Friday, September 18, 2009

Fantastic Fringe Part One

Before I begin, I wish to preface the following with this: my comparisons are based on what I know about these characters. You will no doubt disagree with me on some findings. For example, I have been informed that the Marvel Ultimate series of comics is a major revamp of what I consider to be canonical mythology, which for example claims that Reed Richards is younger than the other members of his team. I find that to be poppycock. Reed Richards has always been the oldest member of the Fantastic Four. His temples are gray for goodness sake. Some things there's no need to change when you retell a story for younger generations. When I discuss the Fantastic Four it's based on stories with which I am familar, particularly the comic books of the 1970s and 80s. Just as when I discuss Fringe it's primarily the first season, which as of this writing is all I know because there's this petty thing called linear time which keeps me from seeing future seasons of the series before they are produced. If there's Fringe novels or comic book adaptations or fan fiction or what have you, I'm not familiar with that stuff so please accept my limited capacities. I am after all only human.

The other day around the proverbial water cooler, a friend mentioned he'd read somewhere on the Web how someone compared the FOX TV series "Fringe" (going into its second season later this month) with the Marvel comic book series 'Fantastic Four.' Before having a chance to see the article in question, my mind already began racing with those implications. My first instinctive gut reaction was to scoff at such a thought. Comparing Fringe to The Fantastic Four is like comparing X-Men to The Brady Bunch, or DC's Justice League of America to any celebrity reality television show. Even if you stretched the premise to make it fit, at best you're illuminating coincidence and at worst you're wasting everyone's time. There are some commonalities to any and all character driven story-telling. There are formulas or recipes that writers use to draw out conflict and accentuate plots so as to maximize entertainment potential. One cannot create a group where all the characters are just duplicate puppets for the writer. Each must have its own voice. However, many writers utilize archetypes (and sometimes even stereotypes) to make it easy for the reader/viewer/listener of the story to catch on quickly to what the writer's trying to say.

Such archetypes are at times universal. The mad scientist. The self-absorbed wunderkind. The tough guy with a heart of gold. The quiet and reserved pillar of loyalty. A brief examination of your favorite television show or book or series of movies might reveal similar brief descriptions that you could then overlay on any combination of other shows or books or movies you hold dear. There's nothing new under the sun. When it comes to storytelling in today's modern world, the trick isn't to come up with something entirely new, but to take that which the audience is already familiar and utilize it in new and exciting ways.

Some readers may see the more obvious comparisons and contrasts that make this exercise even more irrelevant. The Fantastic Four utilize powers granted them by an 'accident' in space involving cosmic rays. None of the Fringe four can turn invisible or spontaneously combust or stretch their bodies and none of them are impervious to harm. Furthermore, the visuals differences in these characters is particularly striking. One can argue that the actress who portrays Fringe's Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Korv) would have made a far more accurate (particularly when looking at John Byrne's renderings of the character) Susan Storm than the actress currently being used in those campy movies. However, there are no actors on Fringe who would do a better job portraying The Thing than Michael Chiklis, who seems practically born to play the role. I'm dismissing the obvious contrasts, and hoping to focus primarily on character personality traits and interactions between the characters. In that way, I hope to show how there is a similarity among the foursome that's unmistakable, and perhaps a little more than merely coincidental.

Despite my immediate pessimism that such a comparison as Fringe to Fantastic Four held any merit or could reveal insight as to the inner working of either series or the writers behind them, I couldn't help but find the exercise of comparing these characters to be enticing and fascinating. Before reading the article that inspired my friend's mention of the idea, I already found myself seeing the most glaring and obvious connection: Reed Richards versus Walter Bishop.

Both characters are essentially the brains of their respective outfits, and the senior or eldest of their teams. Both gentlemen have devoted their lives to fringe sciences. Both gentlemen are easily distracted and forgetful, to the chagrin of those around them. Walter & Reed both suffer from inadequate social finesse and a general inability to see past their own egos, arrogance, and inadequacies to understand and empathize with those around them. This often leads to choices that some would find eccentric or even insane, but there is always a method to their madness; a modus operandi for their intentions and actions. These choices lead both men to think that under certain circumstances it is acceptable to use human beings as proverbial guinea pigs. It's also acceptable in both men's minds to utilize sciences that can dramatically alter our very perceptions of reality without first bothering to question the moral and social implications of such activity. This leads to amplify their anti-social tendencies and causes them to appear amoral or even unscrupulous in their undying search for truths in the universe despite the dangerous and even disastrous implications should they succeed.

