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Committed: Destroying Recommendations

060910_destroyerRecommendations are tricky. It takes a lot of skill to intuit what a person will enjoy, what certain je ne sais quoi will pique another person’s interest.

Last week, I spent time reading comic books which had come highly recommended as books that I would specifically enjoy. Unfortunately none of them hit the mark, and I think I know why. In retrospect, I can see that the books were probably only recommended because they were by authors whose work I’d previously enjoyed. In many ways, this is doing a disservice to the authors, by assuming that all of their work will be the same, and appeal to the same audience.

We’re not machines, we’re not computers, and we aren’t a combination of clever algorithms. We have instinct, emotion, and intuition which we can use to perceive many more criteria to recommend reading materials to our friends. Doing something as basic as picking books from the same general genre or by the same authors is only the most superficial beginnings of why to recommend a book. It’s not enough though. If that’s all you’re getting from your friends, comic shops, and review sites, then you’re going to get better results from bloody Amazon. (No offense intended towards the good people at amazon, but it is not a person, only a series of programmed responses.) As people, we can go deeper than that when we talk about why we enjoy a book, we can judge it on it’s own merits, in isolation from any supposed genre to let the work stand on it’s own and be evaluated that way.

060910_invincibleLast year, a short 5 issue series – The Destroyer (from Marvel’s MAX imprint) – knocked my socks off. (If you didn’t read it as it came out, now is a perfect time to go and buy the trade paperback.) I loved it, and on the back of that emotion, people strongly recommended that I read Kirkman’s ongoing series Invincible.

In retrospect, now that I’ve read the first 24 issues of Invincible I really can’t see the correlation in recommending one on the back of another. Yes, it’s the same authors, and they both examine the private lives of the superheroes, but those are superficial differences. The books have a radically different mood, theme, and style. The Destroyer is filled with graphic, brutal, fluid, violence, Invincible is much less so. The Destroyer imagines an alternate universe in which the comic itself has history and longevity, so that the story becomes the epilogue to an old man’s adventure-filled career. Invincible is almost the opposite situation, where a new comic with no history is forced to create (and continuously recreate) it’s own history and substance. The art is much lighter and sketchier, overall it’s a younger comic book than The Destroyer. If I hadn’t been comparing them, and expecting something with similarities to The Destroyer, I might have enjoyed Invincible. Instead I kept waiting for things to get going.

060910_destroyer2Invincible was a recommendation I’d been hanging on to for almost a year, over that time I built up all sorts of expectations. I bought the first two trade paperbacks and I built it up in my mind as a sure thing. Since The Destroyer was right up my alley, based on my friend’s advice, I assumed that Invincible would be too. That was the mistake, right there. It wasn’t that it was a bad recommendation, but that I misunderstood the parameters of the information I received. This was an Amazon-style recommendation, not one based on the gut feeling that the book would work for me personally. That’s where it all unfolds for me and I begin to understand why I was so averse to Invincible.

There was actually nothing terribly wrong with it, what was wrong was my own idea of it, and when it didn’t match up to my fantasy, I felt betrayed and disappointed. Not to get too emotional about it all, but this is where comic book recommendations become like personal relationships with people. Over the years, I’ve had to admit that every single time I’ve been overly upset with another person, it comes down to the fact that I expected and desired something different from them. Once I look at it like that, it’s hard to be really angry since I have to admit (though I rarely can in the moment of fury) that my anger is mostly at myself, for putting myself in a position where my expectations aren’t being met. It’s like being upset that the sky is blue. That’s the sky, if I want it to be another color, perhaps I should look elsewhere. Similarly, if I want a different reading experience, then I can choose a different book, not be angry at this one for not being what I thought it was.

So here I am, having wasted a good few months salivating over a comic book that didn’t really exist. Invincible is okay, but it isn’t my dream comic book. I wish it were, and I wish I hadn’t had such high expectations of it, but I’m still happy that I got to read it. Maybe in a month or two, when I’ve gotten over that it’s no Destroyer, I can continue reading the series, this time with the understanding of what I’m getting myself in for.

20 Comments

I loved the Destroyer mini series, too. Over the last few months there have been a few articles mentioning it on Comic Book Resources- not many, but I think certainly more than there were at the time of its release.

The Destroyer ROCKED!

Brother Justin Crowe

June 9, 2010 at 11:33 am

Destroyer is good, but Invincible is a whole different breed of story. It does eventually up the violence quotient, but it’s a book well worth staying with. The villains, particularly, make it worth the read: Angstrom Levy and Conquest are, in the parlance of our time, “baller”.

I don’t know when or how it happened, but at some point in my life I was able to kill my own expectations. Not completely of course, but enough so, that I am able to judge a work on it’s merits and not whether it lived up to my expectations. At least more than you just described yourself as being able to do so, Sonia.
At first, I wasn’t really able comprehend WHY people formed these expectations, but slowly I learned that I’m very much the exception to the rule and whether it’s something they have no control over or just something they refuse to control, most people will always build these expectations for themselves. I used to see it a lot when I would visit the forums frequently; “What do you think will happen in XXXX story-line?” And then the speculation begins and then people start to believe in these threads and I see comments like “Oh, I’ll be SO pissed if that doesn’t happen!” or “They’re gonna do WHAT?! How can they do that?!” All of this months before the story actually comes out. It’s absurd.

