by John Ostrander
Despite my thirty odd (sometimes very odd) years as a professional writer in comics, I wouldn’t describe myself first and foremost as a writer. I consider myself primarily a storyteller. You don’t have to be a writer to be a storyteller; in fact, all of us are storytellers. Phillip Wilson, the former rector at the church I attended when I lived in New Jersey, used to describe story as the atoms of our social interactions.
Think of how we use storytelling every day – all of us. When someone asks you how your day has been, you don’t tell them each and every thing you’ve done (hopefully). You select this moment, that moment, and arrange it some sort of sequence. That’s a story. We use story to relay experience to one another.
Denny O’Neil and I were once talking about a particular story on which I was working (Batman: Seduction of the Gun to be specific) and he told me that in comics you can make any point that you want but first you have to tell a story. That’s what gives you the right to make your point. If you want to preach, get a pulpit.
Speaking of preaching – the Bible, itself a fascinating collection of stories, talks about the Great Storyteller, Jesus, this way. Matt 13: 34 “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (See? Even an agnostic can cite scripture to his purpose.) What is a parable but another form of story?
Taking the verse at face value, why did Jesus speak to them only in parables? Well, the author of Matthew claims it was to fulfill a prophecy but, simply, it was a way to communicate to the masses in a way that would be remembered. It also invites the listener to participate. They have to listen to the story and filter it through their own experiences. It becomes the listener’s story as well as the storyteller’s story.
The lessons that Jesus taught were also less specific and, I think, more applicable to a wider set of circumstances. His Dad had them etched in tablets of stone; very clear and very precise. (Although there’s a lot of later clarification; “Thou shalt not kill” seems pretty clear but evidently you can read between the lines and find exceptions: except in time of war, or self-defense, or a state approved execution and so on and so forth.) The Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example: One Son demands his inheritance and goes off on a bender and blows it while the other son stays at home and does all that is helpful and good for the family. Wastrel finally heads home and Daddy throws a big party for him which he didn’t do for the son who played it straight.
What the hell? How’s that fair?
Again, there’s lot of interps about what Jesus meant with that story but none come from JC himself. Different “authorities” will tell you the official line but, so far as I’m concerned, it’s a story and you’re free to decide for yourself what it means. If you decide it means, “Hey, who said life was fair?” then I think you’re perfectly justified.
That’s the point. There is a bond between storyteller and audience, a one on one situation. We each bring who we are to the equation and what you bring is as important to the story as my contribution.
Like life, story is experienced differently by each one of us and that’s what makes it endlessly fascinating.