Over at the Comics Should Be Good blog, which I frequent because it is definitely one of the better blogs out there, a witty punch line to the most recent Comics Critics webcomic has spurred a bit of discussion over what one poster refers to as “Well-Disguised Suck”. That is when a comic seems like it might be good or very good at first read (Jeph Loeb’s Batman work, for example), but upon further evaluation is actually much worse than what you originally thought. While I prefer the term “The Illusion of Good,” the fact reminds that many forms of entertainment get away with giving good gut reactions, yet don’t quite hold up after re-reading or even just further reflection.
The biggest cause of deceit by The Illusion of Good is youth. Have you ever watched a movie that you loved as a child years later, only to ask yourself “why did I ever think that was good?” Over at CSBG I used Return of the Jedi as an example – people LOVE Ewoks when they're kids, but a few years go by and... – but a better example for me is The Breakfast Club. As a young teenager, I was convinced that The Breakfast Club carried The Most Important Message In The History of Important Messages – you know, that we all should respect each other despite our cliquey high school differences. Real, real deep stuff there. I still enjoy the movie – it certainly isn’t a bad movie by any means – but it definitely is not the all-powerful message that I thought it was because in the decade-plus since then I’ve viewed hundreds of better films and had more mature life experiences. My initial reaction and opinion – even ones I held for a few years – does not hold up when I go back with a more experienced eye.
To put this back in the perspective of comics, I remember (at an even younger age than my Breakfast Club worship) thinking that the death and return of Superman was the Greatest Story Ever Told (there’s a Superman/Christ parallel joke in there somewhere). Again, as far as comic book events go it’s not half bad, but it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight of greatness that I once believed it did. How come? Well, I’ve had more time and opportunities to read better comics out there – all those great comics published pre-Death of Superman that I had yet to discover and others that were created after – so my view of what makes a comic “great” has changed since I read the Death of Superman.
Hype can also be incredibly deceiving, especially to those who only moderately pay attention to superhero comics and get “suckered in” to buying The Big Events That You Must Own. The death of a major character or a company-wide crossover might seem “good” simply because it is “important” – important because it gives the illusion of change in a genre that has always resisted change and/or important because there is a lot of buzz around the event. But neither of these really improves upon the actual story – does Superboy’s death in Infinite Crisis really add much pathos to the story if you know that he will be back in a few years, even if every comics website on the Internet buzzes about how it is meaningful and a can’t-miss issue? Ed Brubaker’s ongoing run on Captain America isn’t great or "important" because Captain America died (and, of course, will be reborn shortly), but because Brubaker has been writing a powerful, intriguing story that many fans and critics have praised as an excellent contribution to the medium. Of course, who knows how fans will feel upon re-readings of the storyline a decade from now?
Then again, this is the same culture where middle-age people who spend much of their lives debating Transformers canon and/or writing fanfics about Joss Whedon characters believe these as important pursuits worthy of incredible amounts of their time. Asking many of us to look back at our prior pursuits or things that dominated our attention and deem them unworthy of it might just be out of the question. Yet this isn't convined to comic book fans, because one thing that I always thought to be very curious about art is that when most critics talk about a piece of art being "rediscovered" or "revaluated," it's always for the better -- like the Monkees, or the films of Sergio Leone (and both are certainly worthy). Not many people have the courage -- or even bother -- to say "you know what? That movie really wasn't good now that I think about it again." Probably because most people don't like to admit they might have been wrong.
We always talk about about art and artists that are underappreciated in hindsight -- but that doesn't mean there aren't those that are frequently overappreciated (which should be a word!)!