Dec 11, 2013

Pop Medicine: Deliberate Misreadings

Deliberate Misreadings
Travis Hedge Coke

There is more information in any comic than there is intent from the authors. Potential information, perhaps, but then, all information is potential information. A writer, an artist, inker, editor can only put in so much, what they understand of a thing is limited to the scope of what one person can understand or plan, but the readers are multitude and they can understand, en masse, so much more. What we understand is much more important than what we intend to communicate, otherwise every time someone misspoke or there was an unhappy confluence in a television show or song, we’d have to forgive completely and “they meant well” would suffice. It doesn’t.

What an audience understands, and – strongly – what they remember is of real significance. The effects of what is actually intended or verifiably present in The Dark Knight Returns or The Spirit, Peanuts, or Akira have on the comics field today is easily dwarfed by the effects of how they are remembered and understood. The gloss we bring, as audience and interpreter, should not be undervalued even when it is incorrect or of no consequence to the authors. Whether Matt Baker, Will Eisner, or Matt Fraction are cognizant of their sometimes relying on stereotypes or anticipatory cartooning with relation to ethnic representations is not nearly of as much significance as when an audience sees that reliance in play in the comics. Doesn’t matter if Superman is a “stooge” or “useless” in Dark Knight Returns, as much as it matters that people understand that’s how he was in that comic.

Five people can read Frank Ironwine and feel differently about whether it’s an optimistic or negative comic, they can understand the value of the procedural and detective elements differently, they will even, most likely, value them differently. When some people talk about how “empty” the Ellis/Hitch/Depuy Authority is, I want to shove pages in front of their eyes and demand they reevaluate, but that is their reading. They are not pretending it is empty, they are not lying, their reading of The Authority is missing a lot. Too, there are people who can overread, insisting that one comic responds to all things in the universe eloquently and fully, and those whose glosses, whose interests and perspectives, lead them to read in certain directions, so that any comic with a war in it becomes nihilistic or any comic in it with sex scenes means there are “sluts and whores.” I’ve seen readers describe Midnighter, from The Authority, as “promiscuous,” and Batwoman, Kate Kane, often gets described in the press as a “lipstick lesbian.” No amount of actual, on-panel storytelling to the contrary will ever get through to someone who’s made up their mind, who has read the character (however they actually engaged with them) as promiscuous or a pretend lesbian whose goal is to titillate men.

It’s all a bit shit, but it’s what we have to work with. Misreadings count.

How to make misreadings count for something useful?

You don’t know until you look, until you ask and weigh the evidence.

One of my favorite anecdotes regarding 52 is when the four writers were discussing how to explain Skeets giving his boss bad, dangerous information if he indeed now knew it was really bad info when he gave it. Grant Morrison, whom Mark Waid calls “fearless,” asked, “Because he’s evil?”

“Is _____ evil?” is a weird question to ask. A little uncomfortable, especially if that someone is a fictional character who has no agenda beyond what’s decided for them fait accompli, but it’s worth asking. Not asking as accusation, confirmation, or to plant the seeds of suspicion, but asking so that it may be considered and the best answer win out can net us a great catch.

We may as well embrace both the shortcomings of our limited perspectives and our access to the ideas and interpretations of others. Comics fans like to talk comics. We’re fans. And, too, we can embrace the value of a false reading. There is much worth learning even if we begin with a false premise and investigate it. To believe, for example, that a comic is intended only for children and then spend the entire reading experience questioning why so much adult material is present might teach us to reevaluate, that there might be an adult audience. To respond to a comic as if it were full of metaphors, might allow us to see the poetic energy in flight, or in being so upset one can bang their fists against time until the displeasing history buckles and changes.

We understand, outside the fiction, that a cereal ad with Clark Kent needs him to have breakfast with Jimmy Olsen, not Lois Lane, because Lois would imply immediately a sexual aspect, but we get, too, today, that Jimmy being there in the morning also implies a sexual aspect and… in their world, their real world, there are no marketers or censors to make these decisions, in their reality, Clark and Jimmy have some reason to sit around at six-thirty and have cereal together in Clark’s kitchen. “Well an editor decided” or “an artist refused to” aren’t good enough, for this kind of reading. The world has to be treated as an autonomous true fairytale. A really real place and time.

What do the color choices in Beetle Bailey mean? Or the fact they don’t seem to see much action outside of Sarge beating up on his subordinates? What does it mean that the violence is only homegrown and der rigeur? That it is laughable? What of body language or sexualized sight gags in Gladys Parker’s Mopsy as opposed to other contemporary comics? Whether Parker was consciously trying to differ from, or outdo her competitors isn’t as useful to changing our feeling, reading an issue of Mopsy as is how it looks, today, when we compare her comics to what would’ve been next on the rack.

How does one familiar with psychology and psychiatry understand the world of Batman? Batman’s villains are, often, labeled as “psychotic,” “mentally ill,” or “criminally insane,” and they frequently receive treatment while incarcerated at Arkham Asylum, but what does any of that actually mean? The character in Year One who genuinely exhibits what we recognize in real life as signs of mental illness isn’t someone Batman can just comfortably punch into submission. Locking him up in an asylum with a trapdoor to a car with his face on it isn’t going to help anyone. Jim Gordon, instead, is left to nervously talk with the man, to shepherd him rather than bully him. Batman, on the other hand, can throw a critically-wounded Joker into a trash bin for the police to collect, because well, it’s the Joker. If the Joker exhibited the same real-world signs of mental illness, would brutalizing him be as acceptable?

