Missing the Point

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.

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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  1. Le Messor

    We live in a post-modernist world, where people actually say authorial intent should have no bearing on interpretation. Even going as far as saying ‘this is about X because that’s what I get out of it, who cares what the author says it’s about?’, and that’s a generally-accepted viewpoint.
    Me, I think ‘I can’t stop you interpreting it how you want, but that doesn’t make it what the thing is about’.
    OTOH, I’ve seen an author miss a VERY obvious interpretation of her own story.

    You talk about fans missing the point; I find it worse when it’s not the fans but those entrusted with the legacy.
    In The Addams Family musical, the family do a literal song-and-dance about having ‘one normal evening’. This is officially-endorsed.
    Much like how in The Addams Family Reunion, they’re clearly out to hurt people (namely the mailman).
    That’s just two related examples, but they’re hardly all that’s out there.

    1. You talk about fans missing the point; I find it worse when it’s not the fans but those entrusted with the legacy.

      Oh, believe me, I have a list of those too, but it would be its own column. Or series of columns. Don’t get me started on Superman. I already did my Batman rant about that here.

      1. Le Messor

        Oh, yeah, like when Brightburn dropped, and my reaction (and others’) was ‘there’s already a horror movie about an evil Superman. It’s called Man Of Steel.’

        Apparently (to tie this in with below comments), Mark Millar heard people calling the latter ‘Mark Millar’s Superman‘ and was absolutely horrified. It might even have inspired him to start on lighter fare like Huck.

  2. Another example: KICK-ASS. There is a very obvious message in the film, which the audience has worked very hard at missing.

    The characters of Big Daddy and Hit Girl are a howling condemnation of Batman and Robin. The author takes the relationship between the two and streamlines to distill it down to its essence; instead of a man adopting a boy, it’s a father and his daughter, so questions about a sexual relationship are off the table. Once he does that, he shows that apart from all the snickering innuendo about Batman and Robin being a pedo story, it’s really a story about a nutcase imposing his own violent obsessions onto an innocent child, destroying that child’s innocence and enlisting them into his vigilante crusade, thereby rendering the child incapable of ever returning to a normal life.

    Big Daddy turns Mindy into a relentless, remorseless, homicidal maniac before her 12th birthday. She will never be normal, never form normal relationships, never be mentally healthy, condemned to forever be a pawn in her father’s monomaniacal quest for revenge.

    We should be appalled and horrified by what this selfish prick has done to his own child.

    Instead, the audience ate up the fetishized violence and thought Hit Girl was “so fucking kewl.”

    1. Mike Gillis over at Radio Vs. the Martians has been telling me about how Mark Millar, after doing a bunch of anti-hero books like Kick-Ass and The Ultimates and The Authority, had his own Alan Moore Rorschach-remorse moment and did a comic called Huck that was meant as a counterpoint to that style, much like Moore did with Tom Strong. You reminded me that I have been meaning to check it out.

  3. Siskel and Ebert used to reference a statement by Francois Truffaut that it’s impossible to make an anti-war movie because up on screen, war’s almost always going to look cool. They suggested the same thing was true with crime films.
    I suspect that’s a part of why people miss the point. The Punisher only kills bad people, he’s completely kickass, it’s easy to overlook all the points you correctly make about him.
    Another factor that gets people to miss the point (not necessarily in the cases you’re citing) is that people want to believe their favorite things reflect their personal philosophy. I’ve read more than one libertarian who explains the real message of LOTR is “Big government is bad” with the ring symbolizing the nanny regulatory state. Or people who insist that popular movie X or rock song Y or all song and all movies have conservative themes because they’d really like conservatism to be that cool (this isn’t unique to conservatives, but they’re probably most prone to it).

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Heh, when you mentioned songs, I immediately thought of that classic instance of a politician *really* missing the point: back in 1984, when Reagan tried to appropriate Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” for his ‘Morning in America’ re-election campaign, wherein neither he, nor anyone involved in his campaign apparently, bothered to, you know, actually read the lyrics to the song…

        1. Edo Bosnar

          Well, sort of. There was a resolution to make Springsteen New Jersey’s ‘music ambassador’ and “Born to Run” the state’s *unofficial* youth anthem. But it didn’t happen, here’s a concise but still pretty thorough explanation of why that never happened.
          More recently, though, I recall New Jersey’s former governor, Chris Christie, a Republican and thus political conservative, constantly vied for some kind of public validation from the decidedly unconservative Springsteen. He never really got that; instead he got pretty mercilessly mocked by Springsteen on a late night talk show.

