Saturday, January 28, 2012

What Do You Mean She Lied?

[A modified version of what would have been a Pop Mechanics! column for Renderwrx. Dedicated to Gene Colan, who died as I was writing this.]

"Since most people who cite a "convoluted mess" in regards to Grant [Morrison]'s work turn out not to be able to pass a high school English comprehension test, said citation tends to be viewed as comedy." - Warren Ellis

Comics people seemed trained to accept only direct, truthful statements, usually reinforced or reiterated at least once more beyond the initial. Better prominent people than me, from Tim Callahan to Grant Morrison, have addressed the gist of this, but I find their coverage often wanting or misdirected, though certainly serving their purpose of their moment.

"Schizophrenics can't process metaphor" has become a joke phrase, a meme to bust out and kill a conversation with a laugh. As with Mark Millar's "My God has a hammer" the phrase has no connection to comics for a number of folks who use it, and even when it does, no connection to its creator. Morrison used the phrase to describe a lack of reading skills beyond the literal, to indict readers who claimed there was nothing beyond the "literal" representations of a dead talking flying tuna with a cigar named Chubby who acts as the animus of a guy vying desperately for a girl with a beard who could, by just standing with him, help him seem like he belonged.

Here is where we have to careful in making clarifications. Failure to see strongly implied metaphors or to notice even in retrospect when a character was wrong, intentionally (lying) or unintentionally (misinformed, confused), is not the same as not enjoying it despite acknowledging those elements, nor is it the same as believing those to be poorly done. It is not a judgment on what anyone enjoys, to point out when a major factor of a work has been missed by a criticizing or lauding audience.

We all miss something, sometimes we are meant to not recognize what is in front of us, in terms of narrative, characterization, or metaphor, until we look back with knowledge we will find on another page. And, none of us enjoy being reminded of a lapse in our critical faculties, in our ignorance, though we are all ignorant of something.
I once saw a guy fall into a rage because he was sure someone was making fun of him when at the end of From Dusk Till Dawn, in the bar in Mexico where our characters have just spent the night, Cheech Marin says he has both kinds of beer, "Mexican and domestic." See, this angry fellow had seen the movie before, and it only now registered to him that domestic beer in Mexico, is Mexican. He didn't see a quick joke, he didn't see a moment in a scene that requires a dialogue beat for pacing, he saw the cast and crew of a major motion picture fucking with him.

Don't be that guy. Especially if you are talking to people who caught it before you. And, don't be the gal who, when she still doesn't get it, insists anyone who does is lying to make themselves seem smart. Humanity as a whole, and most human beings, have never benefitted from these responses, and I can make up imaginary statistics to demonstrate the truth of that. We are all ignorant of something, ignorance need only ever be temporary, and the goal of entertainment is most often not to insult you when it fools you, but to entertain you when you realize you were taken in.

Let us keep back from metaphor and themes for now, and focus on the objectives of characterization, particularly, the subjective element(s) of the individual character. One of the refreshing things about the changeup in the X-books when Joe Quesada was first Editor in Chief at Marvel, was that writers like Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan allowed characters to lie without clueing in the reader, and more, they wrote characters who believed and acted in ignorance.

One of the earliest scenes in New X-Men (Morrison & Quitely) was a dentist who has educated, documentary evidence what he is being told and shown by the villain Cassandra Nova is wrong, but all she has to do is belittle his education and play to his desire to believe things were negative and violent. When Nova and this dentist act on the "knowledge" expressed, she is lying and he is misinformed, and this is left implicit. The reader who is swayed by her misanthropic ploy, who is more comfortable with a negative, violent, selfish truth than a more pleasant one, is left with that truth. The X-Men themselves come to see Nova in the same terms, as negatively as possible (she does commit genocidal acts and generally play the horrible villain, but there is no real evidence she is an evolutionary mechanism for extincting species). Only Charles Xavier, ever the optimist decides she is designed to motivate everyone out of stalemate. And, he too is wrong.

But, because there is never a panel of someone declaring "I was wrong!" or "She lied to me!" you still get people on message boards discussing the ins and outs as if the writer dropped the ball, as though Morrison must have forgot "his" previous position when another fictional character in the story has a different conclusion, almost as if individuals have their own perspectives. Because there is never a simple, declarative "Cassandra is Ernst" we have at least two respected, intelligent writers get it wrong in follow ups?

The most frequent way to cover yourself, in a comic, is to make sure the visual and the text elements say the same thing clear and direct, which Scott McCloud calls "duo-specific." Claremont was often duo-specific, describing a superhuman attack as we see it or captioning in details for a relationship as we see the visual actuation of the same. But, if he wanted something to sail by without everyone catching on, we get "leman" deployed without accompanying verification or support.

