Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pervasive Worlds I: The Heroes of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars

I'll begin my look at these three popular franchises with a look at their heroes: Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, and Luke Skywalker.  Each of these three works immerses its viewer in a new world.  And each does so with success because it shows that world rather than telling through us through huge chunks of expository prose.  The perspective of each protagonist is the lens which reveals it to us.  Their exploration must mirror our exploration.

This means that each of these heroes is, by necessity, cut off from their world.  Their understanding of it must be closer to ours.  Harry Potter does this most directly.  Our hero is raised by an abusive nonmagical family, seeing only hints of the enormous power that is his birthright as a Wizard.  We learn about the Wizarding world at the same pace that he does.  We share his awe and wonder as he buys his first owl, eats his first Chocolate Frog, casts his first spell, and catches his first Snitch.  The Wizarding world's whimsical everyday details, separated from ours by an entire understanding of reality, but yet still charmingly mirroring them, help to draw the reader in.  Rowling's setup allows our protagonist can spend as much time investigating them as we would like to.  In fact, Harry's exploration is the driving force behind most of the first book's plot-- so the revelation of the world that we want is integral to the work rather than being a sideshow or distraction.  Well played, Ms. Rowling.

The other two works are set in worlds entirely separated from our own, rather than in a world hidden within our own, meaning that they can't pull the same trick that Harry Potter does.  Instead, these works give their protagonists lifestyles more similar to people in our world.  Frodo Baggins lives in the Shire, which is basically an idealized rural England populated with midgets.  His people, apart from members of the enterprising and adventurous Took and Brandybuck families, tend to stay at home, avoiding the High Elves, giant spiders, talking Eagles, dragons, and trolls that make their homes in Middle Earth.  Luke Skywalker was raised by moisture farmers (what a disgusting-sounding occupation.  Couldn't they have just been water farmers?) on a backwater planet, cut off by his socioeconomic status from pursuing his dream of becoming a starfighter pilot. These characters still experience many of the most awe-inspiring parts of their worlds for the first time at the same time as we do.

This need to have the protagonist discover things as we do doesn't seem to end with worldbuilding elements.  Each of these three heroes seems to be severed from the typical web of associations that binds each of us into human society.  None of them know their parents growing up.  None of them have siblings.  Their guardians are abusive and distant (the Dursleys), killed off early on and then not mentioned again (Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru), or somebody we already know (Bilbo Baggins)  Frodo is the only one who seems to have a proper circle of friends at the start of the work-- and the only one who he ends up spending a lot of time with during the series is Sam, who was, by constraint of social class, always relatively distant from him before their journey.  Luke has one mentioned friend, Biggs Darklighter, who is mentioned in a single line and then appears briefly in a single scene before going off to die a senseless death in the Battle of Yavin, forgotten by both the audience and, more alarmingly, his friend Luke.  (We see Luke mourn and remember Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Darth Vader, but he doesn't seem affected at all by the deaths of non Force-sensitive people in his life.  In fact, at times, he seems remarkably unconcerned about human life in general-- he never seems fazed by the deaths of nearly all his fellow fighter pilots during the Battle of Yavin, or by the deaths of what must have been a horrific number of people on the first Death Star).  Harry has no friends at all.

In the end, the protagonists get to know the people who are important to them just as we do-- which again allows our creators to show rather than tell.  We learn what kind of man Han Solo is when he (special editions and other re-edits notwithstanding) shoots first.  We understand Aragorn's courage and capability when he stands on a hill armed with nothing but a shattered sword and a burning torch, defending a wounded Frodo from Ringwraiths.  We learn about Severus Snape's cruelty when he takes yet another ten points from Gryffindoer, and learn about his hidden courage when Harry discovers that Snape had, despite his suspicions, been protecting Harry from magical harm throughout the first year.  In the end, the protagonists' lack of early associations helps with the development of the supporting cast, and that's a good thing.

Unfortunately, the "blank slate" aspect of each of these three characters extends beyond their exposure to the world and their associations with others.  They're all rather bland.  Frodo's emotions are binary-- his range seems only to include only heroically-surmounted anguish over the burden of the One Ring and nostalgia for his bucolic home in the Shire.  Throughout the entire epic narrative, he really only makes three choices: to carry the ring, to separate from the rest of the group at the end of the first book, and to express compassion towards the wretched Gollum.

