The invisible teenager: Comic book materiality and the amateur films of Don Glut

Matt Yockey

University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Don Glut, between the ages of 9 and 25, made 41 short amateur films inspired by horror, science fiction, and superhero movies, serials, and comic books. The tactile qualities of comic books as affect-generating objects are instrumental to how Glut confirmed his identity during a time (adolescence) in which that identity is particularly unstable. Glut used the popular figure of the teen rebel and his role as a filmmaker in order to negotiate with hegemonic restrictions on his objects of affection, especially comic books.

[0.2] Keywords—Affect; Amateur movies; Comic books

Yockey, Matt. 2014. "The Invisible Teenager: Comic Book Materiality and the Amateur Films of Don Glut." In "Material Fan Culture," edited by Bob Rehak, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In his 1959 amateur film Dinosaur Destroyer, a then 15-year-old Don Glut made one of his earliest attempts at stop-motion animation. In the brief film, he has a dinosaur figure cavort across a Lionel train set, attack a miniature house, and finally explode into flames. Glut has noted that he borrowed the title from a comic book story, and a sequence toward the end of Dinosaur Destroyer materializes this link between comic books and Glut's filmmaking. He cuts away from the rampaging dinosaur to shots of himself and a friend in Glut's bedroom. The camera pans across the room, visually cataloging Glut's collection of monster movie memorabilia, including a poster for the film Rodan (1956) and framed photographs of Frankenstein actors Glenn Strange and Boris Karloff. Glut cuts to a shot of himself thumbing through the first issue of the prozine Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the camera then pans across Glut's bed, upon which lie a number of comic books and monster magazines. The linkage between the mass culture objects that Glut collects and the stop-motion sequences affirm that the tactile contact with mass culture is integral to Glut's remediation of it in the form of stop-motion animation and, in other films, homemade monster and superhero makeup and costumes. In fact, Glut's body of self-reflexive amateur films illustrates how initial tactile contact with an object is an important motivating device for one's fandom. If watching a film or listening to music inspire affect-driven fandom, Glut's reproduction of material culture and his emphasis on tactile contact demonstrates how touching objects offers the fan the intimate experience of embodiment. Glut's remediation of the mass culture objects of monster and superhero comic books directly concerns itself with the representation of embodied affect in their depictions of socially excessive bodies. In this way, both the consumption of comic books and their remediation in his films allows Glut to work through the contradictions and complexities of adolescence and his fandom in postwar America.

[1.2] Glut's dozens of amateur films made in the 1950s and 1960s illustrate the ways in which a preteen and teenage consumer exploited the richly affective quality of mass culture objects as a means of expressing agency within the contested frames of identity in postwar America. Glut's work provides insight into a subculture in America that developed and grew from the 1950s through the 1970s of amateur filmmakers and pop culture aficionados, in particular the young, mostly male fans of comic books and horror films. In its quality and content, Glut's films are not unique. However, he was arguably a more devoted amateur than most, as evidenced by his body of work, and he translated his youthful passions into a career as a writer and independent genre filmmaker. Further, because Glut was regularly profiled in monster movie prozines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland and Castle of Frankenstein in the 1960s, he has long been a recognizable figure in the "monster kid" world of now late middle-aged baby boomer fans of Universal horror films. Because of this, in 2006 he released an autobiographical book and a DVD collection of his films, both titled I Was a Teenage Movie Maker, making his body of work readily accessible for examination.

[1.3] Born in Chicago in 1944, Glut made a total of 41 mostly silent amateur films of only a few minutes in length between 1953 and 1969, almost all of them based on or inspired by classic Universal horror films (e.g., Frankenstein Meets Dracula [1957] and The Invisible Teenager [1962]), Republic serials (e.g., Spy Smasher vs. the Purple Monster [1964]), teen exploitation movies (e.g., Monster Rumble [1961] and Dragstrip Dracula [1962]), superhero comic books (e.g., The Human Torch [1963]), or a combination of all of the above (e.g., the wildly intertextual The Adventures of the Spirit [1963]). Although the derivative nature of these films superficially indicates a constricting mass culture hegemony, it in fact offers insight into the ways in which that culture could be mastered and controlled, thus enacting a comparable mastery and control over individual subjectivity. Glut provides a fascinating example of how self-determination is realized by a consumer engaging directly with the interpellative strategies of mass culture.

