Wink Wink Nudge Nudge

By | Sunday, November 21, 2010 2 comments
I'm sitting here watching The Sarah Jane Adventures, a BBC children's series spun off from Doctor Who. Like many works of fiction aimed at young adults, the storytelling makes it fairly evident that it's aimed at that particular audience. The kids are given primary roles and frequently are crucial to resolving the plot conflicts, which are generally pretty cut and dried when it comes to morals and right versus wrong. But SJA has been well-done and been nominated for several television awards.

The opening of the show features one of the main characters, Clyde, providing an overview of the premise to the audience.

After a brief break in his narration with dramatic music playing over a series of shots from the show, Sarah Jane opens the door to greet him and asks, "Ready?" He responds eagerly and confidently, "Always," and then turns to look directly at the camera.

Breaking the fourth wall is nothing new. The opening of William Shakespeare's Richard III starts with one of the more famous examples of that type of acknowledgement of the audience. I think with the advent of television and movies, actors were able to engage individual viewers in a way that wasn't quite possible with plays and operas. Richard III talks to the audience, but the audience as a whole. With television and it's solitary perspective, looking right at the camera like that provides a direct connection with each viewer on an individual basis. The actor is no longer just generally acknowledging that an audience exists, as is the case with Shakespeare, but he/she is specifically acknowledging that YOU as an individual exist and the story (or, at least, some of the actor's specific remarks) are for your individual benefit.

It might seem like a fine distinction, but it speaks to a lack of subtlety. The show's producers are making it plainly obvious that they are trying to engage you as a viewer as viscerally as possible. With children's programming, that's more necessary as youngsters often haven't developed the type of mental skills necessary to parse that all out for themselves. So I don't have a problem with that in shows like Sesame Street or Sarah Jane Adventures or whatever.

But in watching SJA today, it struck me that that same type of viewer acknowledgement often appears in comic books as well. Generally, not in the same breaking-the-fourth-wall sense, but that basic lack of subtlety. You know that "wink wink nudge nudge say no more say no more" straight-forwardness of overtly broadcasting when you're supposed to be in on the joke? That hit-you-over-the-head with references to make sure that you don't miss the punchline that's only intended for die-hard fans.

Not every comic does that, of course. It can vary widely with the skill of the writer. But there's something about that self-referential continuity that seems to make it more prevalent than it needs to be. Like I said, that's fine if you're aiming for a younger audience who won't get it otherwise. But I wonder if continuing to spoon feed that type of thing to 20- and 30- and 40-somethings helps to keep them in some state of arrested development.

Maybe I'm being (uncharacteristically) overly optimistic, but aren't some of the best comics NOT telegraphing everything to the audience so flagrantly? Watchmen, Palestine, Maus, etc. Aren't the greats of the industry -- the Will Eisners and Jim Sterankos and Jeff Smiths -- folks who use subtlety and nuance, and don't knock the reader over the head with The Point?

Again, I'm not saying that every comic comes across so juvenile, but that so many of them do may be part of the reason why so many comic shops also come across as juvenile locations. What if we were able to ramp up creators' games across the board? What if, instead of working down to the reader as if they were 12, creators required the cerebral processing of at least a 21 year old for their audience?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that wouldn't sell. Maybe most people do have the brainpower of a tweenager. That would certainly go a long way towards explaining a lot of what goes on in this world. But, damn, that's a scary proposition.
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Matt K said...

"What if we were able to ramp up creators' games across the board? What if, instead of working down to the reader as if they were 12, creators required the cerebral processing of at least a 21 year old for their audience?"

This is an interesting question, particularly with regards to how it fits the perceived problem that the American comics industry in general does not really have much of a youth audience. I recall Mark Waid, I think, observing something about how on Impulse he was writing an adventure series for 12-15 year olds which was mostly purchased by 35-40 year olds.

That, perhaps, was an exception though. I would say that a lot of DC and Marvel titles, at least, are actually juvenile and "mature" at the same time, in a way that kind of highlights our culture's odd concept of what is "mature." There is plenty of sexual content, strong language and astonishingly graphic violence; on the other hand, many comics' premises and plots are, arguably, still stuck at a pretty facile, unreflective level.

But them, as a curmudgeon, I'm not even sure how unique this is to comics. Look at television, movies, video games, our culture generally, and it seems rather similar. "Mature" content is everywhere, all one could ever want of sex, violence, profanity, details of intimate health issues... but how often is it handled with any kind of genuine maturity? Wit, sensitivity, subtlety?

One might describe this dichotomy as a Beavis-and-Butthead culture, perhaps.

But I dunno. Darn kids, everything going to the dogs, blah blah. Same old refrain. :-)

I thought about going down the "what is actually mature" road in that post, but that seemed to digress pretty quickly. Plus, I didn't feel like looking up any Alan Moore quotes on how everybody missed the point of Watchmen and just re-appropriated some of the surface material. :)

It's also easy to find examples of this immaturity in other media, too, of course. I think the difference, though, is that comic fans are (frequently) still laying claim to Action Comics or whatever being a mature book. I don't think there's anyone really making that claim for Die Hard or Two And A Half Men. They're juvenile, but flatly accepted as such and don't hold themselves to anything higher than puerile entertainment. Comics, it seems to me, try to hold themselves to a higher level, while largely continuing to wallow in a more juvenile state.