And, when you want something to be memorable, duo-specificity can be your friend. Studies show most people do retain information better when taking it in as text and as visual, hence most instructional pamphlets. But, at some point a level of sophistication may be justly expected, perhaps, in that objectivity becomes an unnecessary affectation or the reader can infer an authorial morality behind the structure of a character's voice; perhaps the reader's morality or experience can be trusted enough for an absence of authorial voice (as best can be managed).

It is anticipated by some in entertainment, that this level of sophistication should always be presumed missing or rare. Vladimir Nabokov uses the first chapter of his novel, Ada or Ardor, to dissuade children and lazy readers from sticking it out just for the dirty bits, Steven Spielberg has yet to direct an adaptation that can't refit the men as bad-parent types, and dozens of childrens activity books will still indulge in ethnic dress up games so long as the ethnicities parodied are sociopolitically still safe for it.

But, comics? Comics are for kids. Probably why, when free speech won out in the Seduction of the Innocent case, comics got a self-elected regulating board and a set of rules stricter than those of any other medium in American history - and everyone behaved as if it were law and not just marketing. Crime must be punished at the end of every story, vampires and zombies are a no, violence is grand but no representative of law must ever be injured, passion must never stir the "baser emotions" and respect for parents and law-enforcement officials must be paramount. Regulations for all comics, not only those aimed at children, at virtually the same time was the Hays Code was being revised in acknowledgment of how detrimental heavy regulations were socially (and economically). Because, comics are for kids and even if they are not, the audience will be treated as children and learn to like it!

Not to disagree with Alan Moore, in his observation that Stan Lee introduced the two-dimensional characterization and the first deliberate symbolism into comics, but is that true? A lot of EC stories seem to have characters as developed as those of Marvel in the early Sixties. Wonder Woman has great symbolic relevance conscientiously applied in her early comics. So, is it that Lee reintroduced these elements after the Code and times bled them away? Blondie had gone from comics where things happened and had relevance, almost in reflection of the whole of the American aspect of the medium, to a dull, staid sequence of safe repeating gags by the Fifties (as it has remained, looped, since). Spider-Man reads not entirely unlike Blondie did back when they still made movies about her and her sandwich-enthusiast of a fellow.

Romance comics as well as paranoia comics (same fish with less bug-eyes and sweat?) required at least two-dimensional protagonists long before the Marvel revolution, so perhaps it is only that from Fantastic Four forward, Stan Lee and the Marvel writers to follow applied these innovatively to superhero comics. Moving as those comics could be, they still kept to considerably more adolescent material than the admittedly pretty adolescent EC crime and horror books or the comedy romances like the magnificent Millie the Model or Patsy & Hedy. I would not be the first to suggest it took a low opinion of the readership (accurate though it may have been) for Roy Thomas to take the awesome that is the early Black Panther and strip him of his culture, his political clout, genius, social standing, super-technology, and FF-whupping level of badassery... to make him safe enough to feature regularly in The Avengers. (And, when Panther leaves the Avengers, for Jungle Action, the first thing he does is remind them he's fantastically rich, has mad supertech, and can leave. Go fig.)

It may not have been a too-low call, sadly, depending on what readership is being pursued. Let's assume someone out there does need DC's Mr. Terrific, say, to be "the third smartest man in the world." Did they need to bill the white Mr. Terrific as such? But, this hypothetical audience DC is courting do need it of a black Mr. Terrific. Well, there is another audience that can handle "the smartest man on Earth." Beyond, there is an audience, myself included, who believes that if the selling point begins "smartest" that changing that up synchronous (if not consciously connected) to other changes, such as race, is a bad plan and counter to the ethos superhero comics taught me.

Batgirl can't get past brown belt. Mr. Terrific is the third smartest. But, no matter who is actually faster or equal to the Flash, he is always "the world's fastest man." Sometimes, we the readers and we the critical aspect of comics culture - the academics, analysts, and speculators - sometimes we act in ways that encourage treating us to these gestures placatory to heteronormative and homogenous artifice.

From Anarchy for the Masses: "Robin's autocritique acknowledges that she is undermined by her appearance. She stands for revolution but is instead only seen as a sex object. Note that despite this realization she doesnt stop dressing like a hooker." That was written by two smart, savvy individuals, Patrick Neighly and Kereth Cowe-Spigai. They don't seem to notice what they have done, there, and neither do the people who call Wonder Woman's jacket whorish or say a version of Cyborg looks thuggish, muscle-brained, or gangsta, particularly the one for the upcoming JLA relaunch, where he is, in terms of body and body language no different from any other man on the team except in that he is black.

