Can't Escape

By | Monday, February 25, 2008 Leave a Comment
I was out of town this weekend, focusing pretty intently on my hostess and very much not on the rest of the world. No internet access, no newspapers, no radio and the TV (when it was on at all) was primarily just used as a light source and mostly kept mute. Furthermore, the one book I brought in case I had time to kill was left in my bag all weekend, as I ended up with a relatively full schedule.

The basic gist here is that I was completely isolated from my main hobby for a few days. Given my passion for the medium of comic books, this was highly unusual. Even on the handful of occasions when I was unable to buy new comics, I was still able to stay somewhat in the feel of things by reading news accounts or message boards or whathaveyou.

I only say this as a preface to really stress my point here. Me without comics... it just doesn't happen.

With that firmly in mind then, picture me and my lady-friend walking back from dinner. It's cold out so she's in a parka and I'm sporting my long, not-quite-a-Doctor-Who scarf, blowing a bit in the wind. We're walking along the sidewalk, chatting about whatever. We've already passed the Barnes & Noble and are almost back to my hotel. As we come up on the next street corner, I stop short in front of a newspaper stand showcasing the day's Chicago Tribune. Taking up a solid quarter of the above-of-the-fold space on the front page is a picture of Dick Tracy with the headline: "Dick Tracy museum in Woodstock to close." (I tracked down the full article here this afternoon.)

What struck me wasn't so much the news in and of itself; I knew the museum wasn't on the best financial footing any more. What struck me was how the article popped into my line of sight. I was certainly not focusing on comics at the time, nor was I actively trying to look for the latest headlines. As I said, I was pretty well-focused on my hostess. But there it was, as obvious as if Dick Tracy's trademark yellow coat was shining against a black background.

"So what?" you ask.

The "so what" here is the notion of selective attention. It's not dissimilar to the notion of hearing your name above the din of a crowded cocktail party. Your brain is attuned to key thoughts more than others, and subconsciously selects external cues that you have already labeled, consciously or unconsciously, as important. Your name, for example. Generally speaking, your ears will "perk up" when someone says your name even if you weren't specifically listening to or focusing on that conversation. Visually, it works much the same way. You can scan through a large body of text fairly quickly and still pick out instances of your name without much direct concentration.

What strikes me, then, is that comic books are that significant to me that I can have my attention diverted like that. I was quite focused on my lady-friend and the small image of a comic strip character seen out of my peripheral vision in the dark was enough to stop me in my tracks. I think that's a very telling indicator of my psyche. I've known for years that comics are a significant part of my life, but that they're sitting top-of-mind in my subconscious is somewhat surprising.

Of course, the real key here, though, is what I did consciously at that point. While my attention was pulled away in a rather automatic fashion, I was able to refocus my mind towards my company rather quickly. The problem one runs into, it seems to me, is when you're NOT able to decide that comics are less important than some social interactions.

And I suppose that's what ultimately separates a "normal" comic book fan from your stereotypical fanboy. The fanboy's attention, once distracted by a comic, cannot or will not recenter on the more important/significant matters at hand. Comics have become a little too all-consuming, or a little too significant in that person's life. Don't get me wrong, I love comics but at the end of the day, they're just stories. And stories are no replacement for real living. You can't read about Life -- you need to experience it. And you're not going to be able to do that with your nose buried in a comic book.
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