Every published writer, every TV producer, every movie director — anyone in the arts who’s had a career last longer than ten minutes — has, at some point, experienced this phenomenon.
That is the moment when you realize the audience absolutely does not get it. They completely missed the point of what you are trying to do.
Now, I don’t mean something ambiguous where there are multiple interpretations of a given character moment. In Mickey Spillane’s One Lonely Night, for example, private eye Mike Hammer spends a great deal of the book pondering whether or not a judge was right when he called Hammer a murderer. “I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society.”
By the end of the book, Hammer concludes: “I lived to kill because my soul was a hardened thing that reveled in the thought of taking the blood of the bastards who made murder their business. I lived because I could laugh it off and others couldn’t. I was the evil that opposed other evil, leaving the good and the meek in the middle to live and inherit the earth!”
But is that a moment of triumph? Hammer accepts who he is, but is he happy about it or not? You can argue it either way.
That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about those times when a thing is so blatantly obvious, and yet so utterly misinterpreted, that you just have to wonder what the hell is wrong with people.
Sometimes it’s just someone not getting the joke, like this angry eleven-year-old’s assessment of the Adam West Batman back in 1966.
In little Laura’s defense, she WAS only a kid. But you see it just as often from people who should be old enough and smart enough to know better.
The first time I ran across this phenomenon in print was a book called Star Trek Lives! back in high school.
The fans who authored this were absolutely convinced that Star Trek was based on Ayn Rand. That The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were somehow what Gene Roddenberry was thinking of when he conceived of his future where Earth is a moneyless utopia and no one works unless they want to and then only for the betterment of others.
Uh… what? Seriously? The Ayn Rand who said THIS?
It is your mind that they want you to surrender—all those who preach the creed of sacrifice, whatever their tags or their motives, whether they demand it for the sake of your soul or of your body, whether they promise you another life in heaven or a full stomach on this earth. Those who start by saying: “It is selfish to pursue your own wishes, you must sacrifice them to the wishes of others”—end up by saying: “It is selfish to uphold your convictions, you must sacrifice them to the convictions of others.”
How the hell do you get from Starfleet and the Federation it represents to THAT? The book features a number of interviews where the authors desperately are trying to coax some support for their theory from Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy. It’s embarrassing, especially when you consider the backing-away-slowly-from-the-crazy-person answers they got that are presented as validation.
Or another example that’s been annoying me for decades, from Blade Runner…. the argument over whether or not Rick Deckard, tasked with hunting down rogue android “replicants,” is himself a replicant.
This is so stupid I can’t believe that the film’s director, Ridley Scott, gives it any credence at all… but he does. It is a spectacular example of missing the whole goddam point of the story in favor of a ridiculous wouldn’t-this-be-KEWL moment, the sort of shallow profundity you’d get from a stoner college student on the level of the “my fingernail contains a tiny universe!” scene in Animal House.
Let me spell it out for you. For most of the movie, Deckard is clearly dead inside, an emotional burnout. The characters in the story who show actual passion are the escaped replicant Roy Batty and his posse. This point is brought sharply home when Deckard realizes he is falling for another replicant, Rachael.
Rachael does not know she is an artificial creation until Deckard tells her. Their confrontation makes it clear that she considers him a murderer, even if his victims are artificial, and that he himself does not meet the standard for humanity he holds the replicants to that he hunts down. Referring to the psych exam he gives to determine humanity and expose replicants who are trying to pass for human, she asks him straight out, “Have you ever taken that test yourself?”
Blade Runner (and the book it’s based on) is a story about what it means to be human, how fragile that can be, what happens if you lose track of what humanity really is. That scene with Rachael and Deckard is the turning point, the statement of the thesis. There is nothing ambiguous about that scene. The thematic idea behind it could not be more obvious if it was carved in capital letters on Mount Rushmore.
Therefore, if Deckard is himself an artificial creation then there is no contrast to be shown and examined between him and the replicants and the story’s rendered meaningless. Nevertheless, for decades fans have ignored the obvious in favor of picking out background details and other stuff to shore up this absurd conspiracy theory.
But those examples are mostly just annoying, and a little laughable. Other times, though, it can get a lot darker.
Here’s one of those. Harlan Ellison wrote a story in the sixties called “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” that he thought was very clearly an anti-drug piece. A cautionary tale about a man losing himself.
However, the hallucinatory quality of the tale was embraced by the psychedelic set as an endorsement. Losing yourself in drug-addled dreams was a worthy goal, even Harlan Ellison said so, check it out!
