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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Newness and the Fantastic Credibility Barrier

It's hard to drag science fiction and fantasy into the realms of literary criticism. Hell, even a, shall we say, softer style of sci fi like The Dark Knight is difficult to discuss in an academic setting. And, certainly, some of this comes from the general academic disdain, the snide "Isn't this for kids?" comments when you get comics out of the school library, and so on. That's definitely an issue. But there's also a deeper individual mental block that I've certainly run up against periodically.

The problem is simply that when one tries to talk about fantasy and scifi stories one tends to kind of end up sounding like a bit of an idiot.

Recently, for example, I was pondering over an essay that I'll be composing soon for my class on John Milton and Paradise Lost. The idea is that we should take a modern work and dig into how the story reflects ideas in Paradise Lost. I'm still working on what exactly to focus on--Sandman, perhaps, or His Dark Materials 1. But another possibility ran through my mind: Neon Genesis Evangelion. 2 Now, for those of you not familiar with the show, it is a deconstruction of the Giant Fighting Robot genre of Anime. The main character is the emotionally crippled, ineffectual Shinji Ikari, who is forced to pilot by his sociopathic monster father, aided by two other pilots: an emotionally stunted submissive and a psychotic, abusive attention seeker. The robots they pilot are giant barely-restrained biomechanical horrors that have a habit of going berserk and eating their equally horrific Angel opponents.

Where does the Milton aspect come in? Well, I'm still tossing this idea around, but it might be possible to draw parallels between the characters in Eva and the particular ways in which Satan, Adam, and Eve all fall from grace in Paradise Lost. The thing is, each of them manages to find all sorts of justifications for turning away from God and Paradise in the story, and, once they are on the path down, reasons to keep digging themselves in deeper. Ditto for the characters in Eva. Ultimately they keep finding ways to dig themselves in deeper, refusing to ask for forgiveness, refusing to find a way to relate. It is this particular capacity to find a rationalization for simply giving up and embracing suffering and death that fascinates me, and I think the lasting resonance of the two works can probably be pinned at least partly on this deeply troubling exploration of the allure of self-destruction.

The problem is, it's rather difficult to discuss these issues without getting into the fact that the main characters are, ultimately, piloting giant robots against abstract geometric solids in an effort to stop the end of the world.

This gets worse and worse as the series goes on, actually, to the point in End of Evangelion (the movie that wraps up the original tv series) you get such a mass of weirdness and surreal, Freudian imagery that it becomes impossible to explain it without sounding like a gibbering lunatic.

I mean, really, how does one go about academically describing a scene where Giant Rei Ayanami grows what appears to be a labia with eyeballs, and absorbs the giant robot that has become the Tree of Life (or something) into her skull, allowing her to turn every human into a giant ocean of Tang? I'm not making this up. This happens.

Pictured: Rei Ayanami's giant decapitated head sitting over a sea of what appears to be Tang. Anyone else remember Tang? No?

Listen, I've watched Eva four... five times, and I still have no idea what some of that stuff even means, let alone how to casually work it into a paper while still retaining even a shred of my credibility.

The weird thing about this is that I suspect much of it is self-inflicted. After all, there are certain things that get a free pass in our critical discourse. Avant garde film, for example, might as well just stride around with a big sticker reading: "Haters Gon' Hate." You know it's true. I know it's true. And The Mighty Boosh knows that it's true:

But maybe you don't like complete incomprehensibility. Perhaps you want a narrative you can understand! Well, then, the best you're going to get is probably something like Brave New World, which is just close enough to home, and just canonized enough, that it's ok for you to talk about Orgy Porgy without feeling like too much of a dumbass (although I bet that feeling will flicker across your heart at least once).

Like I said, though: this is a self inflicted prohibition. I suspect quite strongly that the main reason you don't hear about deep literary analysis of Evangelion, or The Dark Knight, or Fullmetal Alchemist, or whatever else you might choose to write an essay about is not because these topics are all being selectively censored. No, I suspect that there's a much more prevalent self censorship amongst people that probably have the ability to elevate some of this material, if they wanted to. And it's ridiculous, ultimately, because we already write about such ridiculous and inane things! Check out these juxtapositions of pop culture material with more traditionally accepted high art:

"The children chant around the pig's head in a horrific scene of primal brutality."

"The Joker constantly seeks to push his foes into a primitive state of murderous rage, muttering and chanting to himself a masochistic mantra of 'Hit me, hit me!'"

"Adam asserts repeatedly that, because Eve was grown from his rib, the two first humans share a fate."

"The ghost, however, never speaks to the other characters in the play."

"Lord Humongous gives the holdouts an ultimatum: deliver the gas, or be utterly destroyed. 3

"Big Brother, although not a character himself, becomes an ultimate symbol of the choice presented by INGSOC: support the party, or be utterly destroyed, mentally as well as physically.

"Grendel flees into the darkness, and the warriors nail his dismembered arm to the front door."

"He is fundamentally incapable of connecting with other beings. Shinji has completely detached from reality, and he thus makes a perfect conduit through which Lilith can reabsorb her progeny, combining all consciousness into one."

"Although Orgy Porgy seems to allow most of the side characters to experience a sort of merged consciousness,  Bernard is perpetually cut out of the experience, unable to connect with other beings.

"He kills the soldiers with the jawbone of an ass."

"He kills the assassin by forcing him to swallow a cyanide capsule, all while acting as though he is attempting to prevent this "suicide." 4

By the end there it starts to get a little difficult to distinguish between the most overblown cartoon and our supposed literary canon, doesn't it? See, we already talk about some pretty crazy stuff. I think the difference is that everyone is accustomed to the idea of a woman growing from a rib, while the idea of a girl destined to be absorbed into--and to become--the progenitor of all life is a new concept that seems odd when put into an essay. This, for me, is the first necessary step toward studying pop cultural stories in a literary context: we (or... maybe just I. This could be a problem only I have) must recognize that the only reason these things seem weird is because they're new, unlike Milton, Huxley, Shakespeare, Beowulf, or the Old Testament.

And the only way they can eventually become old, accepted literary works is if we start analyzing them in the first place.

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days.

1 The reference to Milton is, after all, right in the damn title.

2 I can name at least two readers who are rolling their eyes right now...

3 I had to get him in there somehow. It's contractual.

4 Note that adding "Ha ha, so playful" after any of these as commentary makes them instantly hilarious.


  1. I recognized all of the references! Yay me! =D (Only barely recognized Hamlet, as I've NEVER EVEN READ THAT PLAY(?))

  2. I think you make a really solid point, but I have to disagree that it's just sci-fi and fantasy that this happens to. I think they're just the most frequent victims of it. The vast majority of "high-brow" or "fine-art" discussions of tend to dismiss any "genre" entertainment as laughable or not worthy of entering into the discussion. And if it is, either the point of the work is missed outright or, if they like it, it's declared "non-genre," because we sure as Hell can't give credit to those things.

    I could totally rant on that all day.

    Also, doesn't Humongous qualify as an unofficial mascot for StIT by now? :P


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