Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Joe The Barbarian

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on March 14, 2010

If there is one person who I wish had never been born, it’s Joseph Campbell.

The concept of ‘the Hero’s Journey’ has done more to ruin fiction and popular culture than any other concept I can think of.

I’m not talking here about its role in ‘the Men’s movement’, though it’s hardly surprising that a narrative form that’s all about how some people are born special and are just specialer than anyone else and that’s all there is might be tied to ultra-reactionary politics (via people like Minnesota ‘poet laureate’ Robert Bly – himself far from a reactionary, but his “Iron John” writings have inspired a lot of them, and it’s no coincidence that he was appointed to his position by Tim Pawlenty, one of the most vicious and stupid politicians in what is a fairly politically vicious and stupid country). Nor am I annoyed by Campbell’s Jungian justification for his ideas – a good idea can come even from such unpromising soil.

What annoys me is that something that was intended as a *description* is instead increasingly being taken as a *prescription*.

Campbell is in a weird position, culturally. Among the ‘geek demographic’ he is hugely known but little-read, quoted to give a veneer of academic respectability to their prejudices, while among academics themselves he is largely dismissed. To the general public, he’s barely known at all.

As I (perhaps optimistically) tend to assume that the readership of this blog is closer to ‘the general public’ than ‘the geek demographic’, I’ll summarise Campbell’s work briefly. In essence, Campbell studied a lot of myths, and saw that many of them followed the pattern “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

So far so normal – that does, indeed, sound like almost every story ever, because it’s completely lacking in content. But Campbell went on to point out a lot of other elements that are seen in many (but by no means all) stories, before putting these all together into a ‘monomyth’ – a description that supposedly all myths and legends fit, though in fact none fits exactly.

If you want to know what that monomyth was, just watch Star Wars. George Lucas very consciously followed Campbell’s books, hit every single point that Campbell described, and had a huge hit. And this is where the problem started.

For some reason, the success of Star Wars was not put down to the idea that kids like to see robots and spaceships and light-saber fights and that there hadn’t been any exciting, fun, pulpy SF in the cinema for more than a decade. Nor was it ascribed to Lucas’ careful world-building. And nor was there a sudden boom in people stealing wholesale the plots to Kurosawa films, even though that had worked well for The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful Of Dollars as well. Instead, it became received wisdom, for God knows what reason, that it was following Campbell’s ‘rules’ that made Star Wars a hit.

And so *EVERYTHING* from Hollywood – or aimed at becoming something from Hollywood – now follows that rule. And so the Matrix is the same story as Harry Potter is the same story as the Star Wars prequels are the same story as…

I’ve actually had arguments on comics message boards (before realising what a horribly stupid idea that is) with people who have insisted, against all the evidence, that it is literally impossible for a story to be told that *doesn’t* fit the monomyth. This is to be expected from people who define themselves as ‘geeks’, who generally like more than anything else to have things be the same as other things, and nice little boxes to put everything in.

But what’s annoying more than anything is that actual *writers* fall for this. Neil Gaiman does it all the time, and it’s a shame because at his best Gaiman really is as good as his reputation ( some of the short stories in Smoke & Mirrors are absolutely superb), but whenever Gaiman starts going on about THE POWER OF STORY, it’s always *this* story he’s talking about.

But what really surprises me is the fascination the monomyth has for Grant Morrison. Morrison tends for the most part to have a healthy disregard for rules – except when those rules have a veneer of new-ageyness, when his critical thinking goes out of the window. And so told that there are rules about how stories should go, but that those rules come from JUNGIAN ARCHETYPES! and are based in ANCIENT MYTHS!, suddenly Morrison starts following them, and we see the monomyth underlaying almost all Morrison’s writing (with notable ‘experimental’ exceptions such as New Adventures Of Hitler – and even there, someone will be along in the comments to talk about how it follows the pattern exactly).

