The Real Problem With Stories (The Last War in Albion Part 10: Starblazer, Aristotle)


This is the final installment of Chapter Two of The Last War in Albion. You can still grab the ebook single of Chapters One and Two at AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords. Please consider helping support this project by buying a copy. Barring a deadline catastrophe, Chapter Three will begin next week.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: Grant Morrison’s action-packed work for Starblazer evoked both the legacy of pulp magazines and the steady rise in popularity of the “fantastic” genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, including superheroes. This, in turn, raised the question of genre fusion, and what genre means in the first place…

"She's realized the real problem with stories - if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death." - Neil Gaiman, Sandman #6

So in the late 1970s, as this tide began in film with things like Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Alien, major filmmakers in the genre like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott were inspired by the pulp fiction of their childhoods - 1950s America for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and late 40s/early 50s Britain for Ridley Scott. All of this took place in the context of other historical shifts, of course, but it was the trend that Moore and Morrison were swept up in, and, eventually, came to find themselves appearing to steer. Film and serialized print, after all, had always been bedfellows. Film adapted popular serialized print stories and genres - the films that were popular in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s were still action-adventure stories derived from the pulps, but they were war stories and westerns that lacked sci-fi/fantasy elements.

Figure 77: The more or less realist Luck of the Legion shared space in
Eagle with the sci-fi adventures of Dan Dare.
But the lines between these pulp genres often blur, much as the line between superheroes and the pulps blurs. Starblazer was the sci-fi/fantasy sister title to the straight war digest Commando, also published by DC Thomson. The American comics industry of the 40s-60s had superheroes, but also had westerns, crime comics, horror, and other genres. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote sci-fi when he did the Barsoom stories, but more straight adventure when he did Tarzan. Grant Morrison can feature a noirish private eye in what is essentially a Flash Gordon story. Eagle ran Dan Dare alongside stories of the French Foreign Legion. Adventure stories taken from the pulps have always been a subset of film, and sci-fi/fantasy has always been a subset of adventure stories. It is both crucial and obvious to point out that the pulps and film are, however, very different media. Further, it is important to point out that they have very different narrative forms. 

Figure 78: Ancient Greece has numerous subtle treatments
in comics, the bulk of which are impeccably researched.
This is best explained in terms of ancient Greece.

Virtually all thought about narrative structure is a reaction to Aristotle’s Poetics, and, to a lesser extent, his Rhetoric. Some works restate or expand upon the Poetics, others fly in the face of it, but there is little that has been said about narrative structure over the past two-and-a-third millennia that has not been substantially engaged with Aristotle. Even today any guide to screenwriting or novel writing that one purchases will be, essentially, a collection of self-help tips wrapped around an explanation of Aristotelean plot structure. Much of this stems from the fact that Aristotle was the first person to codify some very important things. For instance, Aristotle proclaims that “a whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.” This may sound terribly obvious, but that is in most regards the point; Aristotle in essence codified the basic idea of a plot structure that is taken for granted today.

Figure 79: According to Anton Chekov's argument, this gun
will have to discharge later in the War.
Aristotelean plotting, summarized briefly, and incorporating several developments postdating Aristotle himself, works thusly: a plot should follow a single action, albeit a complex action in which a character goes through several moments of “recognition and reversal” in which they learn something and, accordingly, have their fate reversed. Events at the beginning of the story should make events at the end likely, while events at the end should justify the inclusion of events at the beginning, a rule succinctly restated by Anton Chekov, who orders writers to “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.” Equally important are the dramatic unities, which require that the action take place over one continuous period of time and in one place. These rules have loosened since Aristotle’s time - proper Aristotlean narrative ought take place in one room, with no breaks in time at all, whereas more contemporary treatments treat unity of time and place as injunctions not to include events that aren’t part of the single action that the plot is about.

The point, within Aristotle, is to engender a catharsis of pity and fear that occurs when the audience sees a well-depicted imitation of a noble human life brought down by his own flaws and imperfections. Crucial to this structure is the act of imitation, or mimesis, which is where Aristotle begins the Poetics. For Aristotle what defines narrative is the fact that it is an imitation of human action, stemming from the fact that man “is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitations learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.” By watching an imitation of a tragic downfall, in Aristotle, we are able to engage with the emotions of pity and fear in a cathartic, cleansing way that produces a spiritually validating feeling that is poorly captured by Aristotle’s prose, which is, in practice, merely the adapted lecture notes taken by his students at the Lyceum.

