Capitalist Reading Messes You Up!
How Work Ethic Messes With Our Fun
Travis Hedge Coke
“There’s not enough story, just a lot of startles,” I complain to Kerr, who has graciously agreed to walk through the haunt with me. (I have screamed directly in her ear several times at this point.) - Madeleine Davies, What's the Ethical Limit of a Boundary-Pushing Haunted House? Ask Scare Expert Margee Kerr
I greatly enjoy Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a poem loaded with specific symbolism, metaphors, and political connotations of which I am broadly ignorant. I like it because it’s very pretty and mad as a box of snakes on speed and sprinkled with glitter being let loose in a packed third grade classroom. What the ultimate “villain” of Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity represents is incredibly less important to me than thinking about what they could represent. Are Peanuts characters rarely as pure and animated in drawings when they’re by Charles Schulz because he created and loved them most? Because he imbued care and years of refinement into those drawings? Did he consider just the measure of ink to expend to express fear and anxiety and childishness in Charlie Brown’s face? I don’t care. Charles Schulz drew those characters the best because look at them!
Traditionally, in eurocentric circles, at least, we separate the pleasures and justifications of artistic endeavors into Content and Spectacle. Two categories for everything, both enjoyed, one considered irrevocably more immature. Spectacle is what gets you worked up fastest and generally the strongest, but enjoying Content is adult of you, enjoying Content and embracing it longest and strongest means you’re mature and sensible and doing right. You are rewarded by Spectacle because you are a child and don’t know better; by Content because you have learned to be right.
Spectacle is the clitoral orgasm of art.
Why do we speak of “meaningless pleasures,” but say suffering gives life meaning? Discomfort means healing? Bad taste means medicine? Why is one of the first frequently repeated questions we ask children about stories, “What is the moral of this story?” I think I got “What is the moral?” in every English class I had up until eighth grade, when I had a teacher who would play Grateful Dead and Hendrix songs on mixtapes before we even started to read aloud or discuss what we were reading and liked to ask us for a bodycount in a story or a count of how many times we were surprised by the story.
“What is the moral?” over and over, implies that there is always, or usually a moral to stories. Stories don’t have morals. Stories have events. They have characters. Thy have places and tools and descriptions of things. Authors can intend a moral, but often when we talk of a story's moral it has little to do what what the author intended; it’s about what we project onto the story.
“What is the moral?” is a way to control thought in children, and to keep control when those children become adults. The notion that a story has less value if you can’t find the moral or disagree with the moral as if story-morals are cosmic truths. As though morality can be rote memorization. Morality by diktat isn’t morality. It's behavioral code, at best, and too often, it is perverse psychological slavery. I’m not overselling this. It really does get in our heads and pervert our ability to cognitively and functionally perceive and and act in the world, this stupid rule that we benefit from instruction in stories, not entertainment, that we benefit from cause-and-effect punishments and warnings, but not from pleasures or indulgences.
It’s a very capitalist way to look at story and what story is good for. Stories that instruct us, we call deeply intelligent, that adhere intensely to a structure, a pattern, a rule, we praise for being intelligently wrought, but when the pattern is harder to identify or not there, when there is no clear emphasis on morality, but a sequence or deluge of spectacles and happenings, pretty moments or terrifying make-you-jump scares, we write it off as “guilty pleasures,” unless we can justify it with “deeper meanings.”
We’re paying in money and time for “meanings.” For instructions.
You can’t tell me that won’t mess you up.
Especially, I think, when you consider how simplistic most stories really are. Morally or structurally, most stories in any medium are pretty simple. If The Matrix or a Mark Millar comic blew your mind, well, good for you, but how? Generally, I put it down to expectation. The advertising campaign and mystique of The Matrix tells us to find it mindblowing. The mystique of The Invisibles lies, strongly, in it being weird and mad and full of wonderful weird, deeply meaningful stuff. Grant Morrison was just as weird, if not even weirder on JLA at the same time as he was writing The Invisibles, but nobody was telling us that JLA was super-weird and mindblowing. Somehow multi-eyed starship chariots of bull-faced, twelve-foot tall angels in armor, cancer-victims suiciding their way into larger, unkillable, super-hairy artificial bodies to to try to lead confused Marines into firing on a Superman who will not raise a hand against them and whom they cannot truly damage…
JLA was excessively weird. The Matrix? The Invisibles? Almost 99% human beings running around perfectly normal-looking streets, wearing relatively normal clothes, with straight up normal faces, firing plain ol’ guns at each other, with the occasional high speed punching.
