Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Just Because I Like It Doesn't Mean It's Good

Today I read something that looked like it could possibly have a good point, but the writer's objectivity had already been shot to hell in the previous posts on the blog. Couldn't even read it without thinking about the prior inconsistencies, but the start seemed promising. I ended up just skimming it.

The few words I did pick up had me looking for a point, and not just any point. I wanted a particular point that I hadn't been able to verbalize yet. I wasn't thinking so much of the post itself, but of the posts before it, and the inconsistancy seen in those critiques. It reminded me, and these are two things that won't seem related on the surface, of a point I'd seen elsewhere.

Bear with me, these are related. Days earlier on a different blog, I saw one hell of a point in the comments:
While your overall point is well taken - death and mutilation as a substitute for actual character development and storytelling re often a sign of bad or lazy writing, just like interpreting "action" to mean "fight scenes" is lazy - I see far more fans than creators obsessing over characters to the point of revering them more than real people. This preoccupation with "don't you dare do this and that to a character I like" tends to undercut the point of wanting to read better stories. If fans cared about real people - say, the real people working on the comics they read - more than fictional characters, there would be a better way of putting these entreaties.
(Emphasis mine)

I touched on this a little earlier when I got upset that so many found (and no, that writer has not yet answered me) a moratorium on female character death to be a good idea somehow.

I've stepped around this for too long, afraid I'd hurt my own arguments, my friends' arguments, or just plain too many people's feelings.

I've seen three forces at work over the past year, three forces that are always at work in any fan community. They are often at odds with each other, but right now it's getting ridiculous.

We all have an innate Fannishness when it comes to our favorite fictional constructs themselves. We see ourselves in them, see our mothers, our fathers, our significant others or just admirable traits we'd like to see ourselves, our families and our friends. As such, we can take the decisions made using these characters very personally.

Most of us have Creator Loyalty towards the writers and artists who handle our favorite characters the way we prefer. It makes us gloss over their mistakes, ignore even blatant problems in their work, and sometimes defend them to a ridiculous extent. Those of us with friends in the industry are especially vulnerable to this.

And lastly, everyone has some degree of Social Conscience. This where the actual analysis comes in, and we notice inequalities. The women only fulfill certain roles. This is where we notice that the nonwhite characters are being pushed to the background. Here's where we notice that all of the characters in samesex relationships are dying, or look to be dying very soon. It where we notice one writer has the same weakspot with all characters who have X in common. It's where we notice that our favorite characters that have X in common are all getting the short end of the same stick.

Fannishness and creator loyalty fuck up social conscience, beyond belief.

I know this, because I read just about every comics blog that touches social commentary in existence. (If you see someone blogging about race in comics or gender politics or sexuality that doesn't ever get linked at one of my blogs, please email me the post address.)

Over time, it becomes really obvious when the first two have overrun the third.

I guarantee I'm going to regret this post. Tomorrow, I will completely wish I hadn't written it. But Elayne's comment wasn't commented on in that thread. And it's not like this was a long comment thread.

It's an uncomfortable truth, because with out some fannishness and some loyalty, we're simply not fans. But how do we keep fannishness and creator loyalty from negatively influencing any social commentary on our favorite characters?

I really don't see a solution. At least, not one for a community. I can examine myself on a personal level and listen to what other fans are saying about my favorites. But I don't know about anyone else.


  1. Fannishness and creator loyalty fuck up social conscience, beyond belief.

    (Playing devil's advocate here...) Does it? Does being a fan and loyal to a creator really suppress one's social conscience?

    I guess it can but does it have to? Just because you like a particular character doesn't mean that you always want that character to have the upper hand and always win. I expect my favourite characters to have to undergo some conflict and hopefully win in the end. But what's that got to do with the other characters associated with them, or who appear in the characters' comics? Do all other characters of type X have to get the short end of the stick for my favourite character to still be my favourite character? No.

    Creator loyalty probably has more influence on social conscience (IMO). Although if the creator has something against characters of type X and you as a reader have a reasonable amount of social conscience (especially for type X) then you're probably not going to be loyal to that creator. The only time I can see creator loyalty getting in the way is if the creator changes his views on characters during his career.

