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Genre Awareness

Panel from Top Dog #10. The character looks at another comic book.

One thing I really like about The Walking Dead is that they never refer to zombie media; they instead act as if the phenomenon is wholly new. That’s an approach I’d love to see more of. The opposite is so weird in books like Kick-Ass where they are constantly reading comics. I’m reading a Stephen King book now where one of the characters is saying that The Shining isn’t a good movie.

Sure, the self-referentiality is weird, but what bugs me more is the common trope of “This story is real, unlike all these other stories I’m gonna name now”. Not into it. Like, a Marvel hero and someone in the comic says “Oh, like Batman from the comics?” and they reply “But unlike him I’m real” and I’m like… you guys are on the same level, quit it with this faux-Calvino nonsense, you’re only devaluing yourself by calling attention to the frame, the page, the ink.

I was looking for a TV tropes page for all this annoying genre awarenes, but they instead have a page called Genre Blindness where they disparage the approach that TWD so successfully took and that I prefer. That’s really backwards. (Also, using “blind” as a synonym for “unaware” is messed up.)

Listen, I don’t care if Batman comics or Spider-Man comics exist in your superhero book, but you don’t have to mention it or harp on it. It immediately breaks the spell when you start talking about how you’re so much realer than than all the other stories in your genre.

It was an interesting trope when it first appeared. It was great in Scream but it’s so overdone now. One early appearance I remember is in Watchmen, where the original Nite Owl is inspired by comics, but his own appearance then causes superhero comics to fall out of favor completely. But by now, it just feels dumb.

It only worked the first time, give it up.


Now I see that there is a Genre Savvy page! (So that’s what I should’ve named this page.) And it’s one of the most extolling, least-critical pages on the entire page (especially compared to theirnpage on Genre Blindness). Tropes aren’t bad across the board, they’re building blocks of shared experience, but some tropes are pretty bad and this Genre Savvy one, I’m pretty tired of, when they make reference to specific works.

Jens wrote in, saying that visual references and homages and callbacks are great. I agree, I love it, but what I don’t like is when the characters are talking about the genre in order to make their own story sound more “real” and it often has the opposite effect.

Like, a self-rescuing princess is fine, I have several examples in mind, and of other times people deliberately subvert tropes. That’s great.

But if those princesses then go “This isn’t Super Mario Bros, which is just a video game” (and this new princess is also just in a video game) then not cool. It’s the whole “this book is more real than this other specific existing book”, “this movie is more real than this other specific movie” that doesn’t work anymore.

I guess this goes back to Don Quixote except not really because it’s in a different genre. This works great for comedy, I love Gwenpool, for example (which is arguably the reverse of this trope, since she is using her genre savviness to invoke verfremdung rather than verisimilitude). It just in “oh this story is the only one that’s real life!” where it backfires.