Throughout the Penguindrum series, I’ll return to a concept I don’t like to talk about much, and one I don’t invoke lightly: authenticity.
I want to devote this first installment to explaining what that word means to me. It’s necessary, given that “inauthentic” is one of those terms most often used as a blunt instrument vs. things people don’t like. And, anyway, how can art be “authentic,” which is to say true to life, when it is literally a distillation of the endless, unsolvable complexities of subjective human experience into something comprehensible and, hopefully, entertaining?
How convenient that, lately, I’ve spent otherwise unoccupied time
at work reminiscing about how The Once and Future King is really damn fantastic. I think it’s one of my maybe-two favorite fantasy novels. But that’s beside the point — I won’t even demand that you read it, as the following quote hails from the second page of the first chapter, and therefore shouldn’t ruin everything for you. In essence, T.H. White, or the narrator, or whomever you prefer, explains and excuses the use of modern references in an Arthur story:
It was not really Eaton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.
It’s easier to give you the feel. Just like that.
I drop this quote because it represents a general refusal to be authentic in two ways that it’s possible to be authentic. It pretty clearly eschews lit-fic authenticity, the authenticity of recognizing personal minutiae in what one reads, in that it endorses an anachronistic amalgam of present and fantastical past, especially in its characters. But it also does away with the authenticity demanded by fantasy fans, the authentic medieval-Europe-with-magic-ness (for example) of a cohesive setting whose elements all play nice with one another. A strictly believable world, in other words. “Yeah,” White says, “don’t believe this. But don’t worry about it.”
I’m wholly behind The Once and Future King here. I can support a character without reading onomatopoeic descriptions of his lunchtime flatulence. I can support a world that drapes modern sensibilities in medieval trappings. Those are particulars, and I’m not that particular. I forgive stories for always leaving something out; there are only so many pages in the book, only so many episodes in the anime series.
So — with utmost apologies to TV Tropes, which I do enjoy — fuck nitpicking, it’s a story, who cares. I look for authenticity in patterns.
Here, let me show you what I mean.
You remember Ringo Oginome, right? She’s that Under Armour-wearing aspiring rapist with the diary.
I’m sorry, but it’s true! It (almost) happens twice, no less. And there is a point to my mentioning it. Strictly speaking, Ringo here does not embody the concerns of the average teenager, who probably doesn’t have a magical sister, and probably won’t attempt to use a frog as a date rape drug. And yet, for me, she’s one of the show’s main anchors, one of the points of believability, which is to say authenticity.
Yeah, yeah. Don’t let it go to your head.
Think of her problems as broad, colorful renditions or elaborations for fun and profit and SYMBOLISM. Extrapolate a little. They’re quite relatable.
She’s continually overshadowed and stymied by an elder sibling.
She models her life on the contents of a single book, which doesn’t benefit her much.
She’s pubescent, with all attendant frustration. She’s interested in both romance and sex. Her attempts to satisfy these needs by following what she believes to be the rules (fate, as it were) end in hilarious failure. The “good” relationship is the one between her and the guy who sees her at her worst and, at length, loves her anyway.
That’s to say nothing of the expression of her insecurities through the medium of musical theater. It’s so over-the-top! But I buy it entirely. It’s the patterns that matter to me when I try to relate, not the particulars. Maybe I didn’t sing about it, but I’ve wanted desperately to be with someone who I’d convinced myself I was supposed to be with, too.
I don’t even need to tell most of you this, but animation, and cartooning in general, is all about the paradox of using exaggeration to suggest reality. Or, maybe that’s going too far. It’s about using the simplest elements, lines and curves and such, to call upon readers’ experience through their visual vocabulary. Consider Aaron Diaz’s discussions of human figure and posing and hands.
Now apply most of that to plot. That’s what I mean. You don’t have to write about grocery shopping or nose-picking to get people to relate. You can do it with familiar shapes. When family is an apple, it’s still family. When a dork is Lancelot, it’s still a dork. And so on. Sometimes it’s more productive to talk about things that way.
Look, you, it’s not that complicated. By “authenticity” I mean “familiar shapes.” See?
And some are familiar indeed.