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A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

Hey, there, I'm Joe Rice. I was going to use this first column to introduce myself, explain the name, and win everyone's hearts with my overwhelming charm and bright blue eyes. But the Make-Believe War is a war, folks. Soldiers don't start a battle by saying, "Hey, I'm Joe and I'm in the Army because my dad was. It all started--" No, they just do their jobs and start fighting. So I'll save the pleasantries for a later date and jump right in and explain why I'm right and you're wrong.

People make a big deal about opinions on the internet. Like, say you write a big long review about a comic book. The first person who disagrees with you will almost invariably say, "Well, that's your opinion!"

No, really? It is? You mean that I, when sitting down to type at length about a comic book ...I actually used my opinion? Holy shit! You're right! I did write my opinion down! I thought for sure I was writing down the opinion of the late, great Jimmy Stewart, but I sure was wrong! It was mine all along!

Of course it's my opinion! Why the fuck would I write it up if it wasn't? What people really mean when they say this is, "I disagree with you, but I'm not going to bother giving a counter argument, because I'm lazy or I haven't actually thought my opinion through." I don't mind counter-arguments. They either show me something I didn't think of or force me to reinforce my own beliefs even further. But using the textual equivalent of "Nuh-uh!" doesn't forward your cause or hinder my own. If you care enough about comics to spend time on the internet talking about them, then I know you care enough to actually express your thoughts and the reasons for them. Don't be lazy, folks. That's for your real job. You want to talk comics? Let's talk comics. You want to express your opinion? Think it through and be ready to have it challenged, changed, or strengthened.

I'm going to warn you, though. I'm about to say something, that, at first, is going to upset you. I hope you'll keep reading. I think by the end you'll see what I mean. See, you always hear that everyone's opinion has equal merit. "There are no 'wrong' opinions," we're told over and over again. (People, of course, actually mean "My opinion isn't wrong," but it sounds so much more egalitarian this way.) I'm sorry, but I disagree. I'm tired of that falsehood and I'm going to disprove it once and for all.

First off, not all opinions are of equal value. Bill Monroe's opinion on a bluegrass band would carry a bit more weight than, say, Tom Brokaw's. If Bill said that a band was great and Tom didn't like it, I'd definitely listen more to the guy who knew what he was talking about. Conversely, I'm more likely to listen to Brokaw if the topic was news-anchoring. Ill-informed opinions must bow to more-informed opinions, or the opinion-holder must have enough self-awareness to be able to back the opinion up with more than "That's just how I feel."

This can work in the discussion of comics, too. In the most basic form, we can say that Will Eisner's opinions on comics held more weight than, say, Alan Doane's. Alan Doane's opinion holds more weight than Spawnblood69 at Newsarama, who's been reading comics for three years, ever since he realized his awesome toys had comics about them. And even ol' Spawnblood69 (God bless him) knows what he's talking about a bit more than my old Mexican neighbor who's never read a comic in his life. If somebody has come in and read just a few comics, or comics of only one publisher or genre or something, and declares a comic "great," this person's opinion is, in fact, less valid than the opinion of someone who's made a point of studying the art form in general, across genres, times, and styles. This doesn't mean it's somehow wrong for the first guy to love the comic he loves. It doesn't mean the second guy is a better person. It simply means that the two opinions are not equal. If you've only read a little bit and you think a comic is great, it means that and only that: you think the comic is great. It doesn't mean that the comic is great. You don't have the knowledge base to really tell. (But, hell, it might be. Being uninformed doesn't make you automatically wrong any more than being informed makes you automatically right. Say Jimbo has read every single Fantastic Four issue and Maritza has only read a hundred or so. Jimbo's not necessarily more informed on what good comics are, because maybe that's the ONLY damn thing he's ever read.)

Think about it. What did you read when you were ten? When I was ten, I thought GI Joe by Larry Hama was the best comic that ever existed. I didn't just think that because I loved GI Joe (I did). I thought that because I hadn't read anything better. Now, I've read a lot more comics. I've watched a lot more movies. I've read a lot more books. I've studied the process of writing a lot more. I just plain know more about art, storytelling, comics, and anything else than I did when I was ten. It's great that I enjoyed GI Joe when I was ten. I wouldn't take that away from myself for anything. But now, seventeen years later, I'm better equipped to judge what makes good comics and what makes great comics. That doesn't make me a better person now than I was then. It just means I'm better at judging comics. Not only because I've read more and know more, but I've had more time to think about how I feel. My opinions have been challenged, changed, and strengthened over time, both from internal reflection and external discussion.

Do you see what I'm saying here? Just because you feel something doesn't make it right. Feelings are great, but they're even better when you think about them. You can think Comic A is a wonderful example of the form, but if I can point out how its story has bad structure, the characters are ciphers, and the plot makes no sense, then no matter how good it makes you feel, it's not a good comic. It's great that you love it, and I don't necessarily want to make you not love it (I would, though, like to show you some things you might like even more). But love alone doesn't make something great. Love your dog all you want, but if he pees on your couch every day, bites you every hour, and runs away at every opportunity, he's a bad dog. Enjoy poorly-written and badly-drawn comics all you want. That doesn't mean they're good.

Now, it's true that art is subjective. That doesn't mean there's nothing objective about it, though. No one can say whether impressionism is more important than expressionism. But red is not blue. That is objective truth. A piece of writing without plot, that can be objectively noted. An artist's lack of anatomy knowledge can be objectively seen. All these sorts of things can objectively prove a comic to be flawed and not great. It may not affect your enjoyment at all, and that's wonderful. But, again, just because you enjoy something doesn't mean it's good (and, of course, the opposite can also be said: there are fine works of art that I absolutely hate; they can still be good, though).

Not all opinions are equally valid. Like a mountain made of empty cans of PBR, so an unchallenged, untested opinion has no foundation. Some opinions are flat-out wrong. But remember, just because you're not an expert doesn't mean you don't know anything. It also doesn't mean you have to change your tastes. Enjoy "Supermurder Bloodcape" all you want, just don't get all huffy when someone points out it's a piece of crap. And listen up when someone who knows their shit says, "Hey, you might like this more, give it a try." That's one of the major purposes of criticism people seem to forget. We don't say a book is bad just to rain on your parade. We do it in the hopes of directing you to something you'll enjoy even more. ("You think that's good? Wait until you try this!)

It all goes back to what I was saying at first. If someone disagrees with you, use that as an opportunity to think. Do they have valid points? Do they know what they're talking about? Why do they think their thoughts and you think your thoughts? Who is right? Why? Think critically and you'll end up both finding more things to like and liking things even more.

If you liked reading this (and I know you did), come back for more installments of Joe Rice's Make-Believe War every other Tuesday, right here at The New Comic Book Galaxy.

-- Joe Rice


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