Thursday, December 28, 2006

Storytelling Engines: Superman

(or, "The Gold Standard")

Obviously, the status quo for Superman is a wonderful storytelling engine. You can tell because he's been around for some 80 years in continuous publication, which clearly indicates that a lot of people have been able to find good stories to tell about him. But the first thing to nail down when discussing Superman as a storytelling engine is, "Which Superman?" He's a character that's been reinvented and refocused any number of times, and the character Siegel and Shuster wrote about in the 1930s is not quite the character that John Byrne wrote about in the 1980s. Since we're looking at these characters through the lens of "DC Showcase Presents", we'll be looking at the Silver Age Superman of the late 1950s and early 1960s, also known as the Mort Weisinger era after its editor.

One thing to keep in mind, we're looking at these stories as a measure of how easy it was to find things to do with Superman, not how good the actual stories were. Silver Age Superman stories did tend towards the bizarre and contrived, sometimes brilliant and sometimes terrible, but the amazing thing about them as far as we're concerned is just how easy it was to find stories to tell. For starters, the basic concept of Superman is practically archetypal: "Last child of a doomed alien race raised by humans and possessing super-powers" is the concept for dozens of other characters out there. It's difficult for us to even imagine a world where that was a new idea, it's so common in popular culture; it's an idea that has roots in mythology and folklore (substitute "gods" for "a doomed alien race" and you've got Hercules), but Superman is in many ways the definitive "Last Son of (Blank)".

"(Blank)" is, in this case, Krypton, and Silver Age Superman actually uses the planet as a frequent backdrop to Superman's adventures. Establishing time travel in the series allows return trips to Superman's lost home planet, giving writers the chance to do more explicitly science-fiction stories and show an alien world. (Krypton is very much a classic sci-fi utopia before its eventual end, with flying cars, bizarre alien animals, and careers decided by computer.) Krypton is also represented in the present-day by Kandor, a "city in a bottle" shrunk by alien science that Superman can visit, which gives writers a chance to do more Krypton stories and gives them a source of other Super-people whenever they want to have a convenient "Superman vs. someone just as powerful" fight.

Kandor is, in turn, just one of the story options available by setting a story inside the Fortress of Solitude; Superman's all-purpose lab, trophy room and secret headquarters contains an almost innumerable array of alien technology, lost artifacts from different civilizations, and essentially serves as a story generator all by itself. You can always find something in there for Superman to do for 8 pages (Superman comics in the Silver Age tended to have two or three separate stories in them, a concept almost unheard of in today's "writing for the trade" era.)

Completing the circle for Superman is Metropolis--if Krypton represents his alien heritage, and the Fortress is a piece of his alien world on Earth, then Metropolis, and more specifically the Daily Planet, represent his human side. Here, we find no shortage of human crime (although Superman's globe-spanning speed lets him find trouble anywhere on Earth if the writer wants to), and more importantly, we find a supporting cast that gives yet more storytelling opportunities to a potential writer. Lois Lane alone seems capable of generating dozens of Superman stories; she's a crusading reporter, a potential love interest, and a curious woman with an interest in Superman's real identity. Any of those three traits give Superman a potential point of entry into a story. Jimmy, in turn, is a bright young reporter with a nose for trouble and a watch that lets him signal Superman. Again, this is enough to sustain its own series (and, in fact, both Lois and Jimmy have had their own series in the past, which we'll be looking at later on.) Combine them with Perry as the gruff-yet-lovable leader and Clark as the perennial straight man, and you've probably got a newsroom drama that could sustain itself without Superman (in fact, go watch "Lou Grant" and see if it brings up any memories.)

But all this hangs on the character of Superman, and it's no surprise that he's the biggest story-generator of them all. A modern-day Renaissance man, he's simultaneously a crusader for justice, a dedicated reporter, a scientist, an explorer, and a humanitarian. Any one of these aspects allows a writer to put Superman into a story without it feeling contrived, and he's all of them put together. Superman can start off a story experimenting on radiation, seeking out a lost city, sniffing out crooked builders, or just entertaining orphans, and it never seems unnatural or out of character. He's very much a "go anywhere, do anything" story-generator.

Which may explain why the Silver Age never had much of a rogue's gallery for Superman. There are a few memorable villains--Bizarro makes his debut in Volume 2 of the "Showcase", and Brainiac and Luthor both pop up now and again...but for the most part, Superman doesn't need more than a token villain to spend time fighting. And any of these token villains can make use of Kryptonite--this all-purpose story complicator makes so many appearances in the two Showcase volumes as to stagger the imagination. Available in green, red and blue (so far), it's always handy for when you need to keep Superman's great powers from ending your story early. Also, it's worth noting that almost all of the villains he does have possess a lot of potential for "re-use"; Mr. Mxyzptlk can pop up any number of times from the Fifth Dimension, each time with a new and unusual prank to play on the Man of Steel, and there's always a story involved.

In short, Superman showcases exactly how an open-ended series should work; his character, backstory, setting, and supporting cast (both good and evil) all function to generate more story ideas for a writer who needs them. Superman can easily sustain another 80 years of continuous publication, and though his mythos continually refreshes itself for new generations, there's no question that the ideas can go on forever.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Worst Joke I Have Ever Told

MAN #1: Hey, you got your peanut butter on my monkey!

MAN #2: Hey, you got your monkey in my peanut butter!

BOTH: Hmmm...

ANNOUNCER: Try Rhesus Peanut Butter Cups.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Storytelling Engines: Introduction

This is the first post in what will probably be a sort of "series-within-a-series" of posts on this blog, relating mainly to comics. Specifically, it relates to some comments I made some time ago about the construction and maintenance of "status quos". I described the setting of an open-ended series, the status quo of the [comic/TV show/book series/movie franchise/add open-ended series here] as a "storytelling engine", pretty much off-handedly, with no attempt to explore the idea. And as I think it's an idea that merits some exploration, I'm going to follow up on it.

The idea is that when creating an open-ended series, you include a variety of different elements that act to help the writer in generating ideas for stories; each of these elements can be seen as a component in a "storytelling engine". This is different, I think, from relying on intuitive creativity--the "hand of the muse", as it were--in order to generate a setting that can sustain a large number of different stories, you do have to think with a certain technical air. (This is not to say that all writers have sat down and thought in terms of a storytelling engine, but then again, that's part of the point; sometimes, writers have written a good story, singular, without necessarily thinking about what it did to their storytelling engine, and have found themselves stuck in an awkward position somewhere.)

So what elements make up a storytelling engine? The basic concept of the series, for starters; Doctor Who, to use a series we won't be looking at later on, has as its concept "a mysterious stranger has a time and space machine." Then from there, you layer on the main character, with his motivations and backstory ("an endlessly curious not-quite-human trickster, on the run from his own people who see helping people as a crime"), the supporting cast ("a young woman with more curiousity and guts than common sense"), the setting ("the inside of the time machine", "modern-day London", "a variety of alien planets", "various Earth historical locales"), the antagonists ("a variety of evil aliens who seek to enslave or destroy people"), and the tone ("light-hearted adventure, with occasional forays into horror.") Each of these, ideally, does something to help the writer come up with a story or move it along, and each of them could be changed in ways that help or hinder the writer. (For example, if the Doctor was "a heavy reader with no interests beyond enlarging his vast library", the series would probably have to work much harder to get him involved in events.)

Each series has these elements, and each series evolves over time as different writers take a hand at the character. Over the next several weeks, I plan to show (using the wondrous "Essentials" series from Marvel and "Showcase Presents" series from DC, both of which present enough issues in a single volume to really be able to take a long view of a comic book's development) some of the things that worked, some of the things that didn't, and some of the tricks writers used to get a series on track.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Just Look At The Title

Everyone discusses how George Lucas' recently-completed Star Wars prequels are a commentary on George W. Bush's Presidency. (Well, for a given value of "everyone" and "recently-completed", that is. And "discusses", come to think of it.) Palpatine manufactures a war, then uses it as an excuse to claim dictatorial powers, et cetera, et cetera.

But recently, it struck me that 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' is a far more incisive, and indeed prescient commentary on Dubya's two terms. Jones, the protagonist who serves as an analogy to George W. Bush, is a man who has a somewhat shaky reputation in his chosen field, and who lives in the shadow of his famous, emotionally distant father (who named his son after himself.) Encouraged by a group of major figures in the field who are closer in age to his father (many characters in the film, including Brody and the Grail Knight at the end, serve as metaphors for Bush Senior's contemporaries in government), he embarks on a quest for the legendary Holy Grail that eluded his father his entire career (in this case, peace in the Middle East and a stable, democratic Iraq.)

Indy/Bush goes to Europe, and romances the same beautiful, bewitching, treacherous siren that seduced his father (presumably, this is a metaphor for the Presidency and the American people, unless we someday discover something about Barbara Bush that I, personally, never ever ever ever want to know.) He is both helped and hindered in his quest for the Grail by various Middle Eastern powers, and finally winds up leading his forces to the heart of the desert land himself. After a series of battles in which he vanquishes a military power, he finds himself involved in a series of more complex tests. Eventually, he finds the Grail, reconciles himself with his father, and seems poised for victory...

But he winds up screwing up, lets the beautiful woman and the Holy Grail plummet into a bottomless, murky pit for all eternity, needs to be rescued by his dad, and winds up devastating the entire region while an old guy glares at him disapprovingly. Then, seemingly oblivious to his total failure, he rides off into the sunset like he's accomplished the mission he set for himself.

It's downright eerie.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I Wish It Was Real

(Int. Hospital Room. A PATIENT is lying on the bed, very near to death, attended by a DOCTOR.)

DOCTOR: I'm sorry, sir, but I'm afraid...there's nothing more we can do. What religion are you?

PATIENT: I'm...a strict Calvinist, sir.

DOCTOR: I'll send the priest in immediately.

(The DOCTOR leaves. After a moment, a PRIEST enters.)

PRIEST: It is time, my son. Have you led a virtuous life?

PATIENT: Yes, Father.

