We live in the middle of some mighty imaginary worlds. In one corner, you’ve got Star Wars, turning out toys and videogames; over there, Marvel is taking over Hollywood and churning out half a dozen Avengers books a month. Lego seems to launch a new property every week, and while J. R. R. Tolkien’s been dead for decades, his name plus an “-esque” still seems to define half the fantasy properties that ship to this day. And then you’ve got Japan. Don’t even get me started on Japan; I’m too old to catch up and I know it.
You have your pick of alternate realities to dwell on, all of them creative powerhouses that spin a simple idea into multiple multi-million dollar channels of product. But I wanted to pick one. I figured if I could single out one transmedia world as somehow greater than the others, it would serve as an example for all the ideas we’ve been talking about. And luckily, it wasn’t that hard. In fact, I had absolutely no trouble settling on the one property that most dominates our culture and all of our media. And I will name it after the jump.
The story starts with a far-off land, ancient but familiar. A war breaks out. A relentless enemy rolls its armies across one country after another. On the other side of the world, its ally starts a war with its neighbors and threatens to throw the entire globe into turmoil. Things are looking grim – until suddenly, there’s a new hope: a new country, young, a little naive, but brave and strong, jumps into the fight.
The tide starts to turn. Our heroes in this plucky upstart nation win one battle after another. But the bodies are piling up, and the final foe – ruled by an almighty Emperor who claims divine power – refuses to surrender. And then all of a sudden, a miracle weapon appears, an almost science-fictiony superbomb that can end the war in one fell swoop (or okay, maybe two). It’s so perfect it’s almost corny, a deux ex machina, but it fits the myth: the young, brave and true heroes defeat the Emperor and finally bring peace to the world.
In broad strokes, this is the story of World War II. It’s a true story – our grandparents lived through it and everything – but it is also the greatest imaginary world we have.
Let’s count the reasons.
It’s a fight between good and evil. The Axis powers were the bad guys. They were really bad. The Allies beat them. That was really good. This is a clear conflict between well-defined adversaries, and it’s easy to latch onto.
Around this clear core, thousands of stories are possible. Let’s take a look at just a handful of stories from around the world and across the decades that are all united by the era and the context of this single war. Catch-22. Gravity’s Rainbow. The English Patient. Castle Wolfenstein. Captain America. The Thin Red Line.. Saving Private Ryan. Atonement. The Diary of Anne Frank. City of Thieves. Velvet Assassin. You’ve got heroic stories and anti-heroic stories. Comedy and tragedy. Stories of people on the fringes of the conflict; stories of the people who set it in motion. New perspectives, alternate histories, works of experimental or fantastical fiction – all united by the core mythos of the biggest conflagration our planet’s ever seen.
World War II was filled with strong personalities, but it didn’t depend on them. Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Patton – you can rattle off a lot of names from the War. But the War went on even when, for example, Truman replaced Roosevelt. Like our last point, this is the key difference between a world and a story: you have plenty of heroes and villians, but this is not the story of any one of them.
Likewise, you can tell a story with your own characters without injecting any of the big names into it. In most properties, if you create a new storyline in a new locale, your central characters at least need to make a cameo. Most new Marvel comics throw in Captain America or Spiderman. The world of The Last Airbender barely exists outside Aang or Zuko. But in World War II, you can tell vast stories about the men on the front without sticking in a big-name general. We know we’re in the War, and that’s enough.
Nazis. Who’s worse than the Nazis? Who’s worse than Hitler? Pundits keep fretting that if we keep wheeling out the “so-and-so is as bad as Hitler” analogies about every single leader we don’t like, we’ll start to wear it out. But it hasn’t happened yet. It doesn’t get any worse than Hitler.
And yet, so broad and mature is this property that it also holds up under satire. I could wheel in one of those Hitler rant videos that’s been making the rounds of YouTube, but this is still my favorite:
Character is action, and there was plenty of action. A professor of mine once told me that military history and biography are the lowest form of history writing. It’s not hard to write a book about a bunch of tanks rolling from point A to point B; and likewise, it’s not hard to inject drama into a situation where millions of people are dying. This is why there are dozens of videogames set in World War II, and pretty much none set in hipster coffee shops.
… And you can tell a great story without action, too. The suffering on the homefront, the plight of refugees, the wives left at home waiting for letters from their husbands – the quiestest stories get more dramatic against this backdrop. Nobody needs to slap you in the face every other page and remind you what’s going on at the front; how could you forget?
Awesome technology. From codebreakers to submarines to the A-bomb, there are plenty of reasons to geek out over the war and the tech it produced. People like gadgets, and the inventions of the war were instrumental to its progress and its conclusion.
With the passage of time, reality can lift into fantasy. The PlayStation exclusive Valkyrie Chronicles emulates the themes and era of the War, but its world is made-up and magical. The recent Wolfenstein lets us shoot zombie Nazis. And then there’s this:
There’s just one drawback to my choice: World War II was real. It took the lives of millions of our relatives, and starved millions more. It paved the way to the Cold War and set America for a several-decade fall from whatever innocence we imagined we had.
World War II is a world, but it’s not strictly a “fictional” world. And yet it sets the stage for millions of works of fiction. All its complexities have been boiled down to a narrative as linear as the one in Avatar: The Last Airbender. All of these made-up worlds aspire to the same complexity, the same drama and the same importance as this single, several-year conflict. Every time Star Wars tries to be more than the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, every time Lord of the Rings throws a bazillion orcs at a fortress, every time a writer tries to scare us with the ultimate evil, and every time a sci-fi story tries to make us believe that this miracle weapon that appeared in the last act is more than a convenience; every time a publisher tries to stretch into more and more media, and bring us more and more entry points into their property; every time anyone waves a screen at you and says, “Seriously dude, this is important! This isn’t just any war! This is like, a war for the whole world!” – every single time, they’re reaching for the bar that was set over sixty years ago.
I don’t know why Hollywood hasn’t cooked up a sequel.