Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | What the Twinkie teaches

That's a big metaphor

Consider the Twinkie. A relic of a more indulgent age, lately almost an afterthought, and most recently the latest symbol of vanished childhoods everywhere, it is once more in the spotlight due to the apparent end of the Hostess company.

While I have my own thoughts on the specifics of that particular corporate conclusion, suffice it to say that my sympathies are more with the soon-to-be-displaced workers than with either Hostess’ management or the Twinkies’ fans. Still, the reaction to Hostess’ demise demonstrates that there’s still a demand for the indestructible yellow creme-torpedoes — perhaps even more so now — and as long as people want ‘em, the Twinkies will be there.

The most important thing about a Twinkie is that it’s a Twinkie. Specifically, it’s made according to a particular recipe, and it has a particular name. Those two pieces of intellectual property will most likely be sold as part of Hostess’ liquidation, thereby giving their new owner the ability to make “genuine” Twinkies. In my estimation, it’s only a matter of time before Twinkies, Ho-Hos, Ding-Dongs, and all their confectionery cousins find their way back to stores near you.

In fact, a few years from now, you may be enjoying Twinkies 2.0 while you watch Star Wars: Episode VII. As far as I know, Lucasfilm wasn’t in as much financial jeopardy as Hostess apparently was, but George Lucas was ready to sell his company and Disney was ready to produce more Star War movies. The new episodes may even bring back Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. However, it sounds like the big difference will be the lack of involvement from Lucas himself. The original recipe may be essential for enjoying a Twinkie, but perhaps not as much in the Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Naturally, many Star Wars fans may welcome the Flanneled One taking a step back, given the (ahem) mixed reaction that greeted the pure Lucas-vision of Episodes I-III. To me it’s not unlike the relatively undiluted influence of Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first couple of seasons. In both cases fans can point to high-water marks (like The Empire Strikes Back or The Wrath of Khan) where “outside” creators made lasting impressions.

Still, you have to be at least somewhat faithful to the original recipe, because that’s what brought the fans in the first place. Such an approach can also acknowledge that these ideas — maybe not so much spongy snacks, but certainly Jedi Knights and boldly going starship crews — didn’t originate with their current caretakers. Along the same lines, Wikipedia tells me that the Twinkie’s inventor was James Alexander Dewar (1897-1985), manager of Chicago’s Hostess Bakery,who based his concoction on strawberry shortcake fundamentals and named it after the Twinkle Toe Shoe Company. For whatever it’s worth, Dewar sounds like a pretty faithful employee, rising through the ranks of the Continental Baking Company from delivery boy to regional vice president, with the Twinkie’s birth coming fairly early in his 52-year career.

I mention Dewar mainly to remind us that, more often than not, we can find real people behind the most mundane items — and make no mistake, the Twinkie is pretty mundane. While the formula for its “sugar-cream mixture” remains a “tightly held secret,” a Twinkie is basically cake, cream and a name. It is not informed by humanistic philosophy or pseudo-mythological mysticism.

And yet, we fans risk treating corporate-owned characters like Twinkies — that is, like products passed from one set of hands to another, with each custodian working from the same basic recipe, toward the same basic end. What matters is merely that we have Twinkies that behave like Twinkies, and we might not care how they came to us or how those custodians are treated. Again, given sufficient demand, the things we love will never go away, thanks to the magic of the marketplace. That’s a somewhat mean-spirited take on fandom, but at times fandom can be pretty mean-spirited. From self-appointed gatekeepers to defenders of corporate exploitation, the worst of fandom is reactionary and ultra-conservative, insisting that its steady diet remain unchallenged.

