When I was little, like, really little, before my brother was born in 1976, my parents were really into Elton John. One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting in the living room of our tiny house in the valley (where it was still all farmland), listening to Captain Fantastic and Goodbye Yellowbrick Road and Madman Across The Water while I sat on the yellow shag carpeting, and my parents sat on the black and white checkered couch.
When I was that little, I didn’t know the words, or what they meant, or anything, really (I was 4, after all), but sometimes, I play those albums, and Caribou and Honky Chateau, and I have this sense memory that feels like a security blanket that I can’t see, or touch, but is there nevertheless.
Tonight’s been one of those nights.
Just wrapped up a second and final pass on “Artful” for Amazon Books. Scheduled to come out June 24, 2014, it’s the previously untold story of the Artful Dodger, hunter of vampyres and other nasty things. I’m very pleased with the way it came out and hope you’ll all be buying it.
Originally published November 26, 1999, in Comics Buyer’s Guide #1358
We were talking last week about the subject of body dimorphism. (At least I was. I dunno, you may have been talking about something else entirely. It’s a free country. Talk about whatever you wish, and smoke ’em if you got ’em. Not that that should be taken as an endorsement of tobacco products. Good heavens, one has to watch oneself in the era of political correctness, doesn’t one?)
Anyway, much has been written on the message being sent today’s young girls in regards to the message being sent by wasp-waisted Barbies or heroines with hydraulic busts. But not a lot has been written about what young boys are being taught by what is becoming the standard of male musculature. This is represented by the broad-chested, pumped up male comic book heroes (as opposed to the fairly normally proportioned lads from the Golden and early Silver Age of comics) and the newer lines of action figure toys.
The body dimorphism poster boy is probably the Luke Skywalker action figure who, when he came out back in the 1970s, looked pretty normal… as opposed to the rippling pecs he sports nowadays. So we were talking to Mark Hamill to get his thoughts on the matter because… well… why not?
Interestingly, being a comic book fan of long-standing himself, Hamill’s impulse is to try and come up with a way that his character’s visual transformation actually makes sense from a continuity point of view. “The thing is,” he said, “in the larger scheme of things, it’s like the actual six and a half hours (of the original three Star Wars movies) is minuscule compared to the ancillary market of novels and games and comic books and card games. It’s gone on so long that they’ve had to come up with more storyline for my character than was in the three movies.
“I get the sense that it’s like supply and demand at its finest… or at its worst, depending on how you look at these kinds of things. It’s become such a voracious, pulsing franchise in America, like cowboys and Indians or Davy Crockett, that it’s pedal to the medal on all levels. Star Wars is in the food stores, the toy aisles, the clothing stores… it’s everywhere. It’s remarkable. They will exploit anything that makes money and push it to the limit so that you can’t even keep up with all the adventures. So who am I to criticize how he looks, because for all I know he’s gone out and buffed himself up so that he looks like that. It’s so funny because I was so immersed in it, but it ended for me just before Return of the Jedi came and went. There’s probably 95 percent of ‘my’ adventures that I have no knowledge of.
“In terms of George’s vast universe here, it’s transmogrified so far beyond what I thought of it when I was associated with it, that when you try to put it into perspective in your own life and own reality, something like that is one of a myriad of things that strikes you even as a student of pop culture.” For instance, Hamill feels that part of the current obsession with pumped up heroes is related to another aspect of pop culture, namely “the whole emergence of wrestling. I so don’t understand that. I’ve heard the analysis of how it’s soap opera for men, but it’s never appealed to me on any level. Which is funny, because I do like superhero comics.”
Hamill makes a valid point, as far as I’m concerned, regarding the popularity of wrestling. Whatever influence comic books may have, they pale in comparison to the widespread impact sustained by modern day wrestling. When kids hear the name “Steve Austin,” they’re sure not thinking of the relatively normally proportioned Six Million-Dollar Man. They’re thinking of one of a hoard of wrestling types, beefed up by God-knows-what to unheard of physical proportions. They see these folks stalking around, and they become the new heroes (and villains) and set a standard for physical desirability.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be in top physical condition, of course. There’s nothing wrong with being concerned about having a well-shaped frame. But these guys can mightily blur the line between what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy.