PRIEST: Have you fought the temptations of evil?

PATIENT: Yes, Father.

PRIEST: Have you touched all seventeen bases while holding the Calvinball and hopping on one foot?

PATIENT: Seventeen? There were only sixteen bases!

PRIEST: You forgot about the super-secret base, then? Oh, dear. I'm afraid that means you're going to be damned to Hell for all eternity.

PATIENT: But you forgot to sing all the verses of the Tiger song, so that means that today is Opposite Day! Which means I'm really going to Heaven!

PRIEST (relieved): Then go, my child.

(The PATIENT closes his eyes, and expires. After a moment, his spirit rises ethereally from his body, moving up through the ceiling of the room to where an anthropomorphic TIGER is waiting next to a cardboard box turned on its side. Through the cardboard box, a light can be seen.)

TIGER: Step into the light, my child, for it is the transcendent and ethereal passage to Heaven and all the wonders within.

PATIENT: But I thought that this was the Celestial Chariot, in which the Great Prophets traveled to Earth to deliver their tidings of hope and joy?

TIGER: That was when it was right side up. Now it's on its side.

PATIENT: Oh.

(He passes through the arch. For a moment, he hesitates...but the TIGER pounces on him, sending him tumbling through.)

ANNOUNCER: Won't you consider the Church of Calvin? We believe in virtue, hope, truth, and not eating gross stuff at dinner.

The Church of Calvin: Now allowing girls!*

*Except for Susie Jenkins.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Entertainment News #1

CONFUSED 'DOCTOR WHO' FANS CONTINUE TO DEBUNK RUMOURS OF NEW SERIES

The Internet was rocked today by yet another series of articles appearing at a variety of 'Doctor Who' fansites attempting to debunk the "spurious rumours" of a new television series of 'Doctor Who'. The series, which originally ran from 1963 to 1989, generated hundreds of hoaxes, imitations, fan productions, and ill-fated attempts to revive the series during its fifteen years off the air, a saga which has apparently left some fans so jumpy they continue to write off the existence of the new series as "wishful thinking".

Bryce Harlington, President of the "Campaign For House Calls", says he is "saddened" by the rumours. "As a savvy fan, I've learned to disbelieve the more outrageous claims I've heard about Doctor Who's return to our screen. Claims of big movie stars like John Cleese or Christopher Eccleston attaching their names to the project are clear signs of either a 'whoax' or a delusional fan who just misses the series too much to give it up. And of course, the companion rumours are always about the latest piece of eye candy. Every single one of the Spice Girls, for example, had their turn at the rumour mill, just because they were good-looking young pop stars. I hardly think that a producer would leap at that chance."

When confronted with numerous pieces of evidence of the existence of the new series, Harlington became defensive. "A 'Radio Times' cover for the final episode of series two? Oh, yes, and I see they're claiming it's just as exciting as the World Cup match. And the description of the plot? Purest fan-fiction of the lowest grade."

And yet, Harlington remains optimistic. "I do think that the BBC will someday see the deep and abiding affection that fans retain for the series, even now. They have to, because it won't go away. Why, just the other day, I found some bootleg fan productions online. They look just as good as some professional TV science-fiction series out there, and they're all done by Doctor Who fans with credits in the industry--Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, even Steven Moffat took some time out from his professional TV work to do a couple of episodes, and they're every bit as good as anything Big Finish ever made."

When it was pointed out that Moffat won a Hugo Award for his work on the new series, Harlington responded, "Oh, sure. And I suppose it swept the National Television Awards two years running."

Friday, November 17, 2006

All You Need To Know About Civil War

Marvel's latest crossover, 'Civil War', is supposed to be a big fight between Marvel's super-heroes over the idea of deputizing themselves as government agents; a fight where there is no "right" or "wrong", but where both sides have legitimate points to make. It's kind of failing miserably at that, because so many different writers are handling the same characters that it's hard to maintain a consistent tone--one second, Iron Man's a cheerful fascist who's setting up a police state, and the next, he's agonizing over his fights against his friends in the name of justice.

The schizophrenic nature of the crossover can be summed up in a single scene: At the end of an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spidey, who's been pro-reg, changes his mind and prepares to leave. Tony Stark, as Iron Man, comes crashing through the wall, body-tackling Spidey and saying, "I thought you knew what side you were on."

The scene is continued in Civil War #5, where Iron Man faces off against Spider-Man and says, "Peter, why are you acting like such a lunatic? All I want to do is talk!"

I really wanted Peter's response to be, "Door's over there, Tony."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

ConBestiary #3

Gibbering Mouther: These pathetic, yet savagely dangerous creatures stalk conventions looking for unsuspecting victims they can attach themselves to. Anyone who pays them attention rapidly becomes their prey, as they latch onto the poor soul and begin an endless, one-sided conversation about the Mouther's personal geek-related obsession (which can be anything from his brilliant Magic deck to his theories on what the writers of Lost are really thinking to the super-cool character he made for Dungeons and Dragons that only bends the rules a little but is sooo bad-ass.) Once a Gibbering Mouther attaches itself to a fan, it can take hours to successfully extricate oneself--if indeed you can. Convention staff find upwards of twenty dead bodies every year after every con, gruesome victims of Gibbering Mouthers with gaping holes in the back of their heads where the poor fool's brain force-evolved teeth and chewed its way out through its own skull to escape the conversation.

But the worst thing about Gibbering Mouthers isn't the horrible, debilitating effect they have on their prey. The worst thing is that due to the symptoms--total obliviousness to one's own dullness, a tendency to assume everyone is interested in everything you have to say, and a blanket assumption that failure to shout, "SHUT UP!" at you and run away means that you should continue talking--you may already be a Gibbering Mouther and not even know it.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Potential Essential Confidential

(Been waiting two weeks to use that title...)

For those of you who don't know, the "Essentials" series from Marvel are trade paperbacks that reprint their classic comics; they print them in black-and-white, on cheap paper, in order to reduce costs, which means that you get about twenty-five issues of story for the price that an eight-issue collection would cost in color on glossy paper. They're great ways to get big, hefty chunks of reading material for a relatively low cost (in fact, some of the Wolverine and X-Men collections might actually be less than cover price, on a per issue basis.)

Marvel's been putting the Essentials out for a while now, and they've got a very nice library of titles built up (the DC counterpart, "Showcase Presents", is much newer and has only a relative few), but there's still room for more. So, without further ado, I present...the Top Fifteen Comic Book Series That Should Get "Essentials" Trade Paperbacks*!

Honorable Mentions: Captain Marvel (a character that will probably get an Essential someday, but one who's more famous dead than alive); Solo Avengers/Avengers Spotlight (a title I enjoyed as a kid, but I still have enough of the issues that I'm in no hurry to see it collected); Cloak and Dagger (interesting, but did they ever live up to their potential?); Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (I'm sure this is much higher on somebody's list); Web of Spider-Man (will probably get one no matter what I say); Shogun Warriors (it sounds like fun in the "Godzilla" mode, but I'm not sure what the licensing status is. See the footnote at the bottom of the list.)

15.
Dazzler. Sure, it was a silly series. Sure, she started out as "The Disco Dazzler." Sure, Marvel worked overtime to make her seem like a major player by bringing in guest stars from Doctor Doom to Galactus. But let's face it...all that just makes you want to read it more, doesn't it?

14.
Champions. Another series that is sort of "famous for being famous", this was the LA super-hero team that featured Hercules, Ghost Rider, Angel, and a few other super-heroes...basically, whoever was in LA and not doing much at the time. They always had a rep as "bargain-basement heroes", but I'd be interested in seeing exactly what got them that rep.

13.
Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. This probably deserves to be much higher on the list, to be honest, because he's a bad-ass martial artist who fights his father, Fu Manchu, using kung-fu. And that sentence alone makes him crazy-cool. But I'm an 80s kid, so I don't have the kind of personal nostalgia for the title that would push him higher. (In fact, I remember reading an ad for his comic when I was four, and not realizing that "Kung-Fu" wasn't a person. I just figured "Kung-Fu" was a guy, and "Shang-Chi" was another guy who could beat him up.)

12.
Ms. Marvel. She's really more well-known to me from her time in Kurt Busiek's Avengers and her role as Binary in Claremont's X-Men, but I would like to read her classic stories to see what all the fuss was about.

11. Micronauts. This might fall victim to licensing issues, but I suspect not, and this is a series that I know has a huge cult following. They could also use it as an opportunity to collect the "X-Men Vs. the Micronauts" limited series, which would just plain rock. But again, I never got much of a chance to read it myself.

10. Adam Warlock. I never got the chance to read the classic Adam Warlock stories from the 70s, either, but I remember reading recaps of them in "Marvel Age" and the Marvel Universe Handbook, and thinking that they sounded like the coolest, trippiest thing ever. Adam Warlock fights Thanos, the man in love with Death, and the evil empire established by the Magus, his own future self? Whoa. A lot of the mythos established here would come back to the forefront years later, and it'd be nice to make it all available.

9. New Warriors. Ah, now that we're into the top ten, you can start to see where my love really lies, can't you? The New Warriors practically defined late 80s/early 90s comics, and it'd be great to see it all put down in big thick chunks of black-and-white goodness. It had some great artwork, Fabian Nicieza doing fun soap-opera writing as a labor of love, and it brought back Nova, Speedball, and Firestar. Where's the bad?

8. Power Pack. To be honest, I wish this could be much higher. From a strictly commercial stand-point, it probably should be; this was a series that had great kid appeal. Four pre-teens with super-powers, guest stars galore, the X-Men, the FF, sleep-overs with Franklin Richards, and power swaps every twenty-five issues. Power Pack just plain rocked.

7. West Coast Avengers. Hawkeye led the team. Nuff said.

6. Alpha Flight. Another one of those titles like New Warriors that had a big, crazy soap-opera epic feel to it that would work much better in large chunks than single-issue stories, this would be excellent for collection. And John Byrne's art looks beautiful in black and white.

