Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Existentialism

I've been giving thought lately to my personal belief system and, to a lesser extent, how that relates back to my comic book reading.

For as long as I can recall thinking about such things, I've been a big proponent of free will. The notion that I, and I alone, control my actions and that any consequences of those actions are mine to bear. As near as I can determine, it was this firm belief in free will that has guided/directed my thinking towards religion, politics, entertainment, and just about everything else. After college, I began mentally exploring that notion further and have come to think of myself as something of an existentialist. While there are any number of variations of existentialist philosophy, the basic premise takes free will a step further by stating that the meaning(s) of our very existence is entirely up to the individual.

I seem to recall seeing/reading an article some years back discussing Krazy Kat in an existentialist (instead of the more typical surrealist) light, but I can't seem to find that at the moment. This particular strip (from December 25, 1919) speaks directly to the two characters' differing approaches to what is or isn't their respective realities. But it's certainly not the only comic that brings up the notion of existentialism.

Time travel is a notion that comes up frequently in comics -- as well as other media, but I'm talking comics here. The two primary notions that tend to come up in some fashion are A) that anything a character does in his/her past is in fact already a part of his/her part and s/he was destined to carry out those actions, and B) history is mutable and subject to change -- a media-centric shortcut to explaining that position is Back to the Future. (There are variations on these ideas, obviously, with alternate timelines and such, but they still tend to generally follow one of those two premises.) It should be needless to say that I tend to favor stories that dismiss the notion of destiny or inevitability. Because of my fairly strong feelings on the matter, I tend to approach stories involving time travel with some trepidation, especially with properties that haven't previously taken a definitive stance on the issue of time travel. Both DC and marvel have wavered back and forth on the issue repeatedly, seemingly dependent on the whims of the writer and/or editor of any particular story.

That said, I can still appreciate a time travel story that holds to the notion of determinism, if it's done well. Steve Englehart, for example, did a fine job in West Coast Avengers #17-24. Technically, it holds together extremely well, keeping multiple storylines/timelines straight and still tying into established continuity on any number of points. I don't agree with the basic premise, but I have to admire the skill with which the story was executed. By contrast, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Knights 4 #15-17 is fraught with plot holes stemming precisely from the time travel aspects of the story, and I disliked that story despite his holding up the notion of free will and some excellent artwork by Jim Muniz.

But that's only an obvious way to see existentialism in comics. Another issue that stands out for me is one that was never published: Captain America #14 by Mark Waid and Andy Kubert. The issue, as written by Waid, recounts a history of the Red Skull -- as told by the Red Skull himself. (Waid's original script is online here courtesy of the Star-Spangled Site. Editor Bob Harras re-wrote much of the script before it was published, putting Red Skull in a more typical -- and safe -- role as the bad guy.) The original narrative is insightful because it is that of a character who believes in what he himself is doing, regardless of the fact that most people would consider those actions "evil." He doesn't consider his actions anything less than justified because of his own goals and that Captain America is an obstacle to them. Although the Skull's thoughts themselves don't necessarily relay an existentialist message, the very notion that his perception of events differs from the title's usual protagonist speaks to the idea that each man is creating a reality based on his own thoughts and opinions.

I think that one of the (subconscious) reasons I took to the Fantastic Four early was that it readily exposed the difference in approaches with Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom. Doom's very character is based in large part on revenge against Reed Richards for a perceived slight back in college. Reed, by contrast, always takes the opinion that the error was Doom's himself and he has never acknowledged that fact -- Doom is, in effect, absolving himself of any responsibility for his situation. The difference in characters are further highlighted by Reed repeatedly taking responsibility for the accident that caused his friends' conditions -- most notably that of his best friend, Ben Grimm. And similarly, Ben does NOT blame Reed for his own state (at least, he didn't by the time I started reading the book; the first dozen or so issues, Ben very clearly and adamantly did blame Reed). Ben has accepted that he elected to take on the risk of piloting that fateful space flight, fully knowing that there was a great amount of risk. The Fantastic Four (the good guys) believe they created themselves, while Dr. Doom (the bad guy) believes he was created by others.

