What’s your most annoying neologism? For those readers who may think I’m talking about an as-yet-unreleased Matrix movie, a neologism is a new word. Which buzzwords get on your wick? I’ve seen plenty of neologisms come and (thankfully) go. For a while it was ‘proactive’ which still irks me (I can’t see what’s wrong with just being active) and I remember the host of euphemisms for sacking/firing; ‘downsizing’ ‘restructuring’ and the odious ‘rightsizing’. Because I was living in Japan when it became compulsory to refer to wives, girlfriends, husbands, boyfriends, mistresses, old ladies and spouses as ‘partners’ that word is a neologism for me. Old fart that I am, I’m still getting used to my wife being considered a ‘partner’. I feel that if she were a partner, she’d have a gun and be getting my back, if not Dirty Harry’s. No I’m not homophobic.
With new words I have a few tests of loathsomeness. One good question to ask about a buzz word is whether it’s actually useful or not. Another is if there’s a word that can do the same job. ‘Partner’ fails both tests because we already have words such as ‘squeeze’, ‘missus’, ‘man’, the earthy ‘woman’, the very 70s ‘lady’ and the formal ‘spouse’. Similarly, I can’t stand the verb ‘critique’ because we already had ‘criticise’ which, properly understood, includes both positive and negative criticism. I fear that ‘critiquing’ is with us forever.
My latest hate is ‘retconning’. It makes me a hypocrite because the word is useful in a limited way, and doesn’t replace any existing words.
As with ‘rightsizing’ I dislike not only the word but also the practice. Retconning, as most of you probably know, comes from the combination of ‘retro’ and ‘continuity’ and refers to the practice of adding to or changing a character’s history after the event, sometimes years after. Wikipedia which enables people to be almost right about almost everything says that retconning is common in serial fiction, and espcially common in comic books.
In the same Waste-a-lot-of-your-time-ikipedia, you can see page after page of retcons if you look up comic characters, and a damn shame it is too. Driven by the pressure of having to tell new and interesting stories about the same old characters, writers have added bits and bobs to quite simple stories and the retcons build up like coral, only not as pretty. Take Spiderman for instance. At first glance, his is quite a simple story. He’s a geek. He loves Mary Jane. She’s gorgeous. He gets bitten by a radioactive spider and now has the power to punch his muscly rival through a Flash Thompson-shaped hole in the walls of the school canteen. Tempting though it is to upend the school bus on Flash’s head, he doesn’t because he’s good. It’s got everything a geeky kid could want, secret power to win any fight and a perfect excuse for not actually getting into any fights. The movies had the added attraction that the geek’s bedroom was about four feet from Mary Jane’s bedroom and that her abusive family couldn’t afford curtains. Most geeks would appreciate having these opportunities for spider-self-abuse, but I digress. It’s a nice simple story.
But if you have a gander at the wikipedia entry, the story is presented with the encrusted layers of retconning. His parents, whose only function in the first comic was to be good and dead are now spies who were killed by the Red Skull. I guess this was a jolly good yarn when it was introduced and I can just imagine the headlines (depending on the era, these would have been ‘learn the shocking truth about Peter Parker’s spy Mom and Dad!!” (sixties) or “Used by the CIA!” (more cynical seventies) or possibly “My folks got wasted. Whatever” (trying-so-hard-to-be-cynical 90s)). Looked at as a whole, this completely undermines the super ordinariness of the first Spiderman stories. The fact that Peter Parker couldn’t get a root* was the drawcard for millions of similarly handicapped teenage boys to identify with him. A gawky teenager whose folks died fighting a Nazi supervillain just isn’t the same, although I’m not sure how you’d parlay that into success with the girls (‘Hey MJ. When you’ve finished watching Flash flex his biceps, wanna come to my room and see the charred remains of my Mum and Dad’s spyplane?”).
This kind of thing happened to almost all the superheroes as far as I can see. It’s like a reverse creative writing exercise; here’s a good story, now go mess it up a bit. Captain America is relatively unscathed but it turns out that about fifteen other people tried the magic potion which gave him his super-strength, making the solution he soaked in a bit like a public bath. His boy-sidekick Bucky had died very finally after WWII. However, comics are an appetite that is never really filled, so Bucky was rescued by the Russians and turned into a communist super-soldier who……You know the whole thing reminds me a bit of those time travel stories in which famous things get added to until, as Dr Who once said “you can’t move on that Grassy Knoll these days”.
Okay, enough weeping for lost simplicity. The writers could well ask how they’re supposed to keep the story simple without boring all their readers away. Some stories manage it. The daggy old Phantom comics achieve this trick by having about four hundred years of Phantoms with which to tell stories in the first place and by ignoring continuity and time (which is why the Ghost Who Walks was dating Diana for about forty years and engaged for another fifteen), as well as by almost never repeating villains. Judge Dredd and his mates at 2000AD have mostly stayed clear of this sort of cumbersome barnacle-building by having a large world to play in and by a healthy disregard for continuity (the main writer, John Wagner just ignores other people’s work if he’s not interested in it, hence the city that disappeared. No, really, another writer had the future Japanese build a new city in the radioactive wastelands. It has never been referred to since). With one or two bad ‘they’re not really dead’ moments, 2000AD has kept its story-lines nice and simple. Mind you, a huge story is coming up called origins. There are fears of retconning, continuity porn, Grud knows what. I’d tell my partner about it but she’s busy being proactive
Floyd Kermode is not really all that reactionary and has been seen tapping his feet almost in time to popular beat combo The Offspring.
*non-aussies please note, he couldn’t get laid