Legend and Myth

Our society is obsessed with myths. We dig deep into those primal tales that define the limits of human nature in society after society, staring into the face of human greatness and frailty and seeking what precious lessons there are to offer. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s something that seems to be a necessary part of the human experience. Any attempt to expunge one set of myths seems to result in an entirely new set creeping in to replace them, so just as myths explore human nature, so also human nature needs myths to understand itself. This is right and good.

But legends. Legends are a kind of story of their own.

Where myths are about human nature, legends often tie back to the way cultures think they should be structured. Consider the legend of King Arthur – his position at the head of the Round Table perfectly embodied the feudal system in Europe. In reality feudal rulers relied on a sort of mutually assured destruction, where any rebellion by one feudal vassal would be quashed by the others in conjunction with the king. But the king was powerless against his retainers if they all chose to turn against him. In Arthurian lore the solidarity the lords maintain with one another and the king is a sign that these lords offer the king their loyalty and the kingdom is bound together by virtue – a noble idea and certainly something to aspire to. Perhaps made all the more precious by the fact that it was rarely the case.

There are, of course, legends more modern than these. Take the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree. Many people have heard how, after accidentally cutting down his father’s fruit tree and being confronted, Washington refused to lie and admitted to the transgression. It’s unlikely this story is true but it lives on as a testament to the moral fiber Americans would like to see in their leaders. Other legendary figures speak to the independence or work ethic, people like Johnny Appleseed and Davey Crockette, Paul Bunyan and John Henry loom in the public consciousness as embodiments of the sort of rough and tumble, single minded, courageous people Americans once wanted to embody their civilization. What’s interesting is how these legendary figures don’t have real counterparts in other cultures. Instead, other figures embody very different virtues.

In France legends revolve around thinkers like Voltaire or occasionally leaders like Napoleon, spinning tales of refined thought and action. Seafarers traveling far from home occupy the legendary halls of the British, keeping to their stations with grim determination in the worst of circumstances. In China it is the educated elites who walk the halls of legend, clashing against one another in a quest for enlightenment, embodying Confucian values of wisdom and filial piety or the conflicting values of Buddhism and its nihilistic enlightenment. And, while the semblance is imperfect, we can see these cultural values reflected in the cultures that gave birth to these legends.

Of course, the line between myth and legend is blurry. Arthur is both a mythic and legendary figure. Once and future kings are not unique to the West, for example, whereas his knights are very much legendary and not mythic figures that embody the virtues of chivalry and how they should relate back to a leader. The relationship between Merlin and Arthur is mythological – mentor and student go back to the Greeks and likely before. The love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere is legendary, showing the contest between the sides of love that can be fun but destructive and those that fulfill duty but sometimes feel dull, and painting their consequences across a national fabric.

The line between myth and legend is, in many ways, an artificial one. But classifying and naming kinds of stories is one of the ways that we break down and analyze why the work and why they do not. It’s a very important part of how human minds understand things and thus something that I, personally, find very important to look at when crafting stories. (Anyone here who still remembers when I had a running bit on the broad categories of stories called Genrely Speaking?) I began wondering about legends when I tried to pin down what count as the legends of our era and I realized I couldn’t think of any.

We have Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth to help inform our thinking about mythic stories and how they impact our consciousness. There isn’t any kind of system like that for legends, the stories that represent how we are now trying to reckon with the human nature myths describe. I find that disturbing, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not. This may be a sign of how unmoored our societal values have become from one another, or indicate some breakdown in culture. It could just be a consequence of mass communications disrupting our society and speeding the creation and replacement of cultural touchstones to absurd degrees. It could be that we just can’t see these things from our current place in the culture. It’s hard to tell. But it’s a problem worth a story or two all on its own, don’t you think?

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The Great Endeavor

It’s hard to understand people. So much of what we see on the outside is a poor reflection of what’s going on inside of them. It’s easy to make snap judgements or jump to conclusions. Worse, long patterns of behavior intended for one purpose can easily be misunderstood or just be flat out toxic, no question of perspective at all. What do you do then? That’s one of the many surprisingly deep questions tackled by Kohei Horikoshi, author of the manga My Hero Academia.

What’s even more interesting is that Horikoshi tackles this tricky question not once, but twice – possibly more, given that I will not rule out his planning to pull the trick a third time just to rub his skills in our faces. The characters he does this with are his protagonist’s archrival, Katsuki Bakugo, and his protagonist’s mentor’s archrival, Enji Todoroki, aka Endeavor. In doing so, Horikoshi takes a very nuanced approach to asking a very simple question. Can trying to take a noble form do good for a person who’s heart and mind are ignoble?

This is not a new question. Many people have tried to answer it in Western literature as well as Eastern. There is no one answer. So perhaps it’s fitting that Horikoshi looks at it from two different perspectives. (With possibly more to come.)

Of course, given the genre of My Hero Academia, it’s only natural that the goal both characters aspire to is All Might, the Symbol of Peace. (A few hundred words on what that means here.) The short version is both aspire to be the greatest defender of their society. However neither one really understands what that means and thus they stray from the path of righteousness in a couple of significant ways. Fortunately, through the efforts of All Might and series protagonist Deku, plus Endeavor’s son Shoto in Endeavor’s case, we get to see these characters confront their shortcomings and begin to change.

