Dragons, dungeons and genres (oh, my!)

Dragonslayer, by Zak Nelson

Sipping my first coffee of the day, I review my work ahead:

  • Write blog entry (in process)
  • Work on Wayward Sister script
  • Plant tomatoes (weather permitting)
  • Work on dragon banner for Solomon’s party

There are more chores, but I left those out. Solomon is my nephew. His nickname is Solo. How cool is that? He turned eleven two days ago. He’s having a kite-flying party on Saturday, with dragon banners. I don’t quite get the connection, but then, kites are cool and so are dragons, so what more connection do you need really. Solo’s mother—my half-sister Rebecca—charged me with designing a dragon. Little did she realize who she was asking. I happen to be something of a dragon expert. Well, that and dungeons. The longest job title I ever held was a volunteer position: I was Dungeon Master for four years, from seventh through tenth grade, erstwhile leader of a band of adventurers seeking fame and fortune and solace from a world that did not understand their genius yet.

It would be easy to slip back into the world and language of fandom, to deal a hand of references to orcs and hobgoblins, 18 Dexterity, two-handed bastard swords, and Tenser’s Floating Disc spell. Funny how the recall is all there. I haven’t played a role-playing game in years, but I can still tell you that while orcs are big and mean, goblins are insidious little fuckers that swarm you and drain hit points like turds down a toilet. But I’m not such a huge fan of fantasy fiction anymore. so much of it has become standardized: it’s like, I get it. Elves have delicate features. Dwarves are bearded and bellicose. All adventures start at the local tavern, in the safe little hamlet of __. Move on. The references and allusions aren’t fun unless they’re doing double-time, at least. Make them ironic. Or tragic. Or funny. Or whatever. Instead of referring to that two-handed bastard sword—whereby fans will read and understand that (a) OK, the wielder is strong enough to hold one aloft, and (b) the wielder means to do some serious slicing and dicing—put some English on it. Like the sword hasn’t been sharpened since the Dark Ages. Or it’s too heavy to lift. Or too slow to swing. Or explain why it’s called a bastard sword in the first place. I dunno, make something up. And—once you’ve done that—invite other readers in.

Fantasy novels—and I’m going to go out on a limb here and insinuate most popular genre fiction—hangs a sign on the door of its clubhouse saying in big childish block letters “No ____ Allowed!” You get to be part of the club early on, usually. Someone teaches you the secret handshake. Someone slips you a gateway drug—that book that leads you down the path to the secret clubhouse, not always the best writer of the genre, nor always the first—just the one that pulls you in, not just to the author’s world, but to her or his worldview—because that’s what we’re talking about with genre. The literary conventions are a part of it but the worldview is everything.Sometimes the gateway drug is a hack writer who churns out the same novel year after year. But he or she has legions of adoring fans because they’ve created a world—and a worldview—that is consistent and safe from the outside world.

Sure, there have been great fantasy writers: Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Even Neil Gaiman with his Sandman series. And let it be said: J.R.R. Tolkien. But so many others are content to create their neat little worlds (sometimes they’re not so little, as with Robert Jordan) hang their Members Only sign outside and then take the rest of the next decade or two off, churning out series and trilogies mining their worlds—their worldview!—for further proof of their self-evidence. And those are the good writers. The shitty ones no one pays any attention to!

But see, my biggest beef with genre fiction is not the conventions—they are the literary equivalent of corporate branding. It establishes the story in the world and the worldview efficiently, so we can get on with the story. And the story is meant as an entertainment—not a bad thing—rather than a discourse on human nature, etc. No, my complaint is with the limitations of these literary brands themselves: see, it’s not hard to poke holes in them. And poke holes I do, especially in genres where the effort needed to suspend my disbelief, and maintain the illusion that this world makes sense, becomes too taxing, and my mind wanders from the story to the elements of the story.

How about a romance novel where the swashbuckling hero turns out to be a robot from the planet X-MR9?

Or a horror story where the kindly old man is really a murderous demon… but in fact turns out to really be a kindly old man suffering from a horrible illness, and who should be taken to a hospital right away and have his children notified before he gets into any more trouble?

Or a vampire story where the vampire chips a tooth?

Or a science fiction story where the robots from planet X-MR9—meant of course as an allegory for humans—turn out to really be into bondage?

When genre fiction gets trapped in its own conventions, it’s too easy to mimic. It’s too easy to poke holes. It’s too easy to disregard. And the flip side of that is this: that when genre fiction becomes this ossified, it starts speaking only to its clubhouse of loyal fans. It’s like golf.  (You wonder where they get the term “clubhouse.”) And in these situations, that worldview becomes stagnant. New writers might come along and try to breathe new life into them, might succeed in some cases, but they’re grafting onto a diseased limb. At best they’re going to get something ugly out of it. Frankenstein was a graft, in more ways than one (ask Percy Bysshe Shelley, who for better or worse rewrote his wife’s crappy ghost story, creating a multi-layered and brilliant monster of a book).

