Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Irradiated memes 1

So I'm talking with this guy who has a head like a fiber-optic lamp, and eventually the beer takes hold, so we start talking about comics, as you do. And then the conversation expands to take in geeky TV programmes. And I start to realize that we're talking on two completely different levels, and I'm either going to walk away from the conversation or I'm going to redecorate his face with something shiny, broken, and almost certainly glass-like.

I think the problem was him bringing up Azzarello's Constantine, which is always fighting talk where I'm concerned. Though getting overexcited -- or excited at all -- about Whedon's Cowboys in Space malarky is just as likely to send me over the edge.

For one thing, my friend couldn't seem to stop talking about Constantine as if he was a real person rather than, oh say, a narrative device. Somewhere along the line, the character had become real to him, a role model that he could identify with, crossed with an imaginary friend to give him a reacharound on the dry nights.

So Azzarello's Constantine got my friend hot and heavy. For one thing, Constantine now talked in a Dick van Dyke accent he could get a handle on. For another, Constantine was in a gritty American situation my friend could identify with. And for a third, Constantine was now doing some wish-fulfillment stuff that flimsy men with heads like fiber-optic lamps could play let's pretend about. After all, a good half of my friends have seen the inside of a prison cell, and it's only a matter of time for the rest, I'm thinking.

And then there's Firefly, or whatever it is Whedon called it. I mean, Star Trek is already Cowboys in Space, but at least it had the common sense to disguise the fact (even if it did do one Cowboys in Space episode). It begs, pleads, wheedles, yearns for and demands the question: what are you looking for in your science fiction.

The key to Star Trek working at all is that it took a couple of premises and extrapolated them. 1). Here's real world politics as we understand them: What will a space age colonial adventure look like?
2). Here's half a dozen technological advances: What will they do to our experience of the human condition?

Both of these are thought experiments that pull the McLuhan trick -- the content of any new technology is the previous technology.
1). A satirical lens with which to examine our current behaviour.
2). Preexisting character stereotypes to make the new stuff palatable.

Where Whedon got it exactly wrong was simply slapping a coat of paint over some old stereotypes and thinking that's enough. (An interesting cock up, because Buffy's success came from him hitting 1 and 2 on the nose.) If your premise is space colonists, what new behaviours evolve? How will the tech change human behaviour? And if the answer is the tedious "they will revert to post-modern style swipery" (good for about one episode in the original Star Trek -- like the Nazis in Space one), then surely you should investigate the dynamics of how people interact with the stereotypes they're borrowing.

But no. Fanboys like my friend, what they want is to play out children's games without having to engage with anything as troubling as consequence. Give them stereotypes they already know, so they can play cowboys and indians with laser beams. Or take a tragic magus archetype, and bulk it up into a superpower extravaganza to make prison seem less scary.

This, I think, is the big problem with Bendis and Meltzer doing corporate sponsored hackery.

Their elders and betters knew they were working with narrative tools, which is something Ellis demonstrates with alacrity. Comic book characters are first and foremost archetypes. When we're little kids, sure, we use imaginative projection to imagine actually being Batman. When we hit puberty, we imagine actually being Warlock or Spiderman (depending on our levels of adolescent angst). And after that, we realize that these archetypes (which previously held us in sway with all the power of a Mexican Jesus), are now expressing social and psychological forces.

Meltzer and Bendis just can't get their heads around this idea. They're like little girls who can't quite get past the Barbie stage. Their characters are action figures to play out personal fantasies. At no point do they enter the vector space where the character definitions follow their internal and interpersonal dynamics. The closest to psychological depth they can achieve is: "I can't make heads or tails of chicks; they sure are crazy and unpredictable; they can just turn on you in a heartbeat and become psychopathic murderers!"

Which is to say: Bendis and Meltzer, being incapable of understanding anything as tricky as the idea of consequence do the projective identification shuffle and blame their own weakness of character on their polar opposite: women. Bendis picks the magicmaker who's frustrated about her own children -- no surprise there; Bendis can't get a break with his own creations, but he makes swackloads by playing in the superteam called the Marvel bullpen. They must pay! And Meltzer picks the outsider without any real connection or powers of her own. See if we can follow the logic...

I mean, look. If you're just a fanboy with a head like a fibreoptic lamp, it's excusable to identify with other people's fantasies as an escape valve. But if you're writing the damn fantasies, you ought to be doing a better job than a five year-old playing with his Batman doll. But in a corporate consumer culture, that's what we get. These aren't characters with their own internal and interpersonal vector spaces -- they're commodities. And you can add any new flavour you like to a commodity. New Western Country Burger, now with Extra Barbecue Sauce!

