Monday, December 27, 2004

Irradiated Memes 2

Brethren, I take for my text on this, the most iconolatrous of holidays, Exodus 20, verse 3 to 6:

3"You shall have no other gods besides Me.

4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the water under the earth.

5 "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Okay, so YHWH is a god you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. And that was reason enough for the Jews and the Muslims to have nothing whatsoever to do with icons, graven images, golden calves, or any of that schmutter. And it was reason enough for Henry VIII, when he took over the Church of England, to ransack every altar piece in the country, smashing all the glorious comic books that the stained glass window merchants had erected for our edification. (For that matter, it was a similar reason that led Socrates to reject the idea of setting things down in writing as a memory substitute; and if Plato’s bunch of gobbledegook is anything to go by, he had a fair point.)

There is, of course, a better reason than fear or greed to pursue a course of iconoclasty. Setting things down in stone (oh the irony!) is a fine way to get people hung up on form rather than the life that is momentarily frozen in that form. And there’s a reason that Chris Marker’s La Jette is the only movie ever made out of stills (and that a million trillion more people have seen the remake, 12 Monkeys).

The best still images create a symbol that gets stuck in our minds. Jesus nailed to the cross – there, I know you’ve got a specific image that just popped up. And it’s wrong. The nails don’t go through the palm, they go through the wrist, otherwise the poor bugger just tears right off the cross and flops around like a bendy toy in a heatwave. And by focussing us on these not completely accurate representations of Our Lord (or their opposite number, the nativity), the Holy Roman Empire manages to keep our eyes off the rather more important bit: the radical life and teachings.

What was I talking about again? Oh yes, comic books.

From the epistles of St. Michael: 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. […] 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.

In these days of commodity fetish, I fear you’re right. But if we go back to, say, the golden days of Alfred Hitchcock, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Can anyone remember the name of James Stewart’s character in Vertigo? Or Cary Grant’s in North by Northwest? Hell no. Sure the characters were believable (i.e. internally consistent, and consistent with what we believe about human nature), but so what? What we care about is their ritual aspect, that on our behalf, they’re performing a two-step of dangling catharsis.

What’s primarily important is the motion of the narrative as it takes us through an experience. We recognize in a completely sophisticated way that the casting of each of the casting of star actors short-circuits disbelief: we neither believe nor disbelieve in the characters – total suspension. But it isn’t the fleshing out of the characters into full personality (could we pick out a christmas gift for them? What was the first piece of music that moved them? &c.) that creates our engagement. On the contrary. Like Scott McCloud says: the simpler the character, the more complete the identification.

From the epistle of St. Joseph: 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.

The point of character creation is to achieve exactly the right balance between character solidity and the narrative role. This is the exact opposite of what, for example, drives the advertising moguls who want you to buy Tide instead of Cheer. The former is intent on driving an emotional experience that at best revivifies your imagination and expands your sense of self. The latter is intent on hijacking your sense of identity by driving an image so far into your brain, you can’t help but think of yourself as a Tide man. The Gospel writers were doing the first thing, the Holy Roman Empire was doing the second.

From the epistle of St. James: 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.

Wanting acceptance is different from demanding capitulation. In short, it’s the difference between Bjork and Britney.

Bjork is pop culture, doing what she wants to do because it makes sense to her. Not everything works, but at her best (my pick: Venus as a Boy, or a couple of songs in Dancer in the Dark) she’s moving you by moving herself by moving the culture along. Pop culture is a fizzing interaction between living language and our own bodily lives. As soon as the form has stuck, pop culture moves along and leaves it to the jackals in marketing. Bjork just can’t make the same record twice, it’s not in her.

Britney is mass culture. She emulates previous pop tarts to perfection, but there’s not even a hint of life in her: no knowingness that this is a game, no spark of originality, not even her own voice on the recordings – it’s all perfectly modulated by her handlers. And when it’s not Britney, as very shortly it won’t be, it’ll be another cookie cutter star, perfectly form-fitted to audience preconceptions, the same preconceptions that have been created by mass marketing.

