Metafiction- Douche ex Machina
Metafiction is largely seen in the world of comics in two distinct ways – either as an edgy and stylistic tool used by the comic elite or, to be honest, a bit of an asshole move. It’s actually difficult to describe metafiction without sounding like a pretentious douche, which doesn’t bode well for the practice itself. Take, for example, David Lodge, who says that: “Metafiction is fiction about fiction: novels and stories that call attention to their fictional status and their own compositional procedures.” Dick, right? Or Patricia Waugh who, in her book Metafiction: The Theory and Practise of Self-Conscious Fiction, defines metafiction as “a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” Super Dick. Or finally Robert Alter who defines it as: “a novel that systematically flaunts its own condition of artifice and that by so doing probes into the problematic relationship between real-seeming artifice and reality.” Super mega dick.
However, at the heart of all of these definitions there’s one distinct and important quality to metafiction; and that is the idea of the balance which any (good) fiction author is able to maintain between reality in terms of making their characters and plotlines relatable, and fiction in terms of providing their reader with a sense of escapism, awe and adventure. And for me this balance is arguably more important in the genre of graphic novels and comics than in any other medium of fiction.
The reason I would argue this point is simply that comics are at their very essence pure escapism. I’ve spoken previously on my blog and to anyone who will listen long enough to let me bore them about the idea behind superheroes and craft of comic book writing and why it’s such a unique and important artform, and more importantly why it is an artform. But for those of you who missed it it sounded something like “superheroes are a pure form of escapism and idealism while being a constant reminder of the human race’s capacity for good”. (Paraphrasing myself in a blog post, that’s kind of meta right?)
Anyway, my point is that comic books have always been a way in which we can, for a short while, escape in to a different world whether it be from big issues like the wartime struggle and political unrest tackled in everything from Superman, to Captain America, to Watchmen, to the everyday issues tackled through these same comics. Of course there are the odd things that we don’t really have to worry about and are pure escapism such as symbiotes and a sentinel uprising but that’s not the point. The point, and I promise I am getting to it, is that metafiction can be seen to detract from this important message in comics.
Metafiction can be applicable to many types of self-awareness in comic books such as; a character’s consciousness of their status as a character in fiction; references to the text itself as a work of fiction; references to the structure of reality itself, all of which take the reader out of the world constructed for them by the author and in to a state of awareness about the nature of the reality created for them in this fictional world. The complexity of metafiction arises from the confusing feeling of simultaneously being immersed in a completely fictional world which temporarily becomes part of our reality as readers, while constantly being reminded of the falseness of this reality. However, these distinctions are very important for me, as there is a huge difference between breaking the fourth wall completely in a comic and mentioning pop-culture and current events in order to anchor the events within a relatable timeline.
The most obvious example to me is Animal Man, a comic which takes advantage of all of these examples of metafiction listed above in order to give us a more comprehensive understanding of the complicated ideas concerning reality which Morrison expresses through the comic. By altering our perception of reality within the role of a reader we are able to more fully understand the dilemma of Animal Man himself. Morrison sometimes uses playful metafictional references, such as in issue #19 when Dr. Highwater says “God I’m talking in clichés! That proves we’re not characters in a story. No one would write such terrible dialogue…”, as well as references to other contemporary comic book characters and comics themselves such as in issue #22. It’s also worth mentioning that this technique isn’t surprising from Morrison, who has been known to sneak himself in to comics. Morrison also breaks the fourth wall through the artwork in his comic as well, such as in the cover art of issue #19 (right).
However, Morrison is making a complex and intelligent comment on reality itself through the structure of the story. By creating multiple layers of reality throughout the comic we become just as confused as Animal Man by what is real and what is not, and through this technique we can share Animal Man’s feeling of frustration and almost insanity while trying to work out which layer of reality we’re looking at and what narratives we can trust. Perhaps the most striking example of this warping of reality is in issue #5 through the character of Crafty. This character is intensely multifaceted beyond any extent of our comprehension at the start of the issue. Crafty first appears talking to his own creator asking to move in to the comic book world of Animal Man, so right away Crafty is an entirely new kind of character in that he is profoundly self-aware of his own status as a comic book character and is conscious of the multiple comic book universes. However, his role gets a lot more complex in the conclusion of the issue where we are shown a pull-back shot of Crafty’s bleeding body which reveals to us the cartoonist’s hand in the process of drawing the character.
By using metafictionality to break the fourth wall in Animal Man, Morrison is able to give us a more comprehensive understanding of the themes of the comic without making his dialogue dense and over-complicated while making it easier for us to empathise with the protagonist’s situation in a stylish and stimulating way. However, all things considered, I have to say the metafiction in Animal Man, though used cleverly, sparingly and thoughtfully, felt a bit unnatural to me. But hey, maybe that’s just my preference and the fact that I as a comic book reader prefer to become immersed in the world of the story, and found it very jarring and, yes, even a bit pretentious and douchey at times in a kind of “reel in awe at how deep I am” way. So, in conclusion, yes to metafiction as a comedic and pop-culture and current events reference, and a big no to metafiction which serves to break the fourth wall.