From Quill to Quest Item—Series Conspectus
Why Electronic Gaming Should Be on Your Pop Media Syllabus
There’s more to your favorite interactive entertainment than meets the eye! Join us for an examination of video games as a reimagined presentation of tropes from classical theater and text as seen and interpreted through the eyes of an enthusiast of all three.
There’s always been a strange stigma when it comes to literary criticism. Historically, academics have studied the works of people like William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and Arthur Conan Doyle. They’ve analyzed the legends that make up every mythology from the Greeks to Judeo-Christians. They’ve even begun to take a closer look at the earliest forms of science fiction. But for some reason, pop culture has been seen as separate. Never mind that much of this media was, in its time, seen as disposable drivel for the masses to mindlessly consume. Sherlock Holmes was seen by critics, and even his own creator, as a mostly infantile character in spite of how he inspired his audience, much like Batman or Superman would be a mere 50 years later [ 1 ]. In the 1600s, attending a Shakespearean comedy was the equivalent of sitting down for an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia [ 2 ]. And while we can’t know for sure, it’s not hard to imagine that the Twelve Labors of Hercules were once conceived like the plot of a Digimon cartoon as an excuse for a simple episodic formula. If all these stories come from the same place, then there’s no reason for us to wait for them to age 200 years before we can discuss them with the same reverence. This series will take various pieces of our pop culture and trace them back to their sources in classical literature, to show how they made it from quill to quest item.
About the Author
Many of us recognize the experience of being a geek moving from high school to college. In high school, you could get beaten up if people knew how much you watched anime or cartoons. They were seen as “kid stuff” in the latter case, and “weird” in the former. Then, upon graduating to college, what was once known as “geeky stuff” became cool. When I started community college in January 2009, I assumed that it was something related to the difference between college and high school. Maybe it was the “big fish, small pond” effect; the kids who decided what was cool and what was not were no longer surrounded by people they’d known all their lives, so they could no longer influence what was an acceptable hobby. Maybe it was because everyone was too concerned with their grades to really care what other people did in their free time. Maybe it was because 19-year-olds are just that much more mature than 15-year-olds. At the time, I was convinced that these were the reasons, but I would later learn, as I will discuss below, that there were a multitude of reasons that led to this simultaneous change in the culture surrounding geekdom.
I began my journey into the discourse of academic counterculture by joining my college’s anime club. I had always wanted to be part of one, but there had never been enough of my peers who were interested in things like anime to justify it. Pretty soon, I was elected to help run the anime club. Through a series of fortunate coincidences, I was promoted to vice president by the time I graduated in 2011. For the first time, I had found “my people,” and I was not only able to be open about the media that I loved, I was also learning about other media that had somehow slipped by me or that I’d always been curious about but never had the opportunity to explore. During that time, I also started attending local conventions and cosplaying, and I played my first, admittedly awful, game of Dungeons & Dragons. Thus, I began to take a more active part in my relationship with fandom. It’s no coincidence that at the same time, the comics I had been reading obsessively since I was a kid were finding new life on the big screen as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. The nerd culture I had enjoyed for so long was becoming mainstream.
Although at the time I was majoring in Liberal Arts, I began to delve into the world of literary criticism, with classes on American short stories and Shakespeare. I also took courses on film criticism and film analysis, which taught me essential skills I would use to track themes and motifs in visual media. When I moved on to a 4-year college, I changed my major to English Literature and dove headfirst into the classics. Wilde, Chaucer, Doyle, and Beowulf became intimate friends, and as I widened my literary vocabulary, I also honed my analysis skills. After I graduated, I never stopped learning. I’ve continued to research themes and symbolism in comics and film so that I can better engage with modern media in a more intimate way. Hours of film analysis videos on sites like YouTube have given me a keen eye for the thematic elements that make up modern speculative fiction. They’ve also made it clear to me that I’m not the only person who looks at things like video games or comic book movies as more than just mindless entertainment. There’s a vast expanse of critics who are willing and eager to analyze a work with the same level of attention that scholars have used for the works of Shakespeare or other classic pieces of art. The days of hiding your comics because they were “uncool” were gone; the world was changing.
