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What is the there there?

So I said last year I got obsessed with world-building, even if I didn’t always know it at the time, and now I’m going to try to play around with a few things to see if I was right about that. I do hope to talk about The Nikopol Trilogy and maybe even will revisit the first Scott Pilgrim before the second book arrives, but those are not for today. Today I’m thinking more about failure or incomplete worlds with protagonists who don’t bumble in the right directions. I tried to read Kingdom Come to see if a lack of coherent, meaningful world is what made it unpalatable to me, only to find that just looking at the art makes me feel ill. I don’t know quite what the problem is, but looking at Superman (whether with his ponytail or his scruffy beard) made me feel like there was a landmine trembling in my stomach. So that was enough of that.

Instead I turned to The Originals, because it just doesn’t quite work for me (whatever that means) and I’m not sure why. Marc Singer convincingly argues that the background is almost the best part, that the fully realized world allows Lel to be the complacent, unreflexive narrator he is. I think he’s probably right, but I was going to argue the opposite, that it’s the lack of situatedness that makes the whole story play out like an elaborate game of paper dolls. I think it’s the weird dancing scenes that throw me, where all the flat flailing arms make me think this is just a parody of something else or maybe of nothing at all. But maybe I should step back first.

The Originals is a tale about the title group of Mods of the future, a gang of snazzily attired hovercraft-riding drug dealers and users, guys who just want to have fun and have pretty girls. Lel and his friend Bok want nothing more than to be Originals (says Lel) and eventually get their wish, only to find that they may not have known what they were getting into and may not have known themselves quite well enough. So while Lel gets deeper and deeper into the drug-pushing side of things, he also manages to snatch away the girl Bok’s admiring, Viv. The Originals fight with their enemies, The Dirt, a gang of nouveau greasers. Eventually there’s an arms race of sorts and a war of retribution and mistaken identity, and a resolution of sorts.

I suppose the basic question raised is why this is set in the future instead of with real drugs and real Mods and real greasers and I’m still inclined to follow the standard line of response that the lack of real-world specificity avoids the corpselike hypertextual connections of Kingdom Come and leaves room for greater emotional connections, but that last part certainly doesn’t hold. Somehow the distance made me a more cynical reader, saying, “Oooh, their dads fought a war and they don’t care! How very like the ’60s and yet it’s the future!” Part of this was gender distance, too, because gender is a very weird thing here and women wield power oddly when they do at all. I don’t always have trouble connecting emotionally to male characters (or connect easily to female ones) but Lel would be a particularly cold fish even if he didn’t show the creepy, callous selfishness he does. But Gibbons is not just rejecting a chance for readers to try to spot the real-life references and locales and whatnot, but perhaps an opportunity for real emotion. I know I’ve bought and I think even advanced the argument that superhero stories succeed because their lack of specificity makes them abstract templates, but the proportions of the template seem wrong here and I can’t plug myself or what I know into it.

None of this quite talks about setting, though, does it? I said it was paper dolls, and it is, except that I like playing with paper dolls when I get to be in charge. (Ok, I did 15 years ago, and I imagine I could pull it off even now.) But it’s not even that, but that the art is flat like an advertising. The cover could be a pack of bubblegum or something, and while I’m not opposed to analyzing that sort of thing, it doesn’t seem to make much of a world here. It’s not just that things aren’t explained; the real world doesn’t always come with plaques about historical events and guidebooks and clear road signs. I’ve done archaeology and I spent last week wandering New Orleans, and I know that most of the fun for me is piecing together imagined understandings of what’s gone on to make these places what they are and what sort of people are in the houses shaping them as I watch. But in The Originals, I can’t figure out how the world fits together because it’s all so disconnected. The Dirt always seem to be in the same hangout, but The Originals have to ask Lel and Bok where to find them. There are warehouses, homes, clubs, highways, with no sense of whether they’re within two blocks of each other or miles apart. And that’s not the problem, still, but I’m not sure what the problem is. I think the real problem is that this whole book is like a didactic film strip. While I’m a bit young for film strips, this is how I imagine them, somewhat over-acted dramatic stills with awkward, banal voiceovers.

But really what bothers me is that the environment is supposed to have created Lel, and yet I can’t get a handle on either of them (which maybe means it worked?). There’s just no sense of pressure or space or even what inside him drives Lel to do the stupid, self-defeating things he does. What sort of world can have such people in it? Ours, probably, I know, but do I want to read about them? I realize Lel is young and awkward and the sort of person who probably thinks it’s tremendously deep to intercut his sex scene with a fatal stabbing, and yet I don’t find his naive self-assurance charming or intriguing or even shocking really. It just makes me want to be like Viv and walk out of the story and into a world that must somewhere contain something more. I’m not sure how to be clearer because it seems that the book’s clarity is the problem (and I keep saying “problem” as if there is one, which need not be the case) that if it didn’t consist of a set of pristine snapshots with terse teenspeak captions it would be something else entirely, and it isn’t.


  1. Dave Intermittent says:


    You see the bog China Mieville post-a-thon at Crooked Timber? Lots of very interesting stuff on world-building. You really should check it out.

    Interested to hear what more you have to say on the topic; I’m very much in love with settings, as I think I said somewhere or other on the blog. Can’t comment on the Originals, not having read it; however, I have, I think, a very similiar problem with Ex Machina. That story is supposed to be, in essence, driven by the setting and yet I can’t get any sense of how the New York in the book is supposed to work, except as a source of easy plot twists.

    — 11 January 2005 at 10:54 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    Dave, Steven linked me to that today, but I haven’t had a chance to really check it out yet. I love setting, too, and think it’s one of the things Mi????ville does best. I’m really looking forward to reading all about The Iron Council, but it makes me feel I should get it and read it first (which is not much of a hardship since I’ve been wanting to do just that for ages now).

    I do think you’re right, though, about Ex Machina, and I hadn’t really thought of that before. I knew it didn’t feel like a story about a mayor, but it really doesn’t feel like a story about New York. We stopped buying after the first storyarc, so maybe that has improved, but I hadn’t thought about the weird displacedness much before.

    — 12 January 2005 at 12:09 am (Permalink)

  3. Jamesmith3 says:

    Can you maybe point to some comics that do establish a sense of place well?

    — 12 January 2005 at 2:41 am (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:


    Sorry, somehow questions like that always make me want to answer that way. Ok, maybe I can. I was sort of spinning off my year-end post in which I said that Seaguy, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life and The Nikopol Trilogy all seem to deal with a naif in a weird but fully realized world, and I was trying to use The Originals as a counterexample. As I recall, you’ve read Seaguy, though that’s maybe the least clear example of the three. I guess what it would mean there is that there’s a world that’s crazy and controlled by Mickey Eye and a more liminal (but equally crazy) world on Easter Island and the chocolate sea and maybe on the dark side of the moon, and it’s always clear to me where these places are within the story, if not on the map, and what place means to what’s going on.

    The Nikopol Trilogy, which I haven’t written about yet but really should, creates an amazingly detailed future scenario where even though I have no idea what the elaborate catwalk-style face paints mean, I can tell that they mean something. Even though this postapocalyptic Paris isn’t explained, it feels like a natural and grotesque evolution from what I imagine Paris to be now and historically.

    Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, seems to be just normal everyday slice-of-life Canada until it explodes into unreality. This threw a lot of readers, but I think it’s essential to the work that there be a certain unsettledness for the readers while everything seems perfectly normal to the characters.

    Beyond those, Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder seems like it’s in a pretty full world, and she takes the approach of not explaining things within the story but then providing endnotes about the sociopolitical contexts of various signifiers in the story, which I think works very well there. I think Linda Medley makes a more convincing fairytale world than Bill Willingham does, but I haven’t read all of either’s works on the subject.

    In terms of more mainstream/superhero stuff, I thought X-Statix did a good job having stories that paralleled our world while also sort of magnifying the flaws for comic/ironic effect. The creation of Mutant Town, which I still don’t know as much about as I’d like to (I prefer ugly mutants), seems like a good way to play with setting, letting it mimic and interact with the stories playing out within it (again, at least in my conception of how Mutant Town should work).

    I’ll think about this, though, and Dave I. might have better ideas, too. Hicksville seems like it might be a good example of a flawed place that doesn’t quite work, but it gets awfully close. I don’t know if any of this helps, though.

    — 12 January 2005 at 3:15 am (Permalink)

  5. Jamesmith3 says:

    Yeah, thanks. Not having read ORIGINALS yet, I needed to get a sense of what “place” meant for you in a comic. It’s a tough thing to do, and part of my interest in your opinion stems from wanting to pull it off in my own stuff.

    — 12 January 2005 at 4:50 am (Permalink)

  6. Marc says:

    Interesting thoughts, Rose. I’m not sure I would say that it’s a fully realized world that makes The Originals work, although after rereading my piece I can see why you’d think so. I’m not drawn to The Originals for the sense of a fully fleshed-out, historically and narratively situated world, because as you point out, it offers no such thing. I think the story’s real virtue is in its arrangement of space and detail on the page, what you might term its mise-en-scene rather than its world-building. The world is a transparent stand-in for something else - “paper dolls” is quite apt - doubly so for Gibbons’ fantastic conceit and the focalization through Lel, who ultimately turns out to be a fairly chilling portrayal of teenage solipsism. But the panel and the page provide us with a wealth of cues that never make it through Lel’s self-involvement, that even undercut him at crucial points. I think you’re right that there’s still something emotionally lacking in The Originals (although the final page did a lot to redeem that for me), and the world runs about as deep as a studio backlot, but the visual narrative is telling a far more interesting story than the verbal one.

    — 12 January 2005 at 6:43 am (Permalink)

  7. Rose says:

    Marc, I couldn’t find a way to make a good summary of the relevant part of your post so you got stuck with what I wrote. I really hate having to make links like that.

    And I also think I shouldn’t have set this up to imply that I didn’t like The Originals because of the poverty of its setting, even though to some extent that’s what this whole post said. Because of the ferocious strength of Lel’s focalization, I’m not sure the story could hold up in a more symbol-saturated world like the ones I cited above. The problem was that without a deeper world and without any other voices sneaking in (although there are lots of interesting backstories playing out subtly with Bok and the families and Viv and Sharon and Warren) and with such a self-absorbed narrator, the actual main story just seems too limited.

    I’m not sure I should even talk about emotional connectedness, because maybe it’s my fault I’m just not sympathetic or imaginative enough, but I wonder if a little more rounding or subversion might have helped. I do feel emotionally invested in some of the side characters we get to watch, Bok and Viv and Mitch and Warren and that sycophantic guy who switches alliances to be Warren’s pal because Warren has such nice stuff, so maybe I should think of that part as the bigger narrative and not pay so much attention to Lel’s perspective and his limited world.

    — 12 January 2005 at 4:10 pm (Permalink)