Why the Corruption of Hero Narratives Matters
Many people have the opinion that comics are throw-away, disposable media that isn't really worth the paper it's printed on, or that hero narrative films aren't worth the digital storage space it takes to store one on.
To those people, perhaps this article will convince you otherwise. However, if you are dead set on hating comics and hero narratives in general, this article might not be for you.
A Brief History of Hero Narratives
Hero narratives span as far back as the earliest cave drawings; with the first depiction of an ancient human overpowering a beast of one sort or another, the concept of the hero narrative was forged. Later there came myths of all sorts which were based on this struggle between man and nature, and indeed that is the very core of narratives themselves if they are pure, the fight between man and nature.
Eventually we see the narratives change, and nature instead of taking the form of a bear or a wolf in depictions, it takes the form of angry gods warring with one another who themselves were an ancient attempt to understand exactly what was going on in the universe around them, an attempt by ancient man, of making sense of nature.
Eventually we see within The Epic of Gilgamesh, the proto-Biblical narrative, complete with an Ark story, all set some one-thousand six-hundred years before the formalisation of the Christian version. This tale is the biggest example of god, gods or the character of God actually directly interacting with humans, wiping out a significant portion of mankind for the purpose of resetting the clock, or in some narratives, simply to destroy humanity.
This tale represents not the first true sense of a gargantuan battle within Christianity and as such within the fabric of Western culture, but the first truly unwinnable scenario; most narratives up until the point of the original flood myths were extremely positive towards mankind's odds at survival, or that mankind was going to come out on top, in this scenario, no one wins.
You will have lost a lot of people for the sake of an act of faith, an act of faith that you truly must surrender to and have no control over. You are but a piece in a giant machine. You win and survive; you have the responsibility of repopulating the earth and carrying on board your boat the animals of which the creator has created for you. You lose, you're drowned and again, you have no promise of survival.
That, narratively whether you believe in biblical literalism or not, is a brutal change from mankind being the god-like beings we saw ourselves as, and showed a reality that, for many, may well have been brutal; loss is a part of life, and confronting that, not just the loss of a person but the loss of your control, is painful. It will kill you if you don't get a grip on it, and narratives becoming suddenly so much more real represents a kind of waking up of mankind.
It is perfectly fine to have grand power fantasies as a part of the human narrative, indeed in real life there are people who display god-like acts of power and strength, ability or courage, people who do incredible things for not reward, but because they are good at it and feel it is the right thing to do. Those people exist all around us, from members of the military and police that go above and beyond, to doctors and nurses who save lives daily without the promise of a thank you.
These people, if viewed properly, are powerful and extraordinary people who work selflessly to do what is right, or at least strive to do what is right. Do they always get it right? No, we are all humans, and humans are fallible, corruptible, often hateful and spiteful. But in equal parts kind and loving. In other words, humans aren't machines to narratives, humans are the narrative, in all of its messed up and beautiful glory.
But every now and then we do need a bit of alleviation from the dredge of life, especially in the modern lives we have built ourselves, and as such the expression of narratives that are either a reversion to the original power-play we invented tens of thousands of years ago, through stories of conquering great evil and saving civilisation, or through humbling tales that are like those of the Ark mythos, the fundamental structure of these stories is vitally important to our historical context and our culture.
If we fail to recognise this fact, we will inevitably lose all culture. Some state that hero narratives are a sign we have 'No culture' but it isn't true. It is an expression of culture to show reverence, respect, and honour the historical tales that inspired such narratives, whether they humble us or inspire us.
The fundamental importance of these tales remains, that we cannot always win, and that we should be proud in the face of both loss and victory, that we are ultimately far smaller and less in-control than we could think, but that we are as gods over the planet itself, controllers of destiny and in truth, we are the universe made animated.
We are also consumers of narratives, and we often become tied in with one or another, be that through fandom, enjoyment, or religious devotion to the ideal of a set of them. We are, in essence beings of narrative, we tell each other tales and react negatively when those stories bring about an empathetic or emotional response, in essence we live and breathe narratives, be they fictional, mythological or factual.
New or "Alternative" Narrative Structures
New narratives have emerged since then, deviating massively on the structure which was born of perhaps one hundred thousand years of cultural evolution and cultural osmosis. These can be divided into three main camps: Subversion, Post-Modern and Post-Structural.
Each is, in my view, harmful but two are more harmful than the rest. Subversion is a narrative method of leading an audience or consumer down a path that enables them to reach an "alternative" conclusion, usually that of relation to the will of the narrative spinner. Example: A fair maiden is stuck in a castle, and instead of being freed by a prince, the princess frees herself and the prince gets eaten by the dragon.
This can be done to comedic effect, and it serves as a criticism of the often "traditionalist" structures of narrative. And perhaps some criticism is valid towards such structures, after all, they cease to exist lest they be challenged, bolstered, refined, etc. That is why such structures exist in the first place, to be tested and proven to be true in reality not just in factuality or emotionally.
