Contains Language: Reader’s Discretion is Advised!

I know the above title is a low blow for attention, but I really couldn’t resist.

Whenever I write something on Mythic Bios, I try to make the language and the content as accessible as possible. I know I don’t always succeed, but in the case that I don’t my hope is that I have a little something for everyone that I am also interested in writing about.

In my later years in high school and throughout my early years at University I was really interested in Philosophy. I liked writing that made me think and that also played around with ideas of varying kinds with regards to, well, pretty much existence. But even then, before I realized how didactic–how dry and rambling it could get–I had one other issue with Philosophy and texts that purported to be as such.

Sometimes, they would reference subject matter that I wouldn’t understand or, in my case even worse, begin to quote a language of what I was not at all familiar. And it annoyed me. A lot. To be honest, it still does.

Philosophical texts are not the only culprit in this non-crime of course. Many literary classics–novels–do this exact same thing: at least from the Modernist era. And, finally, there are comics that do the exact same thing from time to time. Take Alan Moore for instance. Alan Moore is a genius. He creates multi-layered plots that start off very slowly but ultimately become very epic and grandiose. And even though his characters have tended to lean towards the cynical side of humanity, his characterization is very human and excellent.

But I will tell you now: when he has whole passages of From Hell and Lost Girls in German, or I believe Punjabi in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1910, or even … freaking Martian in the second Volume of The League I start to get … annoyed.

Don’t misunderstand: I like the authenticity he brings to the characters and the fact that you can clearly see how his well-read nature and research is paying off in the background. Now I am not just talking about his appropriate use of other languages, but his many, many literary and historical references that make me feel very under-read as a reader and overwhelmed as a writer. He simply makes so many references and allusions that I can’t always keep track of them, or even know what they are. I can see how other people would really have difficulty relating to this. I guess it’s like what Austrian Emperor Joseph the Second purportedly once told Mozart: that his work has “too many notes.”

I know that when he has used other languages, I feel a bit … cheated: because I want to know what the hell the characters are saying! It’s that simple. Likewise, I want to get all the references. I’m greedy like that and it feels like I’ve reached a certain level of understanding, and then I hit a wall.

A language is another perception of reality. Really, another language is a different world. This leads me to the other perspective on the matter. Anna Anthropy has said a few times that one of the issues with regards to video games is the very exclusive culture or subculture that has developed around them. More specifically, she talks about how video game design and dialogue around it becomes this interaction of in-jokes and references that people outside the circle do not always get. I would imagine that this is something, especially with regards to games as an expression of art–of language–is something that Anthropy believes we should watch out for.

On the other hand, Anna Anthropy is also one of those who wants to allow for a different voice or perspective in the medium of video games. For Anthropy this seems to have been in the form of making games for different genders and practices outside what was–and still is–the social norm. Essentially, and others like her, use this chosen medium to subvert it and change it: to reveal its full potential through a new perspective.

Alan Moore did something very similar. He, and others like Will Eisner, took a medium that became very associated with superheroes and some two-dimensional character development and morality and injected a whole different kind of perspective into it: using comics to talk about scholarly, metaphysical, philosophical, sexual, and realistic matters as well as still telling a story. Eisner and Moore are known for bringing the idea of the novel to the comics form and–eventually–leading to a place where a larger audience could access and relate to the stories being made in this medium.

In a way, they were making a new language as all languages are made: through innovation of an older dialect.

Anna Anthropy seems to believe that video games still need to “grow up” and deal with these matters as well: with gender and sexuality and life experiences in an accessible way. And one of these ways is to make the audience for games grow by trying not to make so many exclusive references within a game’s structure. Geeks by their very nature are exclusive in that they tend to know many obscure facts and bits of knowledge and trivia, and I don’t think that is a bad thing.

But I would argue with Anna Anthropy–at least with regards to knowledge and not necessarily that sense of shared social experience–that if a player doesn’t understand one element in a game, there are resources online and elsewhere that they can access to understand what is going on. And I suppose that is why, with regards to Alan Moore, there are so many Annotations of his works out there. I do think that it is more than okay, especially with regards to continuity and art, to make references that a reader doesn’t always understand: provided that there is enough that they do understand and enough impetus for them to go and learn something new.

It is strange how my knee-jerk reaction to seeing other languages in a primarily English language comic is a feeling of exclusion and also this annoyance: as though the author is trying to be pretentious and show how smart they are instead of telling a story that I can relate to. Sometimes I feel it to be very elitist. This is the same with references at times. On the other hand, I know–especially with regards to the latter–that I do the same thing regardless of how well I might explain it, and that I should really take it as a challenge.

I don’t want to be talked down to, but I also don’t like it when things go over my head. And this is me as a reader and–as such–I need to keep it in mind as a writer too. I also, as I said, don’t always succeed.

I like to think that Alan Moore doesn’t write in different languages in his works for the sake of being clever, but he actually does it to keep his characters in character and to maintain a continuity in his world-building. Granted, he could <do what some other creators do and but triangular brackets around dialogue to indicate a different language like so>, or make a different font for those words, but it would not be the same. There is no real solution to that, I’m afraid: not for me anyway.

But there is something that my studies in Philosophy also taught me. Whenever I do come across things I don’t understand, as I said I look them up, or I try to find a speaker of the language. I can tell you that it was enjoyable having a German-speaking friend of mine translate some words to me as I typed them out to her so long ago. And when I don’t get a reference, I consider it a real challenge and it is like an easter-egg hunt that allows me to reread Alan Moore’s text and graphics all over again. And sometimes, I find something new I didn’t get in the first reading.

I would never bring up any of this at a signing–should Alan Moore ever come to Toronto one day and I can access the line–because that is not the time or the place. But I do have this place to talk about it. Alan Moore helped take a medium that people did not always take seriously and made it into some serious literature: and as long as “serious literature” is always questioned, always makes you think, and can function on its own merit– and can take you into another perspective–then it is definitely a past-time, and a calling, that I want to continue for my own: because there is always room for growth.

So hopefully this made sense. My Mythic Bios is another world itself and perhaps a language of differing ideas sometimes reaching critical mass, or becoming exercises in poetry. Or it’s that fine line between talking down, and or being the wind over someone’s scalp. I’ll leave that up to you, my awesome readers.

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About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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2 Responses to Contains Language: Reader’s Discretion is Advised!

  1. Ruth says:

    I learmed to read when i was 3 years old. I was reading the newspaper every day when i was five. Nevertheless, when I was at high school, we were told to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles over the Christmas holiday. I did. When the teacher asked what we thought of it, I said I liked it but I didn’t see why the writer had to use so many rare words. The teacher looked at me and said, “It’s not the writer’s fault if you are ignorant.” Touché. I thought it was a fair comment and took it on the chin. I guess the same goes for any writer and reader.

    • Your teacher sounded classy. :p And I can understand that comment, but like I said in my post there is a fine line. You shouldn’t talk down to someone, but you shouldn’t try to go over peoples’ heads either. I guess it also depends on who and what your target audience is as well.

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