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.
Sometimes there are comics that you can review before even reading them, and I was half tempted to do that with the two comics I’m going to review here. Going in, I knew exactly what I was going to get with these two comics, both part of the line-wide Batman revamp. Both feature female leads, in Gotham City, who have recently had serious heart injuries from which they bear both psychological and physical scars but manage to run round doing serious acrobatics and fighting in skin-tight leathers. One is extraordinarily good, the other is a meretricious piece of leering fanboyism.
Detective Comics, unsurprisingly, is the excellent one. It’s also quite difficult for me to review. I’m far more comfortable talking about writing than art, but the writing isn’t really the selling point of this comic for me.
Which is not to say the writing’s bad in any way – it’s Greg Rucka continuing the long story he started in 2005 in his parts of 52, and which has carried on through the Crime Bible mini and his Final Crisis tie-ins, while also reintroducing the characters for a new audience and adding a supporting cast and new villains to set up the Batwoman and Question stories as ongoing ones. Rucka does that competently and efficiently, (though I wonder how Batwoman’s father being a colonel works with her background as the daughter of an old-money family…) and fans of Rucka’s writing (like Debi ) will enjoy it. For me, though, Rucka is one of those writers whose work I’ll read if it’s there, and not seek out if it isn’t – on a level with Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid rather than Alan Moore or Dave Sim.
But Rucka is very much the weak link, relatively speaking, in the creative team here. The letterer is the great Todd Klein (actually not his best work – the font for Alice is very good but the rest is very standard) .
The colourist is Dave Stewart – the only current colourist (who doesn’t do anything else – I’m not here counting people like Jamie Grant who do other things as well) working in comics whose work I think actively improves the art – his work with Darwyn Cooke has been particularly impressive, and here his work is extraordinary. Most colourists for superhero comics tend to use flat colours, photoshop gradients or whatever to give a rather superficial set of colours that look more or less like the thing they’re meant to look like. I count three distinct palettes here, for different sections of the story, and a level of detail I’ve rarely seen – just look at the middle panel in the last page of the Batwoman story to see what I mean.
But the real star of the issue is J.H. Williams III. Williams is, without question, the best artist working in comics today. And this is where the problems come in, as I have less than no artistic vocabulary – all I can say is that I can look at even just his layouts all day, drinking in the sheer *design sense*, let alone his draughtsmanship, to say nothing of his storytelling ability. All I can say is that Williams tops himself with almost every page – he started out brilliant, and has only got better from there. Jog’s review makes a better fist of explaining the power of Williams’ work than I could, but still it’s fundamentally inexplicable – you just have to look at it.
In reviews, including this one, the backup feature – The Question – has been getting short shrift, and this isn’t really deserved. Rucka scripts this, too, and it will be tying in with the main storyline, and it’s a perfectly good story. Cully Hammer, the artist, is very good – he’s someone whose work I always enjoy – but he can’t help but suffer in comparison to Williams, and the colouring doesn’t help, being a similar enough palette to Stewart’s ‘superhero scene’ one to invite comparisons, but far less nuanced. Read on its own, it’s a decent little eight-page setup, but it’s just not as good as the main story.
Paul Dini’s Masturbation Fantasy Gotham City Sirens on the other hand, is just terrible, and a proof that the Bechdel test is a minimum, not a guarantee of a lack of sexism (and still less, of course, a guarantee of any kind of quality). (Incidentally, I didn’t deliberately buy this – the comic shop stuck it in my pull list because I read other batbooks, and my wife picked my comics up this week).
On paper, the idea of a supervillain team consisting of Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn seems like a reasonable one. You could make a decent mid-market series out of that, with a writer who could do character-based humour and action scenes – someone like Gail Simone or the Giffen/DeMatteis team. It wouldn’t be great, but it’d be readable.
However, the script for this is by Paul Dini, and despite his love for these characters (and for Zatanna, who *of course* makes an appearance) he doesn’t actually bother to distinguish them as people (apart from a couple of lines for Harley where she uses contractions). Instead, he just has them spout exposition at each other in interchangeable voices. While Rucka reveals character, motivation and background through dialogue – making Kate Kane talk differently from her girlfriend who talks differently from Batman who talks differently from Kane’s military father, thus letting us know what kind of people these are, Dini, however, has moved past such trivia as ‘characterisation’ and ‘depth’ (even of the minimal kind found in the Batwoman story), preferring instead to use dialogue to recap plot points from what I presume are his own later Batman stories (after I gave up bothering with his run on Detective) and the abysmal Countdown. There is precisely one exchange in this story that rings at all true as something a human being might say (the ‘Nigerian scam’ panel). – everything else is, at best, Claremontian.
But Dini’s writing here, bad as it is, is not the real problem. The problem’s with the art. Artist Guillem March actually displays some talent here. In fact in some ways he’s too good for the script – he has a facility for facial expressions, and manages to make the characters ‘act’ surprisingly well, and display recognisable characteristics – but this is working against the script rather than for it.
The problem is that he’s far more interested in drawing arses than actually telling the story. Now, I have no particular problem with mildly sexualised or titillating art in comics per se – it’s not something I have any especial interest in, but whatever. Some of Williams’ art in Detective has a definite sexual undercurrent, and that’s fine – it adds to the story.
But look at the bottom (in both senses) of page ten of Gotham City Sirens (I would scan this in, but I’ve not installed the drivers on my new laptop yet). A huge shot of Catwoman’s arse, for no particular reason. And Harley and Ivy’s heads *level* with it, even though all three are standing up, close to each other, and there is no suggestion of looking at them from an angle – no perspective distortion at all. The only way this panel makes sense is if Harley and Ivy are kneeling or Catwoman is standing on a box, but only for this panel. In the next panel, meanwhile, Harley and Ivy have swapped places for no explicable reason except that the artist was too busy drawing Catwoman’s arse to care about coherent storytelling.
These two comics, for all their surface similarities, serve as almost perfect examples of How To Do It and How Not To Do It – polar opposites, except for one unfortunate fact. Despite the fact that these comics have female main characters, and are apparently intended to appeal to the female comics-reading audience, only two of the twenty people credited with some creative or editorial role are women (the colourist on the backup feature in Detective and an assistant editor on GCS). Which is not to say that only women can write or draw or edit comics about or for women – that would be a ludicrous suggestion. But I *do* think that if the numbers were nearer parity (not just on these titles, but in the industry as a whole) we would have rather fewer comics where women are undifferentiated holders of tits and arse, and rather more where they’re people. But how do we get that parity when comics like Gotham City Sirens exist?
*(I won’t even mention that Catwoman says ‘blame it on sunshine’…. Damn.)