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How NOT To Teach Bestselling Books and Comics, or Hollywood Blockbusters

Currently 36 weeks on the NYT Bestseller List--but shouldn't we be talking about unknown fantasists?

If you’re new to this blog, its general subject area isn’t just pop culture, but media literacy. For that reason it’s perfectly all right to think that I’m basically trying to have my cake and eat it, too—enjoying the geekiest of entertainments, and then applying a critical lens to them.

These days that approach isn’t so anomalous, thank goodness. But some years ago, media literacy education reached such a point of effectiveness in terms of the pedagogy of critical thinking that those in the field noticed something dismaying: kids were becoming downright cynical. Healthy skepticism had been replaced with a kind of universal suspicion.

As a result, MLE took measures to combat this creeping cynicism, and nowadays we don’t see too much of that approach—you know, that all corporate-made media is “bad” and all media made by individuals with no money at all is somehow automatically pure and “good.” Still, in the age of Comic-Con’s supremacy and at the height of the blockbuster movie season, it’s understandable that some educators draw attention to the cultural impact of the profit-driven media artifacts that are relentlessly marketed to young people. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all.

But are bestselling books in any category—YA, children’s, literary or genre fiction—the inherent “enemy” of indie publishers and little-known authors? Being a little-known author myself, I’ll answer “no” to that, but perhaps I’m overgeneralizing. Sure, if you’re an indie comics creator producing a Web comic that reaches about 25 readers every week (kind of like this blog), or say you’re struggling to produce a print run of 250 copies of your graphic novel out of Portland, yes, you’ll be forgiven for looking askance at all the ink spilled on Marvel and DC’s every little move.

At the same time, though, it’s arguably never been better to be indie. An obvious support for this somewhat rash statement: Kickstarter, one of the biggest comics “publishers” and movie “studios” out there these days—or at least one of the fastest growing. To be sure, it would be great if every worthy artist of word or image found the huge audience he or she deserves, but does that mean that the titles on the New York Times bestseller list or the high-profile movies that win Oscars are inherently denying other creators the ability to have their work reach its intended audience?

In short, is it all so zero-sum?

One of the many stunning fan-made posters that can be found here:

If you read a post like the one I read earlier this year, you might think so. A well-meaning teacher was having students engage in a discussion about movie blockbusters, and apparently the result was a T-chart that listed “urges investors” to fund “formula movies” in one column and “denies opportunity for newcomers to make movies, tell new stories…” in the other.


The massive funding of, and marketing for, a film like The Dark Knight Rises, or this fall’s final Twilight flick, actually denies newcomers the ability to write, finance, shoot, and distribute their own micro-budgeted films…?

Here’s most of my public response to that post, by the way:

…how does a studio investing in a tent pole prevent new indie filmmakers from securing investment from sources that are dedicated to indies or from getting distribution from companies that are interested only in smaller films? I think this model may have been more applicable 20 or so years ago, but lower technological barriers to filmmaking and the low cost of making screenable “prints” (i.e., HD cameras), the worldwide explosion in festivals, and ever-evolving variety of platforms for new filmmakers to find their audiences (e.g., Prescreen [now defunct, but swap in Tugg, or other services]) makes the role of the blockbuster kind of beside the point. It’s like saying the investment in billion dollar skyscrapers prevents new architects from designing innovative single-family homes. We may not like it that so many resources go to Michael Bay films and that so many moviegoers opt to see them over IFC fare, but that doesn’t mean there’s a negative correlation between the existence of the former and the latter.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think much of this logic applies to indie endeavors in other media as well. The university press that publishes small runs of poetry would love to have the marketing budget of Random House, and yes, School Library Journal is more likely to provide featured coverage of the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid title than of one of those poetry collections, even if it wins awards.

But does this mean that the relationship between these kinds of books is innately oppositional? Is it really that tooth-and-fang, especially in a world where indie comics and films get their own conventions/fests/publications, and where the term “indie” itself has become a tool for branding? Or just take a look at the cultural graph over the past century. How many indie films can you name from 1940 or 1950? How many indie comics were there in 1970 that weren’t “comix” and therefore could be made available in a local library or bookstore?

Sorry, this denies-opportunity-for-newcomers stance is media literacy with an axe to grind. Let’s stay critical by all means—and let’s not shy away from the political and civic implications of the consolidation of publishing in a handful of corporate entities. But let’s also make sure that we’re not making The Amazing Spider-Man, even with its product placement and editing-by-studio-exec sensibility, the enemy of every small documentary that wants to get screened. That’s the opposite of media literacy: it shows a lack of understanding of how the real world operates, how media titles are published and released, and how there are different audiences for different types of content. That’s ideology above common sense and the facts of the matter, which is something media literacy education, or any type of education, really, can never be about.

About Peter Gutierrez