    2. “…people want to believe their favorite things reflect their personal philosophy…”

      Jen Chapin told me that she constantly has fans of her dad come up and tell her how disappointed they are that she’s such a liberal, because obviously if Harry were alive today, he’d support Trump. This statement broke my brain.

  4. Another factor is that a lot of people can’t distinguish between rebel/free spirit (rejects unimportant social rules, marches to their own drum, does their own thing) and asshole (does their own thing but their thing involves treating other people like shit). And the blogger Foz Meadows, among others, have pointed out a lot of Y/A ignores the difference between “bad-boy rebel” and “abusive dick.”

  5. Jeff Nettleton

    Yeah, Rorschach was screaming in my head, until I reached that part of your column; especially after Zack Snyder got his myopic hands on him. He may have looked at the purty pictures in Watchmen; but, he damn sure didn’t read the thing. I think a lot of the audience missed some things because they glossed over the end pieces of each issue. I was convinced, until isse 10 (or was it 11) that Hooded Justice was the killer, because I was using standard comic book logic: he disappeared mysteriously and no mention of a body. Problem was, I kind of skimmed the end piece that mentioned the body of the circus strongman, found riddled with bullets.

    The Punisher is the other big example of comics and I would also add Lobo. It seems like every extreme a-hole jerk became a hero to every repressed fan who latched onto it, even when the creator was obviously lampooning such a thing.

    Miller missed the point on Batman, if you asked me. His Batman wades into armies of goons and hits them with terror and violence. batman was as much about intellect in defeating criminals. Terror made them do stupid things; but, Finger and others didn’t have him just running around punching people until they bleed. He solved mysteries, he had strategies. He developed his brain, as much as his body; yet, post-Miller, he seems to punch people more than anything aside from take steroids, based on some of the artist renditions).

  6. Peter

    I think Miller’s Batman is more nuanced than he gets credit for. I think a lot of the splashy scenes in The Dark Knight are related to physical violence, but Batman actually does use his head in the story. The climactic Superman fight is cooler when you actually remember the level of planning that Miller depicts prior to the battle rather than the scene of an armored dude punching a demigod. I think that the level of physicality in The Dark Knight is also motivated by Bruce’s response to his body failing on him as an old man – he’s depicted as relying on fisticuffs to a greater (unhealthy) degree because he’s trying and failing to snub his nose at Father Time.

  7. Nice column, Greg.

    Oddly enough, I watched the first episode of CNN’s new series The Movies tonight. This one covered the 1980s, and featured Ridley Scott talking about Blade Runner and literally scoffing at Harrison Ford for thinking that Deckard was human instead of a Replicant. In Scott’s mind, the origami unicorn at the end of the movie is definitive proof that Deckard was a Replicant, because Gaff knew about Deckard’s innermost thoughts in the form of the unicorn dream.

    I don’t really have a horse in that particular race, but I think it’s funny that nearly 40 years later, in the literal 2019, Scott and Ford still can’t agree on whether or not Blade Runner‘s hero was human.

    1. I know about Scott and his unicorn theory. It’s typical of an auteur director to think a prop and a camera angle outweighs, y’know, ACTUAL PLOT and DIALOGUE and CHARACTER. This is why advocates of the auteur director theory make me want to slap them.

      It’s kind of amazing to me that no one ever thinks to consult the guy that actually wrote the fucking thing.

      1. Most of the French critics who advocated for auteur theory retracted it at least somewhat after they’d become directors themselves and discovered “wow, producers and studios and scripts actually do make a difference to our vision.”

        Another good example beyond the ones you mention is The Stepford Wives. The Levin novel and the first movie are clearly about the concept that some men would sooner have a big-breasted sexbot than a flesh-and-blood wife. But most people assume the theme is “living in the suburbs will turn you into a mindless drone.”

  8. Mario Ribeiro

    What about all those obviously racist or sexist scenes out there that were made by all those well-meaning folks? Because artists spend a lot of time defending their innocence, and yet it’s still there. Take Goldfinger, for instance, cause we all saw it. Obviously the creators intended the scene between Bond and Pussy to be just a charming mating dance, socially acceptable for its time, but is anyone really wrong in calling it rape?

    People see whatever the hell makes sense to them. Your reading of a movie (or comic or book or song) is affected by everything else you consumed, heard or thought, it’s affected by your age or your current relationship status, it’s affected by your parents’ health. And it’s not even just about art, all communication is flawed. I may think I’m making sense but you may read this, roll your eyes and think: “what an idiot!” and you’ll have a point.