Luke also lacks depth.  He's always less interesting than his companions.  Han Solo, with his selfishness, sarcasm, and motivation changes blows him away.  Leia, decisive and forceful, also overshadows him.  Even the nonverbal Chewbacca and R2-D2 have more charm to the audience than he does.

But despite this, at least Luke is something of a dynamic character-- going from the callow (and really rather obnoxious) youth of the first film to the hasty but much less annoying youth of the second to the budding wise man of the third.  The same cannot really be said for our final protagonist, Harry Potter.

To put it simply, Harry really doesn't change, apart from one rather obnoxious journey into adolescent angst in Book 5.  His principal traits are basic decency, balls-out courage in the face of Voldemort, and social awkwardness-- and he has all of them from the time that he's eleven years old.  He doesn't really grow into the role of the hero-- he just sort of has it from the start.  Neville Longbottom, who appears consistently throughout the books, but never gets much screentime, has a significantly more compelling character arc, going from idiot who can't find his toad to badass who kills a piece of Lord Voldemort's soul residing IN A GIANT SNAKE.  WITH A SWORD.  Harry doesn't have the initial flaws required to have such an arc.  This is something of a wasted opportunity on JK Rowling's part-- Harry's background of horrific childhood abuse could certainly have given him persistent fear, anger, resentment, and trust issues to overcome.  Instead, Harry is blandly virtuous and capable throughout.

So why are our protagonists bland?  Because we, the audience, must be able to identify with them, associate them with ourselves, understand their motivations, and empathize with their feelings.  Their battles must be able to become our battles, their dreams our dreams, their understanding our understanding.  And we, the audience, are a vast and diverse throng of humanity, each with our own unique battles and dreams and understanding.  Luke, Harry, and Frodo need to stand for all of us in their dark worlds.  Each is a symbol of the human race, and the values that we share.  Flat, narrow characterization becomes archetypal.  And thus, an element of each of these stories which is a great flaw comes to serve the needs of the narrative-- brilliant in its brokenness.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Future Series: Pervasive Worlds

As I create more content for this blog, I'm going to intermittently make posts discussing three world-building works that have, more so than all others, penetrated the popular consciousness of the Western world.  Those three works are The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, and the original Star Wars trilogy.  I'm going to try to analyze these works, take them apart, and understand the commonalities that give them their universal cultural impact and weight.  I love all three of these works, and I've spent quite a bit of my life on them. Now it's time to turn a critical eye.  The first post in the series will be about the heroes who we follow as we travel through Middle-Earth, Wizarding Britain, and the Galactic Empire.

White Noise: Don DeLillo Wants You Off His Lawn

In this post, I'll discuss a major American literary novel from 1985, Don DeLillo's White Noise.  

I have a beef with White Noise.  It is not, as you might think, a problem with the novel as a work of art.  DeLillo's prose style is excellent, his conversations punchy and clever, his descriptions flesh out the world well, his pacing is strong.  Don DeLillo is a good writer, and White Noise is a good novel.

It is also a novel of ideas.  And it is these ideas-- the themes that run through the novel as a whole, that I find objectionable.

White Noise is a novel about the increased levels of information people are subject to in modern life and the fear that emerges from a person's inability to deal with that information.  Its narrator, Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies, struggles with both confusion and with stark truths.  His lifestyle at the beginning of the novel is a refuge from the complexity of his past.  His three previous wives were all dealers in secrets, with links to the global intelligence community.  He prizes his current wife, Babette, for her simplicity and solidity and honesty.  He lives in the quaint town of Blacksmith, far removed from cities and their complications, as his friend Murray Suskind, a visiting lecturer from New York, repeatedly mentions.

