SUZY SPREADWELL #1 by John Linton Roberson, available at Google Play Books!
I Didn't Write That!
06 February 2009

Meet the New God, Same As the Old God

A great article by Steven Grant on, mostly, Morrison's Final Crisis. Which, due to financial constraints, I haven't seen a full issue of since November, nor its tie-ins, but I have seen a good bulk of pages on Scans Daily. It's a fairly even-handed article, but a specific portion jumped out at me. First, though, allow me to babble a bit. I can, as it's a blog. This won't necessarily be all about Grant's article, but these thoughts came up when reading it.

I have two pet peeves in storytelling, at least in comics--two concepts which I find self-limiting, overrated, and at this point, played out. These are: identification theory--the idea that to properly be engaged by a story, you must have a protagonist the audience can "identify" with, or more often it's phrased that they must "like" them. The wide exception with this is specifically, intentionally genre-based material. It's kind of hard to scare someone in horror, for instance, if they don't somehow associate themselves with the main character. I just don't think it's universally true for all narrative.

I think this rests on some shaky assumptions. One of these is that art is not about showing something new, but reinforcing the assumptions of the audience. I can see why Hollywood would want to do that, but look at their output and see the stale, repetitive entertainment that gets you. And another is connected to that--it forces a template of some form of "good vs. evil" on everything, and what is "good" is what the audience "identifies" with. This is all too deterministic for me.

Another is that everyone is different. To think that you can even come up with a type that would appeal to some hypothetical demographic in the audience is to oversimplify, to be, most likely, wrong, and even if you accept such a cynical view of your audience, suppose you pick the wrong one and end up with a small audience anyway.

I've always taken the view that artists should not consciously try to apply theory to art when making it, but rather simply go with what it seems to want to look like. Theory is something constructed to understand something after the fact. Everyone wants to do as little work as they can, so they try to come up with processes to simplify work. In art, theory is such a process. It's a way to try to determine the final form before ever constructing it. Which is certainly something you want to do in practical types of art, such as architecture.

But in narrative, I'm not sure it's very useful. For my own part, the only real way is to sit your butt in the chair at the table or desk, and do it. Which I don't do as often as I like, because that's the risky and boring part of art--the making. And no amount of theory will get you out of it, and if your art doesn't end up defying your theories, it might not be much good. And anyway, how much fun is it to make then, anyway? But the truth is the only way to see your final form is to work. Theories, sometimes, are a way of avoiding work, of thinking you're getting something done when you're not. Marcel Duchamp was eaten alive by this.

The other is mythology, and the idea that comics is best when it's all archetypes and that these are our modern-day myths. And also, the tropes of the "Campbell Structure," which Grant points out was not only long ago made a Hollywood cliche by George Lucas, but wasn't even intended by Campbell to be applied consciously to the making of stories. The form it usually takes in comics, however, is the justification of endless, static trademarks and their repetitive histories and recycling, as in the case of superheroes. Even if myths, though, are only stories--which Steven Grant points out is a misunderstanding--they began as something new. If one makes one's own stories without trying to be conscious of all this, or constantly making reference to past culture(on purpose anyway, as if referencing were storytelling, which, Geoff Johns, much as I'm liking Legion of Three Worlds, it isn't), stuff like that will come out but organically, rather than a stiff, fake, "this is myth" way.

Though I loved all that post-mod stuff once, I think at this point the bongwater's been recycled too many times. Perhaps that's why we all feel so tired. It's as though pop culture has gone through a phase of cannibalism, and then wasting away. I'm as guilty as anyone, of course.

Anyway, part of what Steven Grant had to say about myth, but you really should also read the rest of the column:

...superheroes are not good vehicles for addressing our times. By their nature they stand outside our reality, and holding them up as an evolutionary goal is a basic (again, very '30s-'50s science fiction) misunderstanding of evolution, which has no "goals." Comics stories aren't the joint creation of our civilization but the products of individual minds, even when those minds work in consort (and just as frequently at cross-purposes) in a "shared universe," a rather pathetic, puny shadow of mythology. They're just stories, they don't function as myths function. It's not reflexive; myths are stories but stories aren't myths. (We also nurse the misdefinition of "myth" as falsehood, but that doesn't apply in this context either. In their own civilizations, myths may not be true, but they aren't strictly false either. They're analogues of reality.)

Not that our civilization doesn't have myths, but the authors of those myths are Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, not Camus or Isaac Asimov or Stephen Cannell or even Grant Morrison. And we no longer live in a world where magical/fantasy/mythological/religious constructs are required, or even useful, to make sense of it. Those are "comfort" constructs, ultimately reductionist to give us the consolation that even if we are unable to control our world in any strict sense of the word, we may at least simplify it to easily digestible bits that we might at least entreat. But our world is too complex for that to be of any practical use, so resorting to it is ultimately a surrender to an inability to cope with the complexities.

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