Friday, December 28, 2007

Happy 85th, Stan!

You know, I have a bit of a confession to make. I used to think Stan Lee was, well...lame. I mean, to be fair, it was the 90s, and my primary exposure to his writing was 'Ravage 2099', but...I thought Stan Lee was lame, and untalented, and kind of an embarrassment to a comics industry that had come a long way since the Silver Age. I thought the reason he was hailed as such a great writer in his heyday was because guys like Neil Gaiman and Peter David weren't around yet, and that we had such great, sophisticated writers now that it made Stan Lee into a relic.

I'm sorry, Stan. I was young and stupid, and I hadn't actually read a lot of those old comics. I've spent the last year or so, now, reading what has become a whole bookshelf of classic Marvel, and it's made me realize that Stan Lee was brilliant. He managed to be self-aggrandizing without being obnoxious, a combination that's much harder than it looks; the gentle, almost self-mocking humor of his captions, the bombastic next-issue summaries, even the little footnotes where he'd say that he would have covered the page with word balloons, but with art like this, he knew when to sit down and shut up...Stan Lee sold his stories, his persona, his characters, and he knew exactly how to charm you into believing his line. He made you feel special and discerning for having the good taste to enjoy his writing, and while his brand of hype always promised more than it delivered, it never made you feel like you were getting cheated afterward. It's a trick that modern-day editors show every day that it's very easy to fail at, and fail spectacularly. Even the nicknames he gave himself and his collaborators were part of that same charming hucksterism; "Dashing" Don Heck, "Gentleman" Gene Colan, Jack "The King" Kirby, "Jazzy" Johnny Romita, and Stan "The Man" Lee. (Cribbed from Stan "The Man" Musial, no doubt, but charming nonetheless.)

I love his dialogue. For all that I believe Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby contributed greatly to the classic runs of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, I don't think either one of those series would have become as great as they did without Stan Lee presenting vivid portraits of them through their speech. Even today, you can take the tails off of the word balloons in an issue of the Fantastic Four, and you'll know who's talking; Doom's megalomaniac ranting, Johnny's youthful exuberance, and of course, the Thing. "Natcherly! The idol of millions ain't no weak-kneed pantywaist!"

Did he benefit from working with some of the best artists in the industry? Unquestionably. Spider-Man wouldn't have been Spider-Man without Ditko, and the rest of the Marvel Universe wouldn't have been the same without Kirby. But that's the nature of a collaborative medium. Lee and Kirby made each other better. It wouldn't have been the same without those many wonderful artists, but it also wouldn't have been nearly as good without Stan Lee. It certainly wouldn't have been as much fun.

So, having become older and wiser, but not yet as old and wise as the man I'm lauding, I say, "Happy 85th Birthday!" to Stan (the Man) Lee, a great writer and a legend in his own lifetime. Thanks for all the great stories!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Captain America

(or "The Eternal Struggle")

Captain America has had many storytelling engines over his long, long career as a super-hero. He's been a soldier, an Avenger, an agent of SHIELD, and even a uniformed policeman (he seems to gravitate to authority figures, for some reason.) But you'd probably be forgiven for thinking his storytelling engine is "fighting the Red Skull"--in the first three volumes of the Essential Captain America alone, the Red Skull appears in over 25 issues, and even many of Cap's other foes, such as HYDRA or AIM, turn out to have connections to his arch-nemesis. (By Mark Gruenwald's time as writer of the series, the Red Skull turned out to be secretly bankrolling AIM, HYDRA, ULTIMATUM, the Scourge, and the United States Commission for Super-Human Activities. Now that's a Type A personality.) Even now, current Cap scribe Ed Brubaker is doing another Red Skull epic; Cap seems to be a superfluous element in his own book, next to the struggle against the Nazi tyrant.

So why is it that Cap and the Red Skull seem doomed to battle forever? And just what is it that makes the Red Skull such an enduring foe?

To answer the first question, you just need to take a look at Captain America's origin. Not the super-soldier formula, but his origin as a patriotic hero during an era when patriotic heroes worked best--World War II. Cap's Golden Age adventures were all as the star-spangled hero of World War II, and the sheer iconic power of the Nazis as "global villains" continues to make them menacing bad guys even today. (And as an aside, it's interesting the way Marvel and DC took two different approaches to World War II in their fictional universe; DC kept its heroes out of the war via the plot conceit of the "Spear of Destiny", making it a war fought strictly between humans, while Marvel gave both sides super-powered soldiers, turning "supers" into another theater of combat alongside air, land and sea.) If you look at Cap's other enduring villains, they're pretty much all former Nazis as well--Baron Zemo (I and II), Arnim Zola, and HYDRA and AIM can both trace their ancestry to Nick Fury's Nazi sparring partner, Baron von Strucker. The Red Skull just happens to be the best of these old bad guys.

So what makes the Red Skull the best? Here's a few guesses as to what makes him an A-list villain. (And not just him, either. Many of the best villains share certain traits.)

For starters, he's someone who has a lot, but wants more. You never see the Red Skull robbing a bank, or knocking over a liquor store. He's always got the funding and resources to equip a small army, own an island lair, build and bury giant Nazi robots for later use, et cetera et cetera. (Doom and Luthor are two more good examples here. When Doom loses, he's still in charge of a whole freaking country.)

Second, he's got lofty goals. He doesn't just want to be rich, or impress women, or avenge some slight against him--he wants to topple the governments of the world, send human civilization spiraling into chaos, and then set up a tyrannical dictatorship in the sprawling ruins. (Again, you can point to a lot of great villains here. Magneto wants to bring about a new utopia of homo superior, standing on the ashes of the human race.)

Third, when his plans fail (as they always do for every villain), the Red Skull doesn't wind up slinking off to jail with the henchmen. No, this is a villain who does things dramatically--escape via rocket-powered jetcraft, lost from view when his island lair blows up in a volcanic eruption...heck, even his seeming deaths are dramatic, such as being trapped in the brain of a renegade Russian general. He may escape, or may meet a seeming end, but he never truly has to face justice for his crimes. (Likewise, you'll never see a villain like Darkseid doing three consecutive life terms for attempted conquest of Earth.)

It does seem that the Red Skull is truly an evergreen villain, one who will continue to struggle with Captain America for as long as there is a Captain America (and even longer, if Marvel's heartfelt protests about Cap being really really really dead this time are to be believed.) It's difficult to create a villain that good. Certainly Cap would have had problems if Batroc the Leaper was his arch-enemy all these years.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

How To Have a Good Chinese Meal

Christmas is just around the corner, and everyone who's seen 'A Christmas Story' knows that Christmas means Chinese food. So, in the spirit of the season, I present my guideline to how to go out for a great Chinese dinner, on Christmas or any other day!

Step One: Find a good Chinese restaurant. This is an important step. There's no point in saying to everyone, "Hey! Let's go out to dinner!" and taking them all to Panda Express. You need to find a place that does really good Chinese food; this might involve one or more "scouting meals", just to find a place that suits. Look for the following good signs that the Chinese restaurant is authentic.

a) They have soy sauce at the table, in jars. The only reason a good Chinese restaurant has soy sauce in little packets is for their to-go customers.

b) The cook and/or owner (it's always a good sign if the owner is actually working in the restaurant) is actually Chinese.

c) Many of the customers are actually Chinese.

d) Members of the owner's family are helping out (waiting tables, cooking, et cetera.) Really good cooking tends to be a labor of love, and nothing says love like child labor.

e) The portions are nice and big. A good Chinese restaurant generally serves a single portion that acts as about a meal-and-a-half...you should have enough leftovers for either a snack later, or to feel really stuffed as you leave the restaurant. (This is why you take other people with you. See Step Two.)

f) They're open Christmas Day. See introduction.

Step Two: Select your group of people. Ideally, the total number of people in your group should be divisible by three, just to make the portions work out well, but you're really more concerned with good conversation and fun people to hang out with, so don't be afraid to invite an extra person or two. You can always add on egg rolls or lo mein. If you don't have at least two friends you can go out for Chinese food with, go join a community theater group.

Step Three: Bring everyone to the restaurant. Do not order individually. This is vitally important. For one thing, you'll all wind up with way too much food. For another, the best part of eating Chinese is trying different dishes. Order two entrees for every three people, and try to vary the entrees as much as possible. If you have something you know is popular (having a favorite Chinese restaurant obviously means skipping Step One), go ahead and order multiples, but try to mix it up at least some. Passing around the entrees, piling your plate with different dishes, and telling people, "Mmm, you have to try this" is all part of the tradition. In the event of uncertainty, don't be afraid to order a bit extra...Chinese food makes great leftovers (although you'll need to cook fresh rice. Nothing tastes worse than reheated rice. It's like eating paste.)

Alternate Option: Order out, and have the food at home while watching a movie. (The only trick is to find a movie that will satisfy everyone concerned. No horror--you never know who might have a weak stomach. 'The Princess Bride' is never a bad choice for a large, mixed gathering, as only soulless demon-people dislike that film.)

So there you have it--the perfect guide to a fun night out. (In the Twin Cities, by the way, I recommend both 'Anna Chung's', in Eagan, and 'Seafood Palace', in Minneapolis. Both great family-owned restaurants that serve nice, big portions of great Chinese food. Try Anna's sesame chicken, it's the best in the world!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Super-Villain Team-Up

(or "Seeing The Forest For The Tree")

'Super-Villain Team-Up' is one of those series that just never seemed to die in the memories of its fans. It only lasted 17 issues, one of which reprinted old stories from 'Astonishing Tales', but it proved surprisingly enduring in terms of its following, to the point where getting the whole saga collected in 'Essential' format seemed perfectly natural. On looking at it, it's not surprising that it developed a cult following that blossomed in the current climate of fandom; the whole book is ahead of its time.

The first thirteen issues form a single storyline, a massive (if occasionally rambling) epic battle of wits, wills, and egos pitting Doctor Doom, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Attuma, and the Red Skull against each other, with guest stars galore caught in the middle. It featured a tie-in with the Avengers title, introduced a new hero (the Shroud, who never really caught on)...in short, if this had been published just five or six years later, it would have been a mega-crossover.

