Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An Argument For Rules

It's an old argument, true, and not a new one for this corner of the blogosphere, but it seems to have picked up some fresh steam as a new "meme" coming out of the recent Nerdapalooza in San Diego. I'll let you catch up here.

In response to a question posed regarding the relative ages of the various Batmen and Robins in his current series, Grant Morrison stated:
We've already got the real world. Why would you want fiction to be like the real world? Fiction can do anything, so why do people always want to say, 'Let's ground this' or 'Let's make this realistic.' You can't make it realistic because it's not. So basically Batman is 75 years old, and Robin is 74 years old. They don't grow old because they're different from us. They're paper people.
I think there are two points that can be made from this quote:

First, Morrison is right to deride a certain strain of contemporary mainstream craftsmanship that consistently seeks to ground even the most seemingly fantastic narrative within mundane and realistically-stylized boundaries. It's not hard to detect some lingering polemical ire towards the architects of "Nu-Marvel," who successfully reoriented the core of the Marvel brand towards a style of hyper-banal studied conversationalism that Morrison found particularly alienating. A book like Brubaker's Captain America or Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man benefits from that kind of grounding, but this approach is temperamentally unsuited to more elaborate modes of fantasy storytelling.

In all fairness, however, that doesn't appear to be the main thrust of Morrison's critique. Earlier in the panel, he said:
Then you've got an adult, and adults can not tell the difference between fantasy and reality. You bring them fantasy, and the first thing they say is 'How did he get that way? Why does he dress like that? How did that happen?' It's not real. And beyond that, when you're dealing with characters, they exist on paper. They're real in that context.
What does Morrison mean by "fantasy?" There are two colloquial meanings of fantasy at use here, seemingly interchangeably: first, fantasy as something that is axiomatically "not real," a usage that could be used to encompass any variety of daydreaming or strictly impossible activity. "I wish that I won the lottery" is a common enough statement, and for most of us it is strictly fantasy - we haven't and we never will win the lottery, but it's OK to fantasize about having done so. In and of itself, notwithstanding its high improbability, there is nothing fantastic about the idea of winning the lottery: it probably won't happen to you or me, but it is a real thing that can and does happen to real people. Just like getting hit by lightning, or having a one-night stand with a gorgeous celebrity - unlikely, but statistically possible.

These daydreams are a type of "fantasy" but they aren't Fantasy. Fantasy is a literary genre, and like all type of storytelling it is dependent on rules. Storytelling can't exist without rules. I can certainly sympathize with the sentiment behind Mark Waid's later comment that "Super-hero stories are not about rules. They're about flying." But it is strictly untrue. A strong argument can be made that the conceptual impetus behind superheroes is directly related to the fantasy impulse mentioned above: instead of winning the lottery, you have power - you can fly, you can lift cars above your head, you can right injustices without any unpleasant consequences, you can effect positive change in the world on your own. But the moment you extract this daydreaming impulse - what we'll call small-f fantasy, fantasizing - and insert it into the narrative structure of capital-F Fantasy, you've already entered the realm of rules. You can't escape rules once you begin any kind of storytelling.

And let's be clear, we're not talking about rules that a creator should or should not feel beholden to obey, continuity or power charts or whatnot, we're talking about something deeper, something hardwired into the nature of the human mind as a function of being a creature who exists to make sense of his environment. (For those with an interest, Daniel Dennet's Breaking the Spell is a great, jargon-light introduction to this kind of basic cognitive theory.) In Narratology, Mieke Bal offers a great description of the processes that our minds experience when we're confronted with a narrative of any kind:
A structural correspondence was assumed to exist between the fabulas of narratives and 'real' fabulas, that is between what people do and what actors do in fabulas that have been invented, between what people experience and what actors experience. It makes sense if one realizes that if no homology were to exist at all, no correspondence however abstract, then people would not be able to understand narratives. Two arguments have been introduced against this homology. Firstly, it has been argued that the difference between literature or art and reality has been ignored. Scholars accused French structuralist CLaude Bremond, for example, of this error on the basis of the latter's 'logic of events.' However, it is not a question of concrete identity but rather of structural similarity. Pointing out correspondences does not imply that absolute equality is being suggested. Another objection to postulating the 'real-life' homology is that, in certain types of narrative texts - for example, fantastic, absurd, or experimental - such a homology is absent; in fact, these texts are characterized by their denial or distortion of the logic of reality. This objection can be addressed in two ways again. The denial, distortion, or, as is now often said, 'deconstruction' of a realistic story-line is something altogether different from its absence. On the contrary, there is clearly something worth denying. This objection can also be countered with the argument that readers, intentionally or not, search for a logical line in such a text. They spend a great amount of energy in this search, and, if necessary, they introduce such a line themselves. Emotional involvement, aesthetic pleasure, suspense, and humor depend on it. No matter how absurd, tangled, or unreal a text may be, readers will tend to regard what they consider 'normal' as a criterion by which they can give meaning to the text, even if that meaning can only be articulated in opposition to that normality.[Emphases mine.] Bal, Mieke. Narratology. Second Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2004.
Readers will always seek a thru-line throughout whatever text is presented them, and their desire to create consistency and stability in even the most abstruse or seemingly unreal narratives will increase in direct proportion to their investment in said narratives. If someone likes a story, they've already invested a great deal into making that story "work" on some level; if someone likes a story a lot, they've got a lot riding on whether or not that story "pans out," and are likely to expend a great deal of effort to make the various moving parts move in a satisfactory manner.

