God in Fiction: Is it time for literature to leave religion behind?

God is fictionMany novels feature characters whose religious beliefs shape their ideals. An example might be To Kill a Mockingbird, which tops many lists of “best novels ever”, such as Time Magazine’s. The strongly moral Atticus Finch raises his children in a decidedly Christian manner – and, perhaps significantly, is considered a modern exemplar of ethical behaviour. It’s perhaps not coincidental that I see The Chronicles of Narnia high on these lists also, arguably the best example of religious propaganda for children ever (note “arguably” – I do love the books myself and feel strong that C.S. Lewis had the best intentions).

It would be fair to say that religious characters, or at least non-ostensibly atheistic ones, were always likely to inhabit the bulk of our fiction. After all, it’s only historically recently that the world has begun to shift towards science as the source of their answers instead of faith. Distressingly, I read that in a fairly recent study published on Gallup that 40% of Americans believe in Creationism in the strictest sense. A more recent and significant study by San Diego State found that our current generation of teens are the least religiously observant ever, and not as a result of being “unsettled millennials” as previously suspected by the skeptical. It strongly suggests an actual cultural shift away from religion.

For decades, writers of science fiction and fantasy in particular have embraced science theory (go here for a good explanation as to why “theory” isn’t a word that can be used against science in the defense of faith) and speculative science as vehicles for engaging fiction. However, many writers simply can’t help but bring religion back into the mix. Is this because it’s so engrained in our society that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without it (just as many would say, foolishly, that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without a romantic element) – or even simply as a concession to the faithful? It’s almost as though writers feel unable to generate a proper feeling of awe and reverence in their narratives without making reference to god.

Going back a while, The Matrix film series was a good example of taking something which would have been just as spectacular without its heavy-handed Christian symbolism. Its philosophy is actually a clumsy amalgam of messanic, Zionistic, Platonic and Eastern beliefs, a composite that didn’t seem to strengthen the narrative in any case. Watching the end of the cinematic adaptation of Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes me decidedly uncomfortable, with its monotheistic longing for material obliteration and ham-fisted allusions to the leonine Aslan actually being Christ in the world of Narnia, rather than a symbolic literary figure.

The arguments against religion and even faith in general have been expounded by far greater writers than I (love them or hate them, the works of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are essential). Any one of them, I suspect, would strongly advocate the eradication of any meaningful inclusion of religion in fiction. This would be on the grounds that it reinforces mass belief in destructive and antisocial delusions, and that as a go-to for a sense of “spiritual” awe detracts from the pre-existing (and tangible) wonders of the material world. As symbolic references or colourful similes, writers get a lot of mileage out of the old Greek gods, for example. This would be fine. But in 2015, shouldn’t we be exploring more relevant aspects of our universe instead of the tired play of faith and spiritual redemption?

My Western novel, The Gun of Our Maker, makes little reference to religion outside of the title. The key theme is the expectations we place on others and ourselves. It is very interesting to me that the heroes of the Western genre, in literature and in cinema, are often godless. This is despite such characters existing in a faith-based society (regardless of what the American Constitution says) and several of whom were created by contemporary or at least anachronistically-conscientious authors. With the notable exception of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, why is it that so many protagonists are ostensibly without faith (even the nameless, murderous “Preacher” in Pale Rider seems entirely scornful of Christian beliefs). Westerns often seem to inhabit a decidedly god-forsaken landscape.

Examining mainstream literature, I’m frequently baffled by the constant allusions to faith as noble and worthwhile. The troubled hero, at the inevitable point of hopelessness on his/her quest, goes to a church to pray, or kneels in the downpour to beg god for a sign. Sometimes they are rewarded with a light, or the sudden appearance of a mortal saviour, who inevitably pulls them back from the brink and sets them on the right path. Religious experiences of this kind are always presented as a ‘seeing the light’ moment (best exemplified, tongue-in-cheek, by an early moment in The Blues Brothers), accompanied by sureness and renewed strength. A skeptic would wonder why this should be so, when in reality organised religion has often stymied the pursuit of science, art and freedom – a comparative Dark Ages.

I accept that our perhaps-indelible inclinations towards the gnostic (or agnostic) will always influence our writing, but why does it so often take the form of existing religious structures, such as Catholicism or Buddhism? Is there not enough wonder in the world already? As my beloved Douglas Adams said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

As a writer, I don’t object to seeing references to faith in fiction. But why stick with it, when the modern world is providing us so much more material to work with? I congratulate films such as the recent Interstellar, which put us in awe of natural cosmic phenomena, or  writers like Charlie Kaufman, who posits that the complex beauty of orchids should be enough to write a two hour screenplay around.

