More FFIV lore analysis

I have, at last, vindicated the frustration of twenty-one year old Ailix and beat FFIV. There was a bit of the typical Final Fantasy difficulty spike before the final boss but nothing too spooky compared to VI, VII, VIII or XIII. As has been typical of this playthrough, all of the real grindy grind marathons have been entirely because I decided I wanted to. When I first played through FFVII I got on this crazy, single-minded kick of wanting every character’s ultima(te) weapon. FFIV was pretty quick and painless in that regard. The one that really seemed to require effort was Edge’s Masamune and Murasame, since one of them is pretty deep in the final dungeon and protected by some fairly tough monsters. Excalibur, meanwhile, was a fetch quest that’s kind of a walk in the park if you’ve waited until the very end of the game to do it. I may be inclined to be blasé, though, since I had already completed the Feymarch dungeon and collected the rat tail without knowing what it was for beforehand. As frustrating as that particular dungeon was at times, I had a lot of fun with it.

If you’re reading this for helpful notes it may behoove me to mention that you might want to have both Porom and Rosa in your party for the final battle with Zeromis. With Rosa absolutely maxed out, of course, with Holy in her repertoire. You’ll also want to buy as much elixirs and dry ethers from the Hummingway cave as you can (the Hummingway cave had a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe. Lots of colorfully dressed short creatures making discordant, electrical-sounding noises…).

Basically, if you Holy spam the crap out of Zeromis with another reasonably maxed out white mage on healing detail with everyone else doing decent damage (having Rydia summon Bahamut repeatedly sure won’t hurt, if you’ve managed to navigate the Cave of the Father) while being absolutely shameless with keeping everyone doused with elixirs, you should do okay. I didn’t feel too much like a lame-ass for using elixirs like that, since Zeromis will screen nuke you repeatedly and if you get stuck in a rut of trying to revive multiple party members with phoenix downs on one turn and then healing them another…well, that gets you in a downward spiral that’s real hard to climb out of. I mean…if you have the Asura summon, that could be occasionally helpful, but what she does once summoned is just too random to be reliable.

BTW I deduced the thing about having two white mages in retrospect: I just went in with my normal arrangement (Rosa, Edge, Cecil, Rydia and Kain) and almost didn’t make it. Basically, Rosa was on both Holy and healing duty. Which turned out not to be feasible. And I barely had enough elixirs. I was one away from being out, with only Rydia and Kain still alive, when Kain came down from a Jump and wasted the bastard. Rydia was pretty low on MP also; I’d more or less resigned myself to dying while trying to get her to Osmose her way back up to the point of being able to summon when Kain miraculously won the fight. A satisfying final boss, really. When judged solely as a boss fight, anyway.

This game has many of the same narrative strengths and weaknesses of Final Fantasy XIII. Both stories do a great job of discussing themes while also being lazy with plot construction. When a story does a good job of discussing ideas while failing to get you to care about its characters it creates a funny feeling of watching something archetypal. Which could turn out to be true, but even then, those archetypal tropes and comments don’t create depth in and of themselves.

The concept of Zemis/Zeromis ties into both the thematic strength and the narrative weakness. With fantasy stories with fictional worlds that could, potentially, be constructed in a total vacuum with no reliance on the real world, the consistency and integrity of the world building is more open ended and therefore more delicate. With no correlating outside material (other than other sources taking place in the same fictional universe) you’re kind of trusting the storyteller 100%. You are anyway in a lot of cases, but the totality of the storyteller’s job get’s starker and more delicate the more unrestricted they are.

The really big narrative weakness in Final Fantasy IV is something that can easily happen in fantasy stories with an alien-invasion plot. World A is the world we spend most of our time in and it’s the one we get the most immersed in (Earth or Gaia or whatever. The Blue Planet). Since the unfolding of a plot has to happen through gradual revelations, there are necessarily parts that look like blank spots until they are revealed or explained, and the mystery of the blank spaces is usually something that keeps you interested until the end.

Anyway, there were obscured plot details that were resolved with the appearance of World B: The Red Planet, or the moon. In a fantasy setting, bringing in a separate world that informs things about another has the potential of subverting one set of rules with a completely new set of rules. Final Fantasy IX sidestepped this by having the Terrans be almost completely off-camera- we only see their biomechanical creations and future host bodies. Same goes for Jenova and the Cetra in VII- the original worlds of both groups are totally off-camera with only the most relevant details being visible.

In Final Fantasy IV, we get to set foot on the other world. I mean, we don’t get full immersion- the aliens are still in cold storage waiting for their custodians to find and prepare their new home. We have the Crystal Palace, the Cave of the Father, Hummingway village and the Lunar ruins- that last one I haven’t explored yet, though.

With both IV and IX, you could argue that the World B changes the rules up to that point. In IX, though, less things are stated openly. Some people have a variety of theories about whether or not Necron was present beforehand, what precisely is happening in Memoria, why Memoria is there, etc. I have my own interpretations of all that which I might get into in a later post, and I think the game offers more than a Rorschach ink blot to go off of. What I mean is that you can credibly infer what is going on from the implications. But because so much is implied in IX, it’s possible to finish that game with a personal interpretation that keeps everything in the same world with the same set of rules. I don’t think that’s sound way to “read” FFIX, but because so much is not said openly, the player has a lot of latitude to make their own interpretations. FFIV has less latitude, though.

For one, Zemis/Zeromis is tied directly to both the thematic threads and his utterances are so reminiscent of certain plot points that it’s hard not to think that he’s talking literally about how the fictional world works. And he does not say much. He only tells Golbez that his commitment to a path of darkness is irrevocable and that “the crystal cannot cleanse your sins”. This isn’t just a thematic nod, since the story on the mythgraven sword describes a hero who goes from “dark” to “light”. I mean, we see moral reversals and forgiveness all the time in this game- Cecil razed Rydia’s village at the very beginning, after all. But the mythgraven blade tells us that the journey through sin and absolution is literally a part of the world building mechanics. And Zemis’s transformation into Zeromis is only explained as his hatred “growing stronger” after his death. Which supports the possibility that moral and spiritual states of being have material expressions in the world of Final Fantasy IV.

Before moving on, there is a phrase describing a trope that covers events like this: the power of love. Trinity brings Neo back to life with her love in the first Matrix film. Steve Martin changes the polarity of the earth to stop a plane from taking off to keep a girl he likes nearby in The Jerk. That’s basically how the “power of love” trope works.

While what happens with Zeromis is credited to hatred, it still has the basic mechanics of the “power of love” trope. Something happens for no other reason than a powerful emotional cry going out to the universe. You could reasonably call it the “power of prayer” also. Harry Potter takes advantage of the power of love trope, but also manages to incorporate it into its world building, making it less of a naked, self-justifying trope. I’m not sure if Final Fantasy IV makes that transition successfully or not. It’s clearly supposed to.

The reason I’m droning on about this trope and it’s common usage, though, is because it’s widely disliked for a reason close to all this: the power of love trope has a tendency to subvert the constancy of the world building or “rules” of a story. It’s a commonly used deus ex machina. This is also the risk of bringing in the rules of a second fictional world when the player/reader/viewer/whatever has spent so much time getting used to the rules of a first one.

This destabilizing risk at play with both the “power of love” trope and the appearance of a second set of fictional rules are tied together in that the aliens in FFIV are something of a founder race of the first planet. The Tower of Babil has been there for the entire history of the Kingdom of Eblan. It seems like that, anyway, no one there seems to remember a time when it wasn’t there. The Lunarians also know a ton of specifics about how the crystals work and the Earthlings seem like they just worship them as forces of nature that have always been there. The crystals are the McGuffin tying this plot together and it seriously looks like the Lunarians have all the answers regarding them. The Lunarians have also been technologically advanced for much longer than the Earthlings and will even sow bits of knowledge Prometheus-style (Cecil’s dad and the airship technology…). So it looks like the crystals may actually be a creation of the Lunarians- not divine elemental sources after all, but technology that controls the elements. An apparently controversial technology- the mythgraven blade says one thing and Zeromis says another -but still technology in all likelihood.

Because the Lunarians are the founder race and this is a story about ancient aliens, we have to take their assessments of the relevant McGuffins as definitive. You can’t explain any of the ending events of FFIV as part of the prior set of rules for the first planet, since the inhabitants of the second planet created the whole situation. The second planet has all the answers, so the paradigm shift is unavoidable. And the central plot dynamic has to do with material expressions of spiritual states of being, as spoken by an authoritative second planet source, so the “power of love” trope is equally unavoidable.

Paradigm-shifting plot-twists can be pulled off in the late stages of the story but not if the player or reader has to accept too many radical breaks in consistency too quickly. If a plot-twist effects earlier plot mechanics, it has to somehow be addressed, or the reader or gamer feels like they’re trying to swallow something either sight-unseen or with incomplete information. Witness the timeline issues that are never brought up again (unless it happens in Interlude or After Years, in which case I will happily eat my words. Even if it does happen in those, though, the original game was presented as a standalone story for years sooo….those last two games must be taken as after-the-fact retcons).

As I explained in my last post, this is brought up by the appearance of airships and the lifespans of Cecil and Golbez. The same Lunarian introduced the airship technology and fathered both of those characters. This Lunarian is also the brother of Fusoya, our first friendly denizen of the moon, who is ancient- presumably thousands of years old. Not very many Lunarians are awake, so Fusoya and his brother are probably ancient caretakers of the planet.
Probably. The age of each brother is not specified but the rest of the story only leaves room for so many possibilities. If the two brothers are caretakers for the rest of the sleeping planet and one of them is canonically stated to be the caretaker since the era when the Tower of Babil was constructed…what about the second brother? On one hand, airship technology was only introduced in the recent past and there’s no reason to think that Cecil is any older than the other adult-ish(?) characters. On the other hand…we are told nothing about the background of Golbez, other than he has the same father as Cecil. Then there’s Mount Ordeals and the legend of the Paladin inscribed on the mythgraven blade, which the village of Mysidia has known about for time immemorial. When Cecil transforms into a Paladin and draws the mythgraven blade, he hears the voice of his father. Did Lunarian Number Two plant the mythgraven blade thousands of years ago? Apparently. So are both Lunarian brothers thousands of years old? What exactly caused Lunarian Number Two to go rogue and start doing his own thing on the Blue Planet in the last few decades?

The parentage of Cecil and all of these complications are introduced very quickly near the end of the game and are never addressed in the first game in the trilogy. The consequences that the plot-twist has for the plot so far are never addressed, which compromises the continuity. The paradigm shift with the Lunarian founder race and the elements of the “power of love” then start to be a bit of an eyesore.

There are other weaknesses in the story, but in my opinion this is the really big one. That being said, the thematic discussion of redemption holds up well. Between Cecil, Kain and Golbez there are three major character arcs that involve stark examples of absolution. Rydia’s reappearance from the Feymarch does a good job of bearing this up as well. When Cecil gets shipwrecked near Mysidia, he has every reason to think Rydia is dead, which renders his treachery to the village of Mist complete and snatches away his last shred of redemption in his own eyes. It’s a great way to set up the Paladin transformation, and when Rydia comes back it stops her from being another female character predictably sacrificed to develop a male one through tragedy. I also appreciated that Golbez elected to stay on the moon at the end of the game, as it echoes Cecil’s expiation arc. Despair is also examined hand in hand with redemption, which makes sense: redemption is transcendence, despair is being cut of from transcendence. Self-sacrifice or suicide can be ways of narratively exploring the link between the two and a ton of characters attempt to off themselves. The link and the mingled hope and despair implicit in it is even stated by one character after Cid appears to blow himself up: “Why do so many choose death so easily?”

There are other expressions of this a little further from the foreground. The four demonic guardians of the crystals (typically represented by the Four Fiends in older FF games) are now named after demons from the Inferno section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The last fight with them, with all four at once as a single being, even has a loose consistency with the deeper circles of Hell reserved for betrayers. In Inferno, people’s bodies frequently combine. In one canto, a scorpion stings one of the condemned souls, the soul turns to ash, then the ash swarms around the scorpion, absorbs it and turns into a hybrid. Obviously that has no bearing on the plot of FFIV, but it’s a way of keeping a relevant theme in the background. Then there’s Namingway constantly offering to change your name for you, which is rather on the nose.

If I really wanted to bog myself down in minutia, I could get into the thematic comparison between temporal and spatial world views. Theological concepts like salvation and damnation are typically part of a temporal cosmology where a grand timeline of the universe is privileged over local circumstances. In the worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of humanity, everywhere, all has a common destiny which involves salvation for some and damnation for others. Salvation and damnation seem to be consequences of the timeline’s eventual end. In spatial, cosmologies though, locations and nature are privileged over any possible timeline. Ancient pre-Christian belief systems in the West, for example, with deities embodying different natural forces. This is also exemplified by the reaction that both Vikings and some Native Americans had to Christian missionaries: they appreciated the Christian origin story as relevant to a certain group of humans…but fundamentally believed that different people originated in realms that are so different as to almost put them on the level of other planets or species. That different humans, like different non-humans, can be literally worlds apart. I imagine that some interpretation involving this is possible with this game, what with involving language of salvation and damnation combined with a world organized by four different elements. Which could possibly play into the thematic structure examining despair and redemption, side by side.

Maybe some of the writers and developers were thinking about things like that. Or maybe they were just reaching for different sources from religion and mythology which, as a fantasy writer myself, I understand is very fun to do just in and of itself. When I was in middle school a friend and I made our own table top game that was literally just a giant amalgam of mythology and religion. So no hate on that front. There’s at least enough suggestions of a temporal versus spatial thematic layer to raise the question, though.

As interested as I am in this kind of nutty interpretation, though, compelling thematic structures are not enough to create a good story in and of itself. In fact, I think this very disparity is something that Final Fantasy games historically have a messy relationship with. FFXIII is an even better case and point than IV, in both how it can go very right in one way and horribly wrong in another. I can only think of two, maybe three, Final Fantasy games that really got the balance right, and even the way in which the successes compare with the failures are interesting. Since I seem to be losing inhibitions with being a full tilt weeb, I’m sure I’ll write a longer post unpacking that even more eventually.

Final Fantasy IV binge, lore craziness, etc

I was too sick to go to work today and, while I was largely confined to the one room in which I was resting, I still managed to make the most of my stolen time.  I did more preparation for my imminent move and comfortably fielded my way through a job interview by phone (I rang off feeling rather good about it ^^).  Being quite ill, though, and not being up to much activity in general, I naturally sank a few hours into a gaming binge.

I know this probably doesn’t matter that much, but just in case anyone was wondering- last spring I thought I would have consistent access to a SNES on which to play the original FFIV, which I was totally stoked about since the 16 bit graphics and text-based  dialogue suited the game so much better than the upgrades on the DS remake.  Oh yeah, and the DS version had a few completely insane difficulty spikes.

In the end I ended up not being around the SNES all that much so I eventually ended up getting a digital copy on my Vita as part of the Final Fantasy IV: Complete Collection, which luckily turned out to be quite faithful to what I had seen on the 16 bit version until then.  Just a few graphical bells and whistles with some spells and summon monsters and some spruced up cut scenes, looking sorta like PS1 but perfectly good on the Vita’s smaller screen.  With said cut scenes, I like that they preserved a bit of the chibi aesthetic they seemed to be going for on the DS, which goes well with the high fantasy and occasional whimsy.  And the fact that it was kept to the cut scenes stopped it from effecting the tone of the overall story too much, which was for the best.

Anyway, since my first encounter with Golbez in the Dwarven Castle drove me completely bugsh!t I kinda didn’t do a damn thing for freaking ever but grind Rydia relentlessly until she learned bio…and still couldn’t stop sweating it.  Like…most sources I found said that bio deals non-elemental damage so Golbez shifting his weaknesses shouldn’t matter against it, but…but…is that, like, just the DS version?  In the original were there other complications that didn’t have to do with elemental weaknesses?  Is he just gonna incessantly deck anyone you try to revive with phoenix downs during a fight where you need to revive everyone except Rydia……????? X_X

Luckily, that fight turned out to be a complete push over this time around.  And whether this was a serendipitous sweet spot of the original or the product of Square observing it’s unfolding franchise over the years, the pacing of the incremental difficulty was pretty damn solid.  I haven’t finished it yet- I think I may be poised before the final battle?  Just finished off the Babil Giant and round 2 of the Archfiends?  -but so far I’ve never felt like I need to break off the main story progression in order to grind.  Part of that might have to do with the excessive grinding I did early on but it can’t be all of it.  I did, however, instantly want to drop everything as soon as I had the Falcon Airship and just hyperfocus on the Sylph Cave and the Passage of The Eidolons.  As soon as I found those two locations I knew I had found something that I’d been missing from most recent FF games.  Both of those (one of them more than the other) are crazy hard and optional and I totally couldn’t pry myself loose.  Part of it was that, as hard as the monster encounters were, they train you to think about prioritizing which character’s turn at what moment, which relates to one weakness.

Before this point there were a few awkward, mandatory battles where you could tell that the developers wanted that lesson to come through.  I’m thinking of the first time you fight each of the Archfiends.  In all fairness those really are simple rock-paper-scissor exercises.  Just try different elements until you find the weakness.  I don’t know if this is just my download or what, but I’ve never gotten the Libra spell to work when I needed it.  I know that some of the debuffs never work on bosses since they’d probably be game-breaking if you could just silence, toad, mini, hold or confuse whenever you wanted.  But all Libra is supposed to do is tell you their max HP, weaknesses and items they drop.  I mean…with a lot of FF games, finding the correct strategy for a boss fight usually isn’t what makes it hard, it’s actually implementing the strategy while making allowances for set backs (a character with a necessary job get’s KO’d, keeping buffs in working order, managing disposables, etc). With the first Archfiend fights, though, I felt like I spent more time coming up with strategies.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but for FF fans of my generation it’s a bit of a curve-ball.  But with the Sylph Cave, the Passage of The Eidolons and the fights with Asura and Leviathan, I feel like the trial and error process was smoother and more fun.

Before I move past this, though, I can’t help but notice that FFXIII and XIII-2 handled buffs and debuffs better than almost any other Final Fantasy I’ve played.  Reactions to the XIII games are divisive but I think the combat system is one of it’s unambiguous successes.  This gives me pause since, for so long, I simply didn’t notice how inept the Final Fantasy series had been with the finer points of RPG combat.

I think part of this could be chalked up to that fact that I got hooked on FF when I was young, particularly with V-X, and with my limited frame of reference as a child, surface level circumstances usually made enough sense on their own.  After all, it did make intuitive sense that debuffs would be handicapped or maybe altogether useless against most bosses- if they didn’t cap them in some way, the game would be too easy and the story’s tone and sense of proportion would be compromised.  I think that inference also caused me to hand-wave away any consideration of buffs or even character specific command options like steal, jump, etc during any time that’s not a random monster fight.

What that does, though, is condition you to think of the combat system as having two modes with two corresponding approaches: boss fights and not boss fights.  It really doesn’t get any finer than that, a lot of the time.  If there’s any circumstantial variation, it probably begins and ends with elemental weaknesses, with a few exceptions here and there to spice things up (killing Soulcage in IX with healing magic, keeping Ruby Weapon totally prostrate for the whole battle with Dazers in VII, etc).  However, the paradigm system in XIII makes it very convenient to use buffs and debuffs often- so often that there are a few characters that specialize in them.  XIII also had a cool elaboration on the limit break mechanic introduced in VII that tied into the paradigm system through the “ravager” function.  If you’re fighting a complete tank, you can have your party go largely on the defensive with “medics”, “synergists” and “saboteurs” buffing and debuffing while a “ravager” does middling but steady damage to build their limit gauge for a big devastating offensive every few turns.  What that means is that, even if you’re overwhelmed and the pacing of a battle only leaves a little bit of breathing room for decision making, you still learn to make the best of your smaller window and gradually you get better at spur of the moment decisions.  After playing FFXIII, the combat mechanics in the older games start to feel a little vanilla.

I don’t mean they’re utterly boring all the time- it’s just that once you’ve been made aware of the weaknesses through comparison, you really can’t unsee them.  While the combat system in FFIV doesn’t go much further than the likes of, oh, VI, VII and IX, it nonetheless distinguishes itself among the 90’s Final Fantasy games.

Theeennnnnn….there’s the story…when you look at the body of work of either a franchise or an individual content creator it’s always interesting when you can see ideas developing.  Like, when I saw Lynch’s Blue Velvet, it seemed obvious to me that it was an early draft of concepts that would later be fleshed out more in Twin Peaks.  If that doesn’t make me a horrible trog, then what about my reaction to the original Dark Souls when I thought it was a tepid, unsatisfying first draft of Bloodborne?

Anyway, FF recycles a handful of concepts often- pantheism, Gaia theory, evil empires, a first villain embodying institutional evils (nationalism, organized religion, etc) that turns out to be the pawn of a second more mysterious villain -but FFIV uses a few more specific ideas that are developed later on in FFIX.  Particularly, the alien invasion in a high fantasy setting.  Both IV and IX are science fiction stories disguised as fantasy stories.  If I wanted, I could take this in a whole other tangent about how FFXIII is a fantasy story disguised as a science fiction story, but I’ll resist that temptation (for now).

I mean…alien invasions…that’s basically what’s going on in both IV and IX.  One planet gets destroyed, the inhabitants are preserved in either a non-physical or dormant state, and its stewards attempt to terraform your home planet (I’m still cracked up by the fact that FF stories are usually set on planets called Terra that are being terraformed or, in some cases, your home planet is being terraformed by aliens from a different planet called Terra).

The differences between the portrayals of the sleeping aliens are interesting.  In IX (can’t help listing it first, I played it first 😛 ) the steward is a figure named Garland, a name recycled from the first FF game, who at times seriously appears to be a digital AI being.  Garland is not confined to any one physical body and, when he first appears, the story frames him in such a way that his presence is synonymous with the spaceship called The Invincible.  This could just be thematic nuance- the sight of Garland being thematically linked with the sinister mystery of The Invincible and the opaque origins of Kuja -but later we are tempted to think it may be more than that.

After Garland appears to be dead he telepathically communicates with Zidane while the party navigates Memoria.  IX also states, firmly, that none of the dormant Terrans have been decanted yet.  Neither Zidane nor Kuja are natal Terrans: both beings were created as war machines, to stop the cycle of death and rebirth, draining out the pre-existing souls via mist so they can be replaced with the Terran souls in Garland’s custody.  Even the genomes (is that a proper noun?  Genomes?) in the village of Bran Bal are meant to be empty vessels that the Terrans will be placed inside of.  Before we learn all this, all the other manifestations of the Terran presence are technology they left behind or deceptively presented by Kuja for the planetary natives to misuse.  And throughout the whole game we have Vivi wondering out loud if the fact that he rolled off of an assembly line makes his soul any less real than that of any other sentient being.

Vivi’s whole journey as a character is about whether or not your own subjective certainty of your existence has any bearing on your real existence.  Very Blade Runner.  And that wasn’t lost on my dad as he watched me play IX as a kid- he watched me go through the whole Terra \ Bran Bal segment and he kept calling the genomes Skin Jobs.  Even now, as I’m writing this, before I type “Terran” I have to check myself so I don’t type Skin Job.  Anyway, all of that taken with the fact that Garland exists in a form separate from his body seems to imply that he’s a creation like Zidane and Kuja, maybe that body isn’t even the real seat of his personality- it could just as easily be the Ilifa Tree or The Invincible.

In FFIV, the alien stewards are a pair of brothers who, unlike Garland, seem to be natal aliens (Lunarians this time, instead of Terrans).  How long these two have been awake, as well as the length of the Lunarian life span, is not clear.  Like IX, these aliens have technological doo dads that have been sitting around on the planet they’re trying to invade for millennia.  A race of people inhabiting the Eblan region seem to remember one of these knick knacks (the Tower of Babil) being there for their entire recorded history.  The two waking Lunarians were present and involved during the Tower’s construction- or at least they have knowledge of it that makes it look like they were.