    Of course, there are people out there who either don't really have much of a social conscience or are somewhat blind to the injustice done to certain character types. This sort of blog helps the latter group. The former group probably couldn't care.

    I also notice that in the quoted comment it says that being a big fan of a character can undercut reading better stories. Do "better stories" equate to more social conscience? Does a story have to be socially equal to be good?

  2. I'm not very active in comics fandoms, but I see similar problems elsewhere - people elevate certain characters or their creators to almost ridiculous heights, to the point where to point out even the mildest flaw in the character, the way the character was handled, or the larger story is seen as a personal attack. For an example, I was once a lurker in the Harry Potter fandom, and someone asked (asked, mind you) on a message board if Rowling was equating ugliness with evilness. Few people even tried to address the question; most people just slammed the poster for daring to criticize their beloved author.

    I think that attitude's what Ragnell's addressing, though of course I could be wrong.

    As for this point: I also notice that in the quoted comment it says that being a big fan of a character can undercut reading better stories. Do "better stories" equate to more social conscience? Does a story have to be socially equal to be good?

    A lack of social conscience in stories is almost always a result of stereotyping - or, as one of my writing teachers put it, trying to cheat your way out of characterization. Not every story needs to try and address all the wrongs of the world, but writers need to treat their characters, ALL their characters, like people and not simply character types. Just that alone will make a story both better and more socially equal.

    For me, personally, stereotypes and the resultant shoddy characterization throw me out of a story, so yes, more social conscience does equal better stories. Does that mean that every story has to have a perfectly egalitarian society? No. Does that mean that every story that has, say, women as second-class citizens is bad? No. But in every case, when the characters are treated as real people, with real, honest, thoughtful motivations, the trappings of the world don't matter.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  3. First, I don't think there's anything in this post you should have to regret later. It all seems perfectly fair to me.


    It isn't our job to save comics; it's comics's job to entertain us. To elicit in us, if you like, the fannish reaction. The fannish reaction to a comic (even if it isn't the reaction of a dedicated fan) is the whole point of the exercise; it isn't... I don't want to mischaracterize what you said, so let's stipulate that what I'm about to say isn't what you said... it isn't an unwelcome byproduct of comics reading that must be overcome in the pursuit of the truth.

    Whatever social commentary you and I might make about comic books is not why comics are made. It's also probably not why we read them. It's going way above and beyond the call of duty. Which is good! But it's not the normal comics-reading experience. I would say, and this is where I get around to answering your final question, that anybody who's inclined to consider the larger questions when reading comics is probably capable of overcoming their own fannish tendencies just fine to do so. And if they're not, well, then they're not, but maybe somebody else is. But it's not a requirement for entry.

  4. Matthew -

    But once you decide to start thinking about what you're reading in comics, you have an obligation to your fellow fans to set aside your fannishness and think. I don't think Ragnell's complaining about people squeeing over their favorite characters, or complaining that they weren't entertained by a particular plot. Unless I'm way off base, she's complaining about fans who do turn to commentary and critique and still let their gut fannish reactions take over.

    It's one thing to love a character, or a plot, or a comic. It's quite another to get involved in analyzing comics and then use your love of a character, plot, comic, whatever as a get-out-of-commentary-free card.

    And actually, to me, thinking texts and comics over is part of the enjoyment, and as far as I'm concerned is something any writer needs to take into consideration while writing. I'm an author myself, and while I write primarily for my and my readers' enjoyment, I've been involved in far too many fandoms to assume that that's all everyone is there for. There are always going to be people who do take apart texts (or comics), and analyze them, and think them through, and any writer who doesn't recognize that and write accordingly is not doing his job.

    The point of writing is to write the best story you can. You can't do that by writing solely on one level.

  5. I really don't see a solution. At least, not one for a community. I can examine myself on a personal level and listen to what other fans are saying about my favorites. But I don't know about anyone else.

    I think that is the solution, at least the best one we have so far. In fans, just as in creators, the more self-awareness, the better the fan can both be fannish about the material and realize that just because she likes it doesn't mean it's good.

    Yes, we all like things which aren't good on all levels. This doesn't mean we can't also have a social conscience. What we have to do is be aware of the flaws even while liking it.

