In which I make the obligatory halfhearted defense of Grimdark in theory, but admit that in practice it is almost universally self-important teenage nihilist tedium.
In the Grim Darkness of cable television, there is only gritty “realism,” and as a representative of Generation X, I have to admit that this is mostly our fault. Our intentions were… well, we had no intentions, we were mostly aimlessly moping. What can I say? It was a generational grunge/goth phase. I blame our parents because, again, Gen X.
Cast your mind back, if you will, to the 1980s and 90s. Donald Trump was famous for making money. Cocaine was a hell of a drug for boomers, but the kids were turning to heroin. And when we weren’t watching movies about high school kids complaining that no one understood them, we were buying up a new generation of entertainment where everything sucked.
Frank Miller made Batman an old, bitter man, Superman a government tool, and Catwoman an aging madame. Then he made Daredevil’s ex girlfriend a junkie porn star who sells him out for a hit (IN THE SAME YEAR!). Alan Moore went even further, his series that would become Watchmen was so damaging to the characters that DC made him invent a new world to wreck. His “heroes” were a combination of impotent weirdos, violent psychopaths, rapists, assassins, villains in disguise, and a genocidal otherworldly radiation cloud with an outsized smurf penis.
Meanwhile, Glen Cook was giving us The Black Company, where a bunch of not-good mercenaries work for evil against other evil. But at least Cook (in the beginning) wanted Croaker to have a conscience and a heroic drive. He struggles with his grim darkness; the choice between evils may be how his world is, but it isn’t how it should be. Incidentally, I recommend dropping the series after the first three for just this reason, Cook eventually falls into the Grimdark “kill my entire cast in lieu of plot” trap, and IMO gets lazy with his moral themes.
1996 brought us perhaps the most popular Grimdark fantasy, “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, now known better by the name of the T.V. series and first novel “A Game of Thrones.” This bad boy has it all: meaningless death, sex, meaningless death, rape, three thousand page red herrings, meaningless death, giant battles, did I mention the meaningless death because ha ha I just killed that character you thought was going to be the hero DO YOU SEE HOW I JUST SUBVERTED YOUR EXPECTATIONS? BET YOU DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING!
Granted, HBO doubled down on the dwarf sex, because boobs both sell and make your low magic fantasy world adult and serious. Only serious artistic work subverts your expectations and provides softcore porn at the same time. You have very refined tastes. There’s nothing creepy at all about millions of people watching incest porn together on a Sunday night.
Apparently even GRRM, or at least HBO’s writers, couldn’t keep up the nihilism all the way to the end. I haven’t watched the most recent episode, and the books aren’t there yet (epic grimdarkness is apparently slower to write full time than I write as a part time amateur), but you couldn’t miss the social media commentary. The magic pixie tomboy assassin ends up the chosen one, at least for this episode. I actually hope they kill her off and render her sacrifice meaningless next week; if you’re going to do years of Grimdark, COMMIT TO THE BIT!
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
I never asked for this.
Grimdark was, originally, a reaction to the brightly-colored Tolkien knockoffs. You know the ones, where the plucky young chosen hero always pulls through in the end, smiting the darkness and ushering in a happily ever after. A mentor or even a friend may meet a heroic demise, but it was all worth it, he lives on in legend.
Grimdark didn’t, originally, set out as subversion, or at least early examples don’t seem that way. Gen X just applied our lovely “everything sucks” filter. Both sides of the war? They suck. Leaders? Selfish and corrupt. Mentors? Lying assholes. “You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.” “What I told you was true… from a certain point of view.” Um, maybe, if that point of view is “liar.” And don’t even bother acquiring a sidekick, he’s definitely working for the enemy. What can I say? There’s a reason so many of us ODed on heroin, we were Generation Everything Sucks.
And there were a few really cool, original stories in there. Could Batman kill Superman? Maybe. But WOULD he? Why? What if the hero’s flaw wasn’t simply youth and naivete? Would anyone try to be a hero in a world that sucks? How? Fight both sides? Fight for the lesser evil while subverting it from within once victory seemed assured?
The problem, as usual, is excess. Ok, everything sucks, and sometimes people you love just die, and sometimes the quest fails, and heroes have flaws, and no one is coming to save you, and love isn’t real, and even if you think you found it lol she just died, and there’s no real higher purpose to any of this. And we’re going to hit you over the head with it. For thousands of pages. With no relief, except maybe to set up the next “random” death that crushes your hopes. Pass the tourniquet.
Yeah, it’s anti-Tolkien. Congratulations, you’re nothing like him. I would rather read a Tom Bombadil focused Silmarillion sequel than one more mopey doorstop pretending that blood, tits, and hopelessness are “realism.” The real world has good times, too. Sometimes the good guys win, sometimes the Winged Hussars get to Vienna in time to break the siege with an epic charge, sometimes a few scared kids hold the beach at Iwo Jima for long enough. Sometimes you meet the right person, and get married, and have beautiful children, and everything turns out ok. Sometimes the dog lives.
I’ve saved one example for last, because I think it’s the best executed Grimdark. The grandaddy of them all, the namesake, Warhammer 40K. Where the ultra fascist theocratic eternal monarchy are the GOOD GUYS, and heroes don’t hesitate to pronounce a sentence of exterminatus on billions of souls if it will stop the spread of heresy against the Emperor.
It’s gloriously over the top. You’ve got gene-stealing aliens twisting your conscripts into unrecognizable shapes, space elves throwing orgies so decadent that they create a new chaos entity who promptly devours most of their souls, hulking warrior monk Space Marines in a thousand flavors, their chaos-twisted brothers, actual space orks, and that’s just in one corner of known space. It’s serious, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Chainswords? Awesome! Would putting a chainsaw on your sword even help (if you could make it work at all)? WHO CARES? AWESOME!
If you’re going to do it, either just dip your toe in and limit your world to only sucking a little, or commit to the bit and shoot the moon. The former is realistic. The latter is enjoyable as obviously hyperbolic. But going full “everything sucks” and calling it “realism” doesn’t make you a genius. It makes you a hack. It’s been done. Put the needle down.