Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#127) -- Magical Realism

You've compared telling superhero stories to writing magical realism. What do you mean by that?

Art by Lauren Hoffman
Let me start by saying that I'm a huge fan of magical realism, and that I'm a sucker for most of the work written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. That said, yes, I do believe that (at least the way I write them) writing modern superhero stories are a lot like magical realism.

First, let's look at what the critics say magical realism is:

Gabriel García Márquez uses the technique of magical realism in his novels as well as his short stories. Marquez uses magical realism to blend reality and fantasy so that the distinction between the two erases. (http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/ncw/marquez.htm)

Literature of this type is usually characterized by elements of the fantastic woven into the story with a deadpan sense of presentation. (http://www.themodernword.com/gabo/gabo_mr.html)

In magical realism, the supernatural is not displayed as questionable.  While the reader realizes that the rational and irrational are opposite and conflicting polarities, they are not disconcerted because the supernatural is integrated within the norms of perception of the narrator and characters in the fictional world. (http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/MagicalRealism.html)

Art by JP Dupras
Taking these qualifications into account, what I see as good, strong super hero fiction does this well. It places the natural, normal (some might say mundane) reality smack dab alongside the fantastic "reality" of magic, supernatural forces, and unexplained abilities to override the natural laws or chemistry and physics (i.e., look under the heading "science becoming indistinguishable from magic").

How else do you describe a story in which a man has carte blanche to risk death time and time again simply because he has been foretold the day of his death (the Grandstander, Show Me a Hero)? Or a tale in which a woman who grew into a gargoyle form from birth is able to inspire others with her acts of heroism (Frique, Show Me a Hero)? Or a man is transformed into the living embodiment of an long-forgotten, ancient goddess (Fishnet Angel, Show Me a Hero)?

Super hero tales work as magical realism when the setting doesn't wink with a knowing grin at the reader. It works when the writer and the characters play it straight, as it were. The trick is to treat it with both a sense of wonder and sense of being commonplace somehow simultaneously. Miss that tricky line, and super hero stories become either farce or fantasy, both of which are fine, but not (in my opinion) the best that super hero fiction has to offer.