NPR interviews Hank Willis Thomas on his exhibition showcasing images of white women in advertizing. It’s a follow up to his 2008 exhibition, “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America.” “I think what happens with ads — when we put text and logos on them, we do all the heavy lifting of making them make sense to us. But when you see the image naked, or unbranded, you start to really ask questions.”
Posted September 5, 2013
My first memories are of Ultraman, the Adam West Batman show, and something about jumping into a dumpster — but let’s leave that one out for now. It was probably related to one of the first two anyway. I vividly remember being mesmerized by Ultraman. From there, raised by young parents in a college environment at a time when things were somewhat permissive, I moved easily into Universal horror, Tarzan movies, and old science fiction and adventure serials back when such things were commonplace on television. My mother was a sorta-hippie who once dated a guy who would go on to help found TSR Games. My dad was a laid-back jock with a taste for wizardy prog rock. For quite literally as long as I can remember, gutter culture — scifi, horror, adventure — has simply been culture to me.
So for me to ask myself what it is about “gutter culture” I find so important requires a much more biographical (or self-centered) answer than philosophical. It is simply the very foundation of who I am. I never watched Sesame Street or The Electric Company, but I was well-versed in Godzilla, Frankenstein, and War of the Worlds. My parents’ friends were a bizarre mix of hippies and stoner athletes (one of whom was a football player who also turned out to be an early computer programming genius) who gave me comic books, junior editions of classic sci-fi, and recordings of old radio thrillers. When we moved away from the college town of Lexington to a more remote, rural setting, science fiction and adventure yarns came with me.
Growing up in a rural setting requires a kid to use his imagination if he wants to be entertained when he isn’t doing chores. The speculative nature of science fiction and adventure, the notion that incredible things were possible and an amazing world was just beyond the horizon, did a lot to help pass lazy country days. These things became springboards for my own adventures, the foundation on which I would construct vast and involved (for a kid, anyway) adventures. I would spend time thrilling to the exploits of Tom Swift, or reading through Boy’s Life magazine when the magazine would feature articles about camping and survival alongside serialized comic strips of The White Mountains. Then I would go outside and indulge myself to the upper limit of what wooded, rural Kentucky and permissive 1970s parenting would allow, organizing day-long adventures exploring caves, hunting for Bigfoot, and charting the great unknown around me.
As I got older and watched more movies, read more books, I recognized this low “gutter” culture as the birthplace of almost everything society held as high art. These were the cauldrons from which everything else was born, the wellspring that was tapped whenever humanity wanted to express itself in some new fashion or explore some difficult moral quandary. Our earliest stories are ones of fantastic adventure. The birth of the popular novel relied largely on tales of wonder and the supernatural. Our earliest films are similarly explorations of the fantastic — the incredible works of Melies, Edison’s Frankenstein, the opulent ancient-world spectacles and brooding horrors of the silent era. Every time a new medium or a new technology emerged, those who used it turned to fantasy, horror, and science fiction to exploit what the new medium could do. Who are we? What makes us who we are. Where might we be going, and what meaning is there behind our triumph and tragedy? Science fiction and horror are often the first genre in every medium to grapple with these questions.
For me, though, science fiction is primarily about inspiration. It inspired me to dream about the future. It inspired me to explore the world around me. It was there from the very beginning, pushing me to wonder about things and go a little bit further afield than was sometimes comfortable. And I was not alone. Science fiction motivated an entire generation of creators to go out and actively make the world about which they’d read. Anyone who thinks science fiction is about predicting the future is missing the point; it’s about inspiring the future. William Gibson didn’t predict the world wide web; he inspired people to go out and create it.
Ultimately, my embrace of gutter culture, of these disreputable books and movies and genres of entertainment, isn’t about rebelling against the mainstream, nor is it about crusading for them to be more accepted as meritorious by mainstream society. No, I am here to celebrate science fiction and all of gutter culture simply because it has been the impetus for nearly everything I’ve done. From my first glimpse of Ultraman tossing around some chump monster, it has exposed me to other cultures and new ways of thinking, challenged my own ways of thinking. And so I keep the company of madmen and dreamers, of stolid adventurers and restless wanderers, of monsters, schemers, scientists, and those forever looking ahead. After all, you got me this far.