by Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Superheroes are locked in a permanent state of adventure, so their stories never really end. For that reason, it might seem absurd to apply narrative structures like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” to superhero narratives, as there is little hope of “return,” and notions of “known” and “unknown” start to break down once the hero has been around for a while. But I’ll be damned if the first few beats of any Superhero origin doesn’t more or less follow the first few beats of the Hero’s Journey — especially if the “hero” undergoing the journey happens to be a supporting character. Such is the case in Sam Humphries and Eduardo Pansica’s Green Lanterns 29, which finds all of the original Green Lanterns (OGLs) refusing the call to adventure before ultimately deciding that they have no choice.
I’m far from a Campbell scholar, so I don’t want to get too into the weeds on the Hero’s Journey (though I am intrigued that the “supernatural aid” portion, which tends to include a little old man giving the hero amulets of protection, falls right around this point in Campell’s reckoning), but I am happy to draw parallels to one of the clearest heuristics of Campbell’s form: Star Wars. This issue opens more or less at Obi-Wan’s hut, as Jessica and Simon try to begin training the Lanterns in earnest. But, of course, they refuse the call, insisting that their duties to their homes preclude any such adventuring. It’s self-effacing when Luke does it, but comes across maybe a shade too harshly when repeated by each of the OGLs, making them seem less meek and more selfish.
Fortunately, Humphries immediately follows the refusal with the picture of the true horrors inaction might bring. For Luke, the damage inflicted by the Empire was personal, but for the OGLs, its enough to see Volthoom destroy a planet they have no connection to. Panisca sells the hell out of the moment, offering just a bit of misdirection in the form of a heroic image of the Lanterns rushing into battle before yanking the rug out from under us:
This is the image that finally brings the OGLs together (albeit for reasons that still often come off as selfish), finally putting them in a position to actually do something about Volthoom. Jessica and Simon finally have their team, putting them all in position to journey even further into the unknown together. It’s the rousing part of any Hero’s Journey, and Humphries and Pansica clearly have that form firm enough in hand that it should be truly thrilling.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
Reminder: The Hero’s Journey, as we understand it, was created by hack executives trying to find a magical formula to make Star Wars level successes. It is ultimately an interpretation of George Lucas’ interpretation of Campbell’s work
Reminder: Campbell’s book is not supposed to be a magical structure that makes things great. It is simply an examination of recurring elements that made up myth. It is not meant to be prescriptive
Reminder: Even the very myths that Campbell was examining didn’t follow the Hero’s Jouney. Campbell assembled his monomyth out of recurring features, but no myth felt the need to have all elements.
Reminder: George Lucas used the Hero’s Journey as a way to tell a very simple story, as he realised he required something simple and basic to give the then innovative parts of the movie the space to work
Reminder: There are so many better explanations for Star Wars success, including the imaginative worlds, the innovative special effects, the Vietnam themes and Marcia Lucas saving the movie in the editing bay
Reminder: The generally accepted best Star Wars movie did not use the Hero’s Journey
Reminder: The Refusal of the Call, when used rote as part of the Hero’s Journey, does not promote propulsive storytelling, and instead is the essence of a meaningless choice, the exact sort of choice that is anti drama
Reminder: A New Hope has a duration of 2 hours 5 minutes. The Refusal of the Call scene, that begins when Luke realises that the Stormtroopers attacked the Sandcrawler and ends with Luke’s expression as he look at his burnt out homestead, lasts 59 seconds. The Refusal of the Call is insignificant.
Reminder: The focus on the Refusal of the Call specifically and the Hero’s Journey generally, instead of structuring stories according to the principles of good drama and the specific needs of the story, is one of the biggest problems in narrative art
I’m pretty sure I have screamed about the Refusal of the Call in these comments long before I screamed about Waid. Certainly before Rebirth. Why can’t the world come together and finally let the fucking thing die
I’m definitely done with the refusal of the call, but more because it’s overdone than because of anything you list. Indeed, I’d argue that it’s the opposite of meaningless choice. What better way to demonstrate that your hero isn’t the type to go running off on strange adventures (making them modest, pragmatic, and a heck of a lot more relatable to an audience of non-heroes) than to show them explicitly choosing not to go running off on strange adventures. Their choice is rendered moot as far as the plot goes, but it demonstrates a great deal about who this character is and how they see themselves.
