Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Six of one: Intertextuality

So, I was thinking about how what we know of other texts (in the widest sense of the word) can affect our apprehension of another work. A conclusion in this vein about Watchmen is what drove my essay in Minutes to Midnight; maybe it's just some sort of grad school PTSD that keeps it coming to mind.

Now mind you, I am not talking about having to have experienced previous episodes of a continued or serial narrative in order to understand the plot; that's just common sensical. Nor am I talking about having to know the subject of a parody or satire in order to understand the point being made - how without knowing anything about Justin Bieber, any parody you see is just a weird boy singer.

I am talking about how, in a subtle or nuanced way, the narrative presumes of its audience a certain body of knowledge or - and perhaps this is most important - a pre-existing relationship to that information in order to be successful. Beyond that, this intertextuality is not merely content-based, but is also positioned in a meta-context, combining the audience awareness of the work as a text in and of itself and in relationship to other texts. The question that always comes to my mind is whether the intertextuality is critical to understanding the work at hand or just adds another layer to the appreciation of the piece.

Anyway, here are six circumstances that came to mind:

Adventures in Babysitting: In this overlooked gem of an eighties movie, Elisabeth Shue herds her adolescent charges through a screwball series of escapades and exploits in the course of one Chicago night. One of the kids in her care is a young girl who idolizes Thor - specifically, the Marvel comics version of Thor, not just the traditional Norse god. As well as being a sort of running joke through the movie, her devotion to Thor becomes a crucial plot point late in the movie when the group encounters someone with a strong physical resemblance to the superhero. Now, when I saw this, the different resonances that resulted from choosing the Thor character as the girls' idol were clear to me, only because I have sufficient knowledge of and familiarity with that character, his history, and his cachet. Viewers without that knowledge or familiarity would not have the same responses. Really, though, I'm not sure this intertextuality approaches the critical stage; I think that viewers unfamiliar with Marvel-Thor would just hand-wave most of the references away, and that the film-makers could even have replaced Thor with a generic superhero without too much loss of signal.

A Murder Mystery Whose Name I Can't Remember: You'll have to bear with me on this one; my copy of the book was lost in the Great Paperback Purge of 1988 and my google-fu was weak, so I am working from memory.

I recall reading a mystery novel in which the protagonist was a computer systems expert called to do some work in a planned community. The development, a brainchild of an eccentric genius who lived on the top of the hill, is almost fully automated - it is protected by a computer security system, the houses are prefabricated and networked, the streets have heating elements to melt ice, and so on. The genius is obsessed with efficiency and effective design and renowned for cutting edge innovation in engineering, had developed a modular construction system, and drives around in a three-wheeled car. He turned out to be the bad guy.

Yes, the villain is Buckminster Fuller, even though he was named something else and there was a substitute word for "dymaxion."

Even in my callow youth I can remember thinking that that characterization was all that distinguished this book from the rest of the hackneyed detective stories that made up much of my reading at the time. Was the intertextuality critical? Probably not - the trope of the mad scientist is so common that most readers probably didn't notice. But it does elevate the story; at least, it's what's kept it in my memory for 30 years or so.

Samurai: Heaven and Earth: In this rollicking graphic novel (which I reviewed in detail back in the day), a samurai adventures his way from medieval Japan to medieval France and there encounters four swordsmen, brothers-at-arms, members of the king's guards, who get involved with court intrigues and dashing swordplay. Yes, they are clearly the Three Musketeers and D'Artagnan. Samurai versus the Three Musketeers! Of course - who could resist the high concept? The creators certainly want us to know what was happening - it adds so much geek prestige to the tale, a cachet that the creators and intended audience would both value. Is a prior reading of The Three Musketeers or even passing knowledge of the characters critical? Maybe not. But samurai versus generic French soldiers is definitely a weaker story, without either geek cred or some universal trope to stand on.