[1.4] Consider The Adventures of the Spirit, which opens with a title shot of the words "The Adventures Of" above a copy of a Spirit comic book (figure 1). In combining his own title card with the visibly weathered comic book, Glut immediately signals to the viewer that his work is not to be regarded simply as a fannish imitation of its source material but rather as an act of textual blending in which authorship is the result of an ongoing dialogue between the consumer-producer and mass culture. This synthesis is extended to Glut's own subjectivity when, in the next title card, he alerts the viewer that the film stars the Spirit, rather than Glut, who plays the character. In naming the comic book hero as the star, and then naming the actors playing the other roles in the rest of the title sequence, Glut navigates the often precarious territory of personal identity during adolescence at a time in which the teenager was increasingly articulated as necessarily subversive (yet safe) subject within mass culture. In making his films, Glut responds to the postwar articulation of the teenager as a newly powerful market demographic, emphasizing that role by ironically mimicking modes of production. Further, Glut's transformation into a producer offers both a diegetic and extradiegetic response to public anxiety regarding juvenile delinquency (often linked to popular culture), as well as the romantic image of the teenage rebel in popular culture. In being both the star and director of such projects as The Teenage Frankenstein (1959), for example, Glut makes visible two liminal subjects: the young adult caught between the poles of childhood and adulthood, and the fan who navigates the boundaries between consumption and production and fantasy and reality. He makes visible the teenage consumer who is otherwise regarded as an abstraction by hegemonic society. In doing so, he simultaneously asserts his own mastery over mass culture and its critics.

Poor-quality color image of a cover of Spirit comic book. Text reads 'The Adventures of Spirit.' Underneath are two white male figures, one masked, and one white female figure wearing a low-cut red dress.

Figure 1. The mass-produced comic book is adapted and incorporated by the amateur filmmaker. [View larger image.]

[1.5] In his desire to reproduce the movies he saw in theaters and on television and later the comic books he read, Glut inevitably amassed a stockpile of material objects, both handmade and purchased—props, costumes, and the films themselves—that affirm his active and affective participation with mass culture. They are the material residue of his engagement with the cult icons of genre texts, those icons that Matt Hills argues move "continuously across social-historical frames, being re-mapped and reworked in this process: [they are] an iteration, or an accreting set of iterations of the original moment of audience-mapping" (2002, 140). By remediating the iconic cult bodies of figures such as Frankenstein's monster or Batman as his own, Glut doubly marks his body as a cult one. He is both performer and filmmaker (figure 2). This body is performed as a transformative one, and in the process, his films reflexively catalogue the evolution of his body (and hence his subjectivity) from prepubescence to adulthood. His work speaks to Hills's notion of performative consumption. As Hills argues, "Each and every expression of fan identity is…both a non-volitional citation and the (consumerist) 'choice' of a volitional fan-subject…Fans do not claim agency in their 'becoming-a-fan' stories, but they do claim agency through their later 'performances' of an identity" (2002, 159–60). Glut's films articulate the evolution of this transformation; as his films become increasingly sophisticated, the distance between Glut and his becoming-a-fan origin increases. At the same time, each film reaffirms the desire and need to constantly revisit the object of fan devotion. In doing so, the fan reenacts the state of becoming a fan in the circulation of the affective attachment to mass culture objects as a means of asserting one's identity. Body and object coalesce in the ongoing representation and re-presentation of the transformative and performative self on display in his work.

Black-and-white photograph of movie set, with three white male figures, one masked, one wearing a Superman costume, and one dressed as Frankenstein's monster, standing among shrubbery outside a building. Two cameras on tripods are pointed toward the latter two figures.

Figure 2. Glut (far left) as both star and director is doubly removed from the everyday on the set of The Adventures of the Spirit. [View larger image.]

2. Touch me, I'm sick: Adolescence as contagion

[2.1] Glut's assertion of identity was important not only simply because he was going through the normal anxieties and uncertainties of adolescence but also because he was doing so during a period in which both adolescents and comic book readers were increasingly regarded as a problematic subjects. In his oft-cited 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, psychologist Fredric Wertham opined: "Even more than crime, juvenile delinquency reflects the social values current in a society. Both adults and children absorb these social values in their daily lives…and also in…the mass media" (1954b, 149). In his study of the causes of juvenile delinquency, Wertham linked comic book depictions of bodily excess (be they of the superhero, crime, or horror genres) with physical acts in response by juvenile readers. According to him, comic book depictions of sexualized and fascistic violence promoted aberrant sexual behavior and violence in children. Implicitly, the material nature of comic books was a primary source of their power to corrupt. They are objects to be consumed in part through tactile contact, adding symbolic weight to their capacity to affect children. Comic books could be passed, like a virus, from child to child. They could find their way anywhere, read openly in the living room or playground, or secretly under the covers of a bed or between the pages of a school book. Popular depictions of children reading comic books affirmed the presence of innocence, while obviously staged publicity shots of Wertham conveyed his position as a protective child authority (figures 3 and 4). Both photographs highlight the affective response generated by the intimate, tactile relationship required to read comic books. For the child, reading comic books is a completely engrossing experience. In this image, the boy performs the disconnection from reality required by Wertham's interpretation of comic books. Meanwhile, the image of Wertham indicates both the threat of comic books that goes unnoticed by children and the containment of that threat by the authority on child psychology. By extension, these depictions of affect are intended to provoke a sympathetic emotional response from the viewer.

Black-and-white image of the head of a young white boy reading a HAH Comic, with more comic books arranged behind him.

Figure 3. The child consumer is enveloped and engrossed by mass culture. Photograph by Morris Engle, 1945. [View larger image.]

