February 28th, 2008


Who Watches the Historians?

We had fried plantains for breakfast, with rosehip jelly and PG Tips tea sent to us from the UK by alankria. Sometimes, I must say, we live really well. When the snow is so very deep outside, and there are hounds lying about, and we're sitting at our little wrought-iron table discussing archetypes in comic books over our Cubanesque breakfast. Salve to the soul.

It's all down to Tilda Swinton, see. I think she's sadly underused in her films most of the time, and I hope that the Oscar helps that. In Narnia, of course, she had a great role, and looked amazing, but much like the rest of the film, I felt the performance and character conception was a little one-note, beautiful on the surface, but without much depth. Of course, I'm a bit attached to the character. Bet you couldn't predict that. Anyway, as I do, I got to blathering into my tea about how off the pro-war messages of the film felt when compared to the WWII setting, which is much more explicit than in the books. Especially considering the politics of the era into which the film was released. And that led to how many stories and novels begin with children fleeing the Blitz into the countryside, as though that diaspora was itself a journey into Fairyland.

I find this fascinating. My favorite permuation is definitely The Thing in the Forest by A.S. Byatt, but it's a pretty common theme in fantasy literature, especially British fantasy literature. But what's even more common--and I've wanted to write about this since seeing the otherwise excerable Hellboy--is how many works of science fiction or fantasy begin with WWII and the Nazis, find their source and legitimacy there, root themselves in that history as firmly as they can, wrap themselves up in the warm narrative arms of that war. From Hellboy and Indiana Jones to the Justice League, X-Men, and even Sandman, many comics and pulp-style media, (hell, Doctor Who does it too), if they do not literally begin in WWII, they seem to be driven back to that wellspring.

Now, I'm no comics expert, so I'm just ruminating here, on what I've noticed watching and reading and ingesting culture. But man, does it seem to be consistent. It's where we seem to find legitimacy, in a medium which is often not considered legitimate. It's the equivalent of the medieval attachment to the classical era--if you were writing legitimate literature in Chaucer's era, you damn well set it in Athens or Italy, and you damn well referenced the classical fathers.

I think there are a couple of things going on here. First and simplest, in the Land of Literature, the most Serious and Worthy of subjects, is War. War, as they say, is Srs Bzns. And comics are not. So if one anchors a comic in that most Serious and Worthy of all Wars, one automatically ups the SB quotient by at least a couple of Real Writer Points (tm). Superheroes, after all, are always running about fighting Evil during times of peace, and that's a little decadent, isn't it? I think our culture has been terrified of being decadent in the eyes of the Greatest Generation (which, gag me. I hate that phrase with a passion.) since about September 1945. Real men fight wars, they aren't gothy loners with parental issues. The masculinity issues of many comic book writers past an present notwithstanding, fighting for a country is always more noble than fighting for your own fucked up reasons. It has to be, in mainstream culture, or no handsome young boys would sign up to die in the desert.

But more than that, WWII has somehow replaced every other war in the history of the world as THE WAR. In America, anyway. And this one's easy, you don't have to sprain a brain stem to figure that it was a delightfully clear-cut conflict from the point of view of our current gerontocracy , and  the enemy was nice enough to outfit themselves in Evil Theme, just like a comic book villain. Black and red and silver skulls, lightning bolts on their lapels and a whacked out obsession with the occult. I mean, really, is there a comic book villain that isn't either Hitler or Mengele in modern drag?  I mean, it's so easy. It's so archetypal.  Three generations of cinema and novels have kept WWII at the center of the American consciousness,  as Call of Duty and its slavering ilk will attest. It's practically the only example of clean-cut, no ambiguity, cartoonish evil available. And America sidled in, brawny and square-jawed, and saved the day. This isn't complicated or original as far a analysis goes. Our inability to even recall WWI in the face of such a juicy war, a war where no one questioned us, where they begged us for help, shot up the Batsignal for years, a war so awesome that it took 60 years for people to start scratching their heads as to why we, allegedly not an empire, have 135 military bases on every continent in the world. It's breathtaking, the simplicity. It's why we love it, even though it was a horrific war that when you get right down to it was about as awful and bloody and ambiguous as every other war ever. But on this side of the Atlantic, it's all America vs. the Nazis, and Stalin doesn't figure, nor Japan, really, unless we need a giant monster created by radiation. The whole story is reduced so that it can be used as a bedrock, as fertilizer, as justification, and as a wet dream for hawkish policy-makers.

And comic books, of course, had their boom during and after that war. They began there, it is their mother's teat. But I find it interesting and disturbing that these specific stories reach back to it like a scrawny effete kid pawing his burly daddy for affection. Why pulp-inspired spec-fic? Why comics? What do they specifically glean from that era, what is specially theirs? I'm not sure I know, beyond what I've enumerated here. I think it's a little ugly and very predictable, no longer at all rich or interesting. But it's there and I doubt it's leaving any time soon. Nothing else satisfies like the Nazis when you want the kind of war that'll let you sleep easy at night. It's as though the world began in 1939, and nothing before then was real, real enough to create all the things a comic book hero needs: secret weapons, deranged scientists, radiation monsters, occult artifacts, dark geniuses. And that's why fleeing the Blitz is Fairyland--WWII is the eternal Real World in this subtle genre, and to leave it is to enter the frightening unknown.

But the unknown is always more interesting.

I find myself thinking a lot about this as I'm planning a new series of novels set in the early Stalinist era. Because, you see, when dealing with Russia, that is the easy period. It's archetypal, it's a somewhat obvious choice. But man, it's hard to choose other than totalitarianism when it comes to magical realism. The two want to go together, like, well, comics and WWII. My own personal obsession with Russian history is the era of Tsar Nicholas, just before the revolution, the Russo-Japanese war, the 1905 Duma, which, if you avoid Anastasia and Rasputin, is a largely open field. But I have a hard time rewinding the book forty years. Can you have magical realism in an era most people view as magical to begin with? Was WWII the birth of the non-magical world?

I don't know. Easy choices are easy for a reason.
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