I’ve been reading comics for a little under six months now. Blessed with free time and an influx of unexpected cash, I’ve made an effort to dive deep and swim wide, trying to gain as accurate an understanding as possible of the medium, its tropes and tendencies, and the various attitudes of readers.
One of the things which became abundantly clear rather quickly was that comics are cruel. I don’t mean cruel things happen in comics (though they do), but rather that the industry itself devours its readers, cripples them emotionally, and then casts them aside in a cycle which produces a mostly new readership every decade or so, with only a minority of readers carrying over from decade to decade. This is rather remarkable when you consider that comics are a medium, not a genre, and that this is tantamount to people only watching movies or reading novels for ten years of their life before deciding it’s not worth the trouble. A lot of people become jaded or angry and move on to other, less emotionally-draining media. They get sick of gimmicks and predictability paraded around under the veil of progress, change, and shaking-things-up, all of which are absurd when considered in the context of more than a few years. There’s nothing new under the sun, and that’s doubly, perhaps triply true of comics.
Over the last several months it has become clear to me that there is a large sub-sect of comic book readers who seem to believe that comic books are meaningless. Despite the amount of time and money they spend on the books each week, they consider the medium rather pointless. These people seem to believe that comics are only allowed to have an effect on a person if it is positive or inspirational. Naturally, should you ever run the risk of actually feeling anything important or negative because of a comic, it’s because you’re immature and lack the ability to dissociate fact from fiction. Time and again, I’ve found that comic fans, the people who know them the best and have invested the most in them, the people who should ostensibly be defending the artistic merits of the medium, are actually the most fervent attackers of that medium.
And, honestly, that’s terribly stupid. It makes them look and sound stupid. Here, then, is a guide for comic fans to help them not look and sound stupid. If you’re aiming to come across as an intelligent person, here are a few things you should stop saying to other comic fans. (Oh, and by the way: sure, this is a bit smug. But it’s far less smug than the tone with which these things are often said.)
It’s just a comic book.
They’re not real people.
This is a fictional story.
There are a variety of reasons folks should stop saying these things. On a functional level, they are useless and intellectually problematic. They contribute nothing to the discussion of value and ultimately make the person who says them look like they missed something obvious on the way from their brain to the keyboard. They undermine their own validity because they try to call into question the power and importance of fiction itself in order to prove a point about fiction. A person who truly believes that it’s dumb to get upset about something because it’s “just a comic” would not read comics at all because their fictional nature would preclude them providing anything of any value or meaning to a reader’s life.
The very act of being a comic reader, let alone a fan, proves that “just comics” impact lives in a variety of ways. They entertain, they surprise, and yes, sometimes they anger and sadden, and to dismiss the negative emotional impact but embrace the positive is to both ignore reality and to undercut a fundamental comprehension of artistic merit. I have never heard such disdain directed towards an emotional response to a book, television show, film, painting, poem, game, or any other work of art from people familiar with those forms of art. Yet it is incredibly common among comic readers.
The next time you find yourself tempted to tell someone off because the thing they are objecting to is part of a fictional story, consider giving up comics. If you truly believe they’re not worth investing in, stop investing in them. Use your time and money on something you care about and are okay with caring about, and stop berating people who are doing that with comic books. It might make sense if a non-reader were to say this, a person who has already decided that comics are a waste of time and actually lives according to that belief. But for a person who actively buys comics and discusses them in a community designed explicitly for people passionate about them, these arguments have no place.
Nothing lasts forever.
The only death that lasts in comics is Uncle Ben & the Waynes.
Comic book death is meaningless.
The first, and most immediate problem with the last one there is that it is undermined by the very situation which would ever lead you to use it. If the death is meaningful to a person to the point where they spoke up about it and you are reading about it, then clearly the death isn’t meaningless. Meaningless to you, perhaps, but not inherently devoid of meaning. Furthermore, the decision to include a death in the narrative was, we can presume, clearly made under the assumption that it would carry narrative weight and that it would mean something to someone. Writers, good or bad, try to be good, and they wouldn’t include death in a story unless they expected it to matter. If a reader reciprocates, then the death had some meaning.
