Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Scott McCloud makes the point in his book Understanding Comics that characters drawn without detail are more likely to be identified with by the reader. If a comic book writer wants a character to feel like “the other,” he or she draws the character in greater detail — with more facial features, more specific opinions and personality traits, etc. The logic is that when a character is only vaguely defined, the reader will fill in the blanks with whatever detail they wish — the reader can sort of pretend the star character stands for himself or herself. A reader can’t do this if there are no blanks to fill.

This seems accurate. While I might identify with a very detailed character or person, it’s because I feel the traits shown match me in some way. My friends and people in the same social situation as me might also identify with such a character, which might make it appear as if that character is widely popular, but the chances that the character would resonate with a large percentage of the general population would be, I think, low.

Think of Ralph Nader as an example of something that seemed incredibly popular in my universe: Most of my friends were planning on voting for him in 2000 — we identified with him as a fiesty progressive intellectual, a sort of aescetic monk who would truly have the best interests of the common people in his mind at all times. But then Nader gets about 3% of the national vote and about the same percentage of the Texas vote — I don’t remember exactly, but it was of that degree. Not much. He didn’t resonate with most people. The traits he presented were not traits that most people identified with and, thus, trusted.

To take a left turn, now: It’s the Trent Lott debacle that makes me think of this. To be a major politician, you have to have a major of people identify with you well enough to vote for you over the other guy. I think “identify” is a more accurate word than “agree” — I honestly don’t think that most Americans, myself included, know enough about the details of government to assess whether a politician is doing a good job. I believe we vote for candidates because we trust them, a trust built upon our Spidey-sense about the candidate mixed with a small amount of news we might absorb about their good or bad deeds.

And so detail is the enemy of the politician. (Yes, huge oversimplification, but I’m trying to make a point.) If you’re running for Senate, you want to appear trustworthy but somewhat undefined. Think of all of the campaign ads you saw a couple of months ago. How many brought up detailed policy discussions and how many tried to persuade you with sunny images of candidates shaking the hands of hard working Americans (or, alternately, shadowy, grainy videos with voice-overs saying, “What [Candidate X] doesn’t want you to know…”). Detail hinders identification, and since you choose who to vote for based mostly on identification, politicians are hesitant to give you much detail.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule such as the late Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura.

So Trent Lott accidentally lets slip a bit of detail about Strom Thurmond. And now his political life is in jeopardy. He’s certainly not the only guy in the national government who would think such a thing. But he let it out. And now the many Americans who were brought up to believe that segregation has been one of the greater evils in our nation’s past can no longer identify with Lott. So many, in fact, that his career may be trashed.

I think this tendency towards detaillessness exists in any industry built upon public opinion. Politics is one. Politics’ close neighbor Entertainment is another. Quirky politically-charged electroclash band may really make you and your friends pants come to life, but it’s the blurry, cute, seemingly mindless pop stars who will sell millions of albums. And Bowling for Columbine will never make as much money as Maid in Manhattan. There are exceptions, of course, but only exceptions.

So there you go. Some detail about my thoughts.