Sunday, 24 August 2008

Slipping Through The Cracks: Part 2

Caution: do not enter the spoiler enclosure unprotected.

Yesterday I tried to give an overview of Midnight Nation and explain why I love it so much. Amongst other things I pointed out the fact that there is a lot going on under the surface of the book that bears closer scrutiny. Much of this will completely ruin the comic for anyone who hasn't read it yet, so if that's you; leave now.


I mentioned yesterday both that this series had a tendency to head off in unexpected directions and that it had heavy religious overtones. Both of these points are, of course, connected. We suspect that some kind of religious imagery is liable to be popping up from the moment David has his soul stolen by The Men. By the time we're introduced to Lazarus and his (quite literal) guardian angel, we are no longer in any doubt. David's struggle isn't just about reclaiming his soul, it's also a tiny slice of a much bigger battle.

This, it seems at first, is perhaps why Laurel is so cold and unsympathetic towards him. Having fought this particular battle so many times, and aware of how many other such conflicts are going on all around them, it is perhaps forgivable that she might find it hard to focus on David through the violence and the misery and the white noise. This isn't her first rodeo, and it's not like she and David are playing the only chess game in town.

In fact, the chess analogy is a good one, especially when the realisation dawns that this is a chess game from the pawn's perspective. David's frustration is borne from Laurel's expectation that he simply do what he's told until New York rises from the horizon. She berates him for his mistakes (trying to contact his ex-wife in order to apologise, for example), but never gives him any real reason to trust him beyond lack of choice (and his growing romantic interest in her). It becomes increasingly clear that things aren't as simple as are being made out: Arthur and Laurel's claim that losing one's soul transforms you into one of them and erases you entirely starts to fray as time passes. They meet Laurel's last companion, who has now become one of The Men entirely, and suddenly it begins desperately pleading her to help his family, a request that leads to his death at the hands of his fellows. Could a soulless creature really still understand the concept of sacrifice for their loved ones? The party line becomes even harder to swallow once David meets up with his future self and finds him both still soulless and still human. [1]

It's not until our heroes arrive in New York (centre of the world's evil, apparently, though Straczynski is unlikely to have been the first person to think so) and are cordially greeted by the Devil himself that we finally begin to get answers. Ironically, and perhaps fittingly, Satan is the only one of the three main characters who is resolutely honest throughout. His explanations and arguments reveal the true themes behind the series: hope, honesty, misery, and the battle between the three.

Right, this all might get a bit metaphysical. Satan is both honest and without hope. He makes it very clear that, in his opinion, hope is nothing but an outrageous lie, told by a capricious God to his miserable creations purely to keep them from rebelling outright. In this, at least, he is fairly convincing:

"Bombs and anthrax and ebola, terror in the streets, doors locked against neighbours and anonymous crime, against community and each other. Mothers drowning their children because they can't handle the stress of the very act of creation itself. They understand that what they bring in will know only misery so they end it, end it for themselves, for their children. They get it over with."

Misery is everywhere, he argues. And there doesn't seem to be any reason why it needs to be. It's such a bad idea that, as mentioned, God has to keep pedalling hope just so the universe's inhabitants don't en masse tell him to go fuck himself.

And what is hope but keeping down your defences for long enough for life to cut out your heart one more time?

The idea that one can "lie with the truth" is a fairly old one, certainly when applied to fictional representations of Satan (Devil's Advocate is just the very first example that springs to mind, though in fairness that Devil combines lying with the truth and having women with big tits come on to you). This is the first time though that I've seen the idea of Satan being honest because he genuinely hates dissembling and self-delusion. Of course, you don't have to lie in order to trick someone. You just make a deliberate logical misstep and hope no-one notices.

This is exactly what Satan attempts with David. Misery is the problem, misery is the proof that God is either incompetent or a bastard, or both. It can't be fought, because it is everywhere. It certainly can't be beaten back with hope, since hope is just refusing to learn that everything is just suffering and pain fashioned into an insane and random world. Thus only way to end the misery is to keep increasing it, building it up to critical mass until it becomes obvious to the world that creation is a lie, and that we need to start over, preferably with a Supreme Being who isn't drunk at the wheel. This is bizarre reasoning, of course; hope doesn't work as a weapon against misery, thus there is no hope against misery, thus our only hope is to increase the misery until all hope is gone. Clearly, though, it is an argument which has swayed each and every one of Laurel's companions up until now. It probably helps when being persuaded by the argument allows you to get your soul back, of course.

So, that's Satan; unquestionably honest but still withholding and scheming, denying hope, fighting fire with fire. As I say, it's interesting that the dark in the story's trinity [2] should be the most truthful of the three. At the other end of the scale is the avatar of light, Laurel, who spends almost the entirety of the story lying to David on several levels. Of course, how else is she to give him hope?

