Thursday, October 20, 2005

This just in -- reading comics does not make you a weirdo.

Greg posted recently about his expedition to Jason Richards' Comics Riot! store and what a great place it is. Before we knew it, we were hip deep in debate about the merits of the traditional Marvel Zombie shrines that are most comics shops versus the hoity-toity shops preferred by The Comics Journal-reading crowd with their dark-rimmed glasses. (Yeah, these are both generalizations.) One poster, the ubiquitous Anonymous, had a lot of things to say and some other folks mostly disagreed. Such is the Internet.

But Anonymous said one thing in particular that made me think. It's something I've heard before, but this time it actually caused a brain cell to fire. It's the idea that people think a person's a weirdo if he (or she) reads comics.

Personally, I think a person's a weirdo regardless of their tastes in literature. A publication doesn't make an individual socially inept. A set of printed pages bound along one side does not a weirdo make. There's a whole slew of psychoses and neuroses resulting from poor socialization or disease or genetic heritage. A comic book, though? Not so much.

By the same rationale, we could say that, because a psychopath is a weirdo and he has an unhealthy obsession with the Bible, anybody who reads the Bible is a weirdo. It's ignoring the cause of the weirdness and perceiving an otherwise normal behavior to be more sinister than it actually is. I believe Frederic Wertham built his name on these tactics.

If I were walking down the street and I saw a middle-aged man sitting on a bench reading a copy of Seventeen, I might think that was weird. Likewise, if I saw a five-year-old reading The Wall Street Journal, that would be weird. But the weirdness was there first. The choice of reading material is just a manifestation of the pre-existing weirdness, not the weirdness itself.

Perception is key. The perceived is not always the real. The middle-aged man reading Seventeen -- what if he were an advertising exec doing market research? That's not quite the same as the perv I perceived at first. The child reading The Wall Street Journal -- what if he were just pretending to read it because he saw his dad doing it? That's perfectly normal. Context is important.

I suppose some folks who see me, a 35-year-old man, reading comics probably think I'm weird. They lack the context and perceive that, based on incomplete knowledge, I'm developmentally challenged in some way. Because they may not have read comics since they were kids, they assume that anyone who does is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, just like our Bible-reading psychopath. This is why education and actual human interaction are important.

For example, the people I work with all know I read comics. I haven't been secretive about that. I think, for the most part, they consider me to be a fairly well-adjusted person despite my taste in reading material. They conclude this because I can interact with them in a healthy, respectful, productive manner. They realize that any weird quirks I have aren't because I like to read Uncle Scrooge although my reading of Uncle Scrooge may be a result of my weird quirks. And so what if they did? I stopped caring about that sort of thing about 15 years ago. We've all got our quirks and not a one of us has a right to judge the other for those.

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Blogger Nimbus said...

I don't think that people seeing me reading a comic think I'm a weirdo, as such. More that they think I'm a nerd or geek. Harmless but a bit sad.

Here in the UK (perhaps in the US as well?) comics - especially superhero comics - are seen as being for kids. They are perceived as being simple to read affairs with very few words and lots of colourful pictures. Kind of like a kids book. All the comics including the Marvel and DC stuff are located on the kids shelf in a newsagents.

So if you're a 35 year old man reading a kids book people will either think that you're a bit retarded or, more probably, you're a nerd. And it not like you can say you're reading it for research or some other excuse. You, like me I assume, read them because you enjoy them.

It's the same with playing D&D or any other roleplaying game. Or being into sci-fi, although that's slowly becoming less so.

they consider me to be a fairly well-adjusted person despite my taste in reading material.

You see, even there you say "despite my taste". Even you feel you must defend your reading material. I mean, what's wrong with comics? Perhaps you're well-adjusted because of your taste in reading material.

But I understand what you mean. People here know I like comics and sci-fi but I can just tell they think I'm a bit geeky. It's not a manly hobby like rock climbing or playing football. The interest in superhero films, together with programmes like Buffy, is helping, I think. But what else could help...?

Perhaps, like the Harry Potter books, comics could be produced with a kids cover and an adult cover? Yeah. Variant covers. That's the answer! :-)

10/21/2005 07:55:00 AM  
Anonymous The Ever-Lovin' Alex Freakin' W said...

