Learn more about the tech process Rodley used to create this, and other stunning botanical dinosaur images, on his webpage.
The Stakes of Escapism
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the struggle between escapism and realism in pop culture. Last month, I made a post about Marvel’s summer event Secret Empire, in which I expressed a lack of desire to read it given the way its thematic content (Captain America has secretly been a Nazi all this time) intersects with the sheer unpleasantness of the present-day world (the US presidential administration is made up of actual Neo-Nazis). And I wasn’t the only person to make such a statement. In a sea of highly critical (and deservedly so) responses to the summer crossover, I would have thought opting out on the grounds of simply not being emotionally up to it was pretty innocuous, but the response nevertheless drew the ire of Secret Empire scribe Nick Spencer, who asserted that it was an “irresponsible, cowardly” argument.
Spencer’s comments sat with me a long time, and I found myself coming back to them at odd moments. One of the core components of the “not now” argument is that it’s not a value judgment on the work in question. In fact, it goes so far as to suggest the work has merit—just merit that you’re currently unable to assess because it’s not what you’re into right now. It’s about as impersonal a response as you can get, and yet it was taken very personally. Understanding Spencer’s backlash in the context of the escapism-realism tug-of-war sheds light on the stringency of his reaction. There’s a certain creative demographic for whom storytelling is all about stakes. Everything has to have real stakes, real consequences, real tragedy in order to have meaning. People who reject the necessity-of-stakes argument by pointing out that an obsession with stakes can actually hurt one’s craft, or who are simply emotionally tuckered out from the ceaseless onslaught of stakes, are often implied to have a less authentic (or dare we even say less intelligent) relationship with the creative world and its output.
Author Joe Hill, relating the phenomenon to his personal experience of writing, identifies stakes-free storytelling as a trope that he calls “the dog lives.” In his deconstruction of this trope, Hill notes that there’s a market for a happier brand of fantasy escapism but states categorically that it’s not what he’s selling. Which, by the way, is totally fine. We, all of us, must write what we have in us to write, and every creator has the right to set the terms of what they are selling. The flip side of that, though, is that the audience has the right to declare what they are, and are not, buying, and it’s that flip side that content creators often seem unclear on. In fairness to Hill, his concerns with whether or not “the dog lives” have mainly to do with artificially uplifting endings that fly in the face of authentic storytelling. In equating stakes with quality, however, he fails to address the very real problem of the boring similitude that comes from ceaseless stakes and stakes-raising narratives. As author Kit Walker has noted, many writers fail to understand that tragedy’s narrative power comes from its ability to disrupt the norm of everyday life. Consequently, when a story is nothing but unending tragedy, that ability to disrupt is compromised and the tale loses its affective power.
Solemnity vs Seriousness
John Cleese has a wonderful talk on creativity, during which he comments on the dangers of mistaking solemnity for seriousness—an issue that has (at one time or another) plagued most, if not all, of human endeavors…
As Cleese points out: solemnity, which is all-too-often read as a sign of seriousness, is a relatively pointless attitude that “serves pomposity” and protects the self-important from having their egotism punctured. Humor, on the other hand, is “an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems no matter how serious they may be.”
Now, more than ever, I think we need to remember that.
Final Thought: Anne of Grimdark Gables
Anne with an E, the new Netflix series that adapts L.M. Montgomery’s beloved tale for a newer, more serious, more stakes-obsessed era, was released last week to almost diametrically opposed reviews. About half of the critics love prestige-tv veteran Moire Walley-Beckett’s updated take on Anne, which takes the subtle allusions to her abusive childhood and makes them grimly explicit. The other half feel that Walley-Beckett has ruined Montgomery’s vision of an Anne able to find joy in her new life by over-emphasizing on the unrelenting tragedy of her past.
So I guess I know what I’m watching this weekend.
Episode two of American Gods proved to be a very similar viewing experience to episode one.
