The Formula Is Broken

Congress of the Animals Comes from Where Stories Are Born

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Jim Woodring / Courtesy Fantagraphics Books

Joseph Campbell ruined storytelling for a generation. It's not his fault—Campbell was just trying to compare myths in order to discover common archetypes—but the crimes that have been committed in his name are unforgivable. Because of Campbell's work, the filmmaking industry now treats story as a kind of algebra, a foolproof fill-in-the-blanks system. And thanks to Hollywood's heavy reliance on Campbellian thought, novelists everywhere decided that storytelling is less of an art and more of a science. Based on Campbell's narrow-minded discoveries, they determined that every story is a hero's journey—that assumption is their first mistake—and certain goals have to be met in order to make that journey a satisfying one.

You can find the stink of Campbell's formula everywhere; it's contributed to the biggest flood of generic, pointless stories the world has ever known. Just about every best-selling author you can name has probably been influenced by Campbell, and every mainstream blockbuster film to come out in the last 20 years definitely owes him a screenwriting credit. The problem is that when you accept Campbell's ideas as concrete truth, you are adopting a flawed premise as the platform for your story.

Not every story needs to be a hero's journey. Not every quest needs to mimic a learning process. Hell, not every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. The fact that those assumptions are made for the aspiring author before she even starts writing is a crime against us all. Stories should be experiments that challenge all assumptions—even assumptions of stories.

A long time ago, 2010 Stranger Genius of Literature Jim Woodring worked in a factory in the heart of Campbell's empire; he created art for Saturday morning cartoons like Rubik the Amazing Cube and Mr. T for animation studio Ruby-Spears. All the comics he's made in the time since then have refuted Campbellian formulaic storytelling. His life's work is the story of a hapless cat-faced man (or woman, or neither, or both, but for simplicity's sake, and because Woodring occasionally does, we'll call him a "he") named Frank who lives in a dreamlike world called the Unifactor. Every new Frank story brings a new character into the Unifactor—a new pet for Frank, perhaps, or a moon-headed devil—and the expanding cast of characters interacts in increasingly complex ways.

Out of all Woodring's work, his latest book, Congress of the Animals, most closely resembles a Joseph Campbell–style story. In the opening pages, a deep-in-debt Frank finds himself working in a factory, shoving barrels full of crow parts into a grinding machine. Soon enough, he embarks on a journey, for the first time, outside the Unifactor. He voyages across stormy seas, explores mysterious caverns, visits with clitoris-faced men, is tempted by a powerful swordlike totem, and goes off, besotted, in search of an enormous Frank-shaped building.

Relevant sources that Campbell would catalog here include references to Arthurian legend, folk tales about John Henry, The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and probably dozens more. It would be possible for a Jungian critic to pull this book apart into dozens of unexciting pieces. But Woodring operates from an unconscious level, and these references aren't the slavish callbacks you've read everywhere else. Those familiar shapes and story "beats," to use a wretched Hollywood term, may resemble elements we already know, but in Animals they feel different—in part because they're drawn in Woodring's fastidious woodcut style, a dense blanket of ink thrown over Frank's world informing us that everything we see comes from Woodring's singular mind.

Expectations are foiled at every turn precisely because Woodring is digging deep into the rich soil of his own imagination; he's pulling these stories up from the same place that myths and legends come from, and in that way, his books have the weird weight and unmistakable freshness of myth. These are stories that haven't been told before, but they come from the place where stories are born, so they're instantly recognizable to everyone. And because they live in the prelinguistic language of cartoons, almost anyone on the planet can look at a page and immediately understand what is happening. Woodring is too gentle and polite a human being to personally call for a revolution against the lazy stories we tell each other, but every panel of his comics is a refutation of the dumbed-down story mathematics assaulting us every day, and a celebration of the dark caverns of the brain where our stories come from in the first place. recommended


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Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In 1
Campbell was a scholar that created an approach to literature that was used to find meaning in life, which was his goal. Yes, Hollywood aped his approach, but not in a way to find meaning, but to make money. Placing Campbell's (& Jung's) ideas as a counterpoint to an artist who operates on an "unconscious level" is, quite simply, ludicrous. You write as someone who has only read criticisms of Citizen Kane but has never seen the film itself. I think, judging from my own readings of both Campbell & Jung, that they'd really enjoy his work and be able to find meaning in it. I know I do.

And really, calling 'beats' a "wretched Hollywood term" is like dismissing a songwriter who uses the term "chord progression." It's a basic technical term used in the industry, and existed long before Hollywood ever showed up. That sort of snarking is beneath you, Paul.
Posted by Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In on June 29, 2011 at 7:30 PM · Report this
I think I'd meet you halfway with the idea of artists working on "an unconscious level." The unconscious as a source of artistic ideas has a long history and has been called many names before "unconscious." Robert Louis Stevenson called it "the little people" who created his stories, the Greeks called it "the muses," and David Lynch, tipping his hat to physics, calls it "the unified field." A mistake is to think of it as a realm of pure chaos; the subconscious appreciates structures, but just may be hesitant to reveal them all at once, which is where subtext comes from. And the conscious mind, that great organizer, works best in creating art when it works in cooperation with the subconscious. And i believe the unconscious, when it's healthy, respects and wants to please the conscious mind. The Oulipians were a great example of how consciously predicated forms resulted in surprising works that were, it could be argued, examples of the subconscious working within the confines created by the conscious mind. The point isn't to avoid "beats" and the heroic journey altogether, but to see if one might innovate within such constraints. And that, my friend, is what I call artistic freedom.
Posted by Ryan Boudinot on June 29, 2011 at 10:35 PM · Report this
"The point" *can* be to avoid the heroic journey altogether. Why not? Even JK Rowling lamented that, as a writer, she will be forever stuck with the miasma of "bloody Harry Potter." The word "subconscious" is not synonymous with "unconscious." Either way, Jungians and others describe it not as pure chaos, but as a symbolic language for the human experience. This can be overtly tempered or not with the conventions of storytelling. Jim Woodring does an amazing job of leaving vis. narratives more open-ended.
Posted by Stacey on June 29, 2011 at 11:32 PM · Report this
"The problem is that when you accept Campbell's ideas as concrete truth, you are adopting a flawed premise as the platform for your story.
Not every story needs to be a hero's journey. Not every quest needs to mimic a learning process."
This is the flawed premise of your post. A generalization that explains the tendency of successful storytelling doesn't necessitate that all storytelling has to be such. Conversely, just because people tend to follow the generalization that Campbell lays out doesn't mean they are slavish followers of his thought, or even that they read him at all.
Posted by SooperMexican on June 30, 2011 at 12:43 PM · Report this
Puty 5
Woodring's wordless stuff is weird and idiosyncratic, all risky qualities in storytelling, but Congress Of The Animals is engaging anyway. I read it yesterday, now I'm going to read it again.

Has anyone seen the huge pen? Is it beautiful?
Posted by Puty on July 2, 2011 at 11:22 PM · Report this
what_now 6
@5 The huge pen (aka Nibbus Maximus) in action:…
Posted by what_now on July 3, 2011 at 1:12 PM · Report this
Post_Mortem 7
I find Woodring's art and story-telling unremarkable in the realm of underground/punk/indie/mini/alt comix. His layouts would fit a newspaper, and offer nothing to a fan of the medium as its own form. Though I know it's not always true, I feel like most Woodring fans lack exposure to the full potential of comics. Thus, it's funny, reading a piece which proclaims the man to be something of a beacon in creative storytelling.
Posted by Post_Mortem on July 3, 2011 at 2:35 PM · Report this
Post_Mortem 8
@7 with the obvious caveat that I haven't read everything he's done for lack of interest.
Posted by Post_Mortem on July 3, 2011 at 2:43 PM · Report this
CBSeattle 9
Paul. It looks like your readers are not quite on the same page with you and I have to agree. Campbell didn't come up with the idea of the hero story and it was popularized as a theme long before him (as I'm sure you know). Stories of course can be told in less conventional ways but often still have an underlying journey and hero - whether that be anti-hero or obtuse journey. You should check out Vladimir Propp 1921 Russian Folktale structures for a pre-Campbell model.

I think Star Wars was the cause of the hero story success in Hollywood. It was a poorly acted movie with no star talent (at the time) that was a legendary success. Hollywood rarely tries to do anything new and so they have been trying to remake Star Wars ever since. Campbell was often mentioned in the same sentence as Star Wars by the critics.
Posted by CBSeattle on July 3, 2011 at 2:58 PM · Report this
@3: Ah yes, the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad life of rags-to-disgustingly-rich.

If she laments the 'Harry Potter', then why doesn't she just stop owning any part of the property altogether and divorce herself from the billions it rakes in?
Posted by Drew2u on July 3, 2011 at 3:07 PM · Report this
Thank you, Paul. I've been carrying this torch for a very long time. Even more than Campbell, though, a fella named Christopher Vogler reduced Campbell to a formula for Hollywood (Cambell's life work in 300 pages!). Lucas didn't do us or Campbell any favors, either, waving Campbell around to sell "Star Wars" as a universal myth, rather than mere contrived sci fi.

It's comforting to know there are others who recognize the folly of the hero's journey. I walk out of too many movies because of what Vogler has done to them.
Posted by Meat Weapon on July 3, 2011 at 5:45 PM · Report this
samktg 12
@9, Hell, you can go back another few decades to Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (first published in 1890), and look to that as a sort of model for Propp and Campbell, as well as Jung.
Posted by samktg on July 3, 2011 at 5:58 PM · Report this
sirkowski 13
It should be noted that George Lucas discovered Campbell AFTER the success of the first Star Wars and used it as a justification for the adult fandom of what was really a Flash Gordon remake. The story of him using Campbell as a template for A New Hope is a lie spread by Lucas that has been debunked.
Posted by sirkowski on July 3, 2011 at 7:17 PM · Report this
tunanator 14
Actually Campbell repeatedly said that we need modern myths to replace the old, worn-out ones.

The film industry can't be expected to fill that gap. Capitalism is the myth they're into. You feed the industry with your dollars, the industry will keep feeding you with scheiss.

The industry has made it really, really easy to just keep doing their thing. But lOTs of people nowadays have been enabled to do different things. They are seeking your funding. You can keep choosing to do the easy thing, or seek them out. Your call.
Posted by tunanator on July 3, 2011 at 8:20 PM · Report this
Christ, Paul, what an asshole you're being here.

You say, "Just about every best-selling author you can name has probably been influenced by Campbell".

Let me re-format that statement for you:

Just about every best-fucking-selling author you can name has probably been influenced by Campbell...

Jesus fucking christ, Paul, Joe wasn't scribbling about the edgy, alternative storytelling that was wiped out under two millenia of populist consumption. He wrote about the stuff that's still in print. The stuff everyone likes. The blockbusters. The bestsellers.

It's not Campbell's fault that the things people like in their fictions aren't the off-center weirdo crap that you like. No, that's your fault, as a critic, for failing to make the unconventional popular.

I mean, that is what you're bitching about here, isn't it? That the stuff only a few people like isn't what most people like?

Do you honestly fail to see how that makes you an asshole?
Posted by robotslave on July 3, 2011 at 9:45 PM · Report this
@7: Yeah, yeah. You liked indie comics before it was cool. I bet you have all of their comics on vinyl.
Posted by Joe Glibmoron on July 4, 2011 at 12:57 AM · Report this
@16: I agree that it really is shitty to argue comics using stuff that no-one will ever read again, but I'm pretty sure that Cerebus, Zot!, Love and Rockets, etc, THB, Dishman, Maus, and so on, Concrete, and even Ed the Happy Clown all managed to at least outline most of the tropes Joe Campbell spelled out.

Woodring is bloody amazing, but he's the kind of comics artist you hang on your wall, not the kind you read with your kids.
Posted by robotslave on July 4, 2011 at 1:26 AM · Report this
footnote: your fairly mature and very well-raised kids, of course.
Posted by robotslave on July 4, 2011 at 1:37 AM · Report this
Post_Mortem 19
@16 actually, all my records melted in a fire, and I gave the majority of my comics collection away so other people would read it. Anyway, while there's no reason to avoid comparing Woodring to his contemporaries across his career, we're not exactly starving for innovative material in comics today. Nevermind there's more to the craft than innovation.

@15 survival (and success) of literary work is more capricious than all that.

@Paul, you wrote, "Stories should be experiments that challenge all assumptions—even assumptions of stories," but I missed the justification for this bold and interesting claim. You must have an argument for it. If you don't want to share it now, perhaps in another slog entry somewhere down the line.
Posted by Post_Mortem on July 4, 2011 at 1:52 AM · Report this
@19: I am not suggesting that there is a formula that Campbell discovered that predicts the survival of narrative work.

I am instead suggesting that he described elements common to the majority of narrative work that didn't perish.

I'd weigh in with my opinion of those described elements, but that would just grant a diversion to those who would prefer not to focus on why Paul is being an asshole.
Posted by robotslave on July 4, 2011 at 2:01 AM · Report this
@ 1, since knowing nothing about campbell from your post i gather its something like blaming stanislavski for method-acting?

also, what i gather from paul constant piece campbells work is more or less an expansion on aristotles dramatica?
Posted by dutchie on July 4, 2011 at 3:31 AM · Report this
Sir Vic 22
@9 & @11 You're right that Lucas glommed onto Campbell's "Hero Narrative" theme because Star Wars was so simplistic that adding a high-brow element to it added some adult appeal. The true philosophical inspiration, if any, came from early Carlos Castaneda "Don Juan" writings. There you will find Yoda & the Force.

Too many people take a method of analysis, like Campbell's hero stuff or even Marxism, and use it as a prescription for creation. True art isn't derived from analysis but from inspiration.
Posted by Sir Vic on July 4, 2011 at 6:40 AM · Report this
"Joseph Campbell ruined storytelling for a generation. It's not his fault...but the crimes that have been committed in his name are unforgivable."

Campbell: literature's Sublime.
Posted by PEM on July 4, 2011 at 6:51 AM · Report this
CharlesF 24
Paul, I generally agree with you. However ultimately I agree with @15 more.

Campbell didn't "reduce it to a science". He merely pointed out that story popularity IS a science, just as others have pointed out that picking up chicks is a science, and designing clothes that sell is a science.

If you dislike these conclusions, fine, I dislike them too--but they are facts of the universe and they will not be changed. Humans are humans. Our brains do not automatically reinvent themselves. And if everyone loved your hipster comic book, then it would be so hipster anymore would it?

Bah, I'm off to
Posted by CharlesF on July 4, 2011 at 12:01 PM · Report this
No offense, Paul, but you obviously don't know a thing about Joseph Campbell. Of his dozens of books, I get the sense you've maybe skimmed one. The idea the Campbell believed that all stories do, should, or can conform to a single basic structure is ridiculous. I'll go no farther than to point out his first published work is a commentary on Finnegans Wake - the first such commentary to be written, incedentally - and that is a book that not only lacks a beginning, middle, and end, it has no characters.

Campbell was a great scholar and a brilliant thinker, and it's very annoying to see him criticized as simplistic by people who don't know his ideas in the least. Most Campbell fans seem to base their opinions on his work on Follow Your Bliss bumper stickers.
Posted by Gendun on July 4, 2011 at 3:31 PM · Report this
Post_Mortem 26
@25, granted it seems unfair to criticize Campbell's own view as 'narrow', but if Paul's criticism is of those fans who are only vaguely familiar with the academic's work, is it not fair to call them to task? If one is attacking their understanding of or approach to storytelling rather than their understanding of Campbell's work, how well acquainted with his oeuvre should one be?
Posted by Post_Mortem on July 4, 2011 at 8:32 PM · Report this
Because the opening sentence blames Campbell, not the people who used his work.

It's like saying that Shakespeare ruined storytelling because so much of his work has been stolen and dumbed down to make other works. Or that Shakespeare is to blame for boy-meets-girl happy ending love stories - it reduces Shakespeare and ignores a significant amount of his work (the parts that don't conveniently fit the rant.)

If Campbell had set out to create a formula for writing best-selling fiction that had been adopted and changed the whole field, maybe you could blame him. But it's bizarre to blame him for noticing trends and commenting on them.
Posted by Lymis on July 5, 2011 at 5:37 AM · Report this
Wesley K. Andrews 28
I recently finished "Hero With a Thousand Faces," the only Campbell I've read and (I think) the work being referenced here. It does not outline a prescription for storytelling. It identifies archetypes and themes that cross cultures and epochs in a search for something essentially human. It's much closer to a unified theory of religions than a "how-to" writer's guide.

I see a lot of sense in Constant's first paragraph, but he loses me in the second. There is no "Campbell's Formula," there is only the formula that has been superficially derived from his writing.
Posted by Wesley K. Andrews on July 5, 2011 at 12:05 PM · Report this

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