Most people I know know I'm into comics, and I never get the sense that they think I'm weird because of it. A bit of a geek maybe, but frankly that doesn't bother me because I am a bit of a geek, I don't see it as a negative thing. However they don't care because most of my friends, if they're not into comics, are the sort of people who don't judge others harshly based on their hobbies. I have friends who aren't into comics, but who have hobbies like chamber choir singing and that hardcore german strategy boardgame - "Siedlers" I think it's called. They are heavily into these 'uncool' pursuits (conventions etc), but I would never think 'weirdo' as they're great people.

The flipside to that is that a lot of people will think you're a weirdo if you have ANY interests that they find unfamiliar. I, and several people I know, have had frustrating conversations with people about going to see gigs, which has left them looking at me like I've got infectious looking sores. I thought nothing of leaving work early to catch a two hour train to London to see the Pixies on one of their recent dates, then catching a three hour train home to get in at 2.40 in the morning. Most of the people at work had never heard of the Pixies, thought I was mad to do so and ended up with the impression that I was a bit weird. The Pixies are hella cool! I was a 'hip' guy for going to see them (kidding)! But that's not how most of my colleagues saw it. Another of my friends (a goddamn schoolteacher!) tried to engage some of his fellow teachers in a discussion about politics around the time of the UK general election this year, and found that most of them didn't really follow politics, weren't intending to vote, and weren't relly interested. Now he's not the most political person I know by a country mile, he wasn't even going to vote himself for a long time until something came along he was so passionate about that he had to stand against it, but a couple of months later he found out that a lot of his colleagues now thought he was some sort of militant political activist!

What I'm trying to say in a really long winded way is: the problem is not with comics, it's with people. Yes plenty of people will look at you weird if you're reading a comic in public. But plenty of people will look at you wierd if you're reading a book! Plenty of people will look at you weird if you say you like folk music, record collecting, foreign or independent films, if you say you don't go out getting trolleyed every friday night, if you talk critically about anything . Anybody with an open mind, who isn't prone to judgemental thinking and prejudice, I don't think you'll ever have a problem with them knowing you read comics.

As a postscript, my friends who read comics think I'm a weirdo for buying floppies. They're all pretty much trade only folks.

Man, I hope this six-cent diatribe came out ok.

10/21/2005 09:16:00 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

I'm 49 and still read...blah blah blah. My choices in music don't follow the current trends (ever), I hate reality tv, 90% of my library (real, honest-to-god books, not them funny books) consists of speculative fiction, and I use terms like speculative fiction instead of sci-fi. Am I weird? I hope so.

10/21/2005 09:26:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher Burton said...

Heh! Variant covers are never the answer. ;)

I chose "despite my taste" carefully, but I left it open to interpretation, I guess. I didn’t really consider it to be defending my tastes in literature. I was trying to emphasize most peoples' perception that comics are a simpler literary form and the fact that those around me don’t think any less of me for enjoying it. They know that I also enjoy other more "sophisticated" (again, their perception) forms of entertainment, so my enjoyment of comics is, at worst, a little quirk of my personality.

Perhaps you're well-adjusted because of your taste in reading material.

Maybe, but I still lean toward the notion that you are what you are and everything else, whether it’s reading material or tastes in music or whatever, is window dressing.

10/21/2005 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

It's one thing to make self-congratulatory statements about one's pride in being a public comics reader, but it's another to challenge someone else's perception of their own personal situation. I think many of the people who took Anonymous (aka Phil) to task on his "shame" in reading comics missed a crucial tidbit in his admittedly [though somewhat understandably] defensive explanation.

As he put it: "I live in a really f***ed up rural area... If you don't conform to the standard idea of 'normal' gossip travels fast and your life becomes a hell on earth."

For a really extreme analogy, it's like a black guy who's never been called a nigger telling another black guy who has been that racism isn't that big an issue anymore.

Generally speaking, comics are still percieved as being juvenile entertainments - and yes, racism is still alive and well in the USA! - no matter how many of us can offer personal anecdotes to the contrary. It's the reason mainstream press coverage still feels the need to lead with disclaimers like, "BIFF! BAM! POW! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!"

As for me, while just about everyone that knows me on a personal level knows I read comics, it's not something the people I work with are necessarily aware of. That's not just comics, though, as I like to keep everything about my personal life very separate from my 9-to-5. Simply put, it's no one's business what I do outside of the office.

For those of you who choose to live otherwise, that's cool, too, but spare everyone else the self-righteous grandstanding tone that undermines your pride in that fact. It's one step-removed from born again Christians who see no problem with proselytizing on the job.

10/21/2005 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Brian (not Cronin) said...

I don't agree with everything Anonymous said (for example, I don't care if my comic shop is highbrow or an Android's Dungeon, so long as they have the books I want), but I do think he was right about the stigma.

I'm a "closeted" comic fan; I admit it. I don't want my co-workers to know I read comics; they'd think me unprofessional. I don't want my clients to Google me and find the articles I wrote for Fanzing years ago. I don't want them to know that I read fantasy novels or play RPGs, either. That's just the way it is.

I have other "geeky" friends, but most of them look down on comic readers. They can play German board games, play RPGs, watch Star Trek, but they're still going to look down on people who buy superhero books. Even the people who'll go with me to see "Batman Begins" or "Fantastic Four," and then ask my comic-geeky opinion about it afterward won't read a comic, even if I put it in their hands.

I regard my comics as "guilty pleasure." I don't need other people to "understand," I don't need other people to "convert," but I know that I have no way of changing the broad perception of comics, so I'll enjoy them in private, thanks. If that makes me a "bad fan," then so be it.

10/21/2005 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

My problem with Anonymous was not his sense of shame at being a comic fan, but his feeling that all comic stores should share and cater to that sense of shame. It's fine if, as a person, you want to hide the fact that you think comics are cool, but from a business perspective it's the worst thing you can do short of setting your stock on fire.

10/21/2005 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger jason @ RIOT said...


10/21/2005 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Eli said...

I think that this line of discussion is counterproductive, much like the "Comics are TOO literature!" discussion.

The quality of the work will ultimately determine how people view the quality of the work, and the character of the readers will ultimately determine how people view the character of the readers.

That said, it can certainly be frustrating for people to assume things about you incorrectly, so I sympathize with anonymous. Though, I have to say, one of my favorite comic book stores from back in the day was actually both pretty rural and pretty popular.

10/21/2005 04:05:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher Burton said...

it's another to challenge someone else's perception of their own personal situation.

That's a good point, Guy. I'm totally down with the "walking a mile in another man's shoes." I wonder, though, if we comics readers don't sometimes perceive judgment on the part of non-comics readers that isn't really there.

10/21/2005 05:09:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

Anonymous raised a good point: why do so many of the Comics Journal reading fans wear the same ironic black eyeglasses? I think everyone at listencomics blog has them, right?

10/21/2005 05:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Eli said...

I'm a Comics Journal reader and I wear black plastic glasses. We wear them because without them we would not be able to see.

I don't really see how they qualify as ironic anymore.

10/21/2005 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I wish I had fancy glasses.

Also, isn't there a rule against Brians other than me posting on the internet?

10/21/2005 10:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Eli said...

Truly, Brian, it is an illustrious subculture. We call ourselves Framies and have monthly retreats, where mostly we talk about our favorite unintelligible Gary Panter adventures. Sometimes Rivers Cuomo drops in and tells us to keep up the good work.

10/22/2005 03:19:00 AM  
Blogger Libby said...

I live in a really "f*ed up rural area", and I never had many problems with people thinking I'm weird for reading comics. A couple people make fun of me for drawing "Jap cartoons". But nobody really cares about my reading American comics.

My dad says it's because nobody in West Virginia can read, so of course they support a medium with pictures. ^_^;

But my f*ed up rural area might just be really different from his...

10/22/2005 08:32:00 AM  
Blogger Marionette said...

If you look at anyone closely you will find that they have some kind of weirdness going on, whether it be filling their home with china pigs or their own fully equipped dungeon. It's all in your point of view and what you consider "normal".

Many people think it is perfectly reasonable to travel all over the continent to watch a bunch of grown men kick a ball around.

Generally anything done to excess is considered odd, but someone who does nothing to excess is also considered odd. Everyone has some secret weirdness.

10/23/2005 08:38:00 AM  

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