Still, it’s not as if Hulk… sorry, Hollywood… Hogan… is the first of the sculpted media figures. Although, speaking of Hulk, go look at the first issue of The Incredible Hulk if you want to see what I’m talking about. What was incredible then would be pretty modest now. See how he’s built. He doesn’t look that physically imposing compared to what is now the standard for “normal” human superheroes. Yet in those days, proportionately, he towered over the Thing and dwarfed Spider-Man. Over the years, the Hulk has become more and more mammoth. Ron Garney’s current work on the Hulk is hailed for the way he manages to give the Hulk such remarkable mass, to the point where the reason Hulk has to smash is because he couldn’t possibly fit through a normal doorway.
That’s not meant as a slam on Garney’s view of the Hulk… he’s simply rendering what has become the industry standard for a character who, in the early days, looked not much different than the average wrestler does now. And fans are happy to see it, because that sort of gargantuan aspect is now what is expected of the Hulk. Probably one of the least popular incarnations of the Hulk, purely from a physical point of view, was when he was “Mr. Fixit” in Las Vegas. Although the gray Hulk was returned under Al Milgrom’s watch (a fact most people seem to forget), it was Vegas artist Jeff Purves who restored him to the more modest proportions of his earliest days. And a lot of fans complained he didn’t look… well… Hulkish enough. Years of increased mass have demanded a new standard for the character.
In any event, Mark Hamill remembers “how Hercules movies were big, so I think people are fascinated by bodies of great strength, be it Samson or Goliath or Hercules. So maybe it’s always been part of the culture, that sort of physical perfection, both males and female.”
What sort of conclusions can be drawn from this? What can, or should, be done about it? I’m not entirely sure what to suggest.
Or perhaps comic book publishers and artists can be asked to scale back the visualization of the characters so that they look more normally proportioned. After all, if Marvel can order a sweeping internal edict involving non-smoking among its characters, it can issue another that says that heroes who once had reasonable proportions should be restored to their earlier incarnations. John Byrne did that to a certain degree when he took over FF years ago, for instance. For the first time in years, Reed Richards looked like a skinny scientist rather than a body builder. Likewise his visualization of Spider-Man likewise looks more down to earth… uhm… ceiling.
Or perhaps wrestlers and wrestling magazines can go on a media blitz, explaining that kids should not be trying to emulate these body types, and talk extensively about the dangers of steroids and such.
Or perhaps manufacturers of action figures should roll back the physical models of the toys being manufactured so that, at the very least, toys based on actual people wind up have musculature emulating the actual people.
Or perhaps we should simply form a boy’s band. For I ask you, friends, how can any action figure hope to compete with a slide trombone?
Really, the only practical approach is the one Hamill suggests: “Just stay in touch with your kids and talk to them about those kinds of issues. As long as you talk to your kids about these things, you can sort of circumvent it as an issue. I think media is so pervasive in children’s lives, you just have to control it. Sometimes I think we made a horrible mistake giving them so much access to video tape recorders and such. Turn it off, go to the beach, play a board game, do a jigsaw puzzle.”
Then again, Hamill does have a unique problem. It was quite startling to his kids, growing up, to learn that not everyone’s father had an action figure of him.
(Peter David, writer of stuff, can be written to at Second Age, Inc., PO Box 239, Bayport, NY 11705. The foregoing notwithstanding, if there’s ever a Peter David action figure, you can count on it being pretty damned ripped. And it’s going to have hair.)
When I was writing my first book, Just A Geek, I ended up with a lot of stories that just didn’t fit within the narrative. I didn’t know what to do with them, until my friend and editor, Andrew, said, “Why don’t you put them in their own book?”
I was hesitant, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a very good idea, so that’s what I did. I asked my friend Ben to draw some illustrations to keep the stories company, and I published it all on my own, before Just A Geek was even completely finished. The book is called Dancing Barefoot.