    1. What about all those obviously racist or sexist scenes out there that were made by all those well-meaning folks? Because artists spend a lot of time defending their innocence, and yet it’s still there.

      Well? What about them?

      Speaking of missing the point, the point of what I wrote is that authorial intent ought to count for something. Your Goldfinger example in no way negates that idea. I’m sure that Ian Fleming did not intend for people to think that James Bond was a rapist when he had Bond think about how scoring with Vesper Lynd would have “the tang of rape.” I’m sure he didn’t mean to be racist when he had Bond say that he thought Koreans were “little better than apes.” And so on. I am very aware of how badly those stories have aged; in fact, I wrote about that here, a while back. I’m not suggesting we ignore all that. But intent should count, and so should cultural context.

      The reason the Fleming Bond gets a pass and the Punisher doesn’t is because Gerry Conway never meant for the Punisher to be a hero, let alone a role model. Nor did any of the folks that came after, I think; not even Steven Grant or Mike Baron, though their takes are kind of on the bubble. But certainly, working police officers should not be idolizing Frank Castle or making him a mascot. And the reason should be obvious, but I appreciated Matthew Rosenberg making it EXTRA-obvious.

      If your idea is that people are going to misinterpret things no matter what, well, okay, but I think that makes it MORE important to be clear about what you’re getting at, not less. You try to do it without being preachy and blunt, making sure it’s still a good story, naturally; which is where the craft comes into it.

      1. Mario Ribeiro

        I actually appreciate what Rosenberg did too. And it was a good scene (I didn’t read the issue).

        The idea is not so much that people misinterpret things no matter what, but more of a question of “is there such a thing as a wrong interpretation?” And yeah, sure, sometimes people don’t get an important detail here or there, but that’s actually what I find fascinating: how some bits will resonate so much with some people and how they won’t with others, and how the focus you put on different parts will end up defining a text to you. That’s the base of every discussion about art, you say: “look, the director did this” and the other person says: “so what?” But really, I’m not here to fight, we disagree, that’s fine, no problem, we agree on quite a few things (believe me, I read you), that’s cool enough. And even if we didn’t agree on anything, that would be fine too!

  9. Ecron Muss

    Thanks to this post and discussion I went back and rewatched a character I grew up with via Til Death Us Do Part, the 1960s UK TV series that was the inspiration for All in the Family.

    Warren Mitchell’s portrayal of Alf Garnett is hilarious, because we all know someone like him, or he represents a facet of ourselves that’s not good to admit.

    He is, however, clearly not a role model.

    Did you ever get that show in the USA?

    1. Did you ever get that show in the USA?

      Honestly, I’d forgotten that was the actual genesis of it. We did not get it over here, at least not in my neck of the woods– not even on PBS. But I always kind of wondered about it. Of course, with the internet, I imagine I could turn it up one of these days if I’m not distracted by some other shiny object.

  10. Ecron Muss

    So I watched a couple of episodes of a sequel to the ‘Til Death Us Do Part series made a decade later, called In Sickness and in Health. Alf Garnett’s rantings are so uninformed as to transcend offensiveness and go straight to ridiculous. And the characters representing racial and other stereotypes give as good as they get. Ultimately, Alf looks like a nitwit.

    HOWEVER – this is my childhood memory of working-class chatter, this is how people talk when they’re without ways and means of genuine education and information. It’s both relatable and horrifying, and Garnett is a brilliantly drawn (and very funny, in small doses) character.

    In the mid-1970s there was another UK TV comedy called Love Thy Neighbour (sic), about a racist working class white man, his spouse and what happens when a young, sexy black couple move next door. Unlike ‘Til Death Us Do Part’s *kinda* nuanced satire and slice-of-life edge-of-painfulness, this show is straight farce. The names the male characters call each other are so over the top that all the kids at school adopted the catchphrases immediately. I can’t remember if this show, as lowbrow as it got, defanged the words, but it certainly showed racial prejudice as pretty stupid, or at least as the domain of stupid people.

    Did the foregrounding of these attitudes help the discussion or set things back several years? Nobody ACTUALLY wanted to be Alf Garnett, who was ultimately a very unhappy man. But did the average ‘Til Death Us Do Part viewer have a choice?

