Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, November 20, 2010


In Part 1 I asserted that I didn't think Curt Purcell's concept of the human brain's "filtering mechanisms" were an adequate explanation as to the way readers/audiences process narrative information, including information that doesn't track well with the reader's personal knowledge and/or experience. I said that I found it too "passive," and as counterevidence, I present my own regurgitated impressions of my first reading of FANTASTIC FOUR #2.

Necessary Biographical Stuff: I can date the beginnings of my superhero fandom days fairly precisely because I didn't start seriously collecting superheroes until after the 1966 debut of the BATMAN teleseries, when I was ten. I can't date precisely when I read FF #2 because I first read it as a reprint, and a reprint purchased at a second-hand store, no less. (I still have the store's ten-cent sticker on the cover of said reprint.) But I probably read FF #2 in this form no later than age twelve. I can't say how many FF stories I'd read before encountering the reprint of #2, but by that time I probably had a pretty basic knowledge of the FF's overall concept and the type of stories I as a juvenile reader could expect.

Now, the FANTASTIC FOUR title as a whole is not one that most comics-critics would consider to be (as per my title and Curt's) "crap." At the very least, that bastion of taste THE COMICS JOURNAL put FF on their list of all-time best English-language comics, a selection with which I'd agree, if not for the same reasons I liked the title as a kid. Of course neither they nor I would have nominated the title if all of the stories were like FF #2, which is a pretty simple alien-invasion tale with a very unbelievable twist at the end.

Now, Curt Purcell puts forth the hypothesis that a reader may become so immersed in a reading-experience that he becomes inattentive not only to his physical surroundings, but also to inadequacies in the text. This certainly does happen, but I don't think this paradigm describes the many vagaries of reading.

To the best of my recollection, I enjoyed FF #2 as a 12-year-old-- except for that unbelievable twist. Following a confrontation in which the heroes overcome the shapeshifting alien Skrulls who have blackened the supergroup's name, Mister Fantastic decides to trick the tricksters. He and his comrades meet with the Skrull space-fleet, orbiting above Earth and waiting to invade, and pretend that they are the Skrull agents. To persuade the Skrull general that Earth is too powerful to invade, Mister Fantastic shows the general evidence of Earth's might. This "evidence" consists of cut-out panels from some of Marvel's science-fiction comics-titles, showing that Earth has mighty weapons and fearsome monsters at the ready to repel invaders.

Now-- did I, the juvenile reader, believe that malarkey for an instant? Well, if I had, you can be sure that I'd lie about it now.

Now, going by Purcell's thesis, my inability to let pass this particular absurdity pass-- say, in the way that I allowed my reading-self to believe in Skrulls and heroes mutated by cosmic rays-- stemmed from the fallibility of my brain's "smart filter." If this "smart filter" had been working at full capacity, it could have overpowered my realization of that flaw and kept me from being propelled, if only momentarily, out of the story.

However, I tend to believe my response was more active, less passive. Certainly by age 12 I'd had many experiences with stories that didn't meet with my approval for one reason or another, and so by that time I certainly knew that the fault did not lie in the stars, but in the story-tellers. I'm sure I thought that Lee and Kirby were a little on the lame side for having tossed out such a silly solution to the problem.

And yet, I was, as I said, only momentarily thrown out of the experience. I finished the story, and did miss noticing any number of other flaws in the tale that I did notice later as an adult reader. But the lameness of the resolution did not take away my perception that there were some very good things about the story, even if it was not one of the best of the series. Kirby's action-scenes in the story were good if not great, and the coda, in which the Skrull agents are hypnotized to change into cows, is memorable for more than just its absurdity.

Now, when I praise separate elements of the story, is that also my "smart filter" in operation, trying to make excuses for one lame element that, if dwelled upon, would spoil the experience overall?

Possibly, but I remain skeptical. My perception that Kirby drew vital action-scenes is constant whether the story is seemingly perfect or obviously flawed, so it isn't something my brain whips up out of nothing to compensate for a story-flaw.

Even before children can talk, before they've ever heard the theme-song to THE FACTS OF LIFE, they know that they live in an imperfect world where you pretty much have to take the good with the bad. If a person never read a single story by Stan Lee, Henry James or anyone else, that person would still have to live with that phenomenological state of affairs.

I think that's the real reason "fans love crap." It's not that they love the flaws and mistakes that prove intolerable for nonfans. *If* they are experienced enough to be aware of the flaws, then they ignore the flaws in an *intentional* manner because they seek something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws.

That "something" I've frequently called "myth" or "mythopoesis." More on that later, though first I may give Curt Purcell a chance to tell me if he thinks I've misinterpreted his essay.


Curt Purcell said...

Thanks for this, Gene. I'm going to do a roundup of responses, but there's one I'm still waiting on.

Gene Phillips said...

I look forward to your response, Curt; thanks for keeping me in the loop.