The Death of the Author and Comics

First published 31 August 2011

I have often found, to my surprise, that my love of comic books makes itself useful in many seemingly unrelated circumstances. Only a few months ago I was a lazy student wandering in the convoluted byways of medieval Irish literature and oddly enough knowledge of comic books’ style and conventions proved invaluable. So this week I want to address one of those conventions, the fact that each character has many different authors behind it a fact that leads to a fronting of the character itself. This effacing of a single authorial voice has been called the Death of the Author and is surprisingly common.

One of the major difficulties that students of modern literature have, when dealing with any kind of early medieval literature, is the anonymity. By early medieval I mean the days before Dante, Boccaccio and various Italians started attaching their names to works of literature. This lack of an identifiable author or single motivating force behind work (as even a single story could have multiple authors) makes contemplating the purpose of any given text quite difficult. This often leads to the foregrounding of fictional characters as the basis for discussion. The mythical world, which is to a greater or lesser extent coherent, becomes the focus of the attention and those many minds that created and maintained it disappear into the background.

This is where comic books come in. Here is a medium in which one recognisable character can be carried on the shoulders of many different authors. Indeed for the longest time growing up I never looked at the author of a particular strip; where the story came from was not important, what was important was the character. Now I could go off here into a discussion on how comics and graphic novels are an intensely collaborative medium very like the unconscious collaboration out of which medieval stories arose. Comics are built by more than one mind both in the individual instance in the coming together of author, artist, inker and letterer and in the wider history and accretion of information about a character. This mirrors the genesis of literature: rising from folk tales, created by unconscious collaboration of oral story tellers and then when in written form endlessly redacted and added to by a succession of scribes. But that is a story for another day.

What I would like to address here is the fact that an absence of a single discernable author is not so unusual to the modern mind and rather a floating character able to bridge many different narratives and many different media is a more satisfying method of storytelling than a discrete narrative whole unto itself. The comic book industry does this very well, ably demonstrated now since most people come across comic book characters in the cinema. It could be argued that the comic book industry’s raison d’être is to foreground a character and then explore, through the viewpoints of many authors, that character’s traits. This is very similar to the ways in which medieval Irish authors dealt with their national heroes, familiar to their audience from folk tradition; they took a well recognised character and examined it in various different lights. This earlier way of interacting with a text, as a multifaceted idea presented to an audience, was recognised by Barthes in his famous Death of the Author essay: ‘in ethnographic societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose “performance” – the mastery of the narrative code- may possibly be admired but never his “genius”’. Thus he ascribes the fallacy of the Author to the modern age and calls for the death of the Author, as a single God-like being revealing himself to the audience. What he would prefer is for the reader to be the sole person of import when discussing a text. The true relationship is between the reader and the fictional character. Barthes was writing in the year of an exhibition of comic strip art at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the Louvre and at a time when comics were beginning to be taken seriously as a medium. The intellectual climate was ripe for a return to story telling that humanity had enjoyed in its first steps towards culture.

I am not going to deny that things got slightly abstract back there so I shall end with a concrete example. I have sought to demonstrate in this article that comic books and superheroes are a modern reflex of a very old story telling technique that hides the author and foregrounds the fictional character and the audience’s response to it. The setting can change but the character remains constant, as he is the touchstone and the short hand through which the audience accesses the narrative. As a brief example Captain America, who acts as shorthand for the American ideal, was the perfect character with which to address the changing nature of that society in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The force of Steve Rogers’ Nomad period comes from his symbolic role as Cap and the character’s brief repudiation of that role. As for the second half of the argument, that the audience is the true owner of any fiction, we need only look at the recent controversies surrounding the Miles Morales reveal and DC’s Harley Quinn reboot. All hell can break loose when people mess with our characters.

So on to that example I promised you. Cast your mind back to 1995 when Sylvester Stallone played Judge Dredd and it was awful. One of the more awful things about it was the fact he removed his helmet. This was awful for two main reasons: the first is that our character was being played with in a way in which we, as the audience, did not like. Secondly by taking the helmet off, the central point of the character, that Dredd is as faceless and unforgiving as the totalitarian regime he represents, is removed.

To conclude then I offer you, dear reader, another apology for getting all literary theoretical on you. But you are all clever people so the apology is not that sincere. What I hope to have addressed in this article is one of the more unusual aspects of the comic book medium; to place it in the wider context of human story-telling and so prove that the centrality of character and audience response over any primacy of the author is not that unusual after all. All this is done through the lens of my own personal experience with comics and medieval literature. I guess I just don’t like authors.

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