Friday, February 20, 2009


Alan Moore forced the point in the Black Dossier just a little too soon after covering things quite nicely in Promethea, turning into a mad drunk at the pub who will keep repeating himself because you're just not listening. But he still made a great point.

His theory that it is the legends and myths and stories that define us as human beings, picking and choosing our ego from the tales that surround us, is hard to deny. A little morality from Superman can go a long way, and the sheer determined drive of James Bond is something to be admired, although he can keep large parts of that particular personality.

This is nothing new. Our oldest stories are also some of the oldest records of who we were and where we came from. Human origin myth passes into religion, tales of hunting trips the only way of reading the past. Gilgemesh and Beowulf and all the rest, teaching us all to be hard and tough enough to get through a hard and tough life. Necessary skills in times of strife, less use as we all got a bit more comfortable, and eventually just another story in an age overflowing with them. Gilgemesh goes from the first great hero to a part of the Crappiest Avengers Team Ever, and Beowulf is only good for a few cheap three-dee thrills and Ray Winstone with a sword.

And look where the long, strong road from the invention of the printing press has taken us. The average person could hear a dozen stories a day, in one form of another, and a ubiquitous media presence offers hints of a thousand more.

The old heroes, even the old Gods, may have been human once upon a time, but the centuries-long Chinese whispers have pulled them into a far longer existence as Legends. Not a bad job, if you can get it.

It all slows down to a stop a couple of hundred years ago. As the world was mapped out and communication lines opened up, people that may have become legends stay hidden in fact.

The Wild West threw up a couple of men and a few notable women who broke out of their horrible reality in cheaply printed pamphlets, took to the silver screen and live on forever in myth. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Unforgiven and hundreds of other great films illustrated the myth-making of the West over the century that followed, even as they acknowledged the sordid reality.

But then the world got covered in telephone wire, and fibre optic turned information into light and back again, and we all know the score now. The amount of data flowing in from around the world is phenomenal, and getting faster. In the seventies, hideous hurricanes in the Indian Ocean that wiped out entire towns garnered a few paragraphs on the international page, now news crews are on the ground within two days, and the rolling news will be feasting on the disaster for a number of weeks.

All this information comes with heavy prices, as the more important things in life are lost in the sea of white noise. Political organisations are the masters of this domain in a brand new millennium, and it takes skill, determination and time to avoid the spin coming in from every direction.

New legends for a new age are completely lacking when it comes to this scrutiny. Pat Tillman would have had statues depicting his heroic sacrifice in any other war, but the necessary digging started soon after his death, and he has sadly become another symbol of lies and cover-ups. In the 24/7 news cycle, there is nowhere to hide. We live in a world that is so well-covered that the biggest single argument against those who blissfully maintain that the horrible events of September 11, 2001 were a US government conspiracy, is that the current media climate is so all-encompassing. And with the previous administration showing basic incompetence on almost every level, there is no way a conspiracy could be maintained for seven years and counting.

Fortunately, while the real world has been tackled hard by communication and fumbled the ball, fantasy has swept in and scored the vital points. The fantasy world is getting richer and richer every single year, with more idiosyncratic minds showing the world something a little different on a more regular basis.

It can be seen in the big summer blockbusters. More comic book characters, more fantasy television spin-offs, more things with sodding elves and dwarves. These types of movie were written of as completely juvenile for much of cinema's history, relegated to cheap sets and cheaper visual effects. The big movies were the prestige projects, historical epics with grand casts and realistic, if incredibly melodramatic, story scenarios.

It's all turned around now, and the super-hero has been primed to take advantage of this for a decade. With special effects finally living up to the special part of the title, and a lack of new legends, it is the superheroes that become our new campfire tales.

It has been recently argued that Batman is not an icon, because a couple of hundred thousand people, at the very most, regularly follow one of the many comic books featuring the character. But when multiplied by the billions of people out there who recognise the basic costume, and millions who can name his secret identity, hasn't the character leap-frogged iconography into a full-blown legend?

Our legends and myth are still there, and new ones are being created, revered, forgotten and rediscovered at an incredibly fast rate that is only increasing. Good old Alan Moore has also delighted in pointing out that the sheer amount of data in our society is increasing, and it all has to go somewhere.

The future is, as always, unwritten. But our need for heroic figures that transcend the stories they appear in is as strong as ever, and there is no shortage of such attempts. Where all this takes us is bound to be an exhilarating, scary and wonderful place, and it is our privilege to see it unfold in our lifetimes.

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