Dave's Philosophical Nattering - Growing Up

(and its pitfalls)

Copyright 2007 by Dave Van Domelen

   Okay, an admission from the get-go, the issue of growing up is mostly going to be treated as a metaphor here, so don't say I used false advertising.

   In the literal sense, a funny thing happens to many, if not most, of us when we hit the teenage years. We want to be taken as adults. We want to be taken seriously, so we abandon anything we consider to be "childish" or "silly". Sure, some things we just outgrow anyway, but we also tend to reject things that we still like, on the grounds that they're "kiddie stuff" or some similar argument. We stop playing with toys, we stop reading comics or watching cartoons, we don't play the same games (with the exception of socially-approved-for-adults games like sports). We're so worried about looking like we're still kids (especially since, deep down, we know we are still kids and are trying to fake being adults) that we convince ourselves we hate anything with even the whiff of juvenalia. And anyone who doesn't go along with the charade gets mercilessly mocked by their peers...how dare they imply that it's okay to not pretend to be serious? There's probably a technical term for this already, but since I don't know it and don't feel like searching, I'll just call it juvephobia. Fear of being thought to be a child.

   (Aside: there's a lot of human behavior and intolerance that can be explained by considering that people are frequently insecure about their choices in life, and see any alternate choices as being arguments that they themselves picked wrong. How can I have made the right choice if someone else made a different choice and seems happy? But that's a whole 'nother essay. If not a ten volume compendium.)

   This does tend to wear off eventually, of course. That's why we have such huge markets for nostalgia and collectibles. People tossed out all the things they liked as kids, and when they eventually really grew up, they got over the neurotic "I'm an adult!" posturing and realized they missed some of what they'd abandoned. Unfortunately, it can be somewhat tiresome dealing with a person still mired in juvephobia. They can get pretty combative at times, sneering down their nose at anyone who hasn't joined them in their fear, especially people who are clearly older than they are. It shores up their shaky sense of self to think that they're more grown-up than an adult, plus they can't bring themselves to admit that maybe "kid stuff" can be enjoyed without being a kid. Because then they cut off their nose to spite their face, eh?

   Obviously, as someone who never gave up all the trappings of childhood, I get a lot of flack from people who never let go of their juvephobia, either because they really are still just kids, or because they just sort of institutionalized the attitude in their mindset and never went back to reconsider it. And it's not that I didn't suffer any juvephobia myself, it was merely a mild case. :) I do still have the occasional relapse of a related condition, though, and this is where the essay now turns.

   "In a sane world, there is room to be insane. In an insane world, there is no room to be sane."

   I don't know if that's the exact quote, or even who originally said it (Googling the phrase just got me people saying "an old adage" or "someone said, but I don't know who"). It's a reasonable view of the world, but unfortunately it tends to get overextended at times. For instance, when it comes to the creation of fiction, people often think that the old saw is equivalent to stating the following:

   "In a serious world, there is room to be silly. In a silly world, there is no room to be serious."

   Again, just making that statement on its own isn't too bad, but I'd even dispute that. The Legion of Net.Heroes is an extremely silly world, but I've seen some incredibly deep and serious stories come out of it without denying the fundamental nature of the world they were set in. Sure, it's harder to tell serious stories in a world where the natural laws are more at home in a Looney Tunes short than in the Principia, but not impossible. But it can be done.

   Unfortunately, a variety of juvephobia strikes here as well, and in people old enough they should really know better. There's a view that a world with any silliness at all in it is a silly world. In other words, the statement becomes this:

   "In a serious world, there is no room to be silly. In a silly world, there is no room to be serious."

   See? Now the original intent of the adage is totally gone. Serious and silly are being seen as mutually exclusive. Even a little bit of silliness is a poison pill that prevents any serious stories from being told. And it's ever-so-important to be serious. To be grown up. Because all the real literature of quality is serious. It's juvephobia in its literary mode. Fear of being thought to be writing juvenile works. And, oddly, this fear infects even writers of works you'd think wouldn't mind the label, like comics.

   To give an example, look at Marvel Comics once Joe Quesada took over. Thought bubbles and captions all but vanished. Cover art was all pinups with nothing to do with the story inside, and certainly no speech bubbles on the cover! Lettering shifted to lower case. It was a case of juvephobia...they wanted comics to be taken seriously as literature, which meant ditching all the things that made them work "when they were kids" (as it were). A lot of the sillier parts of Marvel's history were retconned away or simply quietly ignored and contradicted. Lighthearted heroes were made to suffer tragedy, often in which their very lighthearted nature was the tragic flaw (Stamford, anyone?). And just like a 15 year old who goes out of his way to insult Pokemon fans isn't really an adult, these juvephobic changes didn't make Marvel suddenly gain the respect of the world as serious literature.

   "But wait!" you might protest. "What about mood? Aren't you supposed to sustain a consistent mood?" Well, sure. Short Stories 101, that is. Having Ambush Bug show up in the middle of the Great Darkness Saga would have been a horrible mistake, for instance. But that's within the setting of a single story. We're not talking about single stories here, we're talking about settings. Worlds. Mythologies. As long as the silly stuff doesn't show up in a serious story, you can still have your silly stories and your serious stories without too much difficulty. But keep in mind that not every element associated with a silly story is itself silly and mood-wrecking. Just because Bendis can't use a thought balloon without it coming across as archly hip and mocking doesn't mean the form has no business in a serious story. Just because brightly colored skintight costumes are associated with the high loopiness of the 1950s Batman comics doesn't mean you have to put everyone in "real" clothing to tell a serious superhero story. And so forth.

   Sadly, just as not everyone outgrows their general juvephobia, not all writers (or editors, or coordinators of collaborative storytelling efforts, etc.) outgrow literary juvephobia. Once they decide they're tired of silly, lighthearted stories and want to tell some serious stories, there's a strong temptation to exile anything that fits their vague intuition regarding "silly". You'll often see terms like "Silver Age" used derisively to mean anything the speaker considers insufficiently serious, never mind that the Silver Age was actually a time when truly serious stories abounded. You'll get characters depowered, killed off, traumatized or otherwise ruined simply because someone couldn't bear to have such a "taint" on their newly-serious world. I've even had problems with it personally, being embarrassed by earlier decisions made in my "serious" stories and wishing I could erase them (for instance, having self-inserted in the ASH setting).

   But, thing is, the more creators you have involved in an effort, the less right you have to inflict your juvephobia on the others. I write the vast majority of ASH, so I largely only have to make sure I'm happy with what's available in the setting. But, to take an example, Joe Quesada is not the first or last editor in chief of Marvel, and far from the only one who writes for the company, so he needs to recognize that there is room for the kind of goofy stuff he personally dislikes. Especially because juvephobia is rarely something logical and easily explained, it's just a gut feeling, an inchoate fear. And you just set yourself up for frustrated collaborators when you let it run your world, especially if they're over their own juvephobia and just want to tell good stories without worrying so much whether they're serious.

   After initially posting this, a reader pointed me to a very apt quote from C.S. Lewis, and I'll close with it:

   "When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

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