Episode 81: You Think This Is a Game?

In a few days I will be submitting something to an upcoming literary magazine (I keep it anonymous only so that I can avoid extra competition from people and optimizing my possibilities of being accepted). The following post is somethin of a free writing ramble to get something down on the digital canvas with hopes of editing it into something cohesive and understandable. I’m still trying to figure out a way to get it into a weird format that may not even be possible/accepted but it would make it look cool. Details will remain hidden because I want it to be a surprise.  Off I go. 

The above title is often perceived as a derisive comment that insinuates that for reasons that arre not immediately clear, you are not taking something seriously. It’s a strange world where the word that is used to denote a fun activity can just as easily be an insult. It is part of this odd rhetorical confusion that comes when we talk about things that are very like but a proper terminology needs to be used to avoid being grouped with a certain “Other”. This dichotomy between playing/competing, players/athletes, casual/serious, and perhaps most markedly game/sports is one that as children we do not distinguish but it is one where intricacies become more nuanced and complex as we grow up.

As long as we are discussing the specificities of words, perhaps we should have a decent definition of “game” as a starting point. While we often see it as a synonym for “sport” we know that these words are not interchangeable. Consider/choose any of the following examples depending on your skill level/preference of activity. If you would rather not choose then use your favorite form of generating random numbers to determine the example to follow. My apologies if your preferred form of entertainment is not presented here. If you want, make up one of your own and ignore all the other options.

1) you and your friends decide to go for a quick game of basketball at the local gym

2) you go by the neighborhood cardshop/comic book store with an old deck of Magic cards and start a game with another patron whom you have seen but out only know as “dude with hat”.

3) during a family reunion, someone decides that to make a huge game of football with pretty much everyone present.

4) your boss has recruited you for the office softball team that plays on a makeshift league against other departments

Each of the above scenarios are quite different but they have a general consensus. First off, you are playing a game with rules that have been in existence long before you even knew that the game existed. Secondly, other people are there (yes, I consider “dude with hat” people) because unless you are playing some variation of solitaire having someone to play against is an integral part of the process. Third, each of these takes place at a specified location designed for this type of activity (basketball court, baseball field) or one that has been appropiated to suit that purpose (a big enough yard for football or any sort of flat surface for card games). These elements are fairly stable and uniform for almost every type of game; however, there are many parts of games that are implied and are worth discussing as well. [Then again, if you feel that they are not worth discussing then skip the following paragraph entirely.]

In each of the above games there are rules, but these are far more dynamic and lenient than if you were undertaking any of the “serious” versions of any of them. You can play basketball at only half court and can choose whether to play unitl a certain point value has been reached or until a predetermined amount of time has elapsed. There are a lot of cards that are not allowed under certain formats but you can just play with whatever you currently have, even if it is a deck full of proxies. Unless your family is really competitive, you probably don’t have regulation football helmets and pads for everyone so you are probably playing the touch version. Even in the strictest of softball leagues you probably have some leeway as to decide whether base stealing is legal or to have a mercy rule of some sort. These rules can be molded because they are accorded and accepted by all participating players. It is in that mutual consent that the game is considered “fair” and thus has the potential for new rules to be decided upon at future points. Those who do not wish to accept these standard or variant rules can choose to not play or do so under protest (much like a D&D player who begrudingly keeps playing after he finds out the DM house ruled that the alter person spell doesn’t exist in this particular setting).

Since the rules are no longer written in stone, the game itself can change in very dramatic ways each time. My favorite example to show just how crazy and awesome this can become is in Bill Watterson’s incredible Calvin and Hobbes and the game played by the titular characters: Calvinball. The freeform and downright chaotic play style of this game is due it having only two rules. 1: You can never play the same game of Calvinball twice and 2: Do not question the masks. Beyond that the game becomes one where objectives, tactics, penalties, and other elements of games are constantly mutating amongst the current players. The lack of structure would quickly make this an unplayable sport in pretty much every place on the planet. And yet, because it is a game where the players amongst themselves decide which rules to follow and how; that a game like Calvinball can (at least theoretically) exist.