They have a similar perspective on the function of the eight crystals on both respective planets, which could mean that even those have been created and planted by the Lunarians.  Lunarian Number Two went to Earth and introduced airship technology, Prometheus-style, and at the start of the game we get a cut scene explaining that airships appeared within recent history.  Perhaps the initial contact happened thousands of years ago and the pro-active meddling by the Lunarians is a recent event.  This ambiguity (did contact happen in distant or recent history) is harder to overlook once we learn that Cecil and Golbez are descended from Lunarian Number Two (yeah, the dude does have a name, but I’m trying not to bog you down in jargon).  Both Golbez and Cecil are referred to as his sons.  It’s not clear if this is figurative (in the sense that they’re descendants) or if Lunarian Number Two is literally their bio dad.  Cecil, at least, has a normal human life span and is like, 20-30’s, whenever twinkish bishi dudes are considered adults.  At the point in the game I’m in, it’s still not clear how long Golbez has been around.  It is said that he’s the older brother.  Maybe all this will be cleared up in just a few days of game play, idk just now.  The chronology seems vague so far, though.

Speaking of the alien stewards, I think it’s kinda neat that we get one of them as a playable party member for awhile.  It reminded me of getting Edea in the party near the end of VIII, or how when I was playing VII I kept thinking how cool it would be to get Sephiroth in your party outside of the flashback sequence.  Lunarian Number One doesn’t stick around very long, but it’s cool to have him during the time that you do, though.

About the playable characters, I also appreciate how you get a spectrum of different magic users throughout the game that demonstrate what the developing characters will eventually be capable of (Tellah, Palom, Porom, Lunarian Number One).  It makes it more satisfying when Rydia and Rosa start getting all of their respective black mage and white mage skills.  Also, the pacing of this story is so dang fast and so many characters appear to die so quickly that I don’t know what to think of the fact that four of the previously dead characters are now alive at the end.  In a different game it would either be tonal whiplash, gimmicky or both.  But this is a game with chibi sprites in a strip club, an underground continent of dwarves and a space ship that takes you to the moon and plot details unfolding a mile a minute so yeah.  Rapid fire character deaths and resurrections shouldn’t be that disruptive in the end.  Really, the whimsy combined with some of the more dramatic details gives this game a lot of it’s memorability.

Not that it doesn’t get stupid at times.  I wanted to yell at Cecil when he attempted to dismiss the females from the party before going to the moon.  I mean…it’s not necessarily sexist, since Cecil has a guilt complex a mile thick and watching Edge forgive Kain could have plucked one of his heart strings in a way that would make him want Rydia out of harms way (he feels responsible for her well being because of other plot details).  But, like, on the other hand…she’s a goddamn summoner.  And she totally saved everyone’s ass when they were about to get murdered by Golbez.  The girl is a goddamn tank and Cecil is pulling some gallant manly man shit and asking her and Rosa to sit out the final battle.  Thank god they didn’t listen.  Seriously, fuck you, Cecil.  At least in that moment.

Anyway, we’ll see how the closing chapters unfold.  So far so good, though.

Dune and Alejandro Jodorowski

“Here lies a toppled god-
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.”
-Tleilaxu Epigram

 

Lately I’ve been getting ready for a move which naturally entails going through your stuff and deciding what to keep and what not to. One hard fact of life that I’ve had to come to terms with more and more over the years is that books take up a ton of space and, as we bibliophiles know, our collections get harder and harder to move over the years. Especially if you’re like me and you love having physical copies of things. I’m even like that with music and movies- I just have to have the actual object with it’s artwork and anything else that might be packaged with it. And so…I’ve had to make some very harsh calls with my own library. One thing I decided I needed to come to terms with is that I needed to get rid of most of my paperbacks, especially the long series- beautiful hard backs excluded (and even the paperback rule had it’s exceptions, such as my Sandman comics and my William S. Burroughs and Victor Hugo collections). Since I’m only keeping the real keepsakes (signed copy of Blood Communion…a rare and out of print collection of Hugo poetry from the sixties…assorted precious vintage stuff…), I’ve had to really invest in my tablet to get digital back ups. Inevitably, I had to make a decision about my six Dune books by Frank Herbert. Would they get the paperback pass of Burroughs, Aligheri, Hugo and Neil Gaiman? Possibly. And then last night I visited a friend of mine who showed me the documentary Jodorowski’s Dune, which made the decision that much harder to make.

At a certain point in the film, Jodorowski says that he had not actually read Dune at the time that he pitched it as his next film. Nonetheless, he made certain creative decisions that seemed to indicate at least some thoughtful familiarity with the book, wild departures from the text and all. I was also charmed by how philosophically optimistic his reading(?) of the story was. The Dune novels are, fundamentally, a meditation on power. Within all of it’s other layered explorations of language, ecology, religion, politics and psychology is the discussion of power dynamics within those things. Out of all of those permutations of control, institutional power is the most common touchstone in the plot of every book.

In all fairness, Alejandro Jodorowski has not been alone in his reversal of the tone of Dune. I have to jump on a large bandwagon here and say that I think the David Lynch adaptation to be a complete train wreck for many reasons (Jodorowski thinks that as well and says so at the end of the documentary). I’m also aware that Lynch’s adaptation was the victim of studio meddling but, whether this was the fault of Lynch or the studio heads, one of the most deeply egregious errors in that film was the ending, when Paul Atreides conjures water on Arrakis.

To say nothing of the fact that it flies in the face of how Dune discusses the relationship between humans and the ecosystems in which they live (Paul terraforms Salusa Secondus, the secret home planet of House Corrino and the Sardaukar, as a way of destroying the brutal survival ethos of the Sardaukar and crippling their military might), it also introduces a truly random genre break…or perhaps world break. No in-world explanation is furnished for Paul’s ability to conjure rain- it therefore stands to reason that he did it because he was magic. Why would he be magic? Evidently, because he’s the literal Messiah- the dude is literally Jesus. Which speaks to another thing every adaptation to date has overlooked- the Bene Gesserit are after power consolidation just like everyone else.

In a way, the Bene Gersserit are the contemporary heirs of the machine overlords overthrown by the Butlerian Jihad. In the distant, nearly mythic past of Dune, humans were enslaved by artificially intelligent machines. An Islamic cleric named Serena Butler led a revolution against them and, from that point on, the creation of AI was forbidden by every religion and government. What the Bene Gersserit are doing, with their breeding program and use of the spice to awaken ancestral memories in women, is to create a human supercomputer. In essence, they are attempting to make a creature to subjugate the world, the difference is that it’s a human being. Ergo, they are the heirs of the machine overlords. Paul does not play completely into their hands, but in the end he became what they wanted him to be. In a sense, Paul Atreides is part of the same “rise of the machines” trope as Victor Frankenstein’s creation or the machines in The Matrix. The text also makes it clear that the Bene Gesserit also frequently manipulate religions on the planets owned by the inter-galactic feudal lords. Interpreting Paul as a literal Messiah reflects an appallingly lazy reading. At least, in the case of David Lynch, it seemed appallingly lazy. There were just too many other lazy decisions in the film to accommodate any forgiving context for Lynch’s ending.

What makes me prepared to distinguish between the philosophical optimism of Lynch’s and Jodorowski’s visions is the consistency of Jodorowski’s handling of the tropes. It’s obvious at a glance that Dune analyzes and deconstructs the myth of the dying and returning fertility god in the form of Paul Atreides, even if he’s not presented as a genuine god (no such thing exists in the novels). Alejandro Jodorowski was willing to break the genre consistency at least to the point of making Dune science-fantasy rather than science-fiction (high science-fiction, though it is). Jodorowski’s Dune would end with the death of Paul Atreides at the hands of Thufir Hawat (the documentary didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of Thufir’s motivation but on it’s face I’d love to see that unpacked somewhere) which would complete the sacrifice for universal redemption, ala Jesus, Baldur, Cybele/Attis, Osiris/Horus, etc. This would necessarily make Jodorowski’s Dune a standalone film. David Lynch, meanwhile, wanted to adapt more of the books at some point.

I don’t know how Lynch would carry out his reversal with Paul being a literal divine being, but I don’t see it going well. This may seem like a fine point, but for me that matters because Jodorowski’s rendering, while wildly divergent, would only take enough from the source material to make itself complete- Lynch, on the other hand, wanted to carry his inversion further into the rest of the series. Alejandro Jodorowski doesn’t make any bones about having a huge ego in Jodorowski’s Dune, but I think keeping his adaptation as a standalone story demonstrates a certain confident reserve, as if his vision is complete in and of itself and can exist alongside Frank Herbert’s original story. The standalone version is also neat because it covers the scope of the mythic arc and nothing else, which was what Jodorowski was fundamentally interested in.

It’s the specificity of this focus that I think gives Jodorowski’s vision of Dune more credibility than the version of David Lynch’s movie that we ended up with. The archetypal nature is established early on with a scene invented entirely by Jodorowski, involving the immaculate conception of Paul. This version of Leto Atreides is a eunuch, castrated by a bull. Jessica, meanwhile, is a witch, who pricks his finger and turns his blood into semen, with which Paul was conceived. Later on, Leto is dismembered by Piter DeVries, Osiris style, with Jessica and Paul disappearing into exile and completing the mythic parallel. While complication can be messy, simplicity has it’s own challenges and can often be trickier. If you like rock or pop music, think of your favorite rock or pop song: a rock musician often only has three to four minutes with which to capture your attention. Direct riffs on mythology need a similarly deft handling, however simple or abstracted an archetype may appear. When I read Dune for the first time, it occurred to me that Frank Herbert was one such talented person, particularly during the scene where Leto dies from his suicide capsule. The haunting legacy of a father felt by a son is something we’ve seen many times in many different stories, and at that moment I realized I was believing it, that Herbert had succeeded in bringing it to life. Tolkien had a deft hand at this as well, but that’s a subject for another entry. This delicate familiarity with myth would have made an Alejandro Jodorowski Dune film a very compelling meeting of the minds. Jodorowski and Herbert would have meshed as perfectly as David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs had through the Naked Lunch film.

While it would have been a rich meeting between two scholars of religion and world history, Jodorowski’s different approach to the archetypes within Dune had a sharp contrast to Herbert’s. Along with the true nature of the Bene Gesserit and the fearful examination of power, Paul’s adherence to the arc of the tragic hero is also frequently overlooked. Tragic in the classical literary sense: the story is about a central weakness that eventually destroys the main character and turns him into a monster. Often, while reading the Dune novels, I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “Coriolanus has turned from a man to a dragon.” The first novel traces Paul’s journey as a young man vulnerable to manipulative forces beyond his awareness into a super-human theocratic precog. Over and over again he desperately searches for ways to escape the Jihad that he sees himself leading and ultimately succumbs to his own prophecy. Of all things, Paul Atreides frequently reminded me of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. Paul’s dread of this destiny is what gives the duel with Feyd-Rautha all of it’s dramatic weight- Feyd-Rautha’s death seals the confirmation of Paul’s worst nightmare and his ugliest transformation. It’s also hard to overlook the role that Paul’s firstborn son played in this: while his infant son was definitely killed, he had every reason to believe that both his son and his wife were dead for much of the ending. As far as he was concerned, he had lost his roots on Arrakis and had nothing left but revenge, which propelled him to the imperial throne and the Jihad. He was only reunited with Chani after this fatal step had already been taken.

Another part of Frank Herbert’s handling of mythic tropes is his tendency toward deconstruction. The Bene Gesserit knowingly manipulate religions across generations and Paul is frequently reminded of the fact that he is walking into an artificial prophecy that’s been designed as a step toward consolidating power. The Dune novels also frequently use lengthy internal monologues and in-world texts that reflect specific, in-world interpretations rather than objective facts. This is something that either lures the reader further into the book or turns them off. This is complicated by the fact that in Frank Herbert’s fictional universe information literally exists. Ancestral memories are past from generation to generation. Our perspective on Paul’s prophetic abilities also speak to this. Other than the generations of selective breeding before he was born, the essential ingredient in Paul’s psychic awakening was his mentat training. Mentat computation can happen in the blink of an eye and often subconsciously. This ability is even more powerful and even more subconscious in someone like Paul, who was bred to be a human supercomputer. Some of his prophecies are clearly the result of powerful, subconscious information processing that can only consciously express itself as apparent prophecy. This, however, does not account for how Paul and other precogs can receive specific fragments of sense perception, a sight or a sound, from the future. Evidently, the information exists out there to be grasped by precognitive minds. As the ancestral memory phenomenon tells us, one’s subjectivity exists objectively, but that doesn’t make it any less subjective.