I was riveted, though not entirely (or even vaguely) comfortable, but also? I was frankly surprised when the show ended, as I had been expecting ten or so more minutes of exposition. The ending points of the episodes are undoubtedly calculated to effect exactly such a response. In both cases, there’s a cliffhanger aspect to the pause points—momentary hiatuses in the midst of things that are deeply unsettling and uncomfortable. The intermissions are more than mere cliffhangers, however, for the issue is not merely a lack of resolution, but of naturalness as well. The places where the episodes stop are narratively unsound and therefore deeply unnatural, like everything else in the world of the show. It’s an incredibly effective use of pacing, designed to create in the viewer a psychological feeling of being plunged into the world itself and then yanked violently out of it. When an episode ends, you are left with a feeling of strangeness, as if waking prematurely from a dream and not knowing what to make—either of the experience or its termination. It’s not about instilling in the viewer a desire to know what comes next, although that is a valuable side effect, but about making them feel disconnected from their world in a manner similar to the way Shadow Moon, the show’s “everyman” protagonist, feels. We are seeing this strange world through Shadow’s eyes, and like him, we are being jostled about in disturbing and unexpected ways. The result is a palpably emotional viewing experience that is quite brilliant—the creation of a mood not just with acting or directing or setting or music alone, but via the show’s unique approach to narrative pacing.
One thing I can’t help wondering, however, is whether viewers who have not read the book experience the show in a similar way. Put another way, I wonder if my knowledge of the book’s plot intensifies this particular effect. Thus far, with the show adhering relatively closely to the source material, I have a good sense of what comes next—a memory of the more “natural” stopping points constructed by Neil Gaiman via sections and chapters and parts. My perspective on the series is intrinsically tied to my knowledge of the book. Without that knowledge, would the program have the same effect? Or an entirely different one?
Once upon a time, in the summer before I graduated from college, I embarked upon an “Art Across America” cross-country road trip. I went with my mother, sharing driving, navigating, and DJ’ing responsibilities as we traveled up to Niagara Falls before making our way across Ontario to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and points west. We stopped at the Dinosaur Gardens in Ossineke, we traveled down the Enchanted Highway outside of Gladstone, we stopped at every “World’s Largest” exhibit and Paul Bunyan statue that we could find. And of course—of course—we went to the House on the Rock.
Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods will be familiar with the House on the Rock. (Fans of the television show will no doubt come to be acquainted with it.) And for those fans, our reasons for including it on the tour will probably seem obvious. It’s a prominent location in a beloved book. Obviously we had to see it.
What struck me most when I visited was the appropriateness of the place to Gaiman’s novel. As we wandered through the expansive tourist attraction, becoming ever more disconcerted and overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff on display (antiques and faux antiques, dollhouses and dolls, replica weapons, calliope machines, Burma-Shave adverts, and carousel figures… so many carousel figures), it dawned on me that we were standing in the single most American place in all of America. A deathless shrine to consumption, and excess, and the flat refusal to understand when too much is enough.
Of course the gods of Gaiman’s novel, being American gods, went to the House on the Rock. Where else would an American god go?
Watching “The Bone Orchard,” the first episode of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s Starz adaptation, I felt the same sense of rightness, vis-à-vis tone and theme, that I felt standing in the House on the Rock. There’s simply no way around it, Fuller and Green’s American Gods has perfectly nailed the heart, soul, and concomitant aesthetic of the book.
A good friend of mine summed it up well, noting that the tone of the show is somewhat tawdry. But while she isn’t yet convinced of the appropriateness of that tone, I am 100% sold.
Tawdry: showy but cheap; gaudy; low, or mean, or base.
That’s pretty much the point, yes? That’s the whole thing.
In a story that is, fundamentally, about the heart and soul of America, you’re going to have to strike the odd tawdry note here and there. Because the heart and soul of America is fundamentally tawdry.
The American Gods series incorporates a number of things that I consider mainstays of the Bryan Fuller aesthetic (or of his Hannibal aesthetic at the very least). Elegiac violence. Artistic gore. Sexual text and subtext galore. An almost overpowering collage of glittery, glossy trash. But while those attributes didn’t always work for me in Hannibal—most notably in the first season where I felt they overwhelmed a text sometimes lacking in substance—here they seem perfectly in sync with the very substance of the text itself. The gods of America are arrogant, self-centered, and self-serving (they have to be). They are junkies, and grifters, and thieves. And at the head of the table, sitting in the big-boy chair, making the big-boy decisions, is an aging con-man in a ridiculous hat.