Episode 80: Sudden Hero Syndrome

Last time I wrote about how your standard hero is basically destined to drown in misery by the choice made at the onset of his/her decision to eventually save the world. After all the pessimism that I described I feel like some context and jutification are in order. The call to be a hero is something Campbell and many other theorits have explained in far more detail than me and with way fancier vocabulary so I recommend looking through far more qualified works if this something that interests you.

In the words of the great Teddy Roosevelt (which I only remember through Robin Williams playing him in Night at the Museum), “Some people are born great, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Pretty much every hero you will see in tv, comics, and other works of literature will go through a moment when there is an internal debate as to answer the call or not. Peter Parker has perhaps the most recognizable moment of not becoming a hero when the situation arises and paying a price for it. Sure he could have continued not caring after Uncle Ben’s decision but the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” was a big deal. Others decide to become a hero long before they take on that particular identity, especially when you are a masked hero. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent chose to do something more long before they put on their capes and went to the streets.

Any hero worth his mettle will sprint into action upon a moment’s notice to answer a cry for help. Most of them even go on patrol to make sure they are available to respond to any danger that may appear. Now what I want to talk about is that rare moment when a random person off the street decides to be a hero at the drop of a hat (by the way, this is a stupid metaphor. hat dropping is not a universal measure of time, and few people wear them anymore; rant over). Just imagine that you and a bunch of other people are walking down a street, you hear what you can only imagine to be a gunshot and someone screaming for help. Your first instinct and that of 99.9% of those around you is to run far away in the oppossite direction of where the inital danger lies. At least a few of you will call 911 along the way of this strategic retreat but in all honesty this is what you are suppossed to do. However, that 0.1% of people brave/stupid enough to go towards danger have something I like to call sudden hero syndrome.

Perhaps the Ur example of this particular trope can be found in the SNES game Chrono Trigger. Quick recap (if you get the chance please play this game, it is among the best games for that system if not one of the top RPGs ever): kid named Chrono goes to the fair, meets a cute girl, things go crazy and girl ends up going into some sort of black hole. Our hero (who is just an average swordsman at best) goes in to save the girl he has known for a few hours and then time travelling shenanigans occur. In that split second decision they choose to be a hero, often completely disregarding fear or logic. In the chivalric/chauvinistic heavily hegemonic towards males being heroes, sudden hero syndrome is often triggered for a damsel in distress. Our good friends over at tvtropes.org call this the Dulcinea Effect.

There are certainly other reasons to be a hero without a second thought. Yusuke Urameshi of Yu Yu Hakusho fame was pretty much a bully that ends up sacrifing his life to save a little kid from uncoming traffic. Booster Gold did it on a whim to become rich and famous. Sometimes revenge, not the noblest of reasons but certainly a common one, is the catalyst towards taking action. Other times, it’s because of adventure and excitement like how Goku at the beginning of Dragon Ball was more interested in the prospect of interesting battles than in saving the local townspeople. If you are (or consider yourself to be) the chosen one then it’s not so much a choice as it is an instinct that suddenly takes over. Then again, you could just be a nice person who helps others during a time of great need because it’s the right thing to do.

Perhaps I am being unfair by focusing so much on the immediate danger and high stakes world of immediate heroic action and not some of the more mundane tasks that need to be done. During the most florid of speeches we are quick to appreciate the police, the fire fighters, the teachers, doctors, nurses, and all these other noble endeavors that shape and help society more than fictional heroes ever could. Soldiers, even the ones come back relatively unscathed from battle, have the mantle of hero thrust accordingly upon them and deservedly so. However, these are all people that chose long before stepping into their area of expertise to do so and underwent years of training to take on these challenges. Sudden heroes barely have any prior training. In fact, it is that rigorous training and certification in these fields that I would rather wait a few minutes for a professional with the right credentials to do the job than for someone to come out of nowhere with good intentions but ultimately improper skill.

