Monday, January 15, 2007

Storytelling Engines: The Elongated Man

(or "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Break It")

'Showcase Presents: The Elongated Man' is a bit interesting, insofar as it presents a long-running backup feature rather than the stories of a character who had his own title; in fact, the Elongated Man has never had his own series, instead being a perennial second banana in other titles and member of the Justice League. And yet, he got his own collection long before such obvious candidates as Wonder Woman, the Flash, or the Atom. Why?

In no small part, it's because the character is "topical" at the moment. He's one of the leads in DC's current hit series, '52', and he's coming off of a fairly major role in the "summer event" crossover a few years back, 'Identity Crisis', where his wife was murdered. These two things, combined, provided DC with a marketing impetus to publish his old adventures, giving us a chance to look at what his storytelling engine was like.

It was brilliant. Ralph Dibney is an independently wealthy jet-setter, and he and his young, pretty, spunky wife Sue travel the globe like perpetual honeymooners--and, of course, along the way, Ralph's instincts for mystery lead him to find strange, unusual cases to solve. This is a virtually endless story generator; the mysteries are up-beat, quirky little tales, the writer can use any setting, and the character dynamic is absolutely perfect. Sue and Ralph, as a couple, drive the story, with each one complementing the other perfectly and giving it a cheerful and up-beat tone.

Let's now reiterate what brought him into the public eye of late: His wife was murdered in 'Identity Crisis'. Um, oops.

This is the danger of shaking up the status quo to make a character more popular; it's entirely likely that you'll lose important elements of the story-telling engine. Yes, Ralph is more noticed by the average fan than he ever was, but what good is that if you can't find stories to tell about him? Note the use of the word "stories," plural. There is a story to tell about Ralph, and they're telling it in '52': He's trying to get his wife back from the dead using all the various deus ex machinas of the DC Universe. But that is one story. Right now, it's really the only story you can tell about him. And as we do keep saying, telling a single story about a character is all about inspiration. Setting up a status quo that can sustain multiple, open-ended stories about a single character requires calculation.

And this is the great crime of 'Identity Crisis'. (For which, it should be noted, I do not blame Brad Meltzer. He didn't force DC to publish the book; as always, editors get final say, which means that the end result is always their fault.) It's not, "Oh, they killed Sue Dibney and I always loved that character," it's "Oh, they broke a story engine that could have told a thousand stories in order to publish a single 'important' one." In any company concerned with the long game, change should always be approached with great care, and never lightly.

Even on a career second banana like the Elongated Man.


Arturo said...

A better subtitle, I think, would be "If it can stretch, why break it?"

MarkAndrew said...

Pretty much my EXACT problem with Sue Dibney's murder.

Elongated Man is a humorous superhero mystery romance series. COMPLETELY unique. Add "Dead Wife" into the mix and you've got a superhero mystery series. (Not unique) And now I b'lieve 52 is trying to amend that to Supernatural superhero mystery series, (STILL not unique, thanks for playing.)

He might not be selling wheelbarrows full of comics, but the Elongated Man worked as a unique concept that you could DO stuff with that you coulnd't do with any other character in the DC stable. And now that's gone.

nathan said...

In the fantastic blog-cum-memoir "Occasional Superheroine," Valerie D'Orazio claims that the idea to assault and kill Sue Dibny didn't originate with Meltzer at all, but rather was editorially mandated after it was decided the DC Universe needed to become "darker."

John Seavey said...

I'd heard that as well, but decided not to put it in because a) I don't know whether it's true or not, and b) whether it was his idea or DC's, DC approved it, so it becomes their responsibility that it saw print. Lots of writers, myself included, have bad ideas--it's the job of an editor not to let the bad ones get out the door. :)

David said...

I thought that the Dibneys completely worked when Robinson used them in Starman. Ralph is a perfect major supporting actor to a B-list hero, and Robinson had a very light touch and a reverence for history.

It really is too bad that Meltzer broke EM.

Ted said...

Don't forget that not only did Identity Crisis effect any future stories involving Ralph Dibney, it also effects past stories. I sure that for many people who have just started reading comics such as myself, Identity Crisis was the first time we'd heard of The Elongated Man. It is hard to imagine that we are still able to read past stories with Sue Dibney without be reminded that she was raped AND killed AND lost her baby. So, in a way, Identity Crisis distroyed all future AND past Elongated Man stories. Better hope Identity Crisis was worth it.

Runmentionable said...

Completely agree with David. I actually read the Starman run with EM for the very first time just last night and I was spitting feathers at how this unique concept had been ruined by the "need" for an event. Short-termism at its most idiotic.

Eric Teall said...

What do you guys think of 52's final set-up of Ralph and Sue as "ghost detectives"? Waid and Morrison seem very pleased with the idea, but I'm not sure you can ever really capture the fun again when a reader has to ask, "Hey, how'd they die?"?