July 27, 2004

Bricolage in a new age

Being offline so much means missing a few things, like Crisis on Infantile Earths, over at John and Belle have a blog. The post quotes me, so naturally it drew my attention.

I can't actually read the post on my Solaris box, due to some damn bug in Netscape for Solaris, so I'm reading it on the adjacent Windows machine, which speaks Dutch and uses an AZERTY keyboard. AZERTY hurts my fingers. Plus, I'm a week late. But let me make a few brief points.

Bricolage is a fairly common class French word that means something like do-it-yourself on one hand and jury-rig, something of an old fashioned English word itself, on the other. John Holbo means the second, but in modern French the trend is towards the first. There is a chain of Home Depot type stores in Belgium, and I think adjacent countries, called Brico.

Comic books are bricolage in the second sense. The recent Spiderman movies, for example, tells the origin story of Spiderman using a genetically engineered spider rather than an irradiated one. Times change. We have largely replaced an irrational fear of radiation with an irrational fear of genetic engineering. Comics are built of the stuff on hand: today's fears, today's myths, today's archtypes.

The bards also did their fair share of bricolage, but in the other sense. Bardic myths were a form of do-it-yourself artistic production, and that seems to me to be exactly what comic books aren't. Capitalist production strongly discourages the most productive part of the classical arts: The power to repurpose. One has to wonder how many different versions of the Iliad were in circulation, and how long it took before every bard in ancient Greece had to know the "canonical" version, or else the audience would complain that they weren't telling it right.

I think this alienation of people from their own artistic abilities, this tendency for people to view artistic production as merely another form of commercial production, represents a real transformation of the human condition. Someone of my background would like to blame capitalism, but it's not quite so simple. The role of money in the arts probably dates back to the dawn of money. But, there has been a qualitative change in the last century or two. I need little more than a TV and a DVD player to enjoy finer and higher quality arts every day than many folk a few centuries ago might have seen in their lives. That is what modern technology and the commodification of art have brought us, and it's wonderful. But in so doing people have turned the arts into something consumed, rather than something collectively produced and transmitted.

The superhero genre, because of its aspiration to mythic qualities, has suffered more because of this transition than other arts. The Greek myths didn't need to be consistent and didn't need resolution. The failings John identifies in Crisis on Infinite Earths - that it's real motives were commercial rather than artistic, and as such is a failure as art - never applied to the Greek myths. If you want consistent myths, you retold them differently. You made them consistent. You had that power. There was no quality control, but there was also nothing to prevent you from going into the business yourself. The bards were specialised to be sure, but those same bardic tales were told around the campfire and to children at bedtime.

Do you tell Spiderman stories to your children at bedtime? I doubt it. US law and the Berne convention are quite clear: only Marvel Enterprises, Inc. and its licensees can tell, perform or distribute Spiderman stories. The key element of the bardic mode of production is therefore cut off.

Imagine, for a moment, some modern parallel of the bardic way. Imagine anyone - anyone at all - could write Spiderman stories. Would there be any consistent Spiderman "universe"? Of course not! It would be unthinkable. But you wouldn't care. Each Spiderman could be judged on its internal qualities, on the content the author is trying to put forward, and on how it integrates that new content into the existing Spiderman mythos. We wouldn't need no-prizes or nitpicker's guides.

That would be bricolage.

I don't see the necessary revolution in artistic production coming just around the corner. I wish I did. We have the technology to implement universal licensing requirements, to track copying and readership and usage and distribute revenue appropriately. We could have a genuinely collective production of the arts again. But I don't think I'll live to see it.

Instead, I think the problem Alan Moore and Timothy Burke highlight and Holbo expands on - the problem of consistency and embarassing accumulations of backstory - will need a different kind of approach. I forsee success for works undertaking one of two possible approaches: either postmodern self-referentiality or the embrace of temporality and mortality. The first inevitably decends into kitsch for kitsch's sake; the second abandons mythic qualities altogether.