Luckily, he’s a good enough writer to get away with this for the most part – something like All-Star Superman is simultaneously as formulaic as a Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story and as personal a work as anything ever created – much like Bach, in fact, Morrison manages at his best to turn his strict adherence to a restrictive formalism into an advantage.

Morrison has not yet done this in Joe The Barbarian, though to be fair he’s only had two issues.

Joe The Barbarian is a mini-series by Morrison and Sean Murphy (though only Morrison is credited as ‘creator’ – and incidentally, the name of the associate editor is Pornsak Pichetshote, which has now overtaken Wade Von Grawbadger as my favourite comic-person name of all time), and for a Morrison comic it’s had surprisingly little criticism, positive or negative, as yet online (I mean proper criticism, not stuff like this, which is one of the most comprehensive examples of point-missing I’ve ever read), other than one memorable comment which said the comic (about a kid hallucinating from diabetes) made diabetes seem a lot more fun than it probably is…

Because so far, the comic, while good, has definitely been lacking. Sean Murphy’s art is gorgeous, as is, of course, Dave Stewart’s colouring (though it will probably look better on better quality paper), and the story definitely has potential… but so far it’s seemed very much like Morrison doing a few of Grant Morrison’s Greatest Hits (the hallucinations being very similar to Flex Mentallo, the Dead Dad stuff…) over a basic Hero’s Journey skeleton.

Now it’s entirely possible I’m missing something ( I know Joe is going to be a key ingredient in David A’s article for PEP! 2, which suggests there’s a lot of interesting stuff to say about it), and I’m *certain* it’s going to get better – Grant Morrison has never done anything I’ve found uninteresting, even when the work has fallen completely flat there’s something interesting about it. But right now, to be honest, this feels *exactly* like a Generic Early-90s Vertigo Title (as opposed to the *actual* early-90s Vertigo titles, which were often more interesting at the time than they seem in retrospect). It could so far have *VERY* easily have fitted in as an early Sandman ‘arc’, but not in a good way.

It’s still worth reading, and I’m sure that in a month or two I’ll be astonished at how Morrison has turned my initial lack of enthusiasm round. And on a purely craft level it’s never short of very good. But as Morrison’s first new creator-owned work since 2004 (Seaguy: Slaves Of Mickey Eye doesn’t count here as it’s a sequel to the 2004 series) it’s not yet as good as I’d hoped…

Incidentally, anyone who likes comics and good writing should be reading Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, because it is good writing about comics, by someone with enough taste to list Guess I’m Dumb by Glenn Campbell and You Don’t Know Me by Ray Charles in his profile (which is a lot of taste). Read it.

30 Responses

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  1. Andrew Ducker said, on March 14, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    I was thinking about this recently in regards to Gaiman. I was rereading Sandman when the Absolute volumes came out, and it occurred to me that one of the things I loved about it was that it didn’t conform to the same pattern as _all_ of his novels. While it still has structure of a sort, it’s nowhere near as formally structured, and the freedom he had makes it work as well as his short stories do.

    • durhamcomicsguild said, on March 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm

      Yeah, Sandman generally avoids Campbell quite effectively. Gaiman uses lots of details from mythology and folklore, so that sort of treads the borders, but the basic plot structure steers pretty clear of the Hero’s Journey. Even “A Game of You”, which is a riff on the usual “fantasy quest” structure, is only very broadly Campbellian.

      And then Gaiman started writing novels, and he dove straight into the usual structure (which, worse, hurt the stories he was telling). There are signs of hope, though–“Anansi Boys” was primarily about the relationship between two brothers and went back to his older pattern, which is less “young man goes on a journey” than it is “young man dabbles, wittingly or unwittingly, in the supernatural to solve a problem that he ought to have dealt with on his own, makes things worse, and has to fix it.”

      • Prankster said, on March 15, 2010 at 4:39 pm

        Um, that was me above. I was logged into my other WordPress account. Bugger, as you limeys would say.

      • Andrew Hickey said, on March 17, 2010 at 6:59 pm

        I thought, if anything, that Anansi Boys was one of the worst offenders in this respect.

