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'God of geeks' examines superheroes, pop culture in new book


Batman, Plastic Man, cyberpunk novels and The Nutty Professor are not usually the stuff of academic tomes. But then again, Scott Bukatman is not your typical academic.

"Superheroes, science fiction and Jerry Lewis -- I'm the emperor of the nerds, the god of geeks," the Stanford associate professor of art and art history writes candidly in an essay on mutant superheroes, one of eight in his brightly illustrated new book, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century (Duke University Press, 2003). "Well past adolescence, I lead a double life -- inside and outside academia, inside and outside superhero subculture."

Bukatman, a media and cultural theorist who happily wears superhero T-shirts to class, joined the Department of Art and Art History seven years ago to help Stanford launch a film studies program. His first major scholarly work, Terminal Identity, was one of the earliest book-length studies of cyberculture. His second book, a monograph on Blade Runner, was commissioned by the British Film Institute.

In Matters of Gravity, the now-tenured professor writes on subjects as diverse as superhero comics, cyberspace, Disney theme parks, cinematic special effects, music videos and Hollywood musicals. Yet all these popular diversions have something in common, he writes -- the ability to pluck audiences out of their mortal bodies and send them into unfettered flights of fantasy. In the process, they make the modern world seem less threatening.

It's no accident, for example, that Superman made his first appearance following the shock of World War I. In his essay "X-Bodies: The Torment of the Mutant Superhero," Bukatman observes that most superheroes possess bodies in a permanent state of readiness. If random death now appears from nowhere, he writes, "the superbody is more than merely resistant; it bears its own mysterious power." As embodied by the superhero, "the utter helplessness of the human being in the face of industrial stress has been overcome -- technological trauma has produced its own antidote."

In another essay, Bukatman reflects on Disneyland and Disney World, theme parks that prepare guests for a warm and fuzzy future by grounding new technologies in heavily traditional forms. In Frontierland and New Orleans Square, for example, audioanimatronic robots depict singing bears and comical pirates, while the rides of Tomorrowland and Future World give guests illusions of assimilation and mastery, spectacles in which electronic space "is rendered visible, malleable and perhaps even adorable."

Likewise, urban musicals make complicated modern cityscapes seem less daunting. Films from the 1930s, '40s and '50s such as On the Town and Broadway Melody turn "what outsiders might have considered most negative about New York City -- its noise, violence, ethnic pluralism and vulgarity -- into a positive, rhythmic, democratic experience," Bukatman writes in his essay "Syncopated City." "This is a place where, as they say in 42nd Street, 'side by side they're glorified ... where the underworld can meet the elite.'" Like World's Fairs and superhero narratives, Bukatman writes, these musicals present urban modernity "as a utopia of sublime grace."

Throughout the book, Bukatman reflects on how topsy-turvy cinematic effects, superhero comics and science fiction have worked their magic on his own life. Growing up in Brooklyn as a "typical geeky kid with glasses who read way past my grade level," Bukatman said his favorite classic superhero was the Green Lantern. As he explains, "There was that streamlined costume -- no cape! -- the power ring and the secret oath." With that ring, he writes, "the self was no longer bounded by a body. ... I doubt that I realized it then, but here was Freud's omnipotence of thoughts gelled into an ornament that could compensate for [my] physical weakness."

Bukatman first became enraptured with science fiction cinema as he sat in the dark watching Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the first film he ever attended alone, "the friends and family of this nerdy 11-year-old having little interest in either science fiction or experimental cinema," he writes in his book's preface. "The 2001 that Kubrick and his collaborator Arthur C. Clarke offered us, back in 1968, introduced us to the future through the movements of giant space stations cartwheeling through space, as precisely piloted shuttle craft waltzed in graceful tandem toward an ultimate and strangely loving rendezvous."

Bukatman went on to earn his doctorate in cinema studies from New York University in 1992. After graduating, he taught at New York University, Yale University and the Free University in Berlin. From 1994 to 1997, he was part of the Media Arts Program at the University of New Mexico.

At Stanford, he teaches basic courses on film aesthetics and theory, as well as interdisciplinary offerings on cinema and the city; World's Fairs and theme parks; and cyborgs and synthetic humans. His Stanford office in the Cummings Art Building is decorated with vintage movie posters -- Martin and Lewis are a favorite duo -- as well as clippings from much-loved comic strips and a sign from the 1964 World's Fair.

"Getting tenure took a little longer than I hoped. I worried that I was falling between too many disciplines," he now confesses. "But it seems to be OK. It's really weird to be an academic finding myself drawn to talking about things that I used to like as a kid."

Bukatman's next big project is a biography of turn-of-the-century cartoonist Winsor McCay, creator of the Little Nemo comic strip, whose 1914 film Gertie the Dinosaur was one of the first animated cartoons. "I'm turning into a real art history professor," Bukatman notes, thumbing through a gorgeously illustrated book of McCay's cartoons. "After tenure you're supposed to start doing your goofy work," he explains with a mischievous smile, "but I got that out of my system. Now I'm doing serious stuff."