But it's not until issue #14 that you actually see the storytelling engine for the series. Since the first thirteen issues are taken up with one big story, you don't really understand the potential the series has until the second story starts, a two-issue affair in which Doctor Doom and Magneto go head to head. Another two-parter teaming the Red Skull with the Hatemonger rounds out the series (and probably provides its best story; it's an intrigue-filled tale with double and triple-crosses galore, and a real pip of an ending), and further expands the storytelling engine to its true extent just as the series gets canceled.

Which is a shame, because you don't see the potential of the comic until right at the end. The big brawl between Doom, Namor, and their respective allies and enemies is great, albeit a little crazed at times. But 'Super-Villain Team-Up' isn't about the alliance between Doom and Namor, or their subsequent war. It's a series about two existing villains in the Marvel Universe, and their respective machinations bringing them together either as allies, or as enemies. The tone,
a cynical and sharp blend of suspense and dark comedy, serves to highlight the underbelly of the Marvel Universe in a series that doesn't need to show things from the heroes' perspective (even if, as one of the limitations of the series, the bad guys can never really "win".)

All things considered, it's unsurprising that the series recently made a comeback (in the limited series 'Super-Villain Team-Up: MODOK's Eleven'.) Comics fans seem more ready than ever for an edgy, amoral look at the seedy underside of the Marvel Universe, and the storytelling engine to SVTU barely got to scratch the surface of such an idea. 'MODOK's Eleven' might seem like a departure from the Doom-centered original series, but it's actually just taking the series' central premise and running with it in a way the original never got to.

(As an aside, this column marks the 52nd 'Storytelling Engines' column, and its one-year anniversary. And, of course, it winds up being a few days late. (Stupid head cold.) But the column has stayed more or less on time since its inception, a fact which I feel that I can be at least a little proud of...and I'd like to thank everyone who reads the column and offers feedback, whether here on my own site or on 'Comics Should Be Good'. I probably wouldn't have made it through a full year without knowing that people were reading and enjoying the series; every time someone said, 'This is fun to read', you gave me the inspiration I needed to do another week. Writing purely for your own pleasure and the pleasure of your audience is made all the more satisfying by kind words and engaging opinions; thanks very much to everyone who offered me yours. Now to do another 52, only in reverse order and not nearly as good!)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Dream Is Dead

The Miami Dolphins have, for the first time all season, failed to lose a football game. They managed to take it to overtime, but unfortunately failed to allow Baltimore to score a field goal, and subsequently won on a touchdown of their own.

Seriously, why wouldn't you start playing for the losses at this point? Win a game, and you're just another bunch of 1-15 schmucks. At least there's a certain perverse glory in going 0-16. You might be bad, but at least you're legendarily bad.


Or, at the very least, wait until next week to win, and ruin the Patriots' season at the same time...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Punisher

(or "Loading Up Some More Railing Fodder")

When the Punisher first showed up in 1974, it was as part of a whole raft of changes to the way the superhero comic worked. The audience was beginning to skew older, attracted by Marvel's pop-art sensibilities and counter-culture street cred (it's no accident that the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players did Marvel comic-themed sketches on 'Saturday Night Live'.) At the same time, movies like 'Death Wish' (which came out after the Punisher made his first appearance, but was based on a 1972 novel) and lines of novels like 'The Executioner' series, by Don Pendleton, were bringing the costumed vigilante back to its roots as someone who dealt out harsh, unflinching justice on the enemies of society. The Punisher tapped into the "take no prisoners" zeitgeist perfectly--so perfectly that he became a major hit for Marvel almost against their will, soon developing into a character that had three ongoing series and rivaled Spider-Man for popularity.

In a way, the Punisher is a symbol of the way that superhero comics changed in the 80s and 90s. To many, he's a symbol of the cold, cruel, heartless nature of "modern" superheroes. Sure, he stops crime, but what kind of lesson is he teaching? What kind of morality does he espouse? Where are the higher ideals that human beings should try to live up to? Others see the opposite side. They see heroes like Batman and Superman as relics, unwilling to take the steps needed to really make people safe from Luthor and the Joker. By simply delivering these incorrigible criminals to jail time and time again, Batman and Superman actually enable them to continue their crime sprees, since it's obvious that the jails can't hold them. A superhero like the Punisher actually ends crime, if only on a criminal-by-criminal basis.

But, of course, that debate is irrelevant to us. We're looking at the Punisher from the point of view of a writer, and looking at it like that, being a grim and bloody vigilante might make society safer, but it makes the writer's job a lot harder.

Because one of the reasons that superheroes build up a Rogue's Gallery of supervillains is that it saves the writer from having to come up with a brand-new attention-getting antagonist for every story the hero goes through. Mike Baron, author of the "definitive" Punisher stories that fill 'The Essential Punisher Volume Two', tends to get around this by ripping his stories from the headlines (Volume Two alone contains a Charles Manson analogue, an obvious swipe of the Reverend Jim Jones, evil insider traders, and thugs who run a high school like their own personal kingdom. It's practically a catalog of 80s neuroses about society.) Garth Ennis tends to come up with inventively twisted and deformed mob bosses (which led, at one notable point, to the first time a superhero ever murdered a quadruple-amputee in the last issue of a storyline.) But everyone has the same problem. With one or two notable exceptions, like Jigsaw, people don't usually get a second go-round in a Punisher storyline.

This leads to two problems. One, obviously, is burnout. By the end of Mike Baron's run, he was clearly grasping for ideas (the Punisher getting plastic surgery, disguising himself as a black man, and hiding out with Luke Cage is a clear sign of "grasping for ideas"), and by then, readers and editors seemed burned out on the Punisher as well. Since every new villain wound up dead by the end of the story, it seemed like the book became a parade of faceless targets, and subsequent attempts to "shake up the formula" got further and further away from the core concept that had hooked readers. (Anyone remember the "supernatural assassin" Punisher series? Don't all speak up at once.)

The second is that the Punisher doesn't exist in a vacuum. He's a part of the Marvel Universe. Which means that he has to fit into a world where, in general, writers tend to keep their villains alive to fight another day. The "Punisher vs. the Kingpin" storyline that takes up most of the second half of Volume Two suffers in a big way from this; since readers can be reasonably sure that the Kingpin won't kill the Punisher, because his book is selling too good, and they can be reasonably sure that the Punisher won't kill the Kingpin, because the Spider-Man and Daredevil writers get a say in this, all that can really happen is a stalemate...which is, in fact, the end of the story. The Punisher can't make too big a dent in the criminal population of New York City, or his buddies will be out of a job.

In short, the reason heroes don't kill villains in comics isn't because they're noble, or because comics are for kids...it's because it's easier for everyone if they don't. The Punisher stands out as an exception, but he's yet to have a period of sustained popularity, because he's harder on his writers than most characters. Coming up with a good villain is hard, and the Punisher needs more good villains than most...because he chews through his supply quicker.

Friday, December 07, 2007

So Good I Stole It

My room-mate, Tony, and I were discussing politics yesterday, and we got onto the subject of Mitt Romney and his difficult journey to the White House. We both agreed that his Mormonism was a stumbling-block to most Americans, but Tony provided the true reason we're not sure electing a Mormon is a good idea.

"We're all just worried that he's going to go on a diplomatic tour of Europe, and all of the other heads of state are going to pretend to not be home when he rings the doorbell."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bona Fide Shameless Plug

After what amounts to some three years of delays, 'Glimpse of the Abyss' should be showing up in stores this month. It's a sourcebook for the 'Feng Shui' RPG, from Atlas Games, featuring some of my writing, and if you're a fan of 'Feng Shui' (which might very well be, as 90% of my published work has been for FS), I'd suggest you buy it, as the publishers will be looking at 'Glimpse of the Abyss' as a barometer of the popularity of the line.

If that's not enough, it has flying heads, zombie bikers, demon kung-fu masters, eunuch sorcerers, and a little something I nicknamed "Corpse Factories". Oh, and killer nuns. Oh, yes, and I promise you'll never look at a dodo the same way again.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Wonder Woman

(or "Why? Because Bob Kanigher, That's Why!")

And a tip of the hat to Chris Sims for the subtitle...

Reading Silver Age Wonder Woman stories is, at times, like reading someone's dream diary. Flying saucer men animate parade balloons and send them on a rampage to conquer Earth, outer-space dinosaurs ride cosmic jet-streams from their home on Titan, an Amazonian "absolute zero" chamber freezes metal insects from space until they shrink down to nothing...every story seems to follow a surreal logic all its own. It's a completely different type of storytelling than we see in modern comics (for the most part.) And yet, this was common practice during the Silver Age. What changed?

A lot of things, obviously. The target audience got older, the writers became more invested emotionally in their stories, the editors became more interested in universe-building, and a dozen other reasons, but one reason that jumps to the top of the list is simply this: Silver Age writers had to write their entire story in one issue. These "one-and-done" stories didn't have a whole lot of exposition because the plot didn't leave room for them. In a modern comic, "flying saucer aliens" would be given six to ten issues of backstory, motivation, and initial appearances to lead into their attempt to conquer the Earth--back then, the writer just put in a little caption box mentioning that they were evil aliens, and the reader went with it.

Obviously, this means that the whole question of "decompressed" vs. "compressed" storytelling isn't easy to answer; on the one hand, much of the "decompression" of modern comics tends to be about extending sequences in order to heighten tension, instead of actually telling more complex stories (the death of Superman, for example, featured a whole issue of splash pages of Superman and Doomsday hitting each other. It heightened the intensity of the scene, but the whole fight could have been told in six pages.) On the other hand, compressed storylines frequently work better when dealing with children's fiction, because children are more used to the idea of a story having rules that don't necessarily make sense, but that are given to them by the storyteller and they just accept it. Pacing vs. padding, excitement vs. epic, it's really a debate with no end. (Save, of course, that a bad writer can do neither, while a good writer can do both.)

But we are, lest anyone forget, looking at "compression" vs. "decompression" through the lens of the storytelling engine, and the key question is always, "Does it help the writer come up with stories, or does it hurt them?" And from that point of view, compressed stories are a hindrance to a writer, not a help, simply because when you write a complete compressed story every month, you have to come up with six times as many stories as someone writing a six-issue arc "for the trade." As a result, Silver Age writers recycled stories a lot more than they could possibly do now, both by reusing story ideas (Superman was notorious for reusing certain stories every two years, in the firm belief that nobody who'd read it the last time was still reading comics), an by outright reprinting old stories. (Flip through the table of contents in an 'Essentials' and you'll see "Issue #XX reprints issue #YY" quite a bit. The phenomenon even had a name, "The Dreaded Deadline Doom." Seeing that when you opened a comic back then was like seeing "The Blue Screen of Death" for a computer user.)