Taken from a different angle, the same problem of presumptive judging turns into a lack of emotional affect (to be PKD about it). Readers do it enough, and you get writers and artists playing to it, editors prescribing not relational emotions from characters, coming causally from the events and dynamics of their lives, but emotions as a sell. Why else do you think Aquaman is ecstatic while his life, marriage, and political position fall to bits during Erik Larsen's run? There is an editor who knew a readership existed who would see a smile and believe it, regardless of context. An audience does exist who read Robert Crumb's My Troubles With Women and believe the bravado, who are still distressed not by the rape of DC's Nightwing, but because he stopped smiling for awhile after the rape. Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid can write wildly modern work, from dialogue to character tics and plotting, and there will be cries from the Neo Silver Agers of "Seen it! Recycled from 1967!" while Grant Morrison lifts point for point at Agatha Cristie plot or entire passages of an old Batman comic as with Joe Chill in Hell and it's "Too new! Too difficult!"

See also the people who criticize Devin Grayson as inappropriately pushing her personal fantasies into a corporate comic in the same breath as lamenting Jim Balent not drawing Catwoman comics these days. Or, who get put off by how contrived a cast mostly not of white American men is, but not any nearly all-white, all-male, all-American one. Concoct reasons manga isnt comics. Erase Ramona Fredon or Marie Javins from comics history to maintain a "no women" illusion. Who feel Alan Grant was wrong for telling an audience of fans that the Vice President at DC was outright lying to them. This is who is at fault when comics get done, get published in ways that treat any reader as a subnormal child.

As a collective audience, our reading comprehension, our analytical and judging faculties are at fault. Any one of us who opens a new comic and declares any answers not on page one are nonexistent, that deny the metaphors or themes the author and/or six thousand other readers have found, who believe a flashback or a non-narrative illustration are violations of the natural order only fit for mediums other than comics. Readers who don't let comics be grown up or ever mature are at fault whenever a critic, a country, a printer or colorist decide we, the hypothetical audience, the hoped for pre-actuation audience are not to be trusted as sane, aware, self-governing adults, but must be coddled, kept from dangerous stories, kept from dangerous ideas or ideas unpleasant to us even if that unpleasant feeling is rooted in bigotry or idiocy.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is currently raising money to defend Americans who brought illegal comics to Canada. Canada - and to a lesser degree, the United States of America - many nations around the world believe we are not mature enough to handle some kinds of fiction. Censorship of entirely fictional things always means the people the fictions are being kept from are thought to be incapable of handling them maturely. And, it's our fault, because we dont decry censorship enough and because some of us, a very vocal some, read a comic by Kevin Smith and put it down believing Smith wrote Batman wetting himself.

They read a comic wherein Batman tells someone he had an involuntary bladder spasm years before the telling, due to an explosion. In the comic they read, Batman tells - tells - a story. A story someone tells inside a story is discussed as if it were the story, as if it were witnessed firsthand by the reader. That's how lazy it gets.

There is no shame in getting swept up and realizing you were a lazy reader, that your analytical faculties were put on stall for awhile. I have been there believe it. Whether the affable justified-homocidal grandfatherly scientist in Cannon God Exaxxion (Kenichi Sonoda) was meant to be taken straight, accepted positively, marinated in my concerns every new chapter I imbibed, and still today, I just do not know. Planetary, which I have the gall to annotate, was nearly complete before I added one two three and realized that Jakita Wagner has Superman's origin. As a kid, I thought Dan DeCarlo did not know when he was being dirty. There is no shame in realizing your analysis engines were not firing on all cylinders, but there is in not self-correcting at the realization.

Are you a reader who saw no symbolism in Seaguy? You don't have to enjoy the comic, but please, read it again so you can see the symbolism this time and judge it with that fuller picture. A critic calling comics art "dross" while reviewing Kenneth Koch's anthology of "comics mostly without pictures" who admits to not reading comics? Go to the appropriate shelf at a convenient bookstore and start opening different comics, just to take in the breadth and walk away with learned scope and not the inference of memory. An editor, writer, artist, flatter or any other kind of comics-maker, who has seen the ugly, the dumb or disappointing in comics readers or comics press? Do not let that encourage you to make comics you would be insulted to read, that garner you even massive sales if the sales come from an audience you cannot be proud of or relate to.

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