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Future Interrupted – Four (You Don’t Have To Be Your Daddy’s Batman)

May 21, 2014

Issue 252 of Interzone is now a thing in the world, working its way into the softest parts of your homes wearing the discarded skin of a science fiction magazine as camouflage.

The May-June 2014 issue contains a number of interesting text-based diversions including the results of the 2013 Readers’ Poll and stories by Neil Williamson, Katharine E.K. Duckett, Van Nolan, Claire Humphrey, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam and Oliver Buckram. I mention Buckram last but his story “Two Truths and a Lie” is actually one of the most formally interesting stories to appear in a genre publication:

 

Clues That A New Boyfriend Is Not Necessarily Human

You’re anatomically correct, of that I am sure.

(1) You had no photo ID.

(2) When I kissed you, your face dissolved into a swarm of somnolent hornets, wafting languidly out to sea.

(3) Your sweat smelled like almonds.

 

I’m usually quite ambivalent about this type of experimental writing. Genre short fiction is currently suffering from a surplus of craftsmanship meaning that while a lot of short stories are ‘clever’ and ‘interesting’ few of them actually have anything of substance to say. One of my oldest pet theories is that the huge expansion in paying genre markets is being fueled by an expansion in the number of people who aspire to be published writers. Ban short fiction writers from subscribing to magazines or contributing to fundraisers and I suspect that two thirds of paying markets would collapse overnight. One of the side-effects of this economic shift is that a lot of the stuff getting published is stuff that shines more brightly when seen through the lens of an interest in how to write your own fiction. I struggle with a lot of genre novels as I feel that they are drawing more heavily on the writer’s experience of reading genre fiction than they are on the writer’s experiences and opinions about the world. This problem is even more pronounced in genre short fiction where the energies of many stories come neither from the world nor from the history of genre but from the writer’s experiences of being a writer.

The thing that caught my eye about the Buckram story is that while the experiment is not a complete success, it does try to construct a new relationship between reader and text. Usually, genre fiction operates on the assumption that a writer comes up with a set of ideas and then injects them directly into the reader’s head using their prose as a sort of hypodermic syringe. The difference between most genre and more demanding works of genre such as M. John Harrison’s Light or Simon Ings’ Wolves is that the authors are happy to replace the syringe with a bucket poured out of an open window. What this means in practice is that you only get wet if you happen to be walking under the window at the right time and anyone who wants to suck up all the liquid needs to get down on their hands and knees with a decent sponge. One of the reasons why I respond to art house film is that art house film directors are happy to pass their audience a sponge and to recognise that the bulk of a text’s meaning comes not from the author but from the interpretative leaps performed by the audience. “Two Truths and a Lie” is an interesting story as it uses a format that invites the audience to make their own decisions and do their own interpretative work. In a genre that all too often seeks to drown doubt and ambiguity in a sea of top-down exposition, any attempt to imbue the reader with increased agency must be welcomed with open arms.

The non-fiction is of the usual high-standard too with Andy Hedgecock interviewing Neil Williamson, Walton on VanderMeer, Kincaid on MacLeod, me on not looking at the history of science fiction in terms of a ‘politique des editeurs’ and Nick Lowe rolling up his sleeves and delving into the narrative metaphysics of the Marvel Cinematic universe. What do you mean you’re not a subscriber? See to that immeditely!

 

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My fourth Future Interrupted column entitled “You Don’t Have To Be Your Daddy’s Batman” is about what people interested in the history of science fiction can learn from the history of American comics. The main idea behind the column is Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’ whereby contemporary writers feel obliged to build on the ideas of their precursors rather than to break new ground. Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry argues that the strongest poets are those who find ways of coping with the anxiety of influence and dare to misinterpret the greats.

