skip to content or skip to search form

For now we see through a glass, darkly

The only comic book I’ve read recently is JLA Classified, which is a fun superhero comic, a slippery polysemic critique of US foreign policy, a parody of the grim (and dull) superteam pastiches of The Authority and The Ultimates, and a playful subversion of Batman’s coherence as a character. Steve Pheley quotes Don MacPherson:

The problem isn’t that this Batman is different, it’s that Morrison tries to maintain both are the same man. “I’m opening the sci-fi closet, Alfred. Don’t tell my friends in the G.C.P.D. about this.” The notion that the Batman who patrols Gotham, trying to prevent the sort of tragedy that scarred him as a youth, would have a box full of seemingly magical toys just doesn’t wash. […] It took me out of the story.

to which Steve replies cogently:

Me, I tend to think it’s perfectly valid to have Solo Batman and JLA Batman being different, and blurring the lines between the two is fine if the tone of the story allows it (as the Classified story does). Call it Hypertime, call it selective continuity, call it fudging — why not, if you can get a good story out of it?

“It took me out of the story.” “It took me out of the story.” When people say this, I feel like Brad Stand in I ♥ Huckabees.

“It took me out of the story.”
“That is so not true. Wait, what does that even mean?”

What are people doing in the story in the first place? They’re readers, not characters. OK, I’m being deliberately obtuse. But people talk about being immersed in the story, forgetting they’re reading a book or watching a movie. That can’t be what they mean. How could they really forget that they’re scanning a sequence of words (or images) on a page, or that they’re watching a sequence of images projected on a screen? And “willing suspension of disbelief.” I think people don’t mean this literally—how could they, and why would they want to, believe that the story they’re reading is true?—but the language of forgetfulness and belief seems unhelpful, at least for me. I want to remember, not forget, that I’m reading a text.

This language must be related to that some people hate criticism and analysis of texts. They complain that dissecting a text takes all the fun out of it—maybe because it forces them to abandon their strategies of immersive forgetfulness and belief, which seem childish and naïve to me.


  1. Tom Bondurant says:

    In a way I think “took me out of the story” is shorthand for “broke a law of this particular universe.” When you have a fictional reality that’s supposed to be coherent and uniform, like a comic-book universe or a Star Trek timeline, and you think you know the rules of the universe pretty well, something which violates your understanding of those rules reminds you that it’s just fictional and “takes you out of the story.”

    Ironically, Morrison’s conception of Batman as someone who is prepared for every eventuality comes out of, and feeds off of, the “Batman always has a plan” paradigm which is such a big part of his grim & gritty depiction. Therefore, why wouldn’t Batman have a “sci-fi closet” to deal with those weird menaces the JLA faces? The right tool for the right job, you might say.

    — 10 November 2004 at 3:34 pm (Permalink)

  2. Shane says:

    That last post totally took me out of the blog.

    — 10 November 2004 at 6:08 pm (Permalink)

  3. Steven says:

    I think that’s right. Probably not surprisingly, I find the decoded statement as useless as the shorthand. I’m not willing to suspend disbelief in a coherent and uniform fictional reality—such a perfect fictional world seems like a fiction itself, to me, not to mention boring. And as long as texts have incoherent, contradictory or deconstructive fault lines running through them, I think authors are probably better off cracking them open and exploring them rather than pretending they don’t exist. Superhero universes like DC’s, whose ‘rules’ include a infinitude of possibility that practically requires deconstructive narratives—thus all the Silver Age stories explaining, for example, why people don’t see through Superman’s ridiculous secret identity, and epic projects like Crisis on Infinite Earths that attempt to reify the DCU into a coherent whole and usually only fragment it further. Attempts to impose consistency and uniformity on the corporate superhero universes tend either to backfire spectacularly or to kill what makes me want to read about those universes.

    Interesting point about the sci-fi closet fitting Batman’s character. I recall, semi-relatedly, that Frank Miller’s Dark Knight still kept the giant penny and other Silver Age silliness in his Batcave. I haven’t read any current or recent comics featuring Batman other than in Morrison’s JLA comics, but I get the impression that Morrison’s interpretation of Batman is deeply at odds with other contemporary interpretations, which as far as I can tell mostly involve a lot of street-level urban combat, crime-fiction trappings, and brooding.

    — 10 November 2004 at 6:36 pm (Permalink)

  4. David Fiore says:

    Needless to say Steven, I agree with you here!

    Unfortunately, some of the folks that hold the opposite point of view are very likely to take offense at this! Pretty much the only really sad incident in my blogging career grew out of my insistence upon exactly this philosophy of reading in the face of Doc Nebula’s (who is an interesting guy and perhaps the world’s most adamant defender of text-as-reality…) mounting consternation… The idea that anyone could “forget” they are reading/watching a movie/etc. sounds scary to me! I get pretty obsessed with texts (my recent fit of Lynch-blogging is only the latest example of this), but if you can’t tell the difference between life and a movie, you’ve got a serious problem! And if you can, then what’s all this “don’t ask don’t tell” insistence upon “suspension of disbelief”? I have the same problem with the “show-don’t-tell” brigade. What a meaningless mantra!


