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Committed: Transformation

Today I was reading Enigma in the bath and got all excited about transformation. Initially I was enjoying it because it so blatantly explores the moment of personal transformation, and this is something which I’m always interested in. Getting a glimpse of what happens when an ordinary person is entirely changed by a confrontation with the extraordinary is the meat of an interesting story.

051210_enigmaThis correlated with something I’d been talking about earlier in the day. I was explaining that I enjoy Osamu Tezuka’s work because even in his most commercial and seemingly innocuous stories, there is a common thread of transformation. Whether he’s writing about education, aging, sex change, rebirth, bestial metamorphosis, disease, death, or enlightenment, he is exploring the moment and experience of an individual’s transition from one state of being to another. It really is fascinating.

As I thought about this correlation between Enigma and the work of Osamu Tezuka, it was suddenly obvious to me that it’s not just these two small areas, but all of the fiction that I read which focuses on transformation. They all contain some element of that moment of the complacent person being confronted by something outside of their usual arena, and being changed by that. It echoes something important within our own lives, and it makes sense that this would be the stuff of gripping fiction.

051210_buddhaSo there I was, all excited about this idea of a universal undercurrent of transformation in fiction and the ties binding it all together, when it occurred to me that we aren’t actually like that. In a neat, wrapped up novel, a character experiences something and then we leave him/her to live happily ever after. Certainly there are a few series of books, but this is the exception, not the rule. In fiction, a character experiences one truly mind-blowing moment of transformation, in order to become something. I.e. the character has a beginning and an end state.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) real life isn’t quite so neat, we are never “done” with our growth and transformation. In life we’re continually being confronted by great and small experiences and these things inevitably change us. From the moment we’re born until we finally die, internal and external forces are affecting us. We’re evolving, that’s what life is, that is the journey we’re on. There is no definitive moment when we’re done, not until our lives are over. In that regard, traditional novels are frustratingly limited.

051210_shazamComic books are different. By their very nature, the supposedly insubstantial medium of the superhero comic book is ongoing. What at first seems like simply an accident of marketing, is actually incredibly compelling. The longevity of the ongoing superhero allows them to endlessly transform and evolve. Unlike novels, it is implicit in the medium of the superhero comic that they’re unending, continuously existing and developing. For many years the characters continue, while each new writer and artist take their turn at creating interesting new journeys for the characters. As each new creative team approaches these iconic heroes, they seek to create compelling stories by bringing their own vision of transformation to the character’s lives, and therefore creating organic myths.

It is the integral, ongoing evolution of comic book characters that is a large part of why they become substantial to us as readers. Just as we do, the characters keep growing and changing, being influenced and transformed by their stories (even if those stories are simply created to surprise and entertain.) Unlike other characters of fiction, the nature of the medium demands this continuation, which in turn forces them to more fully live in our consciousness, thus creating a shared transformative experience for comic book readers. Like anyone, there are times/storylines when we don’t like our heroes, and it is this very unpredictability that makes them the stuff of living, challenging mythology.

8 Comments

The Ugly American

May 12, 2010 at 10:08 am

MAN would you just LOOK at those mutton chops on C.C. Beck’s Superman?

I love Enigma, its one of those books I’m always gutted I haven’t got a copy of it – thought it was astonishing at the time.

You had me at “reading Enigma in the bath…”

Seriously though, all fiction centers around conflict and all conflict forces the protagonist to alter their status. Now granted that isn’t always radically transformative, but there needs to be some progression, even if it’s circular in the end.

Now, you didn’t mention the interesting irony of the ongoing comic book medium, which is at odds with your premise of continual evolution: Comics tend towards the status quo. Superman, can’t change much or he ceases to be Superman, so the conscious effort to return to the status quo after each issue/story is always prevelant.

That said stories shave a way of happening anyway: Superman of the 60′s is different form his 50′s counterpart even though you could argue the trappings changed very little. Sensibilities of writers shape the characters gradually. Though there are a handful of exceptions, there aren’t a lot of “transformational” moments spread out over Superman’s or Batman’s 70 year history that stick, but the gradual changes still continue.

I wish I could retcon my life. But sometimes living with your past is better than changing it. No one ever fully knows HOW one’s self changed someone or something else, ad infinitum. Perhaps it’s also these rippling experiences that comics also try to show. The transformation not only of the individuals, but in their entire universe.

This is why things like Fables, Walking Dead and Powers are great. Their creators don’t claim to have a defined ending in mind (say like Preacher or Sandman), but they are free to genuinely change the book and do what they want with it, unlike mainstream super hero books (and even non-super hero books. When did John Constantine or Judge Dredd ever real change?)

That’s how you get your comics wet.

I’d rather get my comics wet than not read comics.

“Enigma” is one of the best comics, period. Seriously underrated. Is it still in print?

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