Now whether or not you agree with me on how much responsibility we have for our own actions is immaterial here. But I think it's an especially intriguing notion to examine how some of my core belief system ties in to what I like to read. As I write this, I am the product of every decision I've ever made, and so I'm left to wonder who would I be if I had made different choices? Would I have taken to the Fantastic Four -- or, indeed, comics in general -- if I was more determinist in nature? Would I be reacting differently to events in my personal life the way I am? Would I even need to be dealing with the same things with a different outlook? Certainly interesting, if ultimately unanswerable, questions.

But let me put the question to you: how do your personal philosophies impact your choice of comics reading? I don't expect answers here, mind you -- I can only address the issue now because of the insane amount of navel-gazing I've been doing lately -- but it might be something worth examining for your own personal edification.

Self-actualization through comic books! Who knew?

5 comments:

Matt said...

Lots of interesting points in this post. On time travel in general, I remember when the late Mark Gruenwald developed a fairly detailed rulebook for time travel in the Marvel Universe... but if it was ever enforced, it's obviously gone out the window since.

I think the most logical model for time travel which I've ever come across is that described by David Deutsch, in "The Fabric of Reality," which also informs a lot of my views on the universe in general. His model of reality kind of makes the issue of predestination vs. free will irrelevant, although for practical purposes I think that free will is as "real" as any other element of human experience.

As for personal philosophy and choice of comics, I engage in a lot of introspection but haven't ever given thought to that exact question. I think it probably plays more a role in my enjoyment of comics, and other entertainment, than it determines what I am interested in looking at.

I think works like The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, or Ghost in the Shell, which speak to my deeper ideas about life, are probably more satisfying to me as a result of that, certainly. Conversely, the best example that comes to mind of a work which I disliked on largely philosophical grounds is the film "Hero." Visually it was magnificent, but I found the story so energetically nationalistic and misogynistic that I have no desire to ever watch the film again.

Finally, I feel like Avengers Forever deserves a mention, here; in addition to having a genuinely significant impact on my own outlook on life, it features time travel and the issue of predestination vs. free will as a major theme. From a technical perspective the story kind of has things both ways, but in the end I think it makes a powerful gesture towards free will, as Kang literally rejects his predestined future by force of will alone.

A very compelling depiction of the individual defining his own existence, I think.

plok said...

I'm so commenting on this in an hour or two...

RAB said...

I won't say it's a philosophical viewpoint as such...but my comics preferences definitely reflect my personal background and motivating drives. I've always preferred stories about groups over solitary protagonists, particularly those groups that function as real extended families (such as the FF) or surrogate families for the outcast (the X-Men or the Doom Patrol) or even whole races (the Inhumans and the Eternals). With a traditional superhero group such as the Avengers, I was less interested by the "big" heroes who had their own series and secret identities and that sort of thing, and much more fascinated with the types who lived in Avengers Mansion and their whole lives were based around their roles in the group. This preference comes straight from childhood feelings of isolation and the wish-fulfillment implicit in finding a whole group of people who are likewise different from the majority and who band together for mutual support against the outside world. The lone adventurer or solo hero was never a fantasy for me precisely because I already had that; being in Legion headquarters or Supertown was another matter.

By extension, in real life my motivation for getting involved with comics fandom was less about what I could accomplish for myself by being part of it and more about the people with whom I interacted, the friends and allies I could find with common interests, and being with my own kind at last in a world that hated and feared us.

plok said...

Well, RAB totally stole my answer.

Can he do that?

[sigh] Back to the drawing board...

plok said...

Okay.

I think no time-travel story's ever been written that hasn't been about nothing but the tension between free will and predestination. This is the whole point of time-travel stories, and the point's not new. Which is why I think everytime you get somebody trying to standardize the logic of time-travel (Groo's Rules, obviously, but also for example latter-day Star Trek, and even actual real-life scientific theory, sometimes), the product is mush. At some point, either time-travel is time-travel in actuality, or it isn't. Time, if you like, is either one thing, or it's another. Freedom either has some quality of being free to it, or it doesn't.

So that's my intro.

Now, my story: When I was a little kid, I was a little bit obsessed with this stuff. I would go to McDonald's and fully intend to have a strawberry shake (I love fake strawberry flavour), but then wonder, just as I got to the counter, if I could defeat the predestination embodied in my preference by ordering a chocolate shake (I'm not the world's biggest chocoholic by any means) instead. But then I would think, how fast do I need to go, to beat the predestination of time? Maybe I'm not changing my mind quickly enough, or capriciously enough...maybe destiny's already accounted for my wish to frustrate it, and I'm supposed to order a chocolate shake. Maybe I should revert quickly to strawberry, since it's the last thing time would expect. No, quick, vanilla...!