Gladney is not able to maintain this more innocent, simpler lifestyle.  The children that he and Babette care for are all products of the more complicated late 20th-century world.  His daughter Stephanie empathizes with people on television to the point where she can't bear to watch scenes where somebody is humiliated.  His son Heinrich is a data-driven fatalist.  Her daughter Denise obsessively works to protect the family from health risks.  The family as a whole mangles understanding as they argue about facts and worry about pollution in the sunset.  Only Wilder, whose speech is developing behind schedule, lives in a simpler world.

This intrusion of the overpowering and confusing "white noise" of information when the Airborne Toxic Event erupts near the town of Blacksmith.  The family members develop side effects, including deja vu, in response to suggestions about the Event's side effects.  And Jack suffers from exposure, with unclear side effects (the chemical induces "nebulous masses" in rats).

In the end, knowledge of his exposure to the deadly toxin amps up Jack's fear of death.  The extremes that he and his wife go through to deal with the fear of death break down their mutual trust and drive them both to pursue a mysterious drug delivery system that amplifies the suggestibility that everyone is already implied to have.  In the end, Jack manages to deal with his fear through an application of primally masculine violence (his father in law, Vern, an avatar of a simpler, clearer time, suffering none of Jack's insecurity, symbolically gives him the weapon he uses for the act) followed by an act of humane compassion, and an encounter with some atheist nuns.  In the end, he and Babette deal with their fear by spending more time with Wilder, who brings relief because, as an infant, he has no understanding and none of the fear that it brings.  They simply stare at the sunset without worrying about it.

In this ending, DeLillo celebrates escape from the fear that the complexity of the world by finding refuge in simple viewpoints and animalistic emotion.  He embraces a reactionary retreat into the simplicity and ignorance of the past.  This is problematic.  The problems of the world will continue to exist whether we wish to understand them or not.  We need to confront our future with our eyes open.  Burying our fear in emotion and oversimplification is exactly what the man who Jack Gladney studies asked his followers to do-- and I'm left wondering how a novelist with DeLillo's insight and intelligence could have not noticed this irony.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

First future post: White Noise

The next post will be a review of noted major literary novel White Noise.  It will be entitled White Noise: Don DeLillo Wants You To Get Off His Lawn.

Opening Rant: Contra Continuity

I was going to open with an introduction, but then I realized that you probably wouldn't care, so I'll begin with a discussion (that is, a rant, although hopefully an intelligent and well-informed one).

The blog will begin with an assault on a cursed chain that cruelly and crushingly constrains creativity, credibility and character development in comics about caped crusaders and  costumed cavaliers: continuity.

Before I proceed, I have to admit that I admire the ambition and audacity that comic book companies like Marvel and DC have displayed in creating their great shared universes.  These fictional universes, some of the only places where we can find Greek and Norse Gods, alien superbeings, tech-slinging gadgeteers, stretchy people, and streetwise vigilantes standing shoulder to shoulder against a similarly broad range of natural and supernatural evils besieging humanity, are the product of years of effort and exacting scrutiny to prevent contradictions from arising.  Hats off.

However, despite my respect for the effort that has gone into creating and maintaining these expansive continuities, I believe that they harm both the quality of stories and the revenue streams of the two superhero comics titans.  Having a long-term universe continuity alienates new readers, prevents certain types of experimentation and character development, and strains the willing suspension of disbelief required for many standard superhero plots to work.

The first of the criticisms listed above is also the simplest to explain and understand.  A work which resides in a long-lasting continuity in any sort of meaningful sense will reference details from earlier works in the continuity and have events which lie within chains of causality that stretch back toward the past of the series.  Thus, full appreciation of the work will typically require some knowledge of past events.  This can be be a big problem for a new reader.

Let's use a recent highly acclaimed event within the DC comics universe as an example: the miniseries 52.  52 was a grand, year-long book-a-week event featuring international conflict, the redemption and second fall of an ancient villain, a mystery cult that resurrects the dead, a time-traveler who exploits his knowledge of the future to fight crime, and a lesbian policewoman investigating a gang selling alien superweapons-- and the resulting comic lives up to that premise in awesomeness.  Despite this, I could easily see a new reader giving up in frustration after the first issue.  I'm reasonably well-informed, but I still needed to make a few trips to Wikipedia to find out who two of the major characters featured-- Ralph Dibney and Black Adam-- were.  Somebody completely new to the DC canon-- or at least, the parts of it that have not entered broader pop-cultural awareness-- would have to look up just about everyone who appears within the first few pages alone.  That's a significant effort barrier between the reader and enjoying the comic, and a tough one to surmount.