Comics isn't the only medium or genre facing these choices. Tarantino has been working hard at subverting the conventions of action films, producing self-referential works that are incomprehensible if not unwatchable without already being familiar with the genre. Wes Craven's Scream films have done the same for horror. Both are spectacularly popular but of only limited repeatability. The more likely option is the second one: face the constraints of realism, the kind of fantastic realism of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer rather than the footnoted realism of "hard" SF if possible, and make comics where time passes, changes take place, and development is possible and where the authors and artist recognise from Day 1 that one day - not too far in the future - the work will be done.

Cerebus was daring in part because of its willingness to embrace this on an incredible scale. Buffy too seemed to have an inevitable end. Buffy's death at the end of season five is a release. It seems all but inevitable by the time it happens. What other end could someone like Buffy come to? And, part of what is truly amazing about Buffy is how Wheadon was actually able to bring the character back from the dead and subvert his own convention by giving us an ending that is an even greater release: Buffy is freed from the burden of slayerhood.

It seems to me that that sort of fantastic realism is what Kurt Busiek is talking about. Magical realism, in the hands of Garcia Marquez, is the reality of Bolivarian Latin America. It is ambiguous whether or not it is intended to be fantastic at all. Magical realism in English all too often just means fantasy that people who look down their noses at fantasy will admit to reading. I would like to propose an alternative definition - perhaps under the name fantastic realism instead - one that carries a sense that might apply to Buffy, or to Angel to an even greater degree: Fantastic realism needs to be realistic from the narrow perspective of the participants. It must not be irrational from the point of view of personal lives. People must need to go to the bathroom. They must have realistic relationships. They need to have jobs. At the micro level, it must be realistic. At the macro level - social change, events out of camera, big things - they need not be realistic, or even follow a logical pattern.

This means refocusing on characterisation and on a dialogic conception of life. It means abandoning our archtypes, and with them the idea of comics as a mythic literature.

It's okay though. DC was born in the depression and the second World War, in the need for a personified vision of hope in the face of ruin. Confronted with horrors both big and small, it drew majestic myths on grand canvases. Marvel, in contrast, was born in the 60s and driven by tales of oppression and empowerment. The X-men are mythic, but they are not so mythic as the God-become-Man in Clark Kent's suit, or the sensual, nocturnal Dark Knight who guards the good while they sleep. Superman fed on what people needed: a God to save them. Spiderman was the story of the geeky boy in a newly urbanised America, confronted with petty crime and indifference, who confronts his fears, matures and finds empowerment in accepting responsibility for the city around him, even when others don't. The X-Men were a retelling of the Civil Rights movement in multicoloured tights, drawing on the radical transformation of America and the need to make that change personal and comprehensible to a young white male audience. And now, comics need to find new realities to lash together. Bricolage doesn't stop just because the world changes.

Comics exist in a world of changing needs. If we don't need those myths so much, that's okay. Comics as a medium and superheros as a genre can meet new needs.

Posted 2004/07/27 15:17 (Tue) | TrackBack

I first seriously learned to touch-type on the AZERTY keyboard of a PC running Solaris. Of course, I had remapped it and hunt & peck was no longer an option.

As to the content of your post, it's all good, all coherent, and so comprehensive that I can't really think of anything to say about it. As has been said elsewhere, this is fucking impressive for writer's block.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at August 3, 2004 9:59

Actually, my writing's gotten somewhat better the last week or so. I was taking some medication to sleep as well and I suspect it was messing with me more than I thought it was. Once I stopped, I could write a lot better. It takes a couple weeks to get out of my system, so hopefully I'll be able to do this on demand again. As long as I don't go back to being insominac.

Geez, my ego is already too big. :^) Thanks.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 4, 2004 14:23

If everyone could write Spider-Man stories, there would be no fuss about canon, you say, and yet - one hears that some of the many Star Trek fanfics have been adopted by other fan-writers as background to their own stories. Canon thus has tiers and branches. Eric Raymond's essay on "prototype worlds" can be paraphrased as pointing out some of the gross divisions of the highest level of canon.

Posted by: Anton Sherwood at August 15, 2004 1:36
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