Black-and-white image of an elderly bespectacled white man, sitting at a desk in an office, reading a Shock comic book.

Figure 4. Wertham's expert gaze recognizes and disciplines the threat of mass culture. [View larger image.]

[2.2] The affect-generating qualities of touch, further conveyed in these images of touching, confirm Sara Ahmed's contention that "emotions are both about objects, which they hence shape, and are also shaped by contact with objects" (2004, 7). The affect that Wertham expressed about comic books, which required him to come into contact with them, contributed to a larger public response to them. Thus, the image of Wertham validates such events as mass comic book burnings (figure 5). Again, comic books are treated like disease carriers that require not simply a mass purging (the symbolic eradication of the mass-produced object) but a very public destruction as performance. While figure 3 offers a model of how to consume comic books per mass culture producers, figures 4 and 5 offer what Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites see as the persuasive power of iconic photographs to interpolate "a form of citizenship that can be imitated" (2007, 12). Given the postwar emphasis on consumption as a performative mode of citizenship, these images are fundamentally contradictory. Wertham himself denounced comic books as "the greatest anti-educational influence that man's greed has ever concocted…We have reduced children to a market" (1954a, 611). However, when the act of reading a comic book directly promotes the transformation of the passive consumer into an active consumer, we see a positive assertion of consumption that ironically confirms Wertham's contention that comic books affect the behavior of children. Thus, an image of a 14-year-old Don Glut reading a Frankenstein comic book (figure 6) is not only, like his films, a representation of performative consumption, but one in which the ritualistic tactile return to the mass culture object is performed for the camera. When this photograph was taken Glut had already made at least two of his nine films featuring the Frankenstein monster (with Glut almost always playing the monster), which he has said were partly inspired by the Frankenstein comic books he was reading at the time.

Black-and-white photo of a crowd of white people wearing dark coats and scarves or hats, watching eight people dumping large cardboard boxes of comic books onto a fire. Men, women, and children are all depicted.

Figure 5. Unseducing the innocent. [View larger image.]

Black-and-white photo of an adolescent white boy (Glut) sitting on a bed reading a Frankenstein comic book.

Figure 6. Glut in 1958: comic book reading as an act of positive transformation. [View larger image.]

[2.3] Figures 3 through 6 speak to Ahmed's observation that "objects in which I am 'involved' can also be imagined" (2004, 7). Following Benedict Anderson's famous assertion that the nation is first and foremost a community of individuals who imagine their connection to a collective, we must consider how the nation, others, and self are all thus imagined via affect-saturated and affect-generating objects. Affective economies are "where feelings…are produced as effects of circulation" (Ahmed 2004, 8). The circulation of images of the tactile relationship to the vexed mass culture object generate polarizing emotions that can be internalized within the individual, reflecting but not resolving the inherent internal contradictions of individual and national identities. Our individualized relationship to certain parts of mass culture strongly informs an affective attachment to a national body and vice versa. The consumption of American values is affectively experienced as an emotional bond to the national collective, held together in part by mass culture objects and our interiorized relationship to them. Thus, the individual and the collective are conflated within the subjectivity of the individual. In this way, we see how emotions function, per Ahmed, as social and cultural practices. Our relationship to ourselves thus informs our relationship to others. Cornel Sandvoss notes that fandom is a performance of self that confirms the "emotional pleasures" of fandom through the "creation and continuous re-creation of the self in everyday life" (2005, 48). Further, he observes that as fans "temporarily segregate use and exchange-value they juxtapose the objectification of the subject with the subjectification of the object" (120). This transference reflected and encouraged postwar market segmentation, which appealed directly to the essential American trope of individualism. Such segmentation conferred civic identity onto two of the most significant marketing demographics to emerge at this time: children and young adults.

[2.4] To some degree, the anxiety about juvenile delinquency in the 1950s is attributable to the growing number of teenagers and their increasingly important designation as consumers in postwar America. Birthrates in America increased over the course of World War II after declines during the Depression, and by the 1950s, these wartime babies were, according to Thomas Doherty, "set apart from previous generations of American young people in numbers, affluence, and self-consciousness" (2002, 34). Subsequently, the consumer culture that developed around the American teenager was regarded with a large degree of ambivalence by many older Americans. Importantly, teenagers as an American subgroup were understood largely according to their representation within mass culture (especially films) and by commodities attached to them (such as rock music and blue jeans). The juvenile delinquent that concerned so many authorities in the 1950s was the obverse to the young rebel, a figure regarded in more positive terms within popular culture as emblematic of an American spirit of individualism and exceptionalism. According to Leerom Medovoi, figures such as James Dean and Elvis Presley were acceptable to many adults at this time in part because they reflected the postwar image America wanted of itself as the emancipated leader of the "free world" (2005, 1). In order to recognize itself as such, America required self-alienating figures like Presley and Dean. Their essential difference from hegemonic values (especially their excessive affect) was strongly mediated by their commodity status, which was driven by their representations of affect. They represented ideal American individualism in two registers: as iconic commodities and as financially successful artists. This dual appeal was synthesized and reflected by the circulation of commodities directly related to them (primarily films and records) or associated with them (such as leather jackets). Importantly, as Medovoi points out, celebrities such as Dean and Presley also helpfully confirmed a newly emergent concept of identity in the 1950s "as the product of self-defining and self-affirming acts that confront a punitive, authoritarian Other" (2005, 5). While some figures were required to remain excommunicated from the representational field of ideal American individualism in order to confirm the legitimacy of state authority, others were necessarily invoked in order to present an idea of the American state as, according to Medovoi, "the projection of individual liberty onto the level of the body politic" (2005, 7). Per mass culture, those figures of individual liberty were popularly represented as embodiments of teen angst (James Dean screaming, "You're tearing me apart!" at his parents in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause) or unchecked libidinal power ("Elvis the Pelvis"), contrasted by the required figure of adult authority.