    That's where I think social conscience and fannish behavior clash, because there is this real push to believe whatever you love is perfect. It's not perfect. I don't care what it is, it's not perfect.

    There is no perfection.

    However, that doesn't mean we can't like things which are imperfect. Nor does it mean when we talk about the imperfections, and how they can be fixed, that we are devaluing the source material.

    In one of the other comments, Maria Wood mentions how comments about even a minor flaw are seen as personal attacks. On the surface, fans treat them as attacking the creator, but I think there is also the feeling of an attack on the fans themselves.

    A lot of what I've seen in fandom is much like the way people react to having privilege pointed out to them. Shock, anger, self righteous behavior--and then, in time, realizing that it's not a personal attack, it's an attempt to educate and to make the world better.

    I know realizing I'm using priviledge can feel like a punch to the gut, but I try to step outside my own point of view, see what other people are saying or doing, and realize that it's not a personal attack on me, it's an attack on society. I play a part of that, yes, but back to that earlier statement.

    There is no perfection. Commenting on that lack, working to change that lack, that's not a personal attack. We can like flawed things, but we can also work to make them better.

  6. Going off what carla said:

    I'm a very big fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I was discussing how his racism colored his stories with a friend of mine, who was also a big Lovecraft fan, and she told me that she could no longer read his stuff now that his racism had been pointed out to her.

    This boggled my mind. It still boggles.

    I think the big conflict here is between escapism and reality. That's the reason fans take criticism of their favorites so personally and so hard: we read these things, most of us, to escape from reality in this fantasy world. Sometimes, though, reality intrudes - either by invitation, when we begin to open up these things to analysis, or when something in the story itself reaches out and smacks us back into ourselves. In the latter case, we fans usually end up directing our anger at the story itself.

    But when we begin to pull the stories apart ourselves, we tend to leave little areas - characters, particular stories, and so on - that we deliberately don't think about, or think about too hard. Those things also tend to be our favorites, and we set them up as inviolate, as still fantasy/escape, even as we tear at the rest of the story. When someone dares touch those sacred things and pull them, too, into reality, we react in anger.

    It really is, in a very big way, like setting up sacred things. We may not actually worship this character, or these stories, but we all have those things we perceive as untouchable, right, and perfect, and we hate it when others touch them and reveal their flaws.

    Wow, that went off on a tangent, didn't it? Sorry for hijacking the comments - the intersection of fannishness and critical commentary, escapism and reality, fascinates me.

  7. Very interesting post, Lisa. But I wasn't actually talking about creator loyalty. I was talking about the peculiar habit some fans (probably the ones you describe as "fannish") have of treating fictional characters as more real than the people who create them. It's fun to pretend, but some people seem to go dangerously beyond that. They acts as though characters have a life of their own, and exist autonomously of the people who work hard to put words in their mouths and define their appearance and actions.

    The main problem with this, aside from having these people not being able to discern fiction from reality (and we've seen how bad that is in politics these last five years!) and having a disproportionate sense of entitlement about characters they don't own and never will, is that it actually stymies any productive improvement in the writing and drawing of these characters. Creators are much likelier to pay attention to logical points raised about how they're writing or drawing to the detriment of female characterization than they are to "look what you did to Dawn Granger, you bastard, I loved her!"

    (I use that example because I was majorly pissed about that death at the time, but I attributed it to bad and lazy writing, not to anything the character did wrong, because of course the character ISN'T REAL.)

    This is not to say that there ISN'T a cult of personality around certain creators. I'm of two minds about that phenomenon. On the one hand, I like seeing creators honored, particularly the pioneers in our field who need to know how much their work means to us. (Losing both Tom Gill and dear Hilda Terry in the last couple years has really saddened me, even though they lived long and fulfilling lives.) And it's a good thing in terms of monetary compensation - today's big-name creators make so much more than did their predecessors, and if their names sell books they deserve to reap that reward. But on the other hand, it sometimes gets to the point where these creators wind up believing their own publicity, it's not necessarily a good thing for anyone who isn't on the "A list," and it does tend to blind fans to the idea that their creators are, like the rest of us, imperfect.

  8. once you decide to start thinking about what you're reading in comics, you have an obligation to your fellow fans to set aside your fannishness and think.