        The Graveyard Book, on the other hand, is one of the best things he’s written…

  2. David said, on March 14, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Oh shit Andrew, you have no idea how glad I am that you mentioned New Adventures of Hitler as an example of a Grant Morrison comic that doesn’t riff on the hero’s journey!

    I’d almost forgotten that I was going to write a post about what that story does with all that heroic bullshit… once I’m done writing this PEP! piece I’ll start working on it again.

    With Morrison’s work, I find that his meta-textual tendencies go quite a long way to complicating his love of heroic fantasy archetypes. There’s always a sense that stories — and thus reality — are constructed in Morrison’s work, often by committee, and this normally stops him from getting too caught up in all that shit. And then you’ve got stories like Seaguy and The Filth, which are far more cutting on these points.

    Joe the Barbarian‘s been pretty straight so far, but there are plenty of little touches which I love. The way the story constantly snaps back into reality, the fact that Joe’s childhood fantasies have already failed before this adventure begins, the way that Jack thinks the vision within Joe’s hypoglycaemic vision is bullshit… all of these things give me hope that this is going to be an unusually mortal fantasy adventure. The Filth/i> for kids, hopefully, though it’s not anywhere near that good yet.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on March 17, 2010 at 7:01 pm

      I’d *love* to read your take on New Adventures Of Hitler. I must reread that myself (though I only have it as .cbr files).

      As for Joe – I agree there’s a lot of potential there for it to go right, but it’s the first thing I’ve read of Morrison’s where I’m thinking more of the potential than what’s already there…

  3. David said, on March 14, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Oops, I left my italics hanging out.

    Sorry about that — I got a little overexcited there!

  4. S. Barrios said, on March 14, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Funn w/ Grails ..

    not t’be completely off-topic, but i recently completed Philip Jose Farmer’s “The Image of the Beast” (w/ “Blown,” a sequel [with th' Grail in question ..]). Farmer – whether through design or accident – joyfully pulls the innards from out Popular Myth Conventions. something some of the finer “yarns” do as well (Fowles “The Magus,” Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” Dennis Danver’s “The Watch”). genealogically, they seem to draw energy from stuff that’s either marginalized as Literature or begrudgingly accepted once the Author/Transgressor is long dead. Gothics, i guess you’d call them. neat classical patterns seem to tumble apart in the Night ..

  5. David said, on March 14, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    I like it when things tumble apart in the night, so long as they aren’t glasses full of water I’ve left beside the bed!

    You’d think I was the kid from Signs sometimes, honestly…

    (And if you want to talk about egregious meta-fictional touches scuppering archetypal story patterns etc, just take a look at some of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, Signs and The Lady in the Water especially. Lady… is especially artless in this regard, mostly because of Shymalan’s stupid hard on for critics who don’t like his work.)

    Should probably note that by “unusually mortal” I don’t mean that the Joe the Barbarian is special because it deals with mortality, the death of parent figures, etc, since these bits are all a big part of this strained story type. I was more meaning that the POV seems a lot more fragile to me, so far — i.e. that the unfoundedness of body, mind and story have been in clear focus so far.

    Or as the vision within the vision says: “RESTORE MY THRONE OF LIGHT! THE JOURNEY – ARDUOUS, COMPANIONS ON THE WAY, ET CETERA! TRADITIONAL RULES APPLY! FAILURE MEANS AN AUDIENCE ETERNAL WITH KING DEATH!

    Time keeps on skipping. Time to press on.
    And hey, all of this within the context of that big, beautifully defined house!

    No one needs to be told this, but Sean Murphy is killing it on this book. The real world is as dusty and confined as the fantasy world is endless — I love it! Also, his more gonzo flourishes really sell some of the more obvious stuff, like the TV screens full of images from the graveyard. That’s a bit blatant, but in context it’s just more madness, so it works.

    Sorry about this. Thinking out loud for my PEP! essay. Really need to pull it together this week.