Look at the new Sherlock Holmes movie by Guy Ritchie, with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Same characters. Gone is the emphasis on a worldview where a stiff upper lip and observation to empirical details can solve the world’s mysteries. In place we have a worldview where a command of these scientific powers is necessary to being a bad-ass, but where one’s own neuroses are as big a villain as any Moriarty. In this telling, Holmes is practically undone numerous times by his antisocial behavior and failure to notice nuances of human emotion. He doesn’t overcome these flaws so much as work around them, or despite of them. And that’s the new worldview.

Look at the new movie Kick-Ass. Which I thought, going in, was going to be a family movie. Parents be warned! I will say outright that I loved it, critics be damned. But here, what is the movie? A retelling of the superhero genre. Except it’s self-aware. And it can’t inhabit the same worldview that Spider-Man and Superman and Batman (here I wonder: why does only Spider-Man get the hyphen? Note to self); in that era, it was escapism enough to read those comics, and vicariously tag along on their adventures ridding the world of evil menaces. But that genre has become so stylized—I mean, look at the 60s Batman TV show: it’s been to camp and back, people—that tights, capes, and masks are a joke. You have the new Iron Man—also Robert Downy, Jr., I will note—the only superhero, aside from maybe Animal Man, who removes his mask in public.

And here comes Kick-Ass: a nerdy teen busy whacking off to his large-breasted teacher—nothing new here, Portnoy—obsessed with a hot girl at school and stunted by an addiction to comic books. And here’s where the worldview is adapted to more modern sensibilities: it’s no longer enough to read about the super hero exploits and think, “how cool!” This is the era of YouTube. An era of political and social polarization, where moderate discourse—on TV shows and in Congress—is unheard of and where grownups go all-in on every hand. This nerd recognizes how pathetic sitting and reading about superheroes is. And, enmeshed in a nearly tragic logic (nearly, because it’s still funny, and because…well, I won’t spoil the ending) that leads him to decide that the only rational thing to do is don a wetsuit and go out fighting crime himself. And that ups the ante for us, as the viewers: it’s not enough for us to watch superheroes on-screen either: see the last three Fantastic Four movies. No, their stories have to either delve into their human frailty (Spider-Man), play for wit and self-conscious irony (Iron Man), or engage us in a new kind of vicariousness. If it’s not enough to watch the superheroes fly around in capes beating up bad guys, if those tropes have becomes a bit too stale for audiences to swallow, what if the regular kid—a nerd like you or me—goes out and actually starts trying to beat up bad guys?

So this is an example of a successful rescue. So are the Spider-Man and Iron-Man franchises. And Christopher Nolan, one of the most exciting directors to emerge this decade, has triumphed with his spin on Batman. But Fantastic Four and ultimately the X-Men series failed because they tried too hard to maintain a worldview that (a) was not really relevant to mass audiences, (b) spoke only to the “clubhouse,” and (c) instead of breathing new life into a genre, succeeded only in making their story generic.

It would be really easy for me to start spouting off about red dragons versus gold dragons and blue ones, mandrakes and wyrms and so forth. The dragon I’m drawing for Solo is red. It looks bad-ass. But if you ever catch me writing a story about a team of adventurers stumbling upon a dragon’s cave and using their combined unique skills to kill or subdue it, and then make off with the gold, you had better believe that there will be (a) a vampire with a chipped tooth in there somewhere, (b) aliens who love bondage, or (c) maybe a pair of ne’er-do-wells in Renaissance Faire costumes who wander into the story, puffing a joint and tripping out on the rag-tag bunch of crazy dudes with swords over there, and hey man, what’s with the dragon?



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  1. Hi, Zak! Just wanted to say that I remember playing Dungeons and Dragons with you as a kid. And I remember that you were a great Dungeon Master, because you were a great storyteller!

    By the way, I have to admit that I’m a sucker for movies and books made in this kind of fantasy genre. I guess it depends on why someone wants to watch a movie or read a book. For me, I consider it like a break from real life, so I don’t mind stepping into a factory-made worldview. It’s kind of like visiting your favorite vacation spot. Can’t argue with the fact that an interesting story with interesting (and flawed) characters helps, though.

    P.S. Come to think of it, I believe I still have some artwork that you drew from those D&D games. 🙂 I’ll have to scan and e-mail anything I find.

    • Hey David! Long time no speak. Yeah, we had some good times. I agree that fantasy novels and similar can be addictive escapes, and I didn’t mean to knock them as such. Books as entertainment are good, and definitely more enjoyable than some of the high-falutin’ literature out there. If I’m going to critique genre fiction for being a “Members Only” club, I need to point out that a lot of so-called literary fiction and poetry also achieves the same effect, shutting out potential readers using its own brand of tropes and conventions, such as allusions to a literary canon that not everyone has read, or elliptical symbolism that only few recognize. I’ll remember the “favorite vacation spot” analogy too, that’s a good one.

      Thanks for reading, too!

  2. hiya bro- have you seen the animated flick “How to train your dragon”? its really good story with some pretty cool dragons…Solo would love it – if he hasnt seen it already. I hope you share the finished banner with us before you give it to him

    PS- i still want you to design my tattoo

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