Chaos In Comics?

By | Wednesday, January 13, 2010 Leave a Comment
Yesterday's earthquake in Haiti got me thinking. More precisely, that it was a complete and total surprise to everyone. Granted, earthquakes are generally pretty surprising events and scientists haven't quite figured out how to predict them with any accuracy yet, but if you live in, say, California, you kind of have to expect an earthquake from time to time. News outlets are saying that this is the worst quake to hit Haiti in 200 years. This is about as random of an event as you can get.

And that's what most of Life is, really. A serious of random events that you have little to no control over. Most of them aren't nearly as devastating or wide-reaching as an earthquake, certainly, but we all go from day to day not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow. We make the best predictions we can and try to plan accordingly, but in the end, we don't really get a dress rehearsal. We've got a vague outline of a plot, and are shoved onto the stage with a bunch of other actors who are in precisely the same predicament.

Over the next days and weeks, we're bound to hear more stories coming out of Haiti. Some -- probably many -- will be astoundingly tragic. The woman who lost her husband, children and parents. The man who was crushed to death trying to help his neighbor. The teacher and all of her students whose last sight was the school roof dropping down. The priest who was trapped in the rubble of a fallen church and starved to death before he could be rescued. We're going to hear horrible, horrible stories that will make you want to hide in the closet for the rest of your life.

And there'll be stories of true heroes. The man who foraged enough food to keep his friends from starving. The woman who repaired a hospital generator and allowed doctors to treat patients for another two days. The doctors who flew down this morning and won't get a wink of sleep until they collapse from exhaustion. We're going to hear uplifting stories that reaffirm what we colloquially call the human spirit.

All of that, and everything in between, will be born of this massive, entropic event. None of it was scripted. Or planned. Or rehearsed. The storylines won't be able to get wrapped up with a tidy ending. There's no sunset to ride off into, no happily ever after. We do have our never-ending battles, but somehow it's not quite the same, is it?

Of course not. Because we invariably know that Lex Luthor is not going to get away with it. How many of you honestly believed that Superman was never going to be brought back after he died? What about Captain America? Readers aren't stupid; they know that, at the end of the day, good will triumph over evil and the hero will stand there triumphantly just as surely as he stood there triumphantly yesterday. Just a surely as he'll stand there triumphantly tomorrow.

Legend has it that one of the final straws that convinced Steve Ditko to leave Amazing Spider-Man back in the day was a disagreement about the true identity of the Green Goblin. Stan Lee argued that it should be someone Peter Parker already knew. Someone that he was familiar with and looked up to. Ditko, on the other, said that, realistically, it's more likely that a Green Goblin character would just be some random nutjob no one had ever heard of before. He would be a Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab or a Richard Reed. Ditko was right, of course, but Lee's point was that didn't make good storytelling.

Look up Abdulmutallab's story. How much of the reporting is about him? Very little. It's all about the "actors" we already know and have some relationship with. Barack Obama, Janet Napolitano, Al-Qaida... heck, I've heard more about Anwar al-Awlaki lately than Abdulmutallab! That's because journalists are storytellers (not meant as a slight, by any means) and they're framing this whole crotch-bomber story around people, places and ideas the audience is already familiar with.

That's why here in the U.S. we hear more about the plane heading to Detroit than leaving from Amsterdam. We know about Detroit! Home of the Pistons and the Lions! Motown! Ford and GM! Motor City Comic Con! An all-American city of ever there was one! What's the extent that Americans know about Amsterdam? Um... it's in Europe somewhere and prostitution is legal. (If they know that much.)

I don't begrudge journalists for doing that. It's a way for their audience to connect with and better understand what they're saying. "How does that relate to me?" It's a selfish mindset at some level, certainly, but we really can only understand the world from our own vantage point, so it makes sense to try to relate events back to ourselves. Journalists, and storytellers of all sorts, know that and frequently work that angle to make their writing more accessible.

And that's precisely why you don't see anything really random like that in comics. (Well, commercial ones at any rate.) Even if you follow one protagonist that readers get to know, throwing random crap at them all the time will make readers feel less connected with the character and the story ultimately fails.

At a meta-textual level, it's impossible to put something truly random. Comics have to be created by people. People who sit down and actively create everything about the world they're telling a story about. But, from a practical level, they can't put what the reader will perceive as Life's randomness into the story either. At least, not at the level that Real Life occurs.

Which is just as well. We get enough of that as it is.
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