As a kid, I always thought of myself as a hero that was just waiting for the one moment to prove himself. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that jumping into the throngs of danger was actually a suicidal move that would probably lead to one more victim needing help. There are certain laws of jurisdiction that are meant to disuade people from just going out and becoming vigilantes. It’s why a lot of manpower during emergencies is dedicated to getting eager spectators a safe distance away from their natural curiosity and so that people who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express the previous night don’t do anything beyond the parameters of their actual training. And yet, when the danger affects you personally, proper logic and protocol are quickly discarded. You hear a lot of cases of people that dive into a raging river to save a loved one, often without being a strong swimmer in the first place. Sometimes they save the victim and everyone is okay but many other times the sudden act of heroism comes with great sacrifice and maybe even failure on all ends. Other times, a person with a good heart but improper skills can make things worse by being too eager to help. There’s a reason why all forms of emergency first aid start with asking the person “are you ok?”. Going for the heimleich on someone that is just coughing cand get you charged with assault and sexual harassment pretty quickly. Also, if you have basic skills but there is a professional there as well, that person has priority and is in charge (Boy Scouts can’t tell doctors that they “got this”).

As someone who is still itching for the right moment to show his heroic tendencies, it is a weird realization that you can probably do more harm than good. One of the best examples of this is the legendary Don Quixote de la Mancha. A man in his fifties loses his mind and thinks himself a valiant knight that must go around the countryside helping people. Noble intentions did not make up for his gross ineptitude that got him repeatedly injured and he rarely actually helped people. There is a reason why “quixotic dreamer” was an insult in a lot of Victorian novels even with over two hundred years after its initial publication in another country. The romantic idealist in me still treats Don Quixote as a hero and an example but the practical realist knows that big brash attempts to save the day can end up doing more harm than good. I think I was around 13 when I was travelling with my family at some place in the states. At some moment, we were walking back to our hotel in the evening and I saw that this biker dude was with this girl and she saying “let go” (not in a “he’s kidnapping me” way but more like “I want to do something else stop bothering me” though I did not know the difference between the two at the time). I remember having the urge to say something courageous and save that girl like “unhand her you vile villain” but was too scared to actually do it. About ten seconds later I looked back at them and noticed that they were now making out. Even in my inaction I was embarassed that, what my roommate has dubbed as a “Captain Saves-a-hoe” attitude, that would have gotten me laughed at and/or beat up over nothing. I consider that to be the first moment where my sense of heroism clashed with the harsh realities of everyday life and I’m not really sure what came out of that ideological crash. I remember being confused and like a failure, again over completely nothing, as I realized that the world I live on doesn’t need that kind of hero. But somehow, I still think that this is the world’s problem not mine and should the call ever appear, I keep telling myself that I can be that hero. Maybe that’s just me clinging to an outdated chivalric model that never really existed in reality or a hope that I can break through the mundane monotony of my future in academia into something a bit more glorious with a direct and preceivable outcome. Maybe I’m just a guy who wants to live out the fantasy constructed over my childhood that if someone ever needed saving you could do be that 0.1%. It is only after studying all these kinds of stories that I realized that the cost of being a hero comes with the price of a victim and to wish that somehow greatness be thrust upon me is to ask that others be put at risk. If that is the case, I’d rather be a mild mannered day dreaming whatever if it meant that those around me would already be safe. But just in case, I think I’ll keep a cape handy.

Episode 79: I Have to Worry, I Can’t Be Happy

A hero’s journey is one that ultimately requires sacrifice. The responsibility of doing what’s right takes away the possibility for momentary and long term joy. Peter Parker’s internal monologues constantly remind us that if Spiderman weren’t necessary he could actually enjoy his life. Relationships are pretty much out of the question right from the get go and the phrase, “duty before booty” becomes almost a mantra. Now I’m the first to admit that a lot of these previous and upcoming examples are very lacking in the heroic female variety. As much as I may want chauvinistic pop culture and a sexist society, the truth is that I must apologize for my particular ignorance in thise field but will try to be more inclusive.

Perhaps the main reason why heroes cannot achieve happiness, be it due to choice or a rather vindictive universe, is the fact that it represents an end to conflict. One of the big things in serialization is that there must always be something more. Having your character be content with his/her life ultimately means that there is no more of the story worth telling. Happiness in the long term becomes synonymous with a conclusion to the adventure and thus an end to the narrative. The author then becomes a kind of sadist to his/her literary creation, prolonging suffering and creating new perils for the sake of keeping the story going. The puppetmaster here will then make the hero deliberate whether the struggle is worth it but ultimately will pull the strings in favor of having happiness remain elusive.

Sure there is a lot of glory and prestige in being a hero that should be its own reward (just ask Booster Gold). But a lot of times our heroic protagonist would rather the live an average life and leave the days of adventuring behind, especially once youth has left and the dangers are oficially too much. This particular trope is called the Cincinattus after the eponymous Roman general. Quick history lesson: a long time ago there was this awesome warrior that everyone loved and won many battles. After a good life of being a bad ass, the people wanted him to have more power through politics or something but the guy decides to retire and start a farm. Fast forward twenty years or so and some big army threatens to take down the Empire, Cincinattus comes out of retirement, defeats this new army and immediately gives up that power again. If the name sounds familiar it’s because this how the city of Cincinatti gets its name. If the retirement plan rings a bell it’s because this is what Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator wants to do after the first big battle and also what George Washington actually did after being general and then after being President. The appeal of a somewhat more domestic and rural life is a big one even in a more contemporary setting. However, this can only be attempted/achieved once the overall mission in life is over. You can’t retire with the enemy at your gates or when the people need you.

In all of these cases, happiness is never truly found or even looked for while the hero still needs to be on the job. The big thing I want to explore is that one moment where one finds everything your heart desires only to give it up to keep being a hero. Yesterday’s post about Star Trek Generations provides some good examples. Picard must leave a quiet life with his wife and kids, which is even more accentuated by the fact that he had lost the remainder of his actual family earlier in the film. After having lost everything he ever had, he gained more than he could have imagined, only to choose to give it up. Picard had the point that he still had something to live for, his crew was doomed if he failed again. Kirk had a very different perspective of happiness once in the Nexus. He was retired and for all intents and purposes dead to the rest of the world. Outside of Picard there was no one who knew he existed. Even after realizing that he was in a gilded cage he planned to go full holodeck and right the wrongs of choosing Star Fleet over his beloved Antonia. In the end, the call to be a hero was too much and he gave up an eternity of simulated happiness (what the bad guy wanted to get and killed millions to try) to fight one last time and ended up sacrificing himself in the process.

However, if you want to see the best example of a hero sacrificing his happiness then you need to check out the Superman story by Alan Moore titled, ” For the Man who Has Everything”. The original comic book is a pretty hard find these days but the animated adaptation does the job pretty well. Synopsis: It’s Superman’s birthday, Batman and Wonderwoman go to the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate with him. However they find the dreaded Mongul tearing the place up and the Man of Steel is mesmerized into a realm of happiness. Wonder Woman gets beat up as Batman tries to liberate his friend but Kal El is living the life he always wanted as a farmer in Krypton with a big beautiful family. Somewhere between Batman’s help and his own deductive reasoning that things were too good, Superman joy begins to crumble as he gives up his heart’s desire. The scene is pretty hard to describe and this video isn’t the best quality but it still brings tears to my eyes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG4Yu0-n7vk

Batman has his own idyllic world to detach himself from but this one is momentary as his father fights off Joe Chill only for his alternate world to shatter and returning to the world that made the cowl necessary. However, Superman gained and lost something he never had and the pain he felt was far greater to Batman’s who basically had to relive his most defining trauma. It kind of reminds me of one the tenets of something taught to me long ago. Gikairo Otokatu, which loosely translates to “the origin of truth” is something we all search for, though not necessarily by that name. One of the aspects of it is “a future you don’t think you deserve” and that’s what these characters suffer through. It’s that realization and action to willfully leave what you didn’t even know you always wanted is a sacrifice that Mongul describes best as “having to tear your own arm off”. It is that hero’s sacrifice that makes them tragic but ultimately what we as readers want to see and have on our sides.

Episode 78: Bridging the Gap between Generations

Upon the outset of staring into a green light that promises a bright future, I find myself looking back as my muse directs my slow yet deliberate typing. Two months ago I promised myself to write a post a day no matter what. Perhaps in that ambitious hope I set myself up for failure and in that lofty goal perched so high the fall was even more painful. In that time I have not achieved what I had planned and yet I have gained much more than what I once thought likely. For upon emerging from the depths of despair I soon found myself in a enthralled in a happiness I once believed to have sacrificed. But that is a post for another day.