I mentioned earlier that David is the pawn in a chess game. Laurel, however, is the king. Or possibly the queen, depending on your interpretation. Satan doesn't want David. Not in the long term, at least. It just doesn't make any sense to go through all this just to add one more demon to his arsenal. After all, not only did it take a year for David to get to New York, but he and Laurel crippled or killed perhaps dozens of his minions on the way. Admittedly, other potential recruits might be less handy in a fight, or surrender to the process earlier into The Walk, but even so, the exchange rate makes it implausible in the extreme that Satan's aim is to control David as one of The Men.

Satan's actual goal is two-fold. Firstly, he wants the misery gained first by torturing David for a year before turning, and then by forcing Lauren to watch as he betrays her in order to save his soul. The second objective, though, is almost certainly the more important. Forcing Laurel to take The Walk time after time, only to watch her companions betray her one after the other, not only feeds Satan's obsession with overloading reality with misery, but gives him the chance to tempt her into rebellion. David is a nice trinket, but really he's only there to make Laurel face the choice again, suffer once more through the temptation to give up on the cycle of her agony and despair.

At last, then, we finally understand Laurel's attitude. Her desperate attempts to keep David at arm's length (which fail, and perhaps they always fail) were not, as we might originally have assumed, for fear of getting too close and suffering through his failure, but for fear of getting too close and suffering through his betrayal. Each cycle Laurel tries to minimise the horror she knows is coming, partially perhaps to limit the damage Satan can do, but surely in the main to spare her the pain awaiting her in New York.

In fact, Straczynski gives a powerful clue to some of this earlier in the series. Laurel makes a cryptic reference to an upcoming ritual known as "the bleeding". Later, as he sits with Laurel on the street after a battle with The Men in which she is injured, he tells her "When you said the bleeding was coming... I thought you meant it would be me."

"Of course you did" is her weary reply.

The cycle is taking its toll. She tells David she thinks she might be out of hope. She begs the power that wakes her to begin The Walk to just leave her be. "Haven't I done enough?" Sooner or later, she might finally give up, and Satan truly would have what he wanted. It hardly seems worth the risk. Ultimately though she goes through it all again anyway, because she still has that last sliver of faith, the same sliver that she knows Satan will stab her through the heart with.

It seems, then, that Laurel agrees at least on some level with Satan that hope is a lie. Not just a lie that God tells us, but a lie that we tell ourselves. Self-delusion is a theme that appears frequently across the twelve issues. Sometimes it ties in with hope; David refuses to accept the inevitability of his own fate, to the point that he refuses to allow Laurel to "end it" for him even given the damage (both physical and psychological) he is doing to her. Even being told by his own future self that he fails to reclaim his soul doesn't cause him to abandon hope (we'll come back to this). Lazarus spends the entirety of his millenia-long existence waiting for death to arrive, pointless though it obviously is.

But not everyone who lies to themselves does it out of hope. Sometimes the motivation is fear. In issue 4 David and Laurel come across a camp-fire surrounded by people, each of them lost, each of them with a story to tell. The particulars change from tale to tale, but each of them end in the same way: "What choice did I have?" These poor specimens, robbed of their hope, delude themselves that hope never existed in the first place, that their fall from grace (gosh, who is this starting to sound like?) was unavoidable. They shirk their responsibility because it gives them comfort, because it lessens the misery which everything always seems to keep coming back to. This parallels neatly with Satan at the climax of the story. In the end, he proves to have the very human failing of failing to realise that failure is not inevitable, that when hope is dashed it doesn't invalidate hope across the board. Satan and Laurel both claim to be out of hope (though both are wrong; if Satan genuinely was hopeless, then why does he ask Laurel to rebel each time he meets her?), but all they mean by that is that they no longer believe anything can change. Locked into the endless cycle of The Walks, neither of them see any possibility of escape. When David finally proves both of them wrong, sacrificing his soul to save Laurel, denying Satan, and justifying hope by giving it up himself, Satan's response is not anger, but surprise. "Huh. Well. I certainly didn't see that coming."

Ah yes, David. Our little grey chess piece is the only one who works it all out. Satan, Lazarus, Laurel, the people at the camp-fire, all of them are trapped in their personal battles against their own hope. Satan tries to change the world without employing hope, even though the desire to change must necessarily require hope in the first place. Those around the fire spend every night reciting the stories of how they found themselves there. Each time no-one points out the inherent flaws in their companion's stories, because each of them simply hears their own tale of woe in that of their fellows, time after time after time. They don't listen out of empathy (there's that word again) but because they take comfort from hearing their own failures vindicated by the failures of others. "If he didn't have a choice, then neither did I."