Of course, these impulses butt up against the constant drive to be “current,” and we know where that’s left corporate-owned superheroes. It’s perhaps a mixed blessing that “staying current” didn’t seem to have troubled the Twinkie sellers until it was already too late. In this respect I wonder which Superman analogue matches up with the Organic Vegan Twinkie. The very existence of such a thing corresponds more closely with fandom’s convictions about its own creative impulses — specifically, the notion that there is a “right” way to replicate a beloved object, which looks and acts sufficiently like it, but with none of the bad associations. For example, one’s “personal canon” might prune all the low points out of a favorite character’s history. Ideally, though, the official, corporate-owned version would be unblemished enough to make such personal canons unnecessary. (Naturally, in-canon retcons and/or reboots help such efforts.) In any event, once we fans are attach ourselves sufficiently to particular characters, we’re along for the ride. It can be hard to “unlearn” or “unknow” unpleasant stories after we’ve lived with them for a while.

In that light, the relative simplicity of a character’s “iconic” or “definitive” version can be very appealing, not unlike a familiar snack. Take the Supergirl of Earth-One, created by Otto Binder and Curt Swan, who appeared first in 1959′s Action Comics #252. When I started reading Superman comics in the mid-1970s, Kara Zor-El had been out of her cousin’s shadow for several years, and was virtually equal to him in power and competence. I was sorry to see her die in Crisis On Infinite Earths, and was excited to see a version of Supergirl return in the post-Crisis titles. That Supergirl first appeared in 1988′s Superman vol. 2 #16, and almost from the start she was caught in a continuity tangle. Get ready for the info-dump …

In the post-Crisis revised Superman history, he was never Superboy and never joined the Legion of Super-Heroes. However, at the time, nobody really wanted to rewrite almost 30 years of Legion stories, so the Superman and Legion creative teams came up with the Time Trapper’s “pocket dimension,” a little sliver of existence from whence came a Superboy who looked and acted just like the pre-Crisis one. Not long after he met “our” Superman, Pocket-Superboy sacrificed his life to save the Legion. Unfortunately, he left behind a set of Phantom Zone criminals who tricked teenaged Pocket-Lex Luthor into releasing them. They rendered Pocket-Earth uninhabitable and drove the small remnant of humanity underground. There, Pocket-Lex created a super-powered clone of Pocket-Lana Lang to fight the Zoners, and eventually sent her to find our Superman. (Feel free to picture all of this happening with MiniMates.)

Long story short, once the Phantom Zoners had been dispatched, Supergirl (or “Matrix,” as she was also known) came back with Superman and rehabbed with the Kents. Eventually she found her way to Metropolis where she took up with our Luthor; and in 1996 she got her own series, from writer Peter David and penciler Gary Frank. David didn’t ignore or disavow all the pocket-universe stuff, but neither did he emphasize it. Instead, he superseded it by fusing Matrix with young burnout Linda Danvers, and making the Linda/Supergirl combo an “Earth Angel.” The series lasted 81 issues, ending with an arc which teamed Linda with a new-to-Earth Kara Zor-El. Neither was seen much after Issue 81: Kara went back to her own timeline and Linda retired, returning only briefly in the Reign in Hell miniseries.

By that point, of course, Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner had reintroduced the “real” Kara Zor-El in 2004′s Superman/Batman #8. Recast as a wide-eyed (and apparently ribcage-free) teenager, she too got her own series, which lasted 68 issues before being canceled as part of the New 52 relaunch. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that for the first few years, nobody at DC quite knew what to do with her. I didn’t read the book until Kelley Puckett and Drew Johnson came aboard in 2008, and I thought Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle did fine work grounding her in Metropolis.

These days I like the New 52 Supergirl (courtesy of Michael Green, Mike Johnson and Mahmoud Asrar), in part because her attitude reminds me of the more mature, “professional” superheroine from the ‘70s. She’s pragmatic in a way that doesn’t come across as cynical. Instead, it comes from her attachment to Krypton and unfamiliarity with Earth. It’s a good way to reframe her youth and inexperience, but it’s not exactly the guilt-free replication of an Organic Vegan Twinkie.