5. ROM. Every comics fan above the age of thirty is nodding right now. Not as they read this, as I type this--just my thought of "The Essential ROM" is causing their brains to vibrate with sympathetic resonance as they remember how freaking cool ROM was. A lone alien warrior, fighting a war against the evil shapeshifting body-stealing Dire Wraiths (a war that spilled out into the whole Marvel Universe towards the end--almost a crossover without the hype)...oh, it was the best. Actually the fifth best, but still very cool.

4. Quasar. I remember that I absolutely was not collecting Quasar as a teenager. Really, I wasn't. Oh, sure, I'd pick up an issue or two...or four...or seven...but really, I wasn't collecting it. I didn't have the time to add another title to my list. I just was buying it. A lot. And with a new Quasar series on the horizon, it'd be nice to not collect it again, in trade paperback format this time.

3. New Mutants. Actually, how is it that this hasn't already been collected as an Essentials series? They've got two X-Men Essentials (one for the Lee/Kirby era, one for the Claremont fans who weren't willing to wait three volumes to get to the good stuff), X-Factor, Wolverine...where's the New Mutants in all this? MIA, that's where, and it has to stop!

2. Excalibur. Everything from #2 applies here, but with added exclamation points at the end of every sentence, because Excalibur was just that much better.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy. At this point, mad props must go out to Jim Valentino, who took these characters that I'd just heard about and that I thought sounded cool, and made them into the best thing ever. In the 30th century, the alien Badoon have enslaved humanity, and a band of rebels from across the solar system must band together to stop them! And then, once they stop them, they become wandering adventurers, traveling through time and space to learn about what became of Earth's legendary super-heroes! And then...well, then they got cancelled, and have been in comics limbo ever since, which was a shame. But there's plenty of great material for several Essentials in there, and it might just lead to a revival. (Plus, we'd get to see more of Nikki, team hottie. Damn. Girl was so hot, her head was on fire!)

So there you go, Marvel. Get cracking. Oh, and keep putting out more of the ones you're doing already, too. And get Karl Kesel to write Fantastic Four. Seriously, he'd be great at it!

*This excludes comics that Marvel is precluded from collecting due to the lapse in licensing agreements with the companies who owned the properties in question; so, for example, the Essential Transformers, Star Wars, and GI Joe are all off the list because Marvel can't do them. The Essential Conan already got scuttled--if you see a copy, snap it up because it's out of print.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Depressing Folklore

(Or, as I really wanted to title it, "Steel Drivin' Corpse")

I've never really understood why they teach little kids the story of John Henry in school. (For those of you who are entirely self-educated, John Henry is an African-American folk hero, who may or may not have been real, who hammered in steel spikes on the railroad tracks. One day, management brought in a steam-powered hammer that could do the work faster than any man, but John Henry bet the foreman that he could out-pound the steam hammer. He did just that--but keeled over dead right after winning the race.)

Let's face it--after reading the previous paragraph, you probably take my meaning right there. It's always presented to kids as showing how important it is to strive on, even against impossible odds, because you can do things you never imagined if you try...but really, that kind of overlooks the fact that John Henry keels over dead, while the steam hammer will be up and ready to go the next day. It seems more like the message is, "Try to stand in the way of progress, and you'll end up taking a dirt nap while machines do your job. Go learn how to run a steam hammer if you want to get somewhere in this world, kid."

Which, now that I think about it, is probably a pretty good thing for kids to learn sooner or later.

Never mind.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bold Predictions

Michael Vick will not only never win a Superbowl, he will retire from the NFL never having gotten to the Superbowl. If you can find a bookie who takes bets of this nature, go and put a modest sum of money on it and I feel confident you will see a return on your investment.

The reason is simple: He's just not a very accurate passer. Sure, he dazzles with his legs, but every good defense knows that the way to beat the Falcons is to stack up against the run, keep a disciplined pass rush, and dare Vick to beat you throwing. He can't do it, and he's never going to be able to do it because he's surrounded by a crowd of people telling him that he doesn't need to learn that--he should just "let Michael be Michael".

Against a disciplined defense, "Michael being Michael" is indistinguishable from "Michael running around in the backfield like an idiot, then getting tackled for an eight-yard loss."

Next time, on Bold Predictions: Matt Millen will go down as one of the worst GMs in NFL history!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Still Needs No Words


More Comics Marketing Ideas

Aren't you bored yet? Tough.

So, I've mentioned here earlier the 'Marvel Adventures' line of comics--self-contained, single-issue, kid-friendly comics that are just what the Doctor ordered (he's a big fan of comics and wants to see the market expand. Don't ask.) My only problem with them is that they're still only available in comics stores--sure, they put a few in Targets and bookstores, but go try to find one and you'll discover just how under the radar they are--and crucially, you shouldn't need to "try to find one" at all, they should be readily available as impulse purchases, something that your kid sees while you're checking out and begs you to buy, and you give in because you've seen that X-Men movie and both you and your kid liked it.

So, here's the marketing idea. You take the digest editions they're publishing, which are seven dollars and collect four issues. You put them on cheaper paper, newsprint for the interiors and magazine stock for the covers. You knock a buck or so off the price--more, if you can afford it. Maybe even put in ads. You want to get these things as close to four bucks as you can without losing money. (Because "Four issues for four dollars!" looks great as a little sunburst on the cover.) Then...and this is the clever bit...you expand the range. They're currently publishing three titles (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Avengers); you expand it to sixteen (my ideas for the other thirteen are below) and put them in every supermarket, drugstore, and Wal-Mart/K-Mart/Target in America.

Why sixteeen? Because there are four weeks in a month, and four months in a digest. With sixteen titles, you'd have a new edition on the stands every week like clockwork. This means that every week, when Mom or Dad goes grocery shopping and brings the kids, they see at the
checkout line a brand-new comic. Sure, they might not recognize every character, but they recognize the "Marvel Adventures" logo as being family-friendly, safe entertainment. The kid gets a comic every week for four bucks, he/she learns about the Marvel characters and gets hooked on comics, and of course at the end of every book, you've got the "Find the comic store nearest you! Call 1-888-COMIC-BOOK! Don't worry, Mom and Dad--it's FREE!" ad to get the kids into the comic stores buying comics. (Which should be under "Yet More Comics Marketing Ideas"--Marvel reps who go from store to store teaching owners how to decorate to entice casual buyers.)

Ta-da. Kids happy because they get to buy comic books, parents happy because their kids are buying family-friendly entertainment, comic stores and publishers happy because parents don't know their kids are only taking the first step on a life-long addiction.

*The Other Thirteen Titles:

Disclaimer: These are just my ideas, I'm no expert on what sells or what can be made into a series. But that's the great thing, it's not set in stone--if Doctor Strange isn't selling, cut it after 24 issues and start up Man-Thing. So long as you keep to the sixteen titles, you can try out new stuff.

1. X-Men. Surprised they're not doing this one already, to be honest; I expect it's on the agenda, since it's probably Marvel's most high-profile property after Spidey. The trick is getting the "soap opera" feel while keeping each issue self-contained (hey, Claremont managed it up until about issue #200.)

2. Hulk. Again, surprised they're not doing this one already--go with the "Banner on the road" motif, be reminiscent of the old TV show, and parents will probably force it into their kids' hands. Sure, it means taking the Hulk out of the Marvel Adventures: Avengers comic, but kids need to learn that Avengers line-ups change.

3. Daredevil. If you're going down the route of "have public visibility", then this one has to be on the list; he's also had a movie, and that means a greater chance of an impulse buy. (And get Karl Kesel to write this. He knows his stuff when it comes to "light-hearted Daredevil".)

4, 5, and 6. Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. The holy trinity of family-friendly, high-profile Marvel good guys, each of which can carry their own book in a heartbeat.

7. New Mutants. Every X-book needs a spin-off, and you can play this one with a nice "Hogwarts" vibe to draw in Harry Potter fans. Kids learning to use their mutant powers at the mutant academy...tell me that can't sell.

8. Firestar. You should have at least a few female-centered titles to act as positive role-models for girls who want to read comics; sure, Firestar's kind of obscure to comics fans, but a) she's a female hero who isn't "She-[insert male hero here]", and b) to non-comics fans, she's actually probably better known than some A-list heroes. "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" ran for a long time, and kids then are parents now.

9. Black Cat. Another female hero, she's an anti-hero (anti-heroes are more popular with kids than adults like to remember)...she robs from rich villains, gives to poor noble people, and skims a bit for herself. What's not to like?

10. Doctor Strange. This one sounds like it'd be a bit tricky to do and stay family friendly--the key would be to look to series like 'Goosebumps' for inspiration, keep it scary while not being out-and-out horrific. And, of course, having Doctor Strange always save the day helps there.

11. Ghost Rider. Another "spooky" super-hero (again, kids love that stuff more than adults want to remember), and one with a movie coming out soon, which puts him on the list with Daredevil, Hulk, Spidey, the X-Men and the FF. And the look is just awesome.

12. Ms. Marvel. Another good choice for a female hero (arguably, she is a female version of Captain Marvel, but I think at this point, she's more famous than he is); decorated Air Force hero who gets super-powers from aliens, hard to go wrong with that story. (It should probably go without saying that both her and Iron Man's kid-friendly comic should steer clear of the "alcoholism" thing. Kid-friendly=no booze.)

13. Marvel Team-Up. Sure, to us sophisticated adults, this is a lame gimmick title, but come on--when we were kids, wasn't it neat to see Spidey team up with a different hero every issue? And can't you just imagine how cool it would be to pick up a digest and get him teaming with four different heroes in four exciting stories? Plus, it makes a good showcase for more obscure characters to see if they could handle a solo book.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Geek Alert!

Warning: The following anecdote requires, at minimum, a mild degree of science geekery to understand. If you cannot dredge up your memories of high-school science, specifically the unit on temperature, you will not only not get the punchline, you will not even understand that there is a punchline present. You will assume that I'm missing the last paragraph, or worse, that I'm one of those people who just blogs random incidences of their life on the assumption that everyone is interested in me and what I do. Warning over.

