Reportedly, there are studies that indicate people like rewatching old TV shows and movies because there is comfort to be found in familiarity. I don’t have those particular studies in front of me because I don’t feel like looking them up at the moment (this is a highly scientific approach), but I completely believe it. When the world is starting to be too much, I often find myself going back to movies, books, or comics that I have enjoyed before. There’s something about returning to old stories that makes it feel like you’re reconnecting with a friend. There’s an ease and a comfort that can be desperately needed when there’s a weight on your shoulders, when the anxiety begins sending the pins and needles across your skin, when every text or phone call makes you worry that the worst has happened. I go back to these things a lot, is what I’m saying.
And since I know I’m not alone in this, I thought that this week I would share with you some of my storytelling comfort food. I’m going to tell you one example from each of my preferred forms of media (movies, TV, books, and comics) that I can and have returned to more times than I can count, stories I know as well as the walk from my car to the front door, characters who are as close to me as family. When I’m feeling down or beat up or that nothing is going to be okay, these are the places I turn to so that I can be reminded…sometimes it can be.
Movies: Back to the Future
In the interest of clarity, I guess I should say the Back to the Future trilogy, because heaven knows I can never stop with one. The first movie came out when I was 8 years old, and I distinctly remember sitting down in front of the fireplace after my parents rented it and put the VHS tape in. I remember how quickly and deeply I fell in love with the film and how we went to the movies together to see Part II, and how we went out during a storm while out of town on a family vacation on the opening weekend of Part III to see just how the saga concluded. I even remember my father commenting on the weather and saying that anybody who went out in it to see the movie must have been a die hard fan. Which, of course, I was.
I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why these films are so great, and I’m certainly not going to waste any time on a recap, but I’m going to tell you what it is about them that makes me feel better. Part of it, like with all of the things I’m going to share with you, are the characters. There’s something about the unorthodox friendship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly that resonated with me even as a child. I had already spent years dreaming of being picked up by a tornado and thrown to Oz or finding a closet door with a passage to Narnia, but even at eight it was starting to seem like either of those would be a stretch. Finding an eccentric mentor who would bring me along on grand adventures seemed much more plausible. Even now, at a stage in life where I find myself relating more to Doc than Marty, that relationship seems pure and genuine. (Ironically, I think that’s part of the reason Rick and Morty became so popular so fast – it’s a parody of the Doc/Marty relationship, but that parody wouldn’t have worked as well if there was something foul or sordid about the original.)
Then there’s the basic fantasy of time travel, of being able to hop into a machine that can whisk you away to another place. The idea of seeing the past and the future is tantalizing, and I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t be tempted to use Gray’s Sports Almanac the same way Marty intended to.
The other thing, which people may perhaps not think of immediately but I consider of utmost importance, is the music. The best movies often have memorable scores, but Alan Silvestri’s composition is one of the all-time greats. The sweeping tones automatically bring to mind the film, hit those triggers in your memory and pull you into the world of Hill Valley, and charge your heart with anticipation. The music moves from exciting to thrilling to, ultimately, triumphant. When you hear Alan Silvestri’s score to Back to the Future, you find yourself capable of believing that even when things are tough, like they were for Marty McFly, there is a solution that will make everything turn out okay in the end.
And c’mon. The car is really cool.
Bet you expected me to say Star Trek, didn’t you? Yeah, I know, Trek is my jam, but sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.
Cheers, the sitcom about a little bar in Boston, has two distinct stages, and I love them both…but not equally, if I’m being honest. In the early years, the show was mostly a workplace romcom about Sam and Diane, with the rest of the characters there to add flavor. It was a fine show, it was a funny show, but I was a fairly young child at the time and, although my parents watched it, I didn’t really start paying attention to the series until I got older. This may be part of the reason that – although I would never skip the Diane years when doing a rewatch – it’s the Rebecca years that leave the most indelible mark on my memory.
