Last summer, prior to the release of his band’s unabashedly poppy album Forcefield, Tokyo Police Club keyboardist and CBC Radio host Graham Wright penned a fantastic and insightful editorial for Chart Attack, entitled “Try To Love The Music You Hate.” He urged music listeners to do their best to abandon their biases, disregard the “coolness” or fashionability of liking or disliking certain music, and just let themselves like whatever they like. Wright discusses the unspoken agreements of what it means to be a Serious Music Fan:
If you’re a Serious Music Fan (and I’ve always thought I am), there are some assumptions you’re more or less required to go along with: Bob Dylan wrote great lyrics! Everything after the first two Weezer albums has been a precipitous descent into mediocrity! And, of course, Nickelback sucks big. You don’t even have figure that shit out when you’re 13, it’s just The Truth.
Comic fandom comes with it’s own set of assumptions: Watchmen is an undisputed masterpiece. Frank Miller’s Batman is the definitive take on the character against which all others are measured. Superman, though iconic, is too good and too powerful to be interesting. Those examples, of course, are only within superhero fandom – even independent and literary comics have a rule book: Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home is essential reading; Sex Criminals is the Comic You Should Be Reading; superhero comics are shallow and silly, except for Matt Fraction and Dave Aja’s run on Hawkeye.
If you read comics, you will, at some point, have to defend your credibility. You will not only have to justify why you read comics at all, but you will have to justify what you read to other comics readers. Fandom is an incredible community sometimes, but other times it is judgmental as hell – look at all the cries of “Fake Geek Girl!” that regularly turn conventions and online forums sour. Frankly, it’s exhausting; more than once, I’ve hesitated to tell new acquaintances about my education or this blog, simply because I don’t want to have that conversation again.
In an effort to make discourse about comics more positive and less repetitive, I’d like to reframe Graham Wright’s challenge regarding music, and apply it to comics instead. Pick a comic, a comic book character, a writer, or artist that you’ve pretty well written off as not being worth your time, and try to enjoy it instead. Here are the ground rules, as Graham Wright laid them out: “No ironic detachment, no looking down your nose at anything, and absolutely no use of the words ‘guilty pleasure.’ The objective here isn’t merely to be able to say ‘oh, I get it’ or ‘I can see why some people would like this’.”
Sure, there are some comics you won’t learn to love; some comics are just bad, after all. This is an exercise to help you abandon preconceptions, let yourself be open, and just stop taking yourself so damn seriously. What you like (and don’t like) shouldn’t be dictated by which of those likes you’re comfortable declaring on your Facebook profile – it should simply stem from how much you enjoy something, whether that be at a level of simple entertainment, or at a level more intellectual or emotional.
Of course, the opposite is true as well; there are just as many assumptions about what is indisputably good as there are about what isn’t. These positions are worth just as much scrutiny as the negative ones, and can be just as hard to own up to. In a recent post on the blog which accompanies his Wait, What? podcast, Graeme McMillan reflected on “the ways in which nostalgia and common wisdom conspire to make us all that little bit dumber.” In this post, he confesses that he doesn’t like what’s widely considered to be a pretty much untouchable run of X-Men comics:
I feel guilty saying that, though; these comics are classics, after all. And this is the dumb part: I actually do feel bad for not liking these comics, as if I’ve done something wrong, somehow. There’s part of me that would almost have rather not read them recently, so I could’ve relied on the nostalgia and the common wisdom and let ignorance be bliss.
But it’s important to be confident enough in your own intelligence to determine for yourself what you like and what you don’t, and don’t confuse something’s importance as making it necessarily good, either. Overcoming biases, both positive and negative, will let you develop your own distinct critical perspective – which, in comics journalism and criticism, is frequently lacking. Though, as music critic Carl Wilson notes, it’s lacking in most criticism – he admitted that he himself would take an “argumentative intellectual” posture in much of his earlier criticism, and it was only after he undertook a book-length examination of an album which united him and pretty much the entire “serious” music community in their disdain (Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love) that he reconsidered this mode of criticism:
It’s just given me stronger professional ethics about that kind of negativity and made it difficult for me to be dismissive and knee-jerk and uninterested—and I was all of those things before I looked into it more deeply. I try not to dismiss entire categories of music wholesale anymore. That’s part of the job description for good criticism now: Nothing should be out of bounds. That doesn’t mean you have to like everything you hear, but rather to avoid saying, “That’s not the kind of thing I can like” before you’ve actually reviewed it.
Now, if I’m going to write negatively—or positively—about something, I feel a stronger obligation to have spent time thinking it over and looking into its context, so I can make judgements with all of that knowledge there, rather than a quick gut reaction. Because our gut reactions are a little bit programmed by world history and personal history—how I’ve identified myself, what I’ve known, and the things that I’ve felt different from. If I don’t have a goal in why I would want to make a negative argument, then I’m less interested about writing about something; maybe I thought being an argumentative intellectual was a cool part of my personality when I was young, but it’s now something that I’m very wary of—I’m very concerned when people suggest to me that I’ve been arrogant or that I haven’t listened to what someone is saying.
If you’re a comics fan, this exercise will let you engage more positively with your fandom – you’ll have more rewarding conversations with other fans, and will probably be happier. If you’re a comics creator, anywhere on the spectrum from aspiring to professional, this exercise is, in my opinion, damn near indispensable. Think of how many comics creators remain static, their work continuously occupying the same narrow groove, frequently retreading the same themes, employing the same character archetypes, using the same narrative tropes and visual devices. Frank Miller is an easy target in this regard; much of Mark Millar’s oeuvre comes to mind, as well. It’s a criticism I myself have leveled against Brian K. Vaughan, while my friend Steve over at Madder Read has commented the same regarding Jeff Lemire. Mileage may vary as to how long this thematic stasis can remain interesting – for example, Steve has no issue with Brian K. Vaughan, while I still happily read Jeff Lemire, but if those writers both continue to make the same kind of books about the same kind of characters, neither of us will likely remain interested indefinitely. As a writer or artist, though, it is difficult to grow or develop if your perspective remains limited to what you already know you like. Learning to like something you previously disregarded will take your imagination somewhere different and uncharted, and will probably yield creations which bring to bear more diverse influences and perspectives.
“Sure,” you might be thinking. “These are fair points. But this is something that’s a whole lot easier said than done.” Very astute, my hypothetical reader. I won’t demand the dedication demonstrated by poet Dawn Potter, when she took it upon herself to learn to like John Milton’s Paradise Lost: though, as she details in her book Tracing Paradise: Two Years In Harmony With John Milton, her exercise of handwriting John Milton’s entire ten-thousand-plus line poem word-for-word did convince her of the work’s merits, the comic book equivalent would, I suppose, be tracing an entire book panel-by-panel, and that’s a little much to ask. Graham Wright’s advice in this regard is much more fun; he coins the phrase, “three beer fanatic,” which is someone who, after three beers, will enthusiastically extol the greatness of whatever the object of their fanaticism – Graham Wright himself admits to being a three beer fanatic of Coldplay. In comics, I am a three beer fanatic of Robin. Buy me three beers, and I will happily tell you why Robin (in his Dick Grayson iteration) perfects the superhero narrative started by Batman. If you know someone who likes a comic you don’t, buy them three beers, ask them what they like about that comic, and let their enthusiasm inspire you.