Arrivederci, Eltingville

Comic book nerds are easy targets.  Fish in a barrel and on crutches, to boot.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but going to down to comics conventions and making fun of grown men dressed in tights or in Klingon make-up is not unlike heckling the Special Olympics.  Maybe it’s less guilt-inducing, but that’s about it.

But like a lot of sub-cultures, you’re not really allowed to make fun of it unless you are also of it.  I often self-apply the epithet “nerd,” but if someone else deigns to call me that, that person shall feel my wrath (mostly just a dirty look, but a very wrathful dirty look).  To my understanding, this is the same with labels like “queer,” “bitch,” or The Racial Slur That Dare Not Be Named: you’ve got to qualify in order to bandy those words around.

Evan Dorkin is a big comics nerd, and as such he gets carte blanche to satirize the fan community.  Luckily for the comics reading public, Dorkin has done so through several hilarious and poignant strips, as opposed to simple threads on internet bulletin boards or essays for pop-culture websites (wait a minute…).  Just because we’re easy targets doesn’t mean one can’t put a little thought and energy into the enterprise.  And as we’ll see, over the evolution of Dorkin’s “Eltingville” strips, the target goes from being the fanboy to being everybody who is not a fanboy.

And frankly, as easy a buncha targets as we nerds are, the rest of you normal people are a hundred times easier.

I. God doesn’t hate you, Josh!  We hate you!

The Eltingville Comic-Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club consists of Bill, Josh, Pete, and Jerry, four teenaged best friends who all hate each other.  Self-loathing is really no uncommon thing in the seamy underworld of fandom.  Pretty much from adolescence onward, we are conditioned to think of our interests as juvenile, petty, and bad for our eyesight.  While I doubt your average comic collector would admit to it, it is extremely difficult to flaunt years and years of societal pressure in the face of the pastime you love, especially since that pressure begins to be seriously applied right around when puberty strikes and one’s identity begins to take shape.

And as is so often the case among the bullied, it doesn’t take much to step into the role of tormentor to other sad sacks like yourself.  Josh Levy, Secretary of Science-Fiction in the Eltingville Club, is most often the target of his friends’ insults.  Even though he’s as pimply and awkward and socially repellent as his friends, he’s also overweight, so that’s enough to set him even further apart.  It’s a tough break, but man, it can really be hard, like I say, to fight against this kinda mob mentality, even if it’s just a mob of four.

And speaking of pressure, Josh seems to go out of his way to add more to himself, another fairly common occurrence amongst collectors.  I’m sure there have been studies made of this sort of completist compulsion, to get every single issue of a comic or magazine or, as is the focus in this story, a complete set of Batman Forever cards free in each specially-marked package of Wonder Bread.  If there have been, I’ve been too busy trying to download every single Looney Tunes cartoon ever made from 1930 to 1969 to read them.

But you do not know pressure until you’ve been afflicted with a compulsion like this, and Josh Levy is under more pressure in this story, “Bread and Suck-Asses” (Dork! #3), than Freddie Mercury and David Bowie combined.  The opening page shows Josh perfectly setting up his “official summer Star Wars display” of toys.  This is just the summer one, folks.  Why guys like him (us) feel the need to display their collections in their dank bedrooms where even their mothers fear to tread is a mystery for the ages.  But of course, when Josh accidentally knocks them all over, or when he can’t find the last Pocahontas toy he needs from Burger King, or a Congo watch from Taco Bell, the pressure just builds and builds.  Until finally, he snaps and ruins nearly seventy dollars worth of bread just to find the “Two-Face Triumphant” card.

Look, it’s ridiculous, even I can’t defend it.  But here’s my theory: we all seem to be driven to find a purpose in our lives.  But since it seems to me that life itself is really fairly purposeless, this drive is constantly frustrated.  So sometimes, we just aim our sights a little lower to, say, a complete collection of Power Rangers toys.  But then when even that insignificant attempt at order in a world of chaos is thwarted, it’s enough to make you want to kill yourself.  Pathetic, I know.

It gets worse.

II. Boba Fett Is Obviously Dead

Toys are designed specifically for children.  They are meant mostly to entertain, but also action figures allow young minds to engage in role-playing and other processes necessary for the healthy development of a child.

But by junior high school, children have normally grown out of that sort of activity, their raging hormones not allowing them to focus on much else but the weird changes their bodies are going through.  As we’ve established by now, though, the young comic-book aficionado has got far more important things on his mind.  Namely, toys.

But what’s important in the Eltingville story “Bring Me the Head of Boba Fett” (Dork! #6) is not why Bill and Josh are prepared to duke it out (after a fashion) for an original Hasbro mint-in-the-box twelve-inch Boba Fett action figure.  The how is the focus here: a trivia-off.

