Well, Wikipedia Says…
Travis Hedge Coke
Preconceived notions are something you can never fully get away from, but to indulge them is hazardous. Not just in a “life-saving, intensely dangerous situation” way, either, but in ways much more important: how much you can enjoy certain comics. (All entertainment, but this is a comics column. Comics!) The problem with preconceived notions is that they are often a mix of knowledge and ignorance and we don’t know the difference. Don’t cite Wikipedia to argue a plot point with someone who’s actually read what the both of you are talking about. Don’t criticize something for falling short of your expectations if your expectations were a completely different story or tone than the comic was ever attempting. You don’t sound like you’re smarter than the talent who made the comic, you don’t come off as having greater perspective, you just sound petty. If you expect a comic to be a horror story about flying monkeys but it was always a street-level crime book about a young woman who raises goldfish in a bad neighborhood, the comic is not at fault for not providing flying monkeys.
Two different kinds of understanding come together when you read a comic to form your overall comprehension: the first is you taking in the information in the comic, the second is based in preconceived notions, and is influenced or wholly constructed of what you expected to find. Your expected understanding may come from something you believe about the artist or publisher, it may have to do with the characters or character names in the comic, the year of its release, suppositions about sexual politics, received wisdom about a genre.
An expected understanding, or anticipatory understanding is, on some level, necessary to understanding any kind of storytelling, particularly notable in our ability to take two separate panels of visual and textual information and turn them into a narrative by understanding that the information in the second panel is a progression of the information in the first. Even the understanding of whether the panel on the left or right, top or bottom is “first” or “second” is anticipatory understanding. When a set of panels violates your anticipatory understanding of what order they should be read in, it is distracting, disruptive, and yet there may be no signs in the comic that you should read them the way you believed you should.
You need to be able to anticipate certain things. On some level, you need to anticipate that dark lines with color blocking some of the lines into shapes is representing scenes of people, trees, skyscrapers, eagles or aliens. If you only took in what was presented to you then and there looking at the page, even the words would mean nothing more than that there are dark shapes in semicircles or squares, often followed eventually by a single dot or a dot with a vertical line immediately above it. It isn’t anticipatory readings that are the problem, it’s privileging them over the information in front of your face while you are reading. It’s taking a review or everyone knows over the actual panels, words, story or dynamic in the actual comic.
Thing is, sometimes I do it, too. We all let our expected understanding get the better of us some days.
During a reread, a year or two later, I caught an exchange between two characters, Patsy Walker and Valkyrie, and Patsy says (roughly), “Hey, Val, remember when…” and Valkyrie says, “No. That wasn’t me. That was another Valkyrie.” Patsy follows it up saying that’s the point, just because you have the same name, even if you also have the same gender, hairstyle, and even mutual friends, it will never make you the same person. You can’t replace people that way, no matter how many times someone has dated a dead ringer for an ex, in life or in movies.
It’s a good message. It’s a good comic. I only didn’t get it because it went in the direction the talent intended, not the direction I thought it was meant to go.
That’s when the anticipatory understanding gets in the way, when you think a story has to do something and when it isn’t the story is wrong, not your assumption. A comic is not “meant to go” in any direction just because you assume so or someone on a message board said so. Misunderstanding what someone said on a message board, or over coffee, in a press release or in any circumstance can add to your expectations, but misdirect them without you noticing until (if ever) it’s too late.
|Dr. Hurt, from Batman RIP|
Whether it’s writing letters to complain of excessive cursing in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic (there isn’t any past “butt” or “damn”), posting online to criticize Exploitation Now for “forgetting” to be a series of gag strips and having melodramatic storylines (Poe knew what he was doing, whether you like it or not), or hating on Dark Knight Returns for making Superman a weak character who does no good (he saves lives, Batman appears to die fighting him, and his last appearance is condoning Batman’s new plans with a wink), you are letting your expectation get the better of you. Respond to the material on hand, the comic you are reading, not your expecations.
And for those among us who read this entire article and believe I am unfairly picking out comics readers or insinuating only comics readers misunderstand in this way, I’d like to remind how much philosophy and pretension some critics read into Robert Rodriguez’s breakthrough El Mariachi because it was subtitled and independently produced. Too many critics, to this day, have complained that he hasn’t lived up to the promise of his early efforts because he stopped making movies in Spanish and has more or less made only action and children’s films, nothing mature like the tale of a musician mistaken for a gangster so several shootouts and chases could be strung together for ninety minutes.
There are people out there, right now, teaching classes using Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to express their ideas that the author was a closet pedophile and condoned (or even lionized) the protagonist, despite all textual evidence which paints Humbert as a moral monster with a fine vocabulary as his sole redeeming quality and just why that redeems nothing of consequence.
Any field, any interest, anyone and everyone falls into this trap to some degree, at some point. You have to know the trap is there, and you have to make the effort, sometimes, to pick yourself up out of it. It may be easier, instead, to live in willed ignorance and just complain about how you know Dragon Ball Z should have swear words in the dialogue because a fan translation you saw one time had f-bombs every sentence. Just because you saw pornographic fan art of Superman or Sailor Moon, even high quality or talented art, does not imply or prove that there are pornographic moments in the comics or officially licensed adaptations of either property. No citation or observation, in isolation, is evidence that you should lock onto regardless of any or all evidence to the contrary, no matter how much you prefer the understanding you are loyal to.
Try to hold to your preferred reality, even when the irreality of it becomes obvious, and you will be wrong. You will be frustrated, perhaps upset, and you will be wrong.