Opinion

The Appeal Of Grimdark: Why Are We Drawn To Despair?

The world is a bleak, miserable and outright hostile place to live in. The weight of tyranny, corruption, stagnation and superstition press down upon the shoulders of the population. There is no hope or dream of a better future. The only certainty anyone has is death, and even then only if one is lucky. This is the world of grimdark, and it is not a pleasant place to be. Yet, grimdark has an appeal that has led to the creation of some of the largest media fan bases around, whether it be A Song of Ice and Fire or Warhammer 40,000. Why? What about grimdark makes it appealing to a modern audience and what is its place in modern media?

What is Grimdark?

Grimdark is difficult to define, being as much a writing style as it would be a genre of fiction. Borrowing elements from other genres such as horror, tragedy and mystery, grimdark emerged around the late 1980s as a reaction to the more optimistic and generally more light-hearted stories told in the 60s and 70s in comics and fantasy. Where once heroes were noble and virtuous figures meant to inspire, now they were morally ambiguous and ethically challenged protagonists that existed in a world of greys. 

The characters we follow and the worlds they inhabit are far more pessimistic than the stories told in The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or Marvel Comics. In grimdark, there is no saving the day or even a happy ending. The war does not end with the ring being destroyed or the laser moon being blown up. The struggle will continue, and may never end. That is what grimdark is at its core: the idea that the world is a corrupt and unforgiving place that cannot be saved, and perhaps is not even worth saving.

The fantasy, the dream that so many of our favourite stories tell us is broken by grimdark.

This is what makes grimdark unique within its space of writing. The fantasy, the dream that so many of our favourite stories tell us is broken by grimdark. Honour and nobility are stripped from the stories, leaving behind the worst aspects of humanity. The abject cynicism and projected hopelessness force the question of why we would ever choose to consume grimdark media. Hope is an essential element of any story and grimdark is seemingly a genre without any hope. So where does the appeal lie?

The Appeal Of Grimdark

To me, grimdark is not the absence of hope, but instead the rejection of hopeful outcomes and the triumph of the worst aspects of humanity. The world is not terrible due to the actions of one tyrant or oppressor, but because we let it get to this point of despair and do nothing while we let it all happen. It is the constant rejection of improvement and knowledge that the world could have and perhaps even can still be saved, however unlikely, that adds an element of tragedy to grimdark. That the world is broken because of us, and we are too corrupt to change it.

This makes the world feel like a serious place with severe consequences for those that live in it. There is a certain tragedy to how the world ended up this way and horror at how we ever let something like this happen. But too much darkness loses the desired effect and can end up becoming unintentionally comical. Comedy certainly has its place in grimdark and is even necessary by contrasting with the serious tone. Grimdark is an exaggeration of the traditional fantasy and comic writing, walking a fine line between commentary on the genre and outright comedic parody. This can lead to some rather interesting questions on the nature of morality and ethics, yet can also be funny to laugh at when it takes itself too seriously.

Additionally, in a world with no happy endings, there is a certain amount of catharsis and enjoyment in seeing characters receive karmically satisfying endings. When characters are at best morally ambiguous and at worst evil in such a hostile and cruel environment, there is a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that eventually, a character we despise gets what they deserve. Who out of us that watch The Boys are not looking forward to seeing Homelander be brought down several metres underground? As the world itself is grim and terrible, there is some satisfaction in the knowledge that no one is truly safe from harm.

What Place Does This Despair Have In The World?

For all that grimdark has been talked about and has prevalence in the media, it is still a relatively new genre of writing, having been born to subvert our more traditional and familiar tropes in storytelling. In many ways still trying to find its feet and figure out what it is. With what it will be something likely intense and full of despair. Grimdark has a niche in writing that I personally find quite interesting and rather enjoy. It most certainly is not for everyone and can all too easily fall into the territory of “grimderp” when it is taken too seriously. 

Still, grimdark is a fascinating, twisted reflection of people and society without our virtues or hope, while simultaneously emphasising the value of these things through the characters that struggle and fight against the darkness if for no other reason than to preserve the light just a little longer.

 

Cover Image: João Cabral

Editor: Debby Mogot

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