October 6, 2014
Back in the dark ages, the mid to late 80’s, there was something of a revolution in comics and the depiction of superheroes. Watchmen came out, along with The Dark Knight, and even Wild Cards, which all posited variations of the same idea: if real people in the real world really had superpowers and/or donned costumes to fight crime, they would be neurotic at best, psychopathic at worst, and definitely some level of flat-out crazy. These stories were dark, nihilistic and–everyone said, comparing them to the 50 years of gee-whiz adventure that had come before–more realistic.
In hindsight, politically and sociologically the 80’s were just awful, weren’t they?
Along with this new embracing of “gritty” realism came a rejection of anything that was too nice, too idealistic. It was seen as immature, and the expression of idealism was considered naive, a glossing over of harsh worldly realities. Yeah, I blame the 80’s. For twenty years, a lot of storytelling seemed to get darker and more cynical. Robin died. Superman died. Everybody died, and came back so they could die again. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire made unrelenting terribleness in epic fantasy mainstream. The term “grimdark” came into use, with much gleeful rubbing of hands.
A few years ago, I read Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates. Now, Erikson does grimdark with the best of them — this book features a mass exodus of refugees who are being harried by an enemy, people are dying by the thousands, and when they finally reach the city, the gates are barred, and the survivors are all crucified by the side of the road. The story ends with a group of characters searching for one man among the survivors. Two other characters, immortal travelers, chance upon them when they have just found a dying dog. Now, this dog and his pack have been running around the whole book providing a bit of comic relief through all the terribleness (no, really). And now he’s dying no!!!!!! One of the immortals has a healing potion, and a discussion ensues: Should we use it on the dog? Probably not. The dog’s probably too far gone, better not waste it. So the immortals walk away.
And then they turn around, go back, and give the healing potion to the dog, who survives and has many more adventures throughout the series.
I absolutely fell in love with Erikson’s Malazan series in that moment. They saved the dog. For no other reason than it was a good thing to do. The Malazan series has some of the most brutal fantasy writing I’ve ever read, but it’s also filled with Save the Dog moments. Characters who dearly love each other, without cynicism. I need that. Since the 80’s, so much SF&F and comics and superhero stories seemed to be about putting good people in awful situations and seeing how horrible they can be to each other, and how unrelentingly bad the world can be. (And I was really into that for a time — I mean, I read all of Wild Cards, which got just as brutal as the rest.) Those moments of idealism stand out like spotlights in the night.
I think it’s starting to change. Saving things, unsarcastic idealistic characters — good people doing good — are coming back. As Daniel Abraham has explained, when “dark and gritty” becomes the norm, it’s no longer shocking, it’s no longer radical. So what then becomes shocking and radical? Idealism. Optimism.
My favorite comic to date is Warren Ellis’s Planetary, which is explicitly about saving things. Captain America was not supposed to work. Some people insisted that modern audiences would never buy the lawful good, earnest, idealism of that classic character. And yet, it’s one of the best, most popular superhero movies of the last 20 years. The whole Avengers sequence is filled with uncynical heroism — and I think people have been starved for that. Guardians of the Galaxy — the climactic moment involves all the main characters saving the world by coming together and holding hands. And no one’s complaining.
I really like stories about people coming together for the greater good, disparate folk who have a common cause and rise to meet great challenges. Who save things. Turns out, I’ve always liked that kind of story: Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Captain Power. Some would like to see this kind of story as childish — the people making the DC movies, for example. Grimdark isn’t going to go away.
But what I think it would be helpful to recognize is that grim and gritty isn’t any more realistic than idealism. It’s a choice. Sure, Wild Cards can get really dark — but I’ve chosen to write Wild Cards stories about friendship. My upcoming story in Lowball is an outright comedy. Terrible things happen in the world. Really great things happen, too. When someone tries to tell me that grim is more realistic because people are generally awful, I point them to stories like this: during the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, firefighters stopped to save one homeowner’s chickens. They saved the chickens, for no other reason than it was a good thing to do.
We makers of fiction, we’re not doing realism. We’re making choices. And I know what kind of world I’d rather be spending my spare time in.