For my response to “The Four Challenges,” I decided to examine What They Did to Princess Paragon, a novel written in 1994 by former comic writer and Comics Journal contributor, now novelist, Robert Rodi. From the description on the back cover I was able to surmise that it is a satirical jab at the many aspects of the comic book subculture, from the writers to the fans to the content of the comics themselves. It is clear that the very customs of the comic world are going to be shamed in the name of change, but how, and to what purpose?
“Is the world ready for its first lesbian superhero?” the back covers asks, and it is through this question that the novel’s satirical intent can begin to be ascertained, for with that one question a plethora of ideological structures and beliefs are put to the test. In the case of What They Did to Princess Paragon, the pointed social criticism of satire is aimed at comic fans and creators alike, and I believe that Rodi uses satire to demonstrate some of the more absurd aspects of the comic culture, as well as reveal many of the long-held stereotypical beliefs placed upon the individuals within the culture as hollow and steeped in prejudice. By presenting these stereotypes and clichés in an overdone manner, Rodi sheds light on the need for change within some of the foundational beliefs of the comic book world.
How does Rodi achieve this without sounding didactic? The first thing that is important to remember is what sarcasm is and how it works. In a classic Horatian satire, certain damaging behaviors, abuses, etcetera are held up to scrutiny and mocked with in order to humiliate those targeted enough to elicit change. Satire is more often than not humorous, but the true purpose is constructive criticism, using wit as a weapon. So to understand what is it that Rodi is interested in changing, one must pinpoint what he is specifically attacking.
By presenting a third person limited point of view which jumps from seeing the thoughts and actions of comic creator to the comic fan with every other chapter, Rodi gives both viewpoints equal footing. There are many times in the novel where the same scenario is described from the two different vantage points, which helps to reveal the fallacy of both characters’ notions of their world rather than favoring one over the other. Both characters are presented, through their own chapters as well as each others, in unflattering light. Rodi blows up their faults and idiosyncrasies to epic proportions in order to prove a point. This isn’t about how Rodi views these segments of the population; it is about how they view themselves and each other.
The book appears to be making fun of individuals involved in comics at first glance, especially rabid comic fans and egomaniacal comic writers, but what it is actually doing is making fun of those who put faith in the stereotypes themselves. And it doesn’t stop with the stereotypes of fanboy and cartoonist. This book also pokes fun at common stereotypes of feminists, lesbians, gay men, homophobics, overprotective mothers…Robert Rodi pulls no punches as he reveals the dirty little secret which we all have in common; we all try to categorize each other and end up caught up in stereotypical beliefs.
The novel, at its core, takes as its subject every fan’s belief that editors and writers are deviant, money grubbing character-killers and magnifies it by ten, and on the flip side it takes the obsessive fanboy in the basement stereotype that all editors loathe and fear and magnifies that stereotype as well. Then not only does Rodi put them head to head, but he does so in such a way that all who bare witness are forced to see the ridiculousness of both sets of beliefs. As a result the perspective of both creator and fan are called into question.
In the end, after kidnapping plots, and destroyed manuscripts, and several episodes of violence and sabotage, both comic geek and comic creator grow hearts and open minds, and everyone appears to be on the verge of getting their own version of happily ever after. That part, I admit was disappointing. Not because I scorn happiness, but because Rodi seemed to believe he had to tie his narrative in a neat little bow at the end, whether what he was ending with was feasible or not. This felt very Hollywood to me. Was Rodi aiming for a movie deal?
This brings me to my final point. What They Did to Princess Paragon would translate to movie easily, but could never exist in graphic novel form. It actually left me wondering how well satire in general would or could translate to the graphic form. Much of the bite in this novel comes from Rodi’s detailed verbal assassinations of certain things, and then there is the general humor which also helps the story to remain entertaining for the broader, not so comically informed, audience. In order for many of these jokes to be presented in a traditional comic form, the panels would have to be overtaken by dialogue and thought bubbles, expository boxes and the like. Princess Paragon would easily be translated to the screen though, in fact I am surprised it hasn’t been. I suppose it is due to the fact that Paragon herself plays such a minor role in the book, and there really is no sex appeal in ANY of the other characters of the novel. No sexy, no movie? Perhaps.
Still, What They Did to Princess Paragon is a highly entertaining look into a world that not many of privy to, the world of comic book creation and fandom. And if you peel back the layers of farce, parody and satire, there is actually quite a nice message that speaks out against stereotyping and prejudices hiding within its pages. It is a fast, read full of wit and insight, and I recommend it.