Wednesday, May 8, 2013

D&D Novels: They Are Bad

Breaking news, right?

In high school I probably read a combined total of around a hundred million words of D&D-inspired fiction. That sort of thing should prevent me from ever becoming a real writer, but I think I learned something from the experience.

D&D novels, like most media tie-ins, are bad. Among other reasons, they're bad because they cannot use one of the most important tools in the speculative fiction writer's arsenal: the ability to tie the plot to the world's setting.

The best fantasy (like the best science fiction, which is one of the many sub-genres of fantasy that is fun because it's easier to believe it could be real) derives its plots from the rules of its world. The Lord of the Rings loses its power if you remove its underlying metaphysical and moral assumptions about the nature of loss, power, and the need to preserve the past. If The Lord of the Rings isn't conservative (in almost every sense of the word), it's nothing, and since the first wave of Tolkien clones hit in the 70s, critics have lamented the inability of Tolkien's imitators to understand that you can't separate Tolkien's plot from his own personal views.

D&D fiction goes further than that, creating an enforced bubble of artificial reality (the D&D rules) in which the plot must take place, but the D&D rules don't make for good metaphysics, for obvious reasons: a deep, metaphysically robust game system makes for a bad universal fantasy system. So D&D writers, who are not all terrible, substitute familiarity for the metaphysics-as-plot link that fantasy needs. Instead of building a story around a magic system (think Elantris; in fact, go ahead and think of almost any good speculative fiction), the writers parade before us one familiar item after another--here is a magic missile spell; here is a paladin; here is a beholder.

I'm writing this because, like with Lieutenant Worf, it's a lesson I learned too well, and I'm increasingly aware that my comic tips in the opposite direction: without a proper understanding of the metaphysics of The Water Phoenix King setting, the plot is incomprehensible from top to bottom. Tolkien, at least, had evil ghost-wizards trying to take over the world; by contrast, WPK's antagonists don't necessarily even look like antagonists until you understand the underlying rules of reality that motivate them.

It's interesting to see how many elements of my own writing--including things that I'm increasingly convinced aren't very good--are reactions, and overcompensations, to the terrible rubbish-entertainment I consumed as a kid.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Stan's Legacy

Jupiter's Legacy: another comic book about superheroes about comic books about superheroes about comic books about superheroes. From Watchmen to the early 2000s, when Warren Ellis and co. were hammering superheroes into a semblance of something worth reading again, to the present day, we've suffered through reinvention after reinterpretation of superheroes, finding exciting new ways to drag them into the muck, mire, and Twitter accounts of the real world, and it looks like Jupiter's Legacy (written by Mark Millar, beautifully illustrated by Frank Quitely) is another duck in the duck-row of "realistic" superheroes.

There's a reason no one reads this stuff.

I find myself thinking back through all the super comics I've read and trying to think of some good, critically acclaimed ones that weren't just gritty reinventions. The "Dark Phoenix" run on X-Men might qualify. Morrison has gone there once or twice. But superheroes writers keep returning to Stan's "realism" trough again and again. Stan Lee (or Kirby, or Ditko, or Francis Bacon, or whoever really wrote  the Marvel comics of the early 1960s) got this ball rolling before JFK's head went back and to the left. It's hard to imagine the lurid four-color trash of the early Marvel universe as edgy, but for its day it was grim, Punisher-esque realism compared to the dead-eyed authoritarianism of DC. Early Marvel was full of for-its-time realism: ditching secret identities, operating in real cities, even attempts at "real problems." Very early X-Men rings hollow because it takes a few dozen issues to flesh out the "superheroes as oppressed minority" core conceit.

And like lesser fantasy authors imitating Tolkien's form without adapting any of his underlying message, superhero comic writers continue to reach for the simplistic solution of "more realism!" without understanding why they ought to do that. Stan (or whoever) was reaching out to a generation of young people just starting to react to the alienation of the late 50s and early 60s; the kids reading Fantastic Four #1 in grammar school would go on to become the flower children in college. The realism of those early Marvel comics didn't exist for its own sake, or because of some underlying anxiety about the laughable immaturity of superhero comics; early Marvel aimed at realism because no one was speaking to the youth of 1961. Early Marvel belongs alongside the Beatles and mod fashion: it tapped into a huge need (with the potential for huge profits), and all it had to do was acknowledge a demographic.

