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The Big Bang Theory and Comic Book Culture

on Thu, 07/05/2012 - 00:00

Seventy five years have passed since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the original Man of Steel, but both Superman and comic books are still deeply engraved in contemporary popular culture nonetheless. A medium initially geared towards teenagers, however, the majority of Twenty First Century patrons of comic books are actually part of an older demographic. While it may seem strange to witness the male characters of the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory make their weekly trip to the local comic book store in order to purchase the latest Batman release, in actuality it is a ritual that is reenacted in cities across the nation by the real life Sheldon Coopers and Leonard Hofstadters of the country. But although the medium has evolved from adolescent stories into mature narratives that are literary equals to the best novels, comics are still considered part of the “geek” experience that has come to be epitomized by The Big Bang Theory.

The depiction of comic book culture on The Big Bang Theory likewise highlights both the positive and negative aspects of the industry itself. As previously mentioned, comic books aren’t just for kids anymore as the medium is now considered a legitimate source of modern day literature. The superheroes of DC Comics and Marvel are contemporary myths from the same vein as those from Ancient Greece, and still resonate with the mainstream as witnessed by the success of such films as The Avengers, The Dark Knight and Spider-Man. Many graphic novels, meanwhile, have received critical acclaim in recent years, starting with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spiegelman and continuing with Alan Moore’s The Watchman and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. In short, there is nothing wrong with grown men like Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter sitting around and reading comic books.

Despite the evolution of the comic book from adolescent fantasy to mature literary status, however, there is still a negative stigma held by a segment of the population in regards to the medium. Unfortunately, this stereotypical image is also exemplified on The Big Bang Theory. In his book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw Hill, 2012), business futurist Rob Salkowitz traces the decline in physical comic book sales to changes in the industry’s mode of distribution from decades earlier.

“Starting in the 1980s, most comic publishers discontinued newsstand sales, where unsold issues could be returned for a refund, in favor of a ‘direct market’ system that shipped comic books exclusively to specialized comic book stores on a nonreturnable basis,” he writes. “But it turns out there is a problem with distributing your product exclusively through independently owned retail stores run by and for your products’ biggest fans. Despite the efforts of some active and visionary retailers, the odor of overgrown adolescent males hangs heavy over many comic book shops, creating a forbidding environment for women, kids, and casual fans who might have an interest in the material but don’t want to put up with the clannishness and know-it-all-ism of the old-school comic book culture.”

The comic book store that the main characters of The Big Bang Theory routinely visit is exactly the type of environment that Rob Salkowitz refers to above. In the season two episode “The Hofstadter Isotope,” for instance, next door neighbor Penny decides to join Sheldon Cooper, Leonard Hofstadter, Howard Wolowitz and Raj Koothrappali in their trip to the local establishment. Her initial reaction is that it’s “a cute little store,” but she quickly becomes nervous when the exclusively male clientele stop what they are doing and stare at her. “Don’t worry,” Leonard reassures her. “They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” When the store manager, Stuart, comes over to see if she needs any assistance, Penny tells Leonard afterwards that he seems like a nice guy. “You mean for someone who works in a comic book store,” Leonard clarifies. When she reluctantly says yes, Leonard explains that comic books do not equate with “weird,” and that Stuart is an artist who attended the Rhode Island School of Design.

“What about that guy over there in the superhero T-shirt tucked into his sweatpants?” Penny asks. “Yeah, that’s Captain Sweatpants,” Leonard replies. “He doesn’t really help the point I’m trying to make.” Earlier in the installment, Sheldon Cooper also “doesn’t help” when he exhibits the “know it all” quality that Rob Salkowitz considers detrimental to the industry. Instead of simply tagging along to the comic book store, Penny initially asks the gang if they could pick up “a few comics” for her nephew’s birthday. “I think you mean comic books,” Sheldon corrects. “Comics are feeble attempts at humor featuring talking babies and anthropomorphized pets found traditionally in the optimistically-named funny pages.” Penny adds to Sheldon’s irritation when she again asks her original question but offers no suggestions as to what her nephew might enjoy. “Maybe at the same time we can pick out a new suit for him without knowing his size,” Sheldon sarcastically responds. “Or pick out his career for him without knowing his aptitude, or pick out a new breakfast cereal without knowing his fiber requirements or his feelings about little marshmallows.”

To end the conversation, Penny suggests Spider-Man, but Sheldon continues with his assertion and belief that comic books are nothing to take lightly. “Amazing Spider-Man?” he asks in regards to the specific title that she means. “Ultimate Spider-Man? Spectacular Spider-Man? The Marvelous Adventures of Spider-Man? Spider-Man 2099?” This query is an example of yet another hindrance that Rob Salkowitz believes must be overcome in order for the comic book industry to reach a more mass appeal.

“Even as the culture moved toward a broader acceptance of comics as art and literature, the ‘mainstream’ industry dug deeper into the genre of superheroes, telling longer and more convoluted stories that depended on readers knowing years or decades of the characters’ histories,” he writes in Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. “Why? Because this was what the regular customers at the comics shops wanted to read, so it was what the retailers ordered—often to the exclusion of more adventurous independent titles that could appeal to a wider audience. Fans of the X-Men movies or the highly accessible X-Men: Evolution animated series who dared venture into a comic shop were faced with more than a dozen ongoing X-Men series and hundreds of graphic novels and collected editions. Most of them made the reasonable calculation that it was not worth the time or the money to join the boys’ club.”

Despite the negative attributes that surround the independent brick-and-mortar store that the gang on The Big Bang Theory visits every Wednesday, however, the fictitious Comic Center of Pasadena also organizes signing events with the legendary Stan Lee, hosts gaming tournaments for the Mystic Warlords of Ka’a and even sponsors a costume contest as part of its annual New Year’s Eve party. This innovation thus makes the place symbiotic with the positive attributes that Rob Salkowitz believes is the future of such establishments as well. “It’s clear that comics would benefit from a reinvention of the retail environment,” he emphatically states. “Stores are the social center of the hobby, and the best ones understand that they are not just selling comics—they are selling the experience of buying comics.”

Like most entertainment mediums in the Twenty First Century, the comic book industry is at a crossroads as it struggles to shake off old stereotypes, appeal to a new generation of fans, expand its gender outreach and integrate digital technological advancements into its distribution system. While the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory does not necessarily encompass all of those subject areas in its narrative, it still represents a fairly accurate reflection of comic book culture nonetheless. And who knows—maybe someday there will even be an episode where next door neighbor Penny spends a Saturday night sitting on her couch alone, reading the latest installments of Ultimate Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, The Marvelous Adventures of Spider-Man and even Spider-Man 2099.

Based on the growth of the comic book as an American literary institution, it might not be as far-fetched of an idea as one might think.

Anthony Letizia (July 25, 2012)

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