Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Purpose of Comics, or, Why Grant Morrison Doesn't Write Comics Part I

Okay, I just started reading Final Crisis.  I had been putting it off forever because one of my favorite heroes (The Martian Manhunter) gets killed off.  Well, the guy (or gal) that had it before me at the library FINALLY returned it (after months) and now I'm in the midst of reading it.

Now, I've never been a fan of Grant Morrison, or Morrison-esque "stories," but, despite the fact that there are parts of Final Crisis that makes me want to throw the book against the wall, on the whole it's not that bad.  (So far.)  But it only affirmed what I had previously thought: Grant Morrison does not write comics.

Being true to my philosophical roots, I'm going to start my argument at the very beginning, just like Renee Descartes, and build everything back up from there.  And because it's my blog, I'm going to define the premises of the argument how I want so that I can win the argument.  It's an old philosopher's trick.  Hey, I might as well be honest.

Here we go.

Let's define comics first.  Because why bother arguing about anything if we don't know exactly what we're talking about?

I'm going to define comics as visual stories.  That makes them fiction, and that makes them logically equivalent to novels, short stories, movies, sitcoms and TV dramas.

Okay, then.  What's fiction?  A dictionary definition basically says fiction is something made up by someone.  It's a deficient definition, because then we'd have to count daydreams, jokes, and lies as fiction.So, let's say that fiction is something made up intentionally, and for a specific purpose.

So why do we seek out stories?  Or, what's the point of reading comics?

I think the majority of comics readers read for entertainment, and probably the same can be said for novels and movies.  Other reasons for creating fiction might be: to inform, to propose ideas (science fiction does this), to share's one's life experiences, to create a puzzle for the reader to solve (mystery and detective stories), to find meaning, to make money, and so forth.  I'm going to go with entertainment as the main reason.

But that covers all comics, the good, the bad, and the average.  What about the really good ones?  The stories that you really liked?  The ones that made you think, or made you look at a character differently, or awakened some sort of insight in you?  Why do fans rave about certain stories and hate others?  There's an emotional compenent to all this raving: a reader just knows they like a certain story, on a very fundamental and primal level.  Something clicks, and we might not be able to put our finger on it, but we know we like it and move on to the next thing (except nutcases like me who spend hours trying to figure out why).  We also know we don't like something, and because comics is a unique medium which has 70+ years of backstory to build on, there are a lot of variables to consider.

To make this easier, let's look at why a reader doesn't like a story.  Here's a few reasons that spring to mind:

1.  The characters were written "out of character."
2.  The plot was poor: the storyline lead to a weak conclusion, nothing happens, or it was otherwise confusing, derivative, or lazily-written.
3.  The story wasn't about anything, it had no "heart" or premise, or fails to express any good ideas.
4.  The art was poor.
5.  Continuity mistakes were made.

I'm going to knock out 3 and 4, because art isn't the fault of the author, and 4 is just another way to say "plot hole."  So we're down to 1, 2, and 3: Character, Plot, and Story, the foundation of all fiction.  1 and 2 are the technical components of fiction: how the story is told.  3 is the why, and is much more elusive.  To draw an analogy to music, 1 and 2 are like good vocal training, they allow you to express yourself, and 3 is the what that you are singing about, be it love, zombies wanting to eat your brains, or finding out your sailor boyfriend came back from America with a wife after he promised himself to you.  (Flash Fact: that's from Madame Butterfly.  Not the zombie part, that is.)  It is this what, or story content, that makes a story about something and gives it meaning: it is what the author is telling you for whatever reason: humor, enlightenment, intellectualism or whatnot, and this is drawn from an author's personal experiences, imagination, and worldview.

From this standpoint of communicating and expressing something to an audience, we can say that an author is connecting to the reader on some level.  We've already seen that that tether to the reader is an emotional one, and I don't mean emotional as in "this story made me cry," I mean emotion as in, "I don't have to think about whether I this story sucks, I just feel it."

This visceral connection to a story is a primal one.  People have been telling stories to each other for thousands of years, and some of these stories, like Gilgamesh and The Odyessy, are still around.  Fiction tells a universal "Truth," and this is how the author connects with us and how we identify with the author.  How often have you laughed at a funny story and said, "It's funny because it's true!"?  There's a truth behind good stories, and we know when an author gets it right and when an author gets it wrong.  Just like when an author draws a person out of proportion, we know when we're being told a story that doesn't ring true.  We seek out stories which speak this truth about humanity to us: be it humor, tragedy, irony, imagination, mystery/the desire to know, bravery, vengeance, justice, and so on, in an effort to better understand ourselves, to be entertained, to laugh, to find meaning, to expand our minds, and to identify with others and become a part of a collective whole via a shared experience (i.e. Humanity, or, Comic Book Fans).  It's that last one that's the most powerful, I think.

To recap: Comics are stories, which means they're fiction, which are created by an author to satisfy a certain purpose, which communicate meaning via character and plot, and which express a universal Truth about mankind's shared experience.

In Part II, we'll examine why some stories fail and why some don't.

If you've stuck around this far, you get a prize.

Enjoy this video of dancing squirrels:


The One True GL said...

I was waiting for the "Grant Morrisson doesn't think, therefore he doesn't exist" part. :)

LissBirds said...

Bwahaha! That's a better conclusion than I could've come up with.