Fwafe fonflif!

cerebus81I saw Cerebus the Aardvark #1 on the stands in my comics shop in Monterey; I was twelve. I did not buy it because it misspelled a mythological figure’s name, which I took to indicate unforgivable ignorance, and because at first inspection it seemed to make fun of my very favorite comic, Conan the Barbarian. I was perhaps an over-serious pre-teen and did not think highly of silly or parodic comics if they were not in Mad Magazine.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, I encountered the “you don’t read Cerebus?!” response from my friend Simone and began my reading approximately with the depicted issue, which begins Church & State Part II, and my purchasing with the trial of Astoria near the end of that sequence. Apparently I was in it to win it, because as the years passed, I acquired every issue I could as far back as I could, filled in the earlier ones with the helpful reprint series issued at about then, and in the fullness of time, one by one, purchased every new issue until the series’ conclusion at #300.

The Roach – suffice to say – is a character who sequentially and very successfully satirizes various mainstream superhero and semi-superhero characters throughout most of the title’s long run. At this point in the story he hilariously transitions from a Wolverine to a more generic Marvel persona in a new skintight black costume who can stick to walls (tha-pock tha-pock), now named after and heavily invested in something called the Sacred Wars. Queried about it, he explains that he can’t say, because they’re Secret Sacred Wars.

One of my favorite bits is the two-page, multi-panel spread of the Secret Sacred Wars Roach further “explaining” the Sacred Wars in detail, via his henchmen’s (Drew and Fleagle in unflattering Secret Sacred Wars Roach costumes) memorized monologues. The layout puts Cerebus glaring at the reader in mute frustration at the left edge, and the next time you see his face it’s set in the same expression at the bottom right. I want that spread as a poster. I also like the business of his gestures, while forgetting that Cerebus’ head is still stuck to his palm.

At one point, on a page which is unfortunately not present on the internet, the Roach extols the virtues of Conflict as the origin of Character, which he rightly knows he “needs more,” to the point of battering the brothers around, then seizing Drewroach and forcing him to repeat after him:

  • “Let me hear you say it.”
  • Drewroach, significantly speech-impaired by the mighty hand engulfing the lower half of his face, manages to squeak,“Fonflif.”
  • “Louder.” “Fonflif!”
  • PRAISE CONFLICT.” Fwafe fonflif!”

Now, briefly I’ll dip into talking about what an author meant, something I don’t ordinarily do, but in this case Sim is very helpful:

Another of Big Jim’s hard and fast rules of storytelling was that “conflict creates character” which is why Dirty Fleagle and Dirty Drew spend most of their time as the Secret Sacred Wars Roach’s henchmen beating crap out of each other.  My own view would be that conflict forces decision-making and decision-making breaks down into bad decision-making which is destructive and good decision-making which is creative. In both cases the development of character can result: in the former case because a lesson is learned from making a mistake and in the latter case because a good decision results in immediate improvement. It seems to me that believing that “conflict creates character” in and of itself explains why there was so much conflict in the editorial offices of Marvel Comics through much of the 1980s. [emphasis mine – RE]

My selective excerpt doesn’t convey Sim’s larger, positive point about Jim Shooter’s editorship, so before you assume anything about that, see the full passage at the link below.

But I’m not talking about policy or legacy, I’m talking about the immediate and on-the-ground effect on making stories. Sticking with the specific “what is conflict” point alone, I’m saying, right on Dave. Conflict isn’t a fight, it’s a demanding situation, in which in-the-moment decision-making matters very much. I’ll go further along my usual road and specify that the situation must correspond to something in the rich but bounded array of familiar human problems.

Rich but bounded. That’s crucial. We aren’t infinite creatures. We have particular developmental paths, a particular physiology, what we biologists call life-history which is different for every species. This freaks people out because they think I mean there’s a single individual human experience, which is not the case. In fact, the opposite: the boundaries make us capable of appreciating the different individual experiences within them. A quick outline, emphasizing that for each bulleted topic, there are literally dozens of potential problem-situations and situationally-viable options:

Intimate and personal

  • Family and parenting
  • Maturation
  • Romance and fidelity

Social and political

  • Aggression, violence, transgression
  • Cooperation and exploitation
  • Deception of oneself and others

Think of the first three wrapped in a historically-specific matrix of the second three, such that “family” in one era and location invokes different values and immediate decisions from “family” in another … but is still recognizable as such.

