Thursday, December 1, 2011

one order of magical cities with a side of grits, coming up?

There seems to be this increasing sense in fiction that grittier is better. The anti-hero is rising in popularity, death rates for a protagonist's nearest and dearest are shooting up exponentially, kids travel to a magical world and save it only to wake up to their own world in a gutter. Comic books even have a name for this era--"The Dark Age", which started in 1993 when Superman died and a whole depressing host of trauma was unleashed on the Marvelverse. (It's worth noting that Alan Moore takes partial credit for this movement by attributing it to his famous comic Watchmen, which kickstarted the Dark Age. "The apocalyptic bleakness of comics over the past 15 years sometimes seems odd to me," he's reminisced in interviews, "because... I tend to think that I've seen a lot of things over the past 15 years that have been a bizarre echo of somebody else's bad mood. It's not even their bad mood, it's mine, but they're still working out the ramifications of me being a bit grumpy 15 years ago.")

The importance of this lies, of course, in how it ties to fantasy--urban fantasy, in fact, and its sudden rise in popularity in the last decade. Reading through the genre, it's easy to notice a steady pattern: namely that, nine times out of ten, the supernatural hasn't drawn the human world into its grasp. Humans aren't being forced into alien servitude. It's always the other way around. Vampires order coffee at Starbucks; werewolves go back to the grocery to return fourteen bottles of ineffective conditioner; elves stand in line at the DMV and curse slow bureaucrats in beautiful and eldritch tongues. I'd go so far as to argue that this is part of an overarching Dark Age that has infected comics and other literary genres. That writers have dragged the fantastic into the human world because this is the easiest way of debasing the wonder: by tangling it in the mundane. It's a technique not dissimilar to the old horror favorite--turning the familiar into something strange. Bloody torture scenes in an ugly dungeon far and elsewhere are often only gross: a man with a knife, a rope and the alarm codes for your house is much more alarming on the personal level.

And yet, for the most part, urban fantasy remains fairly tame in terms of darkness. Not to say that murders and bloodloss aren't worth a grimace--but at the end of the day, the protagonist retains all the core beliefs needed to keep them as the protagonist. The monsters are reclaimed--a pattern especially likely in young adult fiction, which tends to preserve a sense of hope that adult fiction would usually rather impale with stiletto heels. Fairies may have been forced out of their illusory wonderlands and into leather biker jackets, but they're still, in twisted forms, the gorgeous and alien creatures of myth. The workings of the genre ultimately preserve a stasis of affairs.

This is likely less a statement about the way people react to writing about the fantastic than the fact that authors tend to want to leave things open to more stories. It isn't in their interests to hit "self-destruct"--yet. Still, slowly but surely, the anti-heroes are getting darker. Reboots of popular franchises are getting grittier. Without actual research, it's impossible to do anything but speculate as to whether this is a chance wave in the sea of popular fiction or if an actual tide is turning for the dark. Still, one can't help but wonder if audiences will actually lose interest in the steeping of fantasy in darkness. Urban fantasy's set its patterns, but where is the genre going?

No comments:

Post a Comment