The first two entries in ECW Press’s new Pop Classics series – short, informal examinations of various pop culture phenomena – traverse a broad gap between nihilistic pseudo-porn satire and human-sized adolescent warrior turtles. At first blush, It Doesn’t Suck, by film critic Adam Nayman, and Raise Some Shell, by Broken Pencil fiction editor Richard Rosenbaum, might seem like strange bedfellows; it soon becomes clear, however, that these titles have significantly more in common than one might expect, specifically regarding cultural commentary, issues around identity, and genre expectations.
It Doesn’t Suck forwards the uncommon idea that Paul Verhoeven’s much maligned 1995 film, Showgirls, might be one of the great misunderstood gems of our time – a film that, upon repeated viewings, reveals itself as a dark commentary on the American way of life as seen through the eyes of a Dutch career provocateur. Nayman proceeds with a mostly linear discussion of the production, detailing behind-the-scenes conflicts between Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, the film’s dismal reception, and its slow renaissance as a cult hit.
Nayman achieves a fine balance between accessibility and academia, marshalling enough basic film theory to reinforce his argument while remaining light and conversational throughout. After a few brief chapters introducing the film and Verhoeven’s unique cinematic oeuvre, Nayman goes on to dissect Showgirls’ narrative arc, analyzing themes such as race and the symbolism inherent in the naming conventions of its two female leads.
While the success or failure of Nayman’s argument does not require one to have an intimate connection with Showgirls, a slim-to-moderate awareness of the film, and its notoriety, is required. Though the author never tumbles all the way down the cinephile rabbit hole, his impassioned case for Showgirls being deliberately awful – and thus secretly scathing – is grounded in his expertise and knowledge of the social mise en scène in which the film was released. In the end, Nayman does not attempt to unilaterally state that Showgirls is a masterpiece, merely that it is a misunderstood satire deserving of a second, more open-minded glance.
If It Doesn’t Suck is a tempered plea for respect, Raise Some Shell is the battle cry of a die-hard fan. Like Nayman, Rosenbaum tackles his subject’s history from both cultural and analytical perspectives, beginning with the 1984 creation of the four heroes on the half-shell at the hands of artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. He cites the genesis of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a response to the emergence of darker, more socially critical comics from artists such as Frank Miller (Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and Dave Sim (Cerebus).
Rosenbaum centres his discussion on the concept of pastiche, involving Eastman and Laird’s appropriation of specific themes and ideas from similar works to comment on contemporary trends. Throughout, the author uses the Turtles’ shifting aesthetic – from their bleak, black-and-white origins as a comic targeting primarily adult readers to their many cartoon and action-figure incarnations – as a metaphor for the American immigrant experience, and for youths striving to carve out identities in a world they stand both apart from and in defence of.
Where Nayman’s book employed a certain formality, Rosenbaum’s approach is decidedly more sarcastic, often wavering tonally between knowledgeable fan and rabid Internet message-board commenter. Nowhere is this more obvious than when the author veers into a discussion of the franchise’s future – specifically, the question of whether the script for the upcoming Michael Bay–produced live-action film is a form of creative genocide. Rosenbaum’s footnotes are at once enlightening and hilarious, touching on so-called “race lifting” in adaptations, the sociopathy of postmodernists, and the preteen allure of April O’Neil’s cleavage-revealing yellow jumpsuit.
By successfully drawing comparisons to Kafka, Rushdie, and Marvel’s X-Men, Rosenbaum, like Nayman with Showgirls, is able to state his case for the continued social relevance of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles unapologetically and without a shred of irony.