Something like 10 years ago I wrote a paper for a college exam that compared and contrasted Jesus Christ with Superman. It wasn't tongue-in-cheek or trying to be subversive. Well, to be fair, I might have been giggling to myself because I'd had a similar argument with the guy sitting next to me in that class and it got under his skin, BUT, the point is that I did this as a serious topic. It was actually one of the better essays I wrote at that time. The teacher gave me an A+ and left smileys in the margins. Like many things from that time in my life, the original essay was lost in a flood.
I bring this up because I was thinking about storytelling as a psycho-social vehicle, and a few lines from that essay floated up in memory.
The day of the Aurora shooting, I got into a civil discussion with someone who thought that perhaps the incident should be blamed on the glorification of violence in movies, television and video games. My personal feeling can best be summed up as, "No. Rational, sane people know the difference between fiction and the real world, they know acceptable social limits and will not run out to shoot someone because they play a first-person-shooter video game."
There is a lot of violence portrayed in the media. Sometimes I agree that said media is oversaturated with death, gore, shootings and other things that remove us from the realities of such things. However, most of us do not go out and repeat what we see on television because we are able to discern the crucial differences between right, wrong, art/bullshit and life.
She asked, then, if someone has influence and a mouthpiece to reach such a broad audience, why fill it with violence? Why fill one's head with that kind of "drivel"? My answer wasn't about social structure or broadcast standards, but about storytelling.
What is Best in life?
Storytelling, at its roots, is a place for a society to keep and hone its identity. All the way back to cave paintings, stories talk about our lives, what we experience every day, what we exalt and what we fear. For every protagonist there is an antagonist. For every deity there is a divine opposite. Without bringing morality into anything, there is always a dark to go along with a light. Stories define a particular culture's version of what is good and what is evil. Stories are the hope chests of their tellers. Our epic heroes--Jesus, Gilgamesh, Odysseus and Superman--represent what we believe is the best of us.
Yes, I just went there. Superman is an epic hero. Comics are the epic poetry of the 21st century. The spandex and super powers aside, these characters shine lights on what we--as a culture--value. Superman doesn't lie. He has empathy for a race as flawed as ours and fights for goodness. He defends us when we can't defend ourselves.
Bruce Wayne is rich, brilliant and uses his resources to fight the bad guys with his clever wit and gadgets.
Peter Parker's exploits remind us that with Great Power comes Great Responsibility.
We've enhanced them and given them a large scale for their problems. It's how we can distance ourselves and remain entertained but still get some message. (It's a whole new argument about why we've decided that Superman, the best of us, has to come from another planet and hide his true self.)
With all superheroes, there are super villains. Conflict in stories is necessary. Without conflict you have no story. Superman woke up one day, brushed his teeth, had a fabulous day and went to bed, that's it. Not entertaining. Not a story. Unless Superman is fighting against something, he is nothing more than a man. He's normal. There is now nothing noteworthy about this person, and thus, we don't need to waste ink or breath talking about him.
But, when we give him a Lex Luthor, a Brainiac--hell, give the man a kryptonite hangnail!--we give him a purpose. We give him a chance to define himself and be more than he might be. Bruce Wayne is just an eccentric, lunatic billionaire with grief issues if we don't give him a Joker or Riddler to match wits with. Our Avengers need Loki.
So, can we agree that a story needs a conflict? Awesome.
That conflict can come in many different ways. The classics are Man vs. Nature (The Perfect Storm), Man vs. God (The Odyssey) and Man vs. Man/Himself (The Dark Knight). Now, not all of these require violence. You can have a legal thriller or a mind-bending psycho-drama that never spills a drop of blood. You can have comedies where people are falling over themselves and messing up their own lives through situational gaffes.
So, if a society as a whole shuns the idea of casual, gratuitous violence and mass murder, why portray it in stories?
Because that's the other side of storytelling. We, as tellers of tales, don't just dip into the golden pool of what is best in life, we have to swim in the muck of what is worst about our reality. Stories aren't just about what we are, but what we may be. They are hopes and warnings.
Now, there's a whole slew of rants I could go on about splatter-horror flicks and fiction that insists every woman needs to be raped to be a "strong female character", but this is not where I will make those observations. Violence in fiction (television, movie, video game and literature alike), is there for a purpose. It is in our lives. It's a part of our collective self that we do not understand. Why do people do things like this? Why does mass genocide happen? Why do people go on shooting sprees or eat their neighbors? We don't understand. We can't wrap our heads around those kinds of atrocities because they are (thankfully) abnormal.
Stories are there to help us cope. They serve as a knot we can untangle safely, a way to come to grips with things we don't understand. If it can work out and end well in a comic book where aliens have landed and destroyed most of New York City, then maybe it will end well for us after some deranged soul opens fire on a theater full of geeks. If this character can find love and live again after tragic loss, maybe I can, too.
Stories are where we plant what is, contemplate what might be, and try to understand what is. Part of "what is" right now, sadly, is violence. Mass killings, war, random acts of chaos. You can have the chicken and egg argument--are we this way because of the media's glorification/desensitizing to violence, or is that in the media because we are violent--but in the end, it's part of our story.
I think it was Ari Marmell who said it, but what happened in Aurora, CO would be a hero origin story in any comic. It's from these tragedies that our heroes are born. Good people are forged and galvanized from such horrors.
And that is why our stories are important.
For all that they are, flaws and gore and truth, our stories tell us who we were, question and define who we are and determine who we will be.