Now I write something that goes beyond the personal pleasures of one individual or even one fandom. I have written before about sequels and the careful tightrope walked between new material and familiarity to appease current and potential readers/viewers. Today I write about something more than the next in line of an installment or even a remake done decades later, this is about succession. In the narrative sense, this means that there is something new that still goes in line with the original. They may still take place within the temporal framework of the story, maybe even share a character or two, but there is a deliberate choice to be independent rom the original. DC Comics did a very literal succession with the not too distant future of Batman Beyond, passing the cowl unto Terry McGinnis as Bruce served as Oracle to him. Saved by the Bell did a pretty awful job when making the third incarnation of the program (post College years with Screech now working alongside Mr. Belding where a new group of high school students rehashed all the old plots). But if I had to pick one succession that worked amazingly well it has to be Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Even in it’s own title it states that it is its predecessor’s son. Political allegories were still there but these were not the main focus of the show. Scifi elements and technobabble took more of the spotlight as the Holodeck became the centerpiece of boundless imaginitive control in the flagship of Star Fleet. The brash and suave Captain James Tiberius Kirk was now replaced with the philosophical and reserved Captain Jean Luc Picard. Outside of sharing the same ship name and overall mission, these were two very different narratives and both excelled in their own way. I believe it was in Wayne’s World where the titular character in an almost non sequitor analogy states how TNG is equal or superior in many ways than the original but will never obtain the same amount of fame because the classic was the one that broke ground.

As separate narrative entities, they had their own particular styles, but what would happen if both worlds were to come together. Narratively speaking it would a stretch since there is at least century’s diference between the adventures of both crews. For fandoms, the temporal distance of over two decades is just as much a barrier to get new fans and old to join forces, if only momentarily. Such an ambitious project came to fruition with the seventh film of the cinematic series, or as it is best known, Star Trek: Generations.

Breaking the expectation that only even numbered films were worth watching, Generations brings together both pats of the series through the narrative device of The Nexus, a chaotic magnetic force that brings about destruction but encases all within it to a cage of happiness. The movie starts with a now retired Kirk, Chevok, and Scotty doing what is basically a publicity appearance on a new Enterprise. Danger appears, and the old crew rallies the newbies to save the day but at great risk and Kirk pays the ultimate price for saving them. This entire section of the film was done to fit just about every detail of how the classic was made, almost as if they had made a new old episode. Fast forward a bit and the crew from TNG finds a science sattellite recently attacked by the evil Romulans. In the meantime, you have the emotional trauma of Picard losing his nephew and surrogate son in a horrible accident, alongside Data installing an emotion chip into his system which will be the main source of comic relief. Amongst the survivors we find a scientist who was one of the people rescued by Kirk and the gang long ago. This guy (I actually had to look up the name but knew full well that Malcolm McDowell was the actor) Dr. Tolian Soren is actually the main antagonist, who is using a splinter cell of radical Klingons to help him basically blow up entire stars just to alter the path of the Nexus so that he can reenter it. An emotionally vulnerable Picard walks into Soren’s trap and gives the Klingons a way to destroy the Enterprise. Commander william T. Riker in command must do some pretty quick thinking to save everyone and destroy the Klingong ship but the Enterprise is crippled and crash lands on a nearby planet. Picard tries to stop Soren but his attempts are futile as he blows up the nearby star, alters the flow of the Nexus, and destroys a few inhabitted planets (including the one with semi destroyed Enterprise.

That’s right, the heroes fail as destruction encases everything in sight and the screen fades to black. But then you hear voices and a blindfold is lifted to show that Picard is surrounded by his children as they are getting ready for Christmas dinner. He quickly realizes that this is all part of the Nexus. Psychic Whoopi Goldberg serves as Virgil through this Hell of unreal happiness and directs him towards a way to undo Soren’s destruction. Thanks to wonky time space continuum weirdness in the Nexus, Picard can get out of it at any moment and place he wishes, plus he can recruit people along the way. Whoopi Goldberg suggests Kirk, who was trapped in the Nexus all those years ago. After some philosophical discussions over the importance of responsibility over happiness (something I’ll probably discuss in the next post), the two super captains join forces to stop Soren and alter history. A lot of weirdness ensues but in the end Soren dies after some quick sabotage by Picard and Kirk is moratlly wounded. In his final words, the metaphorical torch is passed as one generation is definitively gone while the other is down but not out.

Generations were bridged through both narrative and cinematographic elements. The new Star Trek movie attempted the same thing with the inclusion of Leonard Nimoy as old Spock but never to the success that its predecessor achieved. There many other incarnations of Star Trek after TNG (none of which I personally got into) which have their merits but I feel that they were done so close to the finale of the previous version that the former audience basically had to pick too quickly whether or not to add in these versions to their ammalgamated construction of that which is Star Trek.

Episode 77: Getting Back in the Saddle

I’m trying to get back into writing mode in a semi consistent basis. In honor of super cool webcomic Hyperbole and a Half coming from hiatus but first putting a buffer update, I shall do the same. The following is the paper I presented at the URI Grad Conference that was a month ago. I would have sworn I uploaded this shortly afterwards but I guess it was all part of a dream. Something far more serially analytical and nerdy coming up in about 24 hours from now. I hope.

Whose genre is it anyway? Exploring Expectations of Authorship in Serialized Works

There is an old proverb in Spanish “zapatero a tus zapatos” which literally translates to “shoemaker to your shoes”. We as readers have expectations toward the qualifications of any author towards his/her literary output. No one bats an eyelash when someone with a background in literature writes an epic narrative or a comedy but when he or she shifts into philosophy or complex scientific principles one wonders whether the author has the right to do this. My paper analyzes how authors change their texts over time through close readings of multiple installments, as well as interviews on the authors themselves, to see their motivations for moving in another direction and the reception by their readerships.
While the term “author” is fairly difficult to define, especially within the context of academia, perhaps we should try and stick with a simple approach. Before we start dueling Barthes and Foucault quotes, let’s consider the basic definition of author as the entity responsible for the production and publication of a particular text. This can range from a conglomerate of writers, directors, actors, etc to a one person operation like in self publishing or webcomic cartoonists. Readerships also get jumbled up within technical terminology so let’s try and keep it within the basics. I am making a distinction, for the sake of this paper, between a silent readership, ie one where people do not interact with author beyond reading his/her work, and a vocal readership where people use email, forums, and forms of social media to communicate with the author and amongst themselves.
I specifically focus on serialized literature because it allows for an analysis centered on one particular narrative. Consider the case of legendary film director Stanley Kubrick who has done standalone masterpieces in just about every genre and style of movies, but these were active choices in doing something different every time. Within serialization, in that “continuing story over an extended period of time with enforced interruptions”, you have one project, one literary output that is changing over months and years which allows for a fluid identity of authorship and readership.
Let’s do a quick overview of one the most famous contemporary pieces of print serial literature to see how expectations of authorship played a big part in its reception. Of course I am talking about JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The story of eleven year old’s finding themselves in the fantastical world of their magical education at Hogwarts was a huge hit that basically came out of nowhere from a virtually unknown writer in her debut book. The second installment stayed within that same line of whimsical fun and fantastic adventures but this time the stakes were higher as imminent threats of petrification to the students made its way around. As the local English readership was giving way to a more global fandom, the third installment decided to trade in some of the more fantastic elements for more mundane and “legitimate” scary things. As Internet blogger Mark Oshiro of the “Marc reads” series so elegantly stated, “Hey children did you enjoy this wonderful children’s book full of wonderful awesome things for children well let me WRITE A BOOK BUILT ENTIRELY ON THE FEAR THAT A DERANGED, PSYCHOPATHIC MURDERER IS GOING TO EITHER KILL YOU IN YOUR SLEEP OR DESTROY YOU IN ANY SORT OF OPEN, PUBLIC SPACE.” The series shifted in a way that completely placed the main antagonist of he who should not be named to the background and the change to a more gritty tone is one that makes Prisoner of Azkaban the best of the seven books for many critics and fans. With darker themes, you could tell that the readership was now longer one of children but rather one of young adults (most likely the one’s from the very start that had now grown up). The fourth book now actively added romantic subplots and the death of Cedric ensured that the next installments were ones with death being a real possibility. As more prominent characters were killed off (most notably Sirius Black in Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore in Half-blood Prince) we as readers knew that the final installment would be a massacre and the revelation of its title The Deadly Hallows cemented that expectation. So over the years, the original readers grew up alongside these literary characters and this pseudo simultaneous maturing led to an expectation of more adult themes which Rowling masterly supplied.
Rowling did a incrediblejob of shifting by degrees and we love her for that but she is clearly the exception rather than the rule. Let me give you an overview of a legendary film series that tried something too different between installments that left fans face-palming all over the world. I am referring to the Star Wars series. While we often ascribe the role of author to George Lucas for all six installments, it’s important to note that he is only technically the director for Episodes 1-4. The epic science fantasy story of the original trilogy is one that epitomizes the space opera/western/samurai so well beloved. Expectations ran high for the prequel trilogy and most were met with disappointment. While Lucas’s narrative choices are very subjective to reception there are some elements that are fairly accepted by a large percentage of the fandom to be bad. Jar Jar Binks alone still makes me and many others frustrated and most of us agree that George Lucas is not well suited to write a love story. The change from adventure to a coming of age tale, to then a romance, both of which were heavily laden to socio-political commentary was too drastic from the original tone and left many in disapproval. Episode 3’s descent into darkness and heavy into action went back to some of the elements that made the original films so well liked but these are often overshadowed by some of the more hammy acting and the infamous Vader “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Lucas tried to do something completely different within the same overarching story but strayed too much from the roots he had already planted and in a way alienated much of his original fandom.
The changing in overall tone over the lifespan of a serialized work goes by many names. When it goes from lighthearted to more serious the term that is most prevalently used by current fandoms is that of Cerebus Syndrome. Originally coined by Eric Burns of websnark.com in reference to Dave Sim’s epic Cerebus the Aardvark series. Burns uses it primarily to describe webcomics of a humorous nature that shift into a heavily narrative focus because “boredom is generally the key to a Cerebus Syndrome attempt. After a while, even a successful webcartoonist gets tired of fart jokes and sight gags and wants to make these characters more than they’ve been.” I focus a lot of my research of serialization in webcomics for a lot of reasons but from a publication perspective one really stands out. The amount of content per installment is large enough for the story to develop while small enough that production value between them allows for readers to actively voice their opinions and potentially affect narrative production. Webcomics are in effect, microserialized in that each installment makes up less than one percent of the total story(from Eric Balder of Erfworld). This way, Cerebus Syndrome can be analyzed as it progresses gradually and can help attune reader expectations.
From an authorial perspective, webcomics are amazing to study in that many of these people have no idea what they are doing. Without any of the more traditional barriers to publishing (editors, money, publishing houses) many artists/writers first attempts at a literary output come out to no readership (silent or vocal). A quick glance through webcomic portals show that Sturgeon’s Law is in full effect (90% of everything is crud). However that 10% of people that really hone their craft and eventually turn their webcomics into their career and livelihood go through this amazing transformation. And if you are lucky to catch them early on, you get to witness it first hand and even help mold it. Still, there are a lot of ways this evolution manifests. Tarol Hunt aka Thunt of Goblins has stated in various interviews, forum posts, and tweets that he had written the story in almost painstaking detail years before he started making his webcomic. Here the story’s Cerebus Syndrome is planned and deliberate but you can see the changes in his artwork. On the other hand, you have Rich Burlew from the Order of the Stick who made his story a lot more detailed after a year or so of starting out. In the commentary for his third book of compilation strips he explains how the process is still something that eludes even his own understanding.
I really just write this story the way that I think it would be most interesting, without too much regard for writing theory or structure. I mean, the idea of a serialized one-page-per installment story (that almost always ends in a punchline) isn’t really directly analogous to most other media anyway – a TV show dispenses an hour a week, while a comic book gives you 22 pages per month. Even a double-length OOTS comic has room for only a fraction of the plot advancement of either format. Thus, I’m usually stuck trying to adapt my story to this format without any guidelines – I’m always flying without a net. How many strips is too many to focus on the villains? Do I need to recap previous plot points, or do I trust them [the readers] to figure it out on their own? I have struggled with many of these questions over the last few years, with no clear cut answers yet appearing. (War and Xps, How I Didn’t Learn to Write a Plot)
