Thursday, March 02, 2006

Seeking Symbolism

I freely admit to missing the symbolism on the first try sometimes. I miss it even when it's obvious. I have my off days, you understand. Times when I bypass it. And then, suddenly, someone points out something so unbelievably simple I feel like an idiot for missing it. I've been accused of obliviousness.

More often, I've been accused of reading too much into it. You see, I'm actually obsessed with symbolism. To the point that it's unhealthy. To the point where I miss blatant symbolism looking for subtle symbolism. The thing about symbolism is once you train yourself to see it, you naturally look for it. If it's a symbol that speaks to you and applies to your life, it will pop out at you. With me, it's always been gender symbolism.

Read on.

It started with fairy tales. I found a copy of Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters in my high school library. The editor had been fed up with traditional fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White. She didn't like the thought of what they could be teaching her daughter about life. Instead of updating these familiar stories to reflect a more balanced viewpoint, like many people do, she tried a different approach. She researched and tried to dig up folktales with better rolemodels. She came out with a beautiful volume of authentic folktales that portrayed women as strong, clever, heroic masters of their own destiny.

At the end of each story, there was a little editorial note. It lays out the reasons she chose the story, what it demonstrated about women's lives, some personal impressions, and sometimes a comparison with a more traditional story. She touches on symbolism, of course, in these notes. Specifically, how it applied to women and what kinds of lessons we were getting from traditionally fairy tales. It's still one of my favorite books, and was one of the first books I sought out when I got to my first station.

While I was looking for it, I found Goddesses in Everywoman in the mythology section. The back of the book said "Psychology/Women's Studies" but it sounded so interesting I had to read it. It was on the Greek Goddesses, one of my personal favorite subjects. The writer was a Jungian psychologist (and Jung's quotes and theories were about to pop up more and more as I read about religion and mythology) who saw the Greek goddesses in women's behavior patterns. She wrote about these different sets of motives, values, personality each coexisting in all women, some more active than others. A committee of archetypes, in everyone's head. It was plainly written, accessible to the laywoman, and full of points where you could see yourself and your friends.

Now, I'm not a psychology student. I've never taken a literature, folklore or mythology course. I've never set foot in a women's studies class. But I did become a little obsessed with symbolizing. This led into more and more books analyzing more and more stories. I studied up on interpreting my own dreams. I found a really good school of thought that taught you how to reason out your own dream symbols. For practice, I started applying what I learned to my own entertainment (movies, comics, books). Relating it to your own life and experience just naturally happens.

So, if you're like me, after so many books, your thoughts become consumed by symbolism. You eat, drink and breath symbolism. Until you're sitting in a lecture on cable connector repair and thinking about the symbolism of the female cannon plug connector (sockets) and the male cannon plug connector (pins), and how the female connecter can be either a receptacle (passive) or a plug (aggressive) -- and especially what it tells you about yourself that you (the only female present), are the only one in class who wasn't confused by all of those example pictures of receptacles with sockets, when you are trying to find the mating connector to a plug that has sockets and all you need to do is find the proper size and shape and order it with pins instead of sockets. It was funny, though, when the instructor tried to clear up confusion by describing the receptacle as female -- when while it is passive it's a fairly phallic symbol that is covered by a cannon plug. And everyone knows pins are male and sockets are female anyway, so calling a receptacle with pins female is just even more confusing.

You need a break, but it's really hard to ignore by that point. Even the subconscious stuff the writers don't even realize they are writing.

Especially the subconscious stuff the writers don't even realize they are writing.

No one should need to be told comics are heavily symbolic. It's the pictures. Everyone needs at least a basic understanding of dramatic shorthand to understand a comic book. Visual symbolism is a given. The really fun part is when the plot gets symbolic. You can walk through it like a dream and isolate the hidden messages.