Which isn't to say that modern writers don't reuse ideas (Brad Meltzer, I'm looking at you...) But they generally do so for different reasons. The climate of comics has changed, so that between decompression, willingness to sacrifice deadlines, and advance planning, nobody needs to whip up emergency stories. Compression forced Bob Kanigher to write quickly on 'Wonder Woman', and while that resulted in some of the most creative stories in comics, it also resulted in comics that made very little sense. Nowadays, writers don't have that excuse.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Review: The Black Dossier

Spoilers shall abound in this review, just to warn people...

I find myself surprised, depressed, and more than a little intimidated to say this, but...wow, that was really disappointing. I never thought I'd say that about something Alan Moore wrote, but it's true.

It's not all Moore's fault, I have to say. Some of it comes from the fact that LoEG volumes are so few and far between (due to Kevin O'Neill's somewhat deliberate speed of drawing) that each one feels more like an "event" than a story, and DC's delay of the release (due to all sorts of reasons) merely amped up the hype. It's possible that there's just no way that anything could live up to the excitement of the idea of the Black Dossier.

But I do think that some of the fault, and I say this as someone not nearly as talented as Alan Moore, is...well, Alan Moore's. For one thing, the sex. I am no prude. I admire greatly Moore's stance that writing 'Lost Girls' opened his eyes to the idea that human sexuality is natural and healthy, and something that can be included in his stories without shame or fear. But I do think that like any writer who's using a new storytelling technique, Moore seems to be overusing it in his first flush of enthusiasm. Much like Brian Michael Bendis scatters random thought balloons in every panel of 'Mighty Avengers', things like "I like pie," or "Where are my keys?", Moore seems to be sticking sex scenes in just to say, "Look! I'm not afraid to include a sex scene!" (In fact, that's literally the case at one point--a porn pamphlet from Orwell's '1984' is inserted between two other pages, seemingly at random.) The overall effect is more numbing and pointless than erotic. A few years down the road, I'm sure Moore will integrate this stuff better, but for now, it feels clumsy and forced.

But that's not the big problem with the Black Dossier. The big problem is...well, the big problem, to put it bluntly, is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Not the plot, that's relatively straightforward. Mina and Quartermain steal the "Black Dossier", a compendium of secrets of the various incarnations of the League, from British Intelligence, and spend the rest of the book on the run while reading it. But very little of the actual material makes sense.

I suppose I should have seen this coming. Moore has been very forthright in discussing how the LoEG books have been and will be getting more and more elaborate in their "continuity references", working in more and more oblique references to other literary works of the period and using them as plot points. After all, Jess Nevins has published two annotated guides to the previous two mini-series, explaining all the "Easter eggs" for people who aren't walking pop culture encyclopedias. But even so, it's very frustrating to read an entire book that's nothing but knowing winks to things you don't recognize. The original series worked because the "Easter eggs" were just that, asides in a story whose main thrust was broad and immediately recognizable. Mister Hyde, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, and Allan Quartermain were major literary characters that the average person could recognize, and villains like Moriarty and the Martians from 'War of the Worlds' worked perfectly precisely because they were legendary villains that the legendary heroes could believably struggle against. (Although even in the original series, the veiled references to Fu Manchu were probably a mistake...but more on that in a moment.)

'The Black Dossier' is full of oblique references and veiled hints at other fictional stories, but that's all it really is. There's nothing for a reader except for the satisfaction of picking out a reference they recognize, or more often sighing in frustration as another obscure character shows up that they've never heard of. And since Moore appears to be hanging his hat on the notion that Jess Nevins will be publishing an annotated guide for this series as well, reading 'The Black Dossier' is a bit like buying a trivia quizbook without an answers section.

Worse, even in the parts where Moore probably wants to make things clear, he can't, because he hasn't learned his lesson from Fu Manchu. Too many of the important characters in the book are still under copyright from their respective authors, meaning that Moore has to make veiled allusions and hope that his readers are well educated enough to pick up the hints. (This was the problem with Fu Manchu in the original mini-series...if you're not familiar with Sax Rohmer's pulp villain, then large parts of the series are downright incoherent.) Admittedly, the key reference (a British secret agent named "Jimmy" who worked with Felix Leiter in Jamaica) is clear enough, but for every reference like that, there's a whole series of plot points that turn on You-Know-Who working with Wink-Wink to uncover the secret of That Famous Place With The Buildings, Get It? If you do get it, you'll no doubt be smiling faintly at the way the references dovetail. If you don't, you'll be wondering why they didn't just bundle the damn book with a coupon for the inevitable Nevins guide.

The ending, on the other hand, is a species of error that we haven't seen from Moore yet. It's all in 3-D, for starters (word to the wise: people with glasses hate 3-D effects, because we have a choice of either missing the 3-D part or sitting with the damn book an inch from our nose because we're nearsighted, for Pete's sake...I suppose it could have been worse, Moore could have persuaded DC to include a vinyl record I'd never be able to play on my CD player), and it takes place in the "Burning Realm", a place that's sort of a walk-in imagination where all these fictional characters can go when they get tired of dealing with the real world...except that obviously some of them can't, because they're not "fictional", except that they clearly are, because "Jimmy" is James Bond, but obviously he's not the right kind of fictional, so perhaps it's to do with being the right kind of fictional, but honestly, this isn't a story that has been doing the meta-fiction at all until now, and ringing it in right at the end of the third book for about ten pages feels odd and takes you right out of the story. The ending feels really like a chapter of 'Promethea' that wound up in the wrong book--don't get me wrong, I like the idea of fictional characters traveling into and out of the realm of imagination, but that's not the concept of 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'. LoEG suggests that it's all real, every last bit of it. Having it suddenly be all real except for the bits that aren't and some of them are and they can go into the imagination when they want to so they don't age...it's a pretty severe tangent, and it muddles the message.

I don't wish to sound wholly negative, since even disappointing Alan Moore is still Alan Moore, and there's one short story in there that works perfectly as an example of how LoEG should work (Jeeves vs. C'thullu, a clear example of two iconic and legendary characters facing off on a grand literary stage.) But on the whole, it really came off as self-indulgent and esoteric, and strangely pointless. Perhaps when Jess Nevins writes about it, I'll be more impressed.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Aside

I have edited the post "I Am King Geek, All Bow Down Before Me!" to correct an obvious omission...I'd totally forgotten about Lana Lang's checkered journey from Superboy's college sweetheart to hardened FBI agent.

Silly me.

Storytelling Engines: Dazzler

(or "A New Lens To View An Old Idea")

If the storytelling engine for 'Dazzler' doesn't automatically seem familiar to most comics fans in the 1980s (when the series came out) or in the present day, that's probably forgivable. After all, super-hero comics pretty much dominated the market from the 1960s onwards, and they still dominate it today, at least in financial terms. Looking at 'Dazzler' through the lens of super-hero comics, it stands out as something quite new and different...arguably so much so that the writers of the series weren't quite sure what to do with it.

Alison Blaire, the Dazzler (she dropped the 'Disco' part of the name after a very short while) was a mutant with the power to absorb sound and convert it to light. But unlike every other person in the Marvel Universe, gaining super-powers didn't make Alison decide that she needed to save humanity, or conquer the world. All Dazzler wants is to make it big in the challenging world of rock music, and to her, having super-powers is more of a hindrance than a help. It's hard to make gigs if you're getting kidnapped by Galactus, fighting the Hulk, or foiling the plans of the evil Enchantress, but despite her best efforts to be an ordinary rock star, she keeps bumping into the Doctor Dooms of the world and has to do her best to stop them. It's an idea pretty thoroughly unlike any other Marvel or DC were publishing at the time...

And yet, when you take away the whole "super-hero" aspect, it's a pretty normal idea for a series. In fact, 'American Idol' re-enacts it every season with a new cast. "Talented unknown struggles to make it big" is a classic concept, one that borders on hackneyed...but by taking the smaller storytelling engine of Alison Blaire and her quest for fame and acceptance (would it really surprise you to know that her father doesn't approve of "show business" and wants her to become a lawyer?), and placing it within the larger storytelling engine of the Marvel universe, the storytelling engine suddenly finds new directions for exploration it never had before.

In retrospect, it seems like nobody was sure quite whether or not the traditional super-hero audience wanted to explore any of those new directions; after a while, 'Dazzler' turned into a "Fugitive" type series, and after its cancellation, Alison became a bog-standard super-hero and X-Woman, albeit one that spent lots of her thought balloons whining about how she'd rather be singing. But don't underestimate the impact that 'Dazzler' had. Over the next two decades or so, as the idea gained currency, lots of comic books started taking storytelling engines from other genres, implanting them in a super-hero universe, and watching the resultant interaction between the two sets of ideas. You could make a case that 'Powers', 'Top 10', 'District X', 'She-Hulk', 'The Initiative', and 'The Power Company' all owe some inspiration to 'Dazzler'. (Detectives, cops, detectives, lawyers, soldiers, and lawyers, respectively.)

The comic-book universes DC and Marvel operate are vast and strange, and operate under a set of rules that we're rarely shown in any detail. Stories like Dazzler's operate in parts of those universes that we don't usually see, but that's as much to their advantage as it is to their detriment. By exploring an old idea in a new way, they make a whole new set of options available to an old storytelling engine, making those stories fresh for the telling for a whole new generation. Not bad for someone who started off as a novelty disco act, huh?

Essential Update '07

Last year at about this time, I made a list of
the top fifteen Marvel series I wanted to see made into Essentials. It's now a year later, and I thought I'd take a moment to ask, "How did Marvel do?"

Unsurprisingly, they did a lot more volumes of existing series. I can't say I mind, honestly; it was good to get another X-Men volume, a couple more Spider-Man trades, more FF, more Silver Surfer, more Punisher, more Werewolf By Night, and more X-Factor. But of the fifteen titles on my list, only two were actually collected: Ms. Marvel, and Dazzler. (Which isn't to say there were no other new series being collected--'Essential Marvel Saga'? I didn't list it because I didn't dream Marvel would collect something so wonderful, yet so esoteric...now I've learned that my fanboy dreams can truly become reality.) So what does this year hold in the Marvel release schedule of my dreams?

