Friday, March 18, 2011

State of the Genre: Are we living in fantasy fiction's Bronze Age?

I don't remember who said what at Patrick Rothfuss's book signing last week, but somehow or another, the author got to talking about tropes, and how he enjoys playing with them. In his speech, Rothfuss said that he didn't want a goblin army tromping through The Kingkiller Chronicle -- not that there's anything wrong with goblin armies, but they've been done to death for goshsakes and it's time to move on. I won't try to repeat the eloquence with which Rothfuss likened his trope-play to playing with his infant son (it was a really great analogy), but suffice to say that it involves expectations: once you know what your audiences expectations are, you have a certain power over them. You can mix it up, throw them a curve ball, and keep them on the edge of their seats and wanting more.

After some reflection, I realized why that sounded familiar: it's the same tactic that comic book writers of the Bronze Age used. Which, naturally, led me to wonder whether or not we are living in the Bronze Age of fantasy fiction.

You see, first of all, comic books had what experts call the Golden Age, which began when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced Superman in Action Comics #1 (DC, 1938). Other heroes came onto the scene soon: Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, etc., all in their flashy capes and tights, saving damsels or whole cities in distress from mobsters, mad scientists, and Nazis.  They respected authority and promoted patriotism, didn't sweat, didn't smoke, and helped little old ladies cross the street -- it's not for nothing that Superman is sometimes called the the "big blue Boy Scout".  Looking back now, we take for granted that a lot of these comic books, with their fairly simplistic art and story lines, are a little silly. But back then, this was explosive and dynamic stuff that captivated a nation and captured the imaginations of budding creative geniuses.

We don't have quite as big a milestone as Action Comics No. 1 to start off the fantasy genre's Golden Age. It began more slowly, with folks like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and others writing for the fiction magazines of the day, C.S. Lewis writing a series of otherworldly Christian allegories for his goddaughter. Arguably, the Golden Age ended when J.R.R. Tolkien published the granddaddy of them all, the epitome of Golden Age fantasy, The Lord of the Rings (Geo. Allen & Unwin, 1954-1955). Here, brave warriors, plucky children, and New Englanders fought eldritch horrors and saved whole kingdoms using swords or their wits (or both), aided by elves, dwarves, or friendly talking animals, saving the world from dragons, goblin armies, or monsters from another realm. As with comic books, these stories were largely considered fringe stuff for overweight basement-dwellers, who devoured them with voracity and dedication, and set about to create their own works.

(Okay, okay. Comic books really did begin before the beginning, and there's all sorts of examples of pre-Golden Age comic books out there. But it wasn't until the Golden Age that the medium really took off running. Likewise, fantasy fiction has its roots in mythology and heroic epics. But it wasn't really until the Golden Age that it became a genre all its own.)

The bottom line is that the Golden Age established the tropes that we've come to know and love in our comic books -- heroes in tights with silly names, fighting The Good Fight -- and in our fantasy fiction -- swords, spells, other races, other worlds.

If the Golden Age established the tropes, then the Silver Age perfected them. In the Silver Age of comics, which ran from approximately the late 1950's to the 1970's, the art and stories were slicker and more stylized. Older characters were revamped to be slightly less silly, and newer heroes -- the Fantastic Four, the X-Men -- were introduced. The morals were a little leaner: the characters fought The Good Fight, but sometimes wondered which side of it they were on. The comics were melodramatic and still sort of silly, but the Silver Age saw some of the great, classic story arcs and events that nerds like me still remember fondly, such as The Dark Phoenix Saga and the death of Gwen Stacy.

In fantasy, the Silver Age was the great age of Everything That Came After Tolkien, where everything old was new again and the tropes that were established earlier, were played till they bled. The stories were increasingly better written and less allegorical, the worlds bigger and more detailed, and the brave warriors and plucky children more closely resembled ourselves and the selves we wanted to be. The dragons they faced were bigger and more cunning, the goblin armies they faced were ... well, they were still goblins. This was the age of Michael Moorcock's Elric and Gene Wolfe's New Sun and John Norman's Gor, and a whole host of other heroes in other worlds. This was the age when a number of authors first got their chops writing original Conan stories, picking up where Robert E. Howard left off. This was the age when Dungeons and Dragons burst onto the scene and made fantasy something we, the fans, could live out rather than just read about, and with its success came a number of tie-in novels of varying quality, of which the Dragonlance universe is probably the most famous and successful. This was the age when James Oliver Rigney, Jr. sat down at his desk, came up with the pen name Robert Jordan, and began to craft his decades-long Wheel of Time saga (Tor, 1990-present).

As great as the Silver Age was, it had one inherent flaw: every story was exactly the same. Perhaps not exactly the same, but frightfully similar. The influence of Tolkien could not be escaped and, like a dark and shadowy demigod, loomed over all the great fantasy of this Second Age.

And out of that sameness ... came a new breed of fantasy ...

