Aug 21, 2013

Pop Medicine: Signs of a Bad Reader

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


Signs of a Bad Reader
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Bad, not poor. Let’s just make that clear. If you are guilty of these, and many of us do evince these faults at some point, then you are not merely unfortunate, or experiencing a lapse, you’re guilty and chastisement may be the only way to pick you up out of it. When the well-trained cat urinates on the new sofa, you don’t “poor kitty” it. “Bad kitty.” “Poor kitty” is for when it gets a paw stuck up under the breakaway collar that isn’t breaking away, or when it’s rolling on the carpet looking for sympathy over a stomach bug.
  
Rather than poor readers, I think there are poor readings we can all be guilty of at times. A poor reading could be:

1. Privileging Other Interpretations

Maybe you read a professional summary, maybe your friend told you about it at lunch, but despite having your own understanding, your own ideas, you push yours down and treat theirs as truth. It’s nice that you value these people’s interpretations, but underselling your ability to comprehend isn’t doing you, or anyone, much good. Not only is there always room for more than one potential meaning or understanding to a scene or a story, a character, a line, or an image, but they need not agree to be equally or significantly of value.

2. Underestimating the Author

One of the worst things you can do is notice something great in a comic and then decide the talent couldn’t possibly have done what you thought you understood. I hate the “idea particle” theory, that somewhat facetiously suggests ideas/memes ping around in the air and of their own trajectory strike an author who produces work from them, because some people take as an entirely serious proposition. These people are unable or unwilling to entertain the notion that the talent producing the entertainment might actually be that competent or that creative.

3. Confusing Change in a Character With Change

Something ought to change in good entertainment — that’s a generally accepted principle and it works out fairly well. But that the change need occur in characters is oversold and underthought. Sherlock Holmes and Superman do not change appreciably in the average early Holmes or Supes story, the protagonist of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is not appreciably changed by the end of the novel, but those can be, for many, fantastically entertaining. And, importantly, they change other people in the stories and they change, most importantly, us. The reader should be affected by their entertainment. The reader is the most significant entity of all that can be affected by entertainment.

4. I Like Bad Comics

Not only should you not enjoy things ironically, you cannot enjoy them ironically. There is no wrong reason to enjoy something. You can enjoy a comic without agreeing with its author, or without being submerged into the story so you almost forget it’s real. Identifying with the protagonist is not a requirement of enjoyment. But, however you enjoy a thing, if you enjoy it, you are, in fact, enjoying it, and it’s good for that. It’s not a bad comic, it’s a comic other people may not like for the reasons you like it.


There are, however, things that make you a bad reader. Those, when done perpetually, through comfort or aggression, include:

1. Pretending to Understand Less Than You Do

Some things are awkwardly parsed, this is true, but if you take poor grammar or unexpected narrative twists and declare you simply don’t understand what’s actually happening in the scene even though you do, because you are trying to make a point of how awkward or poor the communication of the scene is? That’s not only terrible, and condescending, it’s stupid. It makes you look willfully stupid.

Rhetorical “I don’t know what that means” obfuscation can have uses in life. When you have to talk to someone about a term or practice that isn’t contextually appropriate to discuss, like talking about blowjobs to six year olds or ignoring someone’s drunken sexts when you see them two days later and they’re sober and worried about it. As a way to redirect conversation, it’s fine as any other, but just as with any other technique it’s not a catch-all. When you are using to condescend, you aren’t being charmingly sardonic, you aren’t enhancing or really highlighting the poor communication skills of the comic, you are revealing your own pretentiousness and stubbornness and that’s about all.

2. Demanding It Be Something Completely Different

My brother likes Family Circus and has as long as I can remember. When he was a kid, the shelf by his bed often had a couple Too Short tapes, a stack of car magazines, and a Family Circus collection. I don’t feel the appeal of it, the way he does (nor the appeal of Too Short), but I won’t ask, “Why doesn’t it have continuing stories? Why isn’t there more swearing?” or other questions, because that’s not what Family Circus is. It is an established thing, it has parameters that identify it.

When you are asking a comic to go outside its established range in a significant way, you are asking for a different comic. Just accept that. Don’t ask Action Comics to start telling you how to file your taxes in Brazil. It’s not what the comic is for. Don’t ask Ranma ½ to be Maus. And, unless you are finding a point in common, don’t criticize Ranma ½ for not being Maus.