Note, also, that there is a difference between “meaningless” and “senseless.” Death in a comic may be very meaningful in that it deeply affects people, saddening or enraging them (or, heck, maybe even pleasing them), but be so poorly written or lacking in purpose that its lack of necessity strips it of having narrative meaning. Often death is used to shock readers or to lazily push a plot point which could have been effected another way without terminating the character, rendering it meaningless within the fiction but anything but meaningless to the people who were invested in the character who died.
Interestingly the exact same people who say that comic death is meaningless (so as to shut up people complaining) will turn around and say that death is necessary to maintain a sense of realism and risk in stories. If any narrative convention or event is “necessary” for achieving any end, then it is inherently meaningful. Granted, I reject the notion that death is necessary for impactful stories too, but I find it especially noisome when used in conjunction (despite the contradiction) with the argument not to care. You can’t tell people that a death doesn’t matter, and also that it is necessary to make the story worth reading. We have a word for that in the English language: hypocrisy.
This doesn’t affect your old stories.
The old books are still untouched on your shelf, right?
Anyone who isn’t a sociopath should have a better understanding of how emotions and memory actually work than a statement like these would suggest. Honestly, if you’ve said this, you ought to be ashamed. Sure, you’re correct that when an author creates a new issue of a comic, copies of the older one do not burst into flames. But no one ever said that but you.
This is a straw man, plain and simple. It tends to come up in an attempt to assuage complaints about something else entirely: the preclusion of new stories. When a character dies, not only is it meaningful, but it also will last for at least some time, if not forever. And that means that stories which might have been told and enjoyed in the interim, perhaps in the vein of previously enjoyable stories, are being rendered impossible. The existence of older stories, obviously, is not the point.
But what about those older stories? Do they truly make it through the process unscathed? Let me ask you a question. Have you ever lost someone? Not necessarily to death — though maybe to that — but just in general? A relationship you cared about gone sour? A bad breakup?
There are things which we love that get tainted when something changes. The song you played at your wedding may no longer make you feel happy if you hear it after getting a divorce. In fact, not only will it not produce the same level of positive emotion that it once did, but it may actually suddenly make you feel worse. That which once pleased you may now sicken you. Loss changes the past. It reaches back and damages what once was whole; sometimes permanently.
Similar things happen with death. Reminiscing about a person’s life, and the good times you had with them, invariably can lead to sorrow that there will be no more good times. Depending on how they went, the actual passing may be vivid in your mind and difficult to cope with. Sure, after a grieving cycle (which can differ dramatically in length, depending on the situation) you should be stable enough to not be negatively affected by the happy thoughts, because you move on. But for a long time, yes, even the good times become tainted by knowledge of what ended them.
Having already established the power of fiction and the fact that death in comics, while not as important as the death of a human life, still evokes many of the same real emotions, it is inane to think that people will not exhibit similar behaviors dealing with loss. No matter how happy or carefree or uplifting a story is, if I am aware of the fact that the character goes on to meet a brutal and tragic end, that knowledge will lessen my ability to enjoy the older stories, whether I’m a new reader or a re-reader. The only people that aren’t affected by the new stories are the people who read the old stories and don’t know the new stories exist. Finding out prior to or partway through a series that someone dies will fundamentally impact the way you read that series or character for the duration of the reading.
Comic books are an exciting, and currently thriving medium. The industry has its flaws, but by and large it produces some excellent work, a tremendous variety of high-quality art, characters, and stories which stick with readers for years, some becoming legendary. When discussing the medium, then, try to keep in mind its power. These weren’t the only insipid and trite things I’ve seen said to passionate fans over the past six months, but they’re among the more common, and I hope in the future you refrain from resorting to them. Dispute, engage, praise or rage, but leave the nonsense to other, shallower people.