Lev Butts' Comic Count Down: Interlude

This month, I had planned to continue my countdown of the five best metafictional comic books. I really had. For those of you who have forgotten (or are too lazy to go read the previous posts), though, I wanted to preface it with a brief recap of metafiction. However, the recap got away from me and kind of became the whole post. But, hey, it's educational and funny, and it has lots of great clips of David Addison and Maddie Hayes playing Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. So sit back and enjoy.

Metafiction, as the previous link explains, is any work of fiction that is, either overtly or subtly, aware of itself as a work of fiction.

There are essentially three types of metafiction. There's the metafiction in which the characters are literally aware that they are works of fiction. This is, perhaps, the type of metafiction that is by far the easiest to spot. Characters often "break the fourth wall" and speak directly to the audience or otherwise refer to themselves as characters in a fictional universe.

Ziggy gets it.
There are two sub-types of this kind of metafiction, and  the 1980's television show Moonlighting provides best examples of both of them. (In fact, Moonlighting provides great examples of every type of metafiction as we'll see). In the first type, the fourth wall is merely cracked, in other words, while a character may seem to directly address the audience, what he/she says fits the context of the story so that the fourth wall remains relatively intact:

The second type of "fourth wall" metaficiton involves essentially destroying the wall. A character addresses the audience in such a way that leaves no doubt of the character's understanding of his/her role as a fictional construct:

Oblique metafiction is arguably the most common type of metafiction, though. In this type of metafiction characters say things that, while making perfect sense in the context of the story, also serve as a nudge to the audience that the author (if not the characters) is aware that he/she is creating a work of fiction. Where cracking the fourth wall is an overt wink to the audience that may or may not break the fourth wall, this oblique metafiction is more of a subtle cough, leaving the audience to doubt that the fourth wall has been touched at all. Think of it as a brushing against the fourth wall type of metafiction. In it characters may say things like "If this were a story, no one would believe it" or "This whole situation is made-for-television." This is most clearly evident in the first twenty seconds of the following clip:

However, it is the third type of metafiction I am concerned with here. This type is a kind of meta-metafiction in that the characters not only refer directly to their own fictional natures but blatantly discuss or critique the art of creating a story. They are aware, in other words, of the rules of story-making, the relationship between creator and creation, and, most of all, their own successes or failures in these areas.

M. C. Escher gets it
Moonlighting did this type of metafiction exceedingly well (especially when the show's ratings were plummeting), but nothing showcases this type better than the last ten minutes of the final episode (appropriately titled "Lunar Eclipse"):

This is the type of metafictional comic I have been most interested in. They have all been comics that are not only are aware they are comics, but are also, to a greater or lesser degree, aware of the art of storytelling. These comics spend a lot of their time telling the audience how a story is told and/or critiquing, either directly or indirectly, the mechanics of their own stories.

Next Month: We get to number two on the countdown (I promise. I pinky swear)

Moonlighting even created a new type of metafiction: 
Anticiating the irony of its main actor's future


Wendy H. Jones said…
Great post Lev. I learned so much. Thanks for this
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Lev. I love the subtle (and not so subtle) ironies of this sort of thing and the whole fact/fiction interplay. I didn't watch this first time round. Makes me want to get box sets for the whole series.
Leverett Butts said…
I support that desire, Bill. You will not be disappointed. This post has made me want to go back and rewatch them all, too.
Lydia Bennet said…
Thanks for the memories of Moonlighting! I find metafiction type asides are far more funny when used sparingly - first of all the author(s) build up your belief in the fictional world, and then suddenly take you out of it, preferably for a brief moment - it's funny because it jars, but it's risky as it could, badly handled, alienate the audience. It does tend to work best in cartoons, knowingly funny ones like Family Guy and American Dad and the Simpsons. I've seen it done on stage where it's done too often and you then can't really believe in anything that happens on stage afterwards or be emotionally involved in it, as the actors don't seem to be either! so it has to be handled with care, and writers/directors who overuse it thinking they are being very smart and meta and cool may be blowing up their work. Moonlighting pretended to be a smooth 80s glamorous lighthearted drama but they took a lot of risks - memorably, having a miscarriage in the series voiced/acted by the actual 'foetus' after it spent a long time making us believe in it as a person. And having Bruce Willis was inspired, the only man who has ever made smug = sexy.
Leverett Butts said…
Agreed on all counts, Lydia

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