Mar 12, 2014

Things that Bug Me

Things That Bug Me
Travis Hedge Coke

1. Cold Summaries

Does anyone really enjoy it when a comic starts out by summarizing previous events in other stories for two or three pages? (Or, worse, fifteen out of twenty-two pages; it happens.) Avengers: Infinity is cool, Roger Stern and Sean Chen were really rocking there, but it opens with a cold summary of various superhero events in Monica Rambeau’s life before getting into anything currently going on and who is that going to draw in? When you watch a “previously on” opening to a TV show, it generally lasts fifteen seconds to one and a half minutes with joke, because that’s enough to tease the audience without turning them off. Two whole pages of summation of previous events without even introducing a character or establishing where they’re at now, blocks out new readers and probably bores readers who are familiar with those older stories. Like a lot of captions, I’d imagine most readers skip over the summaries when they come that early.

If the background information is important to the story on hand, perhaps it should be dealt with in the story, in a way that feels organic and doesn’t interrupt the story at hand, the current and most pressing events. Stern and Chen actually do that well, in Infinity, with Thor and Moondragon’s old history (she brainwashed and raped him, once upon a time when she was a villain) unfolding piece by piece in the background of scenes where they have more immediate and present issues to deal with. Quasar’s history is dealt with via a simple “this seemed so much more exciting when I was younger.” The new reader needs to know Quasar’s been doing this Protector of the Universe thing for awhile? There it is, we know, and all he had to do was say something offhand.

2. Shrugging Off Trauma

Horrific betrayals, deaths, storms, wars, losing limbs, losing your career-spanning job... following through on traumatic events can be hard. Maybe it’s too depressing, maybe it moves away from the actiony or comedic tone you want the story to have, or you just don’t know how people in those circumstances are likely to behave. It’s easier to sympathize than to empathize; we know how it feels when things happened to us, but things that don’t reach us so readily can easily feel objectively less significant.

But, how does it feel when something you do think is traumatic is just skipped over? Either immediately or in the very next story? “Hohoho! I was raped yesterday, but today I’m a million bucks and I understand why they did it, because they had a sad childhood and they’ve got bad hair!” Cannon God Exaxxion has the mad scientist character invent a “rape repair machine,” unable to see why a machine that repairs physical damage doesn’t just solve everything, because it’s a prevalent enough attitude in comics to satirize. And, that’s messed up.

Fiction is a wonderful tool for dealing with trauma. Superheroes are awesome for showing healthy ways to move past adversity, to put good things above personal loss. Someone being chummy with their rapist is stupid. Someone losing their career and showing no financial windfall for it, except maybe lip service, is shit. I’m sorry, for those who don’t think that casual friends or colleagues should be at Darkstar’s funeral (New X-men), or take a heavy interest and start killing people when Carmen is killed in Frank Miller’s Family Values. I’m sorry for people who got uptight about the use of “family” in that comic, both to represent crime families, biological families, and colleagues, loves, friends who give a damn. Maybe those things don’t have resonance for your life, but the situations, the feelings, have relevance to the lives of many actual people, and that should be reflected. Someone ought to care.

3. Outdated Unfamiliarity

Especially with serial characters who have been around for decades, it’s easy to start pigeonholing people as a type, or by the comforts of their original era. But, if Little Jeffy of Family Circus is five now, he was born in a world that has always had mp3s. Barack Obama has been President his entire life. Unless Peter Parker is in his fifties, he doesn’t remember the Sixties. He may be a nerdy guy with questionably safe tastes in entertainment, but he’s not from Neptune. He knows that Fifty Shades of Grey exists. He probably knows Aunt May has a copy and her copy might be on a tablet. Peter Parker wearing a Ramones shirt – to reiterate, a shirt featuring a band that’s forty years old – is perfectly acceptable. Jan van Dyne in a t-shirt is fine. She’s not 1962 era Jackie Kennedy. She’s a Twenty-First Century heiress, fashion designer, and superhero.

Similarly, anyone old enough to be your dad when you were five does not now, likely, listen to the same music or wear the same clothes your dad did when you were five. (Unless you are still five.) Forty year-old men today are living today. Kids today are not your generation only with the addition of what you think of as new cartoons or new videogames, because what you’re thinking of as new cartoons and videogames probably include things from four to eight years ago, and four to eight years might be a kid’s entire life.

Oracle, a computer whiz and genius nerdy librarian and systems woman is going to know about videogames, even those mysterious newfangled online roleplaying world things like have been around for a really damned long time now. Her dad, Commissioner Jim Gordon, even if he’s sixty now, would’ve been twenty, then, when the Ramones came together. He’d have been thirty when Prince was Purple Raining it and could very well have had the Cure, New Model Army, and Nick Cave on the radio while tooling around in his Dodge with its Kojak light barely staying on and a faded Jimmy Carter sticker on the bumper. Jim Gordon, in a modern comic, claiming he has no idea who Prince is or complaining about longhaired freaky rocknrollers is just stupid. He’s lived through hair metal.

4. Era Kitsch

The flipside of the above, is that while a character or cast can be kept in a specific era, when they are downgraded from being “now” to being set in a parody of an era, it gets old so fast. All faux-70s big pimp hats and 70s dj voices and jittery ghetto façade acting under a disco ball may seem like a fantastic way to do Power Man and Iron Fist, but nobody would stick it out longer than four issues. It might run for six, but by five, most of the readers would be gone. It’s inane. It’s a one panel gag or a theme for a story, if the actual story has solid pull.

5. Bogeyman Opposition

The idea that no argument should ever be put forward in comics (or entertainment/art, at all), that the author’s position on an issue should never be clear from a story is just dumb. Any artist, writer, painter, songwriter you can claim made apolitical compositions… you’re wrong. Even if they did not believe they were being political, or making points based on their beliefs, they were. We can’t put together a narrative without political biases or biases in our understanding of dynamics between groups or individuals coming in; expectations of what traits imply in a person or what choices imply about their traits.

What is bad, often, is when the author relates those politics and expectations in a leaden or patently false way. There are horrors in the world, some of flesh and some of metaphor. Creating a bogeyman who does not reflect any experienced reality to oppose your point of interest, no matter how true or passionate your point, makes your point look weak and can drive your audience to feel insulted that you believed they required such an inane and paperthin opposition to prove what may genuinely be an agreeable point.

When John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four, he had Sue Richards come on a talkshow and be attacked by the vicious Barbra Walters parody hosting. Not-Walters accused her of being a slave to her husband, by taking his surname, of infantilizing herself by calling herself the Invisible Girl and not woman, insulting her for letting a man lead their team, for having children. Who on national television was doing this in the mid-80s? Where? Seriously: what reality did this reflect?

It’s just a fake bogeyman for Sue to get righteous in opposition to, defending her right to call herself a “girl,” and to have a husband. It’s a bullshit parody of hardline feminism crammed into Not-Walters’ mouth. And, within Byrne’s run, Sue has changed her superhero name to “Invisible Woman,” has expressed all manner of internal rage, feeling infantilized by her husband and others. There are panels of Reed yelling sexist insults at Sue, trying to shake her out of mind-controlly furor, that are still regularly republished online as examples of “how Reed was,” which is a false-bogeyman on its own.

So, it all balances out. If Sue was a real woman, she could call herself “Invisible Woman” or “Invisible Girl” and that’s her business. She’s not a real woman, though, and never will be. She doesn’t make decisions about her life. The folks writing and drawing and publishing her make the decisions, and especially at that point, most of them had been men. Having her yell it out with a straw-woman feminazi resembling no nationally-broadcast talkshow host of that era is just weak. “I am what I am and I do what I want” is a silly defense for things that had become outdated by that point, even if the point is solely to pretend that these were historical facts in real peoples’ lives.

6. Insult the Audience

And, if you get called out on your strawman monster doesn’t convince people, if your audience criticizes a political statement or a position on social relations as being incompetent or wrongheaded, or your five page summary that has nothing to do with the actual opening scene of the comic caused readers to say they won’t pick up the next issue, don’t run to Twitter and tell them all to suck shiny red hoboes. Or, do, but be prepared for those people to then never be convinced of your original point or to have any interest in giving your positions considered thought, ever again.

No work is above criticism. No position in a comic, whether it’s “gay men look like any sort of men” or “Republicans are angry, anachronistic rich dudes,” the sensible, the silly, they are all subject to criticism, and that’s okeh. The audience shouldn’t get nasty about it. There is a difference between criticizing something and insulting someone. But criticism is acceptable. Boycotts are acceptable. “I’m not bothering with that person’s work anymore,” is fine. And, for a writer or artist to not desire a certain audience, that too, is reasonable. It’s possible to get an audience you don’t want.

Neither the audience nor the talent need to be gracious, or grateful, but civil is nice. Civil is genuinely useful in ways being dismissive or insulting won’t be. Unless, you actually want people to just fuck off, in which case, “fuck off” generally gets it across best.

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