03 July 2011

Inheritance and the Edges of Fanfiction

Inheritance, by Devin Grayson, is a novel about the relationships among three older DC heroes—Batman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman—and their three grown-up sidekicks—Nightwing (formerly Robin), Arsenal (formerly Speedy), and Tempest (formerly Aqualad).

It’s not a very good novel. The prose is pulpy in the way that some comics writers fall into when they can finally stretch out in prose after years of minimizing their word count, but forget they don’t have to spell out emotions and symbolism. The ending is hurried, hinting that a deadline or maximum length suddenly reared up. And of course the story can’t really resolve the issues it brings up because they’re the fuel for further stories about the same characters.

What makes Inheritance stand out from DC Comics’s other prose publications is how it acknowledges its characters’ potential sexuality, the subtext that writers and readers of “slash” fanfiction like to highlight. Oh, all right, one little taste:
A few paces ahead, Aquaman had caught up with Green Arrow.

“Your boy’s looking good,” he commented, both because it was true and because he was making an effort to honor the role he had assumed as Green Arrow’s chief entertainment.

“Yeah, he is, isn’t he?” Ollie sounded pleased. “That kid’s always been a looker. They all are. No wonder people like to speculate.”

Arthur frowned slightly as Ollie laughed. “I meant he looked healthy,” Arthur clarified.

“Oh, yeah.” Ollie was undaunted. “I meant the hero-sidekick thing, how everyone assumes we’re doing dirty things with these gorgeous kids in the—”

Arthur used his most regally authoritative voice to cut his friend off. “I know what you meant.”

“You never got that as much. Guess the whole breathing underwater thing is freaky enough. But Bats, man! Well, look at that kid, no wonder.”
(Oh, I itch to edit that passage. To move Arthur’s interruption to right after the em-dash where it belongs, for starters. But I digress.)

Soon after Inheritance was published in 2006, Graeme McMillan at Newsarama noted the surfaced subtext, and GalleyCat interviewed Grayson about the story behind the story.
she’s careful to point out that Inheritance is about father/son dynamics, not gay culture. “But are the characters in Inheritance aware of gay culture?” she asks rhetorically. “Sure. And they get to joke about it, just like I, as the narrator, get to joke about it. I’m joking with the reader, the characters are joking with each other.”

Grayson says DC knows her well enough by now to know what she’s doing, “and they seem to enjoy it.” They’ve asked for changes in previous stories, but Inheritance went through without any complications.
The book continues to produce a strange reaction from fans of its characters. Some of those readers simply aren’t “slash” fans. But others are. One widely noted reaction came from Maelithil:
I'm on page 60 and have had to leave the room to scream into a pillow. Repeatedly. . . .

I've reached the phase wherein I'm too embarrassed to continue, and too curious to stop. It's too rich to be subtextual porn, it's too laden with innuendo to be textual and serious.
And that from a blogger whose userpic says, “Batman was only defeated once and that was by Dick Grayson’s thighs.”

Recently Discowing’s postings on Tumblr hinted at the same open-mouthed shock, despite his being quite comfortable with “slash” art.

Inheritance is far less sexual than many stories (and I use that term loosely) we could read on the internet anytime. So why does it produce such gasps and squeals? It’s not the content, I think; it’s the origin of the object. This book comes from DC Comics itself. It’s “official,” and that carries certain expectations and standards.

The fan reaction reminds me of how teenagers can take pride in talking dirty to each other, but feel incredibly embarrassed at the thought of their own parents having sex.

6 comments:

icon-uk said...

I've never actually worked up the courage to read this, I was tempted by the reviews I read which veered between shocked disbelief and hilarity, but bearing in mind my assessment of her comics work, I don't think I'm ready for novel-length Devin Grayson writing.

J. L. Bell said...

As Devin Grayson said in the interview, the novel is much more about the troubled father-son relationships in those pairs of heroes than in the sexually charged stuff that provoked such reactions. But there’s more brooding and moping than I think you’d like, and of course the prose format doesn’t allow that to be broken up with acrobatics and other visual energy.

icon-uk said...

Thing is, I'm not sure I'd trust Ms Grayson to effectively distinguish between the two. Her writing of the father/son relationship between Bruce and Dick is based on Dick having an unspoken sexual attraction towards Bruce (based on the fact that Bruce is his father, but not his father in THAT sense) and Dick having a "fight or f### reaction to physical contact" (her phrasing, not mine).

J. L. Bell said...

It’s been about two years since I read Inheritance, but I don’t recall the book pushing a sexualized characterization of Dick Grayson. Yes, he’s physical, but his relationship with Bruce Wayne is mostly the unappreciated-son emotional stuff that many DC authors have written.

The passage I quoted is the most explicit acknowledgment of a potentially sexual charge, and that’s clearly Oliver Queen trying to get a rise out of Aquaman. Elsewhere I think “slash” fans are reading general descriptions through the lens of sexual and emotional longing. But then that’s what “slash” interpretations are all about.

Georgethecat said...

Just an FYI, Discowing is a woman. :)

J. L. Bell said...

Good to know! Thanks, Ms. George.