Again, I think writers’ obsession with telling stories about reluctant heroes is a little tired, but I don’t think the refusal of the call is inherently lacking in drama. Indeed, there’s nothing Luke wanted more than to ride off and be a pilot with his friends, but his refusal of Obi-Wan’s initial offer to do so speaks to his sense of duty and familial obligation. He may complain about needing to stay for another season, but he’s not going to abandon his uncle in a time of need. We understand his character differently without that refusal, and like him more for it. Can you imagine liking Luke if he had just said “fuck my aunt and uncle” at his first opportunity?
Except you can dramatise the reluctance by the method you do the Crossing of the Threshold.
Because the Refusal of the Call is always a meaningless decision, as it is always followed by the Crossing of the Threshold. It is a decision that is not supposed to matter. There is never any real consequence to refusing the call, because the Hero’s Journey explicitely dictates that this moment is bullshit. Because the choice to refuse the call is a false choice. No matter what you choose, you’ll cross the threshold by page 27.
We can discuss how Luke’s choice to run away from the sandcrawler speaks to his character, but there are other ways of doing it. And more importantly, in that minute of screentime, there are literally no meaningful events. Uncle Owen and AUnt Beru die, but this in no way pays off. There is no meaning, as it in no way informs the rest of the movie. Luke already hated the Empire, and his interactions with the Empire generally involve Luke’s more benevolent qualities (he is fighting to save lives, not get revenge, generally. Very rarely would you attribute any action he does to his aunt and uncle’s deaths, instead of the danger posed to Leia or the Rebellion). There is no moment that you can point to and say that is the payoff to Luke’s aunt and uncle dying. The entire Refusal of the Call section exists solely to explain why he changed his mind on refusing the call.
There are so many different ways you could explore that minute. For example, a holomessage could create a more complex emotional exploration, where Luke has to reconcile his conflicting sides. It isn’t that you have Luke just abandon his previous life, but have him come to the conclusion that helping Obi-Wan is more important, and show how despite that conclusion he struggles with the fact that it comes at the cost of abandoning his aunt and uncle.
Not only would this present a more emotionally complex story than a binary choice between adventure and duty, Luke choosing to leave would also move the story forward. Meanwhile, Luke abandoning Obi-Wan to go back to the moisture farm puts the story, for 59 seconds, in reverse.
And honestly, Star Wars is a really bad example specifically because it doesn’t obsess with the Refusal of the Call (as I said, 59 seconds). So many other Hero’s Journey’s don’t, giving far too much time with the story stalled as part of the hero’s ‘reluctance’, waiting for the moment we leave the section and the story starts again. Oh, there will be something expendable destroyed, but nothing that actually matters. Only something whose’s sole narrative purpose it to motivate the characters to get off their arses and move forward in the story. I mean, you described how, in this issue of Green Lanterns, a planet they had no connection to died. So the fact that the planet is gone isn’t going to matter.
If you are going to actually do a Refusal of the Call, actually enact a cost that will be felt throughout the narrative. A punishment that the character will have to suffer every single scene, for hearing the Call and ignoring it. And not something in the background, forgotten. Something constantly dramatised.Something intrinsic to the story being tols. Cut off the hero’s hand or something, so they must constantly struggle with their new disability as punishment. Make it truly matter.
But killing meaningless side characters or nameless locations that instantly get forgotten just proves how empty and meaningless the Refusal of the Call is. It doesn’t serve the greater story, just exists as its own mastabatory sequence that ultiamately has neglegible impact on the narrative. The Refusal of the Call just smothers storytelling, and exists solely because some hack executive came up with the Hero’s Jouney as part of Hollywood’s quixotic quest to find some magic formula to make a masterpiece that doesn’t involve putting in the hard work to making a great movie. Because it is much easier to treat story structure as mad libs than actually do the hard work.
Can you think of any Refusal of the Call sections that are as powerful as the ‘standing in a circle’ scene from Guardians of the Galaxy? Both explore all the reasons why the characters don’t want to follow the Call, deepening the characters. But there is a reason why that scene from Guardians is one of the best scenes in recent memory, and so many Refusals of the all are so forgettable
To put it in a simple way, if your story isn’t about refusing the Call, why are they refusing the call?
And if your story is about an adventure, why aren’t they on the adventure?