After I released the audio versions of Just a Geek and The Happiest Days of Our Lives, a lot of people asked me when I was going to do an audio version of Dancing Barefoot, to round out what I’ve just decided to call a trilogy. The truth is, I never intended to do an audio version of it, because I felt like I’d grown as a writer since it was published, and it would sound and feel strange to revisit that book without wanting to rewrite the whole thing.
But something really changed in me when I turned 40 last year, and I stopped worrying so much about things like that. I accepted that it was the best I could do then, and even if it’s a little rough around the edges, it’s because I made it that way.
So about a month ago, I booked some studio time with my favorite audiobook producers, and finally recorded an audio version of Dancing Barefoot.
It felt a little strange to record something I wrote over a decade ago, as I was entering my thirties, and looking into my past in order to understand my future. It was written during a tumultuous and uncertain time, when I was struggling so much just to make it month to month. Reading it now, knowing what my future actually held, both wonderful and terrible, made it a more emotional experience than I expected.
I had this weird sense of nostalgia as I read it, like nesting dolls: I remembered the stories that I told, I remembered writing them down on my blog for the first time, then editing them into Dancing Barefoot for the first time, and then shipping thousands of books around the world, out of my living room. I remembered how excited I felt when Anne and I opened the first box of books when they were delivered from the printer, and how happy it still makes me feel when someone hands me one of those books to sign for them.
Real quick, before I get to the link for the album, I want to say something to those of you who have been here for a decade, especially those of you who bought Dancing Barefoot so long ago: Thank you. Without your support then, I wouldn’t be here now. There’s a straight line between you buying that book from me, and me working on Eureka, Big Bang Theory, Leverage, and everything else. There’s an even shorter, straighter line between me shipping that book to you from my living room floor, to me writing all my other books, magazine columns, and posts of varying quality on this blog.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with declaring that “there are no second acts in American lives,” and before I began this journey a little over a decade ago, I believed him. But because I people like you kept coming back to read my blog, kept coming to see me perform on stage, and bought my books when I published them, I feel like I may be one of the exceptions to that rule.
I’m incredibly grateful for the life that I have now, the life that I worked so hard to build. Every single day, I’m afraid that I’m going to wake up and discover that it’s just a dream, or a cruel trick in some episode of The Twilight Zone. I worked really hard for what I have now, but I didn’t do it alone. People I’ll never meet took a chance on me and made it possible for me to do what I’m doing now, and I can’t thank you enough.
Okay, I’m rambling, so I’ll just get out of the way. Here’s the product information:
It’s available now on my Bandcamp page, you can listen to the entire thing there for free, or you can buy it for $10 though the weekend, before it goes up to $20 next week. It includes a digital booklet with all the illustrations Ben did, scanned by me from my original author’s copy of the book.
Here’s the description:
Available for the first time in audio, read by the author.
In this wonderful Freshman effort, actor and author Wil Wheaton shares five short-but-true stories about life in the so-called Space Age:
Houses in Motion – Memories fill the emptiness left within a childhood home, and saying goodbye brings them to life.
Ready Or Not Here I Come – A game of hide-n-seek with the kids works as a time machine, taking Wil on a tour of the hiding and seeking of years gone by.
Inferno – Two 15-year-olds pass in the night leaving behind pleasant memories and a perfumed Car Wars Deluxe Edition Box Set.
We Close Our Eyes – A few beautiful moments spent dancing in the rain.
The Saga of SpongeBob VegasPants – A story of love, hate, laughter and the acceptance of all things Trek.
I recently worked on an upcoming video game from Double Fine, called Broken Age. I got to play a really fun character, and I had a super good time working with one of my favorite directors in the industry.
Double Fine announced my participation in a video that includes some shots of me recording, and the response from people who chose to respond was overwhelmingly positive.
Earlier this morning, the following Tweets appeared in my timeline, back to back:
When I was younger, I would have completely ignored the first one, and obsessively focused on the second one to the point of feeling shitty about myself. Part of having Imposter Syndrome is believing that people who praise you are dupes, while the people who criticize you can actually see through everything. But the thing is, the guy who isn’t thrilled has every right to feel that way, and I don’t take it personally. Not everyone digs what I do and what I bring to a project, and that’s totally cool. At the same time, it’s also pretty awesome that a lot of people do dig what I bring to a project, and that is also cool.
