Four Colors to Infinity: Towards a New Skeptic
In the real world, a skeptic is someone who, faced with a lack of convincing evidence, does not believe in the existence of the supernatural. She is, in short, someone who believes the evidence of her own eyes, and if tasked to explain the presence of vampires, unicorns or Jehovah, says “show me”. In the world of fiction, though, a skeptic is, like as not, someone who doesn’t believe in something despite the evidence of her own eyes; she is shown, and cannot explain, and instead chooses to close her eyes. For a real skeptic, the scientific method is what liberates and frees from blindness; for a fictional skeptic, it is the cause of blindness. Of all fiction’s tropes, this may be the most curious: a character archetype’s standard portrayal being almost the exact opposite of what it actually is.
Let’s clarify, though: what we’re talking about here is the character of a skeptic in the framework of a world routinely suffused with the fantastic. It’s a formulation that’s both common and bewildering. Many writers seem to believe that skepticism is a sort of ingrained ideology, like spiritualism — less an approach to natural phenomena than a kind of character trait. So we find, in stories where it is demonstrably shown that supernatural creatures and paraphysical occurrences really do exist, and on a semi-regular basis at that, that it still seems necessary to the story to include a character whose skepticism would only make sense in our universe. In the world you and I live in, it is perfectly intelligent to maintain a skeptical attitude towards, say, vampires; in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they appear with nightly regularity, it would be insane to do so. In other words, the very quality that makes a skeptic in our world makes skepticism in a ghost-haunted world a completely perplexing reaction.
The best-known manifestation of what I call the “Stupid Skeptic” is represented in the photo above: poor Dana Scully from The X-Files, whose status as an intelligent human being was forever compromised by writers who insisted on her maintaining an ever-skeptical reaction despite being constantly exposed to phenomena which are clearly supernatural in origin. Her position made no sense by the fourth episode of The X-Files; by the fourth season it was downright ridiculous. TV Tropes, despite its narrow focus and over-reliance on things like fan fiction and anime, is particularly clever at separating skeins of stereotype and shorthand from the tapestry of fiction; they call this particular development “Arbitrary Skepticism“, and refers to Scully as a “Straw Skeptic“. But while it’s provided us with the paradigmatic example of the form, television isn’t the greatest offender.
Stupid skepticism is endemic to the world of superhero comics. Although it hasn’t made any sense since around 1963, when even Stan Lee’s more ‘realistic’ fictional universe contained all sorts of miracles and wonders revealing themselves before the public on a regular basis, it’s been endlessly riffed on, repeated, and ingrained into readers that the ordinary citizens of the Marvel and DC universes are a bunch of Carl Sagans. Every citizen of Marvel’s New York has seen the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man on a daily basis, and Galactus at least two or three times; and yet they don’t believe Thor or Hercules are actual gods. We are assured that many of Gotham City’s residents believe that Batman is some sort of urban legend, which their neighbors in Metropolis must find a bit bewildering. Even in books like Marvels, we are presented with a public that, despite living in a world where they can take package tours to Atlantis and where a country whose ruler builds endless robotic duplicates of himself gets a vote in the United Nations, is given to golly-whiz flip-outs at even the briefest encounters with super-heroes. Even the central metaphor of mindless bigotry and prejudice that drives the X-Men makes no sense in context: our world, one imagines, would find homophobia less offensive if gay people could shoot laser from their eyes, kill people with their thoughts, or knock jet planes out of the sky with a gesture.
It’s easy to see why the trope has survived into the 21st century; it’s easier to draw a jaw-dropped yo-yo saying “What th’ — ” and pointing towards the sky than it is to invent an alternate sociology that accounts for a world full of miracles. But it’s also insulting, not just to the reader, but to the whole idea of skepticism. It’s time to come up with a new one; Dana Scully’s brain is a fun place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.