The Bronze Age didn't burst onto the scene like Nevermind amidst a sea of hair-glam pop. It's hard to say where it began. Rather, in both comic books and fantasy fiction, it crept up insidiously until it was there and we didn't realize that the new was newer, something was definitely different, and Goddamn did we ever like it. Because it didn't assume the same old tropes that we were used to. Instead, it thought about them, and when it could, turned them on its head.

The twenty years of the Bronze Age (c. 1970-1990) saw its usual cast of characters and the adventures they led turn dark, gritty, and more socially aware. Themes like racism and drug abuse affected heroes like the X-Men and Spider-Man, Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Questioning authority, heretofore verbotten in any mainstream comic, was suddenly the name of the game. There was sex, and there was violence, and both of those things had marked consequences. The flaws of our heroes were more pronounced, and in many ways served to make them more human, grounded, and easier to relate. True brilliance was met with critical and lasting acclaim: Alan Moore's anti-totalitarian classic V for Vendetta (Vertigo, 1982-1989) and his seminal Watchmen (DC, 1986-1987), which is the only comic on Time's list of the 100 greatest novels. At the same time, Frank Miller made a name for himself with The Dark Knight Returns (DC, 1986), the story of an older, angrier Batman and his conflicts with an evolving society and a Superman whose morals never changed while society's did. James O'Barr wrote the cathartic Crow (Caliber, 1989). Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (Vertigo, 1989-1996) defied labels and descriptions. You could say "Hell" and "damn" and it would be all right. The Good Fight was fought in our heroes' hearts.

Which leads me to the Bronze Age of fantasy fiction. It's harder for me to pin down, since this whole editorial is driven by the question over whether or not it exists -- has a new age been ushered in, or are we now at the apex of the Silver Age?

As with the Bronze Age of comics, fantasy fiction's current crop are dark, sexy, violent, and real. Authors such as George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, Jacqueline Carey, Brandon Sanderson, and Patrick Rothfuss captivate us with new and original stories of heroes we care about and worlds we wish we lived in (or are glad we don't). The worlds are the biggest and the most detailed they've ever been, with politics as intricate and convoluted as those of our own world. The characters that populate them are the most familiar we've yet seen: brilliant yet ignorant, selfish yet brave. Heroes are no longer plucky orphans or handsome princes dreaming of renown but suffering everymen thrust into adventures and dangers beyond their ken. Warfare, once depicted as glorious, is now a violent bloodbath initiated by fools and executed by the desperate; swords are the symbols of both power and its abuse. Magic comes with a price -- possibly, the spellcaster's soul. The goblin army mentioned has vanished from the scene, replaced by barbarians, cold and brutal armies, or horrors from beyond the world. This is the age of the epic, where the fate of worlds hinges on the decisions of one poor sod.

Fueled by a widespread social angst of terrorist attacks, increasing government powers, global fiscal meltdowns, and natural disasters, the fantasy genre has fairly exploded within the past ten or fifteen years, until a fantasy novel sits pretty at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The genre reaches out and caresses others: among the most successful mystery and romance titles on the market today are those that feature vampires, werewolves, and ancient magic.

Now, here's the kicker, folks: as with all good things, this, too, must end. The Bronze Age of comic books came to a close in the 1990's, when the industry sort of collapsed inward. This was due as much to poor management as with the creative minds putting out stories, but it still led to the Dark Age. A few glimmers of light stood out, such as Jeff Smith's Bone (self-published/Image, 1991-2004) and Marvel's epic Age of Apocalypse crossover, but the decade was largely overshadowed by crass commercialization. While the medium has largely rebounded, with excellent titles including but not limited to Bill Willingham's Fables (Vertigo, 2002-present) and the various works of Brian K. Vaughan, Brian Michael Bendis, and J. Michael Straczynski, there's also a lot of dribble nursing its hangover from the 90's.

So. Is fantasy fiction doomed to repeat the pattern of comic books? The book and comic industries have historically been structured and marketed very differently (less so, now, since the advent of the graphic novel), so it's possible that the same mistakes that imploded the one won't be made by the other. Still, the precedent is set, and is worrisome. While I've no doubt that the genre will continue to evolve -- perhaps the grand epics we cherish today will be considered unwieldy tomorrow -- whether it will continue to use the tropes we've come to know and love, change them further, or chuck them out entirely in favor of new, remains a question.

For now, I think it's best to enjoy the Bronze Age, if it exists, and make as much of it as we can. If nothing else, it'll be great to point at it twenty or thirty years from now and say to our children, "Those were the days!"

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. Interesting article. I've been doing some e-interviews recently and each of them has asked about the state of play with the genre and how I like to twist my tropes. To which my answer (in less blunt terms) is generally that I've no idea about the grand scale movements within the genre (I need to read more fantasy, clearly) and that I wouldn't recognise a trope if it bit me. I go where my story takes me and if in my ignorance I blunder through some or other convention ... I won't let it bother me. The idea of analysing other writers who have a sword swing across their pages, and hunting out commonalities to then play games with ... well it's alien to me. Sounds clever, but too much like hard work - something to be done in cold blood, not in the thrill of story.