It's safe to say a certain level of controversy was created after I wrote about a preview commercial for the new AMC show, Comic Book Men. In my column a few weeks ago I mentioned I was disappointed in Kevin Smith for taking the show in a direction that sounded as if it was excluding women, if in no other way but the title. So how do I feel now that I’ve watched the first episode? Yup, still disappointed.
Even though Smith is technically just a participant, AMC approached him to do the show and he's obviously the big name draw they needed to get viewers. Not to mention the one people will look to for its failure or success. Smith tweeted he only saw a few negative tweets out of thousands after the episode aired. Well, sure, that's because people that didn't like it either didn't feel it was worth the time to be negative or offensive to someone they don’t know (what a novel concept!), or didn't watch in the first place because they were so turned off.
That’s certainly not to say people didn’t enjoy the show. As a result of my original piece, a few devoted friends and followers of Smith & Co. were vocally offended I could have such an opinion and those dutiful folks will love just about anything he creates (even if, as they say, he technically didn’t create it). But there were also many who thought it was entertaining. I myself enjoyed parts of the show but overall I came away thinking it fell well short of my expectations.
Bryan Johnson, Walt Flanagan, Ming Chen and Mike Zapcic spend time in a podcast setting much like their usual podcast except Smith acts as a moderator of sorts. Their first conversation? Who was their dream heroine from comics. Now, most of us have given our opinion on which fictional characters we would date if they were real but a part of us deep down knows it’s kind of a weird/creepy conversation to have. So I can understand them talking about it certainly but that being the first impression a potential non-comic reader sees, is not a positive one to send them running to the comic shop. In fact, it’s likely the opposite.
And that, I feel, is detractors primary gripe with Comic Book Men. That it’s purpose should be to make comic books interesting for the masses and cause people to try them out for the first time. Instead, it reinforces the stereotypes that already keep them away. The other part of the show is people bringing in collectibles to hopefully sell to the comic shop. This was actually one of the parts that interested me the most because I was curious to see what kind of things people would bring in but every time they did I thought to myself, "Just go to EBay." It would be one thing if the cast members were absolute experts in valuing items but they’re not and they’re also looking to make a profit on whatever they purchase so of course it’s going to get a lower value. If they wanted that aspect of the show to feel more legitimate, they should have “pop-culturist” Robert Bruce on hand all the time.
As for the Pawn Stars aspect of Comic Book Men, it was rough seeing how they treated their “customers.” Of course these people are looking to sell, not buy, but everyone who walks in your store should be looked at as a potential customer and treated with respect. It's reality TV, they like to make people look like fools and who knows what the producers told the cast members to do/say but the majority of the people bringing items in were made fun of to an extent for their obsession. How do you think they felt when they sat down to watch the premiere? We’re ALL GEEKS, we’ve potentially gotten made fun of our entire lives. You want to joke around and make fun of the guy you’ve known for 15 years? Fine but don’t make fun of others for having the same passion you do. And no, it did not help things in my mind that the first woman to appear on the show was a doll collector.
Viewers who are already a fan of Smith & Co. will love the show because they get to watch some of their favorite people on television every week. But those who aren't? I'm not sure how much entertainment value they will find. Though even the die-hard fans may be a tad let down because Smith & Co. can't really get as crass as they'd probably like to. I’m a fan of Smith’s work, I understand his humor but you could tell when they were heading down his regular territory and had to pull back. The format definitely needs to be perfected as they go on. I’ve seen a lot of reality TV and you know when things are set up for the most part. What would be great would be to see a more natural look at the regular comic shop experience. You know, take a look at the people who actually go there every week to buy comics. As much as the memorabilia part interested me, it didn’t seem like it was the production’s strong suit. And why the show is a whole hour is beyond me. A half hour would keep things moving and make the show stronger. Also, if it came down to it, Johnson and Chen could totally have their own spin-off.
So what is the point of Comic Book Men as a series? Is it to show the world what really goes on in the every day working of a comic shop? No. Is it to get people interested in reading comics? It certainly didn’t appear that way considering what they showed. Was it to break stereotypes the public has of the comic reading audience? Certainly not. It's to make money and that’s something we always have to remember. I'm not saying the show is obligated to do any of the things I mentioned, just that it would have been nice. We only saw fleeting glimpses of the passion and the love for comics during a few of the podcast portions. We didn’t see the real comic book shop experience, we saw the collecting aspect and only that to an extent, and we saw friends hanging out.
As far as the excuse that a woman was not cast on the show being that these individuals all work in the store well, that’s not entirely true. Johnson doesn’t technically work there, just hangs out there a lot and Chen isn’t in there on a regular basis either. But the excuse has also been given that they wanted to keep the chemistry these long-time friends have together and not force another person into it. I can understand that to an extent but not entirely. Think about how many talk shows put people, sometimes complete strangers, together so that the audience will hear differing perspectives. Fans of Smith & Co. got mad when they thought I was "insulting" their heroes (I didn’t), they told me to listen to their podcast to understand their dynamic. Is that what the entire viewership is supposed to do? Spend hours combing through old podcasts to "get" this show? No, that's ridiculous and so is the notion that adding other cast members, women or men, would completely ruin that. I still feel a few outside voices would have greatly added to the conversation.
Smith may not have decision making powers as executive producer on the show but he has a great hold on geek culture and I think his imagination combined with AMC’s talent could have made a much more interesting program. I read several comic shop retailers disappointment in the show, saying things like, “Comic retailing just went back 20 years,” and “This is absolutely not the way to get people interested in comics.” Again, that wasn’t necessarily the intent of the show but it certainly could have helped.
I’m not here to pick on anyone or call them names, that’s not the kind of person I am. I’m just here to give my opinion on the comic book world and my opinion is that Comic Book Men is just an okay show and definitely isn’t going to do what I’d hope any show about comic books would do. In my original article I mentioned that I was worried the show would reinforce the stereotypes the world already has about comic book readers and the first episode included just about every one of those stereotypes. It didn’t show that comic readers have normal lives and it definitely didn’t show what it’s like to shop for comics.
The bottom line? It’s not the kind of show I want to watch on a weekly basis. It’s also not the show I wished it had been. And that’s fine, I have too much TV to watch as it is. But I will say this, with all the comic properties being picked up by networks these days, it’s great to have a non-fiction show on the air about comics, even if it isn’t perfect (or my cup of tea). I hope it does show us more and break some stereotypes down the road and let’s viewers see what it’s really like to be a fan of comics so that other networks will take a chance on delving into comic culture in the future.
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