In a word, that's the difference between mass culture and pop culture. Pop culture fizzes with its own internal life and doesn't need to give a bugger about acceptance. Once the motivating spirit has moved on, mass culture picks up the corpse of pop culture, runs it through the grinder, and slaps a pickle on it.

You want fries with that comic book?

13 Comments:

Blogger Roger Benningfield said...

Never actually watched Firefly, huh?

12/21/2004 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Rice said...

The Limey writes this big, long, thought-out examination of several pop culture phenomena and that's the best reply you can do? Shit!

12/21/2004 08:04:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Paul,
You're an angry young man, I can tell (cue Styx).

What do you think of Bendis's Daredevil? Or Alias? I'm curious, because I like both those books. I stayed away from Avengers Disassembled like the plague, and I don't read Powers. Anyway, both Daredevil and Alias seem to contradict your statements (at least as I read it), but I wonder what your take on them is.

Greg

12/21/2004 08:19:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Two things here I have issue with:


"For one thing, my friend couldn't seem to stop talking about Constantine as if he was a real person rather than, oh say, a narrative device. Somewhere along the line, the character had become real to him, a role model that he could identify with, crossed with an imaginary friend to give him a reacharound on the dry nights."

Leaving the reacharound thing alone (ewwwwwww), I always thought it was a hallmark of excellent writing for a character to be presented so fully that we can consider him/her as a real person. To me, the ability to evoke that level of suspension of disbelief, and blur the lines between reality and fiction, is something of a Holy Grail. So unless you feel that John Constantine specifically is unworthy of this status, it doesn't paint your friend in the light you want it to.

"Bendis can't get a break with his own creations, but he makes swackloads by playing in the superteam called the Marvel bullpen."

This is just plain untrue. "Powers" has been Eisner-nominated, and "Fire," "Goldfish," "Jinx," and "Torso" are all very well-regarded. If he hadn't "gotten a break" with this stuff, he wouldn't be working for Marvel now.

Also, you seem very enamored of your "head like a fiber-optic lamp" analogy, but considering that I had to Google the term, and I'm still not sure what the connection you were trying to make is, you might want to rethink it.

12/21/2004 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Rice said...

"Leaving the reacharound thing alone (ewwwwwww), I always thought it was a hallmark of excellent writing for a character to be presented so fully that we can consider him/her as a real person. To me, the ability to evoke that level of suspension of disbelief, and blur the lines between reality and fiction, is something of a Holy Grail. So unless you feel that John Constantine specifically is unworthy of this status, it doesn't paint your friend in the light you want it to."

I disagree. The point of art is not to fool people into thinking your work is real. It is to enlighten, entertain, challenge, or otherwise interact with our world. Now, what happened with Paul's friend I think is less a problem with the character or the creators but more a problem with the friend. It's a character, not a person. I see where Paul is going here. Adults should look to stories and character as more than make-believe friends and dolls to play with. He even goes on to say it's more forgivable in this instance than with people working on the characters.

"This is just plain untrue. "Powers" has been Eisner-nominated, and "Fire," "Goldfish," "Jinx," and "Torso" are all very well-regarded. If he hadn't "gotten a break" with this stuff, he wouldn't be working for Marvel now."

Pretty sure he means financially. Those pieces aren't making him money. He's gotta whore out to write these awful superhero comics to get money.

"Also, you seem very enamored of your "head like a fiber-optic lamp" analogy, but considering that I had to Google the term, and I'm still not sure what the connection you were trying to make is, you might want to rethink it."

Worrying whether individual readers "won't get it" is another non-point of writing. We, as readers, fear challenge so much these days we refuse to do much work at all in interpreting text. We want our dolls to play with.

12/22/2004 07:01:00 AM  
Blogger Paul McEnery said...

Good work, Joe. Carry on.

12/22/2004 04:20:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"I disagree. The point of art is not to fool people into thinking your work is real. It is to enlighten, entertain, challenge, or otherwise interact with our world."

And I contend that fiction cannot do any of that properly unless the audience can connect with the characters on some level. I can go write a novel with every intention of opening people's eyes to some facet the world in which they live that they never considered for an instant, but unless there's *something* in the characters for people to connect with on some level, no one's going to care enough to finish it. There needs to be a little bit of reality, especially in the characters, the central part of any piece of fiction, to bridge the gap enough.

"Worrying whether individual readers "won't get it" is another non-point of writing. We, as readers, fear challenge so much these days we refuse to do much work at all in interpreting text. We want our dolls to play with."

Well, there's a world of difference between not challenging the reader for fear they won't be able to take it, and taking necessary steps to make sure your message is communicated effectively. Art is a two way street. An artist who just throws his work at the world and shouts, "Appreciate me!" is destined for obscurity, and an art patron who is unwilling to relinquish some measure of control over the experience is doomed to dissatisfaction.

