I read an article recently discussing things fantasy and science fiction could really use more of. At the top of that list was “A sense of fun.”
Yeah, you could definitely say that’s missing.
In my most recent interview (check out #sffwrtcht on Twitter if you’re interested in giving it a glance) I mentioned that my strongest writing influences are Walt Simonson’s epic run on Marvel Comic’s Thor series, Duck Tales, and Darkwing Duck. You could also throw in monster movies, and, though I only discovered them after I’d been writing for a while, the pulp adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’m no longer self-conscious about admitting that because those are worthy influences, and they’ve made me a better writer.
It’s a topic I return to quite regularly on this blog, but I’m not a fan of a lot of modern fantasy. Not because it’s badly written. It’s not. But because I just can’t take all the grimdark. We live in a culture where Superman watches Metropolis crumble and where movies based on a line of toy robots are full of brutal robotic disembowelment. The reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t out yet, and I have no strong opinions on it. But damnit, those character redesigns look so harsh and humorless that, ironically, I have a hard time taking them seriously.
The original TMNT comic was violent and brutal, but the turtles were still intentionally goofy looking and there were many peculiar elements to their universe. Their chief ally is a guy who beats up crime with sports equipment. They’ve gone into space and fought against an alien dinosaur empire. Time travel, ninjas, mobsters, and supervillains. It’s a weird mishmash chosen as much for the fun of it as for any sense of realism and the unapologetic nature of it was what I found so charming about the original comic books.
I’m not saying the fantasy I grew up on was better because it wasn’t. But it was more fun and optimistic. It wasn’t trying to convince me it was “grown up”. It was cool, first and foremost, and if it happened to transcend that now and then, it was a happy byproduct. Transformers: The Animated Movie remains one of my favorite films, and the plot is little more than a bunch of cobbled together set pieces, explosions, laser gun battles, and 80’s hair metal. But damn if it doesn’t manage to be a compelling adventure with both incredibly dark moments and, yet, with a heart of optimism beneath it all. The movie actually ended the Cybertronian War storyline that was at the heart of the series. The Autobots take back their homeworld, and as a kid, that left a big impression on me. There was always new conflict be had, but at their darkest moment, the Autobots saved the day and reclaimed Cybertron.
Nowadays, Cybertron seems have become another casualty in the name of maturity. The otherwise excellent Fall of Cybertron video game is built upon the premise that Cybertron has been used up by the endless war, and the Transformers have no choice but to leave it behind, a hollow husk. That isn’t far-fetched, and I don’t object to it as a story point. But it’s still kind of sad to see it sacrificed like that. Some might call it realism, but this is a story about giant robots from space that change into cars, jets, and dinosaurs. Realism shouldn’t necessarily be the goal.
The trend isn’t going anywhere soon. Stuff like the relentlessly bloody and gruesome A Game of Thrones and our cultural obsession with dystopian futures are here to stay. I get the appeal of those stories, though I do wonder at why anyone would want to play out their own version of The Hunger Games, which at its heart is basically a horror story about having to murder one another for the amusement of cruel overlords. But it is dramatic. I’ll give it that.
It is why when I read fiction, I tend to pick up the older stuff. I’d attribute it to nostalgia (as is often the case), except a lot of it was only things I discovered when I was already well into adulthood. Tarzan remains my favorite literary character, and I read my first Tarzan story when I was 32. At the time, it seemed both incredibly bold and violent. Tarzan kills a lot of beasts and people on his adventures. But in the end, he’s still a guy with a wife he loves, friends he cares about, and a unique sense of morality that makes him compelling. Some might see that as a cop out, and they aren’t entirely wrong. But they aren’t entirely right either.
I just wish we could see drama as more than just brutality, loss, and sacrifice. The human story is one of ups and downs. Triumphs can be worthy stories. Some might call it escapism, but that’s such a childish simplification. As if the only real things are pain and suffering, and everything else is a lie we tell children to make them feel better for as long as they can remain innocent. Things aren’t black and white, and while I won’t deny the grimdark has a place in fantasy storytelling, it’d be nice if we could have a little more hope now and then. It’d be even nicer if that wasn’t automatically dismissed as fluffy emptiness.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,