[2.5] Glut's films provide a parade of affected bodies—werewolves, vampires, superheroes, and Frankenstein monsters—that exist in a perpetually adult-free world. The primary figure of authority is always Glut himself as the filmmaker. His authority is derived from his ability as amateur filmmaker to exert a kind of mastery over fetishized mass culture commodities. He either integrates mass-produced objects directly into his films (for example, he wore a rubber mask ordered from a magazine in his earliest Frankenstein films) or appropriates personal objects around the home as stand-ins for fetish objects (such as when a sports jacket discarded by his grandfather became the Frankenstein monster's coat). Central to this process, according to Sandvoss, are transitional objects that affectively attach the fan to "dominant social, cultural, economic and technological systems" (2005, 81–82). The transitional object verifies and confers individuality within the secure context of the collective. The comic book as such a device is foregrounded in Glut's first superhero comic book adaption, his 1962 film Captain Marvel. The film is structured immediately as a self-reflexive text commenting on the nature of consumption: it opens with a shot of several different comic books spread out on a flat surface, announcing that his film is in part about our relationship to the transitional object. Glut cuts to a close-up of the cover of a Captain Marvel comic book in the first image; a hand enters the frame and opens the comic book to the first page. The camera unsteadily moves in to a tight close-up of the page, and Glut cuts to his narrative diegesis. The use of the point-of-view shot for the display of comic book covers and the close-up of one of the comic books positions the viewer and director as vexed mass culture consumers. The collection of comic books evokes the specter of comic books as pathological and the collecting of them as a pathology. Steven M. Gelber notes that "collecting as a somatic malady brought on by a pathogen was a popular image" in the first half of the 20th century (1999, 88). Thus, the 18-year-old filmmaker can be seen as a socially problematic figure because he continues to maintain the socially regressive habit of comic book reading developed in childhood. Consequently, when Glut cuts to a close-up of the Captain Marvel cover and then to his narrative, the audience is immersed into the text, just as the ideal child consumer is in figure 3. Glut uses the material objects of mass culture to shore up his identity, which is seen by some authorities as threatened by that very same mass culture. Through his film, Glut insists that his viewers assume the same productive relationship with mass culture, a sympathetic allegiance that assumes the viewer shares a similar attitude about that culture. This implied allegiance with viewers is of particular value to Glut at this time, ostensibly when he is meant to have left behind the trappings of childhood and entered adulthood. His role as amateur filmmaker works to resolve this contradiction; he presents his twin hobbies of comic book collecting and movie making as the basis for his future identity as an economically productive laborer. Again, the comic book as a material object is essential to this rhetoric, for Glut's films are apparently motivated by his affection for them.

[2.6] That a hand enters the frame to guide the viewer into the diegesis emphasizes the value of invoking tactile contact as the primary source of an affective response that bonds filmmaker and viewer. As Ahmed argues, "Emotions…produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they are objects" (2004, 10). Glut explicitly represents this process in his film The Adventures of the Spirit when he shows Clark Kent (Glut friend and movie prop collector Bob Burns) make the transition to Superman after reading an issue of a Superman comic book (figures 7 and 8). The character's reading of the comic book is narratively gratuitous, signally the value for Glut of conveying the transformative possibilities inherent in the immersion into the ostensibly bad mass culture object via touch. Material contact with the comic book activates and authorizes fantastic transformation—a positive inversion of Wertham's claims of the transformation of children's psyches when reading comic books. In both cases, transformation requires physical contact with comic books, which then translates into the physical acting out of affect.

Two black-and-white photos of a bespectacled white man (Bob Burns), as before and after, sitting in front of a typewriter with a piece of paper loaded into it. At left, Burns holds an open Superman comic book; at right, he holds his white button-down shirt open to reveal a shirt underneath sporting a stylized Superman-type S.

Figures 7 and 8. The Adventures of the Spirit: Clark Kent's transformation through textual immersion echoes Glut's own move from comic book reader to filmmaker. [View larger image.]

