Monday, January 9, 2006

A comics thought

An awful lot of people have spent an awful lot of time over the past several years talking about how different American mainstream comics are from the way they used to be, say, twenty or thirty or forty years ago. This is often done with a stated or implied preference for older comics (more rarely, the preference is for the new stuff). But without making a value judgment, it seems to me that one significant difference between current and past Marvel and DC comics has not been mentioned.

That is this: in the Silver Age, and through to probably the eighties, superhero comics were seen as belonging to or at least coming out of a certain kind of subculture. Specifically, the science fiction/fantasy/horror subculture. These comics were heirs to the old pulps, and they knew it. An extended run on Doctor Strange could be an homage to H.P Lovecraft, complete with some issues scripted by pulp and comics veteran Gardner Fox. Comics writers were steeped in the lore of the pulps, and of their fandom — look through any comic written by Roy Thomas to see what I mean. It was as though a lot of the writers accepted that they had a large juvenile audience, but also a strong (if secondary) audience of sf fans. They were probably right.

On the other hand, starting with the rise of Image and the artists involved, comics began to re-imagine their audience and their relation to the culture at large. Rob Liefeld appeared in a jeans commercial. Todd MacFarlane bought into a hockey team. These creators had no interest in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy fiction. They marketed their comics in Hollywood, looking to score movie deals, TV deals, animation deals. By definition, comics were no longer looking to the subculture. They were developing a more mainstream orientation.

Nowadays, Marvel and DC still hire fantasy, sf and horror writers when they can: Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Michael Moorcock. But they're not advertised as fantasy writers; they're advertised as prose writers. Real writers. Like mystery writers, or the TV writers. The sf subculture no longer seems to register. There are good reasons for that.

When DC comics tried to launch an imprint for sf comics to sit alongside their Vertigo imprint of (then) dark fantasy and (now) crime and horror comics, the line didn't last. Science fiction readers were not turning to comics. Personally, I used to shop at a sadly now nonexistent store which stocked both sf/fantasy novels and a wide range of comics. I bought both. Most other customers stuck to one or the other. There was no easy crossover of readership.

With all the discussion of the audiences comics have lost — and there's no doubt that mainstream sales are down considerably from the pre-Image era — it may be that the most significant is the sf/fantasy readership. Lacking them, superhero comics lack something of their identity. Who are you writing for when you write a superhero book? Superhero fans, yes. But there aren't that many of them. Who else? The logical answer would be: people who have a similar interest in big ideas, in adventure stories, in non-realist stories. People who like to see real characters, but in very unreal situations.

Without that audience, not only does the superhero market shrink, but it becomes more homogenous. Cosmic heroes can't attract a readership. Neither can fantasy-oriented characters, even old standbys like Doctor Strange or Thor.

On the other hand, this trend arguably began at the height of the collector-driven craze of the early 90s. Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, in The Comics Book Heroes, note that at this time DC in particular seemed to be trying to make all of their characters fit the same basic template: lone angry white male in his early twenties. It didn't really work. But in retrospect, it might represent the first time the comics market began to turn its back squarely on one traditional part of its reader base (and thus of its creator base) and look to the wider world beyond.

For better or worse. The question remains: is there a mainstream readership for traditional, or even reinvented, superhero comics? If there is, they've been very slow at comign forward.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

The irreducible experience

The same day that I started seriously reading Plato, I found myself involved in a not-so-purely-philosophical dilemma. I don't want to go into detail about that, but I do want to say this: I understand now both why the rationalistic approach of Greek philosophy was so valuable, and also why so many people find it unsatisfactory.

There may be some people for whom instinct is a sure guide to behaviour. But for everyone else, what happens when your instincts freeze up? When they're unclear? What happens if your instincts are based on some defect in your own nature? If your instincts are telling you to take the easier path, are they giving you good advice, or are you just looking for an excuse? Most importantly, and, in my experience, most commonly: what happens if two instincts are at war? What do you do when faced with the paralysis of emotion and intellect which results?

Rationality is great tool in these situations. It makes things clearer. It can guide you to what is right. Then it's just a question of doing it. Rationality is, in the end, calming.

On the other hand, consider this premise from Protagoras: "[E]verything has one opposite and not more than one[.]" Now, it's not clear that this had actually been proven during the preceding dialogue. Nevertheless, it's a dictum that Plato uses as essentially axiomatic: to everything its opposite, and only one opposite. It's a binary approach to the world. A backslash approach. On/off. Good/evil. Pain/pleasure.

Real life doesn't operate in this way. It can't be reduced to this simple a level. The axiom is false; not an absolute falsehood, but a reductio ad absurdem of lived experience.

