287. About Storytelling: Intertextuality

As long as we’re talking about The Avengers, I want to point out that Marvel’s superhero stories have a lot in common with the Bible, Little Women and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Why, you can hardly tell them apart!

The similarities here are obvious… aren’t they?

(I also want to point out for the record that Jo and Donatello are the best March sister and Ninja Turtle, respectively. I’m just throwing that out there.)

These stories are extremely different, but they share at least one notable characteristic: intertextuality. This fancy (and somewhat dirty-sounding) word refers to the way an artistic work is shaped by another artistic work.

Still confused? I sure am. Let’s make it simpler by looking at these stories one by one.

Little Women is a novel by Lousia May Alcott about sisters growing up and getting married. It’s basically Pride and Prejudice, but better. (Fans of Jane Austen, please spare my family.) The first half of the book, which follows the March sisters as they become young ladies, loosely parallels The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. As these little women read Bunyan’s allegory, they find it mirrored in their own pilgrimages from childhood to adulthood.

The Bible is packed with intertextuality. The number of times Scripture references itself is practically beyond count. The New Testament alludes constantly to the Old. Many books of Scripture cite passages from other books. Jesus Christ, as he hung dying upon the cross, quoted a phrase from the Psalms. Stephen, in turn, repeated some of Christ’s final words during his own execution. The Bible echoes itself constantly.

The Avengers is a tale woven from several different stories. Every one of its heroes has some kind of history; the film is built upon the foundation of other films. Without Iron Man and Thor and all those other Marvel movies, The Avengers probably wouldn’t even exist.

As for my favorite band of crime-fighting reptiles, well, the Ninja Turtles began as a parody of several gritty comics popular at the time. Even its details were drawn from the works it parodied: the Turtles’ teacher Splinter was a jab at a comic book character named Stick, and the villainous Foot Clan poked fun at a supervillain group called The Hand. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exist as a lighthearted response to darker comics.

All these stories are shaped by other stories. So what?

Intertextuality can be either a brilliant asset or a horrible nuisance. It can give a story depth or make it incomprehensible.

The benefits of intertexuality are too many to list in a single blog post, so I’ll mention just a few. Referring to other works can establish a strong narrative framework, as in Little Women. The Bible shows how intertexuality can help explain and clarify ideas. In The Avengers, the way separate narratives converge in one big adventure is, if I may express it so bluntly, really freaking sweet. Finally, intertextuality can provide humor or insight in the form of parody or satire of existing works.

Of course, intertextuality can go wrong. G.K. Chesterton is probably my favorite author, and also really awesome, but he sometimes makes the mistake of assuming all his readers are just as smart and educated as he is. His book Orthodoxy is full of allusions to other thinkers, but without context or background these references only confuse ignorant readers like me.

We’re all shaped by other people. It’s only natural, then, for our ideas and stories to be shaped by those of other people.

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