Realism? I call bullshit

Ragnell’s post about Geoff Johns’ recent comment along the lines of there being ‘enough’ dead women in DC comics canon — and the comments in response to her post — got me thinking about something which has been working my last nerve as a fan (not just of comics) for years:It was something jlg1 said in response to Ragnell’s post which got me twitching in my rage places this morning, so I’ll just quote it here:
I agree that there shouldn’t be a padded safe box, and should be wary of that quote for that reason too. But as one of the people who thought it was a hypocritical response (the boards wouldn’t allow 3 attempts for my nick or something close to it, so I chose g11j), I don’t think it was that wrong a thing to point out, or that I or the other posters want special treatment. I think they’re also tired of the excuse of ‘suspense and tension and dramatic impact’ to kill wholesale lesser-popular characters. The stories are already ‘Safe’ in that you know there are certain characters that won’t ever be killed – Red Shirts don’t make a story any more tense.
That’s it, right there.
I mean, if you’ve been around the genre fannish block even a little bit, you already know that certain things won’t ever happen in your favorite shows, films, books, or whatever — no matter how much sense those things would make within the given fictional milieu in question.
I don’t think it would be too revolutionary for me to say that any number of us who also identify as slashers build our more active fannishness (as opposed to passive/consumptive) on some version of this, after all. Kirk and Spock’s relationship felt incomplete, or Wes and Gunn’s seemed ‘obvious’ in one way or another, or — whatever. Essentially, we all knew ’1’ that there were certain logical conclusions which would never be considered as logical conclusions, because of the fact — yes, fact — that there remained Some Things the various Powers that Be felt their chosen audience(s) simply weren’t ready to accept — assuming they were ready to accept that themselves.
It’s this sort of thing which has gained people like Joss Whedon a place of privilege among many otherwise cantankerous, cynical, and impossible-to-please fancreatures of various persuasions. The words ‘bring your own subtext’ were hardly revolutionary — save for how, given their context (said context including the fact that we were talking about American television aimed, at least in part, at the delicate flowers of American youth), they absolutely were.
I don’t know about you… but Whedon earned a lot of damned credit from me for that one, and has completely failed to make any serious inroads into spending it down.
But, well, this isn’t about slash — not even a little.
It’s about character death, and the flat-out myth that the possibility of character death must remain in order to maintain dramatic tension, suspense, and — this is the kicker — a sense of realism. I could — and probably should — be brief here:
‘Fine, Creator Strawperson. Just, you know, get back to me when you’re working on The Wire.’
But — I kind of need to rant a little more. For those of you with busy schedules, though, that was really the gist right there. -Shoos you off-
[Warning: Post contains spoilers for Rome episodes 1×11 and 1×12.]
Seriously, let’s unpack that a little, shall we?
Any number of the people theoretically reading this were great fans of BtVS. When Buffy dies in ‘The Gift,’ we all already knew that a) the show would be renewed for a sixth season, and that b) the show would not be renamed. One of the things which made me a fan was the fact that the writers never once acted as though we, as fans, somehow didn’t know those things.
It’s not that they didn’t play those storylines for all the drama they were worth, it’s that they allowed the weight of the drama to fall precisely where it belonged: On the shoulders of the characters who, of course, knew no such things. This — this is kind of important here, friends and neighbors:
As both a writer and a fan, I’m going to automatically, shamelessly, and with prejudice favor those works of fiction which either scrupulously keep the weight of emotional whatever on the shoulders of the characters, or which are smart enough to only shift that weight onto the audience with deftness, awareness, and respect.
There is, in fact, an objective difference between the blatant audience manipulation in the arena scene of Rome episode #11: ‘The Spoils’ and the blatant audience manipulation extant in any major comics crossover event. ‘Who will die???’ they ask, and provide us with tantalizingly ambiguous hints and drum up the controversy in an effort — Lord knows they have to do something — to, in turn, drum up sales.
This is distasteful, but not especially criminal. No one’s holding a gun to my head to keep me here, after all, and when it all got to be a bit too blithely, greasily sensationalist… I backed away. First from the solicits and discussion of same, and then from those writers and artists who I felt best typified the problem.
In any event, the difference:
While Rome, as a show, is rather different in terms of how it handles its Red Shirts — we already know that any number of major characters will be horribly killed and we know when — the character in jeopardy in that episode and that scene is Pullo.
He is one of our POV characters, and is thus at least somewhat safe. The show is about the rise and fall of the Roman empire on a general level, but, in the specific? The show is about Pullo and Vorenus and how these two mostly-but-not-really average Roman citizens make their way through the incredibly chaotic times in question. Thus, if Pullo dies, the audience is half-blinded. While I wouldn’t put it past Heller and co. to do just that at some point in the future … yeah.
I probably should’ve known that Pullo wasn’t truly in danger in that scene, even if there was no way I could’ve known that Heller and co. would pull out all the stops to make his rescue into purest emotional porn.
