18 November 2007

Superhero Secrets and Authorial Authority

Usually, when I start babbling about canonicity, you can grimace and return to what you were doing, safe in the assumption that I'm about to start ranting about the Jews of the diaspora, the Septuagint, Marcion, Irenaeus, the Muratorian fragment, Origen, Athanasius, Pope Damasus I, the Synod of Hippo, and a couple of Councils of Carthage, possibly with a casual nod to the Second Council of Nicea, mentioning along the way the reservations of Jerome and the closure of the Jewish canon, whenever that happened.

But not today, as a certain fictional psychiatrist once said.

I was talking yesterday about how J.K. Rowling caused a bit of a flurry recently when she revealed how she had always thought of Dumbledore as gay, and I ended by observing that this raises interesting questions about authorial ownership. A friend of mine got rather put out in the summer on my telling her of how Rowling had revealed the fates of so many characters in a long web chat, just a few days after the publication of the last Harry Potter book. She didn't want to know. It was pretty clear that she owned the characters, in some sense, and that she had her own ideas about what happened to them afterwards; she didn't want the author spoiling things by telling her. I'm sure there must be loads of people who share her view on that, seeing how the Harry Potter books are apparently Britain's most reread books!

(Oddly, she's rather taken by the recent revelation of Dumbledore's sexuality. Didn't Wilde describe consistency of mind as an admission of failure? Something like that, anyway.)

The issue, I think, concerns whether something an author has in their heads should be considered canonical, if it's not expressed on the page. Do revelations in interviews, websites, and posthumously published collections of notes really matter? Do authors get to define their characters after they've released them? Who owns Albus Dumbledore?

What got me thinking about this the other day was my rediscovery of this hilariously puerile site, which you should explore at your leisure and contemplate, among other things , the precise nature of Batman's relationship with the Boy Wonder.

If you rummage through the site you'll quickly gather that most of the panels are just funny out of either narrative, historic, or cultural context, and there are few jokes there that would have been wildly out of place in a 'Finbarr Saunders' story in Viz.

What exceptions there are look like cases of creators having a joke, trying to see what they could get past the code, so sniggers there are fully justified, which leaves this page - and the comment below it - looking even more out of place.

Yes, it's what it looks like. Spider-man is telling a young boy how he was abused as a child. You didn't know that, did you? No, neither did I. I wonder if NMRBoy did, him being an old fan of the wisecracking webslinger.

You can get the backstory by reading about Skip Westcott, the villain of the piece, but what I found most interesting when I quickly did some googling to get a handle on this, was that the story has been discreetly forgotten about by Marvel since its publication, with some fans arguing that it's non-canonical. The 'thinking' seems to be that as it was published by Marvel in association with the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, it's not part of continuity.

I'm not sure. I mean, it's hardly in the same league as Death and John Constantine showing how to put condoms on bananas, after all, and it is published by Marvel. And Marvel does own Spider-man.

So what? Well, think back to my allusion above to there being questions about Batman's sexuality. It's something people with even more time on their hands than me have pondered over the years, but I think Andrew Wheeler pretty much demolishes speculation by the cunning use of common sense:
So is Batman really gay? Of course not. He's a DC trademark, and DC's not going to dilute the marketability of one of its biggest licenses. DC is so adamant about the character's heterosexuality that even as recently as 2000, the publisher was rejecting requests by academics to use copyrighted materials in articles that discussed the character's sexuality. [. . .] The reason people look for gay subtext is because it isn't there in the text.
So in short, Spider-man is an abuse survivor, Batman's not gay, and Dumbledore - well, you can make your own mind up. For the moment.

J.K. Rowling may yet write a prequel, after all.


Shakespeare's Cobbler said...

As long as she doesn't, there is a good commentary here:


The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

A more intriguing question is how will you read this once she's published her embryonic encyclopedia of Harry's World. Should details in the Encyclopedia, absent from the books, be considered canonical? I expect there'll be a debate on that one.

People probably shouldn't be too surprised at all this, though. Put it into context. This was 1899. Think Wilde, Beardsley, and the Fin de siècle. In fact, if you read 'Soldier Boys' in Paul Fussell's brilliant the Great War and Modern Memory, you'll quickly see how ubiquitous supressed and sublimated homosexuality seemed to be among upper- and middle-class British males in the decades leading up to the Great War.

In truth, I think this is a bit of a shame, not least because it's not very interesting. I'm not convinced that Dumbledore's adoration of Grindelwald having been driven by romantic feelings more than by adolescent hero-worship really worsen or exacerbate the feelings of desolation and betrayal he felt on discovering Grindelwald's true nature.

And the thing is, we've already had a rather more challenging raising of issues relating to homosexuality and prejudice in the character of Remus Lupin, whose lycanthropy and the reactions it engendered surely was intended as comment on homosexuality and homophobia.

It's not as mad as it sounds. There's virtually no sex in the Potterverse. Magic does the same job for these budding adolescent wizards, with their wands, their cauldrons, and their celibate teachers.