Cerebus Syndrome was called that by name in one of the installments and the change from making fun of Dungeons & Dragons rules, to its own full fledged dramatic fantasy adventure occurred over the span of years and hundreds of installments.
Webcomic historian Troy Campbell further defines Cerebus Syndrome by classifying it into three phases. First pure humor, second dramatic turn, and a potential third phase that he calls “tonal juggling”. It’s that tonal juggling that is so hard to achieve in a way that pleases your original humor centered readers as well as the new story centered ones you have picked up along the way. Campbell goes on to say that:
Some strips never moved past Phase Two, but after a time, most at least tried to coax new
readers in again, to recapture the spirit of fun with which they’d begun. This was the
greatest challenge – done wrong, the humor could spill spoil the drama, the drama weigh
down the humor . . . It was a sign of a new medium testing its limits and finding its way.
It was more sign of freedom from old standards. (The Melting Pot: Cerebus Syndrome)
Episode 3 of Star Wars kind of gets there but if you really want to see the master in action, I highly recommend Order of the Stick. As someone in the forums there once posted: come for the D&D jokes, stay for the Cerebus Syndrome”.
For as many good examples of an author trying to branch out into their own uncharted narrative waters, there are exponentially more that make Fonzi jumping the shark look like a logical choice for where the story should. Tim Buckley’s Ctrl+Alt+Del webcomic might just be the uber example of things that change too fast and for no apparent reason. Quick summary, Ethan are Lucas are roommates and they discuss video games. Their new neighbor Lilah joins in on their video gaming. She and Ethan start dating, then she is pregnant, then she has a miscarriage. Needless to say, this is Cerebus Syndrome to the highest degree and has been almost universally received as horrible. Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade fame went on to say that “Tim Buckley is the antichrist, and I think [that] storyline was the first horseman of the Apocalypse”.
Outside of the realm of narrative, I’ve been searching for a way to study webcomics and other forms of serial lit for those that do not have an ongoing overarching story. The closest I have found so far is to study genre and style. There are two webcomic cartoonists that I feel best exemplify an erratic nature of presenting between installments that have expanded their style over the years to the point that the readership will accept pretty much anything. Randall Munroe of xkcd has this incredible variety of installments. Just this week he went through a representational map of every subway system in North America, a joke about the abundance of Adobe updates, a geologist that displays rocks as hunting trophies, plus a blog post on the dangers of pressure cookers. The warning of “this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)” still doesn’t do it justice. Munroe’s background as a former NASA scientist is evident in the geekiest of things but his humor through puns and other jokes doesn’t seem to fit within any particular part of his bio.
On the other hand, you have Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Just this week he made installments on proton interactions, statistical knowledge as a superpower, religious conversion through Batman, and the nature of Internet discussions. You can see Zach’s eclectic nature and his background in English and observational analysis. But then you see all of his graph jokes, advanced philosophy and some of the more esoteric material and it seems fairly odd that you get this kind of material from this guy. It’s not until you go through his interviews that you can see that he reads voraciously on just about every topic and that he actually went back to school to get his degree in physics. So we see examples of scientist expanding into broader humor and vice versa, which is something that really amazes as both a fan and a scholar in this field.
It’s very interesting how our expectations need to be validated by background. With the previous examples we find academic accreditation to verify this particular notion of authorship. And yet, it’s not like you need to be licenced or have permission before you can write any of these. Not to mention, that there isn’t exactly a BA in comedy or a certificate in romance. A lot of these skills are acquired through experience in writing but webcomics equates that process to the initial publishing. So when you have both the author and the readership without clear cut expectations on either side, we don’t get that bias
. Sure we are going to find a lot of crud along the way but there is always a hope that we find golden literary nugget. And the best part of this serial reading experience is that we get to be a part of that growth.