Apophenia MacGuffin

Posted by RazzaTazz (11939 posts) - - Show Bio

An Apophenia MacGuffin sounds like some sort of designer breakfast sandwich but its not.   In fact it isn’t anything.   It’s a combination of too unrelated words which I hope to give meaning to.   A MacGuffin is a plot device, usually poorly defined, and represents an item of concept which the main character and possibly the antagonist is seeking.   It is most common to see MacGuffins in the first half of a fictional work, but there are cases where the MacGuffin runs throughout as a sort of background device.   The Maltese Falcon could be said to be a MacGuffin (also a red herring – isn’t that confusing) and so could the Rabbit’s Foot in the most recent Mission Impossible movie.   In superhero movies the MacGuffin (in my opinion) is usually the source of their power.   The best example of this might be the first Iron Man movie.   Most of the first half of the movie is spent demonstrating the development of the armour even though the science of it is often poorly understood.   Most specifically the MacGuffin here would probably be the arc ray reactor (I hope I remembered that name right) as it is highly sought after in both movies though never really well defined.   In Batman Begins you could say that the MacGuffin is Bruce Wayne himself, his abilities are highly sought after both personally for him to define himself, and for Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan for destroying Gotham.  

If you can imagine a lot of other comic characters being made into movies then you can see how this plot device might be more pronounced.   Starman’s Cosmic Rod and Air Wave’s roller skates that allow him to skate on power lines (ok the second is not a very good example) are sort of poorly defined powerful items which the main characters spend a lot of time designing.   As I said before though, even something like Bruce Wayne’s abilities can be a MacGuffin.   My question though is this – should mental illness be one?   A lot of characters display some aspects of mental illness but we usually end up calling these characters the villains.   There are a couple of characters that I can think of where there mental illness sort of inspired them to be heroes.   One is Sentry in the Marvel Universe who suffered from severe depression.   I don’t really know as much about this character so maybe it is best to leave that to a Marvel expert.   The one I do know somewhat better is The Question/Rorschach (these are basically the same character, the Watchmen character was based on the Question.)

Apophenia is pretty mild as far as mental illnesses go, it basically just entails finding meaning in random pieces of information and tying them together.   In fact apophenia can be so mild that it is not necessarily associated with any psychoses or neuroses, and it may be the case that apophenia shows up in individuals who are completely healthy mentally (this might just be someone who believes in elaborate conspiracies like the moon landing hoax or whatever people about JFK’s assassination) but in more extreme examples it can in fact be more of a problem.   When your inability to perceive the world outside as more than a collection of expertly interwoven plots to take down the government, you or whatever else a plot could be used for, then you might say you have gone beyond what is considered healthy, and these people do exist.   One such character that exhibits more pronounced apophenia is The Question.   

 The Question has a sort of complicated publication history.   He was first a Charlton comics character, who was then bought by DC, who then let him be modified for the Watchmen, which inspired his appearances in Justice League Unlimited.   In certain cases it is implied that the Question began his crimefighting career because of his need to find all the answers to the questions.   Of course as it plays out, in order that the plot lines have some sense, his elaborate plots usually are accurate.   After all, if the Justice League showed up to bust down someone’s door and found a boy scout meeting, they might have some explaining to do.   The fact of the matter is though that apopheniacs are rarely correct.   Their minds are interpreting information is such a way that they are drawing all the wrong conclusions (this was hinted at in a couple of episodes of JLU, such as when The Question finds Baskin-Robbins 32 flavour) and this information is usually nearly useless.   It is like those people who say that there is a face carved into the surface of Mars by aliens to try and communicate with us, but on closer inspection it is just a bunch of rocks.   

In light of mental illness being as serious issue in modern society, they way they are represented in comics in comics almost always make them into a threat to society, which they are not (at least not in the sense of someone becoming a supervillain.)   In a few cases they are used as inspirations for heroes to be heroic.   But is mental illness therefore something to aspire to even if it is relatively minor?   Probably not.    