This isn't exclusive to the great writers. Sure, everybody knows when to expect a deeper meaning behind the action. The name is on the front cover, after all. I've learned to tune out the symbolism from Grant Morrison and Alan Moore for the first reading. It's not that I don't love it, it's that there's so many distractions I need to shut that part of my mind off to follow the plot. (Barring, of course, gender symbolism) I've learned to zero in on the plot to the detriment of the theme. Guys like Morrison and Moore understand multiple layers of symbolism. You can read their stories and find several different sets of meaning for most symbols, and work them together in ways that make sense. They're doing those on purpose. They give us exceptional symbolism.

I love the symbolism of the normal, though. Most writers have some level of understanding about symbolism, and they make up for it with instinct. That's when we get the stuff that just randomly fits together. The average work-for-hire writer who probably didn't mean to do that, but it fits and reinforces the point. The multiple writers who somehow string a secondary character's entire life under one central theme, while not even using her to further the same story objectives. And they keep falling into the same symbolic lessons. This way, the plot becomes part of the characterization. It just fits, beautifully.

That's really what I love about superhero comics. They are serialized fiction passed from writer to writer. We get to watch the continuity. We get the fun of digging the symbolism out of continuity, and making it whole so you can observe the entire picture. I enjoy having to work the little inconsistencies into a character's personality, and finding what was probably mischaracterization by an unfamiliar writer adds a deeper facet to a character. In the end, you not only get a complete picture of a three-dimensional human being, but an underlying lesson that has been reinforced repeatedly. Appearance after appearance.

It's why I prefer to ignore the writer. Elayne asked me about that in the comments once. "I persist in believing there are no bad characters," she said, "just badly-written (or badly-drawn) ones. I'm curious as to why you never mention the people who write and draw the characters you examine. These characters literally do not exist unless they're being written and drawn by a real person, so it stands to reason that any discussion of their "personalities" would need to touch on the actual people writing and drawing them." It's partly because it destroys the continuity. If something is "out of character" then a deeper aspect of the character that explains this behavior does not exist. It's pulling back the curtain and destroying the magic. It takes the fun out.

And besides, I have my favorites. I like some stories that really aren't very well-written or well-drawn because the symbolism spoke to me personally, or the plot, or just something the character did. I suspect some writers just think like I do, so their stories seem more valuable to me than arguably better crafted ones. I need to learn to stop getting defensive about certain writers, characters and stories. I usually fall back on the symbolism. That's when I can practically hear people sighing, and can see their eyes rolling from across the country. "You're reading too much into this" signals the end of a lot of online conversations for me. I also get "You're just looking for reasons to hate it!" too. When in actuality I'm looking for a reason why I hated it.

My thoughts on symbolism have gotten me blasted for the umpteenth time about a certain character. A character I examined hoping I'd start to like her again and came out much more disgusted than I was by her surface portrayal. I don't know why I'm so upset about it tonight. Maybe because no one else seems to think like I do. Maybe because I knew when I answered the question I'd get jumped on by bystanders. Maybe because I've laid out these reasons a few times before and I specifically said that they won't talk me into liking her. Maybe because earlier on the thread I expressed a small amount of sympathy for her fans. Maybe because I made a comemnt and brought it up, but I was just sick of the vitriol wasted on this character death, which probably won't even take. I just know I'm too angry to respond right now without getting into a huge fight.

(My apologies to those who saw the Helligan pics and expected a Seven Soldiers post.)


  1. "It takes the fun out." Ah, but the fun wouldn't exist in the first place without the writer (and/or artist), would it?

  2. There's no such thing as reading too much into it, Ragnell. What's on the page is on the page. Being ostensibly "unintentional" doesn't take it away, and in a number of ways actually makes it deeper and more worth teasing out. You brought a lot to light regarding the character Jade with your reading, I think. Certainly I paid more attention not only to Jade, but to the whole idea of what it means to be a permanent second-banana in a superhero context, particularly what it means for women.

    So yeah, those are my favorite posts of yours, even though I haven't read any of the books you talk about.