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FI4

In my last column, I mentioned my desire to widen my horizons and consider how other forms of literature have dealt with the need to re-invent themselves and find new audiences. However, while this first snapshot is devoted to the world of comics, I am less interested in banging a drum for such brilliant contemporary SF titles as Saga, DMZ, The Massive, The Nightly News and Prophet than I amin looking at some of the ways in which the mainstream of American comics deals with its huge back catalogue of old ideas.

As with contemporary science fiction, it is possible to trace a direct line between today’s superhero comics and the pulps of the 1930s. However, while the SF magazines helped to establish a set of cultural commons that anyone can use to write their own stories, comic publishers hoarded ideas and policed who got to write what and how. Indeed, the structure of the American comics industry could easily have been replicated in SF publishing if only Hugo Gernsback’s legendary venality and corruption had been augmented by strategic vision. What if Gernsback had secured exclusive rights to the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne? What if Gernsback had actually paid his writers? Chances are that contemporary SF would be nothing more than officially sanctioned Time Machine fan-fiction in much the same way that contemporary superhero comics continue to tell and retell the story of a child who witnessed the murder of his rich socialite parents.

While the tight editorial control exerted by Marvel and DC may ensure that most of their writers are compelled to produce nothing more than disposable fluff, it is clear that characters like Batman and Superman do occasionally undergo radical reinventions. There is not only a clear difference between the bored and drug-addled playboy of Bob Kane’s original run on Detective Comics and the bare-knuckle corporate brand manager laid down by Grant Morrison in Batman Incorporated, there is also a clear sense in which each of these iterations were responding to the times in which they were created. Grant Morrison’s wonderfully self-aggrandising critical memoir Supergods charts not only how Batman’s costume changed, but also how each new re-iteration of the character could be seen as a direct response to the last; The dark psychotic force of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns could never have existed without the camp and colourful Batman of 1960s TV.

This process of cultural drift is universal. All elements of our culture have a finite lifespan and ideas that one day seem vibrant and relevant inevitably grow hackneyed, decadent and oppressive lest they find a way of renewing themselves and adapting to the times. We see this in the re-invention of Santa Clause just as much as we do in today’s preference for historical visions of King Arthur at the expense of the more romantic interpretations of the character found in the work of Thomas Mallory. Most cultural artefacts are little more than creative variations on established themes. We are trained to think of the history of our culture as a long, straight road out of the past but human culture is more like a vast Darwinian swamp; teeming with established species and chance mutations that may or may not find their place in a forever changing world. While these universal Darwinian processes may also shape the evolution of comics, the tight editorial and copyright controls applied to superhero characters means that their re-inventions are significantly less common and much easier to track. The recent history of mainstream comics reads like a playbook of evolutionary strategies intended to adapt 1930s ideas to a 21st Century world.

Every form of popular culture comes with its own form of baggage; Failed experiments, out-dated successes, abandoned histories and fleeting obsessions continue to inform not only the production of new culture but also its consumption. Different traditions relate to this baggage in different ways. For example, SF people tend to speak of it fondly as a form of inter-generational ‘conversation’. Comics fans, on the other hand, refer to their cultural history as ‘continuity’ and use it as both a barrier to entry and a means of enforcing community values. Indeed, if all iterations of Batman must fit with continuity then authors will have less freedom to write what they want and anyone wanting to join the conversation will be told to do their homework. Though ostensibly different, these two approaches to cultural history are actually two sides of the same coin as non-white, non-male and non-western writers frequently complain of how oppressive and restrictive it is to expect all genre writers to have read the same dead white men. The genre and comic-hating literary critic Harold Bloom referred to the pressure of cultural history as the Anxiety of Influence and explained that creativity comes not from internalising the influence of other writers but setting out to deliberately misinterpret that which came before.