15. The Champions. To be honest, I'm not sure what the rights issues are with this series, and I suspect nobody else does either, including Marvel (they did, after all, get within two months of publishing a new 'Champions' series before deciding to call it 'The Order'.) But I know there's a 'Champions Classic' set of trades in print, so Marvel must have the rights to reprint its old stuff. So howbout an Essential, Marvel?

14. Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. Another one where the rights might be in limbo...they can obviously make use of Shang-Chi himself, since he's an original Marvel character, but the series also used Fu Manchu, and I'm sure the rights have lapsed on him by this point. Still, I will fall back on my "Godzilla" argument: If Marvel can hash out the rights to an Essential Godzilla, how much harder can any other character be?

13. Micronauts. I really don't know what the rights status for this series is. But somebody's got to be able to reprint these. Even if it isn't Marvel, I'd settle for another company putting out an affordable black-and-white reprint volume...

12. Adam Warlock. With all the "cosmic" characters enjoying a big renaissance due to the success of 'Annihilation' and 'Annihilation: Conquest', putting out affordably-priced reprints of the old adventures of these characters sounds like a smart move to me. And it's not like Adam Warlock doesn't have a fan following. (OK, certainly the sales figures on 'Adam Warlock and the Infinity Watch' suggests he doesn't have much of one. But that was a whole different era.)

11. New Warriors. Another series that seems more relevant than ever in the new year...there's a new 'New Warriors' series out, Nova's got his own series again, Night Thrasher and Penance (the former Speedball) both have mini-series, Justice is a prominent character in 'Avengers: The Initiative'...really, Marvel, this one just makes sense.

10. Spider-Man 2099. The only reason this didn't make the list last year is because I figure a series should be at least fifteen years old before being considered "Essential"...and that time has passed by 2008, meaning that Peter David's wonderful reimagining of the Spider-Man concept can see print. It's the best of the 2099 line, it's got a surprisingly faithful cult following, and it's the only series to feature the line, "I have tough nipples." What's not to like?

9. Power Pack. They're already doing new, family-friendly out-of-continuity 'Power Pack' mini-series. Why not reprint the classic adventures as well?

8. West Coast Avengers. Hawkeye. Team Leader. I should not have to speak of this one again next year.

7. Alpha Flight. Another one of those series that's had a bit of a renaissance lately, and one that I really think would work well in big, 24-issue chunks. It was ahead of its time in "writing for the trade", with lots of ongoing subplots and character developments that unfolded over many issues, and now is the time to reprint it.

6. ROM. I am aware, thank you very much, of the rights issues regarding ROM. Pah, I say to them. Pah! If you can do 'Essential Godzilla', why are you letting the only records of our great struggle with the Dire Wraiths languish in Marvel's vaults?

...don't make me get Congress involved here.

5. Quasar. See everything I said about 'Adam Warlock', only with bells on. This really was Mark Gruenwald's magnum opus, and I don't think it ever got the attention it deserved. I think it would sell very well in trades, and I really enjoyed the series.

4. New Mutants. As I understand it, the reason this hasn't been collected is that Bill Sienkiewicz's art doesn't translate well to black and white. But I still hold out hopes that somehow they could "remaster" it to make it work, because this really is the definition of an "Essential" title. Following the X-Men during the 80s meant following the New Mutants, and the X-Men and X-Factor titles feel incomplete without the missing third of the story.

3. Excalibur. Less "essential" than the New Mutants, but oh-so-gorgeous...and don't even try to tell me that Alan Davis' art doesn't look good in black-and-white, because I ain't buying it.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy. Still one of my favorite series ever from my childhood (well, teenage-hood), still needs to be reprinted, still needs to be relaunched (I wanted to see 'Civil War' end with the Guardians showing up and siding with Cap), but I must bump it down a spot, because...

1. What If? I must, at this point, confess the deepest of fanboy shames. I totally forgot about 'What If?' when making last year's list. Two series, hundreds of issues, one-shots to this day, the inspiration for 'Exiles' and the only place where you could see seriously dark stuff go down in the Marvel Universe, this cries out to be reprinted. Yes, I'm aware there's a "Classic" line for this series, much as there is for many of the series on this list. But I loves me the big thick black-and-white volumes, and that means I wait in anticipation for the day this one gets released.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Nova

(or "An Idea Ahead Of Its Time")

One of the fundamental points I introduced right at the beginning of the 'Storytelling Engines' series, now eleven months ago (wow, time flies, huh?) is that not every status quo is created equal. Some settings lend themselves to more stories than others, some characters act better to generate stories than others, some concepts just work better than others. Whether a writer thinks consciously about the potential in their status quo or not, and whether the reader notices the way the storytelling engine works or doesn't work, they still react better to a good engine than to a bad one, and a good storytelling engine sticks around better than a bad one does...even if it doesn't quite seem that way at first.

Richard Ryder, "the man called Nova", is a good example of a storytelling engine that had some thought put into it. Marv Wolfman, one of the industry's great craftsmen, took some time to actually design the status quo of Nova's comic for the long term. He worked out Nova's personality, as a self-deprecating, somewhat under-confident teen who received powers from the Nova Corps; he came up with a family, friends, a social life that supported (and occasionally antagonized) our hero; he worked out a rogue's gallery (with somewhat mixed results--Diamondhead and Condor never really caught on, but the Sphinx and the Corruptor have continued to make appearances in the Marvel Universe.) He did, in short, everything to make sure there was a lot of potential in Nova's storytelling engine...

And after twenty-five issues, the title was canceled anyway. Nothing to do with the character or the status quo, really. Marvel was just going through some tough times in the 1970s, a new series is always a bit of a gamble, and the comic just didn't build up enough of a following to justify keeping it going. Wolfman tied up the loose ends in other comics, depowered the character (but didn't kill him, significantly) and let Richard Ryder be forgotten.

Except that he wasn't. Because, as I said before, while a reader might not consciously appreciate the effort that goes into designing a good storytelling engine, they notice that some titles seem to have a lot of good stories, while others don't. Nova might not have had a ton of readers, but those that did read the series remembered it fondly, and when the 80s rolled around and comics hit a boom, the New Warriors combined Nova with a few other "cult" heroes from the last decade, and made a solid 75 issue run over the course of the 1990s. They, in turn, had fond memories and fans of their own, leading up to revivals of the series that continue through the present day. Not to mention, Nova's back in a series of his own.

The key point here is that the character had time to develop and build a fan following due to its strong central concept, an average guy trying to do his best with amazing abilities. (Sometimes these aren't rocket science, but it's still a solid concept for a series.) The character was out of the spotlight, but the idea wasn't forgotten, and when Nova got relaunched, the audience was there waiting for him. It's a good argument for not throwing away minor characters simply to pad out the bodycount in a big crossover; sometimes, all that's needed for a character to become a hit is a chance to build up a little nostalgia with the fans.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review: World War Z

Many apologies for the late post, but I'm in the middle of recovering from a nasty attack of malware that forced me to erase my hard drive. (No important files were lost, thanks to good backups, but it is a bit time-consuming, reinstalling everything.)

So nothing ambitious today, because I'm still recuperating, but let me take a moment to mention how very, very well 'World War Z', by Max Brooks, evokes the idea of a zombie uprising. It shouldn't surprise anyone who reads this blog that I heard the phrase "zombie uprising" and was right there in line to buy the book, but Brooks really does do an excellent job with the idea. The book takes the form of a number of "interviews" with survivors of the plague that reanimated the dead and gave them an uncontrollable hunger for the flesh of the living, and each interview is almost a short story in miniature. The various survivors' tales interlock to form a vast, sprawling narrative of a world in crisis, progressing from denial, to panic, to full-fledged chaos, and finally our struggle to fight back and reclaim our world.

At each stage, you'll be impressed with Brooks' sense of realism; having laid down ground rules for the zombie virus in 'The Zombie Survival Guide', he then proceeds to come up with very authentic human responses to a plague of the walking dead. I quibbled about a few things (I think, for example, that the military would come up with an effective response faster than they did--ultimately, no matter how implacable and terrifying zombies are, they're basically unarmed, unarmored people who use no subterfuge or tactics and move at a slow walking pace.) But Brooks paints a compelling picture, and gives each survivor a unique voice. I could have read a book twice this length, and I'd be more than happy to see a sequel out of Brooks.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Storytelling Engines: The Atom

(or "'Fate of the Flattened-Out Atom'?")

I've previously discussed in these pages how the popularity of science-fiction in the 1950s brought about the comics renaissance of the Silver Age, as DC revamped many of its popular characters as science-fiction heroes. The Atom, for example, changed from a diminuitive super-hero who punched people to a scientist with a belt that gave him the ability to shrink, complete with a costume that was made out of dwarf-star matter and shrunk with him. He uses his powers to fight Jason Woodrue, a man from a parallel universe inhabited by "wood nymphs, dryads, nereids, air sprites and flower-spirits"...um, and travel into a sub-atomic world inhabited by ancient Atlanteans...er, and fight Doctor Light, who trapped him in a giant light-bulb that slowly turned him to gas...and then, there was the time where a super-villain ironed him into a two-dimensional shape with a specially-designed iron...

Obviously, "science-fiction" is something that has different meanings depending on who's using it, which is what today's column is all about. We've discussed tone as being an essential element of the storytelling engine from time to time, and it bears repeating; it's just as important to know what kinds of stories you'll be telling as it is to know who, what, and where they'll be about. To say that the Silver Age emphasized "science-fiction" is to merely mark off a piece of the territory; science-fiction can mean anything from "action-adventure, demarcated from fantasy purely by its terminology" to "an extrapolation of current scientific achievements, using concepts believed to be true even if not yet proven by modern science in order to model potential changes in human civilization." (Obviously, 'The Atom' falls pretty firmly onto the former of the two options.)

Different writers make different uses of this spectrum of "science-fiction", and indeed many consider the different elements of the spectrum to be different genres entirely. (Certainly, one suspects Warren Ellis would have a stroke if he saw 'The Fate of the Flattened-Out Atom'.) In addition, "science" is by definition not fixed or dogmatic in its opinion. One generation's "hard science fiction" is the next generation's "science fantasy" (witness Isaac Asimov's classic 'Lucky Starr' series, which features novels set in the oceans of Venus and on Mercury, one side of which always faces the sun and the other side of which always faces away.) As the public grows more educated, the fictional science needs to grow more sophisticated simply to convince the layman--Ray Palmer frequently uses explanations which no doubt sounded convincing to a 1950s audience, but which modern readers (even those in the target age group for the comic) would find hard to swallow today.

