-Eddie Campbell, from his “The Literaries” article on TCJ. Best comics criticism of the week. The comments are… well, what do you expect from comments?
It’s a great reminder that we’re still struggling to find the best way of talking (or writing) about the experience of reading/critiquing/evaluating/exploring comic books. I think a lot of people (and I’m definitely guilty of this at times) fall into the trap of talking about writers when we talk about ‘story’, when we should (and often want to) talk about the magical blend of writing and art.
There really are only a handful of story archetypes, or of romance story archetypes (and a handful of western stories, of horror, etc) and what you are reading is a performance of one of them. To draw a comparison, the tango is one dance, but every performance of it is unique (and both the archetype and the performance are a ‘dance’). The tango may be different from a waltz, a quadrille or a four hand reel. As different as each performance of one of these may be from every other performance of it, each ends in its prescribed way, bar mishap. As an example, lest I’m not making myself clear, I see there is a new performance of Spiderman on film. You already know the story. Since the last time they performed it was only ten years ago, I cannot imagine that anybody half interested could not already know it.
So, the story is the abstract of how it started, who did what, and how it ended. Everything on the page, and things not on the page including the writer’s instructions to the artist, comprise the performance. The story may already exist somewhere else, in a movie or in prose in a pulp or a slick magazine. Be that as it may, that’s one performance and this is another. If you go and tell it later over the dinner table, then that’s another performance again, and yours could be better than all the others.
Comics operate like soap opera, where every effect is caused and every price must be paid, and what comes next is all that matters. Everything is literal. A death is literally a death. We can’t just say, ‘oh well, it’s only comic books’ and resume business as if nothing has happened. The character must be returned for further commercial exploitation, and so the death must be explained away. Comic books being very limited in their range of invention, there are only four ways of getting out of the difficulty. A death must in due course be dealt with by means of a retcon, (the wiki entry gives these instructions believe it or not) a bad dream, mistaken identity or the character is simply replaced by a doppleganger who in every possible respect is the same as the person who is supposedly gone.
Why do characters need to be killed if they are going to be needed again? (you may innocently ask). Cheap fiction demands that the reader should, in the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘experience a feeling without having to pay for it.’ Thus the reader may wallow in the sentimental excess of suffering a loss without ever losing anything, even a character that didn’t exist in any tangible sense in the first place.