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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


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.-- Tim O'Neil, "An Argument for Rules."

By now it should have become apparent that my title's use of the word "rules" is more ironic than Tim O'Neil's, since I actually don't think that the word "rules" applies across the board to all of the assorted expectations that one encounters in all forms of fiction, with particular reference to metaphenomenal works.

Through "Argument" O'Neil continually stresses the need for an author to meet his audience in such a way as to take seriously their need for "consistency and stability." He takes great umbrage at what he deems Grant Morrison's attempts to toss all that out the window:

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 later:

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.

I admire the painstaking reasoning behind O'Neil's assertions, which stands in clear contrast to the lazy snarkitude of Journalista reviewers like Fiore and Crippen. Nevertheless, O'Neil has simply overrated the role of "consistency and stability"-- what Northrop Frye calls "versimilitude"-- in fiction. As Frye notes in the ANATOMY, verisimilitude is only one pole in a spectrum of literary concerns, with "myth"-- which I'll define as the totality of symbolic potential in literature-- occupying the other pole.

I mentioned earlier that Morrison's mini-screed was prompted by a fan's inquiry as to the ages of Batman and Robin, and that this "agelessness" of continuing characters has been commented on by many others, including Umberto Eco, though few commentators have addressed the question as to why such agelessness should be appealing to the readers. O'Neil fails to deal with this question as well, which is particularly vexing since such a question prompted Morrison's anti-rationalism remarks in the first place.

I suspect O'Neil may have avoided the original question because there really is no "rule" that can explain why Batman lives through reams upon reams of adventures that seem to take place in a living, breathing world, without any sign of aging on the part of the hero or of his regular cast. On occasion, one will even have the amusing situation where one character shows some limited aging (Dick Grayson) while another (Bruce Wayne) does not. The only notion that can justify such discrepancies is that the reader expects, even demands, to constantly behold Batman as a living myth-symbol, one who is functionally though not literally immortal. One could postulate that somewhere in Gotham City is the apple-tree of the Norse goddess Idunn, through which Batman and some if not all of his support-cast fend off the stream of time even while temporal events continue to go on all around them-- but then, if you inscribe this rule for Batman, you must then extend it to all of the DC Universe as well, thus attributing to Idunn one heck of a wide-ranging orchard.

Another consideration overlooked by O'Neil is that keeping to the rules doesn't by any means guarantee good stories. From the article "Armed with Canon" on TELEVISION TROPES:

•When John Byrne took over as writer on the West Coast Avengers, a title previously written by Steve Englehart, he proceeded to undermine four years worth of characterization. Hawkeye went from confident leader to sidelined jerk. The Vision and Wonder Man relationship, that had evolved into a bond of close fraternity, returned to one of jealous contention. And the Vision and Scarlet Witch marriage... was altered. After The Vision lost his emotions, their children were discovered to be pieces of the devil, after which The Scarlet Witch went insane. For some reason Byrne decided to hit the reset button and return the characters to a status they had outgrown in over a decade of stories. Some have accused Byrne of wrecking a title that Englehart had arguably made a success out of resentment over how Englehart had written the Fantastic Four, a title John Byrne had made a hit, although it is just as likely a case of creative differences.

I personally am one of those who found Byrne's alterations of continuity distasteful. Yet in no way could I argue that Byrne had broken any "rules" in his re-interpretation of Marvel continuity. Whether one validates the approach of Byrne or of Englehart depends almost entirely on aesthetic logic rather than systematic logic-- as well as personal "expectations."

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