Against Canon

Posted: February 7, 2011 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

I’m a recent reader of TQ, and I’ve been extremely impressed by the consistent quality and clarity of both Mr. Braak’s and Mr. Holland’s writing. The piece “Against Purity” particularly spoke to me, and thought I’d write up a response of sorts.

– Elliott Harwell

Reading the opening lines of Chris Braak’s “Against Purity,” I felt pretty certain I knew where the piece was headed. If the tags “Batman” and “Dracula” weren’t enough, the mention of Kurt Busiek’s asinine comment on continuity clinched it: Braak was going to talk about Batman & Dracula: Red Rain, using it as an example of how non-canon, “alternate universe” stories held a special and important place in the pantheon of comic genres. That reality and my expectations did not perfectly jive shouldn’t be taken as a rebuke of Braak’s work — his post was an excellent, thoughtful read, engaging one of the defining and most vexing two-part questions of nerdom: how do we judge the purity of an interpretative work? And just what does purity give us?

In and of itself, Braak argues, it gives us very little. A slavish devotion to canon, a strict adherence to the classically-conceived norms of how a character “should” behave or how a story “should” progress, results in an artistic output that is less than the sum of its constituent parts. Braak’s choice of utilizing ‘purity’ throughout his piece — rather than ‘canon’ or ‘continuity’ or ‘topos’ — pays off, letting him wrap up with this nicely sexualized metaphor:

If ideas do have intercourse with each other, then the idea of “purity” has got to have about the same value as purity does with regular intercourse — it speaks of inexperience and timidity, of a tendency towards the inbred. Let’s instead debauch our ideas, encourage them to have filthy, filthy relations with each other, in every way, with every partner, wherever they can. Let’s have them be depraved and dirty and above all robust; infinitely diverse, evolving constantly.

And, my ribbing of the language aside, Braak is spot on. Even if we don’t see in every idea some sort of Hegelian synthesis, it is clear that ideas are conceived somewhere, from something, and that confining one’s artistic endeavors to the the tried-and-true genetic material of yesteryear is more often than not the first step on the road to a tired, trite story.

But I want to take Braak’s thoughts one anarchic step further and argue that it is canon itself, that fickle false god, that leads us astray and blinds us to the true joys of storytelling and nerdom. At the end of the day, I daresay it isn’t canon that we like, or the totality of a fictional universe, or even the histories of its interesting characters; what moves us, ultimately, are the constituent parts that each story is assembled from — its tropes and archetypes, if you will — and the unique ways that those parts come together.

First let me clarify that, yes, I recognize the inherent usefulness of having a unified canon, and that, yes, in my own fields of sci-fi expertise, I’m just as much a canon junkie as any other red-blooded nerd. Canon serves to orient an expanded work of fiction, facilitating enjoyment by preventing immersion-breaking errors and rewarding astute, attentive readers. It is, departing from the biological metaphors of Braak, a redoubt within which writers can marshal their creative forces and from which they can launch forays into an exciting and untamed fictional world.

And like a well-fortified redoubts, canon’s strength shines best when it is under assault.

Before continuing, let me step back for a moment and ask: at the most basic level, who (or what) is Superman? For my part, I’d answer inn two phrases — “The Last Son of Krypton” and “The Man of Steel.” In those nine words (thirteen, if you also count “The Man of Tomorrow”), all of what Superman is to me summed up: He is the last of his kind, sent from a dying world to ours. He is steel, both in body and in mind, unbreakable and untarnished, and he always fight for truth, justice, and the American Way. (Cue music.) Every additional brick a new comic adds to the edifice of canon doesn’t meaningfully recharacterize Superman in my eyes; what it does, instead, is put the same who, what, and why in a new when with a possibly different how. Heaven help the writer that does feel the need to define the who, what, or why of Superman — down that path lies madness, and a broken fan base.

The threat of a fan civil war aside, canon is ultimately self-defeating. All of those bricks of in-universe lore eventually accumulate past the point of comprehension and accessibility. The whole point of canon is to inscribe order on a system constantly threatened by entropic decay; when canon begins to convolute the very order it was meant to uphold, it has outlived its purpose, and a cleansing editorial flood washes away most of the detritus. Alternatively, a separate-but-relevantly-similar canon begins to be constructed; this approach has the twin benefit of promising of a pared-down canon that harkens back to a fictional universe’s beginnings, while leaving unmodified the aged and well-regarded lore of the past.