To a large degree the reader creates his or her own rules as they read - interact with - the text. Artists can be as helpful or unhelpful as they desire, but an invested reader will work hard - consciously or no - to define the parameters of the fictional world in which they've become invested. To follow the metaphor: readers want a return on their investment. If a reader becomes really, really invested, they'll work hard to provide their own authentication, much in the same way a motivated investor with 10,000 shares in GM would refuse to buy any car but a Chevy. At a certain point the logic of the investment takes on a life of its own, and the premise becomes infinitely self-replenishing. Deriding this commitment seems, at best, petty, and at worst positively mean-spirited.

Every text provides its own authenticating devices - something as seemingly small as "Once upon a time" at the beginning of a fairy tale, or as big as the Official Handbook of the marvel Universe Deluxe Edition authenticating the parameters for an entire ongoing fictional construct like the Marvel Universe. Most authenticating happens in the area of setting, but a clever fantasy story unravels the "rules" of its setting as it goes along, allowing the reader to experience them as if they were an active participant in their creation - which, in the strictest sense, they are, because the rules of a fantasy world only work if the reader agrees to participate. To understand this principle, imagine the inverse. We've all had the experience of watching a sci-fi or fantasy movie with someone who has very little interest or understanding of the genre, and who keeps asking questions like, Why are they doing that? Why does that person look like that? Why does the monster want to eat people? Etc, etc. It's not a fun experience because your companion hasn't agreed to participate, they're a "hostile collaborator" whose refusal to understand the premise of the operative fantasy rules hobbles their ability to understand the most basic features of the narrative .

There's a tacit agreement between the audience and the author that both parties have entered into their transaction with good faith. The author, for their part, has almost infinite power to bend and shape the rules of reality to their pleasure. Especially in terms of explicitly fantasy narratives, the reader will extend their suspension of disbelief to the breaking point and beyond, if their investment is strong enough. How many deflating season-ending cliffhangers have Doctor Who fans endured these past few years, buoyed almost solely by the strength of their affection for the idea of Doctor Who and all the wonderful characters and ideas his particular fictional universe has to offer? As bad as New Who has occasionally been, I've rarely felt as if the creators weren't playing fair with me.

Rules in fiction are like spandrels in architecture: regardless of the author's intentions, they appear in the most inconvenient places. When you're dealing with superheroes you're dealing most importantly with narrative conventions that appear in many instances to actually be rules. The "idea" of the superhero may be pure fantasy, but superhero stories are themselves products of decades worth of laborious genre-building, the product of thousands of creators and IP harvesters working to define the whys and whyfors of this strange hybrid corner of the pulp universe. You can argue all you want about whether or not these rules and conventions are good or bad, but at the end of the day they simply are. Most creators figure out at some point that very good stories can be told through the selective circumventing of these rules: the "deconstructionist" superhero stories of the eighties and nineties made their mark precisely because those creators got the knack for building whole stories out of the act of selectively breaking rules. Writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Morrison himself used the amassed corpus of established conventions as their "text," and their stories as the "readings" which dismantled certain established one or another of the myriad rules surrounding the genre. (Deconstruction is, most importantly, an act of reading which acknowledges the textuality of the object being deconstructed.)

