IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN: “FAHRENHEIT 451,” COMICS AND ME
This April, my local community will be doing one of those city-wide “Everybody Reads” projects — something they’ve done for the past few years — and this time the novel that gets the spotlight is Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic, “Fahrenheit 451.”
Don’t worry, this column will end up talking about comics before it’s over.
The reason I’m thinking so much about “Fahrenheit 451” now, instead of waiting until April to turn my brain on the subject, is because I’ve been hired to teach a couple of creative writing workshops in association with the Everybody Reads festivities. Workshop A, targeted at teen writers, will explore the relationship between science fiction and graphic narrative (see, I told you I would talk about comics, but there’s plenty more to come), and Workshop B, targeted at adults, will focus on science fiction genre conventions and how to play with them in your own writing.
I’ve taught workshops like these plenty of times, but nothing quite as specifically focusing on science fiction as a genre. I’ve taught about science fiction as one of many genres, drawing connections and comparisons, and looking at examples of subversion within the convention of several genres, sure, but nothing that put sci-fi under a solitary microscope and dissected it in the finest of detail.
I don’t know that I’ll actually be doing that in a single, two-hour workshop anyway, but I’m just providing some context.
I did take a class called “Science Fiction” as an English elective in high school, and I have a feeling that most of my critical approaches toward the genre stem from that course, even if I remember barely anything we specifically discussed. I don’t even remember anything we read in that course — I think it was all short stories from the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” probably photocopied, or maybe we had some “50 Greatest Sci-Fi Stories” paperback anthology — but I do remember we listened to Rush’s “2112” as an example of “audio sci-fi,” and talked about the movie “Predator” which had come out not long before, and one kid in class, whenever prompted to talk, would say, “robotics are the future,” unironically.
Yet I’m sure the concepts we covered in that course have become embedded in my sci-fi reading DNA, even if I don’t remember the precise details. Because whenever I think of science fiction, as a genre, I tend to fall back on a pretty tight set of rules, and the rules all reduce to a single maxim: “science fiction is the real world with one new idea added into it.” I can’t imagine where that maxim would have come from if not from that course, and the maxim does work as a way to think about the genre, as long as you interpret the “one new idea” bit to mean something along the lines of “an exaggerated version of a scientific principle that already exists” or “an advanced piece of technology” or “aliens.”
So with that kind of thinking simmering in my brain from a decades-prior course on science fiction and a heavy teenage reading load of science fiction from Isaac Asimov to Anthony Burgess to Theodore Sturgeon to Frank Herbert and an ever-since-teenage reading load of a zillion comic books, I sat down to reread Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” last week.
I hadn’t read it in probably 20 years, maybe more.
And here’s my reaction: “Oh, it’s not just about ‘us.’ It’s about me.”
That kind of egocentric, identify-with-the-protagonist level of reading is pretty far from my normal approach to a text. I’m from the Nabokov school on that one (not literally, although I imagine “The Nabokov School” would be a delightful place to work), where the primary mode of reading has nothing at all to do with “relating” to the protagonist and everything to do with immersing yourself in a reality as crafted by the author.
Actually, I don’t even do that, if I’m completely honest with myself. I’m more from a hybrid Structural-Historicist school (less fun, clearly, than “The Nabokov School,” but also less dangerous) where I read a text with one eye on the narrative, one eye on the structure and style of the narrative, and a magical third eye on the way the narrative fits into a historical or aesthetic context.
I can’t read without keeping all three of these “eyes,” or modes, active. I’m incapable of it.
Note that I read comics this way, too, which comes in more-than-handy when I review comics, because I never have to “think like a reviewer,” ever. For me, it’s just “reading comics.”
And with “Fahrenheit 451,” I still read the damn book in those three modes, but a fourth mode opened up because the connection was so obvious this time. The fourth eye was on the connection to my immediate experience living in the world today.
Do most novels and comics connect to my immediate experience living in the world today, and isn’t that kind of the point of art? No, and, for me, no. Almost everything I read presents a world that may have symbolic or metaphorical connections to reality — or presents such a simplified version of reality as I understand it — that even when I do notice the connection, it seems irrelevant. Certainly it’s less interesting that the structure or style of the thing itself. Or the way it communicates with other works of art in its genre or time period or the way it intersects with something from the past or present.
For example, one of the best comics published by Marvel or DC right now, and very possibly the one I would call “the best comic,” is “Deadpool MAX.” The quality of that comic — the pleasure in reading that comic — has nothing to do with how much it thematically ties to my own life or to the world in which we live (it would be terrifying if that was the reason someone liked the comic, honestly), but in its playful interactions with comic book tropes and previous Deadpool characterizations and superhero melodrama and comic book excess. And Kyle Baker’s deliriously passionate art (in evidence even on a comic book series he has openly claimed to be just something he does to make money, but doesn’t care about as much as his creator-owned projects, and rightly so).