So Tony, one of my room-mates, has had a character on 'City of Heroes' for a while now by the name of "Calvin Zero". He's an ice/ice blaster, and if that doesn't make perfect sense to you, go re-read the warning at the beginning of this entry. (Calvin was based on an old RPG character he had back in college, and I think the origins of the character go back further than that, but I digress.)

Tonight, we were playing 'City of Heroes' (Tony was not logged in as Calvin Zero at the time, more's the pity) and we passed another ice/ice blaster, this one named "Celsius Zero". He had a decent costume, and a good bio entry...

...but even so, we all had to agree that Tony's character was way cooler.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Meaning of Lobdell

In honor of Douglas Adams, I now present a list of terms for phenomena in comics that everyone has noticed, but nobody has thought much about because there was never a word for it before. I name them after X-Title creators pretty much totally at random, because naming them after cities seemed just silly.

Claremont (n): The death of a villain at the hands of another villain (usually a new villain) solely to demonstrate how powerful and ruthless the new villain is. The Upstarts, for instance, began their string of appearances in the X-titles with the claremont of the entire Hellfire Club, while Stryfe demonstrated his power with the claremont of Apocalypse. Virtually without exception, claremonts are performed by weak, incompetent, or otherwise unexceptional villains; their spectacular performance against villains never seems to allow them any advantage against heroes. The obvious conclusion to draw is that they're in the wrong line of work--while they might be unexceptional as bad guys, they'd make excellent super-heroes.

Lobdell (v.): To inadvertently reveal one's greatest secret by telling it to the one person sure to blab it to everyone; namely, the reading audience. The greatest example of a character lobdelling comes from Guido Carosella, who revealed to Doctor Leonard Samson and the audience that his powers caused him chronic pain and heart trouble. Within months, a wide variety of characters stumbled onto the information independently and without talking to Doc Samson. Clearly, the audience blabbed. (The same phenomenon also occurs with the secret mindwipe of Batman in 'Identity Crisis'...a secret kept perfectly up until the time the readers found out about it.)

Madureira (n.): A character brought back from the dead despite the seeming total indifference of the reading audience to their deceased status. For example, Bucky. By definition, a madureira must first be a portacio, unless the character has been dead for an extremely long period of time. It will probably take at least another three decades for Barry Allen to become a madureira.

Morrison (v.): To appear in so many titles at the same time that even the most naive reader wonders when the character finds time to sleep. Currently used almost solely in regards to Wolverine, but during the 1990s, the Punisher, Ghost Rider, and Lobo morrisoned regularly.

Portacio (n.): An obscure character brought back for a guest appearance who is obviously going to be killed off over the course of his or her guest appearance in order to "shock" the readers. Why any writer would think their readers are going to be shocked by the death of a portacio, when their imminent death is so obvious, remains a mystery.

Silvestri (n., pl.): The assorted minor characters that have accumulated over the years in the X-titles, which readers are expected to remember even though they might not have appeared for months, years, or even decades. Polaris is a noted silvestra, as is Havok, and by this point the entire original cast of 'New Mutants' qualify as silvestri.

Whedon (n.): A character who is popular enough to be given their own book, but not popular enough to sustain it; the character winds up getting a regular series several times, each time not lasting more than a few years before cancellation. (Notable whedons or wheda--either is correct--include Hawkeye, the Martian Manhunter, Doctor Strange, and the Thing. Note that in all cases the whedon remains a high-profile and active character even between iterations of his/her series.)

Monday, September 18, 2006

ConBestiary #2

Phantasmal Stench: As we are all aware, convention attendees have worked long and hard to change their behavior in the face of stereotypes of them as unwashed, smelly and disgusting. If you poll con attendees, they'll all tell you that of course they shower and change their clothes every day of the convention. So why, then, in the face of all these truthful and hygenic conventioneers, do we still catch a distinctive and unpleasant scent of human body odor?

The answer, of course, is that the stench has endured for so long that it is now self-perpetuating and sentient. The sheer amount of body odor pumped into the air at cons over the years has created an intelligent stink--one whose personality is naturally formed from hundreds of con attendees, and which therefore loves to hang out at cons. It particularly loves the dealer rooms; even though it has no money, it likes to "window shop". It also enjoys hanging out at gaming sessions and all-night anime rooms.

If you find yourself walking through a pocket of the phantasmal stench, simply breathe through your mouth and mutter that you think you saw a bootleg copy of the 'Dungeons and Dragons' cartoon on the other side of the dealer room. (The phantasmal stench loves that show.)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

ConBestiary #1

Escalator Gremlins: These tiny creatures are a sub-species of the common gremlin (subhominus dahlen) which believes itself to be benevolent. Unlike its malicious cousin, it tries to help humans by sabotaging dangerous machinery. Unfortunately, its small cranial capacity (the average escalator gremlin is only three inches long from head to toe) has led it to the erroneous conclusion that escalators are dangerous. They do look dangerous, after all--they're all ominous and black, and they move in a vaguely disturbing way (as any small child who's worried about being sucked into one can attest.) As a result, the escalator gremlins make it their mission to disable escalators in high-traffic areas.

Contrary to popular belief, escalator gremlins have no grievance against elevators--in fact, they find the little chime that sounds when the doors open to be quite soothing. They do everything within their power to ensure that said chime occurs at every single floor, whether the elevator is going up or down.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Vacating

Just a note to say I'll be on vacation for the ensuing week, and will probably not have an entry next week (and really, this is it for this week too, and it ain't much either. Then again, let's face it, none of this is exactly Shakespeare.)

So I leave you with this thought: Why, in this gender-equal world in which we live, do we not hear as much about teamstresses and seamsters as we do about teamsters and seamstresses? Misters and mistresses get equal time--although you don't really hear about a woman having an affair and keeping her "mister" in an apartment across the street--but the proud, hardworking teamstresses get nothing.

To say nothing of how even the most politically correct child doesn't check their pet's gender to determine whether to call it a hamster or hamstress...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Bestest Paradox Ever

November, 2002. The Oval Office. GEORGE W BUSH, the President, sits at his desk.

Enter OLDER GEORGE W BUSH.

YOUNG GEORGE: Am I seeing double? You look more like me than my dad, or even my brother Jeb! And that's saying a lot!

OLD GEORGE: I am you--I'm from the future, the distant year of 2008. A man gave me a time machine, said I could use it to fix my mistakes and make the world a better place. So I came back to here to warn you not to invade Iraq. It'll be a huge mistake.

YOUNG GEORGE: Well, I dunno about that...all my experts have been telling me this should be a slam dunk.

OLD GEORGE: They're wrong! I know, I was there!

YOUNG GEORGE: Seems to me I've heard that kind of negative talk before--you can't focus on the filter, George. You gotta listen to the important stuff, like the things that Karl and Dick tell me. And they're saying that the invasion's gonna go great.

OLD GEORGE: But I'm telling you it'll go bad! Look, I even brought a newspaper! See, we fail miserably!

YOUNG GEORGE: Now, you know I never read the papers. I get all the news I need from my advisors. They do good work.

OLD GEORGE: But it's me! I'm you, and I'm telling you it fails! I was there! I saw it! You have to listen to me, I'm you!

YOUNG GEORGE: I think I'd rather listen to what my heart is telling me over what my future self is telling me.

OLD GEORGE: God, I was an idiot six years ago.

YOUNG GEORGE: Dunno what you're so smug about--which one of us screwed up the war in Iraq?

OLD GEORGE: Oh, that's it. Bring it on!

OLD GEORGE kills YOUNG GEORGE, then promptly vanishes from existence in a poof of temporal logic. Oval Office is vacant except for a dead YOUNG GEORGE.

MAN WITH TIME MACHINE: "Fix mistakes"...check. "Make world a better place"...check.

Friday, August 11, 2006

OK, Needs a Few Words

The post below is part of a fad that's been sweeping comics websites--Marvel's doing a big crossover called 'Civil War', in which their superheroes are divided over a controversial law that makes them register their activities with the government. Iron Man believes that it's important to regain the public trust, while Captain America calls it a violation of civil liberties. And Marvel decided to release little "banner" images you could put on your own website, one with a picture of Captain America that says, "I'm with Cap", one with Iron Man that says "I'm with Iron Man".

Then some guys modified the image to be a shot of Ms. Marvel...from behind...from about waist height...and changed the slogan to "I'm Following Ms. Marvel". It kinda ballooned from there.

The image below is part of my tiny contribution to the fad. I'd post the other two, but several people who read this still haven't seen Season Two, and I don't want to spoil a big plot twist.

So now you understand not just the context, but my allegiance. Because really, whichever side Doctor Who takes is the side that's going to win anyway.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Punk Comics Manifesto

Time, I think, to synthesize several thoughts I've been having about comics as a medium and an industry into a single statement. My hope is to get this read and seen as a movement--the Punk Comics Movement, if you will--however, I'm uncomfortably limited in my experience of starting movements, so I'll probably settle for posting this everywhere they won't take it down and hoping people pass it on. Which I freely give permission to do, by the way--I give anyone who wants permission to copy and repost this in any forum, anywhere, so long as the contents are unaltered. I'd like you to give me credit, but I'm sure it'll get dropped off somewhere along the line--that's OK, the ideas are more important, and if anonymity is the price of fame, then so be it.

The Punk Comics Movement can be summed up in two simple statements, one for the artistic side of comics, one for the business side. (Once you read these two statements, it may or may not be apparent to you why I'm calling it "punk comics".) The artistic Punk Comics Manifesto is, "Write this comic like it was the only one anyone was ever going to read." The business Punk Comics Manifesto is, "Everyone should be reading comics." Those two statements might seem mutually exclusive, but read on.

1. "Write this comic like it was the only one anyone was ever going to read." You can break this statement down into two parts--first, assume that the comic you're writing is the first one that someone has ever read, and second, don't expect them to be picking up the next one you write. A good comic should always be self-contained.