Historically, different comic book companies have handled the tension between canon-as-organizing principle and canon-as-constricting vice in different ways. DC’s various Crises have served as an opportunity to both rectify and simplify the canon, while simultaneously rewarding (and/or disappointing) long-time fans. Ultimate Marvel updates the shared Marvel universe and provides alternate origin stories, while the mainline continuity’s Spider-Man: One More Day could be read as a catastrophic attempt to return to Peter Parker’s roots. Astro City, because of its intelligent application of the heroic tropes developed over the past half century, is almost the archetypal superhero comic, and its slow publication history has kept its backstory from mushrooming. Even Dark Horse’s Star Wars: Legacy line takes a similar tack — a familiar universe where all of the archetypes are recognizable, but the relationships between them are not. What each these different approaches have in common is a desire to return to a core, proscribed canon that can, as necessary, be called upon to revitalize or reshape the applicable fictional universe. This limited canon serves as a repository of the basic tropes and archetypes of a universe, without saddling a reader with years of disparate and convoluted history.

Furthermore — and now finally, we return to the canon-as-assaulted-redoubt, and to Batman & Dracula — a well-defined but limited canon allows authors to engage with a set of preconstructed tropes and archetypes, but invert their use in new ways. The most obvious examples are Elseworlds comics — relatively short works of art that a reader can engage with, not because they remember decades of comic history, but because they understand the basic assumptions that underlay the universe, and how those assumptions have been modified. It’s a fun chance to change up the “who,” “what,” or “why” of any character, without actually having to live with the long-term fallout of those changes.

Busiek’s comment is unfortunate, in that it expresses an opinion that is completely antithetical to my lived, comic book-loving experience. I don’t engage well with long drawn out comic “events” — I learned all I needed to learn about Marvel’s Civil War from MightyGodKing, and I only know about the the various DC Crises in so far as they affect my reading of Secret Six. What I like are one-shot stories that present different takes on archetypal characters. Kingdom Come, Red Son, Marvel 1602 — these are the comic book stories that have stuck with me, and they’re all seemingly excluded by Busiek’s calculus.

I grant that maybe, though, I’m the outlier — I definitely don’t buy comic books enough to be considered a loyal customer, and somewhere along the way I misplaced my all-time favorite, G.I Joe #34. And yet… I do like watching my Justice League reruns every now and again, and I pick up a trade paperback when I think I’ll actually be able to glean some sort of enjoyment from them. And it seems to me that the best stories, the ones I can most relate to, the ones that I carry with me and think about and reflect on, are the ones that both immediately relatable and very new. Those stories also happen to be the ones that ignore the mainstream continuity and strike out on their own.
Canon isn’t all its cracked up to be. Allowing this false god’s so-called edicts to proscribe one’s artistry and creativity denies fiction its one great strength: that it isn’t fact.

  1. braak says:

    Well, I think in Busiek’s defence (it’s hard to be complete sure, of course, because there’s no nuance when it comes to Twitter), in the first place he doesn’t really LIKE the fact that there’s a preoccupation with canon and continuity, and in the second place Civil War and the assorted Crises have been Marvel and DC’s biggest sellers in a long time.

    It’s not dismissively that Busiek might rightly peg you (and me, when it comes down to it) as an outlier, but with a certain amount of regret. I think Astro City shows pretty clearly how much Busiek wishes he could just write whatever stories he wants to, using the assorted symbologies already provided by the industry.

    Though, this does leave us with some interesting questions. Could Kurt Busiek have written Astro City (the first four volumes of which I think are some of the best superhero comics ever) if DC hadn’t had a slavish devotion to contiuity for the preceding fifty years?

    I am also interested to do a series of experiments in which we attempt to determine just how many of what kinds of stories (and presented in what ways) a reader needs to experience before he or she is able to sort them into “real” and “not real” storylines.

    If that Stochastic Aesthetic model I keep touting is accurate, the idea of a “canon” is actually core the way that we perceive art in the first place; it is the function of establishing a predictive model based on available evidence, and then sulkily rejecting anything that doesn’t fit into it.

    Hm. Hmmm, actually.

  2. Elliott Harwell says:

    I read your well-written advancement of the Stochastic Aesthetic model (linked here for the as-yet uninformed), and I have to say:

    Man, I think we’re totally on the same page. I made reference to “archetypes” and “tropes,” but I believe we’re arguing the exact same point — that canon is “the function of establishing a predictive model based on available evidence, and then sulkily rejecting anything that doesn’t fit into it.”