Bakugo’s shortcoming is multifaceted. On the one hand, he has always admired All Might’s ability to win out over evil no matter what form it comes in or how overwhelmed he might be. On the other hand, Bakugo is an incredibly blessed child, with a strong mind, instincts suited for his desired profession and a power tailor made to help him do what he wants to do – namely, defeat evil like All Might does.

Japanese society is not very forgiving of wasted talent and so Bakugo is under considerable pressure to measure up to expectations, leaving him very stressed. Combined with his own ambitions and the result is a serious insecurity about his place in the world. He wants to be the best and everyone expects him to succeed, so he constantly reassures himself about his position by being a bit of a bully. Deku is the primary recipient of this in their younger days, constantly drawing fire to himself by offering Bakugo help in ways that the insecure hothead interprets as condescending.

This conflict goes into overdrive when Deku gains One for All, leading Bakugo to presume Deku had hidden superpowers the whole time (when, in fact, Deku had been given his powers by All Might). At first Bakugo interprets this as just another sign that Deku didn’t take him seriously, hiding his powerful quirk rather than fighting him fairly to see who was better. Thus Bakugo’s rude talk and disrespect increase. But, at the same time, now that the two are in high school and among people who are much closer to their peers in terms of maturity and skill, we begin to see that Bakugo’s attitude is actually kind of fitting for his life goals.

In particular, during the sparing tournament in the Sports Festival arc, Bakugo ruthlessly crushes Urarara Ochaco in the quarterfinals, a match most of his peers saw as a rude, hotheaded boy beating up on a soft, timid girl. On the other hand, having made it to the quarterfinals, Urarara was bound and determined to do everything she could to win the tournament overall. When he actually went out in the ring to face her Bakugo knew this instantly, his remarkably perceptive mind and almost animal instincts both warning him he was about to have a hard fight on his hands. He won, of course, but he was mystified by his classmates implying that Ochaco was a weak little girl, ironically showing her far more respect than anyone else in the class. Bakugo respects people who take him seriously, he’s incensed by people who don’t.

This message is driven home in the finals of the tournament as Bakugo goes toe to toe with Shoto Todoroki. Todoroki is conflicted about using the quirk he inherited from his father and can’t fight Bakugo at his full potential, even though he did fight Deku at full strength in the round before. This enrages Bakugo – even though Todoroki is the furthest thing from a weakling. This makes it clear that Bakugo might look like a bully – but he really just can’t understand people who don’t measure up to his standards of dedication and skill.

This perspective begins to change when he is abducted from the U.A. summer camp and the subsequent rescue pits All Might against All for One, causing All Might to exhaust his last dregs of power and go into retirement. Bakugo takes this very personally, seeing it as a failure on his part that reached so far as to undermine the man he admires most in life. That’s not a good assessment on Bakugo’s part, but it is an understandable one. Bakugo has always measured up to standards before, now he feels like a failure and that’s opened up a new perspective he has to consider.

All Might’s fall caused Bakugo to stop and, possibly for the first time in his life, consider what the consequences of his actions would be for other people. A lifetime of struggling to make sure he lived up to expectations – others and his own – made Bakugo a very, very self-centered person. He had good goals, but he spent far, far too much time worrying about where he was in relation to those goals and not enough time thinking about where he was in relation to other people. While high standards are good, there was no way Bakugo was getting where he wanted to go without that added aspect of interpersonal savvy to go along with it.

Enji Todoroki is an interesting contrast to Bakugo, and stands as a stark reminder that personality flaws not corrected when one is young can metastasize into something much, much worse. Where Bakugo admires All Might and makes emulating him a goal, Endeavor resents All Might, and makes deposing him the goal.

The source of Endeavor’s rivalry with All Might is hard to pin down. All Might is sometimes characterized as a foreigner, and he certainly draws a lot of influence from American sources. (I did a whole post on why I think he’s actually a US national here.) So I suspect the origin of Endeavor’s animosity is the belief, very common in Japan, that Japanese cultural icons should be of Japanese origin, and not borrow influences too heavily from other cultures. It’s also possible Enji just disliked how effortlessly All Might seemed to climb the ranks to the top spot. Regardless, Endeavor wanted All Might out of his place at the top of the hero hierarchy and, as All Might’s position as the Symbol of Peace grew more and more obvious for all to see, Endeavor turned to more and more extreme measures to try and take his place.

This ultimately resulted in a marriage to a woman who’s quirk would complement his own and four children who Endeavor ruthlessly tried to craft in his image. Unfortunately, three of his children did not inherit the temperament or skillset necessary to follow in Enji’s footsteps. Only the youngest – Shouto – had the mix of his father’s personality and both his parents skills to take up the path.

However, Endeavor’s growing frustration with his failures became toxic, driving his timid wife to a nervous breakdown and turning all of his children against him. By the time Shouto does decide to take up the hero mantle he goes so far as to forswear using the gifts he received from his father and does his best not to bring up the familial connection.

