Comics Round-Up: Deconstructing Deconstructions

“Deconstruction” is a term with a wide-ranging history, but nowadays it’s used most commonly in criticism of narratives or literary genres. Over time, the word has bled out of philosophy and critical theory and into more popular uses within various fandoms. I should know, I used to edit TV Tropes pages, and the word is downright egregiously misused on that wiki. Most people have likely heard of the term, but what actually is a “Deconstruction”?

The term originated with philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1967, which, along with much of his work, attempted to illustrate the disconnect between the text, language and meaning, and the resulting effect on interpretation. He claimed that concrete expressions of more analytical and structural philosophic traditions would always fall short in expressing aspects of metaphysics and abstract thought. Those ideas were adapted into what would later become the “Yale School” of literary criticism, which codified how the term is used in that field specifically. A “Deconstruction” in this parlance is used to show how literary works are based on unfounded or unstable elements within their overall presentation. Rather than examining a work holistically, this method addresses its disparate elements to find flaws in them removed from the context of the whole, even removed from the original intentions of the author sometimes.

You can probably see why such an approach is so endemic to the overall nature of a wiki like TV Tropes now.

There’s a few works that are commonly used to show how this mode of thought has moved from literary criticism to literary genres themselves in pop culture. Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most famous examples, taking common clichés about Super Robot shows and showing the psychological toll of teenagers being recruited to fight monsters with huge amounts of collateral damage on the line. Not to mention the gruesome circumstances imagined to justify using child soldiers in the first place in the series.

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But the other one that comes up in most discussions of the term “Deconstruction” is the 1986-1987 series Watchmen, written by Alan Moore with art from the inimitable Dave Gibbons. I’m not going to explore how Watchmen and other other works shifted an already-maturing industry sharply toward darker, grittier subject matter and tones in this piece, there’s plenty of other better writers who have documented it in minutiae already. But I do want to talk about one of the main issues with that movement to imitate Watchmen’s immediate cultural impact

Watchmen is one of the most well-known and influential comics of all time, and integral to shaping the direction of the industry forever afterwards, for better or for worse. Chances are, most people reading this article have at least heard of it, if they haven’t read it themselves. Despite that, many people tend to misunderstand why it became so hugely influential, and why it remains so effective in telling its unique story today.

Out of the influence of Watchmen came the misconception that being “dark” or “mature” alone makes something a “Deconstruction” and that “realism” can be a substitute for substance and coherent messaging within the work. What do people remember about Watchmen? Superheroes have no powers, are horrible people, and die in equally horrible ways in the course of their careers. The “bad guy” wins, or there are no “bad guys” in the first place. Even the traditionally-cast “heroes” are replete with psychological and character flaws that contribute to why they would choose to beat the crap out of criminals and put themselves into danger as a life decision in the first place

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But what actually is the primary trope within superhero stories that Watchmen is deconstructing? That costumes are silly? Sure, that aspect gets shot full of holes (literally) but it’s not the whole focus of the story. That all superheroes are awful people and shouldn’t be trusted? No, Dan – Nite Owl – and Sally – Silk Specter – are (relatively) ordinary people with smaller problems who find themselves caught up in a conspiracy beyond them, and even Comedian and Rorschach have their sympathetic moments.

In fact, the main reason why Watchmen is a Deconstruction of superhero stories is how it deals with varying effects of power and how power is used. In a world with none of the familiar “superpowers”, those with power of other mundane kinds are the ones who have a measurable effect on the world. Ozymandias’ intelligence, and Comedian and Rorschach’s brutality and effectiveness in combat, for examples. The main premise of Watchmen attempts to explain that traditional superhero stories don’t work in reality because those stories assume people who have been given these avenues of power will use them in positive ways, to help others effectively. Instead, without powers that provide easy ways to address larger conflicts of the world, the “heroes” are forced to compromise or abandon their ideals entirely, if they had any to begin with.

Watchmen envisions a world where those who seek the power that comes with being a superhero do so for the wrong reasons, or are made ineffectual by a more ethical, restrained use of strength.

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The one character given actual superpowers, Dr. Manhattan, can’t even handle them without losing his humanity entirely. This provides another angle in criticizing traditional superhero stories – ordinary human nature cannot handle mundane power, and superhuman power removes them from humanity itself, so not even then can it be used to benefit others.

In short, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” not in the sense that it makes people evil, but dehumanizes either those who have it, or dehumanizes those without it in the eyes of those with power. In addition to Manhattan’s loss of humanity, the more prominent event that defines this theme is Ozymandias’ callousness in destroying New York City, a bid to try and save the world from being annihilated in a seemingly-inevitable nuclear war. From his Antarctic base observing the world through dozens of TV screens, he is reduced to thinking of other people as statistics, or pawns in his plans.

Misinterpreting the fundamental theme of Watchmen is one of the reasons why the Zach Snyder film was so vilified. I’ll defend several points on it, such as replacing the psychic squid with a bomb, but one aspect where his misreading of the comic comes through the strongest is at the very end of the story. In this closing scene in the source material, Ozymandias asks Manhattan if he made the right decision in destroying New York to avert nuclear apocalypse, if everything would be all right “in the end”. Manhattan replies that no, “it never ends.” At the conclusion, all Ozymandias has done is postpone the inevitable. The fundamental flaw of humanity – how our nature is incapable of handling power – is still there, and will lead to war again.

In the movie, Snyder changes this dialogue around so Dan is the one who says the line. This recontextualization changes the tone of the ending entirely to be more positive overall, lacking this melancholic, introspective moment of vulnerability for the mastermind of the story’s events. It’s really an example of Snyder’s biggest flaws as a filmmaker, especially when dealing with adaptations. He understands the power of visual symbolism and spectacle, but doesn’t also adapt the consistent, systematized symbology that makes for a coherent parallel narrative of allusion to give the whole work substance.

Watchmen‘s varied legacy in influencing hilariously grim and edgy comics afterwards arises from the same issue, too many people mistake the appearance of dark tones with actually having something important to say. It’s a incredibly detailed and strikingly-crafted comic itself, but unfortunately it also contributed to inexorably linking together “grimdark” with “Deconstruction” when it comes to superhero stories in the public mind.

We can see that same connection within a common interpretation of another series I’m fond of, Kamen Rider Gaim.

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Gaim is labeled as a “Deconstruction” sometimes, but mistakenly so. Like Watchmen, this series takes something that’s normally bright, cartoonish and relentlessly optimistic, and uses that framework to frame some very dark scenarios. Gaim itself starts with street dancing teams using Pokémon Invess monsters to fight for social media clicks, but winds up embroiled in mad science, totalitarian corporate greed, and a fight for the fate of the entire world that sacrifices a significant number of lives along the way. This disconnect between outward aesthetics and actual subject material is often misinterpreted as a Deconstruction, but a Deconstruction by definition breaks down common tropes of a genre in order to examine where they are flawed.

What are the tropes of Kamen Rider?

The tropes of Kamen Rider themselves are very dark, from its outset. Ishinomori specifically stated that he wanted the first Kamen Rider to have horror elements, and to present the hero as having monstrous aspects to the design to reinforce that. As I pointed out in my piece on the first few episodes of Black, these same elements of crushing oppression, body horror and dehumanization that Gaim explores are very faithful to that original vision. Gaim itself can’t be a Deconstruction because it plays those traditional themes dead straight, even though it intentionally misleads the audience about its intentions for the first dozen episodes.

So, article over, right? You’ve got an example of a Deconstruction used properly to examine specific assumptions of a genre, and another example where the term is misapplied. But there’s a reason why the term is misapplied so often by people within various fandoms. As I mentioned, Watchmen, along with some other of its contemporaries, connected the idea of “dark takes on lighter genres” with “Deconstruction”, and I want to Deconstruct that misconception specifically.

The main conflict of Gaim relates to Watchmen in that it also involves people who use power in different ways to try and exert their vision of the world on those around them. And like Watchman, many of these examples show how the flaws of each of the characters contributes to the misuse of that power. Ryoma Sengoku, the creator of the Lockseeds and Belts that allows the others to transform, wants to merely use his creations to rule over the world, or what would be left of it in the wake of the invasion from the alien Helheim forest. His colleague, Takatora, started with an idealistic vision of noblesse oblige, which became twisted by the circumstances of their situation, becoming a despairing attempt to arbitrate the salvation of one-seventh of the world’s population. In this way, our beloved Melonlord is a parallel to Ozymandias, who had all the resources and intelligence in the world, but was unable to change human nature itself. He could not prevent disaster entirely, only kick the can down the road, continually sacrificing lives to do so.

