The Alabaster Sock

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Posts Tagged ‘Genre Fiction’

This is indeed a disturbing universe

Posted by Matt on September 15, 2011

One of those curious features seemingly exclusive to genre entertainment is the idea of the shared universe (and the related concept of continuity), exemplified by Marvel and DC’s years of comic book world building. As far as I know, which admittedly is rather limited in many areas, they are the most successful examples of this concept; the expanded universes of popular franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, which are fairly vast, feel more like throngs of officially sanctioned fan fiction that are tossed aside by the folks behind the “real” product. This is likely a byproduct of those two franchises coming from more expensive mediums and being “expanded” by books, comics, and video games, which will always feel disconnected from the central parts of the lines. No, Marvel and DC’s comics have always been comics and only follow the lead of other comics, so they really come together as a whole.

There is certainly an appeal to the concept of the shared universe. There is the idea that it makes each story feel part of a greater whole, even though that really only exists in concept and not really in practice. Although I find the idea of superheroes as the new mythology to be misguided at best, laughable at my most cynical, there are parallels to be drawn there. For me personally, I kind of like the idea of all these disparate characters and ideas just existing in the same space. It feels…like breaking the rules, I guess? Wizards and space aliens and robots and modern street toughs just shouldn’t all converge like that due to some unwritten rules of fiction, and so knowing that they can and will is a delight. For silly people with silly imaginations like me, that is.

But you can’t simply have these characters and stories be able to come over for a visit, oh no. There needs to be synchronization. Giving other creators the ability to compromise the integrity of another creator’s story is bad for everyone. This hasn’t stopped them from doing this (see: New X-Men), but again, in THEORY, the idea is to make sure all the stories “count” (by which I mean their individual meaning, as little as it may be at times, should be respected by the other creators), and that means some content policing if one is to be part of the universe of stories. That is where continuity comes in. Removed from the imaginary context of these stories, it doesn’t seem particularly necessary – why should it matter how one thing is references or one character is described, as long as it serves the story at that moment? The individual stories are rarely ever harmed by a lack of line-wide continuity. But, considering that a lot of these publishers may want you, the reader of Book A, to think about picking up Book B, making sure those books don’t explicitly contradict each other and confuse you is a reasonable goal. Continuity can be both a hindrance and a help, depending on when and how it is applied.

Continuity can be limiting on some of the stories possible within that line’s sphere of influence, especially in the case of often well-deserved satire. The people upstairs have been known to tolerate such things at times, but push it too far and they may fight back. Things like that, however, are simply the sacrifice one must make when taking part in a grand project like this.

The fictional universe is at its best when all that policing is done by genuinely creative people, all who respect each other’s work, and who take part in the concept to essentially help each other out creatively. To riff and homage each other, essentially. A real communal atmosphere, and one that seems to be sadly absent from most examples of universe-building.

It wasn’t always that way. It’s hard for me to say that the environment was really less corporate in the past, I really have nothing to back that up. But I think the thought processes behind it were different. In the 60s, when Gardner Fox created the JLA and Earth-2 and all the other things, he was paying homage to the comics created by him and many others during the 40s. When Stan Lee (or whoever actually came up with the idea, it’s really hard to tell with early Marvel for someone less studied in the history and evidence like myself) had his characters meet up, it was because the idea of these costumed people filling the streets of Manhattan, and little nods like Spider-Man trying to get a job with the Fantastic Four were amusing.

The creator’s ideal in the fictional universe and the goal of those who take part in it should be that of a toy box: you have freedom to use the toys already in there in whatever way you want (just don’t break them), but the expectation is that for every toy you take out, you add one for someone else to play with. Take a penny, leave a penny. Contribute to the greater whole, etc., etc. It makes more a greater creative environment, where you know that not only will the others respect your contributions, but they are willing to further them and give you more story opportunities.

Where the problems creep in is when the contributors to the shared universe become too reliant on the elements introduced by their predecessors or contemporaries, warping a story into a arcane, spot-the-reference bit of purposeless fan wanking. If bits of continuity are used for their own sake, rather than to enhance the current story (or even another one), they make readers feel like they should be either paying more attention (for all the wrong reasons) or buying the other books (for all the wrong reasons). The latter is something economically desirable for the publisher, sure, but how likely will it be that they’ll create a sustainable number of obsessives? These things should be able to stand on their own, and can possibly be enhanced by taking part in the wider context of the shared universe; they shouldn’t need to be decoded. Which is not to say that obscure fan service is always a bad thing; it can be a great deal a fun for folks in the know. But it needs to be earned, and it can’t make the thing unreadable to a whole segment of the audience.

