01 February 2013

What We Are Talking About When We Talk about Comics

Sometimes, we don't realize what we're thinking about until we say things out loud. Sometimes, we don't realize the questions we're asking until we write down some of the answers. For example, I spent more than a year listening to podcasts about the craft and performance of comedy, before I realized that I was really learning about a different approach to writing. Stand-up comics often develop new material by workshopping it in front of audiences, seeking out where the laughs are, bit by bit. They also interpret their stories through the presentation of an onstage persona, a dramatic mask, a narrative filter.

Sounds a little like blogging.

Back in 2011, during a "Writing My Way Back Home" workshop in Iowa City, Iowa, playwright Jennifer Fawcett described a writing exercise in which she was required to stand 10 or 20 minutes in front of her classmates. Talk about anything, do anything, but stand in front of the audience. She started talking about her family's experiences owning a goat farm. Twenty minutes later, people told her she needed to hurry up write that all down. A few years later, she had a play.

Stand-up comedy. Playwriting. Storytelling. Blogging. All, apparently, various versions of the talking cure. And ways to generate writing.

So, what about the comic-book musings on this week's Red Bull Rising blog? (See here, here, here, and here.)

Sure, sequential art is yet another way to tell stories of military service and sacrifice. Finding ways to make such stories more immediate or accessible to wider audiences continues to be an interest of mine. Beyond that, however, is my growing awareness of comic-books as modern-day mythologies, or shared narratives.

The Iliad and the Odyssey were not fundamental documents, after all, divinely inspired in the distant past. As part of an oral tradition, they changed with every telling and retelling, passed from performer to performer. Ancient history continues to change with every modern literary translation and cinematic reinterpretation. What do Odysseus and Lizzie Bennet and Superman all have in common? Each has evolved, and continues to evolve, with the times. That is the collective work of authors and editors, marketers and toymakers. That's how gods stay relevant. And heroes.

There's that word again.

I joined the military in the late 1980s, and I remember discussions of what Vietnam meant. New to the uniform, I naively thought that war had ended. The discussions continued, however, driven as much by mass-market products such as Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986) and Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo: First Blood, Part II" (1985) than by academic study and political debate. Even now, you can start barroom fights over whether Vietnam was the war we shouldn't have fought, or the one were weren't allowed to win.

You can start similar debates over the Cold War, of course. Or Iraq. Or Afghanistan. "All this has happened before, all this will happen again." We tell our stories, our fictions and our non-fictions and our comic books, and our stories change. Some parts may be lost. Some may join with those of others, gaining in both quality and volume, trickling as tributaries toward a larger river.

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