Somewhere in the middle is poor old Madonna, a woman without cultural talent, but a marketing genius. Beneath every one of her hits, you can find someone else’s hit, smoothed down for popular acceptance (“You’re an Angel” = the Eurhythmics’ “There Must be an Angel,” for instance). She’s this generation’s David Bowie, surfing other people’s innovation for personal glorification (though at least Bowie had the taste to popularize the obscure, whereas Madge just nicks from last week’s top twenty). Even her name gives the game away: if there’s going to be an icon, it’s going to be me.

Returning to the point:

Comic book characters are innately iconic. We don’t see Constantine in a silk frock and high heels – that’s not the costume. Change Superman or Spiderman’s costume, and it lasts a year. These are not personalities, they’re icons. Personalities can change, and almost always do; but icons have to stay exactly the same, or the fanboys have a shit fit about acting out of character. And so do I.

Speaking of Constantine, when I was having a pint with Garth and Steve, Garth was muttering darkly about how Jenkins had got him all wrong. “The thing about Constantine is, he’s tragic.” Of course, Jenkins had only suspended the tragedy – it was bound to happen, but Garth was cranky about how that suspension ruined Constantine’s iconic force. Hamlet is an icon of indecision. Othello is an icon of insecurity. Constantine is an icon of choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea, and suffering the consequences.

The interesting question is: how long can you write such an icon before it becomes a dead commodity. Conan Doyle had the same problem with Holmes. He deliberately wrote him as an icon, and then found the life was being crushed out of him because there was nowhere for him to go with it. So he killed Holmes off. And then the fanboys, who’d become so engaged with their icon that they’d forgotten to have imaginations of their own and wanted Conan Doyle to supply them with their fix, demanded he bring Holmes back. So he did, and it wasn’t the same.

For children, this is fine (and for fanboys regressing to their childhood, which is also fine in short doses). As I said before, kids think in primary colours, and you have to give them conventional forms. Ditto adolescents (although the adolescent palette is somewhat murkier). But once you reach the grown up level, you should reach a different level (as artists do), understanding the interaction between art and life, and grasping how the motivating forces that make an artwork come alive are the same as those within a human body, and a human mind.

Or, to close with the words of St. Paul (from the Letter to the Corinthians,

13:11. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.

13:12. We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known.


Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I dunno, Paul, the simpler the character, the easier the identification is, but the simpler the archetype is, the easier it is to do different stories with the archetype.

To wit, I do not think that Sherlock Holmes' problems came from him being too iconic, I think it came from his iconic archetype WASN'T simple enough...there were only a certain amount of stories you could fit a 19th century proper detective into before he got tired, no matter how good the writer.

I think Constantine, on the other hand, IS that simple of an icon. I think any problems Constantine has had over his comics career has just been due to poor writing (except for that great stretch by Azzarello...just seeing if you're paying attention, Paul), not any problem with the character.

As for writing characters "out of character," comic readers DO accept that characters will change. They just do not like it when it appears as though writers just changed the character without any respect for the works that have come before them...changing them without explanation, or reason.

No one is freaking out that Sue Storm is no longer a moron. Same with Wasp. No one freaked out that Hawkeye and Captain America get along. No one freaks out that Batman no longer shoots bad guys.

Change CAN be accepted into comics.

Heck, I think it is EXPECTED even.

It's just how well it's handled that marks the poorer writers from the better ones.

And as for messing with God, I leave you with a lyric...

"Oh God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son'
Abe says, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on'
God say, 'No.' Abe say, 'What?'
God say, 'You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run'
Well Abe says, 'Where do you want this killin' done?'
God says, 'Out on Highway 61.'"

12/28/2004 06:35:00 AM  
Blogger Brad Curran said...

"No one is freaking out that Sue Storm is no longer a moron. Same with Wasp. No one freaked out that Hawkeye and Captain America get along. No one freaks out that Batman no longer shoots bad guys."

Most of those changes happened before a lot of the fanbase right now were reading comics, so they wouldn't even think to freak out about them. I'm trying to think of comparative changes made to characters fairly recently, and other than Lois and Clark getting married, I can't think of any that stuck.

12/30/2004 12:50:00 AM  
Blogger Paul McEnery said...

Development and change are two different things. We'll see if the new spidey powers last much longer than six-armed spidey.

12/30/2004 07:50:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Would Spider-Man and Superman's marriage count as development or change?

12/31/2004 11:39:00 AM  
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