  3. Meaning me, of course! Ragnell!!!!

    Okay, visit my blog and I forgive you for this teasing; please do a Valkyrie bit for me about identity from The Defenders. I asked kalinara to ask you, and she said "ask her yourself." Basically. God, this is like high school only more geeky. I'm in heaven.

    ...And that being said, I have two thoughts, even though this is not the Seven Soldiers post I've been waiting for Ragnell!!!! But I might as well speak these thoughts out out loud anyway. First thing is, you're describing the classic postmodern adoration of the text, instead of the author, which for someone who's never taken any of the abstruse Litcrit courses is quite a leap of brains. And so that's cool! Gee, have you found the wrong profession? Or the right one? The really fun thing about superhero comics is that a lot is left out of them, all the time, and can't be put back in...the stronger a reader is, the more he/she lives in the gutters, putting together puzzle-pieces of character into patterns that haven't been provided, but which seem provided, but which aren't. Unitl they almost have more fun not reading what's between the gutters at all! Pattern, pattern, all is assembly of pattern, and the fewer pieces the easier the fitting-in of them goes...hey, you think it's an accident that you used the scans of Sky-High Helligan in this post? Surely you do not think that. Underneath this jangled mess of essay-notes you've just thrown out here is a meaning quite apparent to anyone who has a skilled reading style, and by this "anyone" I mean "comics readers". The symbolism of the normal...I could write a book on that, on the accidental splicing of meaning into a crap story, which then goes out and finds more meaning...and the less intentional it is, the better it is, sometimes. Even, occasionally, the more satisfying it is. I have often had the same thoughts as you about regular things, too: do the sexed connections in some gizmo mean, as well as work, I often wonder? Is meaning instrinsic? Or is it extrinsic? Or is it, like some Rob Liefield character, "Extrinsic!!! Ghhaaaaar!!! Kill you with my big shoulders!!!!"

    And so on to the second thing...

    Is resonance of meaning accidental, or subconscious? That's a messed-up question that I want to know the answer to. Alan Moore says the fingertips have a knowledge that the brain doesn't know about, that they draw thoughts out of nowhere just by touching the typewriter keys...and that somewhere in the miniscule interface between finger and key there's a little demon that wants to get its thoughts across. If you believed Carl Jung you'd say that there is a transpsychic reality that we're all unconsciously swimming around in, whose ideas are like - how does Grant Morrison seem to put it? - like hyperdimensional Vaseline, that gets onto things off your fingers no matter how you think they're wiped clean...but if you don't believe in Jung, then that just means ideas are less like Vaseline and more like RNA, little strands of molecular junk that don't mean anything until they go out into chemical space and happen to meet up with other pieces of molecular junk that fit in with them, that end up as meaning-containers for the random gibberish they a carrier without a content, an envelope without a letter in it. Until it meets a letter, that doesn't have an envelope, that fits into it. And it's all random, and not serendipitous, because serendipity is an illusion, just like coincidence is...

    Morrison on Bond: every scene's a sex scene.

    And, I have got to cut down on the drugs, you know? I really think that's important.

    Fun to reply to this; have to go conk out in the back of a car someplace. Ethnic toast, Ragnell! And back atcha!

  4. Message boards are troublesome sometimes aren't they. :-)

    But I agree with you about characters. The thing is, as much as the writers and artists bring them to us, there is power in the character itself. It's been a very long time since Superman was written by the original authors, or Batman by Bob Kane, but we all have this idea about what these characters are.

    In a book, or a single owned propery like a manga, one can complain about the writer/artist...but when you've got a shared universe, there's really something special and powerful there. With a book, each reader can take different meanings from it, but really it's the author's portrayal that goes. With comics, both writers and readers all have their individual takes on the characters, each writer explores his or her own perspective of the character. And the thing is, instead of making it like a different character each time, the different aspects/expressions of the character feel like one, very three dimensional person.

    Even one as recent as Kyle. You've got Marz's take of course, exploring how he is when he's ordinary guy thrust into extraordinary situations. Winick's exploration of a maturing hero, finding his place even as Destiny has her own plans. Raab who writes a man at a loss, not precisely certain where his place is anymore.