Consider this, about having perspective on criticism: If you enjoyed making a thing, and you’re proud of the thing you made, that’s enough. Not everyone is going to like it, and that’s okay. And sometimes, a person who likes your work and a person who don’t will show up within milliseconds of each other to let you know how they feel. One does not need to cancel out the other, positively or negatively; if you’re proud of the work, and you enjoyed the work, that is what’s important.Don’t let the fear of not pleasing someone stop you from being creative.
The goal isn’t to make something everyone will love; the goal is to get excited, and make a thing where something wasn’t before.
Originally published November 19, 1999, in Comics Buyer’s Guide #1357
“Ve gonna pump (whap!) you up!”
–Hans and Franz
There are so many things in the world that females have had to lag behind males in achieving. Males had more privileges in voting, in job choice… you name it, and men have generally had the edge.
But there’s one thing that modern young ladies have had the edge on for quite some time, and that only in recent years are young guys starting to catch up. And that, kids, is body dimorphism.
Striving for an ideal of the human body is nothing new, of course. One need look no further than Greek statues to see ideally sculpted, muscled and fairly ripped men in various poses of sleek flawlessness. Women who were not only supposed to look like goddesses, but genuinely were goddesses. Perfection was presented in three glorious dimensions. However, whether Greeks of the time actually thought they were supposed to look like those statues, and did everything they could—reasonable and unreasonable—to achieve that look for themselves, I really couldn’t say. Perhaps there are expert historians who could provide an answer, but that’s a bit outside of my field.
Of more recent vintage, however, we hand our daughters Barbie dolls, and those wasp waisted, well-bosomed plastic individuals provide the idealized body type for young girls. And if the doll does not drive the message home sufficiently, then certainly a world filled with slim models draped in the latest revealing fashions certainly helps to let young ladies know where they stand, or at least where they should stand.
Boys, however, haven’t had it quite shoved so thoroughly into their faces… at least, not until recently. Now no one is saying that trying to care for one’s body or endeavoring to look good is a bad thing… certainly not at a time when the United States leads the world in obesity. But on the other hand, let’s take a look in our own little industry at the changes in the way that the human body has been represented.
Now there are certain givens, of course. Comic book heroines are hugely busted, equipped with breasts that would probably give the ladies a black eye while they’re running. Comic book heroes wear outfits that are exceptionally tight in the area of the crotch, so much so that one realizes that there can’t really be anything there since no bulge is apparent (which would, when you think about it, explain the hostility that prompts them to go out and beat up on bad guys. Perhaps they’re feeling inadequacy in other aspects of their lives.)
But that’s not what I’m focusing on at the moment. Instead consider the heroes and heroines of the Golden Age of comics.
A pretty slim bunch.
Wonder Woman, considering she was an amazon princess, was rather thin, her bust line nothing especially daunting (although understandable when one recalls that the amazons allegedly whacked off breasts so as not to have any impediment to their bow arms.) The heroes, by the same token, were quite slender. They weren’t 90-pound weaklings, but they weren’t exactly Hercules either. Even artists who were later known for their impossibly muscled characters, such as Jack Kirby, were producing heroes who were thin and wiry. Look at the early Sub-Mariner stories; Bill Everett drew a skinny little guy.
Geez, look at early Spider-Man, for pity’s sake. Thanks to Steve Ditko’s pencils (and, according to Stan Lee, his insistence that a Kirby-esque muscle man wasn’t what he was going for), Spider-Man was the Lieutenant Columbo of the superhero set. People took one look at this skinny guy and thought, “No problem,” right before they got their butts kicked. No less an authority on male physique than Princess Python (who, let’s face it, had “slut” written all over her) commented that she couldn’t believe how someone as small and unassuming as Spider-Man could possibly be such a physical threat, even as he juggled members of the Circus of Crime as if they were Styrofoam packing chips. It was part of what made early Spidey so appealing to geekish readers (no offense intended) who felt that their own less-than-manly physique truly hid the fighting heart of a lion… or, at the very least, an irradiated spider.
When was the last time someone took one look at Spider-Man and sneered that he didn’t look like much of a threat?
Some heroes even had loose fitting shirts or slacks instead of leotards. The early FF uniforms were practically baggy. Heroes of the Golden Age, and even unto the Silver, simply did not impress with their physicality. Instead they impressed us with their deeds, their heroics, and their pureness of heart and sincerity of purpose.
Now look at what we have, though. Heroes are almost uniformly well built, incredibly and hugely and impossibly muscled. Slim or physically unimpressive protagonists seem to be solely the province of the Vertigo line.
It’s a phenomenon hardly limited to comic books. Surveys were done recently of action figures, noting the manner in which their muscles have grown exponentially over the past twenty years. One figure held up as an example was the “Luke Skywalker” action figure. When it was first produced twenty years ago, the body was fairly slim, normal looking—not unlike the fairly slim and normal looking Mark Hamill who played him. The action figure disdained any sort of huge, heroic proportions. Not surprising, considering even Hamill didn’t realize—during auditions with the initial scripts—that his character was the central hero.
“I couldn’t get over the fact that the protagonist wasn’t in the usual mode of the action hero,” said Hamill in a recent phone interview. “I figured Harrison was the lead. That he was Flash Gordon and I’m the sidekick. Who knew?”
As for the action figure of the unusual hero, “The face was kind of generic. It didn’t look anything like me. I remember visiting the toy factory when we were over in Hong Kong, and I was surprised how CIA-like it was. You had to sign confidentiality, non-disclosure agreements. We couldn’t talk about what they’d seen. I asked them why the (doll’s) hair was yellow, since I always thought my hair was light brown. It was mostly based on the fact that since Harrison’s hair was brown (on the Han Solo figure) they wanted a contrast and they didn’t have a lot of choices. The color palette was really limited. It’s probably far more sophisticated now. I don’t think there was any attempt in those days to make it look like me. Now tastes have become so much more sophisticated. I’ve seen the recent 12 inch figures, and they’ve even put the cleft in the chin.”
The other things the recent Luke figures have are rippling muscles and a sculpted torso, totally different from Luke Skywalker’s first toy incarnation. Hamill pointed out that the new Luke Skywalker toys resemble “the redesigned figure with the bodybuilder torso” depicted on the early Hildebrandt poster… a poster which was not, incidentally, in the theaters initially. “People forget that the movie came out with no poster, but only lobby cards,” said Hamill. “At Grauman’s Chinese Theater the day it opened, they put out lobby cards because Lucasfilms was never happy with what Fox came up with. There was great dissension over whether to promote it as science fiction or Little Rascals in outer space.”
More thoughts on the muscling of Luke Skywalker and the lessons to be learned from pumped up heroes next issue.
(Peter David, writer of stuff, can be written to at Second Age, Inc., PO Box 239, Bayport, NY 11705.)
Two nights ago, I had this dream that I was super sick, with a sore throat and sinuses filled with concrete-like gunk. Yesterday morning, I woke up with a sore throat, and sinuses filled with concrete-like gunk.
Last night, I had a dream that I was some sort of combination of Superman and The Doctor. I could fly, I was saving the world from some bad guy who was a fallen god and wanted to choke the Earth with soot and pollution. When I woke up, I had no super powers, but I still had the sinus infection, plus I’m starting to get body aches as a bonus.
I call bullshit on this, because if one of those dreams was going to manifest itself in my real life, I got screwed.
Anyway, it’s Thursday, and that means I’m on tonight’s episode of The Big Bang Theory! I’m super proud of this one, and so happy with how my stuff turned out. Also, John Ross Bowie is back as Kripke, and he has what is, in my opinion, the funniest scene he’s ever done on the show.
I loved working with the cast and crew when we shot this show about a month ago, and I left, as I always do, grateful for the time I spent there, and so intensely envious that they get to work with each other every week.
I hope you’ll tune in tonight for the show, and I hope you enjoy it.
Now, I’m going to go take enough cold medicine to make myself believe that I have super powers, because I’m worth it.