So, I’m a little wary of this approach. On one hand, it can lead to some great stuff, where talented folks can work on each other’s ideas and make them even better; plus, it can be kind of fun. On the other hand, it can also be terribly limiting. The appeal is definitely there, which is why the comics have been able to implement it rather successfully over the last few decades. But it’s not easy to create, and definitely not easy to maintain. I would say it’s a high risk, high reward idea, but is the reward really all that high? It seems more like high risk for a unique reward, one that is rarely seen and a little spectacular when done right. That sounds a lot like genre fiction in general, really.

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Wizards and Goblins I Have Not Known

Posted by Matt on July 12, 2011

With all the noise being made about HBO’s A Game of Thrones, George R.R. “Fatboy” Martin’s newest book in the original series, and the incoming overextended Hobbit movie, we’ve all been getting a massive dose of high fantasy lately. Here’s a secret: a don’t really like high fantasy. At all. this and this will give you a good idea why. But there’s more.

I, for one, find the Medieval Euro-centric concepts of these stories to be pretty dull on their own. Being a white, middle class North American all my life, I’ve had the real and imaginative histories of Western Europe drilled into my brain pretty thoroughly. I’m tired of it, really, especially when the authors have no innovative takes on the hoary old cliches at all. And really, there’s so many neat histories and myths found around the world, I think it would be worth more time seeking those out than hearing about kings and dragons again.

Like O’Neil, I am also unceasingly skeptical of authority, especially arbitrary authority as represented by the monarchies and upper classes that have spent the better part of human existence oppressing 98% of the population. Once you exit adolescence, I think the fantasy of ‘good’ kings should be long gone. Most high fantasy is inherently nostalgic, whether it be for the times of kings and nobles, or for the uncomplicated country living idolized by Tolkein’s Hobbits. But nostalgia in both instances is ignorance of history, a callback to times that didn’t exist. We may pretend that the British Royals are anything other than vestigial entities in a political realm that completely ignores them in every way that counts. Yet, I still see a defence of the Royals in local newspaper columns almost every Victoria Day. “It’s a tradition!” they cry out, as if traditions have ever had a particularly good track record. “It’s what keeps us connected to our unique heritage!”, which only reminds us that our heritage different levels of inherited authority figures sending each other out to take and enslave. But reality is no deterrent to the nostalgic set, and therein lies an appealing factor in high fantasy, a reminder of simpler times that didn’t actually exist. Even the more complicated political worlds of Martin’s books can’t escape it, especially when little to no attention is paid to the people under the warring noble factions.

Then there’s the length. I have always considered brevity a virtue, so if you’re story requires several 500-1000 page books to tell in its entirety, I get the impression that it’s getting bogged down by something. Worldbuilding is probably my least favourite literary trend, as it attempts to wring out a sense of importance and ‘epicness’ from the blandest of tales, and usually hinders plot and characterization. You want a big fucking universe? Write a fucking encyclopedia for it; don’t distract me while I’m trying to enjoy your yarn.

And that’s why I don’t like high fantasy.

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Posted by Matt on May 22, 2011

…and while I’m complaining about television, I got another issue.

Despite being heavily based in genre fiction, in books, comics, games, and movies, I have a hard time getting into most genre television. Most of it is because of the length issues I talked about the other day (and although many are not so heavily plot-based, most series since X-Files have story arcs). There’s something else, though, something that I think is far more ingrained in today’s genre TV conventions.

I have never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for an extended period of time. I may have seen a few episodes here and there; in fact, the only season I have any real exposure to is the first one, which contained episodes about giant praying mantises and hyena people that I’m sure most fans are wont to forget (the only other episode I can remember watching? One that featured John Ritter as an evil robot. As far as I’m concerned, this is what Buffy is, a show about giant praying mantises and evil John Ritterbots). I do know many people who have seen all of it, and love it, and evangelize it. This audience kept a cult show on for seven seasons and a spin-off, and it has acquired a bit more cultural cache because of that. It has, really, become an influential force on the world of genre fiction. That’s where my problem begins.