Like Bakugo, Endeavor’s personality shift begins with the end of All Might’s career. However, where Bakugo’s problem was his self-centeredness, Endeavor’s comes from his myopic focus on All Might. As the shadow of his rival got ever larger and more intimidating, Endeavor lost all sense of his own actions save for how they related back to the goal of deposing All Might. Instead of an overinflated sense of self, Endeavor’s sense of self vanished into his drive – his endeavor, if you will – to catch All Might. He would not snap out of it until the revelation of All Might’s powers dwindling and eventually extinguishing forced him to face the fact that he was chasing ghosts – Yagi Toshinori wasn’t some unstoppable force of justice. He was a man limping to the end of his career, struggling to make his mark one last time.

This revelation snaps him out of his delusions and leaves him with a quandary. Endeavor has done terrible things to his family. He’s allowed terrible things to continue in his family, because he did not care enough about them to take a hand in his family’s inner workings. And he did it all trying to depose something that didn’t even exist. Left with only the pieces of his life that didn’t revolve around All Might, Endeavor is hollow indeed. Particularly since he now occupies the number one spot he chased for so long and has no idea what to do with it.

Oddly enough, while Endeavor isn’t satisfied with his new position or how he got it, it seems he spends more time trying to mend fences with Shouto and even making overtures to the rest of his family than he does exclusively on his career. He’s making changes, but unlike Bakugo, his habits are much deeper in his personality and the damage his flaws have caused is much more widespread. Healing it all will be an endeavor that could very well end his career – but only time will tell.

The parallels between Bakugo and Endeavor are interesting as part of the moral of their stories. They’re more than two surly guys with fire themed powers. They’re a warning to the young readers the story is primarily aimed at – face your personality problems, or they will infect even the worthiest goals and cause ongoing damage to your life. The sooner you sort it the easier it will go for you. But even if it takes time, even the seemingly least redeemable of toxic people can start to make a comeback. It’s a worthy story to tell and one told with subtlety and heart worthy of such a meaningful endeavor.

Fiction Writers Should Write (and Read!) History

For among mortal powers, only imagination can bring back the dead.

-Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn

People, real people, are very complex. At the same time, if you can get to know them well enough you can get in their head and anticipate what they’ll do.  An interesting aspect of history is how much of it is trying to do just that. The more you study history the more you come to realize that the facts on record are only a part of the historian’s responsibility. Getting in the heads of historical figures and trying to make sense of what was happening there and extrapolate it to the broader context of history is a big part of what drives the understanding of history forward, giving new routes of inquiry to pursue and new context to existing facts.

It’s also part of what makes history so dangerous – surmises of what historical figures thought cannot be confirmed, only supported or doubted based on available evidence. The best historians run down sources, carefully weigh them against each other and come to well reason conclusions. Two excellent examples of this are Evan Thomas’ Sea of Thunder and Tom Carhart’s Lost Triumph.

Lost Triumph is an excellent example of both sides of this kind of historical work. Carhart begins with a thesis concerning Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plans for winning the Battle of Gettysburg. While not exactly a new thesis it is one that is disputed – in particular by others with differing opinions on the usefulness of the units in question or the lay of the terrain. Carhart then goes back to Lee’s early career, including his time as Commandant of West Point and the kinds of curriculum he encouraged, and traces forward the kinds of strategy he taught and later employed, then ends with conclusions, based on what we do know happened at Gettysburg, as to what Lee’s strategy was.

While the evidence Carhart presents is strong and well documented the shortcomings of the book are pretty noteworthy, too. Lee wrote very little about the Civil War after the fact (and what little he did say is all brought up in the course of the book) and none of it supports or disproves Carhart’s thesis. Further, many of Carhart’s suppositions are either unsupported by anything said or written by those present, contradict some of Lee’s other behaviors or don’t match the prevailing understanding of units and tactics of the day. It’s a sound work of historical supposition as it stands but it also can’t be proven one way or the other.

Sea of Thunder is a bit more reserved. As a study in leadership it’s a very careful book, examining the commanders in question mostly through what they’d written and what others had written or said about them. In particular, the book’s handling of the question of why Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita turned away from Leyte Gulf is exemplary. Thomas examines every possible explanation – he was tired, he was scared, he didn’t want to doom his ships and men uselessly, he felt there wasn’t enough information to press on, he believed saving the fleet was more important than his objectives – and weighs them in order from what seems least likely to what seems most likely. He cites the evidence that supports each supposition. But he never definitively says why Kurita left the battle. Kurita took that secret to the grave, and Thomas respected that fact.

Why is this important to fiction writers? The answer is simple. The methods historical scholars use to understand historical figures are the same methods you should use to understand your fictional characters. Well researched, thought out and written historical studies dig deep into the psychology, decision making and circumstances of the people they examine and the approaches they take can really help you dig into the minds of your own characters. Of course, you are making up the many factors that contribute to your character’s decisions and that can make things more difficult.

