I don’t often watch Newsnight Review these days. It’s been a bastion of the worst of contemporary cultural snobbery for quite a while, and would just wind me up into a fury that’s really not good for the soul at half eleven on a Friday night.
However, last night featured the mighty Kevin Smith, in town for signings of his new book and a short spoken word tour, so I figured it was worth tuning in. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that the programme was specially themed around the idea of geek power. I instantly sat up and started paying attention. They were talking about my people, and what is more, not talking down to or condescending them.
Items on the Booker SF row, the prelevance of comics (well, more specifically, the superhero) in popular culture, and the role of the fan nowadays were dealt with humourously, and with a great deal of charm by the panel and Kirsty Wark, MCing with a great deal more empathy than she had shown to the two MPs she had been yelling at moments previously.
Joining Kirsty and Kevin were comedian Nathalie Haynes and author Jeanette Winterston. Here’s the first interesting thing. A panel on geek culture that’s three-quarter female? The one bloke on the panel admitting at one point that he is “barely male?” This reflects, to me, the sea change that is starting to take place. It’s OK to be a geek now. Girls can be geeks to, and in fact will revel in their status. Natalie, in particular was going full out to prove her geek creds, bouncing around the cultural signifiers with a barely concealed glee. More importantly, everyone on the panel was having fun. It was a riotous assembly of clever and outspoken commentators, and wildly entertaining.
The one problem for me was the material the producers chose to illustrate some of the points the panel had to make. Now, I know the show’s called Newsnight Review, and that it should be looking at art and media released that week. But focussing time on Eion Colfer’s Hitchhiker’s fanfic And Another Thing (as disappointing as post-Fleming Bond, or the painful rooting through Frank Herbert’s file cabinet that his son Kevin has done) seemed a bit of a waste, when I would have much rather heard more about the book Kim Stanley Robinson thought should have won the Booker, or even whether Jeanette Winterston agreed that the Booker is now perfectly accepting of genre books, as long as they are historical novels.
I would have widened the remit out some more, and talked about Micheal Chabon, who has won both the Pulitzer and the Hugo. Or looked at Iain Banks’ new novel which finally seems to be blurring the boundary between his mainstream and Culture novels. There was a fascinating discussion waiting in the wings that was never called out to camera.
Worse, using Mark Millar’s absurd adolescent power fantasy Kick-Ass as some kind of examplar of the way comics are now was just plain dumb. Jeanette, bless her heart, clearly doesn’t read many comics, and she rightly recoiled from this one. As well she might. A book whose principal female character is a homicidal eight-year-old with twin Samurai swords is hardly going to draw her into the fold. I couldn’t agree with Kevin or Natalie at this point, no matter how vehemently they argued that it was cool or fun. Or worse, how Kevin plans to take his ten year old, the brilliantly named Harley Quinn, to see it and cover her ears at the swears while making sure she sees the gore. A bit disingenuous, this, coming from one of the sweariest men on the planet.
The choice of Kick-Ass was not only poor, it was lazy. The final part of Warren Ellis and John Cassady’s Planetary was finally released this week after a three year wait. This would have been a much more interesting title to review. It works both as a brilliant adventure story, and a wide-ranging allegory that in equal parts satirises and skewers the all-encompassing hold the superhero has on mainstream comics. A far cleverer, far more interesting choice, to my mind.
However, I’m grumbling about things beyond my control, and on the whole I was surprised and delighted with the quality of discussion on a show that I would normally go out of my way to avoid. In a week when one of the Booker Judges claimed that SF fans hid in small rooms doing special, weird things, Newsnight Review came right out and showed what a ridiculous, blinkered statement that was. More like this, please, BBC!