I challenge writers to abandon god and religion as an element in their fiction. What else in our universe can inspire, clarify, reform, motivate, cultivate, or invigorate? In the endless search for a semblance of originality, this would be a heavenly place to start.

—db

[‘The Gun of Our Maker’ is available now from Amazon here, and Smashwords here.]

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The ‘offensive’ Batgirl cover that everyone’s talking about

Batgirl cover

So what’s happening in the above picture?

This is a variant cover for an issue of DC’s comic book, “Batgirl”, which follows a young heroine’s battle against crime in Gotham City.

Issue #41 has yet to be published, but there is already controversy over an alternative cover featuring psychotic villain The Joker terrorising the female protagonist.  It was drawn by popular comic book artist Rafael Albuquerque.  It’s no doubt a dark, disturbing image, appropriate for the fictional Gotham City – but why are so many people talking about it?

There have been complaints over the apparent misogynism in the image, and dark undertones of sexual abuse.  The Joker is clearly the dominant figure in the picture, smearing a blood-red smile on the terrified Batgirl’s face whilst holding a downward-pointing pistol.

Batgirl cover #41 variant

Perhaps a little backstory here.  In a famous Batman storyline from the comic books (“The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore in 1988), psychotic killer The Joker shoots and paralyses the character of Barbara Gordon – the alter-ego of Batgirl.  Some say that this particularly dark graphic novel also implies that Barbara was sexually abused by The Joker whilst imprisoned, although this is not explicitly stated.  The cover is said to be reminiscent of “The Killing Joke”.

According to the artist, Albuquerque, his Batgirl variant cover was an homage to this monumental literary work.  The publisher DC today announced that the alternative cover will not be available to purchase when #41 is released in shops – news that has had with mixed reception.

Batgirl cover variant #41

I’d love to go into excruciating detail about why characters like the douchey “GBG” above are complete morons, but I would probably influence nothing by my blood pressure.

I’m not entirely convinced that the cover itself contains any imagery of sexual abuse.  Apparently the pistol “pointing south” is sexually implicit, but I find it ambiguous.  The Joker could point his gun up into the air, but this would undermine the sense of threat that his character is imposing.  If the arm is to remain over Batgirl’s shoulder, where should it be pointing?  It’s anatomically possible for him to point the gun at the ‘viewer’, but again that undermines his dominance over Batgirl (and what does ‘the viewer’ have to do with the situation?) – not to mention that it would be rather uncomfortable.  Pointing downwards is really the only direction it could point.  But even for the sake of this discussion only, I’m happy to assume that the cover is sexually implicit (it certainly might be) – because for me, this is not the point.

The complaints appear to be saying that any depiction of terrorism or sexual abuse is offensive.  I disagree.  Just because the notion of something is offensive, it doesn’t follow that any form of art should pretend those offensive realities don’t exist (if you’d like to read another of my rants about comic books and literature, click here).  I don’t quite understand any other stance.  What is literature for, but to put a spotlight on various aspects of humanity and society, good or evil?

What is the suggestion here – that characters in fiction should never have anything bad happen to them?  That a person, let alone a ‘hero’, should never be traumatised by past events?  Terrorism happens, crime happens, sexual abuse happens.  Comic books, like any other form of literature, have covered the length and breadth of humanity’s highest and lowest capabilities.  Recently some ‘tweaked’ versions of the cover have been released giving Batgirl a defiant look, which apparently changes the cover from sexist to showing a positive image.  I should hardly think that’s necessary, when anyone would rightly be terrified by encountering the mass-murdering lunatic who once put your in a wheelchair.

It could be argued that sexual abuse is not appropriate material for comic books, which are read by children.  If this is your opinion, then I’m sure you are perfectly sensible about which comic books, films, TV shows, games and books you let your child view.  Comic books have contained adult material since their inception (despite the tights and spandex), so your argument is about 60 years too late.

Some have pointed out, quite rightly, that Batgirl is a strong female character who is depicted uncharacteristically weak in this image.  I would agree.  But isn’t that what variant covers are for?  In the comic book industry, alternative covers are used for anything from ‘what if?’ scenarios to cross-media advertising.  The fact that a variant might be used as an homage to a previous storyline of high repute is not unusual in the least.

It seems that others object purely on the grounds that this is a supposedly strong (female) character trembling in fear of a (male) villain.  Anyone who knows the character of The Joker (i.e. anyone who has seen either of these high-profile films, watched either of these popular TV series, played any of these 3 recent bestselling video-games or has read pretty much any DC comic book ever in the last 75 years) would know that he is a psychopathic murderer: he kills men, woman and children indiscriminately.  His is a non-gender-biased terrorist.  Anyone would be terrified in the situation that Batgirl is in here.  Even Batman himself, the fearless caped crusader, is afraid of The Joker.