[2.7] If in The Adventures of the Spirit one can reimagine oneself or be reimagined by the viewer (with the comic book as a guiding device) as a superhero, then similarly we can recognize the transformative possibilities inherent in mass culture in the very existence of Glut's film. Glut reconfigures the physical responses to comic books warned against by Wertham into the disciplined physicality of performance and labor. Central to the effectiveness of both Wertham's arguments and Glut's reified subjectivity via film is what Ahmed terms their affective "stickiness…an effect of the histories of contact between bodies, objects, and signs" (2004, 90). Objects acquire stickiness when they accumulate an affective history, whether that affect is positive or negative. The history of the comic book's stickiness indicated in figures 3, 4, 5, and 6 is extended and reflexively commented on in figures 7 and 8. In the images of Burns as Clark Kent/Superman, the stickiness of comic books is transferred to the film itself and its director. Both become objects that can acquire a similar history of affect.

[2.8] As a result, Glut's films become what Sandvoss calls "second-order transitional objects," which serve as intermediaries between the self and an absent object of fandom (2005, 90). His films are significant in this regard because in some cases the original transitional object is not simply missing (such as a film it is derived from) but rather has been willfully displaced by the consumer. Glut has noted that his initial motivation for making these films was because he wanted to watch the films he saw in movie theaters or on television whenever he wanted to. Given that he also adapted comic books that he continued to have access to, his underlying motivation for all of his filmmaking might more reasonably be that he wanted to re-create the affective experience of encountering the text for the first time. In other words, his films potentially reproduce nodal points in his development as a fan—his original encounters with significant texts. Consequently, in all his films, Glut as reader is as much the subject as Dracula, Batman, or Rocketman are. Glut's films are suffused with second-order transitional objects that bear the potential to become first-order ones that can inform a reading of Glut himself as a textual object. Several of his films feature costumes made by his mother specifically for his film work. His films also routinely feature toy rockets and ray guns from his childhood, as well as latex monster masks and model kits. His films mark him as a reader who evokes the materiality of comic books, evidenced by his use of life-size speech balloons taped to the wall behind actors in Superduperman (1962), but also as a reader who literally embeds the material object into his films, as with the series of images of Superman cut out of comic books for the credit sequence of Superman vs. the Gorilla Gang (1965).

[2.9] However, perhaps the most interesting objects used by Glut in his films are the numerous props from many of the films and serials that inspired him. Because of his friendship with Burns, a young collector living in the Los Angeles area, Glut used a number of props in many of his films. These include the headpiece for an alien from Invasion of the Saucer-Men (1957), the silver-tipped cane from Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolf Man (1941), preproduction sketches from Forbidden Planet (1956), a Metaluna mutant mask from This Island Earth (1955), and the Captain America costume from the 1944 Republic serial. Glut maximized his access to this treasure trove of props, lending some of his films an almost surreal quality. For example, in The Adventures of the Spirit, Captain America (Burns, in the Republic costume) turns into a werewolf and is killed by the Spirit (Glut, wearing a homemade costume modeled after Will Eisner's comic books) using the cane from the original Universal Wolf Man film. Actual film props work in concert with homemade costumes and objects to inspire a narrative that exceeds the boundaries of the source material. In this way, we see that not only do objects reflect an affective history but they also help Glut articulate new chapters in that history. In conflating these objects (a literal conflation of mass culture and the individual), Glut not only affirms his affection for the source material but also creates a film that extends the boundaries of affect. This is confirmed by the fact that after shooting The Adventures of the Spirit, Burns purchased the Superman costume Glut's mother made, indicating the value of the costume as a valuable souvenir to the collector of not only the film but also Burns's experiences with it. In turn, Burns's purchase elevates Glut's film, equating it with the professional productions that Burns owns props from.

[2.10] Glut realizes the synthesis of the public and private in his films' archival presentation of actual props from professional films and serials, as well as mass-produced objects from his childhood and costumes made by his mother. This conflation is furthered when, for example, he includes the actor Glenn Strange (most famous for playing the Frankenstein monster in a number of Universal movies) in The Adventures of the Spirit. Burns was friendly with the actor, who invited Glut (when he was on vacation in California) and his young crew to his home in suburban Los Angeles one afternoon to shoot scenes for the film. Significantly, while Glut has Strange reprise the role of the monster, he has his star actor wear a rubber mask of the creature that was designed for him by the Don Post makeup studio to wear for a film publicity campaign (Glut has said he did this because he did not want to ask Strange to shave his mustache) (figure 2). The result is a rather bizarre conflation of actor and role in which the star power of an actual movie actor reprising an iconic role is hidden from sight. Glut had to compensate for this by featuring a shot in his credit sequence of Strange out of costume holding a placard that identifies him and the role he plays. Strange here is as much an affect-saturated prop as the Captain America costume or the cane from The Wolf Man. In fact, Strange is more so because Glut can foreground and exploit the ability of his audience to recognize the actor. Without prompts, a viewer would have no idea that certain of the costumes and props came from Hollywood productions. In using Strange with the mask, Glut marks Hollywood-related objects as personal and elevates the personal as resonant within the public. This latter maneuver is achieved by the very act of making his films, which becomes a conflated private-public archive of the mass culture texts that were important to Glut. The transitional object (such as the original Captain America costume) can be the original object of fan interest, further rendering the film in which Glut used this costume an original object of fandom. The costume lends both the film and the filmmaker a significant degree of authenticity, informed by the affect generated by the original auratic object.