But my relative age isn’t the only reason the second life of Cheers is my preferred era. Like I said, during the Shelley Long years, the show centered around Sam and Diane’s relationship. This was good. This made for some excellent television. But after Long left to become a major movie star (I recently watched her performance in 2012’s Zombie Hamlet, and I highly recommend it), they replaced her with the recently-deceased Kirstie Alley, and although there were the occasional flirtations with making her couple off with Sam like they did with Diane, the writers wisely realized that the same chemistry wasn’t there, and shifted the focus from a romcom to more of an ensemble comedy. The other characters grew in prominence, Rebecca Howe found a different niche to fill than the one vacated by Diane Chambers, and the show blossomed yet again.
While the likes of Woody, Cliff, Carla, and Norm all had their moments in the pre-Rebecca days, post-Diane they had far more episodes in the spotlight. Frasier Crane was a Diane castoff who stuck around, but it was in the Rebecca era that he bloomed to one of the stars of the show, eventually spinning off into his own series (also a comfort watch for me), with a revival of the latter currently in the works. I’m not saying that the early years of Cheers weren’t GOOD, please don’t misunderstand me. It was a remarkable comedy, the character of Coach was sorely missed for the rest of the series, and the episode guest-starring John Cleese is perhaps one of the funniest half-hours of television ever put to film. It’s just that the pure love I feel for the series, the way I have affection for these characters as if they were personal friends of mine, the fact that I remember that Frasier’s first wife “Nanny G”’s phone number was 555-6792…that’s all a product of the Kirstie Alley years, and I’m fine with that.
Boy, I deserve some sort of trophy for THAT deep cut.
Book: The Princess Bride by William Goldman.
I may be cheating a little bit here, since much of what is wonderful about this novel is also applicable to the movie, which I also love and watch as comfort on many an occasion. But this is probably the novel I have read more times than any other (a feat which I insist is more impressive than the movie you’ve watched most often). It is the book I pick up when I’m sad. It’s the story I turn to when I’m depressed. It’s the tale I want to hear again when I feel like there is nothing good and beautiful in the world. I need this story at those times, because if it were true that there is nothing good and beautiful in the world, then how could a novel such as this even exist?
I know you’ve seen the movie, so I won’t bother to retell you the story. Instead, I’ll tell you about the elements unique to the book so that you can understand why it resonates with me so deeply.
First of all the framing sequence. In the film, the tale of Westley and Buttercup is being read by a grandfather to his sick grandson. In the book, Goldman creates a metatextual story (this was before metatextual stories) about his own family, in which his father read the story to him as a child. It was not until adulthood that he tried reading it himself to his own son (a fictional son, by the way, as the real William Goldman had only daughters) and realized his dad skipped all the boring bits and just read him “the good parts.” The book is presented as adult Goldman abridging a classic novel by getting rid of all the flowery muck and bits of Elizabethan satire that modern audiences wouldn’t give a crap about. It’s a really funny conceit, and it’s executed so perfectly that a lot of people reading the book for the first time don’t realize the framing sequence is fiction as well. (It’s me. I’m a lot of people. I didn’t get it the first time.)
Second, the writing is simply marvelous. A lot of the great bits of dialogue made it into the film, which isn’t a surprise since Goldman wrote the screenplay himself, but there simply wasn’t room for everything, and many of those pieces left on the floor are absolutely priceless. For instance, the movie largely ignores Buttercup’s parents and their unending bickering, for which they keep score. It skips over the history of Fezzik entirely and leaves out all but the most essential parts of Inigo’s backstory, which makes an already amazing character so much richer. There’s more time spent with Humperdink, more time devoted to Vizzini, and much more to Westley and Buttercup’s burgeoning romance. Because yeah, it is a kissing book.
I don’t begrudge Goldman any of the cuts, of course. The very premise of the novel is that sometimes parts of a story don’t translate from medium to medium. But if you’ve only seen the movie you haven’t experienced the whole story.
The last thing about this book is perhaps the most important: the message. In the framing sequence, Goldman discusses a conversation with an old neighborhood woman who served as something of a mentor to him. This segment concludes with the child Goldman learning that life isn’t fair. Rather than being angry or hurt at the realization, though, he is utterly jubilant to hear the news, because once you accept that life ISN’T fair, isn’t SUPPOSED to be fair, then a lot of the crap the world throws around suddenly makes a LOT more sense. This is, I think, a very important message, and the great thing about it is how it is presented in a way that is joyful and positive rather than dour and depressing.
