Looking up our own
Despite my first claim to "fame" being a self-published zine in the ’80s called INSIDE JOKE, I admit to having a limited tolerance for deconstruction and meta-winks in storytelling. To me that sort of linking and meta-footnoting belongs in essay-writing and blogging; in fiction, more often than not it becomes a form of cultural cannibalism largely practiced by creators (a) with only a surface knowledge of comics history who believe it’s cooler to point back to a story which readers recall fondly than to come up with original story ideas themselves, or (b) who believe not so much in writing stories as in structuring gags which they’re betting will amuse their audience and editors as much as the setups and punchlines amuse themselves.
I can understand the impetus. The more experienced you are as a writer, the more you need to keep up your own interest in your work. That’s why many writers enjoy experimenting with different storytelling formats, like starting the action in media res or recounting events backwards. They need to keep from getting bored, and they hope that their readers will also appreciate them shaking up expectations a little. And when it works in service to the story, it’s a treat to note all the different kinds of ways a tale can be spun. But the problem is that these kinds of tricks, when overdone, often become more about the writer than about the story.
To me, it gets worse when pop-culture references are used to pad or spice up stories, on the writers’ assumption that everyone who matters will get them and be amused by them (and that, astonishingly, the references will never become dated). I’ll never forget a scene which one of my favorites, Mark Waid, wrote in an issue of Flash where Wally and Linda are talking to a gay couple (I believe it was Piper and his boyfriend) about their situation and Wally quips, seemingly out of the blue, "Not that there’s anything wrong with that!" I thought saying that was so glibly out of character – the character that Waid himself had carefully established – for him to say this that I raised a bit of a protest, and was summarily informed the expression in question was a reference to a then-current Seinfeld episode. At that point I’d stopped watching the show so I had no idea. And being made aware of how out-of-it I was made that scene even worse for me, as I had to grudgingly admit it may well be in character for fictional constructs to know more (and joke) about media reference than for a real-life reader like me.
When I write I occasionally insert pop-cult stuff like Firesign Theatre lines for my own amusement. But I follow two hard and fast rules: (a) I never assume anyone will "get it" (easy with Firesign because I’m well aware of how specialized a taste their comedy is); and (b) I never, ever let the reference interfere with the story. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who uses five pages of comic story just to set up a pop-cult reference pun, rather than to advance the plot or characterization, isn’t doing his or her job. There’s a place for in-jokes — as background effects, never the main attraction. A reader should never be made to feel alienated because he or she isn’t up on the latest bit of pop-cult.
Since Easter is coming up, I should acknowledge that artists engage in this as well, in the form of visual "Easter eggs" — in-jokes lurking in the background for anyone sharp enough to spot, for instance, aliens from well-known science fiction programs skirting way too close to trademark infringement for corporate comfort. And again, it can be fun to play Where’s Waldo’s Martian Uncle? until you realize that the time you’ve spent seeking the culprit in question has completely thrown you out of the story, about as easily as an awkward pun or hip-but-soon-dated reference can derail you. It’s not just clumsily tapping at the fourth wall, it’s shattering it irrevocably.
When done well, in-jokes sometimes enhance a story. Last season’s Dr. Who episode "School Reunion" is a good case in point. One of the Doctor’s old companions returns, older and upset that he never again visited after leaving her several regenerations ago, and more so that he never even mentioned her to his current companion. I found it a fascinating exploration of the "Mary Sue done right" phenomenon that has defined so much of the program, which encourages the viewer putting himself or herself (mostly herself) into the persona of the companion brave and resourceful enough to act as the Doctor’s equal and accompany him on adventures beyond imagination.
Of course, you don’t want to think too hard about it, we are dealing with time travel here which means theoretically a Doctor reminded of a past companion — or anyone — whom he misses could travel back in time to visit them in their past or his future or… damn, time travel gives me a headache, which is probably why it’s best to take stuff like this on a visceral level rather than logicking it out. And if you do that, it hits all the right emotional chords bang-on, and rewards both the viewers who’ve come to expect good plotlines dealing with questions only science fiction can ask and answer and those longtime Who-ers in on the joke of who this attractive 50-something actress is and what significance her metal dog has. The episode thus manages not to alienate the former in giving the latter a little extra something at which to smile and reminisce. And that’s tough to do, and takes finesse and subtlety, those lovely intangibles that far more writers believe they have than actually do.
Perhaps I’m just showing my age. Maybe it’s old-fashioned to believe that the writer is the conduit through which characters and situations find expression, not the other way around. And it might sound a little like I’m contradicting last week’s column, wherein I bemoaned the lack of respect storytellers get from readers who are so caught up in the stories they allot fictional characters more independent existence than the real-life people who created them.
But that column was about our part of the bargain as readers — to acknowledge and appreciate the makers of magic, the weavers of wonder. This one’s about the part of the bargain that ought to be upheld by the storytellers themselves — to stick to the telling of the tale first and foremost, to indulge themselves (if at all) only as an amusing afterthought, and to remember that the story is Not About Them at all, but about (and for) all of us.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix’s news editor, and welcomes feedback on this and all her columns in the comments sections of her blog.