And what, pray tell, is more American than that?
We, as a nation, are tawdry. We are showy, and gaudy, and cheap. We care only for our own desires, our own goals, our own fixes. That’s who we are. That’s our national motto.
America first, last, and always.
A show about America is going to exhibit those characteristics, and indeed, must—of necessity—revel in them. Because America is nothing if not bigger, better, faster, more.
And I’m sure that somewhere in there lies a supremely profound story about a human spirit that can withstand even the most toxic manifestation of the American dream. There certainly was one in the book. But that story of the human spirit is, and perhaps always will be, in opposition to the myth of America, to the myth of American exceptionalism, to the myth of American individualism. And we’ve got a lot of adversity to claw our way through before we’re going to see success.
This is not a story that glorifies America. This is a story about the brutality, the profligacy, the depravity of a nation. American Gods is about usurpation, and about the usurpation of usurpers—arguably white America’s greatest modern-day fear. It’s about winning by any means necessary. It’s about the cost of doing business. It’s about the essential moral and ethical bankruptcy of living that way. And it’s about the moral and ethical bankruptcy of a system that demands such sacrifices to survive. It’s meant to have a gloss of cheapness to it.
Without that gloss, it wouldn’t be a story about America.
And let me tell you, I am all in on Fuller and co. having the guts to completely fucking go there. American Gods episode one was beautiful and brilliant and base. And I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.
yo, do you know which comic is that one that everyone is talking about???? where they recently killed bucky??? i’ve looking everywhere, thank you!
Thanks for your question! I wasn’t aware that everyone was talking about this, but for what it’s worth I’m pretty sure that Bucky isn’t actually dead.
I think my response could get a bit long, so first things first:
TL;DR – the comic you’re looking for is Captain America: Steve Rogers no. 16, although to get the fullest sense of what’s going on with Bucky, I recommend reading Thunderbolts no. 12, followed by CA:SR 16. (Weirdly, Secret Empire 0, which features a Bucky and Kobik variant cover, has no Bucky content at all…)
And now onto the spoilers and speculation!
Two important Bucky-related things happen in CA:SR 16: 1) Baron Zemo, Bucky’s arch-nemesis, tries to find and reassemble the fragments of Kobik, who self-destructed at the end of Thunderbolts when Bucky refused to join HYDRA; and 2) Zemo straps Bucky to a missile and fires him off over the ocean in retribution for Bucky’s “crimes” in an alternate reality. The outcomes of these two situations are interesting, and I think—perhaps—related.
We see the missile Bucky is strapped to explode at the end of CA:SR 16:
Reassembling Kobik is less successful. Dr. Erik Selvig (who has come to really love Kobik) scatters her remaining fragments when he discovers that Zemo plans to reconstitute her as a cosmic cube and deprive her of her autonomy:
Selvig does this before Bucky’s missile explodes. Thus, I think there’s a good chance that Bucky will be saved by her, one way or another, sooner or later.
I hope this answer was helpful to you!
Basically, this right here is the only thing in Secret Empire that is of any interest to me. I look forward to finding out what happens to Bucky and Kobik. Everything else is just scenery.
(And that’s the last thing I’m going to say about this crossover event. For now.)
So I went ahead and read the opening salvo for the “Secret Empire” crossover. And I pretty much hated it. Yes, Marvel’s latest event is off and running, and I already want it to be over. I simply find the entire thing (from concept to execution) exhausting. So exhausting, in fact, that I struggled to find focus throughout reading.
The opening of an event of this nature is designed to make things as dark as possible as quickly as possible, and in that respect it does succeed. All the heroes have nice deep holes dug for them to claw their way out of for the next 3-4 months. If the real-life forces for good in this world weren’t currently stuck in deep, dark holes that their “brethren” had dug for them, I might find such a story line diverting. (Emphasis on “might.”) As it is, I only have so much energy to expend on misery. And make no mistake, “Secret Empire” is miserable.
It’s not interesting; it’s just… sad.
And now excuse me, I’ve got to go scrub the grimdark off and get down to things that are actually worth my time.