However, it can also be done as a form of attack on said structures, and this is when it is a problem. When it critiques, we can see how one side can win over another, and assess who is right and who is wrong, when they outright attack narrative structures, they often leave a limp excuse of a narrative in its place. This is often the case when this is used within politically charged comic books, movies, etc. Where the political message is hidden surface-level.
Using a Social-Justice narrative framework: The princess kills the dragon on her own, tells the knight to fuck off and does a girl-power symbol. This is blatant, and make no mistake, common as anything within modern media, with subversion being used as a justification for anything that genuinely leaves a horrible taste in the audience's mouth. The subconscious part of the audience's brain that looks for standard narrative structure within reality and within media looks at it and is instinctually turned off by it.
Sometimes subversion can work, but in my experience as an enjoyer of movies, comics, etc. It works only in the short term. You can't offer someone a cake and give them a carrot. If you lead them down a long, winding path and offer them minimal to no payoff close to that promised initially, you are going to get a very justifiably pissed off audience.
Next we move to Post-Modern narrative structure. In the classical political view, Postmodernism is a critique of the modernist, or modern structure of art. Make no mistake, even outside of movies, books, scripture, etc. Narratives are an artform. The criticism of art and narratives come hand-in-hand, with subversion of expectation being common.
It was out of Postmodernism that comics and thus many narrative hero films were born. So, a healthy dose of direct, apolitical Postmodernism with some subversion mixed in, and what do we get? Spider Man, Deadpool, or more classically we get Monty Python, favoured for their enjoyably light-hearted view on the topics at hand, some of which are deeply dark.
It is a healthy mixture of criticism with medium awareness, the awareness that it is a narrative or of the nature of the narrative structure itself that we see created art that is indeed critical of traditional narratives but not in any destructive way; they allow the traditional to exist, and embrace elements of it while laughing at the silly nature of it at times, because life is about laughter, even in the face of possibly grim and horrific events.
When turned political, Postmodernism becomes a deeply critical movement or series of criticisms that seek to literally tear down notions of traditionalist structures. Postmodernism these days is the tool of intersectional feminists, who view structures of narrative as falsifiable and easily changeable while remaining completely ignorant of the history of and essentiality of narrative structures within human life.
Returning a little to history, Andy Warhol, a Postmodernist anti-artist famously created the print out of Campbell soup and sold it as mass-produced art in order to demonstrate that art had no true value or meaning, instead proving that the artist, or in this case, the narrative weaver, does not get to decide the final worth of the narrative/piece of work, but the audience. You can bolster your claims as much as you like but it doesn’t matter, if they are narratively unsound, they will likely be rejected, or in Warhol’s case, adopted despite your desire to prove a point.
So far, we have those who wish to change narrative structure, and those who wish to destroy it and leave nothing behind, what of the last? What of the post-structural group? Well they are much simpler; they outright refuse to tell stories that make any logical sense. Whereas traditional narratives point us in some kind of moralistic direction, or critique one, demonstrate the fragility of human life, etc. Post- structural stories opt to tell emotional tales that offer no coherency, rush to the conclusion and offer no sense of satisfying ending.
They are not critical, for they are not sensical and critical alternative narrative structures must indeed be sensical or anti-logically coherent, in other words, they must be aware they are opposed to a thing in order to be against that thing. No, instead this is outright emotion at its ugliest, where the narrative teller, spinner, writer, etc. tries to manipulate you every step of the way into feeling just the right feelings, and push you as far away from the fact you have just consumed something utterly devoid of meaning.
Star Trek Discovery comes to mind, with its overly emotional scenes and no sense of logical narrative, as if the narrative was an afterthought. Doctor Who in recent years has become post-structural, where the score and the feeling of the show makes up the bulk of what they want you to react to, feel, etc. Post-structural alternative narratives are truly toxic in their own way, by attempting to supplant actual narrative storytelling for emotional ques, turning the audience into endocrine-system driven apes once more.
Notice how almost all feminist television is exactly this, a mix of post-structural, Post-Modern and subversion-driven narratives. I see no other side attacking the human narrative that we have borne and lived and enjoyed for hundreds of thousands of years quicker and more ruthlessly than the Social-Justice types. They do not respect history, for they have never and will never make it. They will be forgotten, if not then remembered for the wrong reasons.
We must protect the narratives we have borne and evolved and cultured, whether that be through the creation of our own takes on these narratives, or the reversion of/revivification of traditional narratives. We cannot allow our history and culture to die. The hero narrative is the narrative of all of us, working, living, dying for something, even if that thing is ourselves. Don't let them disrespect your narrative by destroying even the notion of narrative structure.
Thank you very much for listening.