3. Editions of you: Remediating subjectivity via the object

[3.1] The development of 8mm cameras and projectors in the 1950s ensured that the exhibition of the amateur film would be mostly limited to the domestic sphere, thus locating the amateur film within the category of the home movie (and further distancing it from the professional film). According to Patricia Zimmerman, the amateur film at this time "was redefined as a social relation between families, rather than as an art form or a public intervention" (2007, 280). However, we see in Glut's work how the boundaries between these categorical functions are blurred. Glut makes art that intervenes in the circulation of meaning between the private and the public. He brings exterior labor practices into the home, merging work and play, destabilizing categories by remediating the physical space of the home as film and comic book text. Glut's use of objects in his film indicates the ways in which he used mass culture as a means of asserting his identity. Of further significance, then, is the role that place played in the production and exhibition of his films. Objects are defamiliarized when placed in the context of the amateur movie, most of which Glut shot in and around his suburban Chicago home. Conversely, Glut's home and neighborhood are defamiliarized by their remediation in his films. Further, his home was defamiliarized each time he transformed a portion of it into an exhibition space where he charged money for family and friends to watch his films. Significantly, Glut's mother was supportive of his filmmaking efforts (his father died when Glut was an infant). She gave him his first camera, made many of the costumes used in his films, and even served as the camera operator in several of his earliest efforts. The fan's cultural production is thus directly tied to a dialogue between the child and parent in the affect-rich environment of home. Glut notes, for example, that in his later work in which friends, rather than his mother, served as camera operators when he was on screen, he could "get away with a lot more" (Glut 2006). Domestic consumption became a pivotal means by which civic identity and familial integrity could be confirmed and integrated in postwar America. The household engages with the public sphere (a condensation of popular and political culture) by domesticating commodities; these commodities are incorporated and adapted to what Roger Silverstone terms "the moral economy of the household," which itself is shaped by that public culture (1994, 48). Public and private values are synthesized through consumption, a process both extended and critiqued by acts of cultural production within the household. Because the moral economy of the household is regulated by parental authority, the child (and especially the teenager), in fully performing his or her civic identity (as mediated via mass culture), is encouraged to exercise the role of rebellious citizen. In order for the ontological security produced by the moral economy to cohere and be legitimated, it must be symbolically challenged in these modes of performance by the teenager, thus confirming the image of America constructed in the political and cultural spheres at this time.

[3.2] Glut symbolically challenges authority by maintaining into young adulthood his interest in the comic books and horror films of his childhood, all mass culture objects marked as potential threats to children. More significantly, Glut's own perception of himself in his teen years expands on the popular image of the 1950s teenager as a James Dean–style rebel, with the leather jacket serving as the primary object that authenticates this identity and its attendant performativity (in rumbles staged for his films and as a member of rock bands). The jacket is a fetishized object that affectively links the fan to the cult icon (i.e., James Dean or Marlon Brando) through its materiality. Yet Glut reenacts and extends the appropriation of this iconicity in teen monster films of the era by making it an integral component of his own identity. This confirms Hills's contention that "whereas the 'icon' remains locked into a given set of social and cultural co-ordinates…its temporal persistence across markedly different economies of meaning and affect…produces the moment of cult formation" (2002, 140). Though he grew up in a comfortable middle-class suburb of Chicago, Glut routinely refers to himself as having been a street kid who wore leather jackets and black clothes and was more in tune with a rock-and-roll subculture than any other. At the same time, he links his love of rock music (he was a member of garage rock bands in Chicago and Los Angeles) to his love of horror, science fiction, and superhero comic books and films. Recalled Glut in a 2010 interview, "When I was a kid, there was something rebellious about liking the fantastic stuff, just like it was in liking rock 'n' roll music." The primary way by which he articulates these intersecting affections is in many of his movies, which are themselves derivative of a comparable conflation performed in the mass culture arena in the 1950s. Glut made a series of films that were not simply inspired by such drive-in theater exploitation fare as I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) but were directly shaped by Glut's exposure to them. In 1959 alone, he made The Teenage Frankenstein, The Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Apeman, I Was a Teenage Vampire, Return of the Teenage Werewolf, and The Teenage Frankenstein Meets the Teenage Werewolf. More than just derivations of teen exploitation movies, Glut's films extend and exaggerate the intersection of horror tropes with the figure of the teen rebel through their affective immediacy, so that while American International Pictures featured Michael Landon as a werewolf in a letterman jacket in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Glut's Revenge of the Teenage Werewolf (1960) features Glut in full werewolf makeup and a leather jacket (figures 9 and 10). Although Landon's character becomes a werewolf because of the work of a misguided psychiatrist trying to help humanity (shades of Fredric Wertham), in Glut's narratively bare film, lycanthropy, like rumbles, is presented as an expected and unexplainable condition of adolescence.