Death of a Doxy: When I was in high school, I devoured Bantam paperback versions of the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout as fast as I did their Doc Savage books. Wolfe's genius and Archie Goodwin's cleverness were captivating, and over the years they gathered a wonderful supporting cast in the household (Fritz and Theodore) on the police (Inspector Cramer, Sgt. Stebbins, and Lt. Rowcliff), and among their associates and aides (Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather, Lon Cohen and Lily Rowan). I liked the Wolfe stories for the detailed looks into different worlds and fields, for their wisecracking dialogue, and for the mysteries as well, although like any such series it might have suffered a little from formula. And like most series of this kind, I started with some book right in the middle of its over 60-year history and filled in as I came across them, and it didn't really mater much which order I read them in. Except for one.

Well over 30 years into the series, Stout threw a curve ball. In Death of a Doxy, the otherwise routine murder mystery turns out to have as its culprit one of the supporting characters. It is a shocker. And only if the reader has read a sufficient number of the stories and developed a sense of Wolfe's world and some expectations about does the emotional weight hit home. If, by chance, this were the first Wolfe mystery someone were to read, none of that impact would be there. In this case, the intertextuality is critical.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Episode 57): Avatar was a 61-episode series that chronicled the adventures of a group of young people out to save the world - a different world than ours. This episode involves the protagonists, undercover in hostile territory, watching a play based on their exploits; the play recaps the major events of the series from the perspective of an outside observer and not necessarily a sympathetic one. The viewer doesn't have to have seen the rest of the series to understand the play; in fact, it functions much like a traditional clip show, recounting plot points and critical moments and bringing the audience up to speed. What is lost on the new or casual viewer, however, is all of the meta-contextual content that the in-story performance allows the creators to play with.

The production that the characters see both portrays and comments on not just the foregoing story but also the behind-the-scenes story of the show's production and its fan community. Audience reactions evoke fan response to unpopular previous episodes; costume designs for the "actors" play on variant or unused designs for the real characters; ambiguous plot threads are foregrounded; throwaway bits that had garnered followings are highlighted. Perhaps this episode was in the nature of a love letter from the creators to their fanbase, coming as late as it did in the series; in any case, a degree of intertextuality is necessary to appreciate it on all the levels it was written.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?: Few would argue with me if I asserted that this was one of the finest Superman stories written, if not the best ever. Alan Moore's script and Curt Swan's art about the last days of the quintessential comic book hero deliver powerful images and events that I am not ashamed to say bring tears to my eyes even on multiple re-readings; I doubt I am alone in that response.

But I wonder how many people would argue with me if I said that the story, as good as it is, would not possibly have the same impact on a casual fan as it does on someone who has read hundreds of Superman comics over years and years. In this case, both a body of knowledge about Superman - his supporting cast, his enemies, his powers, his milieu - as well as a pre-existing relationship to that information, not just objective understanding, are absolutely necessary for this story to work. I might be back to the same argument I made about Watchmen, but if this were the first Superman story you ever read, it would not have anywhere near the emotional impact is does on long-time fans.

In some ways this seems like I am stating the obvious - it's a coda, so of course it requires knowledge of the foregoing episodes. "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" wouldn't make sense to anyone who hasn't seen M*A*S*H; what of it? Isn't this just that common sensical bit about having to have experienced previous episodes of a continued or serial narrative in order to understand the plot? Well, yes, fair enough, on one level. But on another level, this story does two things that increase the critical nature of the intertextuality.

The first is that the reader does not just have to have an understanding of the content to get the plot; she needs to know the role and weight of all the characters and story elements to really understand the structure of the narrative. It's not just a familiarity with personality traits, or powers, or even relationships between the characters; it's a sense of where each character fits in the overall Superman mythology, and what aspect of that mythology they represent, that really lets the reader connect to the unfolding story.

And that's the second thing the story does: it boldly seeks close the myth, to put an ending to the never-ending battle, and not just in-story. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? was published right before Superman's first-ever complete re-boot. This story was not only a coda to an almost fifty-year adventure story, it was the end of a real-world era as well. Only those with an abiding connection not just to the character himself, but also to his place as a figure in the broad culture, would feel all the resonance of this narrative; it reached back to those hundreds of other stories not just for prior plot points but also for their place as shared texts in a community whose time had come to an end and whose place was being taken. It is for Superman Comics as well as Superman that the story makes us weep.

If the intertextuality exists.

And if I'm not full of beans.

1 comment:

  1. What kind of cretin ever overlooked Adventures in Babysitting?