An authorial avatar is a fictional character that represents the — or in the case of massive collaborative fictions like comics, one of the – authors of the comic.

WriterSmallThere are at least three types of authorial avatar. First, there are cases, which we might call first-person direct authorial avatars, where the author inserts a straightforward version of him- or herself into the narrative, such as Grant Morrison’s insertion of ‘the writer’ into the final issues of his celebrated run on Animal Man. KingMobSecond, there are what we might call first-person indirect authorial avatars, where the author creates a character that, although distinct from the author, is nevertheless meant to represent the author in a less literal manner. A good example of this sort of authorial avatar is King Mob from The Invisibles. King Mob is clearly not meant to represent Morrison in the direct way that ‘the writer’ does, but Morrison nevertheless rather infamously claimed that King Mob’s actions in the comic had a direct effect on Morrison’s own life (rather than, as would be more usual, the other way around). Finally, there are  third-person direct authorial avatars, where one author inserts a character meant to directly represent a different creator into the narrative. Thus, Brian Azzarello’s insertion of a Morrison doppleganger as one of the ‘Architects’ in Doctor 13 is a good example of a third-person direct authorial avatar.

Architechts(Of course, there could also be third-person indirect authorial avatars — in fact, Morrison has inserted Alan Moore surrogates into his comics in just this manner on more than one occasion.)

The question I would like to ask is this: When can we trust that the attitudes and beliefs of an authorial avatar are accurately portraying the attitudes and beliefs of the author? At first glance, the answer seems easy: First-person direct authorial avatars typically do accurately represent the attitudes of the author (first-person indirect less so, presumably). After all, isn’t that the whole point of inserting such a character into the narrative in the first place? On the other hand, third-person authorial avatars have no claim to such authority, since they are ‘authored’ by someone other than the author that they represent.

SSWriterOf course, this is too simple. First, there is a simple problem: It is all too easy for an author to use a first-person authorial avatar to subvert our expectations, introducing such an avatar into the narrative to serve as an unreliable narrator of sorts.

A rather deeper issue concerns character continuity and the collaborative nature of ongoing serialized comics: A character introduced as a first-person authorial avatar by one author can later be written (and even killed off!) by another author. This is exactly what happened to Morrison’s ‘the writer’ in John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. If the writer is taken, prima facie at least, to be an accurate representation of Morrison’s attitudes and beliefs in the earlier issues of Animal Man, but is not taken to so represent Morrison’s mental states in the later Suicide Squad run, then it is not clear that these are really two occurrences of the same character at all. At any rate, this sort of situation threatens to vastly complicate our already complicated story regarding the connections between the intentions and beliefs of authors and the actions and attitudes of the characters they create.

So, can we believe authorial avatars?

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

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