Thursday, May 29, 2008

To thicken the plot: detail or fanservice?

Darcy James Argue (here and here) writes about Fanservice, a term new to me, and apparently associated first with Japanese superhero comics (about which I know nothing), in which extraneous and gratuitous content, much of it sexual in nature and frequently referential only to other Fanservice, but non-essential to the plot of the work in hand is added solely in order to provide a bonus for the long-time insider, a reward for investing ever-more time and attention to a comic series. Argue goes beyond this to generalize the term to other art forms, and stresses the insider/outside social dimension of a practice that simultaneously panders to those in the know and alienates newcomers and those who are not yet fully initiated into the local cant and code.

While there are many cases in which a broad consensus would agree that a feature is non-essential, gratuitous, and obscure to a novice consumer (and thus pure Fanservice), an extension of the term to similar features in other genres creates some real problems. Details in a work of music, or literature, or dance or film create texture, depth, and may as often be cues as miscues as to the course of the work (like stage magic, these art forms are all about misdirection).* The presence of a wealth of details help to create the illusion that the universe in the work of art is as complex, confusing, contradictory and coherent as the natural world about it (someone once asked the great question of a work of literature: is it wierd enough to be realistic?). The detective story is probably the form in which this characteristic is most essential, as the presence of detail in the story which is, ultimately, irrelevant to the solution of the mystery is required to both sustain the readers' attention to the detective work and to add to the plausibility of the scenario through enriching the texture.

In the end, whether content is fanservice or just generous detail is, I suppose, entirely in the mind of the body being serviced. There is an argument, associated with modernism, that anything extraneous and non-essential to a work should be eliminated but there is also a modernist argument that a work should be encyclopedic, emulating a universe in the diversity (and often even the obscurity) of its contents. There is no resolution to these two arguments and, just as with unresolved contradictions in music, I happen to find this a perfectly cheerful state of affairs.

(I just noticed that Tim Rutherford-Johnson opens the discussion even further, and more wisely than I, here.)

* My friend Tom Hilton loved to point out a passage in B. Traven's The Death Ship, which bops along in an entirely plausible mode until someone mentions the town of "Chi(cago), Wisconsin", an error, perhaps, but one which nags at the reader, who at this point may wonder if the entire book has suddenly decohered from familar spacetime.


DJA said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for the links, but please allow me to clear up some misconceptions in your post.

There is basically no such thing as "Japanese superhero comics." Japanese comics are called manga. They almost never involve "superheroes" in the Western sense, and their storytelling strategies are completely different from American superhero comic books. Manga is not really relevant to the point I was making.

Nor is the basic cheesecake variety of fanservice, as I take pains to point out in my first post. The Wikipedia definition of fanservice is extremely limited, but the sections on "cameo" and "homage" begin to get at the sense of the word I'm interested in. Fans (and critics) of US superhero comics will use "fanservice" to talk about plot elements that are only significant to longtime insiders.

One example is bringing back beloved but long-dead characters -- the Barry Allen Flash has been dead since 1986, and so only people who have been reading DC comics for at least 22 years have any emotional connection to that character. Bringing him back from the grave serves no legitimate aesthetic purpose. In fact, it actually undermines the emotional impact of the 22-year old story where he died, if death is going to be impermanent and can always be reversed. However, it excites the longtime fans who have a nostalgic fondness for the character. That is the kind of appeal-to-the-insiders fanservice I'm talking about.

Sator Arepo said...

First blog reference to "The Death Ship" I've ever seen. Kudos!