The Conversation Changes
If you were born in the 1980s or ’90s, then you fall into a highly specific generational category of people known as “millennials.” While the media tends to use this term interchangeably with “young adult,” it actually refers to anyone who came of age after the turn of the millennium (hence the name), so that the oldest millennials are, as of 2020, 38 years old [ 3 ]. The reason I bring this up is because this generation has been, more so than any generation before it, defined by pop culture and the multimedia landscape. Gone are the days when only geeks and nerds knew who Tony Stark and Barry Allen were; for millennials, everyone watches superhero movies and sci-fi blockbusters, plays video games, and has read a comic or two. Over the past decade, geek culture has become part of mainstream culture. But, as is the nature of the generation gap, this has been mostly panned by older critics, who see things like comic books and video games as juvenile, and use it as a way to say that the people who read and play them are stunted children who refuse to grow up. Take this infamous quote from Bill Maher, in response to the death of comic legend Stan Lee:
“I don’t read comic books; I didn’t read them as a child. What I was saying is, a culture that thinks that comic books and comic book movies are profound meditations on the human condition is a dumb [expletive] culture. And for people to get mad at that just proves my point” [ 4 ].
Maher then went on to say, “[C]omics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures. But then 20 years or so ago, something happened—adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so, they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature” [ 4 ]. Maher describes this as though it’s some kind of testament to the decline of society. In this, he only gets it half-right. It’s true that modern adults have chosen not to give up the so-called “kid stuff.” However, he is wrong that this is necessarily a bad thing.
It may seem like a stretch, even to the point of being satirical, to suggest that the presence of things like superheroes and video games in the lives of modern adults is the result of the state of the economy. However, the connection does exist. Not to dive too deeply into the realm of psychoanalysis for millions of people only vaguely connected by the proximity of their birthdates, but the prevalence of so-called “juvenile culture” among adults may actually be traced to the drastic change in the economy that many millennials went through just as they were reaching, or about to reach, adulthood. After the recession of the mid- to late-2000s, many people who were only just coming of age found that the common tent poles for adulthood, as established by the previous generations, were now out of reach for them [ 5 ]. Financial instability, the housing market crash, and entry-level jobs with stagnant wages meant that many millennials could no longer feasibly see themselves getting full-time careers, moving out of their parents’ houses, buying a home, and starting a family in their mid-20s; all of which had always been sold to them as a testament to their adulthood.
“Millennials not only have less saved for a down payment, but they also are less likely to see the real estate market as a safe bet. […] Certainly, the burden of more student debt, together with the tendency to postpone marriage until later in adulthood, would seemingly add to that trend” [ 6 ].
In other words, the comforts of adulthood were being denied to them. Why, then, should they throw away the comforts of childhood—fantasies, cartoons, superheroes, and video games—if they had nothing to trade them in for? The lack of any payoff for giving up those things that had always made them happy soon gave way to the question of whether this media really was exclusively for kids, as many adults found themselves enjoying it, even years later. Many of the stories that had resonated with them as children still held water upon a grown-up analysis. While kids were drawn in by the flashy action and bright colors, they were kept engaged by highly personal and human stories, with a message—sometimes a moral, or lesson—that was carefully woven into the narrative. There are children’s cartoons that make a better use of theme and subtext than many TV shows aimed at adults.