Arguably the most potent misinterpretations of recent comics history are those of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Troubled by various aspects of their cultural history and yet eager to partake, Miller and Moore set out to confront these problems by subsuming them in a brutal and yet-oddly self-conscious form of realism that expressed historic problems as ugly facts about the world. Clearly incensed by the jocular tone and lightweight subject matter of 1960s Batman, Miller’s Dark Knight shows us precisely what kind of broken and obsessive person would don spandex in an effort to fight crime. Conversely, the far more liberal-minded Moore explores the politics of super-heroism by presenting us with first the hideous dystopia and then the unstable utopia created by generations of concerned but politically naïve vigilantes. While Miller and Moore’s attempts to reboot the language of comics and place it on a more ideologically sound footing may be reminiscent of both cyberpunk and feminist SF’s attempts to radically rewrite SF’s cultural history, most substantial comics published in the last thirty years can be seen as attempts to deal with the legacy of Miller and Moore’s artful self-consciousness.

The anxiety of influence confronted by Miller and Moore is the same anxiety that affects contemporary science fiction: How to tell a story when everything has either been said before or said in such a way that it marginalises everyone who is not a white, male baby boomer? As with the genre writings of John Scalzi and James S. A. Corey, some comics writers have responded to the anxiety by simply denying its existence and yearning for a simpler time with simpler politics. A good example of an unapologetically nostalgic comic would be Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman but Alan Moore’s self-penned ABC comics including Tom Strong and Promethea see him struggling to find a way of turning nostalgia into a creatively fertile sensibility.

Another interesting attempt at coping with the anxiety of influence is to produce comics that are about comics and thereby transform superheroes into literary critics. While a lot of contemporary comics contain meta-textual elements, Warren Ellis’s Planetary is an exploration of comics history from their pulpy roots through to the tedium of post-Watchmen grimdark. Weird, oblique and almost completely inaccessible to anyone without a decent understanding of comics history, Planetary uses the same creative strategy as authors like Adam Roberts and M. John Harrison who apply the techniques of genre writing to the history of science fiction in an effort to ask awkward questions about both the genre’s past and its future.

It doesn’t take a great critic to look at the current state of the field and realise that the boundaries between genres have been almost entirely dissolved. As Martin Lewis put it in a review at the website Strange Horizons, “Quietly, and without any fuss, the New Weird has won”. Indeed, like all genre movements, the New Weird was an attempt to overcome the anxiety of influence and the strategy chosen by the New Weird was to not only embrace the history of SF but the history of fantasy, horror and crime too. Rather than weighing authors down with yet more expectations, the decision to treat all genres as equally accessible has empowered authors to come to terms with their anxieties and move on with their lives. This mood of free wheeling postmodernity may fuel the work of such New Weird and post-New Weird writers as China Mieville, Kathe Koja, Mary Gentle and Kameron Hurley but it reaches its logical conclusion in the muscular Dadaism of such Grant Morrison titles as JLA and Batman and Robin. The most striking thing about these series is that, as with his trippy fantasy thriller series The Invisibles, Morrison clearly does not give a fuck about either continuity or consistency as he blows through ideas with little concern about how they might fit together in the reader’s head. Batman and Robin is particularly interesting in this respect as Morrison treats all the inconsistencies of Batman’s history as disparate chapters in a single life: Sure Batman spent a number of years living with an under-aged boy and then grew chest hair and got all sexy with femme fatales but that doesn’t mean that he has to be either or both of those people now! Manacled to a psychologist’s couch and forced to accept and move past all the inconsistencies of his cultural history, Morrison’s Batman exudes the manic spiritual energy of a man who, having realised he has nothing left to lose, lives every day as if it were his last, an explosion of creative energy that cleanses as it consumes, thereby begging the question of how long this fucker can burn before all that’s left is an oily stain.

The history of American mainstream comics shows us that science fiction is not alone in trying to come to terms with both its problematic past and its ambiguous future. In my next column, I will look at an entirely new form of literature that mines conventional wisdom for as yet unspoken truths.

One Comment
  1. August 29, 2014 2:55 pm

    “This problem is even more pronounced in genre short fiction where the energies of many stories come neither from the world nor from the history of genre but from the writer’s experiences of being a writer.” OUCH!

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