The revival of dead fantasy subcultures

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

During the 1980s I played Dungeon and Dragons and also I read comic books. I was into the X-Men especially. Both of these subcultures were dying. Comic books died completely, as a business: both Marvel and DC declared bankruptcy. Comic books had once been a thriving business, but they died out. When I was a little kid, of say 9 years old, every 7-11 and convenience store had comic books. You could buy them everywhere. They were not exactly a niche product, or rather, they were no more niche than any other magazine that catered to tweens. But they were very, very unpopular during the 1980s and 1990s, and so all the major comic companies went bankrupt.

These last few years, I’ve been aware of the revival of a great many subcultures based around fantasy and heroic fiction. I’m not quite sure what is driving it, but considering comic books were popular for 50 years before becoming unpopular for 30 years, perhaps it would be more interesting to ask why they became unpopular, rather than ask why they are now popular again. Comic books died out when Ronald Reagan was President, and when a certain kind of bland conservatism was at its peak. The origin story of superhero comics might be relevant: Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were Jewish children growing up in a decade famous for its anti-semitism, and they created Superman as a fantasy of strength and justice. Now that Trump is President, the hunger for such fantasies seems obvious.

The New Yorker has a write up of the revival of Dungeons and Dragons:

This turn of events might shock a time traveller from the twentieth century. In the seventies and eighties, Dungeons & Dragons, with its supernatural themes, became the fixation of an overheated news media in the midst of a culture war. Role players were seen as closet cases, the least productive kind of geek, retreating to basements to open maps, spill out bags of dice, and light candles by which to see their medieval figurines. They squared with no one. Unlike their hippie peers, they had dropped out without bothering to tune in. On the other side of politics,Christian moralists’ cries of the occult and anxiety about witchcraft followed D. & D. players everywhere. Worse still, parents feared how this enveloping set of lies about druids in dark cloaks and paladins on horseback could tip already vulnerable minds off the cliff of reality. At the end of the 1982 TV movie “Mazes and Monsters,” a troubled gamer, played by a pre-fame Tom Hanks, loses touch and starts to believe that he really does live beside an evil wood in need of heroes. “He saw the monsters. We did not,” his ex-girlfriend says in a voice-over. “We saw nothing but the death of hope, and the loss of our friend.”
Decades passed, D. & D. movies and cartoons came and went, and the game remade itself over and over. But interest fell like an orc beneath a bastard sword. The game’s designers, surrounded by copycats and perplexed about how to bring D. & D. online, made flat-footed attempts at developing new rule books to mimic the video games that D. & D. had inspired. Gygax died, in 2008, occasioning a wealth of tributes but little enthusiasm. Then, a fifth edition of D. & D. rules came out, in 2014, and, somehow, the culture was receptive again to bags of holding and silver-haired drow. People started buying up these volumes in droves. “More people are interested in D&D than we thought,” the game’s lead developer, Mike Mearls, said, as print runs repeatedly sold out. “Who are these people? What do they want?”
In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.
Adult D. & D. acolytes are everywhere now, too. The likes of Drew Barrymore and Vin Diesel regularly take up the twenty-sided die (or at least profess to do so). Tech workers from Silicon Valley to Brooklyn have long-running campaigns, and the showrunners and the novelist behind “Game of Thrones” have all been Dungeon Masters. (It’s also big with comedy improvisers in Los Angeles, but it’s no surprise that theatre kids have nerdy hobbies.) Nevertheless, the image of the recluse persists even among fans. “We’re going to alienate ninety-nine per cent of the people out there right now,” Stephen Colbert told Anderson Cooper last year, on “The Late Show,” as they fondly recalled their respective turns as an elven thief and a witch. “The shut-in at home is really excited,” Cooper replied. “Neckbeards,” Colbert added.

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