When the Eltingville Club physically fight amongst themselves, it’s about as pathetic a display of frustrated testosterone and high body fat percentage as you’re likely to see.  If these guys had any dedication to physical prowess whatsoever, they would not be able to adhere to their TV video-taping regimen.  Their strength lies in their knowledge.  A flurry of trivia questions is asked, and the first (sort of) man to get one incorrect is defeated.  It may be trivial to anybody else, but these worlds of fantasy and scienti-fiction are no mere flights of fancy.  For all intents and purposes here, they constitute the real world.

Aside from learning more about obscure pop trivia than you may already know, this story, for me, begins to elevate the Eltingville Club up from the ranks of the to-be-pitied.  And it’s really just one panel that achieves that.  After Bill and Josh have reached a disputed stalemate in their trivia-off, Joe, the owner and proprietor of the comics shop where the coveted Fett is for sale, asks, “How do you kids know all this shit..?”  To which Pete replies, “Well, Joe, I dunno.  We just do.”

I get that all the time: “How do you know that?”  And it’s always said with a mixture of disbelief and disgust, like I’ve spent countless hours learning minutiae about The Twilight Zone when I could have used that time and energy trying to find the cure for cancer or something.  And of course, my reaction was one of shame: “Uh, I dunno, I got a lotta free time ‘cause I’m a loser.”

But no more.  I just know, that’s all.  If you need a more specific answer, it’s because I’m smarter than you.  That’s one thing nerds don’t get nearly enough credit for and almost certainly the true reason we are feared and belittled.  We are smarter than you.  We read a lot more, we pay attention to details.  It doesn’t matter what we read or what details we pay attention to, either, because those critical-thinking skills can be applied to any subject once they’ve been sharpened.  We may start out with The Uncanny X-Men, but in a short span of years, we are able to read Sartre without getting a headache.  We are able to watch foreign films without sub-titles.  And we are able to extricate a deep and meaningful experience from viewing art and literature and, by extension, the world.

So good luck with your second mortgages and your gym memberships.  They won’t do you any good, but hey, good luck anyway.

We pity you.

III. Real Life Is Pain and Sadness

 

Alas, there usually comes a time of reflection, a moment where every comic-book nerd begins to question what he’s made of his life.  Personally, I gave comics a big pass around 1995 or ’96, when Diamond Distributors more or less achieved a monopoly and it looked as though the underground and independent stuff was going to wither on the vine.  That didn’t happen, but at the time, I figured I could find a lot more artistic and creative satisfaction in the music world and began spending a lot more of my money on records.

I like to think that this decision was one I reached on my own terms, that I didn’t feel pressured by any outside societal forces to turn my back on the hobby I had enjoyed for so long.  Not everyone is so lucky, however.

“The Intervention” in Dork! #9 takes a very serious look at this desire for a new lifestyle, and though the story itself is somewhat implausible on the surface, it really gets to the meat of the question, What am I doing with my life?

Bill’s mother, worried that her son has become an abnormal waste of space, has hired the services of Mandom, an organization of former collectors dedicated to breaking current obsessives of their life-crippling habits.  Thing of it is, Mandom has no idea what they’re up against.

Mandom’s Steve and Jeffrey tie Bill to a chair in his basement den, and slowly throw away or destroy each and every piece of his collection in an effort to wean Bill away from fandom’s gnarly clutches and show him that there is a life out there to be had in the real world.  While they do so, they share with Bill their own stories—their origins, if you will.  Steve was an avowed collector for years, until one day while cleaning his DC Super Powers collection, he knocked over the whole display of action figures (hmmm, sounds familiar…).  The subsequent shock and disappointment jarred Steve into the realization that he was an overweight, out of shape, grown man surrounded by piles of useless junk culture.

Poor Jeffrey, after bringing a young lady back to his room one evening, one whom he was courting, was scarred for life when she saw his Star Trek collection and simply could not stop laughing.  These poor souls, after years of dedication to fantasy had the real world intrude rudely on their lives and they were made to feel weak, stupid, inferior.

And that’s because they were.

For days, Steve and Jeffrey keep Bill tied to a chair, and for days, Bill will not recant his vows to collectorhood.  They claim it’s for his own good, but Bill has a different idea: “You two pull this shit because you couldn’t cut it in fandom.”  Steve and Jeffrey simply couldn’t withstand the outside pressure.  Again personally, I’ve never felt more at home surrounded by my mass of “junk” culture; it’s the outside world I find to be “junk.”  For every person that’s laughed at my devotion to funny-books, I’ve had ten people gasp in amazement at the size of my collection.

The real world is the problem, not the fantasy world.  And Bill uses this to finally turn the tables on Mandom: “Who needs reality?  Reality’s a fuckin’ mess!  Sure, the graphics are good, but there’s no rules or saves or extra lives!”  Bill continues this impassioned speech until Steve and Jeffrey finally see the error of their ways and immediately hustle down to Toys ‘R’ Us to stock up on Spawn action figures.