If the complaints are suggesting that showing a defeated hero goes against “the current direction” of the comic books, which aim to depict a modern, strong female hero, then I might argue that there is a bit of a double standard there:

Batman defeated Superman defeated Spider-Man defeatedEven super-hero needs to get their butt whooped every now and again.  Who wants to read about perfect, invulnerable heroes who never lose?  Even Superman “died” once.  If we want literature to encompass all the highs and lows of life, even within fantasy sub-genres, then we simply can’t complain that any topic is inappropriate for literature.  That is the philistine’s approach, and I reject it completely.

Is the image glorifying violence or abuse, of any kind?  No.  Is it showing the sadistic killer in any kind of positive light, or the torture of the heroine as a positive thing?  No.  Just because a piece of art, visual or literary, depicts something awful, does not mean it supports that awful thing.  In fact, comic books are renowned for poetic justice and praising the strong positive ethics of its heroes.

Complaints against this piece of artwork seem to be from people who have no understanding of literature or what it’s for, and it’s a very sad thing indeed that art can be censored because ignorance can be loud.

–db

World Comic Book Day 2015: Comic Books Count!

asmfam003_covIt would be remiss of me, a supposed writer, to let World Book Day go by without writing a few quick words about.  Here they are:

Books are awesome.  Read more.

I could go on and on about the inherent merits of literature and the many advantages of reading it, but there are a million places on the web where you can read about that.  Those five words are all you need.  If you don’t know it already anyway, then you’re a dope.

I could add a disclaimer: read more good books – actual literature instead of whatever “erotic” drivel or cookie-cutter crime tedium you have on your bedside table.  I am a little snobby about literature, but today’s not the day to blather about it.  JUST READ.  Whatever you can get your hands on.  Leave the TV off for just one day.

I’m lucky enough to have been extremely busy this last month.  I’ve written, edited, proof-read and critiqued a great number of texts with hardly a moment to devote to myself or my loved ones.  I’ve been so busy that I’ve had to “make time” for my own needs, and so I set aside half an hour every morning before switching on the laptop to work.  I spend it reading.  One of my personal joys is re-reading old comic books that I read when I was younger. The sheer happiness of nostalgia is a pleasure that is very hard to take away from you.

ASM390_18

I don’t talk about comic books often, because there is still a vast stigma against them in the world of literature.  Despite the incredible success of recent comic book franchises in cinema, like Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s Batman Begins/Dark Knight films, people like me are still seen as dorks.  It’s now socially acceptable to enjoy seeing Robert Downey Jr. play the superhero Iron Man on screen, but if I were to whip out an issue of Iron Man, such as one from the award-winning Demon in a Bottle storyline, whilst on the bus, then I’d still get a lot of funny looks.  TV shows like The Big Bang Theory have popularised comic book references, but ridicule comic book readers.  The reason I don’t bring up comics books during polite conversation is because I’m tired of having the same old debate about why the best of comics books can stand tall alongside the best of literary novels, because they are literature (in the same way that the worst of comics books should be confined to weekend bonfires, just like the worst of published novels).

Many of the arguments against comics books as literature come from people who don’t read comic books, and so they’ve never seen the best that comics can be.  One could argue that those who support the notion of comics as literature are already fans, so you can’t trust them either – except that readers of comic books agree that 90% of it is silly crud.  But the best of the best – such as Watchmen, Y: the Last Man, Blankets and Daytripper – have more literary/artistic value than 90% of published novels.  It’s not all superheroes, you know.

This year, I urge everyone to try, or at least acknowledge, that for the purposes of World Book Day 2015 we can extend “books” to include comics.  During today’s nostalgic re-read of The Amazing Spider-Man from circa 1994 I read some of the best damn material I’ve seen for a long time (if you’re interested, I beg you to find a copy of ASM #390 and #400).

ASM-400-29ASM-400-30

The 400th anniversary issue of The Amazing Spider-Man creates powerful emotions in me.  This is not just because it was the first comic book I ever read, aged about 9 years old, but because of its adult treatment of the material.  There’s barely a spandex costume in sight in either of the issues mentioned above; instead they are character-driven narratives with insights into genuine emotion and trauma, such as guilt, child abuse, hopelessness, redemption, identity crises, failing relationships and grief.  That might seem like a lot to cram into 44 pages, but it’s some of the most respectful, psychologically acute, emotional literature that I’ve read in the last two years.

Open your mind a crack.  If your child or loved one asks if comic books count on World Book Day, you know the answer!

Comic books count!

—db

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the official website of freelance writer and editor David Brookes.

This site deals primarily with my travels abroad. If you would like to read about my ghostwriting and editorial services, view my portfolio and feedback, and follow my regular blog, you can visit my professional site at STPediting.wordpress.com.
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