Still, the Atom is not trying to give kids a science lesson. (Or a history lesson, in the time-travel stories that were a frequent feature in his Silver Age adventures.) The series is predominantly an adventure comic, with the trappings of science-fiction appropriated to move the adventure along. This is a marked difference in tone from a series like 'Transmetropolitan' or a novel like 'Ringworld', but the adventures of the Atom show that there's a place for all sorts of "science-fiction", even science-fiction with wood nymphs and Atlantis.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Odd Businesses Update!

I saw again tonight a check for a Mexican restaurant here in Minnesota called 'The Taco King'.

Now 'Taco King', by itself, isn't bad. Conveys a sort of fast food, Taco Bell meets Burger King vibe. But every time I see 'The Taco King' on a check, I picture all these animals kneeling down, watching this aged baboon head up the mountainside. He arrives at the pinnacle, and holds up...a taco! "Behold...your king." (And then he takes a big bite.)

It's just not the image I think they wanted to provide when they named their business. "Simba...it is time for you to return to the pridelands and take your place in the Combo of Life."

Or it could just be me.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Hawkman

(or "World-Building")

When 'Hawkman' moved from the Golden Age of Comics to the Silver Age, it brought with it a peculiarity of the science-fiction/fantasy genre. Actually, "peculiarity" is an unfair term; a better phrase would be, "additional design complication." Because when editor Julius Schwartz updated Hawkman, he changed him from a reincarnated Egyptian prince to a policeman from the alien planet of Thanagar (reboots being a bit...bolder...in those days), he and writer Gardner Fox needed to pay more attention than usual to the setting of the comic. After all, it wasn't just "Midway City" they were setting up as the usual home of Hawkman's adventures. They also had to set up the planet of Thanagar.

The concept of "world-building", setting up an internally consistent alien setting with a history, culture, and geography separate from the planet Earth, is one aspect of designing a storytelling engine that hasn't been left to chance. Many science-fiction writers have discussed ways of going about world-building, and it's considered to be an essential element of the craft in both the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Perhaps, at times, people have paid a bit too much attention to it--many fantasy novels seem to be more excuses to show off the world-building by crafting a plot than coming up with a plot and finding a world for it to take place in. However, it is at least one area where writers have some resources to guide them.

How does Hawkman's world work? A bit haphazardly; as with many comics of the Silver Age, the primary focus was on coming up with quick, pacy kid-friendly stories, and things like "continuity" took a backseat. But it does hang together; the Thanagarian society was peaceful and technologically advanced, but had no cultural concept of "theft". Alien raiders called 'Manhawks' arrived to plunder the planet, and Thanagarians formed their first police forces, the Hawkmen, to repel them. The damage had been done, though; once the concept of theft had been introduced to the culture, Thanagarians began stealing things for fun. The Hawkmen had to learn how to be policemen, not simply a militia, and sent Katar Hol and his wife Shayera to Earth to learn our techniques. (This, of course, explains the sudden 1,000,000% increase in police brutality on Thanagar.)

Obviously, this isn't Tolkein (although the notion of a society without a concept of "theft" isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.) But in this particular case, it doesn't have to be, because Thanagar is a background setting for Hawkman's adventures on Earth. Other, more overtly science-fiction comics, like 'Guardians of the Galaxy' or 'Adam Strange', worked a bit harder at building a world for their characters to inhabit, and in the wake of 'Crisis on Infinite Earths', even Thanagar got a makeover in keeping with the increased emphasis on world-building in genre fiction.

The main point is that adding in a science-fiction/fantasy world does mean extra work for a writer, at least in the initial design stages. Fox didn't need to flesh out Midway City too much, because human beings are generally familiar with big cities, and can let our minds fill in the details that Fox didn't bother with. (And let's face it, Midway City was just Chicago with the serial numbers filed off.) But when you have an alien world, you have to work out all of the major elements yourself, because the reader isn't going to do nearly as much of the work for you.

The pay-off, though, is that once you've done that initial design work, you have a number of additional story elements that will keep generating ideas for you. Thanagar's setting becomes a new story generator, and with any storytelling engine, the more story generators you have, the better.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Meet 'N Greet #4

Once, he was an ordinary clown. His was a happy lot, entertaining children, loving his beautiful wife (also a clown), and looking forward to teaching his young son the craft of circus entertainment.

Then, one day, all that changed. A group of renegade mimes from the infamous 'Cirque du Soleil' crime family gunned down his whole family with invisible bullets. With no ballistics to trace, the police could do nothing. But he could.

Now, he's no longer a clown. He's a clown with a gun. And he's going mime hunting. No invisible box can save them. He's a one-man force for justice, an unstoppable white-faced, big-haired torrent of revenge...

No. Not revenge. Funishment.

He is...the Funisher.

(True story: This character was inspired by a "wannabe" on the 'City of Heroes' game, someone who'd simply made a copyrighted character and changed his name slightly to avoid being deleted for copyright infringement. He had made the Punisher, but had added an "h" so it was the "Phunisher". Apart from being appalled at the lack of imagination, I was quite irritated at the poor understanding of phonetics. That wouldn't sound like "punisher", it'd sound like...and then I realized it was the Best Character Idea Ever.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Avengers

(or "Change Is The New Status Quo")

When the Avengers started, it was as one of those ideas so simple that it's practically automatic. If you have X number of stars of X number of comic books that each sell Y copies, you put them all together in one comic and get X times Y sales. Sound business sense, from the Justice Society to the Justice League, and the Avengers didn't look to be any exception. The Hulk, Ant-Man, the Wasp, Thor and Iron Man all teamed up together to fight crime out of a big mansion in New York City, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby said It Was Good.

But Marvel, in the heady days of the early 1960s, was never afraid to experiment with the storytelling engine of their comics. Unlike DC, Marvel wasn't working with a stable of established characters that needed "protecting". By issue #4, the Hulk had already been ditched in favor of Captain America, firmly establishing the Avengers as a series about a specific type of superhero. The anti-social, amoral Hulk simply couldn't cut it with Earth's Mightiest Heroes, no matter how powerful he was. It set a precedent, but not one completely out of place in team comics--new members joined the Justice League from time to time, after all. Team line-ups were bound to shift a little.

Then along came issue #16, and the Avengers became well and truly established as a comic. Paradoxically, they made their mark by having the entire rest of the founding members of the team quit, all at once. The team now consisted of Cap, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye...three barely-reformed super-villains and the new guy. (Which just goes to show, as Craig Shutt pointed out, that you should never go to the bathroom during an Avengers team meeting.)

This radical change, so early in the series, really paved the way for the Avengers to become a team book unlike any other. Because the Avengers no longer meant any particular character, or even group of characters (although you do see a lot of the same faces over the years, and some fans will insist it's not a "real" Avengers series without Cap, Thor, and/or Iron Man.) The Avengers suddenly became about the sort of person who would be an Avenger. It became a series about the ethos that would apply to being (I'll say it again) Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and about living up to that ethos. Every character that joins the Avengers feels like they're suddenly playing in a different league, from Quasar to Justice, and "card-carrying Avenger" became, in the Marvel Universe, the cachet for "true hero". That's the engine of the Avengers, and it's what sustains it no matter what the line-up is, no matter who the writer or artist is. In theory, it's the best the Marvel Universe has to offer, fighting its biggest threats...or, at the very least, finding out if they really are the best the Marvel Universe has to offer.

And while I hesitate to end with a simple "it's not as good as it was" statement, this is why neither one of the two Avengers titles currently on the market work as Avengers titles. They might be perfectly good pieces of writing, but Brian Michael Bendis is not writing Avengers comics, no matter what the titles say, because the comics are not about people trying to live up to the standards of the Avengers charter. They're simply random assemblages of super-heroes, no different than any team book on the market. In short, they don't use the Avengers storytelling engine. They simply appropriate its trappings.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Entertainment News #2

DRAGONCON 2008 TO HOST INAUGURAL DEBATE BETWEEN FANS OF HEATH LEDGER AND JACK NICHOLSON

In an announcement today that sharply divided the six Batman fans on the Internet not already sharply divided about one thing or another, the venerable DragonCon, held yearly in Atlanta, GA, had its bid accepted to host the first official debate between angry Batman fans over who's the better Joker, Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson. Both Ledger and Nicholson will attend in person to hear people talk angrily about their lack of acting talent, disrespect for the comic book character, and hatred for the fans who've given so much to the franchise over the years.

Many fans are already up in arms about the announcement. Some feel that the timing will make it difficult. "DragonCon occurs over Labor Day weekend," longtime Batman fan Jake Keigel said. "The movie opens July 18th. By the time I get into my first argument over how bad Ledger's performance is, I'll actually be basing it on one, perhaps even several viewings of the movie instead of merely watching the teaser trailer and picturing that guy from 'Brokeback Mountain' playing my favorite villain. How am I supposed to have an uninformed opinion with that kind of lead time?"

Still others are concerned with DragonCon's ability to host such a debate. "When the Olympics were held in Atlanta," says Janine 'Batgirl' Lee, "they had to make all sorts of upgrades to the city's infrastructure in order to accomodate the increased traffic and the venues for the games. And yet, DragonCon has shown no signs of finding places to put all of the venom, bile, and sheer unmitigated gall that this discussion is going to generate. By the third day of the con, people are just going to be wading through knee-deep BS, mark my words."

A spokesperson for DragonCon has pointed out that their facilities for dealing with knee-deep BS have already been tested and shown to be at "Dan DiDio capacity".

Still other fans have concerns somewhat more difficult to articulate. "WTF THIS IS SOOOO LAME," says 'Batdude69'. "DC SUX THEY HAV NO IDEA WHAT MAKES JOKR COOL. DRAGONCON IS A BUNCH OF GAYWADS WHO WILL PROBLY SCREW UP TEH ARGUMENT." Harsh, incoherent words, but the sentiment is clear.