Stories are thought-experiments of the human experience. One doesn’t have to romanticize that experience or make up nonsense about “humans unlike other animals” in order to love it and be fascinated by it, and thus to love and be fascinated by stories. Conflict only makes sense to us as a decision-point concerning some combination of these topics. Violence (a “fight”) is one of them – insofar as it’s linked to, arises from, and gets/gives context to one or more of the others.

Whereas many, I’d say most violent confrontations in superhero comics do no such thing. They’re contrived to the point of absurdity, based on coincidence, weird senses, mind control, and time travel, as I shall outline in a moment. I grant that rarely even these confrontations are grounded in emotional or circumstantial causes which resonate with me as a reader; in other words, when the misunderstanding or other circumstance of the fight is a subordinate feature of a fictionally-solid situation. If that happens, then nothin’ wrong with that! But the Secret Sacred Wars in Cerebus satirized the fact that this is the extreme minority case.

It’s not just about the Secret Wars, nor about Shooter individually. All superhero comics including the ones I have most enjoyed and talk about here at this blog are painfully stuffed with contrived “we must fight” moments, based on the following plot points:

  • “Villain robs bank or commits other brainless act in broad daylight, when hero happens along,” to the point that one wonders if villains ever do anything bad outside of the path of the hero’s habitual patrols. Sometimes super-senses are shanghaied into existence to justify these events, but interestingly they are rarely used for anything else despite being nominally still in the hero’s possession.
  • Misunderstandings or unreasonable responses, between hero and villain or, often, between hero and hero. Mind Control Incidents (MCI) are frequently used to justify these when otherwise the characters would seem to be suffering from significant social and cognitive disorders.
  • Time travel is another colorful and dubiously justifiable way to get the above two points into play.

The Secret Wars, both of them I suppose, happens to be a distilled, extreme degree thereof, editorially enforced as such, which is not nothing, but I don’t want to single it out in terms of the phenomenon itself. This is a constant thing. Instead I want to raise the much more difficult question of whether such scripting is intrinsic to superhero stories, as opposed to being an artifact of the historical context and exigencies of such comics throughout the decades. In other words, can comics feature superheroes in their startling absurdity (powers, costumes, et cetera) and yet also their politically-relevant and/or emotionally-affecting drama, without such contrivance? And to stamp my question yet further into difficulty, without, repeat without self-reference, deconstruction, or meta-commentary?

Much less reliance on coincidence (i.e. present similarly to most other story-based media), little or no misunderstanding, little or no mind control, and little or no time travel insofar as it forces the former into play – what would superhero story creation look like then? I can name a few titles that did this a little bit. Could a whole writing stable accord with it, such that it characterized a whole line of super-powers titles?

Special request: your personal opinions of Dave Sim or Jim Shooter are not the topic here. Also, since the comic and this storyline and the Roach are stuffed full of geek-out must-repeat bits, please attempt instead to be cool and talk about the conflict thing.

Links: A moment of Cerebus

Next: Whom were they watching?

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on May 31, 2015, in Storytalk and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think this perpetual “high alert” is something that turned me off comics until I discovered a few of the independents who were simply producing narrative through text and sequential image. (That, and the set up of a conflict at the end of an issue, only to require purchasing next months issue to see the conflict resolved..but that’s a different topic again).

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  2. Eh, if you ask to limit replies to the conflict thing, it’s difficult to write something longer than “I agree”…

    i could try to cite some comic book that falls under your conditions, but… does ANY comic books exists these days without “self-reference, deconstruction, or meta-commentary”? It would be difficult to find one, even without the conflict condition…

    I tried to recall a lot of comics that don’t present (or present a minimum) these gratuitous conflicts, but each one has some self-reference, deconstruction or meta-xcommentary (and some even have some gratuitous conflict)

    I think that, even before Shooter’s edicts, there was a very practical reason for them: in every single issue you had to present the characters and their powers. i a romance or police comics you don’t need to show “powers”, you only need someone to call a character by his or her name and cite their profession or any other necessary information. But in super-hero comics, you can’t tell the readers all the character’s powers in dialogue. So for example Lee and Kirby always started their stories with characters in action, using their powers.
    They tried to make these pages less gratuitous, and many times they were able to (see all the times the initial conflict is about curing the Thing or some other issues that did show existing conflicts among the characters or inside a single character), but at the end if you have to put a conflict every single time at the start of the story, it’s much simpler to have Peter Parker stumble in a back robbery and be done with it in a couple pages. (and probably a lot of X-Men writers thank in their heart whoever did came up with the idea of the Danger Room)

    I think that that reason was very clear for Shooter, i remember seeing a post in his blog recently where he criticized some of the “new 52” DC comics first issues because they didn’t present the characters and their powers to the readers.

