October 22, 2020

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"There Is No Difference Between Plagiarism and Art" - A Look at A Dark Interlude 1


Ryan O’Sullivan and Andrea Mutti return to the world of the Fearscape with A Dark Interlude to further explore the implications and events of the first series. Fundamentally an examination of the role of literature within our society, A Dark Interlude expands upon the themes of the original series and seizes upon some of the deeper metaphysical implications of its predecessor title. If you've yet to encounter Fearscape, I'm offering a spoiler warning now. I'll try to avoid specific spoilers, but we can't talk about A Dark Interlude without some broader assessment of Fearscape as the first step on this journey.

Meta-fiction and intertextuality are no strangers to literature, and both are more common in graphic fiction than would initially appear on face. What makes O’Sullivan and Mutti’s exploration of fiction distinct from other graphic novels that have explored forms is that they excavate the notions of literature as a whole, not just in the graphic novel form. In fact, in some ways, Fearscape and it’s successor, A Dark Interlude, are more about the role of fiction as a whole than they are about comics themselves. I think that distinction is important both for understanding A Dark Interlude as a text in an of itself as well as its place within the comics landscape. It's been said before that the White Noise crew remind readers of the original set of (occasionally proto-) Vertigo writers, and certainly Gaiman, Morrison, and Moore have used comics to examine similar concepts of myth and authorial distance. What O'Sullivan does, however, isn't a rehash of those topics but a furthering of that understanding, a phase two of the examination of the role our creations play in society as a whole, and the responsibility and functionality of the author. 


There is a certain element of gravitas necessary to open a comic with two pages of deliberately hackneyed prose.


A Dark Interlude picks up shortly after the events of Fearscape. If you haven’t read the first part at all and are planning to, please be warned about potential spoilers ahead. The titular Fearscape is a alternate realm, a world populated by literary heroes and personifications of our greatest fears, the conceit being that literature is what allows us to overcome these fears. Each generation, the Muse of legend chooses the greatest author of the era as her champion, known as The Storyteller, charging that author with the defense of the mortal realm against the greatest of all fears. Thus, the author must overcome his own greatest fear to ensure the Fearscape remains cut off from our own world. His reward is the Muse's inspiration for a magnum opus, further cementing the author's status.

At the center of Henry Henry's characterization in Fearscape is his struggle for recognition. Stuck in the shadow of his mentor, Henry convinces himself that he deserves the fame that has escaped him, and he steals a manuscript from his mentor and passes it off as his own. As a result of this deception, the Muse assumes he is the greatest author of his generation and chooses Henry Henry as its latest champion. As the story unravels, so does Henry himself. His characterization resembles some of Poe’s greatest narrators, entirely fallible and undeservedly self-assured. Henry Henry is pompous and solipsistic. He is as selfish as he is arrogant, the very definition of an impostor with almost none of the trappings of impostor syndrome. 

As A Dark Interlude opens, Henry Henry, now imprisoned as a result of the events that closed Fearscape, returns to his familiar role as narrator, but the story isn’t necessarily his own this time around, or so we are at least led to believe in the first issue. Henry transitions to more of a commentator, ramping up his narrative style from Fearscape, brazenly intervening in the reader’s comprehension of the plot and advancing the story as his on whims. He occupies a strange space, a type of third person omniscient narrator who is also a character with a role in the story itself. Henry Henry’s fallibility was on full display in Fearscape. He eschewed convention and essentially functioned as an intentionally unreliable narrator, interfering with the plot and directly confronting the reader. 


O'Sullivan builds two conflicts to launch A Dark Interlude. The first conflict is within the Fearscape. Because Henry Henry was a plagiarist and an impostor, the champions of the Fearscape are at a loss with how to proceed. Foolishly, they trusted their tradition and believed the Muse’s champion would play by the rules. But what they received was Henry Henry, an agent of chaos and a rulebreaker if there ever was one. Henry, both emboldened and embittered by his prior experiences, offers snarky analysis of the plight of the Hero of a Million Faces, Boccaccio, and Petrarch as they try desperately to undo Henry’s damage. Their solution is certainly novel, but they may have released something - or someone - they can't quite control.

The second conflict occurs in our world but connects directly to the chaos in the Fearscape. The Muse has moved on, perhaps from literature altogether. Following revelations about both Henry Henry and his mentor, Arthur Proctor, the publishing house tied to Arthur's books is at a loss, and considers doubling down on Henry for a quick flash to fill the void. Here O'Sullivan sharpens a critique of publishing that he hinted at in Fearscape. Rose, Arthur's sister, finds herself tasked with the duty of ensuring Henry Henry's Terror Forming 2 sees publication, despite her ethical and artistic objections. There is a notion that contemporary literature is watered down by the commercial aspects of popular fiction - be it the mass market paperback, the the multimedia adaptation, or the perpetual sequel franchise. That Henry Henry has to be the one to point out some of these unethical elements of the publishing industry is a clever irony in itself. Mutti characterizes the Hermann and Humbert publishing executives incredibly well. You can feel their sleeziness emanating from the page, they're almost goblin-like status connoting some permeation of the Fearscape.