I hope I’ve made it obvious that I don’t think that the version of Dune that Alejandro Jodorowski wanted to make would have been a cinematic equivalent of the first novel: merely that the deviations that Jodorowski planned on making revealed an interesting awareness and perspective on the book’s subject matter. Later in Jodorowski’s Dune we learn that many of the concepts from the film were recycled later on for Jodorowski’s comic series L’Incal, which I am now determined to read. Diverse interpretations are also an inevitable part of how a book continues to live on after it leaves the mind of it’s creator. Sometimes, by force of contrast, a different interpretation can create different readings of the book by people who encounter the original text after experiencing a derivative. While Jodorowski’s reading of the mythic tropes threaded within Dune were starkly different from Herbert’s own rendering, it is something of a natural sequential echo, as Frank Herbert himself was very much concerned with the nature of myths and their ripples throughout culture and history.

Final Fantasy Adventure!

As a truly relentless Final Fantasy fan girl, I couldn’t resist a recent opportunity to grab a copy of Final Fantasy Adventure to play on my old-ass Gameboy that I got for a birthday present when I was like nine. I go through little fits and starts with that particular handheld, largely with regard to the LoZ Oracle games. The plot for those games are such that I don’t feel lost after taking a long break, at least with Ages: the side quests between dungeons are so hard and involved that I don’t think you’re meant to approach the game with any sense of dramatic momentum in different parts in the story, not even the open-ended, episodic kind between the side quests in Majora’s Mask. Before that, the last Gameboy game that really grabbed me was Metroid II: Return of Samus, which could potentially be the best economic usage of the Gameboy’s limited information space for visual storytelling- possibly the most carefully designed thing that I know of for the Gameboy, followed by LoZ: Link’s Awakening.

Final Fantasy Adventure is not carefully designed by any standard. Especially when compared with other games for the platform (Metroid II for instance) that have a careful way of directing your awareness of your surroundings and their possibilities. As a child, most of the video games I obtained without help from my parents were from garage sales, which meant that I had a ton of games but no instruction manuals or any other supplemental material it was meant to be packaged with. Over time, this made me good at determining how successful a game was based entirely on it’s ability to present itself. Link’s Awakening has a very plain story progress route and there’s almost no way to mistake what the next step in your journey is. Metroid II is tough but fair: it gives you everything you need to figure it out on your own, even if it takes some extra effort and patience, kinda like the better Tomb Raider games.

Final Fantasy Adventure is just awkward. And it’s not like the first NES Zelda game where the confusion typically comes from not having the game manual and the map it’s packaged with. I sorta thought it would be, though: the online vendor I got my FF Adventure copy from packaged it with the manual and an officially licensed map. That map can be helpful at times and even potentially necessary: I don’t think I would have figured out that the axes can be used to cut down trees if it wasn’t for the explanations of different items, spells, etc. on the back of the map. But some situations and story junctures just don’t offer any way for you to figure them out on your own. Like walking figure 8’s around palm trees to get to the Oasis Cave: was there actually a common gaming convention that led people to do this on their own in the early nineties? Like, was there some reason why it would be an intuitive thing to try on your own? There’s that kid in the village who gives the “palm trees & 8” hint but there’s just no puzzle like that before hand that would prompt you to be thinking about that. The route to the Dwarf Cave is almost as bad (what is it with FF and doing frustrating things that involve dwarves? FFIV, much?). At that point you’ve had the axe for awhile and, if I remember correctly, the item description doesn’t actually tell you that you can chop down trees, and there’s nothing about the route to that area or the nearby village that would prompt you to experiment with the axe. Which is where the map packaged with the game comes it handy with the item descriptions, or, you know, online forums.

Those are pretty much the only two serious flaws in the story sequencing, but there were other problems. Because those problems only interfere with your progression now and then, it’s fair to call them mere oddities. Such as the dead ends in some of the dungeons. Some of the levels have multiple floors with pits that drop you down to the floor below. The floor you get dropped down into may be filled with monsters or some other slap on the wrist for your carelessness. In my head I took to nicknaming those rooms murderholes- I think I gleaned that phrase from a book. I’m pretty sure they were holes in castles that could be used for unleashing molten lead in the event of an invasion? Or a pit with animals in it? The phrase murderhole had something to do with a trap, anyway. It’s probably just a google search away but nevermind.

Anyway, I assumed a few of the dead end rooms in dungeons were murderholes. And sometimes they were. But usually they were just dead ends. Period. Were they put there as misdirection to add to the challenge? Maybe, but I sorta doubt it. The possibility has both odd and oddly amusing implications. I mean…it’s clear, at a glance, that this game borrows heavily from earlier Zelda games, and like early Zelda games, you are taught early on to test blank walls for breakable sections (using disposable mattocks, rather than Zelda-style bombs). If you find a dead end that doesn’t have pits on a higher floor dropping you down, and if the number of explorable directions aren’t numerous enough for a dead end to be confusing from a navigation stand point, then…are they supposed to trick you into thinking they connect somewhere else through a breakable wall? Is that supposed to be the nature of the misdirection? Are they banking on you being an avid late eighties’ Zelda gamer?

I mean, I know that game was popular and deliberately inverting popular mechanics is a way in which influence shows itself (see some of today’s Dark Souls derivatives). But if the mechanic that you’re trying to turn inside out is that specific…well…it’s just odd. And it happens several times throughout the game. If the dead ends aren’t there to throw off your sense of direction, not murderholes that you get dropped into from an upper floor and not attempting to mislead you with strangely specific suggestions of breakable walls then…well…then they seriously start to look like authentic dead ends. Which is either lazy or guided by some principle that I just can’t account for. Maybe they have some other function that I haven’t figured out. But they sure do look pointless.

Then there are the narrative glitches. Only one of these really bothers me, though, and it’s why Dr. Bowow has a robot in the submerged Dime Tower while he talks about it as if it’s this mysterious, lost thing that no one has found since it’s disappearance. I mean, that’s the only way to make sense of him giving you cryptic hints about where it is- that he does not actually know. But the robot says Dr. Bowow put him there…so…yeah. I’m also choosing not to dwell on the fact that his name is Dr. Bowow, seeing as it’s probably a script with a clunky Japanese to English translation from the early nineties.

There are also parts of the explanations from Cibba that seem a little incomplete. I mean, when you get to the parts of the game where he’s telling you what to do, he’ll get you from point A to point B easily enough, but the reasons why his suggestions are true are not very obvious. I mean, it seems apparent that you need to excavate the ruins of the ancient Vandole civilization because 1. Julius and Fuji are at the Mana Tree and 2. the Vandole empire were the only humans to ever make contact in the past. So using the route that they built (via Dime Tower) is simply the most straightforward way of getting to the Mana Tree and thereby stop Julius’s influence over it. But that’s never spelled out in so many words. No character appears to make that connection on their own. It is 100% implied. As far as I can tell, it makes perfect sense, and it ain’t no crime to make the player think a little about what’s going on- I rather like that -but the implication is done so awkwardly that I don’t know for sure if it’s intentional.

While the progression route, dungeon design and script have problems that range from lazy to surreal, though, I have to say I enjoyed Final Fantasy Adventure more than I’ve enjoyed any Gameboy game since I was a teenager getting wrapped up in Metroid II. Part of this has to be nostalgia. I remember visiting out of state relatives with my mother as a five year old, some of whom were teenagers, and I would watch one of the older girls play a Gameboy over her shoulder. Within seconds of booting up Final Fantasy Adventure, I was almost positive this was the game I had watched my older cousin play. I also started gaming in early childhood way back when, so the appearance of early nineties video games is bound to tug on my heart strings in and of itself. But the game has genuine strengths of it’s own, though.

The thing that hit me first was how fun the exploration is (at least when the obtuseness of the next necessary step wasn’t driving me crazy). Maybe nostalgia has more to do with this than I’m consciously aware of, but I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure there were a ton of things that were done very well in video games in the late eighties and early nineties that a few modern developers are having real problems with. Like open world. I never played Skyrim and some of my friends never fail to remind me of what a luddite trog I am because of it. And I have no reason to doubt that it’s reputation for a good open world game is justified. I’m sure it is. But some other developers like Square Enix (oh, how the mighty forget) seem to be choking in their effort to keep up with it’s popularity. I mean…they destroyed the pacing of FFXV by totally shoe-horning the open world quality. You’re literally tempted to break off the main story whenever you damn well feel like it. And there’s not much in the story that hinges on exploration, so it just comes off as a distraction. Which is strange and annoying since, back in the nineties when Square developed FFVI, the whole second half of the game was open world and the majority of the possible exploration was linked directly to the story arcs of the main characters. Once you have your second airship could either go straight to Vector and fight Kefka, or you could explore a whole other half of the game that develops a ton of back story and motivation for most of the characters. Square anticipated the modern fascination with open world before they even made the switch to 3D graphics and then utterly failed at it, while Western developers are making the sub-genre their own.

*huff* Anyway! Let’s try to keep the ranting to a minimum. I think the joy of exploration was something that old school JRPGs were really good at, whether it’s open world in the same way as FFVI or if it’s something like FFVII or Pokémon where you end up navigating an overworld even though the progression route is linear. Or even like the first Zelda game, which most of us fell in love with through random exploring and deduction. For the most part, Final Fantasy Adventure offers fun exploration in the same way. Another thing I liked about this game also has to do with a facet that might turn off a lot of modern Final Fantasy fans: it really doesn’t feel like a Final Fantasy game most of the time. That’s probably because our assumptions of what an FF game is are tied up with things like turn based combat and multiple playable party members. Kinda like FFXV (DLC notwithstanding), you only get one playable character with NPC characters backing you up at times. Maybe this says things about the sort of mind that I have, but if something looks intriguing enough, I don’t care if it breaks consistency with other things that it’s supposed to be a part of. If it’s done well, the broken consistency makes me more interested. And since that aspect reeled me in, the other wrinkles that do relate to other Final Fantasy games are both uncanny and fun.

This is true of the FF hallmarks within Final Fantasy Adventure in general, but it’s especially true of the usage of certain boss monsters. Like Lich and Iflyte. Lich was one of the four elemental Fiends in the very first FF game, and when the original development team got together for one last hurrah with FFIX, they brought back the four Fiends as guardians of the keys that unlock the ancient, extra-terrestrial vessel containing the souls of Terra (can you still call something extra-terrestrial if they come from a planet called Terra? *looks lost*). The usage of Lich in FF Adventure is kinda similar to IX- it’s guarding the spell that let’s you access the Vandole ruins…which in turn leads you to the Dime Tower. Both Adventure and IX use the Fiend(s) as guardians of either a lost race of ancient aliens or a lost race of ancient humans. Does it necessarily mean anything? Maybe. Probably not. But I think it’s cool and it makes my little lore loving brain spin. Also…Iflyte looks like a rather typical devil. Sorta like Ifrit…a common summon monster in most FF games and one with lore significance in XV. Lore significance that ties into an ancient founder race. And Iflyte/Ifrit is guarding the Sword of Mana, which is itself a key to the ruins…connecting this creature to the same gate-keeping function as Lich, Fiends, etc.

