growth markets remaining in publishing. Any current books for children you’d recommend?

Chabon: Well, of course the Philip Pullman trilogy, if you can call that current. You can also argue whether that’s a children’s book, but it might back up what I’m talking about, because my daughter did read it when she was very much a kid, and loved it, and I loved it too. It’s probably the work for children that I’ve most loved since I was a child myself.

Other stuff that’s out there now? Well, there’s beautiful things happening in the world of picture books. Brian Selznick, who did The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and David Wiesner, who did Tuesday, they are both amazing. William Joyce is a genius, and that stuff wasn’t around when I was a kid. But a lot of the things I read to my kids are also things I read when I was a kid.

Nrama: To attempt to tie this together – sometimes I find that in those works aimed at children, there’s these references to literature, or film, and they lead me to seek those works out for myself.

Exactly. I leaned a lot reading comic books, and from the many allusions by Stan Lee in the Marvel books, and the way the DC writers would drop a lot of kind of fancy words into their scripts now and then that would send me to the dictionary, and from there to make many more literary discoveries. What great stuff.

Nrama: We discussed Pixar earlier -- tell us about your work on A Princess of Mars (what you can, anyway), and what Burroughs' work means to you. Also curious about 20,000 Leagues. What are the challenges of adapting a classic work for the modern age without losing the period elements that gave it its original appeal?

Chabon: John Carter of Mars I was brought in by the director, Andrew Stanton, to do a revision of the script that he wrote with Mark Andrews. Andrew and I had met a few times over the years, and he had heard I was a big fan of the ERB Mars books, and that I had written an original screenplay many years ago (The Martian Agent) that was in development for a while at Fox/ILM.

So he asked me to take a whack at it. That was a huge thrill. I was impressed by the way he and Mark had found ways to honor the source material, be true to the romance and the spirit and the wild invention, not to mention the characters' natures, while constructing a tight (yet still faithful) film narrative out of a pretty loose and rangy pulp-serial seat-of-the-pants plot. I just tried to do the things that Andrew thought the script still needed.

I can't say too much about Captain Nemo But I have fallen completely in love with it.

Nrama: And what contemporary fiction – on any level – have you enjoyed?

Chabon: Well, I love David Mitchell, the British author of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. Jonathan Lethem…I’m going to get in trouble, I don’t want to leave anyone out or hurt anybody’s feelings.

Kelly Link is another great one, Dan Chaon…those are people who are my contemporaries whose names more-or-less come to mind. But there are far more than I’ve mentioned.

Nrama: This is something I've asked a few people: While comic-based films and events such as Comic-Con continue to be popular, it can be argued that this popularity does not necessarily translate back to the medium of comics itself. What do you feel is the source of the division between comic book-based popular culture (film, video games, etc.), and comic books themselves, in terms of audience interest? Do you feel it's simply insular continuity, or something more complicated than that?

Chabon: That is a good question. I suspect a whiff of the juvenile still clings to the actual physical object, a comic book. They still don't "accessorize" well.

Manhood for Amateurs is in bookstores now. Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.

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