Laurel might berate David for his selfishness along The Walk, viewing every new development in terms of how it directly affects him, but in truth of course she is fighting a private battle against her own hope that this time her companion will do the right thing and set her free. Of course, the irony is that the harder she tries to keep her distance, the less likely the above scenario becomes. [3]

Nevertheless, Laurel's pressure plants the seeds of realisation in David's brain. They are then watered by his meeting with his future self. Alone amongst the players in the game, he realises that hope is not something to either be held or abandoned, but also to be offered up. By choosing someone else's hope instead of his own, he changes the rules of the game.

In so doing, he replaces Laurel as the guide of the lost. The implication is that The Men are no longer active, either. The battle for souls between black and white has now simply become the assisting of souls by the grey. It's a job for which he is perfectly suited.

At the end of the final issue, years on from the beginning, David travels to his rendezvous with his younger self. He repeats the truth that he never regains his soul, and the lie that he would kill Laurel after their arrival in New York. He does this knowing that that was what shook David loose from his selfish quest to regain his soul, and turned it into a quest to save Laurel instead. In a sense, he changes the nature of David's hope. It is important to note that in the midst of brutal honesty and self-defeating self-delusion, it takes both a truth and a falsehood to set David along the path that will save so many, and that only by crushing one of his hopes can a new and better one be born.

That brings us to the final message of Midnight Nation, and the end of a post that surely brings new meaning to the word "rambling". Hope is a shield and it's a curse, but never at the same time. The trick isn't to give up hope, nor is it to delude yourself that everything will automatically be fine. The trick is to know what to hope for, what to accept, and most importantly, when to hand over hope to somebody else.

Tomorrow: my top one hundred movie fart gags.

[1] Plus tremendously unhelpful into the bargain:
"I'm telling you everything that was said to me. I'm sorry if it seems cryptic. I always assumed there was a good reason for it."
"Is there?"
"Beats me".

[2] Note that Straczynski called the main character David Grey. Subtle, this is not.

[3] Having said that, it's entirely possible that this is a deliberate choice on Laurel's part. Reducing the chances of success might seem an acceptable price to pay for reducing the pain of failure at the same time. Anyone who has ever thought about keeping their distance from someone they are attracted to from fear of rejection will understand the plausibility of this theory.


Senior Spielbergo said...

Ahhh. Quick post something else and push tis down the page! Am not reading this as based on your recommendation I just ordered Midnight Nation + 5 Rising stars Books from Amazon.

SpaceSquid said...

Five? Which five? Presumably the three core books, then what?

I should warn you that the spin-offs aren't really that good, or at least Bright isn't (I've only read one issue of Voices, and none of Untouchable).

Be warned that Rising Stars suffers from the same problem as Battlestar Galactica, namely that each "season" is worse than the one before.

It also has the same benefit, which is that even at it's least impressive, it's still a damn fine read.

As to pushing this down the page, I wouldn't worry. Even if I don't get time to add something tomorrow (which is unlikely), the next X-Man article should hopefully be up by Tuesday (I say hopefully because Beast is liable to be a massive job; he's just too much fun to be concise over).

Senior Spielbergo said...

Rising stars volumes 1-3 which (according to Wikipedia) collect the main run 1-24. Volume 4 which collects Rising Stars: Bright and Rising Stars: Voices of the Dead (which are clearly the spin offs that you speak) and Rising Stars: Visitations which collects Rising Stars #0, #½, Prelude and Preview.

SpaceSquid said...

Ah, I'd forgotten about Visitations. Yeah; it's crap.

Pause said...

#½? Aha ha ha. I had no idea numbering conventions had become so silly.

Presumably the next time they do a spin-off series they will signify the distinction by extending the numbering into the complex plane.

SpaceSquid said...

What else can go between #0 and #1?

I guess you'd need the complex plane if you released a new issue that occurs simultaneously with one already out there.

Pause said...

What else goes between #0 and #1? It's more the fact that so many milking previews and prequels and whatnot get written ad-hoc, or that they do #0 and then decide there's going to be more and have to start looking for a way out, that makes me laugh.

But perhaps they should be even more creative. Does the story in question lie exactly half-way between #0 and #1? Perhaps they should have called it #1/3, or #0.8 or whatever. As opposed to something sensible like RS: Beginnings #1, #2 etc.

SpaceSquid said...

It was indeed that Rising Stars #0 already existed.

I take the point about whether it's genuinely half-way through, but comic book time is so mental anyway that it doesn't really matter.

I do like the idea of continuing in this vein forever, though, constantly dividing by greater and greater powers of two, until we reach the universal constant length of distance between two comics.

Pause said...

I suggest that said constant, a real number between 0 and 1, henceforth be alternatively referred to as SpaceSquid's Number.

It presumably has some fundamental role in the non-linear metrics of Comic Time, but that can be a job for future generations of researchers to investigate.

SpaceSquid said...

I second the motion, but propose immediate research, as I am bored of lower bounds upon imprecise long-term birth-death process behaviour.