Too many authors warp circumstance or a character’s thoughts to fit their desires for a story’s plot, making for awkward and unsatisfying stories. Carefully analyzing your characters in the same way historical authors analyze historical figures can help you avoid these unsatisfying moments and write your characters more realistically and vividly. It may require you think over your stories and characters more. A lot more. But in the end the better outcomes will be worth it.

The heart of great fiction is verisimilitude. The more realistic your characters are in their emotions and decisions, the greater their sense of realism, and the more you can ground even the most fantastic story in your reader’s minds. Avail yourself of the fantastic resource that is well written history, and maybe even try your hand at writing some yourself. You can only grow from the effort.

The Dragon Prince’s Good Intentions Misfired

Obligatory spoiler warning for The Dragon Prince. In case you haven’t watched it yet.

I like Netflix’s The Dragon Prince. However, like so many shows aimed at young people, the show has a heart, a moral message it’s trying to convey. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. And I even mostly agree with the points Dragon Prince is trying to get across. However, the trick to telling a moral story is making sure the story you tell conveys the message you intend. Good intentions don’t mean much if they don’t get through to your audience. And unfortunately, The Dragon Prince falls down on this count not once, but twice. These aren’t central to the story or its primary moral message, but they do stand out in contrast to an otherwise well done narrative and wholesome morals, so it bears mentioning.

Let me address a bit of an elephant in the room first. Both of these points revolve around characters who are disabled. In our world disabilities are hindrances that can be overcome with some work and understanding from the people around you. That’s good, and I am glad whenever I see people succeeding in spite of their disabilities. But unfortunately disabilities are just that – a lack of certain abilities. Those shortcomings are real, and need to be made up for. To pretend they don’t is to insult all those in the world who suffer from them and the work they must put in to overcome them.

I am aware that The Dragon Prince exists in a world of magic and the supernatural, and these factors could somehow make up for these physical disabilities. However, not only would that undercut the point of putting these characters in as an example of how disabilities do not prevent full and satisfying lives, the fact is one of these characters is clearly not compensating via magic and the other is using magic that explicitly does not compensate for her disability.

Now I’m not making the point that you can’t put disabled characters in your stories, even in swashbuckling adventure stories. But you can’t simply write those characters like their disabilities don’t exist some or all of the time. And I’m afraid that’s what The Dragon Prince does.

Let’s start with Amaya.

Amaya is the maternal aunt of Callum and Ezran, princes of a human kingdom on the border between humans and the magical races of Xadia. She spends most of her time at a fortress guarding a pass between the kingdom and Xadia. Amaya is also deaf.

Now immediately one might think that Amaya is never written like she’s not deaf. After all, she communicates in sign language and has an interpreter who has to pass on most of what she says, right?

Yes, she conforms to the most basic stereotypes of a deaf person in a world of hearing people. However, it’s the way that she relates to her job that is the sticking point here. Amaya is presented as a formidable fighter, and I suppose in some contexts that’s entirely possible for deaf people. But here’s a secret – hearing is the only human sense that allows us to assess a situation in all directions at once and through obstacles. For a soldier who expects to be in a melee on the battlefield going without hearing is almost worse than going without sight.

In fact, there’s one fight where Amaya is facing an enemy in front of her and a door bursts open behind her and she reacts to the sound. That’s a horrible breach in the established rules of the story, but Amaya can’t be presented as a formidable warrior without it – meaning the writers made a mistake somewhere along the line.

Worse than that is just how useless a battlefield leader who can’t hear is. In medieval times, which The Dragon Prince is clearly modeled on, almost all battlefield communication revolved around loud noises, beginning with yelling and moving up the line rapidly to horns and drums. Without her hearing Amaya cannot hear spoken updates from her troops or pick up on long distance signals via trumpet or drum. And sign language doesn’t seem to be universally understood in Xadia so there’s always the risk she’ll get stuck with soldiers who can’t understand her. Yes, she can read lips and understand reports from anyone that way, assuming they aren’t coming from someone in a full, face covering helmet. Yes, she has an aide who interprets for her and who can hear signals from other parts of the army that aren’t in line of sight. But the fact is, that still leaves her effectiveness dependent of the safety and health of a single soldier, or perhaps a small group of them, that can understand her.

Amaya commands the most important defensive structure in the kingdom. It makes no sense to have the entire chain of command there entirely dependent on a small handful of soldiers who can understand her, and who have to relay any signals from a distance to her. There are a lot of work arounds you could implement for this. Signal flags, for example. But they are all fragile (what if the fortress is attacked at night?) and this is the most important point in the kingdom. You don’t leave weak points in its defense.

I have a lot of thoughts on how the character of Amaya could have been tweaked to leave the essentials in place – deaf woman, aunt to the two children, fearsome fighter – without these problems in play. But that’s not the point I’m getting at. The point is, disabled people sometimes have to face the fact that, while they could do a thing they want to do, they may not fit that role as well as someone who does not have their particular disability. Or the work arounds necessary for them to fill that role will leave them inherently less suited to it than someone else. The Dragon Prince presents all possible considerations that would rightfully present obstacles to Amaya being a general as magically being ignored by the world around her, and that’s a very stupid expectation to offer.

