Whose Voice is it Anyway?

Politics and personal views are almost always a touchy subject in any form of entertainment. Most people are against it, especially when the view held by the author goes against their own. But what if you don’t want to insert your stance on an issue, but the view held by one of your characters as a way to give them more depth and show who they are as a character?

That is a good idea, but there is also the problem in that if you are not careful with how you write, readers are going to start thinking that those are your views, even if they go against what you believe in.

I know, because I have made that assumption many times in the past, especially when it comes to authors with a history of inserting long rants arguing for their brand of politics. If I see a character going on and on about a topic for a few panels without being contradicted or challenged in any way then I tend to come to the conclusion that the audience is being preached to.

preacher-book-one

If you’re going to make God the villain, actually show him being evil, don’t just tell us why you hate Christianity. Still a good series otherwise though.

 

I have accidentally done this, in an early page of Tnemrot, the character of Dae gives exposition on the premise to catch everyone up, but it’s filtered through his mind and so there is a lot of hatred for the spectators and industry. I made sure to include an author’s note saying this was not me going on a rant but me trying to show how Dae thinks. So the next time he went on one, I made sure Angel was there to challenge him.

But of course, that’s just how I see it, there are other people who may have gotten that I do not agree with everything my protagonists say. But it all depends on how you look at the comic and sometimes it can vary wildly.

Back when I did my straw man column, the webcomic beacon did a podcast where they talked about it (15 minutes in for those interested). When they came to my point about LICD, they dismissed it as the comic tends to be over the top and so they felt anything it said should not be taken seriously. At one point they actually say Sinfest and Ryan Sohmer never use straw man arguments and as such they were automatically bad examples.

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Now while I agree with them that the article is not that good, I did admittedly give Dave Willis too much leeway and my definition of straw man use was inaccurate, I do have to wonder if they read it fully instead of just skimming it. But again, that’s just my interpretation. For all I know they completely dissected the thing before they recorded their podcast.

The best bet to keep from giving off mixed messages, especially when you have a history of showcasing your views, is to make sure that someone else is there to offer a different opinion. In the Vertigo series Fables, Bill Willingham loves to write his characters giving his views on warfare and tactics, as well as spying and the very nature of war. However at one point in issue 76, the evil emperor is verbally attacked by a woman whose family were killed as an example. The emperor gives a long monologue about how he killed millions to ensure the safety of billions; he has no regrets for his actions and even compares himself to God.

Just going by the dialogue, the whole thing is almost set up as a straw argument, with the only person arguing against the emperor highly emotional and not making any counter points. But the scene is followed by several panels in which the good characters are silent and it’s clearly written on their faces they’re just now realising exactly what sort of monster they have to deal with. Even without the context of the rest of the issue, the scene clearly identifies who this person is as a character and how we are meant to feel about how he sees the world.

fables76cover

I miss James Jean’s cover art.

As for webcomics, the only one I can think of that does this well is Darths and Droids. It has a balance of different types of players. While some are presented as more competent and moral than others, their various methods end up benefitting the whole group depending on each situation and everyone is treated as equally valuable.

But I would love to hear what examples you guys can think of.

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Posted on March 25, 2014, in webcomics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The Fables example does not seem like a typical strawman to me. A character presented as emotional doesn’t need to be a strawman, or automatically considered wrong. My biggest pet peeve with real life politics is that it’s ruled by the appeal to emotion (personified by the Simpsons’ “won’t anybody think of the children” gag). Fiction on a whole has a nasty habit of portraying emotion as being triumphant over reason, and good intentions being more important than logic. It’s something I find to be extremely off-putting, and it often makes me side with the villains rather than the heroes, because the cool, calculated villains actually make sense and have a plan, while the heroes are only the heroes because the writer says so. Fables seems typical in that regard, from your example, and if the Emperor gives a good argument, I’d consider him superior to the heroes. Mostly, this sentence is key: “Even without the context of the rest of the issue, the scene clearly identifies who this person is as a character and how we are meant to feel about how he sees the world.”

    Yeah, I don’t like being told what to think. Show, don’t tell.

    A good example for me is in Y: The Last Man. Agent 55 (was it 55? This is why we have names, not numbers) at one point basically restarts the War on Drugs in what is basically a post-apocalyptic world. She does so under flimsy pretenses, gets a lot of people killed, derails her supposed mission (getting Yorick to Japan) and allies herself with a rogue nation that runs a prison colony so draconic cannibalism is common. And that last part is played for laughs. She was already a morally grey character, but that moved her into villain territory for me. The problem really was with the presentation, however. She’s still presented as the hero and love interest. None of the other characters call her out on it, and the comic continues to portray her favourably next to cartoony villains who -let’s be fair- never actually did anything that’s as bad as what she did. With the possible exception of Alter, the edgy Israeli villain who is also helped along by the author.

    Another example is in fantasy. A few years ago I read Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville, after hearing many good things about it. Supposedly it was on par with literature. It was not. In my opinion, it’s one of the worst books I’ve ever read, and that includes America 2044. In short, it’s an overwrought, 800+ page love letter to socialism. It’s one big soapbox for the author’s political beliefs, from the vaguely capitalist-corporatist villains literally making deals with the devil to the inclusion of a pages-long message about how nuclear bombs are bad. And of course everything is spruced up to fit the message. It takes more pages to set up its actual story than it takes superior writers to tell one. Where Perdido Street Station really shines as an example, is in the idealistic exceptionalism Mieville uses time and again. And that’s the real problem with many of these political stories: The heroes representing the ideology aren’t held to the same rules the villains are convicted on. The heroes of Perdido Street Station end up saving the city sacrificing a terminally ill man, which is treated tearfully, and as rending the heroes’ hearts. And then the solution kills a boatload of innocent people as collatoral damage with nary a comment. The evil city government employs a serial killer to deal with dissidents, the socialist underground does the same and he’s a hero (and a Deus Ex Machina). The upper class is evil for excluding hostile, dirt-poor birdmen, but the cactus-people (it’s a weird book) enforcing their own enclave with lethal violence is hunky-dory.

    And that’s what it comes down to: Authors explicitly telling us the actions of the heroes are good, when they are morally grey when taken in context of the setting. This is how a piece of fiction becomes propaganda.

    Now, I realise this is already a huge comment that I’ve spent too much time on, but I’d like to end on a positive note. Eurosnob as I am, I will now mention Wake (Sillage, in French). It’s a young adult comic that treats a different issue every album. However, it’s mostly divorced from real world politics, and its hero is hotheaded and rash. Fallible, for short. Her opinions and actions aren’t the Word of God most correct thing anyone could have done. It’s possible for two readers to come away with different points of view. And rather than banging away on political ideology, its albums treat issues like terrorism and gender inequality directly. It can be a little hit or miss, but it’s definitely better than the two-dimensional, mouthpiece, license to kill “heroes” the examples above are filled with.

  2. I think all of us on that episode were really just competing with each other, and not wanting to admit faults of our own, or valid points of each other. But I don’t think all hosts on the show agreed much on any one thing, but one, maybe two of the hosts said what you are quoting. I do admit that the episode was probably not a very thorough discussion, loaded with biases.

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