|[Evanescence plays unironically in background]|
You tap your chin with your magical quill and set it to the paper. To your surprise it begins writing, all on its own! Before your very eyes it spells out these words:
Sometimes I find that ideas for articles drop into my lap. Last week I happened to seea post on Tumblr that facilitated that sort of topic drop: a post about “coma” theories. Wait, wait, that’s the wrong link, hold on, ah here we go, a post about “coma” theories.
If you’re not familiar with that trope of fan analysis the concept is fairly simple to explain:
Take a show, movie, story, whatever. Preferably something fantastical and beloved. Ok?
The story is all some character’s dream while the character is in a coma.
Or the characters are all dead, or they’re all just imaginary friends, or the character is having a psychotic break due to some trauma or other, or… whatever. That mode of explanation for the fantastic elements of a story. All the kids in Ed Edd and Eddy are dead, Ash has been in a coma since episode 1, Steven Universe’s mom died and he’s imagining all the adventures and Connie is his therapist… whatever.
This kind of theory tends to be really... well... bad. When used in canon, it tends to come off as a bit of a bait and switch--you become invested in a narrative that has no meaning, where events have no impact. You get sucked into a story only to have it turn out to be utterly pointless.
This badness carries over to the use of the trope in analysis. Tonight, I want to get into why it’s bad, but also why it’s both kind of lazy and also, sadly, inevitably ubiquitous, but first I want to talk a little bit about the post that prompted my own article.
Hurriedly you cast the quill away from yourself and crumple up the paper. What is this strange writing that haunts you in your definitely real paradise? It has given you an idea, though, for what your amazing, groundbreaking fandom post should be like…
You rush off through the gardens to the pastel colored manor house, where your childhood friend Humperdink Bandersnatch is sharpening his cheekbones. You begin to tell him excitedly about your plans, and he nods eagerly as you describe how you will blow countless minds with your brilliant re-reading of the story from a radically different perspective! But when he attempts to respond, instead these words come out:
The tumblr analysis of the coma theory posits a very interesting possibility as to why people gravitate towards these kinds of explanations. It suggests that people come up with coma theories as a way, as young adults or adults, to reclaim stuff that they enjoyed as kids now that they’re older. It’s a way of claiming it, and making it acceptable, by way of coming up with dark headcanons, turning everything into a kind of mindfuck.
I think there’s a lot to that argument, but I also think coma theories crop up in so many more places than just children’s media. In doing research for this article, for example, I found one about Homer Simpson of all things. It’s certainly not limited just to children’s media. With that wider view of the phenomenon, it becomes harder to accept that this is just a reclamation of childhood. It’s a little more complicated than that.
I want to suggest that coma theories do particular work within fandoms. There’s something attractive about these theories that makes people want to explore them, even though they’re not what we would call, you know, actually… good. So I want to talk about the impulse to create coma theories.
I want to start though by talking about why we do analysis, or at least why people THINK we do analysis. A lot of analysis--or at least analysis as people perceive it--is sort of shock oriented, prompting a radical reinterpretation of a text. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s not totally wrong from the perspective of critical theory stuff. Some of the best criticism does this kind of work! Look at famous shit-stirrer TS Eliot, for example, and his radical reinterpretation of Hamlet as “actually a pretty shit play, tbh, lol.”
You smack Humperdink and he stops prattling on, thank god. But you’ve cut your hand! The blood reminds you of something else red...
Well there’s certainly no time to whine about your cut hand, you’ve got a fandom to totally explode with your radical theories! You leave Humperdink reeling and go into the library, where your songbird friends are reshelving books. Maybe they will appreciate your genius better! The whole flock comes down to sing to you and you find your nerves calmed.
But an unearthly croak breaks through the chorus! It is the raven Bartholomew! He has something to say to you:
If you’re looking to shock people, wow, the coma theory sure is an easy way of getting to that goal. Coma theories do demand a dramatic reappraisal of whatever texts they’re referring to or working with. So, from the perspective of someone looking to make a dramatic impact with minimal work, they’re ideal.
They’re also, I think, tempting because they don’t always fail. Sometimes they actually do work as analysis, or work within narratives. I want to talk about some examples where this does actually work, to a greater or lesser extent. These are examples where the theory--or the actual canonization--of a thing being a dream come off as actually interesting rather than a huge copout. There’s actually a number of examples of this but I want to really focus on two. Let’s start with the most over the top example I could find: Six Degrees of St Elsewhere.