Still, whatever the end result, DragonCon's angry bickering session promises to be only the first of many. Perhaps we will all look back fondly on this as the beginning of a long, irritating and pointless argument, much as we fondly remember the first "Kirk vs. Picard" debate, held in 1986 at GenCon. However, it's unlikely. Because Mark Hamill is way better than either one of those two jerks.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Werewolf By Night

(or "The Perfect Villain")

Half of the fun of reading Marvel's "Essentials" series is getting the big picture as to comics trends in different eras. 'Werewolf By Night' was just one of many horror comics that Marvel put out in that era, as the rules for publishing horror comics had relaxed a little by the 1970s. It was interesting, to see this sudden secret part of the Marvel Universe pop up where werewolves, vampires, zombies (or, in the parlance of the time, "zuvembies"--not all of the rules had been relaxed), and even Frankenstein's Monster could rub shoulders with Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four. A world where the good guys didn't always win, and even when they did, the monsters were still out there, waiting for another chance.

Which is, really, what Jack Russell's story is all about in 'Werewolf By Night'. He's a Nice Young Man (with a bit of a sarcastic streak, but he's had a tough life) who's inherited a family curse to get all mean and hairy on the three nights of the full moon (and anyone who's read the series can never forget those immortal captions that introduced the werewolf sequences. "First Night:" And you knew things were about to get interesting.) Naturally, he's not excited about the idea of turning into a monster, and is constantly trying to find ways to cure or contain his curse.

To some extent, this is just another "false status quo" series. Jack is always trying to find a cure, but the second he does, the series ends, so that's a dead end plotline (although they did some clever things over the course of the series with his gaining more control over his wolfish side.) But the werewolf isn't just a mindless ravening monster, he's a character in his own right. He's as much a protagonist as an antagonist, as much a part of the series as Jack is himself. That, in turn, opens up several options for the enterprising writer. Obviously, Jack Russell isn't the first guy to have a split personality. It's a favorite device of cult fiction, from the Hulk to Mister Hyde to...well, Mister Hyde, in the excellent BBC series 'Jekyll'. But it's worth looking at for what it gives to the writer's storytelling engine.

For starters, it gives the writer a villain that always has a legitimate reason for turning up. One of the toughest parts of any open-ended series is finding new ways to create conflict, getting good antagonists to show up and stick around. With a dual-personality engine, the two personas can always find different ways to conflict with each other, because neither one of them likes sharing the body. The simple logistics of living a life when you're not always in control of your own actions can generate virtually endless stories, as Jack Russell always wakes up three mornings a month trying to figure out where he's been and what he's been up to.

In addition, it also means you can add more supporting cast members and villains, and play them off against each other. You can have a villain who wants the werewolf as a pet or an ally, but doesn't care about Jack. You can add new relationships, complicate existing ones, bring in characters who only know one side of the duo, and still be able to tell standard "superhero saves the day" storylines. (It's always an important element of stories like this that the "evil" side of the hero is just noble enough, deep down, that they're disgusted by villains worse than they are, and find reasons to save the day after all. They're antagonists, but they're leashed by their other half just like the hero is.)

Really, the only frustrating restriction in 'Werewolf By Night' (apart from the fact that it puts the 'Moonlighting' theme in my head every time I read the title) is the fact that they chose to stick to the purely lunar changes. It's a restriction that makes it difficult to tell stories the other 27 days of the month--although they do find ways around even that over the course of the series. But being able to play your two protagonists against each other, with neither one able to score a decisive victory, makes the series perfect for an open-ended storytelling engine. Jack Russell might be a monster, but he's in good company.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hey, It Amused Me

Wrote this in the comments section of another blog (referring to the "Who Will Die?" cover solicitation for Green Arrow/Black Canary), thought it was kind of funny...

This month from DC, we're offering:

Green Arrow, death, Black Canary, death, death and death,

Superman/death/Batman/death/death/death,

The Brave, death, death and the Bold,

and Showcase Presents death, death, death, death, death, death, bacon, sausage and death.

Death, death, death, death, glorious death, wonderful death...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Storytelling Engines: The Haunted Tank

(or "New Word Of The Day: Receptaic")

For all the talk I've put in on what a storytelling engine is (forty-three columns and counting), I really haven't talked so much about what a storytelling engine isn't. Which isn't too surprising, I suppose, given that it's a topic with a practically unlimited number of options (it's not, for example, a sort of bicycle, a piece of fruit, or the sensation of having sand still in your bathing suit three hours after you've left the beach)...but 'Showcase Presents: The Haunted Tank' does provide an interesting case study in the difference between a storytelling engine and a storytelling formula.

For those unfamiliar with 'The Haunted Tank', the idea is pretty simple. A tank crew fighting in World War II is piloting a tank that's haunted. (I know that's a lot to take in, but stay with me here.) Specifically, it's haunted by a the ghost of a Confederate general, who gives cryptic yet helpful advice that the tank commander (the only one who can actually see and hear the ghost) deciphers, usually just in time to save his life and the life of his men.

Now, notice what the storytelling engine does here. It doesn't provide a setting with a wide variety of stories; the story is limited in time and space to "tank combat in World War II". The cast is the same four men (and one ghost), and although there's a cast change at one point, there's really no supporting cast to speak of. The goals and methods of the group remain static, the personalities of the men really don't create a team dynamic that generates stories, and in short, the storytelling engine really limits itself to the point where there's only one basic story to tell: While fighting German armies in their tank, the crew gets a cryptic warning from the ghost, which they decipher just in time to stave off defeat and kill a few more Nazis. A few details change, but it's a very limited engine.

That, in short, is a storytelling formula. It's a storytelling engine that only has one story. Instead of being a set of tools to help the writer think of new ideas, it's a set of limits that prevents the writer from coming up with new ideas. A "formulaic" series is one that has such a tightly restrictive engine that when you've read one story, you've more or less read them all. This isn't automatically a bad thing; certain audiences are looking for "slight variations on the same story" sometimes, and come to a book like 'The Haunted Tank' not looking for a challenging story, but a comforting one. The danger is to the writer, really; it's hard to keep up your enthusiasm for a series when it has a tightly formulaic storytelling engine.

Obviously, any storytelling engine has limits to how many stories it can tell (except possibly 'Doctor Who'.) Every series has been labeled "formulaic" at some time or another, by people whose tolerance for limits on their storytelling engine vary from those of the writer, editor or publisher of the series in question. But a truly open-ended storytelling engine is more like a recipe than a formula, a set of guidelines to be experimented with rather than a set of rules to be followed. (If something that follows a formula is "formulaic", then something that follows a recipe is "receptaic". Or so someone with a grounding in Latin told me.) Recipes beg for experimentation--just look at all the different ways to make "chocolate cake" out there, each one finding new ways to present a classic dish. But any reader has to recognize the need for some limit on a storytelling engine, or otherwise, you're not really making use of it. Nobody wants to order chocolate cake, and get an omelet.

And 'The Haunted Tank'? That's a Hostess Cup Cake. Whether you like them or not, you'll always know what you're going to get before you even take the wrapping off.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Irony Officially Dead

In a quick report from the state of Texas, I thought I'd mention that I saw a bumper sticker here that said, "PROUD CATHOLIC". Almost immediately upon seeing it, I wondered if the people manufacturing it, the store selling it, or the person who put it on their car was really paying attention to what it said. Because generally speaking, "pride" is something the Bible doesn't actually recommend for Christians.

Then again, perhaps that's the point. Maybe the bumper sticker is a form of mortification, something the car's owner put on there to remind themselves and inform others that they still suffer from the sin of pride. Perhaps there's a whole line of them--you can get an "ENVIOUS CATHOLIC", a "WRATHFUL CATHOLIC", or a "GLUTTONOUS CATHOLIC" sticker to put on your car, just to let everyone know that you still have a ways to go before you can call yourself a saint.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Ant-Man

(or "The Sacrificial Character")

The somewhat contradictorily-named "Essential Ant-Man", our topic for this week, is almost as interesting for what you won't find as well as what you will find. What you will find is an interesting little early Silver Age collection, with a storytelling engine that's still trying to find its way from the horror anthology it once was--in the initial story, Henry Pym is a typical horror-story scientist, creating his shrinking serum, freaking out at its effects, and destroying it "once and for all". Later, as the series becomes more super-hero oriented, they still include the occasional one-off tale, pitching it as a story the Wasp tells to sick kids at a local hospital.

What you won't find is the element that's come to dominate Henry Pym's character over the last several decades, whether it be in the form of Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, or Yellowjacket; namely, his mental instability which has manifested itself in domestic violence. (In the "classic" Marvel Universe, this has been confined to a single incident, but Ultimate Hank Pym is a more habitual abuser.) There's not a hint of this in the low-key, slightly goofy romance between the bookish Pym and the flirty Janet van Dyne shown in 'Tales to Astonish' (and, via the magic of reprinting, in the Essential Ant-Man.) So where did this element of the character come from, and why wasn't it there from the beginning?

One obvious answer is simply that the "maturation" of comics--the desire to tell stories skewed to an older reader, with more ambiguity in its moral development--produced an atmosphere in which it was possible to talk about spousal abuse. Pym was allowed to become a less sympathetic character, according to this theory, because writers were willing to be more honest about their protagonists.

But this doesn't explain everything. After all, Ant-Man isn't the only character who "grew up", but we don't see an honest exploration of Batman as a child endangerer. When Spider-Man hit Mary Jane (during the "Clone Saga"), it wasn't the taking-off point for decades of discussion of Spider-Man as wife-beater. What separates Hank Pym from other super-heroes is very simple: He didn't have his own series by then.

It genuinely is that simple. The demands for a protagonist in a solo series are very different from those of one of many protagonists in a team series. The dynamics of an ensemble cast makes any given character more...well, more disposable, to put it bluntly, and while the team of Ant-Man and the Wasp requires you to want to keep reading about Ant-Man and caring about him, the Avengers can and did continue without Henry Pym. In fact, Henry Pym as unstable personality becomes a much more important element of the storytelling engine of the Avengers than he ever was as a boringly sane super-hero. The question of "Can he be trusted?" provides a lot of storytelling options, while his previous role (as just another of the many science experts on the team) could be filled by any one of a dozen other super-heroes.

