Saturday, 19 October 2013

Retcon City

Permit me to begin this post with a rant (it's not like you're not used to them, after all).  Words have meanings, and retcon is a word, no matter how recent its birth. Those six letters exist in that combination for a reason, and people should respect that.

If I'm going to get up on my high horse about use of language, I should probably dig a little into what I think the word means.  Let's start with what it most certainly doesn't mean. It doesn't mean a change in the status quo.  Nor does it mean a return to the status quo - neither necessarily does "reset", incidentally, which seems to have become synonymous with "retcon" in certain areas; reversion to the status quo ante is only a reset when the method by which that return occurs has an insignificant effect upon later story-lines. It also doesn't mean simply filling in holes in a character's back-story, unless it's hard to credit that what fills the hole could realistically have remained hidden.

Properly speaking, a revelation becomes a retcon only when we learn something we thought was true isn't. This can be explicit - Dave's father isn't his father at all! - or implicit, whereby we assume elements of a character's past were uneventful because they've never been mentioned until The Big Reveal.  The crudest retcons do this by rewriting the past.  The more sophisticated ones do it by offering a new context for the past.

I'm not entirely sure whether "Lilith" constitutes a retcon, if for no other reason than Carey spends much of his time simply deciding which elements of antiquity's religious and literary writings to plunder. If indeed the tale of how the Silver City came to be constitutes a retcon, though, it's of the context-changing kind.  Not just of Lucifer itself, as it happens, but of the Bible as well.

(Spoilers follow.)

OK, so that's not completely true.  The idea that Lilith was more than just a demon (she's mentioned as such in Isiah) but also Adam's first wife expelled for refusing to be subservient isn't in the Bible. It stems instead from the 13th century writings of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, a man who also came up with the idea that Lilith laid with Samael, which of course we'll get to.  For our purposes, though, the provenance of this vision of Lilith doesn't particularly make that much difference. 2nd century or 13th, we're still looking at something written in a time when breathtaking misogyny was par for the course.

And this, obviously, is a problem.  The entirety of the Lilith myth is based on the idea that women should be obedient baby factories, and that not embracing that fate is something that should be severely punished. Modern stories explicitly call this idea out as appalling, which of course it is, but simply stating such is facile. If a story is shot through with bigotry, simply insisting that bigotry is wrong isn't going to cut it.  One needs to deconstruct the whole and figure out what can be used, what needs discarding, and what needs to be destroyed in full view of the public.

In truth, Carey is only partially successful here. In my view, he makes two critical mistakes.  The first is an entirely understandable one, in that it involves a perfectly sound and entertaining literary device. Carey's treatment of Lilith is a classic reversal - here it is the original woman who tempts Lucifer, not the other way round as Genesis would have it. The problem, of course, is that casting women as a temptress is no more progressive than casting her as the weak-minded betrayer of her husband.  Had Carey caught this, everything might have ultimately worked out. Unfortunately, it instead feeds into the second problem.

The main theme to "Lilith" is that of creation and ownership.  Lilith creates children, and from that manpower. Ibriel creates beauty and sophistication.  Tension develops within the story when the suggestion is raised that creation and ownership are different things.

In the case of Ibriel, this is all perfectly fine - though he himself would presumably disagree.  For Ibriel, creation is an all-consuming act, worth the destruction of anything else.  As long as his vision evolves and endures, nothing else matters. It's a classic portrait of obsession, which ends in exactly the way you would think.  All of which is fine. The problem comes with the fact that Ibriel finds himself unable to concentrate on his grand design because he's so busy lusting after Lilith, the temptress residing in her pink-curtained cave that is so obviously a vagina metaphor. Damn these sexytimes women!  Stopping men from thinking their man-thoughts of construction and spirituality. How can a guy praise God with all these tits around?

Perhaps one could assemble an argument that the story is arguing the sexes are at their most creative when they work together. If this is the aim, though, it's rather undermined by the specifics: here it is the man who has the idea, and then permits the woman to do all the work necessary to bring it about, only to forsake her at the moment of completion for the sake of political convenience.  This, to be clear, isn't what the story is endorsing. Indeed, the parallels drawn between Lilith's children and the Silver City she builds makes it very clear that the desires and initial input of a man are very much irrelevant - what a women creates is hers. But having Lilith state that she will happily burn the city she has built to the ground rather than abandon two of her children hardly constitutes a deviation from the mother uber alles trope this story should be fleeing from. Further, the fact that the situation is ultimately resolved by Lucifer - who, yes, is the title character, but that isn't enough in itself - reduces the maternal demands of Lilith in a problem to be solved by men.

So that's where this story goes wrong. I think it's important to note all that, but it's certainly not the only thing that's going on here. The differences and similarities between Ibriel and Lilith are only one part of the puzzle. There's also the combination of Lilith and Samael to consider. Here we're on better ground. Having dealt with the gender issues, we can admit that Lilith tempting Lucifer makes much more sense than Lucifer tempting Eve. Why would he bother? He knows any attempt to interfere with his Father's plans are doomed: he can only wreck what is ostensibly the point if Yahweh allows him to, which rather defeats the point. Besides, to attempt to gum up God's plan would be an admission of caring what God is doing, which is something Lucifer would die before confessing to.

No, this way round makes a great deal more sense. And really, how much does Lilith tempt Samael anyway [1]? Lucifer has been intent on challenging his Father since before Lilith met him. In a very real sense, Lilith does not so much tempt Lucifer as advise him on how to gain his freedom; at least, what freedom he can in a deterministic universe with a single author. "You can never be you own father," she tells him, "your own author. The only victory you can win is to be yourself."

Here, then, is the new context for our protagonist. There is, after all, one being in Yahweh's creation that he can be said to owe a debt to. Before Lilith, Lucifer's thoughts were of freedom through murder, as though "the angel who killed God" is a definition separate from God. It is via Lilith's counsel that Lucifer realises that the only option is to retreat inside himself. To utterly ignore his father. I've said before that the fact a film has a fixed ending by the time it premieres makes no difference to the punter watching it for the first time. This, really, is Lilith's point: once you turn your back on God, what you see is new to you, and bollocks to the fact that the guy behind you knows what's coming. Pay no attention to the scriptwriter behind the curtain.

Whether Lucifer ever learnt this lesson completely, I'm not sure. It's genuinely difficult to tell whether his bid to forge his own creation was an attempt to escape his Father or to challenge him (though my suspicions point to the latter). Still, this issue makes clear that Lucifer's "rebellion" was not a military strike, but an - admittedly ostentatious - attempt to simply walk away. Not even from God Himself, entirely, but from His self-appointed mouthpiece Gabriel, whose own interpretation of their absent Father's wishes results in a milquetoast entropy: only God can build, but anyone can destroy, so long as they genuflect with enough piety.

This is the final piece of the story's re-working of what we thought we knew. There-have been many stories in the last few decades which tend to (more or less) take Lucifer's side regarding his family spat with the Big G. I'm not saying it's the only position contemporary writers take, but it's certainly a common one (people  who plumped for the notoriously fickle world of writing sympathise with the ultimate rebel figure; who knew?).  Lucifer, to me, has always been a little more coy on the subject. I mean, it's obvious Amenadiel is an arsehole, and Uriel an empty suit (of Heavenly armour, but still...), but that in itself doesn't demonstrate a problem with God's Word: you should-never judge a book by its lovers. Even the possibility we might sympathise with Lucifer purely because he is the comic's protagonist was deliberately closed off when he obliterated the Mansions of the Silence in "Naglfar". So it's interesting that here Carey takes pains to not offer an authorial ruling on the dispute, instead framing it as a disagreement between two brothers. Yes, Lucifer has already admitted his homicidal feelings regarding his father, but the actual causus belli ultimately proves to be something else, something - which if I put my own Methodist-raised atheism aside - strikes me as a far better reason to defect. We build nothing and destroy what we don't like? It's hardly difficult to see why that has no chance of working long-term.

On one level, the sympathy deck is very much stacked against Gabriel.  On another, this is almost painfully ironic. Lucifer too is all about destruction. He's positively desperate to burn down his relationship with his Father, but it's not just the personal level we're looking at. Lucifer threatens to obliterate the Silver City if he doesn't get his way. That's very much a nuclear option, and it's hardly mitigated by the fact his stated demand is the release of condemned children (as Gabriel says, "You care nothing for the children. You're just looking for an excuse to defy me"). When he finally abandons his loyalist brethren, he doesn't solicit support, he merely notes that any who feel the way he does will be permitted to tag along.

All of which is to deliberately ignore the elephant in the room: issue #50 is clearly aimed at setting up the final third of the "Lucifer" run. There'll be plenty of time to sift through that when we start looking at "The Wolf Beneath The Tree".  For now, we need merely keep in mind that "Lilith" represents a shift from the story we have been following, and an expansion of the canvas upon which Carey has been painting. The revelation that Lucifer's beginning - as we recognise him now - was not as independent of others as he would like to believe. He may have created his rebellion against God, but he may never in fact have owned it.

And what you don't own can morph into shapes that can surprise you.  Defying the will of Yahweh has become the in thing. Others have been listening to the words of Lilith. Time we checked in on them, in fact. Having seen the point at which Lucifer realised his best option was to ignore everyone and everything else, it's time to consider the moment he realised this could no longer work.

It's time to stalk the wolf beneath the tree.

[1] For the record, the idea of Lilith and Samael sleeping together predates Carey by centuries. It's generally accepted that Samael then becomes Satan, but interestingly the idea that Satan and Lucifer are the same being seems to be comparatively recent, at least so far as my brief-web-surfing has found.


darkman said...

All this doesn't answer the question of how the hell the angels can fuck Lilith in the first place.
Also, for further reading about how Lucifer became Satan I recommend Satan: A Biography by Henry Ansgar Kelly.

SpaceSquid said...

Yeah, I was always curious as to how the mechanics work. I mean, really it doesn't actually matter; we're just asking how many angels can fuck Lilith on the head of a pin.

Of more importance, I'd say, is the reason why God would create angels that can copulate. That strikes me as fascinating.

The answer, one assumes, is that it allowed some event to take place God wanted to happen. Which, via Occam's face-shredder if nothing else, would most likely be the birth of Briadach, which ultimately brings about Lucifer's rebellion.

Thanks for the book recommendation, I shall see if we have it in the library.

Jamie said...

I know you're not a big fan, but your problems with Carey's handling of Lilith reminded me of this post by acrackedmoon:

Excellent post, by the way. I feel a reread coming on.

SpaceSquid said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I shall try and steel myself and take a dip into ROTYH-world later.

SpaceSquid said...

OK, back now. I only read the comments that related to Lucifer #50, because I'll want to sketch out my own thoughts for the later issues before I read anyone else's, but I have to say I found it persuasive.

Indeed, I may have been too hard on Carey here. Acrackedmoon's take on her willingness to risk her entire people on rescuing her children seems to be that it's further evidence Lilith quite simply will not take any shit, ever, from anyone. If she has to lose thousands of her children to war in order to regain two she has lost to the angels being dicks (though, you know, they are murderers), then that's the way it's going to be.

Maybe she's right and I'm wrong on that. On the other hand, I take issue with her taking issue with Mazikeen's father slut-shaming Lilith. Not for the obvious reason, which is that since the demon is specifically trying to enrage Mazikeen, little should be taken from his comments. I think that doesn't go far enough - that explains why he insults Lilith, it doesn't explain why he reaches for slut-shaming as the method for doing it.

The bigger problem for me is that I don't see why the angels being against something should mean the demons ipso facto don't have a problem with it. I get that organised religion has been a massive net negative on how women are viewed in society, but it doesn't follow from this that those who are explicitly anti-religion need hold opposing attitudes - just look at Dawkin's response to Rebecca Watson.

This, though, ties into a personal bugbear of mine, which is when people conflate religion's influence on society with society's influence on religion. I don't think six thousand years of religious thought has resulted in a misogynistic society, I think the need of the powerful to hold onto their power shaped six thousand years of religious thought. I'm sure the two cross-pollinate, of course, but labelling religion as a cause rather than a symptom strikes me as a problem.