So, part of this cache we are buying is an understood value. A value we are told is there, educated to identify. But, if you like something for the wrong reasons?
If you like The Matrix because it has nice coats and bullets everywhere and Keanu Reeves going full Keanu? If you read Flash because he runs fast and his costume is usually pretty cool? You like Angela’s battle bikinis or shirtless Thor?
Oh, those are shallow, sad reasons to enjoy anything. So very sad.
Not that you don’t have the opposite, as well. The “where are the tits in this?” crowd, that drive. “I paid good money, and spent ten whole minutes reading this and no one threw a goddammed punch?”
Same thing. They’re not reading the comic they have, they're not engaging with it, or thinking about it, they're thinking about the comic they think they’re supposed to have in their hands. They’re looking for the cache they think is supposed to be there.
This drive leads us to call mystery stories “nonsensical” because the answers aren’t given on the same page as the mystery is presented. It’s what motivates us to criticize a comic with, “If they wanted to make _____ they just should have,” instead of even for a moment considering that what they wanted to make was what they made, it just isn’t what we thought we were going to get.
Getting mad at the idea of decompression or the idea of hyper-compressed stories, getting pissed off over - not the application of an art style in a particular story or scene, but - an art style is so incredibly selfish, I can’t believe people really mean it. Maybe they do. “That’s a genre/style that needs to die a death and go hell.” Maybe they mean it. But, I think it’s more likely that this is just their minds panicking a little, locking up because they believe that there is one kind of value, objective value in stories and comics, and that if this other thing exists, but must be empty of value for anyone just as it feels empty for them. Or, perhaps, antagonistic to value.
We can act entitled, like idiots, or we can grow out of third grade reading class. The moral of Spider-Man doesn’t depend on the particular Spider-Man story. Or, even which Spider-Man it is, the Andrew Garfield on, the Ben Reilly one, the one from that issue of What If…? (you know the one). The moral of Spider-Man doesn’t depend on whether it’s by Steve Ditko, dialogued by Stan Lee, done by Sam Raimi or Dan Slott, Garth Ennis or Alex Ross. The moral of Spider-Man depends on you. If you need a moral to feel good about a story, find yours. Some of us are more than content to see the kid in the blue and red tights swing across the skyline and skitter straight up the side of a skyscraper to slug a bully in green armor swinging a big metal tail around and finally deliver his aunt’s medicine to her before she dies.
And, if the comic spends more panels with Carlie than with Spidey? If it follows a cop or an old woman or a little kid around and shows how Spider-Man affects their day, and their life? Maybe Dan Slott or John Byrne or whoever didn’t screw it all up. Maybe the artist didn’t get lazy or weird and forget to keep drawing Spider-Man. It might not even be because this new age of comics is stupid and nobody wants to do heroes anymore and postmodern deconstruction social knights of alpha betary punk hipster girls have taken over the clubhouse. Maybe that’s just the comic they wanted to make, and made.
Entertainment is like freedom. You're free to pursue freedom? Freedom can’t be pursued. You’re free or you’re not free. You don’t pay for entertainment. You can’t. You can’t be guaranteed entertainment. You pay for the chance, the possibility. You being disappointed in a comic does not mean that anyone has failed. I don’t care how “beloved by millions” or “universally panned” the comic is; it’s not their fault, or yours, if the comic doesn’t do the right things for you. But comics, stories never have to be “does what it says on the tin.” When you sit down with a comic, you’re inviting someone else to show you something they think is cool. It’s letting someone walk you somewhere you haven’t been, taking a chance on them knowing something cool they can show you. Part of the deal is that you can be surprised, that things can take twists or drop you a thousand feet down with no warning; fly you into the air and then let you loose to fly or fall on your own. They’re not in contract with you. You give up control for them.
Or, you do what too many of us do, and imagine a contract, imagine a particular cache of value, and lock up your heart and your brain when this isn’t reality, go online, go to your friends, go to the shop and rail about how your childhood was raped, your contract was violated, you were tricked into reading, tricked into buying, tricked tricked tricked or how dare they fail to give you what they may never have intended to but you expected!