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January 13, 2004

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  What's Wrong with Escapism?

Ever notice how the word "escapism" is almost never used except in a derogatory way?  I have.  And it really steams me up.  I started thinking about this topic when I read our recent Graphic Novel Review of the Trade Paperback, Adam Strange: The Man of Two Worlds.  I hope the author of that review, His Orcishness "Drooling" D.K. Latta, will forgive me if I give too much away, but, in D.K.'s distinctive words, it seemed as if the authors of The Man of Two Worlds had decided to "kick the franchise in the teeth and see what got spat out."  The philosophy behind this effort apparently being that the whole Adam Strange concept was escapist fantasy drivel made to appeal to arrested adolescents.  The authors set out, not to celebrate Adam Strange, but to bury him.  And good riddance.  Ptui!

I've never read Adam Strange but the basic premise of this science fiction comic book hero was this.  From time to time, Adam found himself whisked away to a distant planet named Rann by an alien energy beam.  On earth, Adam Strange was just plain Adam Strange, regular guy.  But on Rann -- he was Adam Strange, hero of a world!  With his rocket pack and cool Jetson's get-up, he combatted all manner of alien threats, including giant robots and bug-eyed monsters.  And, unlike, say, the X-Men who at best had a problematic relationship with the public they protected, Adam was virtually worshipped by the adoring people of Rann.

Of course, it was a fantasy.  What kid wouldn't dream of being whisked away to another world, there to fight alien menaces and be worshipped by all and sundry?  No homework.  No school.  No bedroom to clean or parents to yell at you.  It was escapism in the purest meaning of the word, since Adam Strange physically "escaped" the mundane reality of his earth life for the exciting fantasy of Rann.

And that's okay if you're a kid reading the Adam Strange comics by flashlight under your bedsheets.  But what about later, when you're older?  Shouldn't you put aside "childish" things and get on with the serious business of growing up?  Shouldn't you grow out of it?  If you don't, if you are still reading Adam Strange long after you've found yourself shopping for reading glasses at Wal-mart, isn't there something wrong with you? 

At least, that's what a good many detractors will tell you.  They will say that escapism is "denial".  It is an unwillingness to face the real world and its challenges and a retreat into a comfy, cosy cocoon of self-delusion.  It is a sickness that needs to be cured.

Caught in this drag-net of "childish-things-best-put-aside-when-you-grow-up" is, of course, the entire oeuvre of Pulp fiction.  Which is where we come in.  The Pulps were all about escapism.  They offered an escape from the mundane and sometimes unbearable hardships of the real world into a fictional Neverland of manly, unstoppable heroes and beautiful, readily available women.  And though they offered their own hardships, in the form of sneering, power-mad villains, those hardships (like the beautiful women) were easily conquered. 

I agree with all that.  But my question is, what's wrong with that?  Is there really anything "sick" about a little escapist self-delusion now and again? 

I know that probably seems like a silly question, given the readership of this e-zine.  I'm preaching to the choir.  Of course, since our faithful readers are fans of Pulp fiction, they would answer: Hell no!  There's nothing wrong with escapism!

And, yet, I find even fans of comic books or Pulp fiction, or escapism in whatever form deep down feel a certain embarrassment in their chosen fandom.  It is a "guilty pleasure".  They are enthusiastic, yes.  But still they shuffle their feet and drop their eyes and bashfully admit that, uh huh, they read Doc Savage -- as if admitting they have a drinking problem but, don't worry, they're getting help. 

It is virtually a truism that fans of escapist literature in whatever form had unhappy childhoods, lonely childhoods spent friendless, often with a prolonged period of illness during which they "discovered" Pulp fiction (or whatever) and it became their "friend".  It allowed them to cope.  When they were older they didn't get laid enough. They turned to escapist literature as an antidote. 

When I say this stereotype is a truism, I mean it isn't just detractors who say it.  It is the fans themselves who sometimes seem to revel in this stereotype.  And I wouldn't dispute it.  I suspect the majority of Pulp fans probably do fit this profile.  What I would dispute is the implied reverse side to the coin -- that people who do not care for escapist literature had well rounded, exciting childhoods.  That they didn't "need" the self-delusion it offers.

The fact of the matter is, nobody had a perfect childhood.  No one ever had enough friends.  No one ever felt they were handsome enough, or fast enough, or smart enough.  And as for getting laid...come on, people!  What I am saying is that everyone could do with a little escapism because no one is truly content with their lot in life.  (You show me someone who says they're content and I'll show you a ticking timebomb.)  But only a few of us discover a way to escape that life, at least for a few precious hours.

So how do I explain the stereotype?  Why do so many fans of escapist literature fit the lonely-childhood, period-of-illness profile?  Simple.  They were the ones with time on their hands -- time during which they had nothing better to do than pick up a book or a comic book and read.  It wasn't that they "needed" escapist literature more than other kids, it was just that they had the opportunity denied to other kids.  The other kids never knew what they were missing.

Pity them.

But what about when the kid grows up?  First off, I will still insist that nobody is truly content with their lot in life.  Everyone could do with a planet Rann to escape to now and again.  Nonetheless, I will admit that some of us need it more than others.  In Don Hutchison's The Great Pulp Heroes, he quotes a letter which appeared in the final issue of the Pulp magazine Captain Future:

Dear Editor,

If the paper shortage becomes so acute that you must cease publication...may I suggest that you hang on to CAPTAIN FUTURE until the very last?  I do the work of four or five people every day.  I have an invalid father and an ailing mother to care for and it's up to me to look after everything as well as performing heavy manual labour every day six days a week on my railroad job.  I'm so tired and exhausted that I almost collapse.  So, occasionally, when I have an hour or so to spare, I treat myself to the super treat of treats--CAPTAIN FUTURE!  That gives me the lift necessary to carry on.  But without CAPTAIN FUTURE, my life would be dreary, gloomy and lonely indeed.

Was the letter writer an arrested adolescent?  Was there something wrong with him that he wanted a little escapism now and again?  Was his problem that he didn't get laid enough?  Or was he a working Joe with a tough job who just wanted a chance to forget his troubles once in a while?

Is there any harm in a little self-delusion now and again?  I don't know.  I do know that when they go through the personal effects of some lunatic who finally snapped and went on a killing spree, he's more likely to have been reading Catcher in the Rye than Adam Strange.

Make of that what you will.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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