Ellison was bothered about this but apart from comments in interviews where he talked about the mixed feelings this gave him, he didn’t do anything about it. I don’t think he needed to, since he’d made his own stance clear.
But sometimes, I think, the creator owes the audience a little more follow-up clarity. Like that time in 1972, when Archie Bunker became a folk hero to the conservative right.
The younger folks out there probably won’t remember what a cultural phenomenon All in the Family was when it first aired. Archie Bunker was a wonderful satire of the typical working-class American guy.
A big part of his character was that he was an opinionated, ignorant bigot, and the show got a lot of laughs by playing the contrast between Archie’s worldview and that of his hippy-dippy daughter and her liberal husband.
Producer Norman Lear struggled for YEARS to get this show on the air because network execs were terrified that middle America would take offense at Archie. But that’s not what happened.
No, blue-collar Americans fell swooningly in love with Archie, ignorant prejudice and all.
In 1972 there was even a campaign of sorts to get Archie running for president.
This left Norman Lear in an awkward position. His show was a huge hit… but a lot of people– a LOT of them– saw Archie not as an example of satire, but an actual hero. A character that was aspirational. The show was essentially fanning the flames of the ignorance Lear was trying to mock.
Lear certainly didn’t turn down any of the licensing. Nor did he try very hard to disabuse Archie’s redneck fans of the idea that he was actually making fun of them…. though he did soften Archie considerably over the run of the series, and it was made clear that Archie Bunker’s heart was in the right place, like when he turns down the offer to join the Ku Klux Klan.
But was that enough? Should Lear have tried harder to make sure people got it?
I kinda think so.
But…. it’s a tough argument. On the one hand, that’s the sort of censorship-oriented thinking that fuels the people who are constantly harping on how first-person-shooter videogames are turning our kids into killers, or that horror fiction writers must all be mentally ill. Audience reaction shouldn’t be the creator’s problem.
But on the other hand, you have Stephen King’s Rage, a story about a murderous teenager which has been cited by a number of actual, real-life school shooters as an inspiration.
King was horrified by this and took the book out of print, saying over and over how that was NOT WHAT HE MEANT.
I think that is an admirable stance, and it was a responsible act to remove the book from his backlist.
However… Rage is still easily available used in the first Bachman Books collection, and it’s a good book. I have it here at the house and I’m not inspired to go shoot up a classroom. Isn’t trying to erase it from publication an act of censorship? Should the general audience be punished because a couple of teenage sociopaths thought it was a blueprint and not a cautionary tale?
So I go back and forth on this. How do you know, as a creator, when you should do everything you can to make it extra-clear what you MEANT? Is it even worth the effort when history shows us how stubbornly audiences cling to the wrong interpretation no matter what the author says?
Take another example. How about Alan Moore and Rorschach?
In 1986, Watchmen, from Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, was absolutely a game-changer for superhero comics. Moore stripped away every pretense from costumed heroes and tried to deconstruct exactly what kind of person would be motivated to put on a mask and beat the shit out of criminals. Some would do it for publicity, some got a sexual kick out of it, and some– like Rorschach — were just stone cold killers using the superhero ideal as an excuse to act out.
It was revolutionary. In interviews at the time, Moore explained that the characters were not really meant to be people the readers identified with, or even very likable. He thought that if readers latched on to any of them it would be the schlubby but good-hearted Nite Owl, because he was the most normal.
Nope. It was Rorschach everyone loved. In spite of him clearly being a violent psychopath.
The nastier Rorschach got, the better everyone liked him. Scenes that were written to be creepy and uncomfortable were seen as fuck-yeah-you-GO! moments of badass heroism. Even by Republican congressmen who should know better.
Moore was frankly befuddled by this and said so. Often. But he was somewhat hampered by the fact that the book was a huge seller for DC and it was often paired by critics with Frank Miller’s equally revolutionary Dark Knight Returns, starring a sadistic Batman that was more extreme than ever seen before… and that Miller clearly DID regard as a hero.
Watchmen and Dark Knight were so huge that the entire superhero comics industry took their cues from them for the next few years. “Grim and gritty” became the order of the day, even for heroes where it was utterly inappropriate.
Now, none of this is Alan Moore’s FAULT. Nevertheless, he tried to make up for it by writing lighter superhero stuff like Tom Strong, saying specifically that the work was in part meant as a refutation of Watchmen, and that his hope was to show his audience the wonder and imagination that he actually enjoyed about superheroes in the first place. Sadly– well, I think it was sad– the impact of Tom Strong and the other comics he was doing from that time would never equal Watchmen in impact, but you have to respect that he tried.
