Using Spectacle to Tell the Truth
I got this question on my Tumblr blog and decided to answer it here, because it is a great one.
I had a question in regards to aesthetics, namely, what do you think is the role of spectacle, or "cool" things when you are trying to make a story that is good, true and beautiful? This is a tension I personally struggle with a lot when it comes to making things of substance rather things images that are merely flashy, and I'm sure you've wrest led with it too, being a comic artist, Christian and devotee of Chesterton.
First of all, thanks for this great question. I haven't been on my Tumblr for a while, so I hadn't seen it there until recently. I wanted to give answering it my best shot, even though I think this is one those questions that we will work on answering our entire lives. At least, I hope we will. My biggest fear about our current culture is that these three words have become irrelevant, and we've given up the search for answers. Truth, goodness and beauty are seen as relative, subjective terms, and when a thing is shuffled into the category of mere taste by an entire culture, we may claim it is still important to us, but inevitably it takes a backseat and eventually ends up in a coffin.
My two most popular works are about a cop who decapitates his enemies, and bears attempting to eradicate mankind. I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I have mastered the craft of the true, good and beautiful, though I will defend my work on the basis that I think people misunderstand true, good and beautiful as "factual, nice and pretty." I think there is a big difference.
I'll take each of these and try to define them, then talk about the role of aesthetics and spectacle in each.
Truth VS. Fact
Can a thing be true without being factual? I say yes. Factual means provable by science. "I love my wife," is a true statement, though there are no concrete facts to prove it. Sure, there are my actions, our wedding rings, our sappy Facebook posts, but if you wanted to prove our love is a real thing, you couldn't. It exists in a realm outside of the material. You can argue all day if it actually is material or not, but the fact remains for now it can't be proven.
Every story tells a truth or a lie, and here is the big divide. Do you believe that "truth" is a real thing that is out there, that we discover throughout our lives, or is it a thing we invent as we go along? Is it inside you or outside you? When you tell a story are you trying to express a universal truth, or your own invented truth?
If you reject that there are any universal truths, then your art is simply a reflection of your own tastes and opinions. I find it hard to believe that my truth is a thing I made up for me. We have decided that it is a cardinal sin of our culture to impose "your truth" on other people so we choose this belief in the subjectivity of all things. Less because of evidence and more because that's the trend of the times. It's unpopular to think truth is a real thing. Many people have written plenty on this topic so I won't get too deep into it here, but I want to make it clear that a story can be true even if it is not factual.
Can a story be full of spectacle and awesome visuals and still be true? I don't see why not. The question we must ask is what "truth" is our work pointing to?
If your work has a light story line that sort of hits on a few true things, but overall it mostly communicates to its audience that "spectacle is the whole point" that is a lie. Spectacle is eye candy, it is not the whole point of life or of art. Making people addicts of meaningless spectacle is detrimental to the culture and the art. Throw together any analogy you want to about balanced diets and too much sugar. Entertainment that makes spectacle its primary "truth" is as poisonous as a sugar-centric diet.
Goodness VS. Niceness
We get this one wrong a lot. Goodness is not an opinion, niceness is. We have hard time thinking in these terms, of goodness being a real thing we don't get to just "make up". A thing can be good without being nice.
The Bible is not a nice book. It is full of murder, war, deception, demons and horrific visions. You may say that all the "not so nice" stories in the Bible are a result of mankind's sin, but Jesus tells stories using murder and beatings and unpleasant things, and these are good stories. They point towards the true and they hold up the good, but they are not "nice".
The same goes for parenting; you can be a good parent, but not a nice parent. It's best if you can be nice whenever possible of course, but the point is not to be nice. The point is to urge your kids to do the right thing, choose the right path, be the kind of person who chooses good over evil. You can be an incredibly nice parent who is also a horrible parent. You can completely lead your kids astray, and be the nicest parent on earth the whole time.
Same with art. You can make nice art. You can tell stories that make people feel nice and fuzzy and cozy, but you can also be a complete and total liar who is leading people into a cozy pack of lies.
So again, can spectacle be good? Yes, if it is subservient to goodness. When the art's main point is to be lift up the good, the spectacle is a tool, but it is possible to let the spectacle drown out the goodness. I feel I may have done this in some of the earlier pages of Bearmageddon. I got carried away with guts and gore, and the visuals took precedence, even at the cost of the work being "good". I talk a lot about getting carried away with jokes and violence in your work at the cost of its goodness in my public apology for the irreverent Jesus comic I helped make.
Beautiful VS. Pretty
Taking these two words to mean the same thing is not just a mistake, it's a reflection of how our modern way of thinking has pulled everything besides material science off of the shelf of truth and made it all into personal opinion. Beauty is not an opinion, it is real.
If you deny that beauty is real, you deny its existence all together. You may use the word, but you mean pretty or pleasing to your eyes. Beauty goes deeper than that. Beauty says there is something pleasing to the soul, a real way things were meant to be, and when we get a taste of it through art or sunsets or romance, we get a sort of homesickness for a reality that is foreign yet familiar. To me, beauty is a glimpse of a sinless world, and that is why it is so powerful, because it is using something more powerful than arguments to show you the truth. You can make arguments in text that cause people to debate, and this can be good. But creating beauty can cause internal debates which are often much more productive.
It is an honor to be able to create art that scrapes away the ugly lies we have wrapped ourselves in, and give people a glimpse of real beauty. It is a thing we should strive for, and take great pleasure in the gift we have been given to be able to communicate something so much bigger than ourselves.
But how can I say this as the guy who made Axe Cop? A comic that celebrates head chopping and putting bombs in bad guys? Because that is not what Axe Cop is about. Do you walk away from Axe Cop thinking violent thoughts? Or do you think about the wonder of your own childhood? For most people, I know it is the latter. I love Axe Cop as an example that uses non-factual, not-nice, not-pretty things to communicate the truth, goodness and beauty of childhood wonder. And yes, plenty of spectacle.
Beauty is bigger than a nice sunset or a pretty painting. You can tell a story of war that shows the beauty of friendship and sacrifice. The story of Christ is the most beautiful story ever told, and one of the most ugly stories you will ever read. Not to beat a dead horse here but again, spectacle is a tool.
Worship Truth Not Spectacle
I didn't set out to create a work that met these requirements when I made Axe Cop. All I was thinking about was being a blessing to my little brother. I had made the trip up to see my family, and it was a special time for us. I had decided to set my own projects aside, and engage in being a big brother. I was doing something true, good, and beautiful when we made Axe Cop, and it came out in the work.
Bearmageddon is a bit different. It did start out as a story I was telling completely for the spectacle of it, but I wouldn't have kept up with it this long if I had not gotten to the heart of WHY I had created it. I realized I was using these spectacles to ask a question: "What is manliness?" It's a sincere question that has been with me my whole life, and when I realized that, the work meant something more to me than empty spectacle. I talk about this in the introduction to the full version of Bearmageddon Vol. 1.
So my advice is to love spectacle, enjoy it, strive to make great visuals, but do not be a slave to them. Our art worships something, that is inevitable. You cannot slave over a work as an artist does without communicating that you worship something, even if it is your own genius or the reaction you get from big explosions and robots. Hold truth, goodness, and beauty higher, so that your aesthetics have a solid foundation. Create with sincerity. Ask yourself why you are telling this story or creating this artwork. What is the question it is asking, and what is the answer it is offering? When we create art with the sole purpose to shock, surprise, and to get a reaction, that is when our art becomes empty. Creating good art has more to do with who you choose to be as a person than what story you choose to tell or what you choose to draw. Those works will flow out of the person you seek to become in all of life.
I hope this was clear, it was hard not to write ten times more. It is such a big topic that is so important to me. Thanks, Brent, for asking. It was nice to take a moment to think about these things.
If you read this far and would be interested in reading the full version of Bearmageddon volume 1, here is a coupon code to get the download for free from my store: TRUEGOODBEAUTIFUL