Similarly, the smaller conflicts of the street dance teams are magnified as the flaws of the other leaders are exaggerated with their increased power, after becoming Riders and participating in this larger struggle. Micchy, Kouta’s friend (and Takatora’s kid brother, struggling to live up to his impossibly noble expectations), turns into a totalitarian despot who willingly sacrificed his friends to save his crush. I’ve also already talked about Kaito in my articles dealing with the Gorider special. In short summary though, Kaito was already obsessed with power before becoming a Rider, but his goals expand outwards from merely wanting to lead the best dance crew, to attempting to upend the status quo of the world entirely by leading humanity to a new, stronger evolution.

Then we have Kouta himself.

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There’s a memorable scene early in the show that presents a dialogue specifically about these main themes, how human beings use and acquire power, and how that affects others around them.

 


This is where the main rebuttal to Watchmen’s view of the world becomes apparent – power does not corrupt, only reveals the flaws that humans already have. In Watchmen, that point is fairly obvious.  Ozymandias’s pride consumes him. Dr. Manhattan – the son of a watchmaker – comes to interpret the world through that same cold, mechanized detachment. Rorschach’s own pain and past trauma becomes projected on the entire world. Other heroes are content to satisfy worldly pleasures, as adrenaline junkies who just enjoy dressing up in bright outfits and cracking heads.

The main conflict in Gaim, driven by the mutagenic Helheim forest itself, in fact exploits this. Sagara seeks to give power to those who will use it to fight each other, and fully expects humanity to destroy itself fundamentally in the process.

But what Watchmen leaves out is an acknowledgment of the good aspects of humanity that can also be magnified in these conflicts. Throughout the events of Gaim, Sagara – the anthropomorphic voice of Helheim itself – hands more power over to Kouta, expecting him to self-destruct, or be forced to abandon his ideals in the face of the suffering and challenges that he and his friends experience. Instead, he continually uses that power to protect others, to fight for the freedom of the city under Yggdrasil’s corporate control, and even manages to sway over Takatora to his side by restoring his hope in humanity’s future. However, at the end of it, even though he eventually must abandon his humanity entirely, unlike Dr. Manhattan, he doesn’t lose his connection or empathy with humanity itself. At the close of the show, he leaves the Earth, to protect it from the spread of the Helheim forest. That doesn’t sever the bonds of friendship he has with the other characters, and it certainly doesn’t prevent him from continuing to be a Kamen Rider for future crossover stories.

In short, during this conflict, Kouta is certainly tested, but that only makes him hold on to his original ideals even more tightly – of being responsible for others and wanting to help them in whatever way possible. He keeps hold of the understanding of the value of human life regardless of his own power level, even if that power separates him from a normal human life consequently. Unlike any of the examples in Watchmen, Kouta’s arc shows use of power as properly tempered by mercy. 

Sagara operated with the assumptions of Watchmen, and instead found them refuted by finding an actual hero amongst humanity.

One of the main issues when talking about Deconstructions is that people inherently associate them with dark, pessimistic stories. Superhero stories are escapism, after all. Everyone knows that reality sucks, which is why we read or watch stories about people in bright costumes who punch bad guys and help save people. So, things that cleave to that same cheery attitude of heroic expectation are seen to be unrealistic, and unhappy endings seem to align more with our own everyday experiences. But that sort of recall bias doesn’t necessarily define the world around us, and, in fact, stories that swing too far in making EVERYTHING grimdark are just as unrealistic.

Is it really a fantasy to think that people can never be capable of positively changing the world around them, using the talents they are given?

So, I guess Gaim might be considered a Deconstruction in a sense, but only because it points the main flaw in Watchmen’s assumption that no one can act heroically when real stakes are on the line. Both stories are important, just because one ends on a happier note than the other doesn’t mean that one is any more or less meaningful to our own lives.

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