What if we look for unavoidable secondary information? Names, generally, have etymologies, they have roots in real words. So, what if we look at those meanings, those roots? Does “Clark Kent” tell us something, when we look at the roots of Clark, the original meaning of Kent? What about other famous people with those names? What do Alice Sakaguchi, Dagwood Bumstead, or Hobbes tell us beyond that they are the names of a schoolgirl, a young man, and a stuffed tiger? What do the roots or antecedents tell us and do those add anything of use or value to our understanding of that schoolgirl, young man, or tiger?

Calvin and Hobbes’ names are intentional callbacks to John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes (Thomas Hobbes gets around in comics; Grant Morrison has made a few Hobbesian allusions, both serious and goofy), but what about just as a name? A variant of “Robert,” Hobbes means something like “famous,” or “bright fame.” And, Calvin means “bald.” Well, Calvin, the character, certainly is bald-faced in his way, he’s denuded of pretense so that even his guile is charmingly earnest and easily decipherable. And Hobbes is famous. Self-fulfilling prophecy! Calvin even introduces him sometimes as notorious or infamous or known around the world, even if nobody, in-story, knows Hobbes outside of whomever sees Calvin dragging him around. (If we reduce it completely to “the bald kid and the famous one,” we end up with Peanuts more than Calvin and Hobbes, but still, it’s not a wasteful way to look at the comic.)

But pursue Calvin as John Calvin or Hobbes as Thomas Hobbes, what does it get you? You can shoot for some Hobbesian elitism, maybe. Beyond that, I have nothing. But, I wouldn’t have that without asking. Without considering. You have to look, just on the off chance, or who’d know anymore, that the Silver Age Atom, Ray Palmer, has some good, intentional connections to Raymond Palmer, former editor of Amazing Stories. Without asking, without considering, all the Jesus and Moses parallels in Superman stories go away, because they are extrapolations first, but too, you lose any other extrapolation, what “truth and justice” mean to a journalist with a very protected private life, Kryptonian animals, what it means for Lois Lane to be modeled on a real person, or Barda to be modeled on two real people. How is comics-famous Christopher Priest similar or dissimilar to prose-famous Christopher Priest? When I think of Rich Handley am I now going to always think of the corrupt comics character, Rich Handley, too? Jon Stewart and John Stewart?

Can we get anything out of comparing the Daily Show host to Green Lantern? Did we get anything out of comparisons of an American President to Superman or Spider-man? If Spider-Man has a pieta cover, who does that make christlike and who does it make Uncle Ben? You’ve got to look and see.

When the Stormwatch story, Change or Die was first coming out, the archetype given form most criticized was not the Shadow riff with his guns and penance, not the inarguable warrior magician take on Wonder Woman or other militant princesses, but the Eidolon, a self-pitying, overly empathetic wasting corpse man with great power and sullen, bitter knowledge. In retrospect, that was a huge symbol of the age. Whether Todd McFarlane or Alan Moore were treating Spawn entirely in earnest, or Marilyn Manson was doing his schtick seriously, people were treating it seriously. The audience and, particularly, a kind of anti-audience, the people who felt locked out from it, were chewing it up and digesting it as real and solid food, and perhaps real and solid bitter ashes and blood to be gnawed amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The Nineties were corpse hero time, but we couldn’t see it as well as we could the comments in that comic on types that were at their height forty or seventy years earlier. It was a little uncomfortable to look at, denuded and put up for display. But you have to look to know, even, if a thing is good or bad, valuable or distraction. To appraise, you’ve got to look through funny scopes, like the device jewelers screw into their eyes, or watch repairmen, and if you have ever looked through one of those, or a microscope, or binoculars, a telescope, you know it’s rarely the first thing you see that you really want to see. You have to adjust the device, you need to move the scope around until you discover something worth staying with.

You can drag your scope all over and through Blondie until you hit on Dagwood Bumstead, maybe, and have to stop awhile. That face, that bowtie, that life and trajectory. That name. The sandwiches that also bear that name. Dagwood. Bumstead.

It’s hard enough, I’m sure, getting through life named “Dagwood,” but when you have “bum” right in your surname? That, plus hot wife and sandwiches is pretty much all we need to know about the character. A qabalistic reading of his wife’s name, something I’d wager never weighed on their creator’s mind at all, is equal to “secret master” and “gold of the sun,” both fairly apt in describing Blondie’s role in the comic, her yellow hair, her sunny disposition, and, more or less, whatever else you want it to mean. It also equals “chymical marriage,” which is interesting when you consider Bumstead is her married name, for one thing, that she (and the strip named for her) really becomes something different and nearly eternal once they are married and settled and… lots of ands. It does not matter if this is “true,” or if it was ever relevant for the author, it just now, as I did the math, reaffirmed for me that Blondie is sunny and the secret master of all in the Blondie-verse. Recognizing the “bum” in Bumstead has reminded me that this guy’s never going to make it very far from his low-paying job and his comfortable couch. He’s lucky to have Blondie’s warmth and shine in his life.

I have, by pausing to consider their names alone, felt Blondie a little deeper and stronger.

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