  6. Bill Reed said, on March 15, 2010 at 12:02 am

    I don’t know, New Adventures of Hitler seems to fit into monomythic patterns, but from the stance that Capmbell is full of shit. It’s a comedy, after all.

  7. David Allison said, on March 15, 2010 at 12:06 am

    Yes!

    • David Allison said, on March 15, 2010 at 12:12 am

      It’s all about “Funn w/Grails” too, you know? And Thatcher. And Lennon. And Morrissey. And trams.

      Hitler… has only got one ball!

  8. Will said, on March 15, 2010 at 1:23 am

    A few years ago, and mostly at random, I happened to read The Invisibles, Promethea, and The Illuminatus Trilogy in the space of a few months, and I found myself caught off guard by the repeated references to “magical initiation” – the first few chapters with Tom O’Bedlam in The Invisibles, the journey through the Sephirot from Promethea, etc. I’m torn between whether it’s just “The Hero’s Journey with mysticism added on,” or whether the authors are using the framework to hang the story on, and then focusing intently on the mystery components because that’s what actually interests them.

    • Wesley said, on March 15, 2010 at 2:48 am

      I’m not sure it’s either of those things. I think this is another very old story–“There’s a secret world alongside the mundane world you think you know, a place where really important things happen. You can be part of it and share our hidden knowledge.” This is the narrative mystery cults tied into.

      Sometimes, especially in recent decades, the audience-identification character is an extra special part of the hidden world–the world’s greatest sorcerer, the only one who can wield the magical doohickey, someone in whom the Force is strong.

      If you cock your head just right and squint this story looks an awful lot like part of the Campbell monomyth. Which can only enhance its appeal to modern TV and film writers. I’m pretty sure this is why the Doctor is now the Last of the Time Lords.

      (Speaking of which–Andrew, did you ever read The Nth Doctor? It was a book about the ideas of various producers vying to revive Doctor Who before the Paul McGann movie. All of them tried to shoehorn Doctor Who into the Hero’s Journey, and they were awful.)

      (Also, I second the recommendation of Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.)

      • Prankster said, on March 15, 2010 at 3:38 pm

        Yeah, the initiation narrative–really, any story in which the supernatural intrudes onto the mundane–is probably doomed to smack of Campbell. I can forgive this, personally, if it’s couched in interesting ideas and used to make a point. I still enjoy The Matrix, which actually has something to say in regards to a larger philosophy, rather than just being adolescent wish fulfillment. Then there’s the aforementioned Invisibles, Promethea, Illuminatus, and so on.

        One thing I noticed about superheroes is that, while the origin is usually a Campbellian initiation story, once that’s out of the way they’re free to cut loose and go in new directions. Avoiding the Hero’s Journey structure often seems to be a matter of setting a story in a wild, detailed world with a lot of backstory.

  9. Oliver Townshend said, on March 15, 2010 at 4:31 am

    If following a formula was so easy, everyone would do it. Oh wait, they are.

  10. Gavin Robinson said, on March 15, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Campbell’s “theory” is a massively oversimplified version of structuralist narratology. This started with Vladimir Propp, who studied the conventions of Russian folk tales and found that they could all be reduced to a set of 31 plot elements. These elements had to occur in a fixed order, but every permutation of two or more was possible. I can’t calculate off the top of my head how many permutations that is, but I know it’s an awful lot. And once you look wider than just folk tales in Russia there are more kinds of stories and different possible combinations of plot elements. So there can’t just be one plot or seven plots which fit everything, even if structuralist classifications are correct. In the light of post-structuralism/postmodernism it can now be suggested that narratologists weren’t finding fundamental structures that were already there, but imposing their own taxonomies onto the texts they studied. Narratology can still be useful if done carefully (Diane Dugaw combined it with feminist readings to good effect in Warrior Women and Popular Balladry) but we have to recognise that if you use a slightly different definition then you get a slightly different answer, or a very different answer.

  11. Prankster said, on March 15, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    “What annoys me is that something that was intended as a *description* is instead increasingly being taken as a *prescription*.”

    Once again you have nailed it sir. We can’t even blame Lucas, really–he clearly just thought it would be a laugh to base a story on Campbell’s theories, and for some reason everyone latched onto that as The Magic Formula For Genre Writing. What’s kind of odd is that the short term impact of Star Wars on genre movies was, I think, pretty positive: a resurgence of SF and fantasy movies, a new bar for special effects, and an emphasis on sleek, fast-paced, exciting narratives (definitely a plus after some of the dreary, leaden SF of the 70s). It took a decade or so for all the bad habits we associate with Star Wars to kick in.

    Anyway, it’s the way plot structure is hostage to Campbell that annoys me more than anything else. You can argue that any genre story, and possibly any story, period, is going to stray into Campbellian territory—that’s sort of the point, after all–but the incredibly narrow focus on “a young man’s rite of passage” has made for some really annoyingly repetitive narratives, especially in fantasy. And worse, the result is usually a main character who’s a bland cypher for the sake of audience projection.

  12. colsmi said, on March 17, 2010 at 9:45 am

    I hope you don’t mind me leaving this comment here as I couldn’t find an e-mail address. Please do delete this so that the above marvellous debate – I wish I’d been in on it! All those years teaching Media as a 3rd subject might not feel so wasted! – remains intact. And also so it doesn’t look like I’m pimping for traffic either.

    I just wanted to thank you for your kind words re: TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComments. I didn’t know, beyond a kind mention on The Aquaman Shrine, that anybody knew I was out there. I’m sure you can imagine how much I appreciated the nod., and a nod from a blogger with (a) a debate like the above on his site, & (b) the amazing sense to pick my 2 favourites out of that huge list of songs I left one lazy afternoon on google. (No joke either. Wh’re the odds?) Sir, you are a man of uncommon taste!

    I didn’t want to just jump in on the above debate without having said ‘hi’ & ‘thanks’. I hope you won’t mind if I occasionally drop in on what’s going on here. I’ll keep quite quiet in the corner, and try not to leap in with hobnail boots, I assure you.

    Have a splendid day.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on March 17, 2010 at 10:34 am

      I absolutely don’t mind you commenting here, and I’m delighted you have. My wife laughed til she choked in recognition at the “Batman and Marvin” post, because it’s so like me, and I’ve frankly adored everything you’ve written so far.

      You’re not derailing anything (though I do feel bad that I’ve commented so little in the discussion myself) and please, please feel free to join in. I pride myself on the fact that this is one of the few blogs where the commentors are significantly more interesting and intelligent than the main blogger.

      As for You Don’t Know Me and Guess I’m Dumb, they’re two of the ‘soundtrack of my life’ songs I always mention, and two of the lesser-known ones, so anyone who likes them must both have good taste and *care* about music (it’s possible to like, say, Waterloo Sunset merely by having a pair of ears).

      A few of us, including many of those in this comment thread, do a just-for-fun quarterly ‘zine that I edit, called PEP! ( you can read the first issue at http://olsenbloom.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/pep.pdf ), about comics, music, politics, 60s TV shows and whatever else we feel like doing. If you fancy contributing an article, email me at andrew ‘at’ thenationalpep.co.uk .

    • Andrew Hickey said, on March 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm

      And just to make things spookier, I see you’re ‘returning to 2000AD after 25 years away’ on your other blog. I just bought my first prog in 16 years yesterday…

  13. colsmi said, on March 17, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Hi Andrew. I e-mailed you at the given address, but if it isn’t with you by now, could you e-mail me & I’ll reply with what is, it shouldn’t surprise you, a very positive e-mail.

    As for 2000 AD,: yeah, that IS spooky. But good spooky, no?

  14. Gavin Burrows said, on March 17, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    There’s some fantastic stuff there, and I’m just sorry I’ve not been online enough to engage in that discussion more. It’s comment threads like that that make the ridiculous amount of time I spend on this worthwhile.

