Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Joker, World's Greatest Art Critic

I listen to a lot of comics podcasts--here's a paradox you're always hearing on there, from the savvy comics-reading grown-ups.

Them: "So tired of the same shit on a different day. Why isn't anything new? We want something new! So excited when someone's trying something new!"

Also them: "So I picked up so-and-so's new (Spider-Man/Superman/X-Men/None of those) and, come onnn, who wants to read this? I mean, on page one (something that seems maybe weird but benign to me happens). Lol. They don't have a handle on the character at all!"


Do people really want the same thing over and over? Or do they want something different?

Whenever something is popular we always see one of these two completely opposite explanations: people like it because its the same old shit and people are idiots, or people like it because its showing them something they never saw before and they want something new.


While the question goes far beyond comics, I found the most cogent answer in an issue of Batman.

Writer James Tynion IV has given The Joker (who is still, 70 years on, fighting Batman) a daringly oblique scheme to fuck with the Caped Crusader's head:

He will make the citizens of Gotham City all watch The Mark of Zorro, the movie the Wayne family was on its way out of when Bruce Wayne's parents were killed.

Afterwards he makes them into nano-zombies or something I can't remember but Jorge Jimenez drew it so it's all lovely and I don't care that I can't remember but at one point halfway through some hapless NPC says something about the movie and the Joker answers:

And that's it right there.

He's totally right--that's what all this is about isn't it?

You read something, see something, play something as a child and it's compelling. And it keeps being compelling, even when you grow older and think you can see right through it and don't want it to be compelling.

And when you go back to it you want to strip back a layer and learn why it was compelling--and you want to be able to experience it all over again without it feeling repetitive because that peeling back and learning makes it new. It ceases to be nostalgic at that point.

This is what all the D&D bloggers and RPG bloggers and alternate-take RPGs were always doing: trying to do it all over again, but this time with a layer peeled back, to keep the grown-ups interested.

Consider each variation on the theme of Gary and Dave's game you see in the indie RPG sphere as that: as trying to do it again with a layer stripped away, with something previously immanent now made explicit, with some part of the subtext made text.

These games are compelling: you shouldn't be playing them, it's hard to get people together to play, every classic game is dripping with countermodern impulses, WOTC has an unbreakable monopoly on the game stores, the game community itself is shit, the games take far too much time and yet and yet...

People are compelled, all in different ways.

Next time you see someone propose yet another hip new spin on the what-RPGs-could-be wheel, ask yourself what part were they trying to pull back and look beneath?


Simon Tsevelev said...

Yeah, you're right. The Joker is right. That's how I've felt about it for a long, long time. That's why I rewatch stuff like CASABLANCA, that's what I want to get (and almost never get) in comic books.
I guess the only thing left to do is to peel that layer back myself and see what I can put in there.

Becami Cusack said...

I found this fascinating.
The interview with those podcasters that you did - when you talked about how much you consider your RPG work "normal d&d" has really stuck with me.
The idea that you can describe a shower as a box you stand in and turn a machine in that makes rain, and just the fact that elves, religion, magic all exist on RPG spaces, and discussing how a lot of what you have written re-examines things to illustrate how weird they already were. Eg medusas, golems, elementals, demons...

It is a solid point - this assertion of nostalgia being seized upon and attempted understanding of what caused it being a big driving force of the OSR.

Maybe that is why me and my brother were very nostalgic about stuff that happened to us relatively recently at a very early age - we were examining and trying to figure out what we were interested in very early on.
Lots to think about, thanks for the post!

Jason McCulley said...

Very clever. I’ll have to think about this for a while.

Zak Sabbath said...


Sorry, no anonymous comments allowed.

Logan Smith said...


Vaxier said...

The current X-Title lineup fucking SLAPS, *and* does something new.

Zak Sabbath said...


Well all good things do something new.

But my post wasn't about what's good it's about what people want.

Zak Sabbath said...


Sorry, no anonymous comments allowed.

Jim R said...

So the wife and I are rewatching Star Trek Voyager, which is not the worst Star Trek out there but is definitely overall in the bottom quartile of Star Trek a lot of the time. Like it's not Enterprise, but it's got some dire-ass bullshit episodes and bad calls and just sloppy, lazy, or dumb choices.

I would not be able to pay attention to this show without my wife there and the discussion happening as we watch it, but a lot of our conversation about it is about... other Star Trek shows, or themes and narrative choices, and I think a big part of this discussion is the interpretive communities we're part of and how our experiences are embedded in those.

I think what your genericized Podcast Guys dialogue is getting at is that we want both, but most of all we want, a lot of the time, to have a shared experience with our interpretive community (in my case, pretty much just my wife and the little group of freaks and geeks around us who grew up with Star Trek-loving parents, and who have kind of a detached and mediated relationship to it vs. slavering fandom).

And for yon Podcast Guys, the interpretive community might even take primacy over the actual fiction (in the sense that what they're really excited about is not 'I'm gonna take this home and read it and it's gonna be great' but 'I can't wait to discuss this with the guys on the podcast!') as a source of enjoyment, which is not uncommon in fannish communities (the applicability to both your lists of internet friends and enemies is not hard to figure out).

So I think co-participation of the positive or negative type plays a big part in how and why some people love or hate things, and that skews the whole discourse a little bit. It explains why some people continue to engage with things they don't like, and why some people feel a tension between what they actually like, and what they find themselves watching or reading in order to participate in the interpretive community around it.

Mordenkainendogpissbeer said...

There are games that are really different and not trying to recreate what Gary Played out there.

I suggest
Crimson Cutlass by Better Games

Hell just go all in and get Good Guys Finish Last. That will give you a new perspective on gaming. There is a nice cleaned up somewhat sensible version from Pinto on Drivethru now. Hope someday they can get it printed.

Fredrick Rourk said...

How about run a line of comics and have to be the super hero at the same time

Good Guys Finish Last there is a nice cleaned up version by Jim Pinto on DriveTrhu

Zak Sabbath said...

@ Mordenkainendogpissbeer

games " not trying to recreate what Gary Played " are not anything to do with this post.

I didn't mention anything anywhere abouat games "trying to recreate what Gary Played ".

I need to know if you understand this.

Please respond.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Fredrick Rourk