    In the context of your model, the central thrust of my argument is that the accumulation of too much history results in a form of predictive burn out — over time, the “available evidence” that the model is based on grows to such an extreme size that either all possible events are accounted for, and breaks from the predicted pattern are declared ‘noncanon’ or ‘out-of-character’, rather than surprising; or equally worrisome, the predictive model begins to contradict itself, creating a form of cognitive dissonance that renders the model worse than useless. (In practice, these two problems are often one and the same, the relevant ‘proof’ often coming from fan opinion and interpretation.)

    I think a related but not necessarily obvious problem is: as much as we are rue to admit it, stories aren’t meant to last forever. Universes that have a proscribed development arc that allows for three “acts” — 1) an exposition period that familiarizes us with the rules of the universe, 2) a growth period that modifies and challenges those initial assumptions, and 3) a resolution period that gives the artistic experience a form of closure — are, I’d argue, inherently stronger than open-ended storytelling universes.

    However — and here I’m sorta-kinda-maybe revising my earlier statements — perhaps I’m looking at the Civil War/Crisis type of events incorrectly. Even though these events are very much nested in a larger universe, they each possess the hallmarks listed above. Let’s take Marvel’s Civil War, for example:

    — It has a clear beginning that establishes the status quo of the current arc — which, to be fair, is explicitly disrupting the universe’s current status quo. The Stamford incident polarizes the universe’s heroes (and the audience) around the figures of Captain America and Iron Man, with each offering an alternate interpretation of the American Dream.
    — A bunch of fighting (“It’s time for a big fight that I’m sure will solve ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING“) that serves to expose the contradictions inherent in each side’s ideology, while also ruminating on the gap between an ideal and its implementation.
    — Finally, the entire arc ends with the assassination of Captain America, a poetic end that not only raises questions about the changing American spirit, but also references the unhappy public death of many of America’s most important historical figures.

    So, you know, from that point of view — yes, these events create their own form of mini-canons, alternate predictive models that last as long as the event lasts. Just as importantly, each event changes the universe’s overall status quo, setting up further event-oriented mini-canons (replacing Captain America, or even more explicitly, DC’s Battle for the Cowl following Final Crisis). That these new predictive models promise new output from old input, or promise entirely new input, is almost certainly their major draw.

    I’ll be honest — it was only after I had written the first paragraph that I realized Kurt Busiek was the creator of Astro City (yes, shame on me). And, given the high esteem I hold Astro City in, and the fact that it is so perfectly an example of a new take on an old canon, I was torn about how to address this. It was much easier to write this piece when Kurt Busiek was simply “some comic guy whose comment I’ve willfully interpreted in a harsh light” and not “an author whose work I deeply respect and whose understanding of the genre I greatly agree with.” I very much agree with the statements in your comment, Braak, and I think you treat Busiek much more fairly than I did.

    At the end of the day, maybe we’re all unhappy-but-necessary slaves to canon — as soon as we amass more than one datum, a predictive model begins to take shape, and the recursive nature of creation and decision making must eventually reference the previously-created.

  3. braak says:

    It’s a really interesting question, and I am definitely on the same page with you about the peculiarity of comics as a medium that never has any “real” ends — and certainly one of the advantages of non-canonical stories is that you can end them however you want to, and they don’t “matter” as far as the basic storyline goes.

    This all leads me to two ideas: the first is that there are actually two basically different kinds of readers (the reasoning for this, be it native or nurtured, I’ll leave be for now); I’ve actually been thinking this for a while, and it strikes me as foundational to what we consider “niche” genres of literature. That is, there are people who want familiar things, and there are people who want new things, and the former tend to outnumber the latter something on the order of ten to one. But it’s the latter that are always creating the new forms, or leading people into the new forms, and the conditions are prescriptive: even people who like the familiar occasionally find themselves interested in the new.

    I don’t know, like I said, I think it merits further study.

    The other thing is that comic books really offer a lot in the way of experiments that can be done with the science of aesthetics. I was thinking earlier about how astonishing it is to have something like Superman, a character about whom at least one story has been written every month for EIGHTY-THREE YEARS. That is an extraordinary number of data points that can be plotted against social, economic, and political history, and basically unprecedented in any other art form.

    And again, because the universe of DC or Marvel is so expansive, there’s actually a huge amount of information that could be used to analyze ideas like “canon”, which might be obvious on large scales like in comics, but might also lend themselves to interpretation at much smaller scales.

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