However, while Amaya might set a disabled viewer up for a disappointment that pales in comparison to Ava.

Ava is a wolf who lost a leg to a bear trap. Ava was rescued by a young girl named Ellis who was told by her parents they couldn’t afford keep the animal and if returned to the wild the wolves would shun Ava because she couldn’t keep up with them. Ellis ran away with Ava and climbed the nearby mountain, braving many strange and frightening things to stumble across a “miracle healer” who returned Ava’s leg to normal. Only it turns out the miracle healer did no such thing.

In truth the “healer” was an illusionist who made it appear that Ava had a healthy leg, so people would be more “accepting”. Ava always had only three legs, she just needed the people around her to be comfortable with her in order to get by, so the illusionist obliged her.

This is colossally stupid. It doesn’t make any sense for Ellis’ parents to keep a healthy wolf but not a sickly one – if they couldn’t afford one they certainly couldn’t afford the other. It’s stupid, and worse, destructive, to create the illusion that when a child’s parents say “no” to something because the family cannot afford it it’s actually because the parents are uncomfortable with it. Children negotiate with this premise all the time (I know I did) but it only leads to tension in the family as parents get frustrated with their children’s pestering and the child builds distrust of parents. Not a good message.

Further, Ava carries two people on her back at times, as well as scrambling up rocks and ledges, as if she had two functioning front legs. Let me stress, the illusion created for Ava only looked and felt real – it wasn’t actually there. In which case, Ava acting like a normal wolf is stupid.

But the worst part of this is, it gives disabled children the impression that all they have to do to fit in is act like they aren’t disabled. No matter how much stress and pain this might cause them. Bottle it up. Pretend it’s not there.

Congratulations, Dragon Prince. You’ve contradicted your own point.

Again, disabled people are not less than healthy people, any more than someone with the flu is less than a healthy person. But their disabilities do have fundamental impacts on how they interact with the world. If you’re going to write fiction that includes these people you must. Must. Must. Be true to life in how these shortcomings will impact them, or you’re doing more harm than good. The Dragon Prince tried, but I’m not sure it managed. This time. Hopefully the writers can recover and do better in the future.

The Tragedy of Kanye West

Wait! Wait! Come back! This is about writing, I promise!

We’re going to talk about writing in the context of Kanye West.

Come back! Please!

Okay, joking aside, I do want to talk about writing and it’s going to be that rarest of posts ’round these parts, the topical post. Those who pay some scant attention to politics may be aware that the popular rapper Kanye West has taken to the political arena in the last few months, an interesting and unusual direction for him. My purpose is not to break down the content of his political commentary, which primarily consisted of encouraging free thought and questioning of accepted beliefs (fairly benign messages), but rather the error he made in his approach.

Kanye’s biggest mistake proved to be his failure to analyze his audience. This resulted in his message getting lost in signal noise and ultimately jumbled with the statements of people around him, whether he agreed with them or not.

Mandatory disclaimer time. I don’t know much about Kanye West – not a fan of rap in general, don’t watch reality TV, not really in to celebrities. Before his entry in to the political arena, which does interest me, I only knew that he cut Taylor Swift off at the Grammys that one time. People who have followed West’s career for a while agree that diving head first in to a new realm of discussion with strong opinions already in place is not unusual behavior for the man, so I’m going to assume Kanye approached making commentary on politics the way he’s approached every other piece of commentary he’s made in his life.

Most musicians start building hype through a press release and reaching out to one or two trusted media venues, then follow up any further press interest they get as they continue to try and network to better and better platforms. They rely on the press as their primary audience, building hype and enthusiasm via straight forward discussion of their newest work and the artistic process and their excitement at the outcomes. This is a pattern Kanye lives in quite well, from what I’ve seen he’s a charismatic man and speaks with great force and passion, and he rolls with punches splendidly, even turning hostile questioning to his own advantage.

The problem is that, in the early stages of this process Kanye has probably grown used to working with the music press. Musicians and music press have a mutually beneficial interest in making sure the public at large is enthusiastic about a musician’s upcoming work. This can take many forms but the press is rarely interested in dampening down what the artist is trying to say – the art is at the center of that kind of press after all.

Political press is a much, much different beast. Political press is always spinning, and rarely with any concern for how what was originally said was intended. It’s instructive how much of what President Trump has said to the public has come through venues he has complete control over – Twitter, the Press Secretary, rallies – and how much what he has said in those venues has still been spun all over the place on both sides. Very noncommittal statements on the subject of, say, North Korea have been spun as everything from threats of war to declarations of a new age of peace.

While Donald Trump is not as charismatic as Kanye, he has a station on popular culture that is older and more pervasive and he has shrewdly used that to trumpet his messages directly to the public as often as possible, bypassing the spin machine as much as possible. He knew the media was an audience hostile to him and, while he couldn’t remove their power he could dilute it by asking people who they would rather believe – the press or Trump. That’s not a great strategy for cultural cohesion but it is an excellent strategy for getting your message through clearly.

