Saturday, 23 July 2011

Some notes on symbolism and the literal minded

So I enjoy wasting oodles of time on an internet site named That Guy with the Glasses - it's filled with reviews and videos of people making fun of Z-list movies. It's an engaging and easy way to lose plenty of hours. One of my favourites is Linkara, whom I like as much for the way he covers important DC events and comics, thus I often learn quite a lot about comics from his videos. As a medium, it certainly has it's fair share of rubbish to make fun of too.

But there's something of a problem with his critique of storytelling - he's very much a literalist, and, as such, has shown a rather grating habit of nitpicking things he doesn't understand. Recently he reviewed Rise of Arsenal, and this is a bad comic. Coming out of the much maligned Cry for Justice, I'd read numerous things about the comic before I watched the reviews. Not the actual source material though. Whilst watching, however, I could not help but feeling bugged at how off the mark Linkara seemed to be in much of his criticism.

If you can't be bothered watching the reviews, then let me summarise the comic: Arsenal is a bow wielding superhero who, in a recent event, lost his arm and his daughter. He was a single parent and used to have a drug problem, and this miniseries shows him falling back into drugs and failing to cope with his daughter's death. It's not handled very well, and despite the very sympathetic situation, the writing and execution of his breakdown shows him in a very narcissistic and petty manner, reducing his very powerful pain to rather less than it deserves.

This series is full of symbolism, some of it rather blatant and ham-fisted, but at times genuinely hitting a good moment. At one point he's practising archery with his new robotic arm, and as he fails he stares accusingly at his new arm. Linkara happily points out the thing wrong with his technique would most likely be his flesh arm as that was the one doing the aiming. Here, we have what is known as "fundamentally missing the point". Arsenal lost his arm to the same supervillain who was responsible for his daughter's death, and thus they are linked. He isn't shooting well because of his troubled mind, and the arm is a big reminder that some part of him is missing, cut off in a more metaphorical sense, and his inability to shoot is because of his own perceived inability to save his daughter. He looks at the arm because it's a metaphor, and a damn good one at that.

Another thing later picked up on is the way that visions appear to him. A literal explanation, as Linkara assumes, is that these are hallucinations that he really is seeing. Once again, I'm pretty sure they aren't: often in media, we see people's inner struggles represented in an external manner. Arsenal may be seeing his old drug dealer or dead daughter, but really this is a narrative way of representing the what he is feeling inside. His dead daughter is his guilt and a need for vengeance, and represents how his misery is twisting his memories of his daughter into something negative and destructive. The drug dealer represents his wish to turn to that darker and simpler time, when he did not worry about such things.

Not that I'm saying these things cannot be criticised. Certainly, they are cliched and inelegant and lend an inevitability which tries too hard to evoke tragedy. However, criticising the literal problems with having hallucinations appear is missing the point - these aren't meant to be things he's really seeing.

At the end Arsenal locks his vision of his dead daughter in his house and burns it to the ground. Linkara questions why the ghostly daughter can't just float through the walls of the house, and makes me want to hit my head off of something hard. This moment represents Arsenal's choice about how to deal with the death of his daughter: tearing down her memory and the life he lead with her. He rejects who she used to be and his memories of her, because he can't bear to be in a world where she's dead. Far better to live in a world where she never existed.

It's likely I've made this comic sound better than it actually is. So, in order to remedy this, I offer you up a picture from the comic:

It is indeed a man cradling a dead cat, who he thinks is his daughter. Try and take it seriously. Go on.

But, really, I'm getting at a wider point here. In both writing and critiquing fiction, it's best to remember that nothing, and I mean nothing, is the same thing as it is in real life. In fiction, we see a representative idea, an interpretive concept. A lot of writers try to make these concepts as closely evocative as they can to reality, to deepen the connection we have to the narrative and give the story the appearance of substance.

I don't think such measures do actually lead to more substantive stories or help us engage with the stories, but each to their own and all that. Good storytellers know that people are seeing representations of events and characters, and can manipulate things so that they tell a story with more depth through symbols and metaphors and underlying connotations. Good storytellers also make it clear that these are symbols, so that it doesn't come across as contrived or alienate people whose minds don't work along the same path as theirs. When being critical about narrative, this is a pretty fundamental point.

Linkara is entitled to his opinion, of course, just as I'm entitled to point out that his opinion is based misunderstanding. I don't mean to rail against him as a person, as he comes across as both pleasant and charismatic, or even his intelligence, as he makes a concerted attempt to break down and analyse the things he reads and offer insights into them. Rather, I feel these two videos are a good showcase of the pitfalls with being too literal minded in an approach to fiction.


  1. Can I just say, thanks.

    I know Linkara has a right to his opinion, but I do think he is prone to a certain level of literal mindedness. Though I can't recall exact details, I recall a number of past reviews he did where the same issue bugged me a little.

  2. Glad I'm not the only one who is bothered by this. It's all the more frustrating for the fact that he often takes legitimately bad comics then misrepresents them.

    Anyway, cheers for the comment.