The Danger of Received Wisdom
by Travis Hedge Coke
On the whole, everybody is quick to judge. It is always a safe bet.
(That’s why I said that, just above this. Safe bet.)
Because my focus is in comics, I see it in comics. I see it in everything else that really draws my attention; literature, critical theory, social politics, religion, food. If you have seen a listicle of candies everyone hates, there are several that are standard presences in any grouping of candy. They are “disliked,” not by hard numbers or even, necessarily, a specific palate test. They are disliked because everybody knows they are. And, so too, it is with comics.
Ask a comics fan about a comic everybody knows is bad, they will tell you it is bad. Did they read it?
Maybe not. Read it recently? Maybe not. But, they know it is poorly written, or sexist, or too radical, too uptight. Even the good eggs. Even the sensible ones. Me. Even, me.
We have to stop ourselves. When we catch ourselves doing this, spreading potential misinformation, maligning works of commerce and art we have not, perhaps, fairly appraised, or at least checked up on, we have to take stock of the damage we can do.
A few months ago, I asked around about the 1990s series, Secret Defenders, because I had fond enough memories, but nobody likes that book. Why?
Most of the answers I got were from people who had not read much of it, some, any of it. We all just knew. It was poorly written, it was old-fashioned, it was purely driven by trying to be hip and modern.
When I went back and looked, it is an uneven series, with three major writers over the course of two years. The opening arcs, which I remembered the most pleasantly, are Roy Thomas feeling out encroaching age. The characters include lots of then-hot-tickets – Wolverine, Nomad, Darkhawk – but they are deeply sentimental, bone-creaky comics emphasizing that we are all getting old. The opening arc’s villains – demons disguised as toyetic supervillains – are convincing the elderly to sell their souls in exchange for a renewed youth, which these new youngins use to run around and commit petty crime. Thomas’ final arc involves old vendettas, the idea of holding a relationship together via turning the whole world over to a living death and, “[She] is titular sovereign of the dead and I rule [her]!”
The first eight or nine issues of Secret Defenders are not bad, they are sad. Maudlin with the occasional punching through a wall. But, you’re fifteen, that’s likely taken as flawed or boring comics.
The Killing Joke is highly regarded, frequently praised, but neither the artist nor the writer rate it too high bar some very killer visual art at times. Both the artist and the writer have expressed poor feelings for the sexualized violence, for the consequences on the field of superhero comics. The people who laud it most often cannot get details right. I dislike the comic, vehemently, distinctly. But, somehow I remember the sexualized nature of what Joker does to Barbara Gordon and to Jim Gordon, while fans don’t they just seem to not recall that. They may insist it is untrue.
A frequent celebration of The Killing Joke is that it upped the superheroism and rank of Barbara Gordon, by moving her from Batgirl to Oracle. It did no such thing, not one bit. That is purely on other artists, other writers, other editors, and entirely other comic books.
However, when I do look back at actual pages of The Killing Joke, I can admit, I enjoy both colorists’ work, I do like the feel, especially in the recolored edition, the toilet bowl porcelain cold feel of some scenes.
It is less the risk of people that will look again, or look a first time, and more how received wisdom can chase off prospective audiences, even reinvent history, recreate the field so that talent who did stellar work are erased or reconstructed as hacks, as idiot savants, knowledgable trained individuals are redeveloped as outsider artists in the articles and Discord conversations.
Rereading Secret Defenders, I could see where the title, again and again, maybe broke connection with a reasonable potential audience. The first arcs are about being old. The next, by Ron Marz at more or less the height of Ron Marz’s Ron Marzness, is predicated on bait and switch, on everyone including the reader being played, and 90s superhero audiences maybe did not like that much. The final arcs, by Mike Kanterovich and Tom Brevoort are a mess of fun pages, stuff that just lies there. I name no artists because they run the gamut of competent and fun to doing their best I’m sure. It is launched, not as an exciting comic, but a comfortable one, and chugs on from there.
The Killing Joke increasingly feels like a comic both Alan Moore nor Brian Bolland would prefer to have not finished. That Bolland gets ignored in praise, in retrospectives, in favor of acknowledging Moore’s removal from the field and editor, Len Wein’s death, is emblematic of the flawed response it still nets.
The “one bad day” motif, the notion that one bad day can turn a man – and it is explicitly about men; women are furniture – that one bad day can turn a man into a depraved mass murderer and sadist, is not the lesson of The Killing Joke. The person the Joker tortures to make him have that bad day, for one thing it is far more than just a bad day, but besides that, it does not alter the morality or basic behavior of that man. One bad day does not turn anyone and everyone into someone terrible.
Received wisdom is not always wrong. Secret Defenders is at best a flawed comic. I do not suspect too many people would pick it as a favorite. The Killing Joke, regardless of what I or the people who made it feel, has had a powerful effect on many people, a number of whom have read it at least once. None of the folks involved in these two comics are without talent, and many of them are, in my opinion, extremely talented. It is, still, not incorrect to call either of them a bad comic, or poorly written, poorly considered, maybe not the finest idea ever hatched.
The received wisdom on both comics will have an effect on how many new readers take them in, when they do. This is both unavoidable and not worth trying to avoid. Embrace what everybody knows. Put it in with all the other ingredients. But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. We each have to eat, primarily, for ourselves.
The Danger of Received Wisdom
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