 

Again, it probably doesn’t mean a damn, but I still find it fun to think about. The whole thing with the Tree of Mana being on this unreachable place that’s close to the sky also makes me think of both FFIII (floating world in there), FFIV (the moon) & FFXIII (Cocoon). It even seems to be an inverse parallel to things like Meteor in FFVII and Pandemonium (the vessel of the Terran souls) in IX. It’s just an interesting development in a central and re-occurring part of the common mythology that echoes between many of the FF games. My curiosity is also tickled a little by the fact that FF Adventure was retro-actively included in the Mana series as it’s first game. Does this mean that Fuij, as the last gemma capable of becoming a Mana Tree when the prior one dies, is the final Mana Tree period? She has no children, and it seems like the heirs to the Mana family are born before they transform into the Mana Tree. And if the subsequent Mana games build on that mythology, does that mean that the whole Mana series is situated at the end of it’s own mythic timeline? Like an apocalyptic or post-rapture sorta deal? You don’t usually see things like that in a lot of mainstream fantasy stories. One of the reasons I’ve gotten attached to Hollow Knight, lately. Then again, I haven’t played any other Mana game to completion ( I did briefly poke around with Secret of Mana, though) so I don’t know. I could be totally off base with that.

The music can be uneven in Final Fantasy Adventure, but it gets better as the game progresses and starts to add a certain gravity near the end. I’m a sucker for music- no other art form captures my emotions quite as fully. And the music helps to give the ending it’s sneaky pathos. Sumo defeats Julius in the end, but his effect on the Mana Tree and the world are irreparable. Fuji becomes the new Mana Tree, and as the end credits roll we see Sumo having these little silent interactions with other NPC’s that look almost like he’s saying good bye. It all ends with Sumo bringing his chocobo back to the wild. It’s not a huge deal, but…well…the chocobo has mechanical body parts from Dr. Bowow replacing his broken limbs. One of them appears to be a steel plate on his face. Yet the chochobo goes back to it’s own kind. As if everything is going back to normal except Sumo. No particular plot point is effected by this, but I appreciate how understated and melancholy it is.
This is one hell of a messy game, but still a fun and rewarding one in the end. It’s very clunky and awkward and very retro, but for me there’s enough happy coincidence at work to make those qualities add to the memorability of the game, along with it’s genuine strengths.

Victor Hugo & The Man Who Laughs graphic novel

I think Victor Hugo’s novels are always going to be tricky to adapt. And probably on every level, from the reason why a lot of people enjoy them to how both casual readers and those adapting these books read them. Which may be the root of the conundrum: how exactly to read Hugo.
One of the major obstacles on that front is how and where he’s been classified in the history of world literature. Hugo was contemporary with Alexandre Dumas and Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand and is intuitively grouped with the French Romantics, yet in some ways his work is quite at home in more modern, experimental conventions. There are a few incidental reasons why a modern reader might detect a certain psychedelic flourish that we shouldn’t get too caught up with, such as the divided eighteenth century European literary trends of hyper-realism and florid, unbound subjectivity. On one hand there were socially and politically grounded artists who saw the living pressures of society as their foremost responsibility, on the other, there were those who thought the exclusive province of art was the internal life.
It makes sense that Victor Hugo would be fully aware and involved in the contemporary passions of his day and, while many writers, painters and composers would choose a side and stay there, the fact that Hugo would alternate between the two shouldn’t surprise us that much. There is another aspect of his writing, though, that I think could potentially place him close to the likes of William S. Burroughs, Mark Z. Danielewski or even modern graphic novelists. This was Victor Hugo’s inclusion of the sensibility of visual, three-dimensional mediums such as painting and architecture into his novels.
Obviously, Notre de Dame de Paris (known to the English speaking world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is a glaring example of this and in many ways can be read as a sort of key to the rest of Hugo’s novels. While Hugo was a meticulous literary craftsman and researcher and very concerned with things working appropriately in their context, his work is far from being traditionally linear. Many of his novels begin with orienting our view of events as readers rather than orienting the characters themselves. Notre Dame de Paris starts with Pierre Gringoire and Jehan Frollo, who do not participate in the events that drive the plot so much as they witness them. And they usually witness the story around them without understanding much, if anything, of what is happening around them. Les Miserables begins with Charles-Francois Myriel, the Bishop of Digne and an outline of the events that led him to believe the things that he does before meeting Jean Valjean. We even get more than a few indications from these chapters about the scope Hugo projected for Les Miserables: Myriel came from a noble family and, as a young man, he had a zest for pleasure seeking. An unspecified trauma related to the French revolution destroyed his appetite for libertinage and he dedicated himself to a life of ascetic spirituality. A chance encounter with Napolean led to him being appointed Bishop of Digne. Most memorably, one of Myriel’s first visits to someone suffering on their death bed was an elderly member of a revolutionary government. Set as the story is after the restoration of the French monarchy, this old exile is “little better than a monster”. This encounter rocks Bishop Myriel to his core and it’s the last really personal glimpse we have of him before we see him in the company of Valjean. While the rest of Les Miserables is largely bound by a plot, we get an attitude toward a period in the history of France along with meditations on the role of religion, capitol punishment and death. At the beginning of Quatre-vingt treize, we meet the mother of the two small children that accompany us throughout the novel before we meet Cimourdaine, Lantenac or Gauvaine.
L’homme qui rit, or The Man Who Laughs, is no different on this front. Before we have a proper encounter with Gwynplaine we get two Preliminary Chapters. One shows us the inside of Ursus’ cart where he lives with Homo the wolf, covered in lineages and careers of the families of the British Peerage. The other is an exhaustive break down of the history of the fictional Comprachicos, Spanish nomads with their own unique Creole tongue, fiercely loyal to the Catholic Church, who have traditionally practiced and maintained the art of mutilating and crafting children from a young age to grow into marketable curiosities. Within this practice there are different disciplines and arts that bear the stamp of specific individuals or schools of practice. One we learn about in short order is masca ridens, the laughing mask, a hallmark of the work of a Doctor Conquest and his heir Hardquanonne. Another literary device we see in L’homme qui rit and other works by Hugo are fictional scholarly documents and resources that are introduced within the book but distinctive from the story, after the manner of supplementary material for something that actually happened. This can happen in glaringly obvious ways, such as the in/famous Waterloo or Sewer chapters in Les Miserables, but some of the more effective usages of this device happen in less overbearing ways. For example, for all the times that Hugo dives right into the private subjectivity of his characters, there are others where he claims not to know their thoughts any more than he could read the mind of a real person, as if all he can do is impartially report things as they happened and anything else would be speculation. Consider this moment in Notre Dame de Paris when Frollo is watching Esmerelda and Phoebus have sex:

“In what sinister order was he arranging in his thoughts La Esmeralda, Phoebus, Jacques Charmoloue, his beloved younger brother, so lately abandoned by him at the dung hill, his archdeacon’s cassock, his reputation perhaps, thus degraded to La Falourdel’s- all these images, all these adventures of his? It is impossible to say. But certain it is that these thoughts evoked horrible pictures.”

Likewise, in Les Miserables, there is the chapter Une tempete sous un crane in which Valjean has to grapple with the possibility of breaking his cover. Hugo ventures several long glimpses into Valjean’s mind but, when Valjean goes to sleep briefly, Hugo refers to a fictional collection of documents left behind after his death that describe the dream he had that night, with the deserted village, the ghosts and the dark rider upon the skeletal horse. The emphasis on the reader’s perspective as something outside of the novel itself is emphasized by Les Miserables division into five books with a neat line drawn down the middle: Valjean as the protagonist in the first half and Marius in the second. The novel ends with an anonymous epitaph on the grave of Valjean, again, as if Hugo can only relate what happened, but can’t speculate outside of his scope.

In L’homme qui rit, one of the expressions of this more quiet use of fictional objectivity happens when Hugo’s narrative voice will blend with the internal narration of Ursus, which keeps us in touch with our first Preliminary Chapter in which we see the writing on the walls within Ursus’ cart. Sure enough, our last image in the novel is that of Ursus waking up to the absence of Gwynplaine and Dea, with Homo at the edge of their boat, “baying in the shadow and looking down upon the water”.

In every Victor Hugo novel I ever read, the orientation of the reader’s perspective is given at least as much attention as the design and mechanics of the plot. The very act of reading, how, when and where the novel reveals itself to us, is an essential concern for any writer, but the nature of Hugo’s shaping of our own perspective and the text’s own treatment of authenticity seems almost post-modern. Consequently, reading Victor Hugo well is a gradual and layered experience, which contrasts interestingly with how his stories are treated with archetypical simplicity in the modern west. While we’re on the subject I’d like to recommend a YouTube video by Lindsey Ellis called The Case For Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which deals carefully with this contrast, although I do think Lindsey committed something of a minor, forgivable oversight. She says that Notre Dame de Paris was motivated entirely by the historical vandalism of Notre Dame Cathedral and a wish to drum up attention for it’s preservation. I’m just not sure how you could walk away from that book and continue to think that: the relentless and flamboyant cynicism at least seems indicative of Hugo’s constant pre-occupation with the oppression of ancient, medieval institutions like the Catholic Church and monarchy in general. Then there’s the Ceci tuera cela (This Will Kill That) chapter that breaks down that very phrase in the mouth of Claude Frollo (Frollo’s inner narration blends with that of the narrator almost in the same way that Ursus’ does). It is a comment on how architecture is losing ground to literature as the most influential and important art form in the west. Given the attitude Hugo expressed toward literacy in other works, it’s hard to read Ceci tuera cela as a strictly negative statement, especially since he equates the shift with the transition from monarchy to democracy.

Lindsey Ellis makes an important point, though, in that adaptations of Hugo’s work tend to be far departures from the letter of the source material. The west seems to have adopted these stories as mythic archetypes, perennial outlines with fluid relevance, rather than the work of an individual writer. Victor Hugo himself anticipated and possibly encouraged parts of this, as an operatic adaptation of Notre Dame de Paris was made in his lifetime with his blessing and co-operation. Hugo even corresponded with an anarchist named Louise Michel who would often sign her name as Enjolras. Hugo was intimately familiar with art influencing life and vice versa, and his anticipation of the diverse ripples of his work makes sense given that he did not write his novels strictly as…well, novels. He would meticulously shape and manipulate the reader’s point of entry and understanding of his stories, so much so that reading Hugo often feels like watching Hugo. A three-dimensional object is situated in three-dimensional space; it’s very existence presupposes a a wider setting and other objects with relative relationships to it.

This is why reviewing an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s work requires a certain amount of care. A wide diversity of interpretations is a natural consequence of Hugo’s legacy. Also, as with any artistic legacy, diverse readings and interpretations are simply how the living relevance of important works manifests. So deviation from the original letter of the work is to be expected and does not, in and of itself, constitute a weakness. However, deviations from the letter do invite new readers to wonder why a given adaptation makes its deviations. With many adaptations of Hugo’s work, the stripping away of the narrative complexity is obvious: it simply makes it easier for a mainstream audience to digest. Other deviations speak to more idiosyncratic details of newer readings, though.

Consider Hugo’s attitude toward women: he was probably as feminist as we could reasonably expect an eighteenth century upper class, philandering French male to be. To hear him tell it in his own words, he probably believed in the social equality of men and women as strongly as he believed in universal literacy and representative government (that is, after he forged his bond with his mother’s side of the family and began to grow apart from his male-line attachment to French nobility and Peerage). Nonetheless, he has some typically chauvinistic moments regarding female characters, such as his tendency to sexualize and infantilize characters that represent daughters. There is, though, a difference between Hugo’s expressed misogyny and how others have read that misogyny. Eponine from Les Miserables, por exemplo. In the original novel, she is probably one of Victor Hugo’s best written female characters, along with being morally ambiguous. Eponine would knowingly trick Marius into joining the Friends of The ABC Society at the Rue Saint Denis barricade out of sexual jealousy and possessiveness. Along with her foot in the door of the dangerous woman trope, she also dresses as a man to join the revolutionaries, taking us into the trope of the deceptive female. For some reason, though, the author(s) of the musical decided to render Hugo’s misogyny differently, even worse in some places.
A current script for the musical has Eponine goggling in awe at Marius’ books and fawning over his hair. Is that deviation going to hugely impact the character of the musical? Maybe not hugely. It does effect the audience’s perspective of Eponine. Nonetheless, it’s curious that the stage writers decided to downplay the existent misogyny in Hugo’s portrayal of Eponine and invent different and more obvious misogyny. In an essay, Oscar Wilde singles out Fantine as uniquely romanticized and sexualized, writing that Hugo invites the reader to “kiss her bloody mouth”. Evidently, many readers have observed Hugo’s misogyny over the years and those that attempted new adaptations have channeled it differently. So much so that it’s hard not to anticipate some version of it in current adaptations; unlike the complicated filtering of the reader’s perspective, Hugo’s misogyny was more changed in translation than lost in translation. In any case, both of those changes are familiar to anyone who has read Hugo and experienced newer renditions.