Ultimately, in order to serve the larger interests of Avengers fans, Henry Pym was forced into an antagonistic role. Ant-Man fans might have been upset, but importantly for our purposes, there simply weren't enough of them to count.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A Quick Review Before I Go

Just a quick note to say that I'm going to be out of town next week, so entries will be unlikely at best. In the meanwhile, I'll just mention that 'Making Money' is another very nice Terry Pratchett book; I'm sure some people have gotten bored with his long-view, historical approach to the books (he's essentially become more interested in showing the development of Ankh-Morpork as a city, using the books as a vehicle.) Me, I think it's great. I love reading pop history books, and getting a pop history book that's also a Terry Pratchett novel is the best of both worlds.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Flash

(or "How Does He Get The Costume Back In The Ring, Then?")

When looking at the classic era of the Flash represented in 'Showcase Presents The Flash', you really are looking at one of the best cases of intentional storytelling engine design of the Silver Age. Julius Schwartz really did try his best, given the way comics were being written at the time, to actually think of an entire status quo for Barry Allen that would lend itself to numerous stories (which makes sense, given that changes to the status quo were few and far between in that era.) He gave Barry a romantic interest, a locale, and a job that lent itself to being a super-hero.

It's that last one that's worth another look, particularly in light of the modern era of comics. Right now, it's getting difficult to find a superhero that actually has a "secret identity"; over on the Marvel end, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and Captain America are all publicly known to be super-heroes (or at least, their corpses are publicly remembered to be super-corpses.) Many people in the industry are claiming that secret identities are a vestigial concept from an earlier time, like kid sidekicks and the Comics Code. So, is it true? Why would a hero have a secret identity?

Obviously, it's to protect their loved ones. (No, it's really not. That might be why they don't blab it to your average man on the street, but I'm pretty sure my mom could keep a secret if I asked.) That's always the reason they give, but the real reason is that a secret identity can be very helpful to a writer. Look at Barry Allen. He's not just a super-hero, he's also a police scientist. That means that not only can he get involved in a story the way any superhero can get involved in a story ("What's that? A cry of distress?"), he can also get involved in a story the way any police officer can get involved in a story. Given cops are expected to find out about crimes, it provides any number of angles for a writer to help start off a Flash comic without seeming contrived. (The She-Hulk, a lawyer, and Superman, as a reporter, also have similar secret identities that help them get involved in criminal situations. Batman, as a millionaire playboy, always has to have society friends casually mention a crime to him, though.)

But more than that, the secret identity becomes a separate sub-genre of stories in and of itself; like any secret, it takes work to protect a hero's true identity from discovery, both from the public and from friends and enemies. Barry Allen has to keep reporter Iris West off the trail of his dual identity (and notice, by the way, that Iris has a job that doubles as an additional entry point into stories for the writer; she frequently mentions to her boyfriend a story that he decides to follow up on as the Flash.) In this regard, Iris is just one link in a long chain of nosy friends, family and well-wishers; from Lois Lane to J. Jonah Jameson, people are always trying to find out the hero's biggest secret. (Ironically, the current Star-Spangled Kid got her start by being the nosy kid snooping on the super-hero.) It's always good for a story, and that's an advantage to any storytelling engine.

So is the secret identity "outdated"? Doubtful. Certainly, as modern surveillance technology improves, it gets increasingly implausible that someone could hide their identity that easily (although Barry Allen always had the advantage of super-speed.) But it's a useful storytelling technique, which means it'll probably never go away. In fact, Barry Allen had his secret identity magically re-concealed a few years back, after publicly revealing it. In a universe of comics, "implausible" gets stretched a bit further than it does in the real world.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Evil Dead 4

It's the movie everyone wants to see, let's all just go ahead and admit it. Even now, close to thirty years after the original 'Evil Dead' and almost fifteen years after the release of 'Army of Darkness', Sam Raimi is still getting asked, "Will you ever do another 'Evil Dead' movie?" (His response is always a charming, gracious "We'd love to, but first we'd need an opening in our respective schedules. And funding. And a script.")

My thoughts on the sequel, before launching into a description: It'd need to be set fifteen years after 'Army'. Bruce Campbell is fifteen years older than he was, and there's no point in trying to hide that. You can't just pick up where 'Army' left off. I think, at this point, that it's safe to assume at least a little familiarity with the series on the part of the fans--if you're going to see 'Evil Dead 4', you've probably already seen the first three, and that'll be especially true when it goes on to DVD and joins three evergreen DVD sellers. And third, I think the series deserves a happy ending. Something big and spectacular (not that I didn't love the end of 'Army of Darkness' or anything.) So, with that in mind, 'Evil Dead 4'...

The story picks up fifteen years after the end of 'Army of Darkness', with Deadite forces having overwhelmed most of the world. Demonic possession has reached an all-time high, the United States government has fallen, and humans have banded together into small, insular city-states for protection. A mysterious wanderer approaches the largest and most successful of these city-states, the kingdom of 'S-Mart', the shining light of humanity in the war against demon-kind, ruled by the wise and just King Ash...

On arrival, he's greeted with suspicion and distrust, but is taken before Ash and his closest advisor, Scott. The stranger explains that he is from the future, from a time when there is but one outpost of humanity remaining on Earth. Ash's reign now exists only in legend, as the last Golden Age of the human race. But these last humans have unlocked the key to time travel using the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, the Book of the Dead (of the dead). Although the Book is indestructible, they have been sending warriors back in time to try to stop the Necronomicon from ever having been written, ensuring that the demons never get a foothold into humanity. Each time, they've failed, but they've managed to make some changes to history--Scott's very existence is one example. Originally, he would have been at the cabin with Ash when Ash found and fought the Deadites for the first time. They also prevented Ash from oversleeping and awakening in a dystopian future London. But now, they are too few to send back another. So their last gamble is to come to this time, and persuade Ash, the most legendary warrior in history, the slayer of the Deadites, to travel back and stop the demonic tome from even existing.

Ash is uncertain. He has responsibilities as a king, and as protector of its people. Also, he admits to himself, without the Deadite invasion, what would he be? Just another schmuck? For all the difficulties of being a king, and of fighting demons, it is good to be the Man With The Crown sometimes. And he'll apparently be remembered as the last Golden Age of Humanity, also a plus. He decides to take a night, and think it over.

That night, Deadites attack. Ash goes into battle with them and repels the invasion (a sight gag here would show him selecting from a rack of different weapons to fit onto his right arm), but Scott is killed. He consoles Shelly, and the two of them realize they've lost so much...Scott, dead. Linda, dead. Cheryl, missing. He decides. No matter what the cost, this has to be stopped. The spell is cast, and Ash hurtles back in time...

...to the decadent kingdom of Atlantis, ruled by a cruel-yet-sophisticated king. (There'd be parallels between him and Ash, suggesting that if Ash had "let himself go", this would be what he'd wind up like.) Ash arrives, and is immediately taken by the King's Guard. He finds himself on trial, accused of being the head of the "Cult of the Deadites", which has been gaining power of late. Ash protests, insisting that he's actually there to fight the cult, but the King's High Priestess has the word of prophecy on her side, the King trusts her implicitly...and she's also Cheryl, Ash's long-lost sister. Despite Ash's protests, he's sentenced to trial by combat in the gladiatorial arenas.

Naturally, trial by combat proves to be not as fatal as Ash's enemy hoped, and the mercurial King takes him into his confidence. Ash takes the opportunity to talk to Cheryl privately, only to find out that she's the Queen of the Deadite Cult--the demonic entity knew that others were attempting to undo the creation of the Necronomicon, and sent Cheryl, its first possessee, back in time to guard it. The time of prophecy is near, though. Soon the seas will run red with blood, the book will be written, and humanity's end will be assured.

Sure enough, the Deadite cult marches on the palace. Ash and the King's Guard do battle with the cultists, but the King dies, and with his death, Atlantis begins to sink into the sea. Blood-red rain pours from the sky, Cheryl begins to chant a summoning ritual, and the tome's destined author appears at its appointed time. The scribe of the book descends from his pale horse, carrying the blank tome. It reaches a single skeletal finger out towards the water, and it becomes clear that the book is the Necronomicon Ex Mortis...the Book of the Dead, by Death...

That's when Ash steps in. Unafraid, unencumbered by common sense, he charges in for a final battle, Ash vs. the Grim Reaper, for the fate of humanity...and yeah, that goes about as well as you'd expect. Only Ash's superhuman ability to withstand punishment keeps him alive, but he does fulfill his destiny. He keeps Death distracted for those few vital minutes until the continent sinks fully under the waves. The book plunges into the blood-red sea, its pages defaced for all time. Humanity is saved. And Ash goes under, drowning in the blood-red waters...

...and is pulled back out. And not only that, his watch is still ticking! That's right, ladies and gentlemen, even total immersion in this tank of salt water doesn't stop the Amazing Ash Watch, and it's only $49.99! And if you act now, we'll throw in the Groovy Ash Hand Blender, that straps right onto your wrist! Call now, operators are standing by! Now, we'll go to Ed, and see if he has anything more on that Fantastic Ash Glove...

Still disoriented, Ash looks around. He has both his hands again, his friend Scott is by his side, and as they go to another studio, he realizes that he's working in some sort of infomercial. Men in suits crowd around, looking for his opinion on all sorts of business matters, and he figures it out--this is history now, and he's gone from being the King of the Last Golden Age to a glorified Ron Popeil. For a moment, he wonders if it was worth it...and then he sees Linda off-stage, watching him work. And knows that it was.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Batman

(or "The Inside Story Of The Outsider!")

I'm sure this is going to disappoint a lot of people, but this column isn't going to be a complete analysis of Batman's storytelling engine; for one thing, a long-running character like Batman doesn't have just one status quo, he's got dozens. The Bob Kane era of 'Batman' is so radically different from the Bat-books of the late 1990s that they have to be considered separately from each other even though they're the same series. So, in keeping with my promise from the first column to look at these characters through the prism of the Essentials and Showcase series, let's look at a singular storytelling engine of Batman, a short-lived one that is perfectly captured in the two current volumes of 'Showcase Presents: Batman'. Let's look at the cautionary tale of...the Outsider.

Although he probably didn't term it as such, Julius Schwartz's job as the new 'Batman' editor was to revamp the storytelling engine of Batman. The series had become steeped in science-fiction, with aliens, time travel, and additional Bat-helpers galore, and had fundamentally become too far removed from its roots to remain workable. Schwartz had a number of ideas to change the tone of the series, removing Batwoman, Batgirl, Bat-mite, Ace the Bat-Hound, ditching the aliens, and reducing the science-fiction elements down to a "James Bond" level. (In other words, they had gadgets from about five years in the future, not fifty.) He also decided to make one change that was destined to be even more controversial, a change that shocked fans everywhere...