12/22/2004 05:13:00 PM  
Blogger Joe Rice said...

"And I contend that fiction cannot do any of that properly unless the audience can connect with the characters on some level. I can go write a novel with every intention of opening people's eyes to some facet the world in which they live that they never considered for an instant, but unless there's *something* in the characters for people to connect with on some level, no one's going to care enough to finish it. There needs to be a little bit of reality, especially in the characters, the central part of any piece of fiction, to bridge the gap enough."

I don't disagree at all. But the example Paul used was taking it too far. This isn't an absolute duality of NO CHARACTER CONNECTION vs. THINKING CHARACTER IS YOUR FRIEND. There's space in between and that's where people should aim.

"Well, there's a world of difference between not challenging the reader for fear they won't be able to take it, and taking necessary steps to make sure your message is communicated effectively. Art is a two way street. An artist who just throws his work at the world and shouts, "Appreciate me!" is destined for obscurity, and an art patron who is unwilling to relinquish some measure of control over the experience is doomed to dissatisfaction."

You can't take the necessary steps to make sure EVERYone will understand you. I can say that I understood Paul, and I'd say some other people did, too. There's nothing wrong with NOT understanding it, but don't put the onus solely on him.

12/22/2004 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"I don't disagree at all. But the example Paul used was taking it too far. This isn't an absolute duality of NO CHARACTER CONNECTION vs. THINKING CHARACTER IS YOUR FRIEND. There's space in between and that's where people should aim."

Well, you know Paul better than I do, so I'll take your word for it, but it sure sounded dualistic.

"You can't take the necessary steps to make sure EVERYone will understand you. I can say that I understood Paul, and I'd say some other people did, too. There's nothing wrong with NOT understanding it, but don't put the onus solely on him."

Fair enough. Could someone explain it to me, though, if only to stop my brain from bringing it up in the middle of the night?

12/22/2004 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

"In a word, that's the difference between mass culture and pop culture..."

Please explain this paragraph to me, in simple words, as if I were a fellow with a head like a fiberoptic lamp. Because "pop culture" and "mass culture" sound like the same thing to me. And the idea that "pop culture" doesn't want acceptance just sounds completely and utterly wrong. And if this is what your argument is based on, then the rest of it's off too.

Before you do that, I'd like to point out a difference I see between Trek and Firefly. Trek's premise allowed for the introduction of various cultures, along varying points in the path of development. Firefly was about *one* society, spread out among planets.

I plugged "Star Trek Nazis" into Google and got this:

"2.23 Patterns of Force: Investigating the disappearance of a Federation cultural observer, the Enterprise crew find that the missing scientist has tried to engineer the culture based on Nazi Germany."

So, that's one culture, among the many the crew encountered. Whedon decided to make a show about only one of those possible cultures. This may make the show limited and less interesting to you, but doesn't prove it to be philosophically wrong-headed.

And if you expect the show to ask "what new behaviors evolve?" how can you argue for the use of sterotypes? If their behaviors really are new, they're not sterotypes, are they?

12/23/2004 12:27:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Here's my concerns.

1. What he did to Wanda was quite lame, but I do not think that is representative of Bendis' mainstream writing - Jessica Jones...what was bad about her exactly?

2. Bendis made a good deal of money off of Goldfish. It got him a Hollywood agent, for pete's sake!!

3. Meltzer has not written enough comics, I believe, to dissect his thought patterns towards women. I mean, I have no problem with ripping the work he HAS done...I just don't think we have enough to fairly say that he does not know how to write women. His Sue Dibny sucked big time, and I'll always be wary of him after the IC stuff...but I'm not prepared to totally write him off.

12/24/2004 05:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Firefly, and so, permit me to speak a few words in its defense.
Firefly is not, strictly speaking, science fiction. It is a costume drama. Science fiction is, when it is being true to itself, chiefly concerned with questions of science. Joss Whedon's work is chiefly concerned with questions of character.
I was discussing this recently in reference to George A. Romero's 'Living Dead' films. One of the strengths of these films is that the zombies themselves are pretty much immaterial to the plot. You could just as easily replace the zombies with a roaring bushfire, a collapsing building, a Communist uprising, or a virulent plague. At its heart, 'Night of the Living Dead' is about what happens when different people are put together in a closed environment in a stressful situation.
The zombies are just a plot device.
Similarly, with Firefly, the science fiction elements are there chiefly as set dressing. If you want to get into genre hair-splitting, you could call it Space Opera, rather than science-fiction, if you prefer.

Pól.

12/31/2004 04:22:00 AM  
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