I have a love-hate relationship with rebel narratives.
I mean, I get the appeal. When you live in mass societies that are grounded in structural inequality, there’s something clean, something uplifting about imagining slicing through the bullshit and cutting out the cancer.
There’s something uplifting in the idea that a person can, through direct, heroic action bring about lasting mass-scale change.
But, of course, there’s the problem of all the death and violence. Historical rebels generally caused a fair bit of mayhem before they got to the business of making something better than what came before. A happy few actually ever got to the “making something better” part. Most didn’t, either because they lost, their vision of better was monstrous or they never expected to win.
Generally, when we write rebel narratives in fiction, we cheat. We create an authority so monstrous that rebellion is the only reasonable course. When you’re fighting space Nazis, whether it’s Cardies or the Empire, it’s pretty easy to root for the scrappy underdog rebels.
Of course the down-side of using these sorts of narratives is that they provide an ideological tabula rasa, which is itself rather dangerous. But that’s something of an aside. The core dilemma is rather that even rebels who have the best of intentions and the fortitude to bring those intentions about, may need to do some terrible things in order to dislodge the same corrupt power structures that birthed them in the first place.
Some media have addressed this more directly than others; Deep Space Nine pulled few punches in the characterization of Major Kira, especially in early episodes, as she struggles with the transition from rebel to authority. This is one of several reasons it remains probably the greatest Trek TV series. It’s also one of only a handful of shows to deal with revolution directly while being situated specifically after the revolution ends. Most media prefer to roll credits on the heroes standing amid the ruin of the old, without having to roll up their sleeves and get to work on creating something new.
On the other hand, Star Wars was so desperate to avoid removing the rebel mantel from its heroes, that it created a rather convoluted political situation, which was not (at least within the bounds of the film) very clearly elucidated, just so that it could call Leia’s faction, “The Resistance.” And Les Miserables deliberately chooses a revolution that died in its crib in order to create pure heroes of truth and liberty to be sacrificed upon the altar of Javert’s moral absolutism.
This may be why I ultimately like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, despite it’s so very overt 1990s comic book flaws.
Hegel and the Invisibles
Before I get into the meat of what The Invisibles did differently from most rebel narratives a little segue into Hegelian dialectics.
Hegel saw dialectical processes as underpinning reality. Our understanding of the real came from the sublimation of dualistic opposites as they came into contact, and in the process of resolving those conflicts led to the synthesis of something different.
Ultimately Hegel didn’t see this as a destructive process; opposites transformed at contact rather than annihilating.
Morrison really ran with this in The Invisibles. At the inception of the book, he presents us with a pretty standard rebel group: King Mob’s Invisibles cell is a small rag-tag group of talented weirdos who must stand up against a vast network of established, faceless authority.But then he yanks the rug out from underneath the readers as it becomes increasingly likely that either the Invisibles and the Outer Church are one and the same, take orders from the same thing or are, at the very least, related phenomena.
King Mob’s journey is of particular note since he transitions from a destructive rebel to ultimately a figure of the establishment, and a builder-of-things; and in the process of that transition from one opposite to another helps complete the ritual needed to birth something new out of Humanity.
King Mob’s dialectical character arc also helps to draw an underline under another thing about rebellion that The Invisibles obsessed over: the idea of rebel as identity.
The changeability of the concept of self is a running theme throughout the entirety of The Invisibles. King Mob goes from violent force of destruction, to media mogul. Jack Frost transforms from a petty delinquent to a homeless vagrant to a figure of nearly religious salvation. Ragged Robin’s mutating back-story, and the transition of Lord Fanny both also try to get at the idea of “self” being a floating point derived more from accumulated experience than a fixed concept. Even the unfortunately plotted character arc of Boy, one of the most rightfully criticized parts of The Invisibles tries to make the same argument: we are not ever who we think we are, because we are always in the process of becoming something else.
The Rebel Archetype
A rebel identity is very much a personal identity. It’s part of what makes rebel stories attractive; they’re always about the personality of the rebel, why this person, in this place must take up a dangerous task.
Specifically, rebel identities are reactionary identities. They are formed in opposition to some other thing. Take away the Authority and the Rebel collapses.
So what do we do with a problem of the Rebel? There’s a few good reasons for us to retain rebel narratives in some manner. First: they make for entertaining stories. If we are story-tellers, this is important. The Rebel is an archetypical construct, and one which speaks particularly strongly to people in mass societies. After all, who hasn’t felt dissatisfaction with the state of their culture in some way or other?
Second, the societies we live in aren’t perfect, and if we’re being socially responsible artists, fostering opposition to Authority for authority’s sake is important. There are plenty of people in the world who will tell you to obey because The Rules Are Sacrosanct. Artists should push back against that, and the Rebel is a useful tool to do so.
Perhaps the honesty of Deep Space Nine is a good direction to go. Perhaps we should spend more effort talking about what world rebellion creates, rather than just focusing on the simple heroics of a small band of individuals struggling against faceless space Nazis.
Situating rebellion within a dialectical framework was a powerful tool for deconstructing the archetype, and while Morrison got many things wrong with The Invisibles, he did that one thing very well. But deconstruction in literature without action to create a synthesis afterward is the road to Batman v. Superman and that’s no good for media or for those who over-think media for fun and profit.
So my plea to those of us who write rebel stories, and for those of us who consume them is ultimately to be more thoughtful, less certain. Partly this can be done by where we situate our narratives. Giving rebel heroes feet of clay is fine from a deconstructive standpoint, and is probably more honest-to-life than the heroics of Luke Skywalker and co. But if our only tool for assessing rebellion in literature is either to present them as heroic martyrs on one hand, or the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss on the other, we’re missing the final step of the dialectic.
Instead, perhaps, we should concentrate on the duality of the vision of the rebel, what they wish to build, and the consequence of rebellion. Perhaps it’s time for the Rebel to become a figure of nuance rather than absolutes. Perhaps we need to break down the archetype of the Rebel, an ultimately reactionary character and replace them with something Revolutionary, a person with a vision to transform the world, not just to oppose how it is.