    Yes, if you're approaching it that seriously. All I'm saying is that not everyone can, or perhaps not everyone can all the time. If someone reads a comic, thinks about it, and comes up with some real insight, then that's great. But if he or she can't see the forest for the squees, well... we're not getting paid for this.

  9. For me, I know there are definitely times where my fannishness overcomes my analytical considerations. But then, I think it extends beyond what I'm a fan of and bleeds into my other personal choices (such as how I dress, etc.)

    Sometimes I get exasperated, but then I realize that it's just important in itself that I remember to check myself from time to time. That's all I can ask of me, at least.

  10. Matthew -

    But see, I don't think that's what Ragnell's talking about. She's talking about the people who are trying, supposedly, to discuss and critique the stories, and the people who claim to have some great insight into character X because character X is their favorite. She's talking about people who actually lay claim to these characters, and stories, and so on, and demand that writers write what they (the obsessive fans) want rather than what actually works in the context of the story and with the history of the character. She's talking about people who throw out a fan opinion as fact, as insight, and then throw hissy fits when someone disagrees.

    In short, she's talking about obsessive fans, who see even the mildest criticism of their favorite character, creator, or story as a personal insult worthy of a dawn duel. She's not talking about the kinds of fans you're talking about, who may love a character, creator, or story but are in it for the enjoyment and, while they may be disappointed with a particular run, or upset at a criticism of their favorites, are able to put that aside.

    You don't have to think about comics if you don't want to. They're there to be enjoyed - you're absolutely right about that. But tearing out the throats of other fans over a difference of opinion, or claiming to know a favorite character's soul, isn't enjoyment - it's obsession.

  11. I understand that. All I'm saying is that the people you describe in your first paragraph don't know that they're not doing good analysis. It all sounds reasonable to them.

    I think that's it, anyway; we're getting into territory that I'm not familiar with (I have little experience with obsessive fandom), and I don't want to be that guy who makes definitive statements about something he knows nothing about. But who sets out to do bad analysis?

  12. All I'm saying is that the people you describe in your first paragraph don't know that they're not doing good analysis. It all sounds reasonable to them.

    You're right - and everyone who has ever done fan analysis has probably been guilty of this at one point or another.

    That's where the fine line between fan and obsessive fan comes in, though. Fans can argue, respectfully, until they're blue in the face, with evidence for their opinions and so on, and then walk away from the argument at the end of the day.

    Obsessive fans, on the other hand, don't. They don't bother with evidence, or much of it. They have such a high opinion of their own opinions that they treat them as fact. They take any disagreement as personal insult, and dish out the insults in return. They are so convinced they're right that they don't care how rude they are in getting their point across. They're the people who email you two weeks after you bow out of an argument to continue to berate you for disagreeing. They're the people who tell you that you should be glad you don't live in their neighborhood or they'd kill you. It would probably kill them to say "I see your point" or "I guess we'll just agree to disagree on this". These obsessive fans are largely responsible for the negative baggage of the word "fan".

    The same difference exists between a religious person and a religious zealot, if that makes any sense.

  13. She's talking about the people who are trying, supposedly, to discuss and critique the stories,

    I thought she was talking about all comic book readers. She mentions that "we all have an innate Fannishness when it comes to our favorite fictional constructs themselves".

    Did she just mean those that discuss and critique stories? Only those obsessive fans? Oh. In which case my comments probably aren't valid.

    Like Matthew I have little experience with obsessive fandom. To me, those with excessive, obsessive tendencies are not the majority of comic book readers. Most of us just read and enjoy comics. We have favourite characters who we like to see succeed but they don't have to be perfect.

  14. I remember one time where I could definitely feel within myself the conflict between the fan-appreciation and the critical acumen (which I'd rather refer to than 'social conscience', as it includes aesthetic as well as social (and probably other) considerations). It was when I was first reading the Five Years Later Legion stories.

    In two comics, no more than a couple of months apart (I think), Legion readers were treated to the following revelations:

    1. Luornu Durgo, the former Triplicate Girl and Duo Damsel, may have cheated on her husband Bouncing Boy with Colossal Boy (who was also married).

