All Worn Out

July 10, 2007

Ah, why not. This is something that I just wanted to expand on from comments left elsewhere, see if I might be onto something. I thought of tying in Adorno, but it would’ve been too much, and it’s already tough enough to get through my ramblings alone. :P

Journalista’s Dirk Deppey has a term for the era of comics roughly kicked off by Identity Crisis leading to Infinite Crisis and Civil War and still running relatively healthy today. He dubs this trend “superhero decadence,” possibly maybe as a nod to Joanna Russ’ Wearing Out of Genre Materials. (If you can get on a university or library connection, the full article is located here.)

Russ’ concern was with the future of the science fiction genre, but she looked across other genres to find similar patterns and ominous warning signs. According to Russ, a genre goes through three stages:

  • Innocence
    • Ideas and themes are treated with a naive wonder.
    • Pleasure in novelty for its own sake; being all about the “concept” and the pleasure in running with it as far as it can go.
      • See: those crazy Jimmy Olsen comics and old “Imaginary Stories” from the Silver Age.
      • Furthermore, Russ argues that one sci-fi story of this age follows the structure that: “The rest of the story is merely a set of devices to delay that final revelation and the creation of a sketchy world into which the final revelation can erupt.” This is sort of the same principle with the old DC practice of coming up with the big cover idea first, then writing around that.
  • Plausibility
    • The pleasure is in working things out, and treating things with more of a logical rigor.
    • Which means, I think, constraints being put down for the sake of logic, but also coming up with a logical system explaining everything, and playing with that structure.
  • Decadence
    • Ideas and themes “petrified”
      • Things have been reduced to formulaic rituals, and the pleasure is in these cliches and rituals.
    • Ideas and themes “stylized”
      • Where they are creatively manipulated or parodied, and the pleasure is in aesthetic play

I think we’re pretty well stuck in the decadent stage. Decadence isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Writers like Grant Morrison and Dan Slott tend to fall in the positive end. As for the negative end, leading the genre to a petrification the likes westerns, vampires, slasher and maybe the entire horror genre have seen… well, they all work at DC (Marvel’s big flaws seem to be being spastic and oblivious, then stagnating with rituals and old characters… well, I’ll give you the recent Skrull mulligan). Morrison’s Animal Man and Flex Mentallo. Sea Guy manipulated the conventions and themes of the genre by placing it in a mundane, “post-victory” world. All-Star Superman is Morrison’s attempt at emulating a certain aesthetic and, in so, is hitting on the pleasure of the Silver Age rituals.

Alan Moore, on the other hand, strikes me as more in the “Plausibility” stage. Like Morrison, he tries to evoke and emulate a certain aesthetic (like Tom Strong and Top Ten). But Moore’s more structural and dense than Morrison, I think, also drawing on much more outside the cape genre and its “formulaic rituals.” Russ describes the Plausability mindset as asking “‘What, if really?’ and the author isn’t satisfied until he has constructed a whole society, a whole technology, and a set of rules for the aperation of rebellion robots.” Kind of like Moore’s SF comic Halo Jones – Moore took the “space marine” idea and started constructing a society, and bringing in hazards like time dilation and extreme gravity. But back to superheroes, Moore’s ingenious revelation of Swamp Thing follows the sort of a plausible reasoning, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has the tons of literary references and meticulously created vintage advertisements and back up stories. Watchmen, I think, might even serve as the sort of fuzzy boundary – Moore is definitely trying to take a plausible look at superheroes by weaving in serious real world issues (Vietnam, rape, war) and deeply personal issues (age, sexuality). Top Ten also has this kind of meticulous world-building.

Russ was also trying to figure out how, with the eventual nostalgic copying or general creative recycling, a genre can stay viable. Where once Bela Legosi terrified many with Dracula, the reaction now is more towards derision or camp, she argues. Because the vampire genre (and I would assume parodies thereof, kind of like how The Crying Game is sorta forever dulled) wore out that movie’s motifs, reducing it to “quaint” and “predictabile.” Similarly, there’s only so much you can do with Batman or Superman and so on. Russ cynically notes that with the saturation of mass media, “Motifs begin to rot before they have got out of the first stage… The mass media seem to have got stuck at a level of ritual repetition, what passes for ‘new ideas’ on TV being mostly a desperate addiction to quirks and the trimming with cheap gimmickrv of very stale stuff indeed.” Of course, you can probably apply this to the cape genre with the “continuity porn,” gore, character deaths, rape, events, weekly releases, and all that. Warren Ellis seemed to try and kick start the cycle again with the off-the-wall novelty and fun of NextWave, and the format of Fell.