Because the story isn’t about the adventure; it’s about characters growing through a journey into the unknown. And one of the simplest ways of demonstrating that change is making the character reluctant to even go on the adventure in the first place. Or, if you like: the story isn’t about an adventure, but about a character who reluctantly goes on an adventure. The refusal isn’t about advancing the plot, but about demonstrating who the character is. It demonstrates what they want (or, at least, what they think is right), even if they don’t get it. That circumstances force them to do something they normally wouldn’t (in spite of their decisions) is the very essence of drama.
‘It’s about characters growing through a journey into the unknown’
‘About a character who reluctantly goes on an adventure’
Or, to rephrase both of these statements, it is about what happens to a character after they Answer the Call. Or, to use reductive phrasing that only implies the character-centric stuff to create a catchy line, the story is about the adventure. Regardless of how we phrase it, we can agree on one thing. It certainly isn’t about Refusing the Call. Which is why I asked that first question. If your story isn’t about Refusing the Call, why are they refusing the call?
Because here is the thing. Yeah, Refusal of the Call helps show character. But just because it is A method of doing things doewsn’t make it the only method, or even a good method. And the problem with the Refusal of the Call is that it is a bad method. Every scene in a story should serve at least two purposes. AT LEAST. Why can’t we show reluctance AND have a propulsive plot.
There are a million ways to do this. We could address it through the Answering of the Call section, where the whole point is that the Answering of the Call section is designed specifically to highlight the character’s reluctance and the scope of the circumstances required to make the reluctant character answer (example: Instead of Luke finding the holo of Leia saying ‘Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope’, we could have the Empire arrive to do a search for some droids. Luke willingly buckles to their authority, especially after Uncle Owen reminds Luke that if he does anything, the whole family will pay the cost. From here, have things go wrong to whatever degree is necessary to break Luke out of his reluctance. This is what Guardians of the Galaxy does with Rocket, he is forced to confront the fact that despite his reluctance, the only people he cares about are going to put their lives on the line, and that’s enough to make him answer)
We could address this through having the character forced to Answer the Call, and their very reluctance and wish not to be there as one of the dramatic complications that makes the adventure more difficult (Luke was never planning to take Obi-Wan further than Mos Eisley. But the spy’s actions force Luke to board the Falcon, and his wish to get home leads him to try and avoid conflict, which instead only makes things harder. Rey from Force Awakens also fits here, though other than the lightsaber scene, there is not enough scenes of reluctance. My idea of chopping off someone’s hand in response to Refusing the Call, so they constantly struggle with the consequences also kind of fits this)
The difference with these is that not only does it demonstrate who the character is, what they want etc, it also does a much better job at forcing these characters to do something they normally wouldn’t do. You are right that that is the essence of drama, but that has always been my point. Having the character have to overcome these issues in the course of the story is much more dramatic than having them Refuse the Call, walk away, and come back a couple of minutes later with that issue now gone.
Because honestly, that is the real problem. Refusal of the Call is so vestigial and meaningless, everything it brings up is resolved shortly after it happens, when the character Answers the Call instead. A New Hope is a story about a kid who is alone and purposeless, finding purpose as part off a greater whole. Does Luke really need to have an arc about balancing his own needs with the needs of his family? Especially an arc that is resolved long before the Death Star by having the family killed.
So yeah, if the very essence of drama is the wants and the needs coming into conflict (and it is), let’s throw out the Refusal of the Call. Let’s show the ways that the character’s reluctance (their wants) create dramatic obstacles that make the adventure harder (their needs), instead of dealing with all of that stuff early in a crappy Refusal of the Call section and have that never meaningfully come up again
Today, I stumbled across Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, something he created, based on the Hero’s Journey. This is what Dan Harmon uses to make Community and Rick and Morty, two of the best TV Shows and sensational examples of the power of strong dramatic structures. It goes
– YOU: A character in a zone of comfort
– NEED: But they want something
– GO: Enter an unfamiliar situation
– SEARCH: Adapt to the situation
– FIND: Find what they are looking for
– PAY: Pay a price for it
– RETURN: Go back to where they started
– CHANGE: Having changed from their experiences
Can you see what is missing? The Refusal of the Call. Which makes sense, because if you want to show your character’s reluctance, there are plenty of character-centric situations, like NEED, SEARCH and PAY, that can all be used to dramatise the character overcoming their reluctance while actually promoting propulsive storytelling. There are many discussions to be had about the story circle and its strengths and weaknesses, but the last thing it needs is ‘STALL: The character refuses for ultimately meaningless reasons’ in between NEED and GO