Long Box Tuesday: Metafiction (and Ex Machina #40):

If you follow me here or have the misfortune of attending my lectures, you know I have a great love for metafiction, not only as a literary device, but as a way of interpreting and shaping our own reality. As I continue further into my PhD work, I keep returning to Grant Morrison, not only because I appreciate his examples of metafiction in comic books, but because I love the vocabulary he uses to describe what he’s going after.

Take, for instance, a recent interview he did with Ales Kot and Zoetica Ebb in issue #4 of the amazing publication Coilhouse:

Once the nineties came along, I changed my life and started doing The Invisibles. I thought, I’ll do a comic that actually is a magic spell, a narrative sigil. I had made that little comic book avatar of myself for Animal Man and decided to make a better on, a “fiction suit” I could use to live an alternate life in print.  . . . I was looking at what Neil Gaiman was doing with Sandman, because he looked like his character and it was getting attention. Girls loved him because he looked like Morpheus! I thought, What a wicked idea. Fuse yourself with the character, so if fans love the character then they actually get to meet him when they meet you. How weird is that? I thought, I’m going to turn myself into a comic book character and I’m going to write about my adventures every month. I’m also going to see how it reflects in my own life, as a magical, transformative act.

First off, if you love the aforementioned quote, you’ll end up stalking the entire interview. Go buy your copy of Coilhouse now.

Anyway, maybe it’s my inner nerd taking over, but it’s stuff like this that excites and inspires me. Fiction suit is one of the many terms I’ve appropriated into every day speak and I’ve begun to litter my PhD work with.

Now, I’m not going to get into Animal Man or The Invisibles (not today, at least). Instead, I want to take a quick look at by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina, specifically #40 of the series that used an entire issue to make a metafictional diversion.

Such as this:

Ex Machina #40 Panel from Page 5

What I like about this particular metafictional encounter – the meeting of creator and creation – is how selfish it is. I’m not saying this negatively. Postmodern metafictional encounters, in particular, have been committed more for the benefit of the writer rather than the reader. The writer putting on a fiction suit is a selfish act.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions is a good example of a writer working through some seriously heavy issues as he turns 50. The book is clearly written for Vonnegut first, and luckily, it manages to be entertaining for us as well. Morrison’s metafictional encounter in Animal Man works the same way, but it’s a testament to his talent as a writer that he manages to make it work within the themes he had been building for the previous 25 issues of the run. And when Stephen King puts on his fiction suit for The Dark Tower series, we’re reading King work out some of the remaining issues he had with his horrifying 1999 accident when a truck hit him, leaving him “laying in a heap . . . all tangled . . . [with] his leg was broken“.

Vaughan, wearing his fiction suit, is out to do the same thing; an attempt to work through some emotional issues within the confines of his own work. The issue is full of in-jokes and playing around with the collaborative relationship between Vaughan and Harris, but once you move past that, what you’re seeing is Vaughan at the threshold of a major life changing decision about leaving New York for LA. Like Vonnegut searching for answers from Kilgore Trout, Morrison from Animal Man, King from the Gunslinger, Vaughan is finding answers by interacting with Mitchell Hundred. And thus continuing the postmodern inversion of the creator seeking answers from the creation.

This is a device that turns a lot of people off, but when it’s done right, like in all of the aforementioned examples, it’s a real delight – with implications that are even more delightful.

4 thoughts on “Long Box Tuesday: Metafiction (and Ex Machina #40):

  1. Again, I will refer you to Dave Sim’s _Cerebus_. This is rife with metafictional encounters and events, early in series as part of the comics satire it started as, and later in the series as a heavy meditations on creating, creators, creations, faith, men and women, and the Creator.

    The book _Minds_ is particularly relevent here, as Cerebus the Aardvark finally meets “Dave,” who he mistakenly believes to be THE god. Dave spends a chunk of this narrative lecturing his creation on his behavior, showing him what could have been…all while Cerebus in return (through his behavoir and narrow-mindedness)shows Dave that it probably never could really be that way no matter what he’d planned for Cerebus anyway (Cerebus being too stubborn, singleminded and too bloody clever to do as he’s told in the first place).

    Sim appears as various avatars and as himself, sometimes in the story, sometimes outside the story but still in comics form, and even in written narratives that increasingly eat up page space (as Sim and an avatar in a parallel storyline).

