Comic Book Death and resurrection

*Warning: contains Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker spoilers*

I often struggle with the absurdity of writing. Not absurd writing, that can be great; I’m talking about the absurdity of writing fiction; the act itself. You tell people in words that stuff is happening, or has happened, and you describe what people looked liked and what they said and how they felt. And the reader is supposed to accept this weird arrangement between you and to invest in it. If I think about it for too long the idea of writing down even something as simple as “he said” becomes cripplingly impossible. I understand that storytelling is an ancient tradition, perhaps essential to the experience of being human and living in a society. But it’s also a bit silly.

When you fold in the trappings of genre fiction this problem (perhaps only mine) is exacerbated. A great many fantasy writers have tied themselves in knots creating a world of sorcery then setting rules to prevent this magic rendering all tension non-existent. A character cannot be all-powerful or she can do as she pleases and to heck with the wishes of other characters or the pesky requirement to draw out a compelling plot. Even the greatest writers sometimes let one slip through the cracks. Many highly-invested Lord of the Rings fans have questioned and elaborately theorised about why, if Gandalf had access to a massive magical eagle all along, he didn’t just zoom up to Mount Doom and chuck in the ring on page 1 (OK, this is Tolkien, so maybe page 200). Even the most powerful mages can’t be too powerful or it screws things up for the narrative.

In comic books the nadir (or zenith?) of this quandary is seen in the phenomenon often termed ‘Comic Book Death’. Over the decades practically every Marvel or DC hero has perished only to be resurrected by magic, technology or alternate universe chicanery. Superman died, Batman died, The Flash died, Captain America died, Spider-Man died, Bob the Builder died. They all came back. In a universe so suited to ultra-fandom, the pleasure in these narratives shifts from one of surprise to one of prediction – how will they bring him / her back and when? Like contemporary fans of 80s slasher horror films, experts in who would die and in what order, shouting out plot points at the screen, comic book fans take pleasure in the fact that they know their stuff and are in on the gag.

In Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker a similar potentially problematic device is established (or, more accurately, we are bludgeoned to within an inch of our lives by it): that of Rey’s life-giving mojo with the force. Early on she uses it to Androcles-and-the-lion a giant snake-thing, healing it and revealing, like a videogame puzzle, a light-blinking escape route from its lair. Later this escalates into a tit-for-tat resurrection game between Rey and Kylo Ren, the latter bringing the former back from blank-eyed perishment only to peg out with the effort of it all. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the cinema who, peering through my two sets of lenses (one myopia-correcting and belonging to me, the other 3D interpreting and belonging to the incredible BFI iMax in Waterloo), wondered whether the climax of the nine-film arc might actually be the image of these two characters locked in an eternal embrace of death and resurrection beneath the Sith planet while everyone else goes back for tea and crumpets with the Ewoks. This must have occurred to the writers too because as soon as this thought went through my head Ren started fading out of corporeal existence like his namesake Ben Kenobi, his clothes drifting, all emotional-like, to the floor, rendering himself unresurrectable. Palpatine too returns from his screaming electricky death in Return of the Jedi and seems only to have suffered a few rotten fingers and a bad case of milky eyes. He seems to have timed his comeback purely for the benefit of Disney’s production plans. A huge plus of the film is that it moves so quickly you don’t dwell on all this until after its over and you’re alone in bed thinking about Adam Driver’s sulky little face and Daisy Ridley’s serious little face and wondering what the devil it all means.

Look at his little face!

Note: many of my comments above are snarky, or sarky, or at least seem negative. To clarify, on the whole I enjoyed Rise, with the proviso that it was a bit of a mess and was nothing compared to the magnificent, bold The Last Jedi. The lack of readers of this blog embolden me to make such a claim, safe in the knowledge that those rabid Star Wars fans who broke the internet in their loathing of Rian Johnson’s film will likely never read this: my opinion that The Last Jedi might be my favourite of ALL the Star Wars films. Yes, ALL. Yes, including Empire! Unclench, nerds!

So what do we learn from all this? Writing of any kind is tough. It’s work. Writing fantasy or sci-fi brings freedoms of imagination that in themselves can create tricky issues for plotting and tension. And to return to my original point, writing is a bit weird all round. One of my biggest barriers to writing anything at length has been a sense that nothing I write is valid. I can see the joins in it – the weirdness of “he said” – and that underlying absurdity is all I see. I’ve realised I need to keep in mind the experience of reading. A good story doesn’t let you pause and wonder why you’re interpreting pronouns and verbs; if it works it engages you and you’re drawn in, plot holes be damned. Whenever I’ve hashed out ideas with another person I’ve always like them more because they haven’t arisen solely out of my broken brain. It’s something I need to get past, something this blog and hopefully the group will help conquer.

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