Figure 80: Aristotle
All of this sounds very sensible, but it’s important to note that Aristotelean plot structure applies to the specific genre of tragedy. Aristotle spends much of the start of the Poetics meticulously differentiating tragedy from other genres such as comedy and the epic. Aristotle clearly has detailed views on how both comedy and the epic function, but these views are not expressed within the Poetics, and, more importantly, are not expressed in any surviving work of Aristotle’s, although his views on comedy are widely believed to survive in a manuscript called the Tractatus Coislinianus. Epics, however, are trickier. Aristotle is largely dismissive of the epic, saying that “epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the drama was a larger and higher form of art.” The difference, as Aristotle explains it, is that while “Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun… the Epic action has no limits of time.” Another way of framing this is that the epic has multiple plots as opposed to tragedy’s single-minded focus. This, in turn, comes close to his remarks elsewhere in the Poetics, where he proclaims that “of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot episodic in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence.” 

Aristotle’s value judgment regarding tragedy and epics has, perhaps improbably, survived the 2335 years since Aristotle’s death. Proper and literary fiction works according to broadly Aristotelean lines, with tight unity of plot that builds to a definitive ending. The sort of fiction that just goes on and on, meanwhile, is largely frowned upon, or, at least, would be if self-proclaimed paragons of taste paid enough attention to it to frown. But it hasn’t gone away in the least - the narrative structure of the pulps is visually based on the epic. In many ways the core difference between the epic and tragedy - a genre that should really be broadened to “literary” fiction in general - is the issue of endings. Literary fiction is written towards a moment of eventual resolution that will satisfy what Aristotle describes as “the instinct for harmony and rhythm,” whereas epics (now more usually referred to as pulps) are written for serialization, building not towards an ending but towards the periodic punctuation of the cliffhanger. 

This is true even when they are not serialized - Starblazer, after all, clearly uses the structure of the epic within a given issue, offering a largely episodic plot in which various adventures take place, building to a conclusion that is determined more by the page number than by any sense of narrative progression. There’s no inherent reason why “The Last Man on Earth” has to reach Earth proper when it does, as opposed to adding another two or three planets to Gaunt’s arrival on Earth, nor, for that matter, is there a reason one or more events of the story couldn’t be excised. The plot is fundamentally just a series of encounters strung together, and the point of the encounters is less to build towards the eventual resolution and more to fulfill what Grant Morrison has described as the only note he ever got from DC Thomson: “more space combat.” 

This gets at the limitations of the epic/pulp format - they are by and large suitable for storytelling based around what Aristotle calls spectacle, but rather lacking in most other regards. They’re fantastic if what you want is space combat (or some other form of exciting action and spectacle), but visibly lacking in character depth or in complex plotting. Ultimately the virtue of any major pulp hero is that they are usable to tell a lot of stories with exciting events, not that any one of these stories is particularly emotionally moving. This is not a problem as such - clearly epic/pulp genres have been getting along for more than two thousand years without having to assimilate completely to tragedy’s structure. But it remains a fundamental divide between two types of storytelling. And this divide carries with it a wealth of value judgments, with the epic/pulp structure being a lower, coarser genre for mass appeal, while the literary/tragic structure being more refined. 

Figure 81: Joseph Campbell's theories
of the monomyth had profound influence
on pulp-derived genres.
For the most part, comics are a medium that is, in practice, naturally inclined towards pulp genres. In many ways the War is fought over that inclination, and, more to the point, over a desire to reverse and resist that inclination, writing stories that are on the one hand using genre iconography associated with the pulps, but that are structured like literary fiction, and, ideally, that are widely recognized as literary fiction. The techniques developed in the course of the War were not the first such techniques - George Lucas’s wedding of space opera iconography to the “hero’s journey” structure developed by Joseph Campbell in Star Wars accomplished the same goal. But a byproduct of the War was a massive profusion in techniques to accomplish literary-structured fiction with pulp iconography within visual media, many of which led to enormously successful films mostly (though not entirely) featuring American superheroes. Inasmuch as the War can be explained simply as the product of developments in what might be broadly described as “aesthetic technology,” the development of these techniques serves to explain it. 

But in 1979 the set of techniques needed to do this were not in place yet, and Grant Morrison found himself in a comics industry that was mainly based on doing the most generic pulp stories imaginable. Following the 1981 cancellation of Captain Clyde and the 1980 collapse of Near Myths, Morrison essentially departed comics until 1985, turning in the occasional Starblazer script for spare cash. Nominally this was to pursue a career in music, but it must be said that Morrison cannot have looked at his output since 1978 and seen anything with a serious chance of providing a steady income, nor, for that matter, a sense of creative satisfaction. Particularly stinging must have been his dismissal from Captain Clyde, given that The Govan Press had, in 1976, run a feature on Morrison’s interest in comics with the endearingly bad pun of a title “He’s Quick on the Draw - That’s Grant” that eagerly showed off some of his work (both original characters and an illustration of Marvel’s Iron Fist) and proclaimed that “you’d be excused for thinking that the characters featured here had been dreamed up by a top comic strip writer. And had been drawn by a professional cartoonist. But they are, in fact, the brainchild and the work of a local, 16-year-old artist.” The brief feature goes on to eagerly declare that “a lad with a great future is Grant Morrison.” And just five years later they were firing him, his superhero strip for them having been deemed an overly expensive failure at six quid a week. 

Figure 82: A 16-year-old Grant Morrison feted in The
Govan Press
For all his later bluster about this early stage of his comics career, it has to be said that Morrison’s early attempts in the industry were not successful, and that failure must have stung. Certainly it’s easy to see why his firing from Captain Clyde would disturb his previous rock solid confidence expressed to that very paper that “I’m hoping to take up art as a career. If that doesn’t come off I’ve nothing else in mind.” A break from comics to follow another passion makes perfect sense in the context. It’s clear that Morrison did not pay much attention to the larger comics industry during his four year sabbatical, seemingly buying only Dez Skinn’s Warrior anthology, where he encountered a revival of Marvelman that did much of what he had attempted for The Govan Press. This failure was not, clearly, for lack of ideas - Morrison’s work, in fact, amounts to a near-miss version of Bryan Talbot’s successful The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, a near-miss of Marvelman, and some perfectly competent single issues tailored to a specific market, albeit not one that paid enough to make a living.

But Grant Morrison is not a writer of near-misses and the merely competent. The depth of Morrison’s skill may not be obvious in his earliest material, but his ambition is. The conditions necessary for his ambitions to be realized were simply not yet present in the British comics industry of 1979, nor even of 1981. But everything began to change on March 31st, 1979 when Spotlight Publication’s national music weekly, Sounds published the first installment of Roscoe Moscow: Who Killed Rock n’ Roll. Less than five months later, on the 25th of August, 1979 the local Northampton paper the Northants Post began a weekly comic strip entitled Maxwell the Magic Cat. Sounds was paying £35 a week, while the Nohants Post paid £10, making a combined weekly of £45 a week - £2.50 greater than the unemployment benefits Alan Moore had previously been drawing, and officially marking the beginning of his career as a full-time comics writer. [continued]

NEXT TIME: The British music magazine scene, the American Comix scene, and a history of talking cats as Alan Moore takes his first steps into the comics industry, meets his wife, and becomes a French child murderer. It’s Chapter Three of The Last War in Albion: Roscoe Moscow, The Stars My Degradation, and Maxwell the Magic Cat.


ReNeilssance 3 years, 5 months ago

Always enjoy seeing references to Neil Tennant's comics career.

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David Anderson 3 years, 5 months ago

I wonder if that's really what Aristotle meant. The Iliad and the Odyssey are at least as tightly plotted as most modern novels. Maybe he was thinking of epics that are now lost to us.
I think the distinction is a better characterisation of pulp than it is of literary fiction. To the Lighthouse and Waiting for Godot have no real ending; while any hack novel of detective fiction or fantasy quest trilogy does. See Kermode's Sense of an Ending about literary attempts to evade the final wrapping up of plot threads.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 5 months ago

I dunno. Look at Phil's explanation of pulp "event plotting":

There’s no inherent reason why “The Last Man on Earth” has to reach Earth proper when it does, as opposed to adding another two or three planets to Gaunt’s arrival on Earth, nor, for that matter, is there a reason one or more events of the story couldn’t be excised.

It seems to me you can pretty easily replace "The Last Man on Earth" with "The Odyssey", "Gaunt" with "Odysseus", "Earth" with "Ithica" and "planets" with "islands".

Detective stories have endings but I don't think they're endings in the Aristotlian sense. The main character does not get a resolution, they just move on to the next detective story.

(Yes, there's The Final Problem and Curtain. But one of those didn't stick, and the other was left to be published once there could definitely be no more Poirot stories.)

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 5 months ago

I just want you to know Phil I'm still reading and enjoying. But I don't have anything meaningful to say about this hence the silence.

Anyways: Looking forward to Book 3!

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 5 months ago

Of course, we forget today that even though we now call To the Lighthouse and Waiting for Godot great modern works of literature, they were incredibly controversial at the time of their publications and performances precisely because they broke Aristotelian rules of structure. Today, we consider experimentation and novelty of technique and character a reason to recommend an artwork as ambitious and high-quality. That's only because we come after a generation of experimental visionaries who made that possible.

Even now, new writers aren't usually encouraged to experiment. Most MFA programs in creative writing focus on creating tightly plotted short stories in following Aristotle's and Chekhov's maxims. Breaking the rules, experimenting, and being different is still frowned upon.

As for the nature of the epic, I remember a long discussion we had in the TARDIS Eruditorum (maybe about a year ago; I forget which post) during the Wilderness Years discussing Doctor Who's lack of suitability for epic storytelling. The post focussed on the tropes of large action set pieces, grand thematic statements, huge violent confrontations of armies and enemies. Actually, I think it might have been Death Comes to Time, with such cartoonishly stupid fist-pumping moments like "Because I'm the Brigadier! Protector of Earth!" or some bullshit like that, contrasting that idiotic theatricality with the understated moment in Battlefield. The destroyer of worlds, who's been set up as this enormous, horrifying, world-shattering monster, asks if this is Earth's greatest champion. The Brig responds, "Probably not. But I do the best I can." I remember Phil trying to contrast the empty bombast of Death Comes to Time with the quieter, and more moving way Doctor Who typically has of dealing with its plots.

We ended up in this ridiculous tangent about how Star Wars was nothing like the Iliad, which completely missed the point in favour of some kind of epic originalism.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

I'd also argue that taking Aristotelean structure and just doing the opposite is still, by and large, working under Aristotelean structure.

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David Anderson 3 years, 5 months ago

Odysseus only sets foot on three islands in the course of the Odyssey: Calpyso's island at the beginning, Phaeacia, and Ithaca at the end. (All the stuff about Cyclops, Lotus Eaters, Circe, Sirens, etc etc, is a comparatively brief flashback told through Odysseus' narration to his Phaeacian hosts.)

I don't think it's fair to describe modernism as taking Aristotelian structure and just doing the opposite.

It's obviously harder to write a readable story that evades Aristotle and Chekhov's maxims. But it's also harder to write a listenable pop song that doesn't use tonal key harmony or to make a viewable painting that's not strictly representational. It says something about our attitude to the various arts, although I'm not sure what, that while even pop is no longer wedded to tonal harmony even literary fiction writing is taught as if modernism never really happened.
That sounds as if I want to object to the very idea of Aristotelian structure. I don't. I'm just rather questioning any hard and fast demarcation of the literary from the non-literary. I do think Philip's right about what kinds of storytelling the infinitely extensible serial format of pulp or comics closes off. (The problem with soap as an artform is that they attempt those kinds of storytelling in a serial genre that makes them too difficult.)