Kanye was used to being a straight shooter with people who had no need to spin. He didn’t know this new audience as well as Trump and so he thought he could simply get up and talk about how enthused he was to see long time rap icon Donald Trump as president and how proud and excited that made him feel about his country. He made some statements on Twitter, a few public appearances, and finally an interview on TMZ. But by that point the spin was in full effect.

Kanye was a traitor who was becoming a Republican! Kanye was a full MAGA guy and that was great! Kanye wanted all black people to vote Trump! Kanye didn’t know anything about being black! From celebrated writers like Ta Naeisi Coats at the Atlantic to staff contributors at The Gateway Pundit, everyone had a spin and no one really cared what the crafted message of Kanye West was. They just needed his name to boost their own messages.

After months of this it’s not surprising that Kanye doing a personal favor for a friend on the opposite side of the political aisle would be misconstrued as endorsement for a political movement he had no interest in. The “Blexit” movement, about black people stepping away from the Democratic party in favor of the Republicans, is naturally a poor fit for a man who wants to question everything and wants others to do the same. It’s not surprising Kanye would throw up his hands and walk away from politics after being pushed into yet another box by the political press.

But at this point he really should have expected it. The sad fact is, people who will listen to art and get hyped for its message frequently don’t want to listen to political messages or question them to see if they’re really what they claim to be. Most political press outlets have a vested interest in catering to that desire by spinning the news, or at least their opinion pieces on the news. And almost any reporting on someone like Kanye is bound to be 99% opinion. It’s a very different environment from an industry press like Kanye would be used to.

For all his personal charisma, powerful personality and worthwhile message, Kanye approached his foray into politics as a musician with something to say, rather than as a politician with an agenda to push. That mistake in technique, that failure to understand his audience, let him loose control of his messaging and become a political figurehead for anyone who wanted him for a short period of time. Now he’s turned back to creative work, where his skills will doubtless show much more return. And, if he’s shrewd, he can still put his message forward if he wants.

It’s very tempting to think that just because you’ve become good communicating in one medium or to one audience that you can communicate in any medium or to any audience. This is naïve. That audience is not this audience, it’s not yours until you understand it well enough to make it yours. Each medium, each audience, must be carefully examined, all preconceived notions questioned, all trusted approaches doubted, until they are thoroughly understood. Do it and hopefully you won’t come up short in the final reckoning. Take that to heart and maybe a little of Kanye’s message will have gotten through in the end.

Politics and Publishing

We live in a world where politics seems to have invaded everything. It’s not healthy to have contentious debates about the direction we want our society to take dominate everything from sports and entertainment to religion and philosophy. There needs to be venues where people can come together and appreciate the common human experience without refighting the political battles of the day. At the same time, the places best suited to providing these neutral forums also has the greatest potential to impact the political arena.

Entertainment and religion can powerfully shape the way we view the world, especially with undiscerning audiences, and that makes them a big target for people who want to gain political power beginning in arenas outside the political. Most people’s political beliefs are shaped by their sense of what’s moral or beneficial after all. And, particularly in the case of religion or philosophy, one almost expects political beliefs to be influenced by other parts of life.

Thus entertainment has most commonly been regarded as the appropriate apolitical arena. Sports teams gave people a cause to rally around and a forum for camaraderie which had nothing to do with the intricacies of public policy, novels and movies created a shared mythos where politics could play a part but were often kept as distant metaphors or subtle themes by the best writers. Unfortunately, beginning sometime in the 1950s, ideology began to gain traction in entertainment as well. For the purposes of this forum, the influence of politics on publishing is what interests us most.

Some political publishing was inevitable, but most of it focused on news and commentary, not entertainment. And, until recently, there was still a wide offering of apolitical entertainment if you desired it. But that offering has grown slimmer and less accessible for some time, until we’ve reached a point where it’s almost nonexistent in some mediums or genres.

Enter Comicsgate.

Like most mediums, American comics had enjoyed a low political presence for a long time. But the thumbscrews were building through the early 2000s and apolitical content got pushed out. Soon any contributors who disagreed with the prevailing political ideology in comics was under pressure to keep quiet or conform. By about 2015 artists and writers were starting to loose work just because of their views. Come 2017 Comicsgate, a strange backlash against political purity testing and storytelling in the comics industry, had arisen and was enraging the old guard with their irreverence towards the people running the mainstream and their willingness to throw down shibboleths.

Comicsgate spends most of their time condemning political maneuvering in the industry and tsking over subpar product that has resulted from what they view as an overemphasis on political correctness and an underemphasis on good storytelling and art. The mainstream accuses them of bigotry and envy.

The conflict between old guard and rebels came to a head in May of 2018 when one of the figureheads of Comicsgate, one Richard C. Meyer, wrapped up an Indegogo campaign to create his own independent comic and announced that it would be published through a company called Antarctic Press. Upset, comic book veteran Mark Waid announced his disappointment on his public social media platforms and contacted Antarctic Press directly. What followed were a couple of harrowing days for the owners of Antarctic Press as they state they were contacted repeatedly, not just via the Antarctic offices but at their day jobs, by people angry at their collaboration with Meyer. Eventually Antarctic canceled their contract with Meyer and forced him to find his own methods of printing and distributing the book.