There was a time when this was virtually taken for granted in the comic industry. Reader turnover was considered to be complete every two years, and so it was assumed that anytime you wrote a comic book, you were writing it for an audience that didn't know about anything that happened more than two years ago. In addition, with spotty newsstand distribution, it was considered to be so difficult to follow a comic for more than a few months that issues had to be self-contained to avoid reader frustration. These two notions have been almost totally abandoned over the years; in much the same way Punk Rock went back to the roots of the genre and simplified the message, Punk Comics aims to do the same thing.

A. Assume the comic you're writing is the first one that someone has ever read. You should assume that, really--more than assume, you should hope it. You should always hope, as a writer, that every comic you write is attracting a new reader, at least one, and you should write with that new reader in mind. Which means that you have to, absolutely have to, write an issue that a first-time reader can pick up and immediately understand. If you're writing an issue of the Flash, make sure somewhere in that issue is an explanation of who the Flash is and what he's all about--it doesn't have to be long, or elaborate, but it needs to be there. If you're bringing back Electro, explain who he is and why he's dangerous--even just a brief, "Uh-oh, it's Electro again! Last time we fought, he nearly killed me with his electric blasts!" is better than no explanation at all. Characters with backstories so complicated they need elaborate, lengthy explanations (or worse, stories with no point beyond explaining backstories from existing characters) shouldn't be involved. Simplify, simplify, simplify, and assume that your reader knows nothing.

B. Don't expect them to be picking up the next comic you write. A comic takes an enormous amount of time and effort to produce, meaning that there's a substantial wait on the part of the reader for each individual comics story. Producing a story with no pay-off, a story that ends on a cliff-hanger, is essentially telling the reader, "This story is so special that it is worth an entire month of your time to wait for the ending." Producing a ten-part story is telling the reader, "This story is so special that it is worth ten months of your time and thirty dollars of your money to wait for the ending." That's a lot to ask of the reader, and you should do it only rarely.

Instead, the medium should fit the message. If you have a comics story that will be 200 pages long and paced like a novel, write it as a 200-page graphic novel. Don't break it down into ten 20-page chunks just to fit a century-old idea of how comics are sold. If you're publishing a monthly 32-page comic, put a pay-off in at the end of every thirty-two page issue, even if you're also establishing longer plot threads that will pay off more for the returning reader. If you're worried that you're providing a "jumping-off" point for people to stop reading, then you don't have enough faith in your writing talent. Tease them into buying more, yes; entice them, lure them, interest them. But don't expect their continued patronage, and certainly don't demand it by writing a story that never seems to end.

(And yes, people will point to Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, both of whom wrote serialized graphic novels--but both Moore on Swamp Thing and Gaiman on Sandman had quite a few stand-alone issues, too. And, of course, with two exceptions, you're not Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, so you probably can't get away with what they can.)

2. "Everyone should be reading comics." The comic book industry has sunk into a ghetto. Their marketing muscles have atrophied from long disuse, and they no longer even seem to have an awareness that there's a world outside of the comic store; they consider it a far-reaching, radical step to put their product in bookstores, in the little section for "graphic novels" that's being slowly edged aside by waves of better-marketed Japanese imports. This has to change.

The comic medium has the potential to be the most pervasive in the world. Comics combine the accessibility of television or film with the intellect and ability to express complex concepts of books. They should be able to display the same breadth of subject matter as books, as films, as any other medium out there. And yet, if you look at them now, they are predominantly action-adventure material of a single sub-genre (the superhero) exclusively sold in a single type of store. Whereas books are sold in grocery stores and drugstores, videos are sold in K-Marts and convenience stores, and magazine racks are in practically every store large enough to hold them.

Comics companies need to experiment with format, with price, with subject matter. Start a line of romance digest comics, paperback-sized, and sell them in bookstores next to the Harlequin Romances. Co-produce a line of educational comics with the makers of Cliff's Notes. Create magazine-sized "Treasury" comics that you can sell next to Disney Adventures and Nickelodeon Magazine. Market a line of teen fantasy comics to sell to the girls who buy Tiger Beat, and a boy's action comics line to sell in video game stores. Stop thinking that comics have to be 32 pages long, all the same length and width, and sold in comics stores to the fanboys. Readers are not going to walk through your door and demand your product. You must find them.

3. Conclusion: Comics need to be more accessible. To the writers, this means writing a comic that anyone can pick up and enjoy, not simply an infinitesimal fragment of a never-ending soap opera. To the publishers, this means putting the comic out where anyone can find it, where it is the perfect impulse purchase instead of the province of a dwindling number of devoted enthusiasts.

Punk Comics. This is a pen. This is a pencil. Now start your own.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Top 5 Worst Resurrections

...in comics, that is. I am not discussing Jesus again, especially not in the context of comics resurrections. (Although that one was kinda lame. His dad just zaps him back to life a few days later? Puh-lease. It wasn't even foreshadowed.)

No, I'm talking about the comic-book trend of bringing back dead characters with very contrived explanations, primarily because fans want to continue reading about said character's adventures and won't take "Ack, gurgle, thud!" for an answer. Here they are...

5. Jean Grey. Technically not a very bad one, but it set the precedent for BS "Look, I'm back!" resurrections. Jean Grey's mutant powers had kicked into overdrive, making her telekinesis so powerful that she could snuff out stars--which she did, destroying an entire solar system when he went crazy from having so much power. She nobly decided to kill herself, rather than risk endangering the entire universe should she go crazy again. Resurrection: It turned out that an actual super-powerful cosmic entity precisely duplicated her, and the cosmic entity/duplicate killed itself because That's What Jean Would Have Done. The real Jean was found years later, just fine and dandy.

4. Elektra. She was stabbed in the chest with her own sai by Bullseye (although unlike the movie version, it was in a rivalry over who would become the Kingpin's personal hitman.) Resurrection: Ninja magic.

3. Green Lantern. Hal Jordan went insane after the destruction of his hometown, Coast City, at the hands of the alien Mongul, and tried to gather enough cosmic power to rewrite history and save those victims no matter what the cost to anyone else. To this end, he destroyed the Green Lantern Corps, destroyed and remade the universe, yet still failed at saving the people he cared about the most. Finally, having regained his sanity, he sacrificed his power and life restoring Earth's sun in a heroic and noble moment, and became DC's ghostly spirit of redemption, The Spectre. Resurrection: All the evil stuff he did was because of alien fear parasites, and when he found that out, he got better.

2. Green Goblin. In one of the most iconic and memorable stories of Spider-Man's 44-year history, Norman Osborn's mind reverted to his sinister Green Goblin persona one last time, prompting him to kidnap Peter Parker's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and throw her off a bridge. Spider-Man failed to save her, and he tracked down the Green Goblin and beat him savagely--and yet, he couldn't kill him. The Goblin did that himself, when he tried to impale Spidey from behind on his Goblin Glider and Spidey dodged it. The Goblin's own Glider stabbed him through the heart. Resurrection: It just hurt real bad. He's better now.

1. Guardian. Alpha Flight's charismatic leader died in a battle with Omega Flight, a team assembled to take the Canadian super-heroes down. Months later, he returned, explaining that he'd actually activated a prototype teleporter in his battlesuit that teleported him to one of the moons of Jupiter, where he was rescued and healed by a race of benevolent aliens. But this turned out to be a lie covering the return of Omega Flight's leader disguised as Guardian--writer John Byrne cleverly parodied implausible resurrection stories to sucker fans into believing Guardian was back, knowing that the more convoluted and unbelievable the resurrection, the more the fans bought it. The unveiling of Guardian as a villain was therefore a genuine surprise. Resurrection: The whole BS story about the moons of Jupiter and the benevolent aliens turned out to be true. Says it all, don't it?

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Announcement

It's not really a big announcement, since 90% of the people who read this blog are friends and family, and I've already told all of them, but this is the point where anyone who just stumbled onto this blog while looking for Doctor Seuss fanfic and discussions of zombies finds out...

I'm now officially contracted to write 'The Crossover Companion', for TwoMorrows Press, due sometime in 2007. It'll be a comprehensive look at the crossover phenomenon in comics, starting from the earliest idea that each company's stories all took place in the same fictional universe, and moving forward to examine the "event" crossovers that became a permanent fixture of the industry (for good and bad) in the 80s, 90s, and on through the present day. It will also serve as a guide to these crossovers for anyone who wants to know what titles spun off out of 'Zero Hour', who wrote 'Secret Wars II', what happened in 'Unity', and who died in 'Extreme Prejudice' (assuming anyone on this Earth actually cares who died in 'Extreme Prejudice'.)

It'll be about 200 pages, and I'll give details on things like price, cover artist, and similar once they're forthcoming. I hope everyone enjoys it. I also hope they buy it, since I get a cut of every copy.

Friday, July 14, 2006

In Defense of the Status Quo

Let's face it--everyone hates the status quo. People equate the phrase with stagnation, boredom, lifelessness, and a flat unchanging nothing. Everyone insists that stories should "kick against the status quo" (especially in comics, where there's practically a jihad going on between people who hate it and people who love it.) And nobody seems to understand what the damn thing is. So here's a quick explanation of what a status quo is, and why you should love it.

Any series (not just comics series, but TV, movie, video game, manga, what have you--any setting that is designed to tell multiple stories based around a character or group of characters) must have a status quo. That status quo is the baseline setting and context for the series, and it functions as a generator of stories. That status quo can be anything from "a group of people in the workplace that don't get along very well" to "a man with a magic box that lets him go anywhere in space and time" to "a mystery writer who actually solves mysteries" to "a group of mutant superheroes that help a world that fears and hates them." (Obviously, these are just thumbnail descriptions: A real "status quo" for a series involves descriptions of each character, what makes them tick, the world they operate in, their relationships to each other, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.)

That phrase, "a generator of stories," is an important one. It means that there are stories you can tell about these people that come out of the setting and context you establish, stories that are interesting in and of themselves. Obviously, not all status quos are created equal. There are a lot more interesting stories you can tell about "a man with a magic box that lets him go anywhere in space and time" than you can about "a group of people in the workplace that don't get along very well", which is why 'Doctor Who' is still going after 43 years and even a great workplace sitcom like 'NewsRadio' only lasted five. Not all settings and contexts have the same number of interesting stories to tell about them; some have very few.