He put a little yellow oval around the Bat-Symbol.

Nah, nah, I'm kidding. He killed Alfred the butler.

Of course, casual Batman fans everywhere have just raised an eyebrow in confusion. "Gee," they say, "he looked to be in pretty good shape last I saw." And therein lies the point. Schwartz killed Alfred because he was sick of the 'boy's club' atmosphere of the Batcave, worried about complaints that Batman promoted a deviant lifestyle, and because he didn't think it mattered too much; Alfred was really such a minor part of the Batman mythos that replacing him with a snoopy Aunt Harriet would be an interesting shake-up, and nobody would care too much. So Alfred met his end pushing his boss out of the way of falling boulders, was crushed to a pulp on-panel, and the matter was settled.

Except that as it turns out, storytelling engines are powerful things. Sometimes--heck, often--they are more powerful than the people who write them or the people who edit them. Making a change to a storytelling engine is easy, but making it stick is hard. In this case, the Batman TV series loomed on the horizon, and William Dozier, its producer, was not a regular 'Batman' reader. He was familiar with the "classic" Bat-family, including Alfred, and he insisted that the comic match his TV series rather than the other way around. So, despite planning to add in snoopy Aunt Harriet, the storytelling engine of 'Batman with Alfred' proved to have durability with casual fans, and had to be reinstated.

Which left the comics with a small problem, to wit: Alfred had been crushed to a pulp by falling boulders, on-panel, less than a year previous. This left Schwartz in a bit of a conundrum, which was solved by claiming that Alfred was only "mostly dead", and that his body was recovered by a mad scientist who re-animated him as the super-villain, "The Outsider". Naturally, Batman restored the Outsider to normal, Alfred resumed his duties, and no more was ever said about the incident.

So the story of the Outsider highlights a number of interesting elements from a storytelling perspective. It tells us that writers and editors are subject to outside forces that can force them to retract a decision no matter how permanent it seems. It tells us that Batman's storytelling engine is an enduring one--even tiny elements, like Alfred the butler, have staying power and importance to the general public. And it also tells us that shock deaths and contrived resurrections aren't a creation of the 1990s. Before there was Parallax, there was the Outsider.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I Am King Geek! Bow Down Before Me!

After doing some exhaustive research, I think I've finally managed to pin down a definitive timeline of the 'Heroes' universe leading up to the events of the first season. It's amazing, the way they scattered so many tiny clues in the series itself, but I think I've managed to unravel them all. (Warning: This timeline will contain spoilers for the events of season one. I'd recommend that you not read this until you've seen all of the first season. Mainly because none of this will make any sense otherwise.)

1955: Alien plants use a total eclipse of the sun (a recurring motif of the series) to teleport a seedling of theirs to Earth, as part of a plot to wipe out the human race. The seedling is destroyed by Seymour Krelbourn and Audrey Gray, but the pollen of the alien plant turns out to have a mutagenic effect on human beings. Pollen contamination will cause spectacular mutagenic effects over the next decade.

1956: Seymour and Audrey marry and move to the suburbs.

1957: Tolian Soran, thought to have died in an explosion on Veridian 3, instead finds himself in New York City during Earth's distant past. During the brief period he spent within the Nexus (prior to Jean-Luc Picard and James T. Kirk's alteration of history), he communed with a mysterious entity that claimed to be trapped within a black hole. In exchange for a promise of assistance in escaping the black hole, the entity helps Soran time-travel away. Soran takes the identity of "Linderman". At this time, he is contaminated by alien pollen, developing the ability to heal.

1958: Seymour Krelbourn dies from radical mutations developed in the wake of overexposure to the alien pollen. Audrey Gray breaks with tradition by reverting to her maiden name, and moves back to her old neighborhood in New York to raise her newborn child, whom she names Gabriel. In order to prevent him from taking an interest in botany (which she irrationally blames for her husband's death), she tells Gabriel that his father was a watchmaker.

1972: After several misadventures, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, Soran finally frees the renegade Time Lord known only as "The Master" from the black hole he was trapped in, and uses his powers to stabilize the Master's decaying human host. Soran/Linderman and the Master embark on an ambitious scheme to alter the course of human history using the alien pollen to catalyze the next stage of human evolution.

1975: After his return from Africa, John Shaft develops prcognitive dreams due to exposure to alien pollen; deciding to use the ability to make himself wealthy, he develops the identity of "Charles Deveaux". He spends many years acumulating wealth and power, and reluctantly lends his talents to Soran/Linderman on occasion; despite his money, though, nobody understands him but his woman.

1983: Captain Hikaru Sulu, of the starship Excelsior, is asked to take on a dangerous mission by Starfleet involving the apprehension of criminals attempting to alter the course of human history. Upon arriving in the past, however, Sulu recognizes that the alterations are too great to stop by simply capturing the criminals, and embarks on a long-term scheme to minimize their damage to the timestream. To this end, he begins building a corporate empire in Japan and makes the acquaintance of Soran/Linderman.

1987: By this time, the Master's "black ops" organization that complements Soran/Linderman is fully up and running, using both regular humans and those whose DNA has been altered by the alien pollen. The Master, calling himself "Thompson", recruits as his newest operative a man called "Claude." Unbeknownst to the Master, "Claude" is actually his old nemesis, the Doctor, who has regenerated since the last time the two met and has used the newly-installed 'chameleon arch' in his TARDIS to create a false persona for himself to allay the Master's suspicions. He does take the extra step, however, of installing "Claude" with pollen-altered DNA, giving himself the ability to become invisible.

1991: Lana Lang graduates from Shuster University and takes a job at the Bureau for Extra-Normal Matters in Capitol City, Florida.

1993: Lana Lang severs her ties both with Clark Kent and Superboy, and uses her connections at the Bureau for Extra-Normal Matters to obtain a job with the FBI, specializing in cases of unusual serial killers.

1999: John Connor, on the run from robotic killing machines from an alternate future known as "Terminators", takes the identity of "Zach" while living in Texas. He will hide under this identity for several years.

2000: Having trusted the wrong person in Thompson/The Master's black-ops group (known as "The Company"), Claude/The Doctor is badly injured. Failing to remember his true Time Lord heritage, he spends the next several years on the run (which, in turn, causes him to resolve never to use the chameleon arch without entrusting his secret to a partner in the event of mishap.)

December 2005: Eric Weiss, CIA agent, goes deep undercover as an LA beat cop, complete with marriage. Unbeknownst to him, however, he has been exposed to alien pollen.

April 2006: Chandra Suresh approaches Gabriel Gray, having determined that his DNA contains the markers that will allow him to detect people who have developed "super-powers". Gray's DNA, which was affected by massive doses of pollen on both his mother's and father's side, is indeed powerfully mutated (despite his mother's never having developed any powers at all from her exposure to alien pollen.)

September 2006: Heroes begins.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Martian Manhunter

(or "The Amazing Evolution Of J'Onn J'Onzz")

At times, it sometimes seems like there's a Darwinian element to the way storytelling engines function. In fact, there most definitely is--with a finite amount of resources (to wit, dollars in the budget of comics fans) and a process of change over time, the theory of natural selection dictates that comics that can adapt themselves to produce the most exciting and interesting stories for the reading audience will survive, and that changes that increase reader interest will stick around, while changes that don't will perish. (This, in a totally random aside, is why Lex Luthor is never going back to the pre-Crisis version, no matter how hard writers like Jeph Loeb and Mark Waid push for it. The suave, corporate raider Luthor is just a more interesting character. Survival of the most interesting.)

So how does this relate to J'Onn J'Onzz, Manhunter from Mars? Because like all good species in a Darwinian world, he has adapted to survive--and the recent 'Showcase Presents The Martian Manhunter' preserves that evolution, like a fossil, for our edification. The Martian Manhunter, as it happens, was around during a very tumultuous period in comic book history, the beginning of the Silver Age of comics. (In fact, some people claim him as the first Silver Age character, a point I'm about to profoundly dispute.) And, like those tiny little mammals right around the end of the Cretaceous era, he suddenly found himself in a period of big environmental upheaval and had to adapt to survive. Let's look at his two storytelling engines in chronological order, along with the "meteor" that hit comics in the meanwhile.

Storytelling Engine #1: J'Onn J'Onzz, a martian accidentally stranded on Earth by a dead scientist, decides to help humankind while he tries to find a way home by masquerading as a human police officer with his shapeshifting abilities. He solves crimes as "John Jones", all the while secretly using his Martian powers to aid him in his detecting.

At the time, this was just one of many quirky "detective" comics that dotted the newsstand. (In fact, it ran as a backup in 'Detective Comics', home of Batman.) They had ghost detectives, detective chimpanzees, and detectives from the future, so a detective from space probably fit right in. "Detective comics" were one of several mini-trends that populated this era of comics, along with science fiction, westerns, horror, and romance...but very few superheroes. In fact, apart from Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, DC wasn't publishing any "superhero" comics at all.

Then along came Julius Schwartz, and the Silver Age hit comics like the proverbial meteor. Schwartz sensed the enthusiasm for science fiction comics was about to boom, and so he relaunched almost every major DC hero from the Golden Age as a science-fiction themed character. From 1956 to 1960, the Atom, Hawkman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Justice Society were all recreated as sci-fi heroes, and comics readers couldn't get enough. So what did this mean for J'Onn J'Onzz?

Storytelling Engine #2: Suddenly (in November 1959, to be exact), the arrival of an "evil Martian" meant that he had to reveal his existence to the public or be framed for crimes he didn't commit. He kept "John Jones" as a secret identity, but transformed into "The Martian Manhunter", complete with costume, when he needed to fight crime. Occasional guest-star Diana Meade became a regular character, and suddenly developed a suspicion that John Jones and the Martian Manhunter might be one and the same. Within a few months, he even joined a super-team (the newly-formed Justice League of America), completing his transformation from "quirky detective" to "super-hero".

It's pure Darwinian evolution in action. The property completely transformed itself to attract new readers, while other characters less suited to do so fell into obscurity for many years. (Detective Chimp is just now making his comeback in the DC Universe.) What does this mean for Marvel and DC today? Perhaps it means they need to keep their options open. Nobody wants to just chase the next trend, but chasing it is a better option than being run over by it.