The point I’m getting at is that if you haven’t read this book, you should, and I’m envious that you’re going to get to experience it for the first time, which I will never have the chance to do again. But hey, that’s all right, because life isn’t fair.
Comics: The Triangle Era Superman.
Okay, this paragraph is just for the uber-nerds like myself who already know all about the “Triangle Era” of Superman. The rest of you can skip to the next paragraph. Ahem. I’m about to give a super-condensed history of the era. I know I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. Like William Goldman, I choose to focus on the good parts rather than telling everybody the intricacies of comic book numbering and whatnot. Please don’t send me corrective emails.
In 1986, DC Comics hired writer/artist John Byrne to revitalize the Superman character. He took over both Superman and Action Comics, the two titles that starred the hero, and they added a third book to the line as well, Adventures of Superman, which was usually done by other creators such as Marv Wolfman. After a while, Byrne left the character in the hands of other writers and artists, and while he had done good work in his time, it was after his departure that a certain kind of alchemy began to happen. With Superman starring in three comic books a month, the writers and artists would have to collaborate to make sure they weren’t contradicting or causing problems for each other. This collaboration began to grow more intricate, and in time, the three different titles began to function almost as one. Stories that began in Adventures of Superman one week would continue in Action Comics the week after. Before long a fourth title was added, Superman: The Man of Steel, so that there were four monthly Superman books that worked almost as a single weekly title. Then someone noticed that 4×12=48, but there were 52 weeks in a year, so a fifth title (Superman: The Man of Tomorrow) was added to fill in the extra gaps. At some point, DC started to put a triangle on the cover of each issue demonstrating which week of the year it was to help readers keep track of what order the books went in, thus the “Triangle Era” was born.
The weekly nature of the serial was a great concept. Knowing that there would be a new chapter of an ongoing storyline each and every week forged hardcore loyalty and created a devoted fanbase that still exists today. What’s more, although the main story was ongoing, each individual series had its own subplots that made it stand out. Adventures, for example, was more often going to deal with the mad scientists of Project: Cadmus, while Man of Steel devoted time to a story about an orphanage and a young child who would eventually be adopted by Perry White. The books were part of a larger whole, but still had their own flavor and identity.
The Triangle Era lasted over ten years, but those early days happened just as I started reading the books and featured many of the writers, artists, and storylines that are still most dear to me: Lois learning Clark’s double identity, their engagement and marriage, the somewhat vindicated-by-history era of Superman Blue/Superman Red, the classic “Panic in the Sky” storyline, and of course, the legendary Death and Return of Superman were all products of the Triangle Era. Like all comfort media, part of my love for these books is no doubt because these were the comics I read in my formative years. But there’s also the fact that, for a very long time, these comic books were just really good. The world of Superman, which had not-undeservedly been called stale and out of date a decade earlier, was suddenly energetic, exciting, and full of new characters, concepts, heroes, and villains. Many people have made Superman comics over the years, but Dan Jurgens, Brett Breeding, Roger Stern, Bob McCleod, Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett, Louise Simonson, and Jon Bogdanove remain the gold standard in my mind.
As the song goes, these are a few of my favorite things. These are stories, characters, and worlds that I never grow tired of. These are the things that mean something to me, things I flat-out refuse to let go of, things that come together and help make me who I am.
So what are yours?
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He bets you thought he was kidding about Zombie Hamlet, didn’t you?
2 thoughts on “Geek Punditry #9: Pop Culture Comfort Food”
Movies: Absolutely Back to the Future. In any era, the world of Hill Valley is a wonder to behold, and it’s a pleasure to explore with Doc and Marty. I even have a special affection for Part III. And you’re right, Alan Silvestri’s score is basically my happy place.
TV: I have plenty, but on nights where I can’t sleep, I go downstairs and put on old Frasiers. Something about the sets, the rhythms, and the dulcet tones of Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce abd others is just warm and soothing
Books: I don’t re-read fiction but I love rereading a book like Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield. There’s something very comforting about reading a writer you love, writing on a topic you’re already well aquainted with.
Comics: It’s gotta be Claremont X-Men in general and the “From The Ashes” trade in specific. I mean, I’ve only written 1500 words about it every week for the last 5 years.
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