Overture: In lieu of The Wednesday Review, I take a look at the remarkable Adventure Time 19's approach to tragedy, loss, madness, and issues of subjective versus objective reality and its thematic similarities to Lem/Tarkovsky/Soderbergh's Solaris.
I've mentioned Adventure Time (the show and the comic) quite a bit here on The Comic Pusher, and for good reason. Pendleton Ward's remarkable creation is an inventive character-based action-adventure comedy with consistently superb storytelling in a richly detailed fantasy world populated by entertaining and emotionally realistic characters. Throughout the subtle and effective continuity of the series are woven increasingly complex stories of heartbreak and loss, madness and despair, love and friendship and mysteries of science and magic and the heart. Despite being fiction aimed at younger audiences, Adventure Time often presents a level of emotional maturity and humanism that one would be hard-pressed to find in most fiction of any stripe. The best Adventure Time comics reflect this duality of accessible high-energy storytelling interlaced with thematic maturity. Where the ongoing Adventure Time comic is always entertaining but can be sometimes uneven, two mini-series - 2012's Marceline and the Scream Queens by Merdith Gran and Natasha Allegri's Fiona and Cake from earlier in the year - each represented some of that year's best comic storytelling. And today's issue 19 from writer North and artists Paroline & Lamb ranks with the very best we have yet seen in this remarkable universe.
The last part of a story arc, the issue opens at the conclusion of the previous one with Finn, Jake, and Ice King on a dungeon quest, scattered across the multiverse by the remnants of The Lich. The dimension Finn ends up thrown into is the "Farmworld" dimension (from the season five three-parter), a reality where Simon Petrikov stopped the Mushroom War a thousand years earlier and where Finn has a human family and Jake is just a dog. Finn can easily see through the benefits in this dimension as nothing more than an illusion set up to entrap him. He escapes and breaks Jake free from his counterfeit reality (where everyone has Jake powers; "Oh, so that's what this feels like!"). They end up in Ice King's reality, and try to convince him to leave. But he doesn't want to.
What transpires in Adventure Time 19 would be no less powerful on its own, but is even more moving in light of the knowledge of Ice King's immutably tragic past. Finn and Jake come across Ice King and his fiancee, Betty. They try to convince Ice King that Betty and the world aren't real, but an illusion of the Lich. "Betty" recalls details of their shared past to prove her actuality, but Finn asks how Ice King can possibly know that what she says is true. Ice King reveals that "Here, I can remember. Here I can think clearly ... There's no cost, no price" to the Ice Crown's powers. Betty takes the crown and makes an ice-construct, emblazoned with the words "Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts." As the world around them bursts into flame, Ice King single-mindedly pleads his case: "This feels like reality, only better. This Kisses like reality, only way way better. ... It's a paradise ... I can finally BE that person I remember." But Finn and Jake won't let Ice King fall victim to this reality - despite whatever Ice King feels and believes, the subjectivity of his experience, the true reality is darker, a controlled illusion, and they break him free. As their world burns down around them, "Betty" screams in pain and Ice King reaches out to her. "Simon, I-I don't feel fake-" she pleads. "You're just as real as I remember," he says as she crumbles into dust in his arms.
In Solaris, a psychologist, Chris Kelvin, is sent to a space station orbiting an alien world, Solaris, where something very wrong has happened to the crew of the station. When he gets to the station, the surviving crew reveal that the planet is living and reaching into their minds and creating constructs of people from their pasts. These constructs are not human but look and act human. Or at least some version of it. It doesn't take long for Kelvin's construct to arrive, his dead wife. But this isn't his wife, no matter what his senses tell him - just like Betty in Adventure Time 19, she is just a simulacrum of his memories of her. But in the end Kelvin chooses death on the planet to be with this copy of his passed wife rather than go back to the objective reality of loss and pain.
Indeed, Ice King consciously makes the same exact choice as Kelvin in Solaris, completely acknowledging the objective artifice of the subjective reality he is experiencing. Both Solaris and Adventure Time 19 raise powerful questions about choice and reality. Ice King is plugged into the Matrix and is fine with it. And can you blame him? For the first time in centuries, Ice King can be Simon Petrikov, he can be sane and sound of mind, and live happily ever after with the woman he loves. Even if this is not objectively real, even if Betty is a construct made from his own buried memories, for him it is undeniably subjectively real. And subjective reality is no less real to the one experiencing it as supposed objective reality. He chooses painless suicide wrapped in the entrancing embrace of love and sanity over pain and loss and madness because who wouldn't make that choice. This isn't a matter of Ice King not knowing the consequences of his actions but accepting them with open arms.
Finn and Jake break Ice King free, but not without a note of recognition of pain and sadness from Finn and Jake. In a brief moment of lucidity when he doesn't have the Crown infecting his mind, Ice King recognizes the necessity of their actions. And he puts on the Crown and goes back to the only world he knows. If there is any silver lining to Ice King's tragedy, the effects of the Crown will make him forget the brief moment of happiness he felt. That reality is wiped away from existence completely, objectively and subjectively.
This isn't the first time the Adventure Time franchise has played with the themes of subjective reality. In the episode Puhoy Finn falls into an elaborate pillow fort and finds himself transported to a pillow world where he grows to be an adult, gets married, raises a family and dies of old age, only to come out of the fort. The memories of that time melt away like a dream, but it is more than suggested that Finn lived out those decades fully and completely. It was real to him for that entire lifetime whether or not it was an objective reality.
Many live action dramas and long form comics cannot do what Adventure Time frequently accomplishes. It is elements like these that give Adventure Time a unique place as a hugely popular and hugely entertaining fantasy-adventure comedy that tackles complex themes with the amazing maturity and subtlety of literature.
Adventure Time 19 is in stores today, and airs Mondays and in frequent re-runs on Cartoon Network.