Now, this is where the comics community has bandied about terms like "real change vs. the illusion of change". There are two factions in comics that each have very strong views about making major changes to a comic book; the "real change" people insist that change is an important, naturalistic element of story-telling, and that by forcing the characters to conform to an unchanging model, they've made them stagnant and lifeless; the "illusion of change" people insist that when you make major changes to a character, you're losing as much as you gain, and all too often you can lose the thing that makes the character special.

But here's where our above definition of "status quo" comes in, because it not only explains away the seeming contradiction between the two, but also explains the existence of the third type of story that neither side seems to acknowledge: The story that is exciting without having either change or the illusion thereof. That type of story is the kind that the status quo generates directly out of its context and setting, and if it's a good status quo, you should be able to tell a lot of those. The X-Men can go out and save the world a lot without needing to make changes in their setting and context, and it'll probably be exciting.

But "illusion of change vs. real change" translates, here, into "deviation from, and return to the status quo vs. transition from one status quo to another new status quo." An "illusion of change" story is one where something happens to upset the status quo, the setting and context of the characters' lives, and their efforts to return things to said status quo. For example, the X-Men went through a very long "illusion of change" story from Uncanny X-Men #200-280, where Professor X left Earth, the team faked their deaths and moved to Australia, the mansion was destroyed, and several characters lost their memories of being X-Men, all before Professor X finally returned and helped set things to rights. (Which brings up an interesting point: That storyline wasn't well received, because it went on for a very long time and people were frustrated that there seemed to be no end to the changes. You can only deviate from the status quo so long and so far because "meaning" comes from setting and context--without a world to ground the story you're telling, it becomes pointless. Status quos are necessary because they provide that context. But I digress.)

"Real change" stories, on the other hand, change the status quo to an entirely new one. They demolish the old story-generating engine, and create a new one. For example, Batgirl got shot in the back, suffering permanent spinal damage that confined her to a wheelchair, and became the tech-savvy Oracle, leader and mastermind of the female super-hero team, 'The Birds of Prey'. That's a significant and permanent change--you're telling a completely different type of story with Barbara Gordon than you told thirty years ago. You have a different status quo.

So, here's where it all comes together. "Real change" fans think that they're advocating "no status quo", but you can't do that, because a status quo is simply a context and setting to your character's continuing adventures, which is absolutely necessary to give the story its emotional grounding. They're simply advocating that status quos should feel free to change. "Illusion of change" fans recognize the point brought up back near the beginning: Not all status quos are created equal. Not all story-generating engines have the same number of stories in them, nor the same quality. (Notice how 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' tended to founder a bit after they left high school? New status quo, not as many good stories in it.) Changing to a new status quo is only a good idea if the new status quo has as many or more good stories in it. Otherwise, you're just closing off interesting possibilities. Which means that changing the status quo shouldn't be done lightly or often, especially in comics--a lot of these status quos have managed to keep going for decades because there are so many interesting stories to tell with them; changing the engine could wreck it, and it takes time and effort to fix something like that. (Witness the 'Clone Saga'.)

There ya go. Why status quo is important, why it should be viewed as valuable, and why you shouldn't tinker with it too much when you're writing an open-ended series (like, say, having Scott Summers get mind-controlled by Jean Grey's ghost into falling in love with the White Queen, right before you leave the series.) And all in just a few hundred easy paragraphs.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"And I'd Survive, Too!"

Unbidden, the memory of reading about the medical condition known as "hyponatremia" popped into my head last night--it's a dangerous medical condition caused by over-hydrating (usually done by marathon runners who are over-eager to prevent dehydration) where the sodium levels in the blood drop too far. It can lead to all sorts of unpleasant symptoms, and can even be fatal.

It got me thinking about marathons in general, and I had to wonder, "How did all this get started?" I mean, yes, we've all heard the legend about the Battle of Marathon, and the Greek soldier who ran all the way from Marathon to Athens, proclaimed the Athenian victory, then keeled over dead.

What I wanna know is, who looked down at the guy's corpse and said, "I bet I could beat his time"?

Friday, July 07, 2006

The S-Word

I read 'X-23: Innocence Lost' and 'NYX: Wannabe' recently, the two books that brought X-23 into the Marvel Universe (X-23 is a clone of Wolverine that, for various reasons, wound up being female). I'm not generally a person who goes into these things seeing any sort of political or subtextual agenda, and I generally enjoy my comfortable obliviousness to said agendas, but...wow, these books are pathetically sexist.

There. I've said it, and I'd say it again if I had to.

Basically, there's a certain element of laziness to X-23's origin story. She's "Wolverine as a teenage girl". Her origin is pretty much exactly the same, beat for beat, except where they felt they should change things to make them more "female". And that's where the sexism comes in. Because, you see, while Weapon X escaped from the project because they were torturing her, X-23 had a female scientist who acted as surrogate mother to the clone and felt all maternal to her (see, she lost her scientific detachment and went all gooey for the girl once she was born, because that's just what women do.) And it was Mom who helped X-23 decide that she needed to escape (because X-23 wouldn't have done it on her own, or something.) Mom dies in the escape, and X-23 is left on her own...

...and when we next see her, she's a hooker.

Do I even need to add anything to that last statement? Do I even need to explain what is so staggeringly, pathetically, loathesomely sexist about the idea that any woman who winds up on her own in a large city for more than a week winds up under the thumb of a domineering pimp, even one who can leave people's body parts in different zip codes and doesn't need money to survive? Do I need to point out that there's absolutely no explanation given for her career move--she just shows up in the book, and hey look, she's a hooker, and the writer (who is also, disappointingly enough, the editor-in-chief of Marvel) just expects us to accept that, no questions asked, because that is after all what women do?

Sometimes I wonder about this medium.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

DC Zombies

After reading 'Ultimate Fantastic Four Volume Five' (now a strong contender for Awesomest Thing Ever), I'm fully up to speed on the Marvel Zombieverse--an alternate reality just like the regular Marvel Universe, except that "three days ago", one of the super-heroes got infected with a virus that gave him an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Human, and super-human.

And now, every super-hero in the Marvel Universe is a rotting, insane, super-zombie.

So naturally, that led me to think: How would the DC version of this go? So here's the basic plot of the three issue "DC Zombies" mini-series.

Issue One: Outbreak. Access (the DC/Marvel jointly-owned character who can freely travel between continuities) teleports into Gotham City, looking for help from its heroes. But he's already infected, and by the time he finds Robin, he starts gnawing on him instead of asking him for assistance. Robin fends off his assailant, but a trail of victims tells him that Gotham's already in trouble. The infection spreads through the city, snagging both Nightwing and the Mad Hatter (who are locked in combat at the time.) Nightwing delivers the Mad Hatter to Arkham before succumbing to the infection himself.

At dawn, Batman returns to the Batcave, having narrowly escaped infection several times, and broadcasts word to the JLA that he needs help quarantining the city. Superman arrives, bringing with him Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter, and Green Lantern, but it's already too late--isolated reports of infection have come through from Metropolis and Fawcett City, and it appears to be spreading west. Then worse news arrives, as dozens of super-zombie-criminals break out of Arkham, led by a zombie Amygdala and a zombie Killer Croc. The JLA attempt to contain them, but the issue ends with Kiler Croc chomping down on Superman's shoulder.

Issue Two: The Hunt. The battle with the JLA concludes in disaster, as Superman flees the battle, and Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter are both infected. Green Lantern is forced to retreat, and zombie Wonder Woman and zombie Martian Manhunter begin circling the globe spreading the infection. Batman goes into zombie-infested Gotham to find Nightwing and Robin, getting updates from Oracle as he does so. (Oracle is on a Blackhawk plane, circling the globe herself, and is hence safe from the plague, but she's already starting to worry about refueling.) Oracle delivers updates from Coast City, where Hal Jordan tries to hold off zombie Sinestro, from Fawcett City, where Captain Marvel is nowhere to be found (we see Billy Batson starting to shout "Sha--" before a zombie sinks its teeth into his cheek), and all over the world.

Superman, meanwhile, contacts Batman to tell him that his powers aren't enough to hold the infection at bay, and he's losing control to the hunger. When he fled, it was to attain orbit--the more sunlight he gets, the more powerful he becomes and the better he can fight the infection, so he had to get out of the atmosphere to avoid atmospheric scatter. But it's still not enough. He informs Batman that he's flying at top speed towards the sun--he'll either get strong enough to burn out the infection completely, or he'll vaporize in the sun's heat. Either way, the world will be safe from him.

Meanwhile, Oracle continues to receive reports of heroes fighting zombies. Swamp Thing is attacked by zombie versions of Doctor Fate and Zatanna, and is forced to abandon his physical body, only to discover that he's brought the infection into the Green itself. Buddy Baker, meanwhile, finds that he's done the same with the Red. Nature begins to eat itself as the infection spreads.

We cut back to Batman, in the Batcave. The JLA teleporter has been disabled. Nightwing and Robin are pinned to the ground with Batarangs through their hands and ankles, each one muzzled to prevent accidents. And Batman begins working on a cure.

Book Three: The Cure. Oracle acts as pronouncer of the end of the world, from two miles above it. Her reports come in from every city, and she dutifully relays them to Batman. The Green Lantern Corps has abandoned Earth and recalled its ring-bearers. (Back on Oa, we see a zombie Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, and John Stewart slugging it out with the rest of the Green Lanterns, in the first battle of the Green Lantern Corps and the Green Lantern Corpse.) The few people immune to the zombie plague are being killed. (Hawk, Dove, and Black Adam, each with magical bodies, are being ripped apart--literally--by the JSA.) Nobody knows what's happened to Captain Marvel. (We see a young boy, his jaw half-ripped-off, shouting "a-am!" ineffectually through shredded lips.) Poison Ivy's own plants have attacked her, infecting her, and the Floronic Man has spontaneously zombified. Things have gone from bad to worse to worst...