Readers will always work to "ground" their fiction, because that's what readers do. For a creator to argue against this natural grounding activity is to argue against an active engagement with their own works, because it naturally follows that any involved reader will want to extend the benefit of the doubt to any text in which they become invested. You can't have it both ways: Fantasy literature is based on small-f fantasy, yes, but once you acknowledge the connective tissue between reader and text that creates the suspension of disbelief that creates emotional investment, you can't wave your hands willy-nilly and simply disregard whatever you like. Because disregarding out of hand the audience's strong tendency towards rationalizing their investment is, to put it bluntly, insulting.

(And this is, of course, where the line between real-world authors and the idea of the "Author" as a construct begins to blur - how fortunate for Homer that he died before he had to answer questions from fanboys. As much as we like to think we can keep our understanding of the two kinds of authors separate, it's increasingly hard for an invested reader to do just that - if an author like Grant Morrison is going to make sweeping generalizations, it's hard for me not to ascribe certain prejudices to the theoretical Author construct known as "Grant Morrison.")

Fiction is not just fiction, fiction is a set of rules by which the author and audience agree to cooperate. Audiences can be remarkably forgiving: in these long-term superhero universe constructs we have wacky things like "sliding timescales" and "retcons" and "reboots" which, while technically egregious violations of The Rules, exist to enable the stories to perpetuate themselves relatively free from noxious hinderance. Every once in a great while creators are faced with the unpleasant necessity of writing a story like "One More Day" - a story which can best be compared to the act of ripping off a Band-Aid as quickly as possible in order merely to get it over with. It might sting but eventually the red marks go away. As much as fans might dislike that particular retcon and its troublesome ramifications, it was - strictly speaking - a fair play. There was a large degree of hand-waving involved, but if fans ultimately judge that the benefits outweigh the cost - the immediate aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths was ugly and confusing, but few would argue at this late date that it wasn't a story worth telling for a goal worth achieving. It may have seemed ugly and mercenary, the definition of "checkbook storytelling," telling a story solely out of a desire to balance the books - but sometimes those are necessary stories to tell for the long-term health of a franchise.

So yeah, rules are important. Sometimes in these conversations it's hard not to detect a whiff of a straw-man here, as if there is a hypothetical nerd sitting over the creators' shoulder waving their precious copy of OHOTMU in the air and screaming about whether or not the Hulk is stronger than Thor. And it goes without saying that that hypothetical nerd isn't really very hypothetical, and all you need to do to prove that is to spend five minutes reading Tom Brevoort's Formespring account. But there's established practices in comics that involve a certain obeisance to mutually established guidelines - let's call them rules. Rules can and are broken, and you could even argue that without the ability to bend and break genre-specific expectations the genre - any genre - would wither and die. But you can't just say "Anything can happen in fiction and paper" and expect people to take your stories seriously.

People care about these stories, people become invested, precisely because there is a sense of expectation that the writers are going to play fair, and that when rules are broken they will be broken fairly. Animal Man is a great example because although it breaks a few huge and obvious cardinal rules of fiction - like, you know, the whole breaking-the-fourth-wall and meeting the author thing - it actually lays out the means by which it does so in a very methodical and satisfying fashion. If you read all 26 issues of Morrison's initial run, you see a very well-told story that is very conscious of how and why it's breaking the rules it's breaking, and how exactly the breaking of these rules allows the story to achieve its desired effect. The final confrontation between Buddy and Morrison is so effective precisely because we know that Superman never got to meet Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. But it's all there, from the beginning, that this was the story Morrison was telling and these were the parameters by which he was abiding - you may have been surprised when Buddy started talking to the reader, but it wasn't a cheat unless you were an unusually thick or literal-minded reader. A lot of Morrison's later work feels like a cheat, however - many of his latter-day stories feel, at best, sketched-out, and they leave a lot of room for interpretation. Denying the necessity of the reader's active interpretation, arguing against the readers' desire to make sense of their fictional surroundings to the best of their ability - that seems counter-intuitive. You can certainly say that "Fiction can do anything," and to a degree you'll even be right. But fiction can't undermine itself without ostracizing a large part of its readership. Morrison is a very popular writer, and I can't help but think that on some level - despite his protestations - he doesn't need me to tell him this.

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