John Ostrander: WWGJD?
Warning: spoilers below.
“Look at the flowers.”
A seemingly innocuous line that should set shivers through regular fans of the TV series, The Walking Dead. Context for those who haven’t seen it – an 11 year old girl named Lizzie has killed her younger sister, Mika, trying to prove that the Walking Dead aren’t that bad. She thought her sister would come back to life and just want to play with her – not eat her. Her surrogate mother, Carol, then shoots her after first telling her to “Look at the flowers” so she won’t see it coming.
Pretty cold. Pretty disturbing. Puts the fans of the series right through the wringer.
Shall we talk about Game of Thrones? The most sympathetic character, Eddard Stark, is killed off early but both the books and the TV show continue to slaughter or defile (or both) individuals or groups to the appalled but apparent delight of the fans. It’s tough being a fan these days; give your heart to a character in a show or story and it’s likely to get trampled on. And the fans keep coming back for more.
I’m something of a pioneer in this. Early in the run of GrimJack, John Gaunt encounters a former fellow soldier in the Demon Wars named Socket. Now they wound up on opposite sides of an issue; however, Socket had just spared Gaunt’s life, warning his former friend that next time they met he would kill him. Gaunt said, “I believe you” and, when Socket turned his back, GrimJack shot him.
We lost readers at that point; I know because some of them told me. One was a friend. His objection was that it meant that Gaunt “wasn’t a hero”. My response: I never said he was. Gaunt was, and is, a hard ass, working in an amoral world full of nasty beings.
By the way, the angriest letters I ever got on the series was not over this but when GrimJack kicked his friendly, much loved gator-lizard named Bob. He had also knee-capped a character in the same story but that guy was an asshole. But kick Bob? The family dog? Never mind that there were reasons, both in the narrative and with the character – there were fans who were willing to kick me.
To be honest, that was sort of the reaction I was looking for. The fans don’t get outraged unless they’re involved. If they don’t care, what you do doesn’t matter. As a writer, you want to involve your reader.
However, these days the bar has been raised by books/series such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. I’m contemplating doing another GrimJack story but I have to consider the context of the times, these times, and the minds of the readers.
What Would GrimJack do? What Will GrimJack Do?
There’s always been a certain cutting edge aspect to the series. People who have read it for the first time or are re-reading it now say that it doesn’t seem dated which is nice to hear. There has always been violence in the series but it was what I called “responsible violence” – we tried not to glorify it but we didn’t shrink from its depiction, either. As it was necessary to the story, we used it. I defined GrimJack at the time as the story of a moral man (at least his own morality) in an amoral world. I felt, and feel, that was useful to explore.
I have an active, and sometimes nasty, imagination. I think I’ll have to trust to that and not decide beforehand the degree of nasty to which we’ll rise. Or sink. Trust the basic rule I have – do whatever is necessary for the story and not worry about it. Which, I bet, is what the storytellers for both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are doing.
I just need to figure out a new way to torture the faithful fans – and make them love me for it.