Then they go to the level past worst, as zombie Power Girl and zombie Supergirl each take a wing of Oracle's plane and make a wish. But back in the Batcave, Batman's made a breakthrough. He's got a drug that appears to be able to stem the hunger, like methadone for a heroin addict. It doesn't cure the infection, but the patient becomes rational. He makes the dangerous test of it, releasing zombie Nightwing from his muzzle...but Dick's sane now. He doesn't attack.

Power Girl does, though. She and Supergirl come smashing into the Batcave, its location supplied to them by zombie Oracle. Batman fires darts filled with the "cure" at them, but their bullet-proof skin repels it, and he's forced to flee. Dick and Tim are left behind in the Batcave, the formula for the "cure" unfortunately lost in the Batcomputer that was buried under tons of rubble in the fight, and knowing they'll succumb to the hunger without it.

Batman, meanwhile, flees for his life through zombie Gotham. He manages to elude Power Girl and Supergirl by ducking through lead-lined subway tunnels, and thinks he's escaped...but one of his own Batarangs slicing into his Achilles tendons tells him otherwise. He limps away, expecting to see Nightwing when he turns...but instead it's zombie Oracle, wheeling herself towards him with an evil grin. She pulls him down, and begins to feed...

Two weeks later, and Superman finally returns. He's cured--it took a plunge into the very heart of the sun, a risk he'd never have taken if not for the need to cure the infection, but he's free of it now, and more powerful than ever. He's ready to save the world! But he sees, as he arrives, that it's too late. He's met by the zombie super-hero population, everyone from zombie Ambush Bug to zombie Zatanna. The very trees, the animals, every single form of life on Earth has succumbed to the infection, and the hunger it brings. And then he understands what he must do to save the world. Superman's never unleashed his full power before, but he does now--and he destroys Earth and everyone on it. Alone, in space, the last son of two worlds looks for somewhere new to call home.

And on Apokolips, a boom tube opens. Darkseid himself looks toward the noise, and sees his estranged son, Orion, cross the threshold. But why does he look so...pale?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Nummy Thing Of The Day

Marvel's putting out a line of little pocket-sized "Marvel Adventures" books. They're seven bucks, they collect four issues of stand-alone, all-ages stories in a format about like the manga books that are slowly but surely taking over entire shelves at your local Barnes and Noble, and they're so much fun it hurts. I can't stress this enough--they are cheap, portable, light-hearted, all-ages comics. If they sold these things at super-market checkout lines, everybody in the world would be a Marvel fan.

They're very much worth tracking down.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Die-Cut 'Stigmata' Cover!

Not even sure what part of my comics-saturated brain came up with this one, but it's terrifyingly easy to imagine the New Testament as done by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The covers practically draw themselves in your head:

Issue #15: Mary Magdalene kneeling by the body of Lazarus, saying, "NO! The Pharisee has killed Lazarus!" But standing right behind her, his fists clenched, is Jesus, shouting, "Not if I have anything to say about it!"

Issue #27: Jesus, struggling against two Roman Legionnaires, with a thought balloon over his head, saying, "It can't be! One of my disciples...has betrayed me! But WHO???" At the bottom, text reads: "You must not miss...the Kiss of Death!"

Issue #32: Jesus on the cross, his teeth clenched as a Roman Legionnaire prepares to thrust a spear at his ribs. Text reads: "64 pages! No ads! THE DEATH OF JESUS!"

Issue #35: The tomb in the hillside, with the rock that forms its entrance shattering from a blast of cosmic energy. Text reads simply: "Guess Who's Back?!?"

And of course, it'd all end with Jesus giving super-powers to his disciples before going off to have cosmic adventures in space, which leads to the spin-off series: The Disciples! "Disciples Determine!"

Amen, True Believers!




...i'm so going to hell for this...

Friday, June 16, 2006

Super-Heroes Were Insane In the Fifties

Reading a black-and-white digest volume of classic Silver Age Justice League stories, and...wow, it's some seriously crazy shit, here. I mean, Grant Morrison on his craziest day could not come up with anything this batshit insane. The Weapons Master has traveled back in time ten thousand years to test his super-arsenal out on the JLA (see, he's surrounded by cops, and he knows that one of his super-weapons can stop the police, but he doesn't know which one, so he's traveled back in time ten thousand years to figure out which one is the best, so he can then travel back into the present and use it on the cops. Just typing that sentence destroyed brain cells.)

So as I say, the Weapons Master wants to test his weapons on the JLA. His plan--trap the JLA in a force-field (which he won't use on those pesky cops), and then as they escape one by one, drop a cryptic clue as to his future whereabouts so they'll chase him there and he can test his weapons. The first clue, given to the Flash, is "When the ghost walks at Hesperus on the second day of the moonless month, I am waiting to do battle!"The Flash knows that "when the ghost walks" is theatrical slang for payday, and finds out from an encyclopedia that "Hesperus" was Homer's name for Venus. So from that, he instantly deduces that the Weapons Master will be attacking a planned rocket launch to the planet Venus from Florida that takes place February 1st!

And he's actually right.

Super-heroes were insane in the Fifties.

Monday, June 12, 2006

*wave*

Haven't posted much lately because I haven't had much to say--I've been filling my brain up with so much comics lore lately (Hint #1 about the book in a series! Collect them all!) that it renders it hard to think about anything else. I am, right now, one of the most boring conversationalists in the world.

Unless you happen to be into comics too.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Theodore Geisel's 'Serenity'

When River fights with Reavers, it's a River-Reaver battle.

When she cuts them with a cleaver and she hits them in the liver, it's a River-Reaver-liver-cleaver battle.

And when River fights with Reavers with her Reaver-liver-cleaver and she hits them in the liver and she slaughters them like cattle, it's a River-Reaver-liver-cleaver-cattle-battle.

Then she says, "Our fight is done sir, you're dead so I think I've won, sir."

(Next time on Theodore Geisel Theatre, we present "Theodore Geisel's 'X-Files'. "If sir, you sir, want to chew sir, on the black goo Krycek knew sir, do sir!")

Thursday, June 01, 2006

No Wonder He Uses Mind Control

So exactly how does Charles Xavier sell Xavier's School For Gifted Youths to the average parent?

"Yes, it's a lovely campus, with small class sizes..."

"Accredited? Well, no, not so much accredited per se, but our staff is world-renowned. For example, well-known mutant terrorist and criminal Magneto once--"

"Students? Well, I started with five, but now we have well over a hundred children learning--"

"Graduation rate? Well, the initial five all graduated, and, um...one or two since then, I think, I'd have to go back and check. Oh, it's easy to speak with the graduates--most of them still live at the school, or at least hang out there. The surviving ones, that is."

"Oh, no, don't worry, our death rate is actually quite low! We've had a suicide recently, and a handful of gunshot victims, and of course the riot...but really, it's relatively safe. Most of them come back to life at some point anyway. Eventually."

"Tuition? Yes, I can see how you'd find it a bit high, but there are a number of expenses to consider. We have a supersonic jet to maintain, and of course the on-premises supercomputer, and the 'Danger Room'..."

"No, no, that's just a name. It won't actually put the students in any danger. The whirling blades, flamethrowers, energy blasters, and solid-light holographic simulated mutant killers are programmed to stop before they really hurt people. Although there was the one time that the computer developed sentience and tried to kill everyone..."

Monday, May 29, 2006

White Crosses

This is a reproduction of something I wrote some time ago, for a previous online column I did back before it was called "blogging" (sometime in 2000/2001, IIRC.) I'm putting it up here because it seems appropriate today.

"The local radio station's been running promos all weekend, talking about how Memorial Day isn't just about the paid vacation, or the long weekend, or barbeques or fishing trips. They're having their DJs record little messages, talking about remembering the men and women who've served this country, who've defended our freedom, and how proud they are to live in such a great country.

"Which is fine, I suppose, as far as it goes, demonstrating to us that one of the littler-understood holidays has a purpose (Labor Day, I think, is the other one that seems to be less celebrated than used as a convenient excuse for a day off.) But I don't think they've got the right end of the stick, here. I could be wrong, but I don't think they're understanding Memorial Day at all.

"It's not about celebrating the men and women who've served our country and defended our freedom. Surely that'd be Veteran's Day? And I can't imagine that it's a day to think about how proud we are to be Americans...I think Independence Day would be more appropriate for that. In fact, I think that patriotism actually interferes with the true purpose of Memorial Day.

"Memorial Day is a day to remember the dead. It is a day in which we contemplate the wars that have been fought, for politics, for kings, for territory, for hatred, or for no reason at all. It is a day in which we consider the North Vietnamese soldier fighting to reunite his country, his flesh burning with napalm, and the day in which we consider the American soldier dying half a world away from the people he loves with a sniper's bullet lodged in his head. It is a day when we look to Russia and imagine a generation of young men decimated by war, a country bled white by the invading Nazis, and in which we try to imagine what it must have been like for the German soldiers as they froze to death fighting for the dreams of a madman. It is a day when we look at the world around us, and at the millions of graves that we've already dug, row upon row of white crosses staring back at us, and ask ourselves, is this something we want to do again?

"Perhaps it's no wonder that people prefer to think of it as an excuse for barbeques and fishing trips."

Saturday, May 27, 2006

X-Men 3: Spoiler-Free Review

On the whole, a good movie, but it makes two major mistakes that keep it from continuing the "each X-Men movie is better than the previous one" trend.

First, they give Halle Berry more screen time. This is problematic, because she gives every line about the same exact reading, which is to say a disinterested, vaguely snappish monotone. She has no screen presence at all; at any given moment, you'll be more likely to watch for background cameos by minor X-characters than you will be to pay attention to whatever she's saying. And given that for one reason or another, Scott, Jean, Xavier, and Rogue don't get much screen time, she has to carry about half the movie. And that's 51% more than she can successfully lift.

The other is (not a spoiler, because it was in the trailers) Jean's back from the dead. This is a story arc that deserves its own movie, but they've decided to try to fit it in at the same time as the "mutant cure" arc that forms the story's A-plot. Which means that neither one has enough time to really work, and further means that the work of establishing the new X-characters (because as previously mentioned, Scott, Jean, Xavier and Rogue are all, for one reason or another, absent for much of the movie) goes unfinished. Beast is nice enough (although the make-up is lousy), but you never get a real sense of who he is. Kitty and Colossus remain cameo-level characters even though they're supposed to now be first-team X-Men. This hurts the movie in all sorts of little knock-on ways. Really, Jean should have come back at the end, and they should have had enough confidence in the franchise to believe that they would do a fourth.

But that's the bad stuff. The good stuff? Everything else.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Disturbing Geek Moment of the Day

I was, for no particular reason, thinking about Spider-Man's webbing, when suddenly my chain of thoughts slipped a couple of notches in the gear, leading to a disturbing realization I must now share with you all. It works as follows:

Peter David once commented on how much money Peter Parker could make just by patenting and selling his web-fluid. He talked about all its potential uses, from medical (sutures, stitches, and temporary casts that dissolve on their own after an hour) to law-enforcement (web-bombs that incapacitate crowds of protesters without hurting them is practically the holy grail of SWAT teams.) But, I suddenly realized, he'd left an important one out.

If the webbing is, as we've always been told, an adhesive so powerful that no human can break it, no matter how tightly they struggle, that dissolves on its own after an hour, and that won't stick to certain chemically treated fabrics, well...you could make billions by marketing it to bondage fans. "Bondage gear in a can--spray on, and they won't move for an hour."

I didn't even have time to ponder the story implications of that disturbing realization, though (although it involves an unscrupulous chemist, Peter realizing he'd never actually patented the web-formula, and a lot of public humiliation when crooks start referring to him as "that kinky sex vigilante!") because my brain had already skipped to the next logical step...

Peter and Mary Jane must have used his webbing like that already.

I mean, they were newlyweds, Mary Jane's always been presented as a fairly freaky chick, insofar as the Comics Code can present such, and every couple goes through at least one "it seemed like a good idea at the time" sexual encounter. At some point, she must have decided to use the web-shooters on Peter to keep him from going out and fighting crime while she was in the mood. At least once.

And you just know the whole rest of the day, when Peter was webbing up super-criminals, he was getting weirded out in a big way.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Odd Businesses

All seen on actual checks at work:

"Interstate Meat Service" (it's even written in 70s porn-movie font)

"Wagner's Meat" (continuing the 'meat' theme--and yes, I know it doesn't sound too bad, until you see the slogan at the bottom of the check. "You can't beat Wagner's meat." I hadn't actually intended to try, thanks.)

"Linco Iron Erection" (never fails to bring a smile to my face, that one.)

"Kuntz Electric" (presumably one hopes they never entered into a partnership with Linco Iron Erection.)

Friday, May 12, 2006

Watch This Space

I'm writing a book. More info later...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

If I Could

If I could have any super-power from comics, I think I'd want Multiple Man's powers. It just seems like the most effective power for a person who's not going to be fighting any super-villains; super-speed doesn't really help when you're working with computers, talking to people, or really doing anything other than running. Super-strength? Yeah, how often do I need to lift really heavy things, exactly? Stretching, flame powers...invisibility has some potential, but really, duplicating yourself is where it's at.

Suddenly money's not a problem--you can work twenty jobs, and only have one person's rent bill. You can finally sit down and really grind out levels in that MMO, because you can have one of you dedicated to doing exactly that 24/7. Reading? Watching movies? Feel free to suddenly become the most educated person on the planet, because you can read a whole library in a week. It's like suddenly having 40 times as much free time.

Not to mention you always have someone intelligent to talk to.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Ted Kord Lives!

For anyone who remains bothered by the death of Ted Kord, the Silver Age Blue Beetle, in the recent "death-tastic" crossover 'Infinite Crisis', there's an easy 'get out of jail free' card in recent continuity. When Blue Beetle joined the SuperBuddies a few years ago (don't ask--no, really, just don't, it's a textbook example of You Probably Don't Want To Know), the team traveled to a parallel universe and met their own evil counterparts. Except for Blue Beetle, whose evil counterpart was strangely absent. Oh, and he suffered a mysterious bout of amnesia during that story.

So there you go. The Blue Beetle that Max Lord shot was the evil counterpart, who had taken the opportunity to swap places with his good version when they passed through. In our universe, he had started to take his first steps towards redemption, inspired by the heroes of this world...and it cost him his life.

Actually, that's even more depressing than the version that DC published.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

State of Horror

I watched 'The Fog' yesterday--it was the original version, not the re-make, but they had a trailer for the remake included on the DVD, and it's interesting to see. Because it does seem to be a snap-shot of the way horror movies have changed for the mainstream audience.

1) Everyone's younger. Every single character in the re-make of 'The Fog' (and from the looks of the trailer, it was a pretty literal re-make) is easily ten years younger than the same character was in the original. Some are twenty or thirty years younger. It's as though you can't make a movie about anyone other than photogenic twenty-somethings anymore. (Which could be a movie idea in and of itself...a mysterious force "deleting" everyone over a certain age from history, smoothing over things and leaving a Calvin Klein-ready community in its wake?)

2) There's much less gore. OK, this isn't immediately evident from the trailer, but it is evident from the rating they put at the end of the trailer. Back in 1980, every horror movie had to have the gore and nudity amped up to R-rated levels, because the big bucks came from teenagers sneaking into R-rated movies. They wouldn't bother with a PG horror movie--too wimpy. Now, theaters enforce the ratings more stringently, and so the big bucks come from skimping on the gore just enough to get that rating down to PG-13 and getting those 13-16 year olds to see the film. Which means that there's far less scares, and far more "atmosphere" (read: far less scares, and far more long shots of dark areas with spooky music.)

3) The technical elements of film-making have improved greatly. While the original 'Fog' did have some classic B-list actors and great direction from Carpenter, the overall cinematography and special effects did betray that it was an early 80s horror film. The current 'Fog', for all of the problems listed in 1 and 2 above, does look like a more lavish, slicker production. Less money now looks nicer than more money did back then, which is a good thing for future film-makers.

So what does all this mean? That most horror movies, as we see them today, are pale and weak descendants of bloody ancestors. They give not real horror, but the pretense of horror. Audiences haven't really been shocked and scared in a long time by these imitation horror movies.

I think, though, that what hope there is comes from 3. With the costs of making a slick, lavish-looking horror film dropping, it's entirely possible that we could see a new wave of horror films that don't need to be big hits in theaters, that don't need to wimp out to cater to bored 13-year olds. They can do what they want, be as edgy as they feel like, and see the profits on DVD. (Hopefully, 'Slither' will bear me out on this when it hits DVD.)

Of course, I think the most shocking thing to people reading this blog will be finding out I care this much about horror movies. :)

Saturday, April 29, 2006

As Played By Troy McClure

Watched a bit of the NFL draft today...they were talking about a young receiver that got picked by San Francisco in the first round, and as with all the players they talked about, they showed highlights of his college career, accompanied by short descriptive phrases that flashed up on the screen. So we learned he is/has "Intelligence"..."Hands"..."Leaper"...which I, unfortunately, read as "Leper".

Presumably, those "Hands" are only temporary.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

State of Comics

I'm currently reading 'The Legion Companion', a book I picked up because I knew next to nothing about the Legion of Super-Heroes but was aware they had a devoted fanbase, and wanted to find out why. It's been of sod-all use in that regard (it's a collection of interviews with various Legion writers and artists, designed to be read by people who are already intimately familiar with the LSH), but it does give me an idea of why comics today are failing.



Reading these interviews, you'll find old writers, editors, and artists talking about comics at newsstands (when was the last time you saw a comic sold outside of a comic shop? OK, yes, maybe a bookstore, but they don't sell them in drugstores, at supermarkets, or anywhere the direct market can't reach.) They talk about letters columns (vanished as well.) They talk about how they wrote self-contained stories for the casual reader (multi-part stories used to be taboo at DC, now they're mandatory everywhere.) They talk about doing eye-catching covers (sure, superdickery.com jokes about 50s DC covers, but as crazy as they were, they certainly made you want to buy the issues.) They talk about how they didn't expect anyone to be into comics for more than two years, so they had to keep doing things to get new readers interested (nowadays comics writers assume every reader is a long-time reader and is intimately familiar with the characters' backstories and key historical points.)



It's like a glimpse into an alien world.


Now, I'm not saying every single one of these changes was a bad thing--I'd be crazy to suggest that there's no room for multi-part stories, for example. But it does occur to me that comic books, as they were constituted for the first sixty or seventy years of their existence, were designed for the general public (if only the juvenile element of the general public), and that they had a goal of getting as many people as possible to look at a comic, see the cover, and at least consider purchasing it. For the last twenty or thirty years, they've marketed to an increasingly smaller, self-selected market, counting on brand loyalty to outweigh the fact that nobody knows their product exists anymore. And they wonder what's going wrong...



I'd have to say, if I were to be put in charge of Marvel/DC, the first thing I'd do is market a "Comics Treasury" monthly. It'd be a magazine, say 100 pages, and it'd have four or five self-contained comics featuring flagship characters on a rotating basis, it'd have letters and spaces for fan-art, articles on the company's history, continuity, and so forth that would be fun, interesting, and glorified ads for their other products...and most importantly, it would be marketed wherever anyone had a magazine rack. And the advertising department would make sure, every month, to have at least one page of ads for local comics stores, and those local stores could purchase ads at a discounted rate.



That'd be just the start--I'd also tamp down on excess continuity, rampant cross-overs, reboots, et cetera, and ramp up the newsstand programs and bring back the letter columns...but at the very least, I'd want a single product out there aimed at casual readers that would increase visibility of my entire line of products.



Something like that is necessary, I think. They have to start growing their business again. Because at this rate, comics will soon be down to the point where they're trying to sell every single copy to one very rich fan. And that's just not a viable business model.