Ah, another Monday is here. Where does the time go? Time passes us by and soon enough, we’ll all be mouldering in our graves. So best make hay while the sun is shining. A stitch in time saves nine. A rolling stone gathers no moss. He who hesitates is lost. And various other cliches that may or may not apply.
Where was I?
Having previously tackled the subjects of racism, the trials and tribulations of fictional characters, and why dinobots are always awesome, I think it’s time to talk about the paradox of being a fantasy fan. It’s a paradox embodied pretty solidly by my own career.
Fantasy is usually considered frivolous and childish by default. And it’s hard to disagree on the surface that jetpack gorillas and dragons are silly ideas. The nature of almost all fantasy is built on this absurdity. At the same time, fantasy doesn’t have to be stupid, as in simple-minded, as in a bit of colorful distraction with no real meaning beyond that.
Yet the paradox is this. The more fantastic something is, the more unapologetically fantastic it is, the less “serious” it’s considered. If gorillas suddenly become smart and rise up to attack us, it’s silly, but still a serious piece. If those same gorillas get laser guns and fight giant robots, it’s goofy. Nobody would take such a movie seriously. I’d go to see Laser Apes Vs. Robots in a heartbeat, but I know I’m the exception.
The alternative to having your fantasy dismissed is to take it very seriously. Have your characters stand around looking serious. Have a tragic moment. Be sure to remind everyone how important everything is. Remind everyone that this is not “kid’s stuff”, and that if anyone’s actually thinking of enjoying watching a dinosaur getting punched by an alien, then be sure to throw some blood on the screen or have a lot of really boring talky scenes around it.
Recently, I watched M. Night’s live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender. I’ve only seen a few bits, here and there, of the original animated show. But what struck me most about the movie, aside from it’s rather stilted and clumsy direction, was how Serious (with a capital S) it was. A story about a fantasy world where people control elemental powers was absolutely joyless. It’s true that the animated series is about some serious stuff, but it also has moments of joy, of humor, of unapologetic “cool”. The movie forsakes all that. I don’t even remember a single laugh or smile in the whole damn thing.
As fantasy slips further into the mainstream, this happens more and more. One of the things I disliked most about The Dark Knight is just how joyless it is. It’s true Batman has his share of noir-ish sensibilities, but he’s also a guy who fights criminals dressed in purple suits, who wear tuxedos, and who can even shapechange or be werebats. I’m not looking for a comical Batman, but I am looking for moments when I feel like I’m seeing something fantastic. Instead, Batman is just a vigilante with a few gimmicks. The Joker is just a killer without any sense of style. And we are persistently reminded that being a superhero and living in Gotham City sucks.
Even the Star Wars prequels have this problem. When you watch the original, there are certainly plenty of serious moments. Especially between Luke and Darth Vader. But the prequels lack their Han Solo, a dashing character who is there to have fun and be awesome. I’ve always felt that Han was more important to Star Wars than just about any other character. He gives us permission to enjoy ourselves. Even when he’s being lowered into the carbonite pit, he gives us a sly wink and a cocky grin, and we know that it’ll take more than being frozen alive to stop Han.
The prequels don’t have that character. And they suffer for it. Indeed, Han might just be the perfect example of fun fantasy that still has some teeth. Jar Jar Binks is just stupid, a character with no redeeming qualities, who exists only to be goofy. Obi-Wan and Anakin are both maudlin, mopey characters. And there’s good justification for that. But without a Han to be both fun and serious, the prequels ends up either coming across as slight or angsty, depending on the scene.
A character like Han Solo can make or break a fantasy story, and thinking about it, Harrison Ford has made a pretty good career playing that type. Indiana Jones has swagger and heart. Even Ford’s version of the President gets to fight terrorists. It’s just another small strike against Cowboys and Aliens that Ford plays the unlikeable version of Han Solo in it. He’s so grizzled and unpleasant and deliberately avoids any moment of his trademark smile that by the end, I realized just how much I missed it.
This is why I often struggle finding an easy sub-genre in my own work. I’m usually writing about strange things without apology. I don’t feel the need to say THIS IS IMPORTANT every chapter. And I even dare to have large chunks of humor scattered liberally throughout. It has the twin handicap of making me seem too goofy to some, too serious to others.
Am I a fantasy adventure writer who uses humor? Or am I a humor writer who uses fantasy adventure as a backdrop? I’d like to think I’m both. But the danger is that by trying to walk in two worlds, I might not be accomplishing as much as I could if I settled on planting both feet in one realm.
Even removing the humor though, when I write about robots detectives and space squid supervillains, I’m already working against myself as a “serious” storyteller. When the plots of my stories hinge on raccoon gods dropping by to crash on the couch or about a fuzzy green monster that wants to eat the universe, one morsel at a time, I’m going to fall hard on one side of the spectrum.
If Mack Megaton was just a robot detective, I might get away with it as a “serious” writer. But Mack lives in a retro-future city. His best friend is a talking ape. He fights aliens and giant slime monsters. Regardless of the context, it implies goofy. And it is. But it doesn’t mean it’s slight or frivolous.
The paradox of my work is that, no matter how serious I might make it, the stories are always going to sound silly upon basic description. The only way to offset that would be to write more seriously, to remove the smiles, the moments of joy. And it wouldn’t hurt to kill more characters in the stories and possibly blow up a city or two. Heck, even the original Star Wars blows up a planet to make sure we realize how nasty the Empire is. And it doesn’t hurt the film to do so.
There’s a similar moment in Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain (due out next year) that isn’t played for laughs either. But considering it’s the climax of a war between a space squid supervillain and rock men from Saturn, it’ll probably either come across as goofy to some or too serious to others.
And even as I write my current project, I find it’s a story full of humor. And I live with it because it’s vital that it remain in there. I’m not interested in backing away from the fantastic, from treating it as anathema to serious storytelling. Fantasy can be fantastic. It can be fun. It can be every bit as meaningful and worthwhile as any other story while still retaining humor and poise. And it can do all these things while having jetpack gorillas and giant fightin’ robots.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,