  11. Kemlo

    This is a great piece, Greg. I was really enjoying it, then you came to The Punisher and it got more personal. Punisher was my gateway into comics in the early 90’s, a natural transition from action movies (in fact, the first comic I ever bought off the stands – Punisher #49 – was clearly an influence on the Stallone movie CLIFFHANGER). I loved Frank Castle as an action hero, but never thought of him as the same kind of superhero as his Marvel contemporaries. I liked seeing him go undercover, shoot it out with the villains, frequently finding himself in over his head and forced to improvise. I was captivated by his dark side, how he was this hollowed out soldier who came back from a war and instantly had everything that reminded him of his humanity taken away from him, so that the war for him had to continue. I dug Punisher the way I dug John McClane, Martin Riggs, the T-800 and (yeah) Harry Callhan…not the way I dug Spider-Man.

    As years passed and I discovered other comics I love, I started to become embarrassed to admit I’d been such a huge Punisher fan. I haven’t kept up on Punisher books since the Ennis days (which themselves marked a brief return to appreciating the character) and I never talk about him with fellow comic fans because of the inevitable accusations that I must be a right-wing guns-right freak to enjoy a character like Frank Castle. It certainly didn’t help that many of the best Punisher stories were written by Chuck Dixon, dismissed by many as just that kind of conservative crank. This situation in St. Louis (which I’m just hearing about for the first time from you) is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been terrified of being grouped in with.

    Busiek’s Twitter thread had me fist-pumping: it was a huge relief to read his smart, balanced thoughts on the character. Seeing the pages by Rosenberg makes me even happier. The best Punisher stories were always the ones with Daredevil: as you say, when he’s clearly in the moral wrong like the MAGNUM FORCE antagonists and the writers want to make it clear that Castle has gone far over the line that real heroes straddle but never cross. Not a role model, but a man who has programmed himself to destroy. It’s a scary portrait when you stop to look at it, and taking the time to acknowledge that he’s a ruined individual on a path of pure destruction (fun though it may be to witness) who nobody should idolize.

      1. Whenever people start in on Chuck Dixon, I always have to remind them he wrote Devil’s Advocate, possibly one of the most “softhearted liberal” Batman comics ever. I disagree vehemently with his personal politics but he remains one of the best straight adventure writers out there, and he’s one of the very few modern Bat-writers to hit absolutely the right tone with his Joker stories…. the one he did with the Joker going Hollywood was wonderful and the idea that it sprung from was genius.

  12. Le Messor

    I’ve realised one of the biggest examples of this is The Bible. (Probably all religious books, but that’s supposed to be the best seller, and is the only spiritual book I’ve actually read.)
    A lot of people twist its meaning to fit their own agenda – maybe every reader does, whether deliberately or not.
    The real tragedy is, afterwards, people blame the text for what people get out of it, not the other way around.

    1. HA! When I was writing for a young people’s Christian magazine back in the early 1990s, one of the things that routinely came up in editorial meetings was an exchange much like the following…

      “…but we can’t…”
      “…but Jesus said…”
      Me: “I don’t even know why you’re arguing. There’s a book. What he said’s written down. You can look it up. Everything else, the stuff other people added later? That’s not really our problem, is it? We don’t really need to go round and round like this.”

      They were an extraordinarily talented bunch of folks at that magazine and many have gone on to remarkable success. Sadly, the magazine folded about a decade and a half ago. Too squishy and liberal for the target audience. We did good work there, though, and won a lot of awards. Someday I will do the column about that experience.

      1. Ecron Muss

        That would be really interesting, Greg. I have somewhat similar background in that too.

        One of my ongoing problems there was an editor who would mis-spell key words in my articles so they still made sense, but said something other than what I meant!

        Then there was the time that I wrote an article saying The Pixies were going to be as important and influential as U2 (this at peak U2-as-role-model-for-Christian bands era). That one was banned from publication, to my bemusement.

        Would have like payment for the work I put into that article though, but such is freelance life. Now if I’d picked Nirvana instead of The Pixies…

  13. The great WW II cartoonist Bill Maudlin has a classic story that fits here. After the Army announced that troops occupying Italy should be dressed their best at all times to give a good impression, Maudlin drew his cartoon characters Willie and Joe sitting in a bombed-out ruin and worrying they were dragging down the tone of the joint.
    An army officer told Maudlin he loved it! The cartoon drove home how important it was for men to dress properly at all times and he was going to propose the Army print up hundreds of copies and distribute them to wake the GIs up. Maudlin considered disillusioning the officer about the point of the cartoon, but decided he’d let the man’s superiors take care of that.

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