    Okay, time to bring the tone down then…

    As I find myself having a fair few things to say, to make them more palatable I’ll reply to Gavin Robinson’s comments here now, and to Andrew’s original post over at my place as soon as Blogger stops being a complete ***ing screw-up like it is right now.

    Gavin says…

    Campbell’s “theory” is a massively oversimplified version of structuralist narratology. This started with Vladimir Propp…

    This, of course, is a very good point. But in presenting Campbell as offering ‘Structuralism For Simpletons’ it is itself an oversimplification. Campbell borrows much of the form of Structuralism, true, but he then shoe-horns into it many of the content of Jungianism. Despite the fact that this is actually a fairly uneasy join, most people don’t notice.

    For one thing, the two have occupied quite separate spheres. Though Structuralism is pretty much dead nowadays, during it’s life it’s dominion was academia. Campbell, conversely, exuded a feelgood fuzziness that appealed more to the New Age crowd. (Famously, Campbell gave up an academic post to start his writings and even insisted he should never be referred to by an academic title. But many who worked outside academia were subsequently taken up by it, such as Marx. It’s the fact that Campbell remained contrapedal to academia that’s the point.)

    Significantly, Campbell compensated for his lack of depth by affecting tremendous breadth – it is genuinely impressive the number of cultures he covered. For a Structuralist writer like Levi-Strauss it’s exactly the opposite way around. His ‘universal structures’ were pretty much all found from studies in a relatively small part of Brazil.

    And the links are further obscured by the fact that Structuralism is dead. It’s veneer of academic rigour was ultimately found wanting and self-justifying, for all the reasons Gavin describes. But by this point people have pretty much forgotten they even used to criticise it. I suspect that even many Post-Structuralists would have hard time remembering what Structuralism was these days. Meanwhile those New Age bookshops are still open…

    But perhaps most important, they differ so vastly in prognosis. Structuralism was not just rigorous, but almost literally inescapably bleak. We are hard-wired into our world-view, communicating by a set of signs that not only reproduce it but can only reproduce it. Campbell couldn’t be more feelgood. Stories to him are like magic spells which liberate our minds just by the action of being told. He’s notorious for his dictum “follow your bliss”- certainly the most irritating thing he ever said, and quite possibly the most irritating thing ever said unless you count the solo work of Paul McCartney.

    (Incidentally, some have doubted the link between Propp and Structuralism. Martin Barker, in ‘Comics, Ideology and the Critics’ hails Propp and spends a lot of time separating him from ‘Formalism’. By this he means Formalists contemporary to Propp, but it’s notable he goes on to be critical of Structuralism.)

    • pillock said, on March 18, 2010 at 9:17 am

      Thanks for that, Gavin! I was wondering how to go about offering a defence of Old Joe here, and had pretty much concluded I didn’t have the intellectual ammo to do it…thank goodness for me that you do.

      Actually, I quite like the old coot.

    • Gavin Robinson said, on March 18, 2010 at 10:31 am

      Good points. When I wrote “is a massively oversimplified version of structuralist narratology”, I should have written seems to be instead of is.

      • Gavin Burrows said, on March 18, 2010 at 6:08 pm

        Well if you had, that would have saved me a whole lot of bother!

        (Only kidding!)

  15. Gavin Burrows said, on March 18, 2010 at 12:13 am

    That’ll have to do for now!

    It would have actually been easier to hand-code it, because Blogger was screwing stuff up then choosing to undo my corrections!!!

    • pillock said, on March 18, 2010 at 9:18 am

      And I’ll be commenting on that post of yours as soon as I may…worth reading, folks!

  16. Andrew Rilstone said, on March 22, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    He’s notorious for his dictum “follow your bliss”- certainly the most irritating thing he ever said, and quite possibly the most irritating thing ever said unless you count the solo work of Paul McCartney.

    I wish I had said that. In fact, I intend to.


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