Fan-Dumb and How to Avoid it
Travis Hedge Coke
1. What Do You Mean the Lying Liar Lied?
I was enjoying an essay by a professional writer the other day, pushing her love of Jean Grey (almost as much as I love a certain other essay about how annoying Jean Grey was to that writer), when she took a detour onto a Fantomex/Jean scene and criticized certain things Fantomex said as bullshit “obviously written by a man,” without noting that, yeah, it’s bullshit from the mouth of a guy who spends that entire story doing nothing but bullshitting. I’m not going to defend Grant Morrison’s awareness of women, sexual interest, or whatever, I’m just saying using a BS line from a guy who spouts BS nonstop the entire story probably isn’t the best place to start and end your argument.
I’m not running down the author, either, who’s done frequently cool work. If it was just a post on a message board or someone’s Facebook, I wouldn’t blink twice, because we all post something similar eventually. Somewhere. This got my attention because it’s a deliberate statement in a professional collection of essays, that’s all. Which means, really, that while we all do it, we probably should all, each and every of us, stop. Liars lie. For every time Reed Richards tries to say that Dr. Doom is honest, we can see from our perspective of never having been in college with him or having a crush on him, that Doom lies a lot, he lies by omission, he lies by rhetoric, and he lies flat out straight to your face sometimes.
You can’t quote a line that Doom says, or Fantomex, Lex Luthor, Six Pakc, or any other persistent bullshitter, as if it’s meant to be taken seriously. That Fantomex story is the same one where he pretends to be a hardass by pulling bullets out of himself with no anesthetic, never mentioning that he can’t feel pain from his own body. When a serial liar says something that smells like bull, we need to all start assuming the bull is there.
2. Class as Justification
Magneto is a good man! He had a horrible, disenfranchised, imprisoned youth and he gives speeches!
Dr. Doom is an honorable man! He drinks from golden goblets and gives speeches!
Catwoman needs to steal! She was poor a long, long time ago!
Talia needs to keep all her inherited blood money! She’s someone’s daughter!
If Superman didn’t exist, Luthor would be a great man! He’s rich! He wears suits!
It’s all ridiculous, the idea that class justifies otherwise atrocious behavior like living in luxury because you’ve robbed, murdered, raped, sold, or otherwise abused people. Doom is where he is, king of a small country, because he kills people, he enslaves people, he does bad things all the time. “He really cares for their welfare when he’s not murdering them in giant ovens” is not justified by how nice his drapes are or that sometimes, when he kidnaps you, he offers you a glass of expensive wine while telling your friends you’ll die if they don’t steal something for him.
On the flipside, no childhood hardship should make adult criminal abuses of a dramatic nature acceptable. Nothing Magneto has ever done has been justified, and you can’t point to his youth and say “well, anyone who lived through the Holocaust would…” because no, they did not. The Holocaust was a real thing. Genocides are real things. There are people walking around right now who experienced those things firsthand or who will live forever with the specter of it on their life and lineage. To try to justify multiple murders, conquests, and general cartoon supervillainy by his having been in a concentration camp is disgusting.
On the level without so much a body count, we have thieves like Catwoman, being justified by fans via their economic hardships as youths. You want to say Catwoman has a psychological compulsion to steal, that’s fine, but that being poor as a kid justifies her being a jewel thief who frequently lives in enormously expensive flats in high class buildings? No.
3. They’ve Gayed Green Lantern!
Very casual fans, I’ll give a pass on this, but if you read a decent amount of comics, or even if you watch a decent amount of TV, you know that the character on a TV show from ten years ago and the character with the same name, but a different actor, in a movie based on the show is not the same guy. It’s a different version of the same guy. We know this.
But, we forget it. We forget that they’re different guys, just as the current Alan Scott is not the same Alan Scott we read about previously. He’s not got the same family life, he’s not the same age, he’s not living in the same world, and he’s gay. He’s not the same person any more than the Dukes of Hazzard movies are the TV series continued, or the recent Munsters reboot was the old characters continued.
It still feels the same, often. It feels a continuation. And, for the sake of jokes, sure, conflate! But know the difference.