Lord Paradise

June 9, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Pretty much all of my favorite media including comics have reached me by way of recommendations. Usually it helps when the person recommending a work is adamant enough to loan it to you so you go from indifferent to “I want this for myself” rather than indifferent to “I wasted money on this?”

Lord Paradise

June 9, 2010 at 12:45 pm

@Joe H: This seems to be why for everything that begins there are a group of people who love it right up to the ending. This is ESPECIALLY common with TV shows; vast numbers of people hated the endings of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and the Sopranos (all of which were excellent) for being “cop-outs;” in all of these cases the endings had clearly been planned out at well in advance (well, not entirely in Galactica’s case, but the general gist of the elements that people complained about were based on seeds planted in the very first episode), but what these people mean is that it is a “cop-out” from whatever absurdly specific circumstance the viewers WANTED, be it a completely scientific explanation for a show mired in mysticism, or a satisfying “ending” to something that by nature never ends. Even the Wire, the most consistently incredible thing on television, was accused of jumping the shark in the last season.

I also see this in movies; my friend claimed that when he finished watching No Country for Old Men in theaters, the audience that had previously been rapt at attention were actually booing the screen because of the ending, which I thought was perfect. If this is less common in comics, that’s probably because of the nature of Big 2 superhero comics, which end without actually ending.

Anyway, more to the point, obviously it’s a good idea to check out other things by an author whose work you’ve enjoyed in the past, but that is indeed a lazy criteria on which to do a recommendation. As someone who’s never really gotten into Kirkman, I might have to check out the Destroyer, though.

I do try to keep a zen-like approach to fiction: empty my mind of any pre-conceptions before I start to read or watch anything new. I also think of it as an empathetic approach, trying to get inside the world the author created, instead of seeing if his world matches with my own set of expectations. At least that is what I try. I still have my prediletions, though, who doesn’t? But hopefully not the narrow ones I sometimes see among my friends or in the Internet.

I also found that, if I’ve enjoyed a writer, I usually will enjoy everything that that writer will create. There is something about each writer’s style, pacing, story constrution, and approach to characterization that transcends subject matter. I have found that most people are not like me. The multitude of fans of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE are no more likely than anyone else to enjoy George’s WILD CARDS with its gritty, modern-day superhumans. I enjoy both works, ’cause I just dig Martin.

There have been exceptions. I think Bendis is one of the few writers that I’m capable of absolutely loving some of his stuff (POWERS, DAREDEVIL, ALIAS) and feel lukewarm and occasionaly even loathe some of his other work (AVENGERS). I don’t count crossovers. Crossovers have so many things going against them, that pretty much everybody sucks when writing crossovers, even people I worship in other works.

I typically don’t listen to the recommendations of people/program’s when they’re basing it off of what I’ve enjoyed previously. I really prefer hearing about series other people have enjoyed, and why they enjoyed them. If they describe it in a fashion that really piques my interest, I’ll make sure to check it out. Best example of this, is this guy whose booth I’ve made it a habit of stopping by at the past 2 Wondercons. Always enjoy what he recommends…well, minus Locke & Key. He laid that one on me, but having read it before, I had to disagree. Love the writing, but the art made it difficult for me to really dig.

That’s a great explanation of expectations, Lord Paradise. Not much more I can add to that specifically, but one thing I did think of that’s related: way too often I see or hear “it defied my expectations, but in a GOOD way” in reviews. Well, I don’t mean I see that often, but when expectations are mentioned in a review, a “but” is usually mentioned and usually in a way that implies meeting those expectations is a good thing. Also, staying in line with that the second most common I see is “it met my expectations, but…” again implying that usually meeting the expectations is required for greatness. The ironic thing is these quotes point towards how people shouldn’t trust their expectations, despite phrasing them as if they’re the litmus test for quality.
Conversely, people want to be surprised. That seems to be another litmus test for quality, which works against the test of expectations. So really, people want to be proven right, but in a way that surprises them; not an easy feat.
Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone %100 of the time, but I think it does apply to most people most of the time. Probably even to people that probably know better.

p.s.– Thank you for using one of m favorite terms! I do love your verbal je ne sais quoi !

When I was in my early teens in the late 80s, my cousin (R.I.P, Tony) would recommend I check out books like The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Watchmen, The Sandman and Hellblazer because he thought I would enjoy them. Naturally as a kid with an allowance, and some really brutal teachers that really piled on the homework assignments, I dismissed his recommendations. I just preferred to stick with books I had tried and liked. 20 years later I regret not listening to his recommendations because I definitely WOULD have enjoyed those books even back then. I was a weird kid reading Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker and lots of hard Sci-Fi novels and I would’ve ate all those Vertigo comics up if I gave them a chance (back then.)

Now I’ve read and am reading all that stuff and more. I’m much more open-minded these days and really appreciate when companies (Vertigo!) release first issues for a dollar.

