Recently, I’ve noticed some things in the comments, so I decided to write … a mission statement!!!! Everyone loves mission statements, right?
Comics Should Be Good has a mission statement. It’s true; go read it. It’s a fine missions statement, and I hope we abide by it. I have some other ideas about comics, though, and I’d like to share them with you. This is, as I noted, in response to some recent comments, but also in response to some other comments I’ve noticed over the years I’ve been writing for this blog. It might be self-evident, but it’s reflected right there in the title of this post:
The way I read comics is not necessarily the same way you read comics. And you know what? That’s okay.
Allow me to break it down a bit. In my post about Scalped, a few people seemed to think that because I wrote about how Dash, the ostensible main character, isn’t very well done, that I hated the comic, despite my praise for the rest of it. The whole kerfuffle over Saga is also a pretty good example, as people seem to think that I can’t call the opening two pages of Saga #12 “gratuitous” yet call the confrontation between Robot IV and Oswald Heist as tense as the first scene in Inglourious Basterds, when Christoph Waltz sits down with the French dude while knowing that he’s hiding people in the basement. How can I reconcile these opinions?
Well, it all gets back to the way we read comics. Everyone reads things differently, and one way is not necessarily better than the other. So people seem to take offense at the fact that I can like a comic yet still point out its flaws. You always see comments on threads like “It’s just a comic/movie/television show/beastiality magazine – just sit back and enjoy it!” Well, that’s fine for some people and even for some things that I watch or read. I’m usually much more forgiving of movies or television shows for a couple of reasons – I don’t write about those all that often, and I don’t want to watch and re-watch and re-watch to catch everything that’s going on. It’s easier to sit with a book or a comic and dissect it for something I’m writing rather than sit and watch an hour-long show or a two-hour movie. That’s just the way it is.
That doesn’t mean I turn off my brain when I watch things, however. I rarely go see movies in the theater anymore, because it’s too much of a hassle to get a babysitter, but I still try to watch them when they come on cable. So recently I watched John Carter and Prometheus. Neither is a great movie, but I enjoyed them. However, I couldn’t just “sit back and enjoy them,” because I don’t turn off my brain when I watch something. So I could still enjoy John Carter even though Taylor Kitsch was terrible and the pacing was really weird and we never actually found out what Mark Strong and his pals wanted. Did they just like conflict? As for Prometheus, on one level it was superb, but it had plot holes that you could drive a truck through and characters who acted idiotically simply because the script told them to. I mean, you’re on an alien planet and you just decide to poke the weird, creepy, snake-like thing? And you’re supposed to be a biologist? So, yeah, even though I don’t watch as many movies as I used to, I still can’t simply sit back and enjoy them.
I do this a lot more with comics, obviously, because I read a lot more comics and I write about them more and I can sit with them right next to me and dissect them more easily. So I notice when things just don’t work in comics. And I don’t like saying, “Well, it’s just a crappy superhero comic, so who cares?” That’s just insulting to readers. People have ranted here how much I hate superheroes, but that’s just not true – I love superheroes. I want superhero comics to be brilliant, and I want writers to aspire to greatness when they write superheroes. Obviously, some of them do and they get shot down by the editors because the DC and Marvel superheroes are never allowed to change, which is why I have moved away from DC and Marvel superhero comics in recent years. I don’t hate superheroes, but I would argue they’ve let me down.
But here’s the rub: I love reading comics this way. I love reading comics and thinking about what works and what doesn’t, and why the writer made the choices that were made and why the artist made the choices that were made and even why the colorist made the choices that were made. It’s very enjoyable … for me. If that means I don’t get swept away by something, that’s cool. I rarely get swept away by anything, and I have a perfectly happy life. I love behind-the-scenes documentaries and commentary on DVDs and all that kind of stuff, because I love learning about the nuts and bolts of a project. I love looking at a work of art and trying to figure out not that it works, but why it works. I can’t help myself, and I’ve been like this for a long time. Yes, once I would simply watch or read something and think “This is awesome!” and not care about the particulars. When I was younger, this usually meant when I watched movies or television, because I didn’t start reading comics until I was 17. But even in the early years of my comics-reading, I was willing to read a lot more simply because I thought the characters were cool. The cheapness of comics helped, too, but mainly, it was because I thought Batman was awesome and so obviously every comic starring Batman was awesome.