Which brings me to the current example… the Punisher.
Most of you probably know the Punisher rode the aforementioned grim-n-gritty wave in comics to huge success in the late 1980s. He (along with the X-Men’s Wolverine) became a poster child for the new breed of ‘adult’ superhero. Today, after several movies and a TV series, the average Joe non-comics-fan thinks of the character as an action hero like Dirty Harry, if they think of him at all.
But for the first decade of his existence, the Punisher was a VILLAIN. He fought superheroes. The character was sparked, essentially, by the thought “wouldn’t it be cool if Spider-Man fought the Executioner?” since Bolan was a huge seller on the paperback spinner racks (adjacent to the comics in most drugstores back then.)
After a little Marvel makeover, Mack Bolan, the Executioner, became Frank Castle, the Punisher.
Like Bolan before him, the Punisher’s mission is to get even for the murder of his family by organized crime. He is a bad guy so sure that he is a good guy that he thinks it’s fine to be judge, jury, and executioner. This is what makes him an interesting villain for guys like Spider-Man and Daredevil, because they are plagued with self-doubt and constantly worry about doing the right thing. You can do stories about the moral ambiguity inherent in being a vigilante.
But in the 1990s, the Punisher became cool and went slowly from villain, to anti-hero, to straight-up hero, as far as fans were concerned.
Now, this in itself is not a bad thing. I can’t emphasize this enough. People should get to like whatever they like. Certainly, I love me some vigilante fiction. Hell, just last week I was talking about how much I enjoy violent fistfights in stories. I am all about pulp action; Mack Bolan and John Wick and the Spider are well-represented in the home library. For that matter, I really dug the sheer balls-out, over-the-top Punisher comics we’ve gotten since Steven Grant and Mike Zeck had their first big success with Circle of Blood way back when, on up through to Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Welcome Back Frank. I even like the Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane movies quite a bit. (Haven’t seen the Netflix Punisher series, though I did like the guest shot in Daredevil and was pleased to see DD still firmly in opposition to Frank and his methods.)
Because, in spite of his popularity and my own enjoyment of many of his adventures, I really do think it’s important to remember that Frank Castle is not a hero. At best he is an anti-hero, but even guys like Dirty Harry or Mike Hammer would think the Punisher goes too far and would try to bring him in if their paths were to cross. In actual fact, the Punisher is much more akin to the guys Dirty Harry puts down in Magnum Force… the group of dirty cops who’ve decided they know better than the law.
By any objective measure, the Punisher is a terrible person. No one should need this explained to them at this point. And yet people still don’t seem to get it. Just a couple of days ago Kurt Busiek finds himself explaining this to fans once again, here.
That Cap says “Get him outta here” rather than “lock him up” is what I don’t like about the Punisher.
The Punisher's an interesting character, but others around him act out of character rather than treat him like a murderer. Even when he murders people right in front of them. https://t.co/F5Km0aLxiy
— Kurt Busiek Resists (@KurtBusiek) July 13, 2019
What got me thinking about all this were the reports that real-life policemen are putting Punisher emblems on their cars and uniforms. Like he’s their unofficial mascot. Yesterday there was a news story about the St. Louis police union encouraging this as a show of solidarity with officers currently under investigation for advocating racist ideas and excessive force.
Seriously? Are you fucking kidding me?
Look. For any cop to declare common cause with the Punisher and adopt him as a symbol is suspect. For a police union to officially advocate doing so is completely skeevy and wrong. And doubling down by conflating it with the American flag is downright scary.
When I expressed my sputtering baffled rage about this to friends, though, I was told that I wasn’t the only one angry about how wrongheaded that is. Turns out Marvel writer Matthew Rosenberg thinks Frank himself would have something to say about this.
And he does, in Punisher #13. For the record, here is what the Punisher has to say about cops thinking he’s a role model.
It is impossible to overstate how much I love this. It takes nothing away from those of us who enjoy the Punisher being a badass action hero. But it makes it very clear that this is not good-guy role-model stuff, and anyone who thinks otherwise is missing the point.
Rosenberg, and by extension Marvel editorial, didn’t have to do that. They could have just as easily milked the implicit police endorsement of their character and sold a bunch of skull shirts and stickers. But instead the creative team took the opportunity to make the point again, louder, for the folks in the back that missed it.
That, if anything, is what a creator owes the audience. You can still have the pulp escapism without abandoning social responsibility. And if Punisher fans, to say nothing of racist cops, don’t get it after that scene, it’s definitely on them.
Way to step up, Mr. Rosenberg. Respect.
Back next week with something cool.
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