Ask Chris #176: SUBTLETY!!!!!
Q: Is writing comics with a lack of subtlety a good or bad thing? Or does it all depend on how it’s handled? –@therealdealkern
A: This is a really tough question, because unlike a lot of things I write about, I don’t have a definitive answer one way or the other, even though it’s something I notice all the time. Looking back, it seems tricky to figure out why I love some things and hate others for what seems to be the exact same reason. I mean, I’ve got a reputation as someone who loves over-the-top stories and comics that have a complete lack of anything that even approaches nuance, full of blunt statements, raw emotions and names that couldn’t be more on the nose if they were a pair of reading glasses.
And yet, at the same time, there are stories I hate precisely because they have that same lack of subtlety, or because they’re eye-rollingly obvious. There’s got to be a difference somewhere, right?
Disney’s Frozen is a perfect example. I saw it the other day, and with the exception of two or three scenes, I could not have had a worse time in the theater. I had pretty high hopes, but everything was just so mind-numbingly obvious from the very first moment of the film. I realize that you’re going to get that when you’re making a feature film out of a Hans Christian Andersen fable, but there wasn’t even the slightest attempt at crafting a metaphor. It was all just there, to the point where there is a song about a character repressing her emotions that repeats the line “conceal, don’t feel,” which is bludgeoning the audience with a point so hard that I’m surprised I didn’t walk out with a concussion — and that’s before she makes a “kingdom of ice-olation.” Everything that happened was both painfully obvious and precariously based on the idea that people had to studiously avoid ever discussing any plot points with each other, with characters that had to not just be naive, but actively dumb to make it all work and a villain who makes a telegraphed third-act heel turn more or less by default because the rest of the characters are too busy being good. I didn’t like it is what I’m getting at here.
And yet, at the same time, the reason I had such high hopes for Frozen was that I really, really loved Tangled, which is arguably just as obvious in how it goes about presenting its story. It’s got the same based-on-a-fable setup, the same blunt statements about character motivations, the same linear plot that hits all the expected beats in the same order. Even the overarching structures about the dangers of literally hiding someone’s talent away where no one can see it versus literally repressing your emotions and becoming cold to the people you should love, are equally straightforward, sitting right there in a land free of metaphor.
It’s almost fair to say that they’re the product of the same factory, so what’s the big difference? Did I relate more to the moral about defying authority figures? Is it that I don’t generally care for musicals and didn’t know Frozen was a full-on singing spectacular until I was sitting in the theater? Is it that Tangled‘s clever use of hair as an adventuring accessory reminded me of my beloved Kabuki Quantum Fighter for the NES? Is it, as I suspect, that Tangled did not feature a wretched little snow homunculus that exists in defiance of the laws of God and man?
I suspect it’s a combination of all of these and more, but I’m pretty sure it’s that first reason is a pretty big factor. I could talk all day about how Tangled is better written and has characters with more depth than a tablespoon, but at the end of the day, I’m willing to forgive a lot if a story affects me on an emotional level. The thing is, that’s a really, really tricky thing to try to quantify — it’s the most subjective quality a piece of media could possibly have, and it happens across all media.
Superhero comics provide a ton of easy examples of this same phenomenon, because they’re a genre that has never had all that firm a grip on the very concept of subtlety. The entire medium was pretty much launched when there was a guy with super-powers that made him a super-man whose name was “Superman,” and that’s about the level we’ve been working with ever since. Even Watchmen, the book that’s been held up as the high point of maturity for the genre for the past 35 years, is only slightly less subtle than a brick to the head. It’s more like a brick to the head that’s been wrapped in a pillow, I guess. I mean, the book is called Watchmen, and if you didn’t quite get an idea of the themes involved from that, there’s a handy quote right there on the dust jacket helping you out. Then there are the characters. Ozymandias, who believes he’s in control everything, manipulating events to serve his higher purposes, placing himself above any government or oh I don’t know king? Rorschach, who believes what he sees in black and white to be an objective truth even though everyone around him sees things subjectively just like in a psychological Rorschach test? Maybe wrapping that brick in a pillow is giving it too much credit.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. There are a lot of great comics, some of the best comics, that have completely dispensed with subtlety in favor of going straight for their point. My favorite comics creator in history — a pretty inarguable contender for the greatest of all time — is Jack Kirby, a guy who created villains named “Baron Von Evilstein” and “Annihilus,” and that’s just scratching the surface of how unvarnished he made his metaphors. His greatest comics, the saga in which he created some of his most emotionally affecting stories, was built around a group of good guys fighting a bad guy who represented the dark side of human nature, whose name was Darkseid.
There is nothing subtle about referring to oneself as “THE TIGER-FORCE AT THE CORE OF ALL THINGS.” There is also nothing that is not completely awesome about that.
It’s not just in comics, though. It wasn’t that long ago that I was talking to Keiron Gillen about Young Avengers — an interview where I talked about how much I love that it’s a book about teenagers literally being estranged from their parental figures while battling a villain named “Mother” and we talked about this same theme of subtlety — where we got to talking about music, too. This, incidentally, is what happens to everyone who talks to Kieron Gillen about anything, but in my case, it led to a conversation about how much I love stuff like Pet Sounds and those Phil Spector songs, where it’s just bare, honest emotion. That’s the primary appeal of that stuff for me. And along the same lines, it’s why I like comics about teenage superheroes, because of the overblown emotions that teenagers have that sand off the last traces of varnish from those metaphors.
So if that’s the case, we’re back to asking why it’s so off-putting in something like Frozen. Why do I think “Annihilus” is a perfectly acceptable name for a bad guy, but roll my eyes at “Atrocitus” even though it is pretty much the exact same name? Why do I think “Mother” trying to control children is a great core for a story, but “Kryb” being a weird monster with an actual crib used to kidnap babies is jaw-droppingly terrible? Uh, not to pick on Green Lantern or anything — okay, maybe a little — but it’s the first stuff that came to mind.
The more I think about it, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that subtlety is pretty unnecessary, which, if you’ve read the comics I’ve written, is a conclusion you probably already knew I was heading for ten paragraphs ago. It’s just another tool in the box, and skipping it doesn’t break anything, as long as everything around it is built to support what you’re doing. The emotional resonance that you get from something, the connection that lets you forgive or embrace elements that would otherwise seem a little too on the nose, all that comes from the way a story is built and presented, the level of craft that’s put into it.
That might not be a satisfying answer since that’s all stuff that’s pretty tough to define and can vary from person to person, but if what you’re doing is constructed well enough, it’s going to come through. All the stuff that I don’t like for being so obvious is because it seems easy, like it hasn’t been refined, or because there’s some other problem where that lack of subtlety doesn’t serve the point. Frozen, for instance, has problems beyond everyone just going around yelling about what they’re feeling at any given moment, and the New Gods have a lot going on beyond everyone’s name. There has to be enough there that it all fits together — that’s the real key. As long as everything else works, it’s not going to hurt anything if you name a character who acts before he thinks because he’s so impulsive “Impluse.”
“Kryb” should’ve probably gone through a second draft, though.