Black-and-white image of a man wearing a casual jacket, with werewolf head and hands.

Figure 9. AIP's teenage werewolf. Michael Landon in the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). [View larger image.]

Color image of a boy (Glut) standing in front of a closed door, wearing jeans and a leather biker jacket, with werewolf head and hands.

Figure 10. Glut's teenage werewolf. Glut's synthesis of the personal with the mass culture text makes his a more authentic iteration. [View larger image.]

[3.3] According to Thomas Doherty, "AIP teenpics seem to be the kind of motion pictures a group of high schoolers let loose with 35mm equipment might come up with, an impression due in equal parts to market savvy, youthful talent, and bargain-basement budgets" (2002, 132). Glut's amateur teenpics then stand as more authentic than AIP's efforts, as Glut's objectified presence as an actual teen filmmaker with a below-bargain-basement budget and 16mm camera attests. The marriage of monsters and teen rebels in 1950s B movies is not so surprising. Each figure is shaped by and generates intense affect as a reflection of a transforming body and subjectivity mediated by way of the conflation of body and costume. For Glut, the sympathetic relationship between the genres offered another opportunity by which he could use mass culture to confirm his identity. As he recalls, the AIP "teenage monster" films were

[3.4] something truly momentous. Up until that time my amateur horror movies featured teenagers playing adult characters. Now, with teenage werewolves and Frankensteins in vogue, I had the opportunity to try something more "believable"—have my teenage actors actually play monsters their own age! As I was going through a black-leather jacket/motorcycle/teenage rebel phase at the time, nothing could be cooler for this teenage movie-maker. (Glut, n.d.)

[3.5] He goes on to highlight his association with teen gang and rock-and-roll cultures as instrumental to his teen horror movies: "The casts featured in this new series of movies [were] mostly guys I was either hanging around with, the Chicago Vandals (a name lifted from the Roger Corman cult movie Teenage Doll), or playing in rock 'n' roll bands [with]…at the time" (Glut, n.d.).

[3.6] Given that Glut's films were almost entirely populated by men (women were virtually absent from his work until he attended college; even then, they were passive, barely visible figures), his self-articulation as a teen rebel should also be understood in explicitly gendered terms. As Hills contends, "fan-text attachments…[act] as mediators of gender identity within the family, as possible openings for communication and/or impersonation/emulation of gendered identities across and between generations—from father to son, or from mother to daughter" (2002, 162). Given that his father died before he could know him, Glut's filmmaking suggests an avenue by which the son could confirm an affective attachment to his father, who was the original owner of the 8mm camera he used. His father is as much a ghostly memory evoked via the filmmaking process as any Universal monster. Further, his filmmaking, coupled with his father's absence, provides an opportunity for Glut to play with the rigid homosociality of parent-child relationships codified in the home. As noted, his mother (who, in fact, originally purchased the camera for Glut's father) was a key collaborator on nearly all of Glut's films. Thus, all of his work is to some degree determined by, and determines, the mother-son relationship. Their collaborative relationship conflates familial love, fan devotion, and labor that further marks Glut's consumption of ostensibly dangerous mass culture—such as rock and roll and horror films—as completely safe. Her validation of his interests also acts as a counterpoint to repressive figures of social control, such as Wertham.

[3.7] Interestingly, from the age of 18 to 25, Glut's focus shifted from teen monster movies to adaptations of superhero comic books, and most of the films he made in the 1960s are superhero films. Although it might seem odd that he would turn to texts more strongly tied to childhood at this time, Glut explains that his superhero films are all parodies, "all very campy, before people knew what the word camp really meant for the most part…before the word camp was really in common use" (Glut 2006). Thus, the consumer does not simply position himself in relation to mass culture trends but as a visionary who anticipates trends. Yet significantly, Glut's second superhero comic book adaptation is Superduperman, based on a comic book story of the same name that appeared nine years earlier in Mad no. 4 (April–May 1953). Mad, which began publication in 1952, was part of a growing postwar cultural trend in America of an oppositional culture that spoke simultaneously to various segments of the nation previously unacknowledged by mass culture. Following W. T. Lhamon Jr.'s characterization of the 1950s, Mad was symptomatic of "a major welling up of confessional and personal expression" (1990, 7). According to Geoffrey O'Brien, "To children growing up in the fifties, Mad provided the reassurance that someone else was watching, someone else had seen what [The Media] looked like" and acknowledged "that we were all soaked in mass-produced words and images" (2002, 52). If Wertham did much the same, it was from a position of authority that substantiated and justified adult authority and which positioned the consumer as impotently childish. Mad, on the other hand, treated children like adults and adults like children, upending the ideological sawhorse upon which Wertham stood (Mad even parodied him in a story as "Frederick Werthless").

