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Joel Grineau
by: Joel V. Grineau
Deus Ex Machina in Comic Books

Deus ex Machina (Latin) - a god from a machine; (fig.) a person, event or object unexpectedly introduced into a story to resolve the plot (from Webster's dictionary).

For years I've been seeing "gods descend in machines" in my comic books. Let's look at the use of Deus ex Machina as a literary technique in comics.

Imagine a comic book story that goes something like this: a lesser known crime fighter in Metropolis (say Gangbuster) is after some criminals; he tracks them down; a melee erupts; Gangbuster is in dire need of help; Superman arrives in the nick of time, as, his super hearing happened to detect the fight; he saves Gangbuster's butt; they shake hands; end of story. Taadaa! Now I ask you, is this a well crafted story? I think not.

Although this exact story has not happened to my knowledge, it is a feasible representation of what can and does happen in comic books. In several ways, such a story can do great damage to the medium.

  1. The characters are cheated - Gangbuster does not get to prove his worth, he is not allowed to overcome insurmountable odds, or whatnot. Conversely, Superman is made to look like some idiot who has nothing better to do than to eavesdrop on the sounds produced by millions of Metropolitans.

  2. The reader is cheated - he/she feels no satisfaction in the resolution. What can the reader 'take' from this story? Saddest of all, many readers have been exposed to so many of these tales that they do not even realize that they've been cheated.

  3. In a spin-off effect- the market can be affected. Of those readers who do realize they've been cheated, how many people are willing to constantly shell out for such a story? How many are willing to constantly spend their money on the possibility of purchasing such a story?

  4. The writer has short changed him/herself. Where is the commitment to the craft of storytelling here? Where is the pathos, catharsis, morality, and any other of those literary constructs that I once studied in English class?

  5. Comic books continue to be demeaned and marginalized by the public. Try to convince somebody of the validity of the medium, when you have such feeble stories to show them. Of course, some people will point out, that hey, the fan base is quite young, so you have to allow for shallower stories. Balderdash! I wasn't the only one at my school reading Tolkien, Stephen King, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Isaac Asimov and W. O. Mitchell in my early teens.

The comic book medium will never gain respectability with holofoil covers, bigger badder and meaner villains, more voluptuous anti-heroines, or outdated literary conventions. The road to respect is paved with well crafted, challenging stories.

Joel Grineau is a former Writer/Contributing Editor for "Chaos" Magazine. "Iron Man" 146 (purchased in the spring of 1981) was his first comic book, and time has not worn down his enjoyment of them. Joel holds a BA from the University of Guelph and an MA from the University of Saskatchewan. He is currently an officer with the Canadian Forces.

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Text © Joel V. Grineau, 1997,1998.
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