“Is Your Villain Appropriate?”—Examining Character Construction in Different Media

"Phyrexian Ironfoot" (2006). Artwork by Stephan Martiniere. Copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Every Monday, I read Mark Rosewater’s weekly column “Making Magic,” partly because I have a casual interest in the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (I once played it, and some of my friends still play it), but mainly because Rosewater routinely offers great insights into aesthetics and game design. (He’s also a strong writer who regularly experiments with his column’s form.)

In an article published a few weeks back, Rosewater outlines why he thinks one of Magic’s villains, the Phyrexians, are that game’s best. As is typical with Rosewater, it boils down to a design principle—in this case, how the game operates narratively:

As a story-telling venue, Magic is best when it is telling what I call environmental stories. That is, the best thing Magic can show off creatively is an environment. The genre of a trading card game requires that you show lots of creatures and places and objects. This does a good job of showing off a diverse environment.

The Weatherlight Saga [a series of much older sets] was an attempt for us to tell a plot driven story through card sets. What we learned from that is that it’s very hard when we can’t control the order that players see the cards to convey traditional plotting. […] What Magic is good at is telling stories about changes that happen on an environmental level. This way the changes aren’t seen on a single card but a wide swath of cards. When we tell a story in another medium, we will tell a story that plays to that medium’s strength. Card sets, though, have to tell stories that can be told through card sets.

One of the reasons that I believe the Phyrexians make a perfect villain is that they attack on an environmental level. Take Scars of Mirrodin [one of the game’s most recent sets] as an example. The attack of the Phyrexians isn’t something seen on a single card but on many, many cards […]. My contention is that Magic’s best villain is one that works in the kind of stories that Magic (the card sets) can tell.

In a basic sense, Rosewater is advocating that an author tell a story appropriate to his or her medium—age-old advice. But let’s look beyond that simple rule of thumb: What does it mean for a story to be appropriate? And what are the consequences for characters?

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The Post-Post-Modern Things: Björk, Kathy Acker, and the Astral-Disappearing Act (18-23/53)

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18. Surely she had precursors, as Humbert Humbert speaks of his famous nymphet.  Yet, more than David Bowie or Madonna, who parlayed the myriad identity crises of postmodernity into a roster of ersatz personalities, Björk’s mature production parodies those types of overtures from the critical distance of the astral body.  The precursors to Björk’s art of shape-shifting, notably the Thin White Duke/Aladdin Sane/David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust was capable, when the economic climate required, of replacing Brian Eno with Nile Rogers and changing, with not too much shift in tone and song structure, from Lodger’s (1979) “Fantastic Voyage” to Let’s Dance’s (1983) eponymous paean to the “moonlight, the serious moonlight.”  What worked for Bowie, and later, Madonna, was the record-buying public’s interest in watching these performers embody each successive persona through the successive phases of their economic relationships with the consumer.  Of course, neither Bowie nor Madonna became known for their image ventriloquism until a certain number of disguises had been assumed and discarded.

19. Critic Kathryn Hume establishes that Acker might feel it “perverse” for her audience to read her texts from start to finish, to surrender, if you will, to the seduction of the book.  In this way, Acker again situates herself in the wake of William S. Burroughs, who offered that his books should be read as one long book that never quite begins or end.  As early as Naked Lunch (1959), he advises his readers to “cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point. . . .”[1] Sadly, thorough critics rarely accept such challenges to gloss with such critical abandon; instead, they obsessively ingest text after text from their subject.  Of course, listeners can have any easier time—if the technology allows the selection of a “random” track order.

20. Changing from Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s first large-scale popular image, from 1972, to Aladdin Sane in 1973, became, for the casual listener, a slight change in histrionic direction.  Only after a succession of these types of iterations had established their habitual death and repackaged resurrection did the “core” persona of Bowie-as-glib-shape-shifter manifest through the accretion of meaning imposed on his back catalog.  Fast-forward some years (although Bowie still hangs on), and we find that Björk exists in a pop-music hyperscape littered with the carcasses of lesser David Bowies and dime-store Madonnas.  For Björk, each new “style” must eschew the concept of style as the apotheosis of contemporary art.  The meaning of her collective personae do not accrete into a core that represents the “essential” otherness and marginalization of postmodern subjectivity, because we’ve already heard that song before, again and again, its singer wearing always different wigs.