Now Meyer is suing Waid for tortuous interference with his contract.

Full disclosure. I’ve praised the work of Mark Waid on this blog in several places, including here, here and here. I think he can be a great writer, capable of writing great stories that bring people together with the power of the shared human experience. I also rather like Richard Meyer’s work as a comic book critic and I backed one of his Indegogo projects (although not the one that was through Antarctic Press). I also find Waid’s behavior in this case thuggish and egotistical. So what now?

There was an interesting article by another independent comic creator, Jon del Arroz, who addressed this exact question on his own blog. You can read it here. He makes several great points in this. Both sides are appealing to their fans to raise money for their legal defense funds. The money spent in this way isn’t really helping anyone but the lawyers, and it’s certainly not helping the comic industry, which is struggling. (And before you bring up the Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s important to point out that the Marvel film studio and comic line are administratively and – more importantly – financially independent.) And Comicsgate has spent a lot of time talking about this lawsuit like it’s a great victory, which it clearly isn’t.

At the same time, Arroz make’s one major mistake in his analysis of this situation.

See, he seems to think that this lawsuit has somehow made Comicsgate political, and ruined its ability to say it’s a movement about apolitical entertainment. I disagree.

First, Comicsgate does have a majority of what Americans would consider moderate to far right wing figures in it, including Meyer himself, as well as figures like Ethan Van Sciver, Doug Ernst and Doug TenNapel. However, it has a lot of moderate left wingers as well, like Nasser Rabadi and Donal DeLay. But all these people are committed to apolitical storytelling. That lets them put their differences aside and help each other with the craft of comics while still enjoying their policy disagreements.

At the same time, getting a comic published is a business. Business is not entertainment, it is very political and it has to be. If Waid is, in fact, guilty of interfering in business in an illegal fashion then it is not only appropriate but, from the business perspective, necessary to respond in a legal fashion. Any good business lawyer will tell you that every time you pass on your business rights your ability to stand up for them in the future is diminished. Further, if Comicsgate or some part thereof does intend to transform from a loose collection of critics to a new part of their industry they have to make it clear to the old guard that they cannot be harassed out of the business. Meyer seems to understand this, as he made clearish in his long but rambling explanation of why he sued Waid in the first place (at the time of this writing the video where Meyer explains his reasoning is no longer available, perhaps because he has removed it at the advice of his legal team). For Meyer’s business ambitions to play out, he has to take part in the legal/political side of business or basically admit he’s been run out of the industry.

All this being true… I’m not enamored of the idea of this suit being funded by the fans of an industry – on either side – much less the amount of haymaking and fundraising that’s gone on around it. (For this reason I’m not linking to the fundraising pages for either side of the suit.) It only fuels the kind of division that entertainment was originally supposed to help us bridge.

Long time readers of this blog know I like to examine the publishing industry from time to time and try and draw lessons for myself and other aspiring writers from it. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can glean from this other than the obvious: Straighten up and prepare for a long slog. Even if you have a good product others want, it seems that might not be enough. There’s a lot of opportunities out there for us, but in changing times the old guard might not give way easily.

We Have Forgotten Our Symbolic Language

There was a time when fairy tales and myths were ways of talking about the world which were rife with mystery and symbolism. These stories served as ways to present human realities in sharp, simple and easy to remember ways. While lacking in nuance by today’s standards this symbolic language is part of what made these traditional stories easy to pass down. The people who told them were typically not literate and, even if they could read or write, generally wouldn’t have the resources to make something durable enough to stand the test of time. The average home was a very flimsy place back in the day, and something as flimsy as paper was unlikely to survive the seasons, much less the years.

So stories larger than life, stories of brave knights and princesses, dark forests and lurking predators, monsters and ghosts were spun to stand out from the day to day humdrum of life. But most all people knew that the protagonists were stand-ins for the higher callings in their lives, the dark places represented hard times or unfamiliar circumstances and the ghouls and dragons the worse parts of human nature that had to be confronted and overcome, whether from sources without or from within their own heart. This symbolic language was beautiful, effective and most of all memorable.

We’ve forgotten how it is used.

Part of this is because of the immediacy of our culture. Twitter hot takes and reddit memes have overtaken the discussion to the point where the first aspect of anything that catches the attention is what is commented on. You would think memes could fill the role of introductory symbology for our culture but so much of meme culture is rooted in irony and sarcasm that it tends to undermine the nature of symbolism – commentors are too busy trying to put their own spin on the meme to consider the original intention of whatever they’re riffing on. Symbology requires a level of shared perception between author and audience which meme culture actively avoids. Which brings us to the second issue, namely the very postmodern culture we live in.

Postmodernists are hung up on power games and oppressing people; they’re always looking for it. Almost all literary criticism in our era is rooted in postmodernism, so the people who used to keep and teach our cultural symbolism, the elders and wise women, now spend all their time dissecting it to see how it’s bad. An ogre who robs and kills travelers is no longer a symbol of human greed, it’s a racist caricature of Jews, or black people, or whatever.