4. If They Stop Making Batman Movies We’d Have a Zauriel TV Series By Now
We’d all like to see our favorite characters all over the place, unless we’re the kind of fan who thinks that limited exposure makes something special. But the reason Marvel isn’t making a Squirrel Girl movie has nothing to do with them making three Iron Mans or waiting for Fox to give up the X-Men rights. They’re not making Squirrel Girl 2: Nuts to You! Because they’re not doing it. DC isn’t making movies about Wonder Woman because they aren’t, not because Arrow is eating up the Wonder Woman movie budget.
It’s just that simple.
5. Photorealism is The Real Talent
One of my profs from CalArts used to joke that “there’s one photorealist study in every artist’s portfolio, to show they can if they wanted to.” And, truthfully, there often is. Not cap-P Photorealism, because that takes serious effort and dedication, but lowercase photorealism, meaning you aren’t exaggerating figures or faking the folds in the curtains because you don’t want to pull out a photo of curtains and mimic the genuine folds, or jutting U shaped spades of green atop each other to make the impression of the leaves at the edges of clusters on a tree.
If you do anything less, some jackass will come along with “my ten year old could do that,” or “I could do that” meaning, often, that abstraction, cartooning, or exaggeration are lazy or uncontrolled in some fashion. Occasionally they just believe their ten year old is a genius. But, in truth, most visual artists can do that prized kind of realism, it’s some of the first things you learn if you go to art school or have a good apprenticeship. That, is the easy stuff. It’s also, often, not actually what people want to look at. Realistic Mickey Mouse would be terrifying or just dumb. Realistic Guernica wouldn’t contain most of what Guernica makes you feel or gives you. Gauche, realistically-lit Superman painted from a model can look kinda pudgy, because cloth, even tights, don’t hug the muscles the way just drawing muscleymuscles in does. Or painting them the way, for example, Boris Vallejo does, in exagerration.
Alex Ross is very good, but the fact he’s a photorealist painter (he’s not; I’d say he’s a nostalgia painter more than anything, a kind of Naturalist) isn’t where he’s good. He’s good at being Alex Ross and making Alex Ross’ works. But Garfield can’t look like Alex Ross’ works. A strip painting in that style telling the same Garfield jokes, series of them, would be novel, but not funny and not reassuring. Whether it’s Garfield or WE3, Ross’ style and strengths would kill it, and not in the good way. Or, you’d have a happy accident, like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, where Dave McKean altered the tone, plot, and overall style of the comic by refusing to paint certain characters (Robin) and transfiguring scenes that were scripted for tight accuracy with melodramatic gestures and often fuzzy and unnatural imagery (Batman shoving glass straight down through the center of his palm, for example). But, even that, had you shorn the flair and just gone with Rockwellian clarity…
Styles exist because they serve purposes. All of them. They find audiences, they clarify situations, they express things differently, each one. There isn’t a gradation of great styles or mature styles versus immature, that depends on the execution and the work. Kitsch vs high art hasn’t mattered financially or socially in a long time, even if the idea has.
6. Prove You’re a Fan to My Exacting Double Standard
I was listening to a podcast review of Alisa Kwitney’s Avengers novel, Breakout (which I remember being talked about as Hawkeye ♥ Black Widow for some reason and still think is a better title even if it was never meant to be). The reviewer liked the book, but he wants to be very clear that he was unsure going in because, this was a woman, she hadn’t read an Avengers comic (before getting the gig) in many years, and her comics experience as a pro had been mostly as an editor, not a writer, despite her having written some comics and a few novels. He balances this against himself and against series editor and writer of one of the novels, Stuart Moore. The review admits he, himself, fell off Avengers and comics in general for a long period, and he hasn’t written or edited any. His falling off apparently doesn’t disqualify him from pre-judging Kwitney based on her not reading Avengers since she was a kid, though. And, Moore is a comics editor, like Kwitney, who has written a few comics, like Kwitney, but no other novels, and he’s a dude. Of course the reviewer trusts him to be able to write a superhero novel. He’s a dude.
It’s not a bad review, really, and he did like the book, but every criticism he has about Kwitney has nothing to do with the book on hand and much to do with the fact she’s a woman. It’s that simple, and that’s sad. He accuses her of not being good with action, and doing nothing with Spider-Man’s broken arm, then immediately points out Bendis, who wrote the comic this novel is based on, is not so great with action, either, and did nothing with the broken arm. He criticizes her for having a career writing romance novels or “chicklit” and then immediately points out that superhero comics live and breathe on the romantic entanglements. He casts doubt on her because her pro time in comics is mostly editing, and then uses that same thing as bona fides for Moore. It’s more than weird, it’s a blatant double standard.