I don’t know when I began to change – when I went to college, maybe, and started to learn a bit more about how to think critically about things? Maybe that’s it. But the point is, I did change. I began to understand more about certain styles of storytelling, clichés not only of writing but of movie-making or comics artwork, and subtext. More than that, I began to see these things more clearly, and I enjoyed it. For me, it helps filter some of the crap out, and as entertainment became more expensive (comics being the most egregious example, but movie prices have gone way up over the past 25 years, too), it became easier to ditch things that just weren’t doing it for me. I don’t think it’s good enough to be “okay” these days. I don’t think it’s okay for writers to write 6 issues without getting to the damned point (I certainly don’t hate decompressed storytelling, but I don’t like when, after an entire arc, we’ve only managed to get the team together or we’ve only managed to find out who the villain is – I mean, really?). I don’t think it’s okay for pencil art to be pretty if the artist’s storytelling skills are terrible. I might like a “Holy shit! that was awesome!” moment as much as anyone, but at the same time, I recognize that awesome moments have to be earned. It’s not good enough to draw double-page splashes of Batman getting chased across a rooftop or Captain America striking a pose. That’s just lazy.
All of this, of course, is just my opinion. I don’t hate the comics I pick apart – in fact, some of them I love quite a bit. Just because I think a writer made a misstep on one page or used a dumb cliché that they should have known not to use or because an artist decided to get sloppy with their layouts or used a celebrity as a face model doesn’t mean the book sucks. It might be disappointing, but I am able to look past it. It also makes the things in which I can’t find very much at all wrong all the more impressive. Those comics tend to end up on my favorite comics of all time, and that’s why I still haven’t found anything to replace Morrison’s and Case’s Doom Patrol and Ennis’s and McCrea’s Hitman as the top two comic book runs of all time. Even after I’ve re-read those (because maybe I just had an initial favorable reaction to them and missed some flaws underneath), I can’t really say anything bad about them. But that’s rare. Even when I write about a Comic You Should Own, I often point out things that don’t quite work. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the comics and think you should own them, but there it is. Even books I like right now aren’t perfect, and that’s cool, too. I’ve been trying to think of a comic I’m reading right now that I rarely find any flaws with, and the only one that has been consistently excellent from issue #1 is Chew. Others may hate Chew, and that’s fine, but there’s a reason it consistently ends up at the top of my “best-of-the-year” list – because I just can’t find anything bad about it. I honestly can’t remember an issue that made me think, “Well, that wasn’t very good” or “Man, Layman and Guillory really screwed that sucker up!” Some issues are better than others, naturally, but usually it’s because maybe Layman is setting something up that will pay off later and that issue fits better into the overall plot rather than as a single issue. But that’s the only comic I can think of that I really haven’t criticized very much (well, long-running comic – I loved East of West #1, after all, but that’s only one issue). Maybe I will before Chew ends, but right now, I haven’t.
This is why I was surprised a few months ago when I wrote about the “perfect album.” I got a lot more suggestions than I thought I would, because I can only think of one “perfect album” – as in, I wouldn’t change a single freakin’ note – Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood. This extends to books, too. I can think of a few books that are so good that I wouldn’t change a thing – Don DeLillo’s White Noise (my favorite novel), Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (the scariest book I’ve ever read), Milorad Pavić’s The Dictionary of the Khazars, Joseph Heller’s Picture This, A. S. Byatt’s Possession, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Nicholson Baker’s Vox (the most erotic book I’ve ever read), to name a few. I can think of a lot of books – great books – that I have some issues with here or there. The same thing applies to movies. I just like deconstructing things. I’m not as good at it as some people, of course, but I’m not bad.
Some people might think I’m claiming this is a better way to consume entertainment. I’m not saying that at all. It’s just my way. Some people are far more obsessive about breaking down the entertainment they watch, and some people are far more obsessive about, say, continuity within the entertainment. Some people just want to turn off their brains, and that’s cool, too. I know that some of my friends are far more obsessive about, say, breaking down music than I am, because they’re musicians. They don’t care about doing the same thing with movies, because movies to them are an escape. I’m just pointing out that this is how I read comics. It doesn’t mean I don’t like comics, because I love comics. It does mean I don’t rave about a mildly entertaining superhero book, and because of the expense ($3.99 for Uncanny X-Force?), I probably won’t buy those kinds of books even though I probably would have 25 years ago. I think it means that when I do rave about something, you can probably trust that I really, really liked it, and if you know my taste, you can gauge your interest in something accordingly.
But I’m going to keep reading comics my way, and everyone can keep reading them their way. It’s all good, ain’t it?