I’ve been thinking lately about the intriguing phenomenon of the cult-following. There seems to be a science to it. Of course, to me, science and mysticism often fall into the same category.
When I was eleven, my mother worked at the public library, and I spent a lot of time there. It was at this age that I first started browsing the adult fiction. I liked Stephen King and Piers Anthony (hey, I was eleven). I’d always liked comic books, but was never a particularly avid Batman reader. I liked The Man-Thing, The Fantastic Four, and anything with Doctor Octopus. Basically, I liked Stan Lee.
But that summer that I was eleven, I was in the adult section on the second floor, and I picked up Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It was like the world changed a little bit. I’d never heard of Frank Miller. This was shortly before the first Sin City yarn, and way before Miller established his Sin City dynasty, but he was charismatic and addictive and startling. Mostly, he was just different. I didn’t know the term character development, but it was an idea that I was starting to understand anyway. This was the first version of Batman that I found sad and tortured and selfish and fascinating (I really liked that he was selfish). I read it in a kind of breathless panic. I read more Frank Miller, everything they had. I thought about him as a person—this was at an age when I still rarely thought of writers as people. I decided that he understood Batman better than Bob Kane, or TV, or even Tim Burton. (And also that he had an obsession with hookers.) I felt like I’d discovered something, the actual truth, the real, secret Batman who had always existed, only no one wanted to see him that way. I suddenly felt like I was in on it, which, when you’re eleven and everyone is still intent on talking to each other over the top of your head, is a great feeling.
I saw 300 this weekend and started thinking about Frank Miller again. I’d always figured I was one in this tiny minority of people who had actually read 300, and purely by chance, too. Back when RKG worked at the library (again with the library) he got 300 on interlibrary loan from one of the bigger metro branches, along with two Sin City shorts and Ronin. It was during football season, when Madden was still doing Monday nights. The half-time show was on and I was losing patience. [Brief aside—my favorite John Madden quote ever: “Here’s a guy, when he runs, he goes faster.”] So, I started flipping through RKG’s special-order books. They were in plastic bags, with little slips of paper taped to them. I took out 300, and again, I was transported. I knew the account wasn’t exactly what you would call factual. Instead it was the myth, the folklore, bigger than fact, and gory and intense and very lovely. I thought, For the rest of my life, I’m going to remember how I feel right now.
When we went to 300, it was a Sunday matinée, and still every single showing had sold out since eleven o’clock that morning. The line was so long it looped back and forth just to fit in the building. People were talking all around us, speculating in whispers. The movie was so faithful to the book that I could recognize panels and long stretches of it word-for-word, just like with Sin City. It’s not a complicated story, and certainly not a long book, and so the movie mostly served to underscore the visual aspect, the graphic-ness of it. The audience was screaming and clapping as though it were real-life.
There are all kinds of stories that you can find by accident, but most of them turn out to be forgettable. I’m thinking about the stories you find by accident, and when you sit down and actually look closely, it’s like fireworks going off. The world changes slightly. It doesn’t matter if the book is cool, or not cool, or obscure and then later becomes. cool. It’s beyond that, because for a little bit, nothing exists outside of it, and when you’re done, you know without thinking about it that you would follow that author anywhere. If enough people are incapable of forgetting, then the cult-following takes shape. This is an intimidating idea, and scary, and very exciting—that as author, you always have to be prepared to act as one part hypnotist.