    — 11 November 2004 at 1:33 am (Permalink)

  5. Jamesmith3 says:

    I can only speak for myself. The idea isn’t that I’m “forgetting” I’m reading a comic. I read a comic (or see a film, etc.) in 3 stages– emotional, technical, and critical. They happen all at once; it’s possible they’re all facets of the same response– but I’m able to think of them distinctly, which makes discussion easier.

    When something “takes me out of the story,” it presents itself so forcefully, or so at odds with the previous moments that I stop reacting emotionally. The joke doesn’t make me laugh, the drama doesn’t make me tense, the mystery doesn’t intrigue me, etc. I can still appreciate the technical skill on display, and can critically examine the work (he flattered himself). But at that hypothetical moment I stop enjoying it. That’s likely still not good enough for you (I suspect nothing will be), but it doesn’t have anything to do with forgetting, or losing touch with reality.

    The only way this can happen with a character that appears across several titles is if you directly relate, say, Batman in JLA CLASSIFIED with Batman in GOTHAM CENTRAL. I no longer have any stake in the “shared universe” concept myself. So if two people write Batman differently in the same month, I really don’t care.

    (It might be worth it to mention that when the BATMAN ADVENTURES comic first appeared, a number of comics professionals– John Byrne, Frank Miller, etc.– said it was the best Batman book on the stands. Largely because it was probably the only one that wouldn’t make a 5 year old slit his own wrists.)

    — 11 November 2004 at 3:10 am (Permalink)

  6. Steven says:

    That makes sense to me, James. I don’t conflate emotional response with enjoyment of reading as much as, correct me if I’m wrong, it seems that you do (and it seems to me that moments forcefully at odds with the rest of the text are often among the most emotionally powerful), but what you describe makes more sense to me than the common and generally unexamined reading strategy of willing suspension of disbelief.

    — 11 November 2004 at 3:38 am (Permalink)

  7. Dave Intermittent says:


    Pretty much everything you said.

    Really, you should just get a blog of your own; that way I can just appear in comments and second you.

    — 11 November 2004 at 5:38 am (Permalink)

  8. Rose says:

    It seems to me that a lot of the issue hinges on what it means for you to be “in the text.” For Dave F. and Steven and maybe everybody commenting it seems to mean having a certain kind of intellectual/emotional engagement, but there are definitely people who talk as if when they haven’t been pulled out of the text they are unable to distinguish their own lives from the movie or whatever it is. Those are the ones who seem weird to me, or at least interesting, because I’ve never been sure whether I should believe them that this is how they experience narrative.

    I know that when I have the experience James described it’s typically on the aesthetic rather than emotional level. I stop (or pause mentally at least) to say to myself, Wow, that’s not what that word means at all and this is some awful fake slang or If I were still in high school, I’d write this lovely phrase on the pad I kept by my bed for that very purpose. It’s the critical evaluations that move me more than my emotional identifications, but I fully believe this is a defect on my part and basically nonstandard. It’s not that I love or hate the work but that I sneer or have moments of transcendent bliss (and that doesn’t occur much anymore) at the pure brilliance of the words or images.

    But there was another point I wanted to make, too, now forgotten. I just think everyone has a certain unique reading style (and I’m using “reading” broadly to complement a broad concept of text) and that anything else will be somewhat alien. I know Steven and I almost always have very similar emotional/evaluative response to movies and comics and, to perhaps a lesser extent, novels, and yet we focus on very different things while reading the various texts and seem to be thinking different things and thinking differently throughout to arrive at the same basic conclusion. I don’t think this actually relates to anything, though, so I’m going to stop now.

    — 11 November 2004 at 2:23 pm (Permalink)

  9. Jamesmith3 says:

    Steven: Yeah, I suppose I do conflate enjoyment with emotional response. This includes emotional pain (except music– painful music is my weakness).

    Dave I: Thanks for the compliment, but I’m vain enough as it is.

    Rose: Of course you know that’s not really a defect, I hope.

    — 12 November 2004 at 1:48 am (Permalink)

  10. Rose says:

    It’s not a bug, it’s a feature? I don’t know. It seems from talking to other people that they’re more able than I am to think about just one thing at a time or even nothing at all, but I don’t know how to avoid multiple levels and simultaneous mental conversations. I also seem immune to having celebrity crushes, which is also something it seems normal people can do. And I have practically gorilla-length arms. Is this all connected?

    For the record, I don’t really know how my vanity charts against that of other bloggers, but that might tie in too.

    — 12 November 2004 at 6:35 pm (Permalink)