By locking out new readers, DC and Marvel are pushing away a big potential sales base.  The public definitely has an appetite for stories about superheroes.  The Dark Knight, the Spider-Man films, and even movies about relatively obscure figures like Iron Man and Thor have been big hits.  Perhaps if they were as open to newer readers as the films have been to new audiences, the incarnations of these heroes in their original medium could do the same.

Continuity also puts major constraints on the stories which writers can create and readers can accept.  Continuity demands consistency.  Batman cannot be grim and stoic in one issue, then cheerful and campy in the next.  If the Flash can run faster than the speed of light, he cannot find himself limited to Mach 1 without good reason.  If Spider-Man fails to save Gwen Stacy's life, she must remain dead in future issues, unless she's resurrected.  Anything else will strain our suspension of disbelief.

Unfortunately for superhero comic book writers, most superhero plots revolve around the heroes dealing with various types of supernatural enemies or obstacles.  Most heroes are fairly intelligent people, and we expect them to be able to use skills and solutions that they have used before again.  This leads to a problem when you have a character like the third Flash, Wally West, who, in one in-continuity issue, outraces death itself by running through the spacetime continuum to the very end of the existence of the universe, and then, upon arriving back in his own time, travels back in time to save his girlfriend from her untimely death in the last issue.  This, and other events like it have made the current core lineup of the Justice League into six gods and Batman, and turns many plots involving them into exercises in character stupidity.

The need for consistency also makes certain types of in-continuity universe changes impossible, because they would make future stories difficult.  The permanent death of a character like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man would make future stories with that character impossible, killing a revenue stream for the company.  This means that any storyline which involves the possible death or death of one of these characters loses much of its emotional impact.  Grant Morrison's brilliant All-Star Superman was a story set outside the DC universe's continuity.  It was set during Superman's final days-- and it could gain actual emotional power from the scenario because we knew that this version of Superman would not have to be resurrected to continue to rake in the cash.  Taking away the continuity allows us to have things like aging and authentic death affect the great superheroes, lending additional weight to their stories.

Consistency's constraint on characterization is also, in my opinion, a problem for superhero comics.  Superheroes are mythic figures.  They stand in the public consciousness like Achilles and Odysseus stood in the minds of the people of ancient Greece.  Like all mythic figures, they're subject to multiple interpretations.  Is Superman a godlike being who puts on the mask of humble Clark Kent in order to understand the ordinary humans he protects, or a Kansas farm boy and skilled journalist who puts on the godlike persona of Superman in order to protect his fellow humans?  Both of these interpretations are aspects of the Superman myth, and both can be the root of worthy and interesting stories.  Mythic characters also make especially good fodder for stories that reinterpret aspects of their characterization.  The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus created one of the world's most powerful and enduring pieces of drama, the Oresteia trilogy, by taking the story of Agamemnon's death and changing one of its central figures, Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra, from a passive woman who goes along with her lover's plan to kill her husband to an active woman who kills her husband in anger over his role in their daughter's death.  Even the Iliad featured a reinterpretation-- it's fundamentally a story about how the godlike Achilles comes to respect his more human opponent, Hector, and gains the ability to forgive and grieve for him.  Many great comic stories also feature character reinterpretation: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns sees Batman become a much darker, more savage figure, and Alan Moore's Watchmen is a reinterpretation of the entire myth of the superhero.  Continuity concerns exclude stories like this from the main output of comics publishers.

In a world without continuity, writers could be free to just write accessible stories about both publishers' stables of characters, and be able to introduce new ones without stepping on other writers' toes.  Super-beings engaged in Silver-Age silliness could be published alongside more serious and tragic interpretations of the same figures.  And we could let our modern myths be truly godlike without fear of making their future adventures exercises in stupidity.

Note to the reader: this blog will be about more than just comics.  All manner of subjects will be broached!