Other deviations and interpretations have obvious contemporary motives, such as Disney wanting to continue their early-to-mid nineties winning streak and create a lucrative segue toward Broadway, as Lindsey Ellis explains in her video. In the wake of the success of Les Miserables as a musical, multiple live action films were made, either to cash in on the renewed interest or to provide a more “complete” and “faithful” option for those who felt the need for one in response to the structural changes the musical made.

The journey that L’homme qui rit has made throughout pop culture has many similar complications. One thing that’s bound to effect the modern American reading of L’homme qui rit is how the Joker was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s portrayal in a nineteen-thirties film adaptation. I know I was pretty gobsmacked when I learned that Victor Hugo helped give birth to the Joker. In an afterward to the graphic novel adaptation of The Man Who Laughs, written by David Hine and illustrated by Mark Stafford, Hine points out that very through line and it’s role in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He refers to Heath Ledger’s Joker speaking the lines “let’s put a smile on that face” as “a twisted version of Gwynplaine”. It’s hard to disagree, at least in terms of direct influence. Even if it’s the nature of mythic archetypes to be perpetually relevant but in a different way for each era, this particular emanation of Gwynplaine is a stark departure. I don’t know the precise mechanics of Hine’s creative process for this book, but hypothetically put yourself in the position of someone writing a Man Who Laughs comic after decades of the Joker. Compared to the original, the only apparent connection is the total moral pessimism and paranoia. Making a completely new, personal and organic interpretation would necessitate breaking one hell of a pattern.

For the most part, David Hine and Mark Stafford had no problems with making something unique and memorable. There were a few other problems, though, some of which I remember other writers stumbling over while attempting to bring unconventional subject matter into the graphic novel medium. I remember reading a graphic novel about Bertrand Russel a few years ago in which the author would go meta every now and then, draw himself and show us sketches and chats between the creative team and his own rants about how he couldn’t find a way to capture this or that concept. I found it entertaining and it kept me hooked for a little while, but eventually I started wondering why the metafictive device was used and eventually I put the book down since so much about the presentation seemed to be taking up my attention and not providing anything meaningful to the telling of the story. A really egregious example of someone trying to innovate and bring in exciting subject matter to graphic lit happened when some biographies of the central figures of the Beat literary movement were published as comics. As a Burroughs aficionado, I naturally couldn’t resist, and sure enough almost the entire script was bland, lifeless explication. The series was like reading a pamphlet about the Beats with these simple little sketches with word balloons providing trite, out of context quotes.

The L’homme qui rit graphic novel doesn’t get that bad ever, but there are still a few moments that made me squirm a little inside. In the early panels, we see Gwynplaine in the company of the Comprachico’s boarding the ship at Portland Bill. One of them steps in front of Gwynpaine an shouts “Not you!” as everyone boards the ship without him. It’s just such a bald moment and there’s no obvious reason for it. Was it to let the reader know what’s going on? We don’t hear about the recent kingly ban on the Comprachico’s mutilations until later in the story (in the book we hear about the illegalization of Comprachico’s slave trade early on). And, for the purposes of the graphic novel, that’s a perfectly good place to address it. In order to understand this opening scene, though, all we need to understand is that Gwynplaine is left behind. And there’s no obvious reason why the reader needs to be told that explicitly in the moment it happens. What if Gwynplaine is off playing on the beach, looks up and sees the boat floating off, having had no warning? Something like that would have worked just fine and the effect of seeing it before we hear about it would create dramatic weight when the Comprachico’s write down a collective confession that they toss away in a bottle as they capsize.

There are a few other awkward moments of explication, such as the omniscient narrator interjecting out of nowhere the origin and role of Lord David Dirry-Moir / Tom Jim Jack. During the same explicatory break, we also get explication on the roles of the Duchess Josianna and Barkilphedro, which, at least, is arguably efficient. As someone who loved the novel (the first and so far only book I ever read in French) I can empathize with the desire to include the off-beat friendship between Lord David and Duchess Josianna: it’s colorful and entertaining in the original story, especially the various clubs that Lord David belongs to (such as The Fun Club, whose members break windows and set the huts of poor people on fire) and his passion for boxing, which compels him to live and sleep with a given boxer for a long time while training them and carefully monitoring and dictating their diet. Then there’s Hugo’s florid descriptions and voyeuristic pre-occupation with Duchess Josianna. Her pre-occupation with slumming, living a separate life in disguise and wanting to become super-human- combined with her different colored eyes -actually made me think of David Bowie a little. Pleasantly uncanny. While Hugo definitely get’s very typically voyeuristic with this character, it’s handled very differently from other sexualized female characters, and I can understand the temptation to want to draw her in a comic, simply to see what she would look like. I empathize with David Hine’s desire to include Lord David and Duchess Josianna- if I made my own adaptation, I’d be excited to think of how to portray them as well -I’m just not sure why he did it the way he did.

When Hine writes as an omniscient narrator, his diction maintains a connection with the language used by the characters which helps support the tone, but that doesn’t add a strength so much as it simply makes the explication easier to come and go from. Like the “Not you!” moment at the beginning, it’s not terrible, but I can’t help but wonder why. And both of those hiccups are unfortunate, since the illustrations and the sequential connections between the panels are very creative and a more tightly written script could have really made it pop. Another missed beat between writer and illustrator is the handling of Gwynplaine’s face in different contexts. Gwynplaine is largely incapable of any facial expressions besides his gruesome, artificial smile. There are parts in the original novel that I could picture being really poignant in a visual medium: when Gwynplaine is taken to the prison where Hardquanonne is being interrogated he loudly protests his innocence. Gwynplaine is reduced to hysterical shrieking and rambling, since he thinks he’s being accused of something but doesn’t know what. I could clearly picture his pale, sweaty, terrified face with it’s perpetual smile, with tears rolling down his face, screaming the lines “You have before you a poor mountebank!” For any visual adaptation, a live action film, an animated film or a graphic novel, how to portray Gwynplaine’s face with different emotions would be one of the really interesting parts. During most of the parts when Gwynplaine is afraid or anxious, though, his smile in the graphic novel comes off as lecherous. Maybe that was intentional, maybe not. Maybe it was meant to be vulnerable awkwardness.

Another significant departure is the softening of Ursus’ tone. In both the original and the graphic novel, Ursus is a cynical yet enthusiastic verbal performer. In the original, though, he is almost relentlessly sarcastic and angry. If ever he says anything positive, it’s ironically suggested by a frank negative comment. Graphic novel Ursus is hard-bitten, but not relentless. I don’t think this would draw the attention of someone familiar with the book too much- more of a nit-pick, I suppose.

In general, though, the plot was smoothly adapted. The chapter breaks are well placed and the thematic artwork on each chapter’s title page adds something to the graphic novel’s character. I think the tone of the ending was also handled well. There was a live action L’homme qui rit film a few years ago that seriously botched it with a scene with Gwynplaine sinking beneath the waves and encountering a ghostly, angelic Dea. (I also have a bad attitude about that film for several other reasons…not least of all why they decided go with a vampire-like sex appeal for Gwynplaine. Someone I watched it with said he reminded her of Brandon Lee in The Crow).

Speaking of Dea, I think Hine and Stafford did alright with her, given how much Hugo neglected her character development at times. You could say they did their best with what they had. I’d put it on part with the portrayal of Cossette in the 2012 film adaptation of the Les Miserables musical. Cossette certainly did not furnish a ton of depth to work with for future adaptations, especially if they were determined to remain faithful to the original text, and although her changes in the film script from the stage one were slight- such as the altered lyrics of some songs like In My Life and the reprises of A Heart Full of Love and Suddenly at the end -I found them welcome. In the original novel, Ursus tries to trick Dea- who is bedridden and blind -into thinking Gwynplaine is still there with his ventriloquism. The book encourages you to think he’s almost supernaturally talented at this and that Dea seeing through it is shocking. In the graphic novel it looks pathetic, which adds to the sorrow of the moment in a good way. I also enjoyed the graphic novel’s portrayal of Gwynplaine’s speech to the House of Lords at the end: he seemed like he was raging and letting himself go with his anger for the first time in his life, which I thought was neatly consistent with the original. In the live action film, I think they tried to play it like a mental break down, which played badly.

With adaptations of stories you care a lot about, it’s easy to foresee a lot going wrong and get protective. That’s definitely how I felt after seeing the live action L’homme qui rit a few years ago, and I think the graphic novel compares well to it. I can’t say that’s a high benchmark, though, especially since Hine struggled a little with the story structure and the tone. I’d be interested to hear what someone thought of it who knew nothing about the story beforehand. My curiosity has also been piqued with regard to David Hine, particularly another collaboration he did with Mark Stafford in a Lovecraft anthology.

Promethea review (spoilers as usual)

Welp, here it is at long last. For the sake of efficiency I’m going to make this an informal reaction like the rest of the reviews on this blog. I make that distinction because Promethea could easy reward a more in-depth and systematic analysis but I’m at a point in my life where I want to enjoy things at my own pace. Not to mention a close friend of mine recently gave me a book she wrote and I want to get started reading that for a possible review.

Since this is going to be a personal reaction post, I’m necessarily going to have to describe certain things in very broad strokes. Let us start with the reputation of Promethea. A common criticism of this story is that it is not so much a proper novel as it is a prose vehicle for Alan Moore’s personal and academic studies of philosophy and spirituality. There’s definitely room for that interpretation and Alan Moore makes absolutely no bones about the didactic nature of Promethea, but the dude is too playfully garish and genre savvy not to have fun with it. The Promethea comics are opened with a fictional, in-world introduction explaining the comics as the latest in a startling pattern of literary coincidences beginning with a late eighteenth century poet and ending with pulp sci-fi novels, all starring or at least involving the same semi-divine heroine. This opening contrasts richly with certain banal aspects of the opening.

Apparently banal, anyway. Alan Moore is typically big on atmosphere but there is a certain bald quality to our first few moments with Sophie Bangs. I mean, there is that little prologue thingie with the original mortal Promethea, but to me that seemed like a very typical opening section of a fantasy comic or cartoon and wasn’t that distinguishing. When I call the opening atmosphere of the New York of Sophie Bangs banal, I mean word choices that look a little lazy. Sophie and Stacia refer to the college they go to as “the college”. When I was a university student, I never, ever heard anyone call it “the college”. On the surface it looks like phrasing of someone who has never been anywhere near a North American university or its students and doesn’t care enough to do a minimal amount of research to figure out what real American vernacular sounds like. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that this is a passive reference to groups in the ancient world referred to as “the college” (Hellenist, I believe?) but it really just seems awkward. However, I think part of this is a deliberate style choice. As I said, Alan Moore is big on atmosphere as well as world building and intricate linguistic patterns.

 
George R.R. Martin said that many prose writers can be divided into architects and gardeners. An architect plans everything out from the beginning and a gardener plants seeds and watches how they grow on their own. Alan Moore is a quintessential architect. I mean, look at the annotations at the back of From Hell, the years he spent writing Jerusalem or even just his rigid plotting in general. So I think it’s likely that, when the presentation appears bald in the beginning, it may be meant to appear bald. One effect this has is creating a sort of equal footing with the fake introduction. Sophie Bangs and her search for Barbara Shelley seem almost like an innocently organic, surface level reaction or outgrowth of the false introductory text. As if we really had read a real piece of literary academia at the beginning and are now experiencing a lay person’s follow-up.

