On May 28, 2016, Gamers & GMs Philippines hosted “May Day: Calling All Heroes!” and one of our site moms gave a talk entitled: Grimdark is Overrated: The Importance of (Flowers, Sunshine & Rainbow-sh*tting Unicorns) Optimism in Hero Narratives.
You can read the first part over here.
Welcome back to my flail, everyone! The first part of this article introduced my topic: optimism in hero narratives.
It also introduced the approaches I used in order to come up with my conclusions (together with fancy-schmancy definitions). We left off at a look at Aristotle. And how his fixation with tragedy determined a whole lot more for us as readers and writers than we might be aware of.
I’ll continue to go slide by slide, following the original flow of my talk. If Part I, however, wasn’t already an indicator of this, the article version of “Grimdark is Overrated” has a lot more meat compared to what I covered for G&G.
Why Do We Make Fun of Optimism?
I’d like to think that my selection of Batman for this and the next slide was obvious.
Of all the superheroes in comic books, Batman exemplifies a tragic hero that would make Aristotle proud. Rising from tortured circumstances with the express intent of becoming that which evil fears, Batman’s fatalism – that is, his acceptance of all of the things that make him what he is – is the driving force behind his character.
Greek heroes are heroes not because they’re larger than life, but because they do not balk in the face of destiny.
The possibility of failure does not frighten them. They were led to the path they are on now, and there is nowhere else to go but forward.
Unfortunately, what most of us focus on is the delicious manpain of tragic circumstances. In the particular case of Batman, his human moments as the “father” of the Bat Family are too often anecdotal against the face of his badassery. And what makes him a badass, according to many, is that he’s so ~tragic~.
Batman wouldn’t be Batman, it seems, if he were happy. Conflict makes a hero story interesting. Good conflict is always founded on causing maximum amounts of misery.
Edgelording has become an art.
As illustrated above, we can blame a lot of that on the slant of Western philosophy. The fulfilled life, it seems, is a life riddled with anxiety and fear. The thinking mind is a neurotic mind steeped in pain, for it is only pain that makes us feel alive.
I am aware, of course, that some of the philosophers mentioned above developed their ideas through circumstances that were so terrible that they could only be viewed as absurd.
What is unfortunate, though, is that these conclusions on lived human experience continue to be valued over other perspectives.
Levinas, for example, wrote in response to his mentor Heidegger, developing his idea of the Other in his struggle to understand how an entire people – the Germans – could commit genocide. He also struggled with the fact that Heidegger – beautiful philosophy and all – was a Nazi.
At the end of it, Levinas’ philosophy is grounded on ethics – a respect for others, versus something oriented towards the self. And he wrote from a rather deep place of pain and betrayal, on top of, you know. The murder of millions of innocent Jews.
The crux of the issue, I feel, is that we are trained to give so much weight to bad experiences and tragic circumstances. These philosophers are the ones many of us end up learning about in school. That, in itself, is A Problem because by merit of their very subject positions, they don’t speak for the majority.
Maybe we ought to start asking our teachers why we’re learning philosophy from predominantly white, heterosexual male minds.
Let’s move on to comic books!
I’ve talked a whole lot about the literary bias for tragedy. And I touched upon how philosophy is similarly slanted towards finding life’s meaning in negative experiences. Now I need to turn the lens on comic books.
Comics have defined superheroes inasmuch as superheroes have defined comics.
Hailed by many as one of the greatest comics of all time, The Watchmen has been called the first “adult” comic book. It was also published in the 1980s, which is one of the most interesting decades in cultural history. I’ll focus, though, on why that period was interesting for comic books.
Prior to The Watchmen, the superheroes of the previous “ages” of comics were cookie-cutter figures on garishly colored pages.
From populating four-panel strips in newspapers devoid of any real context, and meant to give the tired and troubled adult mind a break from reality, superheroes moved on to become the crack sniffed by an “immature” audience.
Comic books were for children, not for serious minds. Superheroes were similarly stunted in their characterization. In the midst of political upheavals, economic crises and war, Impossibly Good and Powerful Super Being Saves the Day plot seemed ridiculous.
In comes The Watchmen, saving the day.
Alan Moore deconstructed the Superhero by giving his characters human concerns and human flaws. He also set them against the backdrop of a terrifying alternate reality; where all of the things that his readership knew as the free world were challenged.
As the slide states, The Watchmen was a zeitgeist of its time. Its popularity opened the door for the acceptance of comic books as “serious” literature. And also showed comic book writers that they could turn a more “critical” lens upon their symbols. Superheroes had no place in our reality if they could not be “human” – quotations deliberate.
Comic books may have needed the wake-up call that The Watchmen provided at that time. As with all things, however, dark became the “in thing”. Dark also became synonymous with “serious”. What had caped superheroes kicking ass, taking names, but generally not having any problems beyond constant threats to mankind’s existence became – still is – associated with young (or young at heart) readers. What had a more “realistic” touch – “real” people, “real” problems, “another side to things”, “gravitas” – was serious.
Generally, both major superhero comic book lines excel at presenting superheroes as two things: mirrors by which we could study ourselves; or living, breathing exemplars of what humans were capable of becoming.
Many of their writers are good at establishing dramatic plotlines that do NOT involve killing their darlings. Unfortunately, the literary and philosophical preference for tragedy is still a factor in why comic books are hard sells to a general readership. Hopefully, my drawing attention to this preference will help us re-think about what we consider to be “good stories”.
Now for something a little more personal to me.
Consider this other piece by Alex Ross.
You’ve iconic members of the Justice League backdropped against a bright sky. A source of light – likely the sun – illuminates their profiles as they look towards a single goal. Their expressions are serious, but everything about them – their posture, their eyes – exudes confidence and serenity.
They stand side by side: a team, physically and emotionally. Quirks of each of their personalities can also be seen in the micro-expressions they wear, and how they carry themselves. As a bonus, Diana’s sexuality is not overblown, presenting a more neutral gaze rather than a male one.
Let me take the scholar hat off for a second, and tell you what I love about this image.
It’s an image of power and hope.
I grew up associating these characters with possibilities. Their presence tells me that everything is going to be all right, no matter what. Watching the drama unfold and seeing them win makes me look back at my life and think: “yeah, I can do this”.
See, in the real world…
This is the reality that I and other women live in. This is how it is in the Philippines, my home country. I see posts condemning me for the way I think, the way I dress; the fact that I’m alive on a regular basis. Groups like this continue to place my dignity as a human being in question. Ultra-conservatives rob us of what we need to stay alive.
Let’s shift the lens to the LGBTQ community. The facts presented in this UN report on being gay in the Philippines have not changed much either. LGBTQ youth, in particular, suffer from a lot of discrimination. It took 17 years of debates for our government to even consider an anti-discrimination bill for LGBTQ citizens. A refusal to properly educate Filipino teens – Filipino anyone – about sex has HIV on the rise in my country even while it’s numbers dip everywhere else.
It is not much better in other countries. People like Trump are overturning historic movements like allowing transgendered individuals to serve (which they are now fighting against) – and there’s nastier legislation on the horizon. There are gay purges in Chechnya. Deadly violence continues to persist in other areas of Southeast Asia. Things are not much better in South America.
Don’t even get me started on mental health, and how carelessly produced shows make things worse.
People like us do not need stories to show us terrible things.
Negative experiences are not romantic to us because they are, in ways big and small, our everyday reality. There is nothing edgy, or lofty, or noble to be found in pain and suffering – especially if its pain and suffering that we shouldn’t even have to go through in the first place.
Many of you might think that exploring the darker side of nature – and, in this particular case, superheroes – is cool. We don’t. Your grimdark narratives are your sources of relaxation. Our stories of hope and light are a matter of survival – and the lack of them is damaging.
I don’t think I need to add much more to this one.
It’s been close to three months since I gave this talk at G&G, and my sentiments remain the same. In fact, recent events have only solidified my beliefs.
Wonder Woman was a godsend for me at 32: I think if I had been younger, I’d be this kid. Still, whenever I step out from behind my GM screen. When I leave the cinema from a great movie, close my books, or put down my game controller; the monsters of the real world loom larger than ever.
Many of us seek to build our own heroes for our own stories.
I hope, after reading this article, we’ll think about the audiences we want to reach, and consider what they are going through. If that’s too difficult, simply considering our own realities and the reasons behind we enjoy what we do is enough. You might not need superheroes to be “unreal” paragons of virtue, but others certainly do.
We hope you enjoyed this series on optimism in hero narratives! What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments!