|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #83:
Modern Myths, Part Four: Legends Live
August 1, 2002 - Back in April, when I started this entire discussion of mythology in online games, I talked a bit about the troubles that mythology was having in surviving into the modern day. As you may recall from Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #71, Modern Myths, Part Two: An Overview from Citizen Kane to Spider-Man, I mentioned three main reasons that new myths weren't being created today:
The point of explaining each of these points, in my original article, was to be able to offer the counters to show ways that knowledge, copyright, and communication could be overcome, allowing you as a game designer to create new myths for the new millennium. (For all of that, go back and read the original article; as usual, I'll wait.)
Since I originally wrote about Modern Myths I've had a little more time to consider how myths are surviving into the modern age. Much of it, quite surprisingly, came out of reading a book called The Comic-Book Book, edited by Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff. That's what I want to talk about this week.
I have added two more strikes things preventing myths from continuing into the current day. I also have found one more type of modern myth that already exists something to add to the liturgy of urband legends, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological stories, and corporate myths I talked about the first type around. Together these ideas should give you a few more insights into how to use myths in your own games... and will also, at long last, bring my discussions of myth to an end.
Strike Four: Permanence
One of the more interesting articles I read in The Comic-Book Book was a piece by Donald F. Glut called "Frankenstein Meets the Comics". Now, Frankenstein he's a good example of a modern myth (indeed, a good example of a modern Prometheus according to the author). With the original publication of the book dating way back to 1818, it's now escaped the tyrannical clutches of copyright, and thus can be built upon by many authors, as all good myths require.
There's no doubt that in the general scheme of things the story of Frankenstein's monster is expanding in mythical ways. Whether you've read the book or seen the movies or not you have some understanding of the mythology behind the monster. What's particularly interesting, however, is the story of a Frankenstein comic that was published by Feature Publications between 1940 and 1954.
In those 14 years of publication the "New Adventures of Frankenstein" evolved in some bizarre ways. It started off, in Prize Comics #7, as a simple adaptation of Shelley's story. From #8 on, Dr. Frankenstein hunted after the monstrosity he had unleashed. Over the next few years, however, as the superhero craze waxed in other comic books, Dr. Frankenstein was replaced as the protagonist by young "Bulldog" Denny who trained for years to defeat the monster. By #24, when Denny gathered all of the Prize heroes to try and defeat Frankenstein, the horror comic had clearly become superheroic. But, there was a war on, and more patriotism was demanded. So, by #34, Frankenstein's monster had been brainwashed into becoming a super-agent who fought Nazi spies in Germany. As the war trudged to an end, humor comics began their rise and Frankenstein's monster changed with the times, moving to the town of Mippyville where he began a comedic existence reminiscent of The Munsters (then, 20 years in the future). In a brand-new Frankenstein #1, published in 1945, he even got a new origin, totally ignoring the Shelley-based origin way back in Prize Comics #7. A short time later, with the publication of Frankenstein #17, the series came to an end. But, that wasn't the end of the story. In Frankenstein #18, published in 1952, the series was resurrected. And, once more, it was a horror comic a theme which continued until the end of its run in 1954, thanks to a book called Seduction of the Innocent and a moral crusade whose resulting censorship of comics continues to some extent up to the modern day.
In its transition from horror to super-heroes to patriotism to comedy and back to horror, the Prize Frankenstein comics shows many of the characteristics of mythology. New stories were constantly being added to the mythos, often with no care for what had come before. Like the mythologists of past generations, the author, Richard Briefer, was only interested in one thing: telling a good story at that particular moment.
And, considering the history of the Prize Frankestein, it's impossible to conceive of something like that happening today. When the Prize Frankensteins were coming out, comics were typically thrown out after they were read; the average reader only stuck around for two years. Thus, there was notable non-permanence in the period... non-permanence of the comics and non-continuity of the readers... and that's what allowed the mythical evolution that the comic book enjoyed.
We're now in a world where, if something's been printed, it tends to stay in print. Nowadays, with the advent of the Internet and on-depend publishing, it could well stay in print forever. And that closes up yet another opportunity for the mythologist. Because, if you try and tell a story that totally ignores what has come before, some people will realize it, and they'll often be vocally unhappy over the prospect.
And, this offers a few ideas that you, the game designer, can follow when you're trying to make your own game more mythological:
Strike Five: Information
Another article in The Comic-Book Book suggested a related way in which modern society is crushing modern myth. It was "Lords of the Jungle", by Camille E. Cazedessus, Jr. The article offered an intensive discussion of how Tarzan had been used in comic books from the 1940s-1970s. I won't bore with the details, but will simply discuss one particularly insightful point:
But in Dell's fifth issue... a new and permanent "Jungle World" was created... In this world, Jess Marsh drew Tarzan as a pleasant-looking fellow living in a tree house with a brunette Jane and Boy. The movies had done their job: in the Jungle World, the film Tarzan had finally displaced Burroughs' creation, bringing with him the companions and conventions of Hollywood. The comic had Edgar Rice Burroughs' name on the cover, but that wasn't his Tarzan inside.