This means that, ultimately, the appeal of realism in those early Marvel comics was based on demographic and economic concerns: Stan was tapping a market, just like the cynical marketeers a few years earlier who saw in Elvis Presley a potential youth icon whose white skin would make him palatable across America. Of course Stan was cynical, but I would take Stan Lee's honest appraisal of the value of an untapped market over WHATEVER is motivating superhero comic writers to fling themselves at "realism" over and over again like those gene-damaged mice that only know how to run in clockwise circles.

My own comic is the absolutely self-indulgent work of an amateur. I write and draw exactly what I want without a thought for my audience. A major release from a corporation looking to make money SHOULD NOT possess that same level of self-indulgence. Consider this a plea for something I never thought would be necessary: more money-grubbing, focus-group-driven profiteering.

Superhero comics make as little money as it is possible to make. They are the Absolute Zero of profitability, earning money only through the quantum fluctuations of obligation: obligation from obsessive collectors, from reviewers, from people who love a character and don't care what plots he's driven through, and from people who, if questioned, would be as unable to explain their motivations as the average Batman TV villain. A combination of merchandising and alternative media (movies, video games) can keep a few hundred career writers and artists afloat, but that's it, and until writers can stop chasing the same ideas that appeared in 1961 and were--let's be honest--concluded to the satisfaction of any reasonable person in 1985, comics will continue their decline into irrelevance.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Odd Dreams

I'm back for more. A couple years ago I basically concluded my participation in tabletop gaming because I just couldn't get a decent group together, but right now I'm writing a novel and I need a release valve for my non-novel ideas.

 Today's topic: weird dreams I had. I'm writing them down so they'll stick--and stay useful as idea-fodder, not because I expect you poor people to care.

 The first was (or resembled) a Truman Capote novel, a sort of late-period 20th century meditation on declining male sexuality seen through the lens of either anthropological fiction or magical realism--I'm not sure which. In it, Capote (or "the narrator", since it was a Capote novel only by implication) finds himself in Tibet, or a place like Tibet. At first believing he is the only white man, he instead finds himself in the shadow of a fellow-researcher of whom the narrator has always been jealous, who attracts more attention and respect from the people there, especially from the young women. The narrator finds himself in a Watson-like role, recording the exploits of his friend while growing increasingly frustrated with both his friend and himself. Despite its meager plot, the novel spoke powerfully to the frustrations of people who, thinking they had escaped themselves, experienced something that once again made them who they always were. The novel ends abruptly with the two in burial shrouds, though it is implied that the narrator faked his own death--the friend did not.

 The second is a trashy genre or perhaps book-list called "Havaoc," a 70s spy/martial arts thriller in the tradition of Clive Cussler, full of books with alluring covers that feature too many men in turtleneck-suits. The stories are full of beautiful women, barely coherent plots, and secret temples, with an emphasis on popular interpretations of martial arts techniques and a lot of technical information that is as detailed as it is nonsensical.

 These two dreams amuse me not because they're particularly interesting, but because I can see my usual writing process in them, working even while I'm unconscious. Both are no more than combinations of things I've seen, tossed together as a bunch of interesting images, themes, and moods, with little in the way of a coherent plot-structure. I'm no good at plots. (Tabletop gaming will do that to you--plots aren't my job, after all.) The "Capote" novel is a combination of a handful of things I recently experienced, from In Cold Blood to Steven King discussing the origin of Carrie's themes to a David Foster Wallace article on the decaying trajectory of 20th century "literary" fiction to the new Great Gatsby movie (that "Watson-like" role is probably more "Carraway-like") to an article I read on sky burial to the hardcover copy of the book Alive, which I grew up staring at as a little kid and which, returning to my mother's house the other day, I saw in the same spot it always has occupied. By contrast, I think the "Havaoc" books (boy were they bad!) is my brain screaming at me to write a novel that normal people would want to read, prompted by Richard Kadrey tweeting that he found his books at an airport kiosk--a great triumph for the legitimacy of an old cyberpunk!