Michael Chabon, Matt Fraction, and the Nerd Cultural Insurgency (NCI)

I made it to the Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) and Matt Fraction (Casanova) dual appearance at Wondercon, which was well worth it for anyone into literary comics - or comic-bookish literature.

Both authors were clearly fans of one another's work; the format was something akin to a very digressive chat show with Matt Fraction hosting, feeding in questions and moving things along. Chabon energetically defended and riffed on the idea of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who could break out the deepest geek shibboleths at need, talked about encounters with Stan Lee and Will Eisner, and generally paid homage to the culture that had energized a lot of his work.

If there was a narrative line to the appearance, it was the tale of Chabon's gradual coming-out as a genre fiction fan and author. He painted a vivid picture of a lit/nerd's progress. He was born in 1963, and grew up during a Lee/Kirby hegemony, immersed in genre fiction of all kinds - Lovecraft, Conan Doyle, Moorcock, Leiber (if I judge Gentlemen of the Road's influences correctly). In the days pre-internet, even pre-VHS, fans of pulpy genre work had a lonelier watch to keep, turning out for only the rare face-to-face moments at screenings and conventions.

When he tried to bring this material to the MFA fiction program at U. C. Irvine, he was frozen out - it was still the age of Carver, of brief, lapidary studies of broken marriages. He made a breakout debut with Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but the material that had such a hold on his imagination and sense of identity only gradually made its way back into his fiction - comic book allusions in Wonder Boys, where he pushed some of his genre passion onto a fictional alter ego, a Lovecraftian author name August Van Zorn (who at one point was purported to have written a collection entitled The Abominations of Plunkettsburg). Then the early slipstream of Werewolves in Their Youth, then the full-on comics fest of Kavalier and Klay, which at the time seemed like a dead-end project. He credits comics fans as the early adopters of the work that helped turn it into a success.

This narrative was framed within a larger story of a kind of nerd cultural insurgency by which the literary and artistic worlds are gradually being made safe for geekdom. Since 2000, we've seen Lethem's Fortress of Solitude followed, Susannah Clarke, Kelly Link, and so many new slipstream authors we're at a point where it's hard to count them all. As staple SF magazines like Asimov's Science Fiction lost prominence, McSweeney's took on their role in a high-art guise. Chabon edited McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, where he deliberately mixed genre authors and literary fiction writers.

He also described the backlash his fantasy novel Summerland received, and pointed out that on the other side of the coin, a high-art author like Cormac McCarthy can write Westerns and post-apocalyptic SF, but will never get moved over to that side of the bookstore, because "if it's good, it can't be SF."

But if it's a gradual struggle, victory feels inevitable. The hardened boundaries between high and low culture handed down from the early 20th century can't stand forever. As Chabon pointed out, 1963 was a year with a powerful cohort including Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro, and Jonathem Lethem is only a year behind. Today, the closeted nerd artists have now infiltrated culture's governing institutions as editors, studio execs, and reviewers. Today, our boundary-annihilating president collects Conan the Barbarian comics.

Image via ToFuGuns.