    Morrison's JLA shows Kyle's inexperience and insecurity around legends at the same time as he shows the cooperative, optimistic side that works very well with a group. Kelly's Obsidian Age shows a Kyle tormented by something he doesn't understand, but in the end, pulling through where only he was ready to do so.

    Johns's Kyle shows the determined crusader who'll bring back his predecessor/enemy on blind faith and will. Gibbons, the Kyle who's finally found camaraderie and a place to belong.

    The thing is, all of these different portrayals, different highlighted aspects, still feel like the same character deep down. All these writers and their vastly different takes represent the way different situations bring out whole other, unexpected sides to people. They represent different stages of life and experience. But in the end, it's still the same character.

    And it just seems wrong to examine/criticize one writer's take without exploring the whole deal. It robs the character of so much depth and emotional resonance. And sometimes, contemplating irregularities can make a story even better for all the unspoken/unseen possibilities. :-)

    That said, sometimes you've just got a bad character. If I *ever* end up reading a portrayal of Jade that I actually like, I'll go back and critique all of her other writers like mad, to find out what works and what doesn't. But that hasn't happened, even though many, many writers have given her a shot. At some point you just have to throw in the towel and blame the character.

    Really though, comics are like collaborative novels. You're not really *supposed* to be able to tell who wrote what line where. The *story* is what's important. :-)

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I think like you do, Ragnell! I meant to comment in support of you after your Comic Bloc post about Jade's honour, where you said "there is to be No Blaming of The Writer". Yeah! Those conversation enders are sadly familiar too...

    Authors and artists are what people use as an excuse for not reacting to the text! And it's too easy to worry about what some guy said in an interview rather than what ended up on the page... but then some authors are easier to ignore when what they say has a very large disconnect, or... changes over time... the good old text will never change, and your changing is a big part of the fun!

    Anyway: one of my friends once said of relay race fiction, that the characters are more realistic than mono-authored characters, because we see more aspects of their character, they have good days and bad days, just like us.

    (Love your blog!)

  7. I can't think of much to add to this insightful group of thorough comments, even Elayne's comment got answered by David. Except thanks for the kind words, everyone. :)

  8. I totally get what you are saying, but then I'm the kind of person who finds the symbolic depth of Electra Barbie hilarious so what do I know?

  9. "Authors and artists are what people use as an excuse for not reacting to the text!" You have GOT to be kidding. I'll say it more slowly for you, David. The. Text. Would. Not. EXIST. If. It. Were. Not. For. The. Author. And a comic wouldn't exist if it weren't for the writer and artist(s). Treating the characters as more real than the people writing and drawing them, THAT's the copout, THAT's the excuse for not reacting to the creativity and hard work these people put into making enjoyable stories. Every time a comic book review concentrates only on the characters and not the words or the pictures, it's not a comic book review at all, it's a partial review at best and then usually only of a plot. It's also, in my opinion, spitting in the face of people without whom, again, the story wouldn't exist. And I'm sorry, I consider that rude.

  10. I don't think anyone's trying to say that we should forget that without the artist/author, the body of work wouldn't exist. We definitely appreciate the time and the effort and blood, sweat and tears that go into a final product.

    But some of these characters are older than I am. Most really. Many have been around in some form or another since my grandparents were children. That means that in some sense, they're as much the property of the public as any of the guys and gals writing about them/drawing them. And we get proprietal. And I know when I spend once a month (at least) reading the adventures of a character, through various author's perspectives, I tend to get a little emotionally attached. I'm not much of a convention goer (not yet anyway), so I've never met any of the talented people behind the comics I love. The *characters* though, I get to see every month. So as awful as it probably sounds, the characters are, in a way, more real to me than the creators.

    Which is maybe how it should be. That's how you know a product is truly good. When the content is what's remembered and not the face behind it. I mean, I have my favorite authors and artists whose take I love more than others, but in the end, it's the character that's the draw for me. And it's when you can react to the characters/situations as though some small part of you believes it's real...that's when you know the creative team has done a spectacular job.

    Of course that doesn't mean that a particularly striking image/panel, an astounding plot twist, or amazingly resonant metaplot usage should go unremarked upon. :-) Good work should be recognized. But I also think the focus on character/plot over who did what is intended more as a compliment than an insult to the creative team.

  11. No one's debating the fact that these characters are the result of another person's blood sweat and tears.

    But we're not discussing reviewing the talent and skill of the creator of the work in question. We're talking about examining the fictional constructs themselves, the symbolism as it shows through the plot and the character that we are reading. We're not only looking at intentional behaviors, but things that were very likely put in there without realizing it, and characters that have passed many many hands. We're taking into account the sum total of the efforts of writers, artists, editors, and our own experiences.

    Yes, we are treating them as "real" for the sake of this exercise. Because to pull back the curtain and examine the motives of the creator has inherent problems:

    1) Suspension of Disbelief is shattered, and the fictional construct isn't coherent anymore. It's just a collection of words and lines on a apge. The spark of life that the creator put there is lost when the creator's presence is revealed. As Kalinara puts it "It's when you can react to the characters/situations as though some small part of you believes it's real...that's when you know the creative team has done a spectacular job."

    2) It makes it easy to disregard the nuances of character that those very creators that you are defending added to the character, simply because we dislike the plot. This invalidates the contributions of those men and women moreso than simply leaving the curtain closed on "the Wizard" so that we can enjoy the fantasy that they have created and the realism they've brought to the character.

    3) It leads us from analysis of a fictional character and how we apply it to our lives to analysis of the thoughts, motives, and personality of a real living breathing human being that we have never met and have no right to judge based on what we see in the symbolism. More often than not, when you analyze the symbolism, you analyze the creator of the symbolism and project your own life experiences onto them. And this leads to assumptions about the character of the creator, based on how their inadvertant symbolism is received by a reader. A few writers have gotten nasty labels because of this, "Misogynist" being the most common one hurled at them.

    What I mean by spoiling the fun is #1 -- pulling back the curtain so that we see the real "Wizard" and not the carefully constructed facade that he wants us to buy into.

    What David means by "the Excuse" is #2. Wherein someone reads a depiction of a character that they dislike, and so they blame the author or artist for not "Getting" the character. I fully admit, I do this myself (see the above post on Dr. Midnite). But it's a cheat on character analysis, and it's a sign of utter disrespect for the creator involved. This is where you are spitting in the face of the creator involved.

    There's a time and a place for specifically analyzing the creator's efforts. When reviewing the book and commenting on the skill and talent of the creator; when looking at past works to determine whether a future project is worth picking up (Going over JSA and The Flash before buying Green Lantern); when analyzing the body of work as a creator (John Byrne's Man of Steel compared to Byrne's Wonder Woman); looking for recurring themes in a sinlge creator's work (Similar tone in Marz's Witchblade and Green Lantern narrations; Miller's handling of female characters; Evidence Grant Morrison still misses his cat); when analyzing obvious, purposeful symbolism and metatext (All the stuff Johns is dropping in Infinite Crisis, Alan Moore's Promethea, most of Grant Morrison's stuff).
    Delving into the deep symbolism of the story and the lessons and hidden messages relayed by characters, is probably not the nebst place for it, though. Because of #3. A lot of perfectly awful conclusions can easily and mistakenly be drawn about innocent people whom I have never meant. I do not want to confuse judging a fictional character with judging a real person. If you truly want me to get into the creators during a in-depth analysis of the symbolism in the writing, #3 is where I will invariably end up, I'm afraid. And that is not a fair place for me or them. Because I have never met this person and even if I have I am not qualified to judge their subconscious. Not only do I make this my own personal rule, I advise others to adopt it. "Don't Blame the Writer," as I've said numerous times on message boards. Usually, this is said in response to personal attacks against creators because they've taken the character in a direction that a fan doesn't like.