Mar 13, 2013

Pop Medicine: Challenging

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

I'm fairly in favor of sink or swim when it comes to entertainment. I love guidebooks, I adore annotations, dioramas or maps of fictional spaces, that Philip Farmer wold newtoning, references, shoutouts, callbacks, and response fiction. I don't like prep. I like my annotations and extrapolations after the fact. And I don't care much how challenging something is. Two of the last movies I watched were David Lynch's More Things That Happened and Penelope Spheeris' Wayne's World. The last two novels I finished were James Baldwiin's Giovanni's Room and Haunted Spouse by Heather McAllister. Yesterday, I read a review copy of James Stokoe's amazing Godzilla comic, The Half-Century War and then talked about Prince of Tennis and Batman comics (and a billion other things) for six hours of hot pot and beer. I don't want to be challenged by entertainment. I want to be interested.

I am not against being challenged by a piece of entertainment. Complexity can be entertaining. Disagreeable ideas or progressions can be intriguing. But if I need to read six other collections to understand one Green Lantern trade, I'm game to start at the beginning, but just as ready to jump off when it stops being interesting. I spent the first twenty years of my life being told by doctors I probably wouldn't live very long; the fucks I could give for the long haul are negative infinity minus two times for-ev—er (and jut as immature as that sounds). Yet, I love reveals. I love it when a plan comes together, to coin a phrase, when the scene revolves around and shows us something unanticipated, when someone throws off their face and has a new one underneath. I'm very surface that way, but thanks to information theory, we know that more than 90% of all l the information you can have can be recorded on the surface.

When we survive (and understand) something challenging, we feel as if we accomplished something more than if we read an unchallenging comic. But, in either case, what we did was read a comic and have thoughts about it. This is true of the challenging and the unchallenging. It's not a competition. No one's going to give you a prize. Alan Moore isn't playing a game of wits with you and this round is yours (but do say “You've. Won. This. Round,” in your best Moore imitation; that's rewarding). We cannot help the impulse, however, as we're trained to it most of our lives. Work ethic. If it hurts, it's good for you. If you survive, you're stronger. I used to hear this from my mom when she was still trying to avoid being an academic and longing for the fields. And sharecropping is good, serious work, don't get me wrong. My grandpa, an analytic chemist for the federal government, says to this day there's a part of him that never left being a fieldworker. But I also see both of them stooped, their bones disintegrating, joints aching, shot through with cancers and wrapped in weathered skin, and a good part of that's from the “challenging” aspect. Not to downplay carpal tunnel from sitting at a computer day in and out, but you have any friends who've picked or dug their whole life?

Intellectual labor is the inverse, because we (most of us reading this) are in classist societies, with a division between the intellectual and physical that our bodies and lives naturally deny. Thus, societies that give rise to “intellectualism” and “stoop labor” as epithets, both, and still, too, the idea that both should be heralded with personal pride, personal achievement. Pride's that tricky thing. I've seen people told not to read Preacher before they study Christian cosmogony or the Vietnam War. People have been scared off trying to crack open The Invisibles because they haven't read eight thousand other books and been personally visited by alien blob things. Not a week goes by that someone in the world isn't trying to tell people they can't read a current-day Superman or Spider-Man comic unless they first read their initial eighty appearances from decades ago. That the science and the fact it has new characters never seen elsewhere makes Global Frequency impenetrable. (Let me remind us all that Global Frequency is only, maybe two hundred pages long, and a comic about running, jumping, and blowing shit up.)

I looked at two different online forums today and saw people recommending new readers not try to read Grant Morrison's Batman or JLA without a list of prep comics and guidebooks the length of a longer arm than I have, because it could “blow their mind” or “won't mean anything.” That's pride, to quote from Pulp Fiction, “fucking with you.”

It's goddammed Batman! (And one of the bestselling comics writers in the English language, with some top flight artists and colorists.) There are people on this planet who can't be presented with the basic idea of Batman and get it, but they face greater issues in life than that. The majority of human beings in the Twenty-First Century, can get Batman. They understand the whole Batman idea. The majority of human beings in the Twenty-First Century can get a Grant Morrison comic about Batman, from Arkham Asylum, which sold like hot-selling things right from the beginning, through his JLA run, and right up to the beautiful collection Batman Inc. That does not mean you, or every reader, will enjoy (all of) them, simply that on the scale of things you could be reading, they are pretty easy to understand if you actually read them and don't just look at each page for a maximum of a half-second.

What is challenging to someone depends on a lot, and most challenging works, in general, are challenging only the first time. We need to keep in mind, when recommending or trying to dissuade someone from a comic, that what they find challenging may not be the same as what we do, that they may feel antagonized by this more or less than we, and, in general, that we are not the default of human taste, neither the base nor highest standard. We need to pull pride out of the equation. And, seriously, “I understood a Batman comic, but you probably won't,” is always going to feel like someone patting themselves on the back, to me.

Batman sells because, by and large, Batman comics are easily understood. You needn't have ever seen an Alien or Predator movie to read (Stradley, Norwood, and Warner's) Aliens Versus Predator (or the online Alien Loves Predator, either, for that matter). A map of Dublin is unnecessary to read Throwaway Horse's comics adaptation of Ulysses.

Gibbons and Moore's Watchmen sells because, again, it's easy to read and understand. It's a strong work, it's elegantly constructed, it has some powerful emotional points, but its way to be political is to give Nixon a lifelong presidency and have the US win Vietnam with a giant naked blue man; the baddies always do bad things, the good eggs rise above themselves, and Rorschach is fucked in the head and face because he had a shitty childhood and takes himself too seriously. I do find the whole Rorschach origin to be challenging, because I don't like the classist tone of it, something Moore revisited in Judgment Day, though there it was also the only strongly heroic nonwhite character in the comic, as well as having been a poor kid with a shabby life. I suppose it's a reaction against the valorizing of the poor or traumatized as diamonds in the rough or something, but I, personally, find it a bit suspect and considerably lazy. It's not a point, I believe, that many find challenging, but again, to each their own.

We all have our own territory of discomfort or of intense questioning, our own areas of ignorance or abundant knowledge. It may bother some people when they can't mentally map out the Batcave, because artists keep drawing the giant penny in different places and that's too much for them to handle, so they swear off Batman comics. You could be a person who has to struggle through a protagonist of a different gender or sexuality than your own. Telepathy, as a concept, may be too out there for you. I'm making no judgments; I'm saying that these, and many other scales and territories, are not universal.

If you feel being in black and white makes something more challenging, that does not say as much about the comic, for better or worse, as it does you. And, while it's true, many of us default to Marvel and DC being the big comics publishers, or the comics publishers, it's because we don't pay attention to Andrews McMeel as a publisher, even if we buy their Calvin and Hobbes or Pearls Before Swine collections. Many other people don't even know, appreciably, what Marvel Comics is. They know who Spider-Man is. They know what Batman looks like, that his name is Bruce Wayne. They may not care who publishes the comics. Like many comics fans, they may not fully believe someone writes them.

Don't let pride convince you to tell friends looking for a new car to try a horse and buggy first. Or, strangers. Don't let pride convince you that you've achieved more than you have, or that others cannot do as well as you. You can let pride wreck your experience, your pleasure, if you like, but don't let your pride sabotage someone else's potential entertainment just so you can feel you know Batman better than these dilettantes ever will.

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