To be fair, Russ’ model could also be applied to manga genres as well. The shounen genre is a prime candidate for the decadent stag, stuck in the rituals of Inexplicably Powerful Young Male Scamps, power surges, Stoic Loner Rivals, Sidelined Announcers, etc. I kind of wonder if the deluge of yaoi manga might bring up the same issues as well…

So what do you think? Do you agree with Russ’ model? If you do, where do you think the genre or certain writers are on the scale?

3 Responses to “All Worn Out”

  1. Ajax Says:

    That is a pretty compelling model, to me anyway. But I do think genres can be revitalized, and the cycle kicked back to “innocence” where anything goes and the field is wide-open for the creative input from a variety of sources, once they’ve been put down for awhile.

    In a way it’s kind of generational, the way that the Star Trek franchise was sort of moribund after four or five movies had scraped the bottom of the barrel with the original cast/plotlines. But Michael Piller, who was largely responsible for the blasting open of the doors to the writing room in Star Trek: The Next Generation, being a mere teenager when the original series aired, wasn’t as invested in “canon” as Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Trek universe. Piller’s guidance (and willingness to disregard Roddenberry, who threw a number of tantrums during the early years about what was being done to “his vision”) that freed the show to go in a variety of new and different directions.

    Deep Space Nine, my favorite Trek series, is in many ways the least Trek-like show of all, and wasn’t even begun until after Roddenberry’s death. And I’d say that show probably falls into the “Plausibility” generation, because it featured long story arcs where the consequences of decisions had to be addressed, and the broader cast of characters (rather than just a single Starfleet crew, all sharing the same basic mission and philosophy) made for a very different and more realistic dramatic tone.

    After DS9 wrapped, I kinda fell out of love with the Trek franchise, so although I can’t claim from evidence that Voyager and/or Enterprise represent the “Decadence” part of the cycle, I’d happily believe it based on some of the conceits that I heard about from others who’d watched it. But it’s certainly to be expected that after fifteen years (!) of one Trek show or another being on the air, that the genre gets tired and of interest mainly to the die-hards who are putting their own energy into keeping it going.

    Now, after three years with no new Trek out there, there’ve been rumors that J.J. Abrams (of Lost fame) may be tapped to do another movie — a prequel this time — focusing on a young Kirk and Spock. Whether this is a final fart of Decadence-era parody (Batman and Robin) or a fresh new voice that will kick off another new Renaissance/Age of Innocence for the franchise (Batman Begins) depends largely on how it’s received, and how good it is.

    I think as a fan, the period that most appeals to me is the “Plausibility” period (which I might call “Maturity”). By this point you’ve generally got a rich enough world that there isn’t a need to keep throwing huge new chunks of novelty at people, and you can start really “getting to know” the world in depth and detail.

    In comics, the critical early period where characters are introduced and their names are said and their powers are displayed is all fine and good, but if drawn on too long, you end up with nothing but a list of names and powers. Eventually you need to take the action figures out of the box and actually “do drama” with them, give them the necessary attention to make them into people rather than just muscles in costumes.

    You can argue that all of that can still happen during the explosion of creativity in the “Innocence” period, but I tend to find that’s not really so: introducing lots of new material always, always takes the focus off of old material and prevents it from being thoroughly explored. Eventually you need to close the door to radical new concepts and allow the ones you’ve established as foundational to play out in a dramatic arena — to tease out their implications. That’s when your fictional world “matures”, and produces (what I consider to be) its most thoughtful and compelling stories.

    — Ajax.

  2. […] du Désappointement is all worn out on this new age of comics. Journalista’s Dirk Deppey has a term for the era of comics roughly kicked off by Identity Crisis […]

  3. Ian Says:

    Batman Begins is “plausibility” not “innocence”.

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