21. William S. Burroughs played an important role in Acker’s early development, and with typical hyperbole, she even goes so far as to say, in 1990, that “we are living in the world of Burroughs’s novels.”[2] Whether as novelist, essayist, painter, filmmaker, recording artist, mystic, expatriate, psychological patient, Scientologist, Beat progenitor, plagiarist, punk music godfather, anti-censorship activist, queer hero, science-fiction guru, junkie, dealer, media theorist, advertising model—or murderer—the figure of William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) casts as many shadows as Bowie, Acker, and Björk combined.  Unfortunately, as Burroughs is always quick to point out, such “fixed” identity is often the farthest thing from a liberatory, counterculture position that allows transcendence from the deadening master/slave dialectic of third-stage capital and postwar control systems.  The system, he maintains, “needs opposition or acquiescence; otherwise it ceases to be control.”[3] Burroughs’s notion that the apparatus of the police are dependent on the criminals, and that more importantly, “all Agents defect and all Resisters sell out,”[4] implies a distinct and perhaps “essential” breakdown of fixed identity as a mode of “resistance” against the totalizing media machine—and the consumption of such radical displacement by the consumers of that machine.  A criminal who always needed the apparatus of the courts, the police, and the jails, French writer Jean Genet is thus offered by Acker as a representative of a writer who secures his marginalized position, and thus, his relation to the mainstream, through the cascading identity dance of the “artist” as marginalized genius.  In Blood and Guts in High School, Acker’s Janey accosts Genet for the first time:

‘You’re Monsieur Genet, aren’t you?’

He hesitates for a minute.  He notices me but he doesn’t want to.  ‘Who are you?”

For a second I can’t speak.  ‘I’m a writer.’

He holds out his right hand to me. ‘Enchanté.’[5]

22. If assumptions about the efficacy of Björk’s various decentralized personas as are fallacious as the constant accusations of middle-earth elfdom, we must acknowledge that an identity that is synthesized from endlessly circulating personas and musical styles may be no more liberating than its singular representation within the context of a more “traditional” musician’s work.  Björk finds herself in a world (among many worlds) where there will even be a limit, not to variation per se, but the ability of variation to diverge from a media-saturated world already strung from an endlessly flexible puppetry of variance.  After telling Rolling Stone about her remix vision, that of the “alternative version,” she responds to the reporter’s desire for a remix of “It’s Oh So Quiet” with a telling desire to push forward into a certain type of terra incognita:  “Well, that wouldn’t make sense because it was a song I covered on Post so for me to cover myself covering someone else is a bit like eating your own tail.  It’s getting a bit too recycled there” (Emphasis mine).[6] Björk’s recycling bins, then, will only accept certain deposits.

23. Despite any recourse to the nuanced heteroglossia of an Acker novel (available even to the casual, and perhaps dismissive, reader), part of the contrapuntal allure of her texts remains the difficulty in deciphering the “voice” of Acker-the-author that lies behind her plagiarisms.  This obstacle is mixed with a deliberate unwillingness on the reader’s part to assume that the disembodied voice, or voices, of her texts are subsumed behind a character (or, as we will see later, a “construct”) that can be unified by careful reading.  Yet for Hume, Acker’s “voice” is paradoxically accessible, and remains the defining characteristic of her prose.  Hume identifies Acker’s “core” voice with its “key note of protest,”[7] and argues that this voice becomes “centered” precisely in the apparently de-centered style of her fragmentation; she offers that Acker is unable to articulate even tentative solutions for her characters’ problems because her “intellectual” strategies of escape—appropriations and navigations that chart “lines of flight” from the logocentric realm of the “father”—will always clash with the emotional “desire” of her characters to escape such limiting systems on terms that protect the “core” identity: “Centripetally, (her personae) pull every experience in and recompose it in the idiom of the narrative voice.  That voice projects itself through lyric lamentation, cries, the vocabularies of sex, pain, and oppression.  Its values are traditional and humanist, and include . . . the inner self’s authenticity, and its right not to conform to social norms.”[8] The typical postmodernist argument about Acker’s fractured identity is not invalidated by Hume’s identification of the “core” voice, because it is impossible, given Acker’s work and its time, to perceive anything other than the illusion of a “core.” In this way, Acker’s countercultural stance (bound up, as we will see, with the marketing world) provides her texts only with a sort of pseudo-core, to re-arrange Blaise Pascal’s famous dictum—whose circumference is everywhere and center is nowhere.  In its nothingness, the center “voice” that is a “non-voice” (or a “media-voice” of sorts), exists all the more readily as a space for meaning to project itself onto the void of the fragmented rim, inside which it does not exist, to accrete like antimatter, with ghostlike flourishes, in the secret codes of the text.


[1] William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Press, 1990), 203.

[2] Acker, “William Burroughs’s Realism,” in Bodies of Work: Essays, 3.

[3] William S. Burroughs “The Limits of Control,” in The Adding Machine: Selected Essays (New York: Arcade, 1986), 117.

[4] Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 186.

[5] Acker, Blood and Guts in High School, 118.

[6] “The Big Meltdown,” RollingStone.com.

[7] Kathryn, Hume, “Voice in Kathy Acker’s Fiction,” Contemporary Literature 42 (2001): 503.

[8] Hume, 509.