Fantasy, sci-fi, comics: Escapism or lifeblood?

Friday, October 20, 2017

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3, it is said that “the gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.” On the other hand, what does a playwright craft other than pleasant vices? So, what am I even talking about? Speculative fiction. Science fiction. Fantasy. Horror. Comic books. Fictional dramas. Animation. Graphic novels. Manga. So on and so forth. Vices these may be to some, but to an increasing number of people, they’re important forms of entertainment. And there’s a certain amount of naysayers out there who want to take it all away from us.

Creativity and imagination are the bread and water of the mind. Whereas matters of computation, calculation, and problem solving require deductive and reasoning skills, and real-world dealings with events, situations, and people, require scrutiny and discernment, art and entertainment force the mind to work in a different manner altogether. It forces the brain to contemplate and juxtapose ideas and concepts in a way that it otherwise would not, and it increases a person’s overall empathy, as following the narratives of various fictional characters forces one to “see, live, and experience things” through the eyes of another being, albeit a fictitious one. It encourages abstract thinking and often gives birth to ingenuity and inventiveness. And those are just a few reasons why fictional works are so important.
I felt prompted to write this post in response to some articles and essays I had been reading (mostly online) as of late, which has criticized modern pop culture as being representative of “the infantilization of society.” Such critics have likened comic book/superhero fans in their 20s, 30s, and 40s to “man-babies,” who apparently can’t grow up and get a grip on reality.

The merit of a story

To equate comics with imbecility and immaturity, as so many would-be high brow snobs seem to do, is a view that is cold and clinical, cynical, and tragic. It’s these sorts of critics who often display a logic-only, nuts and bolts utilitarian view of writing (and even of fictional works), often judging the merit of a speculative work by what social or political message it offers (if any), or what is says about people and/or society as a whole; a pragmatic, unimaginative search for things that only specifically relate to the material world in which we live, and what intellectual, academic, or philosophic benefits we might glean from such works. Never does it occur to them that the very merit of a story might be the story itself! So that the reader or viewer might laugh, gasp, balk, feel afraid, or cry as they attach themselves to and follow the protagonist(s), or experience the joy of leaving the “realistic” and the “material” behind, at least in thought, for a short while, so as to travel to fantastical realms and universes made of impossibility and wonderful, unabashed absurdity.

What has become clear to me is that the following two arguments almost always cross streams: 1.) the supposed oversaturation of fantasy, sci-fi, and comic book movies, shows, and books has rendered “juvenile” the majority of modern adults; and 2.) there is a significant dumbing down of America taking place, and this is represented - amongst other places - in popular culture. While I agree with the second point, I do not agree with the first, and furthermore, I fail to see a correlation between the two, though every critic or blogger who brings up these points seems to imply (or outright claim) that there is one. But I will address these points.

Firstly, the dumbing down of society is largely owed to social, economic, and educational problems. Stupid people, of course, produce and are attracted to more stupidity, which is why so much of today’s popular music, television, and film is sordid, simplistic, ignorant, crude, or intellectually vacant. This occasionally is evident in fantasy, sci-fi, and comic book stories/shows/films, when that stupidity finds its way into the particular property, or worse, when the writer, producer, director, or company associated with said property feels the need to cater to the expected simple-mindedness of its target audience. When such a property is intellectually or artistically lacking, this can also be contributed to the greed-motivated meddling of whatever capitalist corporation greenlit the project in the first place. (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman!)

However, speculative fiction is usually by its very nature fashioned from creativity. A legal or medical drama, by contrast, simply takes what is already in the real world and serializes it. I’m not knocking these types of fictional shows, of course, merely demonstrating the difference between how their narratives come into being, versus how a fantasy or sci-fi-based work develops. What I’m saying is that the requirement for narrative preconditions is greater, when it comes to fantastical stories. Creations like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings are by no means removed from material reality, nor do they exist in a vacuum, but they are incredibly complex and demand a significant deal of investment in suspension-of-disbelief storytelling. This is opposed to the aforementioned dramas, which may be complex and well-written, but which ultimately do not deviate from that which is possible and/or probable - and thus are deeply familiar to a casual viewer - in today’s world.

Brilliant and captivating stories

Whether it’s Spider-Man or The Hobbit, none of these sorts of brilliant and captivating stories need to justify their consumption by readers or viewers, or for that matter, their very existence. They do not have to be To Kill a Mockingbird, or Schindler’s List, or Dances with Wolves, in order to be deemed “relevant” by a closed-minded and pretentious peanut gallery of stuffed shirts. The proliferation of fun, fantastical, romanticized, and patently absurd media, and the stupidification of America, are not mutually exclusive! More older men - and women! - are into superhero films and fantasy series partly because the cultural conservatism and pomposity of American society is slowly fading, but more importantly, also because it truly entertains them, engages them, and brings them joy.
I should add that I’ve never much liked the term “escapism” or “escapist entertainment,” that is so commonly slapped on these types of stories. When you look up and appreciate a beautiful tree, is that escapism? When you draw or paint a picture, is that escapism? When people dress up to cosplay at comic conventions, or for that matter, when kids dress up to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, is that escapism?

Why are we taught or expected to believe that whatever brings us joy, and which takes us away from the mundane or stressful aspects of our lives, is some sort of “escape”? We do not seek pleasure in life in order to escape from the bad times, or our responsibilities, or what others may expect or require of us. We do it because it is an indispensible part of life! Did workers fight for the weekend (yes, dear readers, at one time that didn’t exist!) because they sought an “escape” from labor? No, they did it to give us extra free time, that we might pursue the wonders and joys and fantasies of the world. The common phrase “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” might seem silly, but put it in perspective and it takes on quite a significant meaning! No wonder Jack Nicholson typed it 500+ times in The Shining!

So no, I refuse to believe that the fantasy novels and superheroes that have colored and enriched my life make me “infantile,” or part of any sort of perceived societal or cultural “problem.” The yearning to write amazing stories and to produce my series of fantasy novels, is amongst the most important driving forces in my life. It is literally what gets me out of bed in the morning, and it makes me dream the impossible, providing me with excitement, fervor, and optimism. Where would I be without the pile of Spider-Man and X-Men comics that lit the fire under my childhood imagination? Or the Harry Potter series, the very first books that inspired me to write fantasy? Where would I be without Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, or The Chronicles of Narnia?

I feel sorry for the stuffed shirts, because they will never again dream, or wonder, or idealize. One must remember that just because we live in a material world, and because we must be realistic and pragmatic, this does not render idealism an invalid notion. For what do we reach, to what do we aspire, if not an ideal? What do we strive for? What is our purpose for being? I sense that I’m beginning to get a little bit too philosophical with this now, so allow me to conclude by thanking you for reading, and wishing that you would take away something from this; that this simple blog post from a mere 28 year-old aspiring writer in Illinois might implant in you some seed of imagination, that I can only hope would bloom into a veritable garden of creativity. But that’s what fantasy is all about, isn’t it? Wishing and dreaming? Ironically enough, however, it is my belief that we require the fantastic and the impossible, in order to ever truly be awake.

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