But this wasn’t the only thing that changed how culture and pop culture interacted. For decades, the people who made pop culture media—themselves almost universally adults—had been sneaking grown-up themes into their works. This goes much deeper than Rugrats making a couple of covert references to sexuality [ 7 ]. Films like 1978’s Superman, or the original Star Wars trilogy, while marketed with children in mind, were also written to tell stories with strong, thematic references to morality and philosophy, while taking their cues from everything from Casablanca to the Bible. People forget, perhaps because it was overshadowed by the cartoon, that Ghostbusters was originally envisioned as a comedy for adults, starring comedians that adults would recognize, in a premise that would mostly appeal to adults: “What if exorcists were treated like exterminators?” In comics, writers like Steve Englehart and Denny O’Neill had been directly referencing contemporary politics in their stories, which meant that you had tales starring super-powered do-gooders who talked about racism, drug abuse, and the very nature of crime. And of course, there were video games. This supposed “childish” pastime only came into prominence in the 1980s, and so many of its detractors have never sat down to play through a game, or if they have, they’ve done it so briefly, that they could never have engaged with the themes and references that separate the good games from Shaq Fu [ 8 ].
And then, as evidence came out that the audience for this sort of media was sticking around well into their adulthood, the writers and developers of that media took notice. It’s no coincidence that after the turn of the century, video games started to get more violent and more explicitly adult oriented, both in their content as well as their thematic structure. The image of the typical “gamer”—as the term itself began to take shape—had changed from kids putting quarters in an arcade machine to adults working out stress from a hard day’s work on their virtual opponents—for better or worse. And while this change was gradual, the same thing was happening over in the comic world much more suddenly, with the one-two punch of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, creating stories about superheroes, previously thought to be exclusively written for children, but now wholly inappropriate for kids [ 9 ]. They tackled everything from rape and nihilism to fascism and beyond. This was the media landscape that eventually produced the Marvel Cinematic Universe; until 2008, it was assumed that a multimedia interconnected franchise was too ambitious a project for any studio to undertake, and that audiences would either get confused or bored with it. But when the executives at Marvel realized that their audience was not made up of children or emotionally stunted man-children, they were able to create what is now the most successful media franchise in history, and the blueprint for every major blockbuster since. To quote a catchphrase from Leverage, “it’s the age of the geek” [ 10 ].
All Fiction is Fan Fiction
This 16-part series is going to carve a path through the multimedia landscape, comparing various pieces of media that may be overlooked with their literary sources. Let it be known, though, that this is the tip of the iceberg. As is often said, “there is nothing new under the sun;” or, in a more modern context, all fiction is fan fiction. No matter how original any given work might be, someone has done it before. Sure, everyone knows that BBC’s Sherlock TV series was based on the books of Arthur Conan Doyle, but did they know that Doyle was actually writing fantasies about his self-insert, Dr. Watson, going on adventures with a teacher he admired, Sir Joseph Bell [ 11 ]? It’s an easy connection to make that Over the Garden Wall is basically Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now based around trick-or-treaters, but then you have to remember that Apocalypse Now was a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War, and Heart of Darkness was a colonial take on the Inferno segment of Dante’s Divine Comedy. One more example; take the Harry Potter franchise. Yes, it’s based on the British “boarding school” genre, with books like Tom Brown’s School Days and Little By Little serving as inspiration, but aspects of it, specifically the relationship between the protagonist and Albus Dumbledore, were directly inspired by Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, and the relationship between Arthur, then known as “Wart,” and Merlin. That relationship was then based on Frodo and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and by extension, Bilbo and Gandalf in The Hobbit—who were, in turn, inspired by, and meant as a subversion of, the relationship between Arthur and Merlin in The Once and Future King, which served as the basis for Disney’s adaptation. As should be evident, even the most seemingly unique of stories can turn out to have its roots somewhere else. That being said, all of these works have served as inspiration for countless other stories as well, continuing the line from generation to generation.
Some writers may find this idea daunting, as though nothing they come up with will ever be unique. Others find it inspiring and use it to their advantage. Thanks to this constantly evolving media culture, certain things have become easily recognizable to the point that they don’t need any explanation. When the audience sees an old man with a long beard and robes, they immediately assume that he’s going to be a wizard, because they’re familiar with Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or The Once and Future King. And then when that character ends up being different from the typical wizard—perhaps he’s a failed wizard, who can only do party tricks, or he’s a janitor that just tells people he’s a wizard—the writer is able to make use of the media landscape to subvert the audience’s expectations without having to go into a whole discussion about how much the character looks like a wizard and thus that must mean he’s a wizard. This is most obviously done by adapting a story, and then changing the details. In 2000, the Coen Brothers wrote and directed O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a movie that is intentionally modeled after Homer’s The Odyssey, but set in the United States during the Great Depression [ 12 ]. One moment seems like it’s going to reenact the iconic moment where Odysseus blinded the Cyclops by skewering him in the eye, but the skewer is stopped before it can touch him.