In other words, when the new Dell comic came out, rather than basing its stories upon the original novels, it instead based them on the Hollywood movies, which were considerably different in texture and details. It was clearly evolution, of the exact type you see with myths. The better story (or at least the one more easily identifiable by the public) had come to be the "true" story in the myth of Tarzan... even though it wasn't the original one.
That this type of mythical evolution can still occur within the constraints of copyright is laudable, though one must still admit it to be very limited. The more zealous IP licensing agreements of today's world would probably not allow it at all.
Whether the public would still allow this type of evolution is a more interesting question. I call this strike "information" because today the average person is better informed about the mythical history of a hero thanks to the research capabilities of the Internet. Today Tarzan might still have evolved as he did fifty years ago, but it's just as likely that the movie version might immediately have attracted the wrath of the critics because it was a poor adaptation... wrong to the original stories, even if it did resonate more strongly with the public.
(In actuality the problem of information in today's society goes beyond just the Internet. We're plagued with information. We see previews of movies, spoilers for TV shows, and cheat sheets for games, each defining what a story should be without us ever seeing it. I can't say if I've ever actually seen Frankenstein or not, because I know so much about it. A co-worker reported a similar experience with Monty Python & the Holy Grail though he knew almost every scene, when he finally saw it at the theatre he realized that he never had before.)
As a game designer you can approach this strike much as you did the last one ignore it. But, you can also try and control the flow of information. Many of the stories of your game will be stored internally to your game told by your NPCs or described in your manuals. By changing and evolving those references as you find more mythical resonances, you can control what players see, and thus the myths that they believe in.
Legends Reborn: A Final Modern Myth
In my original article on this topic I discussed a number of modern myths that did still exist. Through urban legends tales of choking dobermans and vanishing hitchhikers, which pass from person to person, told as truth. Through cryptozoology, and its tales of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. And through any number of corporate myths, from Spider-Man to Star Wars, each grown large enough to bring in many storytellers, and thus start generating new, original stories. What I missed was one very large and important form of modern mythology: retellings of the classics.
There are many old stories which are still important and meaningful to us. The stories of King Arthur are probably some of the most notable in the western world. I have, scattered throughout my house, literally hundreds of pieces of modern Arthuriana, including: King Arthur Pendragon, a tabletop roleplaying game with dozens of supplements; Knight Life a humorous story of Arthur reborn told by Peter David; collections of Prince Valiant, comic books set in the time of King Arthur, telling the story of young Val; The Mists of Avalon, a new take on the women of the legend by Marion Zimmer Bradly; and Excalibur, a fun board game describing the maintenance of one of Arthur's feudal estates.
I feel all the more silly for leaving this type of modern myth out of my original article for the fact that I've contributed to this stream of mythology. Tales of Magic & Miracles and Tales of Chivalry & Romance are two books of adventures I edited for the King Arthur Pendragon game. More importantly my first published short story, "Keystones" is on its way back from the printers even as I write. It's part of an anthology called Legends of the Pendragon; my story is about the life of Merlin.
These modern retellings are much more scattered than the original stories were. In the French courts of the 13th and 14th century when a new Arthurian story was created it would flash across Europe in just a few years, and would either be cast aside or accepted into the main stream of mythology in that time. Now, many contributors to the Arthurian mythos never see the rest of the stories, and even a novelist probably won't see the games or the comics, which might have otherwise offered important contributions to their own tales. But, still, the most important pieces do influence the stream of Arthurian mythology. Few people might recall Parke Godwin's Fire Lord and its excellent Celtic take on the legend. However there's no doubt that The Mists of Avalon has influenced generations of Arthurian storytellers.
As a game designer, and thus a modern storyteller, remember that the you can adapt all of the past streams of mythology for your own use. You could include the stories wholesale, or just borrow the characters, or perhaps mix-and-match from dozens of different ancient mythologies. Arthur? The protagonists of folk tales? The Greek gods? Frankenstein and Dracula?
They're all available to you.
And that is the end of my discussion of myth. I still have topics that are rattling around my mind, including more on details, theme, and symbols, but I'm pretty done with the topic for now. If you haven't read all the pieces, I hope you'll pop out to the TT&T index and do so. In the last four months I think I've covered some great ground for creating truly mythical games.
Next week there will be no article in this location because I'll be at GenCon. If you'll be there and would like to chat stop by booth number #751 (mall.rpg.net) and leave word if I'm not there. I'll also be at the Castle Marrach dinner held Thursday evening.
Then come back here in 14 days. I've got a couple of articles I'm looking forward to writing about how to attract and retain players once you've actually got your game up on the Internet... though it's possible that GenCon might spark some ideas too.
See you in 7 at GenCon or 14 back here.