    Following? No? I won’t even get into the whole last third of the series.

    Read this, man. It’s what you’re looking for. And it will really, really frustrate and piss you off.

    Hell, now I’m going to go re-read it from the start myself…

  2. Another interesting comics metafictional moment comes to mind: At the end of his run as writer for Swamp Thing, Alan Moore created a bayou-dweller who bore a striking resemblance to himself. Stangely, when Rick Vietch took over the book, he used the character a few more times, which felt to me like he was playing with someone else’s toys.

    I’m hazy on the rise of Alan Moore in the 80s, so I don’t know if his whole “Scary John Lennon Jesus” look was yet the icon it later became, so I’m not sure if the character’s design was more of an injoke or a nod and a wink to the audience. Either way, he seems to be there as part of Moore’s adieu to the title after such a groundbreaking run.

  3. I know I have to read CEREBUS. Right now though, I have a ton of examples I’m already working with. This isn’t to say I won’t use Sim’s work, but at the moment, my plate is full.

    From the sound of it though, it looks like Sim is playing with the bigger picture stuff with metafictional encounters; the idea that the experience doesn’t end with us, that there’s something bigger behind us watching us. This is the tenth dimensional stuff I like to study.

    My only hope is that Sim isn’t arrogant about it. The biggest problem with metafiction is the arrogance it tends to bring out of the writers (like Miguel de Unamuno’s MIST, which, while good, is a little disorientating in how badly the writer looks by the end of the story…something I don’t feel he intended*). Morrison inches a little too close with ANIMAL MAN, but it still works, and he nails it beautifully in FINAL CRISIS and ALL STAR SUPERMAN.

    I’m aware of Moore with SWAMP THING. I think Garth Ennis actually played with Moore along the same lines with HELLBLAZER, if I’m not mistaken. Hell, Moore even popped up in the sixth season premiere of LOST.

    I think comic book readers, especially those raised on the medium, are more open minded to metafiction. Marvel would have a lot of fun with this stuff. I remember Stan Lee and his artists meeting the heroes pretty often (or, at least, it seemed that way) (it would be awesome if they had a collection of this stuff). And Dan Slott recently bent over backwards in his SHE-HULK run to create an acceptable reason for Marvel Comics to exist within its own universe.

    That all said, this stuff is a lot of fun.

    *This is why the Stephen King encounters are so interesting, in that he makes himself look so badly to his own creations, especially when they meet him in his drug-alcohol days.

  4. By the end of Cerebus, neither Sim nor Cerebus come out looking too good, IMO. Much of the series is a comics-framed polemic for his beliefs about pretty much everything. Sim is a notorious self-indulger and has alienated himself from much of the comics profession – going so far as to publicly excoriate Moore and Gaiman as essentially line-toeing wimps and publicly challenging Jeff (BONE) Smith to a fistfight.

    I myself have a kind of outsider view of my own work, so I empathize with him to an extent, but Sim always does everything to extremes. When he partied, he almost killed himself with drugs and booze. When his work was peaking, he rode in limos and stayed at $3000-a-night hotels and payed the bills of less fortunate self-publishers. When his relationships with women tanked, he became an outspoken misogynist. When he thought he had a vision of god, he essentially created a new religion for himself (an Islam-Catholic hybrid) and completely changed the focus of his work, dragging his readers along with him.

    The first half of the Cerebus “epic” is about the character, and really does amazing things in High Society, Church & State, and the smaller volumes “Jaka’s Story” and “Melmoth” (which is a sort of biography of Oscar Wilde). Things turn from there into more of a Dave-Sim-working-on-his-thesis thing from there, with side trips about the Stooges, Hemmingway, and Woody Allen. For me, there is too much of a end of the movie Holy Mountain “surprise!” that can feel insulting if you don’t keep it in perspective (that being that this is Dave Sim’s Comic, and really has nothing to do with me). That may be the major failing of the the second half, that you’re not really in the story much. But maybe that’s not really a failing, as Sim had one foot firmly planted in story and the other firmly planted in real life through that whole portion of the narrative, e.g., that’s what he was going for the whole time.

    Taster’s choice, ultimately, and there’s a lot to get frustrated about. But I’ve always loved reading stuff that hurts my brain, I don’t know why. I still think it’s too big to ignore. Even train wrecks and Rush Limbaugh can draw the attention occasionally – if you’ve morbid enough tastes.

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