This concept comes from the comic writer Dwayne McDuffie, a brilliant guy all around. He put together this theory in the context of a much larger argument about comic continuity. See, McDuffie took the radical position that superhero comic continuity should be treated in a way that emphasized individual stories over a shared continuity. What this means in practice is that for McDuffie something that happens to Batman in Detective Comics didn’t necessarily have to have an effect on Superman in Action Comics--even if the two characters interacted sometimes. This is of course radically different from other models that have been suggested, and the current status quo at the big 2, so it’s a hard stance to take, I think.
But McDuffie has kind of a killer thought experiment that exposes the problems with that kind of shared continuity. This argument centers upon the show St Elsewhere. Now, I’ve never seen this show, I’m relying on McDuffie’s information here, but my understanding is that St Elsewhere, a hospital drama, ended with the revelation that the whole series was happening in the mind of a minor character, who in the “real world” was autistic.
Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the problematic elements of that story construction and dig into what McDuffie is doing with that revelation.
See, McDuffie points out that St Elsewhere isn’t just St Elsewhere.
St Elsewhere had crossovers. St Elsewhere had a LOT of crossovers.
And anything that it crossed over with must, logically, also be in the mind of… this one kid.
When you apply that basic logic, something like 90% of all American television takes place in the mind… of this one kid. The history of American television is apparently one of copious crossovers, and that penchant for crossovers has resulted in basically a sucking void with St Elsewhere’s nonexistence at the center.
And that’s not even counting cartoons. Can you imagine if the Simpsons was included in this theory? Into the void we go!
Into the window goes a bust of Pallas that you’ve lodged at the raven. Damn, you missed. It shut him up at least. But now your other bird friends have also started talking. Each speaks in turn, a sentence at a time, fluttering all around the study!
McDuffie’s whole point with this is that if TV behaved under the same continuity rules as comics supposedly do it’d all be in the head of this character, which would be somewhat unsatisfying to say the least. But I think maybe this argument runs into some trouble in the sense that the theory itself is… well… pretty interesting.
If one of the points of this sort of theory is the prompted reexamining of content, well, this is certainly demanding a reexamination of content! Specifically, it’s demanding that we reexamine the connections between primetime TV shows--their ubiquity, their obscurity, their ability to link together things that have no business relating to one another, jumping across time, space, genre, and tone. McDuffie’s argument spawned deeply engaged attempts to chart out the full scope of the St Elsewhere Crisis on Infinite Earths, which in and of itself strikes me as a sign of a successful theory.
It’s fun though because it’s so aggressively absurd in its sheer massiveness. It’s sort of obviously ridiculous, but it’s absurdity makes it fascinating. It’s so overpoweringly bizarre conceptually that it’s hard to ignore or discount, a kind of hypnotic nonsense.
I think it’s worth paying attention to the way the theory is interesting for this mass, and for this absurdity, and not because it’s necessarily an interesting take on any individual show. It’s not interesting in its own right, in a sense, which really ultimately backs up what McDuffie’s doing with this theory in the context of his wider argument.
Hold onto that thought for the moment, though, because I want to set up one more case study before we dive into this.
The other example I want to use is from Over the Garden Wall. If you haven’t seen that delightful, terrifying show, you may want to skip the next bit, as there’s some spoilers here. Though uh, if you’ve been paying attention at all to literally anything in this article from the title onward you can probably guess what the spoiler is.
See, the main characters of Over the Garden Wall, Wirt and Greg, do not belong in the fantasy world that they wander through. They are actually lost there after an event in our world that leads to them almost drowning. They are in the Unknown because of this near death experience.
This could feel very much like a cop out, but the narrative asserts, in two important ways, that what we’ve seen and become invested in is meaningful.
At the core, we’re given to understand that the Unknown is a real place with real people who have a real impact upon one another. This impact goes both ways. For the main characters, we get both literal indicators (the reappearance of the frog that has been their companion, notably) and indicators on the level of the psychological development of Wirt. He seems genuinely changed by his experiences in the Unknown, and those changes make the possible dream world meaningful. He is more courageous, and less selfish and prone to pushing off responsibility onto his brother, by the end, in a way that results from the events in the Unknown.