 

This is a charming way to start and it also sets the precedent for interplay between different literary styles within this story. Moore also has a hard time resisting keeping his hands off of classic lit devices for philosophical writing like the dialectic used by everyone from Plato to Lucretius to Nietzsche, with large sections being dedicated exclusively to dialogue between two characters. The long and colorful sexual encounter between Promethea and Jack Faust, for example, or Sophie’s early conversations with the different incarnations of Promethea that preceded her. These largely explicatory exchanges make up the bulk of the story, by the way. Like I said, though, Alan Moore is too flamboyant and genre-savvy to have the explication stop at the surface and there’s constant dialogue with other perspectives within the bigger framing device of the story.

 

Many of the alchemical, Cabbalistic and Tarot iconography and language have in-world, fictional interpretations and meta-reactions by other characters. Some of these are peripheral, such as where specifically the demons in the beginning and middle of the story come from. It seems implicitly clear that Asmoday and Legion are potentially native to Geburah, the fifth sphere of the Tree of Life, when Sophie and Barbara arrive there. Asmoday is frankly identified with the mythological Hebrew demon Asmodeus and he shares some personal feelings about that story. There are other demons, though, or perhaps different perspectives within the being called Legion, who will use Old English phrases (“Jesu’s Teeth!”) which would imply a link with the divided Christian and Islamic Prometheas from the Crusades, but is never fully explained. Nor does it need to be, since nothing especially important hinges on it, it’s just interesting. That’s just one of the more fun peripheral interplays between different sections and style choices. There are more fundamentally important ones, such as the Painted Doll’s meeting with Promethea at the very end.

 
Before that moment, we have heard a million times and a million different ways that the subjectivity of sentient beings is our only interface with the wider world. One of the central implications of this explored throughout Promethea is that our subjectivities can be a glorious window on each other and our endless potential or a miserably isolating cell. I’ll be getting back to that since it’s kind of a big deal, but moving on, the text has told us repeatedly that our consciousness is all we really have. And then, near the very end, a being that has been alive for less that a few hours is frankly identified with the reader when the Painted Doll says he thought he was either a character in a comic or a person reading a comic. The Painted Doll is actually one of an army of identical homicidal robots that are revived one at a time, with a single shared memory, in order to create the experience of being a single person. At the end of the story, all the Painted Dolls are woken up at the same time. Perhaps naturally, when one of them meets Promethea he says he doesn’t know if any of his memories actually happened. Promethea reassures him that they’re as real as reality itself, that personal identity and all methods of ascertaining the value of things hinge on the stories we tell ourselves and our belief in them.

 

The identification between the reader and the Painted Doll is bottom-lined by a few panels with images of their own page in a lower panel and even a brief meta glimpse of both Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III. This is probably as close as Promethea gets to being a truly didactic text, of being a direct non-fiction missive between Alan Moore and the reader, and even that involves conflating the perspective of the reader with the Painted Doll and some other characters. This is also where the story is at it’s most frankly Jungian- Promethea even frankly says that the reader, while they are reading any story, embody all characters, like the dreamer embodies all characters in their dream. Naturally this takes us back to the bigger theme throughout the story of consciousness either being a window or a prison and what it means to be alone with your subjectivity.

 

Promethea’s way of presenting this question began to resonate with me near the end of the first graphic novel all the way through the rest of the series. I realized I was connecting with this when the character Bill explained the mystical significance of pentacles (AKA coins) after the other explanations of cups and swords. In the Tarot, according to Alan Moore, cups represent compassion and swords are reason. Cups are sustenance and nourishment and receiving. Swords are reduction, discernment and penetration. And yes, the sexy-time version of that is fully explored as well. Speaking of sexy-time and Tarot symbolism, Sophie’s best friend Stacia ends up in a relationship with Grace, the incarnation of Promethea that explained swords to Sophie.

 

Pentacles, meanwhile, are the value of life. Pentacles, as explained by Bill, are the things that tempt us with their value such as money, sex, human affection, anything material or sensual that we crave. Pentacles are also a transitional symbol, as coins are needed to pay the ferryman to cross the Acheron, both in Greek mythology and also later in this story, when Promethea, in the company of Sophie and Barbara, pay Charon to ferry them to the houseboat on Styx (said houseboat is called The Nancy Nox. Not important at all, I just thought that was cute). Genuine desire is always a transitional exchange, to truly savor life is to be at peace with it’s eventual end. This, for me, tied together something of the central theme about the power of subjectivity. To truly be yourself and love life is also to touch and embody your own limits.

 

While we’re talking about Sophie’s conversation with Bill, this is also where we first meet the lady and the snake. The snake is matter and the lady is imagination. This first meeting with the lady and the snake is illustrated by Jose Villarruba, while the second encounter, at the beginning of book three, is drawn by J.H. Williams III. J.H. Williams III also illustrated Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Overture for which he drew the mother of the Endless herself, Night. Night looks almost identical to the lady with the snake. The lady’s word balloons have bold white borders and Night’s word balloons have thin white borders, but the blank space inside the balloons are both dark blue and the white lettering looks almost exactly the same. Night also has a more mature, plus-sized physique whereas the lady is thin, but in comics, especially those by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, word balloons are often treated as identifying features unique to specific characters. I was basically gaping in disbelief when I got to that part. And both the lady and Night appear against a bed of stars with the lighted sections of their bodies appearing dark blue and the shaded parts of their body as blank starscape. With both women, the blank spaces in the word balloons are also the same color as their lighted skin, and both Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore are very, very enamored with the impact language has on identity and perception.

 

What I’m saying is that, if this is simply a friendly wink between authors relayed through the same illustrator, I’d be surprised. The shaded and lighted skin and the word balloons are more than just a passing resemblance: they’re basically fat and thin versions of the same woman. But, like…if it’s the same character…whattheactualfuck? Are we supposed to be thinking about the cosmology and the continuity of both stories? I mean, as much of an architect as Moore is, I don’t think he would make Neil Gaiman swear a blood oath to have his version of the character stay faithful to Moore’s. Or…like…if it even was written after Moore’s? Neil Gaiman had been thinking about and writing The Sandman: Overture throughout the nineties and lost his opportunity to publish it near the run of the main Sandman story solely because of publishing and scheduling decisions made by Vertigo DC Comics. So Promethea got published first. Soooo…..even, like, the whole question of who is riffing on who is a mess.

 

However, this is a bit like the demon question mentioned earlier. Nothing fundamental about our understanding about Promethea depends on this, so long as we limit our analysis to the Promethea comics alone. But, um….um…what the actual fuck!? Are Promethea and The Sandman taking place in the same universe???? With, like, the Endless and the First Circle and the Silver City and everything????

 

For the sake of not getting hung up on this and drawing this review out with a big crazy digression I have to leave that mystery there for now, but I’m definitely gonna get back to it in a later post, especially since I read some other Neil Gaiman comics lately that have interesting implications for The Sandman. I had to get that out of my system though O_O

 

So. Moving on. While Promethea is definitely a philosophical and spiritual treatise within a narrative framing device, the way that the different writing styles and character perspectives interact with each other is so fun that active reading becomes a genuine temptation and indulgence. That being said, there are some weaknesses. In a documentary that tends to float around YouTube called The Mindscape of Alan Moore, he makes vague references to scientists “on the cutting edge of particle physics” that describe information as a “super weird substance” which implies an objective, material dimension to consciousness, potentially suggesting a soul that is distinct from the body. This, to me, seems to be an echo of the so-called “Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics”, which posits that quantum mechanics only behave classically when they are observed.

 

I may be conflating things or misremembering, but I believe Schrodinger’s Cat is typically used as a metaphor to explain this. Feel free to correct me in a comment or a message if you know better. But, according to the kitty metaphor, sub-atomic particles often function as if the spectrum of possible configurations are all happening at once. This spectrum of possibilities is called a sub-atomic super-position. The super-position in general is treated as a static reality until it is observed to be otherwise. I feel like I’m butchering that atrociously, and even if I’m making the correct associations, I’m probably being very, very reductive and simplistic.

 
With those caveats out of the way, that’s what I understand the Copenhagen hypothesis to refer to, and I can’t think of anything else Alan Moore might be referring to. If there is anything else in physics that involves treating subjective observation as a materially influential phenomenon, by all means correct me. But as far as I know, Alan Moore seems to be talking about the Copenhagen hypothesis. I also want to make it clear that my own understanding comes form fragmented memories of high school and college, personal conversations, YouTube videos and the book Waking Up by Sam Harris. It’s actually Waking Up that I take most of my understanding of this from as well as the one glaring weakness of how the Copenhagen hypothesis has been implemented by the New Age movement. In Waking Up, Sam Harris writes that the hypothesis’ use of the word “observation” is not lucidly defined and most spiritual interpretations of the hypothesis overlook or ignore this gray area. Put simply, the assertion that your mind reaches out from your brain to sculpt things outside of it is an interpretation based on a blank area.

 

Unfortunately, there are moments when Promethea relies on the New Age rendering of the Copenhagen hypothesis. In the text, this happens frankly at the very end when Promethea says that modern scientists have reached agreement with historical mystics with privileging consciousness over the things that appear outside of it. At other moments throughout the story it’s hinted at, but one instance in particular strikes me as problematic. Sophie needs to learn more magic, Jack Faust agrees to teach her, in exchange for the chance to have sex with Promethea. For the sake of clarity, Sophie is a teenage girl and Promethea is a developmentally mature, eternally young woman no matter what body is channeling her, and yes your body physically changes into Promethea when you channel her. Still a bit of a squick factor, though.

 

Anyway, Promethea and Jack Faust are doing it and Promethea remarks that describing the whole universe as an inevitable and knowing journey toward the development of consciousness seems a little egocentric and naïve. Jack Faust, or the spirits Jack Faust is channeling, reply that it’s absurd to think that the universe randomly came together in just the right way to create sentient life, as if consciousness is so integral to the creation of the universe that some sentience must have guided it to our sentience. This is no different from the argument from design that Christian apologists use and it ignores a basic empirical fact: while the universe, from our perspective, is so vast as to be endless to us, and is constantly expanding, nothing ever springs fully formed out of nothingness.

 

Did I mention Lucretius earlier? I’m pretty sure I did. Didn’t Lucretius outline something like this in one of his own dialectic treatises? If all the parts are there to begin with and will remain there forever, then every possible configuration must necessarily happen, no matter how rare. I remember being in a freshman level philosophy class where we discussed religious objections to the conclusions of the Miller-Urey experiments in the nineteen-fifties. What those experiments proved was that it’s possible for volcanic activity and lightning and amino acids to interact with each other in a way that would set amino acids on the path toward evolving into complex life forms. The religious nay-sayers of the day claimed that the probability of that chemical interaction was just too rare and coincidental to have happened…in spite of the fact that our planet has actually spent most of it’s existence thus far without complex life. On a long enough time line, all possibilities, however rare, will inevitably happen.

 

I said that Promethea relies on this interpretation of the Copenhagen hypothesis (and the association Moore makes between it and the argument from design) at times. In general, I do not see it as integral to the coherence of the story. It’s still unfortunate, though, and all the more so as it was not a necessary thing to include and since Alan Moore is typically so good and thorough about research and intellectual honesty. Laziness and oversights always sting worse when they’re done by people who should know better. Since these wrinkles only appear occasionally and contribute nothing necessary, though, one could sympathetically read them as a component in the dynamic mixture of literary styles and perspectives, especially since there are already a few instance of a literal, explicatory idea becoming ambiguous and at times morphing into things like attitudes and even characters. Case and point, Grace- the vehicle for Promethea that embodied the essence of cutting, decisive, uncompromising reason, seen in the Tarot as swords.

 

There are two major visionary journeys within Promethea, the first of which consists of Sophie getting acquainted with all the previous women (including Bill, who is a transwoman) who channeled Promethea, the second to track down Barbara, the avatar before Sophie who recently died and left behind the astral island shared by the former Prometheas (and yes, that totally puts us in the literary stomping grounds of Orpheus, Aeneas, Dante and Gerda…so on top of the dialectic philosophy bells and whistles we’re also dealing with the mythical pilgrim archetype). When Sophie meets Grace for the first time, she serves as an explicatory mouth piece to map out the symbolic importance of swords within the Tarot and the role of reason within the identity of Promethea, alongside compassion and commitment to the sweetness of life’s finitude.

