Thursday, January 26, 2006

Yes, It's A Real Job: Knowing Your Role

What rights are wrong for a writer to exercise when he's trying to write wrongs by writing right? Or left?

There's a criticism you hear a lot these days whenever comics venture into sociopolitical territory. Most recently it's been in conjunction with the upcoming "Civil War
event at Marvel, and the security-versus-liberty debate that's categorized the civil discourse since five years ago next September, but anything that gets more than two minutes on CNN is fair game. Be it for abortion, against gays, vice versa on either, or even just a Sienfeld-esque "What is the deal?" there'll be a small but vocal group of critics complaining loudly, saying that writers have no place injecting their personal politics into the story.

I'm sorry, what?

Writers draw from the world around them. It's the answer to that clich├ęd interview question: "Where do you get your ideas?" Every writer will give you a different snarky answer, but the real answer is, "Everywhere." A fiction writer observes the world around him, filters it through his own unique perspective, and records his thoughts in the form of a story. Isaac Asimov didn't have a machine that gave him the idea for the Three Laws (although that's a great idea for a story), he sat down and he wrote what he thought about robots. Mark Twain wrote what he thought about life on the Antebellum Mississippi. Robert E. Howard wrote what he thought about the eternal struggle between civilization and barbarism. Writers write what they think. Asking a writer not to let his opinions affect his writing is like asking a photographer not to let the light around him effect the picture.

Now, I'm all against proselytizing. I mean, good God, I read "Faith of the Fallen," so I know what can happen when an author decides to go all demagogue on us. But some people are against any discussion of real world issues in their fiction, no matter how careful it is. Some of it, a good deal actually, is the desire for escapism. I can certainly understand that. But, and maybe this is just me, I look for lessons, for food for thought, from even my escapist fiction. Heck, part of the reason I'm reading the Star Wars prequel novels right now is to see how the writers handled the allusions to modern day politics, as well as the general historical theme of the fall of great civilizations once the bureaucracy becomes insupportable. Also, it has laser swords.

Other people say they're okay with issue-driven fiction, they just don't want their beloved characters to be a part of it. I can't say I follow that, especially with superhero comics. After all, if superheroes are our modern mythology, and they reflect the values and attitudes of our culture, then I think an examination of how Superman feels about, say, economic globalization versus the rights of developing nations to self-determination, can tell us a great deal about ourselves. And science fiction and fantasy have always been metaphors for our own society's foibles and idiosyncrasies. Hell, what do you think The Authority is really about? I'll give you a hint: It's not men in tights punching things.

You say people will disagree with a viewpoint, no matter how it's presented? Yeah, no kidding. If you want to sell something every one of your customers will like, be a hooker. Fear of backlash should never be a reason not to go ahead with a story you believe in. Or even one you don't.

Like any story idea, it's all in the execution. I don't want Superman, or Green Arrow, or anyone, turned into a mouthpiece for a particular point of view. But maybe by throwing them into a situation that mirrors a modern controversy, one where both sides have a good point to make, and forcing them to make a decision they have to live with, can get the readers to start thinking about the issue. And that's what fiction is supposed to do: make people think. Think about characters, think about ideas, think about life. Fiction holds a mirror up to reality; why fog the glass?

I'll admit it, I'm biased. I'm a writer, and a storyteller. I don't want there to be any limits on what ideas are and aren't acceptable, because I want to be able to tell any story that comes into my head. But I'm also right, in that art has to be free to be honest. False art, art that says what the powers that be want to hear instead of what needs to be said, is hollow, unsatisfying, and a waste of both the artist and the audience's time. Any feeling I have should be open for presentation and discussion. May it turn out to be crap? Yeah, no one's perfect. But under what kind of system is the proper response to an expression of an idea that makes you uncomfortable to dictate to people what they can and cannot say?

That being said, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about writing an issue-centered story. How do you tell them apart?

I'll tell you tomorrow.

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