[3.8] Glut's adaptation of a Mad parody confirms his own ambivalence about the superhero genre and mass culture in general as a vehicle for making meaning. Glut, as a young adult maintaining a tough-guy facade, must mitigate his open expressions of affection and assert that all of this superhero films are parodies. His attempts to distance himself from one form of affect by replacing it with another speaks to the problems of stickiness associated with objects. It is significant that Glut worked in genres (horror and the superhero) that are profoundly invested in narratives of emotion and that he circulated that emotion through objects. The emotionality of the genres relates to what Ahmed sees as the "very public nature of emotion" and "the emotive nature of publics" (2004, 14). Glut's films are highly personal, but only in terms of how he relates to mass culture as a source of identity making within his life; his films are thus suffused with in-joke casting of friends, for example. The source of his affection also serves to contain that affect; he loves superhero comic books, but only from an ironic distance and within the structures of amateur production.

[3.9] As with Mad, all of Glut's work reminds us that someone else is looking at "The Media" along with us, an imagined community of American consumers who get the references who share a comparable affective response. Mad, it can be seen, assisted Glut in negotiating the dualities of child/adult and consumer/producer. Glut's "Superduperman!" adaptation reflects and confirms the original's conflation of rebellious teenage subjectivity with adult labor (evident in Mad's byline, the "usual gang of idiots"). Glut uses the strategy of parody to assert his own agency in the face of both institutions of authority and mass culture itself. Further, because the subject of the parody in this instance is the superhero genre, Glut can safely confirm his teenage subjectivity and distance himself from a preadolescent self, placing himself within the flow of sanctioned mass culture subversion. Therefore, when Glut adapts "Superduperman!" the absent object of fandom is not the original Mad comic (which appears in the film itself as an authenticating object). The absent object is, so to speak, Glut's original experience of reading that issue of Mad—or, to put it another way, Glut in the past. Thus, Glut establishes a circuit of meaning between himself in the (ever-changing) present, his younger self, his own textual production, and specific mass culture objects with which he has a nostalgic and affective attachment. He re-presents himself on film as a cult body so that the typical nostalgia evoked when looking at old photographs or home movies is transfigured when Glut reexamines his amateur films in the present. Glut's reflexivity and constant state of self-awareness offer a means by which his body (and subjectivity) escapes the limits of mass culture even as he relies on that culture for some degree of meaning. As Hills argues, "The cult body is neither a produce of an entirely volitional subject, nor is it the product of such a subject trapped in a total consumer code.…Performative consumption…cannot be reduced…to narratives of self and other" (2002, 168).

[3.10] As curator of his own past, Glut used objects to recover a sense of wholeness, even as the attempt acknowledges the impossibility of such an endeavor. Just as his filmmaking offered him the opportunity to reproduce the leisure activity of home movie making undertaken by his father and to extend it into the field of adult labor, the lost object (in this case, his father) remains just that (figures 11 and 12). This loss informs the nostalgia that gives objects their affective power. The transitional object is thus a souvenir of the past, and it is significant that Glut has kept nearly every prop and costume he used in his films to the present day, making his home a kind of archive to his childhood yet also the living present of his adulthood. As an adult, Glut has made a living making low-budget exploitation films at the margins of the Hollywood film industry, as well as authoring a number of pulp-style novels. All of his work continues his engagement with the same genres that his amateur films trafficked in, ostensibly confirming the promise offered by those youthful efforts while also maintaining their social limits. Well into middle age, Glut lives with his invisible teenage self, a spectral presence that inhabits the objects of his youth, reminding him that as he continues to consume and produce media, so too does his younger self.

Black-and-white image of young white man (Glut) standing outside, hands on hips, wearing a white sweatshirt with a stylized S on it, with a cape.

Figure 11. Glut as Superduperman (1962). [View larger image.]

Color image of an older white man (Glut) standing in front of a cement-block wall holding up the white sweatshirt depicted in figure 11, with a stylized red S on a yellow field.

Figure 12. Glut in 2008: the perpetual return of Superduperman and the teenager who played him. [View larger image.]

4. Works cited

Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Doherty, Thomas. 2002. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Gelber, Steven M. 1999. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Glut, Don. 2006. I Was a Teenage Movie Maker: Don Glut's Amateur Movies. DVD. Frontline Entertainment Inc.

Glut, Don. 2010. "An Interview with Don Glut, by Abhay." Interview by Abhay Khosla. Savage Critic, March 31.

Glut, Don. n.d. Don Glut's Teenage Horror Movies.

Hariman, Robert, and John Louis Lucaites. 2007. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge.

Lhamon, W. T., Jr. 1990. Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Medovoi, Leerom. 2005. Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

O'Brien, Geoffrey. 2002. Castaways of the Image Planet. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.

Sandvoss, Cornel. 2005. Fans: The Mirror of Consumption. Cambridge: Polity.

Silverstone, Roger. 1994. Television and Everyday Life. New York: Routledge.

Wertham, Fredric. 1954a. "Reading for the Innocent." Wilson Library Bulletin, September 22, 610–13.

Wertham, Fredric. 1954b. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart.

Zimmerman, Patricia R. 2007. "Morphing History into Histories: From Amateur Film to the Archive of the Future." In Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories, edited by Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmerman, 1–28. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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