Another contender for Best Comic Right Now would be the ever-reliable and ever-impressive “Scalped,” written by your friend and mine, Jason Aaron. But even though the story of Dash Bad Horse and company has more of a connection with reality as we know it, on a thematic and character level, the pleasures of “Scalped” come from watching Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera paint this sprawling, emotionally-charged narrative canvas that’s unlike anything else on the comic shop walls today. The emphasis on setting and character interactions over forced plot machinery make the comic rise above its peers, and its relationship with other Vertigo books (it’s neither supernatural, or horror, or even hyper-stylized crime, the way most of the line has been) provides another interesting layer of meaning. Yet, and maybe I’m the exception, I don’t feel a connection to Bad Horse or Red Crow or Catcher or anyone else. I’m watching them with a pained joy, as they stumble and strive and falter and dream, but it’s not a comic where I look into it and see my own soul peering back.
And these are my favorite comics in the world right now.
But here’s Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” a book so often misrepresented as a book about the perils of censorship, and it’s holding up the sharpest mirror I have seen in a while. And I use the word “sharp” to mean both “clear and distinct” as in “a sharp picture on your television screen” and “a cutting edge” as in “this book is so sharp, it sliced right into my brain.”
Because what “Fahrenheit 451” is about is the acceleration of culture and technology, the dominance of superficiality and beauty at the expense of complexity. It’s about a world where cars zoom down the highway so fast, no one even notices the color of the grass on the side of the road, if there is any left. It’s a world where the ideal living space is circled by wall-to-wall television screens, showing the most innocuous or mindless possible drama to keep people “happy.” It’s a world where everyone wears earbuds to create their own private atmosphere of pleasure and drown out the need for genuine human interaction.
It’s a world where books are burned for the spectacle, not for censorship. People stopped reading long before the government decided to start burning them. Complexity of thought gave way to simple-minded “happiness,” and it wasn’t just the books that suffered. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” says Faber, one of the few intellectuals, in hiding, left in the city. “No one wanted them back,” he says, pointing out that the people chose ignorance and apathy over engagement with the written word.
In true science fiction fashion, as my high school English teacher may well have taught me, Bradbury takes a single idea and injects it into the reality of the day. “What if,” he might well have pondered, at his basement typewriter that he reportedly had to pop dimes into for every half-hour he wanted to write, “this apathy at the written word were to continue? What if these terrible television shows became the dominant form of narrative in the world? What if people stopped thinking because of that?”
As even Faber himself points out to Fireman Montag in the novel, books don’t have any magical restorative power. Society slipped away even when everyone had access to books. Long before they were banned or burned, readers stopped reading. People sought the more facile pleasures. Complex thought became a thing of the past, held onto by a few nomads or hermits in hiding.
Bradbury makes it clear in the novel, by the way: comic books were allowed to continue, because the populace enjoyed their lack of complexity.
Here’s where I come in. I’m a reader. I majored in English literature, and I’ve taught literature courses and writing for thirteen years. I have a library in my house, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. I have even more bookcases in my basement, filled with everything from Plato’s “Republic” to Chuck Klosterman’s “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station.” I love books. Yet I’ve read maybe three book-length works of fiction in the past two years. It wasn’t long ago that I would read at least one book a week.
Instead, what do I spend my time doing? Well, I have a family, and that keeps me busy, but I also read more comic books than ever. I go online. And when Bradbury writes, “Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your cameras. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids.” It’s not much of a leap to get from there to Wikipedia and Spark Notes, the go-to-sources for literature in the 21st century.
It’s almost always futile and irrelevant to look at a work of science fiction and consider how much has “come true” today. Or how eerie some of the predications turned out to be. Science fiction, like any kind of writing, is about the author’s perception of the world in which he or she lives, even if the trappings seem futuristic.
But, as almost never happens when I read something, I can’t help but feel that Bradbury is talking about me. Talking about us. It’s the way he latches on to the dangers not of censorship or of impersonal technology, but on the danger of acceleration. As everything in the culture speeds up, as our food comes faster, as our gratification becomes instant, as our connectivity becomes immediate, then we lose what Faber, in the novel, calls the “pores.” “Telling detail, fresh detail,” he says. “The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”
That last line sounds like some comics you and I may have read in the past few years.
Ultimately, Bradbury is calling on us to slow down. Books aren’t the answer, and they’ve failed to stop the problem from happening, but at least they’re something. Something worth remembering, with their contradictions, with their messy view of life, with their ways of showing.
Two years ago, Tim Hamilton adapted “Fahrenheit 451” into a 150-page graphic novel for Hill and Wang. Hamilton is a fantastic artist — his “Treasure Island” adaptation is one of the best-looking literary adaptations you’re likely to see, and he’s coming in to rescue the “Doctor Who” comic from the lateness of Richard Piers Rayner — but even he was incapable of reaching escape velocity to get outside of the irony of turning Bradbury’s novel into a comic book. The graphic novel’s superficiality (condensed, cut shorter), even with evocative colors against the stark black and white figures, subverts its own themes. And it certainly doesn’t help that the amateurish lettering emphasizes the artifice of the project.
Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” certainly a science fiction novel in content, is stylistically closer to a fable. Its edges are blurry, ill-defined, its body is, as Faber would say, “porous.” Taking the novel and literalizing it into a series of comic book panels turns everything it is into everything that it’s not. It reminds me of the great scene in Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One,” when Yeats’s Emerson-inspired “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is turned into a concrete sculpture with the sound of buzzing bees piped in through speakers. Romanticism sapped of life, commoditized for profit.
Is that what almost all comic books are? I hope not. But as for me, I need to slow down, and pull some of those real books off my shelf.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan