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.