    I think it’s for this reason that it’s so difficult to find a complete series without these gratuitous conflict: because you can go for a lot issues without it (just to cite a couple of examples: Daredevil Born Again and Spider-man’s Kraven’s Last Hunt), but there is another issue after that, and another, and another, and sooner or later the writer will not have an idea for a meaningful conflict or some other way to show the character’s powers…

    Lately, with the TPBs becoming the primary publishing format, a lot of writers are not doing that initial exposition any more… but then there is the problems I cited above: that even if lately is much easier to find superhero comic books without these gratuitus conflict, it’s almost impossible to find some without self-reference, deconstruction, or meta-commentary….

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  3. A kind crazyman sent me scans: http://adept-press.com/wordpress/wp-content/media/secsacwarsspread.pdf. View it at high magnification (130% or more) or else the rendering goes all funky.

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  4. I’ve been chewing on this question all day. Heck, I’ve been chewing on this issue in one form or other for over a decade, and I’ve made little progress.

    One of my goals with the original edition of With Great Power was “No fill-in issues,” which was essentially that dictate that all conflicts be meaningful to the characters’ growth and their thematic purpose. I tried to do this by starting from that thematic purpose and building all the heroes, villains, etc. outward from that (a trick I blatantly stole from Sorcerer).

    Did it work? A little bit. It could certainly maintain a single story arc. I don’t really run campaigns, so I don’t have any idea of how long it could maintain itself.

    I think that’s the crux of it: Serial publishing. I’ve always felt that a limited series was likely to be better than an unlimited series (and movies better than TV shows) because it can take a single, unified story and just *tell it.* While in ongoing series, there always needs to be something happening next month, and the month after that. The business priority of “must keep publishing” overrides the creative priority of “tell this story” or “explore this idea.” As you point out, human beings are finite, and so are our stories, but superheroes are not. Superman has outlived Siegel and Shuster, and Spider-Man will outlive Lee and Ditko. So they need to keep doing *something* and, as a sub-genre of adventure stories, that something needs to be exciting. And the medium of comics conveys physical violence pretty darn well.

    I’d say that a limited series certainly could contain nothing by dramatically-relevant conflicts. But in monthly publishing? No way. The machine will constantly need to be fed.

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    • As the optimist in this matter, I’m thinking that several variables get confounded and could be teased apart.

      1. Superheroes/villains and whatever combination of images or ‘powers’ goes with that this time.

      2. Social context: establishment, law/crime, policy crisis, activism, and more.

      3. Personal soap opera and dramatic development; some including myself place this as a subset of #2.

      4. Serial fiction – I’m suggesting that it’s too quick/automatic to identify #1 with this, and also that “serial” doesn’t mean “perpetual unto eternity,” or even continuous per character.

      5. Character or image-of-character as branded product, of which the comic is only one part and probably not its primary ROI part. I’m suggesting that it’s too quick/automatic to identify #4 with this.

      Soooo … if the persons creating comics aren’t invested in #5 at least not at the moment, and if “fights” are to be almost completely understandable or coherent in terms of #2-3 … and if #4 is not enslaved to #5 …

      Then perhaps #4 doesn’t enforce “stupid fight” as automatically as that, after all, even for a series which isn’t absolutely finite, or rather, short. Even given the historical constraints, a few long-running series have shown how well they can avoid it – I’ll be posting about them with an eye toward this question for sure.

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  5. I feel like Strong female Protagonist is an example of a not-contrived, relevant-conflict, serial superhero comic, though I don’t know that it passes the not-meta-commentary test… though given that the author is actually not a big supers comic fan, I feel like maybe it does.

    http://strongfemaleprotagonist.com/issue-1/page-0/

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