Storytelling Beyond Postmodernism
Fables & The Fairy Tale
Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1499
By Karin Kukkonen
Tampere University Press
Distributed By Coronet Books
$87.50 Paper original
My dissertation ventures into new areas of the humanities in several respects: first, it analyses modes of storytelling which go beyond postmodernism’s subversion and self-reflexivity. Second, it aims to apply key terms of literary study, such as mimesis, genre and self-reflexivity, to the narratives of comics and graphic novels. Third, it draws methodologically on the emergent cognitive approaches in the humanities. Together, these three strands of investigation form the basis of an analysis of the narrative potentials of the comics medium.
Postmodernism Postmodern ideas of subversion and self-reflexivity have found their expression in many genres and media of Western culture over the last four decades and the fairy tale is no exception: the fairy tale princess turns into a blood-thirsty vampire in Angela Carter’s “The Lady in the House of Love”; the witch and not the prince becomes her lover in Jeannette Winterson’s “The Story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses”; and in A.S. Byatt’s “The Story of the Eldest Princess” the heroine uses her knowledge of fairy tale conventions to survive her own story. In the postmodern fairy tale world, no convention remains unsubverted and no stereotypical encounter remains without self-reflexive comments.
Into this postmodern fairy tale world the comics series Fables made its entrance in 2002. Fables involves itself deeply with the postmodern ideas of subversion and self-reflexivity: it presents Goldilocks as a fanatic eco-terrorist, has Snow White fall in love with the Big Bad Wolf and introduces fairy tale sanitation in the character of scissor-wielding Mr Revise. At the same time, however, the series balances subversion with strongly genre-driven and highly gratifying storytelling, and it contains the anti-illusionist effect of self-reflexivity by representing fairy tale characters along the conventions of the realist novel and by bringing the fairy tale world and the representation of the real world into metaphorical correspondences. This metaphorical correspondence is at the basis of what Jean-François Lyotard termed the “master narrative”: different levels of reality, abstract and experiential, are brought into metaphorical correspondence and then integrated into a common story structure, like for example the notion of the “emancipation of rationality”. Fables employs a strategy similar to this “master narrative,” when the series brings the abstract fairy tale world and the experiential realist world into correspondence and integrates elements of both worlds into a common story structure. Realistically portrayed fairy tale characters can be expected to have the readerly, self-reflexive knowledge of the conventions of the fairy tale, but still function as hero and adversary in the story itself.
Fables is deeply engaged with the traditional and the postmodern fairy tale, and its narration juxtaposes subversive and self-reflexive with gratifying and immersive storytelling, making the series thus a key case study for different possible modes of narrative in the comics medium.
The Cognitive Analysis of Comics Comics and their heroes are pervasive in today’s media landscape and they have been analysed for a long time in a variety of academic fields. The leading research interest is generally how the comics’ story and heroes reflect the culture and society of their emergence. However, the questions of what exactly makes comics such a powerful medium, of how they engage the minds of their readers, has been largely neglected. French research inspired by Saussurean semiotics took some steps in this direction, but was usually entangled in the language-specific notions of arbitrariness and differential system. The current research in cognitive linguistics and cognitive narrative studies, which is based on the embodied mind and its interaction with the text, offers a viable alternative to semiotics, because it is applicable to written and visual texts alike. Based on cognitive linguistics, cognitive narrative studies and David Bordwell’s notion of a “poetics of effects”, my dissertation develops an analytical model for comics narrative comprising key terms such as mimesis, genre and self-reflexivity. As readers read a comics narrative, they take up clues from the comics text which can be both in the written text of captions and speech bubbles and in the visual text in gestures, facial expression or iconography. From the information of these clues, readers construct a mental model of the situation, which provides a causal contextualisation of the events, looks into the characters’ motivations and projects the development of the story. This mental model is called a “storyworld” for narrative texts.
The textual clues and their processing are organised into generic schemata. A certain speech style, certain visual attributes or a particular standard situation evokes an entire genre with its diverse set of features. The genre schema then guides readers in their expectations, i.e. it provides a frame for the reading process. When a text introduces a secondary, conflicting frame, the textual effect of this is subversion. Goldilocks as an eco-terrorist, for example, juxtaposes the genre frame of the fairy tale with that of the political. Fables reconciles this subversive effect when it embeds the character in a narrative following the conventions of the secondary genre frame, i.e. political fables such as Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm. When it is coherent, the storyworld of a narrative provides a successful mimesis, i.e. a fictional world into which readers relocate imaginatively. As soon as a textual element refers beyond the storyworld, the text becomes self-reflexive. When a character displays extensive knowledge of generic conventions or when it addresses its author and readers, the text refers beyond the storyworld and into the textworld. If the storyworld is the world in which the protagonists of the story, i.e. the characters are located, then the textworld is the world in which the protagonists of the text, i.e. the authors and readers and their context knowledge is located. Fables brings the textworld of fairy tale authors, editors and readers into correspondence with the storyworld, which functions according to the conventions of the fairy tale, and integrates both along a common story structure. With this strategy, the series reconciles the textworld and the storyworld and makes them mimetic and imaginable in a coherent fashion.
Storytelling Beyond Postmodernism: Fables and the Fairy Tale investigates different modes of storytelling in the comics series Fables and develops a model of comics analysis based on cognitive approaches to narrative, rhetoric and stylistics. It ventures to analyse a current narrative text which aims to go beyond postmodernism’s subversion and self-reflexivity. My dissertation also proposes a model for comics for investigating how comics texts engage the human mind through clues, the cognitive processes and textual effects they elicit. Key terms of literary study like mimesis, narrator, genre and self-reflexivity are included in this proposed narrative model which is generally applicable to other comics narratives, to storytelling beyond Fables.
Return to Coronet Books main page