A subversion based on other media typifications can be done more subtly as well, by positioning one character to be the traditional hero that the audience is meant to expect to save the day, only for them to be a supporting character in their own film. This sort of subversion of expectations was done to especially great effect in 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, which both the director and the “lead” actor described as “a movie about a guy who thinks he’s the Action Hero when he’s really the comic sidekick” [ 13 ]. And while the movie plays this comedically, it also served a grander purpose. Many contemporary films during that time, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, had started introducing East Asian characters as quirky sidekicks to the dashing white male heroes. When filmgoers saw Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton next to Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi, they immediately assumed that Russell would be playing the hero, only to discover that he was virtually useless while Wang Chi did all the cool stuff. This wouldn’t be possible if there hadn’t already been a plethora of films that played this idea of the Asian sidekick painfully straight. Thus, the film was able to essentially rewrite a recurring and offensive trope and turn it into positive representation.
So What’s the Point of All This?
The overall purpose for these articles should be pretty readily apparent by now. Each article in this series is going to take a closer look at some piece of modern media and compare it to the work that inspired it. Classic comparison techniques, traditionally reserved for works with more academic history, will be employed to analyze the different themes and messages present in the varied books, games, and movies. As should be evident below, the series will focus primarily on video games, as one of the most recent new forms of published media, to depict the depths of their storytelling and the themes that persist, even as the player beats up enemies and scores points. However, other forms of media that are equally maligned by modern critics—cartoons and comics alike—will also serve as the basis for their own articles.
Contrary to what people like Bill Maher might say, comic books, video games, anime, and science fiction have become, and arguably always have been, an essential method of telling stories. The fact that a story stars a superhero, or that it might be interrupted by a boss battle, has no bearing on its merit as a piece of art, and the discourse that says that it’s somehow childish to enjoy these works into one’s adulthood is fundamentally problematic, to say nothing of being small-minded, and even damaging. This isn’t to say, of course, that there aren’t bad comics, or bad games, that fail or don’t even try to tell a cohesive story beyond the surface appeal of “colorful heroes punching bad guys.” Just like there will always be poorly written books, badly performed music, and shoddily filmed movies, those outliers can’t be treated as examples of the quality of the entire medium. In this culture that likes to play gatekeeper in what it considers “grown up,” older critics are essentially filling the role of the playground bullies who sneer as they beat you up for still watching Barney & Friends. What’s truly amazing is that these critics don’t see the irony behind that. As I once said to my little brother, who would ask almost monthly whether he was a big kid yet, “you’ll be a big kid when you stop asking if you’re a big kid.” The same thing applies to adulthood; only by knowing for yourself what adulthood means can one truly grow up. By extension, as long as you judge your own maturity by other people’s standards, you will never be a grown adult. And following that logic, you could say that those who push their own standards for adulthood on those around them, as though we weren’t all defined by our differing experiences throughout our lives, are the most childish of all.
Now, in case it’s not readily apparent, this series does not mean to suggest that it’s necessary for new media to base itself on the classics in order to be worthy of discourse. Ideally, each of these pieces of media will be discussed based on their own merits, analyzed for their own themes, and allowed to stand on their own two feet. In fact, in many cases, they already are. There are countless reviews on websites, blogs, and YouTube channels that take an in-depth look at the stories that we all know and love, many of them so meticulous as to uncover little-known details about the message of these pop culture icons. It’s downright exciting to see the media that we as a culture consume regularly being treated with the same reverence as those written and published decades before we were even born. That being said, to make the argument that these stories are just as sound as anything on a college syllabus, it’s useful to make direct comparisons to those sorts of fiction to ensure that the similarity is undeniable. On the other hand, it would also be a mistake to claim that just because a work of fiction is adapting an older masterpiece, that it is somehow automatically a masterpiece in its own right. The slew of bad movies based on great books should be enough to prove that premise wrong. After all, isn’t it universally agreed upon that one of the worst video games of all time was 1988’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the NES [ 14 ]?