So the positive virtue of rationality, its ability to clear away clutter and present incisive solutions to muddled problems, becomes a vice when taken too far: the tendency to reduce reality to simple and unreal abstractions. One might conclude that rationality's main characteristic, then, is its tendency to concentrate, to distill all things to their essence — even if the essence does not exist, or if the essence resides in precisely what is inessential.

That ability to reduce by means of the intellect is something tremendously useful. Also tremendously dangerous; people go to war over abstractions. But they also go to war over their instincts. Reason's ability to clarify represents a tremendous leap forward for human cognition; even, perhaps, a movement to something more purely human. That is, if what humans do better than any other known animal is think, then the means of focussing thought enhance one's ability to be characteristically human. But that's a great "if"; what about the ability to act in accord with a moral nature? Or to create art? In both cases the intellect is involved, but in both cases something else, some other faculty, appears involved as well. Reason, in other words, has its limits.

There have been times in history — many of them — where more rationality would have considerably helped the world. But it is possible that too much rationality may be as dangerous as too little.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

X and Y

It's often assumed that the best stories are those which focus the most closely on their theme and/or plot. All things not central should be edited out. Every element must tend toward a single end. Even style ought to be disciplined, ought to be pruned of all nonesential verbiage.

Yet any number of writers have produced great work which defies the above guidelines. Melville, Tolkien, John Cowper Powys, Iain Sinclair — these writers produce fascinating, powerful work which refuses the centripetal urge. What I mean by that is that in Moby Dick or The Lord of the Rings there are any number of long passages, about whaling or the history of Middle-Earth, which seem to have nothing to do with what the book is ostensibly about. These are novels which resist the urge to cohere; which do not have a single centre of gravity giving unity to their text. A centre of gravity, in this context, might be a story or a conscious theme; it is some idea which is developed, and which gives obvious form to a novel.

Yet even books which resist the pressure of gravity still very clearly have a form, have some kind of coherency and structure which gives them a unity. The Lord of the Rings would not be what it is if the long passages on landscape or history were excised. Moby Dick would not be what it is without the long passages on whaling. A Glastonbury Romance would not be what it is without the shifting, multiple points-of-view which extend even to the cosmic forces of the universe. There is not necessarily a conscious attempt to pull all this material into a shape. It's just there. Part of the world the writer presents. Something the writer felt compelled to include, something which works in defiance of accepted critical strictures.

In fact, if you look at the underlying principle of said accepted critical strictures, you quickly realise that they don't make much sense. There was a Peanuts cartoon once where Linus bugged Lucy to tell him a story until she finally gave in and snapped out: "A man was born. He lived and died. The end." And that was the story. And the truth is this: If you really wanted to cut down a story as far as possible, there's really not much more to say.

So, let's consider the possibility that while it is true that what gives a story its shape is what you leave out, it is also true that what gives a story its meaning, its importance, is what you leave in.

Think of it like a graph. The horizontal axis is a measure of plot; the drive forward, the development of story or theme. The vertical axis, on the other hand, is a measure of the material the author brings to the story. The didactic material. The connections, the atmosphere, all the things which aren't logically relevant but which are artistically necessary.

Traditional critical thought, then, would suggest that a straight line across the horizontal axis is the ideal shape for a story. But I suspect that stories of that kind are at some level unsatisfying. Certainly a lot of cleverness in the construction of, say, a mainstream film story goes into disgusing necessary elements, making them seem like interesting side bits until the story reaches the point where they stand revealed as vital to the forward momentum of the plot. The result is something smooth, clever, and fundamentally empty. There's a lack of healthy eccentricity.

So if not a straight line, what? A straight line up the vertical axis would be at least as unsatisfying, in a narrative sense. Perhaps that's the line of nonfiction; of an encyclopedia. Narrative entirely forsaken, information finding its own order.

Likely the old image of a narrative arc is most apt. A story begins, slowly moves forward, accreting images and facts and background, then at a certain point begins to really rush toward its climax, with less extraneous material being thrown in. But the amount of vertical detail given earlier lends the arc a steepness, a velocity, as it races toward the finish.

Then again, perhaps some stories don't have a single line, a single equation, to them at all. Perhaps just as some cosmological theories suggest that the universe is closed, finite, and some sugest it's open and endless, so some stories are closed (horizonally-oriented) and some are open (vertically-oriented).

The point is mainly that there are a lot of different ways to think about stories and story structure; sometimes conventional wisdom is best ignored, opening oneself up to a potentially useful point of view.