Geek is chic, and over the past decade or so geek culture has been slowly making it's way into the mainstream. Comic book characters are getting their big-screen debuts, academics are taking a serious look at fictional superheroes and heroines and their worlds and a new type of hero is taking the place of the brawny superheroes of the past, creating a "modern mythology" of tech-savvy characters that rely on brains as much as strength.
New Jersey librarians Craig Anderson, Megan Kociolek, Michael Maziekien and Tyler Rousseau made up "Library as Myth Oracle" panel at this year's New York Comic Con and discussed how the intellectual hero is becoming a cornerstone of contemporary geek culture. Part of a series of panels sponsored by the American Library Association, panelists explored how superheroes (and heroines!) and librarians are more closely connected than we may think.
Panelists addressing an audience of fellow librarians, readers and industry professionals
Craig Anderson kicked off the discussion by talking about how heroes have evolved throughout history, citing many examples from myth, folklore and literature. Beginning with Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king who reigned around 2500 BC, and working his way up to characters like Hercules, Merlin — who is one of the first brainy characters a hero relies on for guidance — and more, Anderson made a very interesting point in tracing the history of heroes: As a culture we've moved from "... the jock to the nerd" and now that we are "... in the information age and information is more important … it seems like our heroes are more brainy." Anderson noted two popular examples from modern TV: Doctor Who and the most recent depiction of Sherlock Holmes on the BBC show Sherlock.
Megan Kociolek continued the conversation by discussing how librarians play a role in this mythology. She argued that " ... libraries are mystical places and are great places to start your heroic journey." She then compared librarians to the famous intellectual mentors of pop culture, such as Alfred, Batman's witty butler, and Merlin the wizard who helped guide King Arthur. She also said that as a society, " ... we are superbeings now," because of technology (in comparison to comic books from the 1930s and 40s). Overall, Kociolek noted that librarians act as gatekeepers of information and are able to share it at rapid speeds because of technology and aligned the profession with the modern brainy hero, making the librarians in the crowd cheer in agreement.
Michael Maziekien was handed the microphone next to touch on the subject of library as oracle. He emphasized that as a culture we are drawn to stories about secret identities, double lives and mistaken identities. We're fascinated by characters in disguises and stories and myths of different identities often come across in popular culture, and according to Masiekien "that goes for our heroes [and] villains." Maziekien also touched on one of his favorite comic book heroes: Captain Comet. Captain Comet is a DC character who first appeared in 1951 and, according to Maziekien, is the perfect example of a superhero who combines brains and muscle. Both with super strength and super intelligence, Captain Comet works in a library by day and has the library's entire collection memorized. He's able to dispense information at a moment's notice and Maziekien says this is often the positive stereotype of many librarians. Although most real librarians don't have the world's information archived in their brains, technology certainly makes it easier for librarians to rapidly look up information with one click.
The conversation was rounded out with Tyler Rousseau's commentary on the changing hero. The librarian started out by saying that storytelling was originally very simple: “In the beginning men were men, women were women and evil was an obvious thing." But as time went on, politics began to play a larger role in how stories were told. Rousseau noted the Captain America comics of the 1940s and 50s are a prime example of storytelling being influenced by external sources. The speaker also illustrated that throughout the 1990s superheroes went from unquestionably good and always possible of doing the extraordinary to more humanized characters often filled with self-doubt. He uses the antiheroes of the 1970s, such as Wolverine and The Punisher, to emphasize this idea of the superhero as person. Rousseau finished up the chat by emphasizing that whether they rely on their mind or their strength to fight evil, superheroes are people just like us.
What's your favorite modern hero or heroine who uses intelligence instead of physical strength to fight evil? Let me know in the comments. Keep an eye on the RT Daily Blog for more NYCC '12 coverage this week!