Indeed, Andrea Mutti’s artwork is exactly what this story needs. Combined with Vlad Popov’s oil-painting styled colors, the tone for this book comes across perfectly - dark, a little haunted, and serious enough despite some of Henry Henry’s self-serious antics. The book feels right in both Fearscape and the real world, a credit to how Mutti works with backgrounds. Naturally, the Fearscape characters, being mythical creatures and five-hundred-year-old authors, need to look different than those in our world, but Mutti is smart not to exaggerate for its own sake. The landscape of the Fearscape comes with a mistiness and a textured terrain that - and I mean this entirely complimentary - is just unrealistic enough to impart a real sense of fantasy and, to whatever metaphysical end we could assume the creative team has aimed, dream-like status because perhaps none of this is real at all. That's the genius of it.


The aesthetics of the art work nicely enough, but it's the avant-garde paneling and lettering that I admired from Fearscape that is on full display again in A Dark Interlude. O'Sullivan and Andworld play with the notion of Henry Henry as the unreliable narrator with clever speech bubble placements. This has the danger of being an overly wordy book, but it also essentially needs to be. The Andworld lettering, though, manages the wordiness while highlighting Henry Henry's scene-chewing, stilted prose. It never reaches the point of overwhelming the art. (I'm not sure who exactly works at Andworld, or who specifically worked on this book, but kudos indeed). 

In comics perhaps more than any other creative endeavor, creation carries with it a sort of abdication. Once an author of any work puts their story into the world, they cease to own it any longer. It becomes the property of the audience who then dissect and analyze it, creating unique meaning for themselves. One the audience has decided something means something specific, authorial intent is of little consequence. It's that interpretive distance that A Dark Interlude plays around with. The idea of the perpetual sequel drives comic creation, and it's no stranger to the world of genre fiction as a whole. Authorial intent thus vanishes even faster in the creative process shifts more towards fabrication. Are these characters the result of the original author's ideas, or are they the amalgamation of any number of authors, editors, and entertainment executives. Ursula LeGuin used to warn against the ghettoization of science fiction and fantasy. Her criticism was primarily directed at literary elites who valued verisimilitude and ignored the metaphor science fiction could provide. O'Sullivan comes at the concept differently in A Dark Interlude, examining how genre fiction segregates itself by eschewing its own literary ambitions in favor of franchise perpetuity. 


And that dilemma is one that permeates art as a whole. The Hero of a Million Faces proclaims that "Mankind is trapped in a sequel crisis. They cling to past stories, refusing to grow." We've reached the end of history, and commodity has overwhelmed originality. The commercialization of stories has resulted in an audience conditioned to avoid anything new, retreating to some element of comfortable nostalgia. That O'Sullivan chooses to make this statement within a sequel makes the idea all the more pertinent. A Dark Interlude is a thumb to the eye of both the elites and the philistines, a call to arms for anyone who sees past the ambitions of either. 


Writer - Ryan O'Sullivan
Illustrator - Andrea Mutti
Colorist - Vlad Popov
Letterer - Andworld Studios
Covers by Ariela Kristantina, Nathan Gooden, and Rebecca Issacs (above)
Publisher - Vault Comics

A Dark Interlude is available in shops on November 18. Final Order Cutoffs are due this Monday, October 26, so make sure to reserve a copy at your store.

Addendum 1
Some of the promotional material surrounding A Dark Interlude purposely confuses the idea of whether this offering is a sequel to Fearscape. For all intents and purposes, it certainly is. The joke behind that ploy, though, is embedded in the conceit that is Fearscape. In a bit of method acting, Ryan O’Sullivan took over the Vault twitter page last week and assumed the character of Henry Henry, the antihero of Fearscape. If you haven’t had the chance to check out the string, you can find it here. If you’re new to the world of Fearscape and A Dark Interlude, the twitter thread will certainly give you some pertinent insights into Henry Henry as a character. Check out the thread here.

Addendum 2

I wanted to write about this when the article first appeared, but I didn't have the time. Following the release of the Fearscape trade, the A.V. Club published a scathing review that seemed to entirely miss the point of the work, decrying it as a “cruel, unimaginative world,” and complaining the the elitist Henry Henry bullies the story to the point that the core concept fails. But I think that was exactly O’Sullivan’s intention. Henry Henry is supposed to derail the narrative. The tradition of the Storyteller is that a noble writer will save the world from its fears, but Henry Henry is anything but noble. Rather, he personifies an even more depraved notion of the anti-hero, truly functioning as a critique on the whole idea of myth and the role of narrative within our world. It’s a worthy topic to debate whether we still amidst postmodernism, but likely far too large for our purposes here. Nonetheless, if we examine Henry Henry as an embodiment of the postmodern age (or some result of whatever succeed postmodernism: metamodernism, if you will), then we easily see how he functions. Henry sees himself as the representative of a strong, classical literary tradition, but he is profoundly hypocritical. He decries genre work on whole while elevating his own. He rolls his eyes at contemporary fiction while revealing his own jealousy. More than anything else, he embraces and unironically celebrates the "death of the author" through his plagiarism and subsequent reworking of his own plagiarized efforts. Henry Henry works to subvert tradition while claiming to be a proponent of it. It is his inconsistency that makes the book fascinating. The core of A Dark Interlude continues to explore the role of fiction within our society. We put tremendous stock in our stories, and while we don’t necessarily take fiction as fact, we have a certain understanding that the story is true in it’s own world. But here, we’re intentionally thrown off-balance. We can’t entirely trust anything we encounter. Reading with a critical eye doesn’t necessarily help either, as the purveyor of information might be intentionally misleading us. The result is a challenging, yet rewarding read of a world that may very well be cruel, but anything but unimaginative.