It really is the same with any number of other fannish darlings. What’s the worst that can truly happen to Sheppard? Veronica? Willow? Xena? Bruce freaking Wayne? They are safe from everything but the angst of watching the secondary characters die or be maimed in some horrible fashion, and — we all know it. ’2’
So why am I privileging Rome?
Well, first off, I’m doing it on a very provisionary basis. With Pullo’s survival and Niobe’s distinct lack of same in the very next episode, we’re already set up for a kind of problematic — and all too common to this little black fanduck — future in which the dramatic tension comes not from the deaths of other characters, but from those deaths’ effects on the safe characters.
In and of itself, this doesn’t have to be problematic. For one thing, not every ex-person who was important to the Safe Character will be — or should be — important to us. (Hint for creator-types: If your potential corpse was — just as an example — running around being a vigilante in her own right for twelve years? She’s not going to fit in that box.)
For another thing, if those deaths, however they pile up, cause the characters to grow and change in any of the various ways those safe characters logically could change/grow given what you’ve told me about them? We’re all good. Call it, for the sake of gratuitous analogy, the difference between a large amount of the canon for Duncan MacLeod and the hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful issues in which Bruce Wayne is precisely as fucked-up as he should be, all things considered.’3’I, for one, have always counted Bruce’s insanity as just one of those things which prove how important all of his dead were both to him and to the universe. We’re supposed to feel that way.However: This sort of thing? Is really profoundly not the dramatic tension various comics creators are actively trying to sell me by scoffing — or flat-out mocking — when fans complain about their favorites getting killed.
And here’s where we’re getting into the difference-as-I-see-it. The thing is? It’s actually okay to have safe characters drowning in their pain over losing the unsafe characters — so long as some measure of lip-service is paid to the idea that those deaths would have an effect, and so long as the deaths in question make narrative sense. I would be stunned if all we got in terms of the effects of Niobe’s suicide on Vorenus was that one scene of Vorenus rocking her corpse and weeping as her son looks on.
The people behind Rome might still turn out to have developed an addiction to the bad crack during the hiatus, but… I’m tentatively confident they’ve done no such thing. As opposed to how we’ve all spent the better part of the past two years waiting for Stephanie Brown’s death to be mentioned in more than just the vaguest possible passing anywhere save for the — now defunct — BATGIRL.
In any event
Why, yes, Creator Strawperson Two, these characters all do lead incredibly dangerous lives. I’m right there with you. But you need to realize that it has long since gotten ridiculous that some characters are exempt when others aren’t. You’ve created a world on which characters exist on two different planes, where being brutally tortured works one way over here, and another way over there , and where some characters don’t, actually, lead incredibly dangerous lives at all… despite the fact that, on paper, they’re leading the precise same lives as this month’s red shirt.
And when you start getting into what the characters who do lead those dangerous lives look like…
You start getting to where I call bullshit.
In any event, I feel like I still haven’t fully clarified the points I’ve wanted to make, so, to wrap up:
The problem isn’t — or doesn’t have to be, if you handle things with a modicum of deftness and respect for both the characters and the audience — that some characters are always going to be safe, while other characters never, ever will be. You don’t see me writing The Wire fan-fiction, do you?The problem is that you keep trying to tell me that no one is safe, and that my anger over various character deaths is misplaced for that reason. Which makes you either one of the biggest dumbasses in the world or a lying asshole. Work on that.
The other problem is, well, the question of realism. It’s good that most of you have realized that realism is a relative thing, of course, and don’t let yourself get hung up on moments of ‘that shit just wouldn’t fly in the real world’ so often that neat stuff like heavily-armed teenagers falls by the wayside. I’m here for that stuff, man, and I don’t care who knows it.
But I’m afraid you’re trying to have it both ways, and that shit just doesn’t fly. Don’t tell me something is ‘realistic’ or ‘logical, given the lives characters live’ when the same thing isn’t — and never can be realistic or logical for other characters.
In fact, why shouldn’t you just throw it out? How much death do we actually ‘need’ in fucking comics, anyway? You’ve got eternals, you’ve got icons to play with. If you didn’t get off on that, you wouldn’t hammer home concepts like ‘legacy,’ and not every (surviving) Batkid would eventually turn into a mirror of Batman.
Most of the time, when things like this come up, the people who argue from positions similar to mine say something along the lines of ‘it’s not that we think that things like rape and death shouldn’t ever happen in comics,’ and I’m not, quite, throwing that idea out. I’m just saying
They don’t need to happen every time Something Big Happens. They don’t need to be the touchstones on which you work in some Big! New! Cool! character/universe development — especially since, by your own rules, these Safe Characters see, touch, and smell death all the damned time.
Why not try something really new some Crisis or another?
As Jack points out, the actual central conceit of ‘Identity Crisis’ — that a) the Justice League had been mindwiping villains, and b) that they had mindwiped one of their own in order to keep mindwiping villains — is pretty damned brilliant and new. It turns things on their head. It forces readers to look at characters in new ways, and to look deeper at the universe itself, too. That’s gold .
So… why was it so cluttered with murder and rape, exactly?
Don’t get me wrong — I’m one of those people who are far more okay than not with how the deaths and the rape were handled. But, at the same time…
What the fuck, people?
Jack again: ‘When you’re unveiling your revolutionary new garden technique, chances are? You’re not going to announce it with fireworks.’
And please don’t point out that Sue’s rape kicks off the mindwiping. Are you seriously telling me the threat wouldn’t have been enough? That these people somehow wouldn’t be aware of just how much they and their loved ones could lose if their identities became known? That they’re so ass-stupid that it needs to be spelled out in human female blood on the Watchtower floor…?
I didn’t think you were.
So — yeah. Apparently I’ve become one of Those fans in my old age. There is such a thing as ‘gratuitous.’ In my perfect world, creators would either embrace it with all that they were or set it aside. When characters had ‘realistic’ things happening to them, it would always be meaningful. The consequences would be spelled out for both the unlucky characters and the lucky ones, and no comics fan would ever find him/herself wondering just when ‘Steph’ became a bad word and ‘Orpheus’ a just-plain- missing word. DC’s attempts to have it both ways is both insulting to fans and leaves them open to and deserving of every last one of the accusations of racism and misogyny they have received.
Over and out.

’And fans who didn’t/don’t know this… well, they’re awfully cute, aren’t they? I’m speaking, of course, of that particular sort of fan who speaks of being ‘betrayed’ by a given writer/showrunner/whatever when, as an example, their ’ship of choice — and goodness, is this ever not limited to m/m or f/f relationships — gets iceberged in one way or another.
The people for whom no amount of good writing, intrauniversal logic, or anything else can ever excuse Character A not being wildly in love with Character B at all times, in all ways. Actually, no — sometimes being wildly in love isn’t enough for these people. The characters in question also have to always, always behave in the manner these people feel is ‘acceptable’ for their conceptions of True Love. Not their conceptions of the characters, mind you — their conceptions of True Love .
So yes, cute. And special. ‘ [back]
’Of course, a lot of this is our own fault. Look at the fuss we raised when Blair and Daniel Jackson kicked, you know? And look at the way we privilege the texts where this safety exists, if only partially.
On the other hand, I was actually surprised by how tiny my little list was, the way I kept butting up against things like Farscape and Angel, and how in the Trekverse characters are, in fact, allowed to eventually die of old age. (And yes, Data falls in that category — if only because Brent Spiner is a human being with certain limitations.)
… of course, Jack points out that they could’ve just done something like have Geordi give Data an ‘aging algorithm’ or some such gentle nonsense, but, well, the fact that they didn’t kind of makes the other hand’s case even more strongly.’ [back]

Seriously, what kind of freak is Duncan? How… how is he not completely bugfuck nuts? No, seriously. This is what made me, at best, a casual fan of Highlander. I’d watch the latest flashback death of the latest in the string of horribly murdered True Loves, and watch Duncan fail to deal in some manly, broody way, and then — I just started counting up those deaths.
What are you, Duncan? Seriously ? Are you the chosen one because of your staggering, incomprehensible, and really kind of terrifying inability to form even the kind of emotional scars which let the rest of us, you know, cope? Mind you, it would make the Jesus-parallels make more sense. SUFFER FOR US, DUNKIE. BLEED, DAMN YOU, BLEED.’ [back]
This entry was posted on Friday, October 13th, 2006 at 8:16 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
7 Responses to ‘Realism? I call bullshit’
Hyel Says:
October 26th, 2006 at 10:45 pm
This is a reply pretty much besides the point, but I hadn’t seen those episodes of Rome yet (but I always read spoilers, I’m bad that way), and DOESN’T IT JUST FIGURE. Niobe in a refridgerator, goddamn. Not only does it give Vorenus teh angst, it will release him to go about having wacky adventures with Pullo without having to pine for his wife. Unless he’s staying home to be a single dad? I somehow doubt it. Bye bye, strong female character.
Ah well. Niobe was always at risk anyway – from Vorenus finding out about her affair, for one, and later the Roman mafia (hah). Considering the setting, it’s surprising that one of the things I found particularly offensive in the episodes that I’ve seen was Vorenus’s initial anger at seeing the baby in Niobe’s arms… We’d just seen Mark Antony absentmindedly fucking a shepherdess without even bothering to pay her. With Vorenus away for so long, if some lordling had called on the lovely Niobe late some night, why does he think she’d have had any choice?
What you said about unkillable characters prompt me to mention two shows – both prison settings – that I’ve watched that have done killed the unkillable: HBO’s Oz and British show Bad Girls. The first have given me about three, the second two I-can’t-believe-they-killed-that-character moments. And they weren’t final episodes, either, nor shows where people could conceivably return from the dead. Refreshing! And, in the case of villains (because there’s always that one villain in every soap – and these shows are just realistic soaps with violence – who is so despicable that people will watch the show just to hate on him or her), extremely satisfying.