#1 Posted by SC (14630 posts) - - Show Bio

Amazing blog topic/subject. I would like to comment more comprehensively later on.  
I appreciate your knowledge and insight of all things trope lol (MacGuffin, best Mcdonalds Burger ever!) , I feel I should know more about the former Question, I know of him, but he sounds like he could be one of my potential favorite comic book characters. The Baskin-Robbins 32 flavor bit I have read in your other thread and such an instance/example would make me smile.  
I am still a bit bitter about how Marvel has depicted mental stress and illness with some of its more prominent characters in recent times. 

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#2 Posted by thehummingbird (3487 posts) - - Show Bio

hhhmmm...*ponders*.....well with first paragraph and the MacGuffin concept, this is a specific thing, but how do you feel about the proposal, that rather than Batman's abilities being the MacGuffin, it is the control desire for power over Gotham City itself? it seems to be the underlying plot through the whole series as well as the thing that fuels Bruce Wayne to continue fighting. Over all though very interesting another thing I was curious about would be when you are referring to the mental illness's and how they are comic related to the beginnings of heroes as well as villains, you are including different childhood traumas into this question (haha) as well into leading into heroism, or mainly just the diagnosis? this is just me trying to clarify my interpretation. The relation between the two words, you did an amazing job describing just before I post my full comments and thoughts I would like to clarify that I properly understood..^.^' Like I said overall I love the concept, and the Question in one o my favorite characters =)

#3 Posted by RazzaTazz (11939 posts) - - Show Bio
That the movies are about the control of Gotham is probably more accurate - good point.   
I guess I was mostly thinking about the diagonis, not the leading in factors, but that sort of exmplifies my point, is that mental illness is something awesome as long as you become super powered after.  No extra thought is given to the condition than "this character has this condition."
#4 Posted by SC (14630 posts) - - Show Bio
@RazzaTazz:  You feel more character based writing, and struggles could elevate stories into a whole new dimension? I sort of felt a similar way with Sentry and Wanda. Mental illness was used more as an excuse for behavior. Always quite vague as well, somehow Sentry's agoraphobia would morph into schizophrenia.
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#5 Posted by RazzaTazz (11939 posts) - - Show Bio
It would be interesting to actually show what negative aspects the mental condtion has.
#6 Posted by SC (14630 posts) - - Show Bio
@RazzaTazz said:
" @SC: It would be interesting to actually show what negative aspects the mental condtion has. "
I like Sentry's Agoraphobia. i mean its easier enough to apply in comics, the negatives, some more complicated and well thought out scenes would be nice, but the ones concentrating how it was hard for him to just be, out there. 
How do you personally view the hurdle of wishing to bring more of mental illnesses into comics when say maybe the amount of comic characters, percentages may not create quite a grounded take on mental illnesses at the same time?
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#7 Posted by RazzaTazz (11939 posts) - - Show Bio
As always I am not advocating quantity but rather quantity.  Comics are such a great medium, and they can convey messages a lot better than other ones in my opinion.  Just like I always think that females could be more accurately portrayed, comics seem to be wed to an almost 1970s understanding of mental illness. 
#8 Posted by SC (14630 posts) - - Show Bio
@RazzaTazz said:
" @SC: As always I am not advocating quantity but rather quantity.  Comics are such a great medium, and they can convey messages a lot better than other ones in my opinion.  Just like I always think that females could be more accurately portrayed, comics seem to be wed to an almost 1970s understanding of mental illness.  "
Nice perspective and wishes. I don't mind the discrepancy personally either. Not that I want quantity either, its just that some examples aren't that great, so subsequent attempts may fail and the pit of failed examples might need to be dug a bit deeper to contain, but fingers crossed right? That good examples and character (and old good examples) are given due attention by writer and fan alike. 
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#9 Posted by thehummingbird (3487 posts) - - Show Bio
Okay, so I understood correctly, I was not trying to question you and I am sorry for the late reply my computer did not send me a message..>=[ SO, I believe that mental illness in comics is not used to it's full advantage in the description of the character nor allowing the reader tto understand the character. If we could all be offered the insight into perhaps the basic flaws within both the heroes and villains minds, the readers could offer a much better interpretation. In my opinion almost every lead in a comic book has some kind of illness.....I totally agree about how girls are often mis-portrayed in comics, and lots of their personality such as the diagnosis are left over from stereotypes from the 70's. I would love to see a new age leading lady in the near future...
#10 Posted by Beast_in_the_Shadows (433 posts) - - Show Bio