Lastly, there’s pragmatism at play as well. There is only so much that can be said about the same old stories over and over again. When I was a student at UMass Amherst, studying for my undergraduate degree in English Literature, I remember the professor for my Shakespearean literature class specifically requesting that none of his students write an essay on Hamlet, because he was tired of reading them. This is unfortunate, but also inevitable, when one takes into account that Hamlet was originally written 400 years ago and that critics have been analyzing it over and over again for almost as long. It’s not that there will never be anything new to say about Hamlet or a new perspective won’t someday arise based on changing social mores and technological advances. But if academic discourse is going to continue—as it well should—then it will have to be more open to new materials to dissect and make sense of. To put a time limit on when we can start talking about a piece of media is to severely limit our capacity to engage with it. How different might people have talked about Alighieri’s Divine Comedy when it was being written, especially considering the many contemporary political figures that the poet snuck into the narrative? In the opposite direction, the academics of the 22nd century will certainly be grateful for the many video essays on the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it comes time to write their dissertations. No one writes in a vacuum; every work of fiction is a product of the culture in which it’s being written, and no one knows that culture as well as the people who are presently living it.
This series is not going to be exhaustive. There are many, many stories that have been adapted into new media over the years, and almost every piece of media, be it new, old, or classic, will build off the centuries of storytelling that the human race has established before it. No, the intention is not to cover all of the media adaptations by a long shot; this author merely seeks to showcase the tip of the iceberg, and to reveal that with an analytical mind, an eye for detail, and a good sense of theme, any work, whether it’s the great American novel or a weekly newspaper strip, is worth the same attention and opportunity to shine.
- “Be it in cameos for Doctor Who or other speculative fiction, or in debates between purists on literary history, it’s long been established that Shakespeare himself stood at the crux of the war between ‘Highbow’ and ‘lowbrow’ entertainment.”
Source: http://www.timey-wimey.com/2012/07/01/screencaps-and-review-for-the-shakespeare-code/ (Doctor Who, “The Shakespeare Code”)
- “Even 25 years later, and after numerous ports to generations of consoles and smartphone app stores, Final Fantasy IV’s opera scene with Celes remains a high cultural landmark.” Source:https://www.neogaf.com/threads/final-fantasy-vi-android-ios-impressions-thread.752153/page-9 AND https://www.comingsoon.net/games/news/1212454-final-fantasy-vi-remasters-opera-scene-vocals-seven-languages (Final Fantasy VI for iOS and Android).
With a BA in English from the University of Massachusetts and his service in the public library system, Marcelo Gusmão’s considerable experience has served him and this endeavor well. Since joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2018, he’s demonstrated a blend of exacting, finely honed analysis, boundless creativity and skillful interpretation, all framed by a vigorous joie de vivre for all things nerd culture. A key member of SFS’ Intermediate writing and editorial staff, he’s penned several series.
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- Veach, M. Scott. “Leverage/The Experimental Job.” Season 4, episode 11.
- Conan Doyle Info, Conan Doyle Info, conandoyleinfo.com/sherlock-holmes/sherlock-holmes-and-dr-joseph-bell Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
- Garner, Bianca. “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? A Coen Brothers Odyssey.” Filmotomy, Filmotomy, 25 May 2018, filmotomy.com/o-brother-where-art-thou-a-coen-brothers-odyssey/.
- “DVD Commentary.” Carpenter, John, director. Big Trouble In Little China. 1986.
- RoyalRanger. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (NES) Review.” Retro Game Reviews & More, HonestGamers, honestgamers.com/463/nes/dr-jekyll-and-mrhyde/review.html. Accessed 28, Apr. 2019.