For Reed Richards this has caused him to at times create devices that were intended to help humanity but sometimes became a nuisance if not a threat to mankind. I understand in more recent years, Reed's utilized his knowledge of alternate dimensions to create a prison for advanced humans that refused to accept the Registration Act, which in my book makes Reed essentially a criminal to the future of human kind. I see little difference in this Post Civil War Marvel Universe to Reed Richards and Tony Stark when compared to any assortment of super villains. It's a rather sad direction the editors of Marvel have chosen to go with the characters, but they're trying to entertain younger readers now who actually buy comic books rather than read about them at websites. So I can't complain. ..I digress.

For Walter Bishop this amoral behavior towards humanity in the face of scientific discovery has left him a mere shadow of his former self. We learn that twenty years ago he was working with William Bell on a wide variety of questionable experiments as they did strive to outsmart or outwit a potential enemy they had not yet met; essentially an alternate reality much like their own, but with people more inclined to use scientific discovery to pillage and ruin other alternate realities. This is the 'war' that is referred to throughout the first season. Bell & Bishop were trying to create super soldiers that would be ready to defend their reality from enemies both in their own reality and others. Where Reed Richards has been known to use alternate realities as prisons, a young Walter Bishop perceived alternate realities as war zones to protect his own.

When I read the accompanying article that inspired this madness, I see that they too found Walter Bishop & Reed Richards to be kindred spirits, perhaps cut from the same mad scientist mold. Well-intentioned Truth Seekers essentially too smart for their own good. This modern archetype dates back at least as far as Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde. Some historians argue that one can go even further than that to the alchemists of the Dark Ages or even in times of Greece when Daedalus & Icarus tried to use knowledge and invention to fashion powers of the gods, only to be stricken down by the gods for their folly and impertinence. It's an old stock character concept, and a common trope many writers have used to facilitate understanding in their readers. When a character is revealed to a modern audience as a mad scientist or evil genius or even absent-minded professor, these phrases already paint a picture in the mind, without the writer having to describe much further detail, beyond how this particular character may differ from the stereotype that an audience anticipates. So this comparison is not out of the ordinary, nor is it uncommon. One could compare these characters to Doctor Strangelove or Doctor Horrible and get similar results. Still, it's fun to explore.

Perhaps even more fun is to explore how Bishop and Richards differ. Beyond the obvious 'stretch' thing, there's the fact that Reed is married to another member of his foursome, whereas Bishop is a widower. Reed is generally understood to be perhaps a little eccentric but aside from occasional bouts of paranoia or obsessive compulsive disorder, he's predominantly sane and only slightly socially inept on occasion. However, Walter Bishop is legitimately insane, and spent almost two decades in a mental institution because he was deemed unsuitable for public exposure to humanity without the constant supervision of a blood relative. Reed is more of a Type A personality, meaning he's assertive and driven and efficiently proactive in his behavior towards both his environment and his social requirements. Walt is more of a Type B personality. He's emotionally burdened, more easily distracted, tends to question authority and even his own behavior as being legitimate or necessary, and while in his youth he'd get far more done than perhaps he ever should have, in more recent years he'd just as soon milk a cow or read a fruit cup than get any serious work done, unless he's prodded by others to maintain focus. Reed's self-sufficient and can multi-task with little effort. Walter is at times studiously focused on one thing to a fault, and at other times will wander from work to play to curious meditation in a heartbeat. There's also drug use. While Reed is not theoretically averse to the use of psychedelics, he's rarely bothered to utilize them without good reason. Walter will dope up at the drop of a hat if left to his own devices. In fact there's evidence in the first season that he regularly self-medicates in order to function in the real world to a level expected of him, regardless of his personal inner turmoil or desires at the time. To put it bluntly, while perhaps cut from the same mold, these two characters are just not made of the same stuff.

I was hoping to churn all this out in one blog sitting, but there's too much material to cover, and I should probably go to sleep eventually. I'll have to continue this on into the weekend I fear. I hope to write a continuation of this soon that will compare Astrid Farnsworth to Sue Storm, and show how Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham share personality traits with both Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm. I know you wait with baited breath. =)

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