And, if this was just one guy, well, there’d be less tumblrs about fake geek girls and less tumblrs making fun of guys who totally believe in and fear the fake geek girl. It’d be a different world than the one we live in. And, maybe it’s one we should try to live in.
7. They Need to Make it For Me, At My Current Age, With My Current Tastes
If you’ve matured, or aged, to a point where Iron Man comics don’t do it for you any more, move on. Don’t demand they add some graphic sex or scenes where Tony does actual math. Because the target demographic don’t want that and it’s not what Iron Man is designed for. It’s not even something the character’s particularly good for, outside of novelty. Plus, you can find the sex stuff elsewhere, if you look.
Spider-Man doesn’t have to be designed for you. Thrilling Defective Stories does not have to be aimed at you. Preacher and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are not required to hit the emotional notes, the level of maturity, or the integrity of politics that you want, just because they exist in your world. My earliest Batman reading was Year One and some Peter Milligan issues and I was really disappointed other Bat-comics weren’t that, but they didn’t have to be. The other comics, the ones that weren’t working for me so much, speaking to me as I was then? They had a different audience.
8. Aiming My Childhood At My Adulthood
Spider-Man doesn’t need to be aimed at thirty year-olds, either, even if you’re a thirty year-old penciler who grew up on Spider-Man and want him to speak to your life now. It doesn’t all have to be aimed at small children, and I’d say Spidey’s traditional range is maybe eight to twenty-two. You have to acknowledge the fait accompli audience who will show up because Spidey showed up. You ought to be able to justify your alternate-route use of the character, or any in a similar position. And it shouldn’t be that hard to justify. If it is that hard, maybe you ought to rethink the whole thing.
8. Whores! Whores! Whores Like They’re Going Outta Style
AKA, Travis talks about how people remember Frank Miller comics.
I’m not a big New Criticism guy. I think talent and their lives and real, espoused opinions are fair game in judging a piece of art, a story, a sketch, a comic. But, don’t project. And, if you do project (we all do, sometime or another), recognize what you are doing and don’t let it overwhelm your judgment.
Frank Miller has written about sex before, and he even wrote one comic with corporate-owned children’s characters where a man cheated on his pregnant wife, another man uses women as props to pepper up his public image, yet another man is a pimp, several men are drug-runners, crooked cops, thieves, murderers, and two women stop being sex workers halfway through. But when we talk about that comic, Batman: Year One, what tends to be criticized is “whores.” “Frank Miller made her a whore!”
Same thing for his work in Daredevil, and Karen Page. Frank Miller made Karen Page a whore.
Except, he didn’t. And if you were in the comic and said that in front of Matt “Daredevil” Murdock or Foggy “the other guy” Nelson, they’d probably sock you in the mouth and you’d have earned it. Those comics don’t make that judgment, and no decent character in them makes such a judgment. That some readers do is perfectly acceptable as far as they are allowed to make judgments, but they cannot presume to know Miller’s judgment and they can’t claim it’s right there in the comics. Those readers are making that decision, that call.
This isn’t just about slut-shaming or whatever burning urge to say “whore” on a message board some poster has. I make a judgment call every time I see Batman let Catwoman go, or roll his eyes when Talia admits she’s somewhere to murder people or destroy a city, because, well, Talia is hot and he wishes she’d stop being such a murderous crazyass supervillain. When the Vision claimed he had no angle in a race riot because he is a robot, not of any race, and then about two issues later invented a “human” persona who was definitely a white American man? I judged that. And, I judge those things differently than the talent on the books seem to, I judge them differently than characters in the scenes. I got annoyed when Captain America told Diamondback he couldn’t go out with her while she had her hair styled as she liked it, because he had an image to uphold.
We are all free to judge and we should, we should be critical, we should be aware, have perception of ramifications and context. But, when we’re projecting our neuroses onto the talent, or acting as if our judgments or interpretations are de facto law and immutable reality, we’re not only misguided, we’re screwing up our own understanding of things, which could, otherwise, stand with variety and potential. Definite interpretations are rarely requisite, and definite interpretations based on material not present but a guess, a moral judgment, or a supposition based in personal experience limit the work and the reader.