We are also given every reason to think that in the aftermath of the story’s events the Unknown has been changed for the better. The series ends with a lengthy exploration of the characters after the series and the ways that their lives have been improved by the actions of the main characters. In treating these characters as having an existence outside of the perceptions of Wirt and Greg, the show asserts that these characters are important in their own right.
The key as far as I can tell here is the presence of something that asserts the meaningfulness of the dream/hallucination/whatever--something that asserts the importance of that in the face of its fakeness. Something to assert that even if these things aren’t really real, on some level they really are.
Real? You’re getting real tired of this… this bullshit! Bullshit? Why is that familiar? It doesn’t matter! You need a quiet place to write your masterpiece, away from all this chattering nonsense!
You stomp your way out of the study to the observatory. There, you settle down to write once more. You’re right on the verge of a breakthrough, you just know it… but you find yourself overcome by weariness. Your favorite pony, E’enstar Twinkle, comes to you and gently puts a blanket over your shoulders. She really is best pony. As you slip into a dream the stars and planets and two moons of this magical definitely real world spin above your head… they dance, almost as though they wish to form words...
Of the two examples we have, one is primarily interesting because it finds every way possible to make the core supposition of the coma theory--that none of what’s happening is “real”--moot. Everything is in a dream, but it’s still very much real both from the perspective of the psychological impact on the characters, and the perspective of the dream world’s inhabitants. It undermines the premise at every turn.
The other example is of interest primarily for its absurdity and not in its own right. It’s true on the one hand that we can look at the theory and say, hey, this is fun, but we’re not looking at it and saying that it makes a great story. It’s an interesting exercise only divorced from the contents of the stories that it encompasses. It doesn’t provide us new fascinating insights into the characters, possibilities about the theme, or deep information about the setting--it’s interesting purely for the enjoyment of picking apart the connective possibilities of these shows.
That, I think, is really quite telling. That shows what these theories are really good for, and where they fall short. They can make certain things possible, for example, like the passage between a “real” and a “fictional” world, though a lot of those sorts of strategies have fallen out of favor in modern fantasy fiction and are more properly a technology of the early era of modern fantasy, the pre-Tolkien days. It’s interesting in Over the Garden Wall because the narrative is so focused on the effect of the dream world on the real world. It’s crucial that they come out of the experience changed--it tells us meaningful things about the characters because it exists to tell us meaningful things about the characters. On the other hand, in something like the pre-Tolkien fantasy epic The Worm Ouroboros, the framing narrative of a dreamer from our world entering the fantasy world does nothing narratively and is quickly forgotten. It’s sort of vestigial, an element used to justify the existence of this vast fantasy world.
This strategy then in Over the Garden Wall doesn’t necessarily port to criticism--we can see, in its benefits, its limitations. Over the Garden Wall has baked the theory into itself. Slapping that content onto a story that hasn’t had it before demands an answer to how it affects the characters. Usually, it leads only to a sort of flattening out of those characters.
The primary result of the St Elsewhere theory is this sort of flattening, where just on the face of it, again having not seen the series, the characters and particularly the dreaming character seem to lose dimension due to this change. It gives the perception of dimension--that “Woah, mindfuck” effect--but what does it really tell us about the character? Mostly it just tells us about the author’s (mis)conceptions about autism. We don’t have enough insight into this real world character to be able to say anything about him or the meaningfulness of his dream world. There’s certainly nothing to tell us about the significance of, say, the X-Files (one of the connected shows) to this character… or I Dream of Genie, for that matter. By the same token, I’m not sure what deep insights we can get from Mulder or Genie being revealed as fictional, since like… they’re already fictional? Flat as a pancake.
It feels to me like this is an attempt to grapple with postmodern concepts of metatextuality without having a solid grasp of what that kind of bold theoretical move actually looks like. Asserting the fictionality of a thing feels very radical because it breaks with the assumptions we have when entering a narrative--the assumption mainly that we’re all going to treat the fictional setting as real for the course of the narrative. This kind of analysis breaks radically with it without actually breaking radically--we’re still accepting that there is some “real” entity capable of being with a coma, right? So we have a break that doesn’t actually break down the fictional world, just sections some of it off as, I guess, double fake. Fake squared.
You wake from your dreams with a start. Fake squared? Brilliant! What an excellent idea! You could totally work that into your theory--what if the character that’s in a coma… is also in a dream?