WAIT!

Chocolate!!!

Destiny'll never see it coming!

I was a bit of a strange kid, I think: quite concerned, at age seven, that I might not have free will. Or, more precisely, that I might not ever be able to prove I had free will, though I felt that I did, and I certainly wanted to prove it.

And in a nutshell, that's why I think superheroic time-travel stories are special. Because the superhero definitely does have free will, in fact he (or she) is an incredible emblem of freely-willed life -- the personification of the wish, right? Leave aside Miracleman, leave aside Dr. Manhattan...these are clever subversions of the literary wish-fulfillment that superheroes represent -- VERY clever subversions of them, good GOD! -- and even leave aside the Marvel heroes' (I refer to Old Marvel here, Sean, so pardon me for using the capital "M") background of dissatisfaction and disaffection and dismal being-pushed-around-ness...

It doesn't matter. The superhero's still a picture of the miracle of self-will, whatever obstacles are there in front of it. Well, the obstacles even help that story along: it's even more a triumph of will over world, because of them.

Hey, if it wasn't, then where would the (misguided, I think) charge of implicit fascism come from in the first place?

So. When I was a little kid, I coveted the surety of personality that was built into the superhero, and I think that's why I identified so strongly with the genre. And, I might as well say it, Reed Richards was a really good example to me of a self-possessed and freely-willed identity. Notice he didn't stretch his neck. And Sean, I'm not surprised at all that you do such an excellent job of summing up the essentially forward-looking appeal of the FF by setting, in swift strokes, Reed and Doom against Reed and Ben. A very cogent analysis, and it definitely shows the Ethical Hand of Jack -- nice one. I might add that, to the original FF, time and space were always friendly, negotiable...ON THEIR SIDE. Those two critters didn't stretch their necks either. And did you know that my hidden fanboy fantasy about the FF is, that wherever they go in the world, they're welcome? In my world, everybody loves the FF, is friendly to them, is negotiable, is ON THEIR SIDE. Everybody's willing to be their friend, because everybody knows they can expect a miraculous helping hand from them. Everybody but Namor and Doom, that is, who are too suspicious to join in the fun...

Stepped on your toes there, RAB, didn't I? But seriously, how bad have the FF been screwed up now? Grrrr...

However, Sean, I have to disagree with you about Englehart's WCA. Predestination? No such thing, when Br'er Hawkeye's in town, who in his time under Englehart's pen becomes the very epitome of free will (well, next to Ben Grimm, anyway). And so that long WCA sub-series brilliantly addresses the problem of predestination vs. free will, even though it takes one of the easy outs: that whatever history hasn't got written down, that's the free space character has available to it, to move around in.

Well hey, it's like a metaphor.

And that's why I hate the quantum-alternate universes of Groo's Rules (and latter-day Star Trek, too), because they screw up the metaphor. But I don't want it to be screwed up. I want my personal consciousness, at least, to count, to be free in itself even if it can't change things...! Like the strawberry shake, you see. Because the question in my seven-year-old mind wasn't whether I was a slave to destiny, but whether I could beat destiny.

Superheroes beat destiny all the time, of course. It's what they do. They save.

And, as long as I'm talking about Star Trek a little bit: this is what distinguishes Kirk, too, that he's as self-possessed and as self-willed as a superhero, and he's right to be that way, even if he doesn't have any reason or rationale behind it. As the plots all recognize: but also, that's why the shadow-figure of Mr. Spock is there, so he can be affected by Kirk, and brought along by him into the world of freely-willed life, the non-predestination of consciousness at least, that logic alone won't necessarily allow.

Well, is that not the basic tension of at least half the original Star Trek episodes?

Sorry for the space-eating, Sean; I wander like mad, tonight.

Anyway, I'm sure you've read Jim Roeg's MTIO essay "On Existentialism", so I won't link to it...but man, you're tapping the same root as it does, in this post. You should read it again.

You all should. That post is like a revelation to me.

Sorry again for the long ramble! Cheers! And: hell of a good topic, Sean!