 

Grace starts out as a minor character in Alan Moore’s fake introductory text and then becomes a didactic literary device. Later, when Sophie brings Stacia to the Immateria (the ethereal plane where dreams and myths are real…perhaps like the Dreaming, if we wanna go there…lol jk), Stacia is delegated the responsibility of channeling Promethea in Sophie’s absence while she goes after the ghost of Barbara. Upon exiting the Immateria and beginning her shift as the vessel of Promethea, Stacia finds that she has the best report with Grace, the champion of reason, and the ghost and the human begin to fall in love with each other and even start having sex. The pair are so deeply united in their love for one another and their commitment to the duties of Promethea that they become possessive of the role and refuse to relinquish it when Sophie returns from the Immateria. Essentially, Grace went from being a detail in a literary device to a literary device in her own right to a supporting character to a major character with motivations that put her at odds with the main story.

 

The presence of traditional super hero archetypes in Promethea go through a similar journey. One of the more snarky instances of authorial presence is Alan Moore’s irreverence for and disenchantment with the super hero genre. Alan Moore, at first, appears to be using the medium of a comic because it’s his oldest, most well worn hat and he simply wants to put his best foot forward. The guy is a drama queen, though, so he can’t resist making digs at parts of the medium even while it starts out as peripheral. This happens in Promethea’s version of traditional super heroes and villains, here known as science heroes and science villains. Science people occupy a place in the fictional world not unlike rock stars and actors (oh yeah and there’s also rock stars in this to lol ). The public follows them with the same light-hearted interest that we follow celebrities in real life. The two rising stars on this scene are a team of science heroes called the Five Neat Guys and a science villain called the Painted Doll. Yes, the same Painted Doll that the reader is tempted to literally identify with, as an in-world meta-representation of oneself, near the end.

 

The Five Neat Guys and the rest of the science people started out as a bit of fun-poking at common hallmarks of comic books and slowly take on bigger and bigger thematic and plot functions as the story unfolds. Sooo…..as disappointing as the stuff with the Copenhagen hypothesis and the argument from design are, one could conceivably see them as subject to the same changes that all the other didacticism goes through in these books. That would be stretching the limits of intellectual honesty a bit, but there is definitely room for that interpretation. It’s because of this lateral exploration of language as well as the more philosophically compelling heart of this story that I think those particular weaknesses are not much more than occasional eyesores.

 

It’s because of this playful experimentation with meaning that I still think Promethea is a story in spite of Alan Moore’s plainer, didactic intentions. It’s possibly the most fun philosophical narrative treatise that I have ever read, and it certainly cheered me up a few times when few other things have. Promethea moved me emotionally in ways that V For Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell and Batman: The Killing Joke never came close to and I’m a little surprised it took me this long to get to it. It does not quite succeed in elevating my opinion of Moore to that of Neil Gaiman, but it definitely comes closer than anything else he’s written and is definitely my new favorite out of his bibliography.

Marvel 1602, volume one

Sooo I read my first Marvel comic not so long ago! I gotta say I was way more impressed by Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 then with the relatively new re-imaginings of older properties in recent film. And yes, as is typical of me, I won’t be taking any particular care to avoid spoilers.

Granted, some of these characters I knew nothing of prior other than their names and certain details of their back stories. I remembered enough of that one Iron Man movie right before The Avengers to know who Nick Fury was and I briefly dated a guy who was really into Dr. Strange (he once said something vague about Dr. Strange comics being one of the first in the industry to involve Eastern religion).

Beyond that, though, those were the characters I knew the least about. As someone who was in first grade during the early days of Cartoon Network I was sometimes able to catch episodes of the older Hannah-Barbara Fantastic Four cartoon. Around the same time the Fox Kids Saturday morning block was getting off the ground with contemporary animated versions of Spider-Man and X-Men.

(If I may stop for a silly digression, idiosyncratic usages of punctuations are funny. Especially when you know a given punctuation choice is supposed to entirely be a matter of personal preference with no relationship to grammar. I mean, I can’t think of a whole lot of superheroes just now that use hyphens in their names. Just now, I really can’t think of any others except Spider-Man and the X-Men. There. It’s out of my system now)

I enjoyed both but Spider-Man held my interest a little more, possibly for no other reason than that Peter Parker’s double-life in a large urban setting and occasional brooding reminded me a little bit of Batman: The Animated Series which, in my opinion at the time, made it slightly better by association. More recently, I’ve been hooked by the Netflix Marvel shows, particularly Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In high school I knew a few fans of the Punisher but learned virtually nothing about him until the movie came out. At that point I decided he’s a completely impoverished catch-all of Batman tropes. The Punisher is a blandly moralizing serial killer whose rejection of a wider moral context, in and of itself, is awkwardly framed as compelling (punishment versus justice). Essentially, he’s the Joker without humor, Batman without morality and Two-Face without character development. Oh yeah, and he’s fascist-friendly. So the Netflix Daredevil show scored points with me by making him the villain of the second season.

This was my frame of reference coming to Marvel 1602, which I was originally interested in when a random Wikipedia link led me to a Daredevil elseworld page. I read a little more and the re-imagining of the X-Men characters piqued my interest. I read a little further and found that Neil Gaiman was the author of the story arc that constitutes the first graphic novel and it then became mandatory reading. I can nit-pick a few of his novel-length prose stories and his short stories range from so-so to delightfully clever, but the man is absolutely unparalleled with it comes to comics. When I finally write my Promethea review, that will be a nice segue toward the specific genius of Neil Gaiman’s contribution to graphic literature (it contrasts with Alan Moore’s writing style and Promethea contains departures from Moore’s typical MO that makes the contrast relevant). For now, though, I’ll just say Neil Gaiman continues to be my favorite graphic lit writer.

Anyway, my first proper narrative encounter with Dr. Strange seems to bear some resemblance to Dr. John Dee, an enigmatic and potentially mythic figure who is sometimes presented in fiction as a court magician of sorts in the employ of Queen Elizabeth. John Dee is still somewhat fresh in my mind from the brief mention in Alan Moore’s prose novel Voice of the Fire within the vignette called Angel Language, so I was tickled. To my delight, Renaissance-era Daredevil appeared in fairly short order after the opening scene, as did a charming re-imagining of Peter Parker as Peter Parquagh, a young dogsbody and student under the tutelage of Sir Nicholas Fury.

Close on the heels of this is a fictionalized version of Virginia Dare, the first European child born in America after European colonization began in earnest, who is travelling in the company of an…apparent Native American named Rojhaz. Who is blonde haired and blue eyed. Later, in conversation with Queen Elizabeth, Virginia says that blondes among the Natives testifies to the possibility that the Welsh landed in America before the Spanish and started families with those that received them.

Okay okay okay okay okay I get it. He’s Captain America. Fine. This is a Marvel story, after all, and there’s no other likely candidate and the dude’s name was originally Steve Rogers so it fits. Still, as a Native American, watching white people do Native stuff gets old really, really quickly. Does Rojhaz’s role in the story’s denouement make up for it? Not really, but it was still cool enough to ease the burn. When Rojhaz is revealed to be none other than the original Steve Rogers himself, sent back in time and causing a temporal paradox that threatens the universe, it ties together a big thematic element. The resolution of the paradox also helps this along.

Captain America says he wants to make the future inhabitants of the continent proud to be Americans- minutes before getting knocked unconscious by Nicholas Fury. While the conclusion of this story didn’t quite push me in that direction, it did offer a forgiving interpretation of the meaning of the so-called New World in the European mind at that time, and even ties it into a bigger philosophical question about the nature of possibility and hope.

At the beginning, Virginia Dare and Rohjaz set out for England hoping to persuade Queen Elizabeth to offer more financial support for their colony at Roanoke. At the end, Sir Nicholas Fury is an enemy of the Crown for having disobeyed the newly ascendant King James of England and Scotland, Carlos Javier and his gifted students are fleeing the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition with former Inquisitor Enrique (Renaissance Magneto) and his own followers in tow, all bound for America, empty-handed and exiled.

On the shores of the American continent, the witchbreed students of Carlos Javier begin to hope for a home in which they can be themselves openly and without fear of persecution, while also dreading the imminent arrival of Enrique and the Brotherhood of Those who will Inherit the Earth. Banner, an agent of King James taking Peter Parquagh as a captive and reluctant informant, is also fast approaching. Virginia’s father begins to despair of the future of the colony without Queen Elizabeth or any support from the British Crown and also has to reconcile himself with newcomers who may bring more trouble in their wake. After Clea Strange forces Rohjaz to reveal his true identity, he begins to fantasize about a new America that he would help along through his inability to age. And then he gets sent back to his own time retroactively, permanently closing off most of the effects of his resulting paradox. The colony at Roanoke, abandoned by the Crown and helpless without the meta-humans, is now doomed to mysteriously vanish. The stark Roanoke disappearance will not happen immediately, but it will happen.

This is framed well by the commentary of Strange’s alien connections, called Watchers. The young Watcher who relayed the news about the paradox through Strange to the meta-humans is instantly consumed with shame. Watchers are a people who, normally, are destined only to watch and appreciate the whole universe objectively. The objectivity of their Watching is implicitly linked to an appreciation for the universe as something that is both ever-changing and also whole and complete unto itself. The young Watcher called Uatu, who assisted Stephen and Clea Strange in resolving the paradox, is heart-broken over the newly emergent possibilities being shut down. For a Watcher, it is a tragedy that any possibility should be foreclosed, as per the simultaneous flux and completion of the universe. The fact that this one particular chain of events needed to be retroactively taken out to preserve the wider universe is undeniable, but that does not prevent one from mourning the loss of the newer and stranger possibilities that almost happened.

While this has all the bombastic sci-fi bells and whistles you could ask for, what with aliens and time travel and paradoxes, it’s still a rather subtle look at what we think of as being possible and how that shapes the scope of our aspirations. It’s subtlety can be detected in that it involves the eventual obliteration of the characters that shaped our perspective as readers, how they navigated the world and what they understood as inevitable facts of life. Our protagonists are oppressed by the cumulative menace posed by the Inquisition, Count Otto Von Doom and King James in the beginning. At the end, they know that they will soon be wiped from existence and their last few moments of subjective life are gravely limited. We nonetheless end with a touching hint of friendship and intimacy between Virginia Dare and Peter Parquagh. In the last few panels, Peter is bitten by a spider and Viriginia says “it’s not the end of the world.”

Each step into the future is a step into a vacuum, it can either be an explosion of possibility or oblivion itself, but one only ascertains which by taking existence moment by moment, forming our dreams in the shelters of our minds and the love of those around us. Very typical of Neil Gaiman, really. It reminds me of what Stephen King wrote in his introduction to the graphic novel World’s End, that in Neil Gaiman’s stories there is a fundamental good will that applies to everyone, that everyone is deserving of shelter, perhaps the shelter at the end of the universe featured within World’s End. Marvel 1602 is also a clear expression of this kindly humanism.

There’s a lot more in this story that I appreciated, but that’s the big one I wanted to get out of the way. I particularly liked the parts of this tale concerning the Renaissance-era X-Men, but unfortunately the high point of that also ties into the low point.

One of our early character viewpoints on the students of Master Carolus Javier’s Select College For The Sons of Gentlefolk is a mutant named Werner, known commonly as Angel, who quickly develops a romance with young Master John Grey. Anyone who follows Neil Gaiman knows that he is, in general, very queer friendly and female friendly and typically pulls absolutely no punches in this regard. As the romantic chemistry blossoms between the two witchbreed youths we begin to see jealous outbursts from Scotius Summerisle (our version of Cyclops), which reminded me of the jealous lover from the first live-action X-Men movie. Not only are there queer characters, but it also looks like a queer romantic subplot is developing and it ties in with previously established nuances of the mythos. I was absolutely over the moon about this for awhile. And then John Grey turns out to be a woman disguised as a man. Like I said, Neil Gaiman normally does not pull punches with LGBT characters. I find it very easy to suspect executive meddling of one kind or another. It’s disappointing, but there you go.

All in all I very much enjoyed this book and can easily see myself re-reading it soon. A very nice way to lose one’s Marvel Comics virginity 😀