This is something that’s been nagging at me for a while, but I always chalked it up to postmodernism. But the decay of meaningful symbology was really thrown in stark contrast for me by the reaction to a little work of Japanese fiction called Goblin Slayer. For those wondering, the story focuses on a man who kills goblins. Who would have guessed?

There have been two camps of people who have reacted to Goblin Slayer: people who think the show is morally reprehensible or at least posing as it for shock value and people who think it’s just a dark, gritty action fantasy tale not afraid to face harsh realities.

The primary two reasons given when people say Goblin Slayer is horrible are:

  1. The first episode contains a not very explicit but not very ambiguous rape.
  2. The attitude of the title character, particularly in his extermination of child goblins, endorses genocide.

The usual responses to these objections  given by those who just think Goblin Slayer is a dark adventure are:

  1. Rape is an evil thing that happens, and using it to establish the evil of your villains is just as valid as using murder or torture, both things goblins also do in the first episode.
  2. Goblins are presented more as a lethal pest that happens to have arms, legs and a head like a human, rather than as sentient beings. The Goblin Slayer is an exterminator who deals with the pests, not a genocidal maniac.

Both of these reactions completely miss the point.

They are not serious criticisms of the story, for two reasons. The first is that they are based on a woefully incomplete understanding of Goblin Slayer. These are not criticisms, these are hot takes, sarcastic, ironic statements made to grab attention on Twitter, not engage with the work as it stands. One episode of a thirteen episode run is not much to base an opinion on but it is plenty to grandstand on like an ignoramus. For starters, if these self-styled critics were interested in offering an informed opinion without waiting for the rest of the series to broadcast, Goblin Slayer has plenty of source material that they could have drawn on and the source books are “light novels”, the Japanese equivalent to novellas, that can be read in a few hours each. But this wasn’t about criticism or analysis, this was about finding something to be outraged about. But outrage is the devil’s cocaine, it feels good but blinds all senses, leaving the outraged to be swept along by the crowd with no real sense of what’s happening. It’s the exact opposite of the attitude a critic needs.

Worse, this easy outrage at any little thing you can call rape or racism dulls the senses. Like the cocaine addict, the outrage addict wears down their receptiveness to these issues and wearies their mind, until real outrages pass right by them without comment. But that’s not what we’re driving at today, so we’ll leave it at that. The real point is this:

Goblins are not stand ins for real world races, nor are their crimes perpetrated on the audience. In Goblin Slayer the goblins are symbolic of human evils. The narrative goes out of its way to make this point. We are told in the first chapter of the source material that a saying goes that every time a new group of adventurers is formed so is a band of goblins. A folk tale is mentioned that a goblin is formed every time someone makes a mistake. Elsewhere the Goblin Slayer himself mentions that his sister told him when you resent someone you become a goblin. The Slayer’s cunning and ruthless way of fighting is twice compared to the behavior of goblins, a fact he himself acknowledges in a speech early in the first book where he compares his own obsessive destruction to that of a goblin’s. “He who fight’s monsters should take care lest he become one” is an overused trope but fortunately not one that really applies to Goblin Slayer.

You see, Goblin Slayer is a story in the vein of the old fairytales (a very gruesome and violent group of fiction itself, I might add). The Slayer himself is an embodiment of the battle between good and evil in human hearts. He comes from a very, very dark place. It’s what drives him to exterminate the evils of goblins so thoroughly. As the only villains of the tale, goblins in Goblin Slayer fill many roles but all of them are as representations of human vice. Gluttony and greed in the form of their rapacious theft and cannibalism, lust in their abductions and rapes, cruelty and wrath in their rampant violence.

We know that the victims of evil are, sadly, the most likely to perpetuate that evil. Bullied children are more likely to become bullies as they grow, victims of domestic violence more likely to abuse, sexual assault victims more likely to rape. This truth is dark, but doesn’t leave one without hope. If acknowledged, one can be on guard. Like the reforming alcoholic who avoids any drinking situation, these victims can grab hold of their situation if only they know what to be on watch for.

While many adventurers move on past goblins and view them simply as pests, the Goblin Slayer has suffered horribly from them and so he is more on guard against them than any other. He does not allow even a scrap of potential for them to reclaim their power in his life, so he exterminates them even down to the children. He is dark and troubled, teetering on the edge of monstrousness himself at times, but in time he is blessed with people who can see how damaged he is and who will not reject him outright, and what began as a perpetual battle against the darkness the goblins cast him into begins to relent, and the support of people who care gives him the chance to begin building a life that is more than just battling his own demons.

No, Goblin Slayer is not great literature. But it is a sincere story about looking the human capacity for evil in the face and accepting that it has to be fought in all its incarnations, great and small. The way it goes about this will doubtless be off-putting to some. It’s not exactly pleasant to watch. But the point is, it is a story told in a language that was commonplace in our culture not fifty years ago but that we have somehow forgotten how to use in the time since. That’s clear from the incredibly off-base reaction to it. That’s quite sad, a whole portion of our cultural heritage lost in just a few generations. It may take far longer to recover from the loss.