Notes from ECCC ’17: Folklore and the Death of Belief

Reading Time: 6 minutes
c. S.W. Sondheimer

Fashion, as we all know, is cyclical. Fads come and go. What’s chic and “in” one moment is on the dust heap of civilization the next, only to be unearthed a couple decades later by someone with far too much free time on her hands (looking at you 80s, shoulder pads) and bizarre ideas of “cool.”

What’s popular in media and literature is also cyclical. We have a decade of comic book stuff, then comes the space horror, next historical thrillers, etecetera, until we come back around again. This is due, in part, to market demand and also in reaction to current events or the predicted outcomes thereof (I’ve heard it said that the next decade will likely produce some excellent dystopian fiction and a resurgence of protest art and punk).

Popular at the moment? Religion and folklore, interest spurred by the upcoming American Gods mini-series set to begin airing April 30th on Starz.

American Gods was a formative novel for many folks of…  a certain age. Almost everyone I know, and I’ll grant you my sample is skewed, has read it. Most liked, some loved it, and some didn’t care for it, but the majority of us have partaken, at least once (and in my case at least ten times). Gaiman’s work shaped the way I think about the world and progress and, indeed, shaped me as a writer. It was my “holy crap, you can do that book?” in many ways, not the least of which was integrating my degree in theology into my creative fiction.

c. S.W. Sondheimer

ECCC took good advantage of the trend this year with two panels: The Death of Belief: American God’s Impact on Modern Fantasy, moderated by GeekDad’s own Will James with panelists Richard Kadrey, Brom (warning: Brom’s art is gorgeous but also creepy, may want to have a look yourself before you let the kids click), Dave Bara, and Seanan McGuire and Folklore in Comics, moderated by Zack Davisson (who also acted as a panelist) and including: Jim Zub, Brandon Seifert, and Kel McDonald.

Why two panels? Because, as we covered in the folklore panel, folklore and religion are two very different things though they find root in the same human impulse: to understand the world around us and the myriad things which happen in it. To understand our place in something so massive we can’t even conceive of, let alone codify, it.

Folklore, according to Davisson is: “a group of stories in the oral tradition, constantly evolving,” while religion is “many of the lessons of folklore, “codified and organized.”

c. S.W. Sondheimer

The codified and organized is where we potentially start to get into trouble because once a thing is fixed and absolute, humanity, in it’s search to find order, or make it, often falls into the trap of “them” vs “us.” When religion enters the picture, we often forget we’re all “us,” simply “us with different sets of shared experiences.” What should be “hey, those folks over there tell different stories, but damn, I really like their hats, lets go to talk to them” becomes “their god is not our god and thus, they don’t deserve to live.”

This is not a condemnation of religion. Please don’t take it as such. It’s an observation on human nature and our need to believe we’re shaping our own world, to maintain the illusion we know what the hell we’re doing on the rock hurtling through space. We are, as Doctor Strange put it, “Tiny, momentary specks within an indifferent universe,” and that… it’s a lot to handle if you want to live any sort of productive, happy life. To move beyond it, we need purpose and order. Cool. But not at the cost of other people.

c. Image Comics

Anyway. Back to the panels.

The common thread between Death of Belief and Folklore in Comics was the the prominence of both  in written works of the fantastic. I’m including, under that umbrella: speculative fiction, fantasy, and the comics which borrow from those two genres. Why, when we range so far from the everyday, when we wander places we haven’t been yet, or places we’ll never go, do we fall back on the two fundamental human experiences of stories and religion? How is it that modern sensibility accepts the inclusion of ideas many view as “old-fasioned” or “archaic” in every day life in our most forward thinking, and extraordinary, fiction?

Because to know where we’re going, we must know where we’ve been.

To explore our potential, we must be grounded in our roots.

And to understand one another, we must be able to see and understand the scope of this glorious mess we call humanity.

I’m not talking a convenient bit here and there. Absorbing what you like from another culture, or what speaks to you and discarding the rest is a nasty habit called cultural appropriation. As we discussed in the Folklore panel, knowing what a mala is for and sporting you own isn’t understanding; it’s piecemeal adaptation. Using a yokai in a story without studying the history of Japanese culture and myth is disrespectful and rude and it’s nothing more than another form of the tokenism so many fantasy, sci-fi, and comics writers and artists are struggling so hard again. Hell that’s why I, a woman of Eastern European descent, has spent the last couple of months rooting around in Norse myth for my current work in progress. Using the name Odin isn’t the same thing as understanding who Odin is, why he was so important to Norse culture, and what he’s meant to represent.

c. Chin Music Press

You don’t get to pick and choose what’s important to people of another cultural or religious group. You want to learn about it? Use it in your own work?

You learn as much as you can.

You need to delve into the things which don’t make sense to you. Which are different. Which are a struggle for you to understand.

You’re going to have to study and by study, I don’t mean a google search. The Internet is a lovely thing for the quick and dirty but it is severely lacking in peer review. As I often find myself reminding people in my day job, anyone can put anything on the Internet and unless the thing is in an area of your expertise, you may never know it’s wrong.

And you’re doing this research because you don’t know.

And in the end? It isn’t about you. It’s about knowledge and understanding and empathy.

Don’t be sloppy. Don’t be lazy. Take a class. Talk to people from the group you want to learn more about. A lot of people because faith and culture are human creations which means they aren’t monolithic. Follow their study guides and recommendations. If they tell you you’re wrong, guess what? You’re wrong and you have no right to insist otherwise.

One more time: it’s not up to you.

c. Image Comics (another one you should preview, grown ups)

That said, religions and folklore as categories (for lack of a better world) are shared experiences and you don’t have to be of a particular faith or culture to appreciate the pull of the existence of common shared experience. Which brings me back around to their inclusion in science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Speculative genres are safe spaces to explore those shared experiences, even if the details of individual immersions are different. Science fiction, fantasy, comics… those are places to play it all out in infinite ways, to explore what brings us together, what tears us apart, what we can be, what we should never become. Throw everyone into the depths of the vacuum and suddenly our differences, while important and beautiful and present, don’t seem like such a big deal; they aren’t aspects of a character to be overlooked but, instead, an indication of what makes them who they are, what makes them worth fighting for. If we’re battling dark magic, your one god and my many deities give us different tools to use in the fight but it’s the same battle.

So go forth. Read. Talk. Study. Listen. Learn.

We still have a lot to believe in, most importantly, one another.

c. Fresh Comics

(addendum: I’m a yutz and forgot to post the link to the video footage of the Death of Belief panel. Enjoy!)