Now, I’m not going to dismiss Buffy or its fans; I have no reason to, as I have not been presented with anything that says the show was particularly bad. But I have become quite aware of the show’s, and Joss Whedon’s, storytelling tics from exposure to fans and critics online. Since that awareness came, I have begun to see them everywhere. The show may not have been a cultural force, but it was a nerd cultural force, and so the nerds with a creative drive start getting their work out there, it’s influence spreads like a plague.

But what is this influence that haunts me? I think it boils down to the following recurring qualities:

1) General cheapness, with little or no desire to make up for it visually
2) Snarky dialog coming from all characters
3) A strong sense of ironic detachment

The first is more or less out of the creator’s hands; TV budgets are notoriously minuscule. Which is generally no excuse for lame direction, which is an epidemic among genre TV. Budget or no, bad action is bad action, and it’s not like its impossible to make something LOOK good on a small budget.

The second and the third are tied together, and this is what really gets me. It’s a nerd thing; they want to like the things they like, but they can’t look like they take that shit too seriously (even when they do), because well…it’s silly stuff. I know it’s odd to think of nerds having any sense of social awareness, but it’s there, every once in a while. What it does is when these types get a hold of entertainment, however, is make a contradiction.

Now, having an ironic, or less-than-deadly-serious take on genre conventions is not in itself a terrible thing. It can be done right, and has. The problem is that…everybody’s doing it now. You can’t have wizards or vampires or aliens in anything without at least one character who thinks the whole thing is a joke. But then the story plays it mostly straight otherwise, so any sort of commentary or comedic value is removed. It’s having your cake and etc., is what it is. These writers really do love stories with vampires and wizards and stuff like that, but they know that most people think that shit is stupid. So, they make this show that basically says “Here’s a monster, but just between you and me, this is really pretty dumb! Keep watching anyway” It feels a bit dishonest to me.

I think a lot of this comes from comics culture. I’m sure most of the people who write genre television was, at one point, a Marvel or DC reader. By the mid-90s, all the kids and teenage comic readers had vacated superheroes, leaving the long-time readers to hold the fort. Being adults, they knew that if other people found out they still loved stories about men in gaudy costumes punching each other, they would be ostracized…moreso. So they started that ironic detachment, mocking most of what had built the superhero comics up until that point: the silly adventure stuff, the world domination plots, the super pets. Then these same guys went on to be the writers of the comics, and they brought that sensibility to the books themselves. Superhero comics have yet to recover from that incursion of irony, and even the movies have yet to really capture the kind of grand cosmic weirdness that they were capable of 25 years ago (both Thor and Green Lantern seem to be getting closer, though).

In fact, it really seems that in the last decade, all the mainstream comics have essentially become genre television in ink form. All above features I listed above are there, in addition to things like a focus on ongoing story arcs, and even the contradictory desire to be both shocking (usually via character deaths) while maintaining the status quo (because change makes people feel scared). As I mentioned, some of this stuff originated in comics and comic readers, so it’s all full circle. It’s worth mentioning that many comics writers in the mainstream today either moonlight as television writers, or seem to desperately want to be (I don’t remember where exactly I read this, but I remember someone saying that Brian Michael Bendis, for example, seems to want to write crime or espionage thrillers, but life dealt him superheroes instead). So there really is no mystery to why all this is going on.

I just don’t really like it. It’s not the type of writing I can really enjoy very often. It gets tiring. You just want them to commit to an idea; either be a full-on comedy making fun of genre tropes, or just write a story using those tropes (hopefully in a creative way). The closest thing to it on my regular viewing plate is Doctor Who, which while not completely serious, is still pretty devoted to its sci-fi ideas, which I find enjoyable more often than not. The funny thing is, the original run of the show is one of the things that I think a lot of genre writers aspire to, but are forced to distance themselves from because of its (perceived or real) cheesiness. The new show embraces its past, but has still taken in what has changed within the world of genre TV within the past two decades, so it ends up avoiding the major shortfalls of both eras. It’s a nice balance, one that I hope to see more of.

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