Prelude to NG #1 (of 3): Parasocial

Prior to officially “launching” Novelly Graphic (you know, talking about new comics and the industry) I wanted to discuss a few loose ends from my earlier comic-based writing endeavors to transition into a new era. This is Part One.


Two years ago I was furious. I’d only been reading comic books for a few months, but I was already on the cusp of stopping. Likening books like Marvel’s Avengers Arena and reboots like DC’s New 52 initiative to an abusive relationship, I noted that fans of comics masochistically cling to something that routinely and even predictably doles out emotional sucker punches like they’re going out of style. Frequently it seemed that the more love and time you poured into the relationship, the more likely you were to be hurt, and hurt deeply, as a reward for your devotion. Ultimately it became clear that I would keep reading comics, but I perceived this less as a decision for perseverance and more as a result of being too weak to cut toxicity out of my life.

Common during the spring and summer of 2013, during which I unfurled a quiver’s worth of bile-soaked arrows at the industry, was the question from those far less upset than I was: “Why do you care so much?” I was reminded that the characters I lamented or mourned were after all fictional, and the assumption followed that real-world emotional responses to unreal events were uncalled for.

With a background in English and Theatre, I was able to point out the inherent absurdity of criticizing emotional response to fictional drama. Obviously narrative art depends upon eliciting real emotions for its power. This is likely all the more true of any serial art: a story which must sustain your attention and devotion for months or years needs you to invest in its characters, and if you don’t care about the characters after an episode or issue you have no special reason to look into the next one.

Yet in the back of my head a small worry continued to gnaw, that my emotional outpouring was indeed uncalled for, and that I and the few who replied favorably to my battle cry were in fact manifesting a pathologically unsound attachment to fantasy. I could stare at the fact of fictionality without flinching, but it didn’t lighten the weight of my affections. I wondered from time to time whether my caring was the product of some social or psychological malaise; if, perhaps, these imaginary people were my refuge from real-world isolation, and I depended on them as if they were real friends simply to compensate for the day-to-day absence of actual people.

Only through early discussions with my graduate advisor did I find out that my questions were already fairly common, and in fact already had some promising answers. It turns out the human brain regularly ascribes human traits to the inhuman. It’s why we see faces in rocks and clouds and landscapes. It’s why we talk to our pets as if they understood us. It’s why we name our cars and computers.

And it’s why we naturally develop emotional attachment to people with whom we’ve never actually interacted, be they celebrities who aren’t aware of our existence or, that’s right, people who don’t even actually exist. Ultimately, we form relationships with people and characters in the media that are, psychologically, just like our actual social relationships. They’re parasocial relationships. We can tell the difference. Our brains…not so much.

Perhaps even more freeing than finding an answer to the question — Why do you care so much? — was learning that research into parasocial phenomena had also pretty thoroughly tackled the question of pathology. A series of studies in the 1970s and 1980s attempted to demonstrate a link between loneliness/friendlessness and a tendency to develop parasocial relationships. Not only has that link not been found; some studies have even suggested the opposite.

Which makes sense: if your brain doesn’t differentiate, then you’re either good at caring about and connecting with other people (fictional or otherwise) or you aren’t. Hopefully you’ll find that relieving; I know I did.

In any case, I thought it worth pointing out that this blog fully endorses a passion for characters and the intensity of expression such passion typically produces. Our brains think of them as friends, so let’s treat them as such.

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