Would also like mention how much I’ve enjoyed your articles, Sonia! Thanks!

The thing about Amazon is they also have real human beings giving paragraphs of review information about these books. I assume you’re refering to the bottom of the home page, where it has maybe 40 recomendations for you. But you can click on each one, and then see what the human beings thought of it. Of course, this isn’t foolproof either, because there have been books, movies and tv shows that i loathed, and there were favorable reveiws for that product. But as one of the above posters mentioned, it does give you the REASONS why it is loved by others and not just “Kirkman wrote it, you’ll love it.”

As for the topic at hand, i have not read the Destroyer, but i have read the first 4 omnibus collections of Invincible, and i think i enjoyed it when i was younger because of the established world of heroes and villains (especially villains, as someone else mentioned) but i can’t say i enjoyed it as much a few months ago. I think it was because of the violence, rather than not enough of it.

I think the problem with most recommendations is that they’re either made without enough forethought or information, or the person recommending the comic simply is telling you what they like, rather than considering what it is that you might like.

It’s such common practice that I was shocked when a friend introduced me to a couple of bands, only for me to find out afterwards that he couldn’t stand them. He simply said, “they’re not bad at all, I just don’t like them, but knew that you probably would.” We need more people like that giving out recommendations.

bloodandmetal

June 10, 2010 at 5:46 am

yeah i made the same mistake whit invincible..but mine was about the art. i had seen the art since it came out and i dug it . it took me a couple of years to finally give a shot so i picked up a paperback and i was disappointed. it keept on goin on about the kid and his girl friend and there relationship blah blah…like i said disappointing..but then i was thinking maybe i just picked up a bad time to check it out..im still trying to figure out if i should give a try..i HATE the feeling of i spent money on crap..i hate to feel like i got riped off ..but thats for another time..and also why dont comic book shops have good return policy..

I agree that when giving recommendations, one should take into account the personality of the person you’re recommending the book too. You can also just give the reasons you’re recommending the book. For example, I think the book is not really up the alley of my friend, but I loved it. I can say, “I know this isn’t your kind of book, but it is incredibly made, it is one of my favorites, maybe you should check it out.” I also do recommendations of things I don’t love, but think a friend would love, for example, “The Filth” by Grant Morrison.

"O" the Humanatee!

June 10, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Sonia: Does it make a difference whether a friend says, more modestly, “I know you liked Destroyer, so I think you might like Invincible too – it’s also by Kirkman” or instead boldly asserts, “If you liked Kirkman’s Destroyer, you’ll LOVE his Invincible!”?

Or do you just form wrong expectations about your friends’ expectations of what you’ll enjoy? ;^)

On the general subject of forming expectations about a specific work, as discussed by Lord Paradise and Joe H: There are forms of art, especially music, where setting up and then violating expectations is extremely important. If everything in your music obeys pure tonal harmony, without ever introducing a discordant note (to be resolved later, perhaps), it will likely be dull. Likewise, if the rhythm constantly falls on the down beat, there will be no syncopation to liven things up. (Apologies if I’m not using the absolutely correct terminology here.)

It’s less clear how much the same is true of art that occurs on a longer time scale and may have far more possible permutations, like serial fiction.

P.S. to Rene: I’ve been trying to learn to adopt the “empathetic approach” to reading (and listening to music, etc. – and for that matter listening to people), and I think it’s very worthwhile. But it’s damn hard to silence the chatter in my mind.

Joe – being fair, I’m pretty sure that reviewers saying “It exceeded my expectations” or “It met my expectations, but…” are saying objective quality-wise, not story-wise.

Regarding ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Battlestar’, and ‘Lost’, the problem with the endings wasn’t exactly expectations. It was the things they chose to resolve. People want resolution. The endings weren’t “cop-out”s because of what they *did* resolve, they were “cop-outs” because of all the important things that weren’t resolved. [I'm speaking for people whose opinions I don't share, though, so take it as you wish.]

Specific to ‘The Wire’, though, I’ll never understand why people think that a police colonel ordering his officers not to police for drug violations in order to do his job better is more realistic than a police officer faking a serial killer in order to do his job better.

“and also why dont comic book shops have good return policy..”

Think of all the time they have to spend examing a possible back-issue buy. Now imagine they do that in order to be able to turn around and sell the book for cover price. And almost certainly after the peak time to sell a new comic (the first day).

And the basic problem with recommendations is that people don’t like things for the same reasons. For instance, when I was younger, I loved Alan Moore’s genre deconstruction. I also loved the Coen brothers’s genre deconstruction. As I got older, I came to appreciate other things about each one of them. But I still made the mistake of telling a friend who loves Alan Moore to watch ‘Miller’s Crossing’, because that’s their big plotty genre deconstruction. He didn’t like it because, it turns out, that’s not the thing about Alan Moore that he likes.

I’ve had friends tell me “Oh, you’ll love this band, they sound like Weezer-when-they-were-good.” And I listen, and musically, sure, but the lyrics are shit. If you sing in a specific voice, everybody will compare you to Dylan. But, unless you’re singing poetry, I probably won’t like you as much as Dylan.

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