Philosophy Via Comics

By | Sunday, March 21, 2010 2 comments
Firefly remains my all-time favorite TV show. It is, without a doubt, the only show I've watched deliberately and repeatedly start to finish. It's one of the few shows where I've watched every episode more than once, and certainly the only one where I've sought to watch every episode more than once.

Let me clarify as well that I'm not especially a Joss Whedon fan. Oh, I like his work well enough and I think he's pretty talented. But most of what he says with his work doesn't particularly speak to me very much. Firefly was different, though, and his vision in that show really resonates with me.

This past week, I just sat through watching all of the episodes again. Two or three every night. And I followed it up with the commentary track version of the last episode, "Objects in Space."

Now I've listened to all the commentary tracks before. Most of the episodes' commentaries provide insights and anecdotes about the behind-the-scenes of the show, as most commentary tracks are designed to do. But in the track for "Objects in Space" if you haven't heard it, Whedon spends most of the time talking about philosophy, how he began thinking about existentialism and how objects can be divorced from their commonly-ascribed utility.

Personally, I haven't read much in the way of formal philosophy. What I have studied is primarily more filtered, like the novels of Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoyevsky or the documentaries by Alain de Botton. And comics.

It was curious that I never really caught this in the "Objects in Space" commentary before, but I noticed tonight a couple instances where Whedon does actually speak to the specifics of the scene being displayed and expressly remarks how the actors brought things to the table that he hadn't necessarily intended, but helped the overall story and symbolism, and that he appreciated that collaborative nature of television. What struck me in particular about that is that is precisely why I don't like television in general. I don't want to see a collaborative effort involving writers, directors, actors, special effects crew, set designers, costumers, musicians, editors, and on and on. Every one of those people is bringing something to the table which impacts the show. The way a writer imagines a character's voice inflection might not be how the actor chooses to speak. The way a set designer creates a room might not be conducive to how the director wants to frame a shot. All of those decisions across the board affect the final product.

That's not to meant to be a negative per se. To Whedon's point, multiple people with their specific areas of expertise can bring things to the table that enhance the overall work. And it also brings with it multiple perspectives; it brings other people's ideas into the mix. By design. Everybody collaborating together to ensure that a good product is made, but also that you don't accidentally piss somebody off.

"Wait a minute! That thing you just did with your hands? I think that's a gang sign. Can you just give a thumbs up?"

"You know the line at the top of page seventeen? I think that might be a slur in some segments."

"You know, if we go this route with the character, we could alienate a large group of religious viewers."

But the type of work that's very collaborative like that also means that you're filtering the message of the piece. So the message you hear is the joint effort of many people trying to say (hopefully) something similar to one another. And that, to me, ends up muddying the message. I would much rather hear what a single person thinks. What's important to them AS AN INDIVIDUAL? What motivates them AS AN INDIVIDUAL? What do they have to say AS AN INDIVIDUAL?

What I liked about Firefly is that, despite being worked on by a diverse group, the show came across as Whedon's own vision. It very much felt like his show, and the other folks working on it were just channeling him.

And that's why I like comics. They're individually done by such a small group of people that each piece comes across as the vision/message of a single individual. (Well, usually. There are some works, I suppose, where the writer and artist were working at cross purposes, but those tend to come across as just really poorly executed.) I like that singularity of vision, that sense that I'm getting what the creator wanted (and had the ability) to convey.

There are thousands of TV shows and movies out there. By and large, they're made for mass audiences and, as such, they try to speak to a broad appeal with generic (and banal) messages.

Call me selfish, but I want entertainment and media for me. I want something that speaks to me. Not some trite pap tarted up in the newest window dressing. Now, obviously, not everything is going to be made for my benefit and there's going to be plenty out there that I won't like or consider relevant. But with the ability to micro-segment these days, it's much easier for comics especially to target me.

There are strips out there -- like Tozo, the Public Servant and Dead Man Holiday -- which are more about what the creator wants to say than what their audience might like to hear. And that is the what I find so wonderful about comics. Being able 'speak' to someone else in that manner is special and unique. To hear other people espouse their personal philosophies through images drawn on the page is a brilliant way to find out about how others think, whether I agree with that thinking or not.
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Jeff said...

"Well, here I am."

Joe H said...

This is probably why I like South Park and The Venture Bros so much. South Park is definitely Matt and Trey's unfiltered vision on screen. Jackson Publick also seems to have his vision channeled in Venture Bros.