3. Getting Mad When Bad Things Happen

If you have a story, something difficult or bad is going to happen to a character. At least once, this is going to happen. The moment you find yourself asking, “How can bad things keep happening to Andy Capp?” or insisting a writer or artist hates Peter Parker because he’s gotten bruised in a fight, you should put down Andy Capp or Amazing Spider-Man for awhile and get some perspective.

Sometimes, there are unfortunate implications in what sort of bad things happen to specific sorts of people. This is slightly a horse of another color, but not always, and again, you need perspective. Perspective is your friend. A character may be black and get shot, it doesn’t mean they were shot for being black. A character can be rich and win a fight, without the talent creating the comic intending to make a blanket statement that rich people fight better. These are individuals and most talent, as most human beings, are smart enough to know that when they make public statements, stereotyping loudly may not be the way to go. This does not, however, stop us all from putting our foot in our mouth, in a nonfiction or a creating-fiction way.

Benefit of the doubt isn’t always going to pan out well, but it’s better than finding yourself proclaiming Gail Simone or Caitlin Kiernan are transphobic because something bad happened to a trans character they wrote.

4. Sticking To Your First Understanding No Matter What

Sometimes we miss things. We misunderstand, we conflate, perhaps we just don’t see it while it hovers in slow-mo in front of our face. This is acceptable and entirely human. It is also no excuse to maintain our misunderstanding after we know better.

5. Pretending to Have Read What You Haven’t

Nobody likes to feel left out, and I’d wager at some point in our lives, we have all claimed to have read something we didn’t actually fully sit down and read. Maybe we glanced at some pages. Maybe we heard about it, or read a summary somewhere. Maybe there’s an infamous bit you remember from parodies. That is not the same as reading it.

I dated a woman, once, who could pretend to have read things to a masterful level, because she would rather die of torture than admit she wasn’t in the loop. It was almost a year of dating before she’d even admit to me that she had not read a particular book or watched a certain movie. Anything she knew about it, she’d latch onto, and she could be convincing. I watched her, once, make up scenes in a movie she had not seen but the other person had, and by the end, they were admitting they could be misremembering.

This is a terrible thing to do. It may make you feel safe, it may make you feel in control, but you then have experienced the story you made up instead of the story you’re talking about. And, in talking about it, by putting your story into words, this cover story, you are altering your ability to ever take in the actual work, and if you’re sharing these words, you are irrevocably altering this work, comic, movie, whatever, for others.

When you haven’t read a work recently, the same thing happens, without being as obvious. Our memory makes its own version of the work. Our preferences and emotions stitch together the bones and skin to make a new work, based on what excited us, how we felt about certain events, and everything anyone else has told us about the work.

The biggest reason we botch famous lines is because we remember a parody or summary version in place of the original, not because they are inherently confusing. I remember the bit in Shane from the Bill Hicks routine and it’s not there, Bill Hicks made that shit up. I had “Play it again, Sam” in my head for years. I was sure “Angels, meet Diana” was a great kickass moment in Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA, but it’s not; it’s not even a scene, really, it’s just something Aquaman says while an explosion happens in the background. If Phil Jimenez hadn’t called me out on that, I’d still be walking around today sure that scene happened in the comic.

Combine cover stories, parodies, and your memory’s stitching together of an agglomeration of versions, and you have something fairly untrustworthy.

Batman hugging Robin, Superman not actually losing the fight with Batman, those are right there in The Dark Knight Returns, but what we remember easiest are the parts that have been parodied and talked about more, or paraphrased by people who haven’t read the comic or read it recently. “Batman totally kicked Superman’s ass!” No, he didn’t. He got in some half dozen blows after Superman had been hit by a nuke and then he had a heart attack and appeared to die. “Superman is a government stooge and the villain!” Superman goes to Bruce’s funeral, knows he’s still alive, and his response is to just wink at Bruce’s allies. I know people who have insisted Ellen Yindel is a lesbian in DKR, and maybe she is, but there’s absolutely no evidence of it. The word “whores” will come up more times in a conversation about Frank Miller comics than it does in any Frank Miller comic (where it will inevitably be in the mouth of a bad person who probably eats people).

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