A glorious victory for nerds everywhere, to be sure.  But even though Bill won the war, he’s still left tied to a chair in his own basement.  And frankly, I don’t think it would help my point to delve too much into the symbolism here.

In any event, as big a part as music still plays in my life, it was only a handful of years before I found my way back to comics, even with a gusto that I had previously lacked.  Music is fine and dandy, but honestly, there are too many chefs in that kitchen.  A lot of hassles and a lot of headaches, a sub-culture that too often mirrors the real world.  An old roommate of mine once came back from tour with his band, and he told me that he envied my comics habit.  He’d been surrounded by nothing but music for weeks on end, which sounded like a great idea at the time, but now that he was sick to death of it, he didn’t really have any other interest to turn to.

So I gave him a stack of comics from the quarter-bin at my shop.

IV. Never Send a Boy To Do a Fan’s Job

Like I mentioned earlier, the underhanded business practices that go on in the comics industry are enough to put me off my mylar sometimes.  And of course, it all ties back into the bully/bullied hypothesis.  Comic-book nerds are like crack addicts: willing to commit petty crime for a fix, yet rendered weak and physically unfit by their habits so that they are easily handled if push ever comes to shove.

The urge to prey on such an easy demographic of the consumer market must be unbelievable.  Here you have a group of people who don’t generally have an active social life, wives, children, any of the expensive trappings, yet are often college-educated and are able to land well-paying jobs.  What else are they going to spend their money on?

And if it hasn’t been made clear yet, we’re not just talking about actual comic books, though those can be pretty expensive themselves.  We’re talking collectibles: items of interest and worth far beyond what they were invested with when originally produced.  Take an average comic and get one of the creators to scribble his name on it and it immediately increases in value, and not just monetarily.

Home shopping seemed to be a perfect outlet for this mania.  The only thing better than acquiring mountains of collectibles is the ability to acquire mountains of collectibles without setting foot into the cruel, dark world.

But Jor-El help you should you step into ours.

You know how whenever you go see a movie based on a comic book, like Watchmen or something, and you really enjoy it?  But then at least one of your friends grouses the whole time about how the filmmakers got such-and-such plot device wrong or so-and-so’s costume all screwed up?  Sure you have.  And you’ve certainly wondered why your friend would be so upset over something so simple.

It’s because it’s not that simple.  A lot of hard work goes into these comics, whether you believe that or not, and a lot of hard work goes into collecting and reading them.  When some Hollywood wise-guys swoop in to make a barrel of cash off of it without regards to details, it’s an insult: “Hey, you’re gonna fork over the dough anyway, geek.”

So combine the resentment from that attitude with the interaction home shopping television allows, and you have “As Seen on TV” from Dork! #10.  Scotty Harmon, host of Pow! Bam! Ca$h!, is tortured by the careful attention of Josh Levy and Bill Dickey of the Eltingville Club.  And really, rightfully so.  If you stand to profit from the works of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, then it only makes sense that you be aware of and acknowledge Steve Ditko’s contribution to said work.  If you’re gonna sell a model of the Bottle City of Kandor for the ridiculous price of $99, couldn’t you put some of that money towards fact-checking and at least get the name of the product spelled correctly?

And as always, he who incurs the wrath of the Eltingville Club lives to regret it.  Poor Scotty has a meltdown live on television, but it’s less from the persistent needling of teenagers smarter than he is than it is his own guilty conscious: “Each time I tell myself what I’m doing is okay, because you losers deserve to get ripped off!…But I have no excuse!  No excuse for pushing this garbage!”

That’s right, Scotty, there is no excuse for you.  By all means, engage in the free enterprise system in order to support yourself and your loved ones.  But if you’re unhappy in what you do, if what you do resonates as meaningless and futile to you, then you are inexcusable.  You’re just another hollow, vacuous nobody, a slave to the machine.

At least my machine has art by John Buscema.

V. Is This the End of the Eltingville Club?

Sadly, this does appear to be the end.  “As Seen on TV” is the last Eltingville story Dorkin ever did, as far as I can tell, if you don’t count the animated pilot that was aired on and then dropped by the Cartoon Network a few years back.  But don’t let that disappoint you, my friends: there is a fine body of work here to be savored and enjoyed.  And as we have seen, what started out as a parody of the mewling, inbred fan community eventually became a champion of that same community, bravely defending the obsession with superheroes and werewolves and die-cut covers that the lucky few of us enjoy.

And for you normals out there, it’s not too late.  We here at Boomtron are dedicated to spreading our gospel to all four corners of the Earth.  We will not rest until there are long boxes in every basement, action figures displayed on every wall, a complete run of The X-Files in every living room.  So gather ‘round, ye lost and forsaken souls, and join us!

Join us.

– originally published 10/3/2010

+Jimmy Callaway rules over Criminal Complex with an iron fist in a Playtex glove. He lives in San Diego, California.