    2. Lightning Lad had actually been dead for years, and that guy married to Saturn Girl and the father of her kids was a Protean disguised as Lightning Lad to, you know, carry on his heroic legacy and stuff. (And she didn't know!)

    3. Longtime Legion supporting character (Science Police liaison and Element Lad's girlfriend) Shvaughn Erin was actually Sean Erin, a transsexual.

    I was definitely saying to myself things like, "How could they do these things to these characters? Luornu and Gim would never do that to Chuck and Yera! Shvaughn was so great as a woman! Lightning Lad can't be dead! This is terrible!" But at the same time I was also saying, "Man, this is great stuff."

    Unrelated to that. I was surprised to see 'creator loyalty' listed as one of the three competing factors in fan reaction. I don't dispute that it belongs, but I would never have thought of it myself. For some reason I seem to have no creator loyalty at all. I mean, there are creators whose stuff I have liked, and even some with whom I've communicated with, but loyalty? No. They come, they go, whatever, just give me some good comics.

  15. Did she just mean those that discuss and critique stories?

    The talk of blogs and blog posts led me to believe so, though I could be way off base. Most people who blog about their comics reading, or any other kind of entertainment, are engaging in some level of critique, and any level of critique requires fans to at least acknowledge their fannish tendencies.

    That's what I took from Ragnell's post, anyway.

    For some reason I seem to have no creator loyalty at all.

    Heh. Same here. Creator aversion, though...

    (Man, I really need to stop commenting on this post. Long-time lurker, one-time spree commenter. Go figure.)

  16. Way off on a tangent...

    Matthwe said:
    2. Lightning Lad had actually been dead for years, and that guy married to Saturn Girl and the father of her kids was a Protean disguised as Lightning Lad to, you know, carry on his heroic legacy and stuff. (And she didn't know!)

    Actually, I got the impression that Imra did know, and was keeping the secret for ProtoGarth (as well as keeping it from ProtoGarth, Pete Ross-style). She is a telepath, after all.

    (At last, something I can respond to!)

  17. The way I figure it - and it's very rude of us to interrupt the topic like this - is that she does know, deep down, but won't admit it to herself. It's not the only time in Legion history that Saturn Girl puts something over on herself (although it may have been the first...)

  18. Mea culpa.

    The rest of this conversation is so abstract to me that I'm having a hard time getting a handle on it. I saw a toehold and and went for it.

    Just addressing the original post, I think that context really determines what the hierarchy is between Fannishness, Creator Loyalty and Social Conscience. When I'm reading a story, my concern for the characters come first.

    If I'm thinking about the writer's motivations for including a plot point, the story hasn't done its job well enough. Same thing if I notice a discriminatory pattern or something similar. Fannishness rules the day.

    When I'm at a convention or interacting with a pro online, they take precedence. They're real people after all. Creator loyalty also factors in to my buying decisions, because creators are a better indicator of the comics I'll enjoy than characters.

    But when I'm talking about comics with other people, social consience is one aspect through which I'll look at books. This mostly happens on blogs and message boards, because anyone I know in the real world who I'd discuss sexism or racism with doesn't know who the heck Pantha is, let alone how she died.

  19. I don't know if I need to add this, but figured I should: In the above, I'm just talking about how these things work for me. I'm sure the conflicting impulses merge or careen off each other in different ways for others.

  20. Elayne -- I'm sorry, I should have clarified. I meant for the links at the top to demonstrate "Creator Loyalty," and for your post to be criticizing "Fannishness."

  21. Maria's figured out what I was going for.

    There's a certain degree of Fannishness and Creator Loyalty in all of us, that's what makes it fans.

    The problem isn't that it exists, the problem is when it cancels out everything else when trying to have an intelligent discussion.

    I meant, of course, tow different traits here. Fannishness would cause the opposite of creator loyalty, I suppose. Like a Batgirl fan who can never read Alan Moore stuff because of "The Killing Joke."

    I find it interferes with social conscience because both traits compromise objectivity, which is necessary to make a reasonable analysis and/or argument.

    I'm absolutely with Carla that perfection is never achievable from the stories themselves, and I also feel that way in our fannish examinations. We won't get it perfectly right, but we can get it a little better each time.

    (And none of you should feel bad about taking over the comments. I'm really enjoying this conversation!)