Indeed, one could see the Loeb/Turner relaunch as the OVT Supergirl. By showing her freshly arrived on Earth, Loeb and Turner threw away all the baggage from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but instead she wandered aimlessly around the DC Universe for a few years, engaging in a few bizarre storylines along the way. The more grounded she got (including moving in with Lana Lang and adopting a new secret identity), the better-received her book became. Over the past year, the New 52 Supergirl has shown comparably complex motivations and is building a distinct supporting cast, which sets her apart further from her Silver Age roots. Instead of an Organic Vegan Twinkie, she’s more like a chocolate croissant — a flaky pastry with a bitter, semi-sweet kick. Apparently sometimes you just have to move on from Twinkies.

And at the risk of cutting short the delicious imagery, it may be time to admit that the Twinkie doesn’t have all the answers. I will say I appreciate the Twinkie more than I did a couple of weeks ago, particularly with regard to its role in the economic scheme of things. It may sound elementary, but it takes a lot to bring even the most mundane things to the larger world, be they empty calories or superhero comics.

Whether those things can remain unchanged and/or uncomplicated often isn’t a simple question, and neither does it necessarily mean a bad outcome. One of the best explorations of superhero comics’ “modernizing” continues to be the malleable DC/Marvel mashup in 2003′s JLA/Avengers #3 (by Kurt Busiek and George Pérez). The issue features a radically altered timeline that has produced a series of shared adventures, just like the annual Justice League/Justice Society get-togethers. However, the changes have eliminated all of the heroes’ grim ‘n’ gritty moments — so there was no “Teen Tony” Iron Man, Hal Jordan never became Parallax, etc. — and naturally, that threatens reality itself. Thus, the teams choose to restore their old, “canonical” histories, and accept the various pains and troubles visited upon them, rather than keep their happy (but doomed) mutual coexistence. It’s the kind of selfless decision you expect from straightforward superhero comics, and it implies that these sorts of changes are inevitable, if not outright necessary — but it doesn’t really endorse those changes, either. Instead, Hal frames those bad times as part of “the truth.” It’s always struck me as a fairly metatextual moment, especially since Hal seems to be looking at the reader. The cast of JLA/Avengers would probably prefer not to be so burdened, but on some level they “know” they have no choice.

Similarly, regardless of how brief the Twinkie’s brush with mortality turns out to be, it illustrates just how impermanent a nigh-ubiquitous object really is. What the Twinkie reminds me is that everything has a creator and everything has an end — and no matter what happens in between, we would do well to be mindful of both.

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Comments

3 Comments

Wow.
That’s a lot from a spongecake with cream filling…

That’s a BIG Twinkie.

” Still, the reaction to Hostess’ demise demonstrates that there’s still a demand for the indestructible yellow creme-torpedoes — perhaps even more so now — and as long as people want ‘em, the Twinkies will be there.”

No, it really doesn’t. ALL it proves is that people want the idea of a thing existing. These aren’t people that bought Twinkies. If you read the reactions you’ll see many of them start with “I haven’t bought one in years but” they just want them to exist. They want the company to create this thing in their memories, and never actually buy it – they want the memory to exist.

Which is not great for the thing paying for it. It’s a nostalgia trip. It’s akin to TV shows that don’t get ratings but when they are cancelled it’s all “Bring back the show!” – look up any time in history this has happened. The show comes back and still has bad ratings and is cancelled again fairly quickly.

Outrage and instance that a thing exists IN NO WAY equals demand for that thing.

People want their memories and that will never once be fulfilled. They don’t want the new Star Wars to feature X, Y or Z and be made by C, D or E – they want the exact movies that live in their head to be made again to make them feel the way they did when they saw them for the very first time. And that, honestly, is impossible. Every time it is impossible. It will always be impossible.

Which is why the good thing is to not worry about formula, or who did what – but to instead make something good, and solid, and worth watching/consuming. Make it great and people will see it. Understand the basic core emotions in the original and people will react well to them.

But going in to try and do a thing for memorie’s sake is a lose/lose situation for everyone – every time.

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