You sit down to write, the stars and planets still dancing overhead. You are here, in your chair. Your very own chair. The chair that is yours that you always sit in because it is your chair which no one has stolen from you, here in this definitely very real place full of magic and miracles.
But before you get very far, you hear the voice again, those words that have haunted you… but there is nothing there but a shadow, a shadow of a book… what is this dark spectre that haunts you? Is it finally revealing itself to you?
The spectre speaks!
I think the coma theory also lacks the actual commentary on the nature of fiction or narrative or whatever that often appears in more adept metatextual stuff. A lot of these theories have no interest in narrative beyond the abstract sense that there’s something to be messed with there. Beyond that impression, it feels like these theories are grasping at something they don’t understand in any great depth.
Early on I mentioned that this is a kind of lazy theorization, and I think that characterization is pretty accurate. I think that it’s trying to achieve certain results with the minimum of real effort. I described already how this is about forcing a radical reexamination of texts, but it’s not one that requires too much deep thought because there’s nothing really substantive to it. It takes the idea of the radical reinterpretation without actually exploring the full implications of it.
Let me paint a picture of this. Imagine you’re in a fandom… or maybe you’re just a buzzfeed writer looking for pageviews. Is that what you are? No matter. Anyway, you’re trying to write something that will shock your fellow fans, but you don’t necessarily have a great sense of the more complex aspects of literary analysis. How are you going to come up with something interesting here, even though maybe you’re new to interpretation, you haven’t been in fandom circles for very long… what do you do?
Well, you could suggest that the reality of the story is actually radically different from what we see as an audience! That’s not necessarily a bad move; after all, there’s a number of cool things that reinterpret classic literature that way. Grendle, for example, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. These things can be compelling when done well.
At the heart though this kind of perspective flip is a very simple and accessible move for this kind of thing, which makes it very attractive to people who have less experience. It is, after all, a concept that is commonly taught in high school English classes--you’re probably well familiar with it! The concept of an Unreliable Narrator is still something that I think catches us off guard while still being fairly well known and understood--maybe you understand it but it still strikes you as unnerving in some ways. All of this adds up to a technique that is destined to become ubiquitous based solely on the qualities of the theory. It’s capable of doing so much with so little… is it any wonder that it would be attractive to newbie fans?
That’s the great irony of it--the attractiveness to newcomers makes it wearyingly recurrent for more experienced fans, which is part of why it has such a bad name culturally. While it’s appealing, it can’t sustain conversation or analysis making it frustrating to deal with for older fans.
You, the fan who sets out to create this theory, are doomed from the start, unable to realize that your radical path is actually a road well travelled! You, yourself, are lost in a coma of ignorance, unable to--
You bolt upright with a start, and see Sam Keeper, red wine glass in hand, sitting across from you in the pub, in--yes, in your chair. Keeper is sitting in your chair. And apparently zie’s been droning on for quite some time now about… coma theories? You groan. What a drag.
“I almost thought I lost you there for a moment HAH HAH HAH,” the book headed monstrosity says jovially. Abraxas the Hideous Armchair Rat gnaws at your dinner. “Good thing I woke you up in time! Who knows what might have happened!
Anyway, as I was saying:
I don’t think everything I’ve said necessarily contradicts the original post, because I think the two things can happen at the same time. But I don’t think it’s something we can divide easily on childhood innocence vs adult cynicism. There’s something very innocent about the coma theory--it depends on a lack of awareness of fandom traditions and the trope itself, as well as a lack of familiarity with analysis that leads people to latch onto the tangible details of analysis without understanding the crucial Who Cares factor. I think while there is an edgy cynical vibe to this theory, that doesn’t mean younger members of fandoms aren’t prone to this kind of theorization as well.
In that sense, it might be understood not as people grasping at innocence and trying to reclaim it, but grasping for maturity.”
You slosh your beer around a little, mutter “Bullshit!” and take a long drink.
Storming the Ivory Tower will update again on Monday, August 31st! Our topic: Paradox Space was a disappointment to a lot of fans of Homestuck and a disappointment economically for What Pumpkin. Next time, I'll dig into where Paradox Space fell short and what a better model for expanded universe fiction might look like. If you're a Patreon backer, you can view the whole list of upcoming articles here.
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