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Nyq Only 3 years, 5 months ago

Knowing what the rules are and intentionally breaking some or most of them is part of effective design.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

more straight adventure when he did Tarzan

Though not exclusively; Tarzan rides a triceratops in Tarzan the Terrible (before the Doctor did), gets zapped by a shrink ray in Tarzan and the Ant Men, and travels to the Earth's core in, well, Tarzan at the Earth's Core. Plus he has a cameo in The Eternal Savage, which is either about time travel or about reincarnation, depending on how one interprets the plot.

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall

I've seen two versions of Chekhov's rule cited: "if you hang a gun on the wall early on, you must fire it later" and "if you fire a gun later, you must hang it on the wall early on." (I've always thought the 2nd rule was more important.) Do we have any evidence as to whether Chekhov said both these things or just one of them?

These rules have loosened since Aristotle’s time

Actually they first tightened. The only unity Aristotle insisted on was action. The unities of time and place were added by the French classicists. (He does say that tragedy tries to keep within a single day, though it's not clear whether that's prescriptive or descriptive; it's still well short of real time anyway.)

Aristotle’s prose, which is, in practice, merely the adapted lecture notes taken by his students at the Lyceum

No, Aristotle's texts are thought to be his own notes for his lectures, not the notes of his students. The only Aristotelean work that is thought to be perhaps the result of student notes (unless it is just completely spurious) is the Magna Moralia.

Aristotle also wrote more polished works, dialogues, but these are all lost apart from some fragments. Cicero, no mean judge in such matters, praises the "golden flow" of their style.

Another way of framing this is that the epic has multiple plots as opposed to tragedy’s single-minded focus

Though Aristotle does think a loose kind of unity of action applies to the best epics, such as Homer’s (where despite all the digressions there is a causal sequence from the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad to the death of Hector at the end), whereas bad epic poets think "all happening to the same character" is enough to unify an epic; Ari contrasts the non-Homeric Heracleid, whose incidents are unified simply by all involving Heracles, with Homer's Odyssey, which he says has more unity than just involving Odysseus). I fear he would be saddened by Doctor Who. (Unless he regarded each episode rather than the whole show as the relevant work of art.)

Proper and literary fiction works according to broadly Aristotelean lines, with tight unity of plot that builds to a definitive ending. The sort of fiction that just goes on and on, meanwhile, is largely frowned upon

I found this claim surprising. In my experience, tightly constructed plot tends to be somewhat looked down upon (the "well-made play") by literary critics; sprawling plotless stories where the focus in on style and characterisation more than on cause and effect (e.g. Proust) tend to be more popular with them than with general audiences, no?

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 5 months ago

You make a good point, David A. I'd only add that it isn't so much that there really is any strict demarcation of literary from non-literary, but that this demarcation is widely believed to exist. And it is widely believed to have the moral significance of separating good or artistically worthy literature/comics/theatre/film from bad or trashy.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 5 months ago

I don't think the "fiction that just goes on and on" Phil refers to is the Proust model, but the Spider-Man model. Issue after issue after issue with some self-contained episodes and stories within, but which are part of a series that has no thematic point other than "Pick up next month's issue for another thrilling adventure of . . . . "

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

Aristotle himself says that advice in the human realm usually has to take the form of "for the most part" rather than "necessarily and always." I reckon he'd grant that his advice about plot structure falls under this principle too.

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Josiah Rowe 3 years, 5 months ago

Nice dry irony in the caption to Fig. 78.

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Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

I laughed out loud.

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David Anderson 3 years, 5 months ago

I don't think Aristotle objected to any given dramatist writing series of plays based on characters in the same family. So I think he'd certainly take the unit of Doctor Who to be the story. The fact that you then put the same character in a different story is fine so long as that new story has its own beginning and end.
(In Search of Lost Time isn't actually plotless: it has a definite end that it's working towards, namely Marcel writes a novel identical to the novel you're reading.)

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Henry R. Kujawa 3 years, 5 months ago

Rules are to be followed or ignored at the discretion of the writer. The work reflects the writer's personality and outlook. This way, each writer's works can be enjoyed or not as a matter of personal taste.

Of course, some people simply have more skill or less skill...

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 5 months ago

Oh my god! Grant Morrison WITH HAIR!!! :-O

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GeneralNerd 3 years, 1 month ago

Makes me wonder what Alan Moore looks like without a beard.

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