Very good article.  There are certainly a number of heroes who benefit from having a certain mental disorder (mainly neurotic tho, rather than psychotic) Batman for example wouldn't be nearly as effective as he is were it not for his quasi O.C.D. tendencies or his irrational refusal to use guns at all cost.  How far less interesting would
Then again some characters are great because of how they combat these disorders and still come up on top.  One of my favorite examples is kinda hidden if you are familiar with the character, but it lies in Beat Boy.  He has a strong superman complex (not pertaining to Superman himself rather what Niche defined as the superman) and when he can't achieve this level of perfection (because no one could) he gets an inferiority complex.  Mistakes by other are excusable, as they are only human, but when he makes the same mistake it's not acceptable.  Yet in spite of this he eventually is able to pull things together an come out on top.  
This side of the character doesn't get shown much recently, but if you ever read his 2000 mini series it is obvious throughout.

#11 Posted by Mr.Q (1051 posts) - - Show Bio
it's a scary world out there, and the best place to hide is insanity.

as for the lack of more accurate depictions of mental illness, it does give a writer more room to "move' with the character. like say The Joker he is always insane and nothing more. other than the fact that he likes to kill people there is little to no examination to what (if anything) is wrong with him. but that seems to be part of his charm and his schtick. no one can figure out why he does what he does and there for don't know how to treat him. then again he could always be faking it. but I do agree it would be nice to delve into some of these character's inner workings like Spider-Man's guilt complex, The Batman's obsessive compulsive problems and survivor guilt over his parents or really anything that would make grown men and women put on brightly colored tights, masks and capes and create alternate identities so they can run around the streets at night and beat up gang bangers who dress like baseball playing clowns. I'll have to mull this over a little more and try and come up with a more competent answer. now, back to my my corner.  
#12 Posted by caesarsghost (578 posts) - - Show Bio

MacGuffins! Now you are playing in my field (narration and film theory). MacGuffins, most famously used by Hitchcock, are as you say, poorly defined objects or ideas that drive the protagonist/antagonist and keep the plot moving. In comics MacGuffins are interesting because in films, like North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is used to give Carey Grant and James Mason something to fight about while not giving it too much attention, thereby allowing Hitchcock to focus on the more personal, character-driven aspects of the narrative that in the end what interests us more than international espionage. So whenever a MacGuffin is  used, look for what the plot focuses on instead.

This is where comics come into play, by not focusing on Stargirl's rod or what exact chemicals gave Flash his powers or how GL's ring works comics focus more on the characters and their struggles. These empirical bits come into play every now and then but at best they give shady definition to these comic MacGuffins, and I would really not have it any other way.

In terms of Apophenia MacGuffins, it is an interesting question. Look at possibly the most well-known/interesting example of a possible serious mental disorder leading someone to be heroic- Batman. To some degree a split personality brought on by intense childhood trauma. I would not go so far as to call his mental state a MacGuffin, however, as it is clearly defined, delineated, serves as the motivating factor for his character rather than narrative plot devices. His trauma makes him a three dimensional character rather than a cipher, whereas something like Joker Venom is more of a MacGuffin, giving Joker and Batman an excuse to fight and interact with each other.


Whoa, can Joker be a MacGuffin? He actively resists clear definition...

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